Immortal Clay

My little brother is serving an LDS mission. He is in Germany for two years working to serve the spiritual and temporal needs of the people he encounters. Dad died when he was just five months into the mission. This project I've undertaken is personal, but I think, in this space, with my lovely readers, it is alright to share. 

photo of dad and daniel, by justin hackworth

Dear Daniel,

Dad spent more time talking about you than not in the months before he died. He was so anxious for you to understand your worth, so proud you were immersed in the Lord’s work and so worried you wouldn’t have enough mail to get you through the hard hours, days and weeks. His mom sent him something in the mail almost every day of his mission. It wasn’t always a letter, even for a loving mom there wasn’t enough to write about that often. Sometimes it was a funny card she saw at the grocery store, a clipping from the newspaper or just a photo of the people back home that loved him. He saved much of this correspondence and as a child, I remember loving to thumb through the silly morning cartoons and little somethings she’d sent across the ocean to a boy she loved.

We were eating BBQ at his favorite local smokehouse when the subject came up again.

“I keep thinking about Buddy. You know, some days are just so lonely and it is so meaningful to come home to something in the mailbox. But it’s hard to think of something to write every week on top of emails and regular letters. I’ve been thinking, what if someone sent him snippets of literature, poetry and other interesting writing? For example, a favorite passage from Mark Twain with the reasons that it is loved. The thoughts it brings to mind. It would be a great way to expand his horizons while he is gone while also filling his mailbox. I think if someone were to do that, it would be as meaningful for them as it was for Daniel.”

And then he took another bite of his ribs and the conversation moved on to other things.

You know Dad. He was asking me to take on this project without really asking. I thought about it for a minute and then got caught up in fall, winter and then the months that came and took him away. In the time since he has been gone, I have missed him for me, but I have also missed him for you. I had a sitter today and should have been working. Instead, I drove around town and cried over the pen pal you’ve lost. I pulled into a parking lot and bent into the steering wheel and asked the air around me what I could do to help you, to give you the experience Dad was so anxious for you to have. Through the wet on my cheek and the grip on the wheel I felt a drop of calm and remembered that conversation over spice rubbed ribs and mustard sauce.

I can’t give you the letters Dad would have written, but I can finally start the project he sneakily laid on my doorstep that day. I don’t know how much it will help you. I can tell you that it will help me. Dad used to call me just to tell me about a good line he’d read in his latest book and he was always interested when I came to him with new to me discoveries he’d found years ago. Right now, I can’t think of a better way to keep that close to me.

So, you’ve got about 54 weeks left in Germany and I’ve got at least 54 new and old discoveries to share. Some will catch you where you stand and others you’ll watch pass you by. There will be lightfilled poems and heartwrenching prose. And maybe just a few thoughts on astronomy, gardening, food cultures, the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse or anything else that sparkles long enough to catch my wandering eye. I can’t say that the collection will be more than its many little parts. I can say Dad wanted us to have it. And for me, right now, that’s enough.

First, a poem from CS Lewis. I found these lovely lines in a book given to me by my friend, Rachel. She sent it to me in the weeks before Dad’s death and it has been a constant companion since then.


Walking Away

for sean

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –

A sunny day with the leaves just turning,

The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play

Your first game of football, then, like a satellite

Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see

You walking away from me towards the school

With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free

Into a wilderness, the gait of one

Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away

Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,

Has something I never quite grasp to convey

About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching

Ordeals which fires one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so

Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly

Saying what God alone could perfectly show –

How selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go.


Daniel, we could sit and talk about the concepts introduced in those few words for hours and hopefully, someday we will. But for now, I will share just a few brief and incomplete impressions.

First, I think sometimes as we grow up we feel that we must be the ones that do the walking away to achieve our selfhood. You and I both know now, that isn’t true. Dad never would have walked away from us, rather he was carried from us. But he is away, nonetheless. So you and I and all the people that looked to him, and the partnership comprised of him and mom, are left a little like our friend in the poem, searching for a path where none seems to lie. The path is there, it is just waiting for you to make it. Take the first step. Yes, we’ve been burned by the ordeals that fire and set our irresolute and immortal clay. Buddy, I want you to know, that it’s okay if it feels too hot sometimes. Don’t let the heat distract you from the flames' work. Acknowledge the pain of the fires that lick and then feel about your soul for the things they’ve hardened into place.

