Printer Friendly

On Becoming a Lord of the Earth.

   And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then
   Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in
   the earth, and from walking up and down in it. (Job)

Leaving the Tenant Farm

My father poached an occasional venison. He quoted 2 Timothy4:2 as rationale: "be instant in season, out of season."He was only partly joking; he thought it his right to take an animalliving on his land, planted there by God. He was not the first poacherin the Bennion family.

In 1832, when my great-great-grandfather John was sixteen,instead of going to Sunday school he rambled with his comrades. Hisfather, a member of the Methodist Society in Hawarden, Flintshire,Wales, "had taught his children strict morals andreligion," but "going to Sunday School and to hearpreaching became burdensome."

One Sunday John was chasing rabbits on the local lord'sproperty with two friends, and their dog caught one. A"watcher" accused them of poaching. They were summoned toappear the next day before a justice. John determined not to submit tosuch degrading proceedings. In "History of John Bennion byHimself," he wrote, "I therefore took my departure anotherway and came to Liverpool."

I have taken my departure another way a good number of times,not because I feared prosecution for poaching--although at about thesame age as my ancestor I was guilty of that crime--but because Iperiodically get restless and leave my home in Utah. It isn't thelandscape I want to escape; I am addicted to the alkali flats and drypeaks of my west-desert childhood, the sculpted red and white sandstoneof the Colorado Plateau, the alpine canyons along the state'sspine of mountains. It isn't the people either: I'm fondof the irreverent ranchers, the idealistic backpackers, the Hispanics,who, like elves, labor for the rest of us while we sleep, and thepolygamists with their fractal relationships. It's really myselfI'm fleeing, my fear that I've been possessed by theearnest life in which I've swaddled myself. My son believesI'm on the bipolar spectrum and that it's during my manicphase that I can't abide staying home. Whatever the cause, whenmy suburban neighborhood seems claustrophobic as a mall, and the valleyI live in as conservative, patriarchal, and paranoid as a John Birchconvention, I talk my wife and kids into taking off. During ourthirty-plus years of marriage we've left Utah for five years inHouston, a year teaching on Oahu, and seven study abroad stints inEngland.

This "getting away" from home is, of course, theflip side of "getting to" someplace else. I leave a stateof felt repression and move toward a state of imagined freedom. This isthe oldest human story: hunters wandered the earth, Adam and Eve madechoices that led to their moving on, Cain took to wandering, the peopleat the time of the Tower of Babel tried to rise to heaven and ended upbeing scattered, Noah loaded his family onto a boat, and so on. Abrahamwrote, "In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of myfathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain anotherplace of residence." According to Leo Tolstoy, this is one ofonly two narratives humans tell about themselves--" the hero goeson a journey," the other being "a stranger comes totown." My friend Bruce Jorgensen adds that we are always eitherthe guest or the host; it all depends on how the storyteller looks atit. Turning his back on the class system that made him a criminal fortaking a wild animal, John turned his face toward Liverpool, one of thecities where Mormonism was beginning to grow in the British Isles.

I wonder whether he was relieved to be caught, to have createdan excuse for leaving his father's farm.

Turning the Hearts of the Children to TheirFathers

In the summer of 2009, I drove down Moor Lane, where theBennion ancestral home, long since torn down, had stood. The fieldssurrounding the lane were green and tall, a dramatic contrast to theUtah desert where John ended up after, as he said, leaving "homeand employ to go I knew not where."

Although Virginia Woolf was not talking about leaving homepermanently, but rather walking for pleasure, she describes in"Street Haunting" the feeling of wanting to leave, atleast temporarily, an old life for a new one: "As we step out ofthe house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self ourfriends know us by and become part of that vast republican army ofanonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude ofone's own room." Being indistinguishable frees her,because "The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted tohouse themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others,is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses acentral oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye."

Like Woolf, I want to believe that escape from the self ispossible. When I leave home, I feel exhilarant but also transient,unsettled, as if my identity or at least my credit cards have beenmisplaced. I want clear sight, unimpeded by my past--a snake slippingits old skin. However, as she left her flat behind, Woolf was stilldepressive, and, even when I'm five thousand miles from home,I'm still a conflicted desert boy. Like hermit crabs, we bear ourhouses on our backs.

