Mourning before departure

 

The Days Are Gods
Liz Stephens
206 pages, softcover: $18.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

A wistful, at times mournful spirit permeates the 41 brief essays that make up Liz Stephens' first book, The Days Are Gods. The Oklahoma-born Stephens is a "card-carrying Choctaw tribal member" and recently earned a Ph.D. in creative nonfiction. Her multifaceted memoir is the 34th volume in the acclaimed "American Lives" series.

What is she mourning, exactly? The idea of home, of the West, of belonging somewhere and knowing a deep historical attachment to one place -- the foundations she lacked growing up in the Midwest and later in California, where she worked for a decade in the entertainment industry.

"Originally, I'd moved to Los Angeles for the same reason everyone does. I wanted excitement. I also wanted to officially join the club of the other people who'd been too weird for high school, but not weird enough to drop out." Smart and articulate, Stephens and her boyfriend prosper by serving snacks to crews who make TV commercials. "But now I wanted to be somewhere where what people did was what they did. I was tired of glib. I was tired of ironic. I was tired of feeling like life was going to start just as soon as I got an agent."

In what seems an unlikely development for two tattooed, hip, self-created Angelenos, they move to Wellsville, Utah, so that Liz and Christopher, now her husband, can attend graduate school.

There, Liz truly falls in love: with the sky, mountains, clouds, snow -- even with rodeo. They buy a house, horses, chickens and goats, and before long, Liz is pregnant. In their Mormon neighborhood, despite their urban façades, the couple is invited to picnics and Founders' Day celebrations.

"It is the landscape that draws me and keeps me here, concurrently spare and breathtaking enough to empty my mind of chatter like hours of meditation I could never sit through."

But eventually, Liz, Christopher and their daughter leave Utah, and their reluctant departure -- back to the Midwest, so Liz can complete her doctorate -- will sound a lament familiar to many Westerners who think they have finally found home after a lifetime of wandering, only to lose it. The West has often played the role of a contemporary Garden of Eden; as soon as we found ourselves at home here, it seems that we're forced to depart. And the place we leave will haunt us for the rest of our days.