Welcome to Phyllis Barber's website (and, by the way, the above quote is in response to How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir, cited in 2012 as one of the top five books written about Las Vegas).

 

SECRET MUSINGS OF A MORMON CONTRADICTION

 PHYLLIS BARBER, a World War II baby – 1943 and still kicking

 --OK, I admit it. I’m an “older” woman. Some would even say an “old” woman. But I’m still in the game. Don’t throw me out or disregard me. I like to dress up. Show off. The drift is almost always towards the young—the young writers, the young thinkers, players, doers, etc. But what does it mean when someone has spent forty plus years figuring out how to write? How does an aging woman get young things off their phones (and the rest of you, whoever and wherever you are) and go on a ride with someone who’s been close to where they’ve been? There’s a part of yourself here. Listen up.

 --I like to bake cookies and take them to neighbors. I’ve accompanied lots of musicians, playing the piano for opera singers, violists, cellists, violinists, trumpeters, etc. And yes, I’m a homemaker who bundled her four sons into bed every night, stories and all. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—being a diligent, steady, and reliable mother. But, true confession, I have a backdoor self, one that goes out and does what it wants without cooperation from the front door self. Some people might be tempted to say “the devil made me do it,” but I prefer the idea of a backdoor self. One that has its own ideas.

 --I used to roller skate down Avenue H in Boulder City, Nevada. I could whiz fast and end up on someone’s lawn, clomping toe down on my clamp-on skates to keep them from rolling any further. Then I'd walk out into the desert where I waited for horned toads to scutter out of their holes, holding my breath that a rattler with hooded eyes and slinky scales wouldn’t appear. I used to boss the neighbors around, which I thought I was very good at doing: Queen of the 'Hood. One Phyllis Thomas and I made potato puppets, devised a script, built a jerry-rigged stage, borrowed folding chairs, and put on a show for the neighbors. We made $1.51 profit and gave one cent to Billy Deem for helping us.

 --Elvis’ first gig in Las Vegas must have been devised for a test market. I was there. My neighbor’s dad told us about it and drove Laura and me to the New Frontier Hotel. We sat in the second row with a small audience looking at a small stage and a threesome (a drummer, a bass player, and Elvis with his guitar). Granted, I’d heard Elvis was a teenage heart throb, and I was a teenager. But I didn’t see it. Maybe duck tails weren’t my thing. Not to say he wasn’t good, but I wasn’t overly impressed. I was hard to impress in those days. Ironically, one of my sons is now an Elvis impersonator (though he’s a better guitar player).

 --Jerry Garcia taught banjo lessons in the Menlo Park Music Store circa 1965 (Warlocks’ time, soon to be The Grateful Dead), and I saw a sign that said “Banjo Lessons” hanging on the bulletin board. Phil Weir worked beneath that board, by the way. Banjo sounds interesting, I said to myself. Why not? I signed up. I had no clue who Jerry Garcia was or was about to be. I couldn’t figure him out, actually, but it turned out he was stoned or tripped out every time we had a lesson. Needless to say, he was reluctant, and I didn’t learn much. But I did listen to his riffs. He was beyond good, and I can say he was my teacher.

 --How about a synchronized water ballet without the water? Once I was in a group named The Water Droplettes, and we performed a synchronized ballet on the stage of the Salt Lake Acting Company. Dressed in bathing suits and swimming caps, eight of us kicked our legs and scooted around the stage on our backs, shoulders, and butts. The audience had a great time and so did we, except that one man told me later he was enamored with all of the “crotch shots.” Hmmm. I never thought of our ballet in those terms. Always the high road for me.

 --Speaking of what felt like innocence, I took belly dance lessons at the YWCA with my sister, who suggested we do that together. She dropped out. I kept grinding away. Having always been too thin and flat-chested, it was a revelation to me that my body could move in these ways—hip circles, Egyptian footwork, zils clanking on my fingertips. I loved twirling my veils and allowing my body to open up to different ways of moving, except some of my friends thought I was coming on to their husbands when they asked me to perform in their homes. Maybe that was something my backdoor, sexy self, planned—The Revenge of the Skinny Girl—but I sure don’t remember thinking those thoughts in my conscious mind. I was mainly elated to be moving like that.

 --You never can tell who’s next to you, and once, while cruising down Federal Avenue in Denver with one of my sons, we stopped at a traffic light next to some hot rodders in a low-rider car, hair slicked back, and cigarettes hanging over their bottom lips. “How you doing?” I asked out the car window to their open car window. “Great car.” And, in spite of themselves, the riders smiled and the driver said, “You like my car?” “Absolutely,” I said, while my son dropped his jaw in disbelief.

 --At one time, I needed to experiment with the norms I’d been taught, even if I’d been told that those norms were The Only Way to Live. In the year 2000 I went to Peru to study with a shaman and, if we chose, to partake of ayahuasca—a plant with hallucinogenic properties. I debated whether or not that was a smart way to proceed, but then my backdoor self went right ahead and drank the potion. After having to go to the bathroom real quick and seeing a reptilian head glaring back at me in the mirror, I headed back to my mat, covered myself with a light blanket, closed my eyes, and spent the night in the body of a snake gliding along the floor of a jungle. An amoebic experience, in neon. One that made the small things in the universe much bigger and more vital.

