on Writing: Tearing Down the Dam

Writing on laptop 4 14 2021

I read two different pieces of writing yesterday that have been working in me. Here’s the first one:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

This comes from a conversation between Agnes de Mille (a dancer who choreographed the dances in Oklahoma! and many other Broadway plays and who changed the way dance was used in drama) and Martha Graham (a dancer who revolutionized modern dance and all-around brilliant, creative soul). A writer I admire, Katherine Arden, shared it on her Instagram and I read it about twelve times yesterday morning, almost making myself late for my PT appointment. It ends with the declaration that no artist is ever, in the end, fully satisfied with her work. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”

The second one comes from an essay I read last night at work, when I had roughly 27 minutes left before I could go home. In theory we’re not supposed to read at the desk, but sometimes you just need to. I was feeling worn out all day from my PT appointment (he worked my foot in hard but lovely ways that made me feel that it won’t always be a stiff club at the end of my ankle), but at that point I was just out, so I read for a few minutes:

She made weather, like all single peaks. She put on hats of cloud, and took them off again, and tried a different shape, and sent them all skimming off across the sky. She wore veils: around the neck, across the breast: white, silver, silver-gray, gray-blue. Her taste was impeccable. She knew the weathers that became her, and how to wear snow.

This is from an essay called “A Very Warm Mountain,” which Usula K. Le Guin wrote in 1980 about the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The essay itself is a masterclass about how a piece of writing is “about” one thing but then that thing is about everything, and if I could I would read it out loud with you and then discuss it. But what really, really hit me in the gut, what mixed with the Martha Graham words, was this small paragraph. It made me think Ursula would so understand my relationship with my mountain. She writes that of course St. Helens is a woman, but not in the way men believe, and that she is a sister, not a mother.

I have loved my mountain—Timpanogos—since before I even knew her name. And ever since I first hiked to the summit with my sister in 2006, I have carried an essay in my mind. If I had written it in 2006, when I had only hiked it once, it would’ve been much thinner than what I would write now, having summited it many times and grown intimate with its foothills and crags, its secret meadows and exposed ridges, its temperament from different directions and altitudes. Her temperament. But the basic construct would be the same, the way the local story explaining why she looks like the profile of a reclining figure, created by a white man and then labeled as Native American myth, is wrong. Of course Timp is a woman. But not only a virginal maiden pining for her lost love.

because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique

And yet, there in that essay is one of my favorite writers, exploring the same idea. Mountains as women, and how men don’t get the metaphor correct at all. And that sentence: “She knew the weathers that became her, and how to wear snow.” It is one of those sentences that fill you with both the joyous spark of something perfectly constructed and the despair that you, yourself, will never be the one to construct it. Someone else already did.

❦❦❦

I took a little break from my April social media goals, after last week when I posted every day on Instagram (for a photo-prompt challenge) and blogged almost every day.

I started this blogging challenge because I wanted to reestablish my writing habit. A writing practice of showing up, every day. I imagined that it would help me tap in to the old feeling I used to have, when I was brimming with ideas and potential pieces. I wanted to reconnect to my writerly self, who I have carried with me every day of my adult life. Every day, in fact, since that time in April during my junior year of high school, when I tried to show up at school again, and in English class another student read a poem she’d written to the class and I realized that writing wasn’t just the thing I did in my notebooks, it was a thing that actual people did and shared with the world.

I have always, for maybe even longer than I have loved Timp, processed my world with writing. “Writer” has always been my highest aspiration. Words have always been my structure.

But here I am, almost fifty. I could tell you: I raised four children. I could say: I married a person who is wonderful but who does not understand this aspiration in any way, and that makes me feel ashamed and blanketed. I could make a story about how the words of a professor two decades ago still linger in my psyche, reminding me the odds are not in my favor.

I could explain all the many reasons I have doubts and hesitations and how they have stopped me from pursuing what I always wanted to do.

But deep down I know: they aren’t reasons. They are excuses.

The truth is, fear has stopped me. I have let fear stop me. Out of fear I built a dam and closed the channel.

I never stopped writing, not really. Even when blogs fell out of fashion I kept blogging. If you follow me on Instagram you know that my photos are mediocre but I spend a lot of time writing my caption. Before social media I wrote letters and kept a detailed journal.

I have always written.

But after I got married and started having kids, I stopped chasing my “be a writer” dream.

There was school and then there were kids and then there was unemployment and then there was teaching. There was the long decade of Kendell’s medical issues. There was my dad’s dementia and my floundering relationship with my mom. There was this messy, freeing, painful, redemptive process I am still inside of, the rebirth that is midlife. Through all of it I had the same sparks, different colors: I could write about this, I could write about this, this is how I would write about this experience…

I have sometimes written those ideas. Fewer times, I have polished and rubbed until the edges were smooth enough and I have submitted. Even fewer times have I received the “accepted” response and seen my words in print. I have written, yes, but not done what writers do, which is the work of having your work be seen by the world.

I wanted to find those sparks again. I still want to, but they are slow in returning. The dam is sturdy.

But I am finding something is different in me. I am having dreams and falling in love with images. I am putting my pen onto paper and writing, trying not to censor myself, trying to just follow where the ideas lead. I haven’t, perhaps, found my “blogging mojo” again. Maybe I won’t. But there is something moving. And o how I want to not let fear hold it still. How I want to not be constrained by the fear of how good or valuable it might be, by my feeling that my small life can’t be important enough to connect to the larger world.

I want to be like Le Guin and like all the other writers whose work has brought me joy. To leave something of myself behind that perhaps someone exhausted late at night might find, and read, and be, during the reading, lifted instead of tired.


Eau de Good Mormon

[This post is long and touches on religion. In fact, it sparked me making a new category, because it is a topic I would like to explore more even as I know it's not a topic that most people care about reading. I wanted to put a name to where I am at with my religion right now, and I ended up with "Mormon Fringe." As in...that is where I am. Still thinking about Mormonism but not really IN the church.]

As we reemerge from our shutdowns and quarantines, blinking again in the light of interacting with people in the same space, I am remembering that there is something I still have to process. I put it aside during the pandemic because I could, because my world was comfortably small: home with my family, and a few stints at work, passing people during a hike but not really engaging with them. Now I am out in the world a little bit more, I am rediscovering this. It didn’t ever get better, I just put it away because I wasn’t forced to pick it up, examine it, figure out what to do with it.

The thing is this: I don’t really fit here anymore.

(It’s also that I never really fit, but I didn’t clearly see it. Now I do.)

The reason I don’t fit in here (and by “here” I mean: deep in the heart of Utah County, where some ridiculously high percentage of people is staunchly LDS and so the majority is safe to assume that everyone is staunchly LDS) is mostly because I no longer go to church. There are many stories I could tell to explain why. Many experiences and realizations, so many months of grieving and aching and crying and then finally coming to a sort of peace and a sort of acceptance. Some things I have shared on my blog, but most of them I haven’t. Not because I am ashamed or don’t want to talk about it, but because most of the people in my life don’t want to listen to it.

One of the last public things I did in 2020 was a sewing class. I got a new sewing machine for Christmas in 2019 and it came with a free class, so I spent a Saturday at the Bernina shop, learning about my machine. I arrived with my machine and my hydroflask and my always-present hope…maybe I’ll find a new friend here? But, nope. I learned a ton that day about my machine, but I also learned something about myself. I had already not been going to church for a year, so honestly it had been awhile since I’d hung out with people from the UC at all. So as I watched and listened to the other people talking, laughing, and connecting it felt like anthropology. Like observing a society from the outside. That was my realization. I really don’t fit here, there is something different about me.

It was like…there is something they can read about each other’s body language that is an invitation. They just immediately find their connections: a son and a cousin who actually were mission companions in Guatemala, they are both primary presidents,  they each bought their machines because they wanted to learn how to sew ruffles to skirts to make them modest enough. My personal favorite were two women realizing they live only three blocks away from each other, in one of the fancy neighborhoods in Orem, on the east side of course. “Oh, don’t you just love living in there? The views are so amazing and the air is so clear and everyone’s landscaping is gorgeous!”

