The cost of diaspora

By: J. Stapley - May 30, 2007

My parents left Utah as part of the great migration to the west coast. When I was young, leaving and finding a place in the world was simply part of life. It is what we do. We are progressive and brave. While others stayed in the cradle of Deseret, we expanded and capitalized on gentile opportunity. I was proud of what we did. I still am; but as I have gotten older, I have realized the price we pay for it.

Two days ago, at 10:00 am, I stood with my boys over the graves of my wife’s kindred dead. Her grandparents, and her parent’s grandparents. Much of her family met us there. The bag pipers marched, followed by World War II veterans and commemorators of the Mormon Battalion. I wept. I have never seen the graves of my family’s dead. When my uncles, aunts and cousins gather to lay flowers on their graves I have not been there.

In an interview, Terry Tempest Williams was asked what she meant when she wrote, “Perhaps the most radical act we can commit is to stay home.”

I really believe that to stay home, to learn the names of things, to realize who we live among…The notion that we can extend our sense of community, our idea of community, to include all life forms — plants, animals, rocks, rivers and human beings — then I believe a politics of place emerges where we are deeply accountable to our communities, to our neighborhoods, to our home. Otherwise, who is there to chart the changes? If we are not home, if we are not rooted deeply in place, making that commitment to dig in and stay put…if we don’t know the names of things, if we don’t know pronghorn antelope, if we don’t know blacktail jackrabbit, if we don’t know sage, pinyon, juniper, then I think we are living a life without specificity, and then our lives become abstractions. Then we enter a place of true desolation.

Beyond Williams’ ecology, beyond the flora and fauna, are our own people. I need to know the sego and the alder, the sage and the Douglas-fir. I need to walk on the Kaibab and the Cascades. I also need to know my folk, despite the distance. I still believe that the diaspora is just, but the lack of proximity is a heavy price.


  1. Amen.

    Comment by William Morris — 5/30/2007 @ 4:54 pm

  2. We were part of that Diaspora. We left our parents and family in Utah simply because there was no work offered for a scientist in my husband’s field. So we left. We took ourselves and the children which were yet to come to Southern California. It was hard. Each time I read a letter about some family gathering, I felt the distance that parted us. So as we adapted to a different home we considered the new; the sagebrush of Utah became poinsettia in our back yard. Next we moved up the coast and adapted again and the poinsettia of California became rhododendron. We tried to make sure a connection was kept with our parents and family. We made the long journey once a year or as often as we could afford. Nevertheless we missed most of those gatherings that are precious. Folks tried to gather when we came, but it was difficult with busy schedules. So like many of families today, we dug in roots where we were. We tried to make all we did within our not extended family memorable. There is a Diaspora each time someone leaves home. When we moved to the Midwest, we left part of our family behind. I consider us to be close yet we are widely scattered. The challenge is to remember each other, to cherish each other, to pull out of busy-ness to let each other know there is a thought or care or memory. Perhaps then the price of the lack of proximity is not so great.

    Comment by J NS — 5/30/2007 @ 6:54 pm

  3. Very sweet J Stapley. You explain why I can never leave Idaho.

    Out at sea for seven years
    I got your letter in Tangier
    Thought that I’d been on a boat
    Til that single word you wrote
    That single word it landlocked me
    Turned the masts to cedar trees
    And the winds to gravel roads
    Idaho, oh Idaho
    (Josh Ritter)

    Comment by C Jones — 5/30/2007 @ 8:50 pm

  4. “I need to walk on the Kaibab and the Cascades.” This pinpoints something I have been trying to articulate all my adult life. Thank you.
    My parents left southern Utah and Idaho, met in Boston, and then moved to Seattle, where I was raised. I, in turn, have lived in Utah since I left home. And now, with our degrees almost completed, we are trying to move back to Seattle, something I’ve wanted to do since I left. But I will miss the feeling of homecoming I experience every time I visit my extended family in Kanab, every time I look out to the mountains. I didn’t realize when I left that the sparse red would hold a part of me I thought reserved only for the lush green.

