Saturday, October 27, 2012

Going to Graceland

For the past ten months, Christian has been attending college/going to university in Illinois.  Galesburg, Illinois, to be precise, a little town in western Illinois, where train tracks/the railway runs through the center of town, and the train schedule is as familiar to locals as the beating of their own heart.  They know to avoid Seminary Street at 1.50 on a Tuesday afternoon or risk being stuck behind the Carl Sandburg as it arrives from Chicago.  The biggest store in town is a Target—not a SuperTarget, just a Target.  There are two Dairy Queens. The Maytag Factory closed in 2004, and since then, the local economy’s been tough.  The street names read like a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel:  Main, Seminary, Depot, Lincoln, Cherry, Elm, Laurel, Cedar, Mulberry, Pearl, and Water. And yes, there is the ubiquitous water tower, with Galesburg written across its belly that stands sentinel over south Seminary.

Still, for all its pedestrian, bucolic mid-western ordinariness, there’s a jewel there: Knox College—a liberal arts college with buildings so old that when Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas on the issue of slavery, he stood outside Old Main,  in the very same spot we sat last September as Knox welcomed the incoming freshman.  The college was 20 years old at the time Lincoln argued there. It was founded by abolitionists in 1837, and has evolved into a liberal arts college in all that the term implies.  You can spend six months on the 700 acre farm studying cross-pollination of ancient wheat strains and sustainable hydroponics. Or you can stay on campus and study experimental typography, or the history of jazz and its effect on the American stock exchange, or both.  Your professors study at Yale and Brown.  And, even as a freshman, they know your name because none of your classes have more than 20 students in them.

Driving to Galesburg from Utah involves about four turns:  Get onto University Avenue and head north up Provo Canyon; turn left in Heber City onto Highway 40.  Turn right at Park City onto I-80.  Head east, for about two days and 1240 miles, through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa, then cross the Mississippi, into Illinois. At the Quad Cities, hang a right and drop down onto Route 74 which, about 34 miles later, will take you into Galesburg, just off Exit 48.  All told, about 1400 miles through farm fields and small towns, each with a Chevron and a RadioShack, or a Flying J with a built-in Subway.  Even Galesburg felt familiar to Christian when we visited the spring before on his college tour.  It was why he chose it over schools further east.  But, when we left him there, alone with his ergonomic desk chair and mini-fridge from Target, two days after we pulled in, it was as if he had dropped through a worm hole into another galaxy whose language he did not speak and whose customs he did not understand.

His roommate was from Ghana, the son of some Ghanaian royalty:  Jojo.  Across the hall lived Araf, the son of Bangladeshi immigrant parents from Houston who expected him to go to medical school and would make him call home three times a day everyday  to report on his progress. In the room next door, Teja, from Nigeria, who would become Christian’s friend and companion in a Facebook “Picture a Day” for the entire second trimester, was suffering from an allergic reaction from eating peanuts.  Waiting for Christian was Doctor Gilbert, his academic advisor and art history professor, who would take Christian to the Chicago Institute of Art and down to St. Louis to the sculpture garden.   Also, fraternities, beerpong, weekend drinking sprees, transsexual dramatic productions, co-ed dorms, an honors system which allowed him to take his exams on the toilet if he wanted to, and girls who didn’t share the Utah aesthetic which includes make-up, hair straightners, razors and/or bras.  Only two other LDS students in the entire studentbody, neither of which Christian would ever have interacted with of his own free will and choice.

It was everything that my mother’s heart could ever wish for him.

A pilgrimage is a journey for spiritual reasons, but with a material goal—a shrine, a church, a mountain.  It comes from the Latin word for pilgrim, peregrinus, from per ager, meaning “through a territory.” A pilgrim, therefore, is someone who leaves home to travel “through a territory” that is, by definition, “not home,” and so has the wider meaning of alien, foreigner, stranger.
But peregrinus (stranger) is different from hostis (stranger), which is the root for the hospes of hospitality.  Hostis is the stranger from the host’s point of view—the stranger who knocks at your door.  Perigrinus is the stranger from the pilgrim’s point of view-the one who does the knocking. The pilgrim leaves home in order to experience being a stranger—speak a different language, eat different foods, encounter different expectations—to experience otherness as the other.   
In the Middle Ages, being a pilgrim was a big deal.  It was what we all are, the medieval thought—pilgrims on the pilgrimage of life, leaving our true home at birth and traveling through time until we reach the spiritual goal of death; along the way, feeling “other” to what we see around us.  To make a physical pilgrimage was to make that metaphor real.
God’s Hotel, Victoria Sweet.

I’ve made two pilgrimages.  One to Australia for a year in 1984. Because Australia was also a British colony, that year was, for me, sort of like an extended stay with relatives with kangaroos and ANZAC biscuits thrown in. The second pilgrimage was to the United States, in 1985. The first time I walked down a street in Utah, I felt completely disoriented.  It was State Street in downtown Salt Lake City. The width threw me off.  It felt dangerous to cross.  The cars were driving on the wrong side of the road, with the drivers sitting in passenger seats.  I had arrived at State Street on a city bus, where when I tried to pay with a dollar bill, the bus driver shook his head at me and said, “We don’t make change. Haven’t in years.”  Every bus I had ever ridden in South Africa happily made change for me from a tower of coins encased in plastic tubes.  I soon learned one does not ride the bus in 1980s Utah—unless you were poor, an immigrant or without a car.  I fit into all three of those categories. I also learned, after more than a few rather strange looks, that the cashier/checker didn’t really want to know how I was.  I misinterpreted the “How are you?” as a sincere inquiry into my condition.  Being properly raised/brought up, I proceeded to answer the question in detail.  Then, when I was done, which was normally long after the checker/cashier had finished checking me out/ ringing me up, I would hold out my hands filled with silver coins and paper money all the same size and colour, and say, “I don’t know.  You take what I owe you.”  Money, food, words, people, assumptions, not to mention drive-through dry cleaners and banks!  All so different.  Even six years later, poor Julia was bulging out of her newborn clothes at four months because I had no idea where one bought baby clothes in America.  I still don’t really know where to buy buttons, needle and thread, or find a doctor who treats adults who are not pregnant. Other than that, I now know the ropes.  I’m no longer a pilgrim.  No longer completely “other,” until somebody looks at me strangely and says, “Where are you from?”    