Throwing Dust in the Eyes of theEstablishment

In Liverpool, John apprenticed himself to one boilermaker,where he worked for only three weeks. Before long, he left the secondemployer and hired himself to a third, where he worked for three years.At the end of that time, the foreman wanted to hire him for three moreyears of what John described as servitude. "I answered himhastily that he had not done as well as he might to me in times past,referring to his not teaching me the business." The foremancomplained that he had done well by him and that, in leaving, John was"throwing dust" in his eyes. Despite this accusation, Johncontinued to search for opportunity to advance. His employers wanted daylabor from him and he refused to give anyone license to hisfuture.

While living in Liverpool in 1840, he heard the preaching ofJohn Taylor and Joseph Fielding and joined the Mormon Church. Hisforeman at his new job and his landlord both warned him against thisreligion, but eventually the former "gave up all hope ofreclaiming" him and the latter accused him of breaking thecommandment to honor his father and mother, because they had brought himup religiously. John rejected their warnings, but it's not likelyhe converted to his religion out of mere rebelliousness. Allen andThorpe, in their essay, "The Mission of the Twelve to England,1840-41: Mormon Apostles and the Working Classes," wrote that theworking class, with their "fundamentalist and democraticinclinations," were attracted by what the Mormon preachers saidabout direct access to God and infinite possibility for growth. Otherswho rose out of the same ground and class as my ancestor weredissatisfied with economic conditions and with organized religion. Johnwanted to control his destiny, not trust it to the hands of eitherecclesiastical or economic stewards.

Satisfaction: Can't Get No

I grew up during the Sixties, when every young person seemeddetermined to take his departure another way and leave the bindingtraditions of establishment society. During that decade there was thefeeling that the whole land was ours to wander across--hitchhiking,jumping a train, backpacking. As with John, any excuse would do to headup the country. I felt the revolutionary songs in my blood. Whether itwas a man on the radio, my parents, or my church leaders telling me thisand telling me that, I dreamed of leaving, like a rolling stone. EvenDylan's song--written about a woman who has recently fallen fromriches and high-class society--seems ambivalent about being invisible,with no secrets and with nothing to lose. Join the revolution because itmay feel all right being on the outside:
   How does it feel
   To be on your own
   With no direction home
   Like a complete unknown .... 

It might feel as if she lost her place or it might feelliberating, probably both.

Whether or not they were based on Romantic or egalitarianideals, the songs were all about getting out of Dodge, or getting toKansas City. The song named after that town still runs through my headand was recorded by dozens of performers through the Fifties andSixties:
   I'm gonna pack my clothes
   Leave at the break of dawn
   Everybody will be sleeping
   Nobody will know where I've gone
   Cause if I stay in town
   I know I'm gonna die.
   Gotta find a friendly city
   And that's the reason why,
   I'm going to Kansas City
   Kansas City here I come
   They got a crazy way of loving there
   And I'm gonna get me some. 

I had no desire to get to Kansas City, but like everyadolescent boy I certainly wanted to get me some, possibly in Tooele,where I went to junior high and high school or in the big dances in Oremwhere my city cousins lived. Holding a girl on a dark floor far from mytiny hometown in the desert, moving to music so loud not even God couldfollow my thoughts, I was invisible, with nothing to lose.

I had limited imagination and even more limited opportunity,but I wanted to leave--an ache I hardly realized and certainlycouldn't articulate back then. I did get to California, on anepic road trip with my cousins and their art teacher. We drove all nightto get to the Laguna Beach art fair, slept next to our car on a patch oflawn bordering the road, swam in the ocean and showered on the beach,ate food out of a box. It is the most exotic memory of my teenage years.We were going to someplace where we'd never been before--asCanned Heat put it:
   I'm going, I'm going where the water tastes like wine,
   We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time. 

Mormons don't want to stay drunk all the time, except onlife (or maybe sugar), but I knew I needed room to move.