    Comment by JennyW — 5/30/2007 @ 10:34 pm

  5. J,

    Does your diaspora run through Mesa, Az? My grandmother was a Stapley and she was very connected to Mesa — much more so than to her parents’ previous Utah roots. And rather than feeling romantic about where I grew up, I am very happy to have flown the coop.

    I used to tease her whenever I wold go back to AZ, and I would fly in to Sky Harbor and the only color I saw sky were the little pale-blue swimming-pool dots in peoples’ backyards. I would say, “Mimi, this place is so brown and dry — what were your ancestors thinking?” She would smile just a bit and say “are you trying to start a fight?” She felt an affinity for that place that I just don’t feel. I suppose that maybe, someday, that could change.

    Comment by Glenn — 5/30/2007 @ 11:06 pm

  6. Thanks all. Glenn, Claudia Bushman talks about 6 (I think) distinct waves of post Utah emigration. Much of AZ was colonized with the Great Basin, though many of the refuges from the colonies after 1912 settled in the area. The AZ Stapleys are cousins to the UT Stapleys from which I hail.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 5/31/2007 @ 12:22 am

  7. J.,
    Interesting post. I’m a third-generation non-Utahn on one side, probably more than that on the other (both my parents were born and grew up in CA, and my maternal grandparents also grew up in California). My wife is the daughter of a midwestern convert, and we’re now on the East Coast. Even though I have no yearning toward Utah, I miss my people and my place in Southern California, so I can empathize, at least to some extent. I realize that San Diego is not predominantly Mormon (although our roots go back far there), but that’s where I first came to know the church (and the beach). That said, I find remarkable value in having left. Of course, that said, I want to go back.

    Comment by Sam B. — 5/31/2007 @ 6:32 am

  8. Jonathan, could you elaborate what you mean by “the diaspora is just”?

    I grew up in southern Nevada surrounded by my mother’s large family. My father had only one brother, one sister, and one nephew and niece. They were in northern California, and little thought or effort went to maintaining and building relations with that side of the family. Seven years ago I explored a small cemetary in Trinity County (population 13,000) in the town where my paternal grandfather was born. To my surprise, I found the grave of my great-grandmother in a family plot with her parents and several others. That cemetary with three generations of my family, that isn’t fully mine, haunts me now.

    Comment by John Mansfield — 5/31/2007 @ 8:34 am

  9. JennyW, the red dirt of Kanab is as hard to wash from your soul as it is your socks!

    Comment by John Schmutz — 5/31/2007 @ 10:04 am

  10. John M., as I mentioned in the first paragraph of the post, I grew up thinking that living in the proverbial wilderness was laudable. I still think so, though I also think that staying put is laudable.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 5/31/2007 @ 10:29 am

  11. I have a similar realization everytime I contemplate where I want to / should be buried. I have one set of grandparents dead in Spring City, Utah, surrounded by relations. The other set rests San Luis Obispo County – which was their home and where I was born. But neither of those places is like home to me, exactly. I can see possibly landing in one of these towns near Mt Ranier – presuming the towns themselves are not prematurely buried under volcanic mud. There is no permamnenet attachment, yet, though. And, even in the unlikely case that we do end up here for the duration, what chance is there that my children will feel it to be home?

    We are strangers and pilgrims anyway.

    Something is lost, no doubt about it.



    Comment by Thomas Parkin — 5/31/2007 @ 3:48 pm

  12. I think this is a wider phenomenon than just the diaspora of our people, though we have a pressing reason to justify it in the need to take the gospel beyond the valleys of Utah. I never had a connection to Utah until I married my wife, and I’ve taken her away, though to a town that must be 90% LDS. Work brought me here, and I think it drives most people to leave where they are. The problem in this is two-fold. First, it breaks down family ties so that the elderly aren’t cared for as they should be. My mother and father are nowhere near their children, and I worry about them, though the small town in Missouri whre they have moved in their retirement offers no place for an English professor. The second problem is related. Many eople move for work to places they couldn’t possibly retire. I’ve watched many move from areas with high property vlaues to those with lower property values in order to live on fixed incomes. Yes we could talk about better financial planning, but for those who live in LA or New York or, like my wife and I, on Oahu, the chance of being financially positioned to retire in the place where one is able to live while drawing a salary isn’t always so good. So one moves back to the land of one’s people to find it in other hands or moves somewhere entirely new. In any case, there is little sense that the elderly contribute to a community with their wisdom. Instead those who have lived full lives and have much to offer leave the communities they have served and in which they have gained a position of some stature to begin a new life where they may be seen chiefly as a burden. Perhaps I have simply seen areas that are unique in this way, but it happened to my parents in Phoenix and it is happening to many of my freinds as they retire. One day it may well happen to me. As community bonds grow weaker, the weakest among us are forgotten, as we have so few ties to them.

