Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fraternal Geotheobiosociopersonal Musings

The other night, up Provo Canyon, at Steve Peck's reading from his The Scholar of Moab, I met George Handley.

This weekend I have read his book, a dense and thoughtful and poetic and troubled and deeply Mormon text that has done what a good book ought to do: awaken thoughts and feelings in a reader.

I'm aware of the ironies involved when a reader responds positively to a deeply Mormon book while drinking a bottle of Squatters' hoppy IPA (last night) or while drinking an invigorating cup of Cafe Ibis' Guatemalan Organic Shade Grown coffee (this morning). But I'm going to enjoy the barrel-aged irony and note that it has hints of sego lily and sage, notes of trout, and an aftertaste of youth.

Handley writes about flyfishing the Provo, about his family's history in the region, about Mormon history and theology, about taxing adventures in canyons and mountains, about his marriage and children, about his brother's suicide and his own continuing complex responses to that tragedy, about depression and exhilaration, about relationships between humans and the environment, about living liminally between heaven and earth, body and spirit, about the stories we tell and about how they determine how we live.

I might quote any number of memorable sentences, retell any number of memorable stories. But I'm going to quote this passage to stand for the rest:

"No one is responsible for my imagination except me, and while institutions are often guilty of historical distortion and intentional error, and while historical inquiry is always valuable, I can only blame myself for failing to understand that I am always in time's flow and that historical memory is always rhetorical. I don't need fewer myths, only better ones, spawned under the conditions fate has allotted me. The only potent thing is imagination" (84).

It's true, I think, that we're responsible for our own imagination and true that we need better myths.

Handley's book is full of better myths and I'm better now for having woven them into my own stories. As a result, however, Handley has become responsible for my own imagination. And the churches and political institutions around us in Utah Valley, especially as we are young and without alternate stories, are also responsible for our imaginations. And then (this is eternally circular), I'm responsible again for my own. And for Handley's.

I'll add a footnote to the story he tells of the battle between Utes and Mormons that ended with Utes taking temporary refuge up Rock Canyon, under the guns of snipers on canyon walls. An Indian woman climbed one wall and then jumped to her death (a suicide that, in this book, echoes that of Handley's brother). The peak above where she jumped was subsequently named Squaw Peak.

"Squaw" has a whole set of hateful meanings. In the 1970's there were even (linguistically questionable) claims that the word meant vagina and was the ultimate insult. Several states have since renamed locations bearing that name.

That our peak still bears this name indicates that we continue to need new myths.

A couple of final thoughts.

I understand what it means for Handley to be obsessed with the early and tragic death of his brother. I am still, twenty years later, thinking and writing and dreaming and agonizing and wishing and wondering about the death of my own brother, at the age of 40, of AIDS.

I won't tell any story, ever again, without flavoring from that story.

I gave up my job at BYU, one year after Handley arrived there, in part because of solidarity with John. To work for an institution that hates him and his kind felt like treason—fraternal treason.

the Provo River painting in the UVU library
My other thought is tied to the previous post about Terrance Malick's film The Tree of Life. Some of the most powerful moments of the film stem from the loss of a son and the cosmic questions that arise. As I watched the images from volcanoes and nebulae and waterfalls and all the rest, listening to the characters wrestling with god, questioning god, haranguing god, and as I read Handley's own heartfelt responses to tragedy in the context of religious belief, I had the sense that god is what we sink to or rise to when there's no other place to go. God is our metaphor (and yes, we believe profoundly in our metaphors) for what is groundless yet has meaning, for what is inexplicable but comforting, for what is achingly beautiful and thus profoundly challenging. "Every angel is terrible," Rilke's Duino Elegy tells us. And yet we need them, I need them, as metaphors, as better myths.

1 comment:

michael morrow said...

But I'm going to enjoy the barrel-aged irony and note that it has hints of sego lily and sage, notes of trout, and an aftertaste of youth....oooonice....

I must charm myself...I refuse to let go letting go,,I continue to express perfection moment-to-moment, dirty mind and foot rotting with age-old and black with ripe-creativity, decomposing banana peel, slipping back into womb from whence drawn eons on.........vacuous space, ear-to-ear, happy knowing notknowing...