Taking a Wife

In February of 1842, John took his departure again. He hoped tosail from Liverpool on the Hope, a ship that would carry a load of Mormons to America. But hedidn't board, instead waiting for the JohnCummins, sailing two weeks later. He wrote, "This was in order to take awife with me who was not then ready." Not ready for marriage orfor the voyage? He doesn't say. Family lore is that the shipcaptain wouldn't let him board as a single man so he turned fromthe first ship, quickly found a woman who would marry him, and preparedto sail on the second. However it happened, he married EstherWainwright, who was also born in Hawarden. They sailed to Zion, at thattime Nauvoo, Illinois. Esther didn't keep a journal,didn't write many letters, so I don't know what she feltleaving her homeland behind. She packed her clothes, woke at the breakof dawn, and followed John to a place where she was a completeunknown.

Gender Studies

Looking over the Canned Heat lyrics for "Going up theCountry," I'm struck by something I never noticed as ateenager--the singer assumes that his woman won't want to go withhim:
   Now Baby, pack your leaving trunk,
   You know we've got to leave today ....
   No use of you running
   Or screaming and crying
   Cause you've got a home
   As long as I've got mine. 

Cold comfort. She would also have no direction home. Thinkingabout this verse, I'm caught between two contradictory ideas,both of which I believe: women don't want to leave their homesand women and men mostly want the same things. Our culture has madetheir strategies different, I think, but we are at root much the same.For example, my sister Janet has wandered the earth as much as I have.When she graduated, she took off to the Midwest to work on a cattleranch, then traveled to France to work on another huge ranch. As a newlymarried woman in Rochester, New York, she left her home for a while towork in D.C., for the journalist Michael Novak. In Portland, and withher first baby not able to walk yet, she uprooted and talked her wayinto a polygamist community for a month, doing research for hermaster's thesis in social anthropology. Her career has taken herto Mexico, Africa, and Vermont; her second husband has taken her toWyoming and Montana. Wanderlust. She has it. But I also know that myfemale ancestors didn't have much say in where they moved.

So what do women want? Probably not merely staying put. Men andwomen both want volition, control, room to move. Chaucer has the Wife ofBath tell a story and in that story the answer to this questionis:
   Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
   As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
   And for to been in maistrie hym above. 

Sovereignty over their husbands as over their love. I like itthat "hir love" might mean the man's or thewoman's love, or the love between them. Whichever he meant,Chaucer recognized this female desire seven hundred years ago. But eventoday, men often tell themselves that women don't wantindependence as much as they want security and that that they need to bedirected, protected, swaddled, that they are more naturally conservativethan men. I wonder at the pervasiveness of this socialconstruction.

The West, the Nest, and You, Dear

When Karla and I were first married, we moved to Mount Pleasantto a small white house on the edge of town. The owner of the house, acarpenter, had just built himself and his wife a new house, but he stillloved his old one. We soon saw why. He had put in big southern andeastern windows, which filled the house with light and from which wewatched deer eat in our yard.

We should have been happy.

Karla had left her father's home the day aftergraduation. Her present from him was twenty dollars and a suitcase. Sheworked the summer at Pipe Springs in the northern Arizona desert, livingwith one of her relatives in nearby Moccasin. After work she wanderedthe hills with her second cousins and after dark made out with anitinerant potter, probably the only non-relative in town. Her firstsemester at college, she was dated by a bevy of young men, meincluded.

Winter we were engaged and spring we were married. She saysthat as soon as we were engaged my behavior changed: I had got what Iwanted, her, even if satisfaction would come later. We had both appliedto the University of Chicago, because the name of that school gave meromantic quivers. She got a scholarship, but I wasn't evenadmitted as a master's student. So rather than stay in town whileshe finished her degree, I took the only job I could get, teaching art,English, and journalism at Sanpete Junior High School. What would havehappened if she'd refused to pack her leaving trunk?

But she didn't, and in Sanpete she had nothing to do. Itseemed too far to drive an hour and a half to a university where shecould finish her degree, and we believed we couldn't afford thetuition. She finally got a job snipping off turkey gizzards at theprocessing plant across the valley--not the work she had imagined forherself.