    Comment by Steve H — 5/31/2007 @ 6:00 pm

  13. J., what a lovely post. My husband and I have real feelings about our scattering or leaving “the homeland” of No. California. We are both 3rd generation Californians and for the past 18 years we’ve been international nomads, living abroad and coming home each summer for a visit. We still consider CA our home and keep a place there so formalize our “roots,” but now we have kids who have never lived in America, let alone CA. They call CA “home”, but don’t have any friends there. We miss out on strong familial bonding experiences such as holidays with extended family, 2 weddings we’ve missed out on just this year, and the very recent funeral of my grandfather. It’s a difficult decision to stay out, and we’ve considered moving home again, just so our kids could know what Halloween is really like, and Easter dinners, and a primary with more than 10 kids, and what Yosemite looks like in the spring, and having a core group of friends that aren’t going to be moving to Beijing or Germany just when you get to know them.

    We feel there is value and opportunity in our international lifestyle, but you cannot be more right when you say the lack of proximity has a heavy price.

    Comment by meems — 5/31/2007 @ 7:46 pm

  14. Thomas, Spring City is a cool place. The Utah NPR station had a three day series on it last week while we were there.

    Steve, that really is an important perspective. Thank you.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 5/31/2007 @ 9:01 pm

  15. Jonathan,

    You and I are a study in similarities and contrasts, and I feel our lives represent something about Mormondom that may never be resolved.

    We are both young, white, privileged, and educated. We have young families and similar aspirations. We both live far away from our ancestors’ roots.

    We are both Mormon.

    And yet your ancestral roots — for which you yearn — are Mormon roots. My ancestral roots — for which I yearn — are not Mormon.

    I think there is a very real sense in which you are Mormon in a way I can never be. It is also true that whilst Mormons in my country re-enact and honor your ancestors, you will never have a reason to honor mine. I do not regret nor bemoan any of this, but it is an interesting facet of our religion nonetheless.

    Comment by Ronan — 6/1/2007 @ 11:33 am

  16. P.S. And it is something that will one day have to be overcome if Mormonism is to flourish. There is not much to anchor gentile Mormons in place until they reach the third or fourth generation.

    Comment by Ronan — 6/1/2007 @ 11:44 am

  17. I agree with that P.S., Ronan.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 6/1/2007 @ 2:01 pm

  18. I am both the victim and perpetrator of diaspora in our family. My grandfather, who died before I was born, moved away from his ancestral home in Plain City, UT, near Ogden, and raised his family in southern Idaho. My dad moved the family back to Ogden when he got married, and we grew up literally 5 miles from family that I never met.

    14 years ago, I moved my family from Utah to the Redmond/Bellevue area of Washington, uprooting my family from cousins and friends on both sides of the family. I feel that hole both in myself, and in my kids lives, every day. I don’t know that I would change it, even though the move has brought both good and bad consequences. But I do feel somewhat rootless. My parents are buried in Utah, my brothers and most of their families are there.

    However, I did find something unexpected here in the Puget Sound. I’ve since connected with a couple of distant cousins, father and son, of the Folkman clan from Plain City, who were also scattered here. We’ve compared some notes on genealogy, and found some connectedness we had not anticipated. Where my wife and I end up depends on where our kids end up. One married son is off to Flagstaff AZ in a couple of months, the others are still here, but nothing is certain.

