A Choice that Bolsters All of Us: My Thoughts on Simone Biles and The Tokyo Olympics Team Gymnastics Competition

During my last season of gymnastics (four months of meets and intense training for those meets, stretching from January to my birthday in April, 1987), my closest teammate had a mental block. Her beam routine included a front flip, and for whatever reason, she became afraid of doing it. As I had my own block (the round off on my beam dismount) I had all sorts of empathy for her. As meets grew closer she would grow more and more anxious, but she always showed up to the meets and almost always nailed that front flip. But then, once in practice, she fell and injured her shin. She got x-rayed and since there was no break, she got taped up and kept going. That’s what gymnasts do.

AmyGymnastics11But as the qualifying meet grew closer, she struggled more. Then, at the start of one of our workouts during the week before the meet, the beam coach gathered us all to sit on the floor. She had this teammate stand in front of us, and told us what she’d done. At school a few days before, she’d walked through the halls, asking boys to kick her on her injured shin. Our coach didn’t explain why she might’ve done this, but she did say it was a disgusting thing to do; if she ever heard of anyone else doing such a thing they were now warned that they would be kicked out. This teammate was only being allowed to stay because no one had ever expressly had to say “don’t try to make your injury worse by having others hurt you.”

My teammate sat down next to me and I put my arm around her shoulder, but we could both hear the other gymnasts whispering. “Weird” and “creepy” and “gross” and “what’s wrong with her?” But as I had already also discovered self-harm, I didn’t have that response. Mostly I was grateful to know that I wasn’t the only one who was weird and gross in the same way.

The season continued, my teammate’s shin stayed taped, I never did get over my fear of my round off dismount. It was one of the reasons I got second in the all-around on my life’s last meet, instead of first like I was supposed to. Like real winners do. I did win first on bars, which was my favorite and best event, so I was OK because my beam coach was already disappointed in me, but my bars coach still had some respect.

After that meet, my teammate and I both left gymnastics. You’d think we’d stay friends, but somehow we didn’t. (I have searched for her on social media more than once and haven’t found her. I’ve also changed some of the details of her story, just in case.)

This story is both unique and commonplace. Unique in its details but commonplace because every gymnast has a similar story. More than one. Things that happened to them, things that happened to their teammates. I’m telling her story because it greatly affected my outcome as well, in ways I am still trying to understand.

Because here’s the thing: gymnastics is a complicated sport. It’s not just about back handsprings and front flips, Yurchenkos and Tkatchevs, wolf turns and triple pirouettes. It requires an enormous amount of mental energy to get your body to do things normal people would never try. You have to conquer rational fear and then train your body to work towards defying gravity for a few seconds, twisting or flipping all the while. With pointed toes and smile.

It is also politics: not everyone gets the same level of attention from coaches.

Who had the most expensive leotards. Whose parents put the most money into the booster club. Whose enormous cabin could be used for team retreats. Who the coaches like the best and think have the most potential (usually the ones with the richest parents). Who’s been loyal to the club for the longest. Who is most likely to do great things like become Elite or get a college scholarship or make it to Nationals. Who is willing to try anything, doesn’t express fear, does everything the coaches tell her to do.

Despite that, it’s also the deep connections you make with your teammates. The way you know the history of their injuries and how to tape them if a coach isn’t around. You know your teammates’ floor routines as well as they do. You cheer for them even knowing it means their win is your loss, because it also means their success is a win for the team.

I loved my decade in gymnastics. I learned skills that I still use today: perseverance, toughing it out, encouraging others, bravery. A sense of my body within the world and a sort of confidence that still helps me keep my head up. How to tape a sprained ankle and how to care for a deep bloody blister. A precise cartwheel.

But I also carry some pretty good scars. Self-doubt. Despair over every ripple and lump and extra pound on my body. Guilt that my parents paid so much for my gym time and then I didn’t get a scholarship like my mom so desperately wanted me to. A bone-deep shame. The ever-present feeling that I was destined for greatness but I didn’t get it because I was a coward, even while I’m the first to acknowledge that I was never going to be an Olympian or even an Elite. I was a mediocre gymnast who never conquered her dismount fear; I was the support staff whose time, fees, and body supported the real winners.

All of those feelings, positive and negative, are still here in my body.