She had read Colette, Simone de Beauvoir'sSecond Sex, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, but there she was, stuck as wife, a complete unknown in that town,with no sovereignty, except that she had said yes to my relentlessimportuning--to be my wife and to leave school for my job. She livedwith me not even as a farmer's partner, as every one of herfemale ancestors and mine had done, back for generations. She was onlywife. Nothing to do except clean our small house and cook.

I taught school but the students ripped me apart. Soft spoken,I was no disciplinarian, and worse than being vulnerable, I wasdisorganized. Softness and confusion were like blood in the water forthose turkey farmers' children. It's hardly anexaggeration to say they chewed out my gizzard, or some similar organ,the beastly land sharks. So we were both stopped. Unable to do. Not incharge of our own destiny, except that I had taken the job. More than weknew depended on that decision:
   I started on the road to depression.
   We started a child.
   I became obsessed with busy-ness.
   Karla eventually stopped writing poetry.
   Karla gained weight.
   We wrangled in talk, setting boundaries and breaking them.
   We started the tradition of having bad cars. 

We shared office, bedroom, kitchen, living room--which meant Ithought they were all mine.

We started a habit of economic self-sufficiency, although webroke it many times to get money from both our parents.

We established a pattern of spending more than we earned, andspending it on travel, education, and experience instead of onthings.

We set the tenor of our lives, its career or inclination. Forgood and evil, we re-created ourselves.

The New Eden

John did his share of importuning, deciding what was best forhis family and bulling ahead. When he left England, Zion, thewilderness, virgin land, was ahead of him, as well as a new religion ina new country. He built a house on an acre lot in Nauvoo and then plowedthe ground for a garden. He found things confusing when he first arrivedin Nauvoo, especially since on the frontier men and women by necessitydid all kinds of work, not simply doing what they had learned asapprentices. In an 1842 letter to his father, he described the newculture: "at present it is not as in England for everyone to keepto his own trade but a man who comes here must turn to any work and getalong as well as he can." This confusion of societal roles, Ibelieve, amplified his conviction that in America men could workunhampered by habit, tradition, or suppression.

He was proud of the simplicity of his life in Nauvoo:"people here have a cow or two and live on plain food." Hethinks of this style of life as a return to the hospitality andsimplicity of the time of Abraham. When a stranger arrived, Abraham"bid Serah get some Meal and bake Cakes upon the hearth, while hewent and killed a good Calf and they dined." He claimed that manyin England avoided sacrifice rather than embrace this simple life."Sooner will they stop in thare comfortable houses pretteylyfurnished whare they can have almost endless veriety to gratify tharepalate and make of god of thare belly and after all be Damned becau oftradition and priestcraft." While he seems hungry for growth, hesees that it is through restricting his desires that he might find morerelative freedom. But like everyone else, John had to scramble tosurvive in these new circumstances. "I have not found as Iexpected thare is no going out shooting turkeys and rabbits." Hehad probably thought he was going to a place where wild game was freeand where people took advantage of the surplus of the earth. He planteda garden and bought hens. They sold the eggs and he worked part of theweek as a laborer. "From what I have said you may know we canlive for little here. Now we have ground for a good garden, with it weboath can live Comfortable for a doller per week." The next yearhe wrote to his wife's parents: "When we first came herethings appeared new and strange to me in this new country but now I feelmyself at home and can get plenty of work.., the people here aregenerally free and independent."

In 1845, his father and brother gave in and joined him in theburgeoning city on the Mississippi River. They established themselves inNauvoo, with their farmsteads outside the city to the east. The brothersmay have liked being on the edge, in an area where ambition would not behindered.