(And meanwhile I’m like…well, thank God they won’t even ask me where I live because I’m just down here on the flat part of Orem with the dirty air and the views of everyone’s trash landscaping and if I admitted that to them then they would know I am NOT seriously so blessed like they are.)

(I’m not bitter.)

Here in the Provo/Orem area, what it means to be LDS is to be a person who is ALWAYS and WITHOUT A DOUBT LDS. They prove it with their big east-side houses, with their top-of-the-line Suburbans (to carry their seven children of course), with the mission references and the temple-wedding references and the this-is-my-calling references. With their blonde hair and their modest clothes and the occasional flash of garment just so everyone knows they follow The Rules. They talk about it. (It seems it is all they talk about.) They assume everyone knows the cultural language they speak. They never have a thought enter their heads that someone else might be different than they are. And if you do happen to be different, it’s like they can smell it. They know there won’t be any connections to be made with you, so there is no reason to be friendly.

Even when I was trying my hardest to fulfill that appearance of “perfect Mormon person” I still didn’t really fit. They could still smell my wrongness. I was accepted on the surface, but actual, real relationships with my Mormon neighbors were few. And then as life progressed and I didn’t “earn” all the righteous blessings they did—I mean, it’s OK to start on the west side, it’s never being blessed enough to move up that proves your worth, and then none of my kids went on missions and actually none of them are even interested in the church and my husband was never a bishop and I was never a Relief Society president—my lack of those “blessings” proved I had earned the way I smelled. I didn’t do it well, I wasn’t righteous enough, I didn’t get the blessings I wanted because deep down I wasn’t good enough. If I were I would’ve earned those “good things” and would be happy.

Finally accepting that in part they were right—deep down, I am different—was one of the most freeing, if painful, processes of my life.

After that sewing class, I confess: I went home and cried. Honestly, every time I sit down at my machine I feel a little bit of a scrap of that feeling, that realization: I never fit because I don’t fit. I tried to fit for two decades, but just broke and tore and cut and scarred. It was a turn in my path, a realization and acceptance: stop trying to be someone you are not.

Of course, church members would say “no, there’s a place for you here, too. And maybe if you come and work harder, if you pray more and do more and believe more, if you stop being a lazy learner and just have a little faith, your children will turn around and everything will be OK, you just have to not give up.”

But here’s the thing.

I don’t want to sit in church and continue to feel bad that my kids didn’t turn out like everyone else’s did. I don’t want to be in a supposedly-holy place that demands I feel that way about my own children. I don’t want to pray that they will want to “go back” to church. I want to pray that they have happy lives. That they find relationships that fulfill them, careers that give them confidence and purpose. I want them to have meaningful experiences, to help others, to be healthy and safe. If they choose to get married or have families, I want them to do that because it will be a part of them being happy, not because it’s what a religious institution told them is the path to happiness.

All told, what I want for them, what I pray for and hope for, is that they don’t have to live their lives this way. Feeling like they are odd, like they don’t fit. Like they smell wrong.

❦❦❦

So, here we are, more than a year after the start of the pandemic. I’m starting, just a little bit, to go out into the world again. Last week, I reluctantly started going to PT again. Reluctantly because while I trust the PT I’ve been going to now for seven or eight years, I don’t love going there. My not-a-good-Mormon smell is especially potent there.

I knew to expect it so I was pre-hardened.

But this morning I struggled. Everyone talked about their weekends. “My nephew was ordained.” “I got to go to in-person church for the first time!” “I went to my cousin’s baby blessing.” One woman and her tech discovered they both went to the same mission in Switzerland, twenty-odd years apart, and then she glistened and glowed about her husband, a BYU professor who served in Belgium and also speaks French and so they decided to move to Provo instead of Orem so they could put their kids in a school that does French immersion and “of course it didn’t hurt that we’re only a few blocks away from the temple” (ie, east side on the hill) and now they only speak French in their home. (“Home” is spoken with a special reverence in LDS parlance, an extra-rounded O and a drawn-out M. It is never a house.)

I listened to them, patients and techs and therapists, speak their Mormon language, smell each other’s correct and pleasing smell. I started wishing again—wishing I could speak it, too. Wishing I had the right smell. Wishing I could laugh and start conversations easily and just…be involved, wherever I go.

And then I wondered: what do people outside the Book of Mormon belt talk about?

I don’t even know.

(Like, literally. I don’t know.)

I looked at Mrs. We-Only-Speak-French and young I-Know-Everything-About-BYU-Sports dude and the lady talking about how sweet it was to go back to church and hear signing again and the tech expounding on the church’s policy with polygamous families and how gracious it is. The guy getting his knee massaged with 4 inches of garments hanging out from his shorts and the older woman working on her shoulders, her g top exposed with each weight lifting.

I thought you are all insane. They don’t know what to talk about or how to be outside of their religion, and even more disturbing is they don’t know how strange that is. They fit because they fit here, so nothing hurts because why would it? Round pegs, round holes.

And I stopped with the wishing. I can wish this thing away all I want, but it isn’t going anywhere: I don’t fit here. My shape is spiral and convoluted and angles, and that is who I am.

And maybe if I were at another physical therapist’s office in, say, Seattle or Helena or Orlando or Detroit, I still would listen to the easy conversations around me and not know how to be a part of them. Maybe there is no place my shape fits.

(Actually, strike that “maybe.” More than likely.)

But I want to write this thought anyway, this thought that I had as I came home, again in tears, to write this post. The thought I had after putting into words this thought: I hope my kids don’t have to live this way.

Do I have to?

Is there somewhere I could fit, some place where I am the missing piece?

I’m not sure. But I am sure I don’t fit here. I could ignore that during the pandemic, but I don’t think I will be able to for much longer.


Science People Doing Word Things and Other Surgery Microstories (Surgery Story Part 2)

I am feeling many Feels today, and this is not what I want to write. What I want to write is about “lazy learners” and faith transitions and the dissent of zealots, but I am not quite ready. So today, just continuing yesterday’s story. Sort of. Not even really a story, but a list of microstories, little things I want to remember about the day of my surgery:

  • The day before my surgery the surgical center called to confirm what time I should come in. She told me and I thought “I should write that down” but then I didn’t because I also thought “that’s not any earlier than getting up for a race, so no big deal.” BUT THEN. Then I woke up at about 2:37 in the morning in a panic. Did they tell me to come at 6:00, so I should get up at 5:15? Or to come at 5:00 so I should get up at 4:15? (Both are times I’ve gotten out of bed to run a race.) So then I fretted in bed for awhile and castigated myself for not listening to that “write it down” wise voice and I imagined all sorts of scenarios of what would happen if I got the time wrong. I even got out of bed, found the number of the surgery center, and called them. (It’s a same-day surgery center. No one answered at 3 in the morning.) Finally I actually woke up Kendell and said “what time did I tell you I needed to be there?” and he said “six, stop worrying, get some sleep” and you know? I’m STILL not sure what time I was actually supposed to be there, but if it was 5, no one said anything about me being 45 minutes late. (But then they also didn’t say anything about me being 15 minutes early, so…)
  • Just this moment: walking from the car into the building. It was still midnight-dark at 5:45 in the January morning, and so cold, but the stars looked so bright. They calmed my nerves and made me feel like it would be OK.
  • I intended on painting my toenails. I did not paint my toenails. I went into foot surgery with naked toenails, which is kind of obscene...
  • When I was changing out of my clothes (I wore flannel pjs because that seemed like the easiest thing to put on after the surgery) into the surgery gown, there were nurses standing outside the changing room. One of them said “today is a cool date, January 12, 2021. 1/12/21” and another one said “it’s like…ummmm, there’s a word for it? Like mom or wow?” and they couldn’t get there so after thinking ahhh, cute, science people trying to do word things!” I said “it’s like a palindrome” through the changing-room curtain. (It is almost a palindrome, but not really, but that’s OK because at least I had the word they were searching for, if using incorrectly.)
  • I had to pee in a cup so they could do a pregnancy test before my surgery. I had a four-minute panic thinking what if it’s positive? I mean…I love babies and I love my kids but I’m almost 49 years old. It’s someone else’s turn to test positive. (I was not pregnant.)
  • The usual compliments about my gorgeous veins when my IV was inserted.
  • The doctor had me write “yes” on the foot he was supposed to operate on, just to be sure. I found this to be oddly positive so I added an exclamation point. I wish I would’ve also drawn a smiley face.
  • It was so strange to be the patient instead of being the patient's spouse. SO WEIRD.
  • The anesthesiologist came into the pre-op room to talk to me. He was awesome. He told me about every step of the process and what I could expect. He told me that he and my surgeon had discussed my case the night before, and decided they wanted to ask me if they could do a nerve block on my leg. Apparently this is a new thing they do, both the anesthesia and the block so that there’s no pain for 18-24 hours after the surgery. I told them that was great, but what really struck me about this was imagining them talking on the phone the night before about me. It made me feel like they both really wanted to make sure they surgery went well, like I was a person who mattered instead of just a patient.
  • There were a bunch of people in the room before they wheeled me out and down the hall to the surgery room, so Kendell stepped out to make room. Which means I didn’t see him or tell him goodbye or hear him tell me good luck and I was just high enough on whatever they put in the IV to calm you down that I thought about turning around and shouting “where the hell are you, Kendell!!?!?” but not so high as to actually do it.
  • I did not believe I would actually go under with the anesthesia. But my last memory is of them telling me to scoot onto the table and I said “aren’t you going to 1-2-3 lift me?” If they actually had me count down from 10 like you see on TV, I forgot!
  • My first thought when I woke up: I HAVE TO PEE. RIGHT NOW. Those were also my first understandable words. Luckily the nurse believed me and got me there in time. I’m totally OK with being the nerdy patient who knows stuff about words. I am NOT ok with being the patient who pees the bed!

(You can read Part 1, where I explain how I got to the point of needing surgery, HERE.)


Thoughts on Walking

A few weeks ago, when I was approaching the doctor appointment where I would likely be able to stop using my crutches and put some weight on my foot—actually walk!—I grew more and more nervous. Eight weeks (and two days) is a long time to go without walking, and my mind just sort of stopped being able to imagine my body moving that way. I coached myself through the nerves by reminding my brain that I’ve been walking for, oh…47 years. I even asked my older sister if she remembered any stories about when I started walking as a baby, or if I was an early or late walker (alas, she did not).

I worried and fretted and had bad dreams until finally that appointment came. My podiatrist fit me with a walking boot and then it was time. My hands were shaking. I had to take several deep breaths before I actually did it. And that first step…wow. My leg felt so weak. Not just my foot, or my calf which had withered away, but from toenail to hip, my muscles were jelly. I was determined not to cry in front of the doctor and Kendell, and I didn’t. (Must maintain badass status.) But there were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

How strange to be terrified of walking, that most human motion.

First walk after surgery 4x6
(my first post-surgery walk in shoes)

Three weeks later, I have now been spending some time walking in actual shoes. I still sometimes wear my boot, if I know I will be on my feet for a long time. I actually have to practice walking, because my gait is totally off and I am easing in that tendon, not wanting to stress it out at all, afraid of any little twinge or pull.

(I need to start physical therapy but it feels overwhelming.)

And I have been thinking about walking.

In boots on the top of a mountain, when I’ve made it to my destination and can just stroll around, seeing what I can see there.

Along a sandy beach, carrying my sandals.

Carefully, barefoot, along the stony, burbling path of a creek.

Around a city like a flaneuse.

Places I have walked in my life: across the sandstone and the sand at Lake Powell. The Green Sands beach on the Big Island. The soft green grass of the yard of my childhood home. On tiptoe atop a balance beam, in ballet shoes across a stage. Down streets in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Brussels, Rome. Into and out of hospitals and in paces across waiting rooms, anxious for yet another of Kendell’s surgeries to be successful. In front of the white board in my classroom. For a final time, out of the home I grew up in. Into a restaurant to meet a friend. Down the hall into the baby’s room, just to watch him sleep.

I have annoyed my teenagers by walking too fast through the mall and been annoyed by slow walkers in the exit line at Costco.

And I have thought about how, for those 47-something years of walking, I took it for granted. It’s what we do, as humans, the way we move within our world, the way we experience and process and get places. I never really pondered a life without walking, until now, when my two-thirds-of-a-mile loop walk takes me 20 minutes to finish and my foot is pounding when I’m done. So slow. So awkward. And knowing that even that, the slowness, the awkward pace—even that is a blessing. A privilege.

So as I continue on, improving my walking ability (I sometimes feel like a very old, slightly wrinkled, surprisingly grey-haired giant toddler these days), I will keep this knowledge. Walking, which seems so quotidian, is magic. I won’t ever take it for granted again.  


Just a Rambly List about Us Right Now

Recently I’ve been digging in to some older photos for scrapbooking. This is partly because I still have so many stories to tell and partly because I have so few photographs of right now. (Kaleb hates having his picture taken and basically just scowls in every photo I take. Jake is at least past the scowling phase but if I hit it at the wrong time, asking him for a picture will spark an anxiety attack. Haley’s in Pennsylvania, Nathan’s in Salt Lake City, and since I still can’t hike yet…yeah. Not many new pictures.)

One thing I’ve really appreciated in this process is being able to go back into my blog to find stories I’d forgotten. Like the first time I made chicken curry, and Nathan literally HID because he was afraid it would be gross and didn’t want to eat it, and then ended up loving it. When I blogged more consistently, and about my regular, everyday details (instead of only book reviews and political rants), I ended up saving so many great stories. And even though I don’t have many photos, there are still stories to be told. (Although…to be honest: even some of the stories are not scrapbook-able, really. I’m not one who shies away from telling hard stories, but as the kids get older, their stories are sometimes harder and they don’t really feel like mine to tell.)

So today I thought I’d throw it back to early 20-ought-style blogging and just writer a right-now list about our family.

Feb 26 2021 fam

Kaleb is learning to drive. (how is my baby this old???)  He has his learner’s permit and is taking driver’s ed online. He tells me quite often how much he wants his own car. It doesn’t have to be nice, though….he’d be perfectly happy with a “butt car” as he calls it! It’s crazy how things change over time. When Haley was learning to drive we had zero intentions to buy her a car and we’d never actually purchased a used car before. It just didn’t seem within the realm of possibility somehow, and we made it work between the minivan and the Corolla. Ten years later, here we are: Kendell’s pretty good at finding the PERFECT used Corolla (not just for our kids but for Cindy’s as well) and he is starting to search for one for Kaleb. 

Nathan is finding his place. Or trying to figure it out. He has struggled a bit with different things since coming home in December. (See… “different things”… not stories I feel responsible to tell.) But I think this is all pretty normal after two years of being away in Army training. He has to make a new normal, and that is hard. But it is so nice to have him so much closer. He comes down usually on Sundays, to eat with us and hang out, and Jake has started spending some weekends at Nathan’s apartment. He sends me pictures of the art he is working on and asks for help with cooking and tells me funny stories about his job (he works in a salon right now). I have loved that he is growing closer to his cousin Abby, who he works with. And hugs on a more consistent basis are pretty awesome!

Jake is doing so much better. Sometimes I even hear him whistling again. I think the fact that he had to do more stuff around the house because of my surgery (he did all the laundry) actually helped him. Navigating his mental health issues has been hard on my mother’s heart, but then I just think about how hard it is for HIM and I know my heartache is far smaller. But he is so much more than depression and anxiety, and I feel super hopeful that this year will be a turning point for him.