So when I watch gymnastics, I always cry. My body remembers exactly how it felt to move in some of those ways. I wish I could still move in those ways, could still be lithe and strong and graceful. My psyche remembers the negatives, the bloody hands and wrists, the shame of not being great like those girls on TV are.

But I’ve never cried like I did last night, watching the Tokyo Olympics team round and Simone Biles walking off the floor.

***

Kendell walked in and caught me crying and asked me why. I couldn’t explain for a bit because the lump in my throat was so large.

After her vault, when she is talking in that rushed way with her teammates, Simone says “I don’t trust myself.”

That was when I started crying.

Simone Biles does some amazing gymnastics. She is strong, talented, and skilled, but no matter what it still takes bravery to do what she does.

Unless you have been a gymnast, it is hard to understand how brave she was to do what she did at the team competition.

All of those entwining emotions that go into gymnastics. The idea that your body must be sacrificed on the altar of gold medals. The way your coach can humiliate you by simply seeing you make a mistake you shouldn’t have. The way you both support and lean upon your teammates. Not to mention the fierce public eye, which must feel like it is always on her.

As a gymnast, you do your routines and your moves, you compete because at one point you loved this sport. It was fun and it brought you bliss, learning how to flip and spin without getting (too) injured. Defying gravity without a space suit. Dancing across the floor in a sparkly leo. That joy stays with you, but it isn’t always there. For coaches, for gymnastics clubs, it’s still a business. It’s still and always about winning, the work of winning, not about the joy of moving your body. It’s not completely or even mostly about you as a person or as an athlete, but about you as a winner. You are really, simply grist.

So there is Simone, at the Olympics. The Olympics team competition. There she is, and she is struggling. In an invisible way, in a way you can’t tape or stitch together, a way you can’t shake off. In her head. In her gymnastics self, which knows how to do the things she does with her body, she cannot make that connection.

Everyone knows the stories. Everyone thinks of Kerri Strugg doing her second vault despite her ankle injuries. Gymnasts just go on, anyway.

By withdrawing from the competition, Simone Biles did something so mind-blowingly brave. So brave.

By walking away, she said that she would not risk her body for anyone. Not for her teammates, who I know she loves. Not for her country, who loves her. Not for her coaches, who helped her get to that point. Not for that gold medal. Not for fame or adulation or endorsements.

Because her mental game was not there, she knew she was risking her body if she continued. And she was brave enough to break the gymnastics rule that says “you must always risk your body.”

That was why I cried while I watched it. Because I know how much courage that took. And because I know most of the world will not understand it, and will say awful things about her.

Because taking care of your own body as a gymnast is only supposed to be something you do to become a winner, not to not compete.

***

Many people will write about what happened in gymnastics during this Olympics. My contribution to this discussion is miniscule. But all night, I couldn’t sleep. I was full of…something. Both dread and awe. The memory of my teammate’s bruised shin. When I slept I dreamed round offs turning into cartwheels, over and over. 

But I am still adding this little bit. My voice to this conversation, because something shifted in me, watching her last night. Honestly, she’s never been my favorite gymnast (no one will ever replace Julianne McNamara for that spot in my heart), but that doesn’t matter. Last night, her bravery gave me just a tiny bit of grace for myself. For that part of me who is still 15, still facing down that dismount with my taped-up ankle and tiger claws on my wrists and perpetual wounds on my palms, who was lithe and strong and graceful but who boiled in shame anyway. The coaches and the teammates and even my parents couldn’t quite give me that grace to say I was anything worthwhile. I wasn’t great enough to matter, so what I did do was pointless: that feeling was what stretched and started to dissolve a bit, last night.

I wasn’t an Olympian. I didn’t earn a scholarship. I was a lowly class II gymnast. I didn’t sacrifice hard enough, I didn’t give enough, I wasn’t enough: I have carried that feeling for my whole life.

Her decision last night helped it weigh a little bit less.

Her decision bolsters all gymnasts.

In that moment, she chose what was right for her. That is never allowed in gymnastics, but she did it. Her choice tells us that we matter. Not because of medals or scholarships or rankings, but because we are individuals with bodies in the world. Because she matters—as a person, not as a medal winner—the rest of us matter too.

And it is why—not because of the five moves named after her—that she will always be the greatest of all time.


Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

“It was always a cruelty to promise them equality,” he said, “since by their nature they can never achieve it. We have already begun the merciful task of lowering their expectations."

