Thursday, November 22, 2012

Home Again

11 November 2012

I went into the LDS Third Ward in Farmington, New Mexico. I could not tuck “my long hair up under a cap” as did poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder when he ventured into Farmington’s Maverick Bar. I had no earring to leave in the car. I didn’t drink “double shots of bourbon backed with beer” (although my traveling bag held a flask of lowland single-malt in case of emergency). Unlike Snyder, I had an escort, an old friend who explained where I was from. Instead of “We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie,” the organist played “For the Beauty of the Earth.” There was no dancing. Otherwise my experience was exactly like Snyder’s.
Snyder was in the Four-Corners area to protest the rape of Black Mesa, holy to Hopis and Navajos, black with coal. The corporations prevailed and the coal was strip-mined and slurried away with precious desert water and the air of these high, wild, open spaces was so thoroughly fouled that on Thursday, driving from Cortez to Shiprock, the dramatic volcanic core that lent the town its name stood veiled, smudged, moodily distant.
I was in the Four-Corners area to revisit my past, John’s past.
Nearly four decades since I last attended church in my hometown, more than a decade since I left the Mormon Church, twenty years since I began my fraternal meditations after John’s death, a week after Barack Obama was elected to a second term, I went into the LDS Third Ward in Farmington, New Mexico.
A billboard in southwestern Colorado had shouted at me as I drove past: SAVE GOD AND AMERICA. It proclaimed that OBAMA HATES BOTH. And it concluded that I should VOTE ROMNEY.
Utah County, where I live, had just given Mitt Romney 90% of its votes. San Juan County, New Mexico, where Farmington is located, awarded 63% of its votes to Romney (contrasting with Albuquerque’s Bernalillo and Santa Fe Counties, which went 56% and 73% for Obama respectively). With the exception of New Jersey’s Mercer County (Obama 68%), I’ve spent my life among conservatives.
Farmington’s citizens are conservatives of an isolated sort. It is 182 miles to Albuquerque. 208 to Santa Fe. 419 to Phoenix. 377 to Denver (the route my family took that fateful December). 425 to Salt Lake City (from where Brigham Young sent his son Brigham Young Jr. to colonize Kirtland, New Mexico, a little farming town just west of Farmington). West Texas, origin of many of the town’s oil-field specialists and workers, is about 500 miles distant. At the confluence of the La Plata, the Animas, and the San Juan rivers, Farmington’s Anglo culture is shoehorned between Latino New Mexico and the Navajo Reservation.
I haven’t been politically conservative since I left Farmington. Or did the shift occur when I came home from my German mission? Or perhaps as I changed my major at BYU from pre-med to German literature and philosophy? Or when I headed east for graduate work at Princeton?
In any case, I went into the LDS Third Ward in Farmington, New Mexico with my long, grey hair pulled back into a ponytail just days after every voting member of this congregation (was there, perhaps, a single dissenter? two of them?) had voted for their fellow Mormon conservative, and had done so after fasting and praying for him, sure, or at least hopeful, that he would save the Constitution and the Country from Socialism or worse! I live with a partner to whom I’m not married. There’s that problematic flask of whiskey. I had coffee Saturday at Andrea Kristina’s Bookstore and Kafé in downtown Farmington. I swear like the roughneck I once was. I’m allergic to authority. I would gladly be gay if I had those inclinations.
Today I wish I could tuck my hair under a cap.
I pull open the door and gesture to a grey-haired couple to enter.
Thank you, they both say.
When I did this in the old days, people said thank you young man, I reply.
You’re not young any longer, the man says.
Doug introduces me to them as the son of my father.
Your dad was our Bishop when we lived here before, the man says.
We’re greeted by the current Bishop’s two councilors, men in dark suits and white shirts and ties and with firm handshakes and sincere smiles that make me think they will not throw me out if they discover I’m an environmentalist. Two young, male missionaries shake my hand, assess me avidly. My hair suggests I might be available for conversion.
We find seats in the back row next to our old friend Craig. He’s the only man in the building not wearing a tie. I get too hot, he says.
Tyra plays opening chords on the organ and I join the congregation, maybe 150 white people, in singing a hymn about the earth’s beauty. Although I no longer believe there’s a god to thank for that, I am thankful for the earth and smile when I realize I still remember many of the words. It feels good to sing again, to “join the congregation.” And they are not all white, as I supposed – a young Native American, 12 or 13, sits with the deacons in front of the sacrament table.
A vigorous young woman rises to give the invocation (women were not allowed to pray in sacrament meeting when I was young). Heads bow all around me and I find my own head slightly bowed as well. I watch the woman as she invokes “Our Dear Heavenly Father,” her eyes screwed shut, focused intently on what she is saying. She thanks the Lord for the Veterans “who we honor on this Veterans’ Day.” She slips into a well-worn groove to ask that God “bless the leaders of our Church and the . . . and the leaders . . . and the leaders of our Nation.”
