Carol Lynn Pearson’s Finding Mother God: Poems to Heal the World
I’ve been spending time thinking about memory and thought, thanks to one of my closest friends, who finally completed her first book, a memoir. It made me consider, in new ways, how I view memories and thoughts, how we choose to recall the past and how our memories serve various purposes in our lives. But we don’t remember things in the past. That is impossible.
We remember things from the past, in the present and from our present experience.
Which brings me back to thought and memory, memories of me, as a kid reading. I want to tell you that I was the now-clichéd “misfit” with a mind of gold, or is that a sexual libertarian long before my time with a touch of “mad” in my heart, or was that a solitary outcast by choice because of my plucky gumption?
Lord save me from the anti-clichés.
No, the truth is, I wanted friends, desperately. And according to my memory, not social media, I had very few to no real friends, likely because I was obnoxious, incorrigible—and again, this word has been used as a “backhanded criticism,” the opposite of the backhanded compliment, aka a “humble brag,” and I am not bragging, humbly or otherwise, here.
I was weird, the neighborhood kids didn’t like me, the kids in my neighborhood Mormon ward weren’t often allowed to play with me, and the ones who did likely lived to regret it. Their parents didn’t like me, and a kid feels that, remembers that. I know, because I remember the parents who did, and thank you Ann Robertson, among others, for being one of those.
I dreaded the end of the school year. I didn’t get invited to the last-day-of-school parties with the kids who had swimming pools. I often wandered the neighborhood, knocking on doors, asking older siblings, stern-yet-somewhat sympathetic faces of mothers if “so-and-so could play today,” and sometimes they could. Most times, they could not.
And so I read books.
My mom had inadvertently taught me to read, not by reading TO me, although I’m sure she and all my older siblings did. I had records of stories I’d listen to and follow along and a brrrrinnnnnng sound telling me when to turn the page.
To me, memories are like a pure white wedding dress taken out of it’s protective hanging cover. Hold the train as best you can, but to get from here to there, the dress will drag through the dirt, debris, and other detritus, leaving marks on the underside or even the hem.
This doesn’t remove the primordial principle of “white” as metaphor: for innocence and the divine, though in today’s world, such convention is challenged as patriarchal, oppressive, and a lot of other socially-charged words. But for today, I’m staying the course as a writer, intent on presenting the white as a symbol, both personally and historically, through an exceedingly small sliver of the larger scope.
There’s another tradition of white, and that is its scarcity. If we include the dearth and paucity of “pure white” going back, not centuries, but millennia, how interesting that the color, or wearing it, has been modified in our language to represent both oppression and sexual virtue.
But wearing white is still observed without much (or “too much”) thought by brides and grooms on their wedding days. White, despite a baby growing in the belly, despite living together for years, despite women marrying women, men marrying men, and all the rich and diverse permutations of love the modern world now accepts as part of the human experience.
Historically, before humans had the ability to make white cloth, white was only found in pure, driven snow. Why is ‘snow’ not oppression and patriarchy?
Going back even farther, before humans encountered snow as they hadn’t traveled north from warmer climates, they certainly saw the early morning light and at first, it wasn’t white. Much like early humans, the colors of the early light were dark, multi-hued, then growing light and lighter still, until the sun emerged and became pure light.
The only way to describe it was white and the white-hot of the noonday sun was likely when early humans sought shelter, shade, and rest, because the white-hot sun surely parched them, exhausted them, and burned their skin.
But we know early humans worshipped the sun because it provided safety in sight and illumination, and so the hot, noon sun was neither evil nor good. It simply was.
So, if we think back while incorporating all the things we’ve picked up along the way, why is white light not “patriarchal, oppressive”? And it must be said that there is no such thing as pure-white skin. No skin contains zero pigmentation.
That said, today, I’m writing from a place where we take things of this nature, not at literal, face value, but as they are meant to be taken: representations of the non-verbal “everythings” that have existed throughout recorded time.
Now, if that seems to be a rather sketchy place to play, let me reassure you (dis-assure you?) that taking things literally will also lead you astray. Yes, you’ve been hoodwinked, I’m afraid, taught that the literal, fact-based world is where you’ll find certainty.
And we believe this because look what happened to Galileo. He “mocked the mysteries.” But what he really did was challenge the great ruling body of the world at that time: the theocracy’s power.
So as humans are wont to do, we went the other way, waaay the other way. Soon, what we could observe, see, touch, smell, hear, with our senses, calculate, and measure—only those mattered, all else was a bunch of mystical nonsense.
