|Review of The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography
By Holly Mullen, longtime journalist; former editor of the Salt Lake City Weekly
Holly Mullen is a veteran newspaper journalist. She spent 30 years at daily and alternative newspapers in Utah, Washington, Minnesota and Texas as a reporter, copy editor, features editor and sports editor. For five years she wrote a popular opinion column for The Salt Lake Tribune. Mullen is currently a media consultant and freelance writer. She lives with her husband, Ted Wilson, in Salt Lake City and is the mother of two adult children.
On June 28, 1986, as Emma Lou Warner Thayne sat chatting away in the passenger seat of her son-in-law's car, a six-pound iron rod suddenly smashed through the windshield and into her face. The impact—at freeway speed—destroyed six teeth, ruptured her sinus system, broke her jaw and caused eight other fractures.
With her son-in-law speeding her to the hospital, and throughout her exam in the ER, Thayne recalled feeling "invulnerable," and of having lost track of herself. "There was no present, no past, no future," she would later write, "only a grey miasma of nothing crucial, nothing needing my attention."
Police and the medical team said Thayne should not have survived the freak accident. Yet throughout the ordeal, she thought she hadn't even lost consciousness.
In truth, she had actually found consciousness. Much later, Thayne would name that sense of calm and peace she felt in the moments following the trauma: The afterlife. In "The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography," Thayne—a gifted writer and beloved Mormon poet from Salt Lake City—deftly orders her near-death experience of 25 years ago, making it the root system that feeds a majestic tree of memoir. Stories of family joys and travails over her 86 years, accounts of her many years as a peace activist in a deeply conservative culture and of her evolution into her own brand of "mysticism" are all nurtured by her brief journey to an afterlife. That day on the freeway led Thayne to a place she reveres with child-like wonder, a place she knows she'll revisit at her death. Most importantly, it is a place Emma Lou Warner Thayne no longer fears.
The New Age/self-help sections of bookstores are filled with tomes describing near-death experiences. As evidenced by all of Thayne's writing, this work is deeply nuanced and much more complex than the standard "I walked toward the light, and it was good" treatment of a pending afterlife. She weaves her poetry throughout the pages and analyzes how she has remained a faithful and practicing Mormon while nurturing her urge toward mysticism and the holistic life (quite edgy places for traditional followers of the LDS Church to dabble).
Large in Thayne's life is the need for solitude. Much like Virginia Woolf's call for "a room of one's own," Thayne writes of the near compulsion she has for getting away alone to write, to think, to simply be. The lovely paradox here can't be emphasized enough. One of the greatest stressors for contemporary Mormon women is their desire to live their church's teachings by serving others (most notably their families) and by working as tireless and uncomplaining volunteers. Indeed, their salvation and ultimate perfection in the afterlife rests largely on the benevolence they practice on earth. Thayne has felt the anxiety of constantly "doing" as much as any Mormon wife and mother. Yet she needs peace and calm like she needs oxygen. Thayne has managed to live well in both the chaotic and still places. She has written a beloved church hymn sung throughout the world and has been a popular speaker at LDS functions for decades. But life remains complicated for a mystic born of traditional Mormon roots.
Thayne has told countless people of her trip to the afterlife. The story has long bubbled inside of her, and she has fulfilled a promise to herself to tell it. This memoir is one of carefully balanced beauty—as Thayne tells it, "the small glories that outwit the disasters." She writes as if she might live forever. By moving, always, toward the place of knowing, she will.
By Rita Rodriguez - The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography (Audio CD)
Listening to Emma Lou Thayne read her own book, The Place of Knowing,
I'm struck by her spiritual teaching as I am by Eckhart Tolle or Pema
Chodron, but Thayne is a poet and her gift for language gives an
additional pleasure. This first person narrative is so rare because it's
never preachy. We learn by hearing Emma Lou's own story, a woman within
the tradition of the Mormon Church, but so much more. She's ridden her
"wild Horse" throughout her life, saving time for herself to write, to
study, to travel, even as she served her church and her community. She
tells her story fluently and so modestly, but we know what she's made of
when we learn that only after her own children were in school
themselves did she enroll in graduate school. To keep up, she had to
stay up all night, one night a week.