TestamentsI have answered “The Handmaid’s Tale” to the question “what’s your favorite novel?” since the late 1990s. (It’s not really a true answer; in my heart of hearts I can’t pick just one favorite, but clarifying with “my favorite feminist/dystopia mashup is The Handmaid’s Tale” gets clunky.) I first read it in the summer of 1990, after I had discovered Margaret Atwood via Cat’s Eye. It was one of the first books I bought with my own money (I still own that copy, in fact; it is a BOTM edition that also includes Surfacing and Life before Man, which I haven’t ever actually read). “Nolite tes bastardes carborundorum” has been my motto ever since. In a sense, those two Atwood books I read in 1990 shaped the outcome of my life; in a way, they saved me. They gave me literature, gave me really good writing, as a reason to stay in this world when darkness had almost overcome me.

I don’t think I could claim The Handmaid’s Tale as my favorite novel, though, until I had read more widely and understood more clearly what the book does, how clearly it illustrates the ease of a society taking away women’s rights and how deeply ingrained sexism is. And then the way the ending sets the entire story on a different track.

I’ve read it seven or eight times. I wrote an essay about it while working on my undergrad and talked about it with some of my more widely-thinking English students when I was teaching. (One student came into my room once during my prep period and said “Mrs. Sorensen! I just finished a book I think you would love!” and it was The Handmaid’s Tale and yes…that was a good teaching day.) I lead a book group discussion about it at the library. And never once did I think “I really wish I knew what happened to Offred.”

What happened to Offred is so not the point of The Handmaid’s Tale. It isn’t a novel that works because of the plot, or only because of it. It is a novel that pushes you to ask yourself difficult questions, about yourself, about the people you have relationships with, and about society.

But apparently, that is just me, and Margaret Atwood has been getting requests like “what happened to Offred?” and “how does Gilead fall?” from readers ever since.

Hence, The Testaments.

I was fairly disappointed that Atwood, one of my favorite writers, would write a sequel. But, here it is, along with a TV show (which, nope: I’ve never watched. Yes, it’s my favorite novel. No, I don’t need someone else interpreting it visually for me.) I did buy the book—I actually pre-ordered it—because it’s kind of a personal rule that I must buy every book she writes. But I didn’t even flip through it. Just stuck it on my shelf. Really: I didn’t need to know what happened to Offred (or June, as we’ve now learned her name is.)

But a few weeks ago, The Testaments was on the “available now” screen when I needed something to listen to at the start of a long walk. So I downloaded it and gave it a try. I went into it with zero expectations, without any of my usual Atwood fangirl emotion. Not even sure I would finish it.

I ended up finishing it.

I ended up liking it, even. (But not loving.) Did it change my life like The Handmaid’s Tale did? No. Do I think it is Atwood’s best novel? Absolutely not. Am I glad I read it? Yes.

I wrote before that The Handmaid’s Tale pushes you to ask difficult questions, and one of them for me is “why do women so easily turn on each other?” The regime of Gilead would not work without women’s complicity, especially the Aunts’. There is also that mean-girl structure we can so easily settle in to, with the Commander’s wives wielding whatever small powers they might have over the Marthas and especially over the handmaids. This isn’t just a thing that happens in novels, either; in my adult lifetime I have experienced several relationships with adult women who, in the end, I could only understand as Queen Bees protecting their regime. Women go to anti-abortion rallies. Women declare that we don’t need feminism. And I could write many pieces about how women hold themselves down by embracing the patriarchy within religion.

That is a question that The Testaments seeks to answer, as we get to read Aunt Lydia’s story. We come to understand how she got to be in the place of (relative) power she holds in Gilead and the machinations she undertakes to keep it. Her motivations aren’t mean-girl based. Instead, they are simply her doing what she needs to do to stay alive within a social structure that would be very happy to kill her. “What good is it,” Aunt Lydia thinks, “to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot?” Is it better, morally speaking, to be killed by refusing to conform or to say alive by shoving other women under the steamroller?

The story is told in three voices: Aunt Lydia, who is writing her experiences down in secret, as women obviously shouldn’t be writing anything, and the “witness testimonies” of two girls, Agnes and Daisy. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander, being raised in the tenants of the Gilead regime. Daisy is a young teenager living in Canada. These three stories eventually converge. Some of the questions from The Handmaid’s Tale are answered. You even get to read an ending that is similar, another conference discussing the study of Gilead.

