The Single Song Hymnal
I never know I’m singing it until I’m singing it. I’m driving across a highway, terrified of missing the exit to a new place. I’m walking home from class alone, keys made into wolverine claws because I can never remember to pick up a can of Mace. I’m hulked on my bed, tangled up in an obsessive-spiral…
If you could hie to Kolob
In the twinkling of an eye
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly…
The lilt is so familiar, humming it feels like a second heartbeat. It’s as ancient as a not quite two hundred year old song can be, I think. I’ve tried out other songs, songs that aren’t tied to histories I can’t touch the way I used to, but it always feels like holding my eyes wide open when I know I could just be blinking instead. “Hie to Kolob” is the piece of Mormonism that I will never leave behind, no matter how unworthy I make myself.
I grew up in a family of Mormons who came to California in the late seventies, when my grandfather decided to partner with a budding insurance firm. Before that, they’d been living in the Utah valley ever since their pioneer ancestors had settled there in the mid-nineteenth century. In a lot of ways, Utah still feels like its own country, separate and exiled from the rest of the United States. You can see the Mormon fingerprints on everything from the liquor laws to the painfully efficient Salt Lake City grid system. Ash trays are almost always spotless, and Sunday creates a statewide Sabbath ghost town. People say things like “bat’ree” and “crick,” and cry “My Lanta!” when their minivans spring leaks. It is at once my home and my hell, never just one or the other.
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?
We sing “Hie To Kolob” most often in the summertime, the season Mormons have come to think of as the backdrop of our history. Every year in July, Mormons flock to Utah to commemorate events they never saw but still remember. How far we walked, how many of us died, how hushed parts of our story remain.
I found Helen’s journals when I was eighteen, rummaging through digital archives of family documents in the lull between high school and college. Her mother, Vilate, was my grandmother, the First Wife of Heber C. Kimball. He was close friends with Joseph Smith, the first president and founder of Mormonism, which must have been why Joseph thought it important that our families be sealed together for Time and All Eternity. So he married Helen, one of many wives he’d take in the years following his decree that Mormons practice polygamy for this very sort of union, creating a spiritual tie to my bloodline that cannot ever be broken. She was fourteen at the time.
July is barren to me now. Everything dried out, empty, covered in a saccharine veil of sweat. It is filled with wives and seer stones and Masonic customs that are funny until they’re yours, until they’re the story you have to tell about why you’re here and not somewhere else. July is “You’ll make a wonderful mother some day” and “Why should it matter if she was so young? He was a prophet of God.” It’s the anniversary of when my people arrived and of when I left them. There are 31 Sundays in July.
Or see the grand beginning,
Where space did not extend?
Or view the last creation,
Where Gods and matter end?
Some bonds can be broken much more easily than Joseph’s sealing to Helen. For a culture so fixated on the eternal nature of human connection, Mormons can burn the frayed edges of a rope with just their tongues. I live across the street from a Mormon church now, and sometimes I wonder if the fence they have up was built just for me. I’ve tried out “I used to be” whenever I speak of them, but it feels as much a lie as the ones they still tell each other every Sunday.
I often think of where I’d be had I stayed, down to the hour and minute. At 9:20 on a Sunday morning: Sacrament would be just now getting to my pew, second from the back, not allowed to chew gum until we’ve had the water. 6:30 on a Wednesday evening: Arriving at the temple, still waiting to be ushered into the baptismal font, to chip off all our nail polish and take off our rings and feel cleaner than we really are.
I know I can’t be happy there. I don’t believe in being there. But I still find myself missing the comfort of that heavy July veil that kept me safe and sacred for so long. I still pull out the songs it sung me — wrap myself up in them when I need to feel eternal, even if only for a verse or two:
Methinks the Spirit whispers,
“No man has found ‘pure space,’
Nor seen the outside curtains,
Where nothing has a place.”