One thing I just adore about Haley right now is her affection for plants. She LOVES them and is super knowledgeable about different varieties, what is rare, how to care for them. I had a little ah-ha moment recently about hobbies, which probably was always obvious but I never thought about it in just this way. As adults we have All The Things we have to do. Work and housework and the to-do list and washing the car and paying the medical bills. If that is all life was…that would be kind of sad. Hobbies are one of the things that give our life meaning and depth. And I am glad she has found a hobby she loves, even in the midst of all of her med-school stress. Work or school can be meaningful, our relationships are meaningful…but hobbies also bring us a level of pleasure.

Kendell is aching to be back on the trail again. He went hiking a couple of weeks ago with Cindy and I swear…as he bustled around getting ready there was sunshine coming from his pores he was so excited to be getting out. He’s had some ankle pain and started wearing his orthotics again. I think he’s getting pretty tired of me not being fully functional, but he has really helped out a ton.

And me…I just don’t know. I am feeling stuck. I saw this image today and it made me cry:

Bird against glass

Because I AM just like the bird hitting the window, but I don’t know how to turn around. Part of it is, of course, just being immobilized by my foot, but it goes far deeper than that. It’s also my job and my marriage and my…my lack of definition. I want to find a way to feel accomplished and self-sufficient but I don’t know the route. I want to feel proud of my life instead of slightly embarrassed, like I do now, and I want some….some richness. Not really in the sense of money, but in experiences and relationships. Everything feels so thin right now (yes, like butter over too much bread).

As I went back over this post to proof it, I realized…these aren’t really stories. They are little…snapshots, I guess, of who we all are right now. Hopefully on the downside of the pandemic. Each of us in our own way trying to figure stuff out. Which is just life, I guess. And even though I didn’t write any actual stories, I’m glad I wrote this today because it brought me a sense of peace. Our life is not perfect (far from it) but I DO feel the sense of how lucky we are to have each other in the ways we do.


Thoughts on My Wedding Day, Twenty Nine Years Later

Not two years before I got married, I was a wild child. Driving my crappy but fast car as dangerously as I could, roaming around the valley with my friends at night, drinking, flirting with boys. Sluffing school. I was miserable in some ways but so wildly alive in others.

Then, a whole bunch of things happened that kind of scared me straight (or maybe they shamed me straight, I’m still working that out), and I went “back to church.”

I abandoned almost all of my wild friends, or they abandoned me, and there I was. Doing my best to be a “good person” via the definitions of the LDS church.

And part of the way I could prove my goodness was to get married in the temple.

If you aren’t a Mormon, this is hard to explain. If you are LDS, you get it: married in the temple is the “right” way. It means you didn’t have sex before you got married. It means you were following all the rules and paying your tithing. It means you are dedicated to the process of having an eternal family. If you are not LDS, I don’t know if it makes any sense, because unless you have the Perfect Mormon Family ™, you give up quite a bit to have a temple marriage. But it’s still the highest goal.

Also, you don’t just marry anybody in the temple. Not if you want to win that “very good girl” badge. You must marry a returned missionary in the temple.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Now that I am here, on the other side of my religion where I feel like I am deconstructing all of it, exploring its underpinnings, assumptions, abuses, its unspoken rules and cultural demands, how it wounded me, the scars it left. I am discovering (or maybe I am writing) my own definition of what it means to be a good person. I am left knowing that while I love my husband and the life we have made together, we might never have even interacted if I weren’t so determined to be good. Maybe, 29 years later, it doesn’t really matter, because here we are, still together. But I think about it a lot. In a sense, my marriage is my last real tie to the LDS faith, and what does that mean?

Which is a longer and more personal idea than I am willing to explore in a blog post.

Wedding day black and whiteBut, this weekend was our 29th wedding anniversary, and I found myself thinking not as much about our marriage but about our wedding.

The winter we got married was remarkably like this winter, brown and dry and warm. (My least favorite type of winter.) On the day of our wedding, it snowed for the first time that year, a wet and warm snow that was only a few degrees away from rain. (The exact same snow fell this year on February 13.)

Because my dad had not been through the temple yet, he couldn’t actually come to my wedding. (One of the things I gave up: my dad seeing me getting married.) So our plan had been that my mom and I would drive up to Salt Lake City together, and he would come later, to see me come out of the temple. (Because of course watching his daughter exit the temple in her wedding dress is enough for any dad.) But somehow at the very last minute, he changed his mind and wanted to drive to Salt Lake with us. But he hadn’t showered yet, and then the traffic was awful because of the snow, and yes: I was almost late to my own wedding.

When I got to the temple, I rushed inside. The matrons rushed me into the bride’s room, where by tradition you’re supposed to have a sweet, loving moment with your mom, as you put on your dress, fix your makeup, adjust your hair, have a last conversation which might include some advice for the wedding night. A tender hug, a few tears.

Instead, I rushed to put my dress on and then scampered down some halls until I found myself in a room with Kendell.

And then we were married by a temple worker whose name I never heard.

I don’t remember what he said during our temple ceremony. I barely remember looking at Kendell. I do remember the contrast, Kendell’s side of the room (clearly the truly “good” side) filled with his family, his grandma and aunts and uncles and cousins and his siblings and their spouses and his mission friends) and my side of the room with my mom and a few ladies from the ward and a couple of aunts and maybe a cousin.

It was all so rushed and I was in such a panic (having only been to the temple once before that day, an event that filled me both with fear that anything I did wrong there would cement my eternal damnation and a potent shame+confusion combination after the temple matron told me that I should be ashamed of myself for getting married so young) and I was so out of my element as the center of attention in my itchy, heavy dress.

I was turned off, turned to autopilot. I smiled for pictures, I laughed as Kendell carried me so my shoes wouldn’t get wet in the snow. I changed into my purple dress for the wedding breakfast (which my husband’s family insisted be held at the Chuck-a-Rama, because that was good enough) and then back into my wedding dress for the reception. I shook my parents’ friends’ hands. My body was there; my real self really wasn’t.

I performed.

I got married the Acceptable Mormon Way.

And I was a miserable quaking mess that day.

Not because I didn’t love Kendell. I did and I do. Not because my mom didn’t try to give me a beautiful reception. She and my sisters worked SO HARD to make my reception beautiful and delicious. (Say what you will about our family’s dysfunctions: we do food really, really well.) We had little cherry cheesecakes, crab and chicken petit fours, slushy raspberry punch, veggies and dip and cheese and strawberries. Not because my friends didn’t support me—most of them did, although several didn’t come to our reception because there was a Jazz basketball game that night, or because it was snowing.

I was miserable because I was so young.

And because I was fulfilling all of the a-Utah-County-wedding-looks-like-this rules without ever having stopped to think: what did I want it to look like?

And because of the look on my dad’s face when I came out of the temple, crestfallen and lonely. My sisters’, too, and my best friend. (My sisters. My best friend. My dad. None of them saw me get married.)

And because it was February, and sloppy and cold, and because if I ever wanted anything from a wedding, for my own wedding, it was to have it in the spring when the flowers were blooming, daffodils and tulips and hyacinths, and a blue sky and a warm breeze. But everyone told us, after we got engaged in November, that we needed to hurry. Hurry and get married, don’t wait because you don’t want to slip up. The knife edge we walked between desire and goodness, and certainly I, as a wanton temptress who used to be “bad” and so really never could be “good” again no matter how much I performed my goodness, could definitely not be counted on to remain good.

And because while in theory I loved my wedding dress, it also gave me that same shame+confusion feeling: I wanted it to be more elegant than it was, and the matron had also told me, in my rushed dressing in the bride’s room at the temple, that it was cut “far too low” and threatened to make me wear a dickey for the ceremony. (My mom, God bless her, rejected this outright.)

And because I just looked like me, same hair, same clumsy makeup, not beautiful or special, just my usual self in a glittery white dress with poufy shoulders. Because I didn’t feel anything other than awkward and fake.

And because being The Bride—being the center of attention for an entire day—was deeply uncomfortable to me.

When I attend weddings now—any time I have attended weddings since I got married—my heart fills with a specific, dark weight. I leave the wedding or the reception and I need to cry away the weight, cry away the darkness. If you asked I wouldn’t tell you why I was crying. Or maybe I would say:  because time moves too fast, because I knew them when they were babies, because my friend looked so beautiful.