She has lived her life fully within the tradition of the church and
outside of it--in a natural, kind way without strident assertions of her
"rights." She's like a breath of the fresh, Wasatch mountain air she
Emma Lou tells this story because she has a promise to keep. Her
rich and full life, going in a thousand directions, almost came to a
sudden end from a freaky, horrendous accident. She died and came back
and dares to tell the story, to bear witness to how important it is to
pay attention so we can hear the angels sing and to know the divine is
available to all of us. The analogy of sleep and death is ancient. With
her story, we learn of both. We discover her deep belief and practice
of sleep and night as the time when healers, her muse, the holy ghost,
and her guides answer prayers. She awakens with the help she needs.
Thayne has experienced upon awakening an all-consuming peace. Now in
her eighties, she says she's just beginning to understand what she must
know to know a homeland.
There are many references to the traditional god, but they're easily
translated into whatever belief one has in a divine presence. There are
times when Thayne herself seems more in touch with that.
My own background is dissimilar to Emma Lou's, in place, heritage,
and religion. We're very much alike, though, in our search to make our
lives meaningful and in our belief that our family, friends, strangers,
and the divine are part of the journey.
By Ellen McKinnon - The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography (Audio CD)
It was a pleasure to open the pages of this memoir and step into the
vibrant and rich life a fine poet. The reader savors, along with the
author, bittersweet pleasures of family and friends and the author's
significant engagement with diverse individuals from varying cultures --
artists, peacemakers, and people of many religions and varying life
styles and circumstances. One also learns a good deal about the
author's development as a poet.
Because the author herself reads the memoir, there is an added
veracity to her words as she spins out the account of an accident that
nearly claims her, her struggle to regain her health, and the
soul-inspiring experiences that accompany her turbulent recovery and
lead her to her "place of knowing." The work contains several original
poems marking Thayne's growth and change. The entire recording sings
poetically. The richness of her prose had me reaching for a pencil to
capture and relish the phrases long after hearing the recording. I hope
to listen to this audio book again and again.
Spiritual journey is a gem
If you want to know what's in this little unsung gem, you have to let her read it to you word by word.
And given the author — and how much she values connections — that seems perfectly appropriate.
Thayne calls her book "The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography" (it's available on Amazon.com).
And over the past decade I've seen fragments and segments of it from
time to time. A couple of years ago, she finally stitched it all
together. It is like a quilt, with blocks of personal history,
meditations, quotations, dreams and poetry sewn together.
Sometimes it takes a poet to not only teach us about the realm of the
spirit but to let us actually experience the place. David's Psalms do
that. As do several verses from Eliza R. Snow. Now we have
And as the consensus Matron of Mormon Poetry, she's just the right
soul to give us a glimpse of the mystic unity behind our fractured
impressions of the world.
Of course, the notion of a Mormon mystic sounds contradictory. It's a
classic oxymoron — like "freezer burn" or "jumbo shrimp." LDS people
are more known for being literal and practical. They are doers, not
meditators. But if, as Mormons believe, all truth holds together as one
whole and all light has but one source, there is no reason a perceptive
and gifted LDS writer couldn't tap into the taproot of it all.
Thayne traces her own mystical insights to the other-worldly
experiences she went through following a horrendous automobile accident.
She tells how events before the accident — deaths, births, hearing
Helen Keller speak — all hinted at some form of transcendence. Then she
shows how events afterward — family projects, writing retreats — became
occasions for teaching and telling about what she calls "the flame,"
"mercy alive" and other poetic images.
The writer Eudora Welty once said that our lives, like a good novel,
move from revelation to revelation. That is apparently how Thayne's life
— and her autobiography — move.
I realize that in an era when people tear around without a minute to
spare — quite literally — that asking someone to sit and listen for nine
hours is asking a lot. But that, it seems to me, is exactly Thayne's
To find true fulfillment, we must eventually move beyond "busyness" as usual.
We must find pockets of solitude and sanctuary in the world and in
ourselves — places, as Emily Dickinson says, "where the meanings are."
In fact, I half suspect it will be some time before the author sees
this column. June is usually her month to retreat to her cabin in the
canyon and get reacquainted with herself.
If what emerges from her current sojourn is as vital — and necessary —
as "The Place of Knowing," it will have been a month very well spent.