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July 23, 2009
In The Village
Beauty is free even in hard times
by Orson Scott Card

There's a strange parallax that comes when you've lived away from Utah for a while, and then return.

On the one hand, there's a powerful nostalgia; on the other hand, there's the strangeness that comes from having a different set of expectations.

For instance, I never realized how ugly Utah architecture was until I lived in parts of the country with a tradition of grace. It was as if Utah builders were determined to achieve cheapness, regardless of the cost.

I know, I can already hear proud Utahns saying, "We didn't build it for you! If you don't like it, stay away!" But I can't stay away, and I can't ignore it.

Utah's architectural values seep out into every Mormon meetinghouse, which imposed on all of us that miserable period of circus-tent buildings with no front and no windows, so all you saw from the outside was roof, and you were lost the moment you stepped inside.

Besides, how Utah looks reflects on all of us. If a Mormon builds an ugly house in North Carolina, passing tourists assume we're Baptists anyway, so it doesn't hurt the Mormon reputation.

But when visitors to Utah from places with lovely architectural traditions see row after row of shoddy-built, they think they have learned something about Mormons everywhere. They think we either don't know what good architecture is, or don't care.

(And I don't blame the homeowners -- I know from experience that unless you have a lot of money, you can only buy what the builders care to build.)

So when I came back to Utah for a family wedding last week, I was relieved to see that most new housing developments and office buildings make some attempt at pleasing the eye.

Speaking of pleasing the eye, my fifteen-year-old was walking through the mall in Orem with us when she spotted an entire shop full of clothing modest enough that she would be comfortable wearing them. The shop? "2 Love," with a heart where the "o" should be.

No, they don't have an online presence, but the supplier they buy from does: Jody California, with a website at Their slogan? "Modest Dresses for Every Occasion." But buying in 2 Love, where you can try things on, is much better.

These are shirts that come down low enough to cover the waist, and dresses that are both long enough and high enough that she can feel comfortable and look like a million bucks at the same time. (And the price tags are much lower than that million.)

It's one of the pleasures of visiting a place where community standards of dress are high enough that a merchant can make money bucking the national trend of dressing young teenagers in PIT outfits.

Orem's new park at Nielsen's Grove is a gorgeous restoration of a park built by civic-minded Scandinavian immigrants many years ago, and then abandoned.

The webcam view at (logon and password are both the word "public") gives you only a glimpse of a truly lovely and usable public space.

Walking there from our hotel, we were also pleased to see that when Orem city was widening Sandhill Road, they filled some of the gaps between sidewalks and retaining walls with attractive stamped concrete instead of leaving them to be ugly weed patches. The effect is of cobblestones of varying patterns.

But as we drove around Orem's streets, we were amused and a little depressed to see that apparently as architecture has improved, education has declined.

How else to explain signs with spellings like "diferent," "possiblities," and "accesories"? Apparently schoolkids who were never taught rules of spelling are now old enough to have responsibility for signage.

People joke that the English language has no regular spelling rules, but this is not true. For instance, a short vowel in an accented syllable usually requires the doubling of consonants after it. The first syllable of "diferent" would be pronounced "die"; it takes a second "f" to make it "dif."

And with "possiblities" -- how do you leave out the vowel in the accented syllable? Probably because you're not saying it, you're just thinking of the spelling of "possible," which has no "i" in that position.

Because of "diferent" and "accesories," we wondered if perhaps there were an Orem city tax on doubled consonants, which these sign-makers were evading. But then we saw "Sommerset" and "civilizzation" on nice large signs, and realized that businesses must be trading consonant credits, so that some signs give up an extra consonant so other signs can double theirs.

There are beauties in Utah that God put there before humans arrived, like the clear desert air, which, to eyes accustomed to hazier air, makes the cliffy mountains seem to be far closer than they really are, so that they loom rather than recede.

And when you get a high enough view, Utah Lake is a beautiful jewel set in the midst of dramatic mountains, with the towns of Utah Valley providing a lacy network of roads and trees -- or, at night, lights -- between the water and the rock.