Houston Is Not the Desert

In 1984, when we knew we were moving to Houston for my PHD inthe fall, I decided that we should leave our trailer in Logan inmid-summer and live in the old part of my parents' house inVernon. I thought we could save money and I could try once more workingwith my father on the farm for a couple of months. Karla was almost ninemonths pregnant with Amy. A few weeks before her due date, I moved therest of the family to Vernon, proposing that after the delivery and ashort rest, mother and child would join us. So for a few weeks, we livedas a divided family. Karla and Betsy, our first daughter, had a bond sopowerful that it was like they were one flesh. When those two wereseparated, Betsy lost some trust in her mother, who seemed to haveabandoned her. Also, Amy, a newborn, had to move at two weeks of age, toan old house in the desert, and again when she was two months old,traveling in a four-day trip to Houston. Amy was needy and sometimes inpain, and she screamed every night for six months. Even if we had stayedput in Logan, Amy might have been sick, and even if my planhadn't separated Betsy and her mother, Betsy might have feltestranged when her mother turned most of her attention to a newbaby.

Still, looking back, I can't fathom why I dragged usinto this detour. I was on my way to a writing and literature PHDprogram in Texas, but I had convinced myself that I still might want totake over the farm after I finished. I certainly loved the work, or someof it. I didn't love building fences or worrying always about theweather. But the ranch was a resource and I lusted in my blood to havecontrol over it.

All that happened that summer was I proved my inability to workwith my father. During those two months and before I was often bitterabout my father's sloppy farming methods--not keeping records onhis cows, hauling hay by hand, leaving the sprinkler pipes on too long,never fixing fences permanently but just patching them over and overagain, sometimes even using sprinkler pipes as part of the fence. Myfather said once, while I was pressuring him to let me make decisions,"You are going away again, I will be the one left here."He was right. I would go away again and again and again.

Mid August we headed for a city ten times bigger than any wehad ever seen, pulling a trailer loaded with our earthlypossessions--dressers, bed, washing machine and dryer, clothing, kitchenequipment, toys. Our journey went smoothly, until, just south of Page,we had to drive down a two-mile hill. Partway down our brakes overheatedand stopped working. I shifted to the lowest gear and stood on thebrakes as we went faster and faster, pushed by our half ton ofbelongings. Finally we came to the bottom and I was able to get the carstopped. We sat shaking for a while. When the brakes cooled, they workedagain, and without trying to find a mechanic, we drove south, crossingthrough land I had inhabited as a Mormon missionary--Moenkopi, Gonado,Window Rock, Gallup--and on to new territory--Albuquerque, Clovis,Muleshoe, Lubbock, Abilene, and finally Houston.

At first we crowded in with my cousin in her already-packedhouse. Amy screamed all night, keeping both families awake. Soon wemoved to an apartment. Our first night there, we ate dinner using acardboard box for a table. Later, when I switched on the light to go tothe bathroom, cockroaches fled to the walls like water draining away.After a month in that apartment, we moved back into my cousin'shouse. They had bought a larger place and would rent their old home tous. It was so hot and humid that it seemed that the Spanish moss drippedfrom the live oaks. I thought I would die every time I climbed into oursun-heated car.

My salary as a teaching assistant at the University of Houstonwas not enough to support a family. We couldn't pay for healthinsurance, dentist bills, gasoline, and we spent less than a hundreddollars a month on food. Karla daily had to carry Robert on a bike tokindergarten. He balanced on the back as she pedaled. If it rained, shejust put a garbage bag over him and rode anyway, while the girls playedat home. When Karla found work, we put them in a day-care school, whereBetsy engaged in power struggles with the head teacher. Both girls hatedit. We had hard, hard times in Houston.

But we lived in an exotic land--semi-tropical Texas. Behind ourhouse was a cement bayou, much bigger than any canal I'd everseen. At first I thought it a useless structure. On the first rain weran outside, letting the water stream down our faces. The children hadnever seen such warm, bountiful rain. It came down in a deluge for hoursand hours. Before long that huge bayou was full to the brim with water,running toward Buffalo Bayou and eventually the Gulf. Behind our placewas a garden space we could use. My cousin and her husband had kept agarden there a "couple of years" earlier. There were treesgrowing in that plot that were twenty feet tall.

What kind of country have we come to? I thought, where water falls from the sky like a warm river and whereplants grow so rapidly that they seem anxious to stranglehumanity?

As often as we could we left the strange city and traveled backto what Wallace Stegner and others since have called the proper edge ofthe sky. Where vegetation didn't seem a verdant and malevolentforce and where the air was thin and cool.