    Comment by Kevinf — 6/1/2007 @ 2:36 pm

  19. I love the Milky Way galaxy, and it will always feel like home to me in a way Andromeda never can. I mean, the elements that made me, the carbon and iron and Nitrogen, everything but the carbon, was generated inside the stars of the Milky Way. Of course I feel inseparable from it…. it’s me!

    But really, so long as I’m in our own ancestral big bang universe, I know that all is right in creation, and I’m home. Though I do look forward to making a big bang myself someday, and tailoring all its physical properties to suit. Maybe that will feel even more homelike than this one, since I made it myself. I don’t know.

    I wonder why I feel this way. Does it mean everywhere is my home, or that I have no home at all? (smiles)

    Comment by Tatiana — 6/2/2007 @ 3:23 pm

  20. …everything but the hydrogen… is what I meant to say

    Comment by Tatiana — 6/2/2007 @ 3:24 pm

  21. I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, since so many found this meaningful, but I think it might be noted that some of us don’t get this at all.

    I love that my husband and I moved to someplace different when we married, someplace that is uniquely ours, not of his people and not of mine. I don’t feel that we paid a price or are missing out on anything.

    We have visited my husband’s cousins who never left Idaho, and their lot is not one I would envy. Their children don’t have any friends who are non-members; they don’t know any converts.

    I appreciate those who came before us, but I think that they sacrificed so that we could go out and spread our wings into the wider world. I wonder if they came back today, they might look at those who stayed as having buried the one talent?

    Comment by Naismith — 6/3/2007 @ 8:19 am

  22. Naismith,

    I was touched by the Terry Tempest-Williams quote, as I have read several of her works, and it reawakened in me some of those memories of home, which in this case happens to be Utah. Whenever I go back, which I am scheduled to do this weekend, the huge sky and the seemingly endless horizons is such a contrast to the trees that seem to be everywhere in the Northwest.

    There is something in me that appreciates having to nurture and water the old dwarf peach tree in my Kaysville yard for years to get it growing, and the struggle to get things to grow. Here in the damp Puget Sound, it’s a constant battle against everything that grows where you don’t want it to, and not enough sun for tomatoes. I realize that this sense of place is not something that everyone feels, but my wife and I have a tendency to put down roots. We lived 14 years in Kaysville, and now are 14 years in Redmond, WA. It’s obviously a need in our lives, but not so much for others.

    New opportunities have come to me here that may not have been possible had we stayed in Utah, and likewise, there are sacrifices I’ve made by leaving the place of my youth. Great for you that you have made a new place. It’s harder for us.

    Comment by Kevinf — 6/4/2007 @ 12:01 pm

  23. Growing up, my parents encouraged us to spread our wings and take whatever opportunity came to us. I’ve never really felt I had to live one place or another. As I have had children and as my parents are now deceased, I realized that “lack of proximity” is truly “a heavy price.” How I wish we lived around the corner from my family and my husband’s family. I miss seeing my nieces and nephews and their concerts, plays and sharing in their laughter. For me, it is everyday activities that I desire. Fortunately, we have lived near grandparents for the past 11 years. Our children will remember picking strawberries in their yard, eating fresh peaches from their orchard,searching for snacks in grandpa’s storeroom and reading with grandma. This can never be replaced. They will be moving soon, 8 hours away and will be missed terribly.

    When my father died at age 57, we chose to bury him not in Boise, Idaho, where I grew up, but 2 1/2 hours away in Burley, Idaho, in the same cemetery where his parents and uncles and grandparents are buried. What mattered to us was that no matter where we lived, someone, be it our cousins or our uncle or whomever, would always visit his grave when they visited the others. My mother died last year, and when my sister drove up to Burley from Salt Lake City this past Memorial Day to visit their graves, she found flowers had already been placed there.
    We have tried moving closer to other family,away from the Midwest, but the Spirit has always dictated otherwise. These were hard decisions to make as we yearned to be closer to loved ones, but knew that we would not be led astray. As we have realized that we will probably be staying in the Midwest for the next 20 years or more, we know that it is our responsibility to stay as close as we can to the families who live away from us. We miss them, but can try to be together with them as much as we can. Thank goodness for Verizon Wireless and free calls!