Really, though. I’d be crying for myself.

Because of all those reasons I was miserable on my wedding day, my heart beating hard, my pulse fluttering, my eyes just barely keeping the tears back.

Because I did it the “right” way and I didn’t know that I could do it my way and still be a good person.

Because I needed to perform my goodness.

Because my wedding wasn’t really about celebrating me and the person I loved or about celebrating the start of a life together, but because it was me proving I could be good, I could do things the right way, I was worthy of not being shamed.

Because when I look back on my wedding day, I don’t brim with happy memories. I have almost no memories of it at all, honestly. Because I have never hung up a single wedding photo in my house. Because I wasn’t beautiful or elegant.

Because I wasn’t myself.

I wish I had loved my wedding day. I wish we had waited until the spring, until after my birthday so at least I was twenty. Or what if we just had sex? What if we didn’t wait and do it the “right” way, the “good” way. What if we had sex and then waited to get married until I had another year, until I had lived on my own, had my own space, begun to learn who I really was?

Three decades. I’ve mostly just ignored my feelings about my wedding day for many years. (Except when I went to other people’s weddings and they welled up, uncontrollable for a few hours.) It’s like the fact that I didn’t go to prom and I didn’t walk with my graduating high school class. Just another part of me: I had a wedding day, but I didn’t love it.

Last week, a few days before our anniversary, Nathan texted me a photo he’d taken of a photo at his aunt’s house, from our wedding day.

I looked at it. I zoomed in close as I could to my face. That Amy. That very young person. That child bride.

God.

I turned so many of my choices over to a higher authority. To white men who told me how my wedding day should go (and so many other things). I wish I could change it for her.

I wish for her a wedding in May on a perfect blue day with a few white clouds in the sky and the grass so green it’s like a gemstone. I wish for her an unhurried hour to get ready, when someone does her hair and someone does her make-up and she feels beautifully like herself. I wish for her an outdoor wedding with a mountain behind her. I wish for her a pale violet wedding dress, simple but elegant, with her shoulders kissed by sun and the unwrinkled skin of her chest beautiful and unashamed. I wish for her a bouquet with lilacs. I wish for her to turn and see her dad holding hands with her mom, to smile at her sisters, her best friend. I wish for her a delicious meal with friends, and laughter, and conversation. I wish for her a calm heart and an even pulse and no terror. No threatening tears.

No one grieves every day for the things they didn’t have. It’s been so long since I’ve been to any sort of wedding, and longer still since I’ve attended a temple wedding. Until I looked at that photo, I hadn’t thought of this for a long time. Maybe since my anniversary last year. But I remembered, looking at that snapshot. I remembered, and I wanted to write it down, both what it was and what I wish it had been.


Thoughts on Glue and Fairy Wings: 2020 in Review

My Facebook memories reminded me of THIS POST I wrote last year, a summary of the previous decade. I had totally forgotten I wrote it, but rereading it made me stop and think. I have a selfie I took last year when I was taking down the tree, and I meant to make a layout about a note I wrote to myself that day for this December: remember to buy glue for the fairy wings. Glue for the fairy wings (some broken Christmas-tree ornaments) seemed hopeful…I can fix broken things, even if they are ephemeral, even if the will forever be repaired now.

A year later, I’m not so sure.

This year. This year. 2020 was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it? Here’s my personal list of what felt the most awful to me:

  • A super dry January and February. Maybe that sounds ridiculous but the dry, brown winters make me feel nervous and sad. They set a tone right from the start of the year, of unfulfilled hope and of fear of devastation.
  • The pandemic. In Utah, things shut down in the middle of March. For me, at first this was mostly just strange—everyone working from home, the library shut down. I had to cancel a trip to St. Louis that I very much wanted to take. As it went on, I grew more fearful, especially as we started to realize the effects the virus can have on hearts. My brain started planning various people’s funerals and I, for the first time in my life, had regular sleepless nights.
  • I injured my toe. This happened on the day we hiked to Silver Glance lake in the snow; I’m not really sure why, but when I took my boots off after that hike, my second toe on my right foot was swollen and throbbing. I cut back on running, then took a three-week break. I had cortisone shots. I stretched, I strengthened my feet, I murmured encouraging thoughts to my toe. Every time it would start to feel a little better, it would flare up if I tried to run (or, you know…even if I tried to walk around my house in bare feet). Then, the day before we left for California, I was running and something popped. Turns out, after an MRI (that took SIX WEEKS for my insurance to approve) that I tore my plantar plate. Solution? Surgery. Which I’ve had to wait for until next week, so basically I’ve been walking around with a toe that slips in and out of joint since August. And NOT RUNNING. I haven’t run since July.
  • I had several painful and ugly confrontations with people in public. The first one happened at the post office when another customer yelled at me for wearing a mask. There were several “discussions” with library patrons. A lady at WalMart got in my face. I stood my ground but it felt…those experiences chipped away at my confidence in humanity.
  • I had several painful and ugly—but more subtle—confrontations with friends, families, and neighbors about my decision to stay at home as much as possible, to wear a mask, and to expect others to wear a mask. I have been called a coward and weak because I am “living in fear.” I’ve been told I am brainwashed by the liberal media. I have been told if I had enough faith I wouldn’t worry, because God’s gonna do what God does regardless of whether or not I wear a mask.
  • The trump trains. Again…this might seem like a small thing, in the scope of such an awful year. But seeing miles of big trucks waving that flag along with the American flag broke something in me. My body had a physical reaction, as if my heart were circulating thumbtacks instead of blood. I still get a little bit jittery at the sight of a US flag. Such blind, thoughtless admiration of a horrible man whose decisions have cost so many lives…I can’t understand it.
  • Family drama. Actually, “drama” isn’t even the right word for it. None of it is my story to tell, but it still affected me and I don’t know how to figure out a new normal.
  • Kendell had to start a new medication for his heart. He hates it and it makes him grumpy. But his heart will slowly fail without it. This is why I get so hurt by people telling me I am a coward for taking the corona virus seriously. I’m not a coward. I just know the very real results of living with a repaired body, and as I worry about my husband I also feel sorrow for all the people who didn’t die from COVID but will bear its scars in their bodies for the rest of their lives.
  • Over and over, our nation’s “leaders” disappointed me.
  • The wildfire that burned through some of my favorite hiking areas. The wildfires in California and Colorado, too. I don’t know those mountains as intimately as I know my own, but so much burning of beautiful places just ripped my guts out.
  • Watching the way the pandemic affected my kids. Each and every one of them has had their lives impacted by it. Again…not really my stories to tell anymore, but damn if I don’t wish I could fix it all for them even as I know just how much I can’t.

So many broken wings. Maybe there isn’t enough glue in the universe to fix what is broken.

But at the same time, there is also this:

  • We all kept our jobs. Mine even let me work from home so as to minimize Kendell’s risk of exposure. Financially, the pandemic hasn’t hurt us yet, and I am so, so grateful.
  • We all stayed healthy. Not only did we not catch the corona virus, no one even had a cold or the stomach flu all year long.
  • Working from home gave me a more flexible schedule, which translated into more hiking time, which meant even with my injury and taking time off from all exercise, I still got in 51 hiked this year, 48 of them with Kendell. One with Jake too!
  • I got the opportunity to learn how to use my new sewing machine by making face masks for others. I also made a lot of baby quilts and celebrated several of my friends becoming grandparents.
  • While many of my friends and extended family members got sick, no one I know closely was deathly ill or killed by it. I say that with the utmost sense of gratitude and sorrow for those who DID lose loved ones.
  • We remodeled our bathrooms.
  • Haley got vaccinated. So did my sister-in-law who is a nurse.
  • Haley got accepted to med school and moved to Pittsburg, where she is kicking butt at her classes, even while having to take them mostly online and without the benefit of a cadaver lab.
  • Nathan survived one the most difficult Army training programs, taking most of his classes via a laptop in his tiny barracks. He passed his tests and graduated and he is home for a while!
  • Elliot finished his PhD and got a job at MIT.
  • Jake and I had some important conversations and understand each other much better. He is SO ready for the restrictions to be lifted so he can move forward in his life.
  • Kaleb finished jr. high, made the basketball team for his sophomore year, and got two 4.0s. AND is learning to drive.
  • I grew closer to several of my friends via texting, even though we couldn’t see each other in person. And I had several opportunities to help other people while they were quarantined.