Cast Out of the Garden

After just a few years, John prepared to follow Brigham Youngwest. In 1845 he complained to his wife's parents about thetroops sent by the governor of Illinois, supposedly to bring offendersand aggressors to justice. These soldiers instead, he wrote, "aregauling and vexing the Latter day saints who have suffered oppression ofevery kind until they are determined to suffer it no longer."Once again he expressed his desire to have freedom to work and progress.He wrote, "As a people they have not been protected in theirrights but have suffered injustice and oppression of every kind andunder what is called a free government." He and others are
   among the thousands who intend to leave this government and
   emigrate to some good place between the rocky mountains and the
   pacific Ocean where we will be clear from partial and corrupt
   government. Liberty in a Solitary place is far more preferable than
   always being harrassed and mobbed in these states and that on
   account of our religion. 

Reading this, I am reminded again of his feeling of injusticewhen he was caught poaching on the estate in Hawarden. It's clearthat liberty had both religious and economic implications for him.Solitary wilderness in itself had no appeal, but he saw the West as aplace where the Mormons would be left alone to grow.

John and his brother Samuel first settled inside the Salt LakeCity limits, in a corner lot northeast of what is now Pioneer Square.That year, in a letter to his sister-in-law, John described theresources of his new home--free land, water, pasturage, and timber. Hewrote, this is a "pleasant valley, where we can build andinhabit, plant and eat the fruit thereof far away frommobocrats." He was pleased that they were hundreds of miles fromthe coast, writing,
   We have now got far away from other nations and people, separated by
   long desert and high mountains. If we have any trouble it must begin
   home which is at present all quiet. This people have known the
   and I have said years ago that I would like to see the people away by
   themselves.... I would say there is less crime or immorality than I
   ever known among any people and I trust this people will be
   here on a permanent footing." 

But for a few more years he would wander inside the valley.Early in the spring of 1848 he built a cabin on Five Acre Survey,Parley's Canyon Creek. Ironically, given John's beliefthat under Mormonism he wouldn't have his opportunity stifled,the land settled by the two brothers in the city was absorbed by BrighamYoung for a church farm. They moved their cabin, log by log, westwardacross the Jordan River, an act that violated the Mormon's treatywith the Utes. That January (1849) they crossed on the ice and settlednorth of current day Fourteenth South, where Joseph Harker, who wouldbecome a close friend, had moved already to find grass for his animals.Whether John and Samuel went happily or resented Young's use ofauthority is unclear. Across Jordan they were free to increase theirholdings of animals and property. John wrote, "Every man has asmuch land set off to him as he wants or can cultivate. There is no landbought or sold. I have ten acres of farming land where I now live, fourmiles from the city on the banks of the river, called WesternJordan." Even the building materials were available without anyother cost but labor. "We mostly build of brick dried in thesun." He writes about other resources, free for the taking;
   When our stock is out, we take it Indian fashion, live on flesh,
   roots and herbs and such things as the country affords.... Esther
used to
   go fishing and in two or three hourse get 20 or 30 fish, and after I
   my crops in I went a hunting amongst the mountains and on the 3 day,
   returned home with about 7 5 lbs of mutton or mountain sheep. We
   share in the hardships of settling this new country. It is a good
   country.... We enjoy health, peace and can worship God according to
   dictates of our conscience without being molested, and enjoy the
   of our hands.... 

Happy not to be a servant or lease a farm as did hisgrandfather and father, he saw the West as a place where the open landand free water provided a refuge from the evil of an unjust and unequalsociety. He once wrote that like a cat, no matter which way they arethrown, Mormons would land on their feet.

In all these letters he echoes his own chosen leader BrighamYoung, who saw wilderness as raw material provided by God for human useand believed that God would facilitate the transformation of thewilderness into a garden, redeeming the landscape from its status asuseless desert. He preached that if his people can "establish theZion of God in our hearts, in our own houses, in our cities, andthroughout our country, we shall ultimately overcome the earth, for weare the lords of the earth, and, instead of thorns and thistles, everyuseful plant that is good for the food of man and to beautify and adornwill spring from its bosom."