    Comment by CapS — 6/11/2007 @ 8:01 pm

  24. CapS, thanks for that comment.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 6/12/2007 @ 12:29 pm

  25. Most eloquently said CapS. You bring up many of the thoughts that I have. As we grow older and send money to siblings for flowers as Memorial Day approaches I wonder where we who are ex-patriot Utahns will end up. It is a comfort that there are many family members who visit the graves of both close and distant relatives there. They always make sure that the burial spots are “decorated”. It isn’t necessarily logical but for some reason I would like to be among those who are remembered. I grew up gathering peony, iris and lilac to be placed in painted coffee cans on the graves of our family. We would walk around the various sites and I would hear an adult “cluck” that so and so didn’t have any flowers at all and shouldn’t we do something for them. I guess it’s just that needing and wanting not only to be remembered but to be part of family and to be together.

    Comment by J NS — 6/12/2007 @ 7:06 pm

  26. CapS, your comment echos my thoughts. My parents were part of the diaspora that left Utah and I can’s say I am sad. I am glad for the opportunities I gained from growing up where I did and I find myself yearning for the land of my childhood (we have since moved away due to job reasons).

    I must say, however, that every time I go back to Ephraim and walk through the old cemetary and look at the graves of my ancestors, I feel grounded to that place, a place I have never lived in nor would I want to ever want to. I seek after the stories of my ancestors (which are invariably hilarious given the hardheaded scandinavians I am descended from), and in the end I have seriously considered making Ephraim my final resting place.

    Perhaps there is an analogy with my mission experience. I served in Japan and I embraced that culture with a zeal that only missionaries can feel. I love Japan. After my mission I had the opprotunity to travel throughout Asia and immerse myself in the cultures of that fascinating area. I love Asia.

    Later, I got the opportunity to travel to Europe. It was a completely different feeling. No matter how much I studied the languages and cultures of Asia, I could never be a part of them. Simply walking down the cobbled streets of England or feeling the keen bite of the air in Copenhagen made me part of those placed at a core level of my being. I could feel those place’s history and my own fusing fundamentally.

    Perhaps we are never without an anchor as long as we periodically check to make sure that anchor is indeed well grounded.

    Comment by Craig S. — 6/15/2007 @ 9:04 am

  27. I just recently found this blog. I echo your sentiments j. Stapely. I have been back in the region where I was raised for almost five years now, but I have to drive for and hour and a half to get to my hometown. I long for the places of my girlhood. Whenever I feel lonely it is the lake, the shore, and creek of my childhood that calls my name. My husband also raised in the same town, feels the same way I do. Even though so much has changed in our community in the past seven years since we’ve been gone, the it still feels like we go back in time every time I go home. The rocks and the trees, the shady cottaged-lined lanes; green everywhere you look. It isn’t the people that keep me coming back as much as it is the quiet places in nature which there are many. The energy that I feel walking around the lake that seems to literally come from the surrounding trees. I feel stronger when I am walking on those wooded trails, like something is somehow giving me this invisible strength to be, to exist, to thrive, to be happy and whole. I am deeply torn between two loves; this feeling of home and roots, as well as the desire to see and experience and feel the all the world around me. I want to know the differences, the likes of the world we live in. I want my children to know that there is more to this world than what school they go to, and what sport they letter in. We are going to China to live in two years, where I intend to see as much of that part of the world as possible. From there it will be Australia, and from there Europe. We will live in each place for two years. (unless our child who is small now wants to come back to the home he’s known for the past five years.) But I know that I will always have a longing within for a place where I spent my entire life until I was 18. Somehow I wonder if it is not so much the place where one bonds, but the time spent bonding that calls us back to the horizons and vistas of our youth.

    Comment by Seven — 6/15/2007 @ 9:15 pm

  28. Thanks for stopping by, Seven; it looks like you have an adventurous decade ahead of you.

    Craig, good point.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 6/15/2007 @ 10:29 pm

  29. Unusually for people of my generation, I lived in the same house in the same town for almost the entirety of my childhood. We moved to Loveland, Colorado when I was less than two years old, and didn’t move away until I had finished high school and was preparing for a mission.