So…many good things this year, too. What is broken? What is too fragile or too torn to repair?

If I think of myself at the start of 2020 and here at the beginning of 2021, I feel like I am a different person. I feel, honestly, more than a little bit jaded and even more bitter than normal. Not because I don’t recognize and see the blessings in my life—I do. But the thing that makes a fairy is its wings. The things that made me who I am, or at least some of those qualities, have been severely challenged this year. What I am not sure I can repair is my belief that logic and kindness will always win out in the end. There has been so much ugliness this year and I feel…I feel like my wings are tattered. (And even as I write that I remember the memes about how the dufus wasn’t elected to tiptoe around my feelings.)

So as I start 2021, I am not sure. I want to glue my wings back—I want to figure out who I am now, and not let what is unique to me be discarded. But honestly? Honestly, I am not sure how. I don’t know where to get that glue.


Bright Potential

On Friday, Kendell and I went to the wedding reception of the daughter of one of our couple friends. We’ve been friends with this family for, I don’t know…at least 25 years. This friendship was formed—like so many other friendships and families in this valley—through our being employed at WordPerfect.

I started working at WordPerfect when I was 17 and still a wild child. I went to school during the day (not to my local high school, though, but to the local community college) and then worked from 3:00-9:00, doing data entry. My mom worked there, too, and my sisters, and a year later my friend Cindy (whose dad and brother also worked at WP) would introduce me to her brother, Kendell. WordPerfect had a huge impact on our little valley; it brought so many jobs after the biggest employer, Geneva Steel, began laying off workers in droves. I was young and impressionable and probably pretty stupid when I worked there, but I learned a lot from the (actual, adult) women I worked with.

At Friday night’s reception, I sat at a table with a woman I knew from those WordPerfect days, someone I admired because she seemed so competent. Complete, somehow, a woman with a career that defined her, who seemed entirely comfortable in being who she was.

After I took off my mask, she recognized me; well, actually, she probably only knew me as “Suellen’s daughter,” but she was polite and talked to me like an old friend. She told me about her adult children and her grandchildren, and then she asked me about my life.

“You always seemed like you were so bright and full of potential,” she said. “What have you done with your life since I last saw you?”

And honestly: I couldn’t think of one single thing I could say.

What have I done with my life?

I said something about raising a family and then started talking about my kids. I was surrounded by people so I couldn’t really let her question sink in, but when I woke up on Saturday morning, it hit me.

What have I done with my life?

The Amy she knew—was I bright and full of potential?—was certain she would do amazing things with her life. When I was that person she knew, I was at a huge turning point of my life, when I tried to set down all my rebellious ways and live a “good” life. I pulled on the dress of my religion and tried to wear it like it was a skin, and I tried to wear it for the next 25 years. I was going to be good, and the blessing in being good would be achieving what I wanted to achieve.

Could I have said that?

“Well, I tried to be a good Mormon.”

But she had talked about missions and temple weddings, and if that is the metric one measures “good Mormon” with (and, let’s be frank: it mostly is), then clearly I did not accomplish that goal.

The Amy she knew was determined. Yes: I got married at 19, but I was determined to graduate from college. Eventually I did. Eventually I even got two degrees. Could that be my answer?

“I got an English degree and one in secondary education.”

I know now that a Bachelor’s degree opens some doors, but it is really only a start. After I graduated with my first degree, I wanted nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom. Did I want this only because it was what the LDS faith told me I was supposed to want? That was a part of it, but, no: I loved the time I got to spend as a mom at home with my babies and toddlers. I didn’t want it to end when life made it end anyway, and the fact that what I wanted didn’t seem to matter to God or the Universe or Whoever was so, so bitter to me.

But the truth is, you can only choose one life. It was impossible for me to choose the two things that I wanted: have a family and get a PhD so I could teach literature and writing at a university. (One of my deepest desires.) I know many women actually DO manage those two different choices, but the particulars of my life made it impossible. Or, at least, it seemed impossible. I chose my family, and I love them with all my heart. But there is a part of me that mourns for that Amy who never existed.

So, I guess my response to Barb’s question about what I have done with my life was an accurate one:

I raised a family.

I want this to be enough, but if I am honest with myself, it doesn’t feel like it is. Maybe if I had managed to be a better mother, I would feel like it was enough. But I made so many, many mistakes. There is a saying in the LDS church that people like to repeat: “no success can compensate for failure in the home.” I don’t think I failed, per se. But I could have done so much better than I did.

So here I am. Almost 50, with three adult children and one still in high school. No longer bright, no longer full of potential. What have I done with my life?

I raised four amazing children.

I ran some races, even a couple of marathons.

I hiked a lot of mountains.

I witnessed the suffering and death of both of my parents.

I taught online scrapbooking classes.

I taught high school English.

I wrote some articles for a scrapbook magazine.

I had an essay published in a book.

I became a librarian.

I took a lot of pictures, baked birthday cakes, made meals, did laundry, weeded my flower beds, mowed my lawn.

I helped my husband recuperate from six major surgeries in ten years, not to mention survive a cardiac arrest.

I went to church. I tried to fit in there, tried my best. I taught teenagers and adults some lessons out of the scriptures.

I did a little bit of traveling.

This is the content of an ordinary life. And there is nothing wrong with an ordinary life. It is beautiful, and even if it doesn’t seem like much from the outside, there are many things in that list I am proud of.

But did I fulfill that “bright potential” Barb thought she saw in me?

You know how sometimes time slows down in your head? When she asked me that question, I had that experience. I thought “Oh, God, how do I answer that, I haven’t done anything that would impress someone like her” and my mind flashed through my life and I thought “my truest wish is that I could tell her ‘I am a writer.’”

Then time sped back up to its normal speed and I tried to answer.

Almost 50. The brightest parts of my life in the past. Unsure if I have any potential left.

Was her question a Rorschach test, the first response being the truest?

I know what I want to do with my life. It is the thing I have wanted to do since I was 15 and someone else in my 10th-grade English class stood up and read a poem she had written herself. Since I was 16 and didn’t know what to do with all of the feelings I had, and writing in my journal was one of the only ways I could find to cope. Since I was 10 and read a book I loved and thought I wish I could do that.

How do I do that?

How do I stop wanting to be a writer and actually be a writer?

How do I claim that my other roles—wife and mother and daughter and sister and friend and employee—are important but I want, I want, to do what I have always wanted to do?

Is it selfish?

Is it silly?

How do I convince myself that I deserve to follow the dream I always had for myself? How do I separate what is needed right now (helping Kaleb through high school, saving for retirement, managing the various ways my body is failing, encouraging Jacob to find his way, being helpful to Haley, Nathan, and Elliot) from what I want for the future? (writing that makes me realize: that has always been my problem, putting aside what I wanted for what was needed right now).

How do I find the courage—is it brightness? is it potential?—to say “succeed or fail, writer is where I am focusing my energy”?

Writing this and posting it on my backwater of a blog will not accomplish much. I know the answer: do the work. Try. Don't let the "yeah, but"s get in the way.

But it goes deeper than that. It is about finding courage, yes, but it is about finding that belief I used to have, the belief that I do have potential, that I do have a brightness to offer to the world.

How do I find that belief again?


Thoughts on Sophomore Year

Last week when I dropped Kaleb off at his first day of high school, I had an unexpected reaction. Kaleb and I had a good conversation while we drove to school, mostly joking, and then he told me goodbye and got out of the car. I watched him walk in for just a few seconds—the walkway was lined with cheerleaders shaking pompoms to welcome the students—and then someone honked so I pulled around the driveway and parked for a few minutes. Ostensibly, this waiting was just to make sure Kaleb didn’t need anything, but it was something else, too.