I miss that feeling of every street being new, of being slightly off-balance. I wish that feeling on every one of my children.  Here’s why:

In Utah, my family is part of the power structure.  What we believe, what we do, how we live, even what we look like, makes Utah very friendly toward me and my family.  My children think it’s normal to drive to church only 400 yards down the hill (It’s really sort of immoral, but I hate to be late and I shower last).  The boys think it’s normal to not have to pass the sacrament the moment they turn 14 because there are enough 12- and 13-year olds in the congregation to take up the 8 spots.  The twelve-year-olds actually walk around the neighborhood to collect fast offerings (donations for the hungry) every first Sunday of the month from the church members. Every male in the congregation wears a white shirt, and most of those who don’t do so to make a statement.  We live, pray, and work with people who look, sound (except for me), and believe exactly like us.  At every turn, who we are and what we believe is reinforced.  Even the language we use “the church” indicates by the use of the definite article without a defining adjective that the speaker is referring to an entity that is so commonly known as to make any more description unnecessary. Because, wherever you look, there’s another chapel, another church, another 48-stake multiple use building designed to hold area meetings of up to 2,000 in the audience.

When you walk into a Provo ward, you experience the church in its power.  By this I mean, the chapel is filled, and the chairs in the overflow go all the way to the back wall of the gym.  We have 120 children under the age of 12, with three nurseries for the 18 month to 3 year old attendees.  That’s 45 children in nursery. It takes 62 adults to fully staff the Primary—the children’s organization.  Just about every month, there’s a new baby born, and a new baby quilt made by Shirley Tanner from fabric/material donated by the ward members just for that purpose.  Adam goes to Sunday School with 9 other children, all of whom go to his elementary/primary school, and all of whom he has known since he was in the nursery.

We stayed the weekend in Galesburg, to make sure Christian was well settled and also to make sure he knew the way to the local Galesburg Ward.  On Sunday, we pulled into a red brick building that could have been in Pleasant Grove, before the church started building the light brick versions with the stucco entry ways.  On both sides, the building was bordered by corn fields.  When I walked in and saw who my son was going to worship with for the next year, I felt like I had landed at home.   About 60 people in the congregation.  Missionaries blessing and/or serving the sacrament.  One brother dressed like Colonel Saunders, in white suit, bolo tie, and goatee.  Twelve sisters in Relief Society, including the new member wearing pants, and a lesson taught straight from the book, including reading all the paragraphs and asking all the questions.    

Finally, Christian would get to experience his religion as the other.   He would have to choose not to drink and choose to explain why. He would have to choose to get up on Sunday morning, making his way past the bodies of his dorm mates, who may or may not have found their beds the night before.  He would have to choose to drive to the red brick church and take his own pew every Sunday, without me, or his father, and certainly without the pressure of his community who now didn’t care what he did with himself on a Sunday morning.  When his car broke down, for five months in the middle of the winter, he would have to choose to find a ride.  He could tell his parents he went to church every Sunday for nine months, and actually take a sabbatical.  Who would know, except him?  

I know Galesburg, in northwestern Illinois, isn’t the sort of sacred destination one associates with a pilgrimage.   There’s no shrine you can walk to—the last seven miles on your knees.  There’s no altar at which you can light the candle you’ve carried in your backpack across two oceans.  But there was a Steak ‘n Shake, and the two Dairy Queens,  and a midwest horizon that stretched, unfettered by mountains or coastlines, for hundreds of miles, and it was far enough from home with space strange enough so that every choice felt new and like his and made for the first time.  

From “Graceland,” by Paul Simon. 


  1. I am, physically, much closer to Christian than to you now! My house is a 45 minute drive to the Church house (unless we get a train!). My seminary students (I have 8 this year) attend 5 different schools, and (except for the siblings) are the only Mormons in their schools.

    I was raised "in the heart of Zion". I would much rather raise my children here--where nothing about our beliefs is allowed to be taken for granted.

    I also want to be a "Pilgrim" more in my life! Even though my circumstances don't allow much actual travel right, it is surprising how much you get just by opening up and talking to the people around you--especially those that are "different".

    I am glad to hear from you--how I miss your insightful voice! I hope your silence has come from being joyfully busy.

  2. Don't have a definite comment to make, except that I love reading what you write...

  3. Just a tiny note of clarification--since I wrote that comment in the wee small hours! It's a 45 minute drive to our church house--if we don't have to stop to let a freight train go by. We live where there are LOTS of trains, so that is a real factor. (Although, on the upside--if we leave for church on time, there are also a LOT of Amish Buggies on their way to church, which is always exciting!).

  4. It's so good to hear your voice again. I've missed it. Your unique insights on living the Gospel are refreshing. I've spent essentially my entire life in Utah. I would love to become a pilgrim somewhere out there and I hope I will be able to do that in a few years.

  5. Beautiful! I just love your writing, Tessa. Once again, I'll just say that your voice is so clear and unique, and we need more of this kind of writing...what a pleasure it is to read another one of your posts.