In the end, I am glad I read The Testaments. I didn’t hate it. But it lacked that edge that Atwood’s other books have had. I wasn’t terrified within the society, as I was when I read Offred’s story. Maybe Gilead seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who doesn’t remember living a different way is less terrifying. At the same time, I was still full of anger and resentment over the usurpation of women’s rights. That narrow, self-righteous way of thinking, dressed in the guise of “preserving women’s virtue,” is not something I’ve only found in books, and it is my least-favorite way of being treated. So the book definitely made me feel something, and it does an excellent job reminding readers, all over again, that yes: we still need feminism. (Say it louder for the women in the back of the room.)

And we continue to need the kind of book that reminds of that. As Aunt Lydia says, “history does not repeat itself, it rhymes.” The Testaments is a rhyme of a book that didn’t need a repletion, really. But if she had to write it to fling more story to the clamoring masses, this one was OK. At least they got their answers.

And I am left asking myself if I can still say The Handmaid’s Tale is my favorite [feminist dystopian] novel. It is, but now I feel like I have to clarify: I felt that way before it was cool.

[This is book #5 in my 2021 summer reading challenge.]


"And Yet You Will Weep and Know Why": Thoughts on My Dad

Yesterday I listened to a scrapbooking podcast while I worked in my flowerbeds. The topic was documenting your dad’s stories, and as I listened I had some realizations. The timing was odd for me, as it is June, which holds both his birthday and Father’s day, when I already think about my dad more than usual. This July marks a decade since his death, but since he had an undiagnosed type of dementia, he has been “gone” for much longer…I think we had our last semi-real and meaningful conversation in 2006.

Img014

A few days ago, I was at the grocery store, and in the produce section I realized I must’ve come at the grandparent hour, as I was surrounded by old people. Mostly couples, one pushing the cart, the other gathering apples or onions or romaine, but there was one man who was by himself. He looked nothing like my dad but he made me think about my dad. What-ifs starting filling up my mind. What if his marriage had been happier? What if he had found fulfilling work after the steel mill closed? What if he could’ve recognized his inaction not as laziness, as my mom labeled it, but as depression? What if his dad hadn’t died when he was in high school? What if his parents’ marriage had been happier? What if his mom had loved him more? What if he’d skipped football on whatever day his skull was hit too hard, what if he’d skipped football altogether? What if he hadn’t stood in the open refrigerator, depression-eating mayonnaise out of a jar with a soup spoon bent by scooping ice cream from the container?

(I believe all of these things contributed to his early dementia.)

I looked at that old man putting a small bag of red potatoes in his cart and I wondered. What would my dad have been like as a real grandpa? What if he could’ve grown old and achey, his hair entirely white, still talking and telling stories and laughing at off-color jokes? What if he could’ve really interacted and known my children—how would he have loved them, how would their lives be changed? How would I feel, right now, nearing 50 and empty-nesthood and my own aging, if I had a dad I could turn to for help or advice or maybe just a good long phone call about a person he knows from down at the coffee shop?

Img035

When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought it would be a list of questions I wish I could ask my dad. Did you ever wish you had a son? How did you really feel about your marriage? Why didn’t you try harder to spend time with my kids when you could? Tell me a good memory about your dad. Tell me a good memory about your mother. Why did we never visit your grandparents’ grave even though we were in the same cemetery every Memorial Day? What did you love about football? What did you love about wandering around in the desert? Were you, like mom, disappointed in how my life turned out?

Or maybe I would write about the realization I had. When I dig into my family history, I am consistently disappointed by the lack of stories about my female ancestors. Even the short life-story someone wrote about the person I was named for—titled “Amy Simmons’ Life Story”—is mostly about her husband and sons. So I have told parts of my story, and of my mom’s and my grandmas’. But I have told very few of my dad’s stories, and all of what I have written down is about me interacting with him, not him as a person independent from being my dad.

Img024

What surprised me about writing this—knocked me on my back, so to speak, with an absolute flood of tears—is how raw it all still is. How I have put away unexamined so many ugly and painful truths about our family, simply because he died. I haven’t really processed any of it, my parents’ shaky marriage and how it impacts still, to this very moment, my own. The way I loved my dad and I know he loved me but how I also have a lot of buried anger at him, and how if I could hold it up and look at it, I think it would look a lot like the anger my own children must have for me. How I am just like him in many ways, not all of them positive.