Becky asked me later if I had Feels about taking my youngest child to high school. Shockingly, I kind of didn’t, because it feels so unsure…will he get to stay the whole year? Will it all fall apart? I feel so unsure about how things will go this year with the virus that I don’t think my psyche knew what to do, and so decided on a kind of morose but gentle sadness.

Underneath that, though, was something darker. Something darker and harder and twisted. Something I couldn’t quite label, and it took me a few days, two very strange dreams, and a spark from another conversation for me to start exploring it.

I don’t remember my own very first day of high school. The year I was a sophomore, I was still a gymnast. I went to three classes and then, for the fourth class period, drove twenty minutes to the gym with an older teammate and worked out until six. Then I’d come home, eat, do homework, and start it all over again. That was as normal as my high school experience got, because eleventh grade was a disaster and for my senior year I went to the local community college. English, math, history, biology, art, and Spanish. If you put me back in that high school building, I could walk right to where my locker was. Even though I don’t remember the first day. There are no first-day photos (did people take those in the 80s?) so I don’t know what I wore. I don’t remember which class was first or even how I got there. Did my dad still drive me to school? He must’ve, I guess.

What I do remember clearly was the day of high school registration, which was early in August. I only had one new outfit, because back then my mom would put our school clothes on lay-away until right before classes started. But I loved that outfit, a yellow-and-grey floral print mini skirt and an off-the-shoulder shirt, also yellow. And the white ankle boots I’d gotten when I started ninth grade. My mom dropped me off in front of the school and I walked to where I’d arranged to meet my friends, most of whom lived on the east side and so had come together, given rides by the boys in their neighborhood. My heart sank as I got closer and closer to them, because I realized I was dressed entirely wrong. They all had black on, and they all looked so grown-up and elegant and knowing, while there I was in yellow. My hair felt wrong and my body felt wrong and I didn’t know what to do with my face or my hands.

It’s not that that day was my first time feeling like I didn’t fit in. That feeling had been with me for as long as I could remember. But that day, somehow it felt different. Somehow it felt like an indictment against my…well, I didn’t have the words for it, then, but against my sense of being a woman in the world. It felt like they already knew all the rules, how to dress and how to do their hair the right way, how to talk to boys, how to talk to each other, how to be friends but how to also never trust each other, either.

It was like they had received a letter over the summer that I didn’t get.

When I was in tenth grade, my first year of high school, my parents were fighting all the time. My dad was unemployed and didn’t have a direction to his life anymore. My mom was angry and frustrated at suddenly having to carry the load of being financially responsible for us. They fought all the time and I was alternately terrified that they would get divorced and that they never would. My two older sisters were in different stressful situations which affected the stress levels in our family. (They are not my stories to tell.) My grandpa had died and my grandma, who suffered from dementia, was living in a care home. (My mom was also mostly financially responsible for that bill, too.) We worked hard to make it look, from the outside, like we were a normal, functioning, happy family, but we were not.

Then there’s this: I didn’t really fit in anywhere. My best friend and teammate had quit gymnastics about a year earlier, and I had teammates but no one I thoroughly trusted. Besides, once you’re the girl who has cleaned the gym to pay for her gymnastics lessons, you will never really fit in. I didn’t fit the mold my old friends, from middle and junior high, seemed to fit, the good Mormon girl. My new friends were edgy and rebellious but it was still the same, I still had to watch and pay attention to figure out how I was supposed to act, who I was supposed to be.

So on that auspicious note, my dawning realization that everything about me was wrong, many of it in ways I didn’t even see yet, I started high school. With my mom-dyed hair and the clothes she went in debt for, and before the first term was over I was going to parties on Friday night after gymnastics, and sometimes I drank, and I kissed boys, and I hung out with the kids who did drugs. I kept this secret from my mom and my little sister and my gymnastics teammates, and I was invisible to my old friends, and my new ones taught me so many new things.

By Christmas I had managed to acquire a whole new, almost-all-black wardrobe. I never wore the white boots again.

I went from being a smart, if shy, “normal” girl with a great future in front of her to an angry girl who swore and hung out with the “bad” kids. I did keep my grades up—4.0 my whole sophomore year, even though I had to bluff my way through geometry—and I kept training, until my last meet on the weekend of my 16th birthday.

I didn’t know it, really. My parents didn’t either. But that afternoon at high school registration: that was the spark that started my long, dramatic explosion. Those years weren’t pretty for anyone to watch, and they were brutal for me.

But that is an old story, and not really the point of this writing.

Sophomore class photo

After I dropped Kaleb off, I came home and looked through all of my old photos, hoping I could find my sophomore class picture. I did, and I sat on the floor in my scrappy space and I looked at that girl I used to be. I looked at the picture I had taken of Kaleb before he left. And then I just tried to figure it out. Tried to name that dark, hard feeling.

And I realized: it was anger.

Because no one took care of that girl. When I started to spiral, no one—not teachers or church leaders or coaches or my parents or old friends or anyone—saw anything except I was now “bad.” No one thought…maybe she’s not immoral and awful, maybe she hasn’t suddenly become an idiot. No one thought maybe she is struggling.

They just saw the outside, the black clothes and the cussing tongue, the silver-toed boots and the mood, and they all thought “well, what happened to her?”

Like a piece of beef someone forgot to put in the fridge, I had spoiled. I had gone bad.

“Why don’t you just join the cheerleading squad?” my high school principal advised me (who also happened to be, in the incestuous nature of small Utah communities, my spiritual leader).

“If your problems were as bad as Chris’s, I could understand your behavior, but you have a great life,” my mom told me.

“I wish I could’ve had you when you were ten, but now you’re too old and slow to really improve much more,” my favorite coach told me.

I took their judgement and fired it into shame, and I let the shame fuel my decisions. If I already had that “bad” label, then why do anything else but work to deserve it? If I needed to feel shame for not being from a wealthy family, for having small boobs and muscular thighs, for my high forehead and the fact I preferred books to people—then I took that shame and turned it against myself before anyone else could do it for me.

The tools I had for coping were music, writing, and my messed-up friends. My friends who my mom mostly didn’t like, because obviously it was their fault I had turned bad. In a small way, she was right: they did teach me quite a bit. But I always chose. My choices were based out of fear, anger, shame, guilt, and a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand yet, but still: I chose.

I worked hard to deserve my “bad” label.

So very, very hard.

I looked at that picture of 15-year-old Amy again this morning. I thought…if I could talk to her, would I tell her to choose differently? To find new friends, to stay in gymnastics, to go to school, to not drink, to never, ever even meet that one boy, and then especially not the other one either.

I’m not sure I would.

Instead, I would tell her that goodness isn’t a black-and-white thing. It isn’t a quality narrowly defined by the tenants of one religion. I would tell her to make her bad-ass choices but to remember: she isn’t bad. She is hurting and she needs kindness, understanding, and judgement, and she will find a few people who will give that to her. I would tell her that she gets to define her goodness, and that she will never fit in but that will be OK, because she also gets to define her sense of self. That it is a life-long process, figuring out who she is, where she belongs, how to love herself.

What choices would I have made if I hadn’t made my choices from a place of shame?

I find myself wanting to tell her many things, but more than that, I want to tell some adult: LOOK. Pay attention. Don’t let her slip through this crevasse she’s sliding down.

I’m an adult now, so I understand how hard that is. It is hard to manage your own adult crap and watch out for your teenagers. I’m not really speaking out of judgement to the adults in my past who failed me.

But that dark, hard, bitter feeling? It is anger. Anger that no one was able to see me behind my actions. That no one extended me grace, so I had to do the best I could with what I had, but I never learned to extend myself grace either. Anger that even twenty-five years later, my mom would still talk about my “dark Amy” years with that tone that brought up all the old shame again. That for her, it was always, until she died, about how hard that time was for her.