The problem with human beings, the problem that has always been our Achilles’ heels is this: when we want to know something, we find a way to answer our own questions by any means necessary, accurate or inaccurate. Accuracy doesn’t matter. What matters is the feelings of safety brought on by certainty.
Just ask anyone to recount a vivid dream they had. They will tell you a narrative story that makes sense to you, to them, and conclude that the dream was, in fact, telling them that they need a brand-new VW Rabbit convertible. (My dad almost fell for it, so be quiet.)
I had a tiny chalkboard with magnetic letters—you all know the one. And I knew how each letter sounded early on. Each had their own “voice.”
So, here I should explain here that I have synesthesia. I haven’t ever really looked it up or read about it because once someone explains it to you, you know. And I have it across all my senses—all of them. I haven’t been particularly “open” about it as an adult because it’s how I’ve always been and how I process the world, so it wasn’t ever odd to me.
Even as a kid, I knew my brain worked in weird ways that sometimes led to creativity, but there’s no socially “lateral” term for “abnormal brain function” because all words are value judgements, even “neural-atypical,” which everyone seems to now think they are, the modern “gifted” perhaps. In either case, I believe we’re all gifted, one way or another and so I loathe labels. They are (at best) a lame attempt to contain the uncontainable.
Plus, one doesn’t know how odd one is until you tell a neurologist what your tinnitus looks like that day, not how it sounds. (It looked like this that day):
I accepted how my brain worked, but had to hone how it worked so I could exist somewhat functionally in a world where other people didn’t “see” stories when they heard color and music, and see? I’m not going to correct that.
Mom explained that when certain letters married, they had children, and weirdly, letters were gendered in my mother’s lessons, and so they were to me, which, looking back is fascinating because this was the 1970s in Mormon-central, USA: a Utah suburb.
It makes me wonder if Mom didn’t have a bit of synesthesia, too.
Mom: “So when Mr. T and Mr. H marry, they have two children, and they are called th and th.”
Yes, boy letters were allowed to marry in my mother’s lessons, too. And then, the complex family unit of the alphabet: “So, when Mrs. P and Mr. H marry, their child sounds just like Mr. F! Isn’t that wonderful?” she’d say, and it was. And I was full of wonder.
Keep in mind, as the youngest of 6, three of my older siblings were married before I even started Kindergarten. Their “required reading” encapsulated most of the Western Canon from high school and college and they were all in well-used condition, lining our family room bookshelf. I don’t recall any children’s books entirely for me other than the “read-alongs.” I remember reading books I absolutely know Mom wouldn’t have wanted me reading.
There were a few romances—Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Catherine the Great, etc., and since I was raised Mormon, we also had more than a few church books. I passed on those because those books weren’t where I went to escape the loneliness of my solitary childhood.
The sibling closest in age to me was 6 years older, a boy, and at ages 4-years-old and 10, there’s a huge difference. Had there been stories in the church books without the same didactic parables I already knew from church, I might have paid more attention to them.
But there was one book Mom had, and that book had it all—love, romance, family, touches of sadness and shadow with equal parts light. Sometimes playful, others reverent, many wistful, and oftentimes funny. There were also plenty of “stories” about church and Heavenly Father which I loved because I wanted to be a good girl, a “Sunbeam” and have the approval of my family, friends, community, like any kid does.
The author of that book also wrote in a way that had the music already in it—a prosody of literary voice—and this is me, as an adult, looking back, and realizing her words and ideas were as simple or complex as the reader wanted or needed them to be.
But… this book was not like any of the the others.
The “stories” were short, contained, and not at all preachy, despite them clearly being about our beliefs and spiritual life. The stories spoke in color, and when she used one word, I knew—knew—it was supposed to mean more than the actual word because I saw it. And so, I had found a secret language, one I already knew how to speak, and that language, and book, was called “poetry.”
There were illustrations that to my young, pre-K eyes, were slightly titillating. While modest by today’s standards—okay they were modest by the standards of those days, too—the drawings were of the human body, some without clothing.
As a child, anything to do with nudity, the human form, and so forth felt slightly transgressive, anyway. But this one captivated me. The artwork was of a woman facing a man without a shirt. She was touching his elbow and to my young mind, that could one day be my future “eternal mate,” and yes, at that young age, it’s what I knew I was expected, and wanted, to do when I grew up. Like Mom. Like my beautiful big sister. In the early-to-mid-70s, what else was there to look forward to as a young Mormon girl?
The poem belonging to that illustration, and that had me at our Webster’s Dictionary, was entitled “The Embryo.”
I read it and I was transformed.