Still unsatisfied, in the summer of 1849 John moved again, thistime to Field Bottom just north of present-day Taylorsville. With hisfriend Joseph Harker, he settled on Field Spring. Still unsatisfied withhis situation, in the fall of 1850, he settled farther south at a bendin the Jordan River.

Finally settled, a well-established land and livestock owner,surrounded by his polygamous family, he never moved his primary domicileagain.

I Go to and fro upon This Earth

John moved and moved until he found a place to settle. But Ihave danced in a circle, with one foot planted and the other footroving. A list of my residences (towns where I have lived or lands whereI have wandered) looks like a villanelle of repeated place names (Utahtowns are italicized):
         New Mexico
     Mt. Pleasant

I participate in the cultural male tradition of leaving and thecultural female tradition of staying put.

Having My Way

The last half of my log of moves shows us trading our home inSpringville, Utah, for one in Provo, Utah, ten years ago. For a coupleof years before that I had became restless. Living in our house inSpringville became unbearable to me. I disliked wasting time drivingeleven miles to Provo for work at Brigham Young University, where I hada job teaching creative writing and British literature. Seeing myself asa man of society, I also wanted a larger area for entertaining guests.Despite there being plenty of bedrooms, a huge family room, and amplestorage space, I felt that another house would be better. Our basementhad flooded and the floor in the kitchen was uneven, so the house feltimperfect. None of this was logical, all was rationalization. I wantedto move because I felt like moving. I believed my life would be betterin a different place. Then there was my mother, who lived in Vernon inthe old house we children had grown up in. My sister, who with herhusband was taking over responsibility for the family ranch, had movedin, so my mother for a while didn't have her own space. I toldmyself and Karla that I wanted to move so that we could provide abasement apartment for my mother.

Karla was much more rational and thought it crazy to change aspacious, inexpensive house for one in Provo, where housing costs werehigher. We had whittled our mortgage down and she didn't want tostart another thirty-year loan.

We had the worst arguments of our marriage. Finally we agreedthat what happened with my mother would sway the decision. My motherdecided she didn't want to stay in Vernon, her traditional home;she couldn't find a condo she liked, so we started house hunting.Nothing we saw suited, so we found a lot and built a house on it.Building a house was a stressful, anxious enterprise, made more sobecause I had something to prove.

Lucky for me, Karla isn't one to brood over the past. Apsychologist, she is much more rational about decisions andrelationships than I am. She decided that this decision of minewouldn't be a relationship breaker for her, so she gave in. Also,she is not one to hold grudges, and she has loved our new house withoutbias, choosing to forgive my behavior as I made her agree to build thishome. Still, as one of my scientist friends often says, Shoddymethodology, positive outcome.

Trouble in Zion

Although she may not have been happy moving, Esther Wainwrightfollowed John seven times from house to house in the New World. For herthe relationship breaker was polygamy. She stayed married to him afterhe took as wife two younger women who had each been brought into thehome as servants, but she was angry and bitter. Her reaction mystifiedJohn, who probably thought that polygamy would give him more women whowould produce more children, building a kingdom, helping him become alord of the earth. But Esther resisted the loss of her volition in thismatter. In July of 1856, he married Esther Birch, who was renamed EstherAnn by Brigham Young so the two wives wouldn't be confused foreach other. I imagine having her husband possess a younger woman wasdifficult for the older Esther, who looks a little like a bulldog in herpictures, but accepting as an equal this woman who had been a servantwas probably just as difficult.

John writes that Esther was behind in this thing, meaning thathe was more interested in polygamy than she was. On September 12, 1856,he wrote in his journal, "When I left home, Esther felt bad andsaid hard words against me and Esther A." He wrote:
   I thought of her words and one night while sleeping, I dreamed of
   all my children being with me on a small boat floating rapidly down
   a crooked river. I steered the boat and landed it with great
   exertion where I wanted to land. I then had to wade across, and
   told Esther and the children where to cross to be safe. The
   children did so and got safe over. Esther would have her own way
   and went to cross in another place. It was deep water. She went
   over head, her youngest child in her arms. I went in swimming after
   her. She was glad to catch hold of me, and I dragged her out to the
   children. I felt very glad to see them all safe on shore.