 --I was into Buddhism for a while. However, after I visited The Potala in Llhasa, Tibet, I found Tibetan Buddhism to be more intricate and complicated than my Western mind could fathom. The Dalai Lama used to dwell in this heartbreak hotel, and after wandering through the corridors and into the elegant rooms, I felt disappointed with the statues and relics in his and the religion’s remembrance which then seemed cold and lifeless. Nevertheless, it was good to walk down the halls and know that someone holy had once passed this way. Someone sacrosanct. Involved with a world beyond this one.

 --I am not a “good Mormon girl.” And yet I am (even if I am in the upper reaches of life when I should be called a woman or a lady or whatever). I’ve always tried to be “virtuous, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy,” but I have failed.  Always is a long time. Some days are outstanding. Others, not so good. There’s no perfection here except I wonder what it means to be perfect. Is there such a thing? Maybe I’m perfectly all right to be who I am—this one creation called me.

 --Don’t make assumptions, please. That’s all I ask. Phyllis Nelson Barber, me, was born into and raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, formerly known as the Mormon or LDS church. But I’m not done living yet. I’m still hungry for new experiences. And, I am a person more than a symbol or a statistical number. Don’t draw boundaries because of what you think you know. In fact, it would seem I’m a bundle of contradictions.

 --People have said I’m a Joan Baez Doppelganger (though taller). I’ve taken banjo lessons from Jerry Garcia, and I’ve also written and directed roadshows for my church, raised four diverse, opinionated, and multi-talented sons, and taught belly dancing. I walk through the world without too many trappings, despite anything I’ve been taught (or maybe because I’ve been taught that every person is a child of God.) Without asking “What’s in it for me?,” I’m a fun-loving adventurer who will go almost anywhere and tolerate almost everyone (except, I confess, bullies and bigots are harder to swallow). But I’ll find that piece of something that’s good in every human being I meet. I’m a self. Maybe even a light in the lighthouse, though of course we all wish to be a light now, don’t we?

 --It has been said that reading my work is a genuine pleasure. Granted, I write from what you might call a standby universe: Americana, sure; Mormonism, even more so. But we all grew up with different rules and conflicting norms, didn’t we? Having grown up in southern Nevada (Boulder City and Las Vegas), I have a lot to say about the desert, about heat, about the ins and outs of being a Mormon, about the effects of a given culture on a human being.

 --I have a new book coming out in Spring 2020. THE CAMEL AND THE THIRD WIFE takes a trip back in time (1858-1870) to the dry Southwest where you can meet an abolitionist, a camel (yes, there were camels brought to the Southwest to help build The Great Wagon Road which later became Route 66), a Mojave Indian, and a polygamist and his third wife who live in the Mormon settlement of St. Thomas, Nevada (a hapless village begun in 1865 and abandoned in 1870, then later buried beneath the waters of Lake Mead).

 In any event, happy trails to all of us involved in this Great Perhaps.

 

 

ADDITIONAL WRITING NOTES:

In June 2017, THE CAMEL AND THE THIRD WIFE, formerly titled ADABABA AND THE THIRD WIFE, was named a semi-finalist in the LEAPFROG FICTION CONTEST (four finalists, five semi-finalists, and 22 honorable mentions among 410 entrants).

In 2016, Barber won a lifetime award from the Smith-Pettit Foundation and the Association for Mormon Letters for OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTION TO MORMON LETTERS. She also won the O. MARVIN LEWIS AWARD in 2015 for best essay in WEBER: THE CONTEMPORARY WEST--"Great Basin DNA" (Autumn, 2014), about ownership of her sensibility: the desert or the farm/ranch lands of Idaho and Wyoming. Another new Barber essay, "Bounty," can be found in the  anthology, Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front, History Press, 2014.

Barber's last book, TO THE MOUNTAIN; ONE MORMON WOMAN'S SEARCH FOR SPIRIT, was released from Quest Books in 2014. It is the story of the author's twenty-year hiatus from Mormonism and her visits with shamans in Peru and Ecuador; Tibetan Buddhist monks in North India and Tibet; a variety of Baptist congregations in Arkansas, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina; megachurches; charismatic Christian congregations, travels with godddess worshipers in the Yucatan, and much more. The book's purpose is to demonstrate how we can not only tolerate a variety of ideas in the spiritual realm, but can learn from their wisdom.

Two of the essays in this collection were cited as Notable in Best American Essays: "Sweetgrass" in 2010 and "The Knife Handler" in 2011. "The Knife Handler" was also cited as Notable in Best American Travel Writing 2011.

"At The Cannery," another essay in this collection, won the Best of Dialogue Award for Essay (Eugene England Memorial Essay Award), 2009.

 

 Official book trailer on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=phyllis+barber+to+the+mountain