The poet, the storyteller—Carol Lynn Pearson.
And of all the great writers, from Steinbeck to Hemingway to Shakespeare to Salinger sitting on our shelves, she sat among them. I realized that I, too, could be on someone’s shelf because there she was, a woman—a Mormon woman, like I would be, like Mom was.
Without the book in front of me (though I’ve re-read my mother’s copy since), I remember the motifs in the book from memory: nests, nature, eggs, birds, Heaven, love, growing up, making babies, parenthood, home, mothers and fathers and children—and speckled eggs!—something I thought only came in Easter baskets with chocolate under the hard coating.
You should have heard my mind light up at the thought of speckled eggs. Mostly, though, Carol Lynn wrote of things that made sense to the mind of a child—a child who seemed to make no sense to the people surrounding her.
I knew I wanted to take the pictures her words made in my mind, the songs, the colors, and do that very thing when I grew up. How else would I survive in the world of these men, my dad and four older brothers who, were all slated for the solid work of numbers, medicine, science, and things anchored in certainty.
Then there was my sister, who embodied everything I felt I was not, nor would ever be: beautiful, feminine, an accomplished “everything hearth and home” and a mother before she even was (to me, her little sister), who’d married, we all thought, a solid LDS guy with feet, firmly planted in the world of numbers and the concrete.
And so, I was all the wrong “parts” of the female without the “right” parts of the male, despite my love of sports and “tomboy” status. What was I?
Of all my mother’s books, Beginnings, by Carol Lynn Pearson was the most cherished. I have most of the salvaged books since my parents passed, and I made sure to take that one—the one housing my mother’s name, written in pencil in her gentle script on the front flap.
It could have been last year or longer, but I pulled it down from my shelf and sent to the author, asking if she’d please sign it for me, to me, and I don’t know that she knows this tale in its entirety. It’s beyond odd, weird, embarrassing to admit such a thing to someone you both hold in such high regard, but also see as a friend, a soul sister in our writing voyage, although we took vastly different routes.
The memory of my mother is a white dress, dragged through nearly every possible landscape. While some stains are not memorable, others are sweetness beyond heartache. Others ache just short of, or way beyond nostalgia, into near suffering. I miss my mom so much I can hardly stand it some days.
When I was younger, and even a few short years ago when I became ill, I wanted—needed—my mom, but I also found myself yearning for my Mother in Heaven. I even wrote a prayer to her.
As a young LDS woman, all the males in my world told me she wasn’t accessible to me. As a mother, I found that to be an obscene lack of understanding of the all-encompassing mother-love, something I felt for my daughters.
When Carol Lynn’s Mother Wove the Morning one-woman show came to town, I remember many LDS women were forbidden to see it, and I recall that I was also “forbidden” to go see it by my male church leaders.
And so her book, Beginnings, a pure, white, cover made human by the stunning artwork of the late Trevor Southy (whose art can be found throughout the book) and then with colors of a life—deep and soft blue hues, bold red—seems the perfect beginning collection to mark a long and distinguished literary career, one that begins with the words, To help us each begin….
I took these words to heart and beyond.
The other, deeper meaning of the color white is that it’s not meant to remain pristine. Because something else about white is that it always, always takes on everything around it. And though yellowed with age and time, it’s no less beautiful, no less priceless.
So, as I’ve read it already, again and again, the latest poetry collection by Carol Lynn Pearson, Finding Mother God: Poems to Heal the World is the color white eventually becomes—the color of autumnal grass before the snow falls and the poems therein, even richer, of more value, and beyond timely, etched with the nuance and wisdom times offers all writers—all human beings—if we allow it.
A pretty miserable book review, I’ll admit.
I’m sorry, Carol Lynn.
But as you know, you don’t need my words to add value to what you’ve created for me and others who need you and your words. And so many of us do, desperately, especially now.
Below, a poem from her book that, I’ll admit, is one of my all-time favorites from the new collection for obvious, self-serving reasons, “My Words”:
Writing, literature, and poetry stand on their own. They stand the test of time. They stand in their own power, authority, wisdom, beauty, and rightness—not righteousness—a word used time and again to justify oppression and spiritual/social/cultural rigidity, giving those who would misuse it, permission to behave opposite the spirit and intention of the word.
Sadly, I’ve watched as many of our higher learning institutions seem to be “anxiously engaged” in the “cause” of dismantling literary works of the past and dismembering (misremembering?) those who wrote them, self-appointed arbiters of taste who decide whose voices deserve to be read and heard.