    When I returned to my hometown a few years ago, I was struck by how little connection I had to the place. I’d spent my whole childhood there, but after finishing high school had moved on to college in Utah and life in other towns. My parents didn’t live there any more. My siblings were gone. The friends I had attended school and church with had nearly all followed a pattern similar to my life, living in other cities and states. There was almost no trace of my life there. There was almost no one to visit.

    Later, when looking at satellite photos of my town on the Web, I zeroed in on the school where I had attended Kindergarten. (That I subsequently attended two other newly built elementary schools without ever changing houses is a good indicator of how much the town was growing in those days.) The school still stood. The memories were so old, and so dim. But a feeling washed over me that I have difficulty describing. It was as if I had found a very small child I hadn’t seen in a long time, and wanted to know and love him again.

    I also saw on the Web that the house of my childhood was gone. I don’t know exactly what the landowners are doing with the lot, but I know they no longer wanted or needed our distinctive house with the large, A-frame living room that had stood by itself along the highway north of town. I already knew that house had long since ceased to be mine. But I could not help feeling quite sad at the loss of that talisman of my memories. I thought about the wall leading into the kitchen where we had marked the height of children with names and dates written beside them–not in regular or orderly intervals but just when the idea struck us. I thought about the white fence that I had helped paint (and mostly watched my older brothers paint). I thought about the staircase where the boys had slid our hands down the rails and leapt the whole way down in one jump. I thought about the bedroom with the built-in dresser that had always been for the older boys, and how moving into it had been a rite of passage for me as they moved on to missions and college. I thought about the hammock I had strung between two Russian olive trees, at the outer corner of our yard shaded by a row of Lombardi poplars, and the books I had read there, and the sense of summer being exactly what it was supposed to be.

    Thinking back, it’s remarkable how much effort I put into figuring out just where the house, the driveway, the orchard had been. I wasnted to be able to point at the map and say, “Right there–that’s where I was a boy.”

    My life now is so different from the one-house upbringing I had. As a military member, I’ve already moved my children to unpredictable locales, and more are on the way. I know there’s a good side to this: In every place we’ve lived, we’ve been made richer by new friends and experiences. Who knows what we would miss by staying in one spot? But I hope my children will have something to connect with–some place they can point to and say, “That’s where I was a child.”

    Comment by ltbugaf — 11/11/2007 @ 9:15 am

  30. My parents were born and grew up in Salt Lake City. My father did his best to remedy that fact, taking a job, and my mother, away from Utah. He seldom visits, and when he does, it is for two days at the most. They raised 5 children as far from Deseret as they could. But in the end all five of us attended a university in Utah. None of us live there, but we feel the pull. Pride in our heritage? The longing for extended family?

    A religion professor of mine, Jospeh Fielding McKonkie, described it as another scattering of Israel. “Get out of Utah” he would say leaving no doubt of his feelings on the matter. I didn’t choose the military like my father did. I lived in Maryland for 15 years after I met my wife. But I still consider myself a part of the scattered.

    The Chinese expression for it is 原籍 yuán jí, ancestral home. You don’t have to have been born there, but you are from there nontheless. Taiwanese passports until the 1990s would list your ancestral home even if you were not born there and could never visit.

    I just moved to Tenessee. When I meet someone new, the question is always the same. Where are you from? What they really want to know is who I am.

    Comment by Bruce — 11/12/2007 @ 4:59 pm

  31. Great post. I have been tracing my family history and in going back only a few generations, I am quickly spread all over the US and world. My grandfather, who was from Germany, even wrote about how WWI and the Franco-Prussian war split our family up so much that we have lost contact with all extended family. On top of that, my own personal experience has been regular moving for all of my adult life. I definitely feel nomadic and often ache to be more rooted to the land. I think my intense interest in my family’s past partially comes from this – to discover some stability that I can latch onto as though it were my own.

    Comment by Jonathan K — 11/22/2007 @ 3:32 am

  32. Everyone gets homesick, but shouldn’t we be more concerned with the living than the dead?

    Comment by OzP — 1/17/2008 @ 10:47 pm

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