Ten years ago, my dad died. I thought it was a life event, a thing that everyone has to face, and while it was unfair that I had to do it at 39, at least I had good memories to hold on to. Those summer weeks in Lake Powell, the look on his face when I stood on a first-place podium after a gymnastics meet (which was the same look when I stood in 9th place or in no place at all), that one time in the car driving him home from the airport with Haley in her carseat and he sang “you are my sunshine” with her and that’s the only time I ever heard him sing.

I thought: he died and I miss him and so I have to let go of all of the rest of it, the complications and the disappointments and the wounds and the struggles. But ten years later, if I let myself think about it, if I stop to be within it:

I only put the things on a shelf. They are still there, unprocessed, unspoken, still being carried around. His death didn't negate them and it didn't heal them.

I still miss him.

It still doesn’t feel any better since he started leaving by stopping speaking.

None of it is resolved, none of it is repaired, and it can’t ever be. Not really. I can work through my own issues over our history, give voice to my own angers and sorrows, write down what I loved about him and my favorite memories and the fact that I will likely never go back to Lake Powell because Lake Powell is my childhood and so it can’t exist without him.

But me processing it doesn’t help him. It doesn’t fix his wounds and his damage and his anger (which he never, ever voiced).

Me processing it doesn’t give him the chance to go to his brother’s 80th birthday party last month.

It doesn’t let him be at my kids’ graduations.

Or let him have a good, long, loving but hard conversation with my son who is his generational twin.

Or stand in the grocery store as an old man buying potatoes.

You live with it—grief, loss. Sometimes it feels less heavy, but I think that is only because life, the living of your life, lets it weigh less. And then something happens, some small thing, a stranger in a store, and you start to feel the weight of it. I don’t want to not feel it, honestly, because it is the only way I have of interacting with my dad anymore. I miss him and part of me will always be mad at God for not letting him have more joy in his life.

And I guess I just needed to put this out into the world today:

I wish my dad was still here.

101_0176 amy don edit b&w


An Emotion I Don't Know the Word For: on Time and Daughters Growing

When my kids were newborns, I cried a lot. I would look at them, their tiny toes and perfect skin, their unscarred-by-the-world innocent smiles, and cry. I loved the experience of mothering my babies, and I knew it would be fleeting, that the tininess and the gentleness would end. I wanted to hold on to them, to make them stay forever small, but at the same time I wanted to know them, to speak to them, to listen to the story of their day, to bake them their favorite cake.

1995 haley newborn with amy 4x6

I was so happy in those sweet, blissful moments, even with the diapers and the spit up and the exhaustion. The clean-baby smell, the long hours spent just rocking or holding a tiny human, singing Yaz songs to them quietly in my awful voice. I loved them so much and I wanted to protect them and I knew I couldn’t, not fully, not completely, because they were here to grow up and become a part of the world, the world that would need them but also sometimes harm them. I knew they would have their hearts broken and be betrayed, that they would have illnesses and broken bones and all sorts of struggles. I knew that life, no matter how good, also holds difficulties. We can’t be human without them and yet I wanted to keep them away from every type of pain and damage.

My mom told me it was just hormones and I would stop crying eventually.

And sort of, I did. I learned that there is joy in all of the phases of parenting. It’s never the same as that first rush of newborn love, but that is just fine. There are a million different types of love you are blessed to feel as a mom.

But even as I loved each phase, I still, in the moment of it, was deeply aware that it wouldn’t last. This joy—the magic of her reading her first words out loud, his absolute bliss the first time he ran across the beach toward the ocean, the pride infusing his whole body as he managed to ride his bike without wobbling, his concentrated admiration of an orange flower as he struggled to balance in the green grass. At each good moment I still felt the tug, that same sorrow right in the middle of happiness.

I don’t know if there is a word for this feeling: The awareness, while in the middle of happiness, that the happiness itself is ephemeral, so that part of the happiness is always a deep sadness over its ending.

I don’t know if everyone feels that, even.

But it is a feeling I have had ever since they first put my daughter Haley into my arms.