In that light, I’d like to suggest today that literature and its societal force have the capacity to serve as something greater than exclusive pub credits or pretension, something deeper and more profound than the whims of cultural shifts, and social pandering masquerading as transgressive boundary-pushing, or an “edgy” writer being a cult of personality rather than their work and art reflecting the sacred yet humble mantle of “observer,” “scribe,” and “illuminator.”
Through it all, throughout all, literature maintains themes and motifs that transcribe the largest and most collective of human experiences and the symbols speak to so much more than the small, contained “label” that we ascribe to them called words.
Symbols like nature, birds, eggs, nests, God, Goddess, mothers, fathers, families, parents, partners, spirit, mind, body, soul, heaven, earth, male and female—and I don’t mean the danglies or lack between the legs—but rather the balance of archetypal and universal human being-ness.
And yes, when my small self imagined them, speckled eggs that gave me the first inkling that I belonged here, there was a place for me surely, because if they were in a book, they were as right, as holy, as full of potential as eggs without speckles.
Author and literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that literature stands:
”…against the autocracy of the quotidian and literal, initiating the arduous task of becoming who we are by supplying a ferocious and farseeing interiority.
“The reading of literature, no less than the writing of it, is an act of private revolt against asphyxiating conventions, that stolid conformity society seems to require in order to function.”Paladin of Literary Agon: A Conversation with Harold Bloom, Los Angeles Review of Books
Oh, I know… the irony isn’t lost on me. I’m quoting a man who, for many, embodied the very things I claim to reject, a “white male literary critic from academia.” One with allegations of sexual impropriety, no less.
And so, this is the part where I get to say that I’m free of that tyranny. Free of the constrained nonsense others feel bound to.
I’m free thanks to my mom, who sheltered this speckled egg under her wings, protecting me while she taught me that letters were living things with voices. And looking back with my memory, deeply striated with the experiences and thoughts of adulthood, I can say now that she also taught me, not just how letters sound, but how they sound when they make love, creating other sounds, more possibilities for their coupling and marriage.
Because of the way Mom taught me, and so many other variables that (at the time) felt restrictive and disastrous (lack of friends), thanks to my thoughts and how they impact memory, I now look back and see that when books became my best friends, I learned my life had infinite potential though words.
The day I looked up the word, embryo, was a day that sings in my memory. I remember because of how the world opened for me: embryo, egg, birds, mothers, babies in bellies…
I heard the color, music, stories, I saw the sounds, and imaginings of endless stories, my own mingled with others.
A friend I call “brother,” someone who isn’t well-read, necessarily, isn’t considered a “literary thinker,” but who loves stories and poetry once asked me if good poetry was scripture. My response:
“That depends on what you think ‘scripture’ is. If you think ‘scripture’ is ‘truth,’ then no, good poetry is not scripture. But if you read a poem and it evokes emotion in you? That—those feelings. Those are scripture. Your scripture, your truth.”
Harold Bloom’s words aren’t “true” because he’s a “white man” with an education, or a literary critic or—an ironic yet favorite stamp-of-approval from the meritocracy—dead.
What makes his words true… are his words.
Again, I’m sorry I can’t review Carol Lynn’s book. For me, poetry isn’t something to be judged or stuck to a piece of foamboard with pins and dissected to find how it works and what it must have been, as embryo, in the poet’s mind.
What I know is this: then and now, Carol Lynn’s poetry gave me a way out of my isolation, gave me endless possible ways to feel okay about who I was and what I could become. And eventually, she and my mom both, in different ways, gave me what I needed to fashion wings of my own.
My memories are void of “pure white.” But there are places that are pure light, and then, there are the colors of the rainbow, and then places, once white, now yellowed with age, golden, darker, lighter—and of course, wonderfully speckled.
At least, that’s how I remember it.
Je te vois and as always
Carol Lynn sent me one of her poems before the book was complete. The poem, “Under Your Wings,” is about mothers—but specifically, Mother in Heaven. I replied, “This poem came into my inbox with a song on its tail.”
Her response, like any good, archetypal mother-figure and (unsuspecting) writing mentor, was simple: “Then you must write it.”
So, I did.
In short and finally, I cannot recommend this collection enough.
Whatever your beliefs, background, whatever your life holds in front of you, I believe, yes, with certainty, these poems have the potential to heal the world. I believe this because, as I spent the better part of a year (through illness and learning to fly with different wings) creating this song-hymn-prayer out of her poem, it played more-than a significant part in healing mine.
To Carol Lynn: Thank you for letting me create from your words. As I told you, and as I write here, the song’s sole purpose is to amplify all the good you’ve brought into my life.