Although the election is still very much with her, in the end, bless her heart, she fights through the disappointment (and anger?) and completes the blessing.
While a Master Sergeant in splendid uniform speaks extemporaneously and emotionally about how his duty in Viet Nam stripped him of religious beliefs, faith he regained slowly when he found and joined the Mormons, I think about the flat plaque on my father’s grave halfway out the Aztec Highway. Paid for by the Veterans Administration, placed in a noisy corner below a busy highway in a sterile cemetery designed without gravestones to make grass cutting easier, it says BOB WALTER ABBOTT / 1ST LT US ARMY / WORLD WAR II / 1925—1977. That’s it. No mention of loving father and husband. Of fine teacher and good principal and compassionate Bishop. His epitaph is elsewhere, I tell myself, in our “Books of Remembrance,” in our collections of photographs, in these pages.
John’s gravestone stands in a more inviting spot, atop a hill in American Fork, Utah. Fraternal hands are carved into bright grey granite – and into these meditations.
A woman sitting in front of us rubs her teenaged son’s back, a gesture repeated in other pews. A husband stretches an arm around his wife’s back. Families snuggle together while a speaker drones comfortably on about a new, inspired curriculum for youth classes (“There will be no more ‘stand and deliver’ but interaction and shared responsibility”). I try to imagine John in this warm setting, a 61-year-old arm around his husband’s shoulder, happy to have rejoined the congregation that sent him on his mission to Italy.
I can’t picture it. Not in my lifetime.
On Friday, The Atlantic published an analysis of racist tweets shortly after President Obama was declared the winner of a second term. After Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, the good citizens of Utah were the fourth worst offenders.
We sing “Count Your Blessings,” one of Dad’s favorites, and I cheerfully join in the bass line that marches eighth notes (“count your many blessings”) across the syncopated soprano line (“count —— your blessings”).
Sacrament meeting over, I follow Doug across the gym into a large classroom. People still greet him as “Bishop,” formal in their hierarchy, grateful for his service. The room fills with men and women, maybe 60 of us, almost everyone holding a set of scriptures. Christ’s visit to the Americas after his resurrection as told in The Book of Mormon will be the text for today’s class. Doug is a born teacher, as erudite as he is sensitive to the problem of too much erudition in this diverse and provincial group.
Provincial. That’s the word that best describes my sense for the town I drove into on Thursday. I was without sophistication when I left for college in 1967 and thus, logically, must have come from an unsophisticated town. Farmington is nearly twice the size it was then, approaching 50,000 inhabitants, and it now has a two-year college. Still, over the years, thinking about Doug as a hometown lawyer, I have always thought that he was stuck in a backwater.
Cosmopolitan. That’s the word that best describes the new sense I have for Doug after the mental explosion provoked by poking around in his downtown law office. It’s an insight I might well have expected had my thought not coalesced around an inevitably false and self-serving image. In high school we frequented the school library in tandem and as college roommates I was jealous of Doug’s passion for Shelley and Keats. I knew he had spent two years speaking Quechua and Spanish in Bolivia. He had been a U.S. Marine for four years and had won two blackbelts in karate. But until the explosion occasioned by seeing Doug’s books I had him pegged as a small-town lawyer who had reverted to the provinces. While I, in contrast, . . .
The rooms of Doug’s law office contain, of course, those leather-bound books in glass-fronted cases meant to lend a sense of prosperity and sagacity to their owners. There are shelves and shelves of law books, various tools of the trade. The rest of the books, however, testify to intellectual curiosity of the best sort. Most of them have obviously been read (excluding a pristine copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time). There is a long shelf of books about Navajo language and culture. Several shelves of military history. Books about knots. Dozens of books about knots! Innumerable field guides to birds and animals. Entire bookcases devoted to philosophy and theology. A dozen translations of the Bible. Mormon books sprinkle the shelves, including twenty-two volumes of the Journal of Discourses, balanced by Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton and Martin Buber and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. There is lots of poetry. Shakespeare in abundance. Dictionaries galore: Spanish, Spanish/English, Spanish/English Legal Dictionary, Spoken Spanish, Navajo/English, French/English, Latin Verbs, a reverse dictionary, a poet’s dictionary, a usage dictionary, Bible dictionaries, a bibliophile’s dictionary, literary terms, the Oxford English Dictionary, law dictionaries, dictionaries of quotations, crossword-puzzle dictionaries, dictionaries of etymology, and a whole raft of thesauruses. Armed with such books, Doug has written three dissertations: one for a Doctorate of Juridical Science in Taxation at the Washington School of Law, and two for Doctorates in Theology and Ministry at the Faith Christian University.
Tyra says I’ll do anything for a certificate, Doug told me. Look at my card:

F. D. Moeller
B.S., Th.B., M.S.M., M.A.(C.P.), Th.M., Th.D., D.Min., J.D., LL.M., DJ.S
Farmington, New Mexico
424 W. Broadway
            Holy shit! I said.
            And it’s not all academic. Tyra dug out dozens of film reviews in the local paper, a set of poems published in a weekly column, and numerous “Guest Commentaries” by “F.Douglas Moeller, a Farmington attorney and poet” or, alternately, “a Farmington attorney and writer.”
            This man in front of the adult Sunday School class in the Farmington Third Ward, this man with the gentle mien and soft, precise voice, this father of four and advocate in various tribal and state and regional courts, this collector of knives and guns and canes and masks, this provincial friend of mine is no provincial.
            The part of the Book of Mormon Doug is teaching today raises interesting questions related to the text – why, for instance, does Jesus quote the King James translation of Isaiah, or what about the multiple Isaiah’s Biblical scholars can identify? – but for the most part members of this class want direction for their lives, succor for their wounded souls, reassurance that they are God’s children. That’s exactly what they get. Doug asks for any last questions or comments, then bears his testimony as to the truthfulness of the Gospel.
While someone prays I remember Snyder’s reference to “short-haired joy” and think, of the members of this American Church, that “I could almost love you again.”

12 November 2012
            I spent the afternoon and night with my sister Carol in Dolores, Colorado. She’s as beautiful as she always was, excited about the Veterans’ Appreciation Assembly her fifth-grade students will help with today. It’s ten degrees Fahrenheit when I begin my drive up the canyon toward Telluride – one degree as I drive through the little mining town of Rico, ten degrees again when I drive into Telluride, busy with preparations for the ski season. Mose Allison sings from the CD player, a song by Duke Ellington and Bob Russell whose refrain has always puzzled me: “do nothing till you hear from me / and you never will.” I listen closely to the story of separated lovers and of rumors of lost love. He sings of new experiences (“other arms may hold a thrill”) and yet, paradoxically, professes enduring faithfulness. “Do nothing till you hear it from me / And you never will.” “It,” missing in the lines that perplex, would be the statement that he is untrue in his heart, that he no longer loves her. Love is both complex and perplexing.

            This is my song, I think, Gary Snyder’s song.

            In Paonia I find the little log house we lived in till I was five, then race along the still ecstatic highway to Green River, and finally, after descending the dangerous highway snaking down Spanish Fork Canyon, ease down the dark driveway from which Lyn has shoveled a foot of heavy snow, home again.

I Went into the Maverick Bar
by Gary Snyder

I went into the Maverick Bar   
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
                         backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap
I’d left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay
                         by the pool tables,
A waitress asked us
                         where are you from?
a country-and-western band began to play   
“We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie”   
And with the next song,
                         a couple began to dance.

They held each other like in High School dances   
                         in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
                         and the bars of Madras, Oregon.   
That short-haired joy and roughness—
                         America—your stupidity.   
I could almost love you again.

We left—onto the freeway shoulders—
                         under the tough old stars—
In the shadow of bluffs
                         I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
                         “What is to be done.”


* said...

reading this was like watching this as a movie. the poem is great. that about the hair made me chuckle, me always being asked about my long hair whether i am religious. i always say yes of course, to mock them mildly.
for your guenter grass link collection:

Scott Abbott said...


this will be the last chapter for my book immortal for quite some time, which means there are some references back to earlier passages.

and thanks for the grass citation.

slickrock said...

I read this hungrily and enjoyed every bite. The Gary Snyder "frame" works beautifully, I think, and ending with his last line about "the work to be done" multiplies the resonances almost endlessly. (Bad Marxist that I am, I had to look it up and was fascinated to learn who else has used it, and how.)

Scott Abbott said...

glad you like it. so how else has it been used, and by whom? i'm not very good at secondary stuff.

slickrock said...

I didn't look extensively but was amused to note it's been used by both the "occupy" and secessionist movements.

slickrock said...

I didn't search extensively but was amused to note it's been used by both the "occupy" and secessionist movements.