SALT LAKE CITY — For a long time, people told poet and writer Emma Lou Thayne that the six-pound metal bar that flew through the windshield of the car she was riding in should have killed her. It smashed the glass and then her face above her right eye socket before lodging in the rear window. For her, it meant a number of surgeries and a sensory-numb recovery that seemed to lack color, joy and life.
She lost her buoyancy.
"You could have died," friends said, exclaiming over the nearly three-foot L-shaped rod that lives now in a corner of the coat closet off her living room, a not-too-ready reminder. It was built to hold a mudflap on a semi.
It took her a while to realize that she did die briefly.
Thayne has captured the quarter-century personal journey since the accident in her 14th book, "The Place of Knowing," a spiritual autobiography that is being released next month by iUniverse Press. It is published under the name Emma Lou Warner Thayne because it's a family story, she says. The audio version, which she narrates herself, is already available.
She was riding along with her son-in-law, a plastic surgeon, in 1986 when the calamity occurred. "That's the way you want to have it if it happens," she notes humorously. "With a plastic surgeon there." He was driving. She had eight fractures, a broken jaw and six dead teeth. Afterward, she couldn't see because of the glass in her eye and couldn't read as she healed.
But far worse was the feeling that she'd lost three dear friends who helped make her "Lulie," as her father always called her and as she refers to herself: the wizard in her head who could "plan, create and figure," the genie in her heart who "could fathom joys and woes" and the tiger in her bones who "could muster, leap and frolic."
Sleep, long her friend, became an enemy, filled with "wretched" dreams. Her mother had always said to pray at night and plan in the morning, and Thayne had always been able to solve things in her sleep. No more.
"It was like someone else in my skin," Thayne, now 86, recalls. "I didn't laugh, cry, nothing. And I felt so perplexed." She became, she says, "despondent because I didn't feel anything."
A friend who was teaching at BYU at the time had been to a conference on dreams and wanted to help her friend. She ran her fingers down Thayne's arm, speaking to her softly, and by the time she reached Thayne's fingers with her tender touch, Thayne was weeping. The dam had broken at last.
Another friend, Sonia Gernes, described by Thayne in the book as a poet, former nun, novelist and English professor at Notre Dame, spoke the words no one else had uttered. "But of course I understand," she said. "You died." She sent Thayne an article she'd written about Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." Thayne had never read Porter's story and was struck that it "was an experience that matched mine in definitive detail."
"Without clamor or special effects," she writes in the book, "I had been to the place of knowing and returned with a view as broad as the galaxies and comforting as my mother's hand. It was obvious again — the pillars of my faith were still intact, but the roof had blown blessedly off the structure to reveal a whole sky full of stars."
Sitting in Thayne's homey family room, where one wall is lined with the many awards that have accumulated over her storied career not only as author and poet, but as a part-time instructor at the University of Utah (where she was also women's tennis coach), as a woman who has served her Mormon faith in many callings and as an engaged member of her community, strangers feel very much like friends. And old friends feel cherished. She's warm and thoughtful, and time has stolen nothing from her agile mind.
"I hope the book will tell people that the important thing is to pay attention. Be responsible for finding the full measure of your creation," she says.
In the book itself, she writes that "This book about death, and life is also a love story — vertically with the divine, horizontally with the earthly. Even in my most calamitous times, love has been elemental."
She talks about the accident and her years as a peace advocate and her family life, the conversation flowing seamlessly from one to another. Her life has been that way, as well. She and husband Mel are the parents of five daughters and are grandparents and great-grandparents many times over. Many of her books have been intensely personal, but none more so than the book she wrote with her daughter, Becky Markosian, "Hope and Recovery," about their frightening shared battle with Markosian's bipolar and eating disorders. With proceeds from that book, the two women set up The Emma Lou Thayne and Becky Markosian Development Fund in the Department of Psychiatry at the U. to provide scholarships for those researching affective disorders and eating disorders.
A publicist friend offers this formal peek at a woman of great accomplishment, noting in a letter to the media that she has written poetry, fiction, essays and travel stories as well as the words to the hymn, "Where Can I Turn for Peace?" She has been widely anthologized and has published internationally on kinship and peace among people and nations. Then, he specifically names a few of her honors: the David O. McKay Humanities Award, the Association of Mormon Letters award for poetry and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from both the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College. Her portrait hangs in Abravanel Hall, the result of receiving a Chamber of Commerce Honors in the Arts Award. She was for 17 years on the board of the Deseret News, and Salt Lake Community College's service learning center bears her name.
Thayne, who has traveled the world, says she was never away from home alone until she was 54, but that has for years been how she's written her books. She seeks quiet places. On a trip to Israel years ago with her husband and daughters, she captured what she saw in poems she wrote in the bathtub late at night. Those became the book "Once in Israel."
She learned "to do what makes sense for me," with the full support of her husband and family. She spent a summer in New Hampshire, writing, the only chore given her by her host to "ride a horse, which is my favorite thing in the world," and she returned there many times. That's "where I learned to go away" to write, she says, spending time at a friend's place in Sun Valley, writing other times in a little studio she keeps in Salt Lake City behind another friend's home. She's written six of her books there.
Besides family, her church and writing, Thayne has labored for decades in the cause of world peace, from reading her poems as then-Utah Symphony cellist David Freed played Bach for a local program to an educational exchange in the Soviet Union.
We are more alike than different, she says, then she tells the story of the six consideration she wrote that were later published as "How Much for the Earth." The poems had been translated into Russian and German and at one checkpoint as she crossed the country on the Transiberian Railway, a woman inspecting her bags plucked out the translation and started reading it aloud, her voice becoming softer and sweeter as she went. And her cold look was replaced, Thayne says, by smiles and nods. Those peace poems were "like having another visa" in that sometimes hostile land.
She read her peace poems in a church there and on the train and elsewhere. A Ukrainian publisher contracted for the right to publish 40,000 copies of them, and the money went to the Siberian Peace Fund. In a Russian cemetery, she hugged a stranger in the shadow of the statue of Mother Russia and "came home with a remarkable sense of being so much alike."
Mel and Emma Lou Thayne recently decided it was time to simplify. So they sent postcards to friends far and wide, inviting them to come to their house sometime over a three-day period, culminating on Christmas Day, to choose a book. They had thousands they'd collected over the years, and they marked each one with a stamp bearing their names "to tell it goodbye." Then, they sent the books and the friends, both loved, on their way to take care of and nurture each other.
Books are friends, too. And that's what friends do.