Second, in both the most brilliant and most agonizing moments of mortality, we are given glimpses of God. Separation is the act most necessary for us to establish our eternal selfhood. We must walk away from home to get back it both in mortality and immortality. You and I believe that we were sent here, away from our heavenly home so that we could become more like God. What I think we often forget is that by reaching to become our best selves, we are also reaching for our divine selves. God trusts us to become like Him by living up our truest selves. It’s a beautiful and heady and honorable task. You are strong enough for it, I promise.

And finally, love does not dissipate across the distance of space or time. Rather, those two things work to prove its construction. Love doesn’t simply reach across the baseball field, the move from home, the closed casket. It overcomes them and sees clearly beyond them and and picks us up to place us in the spheres we are meant to inhabit. We’ll find one another there when this mortal daylight dims. Until then, we’ve got fire to face, paths to make and love to prove.

I’m watching from across the field and buddy, you’re doing just fine.



Let's Stop Talking About Chastity as a Means to Preserve Purity

A good friend of mine emailed me about this article. She said, "I loved the essay, but your title was horrendous. Please re-post with a better title so that people feel compelled to read it." I laughed, decided she was right and there you go.

We drove to California yesterday.

The drive went as most of our long excursions tend to go. Too many restroom breaks at bathrooms of ill repute. The kids watching the same movie in the back seat over and over and over again. Riley rolling his eyes every time I gasp because I am SURE that we almost hit that car in the other lane. You know, the usual.

By the time we got to Vegas, the kids had only made me turn around and angry whisper once. I stared out the window from our place of relative peace and contemplated our surroundings. The freeway through the heart of Vegas was busy, full of people rambling home after a weekend of food and drink. We all drove under billboards that advertised adult toy stores, cheap liquor and women in thigh highs with breasts the size of volkswagons.

Las Vegas is many things and there are several aspects of it that I enjoy when I find myself there. Good food, good shops, even a nod to the arts with a Da Vinci or Monet exhibit here or there. But in the end, the business of Vegas is gambling and sex. I’ve got thoughts on the gambling, but they are pretty short and sweet. You know, don’t do it. The sex thing is a little more nuanced. I think it is easy to look down on a place that sells the opportunity to have meaningless sex. I don’t think it is easy to explain all the looking down when you are asked to articulate the feeling.

What does the term “meaningless sex” even, you know, mean?

As I drove under those huge knockers and legs apart, I shook my head at the transient nature of the pleasure they sold. But isn’t all pleasure, even my pleasure, transient? Surely, that is the nature of all things in this life. The meal that made you tip your head back with delight. The night of laughter with friends from your childhood. Watching a sunset with sand in your hair and a little burn on your skin. Every single thing we do in this life leaves us or is left behind.

So what is the difference between the afternoon spent with your spouse under covers and out of all your inhibitions and a passionate encounter with someone you’ll never see again?

What makes sex in marriage more meaningful than sex out of it?

As we headed out of the city, our car was surrounded by mid size cars holding men a little younger than me and men a little older. Always the driver stared straight ahead and the others in the car slumped against windows and into each other in sleep. They had all had a big weekend. I thought about the people in the city that had come to find a night of lights, a willing stranger, a room and a bed.I felt a little sorry for my imaginary sub-group of pleasure seekers and then felt ashamed. The feeling of pity comes from a place of superiority and surely, I am not superior to anyone. Ask any living person that has spent even two minutes with me and they will happily attest to that fact. I think every one of those imagined tourists  would have taken my sorry and thrown it in my face. As well they should. Those emotions do not have a place in a discussion about sexuality.

Riley weaved in and out of lanes and I tried to navigate my feelings. So what if one has to go back to regular life in a sedan after a weekend of relative debauchery? Again, don’t we all go back to life after our escapes? Every time Riley and I escape to a hotel we eat food in bed, tear each others clothes off and then wake up in the morning to go home to a mortgage and cheerios on the floor. And on the drive home, I am usually slumped over in the car asleep having been exhausted after our various, ahem, exertions.

The girls chattered in the back seat and I shook my head. Zuzu piped up,

“Mom, why are you shaking your head?”

“I am trying to figure out how to explain something important to you girls. I want you to have everything you deserve, but sometimes you need to know why you deserve something before you can understand why you want it. I can feel what I want to say, but I haven’t found the right words for when you ask about it.”