20210228_125758 haley amy porch 4x6

Yesterday was Haley’s 26th birthday. We got an email from our health insurance company letting us know that a life event had happened to change our policy: she aged out.

And I confess: It made me cry. That same kind of crying that I did when she was a newborn, barely seven pounds, and I was terrified I would do everything wrong but I knew I loved her too much to ever make any mistakes and I would do whatever it took to protect her all her life.

All her life. Pediatrician visits and immunizations. Broken bones. Eye doctor and the dentist. The dermatologist for her plantar warts. Stitches. Physical therapy for her shin splints. All the way up to adult medical needs: I’ve taken care of that, taken care of her in those ways, for every day of her life.

And now she’s on her own.

The feeling is the same, but my understanding of it is different. When they were newborns, the feeling was about them being newborns. Now they are adults, the feeling is about them being newborns and toddlers and schoolkids and teenagers and who they are right now. The feeling is about knowing the feeling will never go away and that I wouldn't want it to.

Right in the midst of birthday happiness, of taking the day to think about all of the things she has accomplished and the good things that are happening in her life, I was reminded there is no holding on to any moment. Time just keeps passing. All we have is now, and now is infinitely precious because in a second it will be replaced by another now.


Connections

I spent a good chunk of time yesterday making side dishes for today’s Easter meal. (It took me much longer than normal to put together a pasta salad and a frog eye salad and some dough for sweet rolls, because I’m so slow and cautious on my feet right now.) While I cooked, I thought about cooking for holiday meals. My sister texted me and asked for the berry cake recipe, my niece texted and asked for clarification on the berry cake (salted or unsalted butter?) It’s been since I was a teenager that I prepared a meal with someone else in the kitchen, and those texts or phone calls have become part of why I love prepping for holidays: shared recipes, asking for help, knowing we are all cooking at the same time if not in the same kitchen.

Easter 2004
Easter 2004 in my parents' front yard

When my kids were growing up, I loved Easter. We would all gather for a meal at my mom’s house in the afternoon. We always had ham and cheese potatoes, with a rotating cast of side dishes. If it was good weather we’d eat in the back yard. Then we’d have an Easter egg hunt. Those afternoons of being in the yard I loved as a kid, vibrant with spring flowers, listening to my kids and nieces and nephews run around and laugh and cheer…I loved them. The days, the people, the setting. 

Easter party 2005
the last babies, Kaleb and Ben, with my dad, Easter 2005

About 12 years ago, I was shopping at Williams Sonoma and came across a Mary Ann cake pan on clearance. As I have always been the provider of desserts at family parties, I was intrigued, a pan with fluted edges and a well in the top to fill with fruit. I snatched it up and made it for Easter that year (after making a practice cake that was kind of a disaster…the pan is SO tricky to get oiled correctly so the cake comes out without breaking) and everyone loved it, so that is what I brought to Easter dinners forevermore. (Well, and sugar cookies for the kids, and also sometimes my lemon cake as well.)

Mary ann cake
my Mary Ann cake from last year, on my mom's cake plate

All these years later, I still have that pan.

What I don’t have: my dad, my mom, my mom’s house. Little kids who love going to grandma’s house. That easy and uncomplicated relationship in my extended family. Even not knowing that it wasn’t easy and uncomplicated. In this time after both my parents are gone, these post-trump, end-of-pandemic times, we are all deeply fractured and have retreated to the safety of our own homes.

And here it is, Easter. A gorgeous Easter Sunday and my spring flowers are perfect blossoms. There won’t be any little kids today, running around searching for candy. The Easter baskets are sparse because adult kids don’t care and the teenager just wants clothes. We aren’t even having the raspberry cake from the Mary Ann pan, because the boys voted for a Skor cake instead.

Easter 13 the girls 4x6
all the girls, Easter 2013

But it makes me happy, still, to think of my sister and more than one of my nieces, who have procured Mary Ann cake pans of their own, serving them to their families.

And I will have most of my family with me today. We’ll eat—steak, pasta salad, brown rice—and laugh. We’ll take some pictures among the spring flowers, maybe with bare feet in the barely-green grass.

And the rest of my extended family will be eating, laughing, taking pictures at the same time. It’s not how it used to be, and there is some devastation in that. But hopefully the ways we have influenced each other in the past—cake pans and recipes, encouragement and advice—will continue on in the future.