Our fifteen-year-old has never lived in Utah, so instead of just seeing family and friends, we took a couple of drives. One afternoon we drove up Provo Canyon. First we took the narrow road up past Sundance to where the aspen woods begin. She was astonished that such beauty was hiding in the high valleys behind Timpanogos.

Then we drove on past Deer Creek reservoir to Midway, where we stopped at a couple of galleries and were charmed by the presence of horses and cattle in corrals right on the main street of town.

Another day, we took the winding road up through Draper to the new developments perched on the hills of Point-of-the-Mountain.

When my wife and I lived in Utah, there was nothing on those hills but hang gliders and suicidal motorcyclists.

Now, there are streets of graceful houses that either nestle in hidden valleys or peer out over some of the most beautiful vistas I've seen.

The views of Salt Lake Valley are dramatic, and it was fun to stop and pick out landmarks. But when we crossed over the top and saw the view of Utah Valley, we fell in love with that scene all over again.

It helps that this was an unusually wet spring, so that the hills are far greener than is usual for the middle of July. But it would have been stunning even with the more common brown-colored hills.

We noticed something else, however -- the surprising number of houses for sale or standing empty. Of course, we assumed that these were markers of the recession.

We imagined the stories: a family moving away because a breadwinner's job had disappeared; another family selling because they could no longer afford what had once seemed easily affordable; yet another house for sale because of a foreclosure.

We are no strangers to such things -- back in the recession of the early '80s, when we moved to Greensboro because we needed a job as my freelance income temporarily dried up, we could not sell our house in South Bend, Indiana, and could not keep up the payments on it while paying rent in North Carolina.

Technically, it wasn't a foreclosure, it was a "deed in lieu of foreclosure." But whether or not you notify the bank yourself that you will no longer be making payments, it means you lost your equity and hurt your credit.

Perhaps this is a good time for Latter-day Saints to remember that when we pay our tithing, we are promised great blessings -- but not necessarily financial ones at a scale of our own choosing. The Lord says there is "enough and to spare," but his definition of "enough" is often quite different from our wishes.

While our fondly-remembered home in South Bend was gone, and our credit rating disappeared for some years, we never lacked for shelter or food -- we certainly had enough.

And we gained something else: a certainty that it is not the house, but the people, that make the home.

We have fond memories of our little children in that house, and of teenagers from the ward who would come and hang out in our basement, where we had one of the first gaming computers in our neighborhood -- an Atari 800.

But in our tiny rented houses in Greensboro, and then a larger rented condo, we had the same children (a little older), new friends, and the familiar sense of love and comfort that a loving home provides, regardless of its size or cost.

When we could finally afford to buy a house again, it was not because the Lord had decided we were once again worthy. The Lord's promises have nothing to do with our material aspirations, beyond our actual needs.

I think of the young couple whose wedding we came to Utah to witness, and of another niece who is marrying in the Washington DC temple a bit later in the summer, and I know how much the years of struggle early in a marriage can do to help bond a couple who are determined never to let the lack of money be a wedge between them.

I remember my wife's and my many walks from the Avenues in Salt Lake City to the downtown library; we had no money, but we could talk -- we're both champion talkers -- and share the wonderful books and authors we discovered.

We haunted the children's book section even though our oldest child was just a newborn then -- we wanted to make sure that by the time he could understand stories, we'd have the best books to read to him.

We shared the dream of the future we were creating together. And, oddly enough, losing our house in South Bend didn't even create a pause in that dream.

Because we tried to live within our means -- even when our means were sharply reduced -- and occasionally accepted help from friends and family, we made it through the low points. At every point along the way, we had many evidences of the Lord's bounty to us.

We refused to value ourselves or anyone else according to income level or neighborhood. We were and are the same family no matter where we lived and no matter whether we were receiving or giving help. And usually, we were doing both at the same time, because even those without any money to spare can give service.

We found out who our friends were, during those hard times. We worked hard to be independent, but were not ashamed to be dependent, either.

So as I think back on those houses for sale, imagining that some of them, at least, were not willingly parted with, I hope that the former residents can still look around them and see the beauty that is free for everyone, and enjoy the blessings that depend, not on money, but on love and kindness.

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