I looked out the window again and tried to remove myself from preconceived notions and the talk of sunday school teachers from my youth.

And then the words came.

Hello daughters in the not so distant future. I am so glad you asked me why we encourage you stay celibate until marriage. You should always ask questions. I hope you never do as you are told simply because you were, you know, told. You know our religious beliefs and how they guide us in all things, including this issue. But even if we didn’t believe what we believe, I would still sit down and tell you I hope you wait. It isn’t because I think having sex before marriage makes you less pure or takes away from your value. Honey, we are all smudged by mortality. Purity as derived from Old French means “unalloyed”, metal that has not been mixed. Baby girl, you’re made of stuff much finer than any metal and there isn’t a thing you could do to change that fact. That is a truth of both science and spirituality. As to your value, it was determined and set for eternity the moment you were created. You are helpless to detract from it. Girls, that is the kind of helplessness you can and should revel in.

It is really the only kind.

I hope you wait to have sex until you meet a man worthy of you, because, in so many ways, sex is the power to create. I am not just talking about procreation, although heaven knows that is a divine thing. I am also talking about the creation that comes from speaking the language of sex with someone that walks with you through life. The creation of a space where time doesn’t seem to touch. A place that is forgiving and forthright and takes every mark mortality has given you both and acknowledges and consecrates them. A refuge that is only built after time and trust and love above each other.

The act of sex is at once vulnerable and empowering. It is a place where you can be fulfilled and act to fulfill. It is an opportunity to acknowledge and validate desire. It is a time when you can be stripped down to your core until it seems there is nothing left. It is a way to express just a portion of the force that makes you up, the steel and fire that compose you. It is something you give and something you take.

People will tell you that sex is sacred and they are right, but the act does not stand apart from you. Sex is sacred because YOU are sacred. If you decide to wait, I hope it is a decision that you reach because you understand who you are. You do not abstain because some man hopes to marry a virgin. This act of consecration has nothing to do with the desires of the opposite sex. You are not made to bend for the wants of men. No, rather, that choice has everything to do with an acknowledgement of your true self.

When you do get married, expect - no, demand - marriage in its fullest sense. Marriage is a commitment, not just to be faithful to each other and pay the mortgage together. It is a commitment to build, a commitment to pioneer, a commitment to breathe for one another through the depths and shout out in happiness when you have touched the sky. Sex is the language you speak when words have no hold on the experience of a shared existence. It is the expression of the inexpressible. It is funny and passionate and starbursts and slow and fast. And sometimes, it is the warmth that sustains you through the cold. When you have sex with someone who doesn’t know you, doesn’t cherish you, isn’t beloved by you, it is like speaking Greek in a place that doesn’t know the difference between alpha and omega. An interesting exercise, but without much point beyond the moment.

But isn’t life just a series of moments? Why does it matter what one contains when it will just be followed by another and another and another?

Here’s the thing. I think we get to leave the dross of this existence behind when we leave it. I do not believe in a reality in which we are haunted by the missteps of a mortal life. I do believe that when we live well and powerfully here, we are able to glimpse our true nature and gleaming truth of a reality beyond our current comprehension.Your heart will break in mortality, you will endure loss that claws and regret that eats. I can’t keep you from those things. But we are bigger than this experience and there are moments we create here that echo eternity back to us. Moments that build upon one another in the circle of those who share them with us. I cannot tell you how comforting those bright bits of insight are when tears seem ready to drown my heart. I want as much of that truth, and that seeking of truth, for you in this life as is humanly possible. I’ve found more opportunity for that shining sight in the arms of your father and in the life we have built together between all the “in the arms” business than I can ever tell.

And, darling girls, that is just the beginning of what you deserve.

And guess what? If you don't "wait", everything will be okay. Because every day is new. If one morning you wake up and decide that you want all the things I've wanted for you since you were born, you can have them. We are all bungling along here the best we can and this life is not a zero sum game. You get to change your mind and get to go out and find what you want. But, "Mom!" You say, "What if I never wake up wanting the things you hope for me? What if I don't seek for truth the way you seek for it? What if I am happy differently?"

Oh, sugar babies, that is alright, too. I will love you no matter what space in this life you occupy and I will always hold you up to the light so that I can see better through you.

Because you will always be so much more than I deserve.