(Re)Creating Community- Phoenix Mormon Stories Conference, February 2012, “Time Machines, Cemeteries, and the Desert”

On February 18, 2012 I spoke at the Phoenix Mormon Stories Conference where the theme was “(Re)Creating Community.” I don’t know the reason, but the audio to the conference never got posted on the Mormon Stories site. A friend had the audio file so I’ve transcribed the talk that I gave there which I titled, “Time Machines, Cemeteries and the Desert.” 

I had to do well at this conference and I remember feeling a tremendous amount of pressure. For one, I was speaking at a conference with Margaret Toscano and Jared Anderson, two brilliant minds who I’ve learned a lot from and feared I would sound like an idiot. Second, John Dehlin would be in the audience and he would hear the things I had to say. I didn’t want to underwhelm him with a mediocre talk. And finally, Michael Ferguson, my now husband, was also there. Michael and I had only recently met, and in fact, the Mormon Stories Conference was our first appearance in a public space as a couple. A few weeks prior to the conference, Michael visited me in Phoenix for the first time, the next time I saw him was a few days before the conference. I didn’t want to do a terrible job speaking at this conference because I wanted him to think I was smart and cool. I must have achieved that goal because we are married now. 

I remember feeling like I had done a fantastic job after I spoke. I’ve listened to the audio for the first time since I spoke and I feel the same way now. I’ve transcribed the text and am posting it here.

Hi, I’m J. Seth Anderson, I go by Seth, my middle name. Growing up filling out forms for school or the doctor was hard because you had to fill out your first name and middle initial, but I didn’t do that, so every form was First Name: J Seth Middle: (blank) Last: Anderson. I started using J. Seth as a professional name and I remember thinking, “Well, D. Michael Quinn does it and he’s a total rock star to me, so I’m going to use the first initial!”

Like D. Michael Quinn, I love history, I’m known around town as a Phoenix historian and downtown Phoenix advocate. I trace this love of history back to my days in Primary, where one day I walked into the Primary room and hanging on the side of the room was a sheet, and on the sheet was painted a crazy looking machine with these tubes and pipes and swirly things. The Primary President, Sister Halterman, told us it was a time machine she had built and we were going to bring somebody back from the past and meet this person. They dimmed the lights in the Primary room and she pushed the button and there were these swirly lights from behind the sheet and this noise and Joseph Smith came out. And I remember thinking, “Holy cow! Joseph Smith looks just like Brother Friedman,” because he had piercing blue eyes, and blonde hair, and the white linen shirt with a high collar and a dark jacket and trousers. And it was a marvelous moment. He started talking about the things we had learned about him and the Church in Primary, things like the First Vision, translating the Book of Mormon, about creating a community of Saints and their successes and hardships, about the places they moved to and the things they built. It’s the first time I remember feeling that stirring within me about people who came before me who had shaped the community and the world that I lived in now.

A few months later I was visiting my grandparents in Fountain Green, Utah, which if anyone knows where that is, high five to you, because it is in the middle of no where. It’s where my dad’s side of the family is from. I was with my grandfather and we were driving down the road in the middle of December, the clouds were really layered, and dark and crazy looking, and on the side of the road were these trees with elongated branches and they were hunched over. It looked like a Tim Burton movie. My grandfather slowed down and pulled off the side of the road, and out side the windows of the car I saw these headstones start popping up around us like jagged teeth and I though, “Oh my gosh, we are in a cemetery for no reason. Why are we here?” He stopped the car, we got out and trudged through the snow and he pointed to a headstone and said, “This is your great-great grandfather. And he was the first person in our family to join the Church. He left everything he knew and everything he had behind in Sweden and he came to the States and he came here to Fountain Green and he helped build this town. He helped build the chapel, he helped build the houses, he helped build the barn. He was on a committee and when people came to town, he helped welcome them to this community.” Then my grandfather paused, he grabbed the headstone on each side, like you’d grab a man by the shoulders, and he said, “We have to thank him for what he did.” And I was standing in the middle of this snow covered cemetery with my grandfather, and again felt that same feeling I had in Primary, that people before me had made a difference in my life. I felt that thread of time stitch me into a larger tapestry of a community that I was a part of because people who existed before me had created it.

When I think about this moment now, to me it is a most delightfully Mormon moment because my grandfather took me to a cemetery in the middle of no where, in the middle of winter, to give me a family history lesson.

As an adult I go to cemeteries more often to do research and it’s no longer a creepy place, it’s a place of reverence and connection.

MMS speaking

Another place I feel a deep sense of reverence and connection to is the desert. And I count myself lucky that I’m among the few who get to live in the desert. My favorite time of year is summer in Phoenix, the hotter the better, I say. And I know this puts me in a really small minority of people, because for most, the desert can infuse a sense of doom and despair because it is a harsh place to live. There is a subtle beauty in the desert, the vastness, the shapes, the colors, the solemn stillness, the smell of creosote after the rain, it overwhelms and delights the senses and it pulls ourselves out into the world, to look at the world and community around us.

In the desert, the human experience is brought into unity through a universal encounter with the basic demands of life, felt at the most extreme. In the desert you cannot harbor any delusions of complete self-sufficiency because you recognize very quickly that we exist in an interconnected way.