Clearly, his sense of entitlement didn't allow him tosee Esther's position. Instead he wrote, "28 Dec 1856Esther by giving way to an evil Spirit caused a wrong feeling in thefamily. I fasted & prayed to my God about it."

He tried to herd his family toward heaven: "I held ameeting at home with my Family, instructed them in their duties, eachone spoke their feelings. It was satisfactory." But soon thefirst Esther's dissatisfaction and anger manifested itself again.He wrote, "In the evening went over to Saml to see if E. A. coldlive there a short time until I got her a house apart from Esther whowas disposed to oppress her & disregard my council." Itconfused him that his wives, whom he loved, were so intractable. Thiswas in March of 1847, and despite Esther's unhappiness overpolygamy, the next month he took a third wife--Mary Turpin, who hadjoined his household as a servant.

Years later he moved both plural wives away from the centralhome in the Salt Lake Valley: "Mary T and her children live atMountain Home in Rush Valley." To preserve peace (and toestablish a homestead where there was better grazing) he sent his twoyounger wives seventy miles away to an unsettled valley, where there wasdanger from roving Utes and bad weather. Esther Wainwright, it seems,did get something out of her running, screaming, and crying. Shedidn't have to pack her leaving trunk, but the other wives did.They traveled to where they were complete unknowns. My uncle believesthat the first year, a year during which they each had a baby, theylived in three foot by eight foot trenches, not even in a proper dugout.Without the help of local Goshutes, who took them in, they would havedied of starvation and cold.

Playing with Words
   Lord, lordly, lording it over. The OED gives these:
     OE hlafweard, hlaford, hlaferd,
(hlabard, hlafard)
     ME laford, laferde, hlouerd, leverd, lhoaverd, lourde, lowerd,
   laferrd, laverd, lovered, lovuerde, lorld, lorde, lard.
     A master, ruler.
     A master of servants; the male head of a household.
     One who has dominion over others as his subjects, or to whom
   service and obedience are due; a master, chief, prince, sovereign.
. One who or something which has the mastery or preeminence.
   Lords of (the) creation
: mankind; now jocularly, men as
   opposed to women.
. A feudal superior; the proprietor of a fee, manor, etc. So
   lord of the manor
, the person or corporation having the seignorial
   rights of a manor.
   A husband. Now only poet
. And humorous

Poetical and humorous. I am an androgynous patriarch, a paterark full of strange inclinations, lost between the nineteenth andtwenty-first centuries.

Isolated in the dark behind my own eyes, I yearn to touch thesoul of the earth, to wander through a gate of stars into the depth ofthe universe. In my meditation, I am outside culture and experience,singular, a non-hierarchical being. There is me and there is anotherintelligence that I sense. Ours is hardly a relationship between lordand underling. Both of us dust of the galaxy, particles of light, wavesof matter, atoms and energy. A feeling of sight, light and eye. Thisother, twin to my soul, is everpresent, close as touch, like somethingat the corner of my eye, always there, but who I can't turn tosee.

This Is Not the End, Beautiful Friend

Karla and I live in what is, we hope, our final home, though wemay still wander in short stints. She is in her mid-fifties andI'm almost sixty--both of us grayed, heavier, settling lower intoour bones. Like John at the end of his life, we are centering on houseand garden. Jim Morrison and Brigham Young had at least one thing right:the west is the best. We sit at dinner, the two of us, now that ourchildren are gone. Both of us have weary eyes, hazel and blue, skin nolonger supple. Survivors of a stillborn child, cancer of the uterus,depression. For more than three decades we've pushed against eachother in anger and love. Weekly moving toward new territory. Our facesare our own, marked by thought and breath, every yearning and ambitionregistered on our flesh.

Here we are: who we are. What we've done to eachother.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Southern Methodist University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bennion, John
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Jun 22, 2013
Previous Article:The Room in Which I Write.
Next Article:Prayers of an American Wife.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters