Elegy

February 8, 2013 | 11 comments
By

DSC_0698

My dear friend,

My kids and I have been going through this great archaeology book. One of my favorite things about homeschooling is getting to teach them all of the things that I love and wish that I’d learned growing up. Teaching them, I finally get to learn it too. My favorite entry in this particular book so far is probably the entry on Skara Brae. We read about it early last year. Later, for unrelated reasons, we planned a vacation to the UK for the summer. The kids and I determined that come what may, we were going to make it to Skara Brae. And we did. And it was as glorious as we’d hoped. I can’t begin to tell you how moved I was. Here’s how their houses looked (circa 3000 BC):

DSC_0676

And here’s the excavated site which begins to show you how the community looked:

DSC_0706

DSC_0699

You can see that their little round, one room homes were built into their old midden heaps – which surely didn’t smell great, but which helped to insulate the homes from the cold. Each house was reserved for one family, and the homes were all under ground. As you can see, however, it wasn’t just an underground home, but an underground community. The homes were connected via tunnels. This too helped to promote warmth, as each home burned its own fire.

Of course, having explored all of this, we couldn’t help but walk down to the adjacent beach and build our own Skara Brae:

DSC_0724

The community flourished for 600 years. There are no weapons or other signs of warfare anywhere in the site. But after six centuries the residents of Skara Brae disappeared. I like to think of it as another City of Enoch. Another Salem. Another Zion. They didn’t live communally. Each family had their own homes. But their homes were all connected, all built into the same midden heap, and depended on each other structurally. They lived as a community. As Zion.

I can’t help but think about Skara Brae today, meditating on your letter and departure from our community. On the undeniable and to some degree baffling pain that I feel.

We live in a disenchanted age. Everyone since Weber talks about it, and Weber merely coined a good term for what many had been saying through the 19th century. God is dead. Except that the Gods aren’t dead. Some of them even appeared to a rural hick in upstate New York a few decades before Nietzsche’s perspicacious observation. Gods might indeed, in perfect health, appear to or seize upon the souls of prophets even today. Nevertheless, whatever the prophets’ enchantment, the rest of us are left to gain what insight we can from them and make our way through an undeniably disenchanted world.

Lots of us still live with enchantment – at least to some degree. But this doesn’t mean we escape from the disenchantment. What it means is that our enchantments are fragile – a gossamer bubble through which we see and experience the magic and wonder of our world. Not many – and certainly none of us that venture far from home – make it very long, however, without that bubble bursting. Without watching our visions evaporate and finding ourselves seized with some new and what often seems far more plausible paradigm. Our parents fess up and tell us that there really is no Santa Claus. Commonly, we believe them. We shrug our shoulders or stiffen our backs or mourn a good while before we dry our eyes and try to figure out how to live well with or perhaps merely distract ourselves from the nihilism that permeates our new world.

Of course there’s no Santa Claus. But it’s a mistake to become disillusioned with Christmas. I can’t myself figure out what exactly a universe devoid of nihilism would be. But I’m convinced it’s a terrible mistake to deny not only the possibility but the reality and legitimacy and efficacious nature of enchantment. We create it just as surely as we create language and expression and literature and beauty. And if we can do it, surely the Gods can. Mormonism gives me a very potent framework within which to explore this enchantment and to believe deeply in the possibility of fashioning out of the nihilistic materials of the universe a glorious Zion. Not only does it posit but likewise allows me to experience a partnership with the Gods in bringing this about.

As Mormonism makes clear, however, the only heaven we shall ever have is the one that we build for ourselves. Zion, like all enchantments, is a community affair. Because we are. I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last number of years learning how to not only reinforce but also genuinely, honestly, with integrity live out my enchantment. Unquestionably the most difficult thing – though it is also undoubtedly an exalting thing, at least as I understand that word – is the fact that I (as an individual) simply can’t access all of the foundation, all of the pillars, and the various supports of this enchantment. They arise out of the community, and the whole structure, at least to some degree, is a result of the strength and proximity of that community. Our communal midden heap not only keeps out the cold but creates the opportunity for our mutual flourishing in the midst of a ravaging climate.

And this is the best I’ve been able to do in understanding why your departure is so difficult for me. It’s not simply that you’re no longer here, part of my cherished religious community, no longer able to experience and exult in the joy of the Restoration or its various opportunities with me. It’s that I know that Zion depends – quite literally – on the work and life of us all. We live in the decaying remains of what has gone before, and the stench of it can drive us to distraction. It drives some away entirely. Abandoning their homes, however, is something that weakens us all. It is genuinely loss, not just to ourselves, but to Zion itself. Perhaps we can eventually be washed clean, but there is no avoiding the blood and sins of our generation. There is no avoiding the fragility of our vision.

And there is nothing that accentuates the mortality of our enchantments like the departure of loved ones and watching how quickly that enchantment fades away from their eyes.

Reading your letter reminds me yet again how very quickly and completely our vision can change. Once we decide to no longer dwell within the truths revealed to us, the whole of reality very quickly takes on a new sheen. It’s difficult even to remember how things looked. Our memory is inevitably colonized along with our narrative.

Like you, I have much else I would like to say. But also like you, I must attend to the mundane and the profound, and I can’t stand in the weather conversing indefinitely – even if I wish I could. I hope that whatever communication we do manage will be only that which uplifts and edifies and helps us both on our journeys. And please know that I do absolutely, wholeheartedly, without reservation wish you success and joy and profound learning and growth as you creatively explore and work out whatever path you take.

After our separate missions, you and I have no chance of an Ammonitish reunion on the road to Zarahemla. Perhaps, however, after the darkness and destruction, we’ll nevertheless find ourselves refugees together in Bountiful.

James

11 Responses to Elegy

  1. Robert C. on February 8, 2013 at 6:42 am

    This is very nicely said–thank you.

  2. Rachel Whipple on February 8, 2013 at 8:33 am

    Lovely. Thank you.

  3. Adam Greenwood on February 8, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Enchanting essay.

  4. Ben on February 8, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Very poignant and beautifully written. Thanks.

  5. Dave on February 8, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Nice reflections, James. While some who disaffiliate from Mormonism do so with little sense of loss, many regret the attenuated or fully severed ties to their LDS community. But it’s not just those who exit who move themselves outside the LDS community, it is also often the LDS community and/or the leadership that pushes them out. In many ways we still behave like a besieged sect rather than a confident church. There would be fewer people to go “rescue” if we stopped turning doubters into exiles.

  6. Adam G. on February 8, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Dave,
    this is a nice essay, try not to turn it into a personal polemic.

  7. Dave on February 8, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Polemic — a style you’re quite familiar with, Adam.

  8. jennifer reuben on February 9, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    as a newer reader I have found some outstanding ,thoughtful, and well written articles here including this one. Many of the comments have made me thing more deeply and profoundly about the subject. I do not gain anything from personal negative comments directed towards one person however.

  9. Dave on February 10, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Glad you enjoy the site, Jennifer. Both Adam and I have been contributors at T&S more or less since it was established ten years ago. He wasn’t really making a negative or personal comment, he was just saying hello, as was I.

  10. jennifer reuben on February 10, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    James- thank you for including pictures of both the cute children(yours?) snd the site. It sounded so interesting that I ordered the book. Dave and Adam sorry, I may have misunderstood the nature of your comments and your relationship. I may have also misunderstood the nature of this site. Love the good will and civility while addressing subjects timely to LDS members of faith I find in most of the posts.

  11. James Olsen on February 10, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Jennifer- yes. And thank you for the kind words.