It’s not a surprise to me that the monotheistic religions of the world came to us through people who lived in the desert. Mohammed, for example. You can’t think of Moses without conjuring up images of the desert. And even Christianity has roots in the desert with John the Baptist out preaching, where people left the cities to go out to hear him speak. And the story says that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days where he had what we could call some traumatic experiences but he came back transformed and ready to engage in the community around him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these profound spiritual moments happened in the desert.

In our own backyard, we live in a land just as ancient with just as many stories, in a place that has sustained life for thousands of years for people who lived here and made life work by having tightly knit communities.

I love that we come from a faith tradition of people who made possible things that were seemingly impossible. When the wagons rolled south from Utah into the desert in the nineteenth century, the Mormons brought with them imagination and vision, and staked their claim in a land that most other people passed through and said, “No way, we will not live here.” But the Mormons did, and they said, “We are going to make this work,” and by working together, they did. They were some of the earliest people in the nineteenth century to shape the destiny of what Arizona became.

By 1918 the Mormons built the first chapel in Phoenix at 7th Street and Monroe downtown. And they did it by engaging the whole community around them. They held community fundraiser dinners, bake sales at the fair, and they raised the money to build this building which when it was completed, was not just a benefit to the LDS religious community in Phoenix, but to the city as a whole. Because after they built it, Phoenix had a nice looking building, with well manicured landscaping and it helped propel Phoenix from a provincial cow town that it was into a more respectable, modern city.

I know a lot of stories about Phoenix and history, and I know it’s totally nerdy, and about a year ago a friend of mine kept telling me to write a book and I said, “I have no idea how to write a book. Other people write books, I don’t know how to do that.” But he came to me and said, “Look I have this opportunity to work on this project about downtown Phoenix do you want to do it with me?” And I was equal parts terrified and excited. Terrified because I didn’t know how or what to do, but excited because I wanted to share my knowledge and passion about the community, with my community.

I’m often frustrated when I hear that Phoenix has no community or that Phoenix doesn’t have history because that’s just not true. So much of where community had been fostered was torn down, and that’s the problem. So he and I worked on this book about downtown Phoenix. I had met him a year prior in my very first historic preservation attempt to save a historic hotel.

There was a hotel downtown at 1st Street and Taylor. It had been built in the 50s, this mini-oasis downtown. It was where Marilyn Monroe stayed when she filmed the movie Bus Stop, and it was where my grandmother stayed the first time she passed through Phoenix, the city she decided to move to in the early 1960s. News broke that the city of Phoenix was going to tear down the hotel to build a parking lot. And it made me so upset because it didn’t need to be town down. It had the potential to be a real community asset and something really great for Phoenix, but the people making the decisions wanted to get rid of it.

I got online and started writing letters and emails and I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew I was fired up and was going to do something to save this building. In the process, I discovered a whole community of people I didn’t even know existed, a community of other historic preservationists, and downtown Phoenix advocates. I threw myself into this work even though I didn’t know what I was doing but I wanted to be a part of it. A few weeks later we managed to schedule a meeting with the mayor, there were five of us, and we went up to the 17th floor of City Hall and sitting around this big, polished table sat ASU people and City of Phoenix people. And the five of us. The five of us, I thought, were going to save this building. We put on our game face and we were going to totally teach them and show them why they were wrong to want to demolish the building. We sat down, the mayor yelled at us, he did this finger-pointing thing. An ASU guy yelled at us and said, “There is nothing you can do. Too bad, this building is coming down.” I left feeling so deflated that the people who are making these decisions for my community were inflicting harm on it, harm as I perceived it to be, and a few days later, they began demolition. And now that site is a parking lot.

In my sorrow that night, I walked over to a place called After Hours Gallery to an opening of an art exhibit called 26 Blocks. The artist had paired 26 local photographers and 26 local writers and given each pair a particular block downtown with an assignment to write and photograph the block. I looked around and I got to this one photo of a half developed block the text that paired with it was written from the perspective of the block. It said, “I used to have a hotel on me and there was activity and movement and a whole community of people coming and going. Then one day, someone tore down the hotel and for 30 years I was a parking lot. But today, part of me has been redeveloped, and there are people here again, and activity, and a whole new community. Part of me is still a parking lot, but I hope someday that will be redeveloped too.”

I read that text, I was standing there by myself, I felt my lip start to quiver and I burst into tears. Just a total wreck, and I know that I looked like the sad, crazy, lonely guy at the party because it was an art gallery, not the final scene in Harry Potter, where it’s appropriate to be an emotional wreck in front of strangers. I left the gallery that night still very sad, but it had been a cathartic moment, because even though the community lost the building, I had found a whole community of people who were passionate about the same things I was. And even though we came from very different places and different backgrounds and disagreed about a lot of things, we had way more in common than not. We were working towards creating the kind of city and community we wanted to be a part of. So as I left the gallery and walked home, I felt that same magic the day that I met Joseph Smith in Primary, that same magic that I felt that day in the cemetery with my grandfather which was that these people who came before me weren’t super heroes with super powers, they were regular people who saw something that needed to be done and did it. They created something where there wasn’t anything before. That same magic exists today. We stand on the shoulders of great men and women who have done great things and we have the same capacity to do what they did.

The second verse to my favorite hymn says, “There are chances for work all around just now, opportunities right in our way, do not let them pass by saying sometime I’ll try, but go and do something today.”

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