Also anger at myself that after 30 years, I’m still carrying around this same old darkness, that I don’t know how to bring real light into my corners, that the weight still turns my back into a crook. Anger that all of my unresolved adolescent feelings were too thick to allow me to feel what I should feel about my youngest child starting high school.

But also a sense of resolve. I will never claim to have been a perfect parent. Maybe, as my mom couldn’t give me what I needed, no one can give their child what they need. Maybe that is inherent to the mother/child relationship. I only know my relationship with my mother and my relationship as a mother. I know I made many mistakes and will continue to do so. But the thing is: I always wanted to help them, each one of them, avoid that feeling. That feeling of wrongness, of not fitting in, of not being enough. I tried to love them through their mistakes, instead of judging them. (I wasn’t perfect at that either, but that was my intention.) I will try to never use their pasts as cudgels in the present.

I only have one teenager left. Even though I’ve already raised three of them, I still don’t know what I’m doing. I still don’t know what the right choices are, because they each need something different. But I want to do better with Kaleb. I want my presence in his teenage years to be one of someone who encourages him to find who he is, not who the world thinks he should be. Someone who will recognize that behaviors aren’t always indicative of the type of person someone is, but a reaction to the types of experiences that person is having.

If there is any saving grace to what I went through in high school, let it be that: let it be a way that teaches me what Kaleb will need as he navigates high school, so that when the three years are over, he arrives at graduation with an intact sense of self-grace instead of this half-buried anger I don’t know how to get rid of.


Why I Wear a Mask

As the pandemic continues, I have been thinking about fear.

To be fair, I have thought about fear quite often over the past 15 years or so. I think about it when someone tells me I’m brave to go running on my own. I think about it when someone says I’m foolish to go running on my own, too. I’m not fearless about running by myself. I always tell someone where I’m going and how long I’ll be. I take my cell phone with me and make sure it is charged. I watch for people who give strange vibes and I cross roads with the utmost caution. Every time I leave to go running, in fact, I have the thought that this one might be the run when something bad happens: when I get hit by a car, when someone pulls me into the weeds and rapes me, when I fall and get an injury I can’t walk home with…

If you let it, the fear can control your imagination. So I choose, every time I go for a run, to go anyway, despite my fears. Because the truth is, I don’t have someone to run with consistently. If I decided to not run because of my fears, then I would never run, and not running is not an option. So I take precautions and I try to make my choices based on reality rather than on the fearful scenarios my brain can devise.

There is an idea in American society right now that people are wearing masks out of fear. I’ve seen it expressed on social media, of course, but also I’ve seen it in person. The man in the post office in April, who shouted at me because I was wearing a mask while I waited in line to mail a package to Nathan, that I was an idiot for believing in the government’s scare tactics. (And the flu kills more people than this stupid imaginary virus.) “You’re just wearing that mask because you’re a coward,” he said. Luckily librarian eyebrow is REALLY noticeable when you’re wearing a mask. I didn’t even respond with words, just glared at him until he shut up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not wearing a mask because I am afraid. I am wearing a mask because it might help turn the tide, flatten the curve, calm the wave. I’m wearing one because it could help keep someone else from getting sick. I’m wearing one because that’s what scientists are recommending.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid. I am afraid. I don’t want to bring the virus into my family. I have gone through enough medical conditions with my family to fill an entire lifetime. It is enough. I don’t want my husband, whose heart has undergone FOUR damaging processes, to catch a virus that can cause heart damage. I don’t want my teenage son, who has an aortic bulge, to catch a virus that can cause aortic bulges. I don’t want my adult son, who is grappling with mental health issues, to add illness to his list of struggles. I, in my own body, do not want to catch it. My breathing has already been irrevocably altered by pertussis. I don’t need another thing.

I also don’t want any of my adult kids who are out in the world, away from my house, to catch it. I hope many, many complete strangers I will never meet will be wearing masks so that my kids can be healthy and safe, so they can push forward with their amazing and brave pursuits.

All of my friends and family members: I don’t want any of them to get sick, either.

I also reject the idea that I’m wearing a mask because I don’t have enough faith. “I know where I am going when I die,” I have heard more than once, “so I’m not afraid. If it’s my time, it’s my time, and I will be happy in heaven.” My faith has changed so much in the past five years that I can no longer grasp this concept, but even when I did think I knew where I was going, I didn’t want to die. I want to live a long life. I want to see my kids fulfill their ambitions. I hope I get to be a grandma one day. I want to travel. I want to sit in restaurants with friends and laugh and talk together. I still have books to write, races to run, mountains to climb. I want to be here, in this place, living with the people I love. Death is inevitable, but I don’t want to invite it in any sooner than necessary, not because of fear of the afterlife but because I am here, right now, and it is what I know.

When I run by myself, I only use one headphone and I keep my music low so I can hear my surroundings. I check over my shoulder and I look around for weirdos. I also watch the path; what divots or stones do I need to avoid so I don’t twist an ankle? I put on sunscreen so I don’t get sunburned, and make sure I have access to water on longer runs. I don’t run naked but in fact spend no small amount of money on running clothes that keep my boobs from bouncing and compress my hamstrings in a supportive way. I wear socks so I don’t get blisters and shoes so I don’t cut my feet open.

These are the precautions I take to keep myself safe in order to do something that I love. Do they absolutely guarantee that I won’t get hurt, raped, hit by a car, or otherwise injured? No (although I do ensure that there is ZERO boob bouncing). But they up the odds of my safety.

It’s the same with mask-wearing during a global pandemic (although it’s starting to feel like an American epidemic, isn’t it?) I don’t wear a mask because I’m a coward (or because I’m manipulated by the media, influenced by propaganda, virtue signaling to others, or any of the other dumb things people have said or insinuated). I wear one because I understand the risks and want to do what I can to make them smaller, for myself and for others.

This past weekend, my niece who lives in Texas was visiting Utah. I haven’t seen her entire family for years—long enough that none of her kids really even know who I am, but I was excited to see them all anyway. We haven’t had any family interaction since December, so when my sister planned a family party, I was so looking forward to it. But then Texas exploded with cases, and Utah’s cases continued to go up, and I got nervous. None of my concerns about hearts and lungs and mental health have changed. I wanted to go to see my family, but I also wanted to stay safe. So, I very carefully asked. I know this is a hot-button issue and people have strong opinions on both sides. I didn’t want to seem like I was taking all my toys and going home, but I also needed to lower the risk. I asked if people would wear masks to the party. And I know: many of them didn’t want to. Many of them disagree with my opinion.

But, you know? I went to the party and they all wore masks. No one made me feel bad, no one told me I was a coward. Maybe after I left they all took their masks off and had a mask-and-Amy-free party without me, and that is fine.

But they respected my issues because (I think) they love me and wanted to see me. I mean…it might’ve just been for my cake, but I think it was for me.

I can’t help but contrast that with another large activity Kendell and I went to a few weeks ago. We went full of hesitation but wanting to be supportive. We both wore our masks. And we were literally the. only. people. wearing masks. One other person put on his mask in solidarity, but everyone else went about their partying way, maskless. I caught the eye of several people, friends and family both, and the looks on their faces: pity, ridicule, and many efforts not to laugh. It was almost like being back in high school, when the queen bee deigned to notice you and then spotted your flaw and her eyes widened in delight at this thing she could mock you for. Like that, except far more disappointing than painful because now we are grown ups and should know better.

It is a form of privilege, honestly. To stand in the midst of so many people getting sick and so many who are dying and to defy the precautions. It might seem brave to you, you might think I am living in fear, but honestly, to me you are being stupid. It shows that you have yet to learn one of life’s cruelest truths. Illness comes to everyone, eventually, and while you might be healed you are never the same. You will always be fixed, there will always be a scar.

So I will wear my mask. In hopes that it protects my family. In hopes that it protects others. In hopes that it will create good karma that protects my out-of-state loved ones. In hopes that I will not be the vector that causes life to teach you that truth.

Not in fear, but in hope.