As part of organizing my new office at Chapman University, I’m moving most of my academic books from the shelves in my living room over to campus. Every time I pull a history book off the shelf it brings back memories of the specific graduate school seminar where we studied that work. So in packing the bags of books I’m also re-living much of my graduate school experience. There are so many memories held in those pages! Most of all, it is sitting around the seminar table in the basement of Murray Krieger Hall and grappling with the ways we imagine the past and the best practices for doing our own writing about it. I remember failures. And moments where I really “got” an idea as brilliantly as a lightbulb turning on inside my head.
My journey through graduate school has not been easy–balancing my family’s needs with my own need to write and study has meant major sleep derivation, and sometimes half-baked scholarship. In those seven years since I started graduate school I’ve battled a life-threatening illness, I’ve left my Mormon community behind, and I’ve become a person that would be hardly-imaginable to my 32 year-old self. When I signed up to get a PhD I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t all that!
So many of those thoughts where swirling around in my mind when I came across a dusty copy of The History of Tooele County. It was a gift from Mike Davis, the historian-writer who strongly urged me to attend graduate school and was an ardent supporter of my creative nonfiction writing. I’d written about my Utah family and their problematic relationship to the land that’s poisoned by the Kennecott mines that loom so close nearby. Mike talked with me about the Iosepa cemetery, which is one of my all-favorite burial grounds (a close second to the Pleasant Green cemetery). He understood the tensions I felt between my bone-deep allegiance to the place of my family and to the utopian promise of the “West,” while also validating why I felt so betrayed by the Mormon naivete that “all is well” in Zion. One day we walked along the beach in San Diego as we talked about all of this, and he asked me how I could continue to believe in the Mormon church, knowing all I did about its failings. I looked at my kids who were running in the waves alongside us and thought of Davis’ own wife who was about ready to give birth to twins.
“I love them so much,” I said, pointing to my kids. “How could I ever live with the constant overwhelming fear of losing them if I didn’t believe in eternal families? I can’t not believe that they will always be with me.”
He replied to me on an equally deep level, expressing his love for his children, and his fears for their futures.
There was something about walking along the rocks and sand and waves that cemented that interaction in my mind long after it was over, and all of that returned as I held the old book in my hands yesterday. It’s been a few years since I chatted with Mike and since then I’ve faced down a lot of fear. I no longer feel the same sense of needing to believe in Mormon cosmology to assuage my concerns about losing my children, even though I do constantly worry about their safety.
It brings to mind some favorite lines from a Mary Oliver poem, “Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith”:
And therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine,
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in dirt
swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.