Easter 2012
Kaleb and Nathan hunting for eggs, Easter 2012

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.


My History with Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women

She preferred imaginary heroes to real ones, because when tired of them, the former could be shut up in the tin kitchen till called for, and the latter were less manageable.

Fifth grade was a difficult year for me. It was the year that everyone’s alliances began to form, and here I was, shy and nerdy and, frankly, easily excluded because I didn’t go to church much. I lived in a little town, and we almost never had any new students, but that year, we had five: two sets of twins and a non-twin. Four girls, one boy.

I was sure I was in for an influx of new friends, but only kind of. I was still nerdy and shy and didn’t really know how to fit in, but some of the new kids were sort-of my friends. I remember feeling lonely a lot that year, except when I wasn’t, and maybe that was the time in my life when I learned not love reading not just because of loving stories, but because of its power to assuage loneliness.

A history of little womenThe March sisters were my constant friends.

I wish my mom had bought me my own copy, and that I still had it, but I checked out the library’s copy. It was a hardback, without a dust jacket, and the cover was a dirty pink linen. It had the Frank T. Merrill illustrations. I think I read Little Women five or six times that year; one time I read the whole thing over the weekend. (I know this because I put those 499 pages on my reading chart and my teacher, Mr. Strong, called my parents because he was concerned about me reading so much. Or maybe he thought I was lying, I don’t know.) I remember once being upset over friends, but not being able to cry about it, so I had my mom take me to the library. I checked out Little Women, went home, read the two chapters about Beth dying, and had a good cry.

I’m not really sure why or how I ended up picking it up in the first place…maybe it was just a lucky find, but Little Women came into my life, as some books do, at exactly the time I needed it. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy became people I trusted and relied on. They always did the same thing, every time I reread the book, and rereading made me feel like I was included somewhere. Marmee was such a different mother from my own, and sometimes I was baffled by the talks she had with her daughters, but I loved her. I could relate to Meg’s issues with her clothes not being quite right, as I always felt that, too (in particular one pair of melon-colored pants that I HATED and felt so uncomfortable in but my mom loved them and so sent me out in all the time anyway…I remember looking at how wide my hems were compared to Lori’s, who was wearing pegged jeans before pegged jeans were cool and literally blushing I felt so wrong and out of place in the world.) I loved that Meg’s daughter was named Daisy. I wanted to be able to draw like Amy (alas, still do). There was a bit of Beth in me—the shyness and the love of cats, and since we were both third daughters in a family of four girls, I felt a special attachment to her. I loved reading about their little domestic details and imagining their house, especially the attic where the plays were held. And since even then I loved babies, my heart was broken over the Hummel’s lost one.

But of course, as with so many other bookish girls, my favorite was Jo. It was her love of books, partly, and her desire to be a writer. (How many women who want to be writers found that spark as girls reading about Jo’s adventures?)  She was spunky and courageous and energetic and altogether herself. I know I didn’t have the words then to understand this, but what made me love Jo was her ability to push forward and be who she was, especially in such a society, with its narrow rules for women. I was drawn to the very fact that she did know herself, in some way, and then worked to be that person. I didn’t even know how to tell my mom what kind of pants I wanted to wear, but there was Jo, going to New York, writing her stories, rejecting Laurie. (Of course, that last broke my heart.) To my preteen brain, she seemed in control of her life in ways I would never be, and by reading her story I got to at least witness someone doing that.

Sometime during sixth grade, I reread Little Women for the last time. I can’t explain this, either: why did I stop rereading it? I had that brief stint in middle school when I was friends with the popular girls; it lasted until I had the audacity to rent the movie Cujo for my twelfth birthday party, and then I wasn’t anymore. But maybe those few months gave me another kind of courage, the start of the knowledge of how to be in the world. It would be years until I could be like Jo, until I could be unrepentantly myself (I am still learning to do that, honestly), but it started with her companionship during those years. I turned to other, darker books as company, but Jo and her sisters and Marmee and their genteel, quiet world always stayed with me.

For our library’s city-wide read this year, we are doing Little Women. (If you live in Orem, you can come in and get a free copy for your family.) I was set to host the book club meeting for September, so I went ahead and did Little Women so as to participate more in the other programs. Which means that for the first time since sixth grade, I reread Little Women. My impression of it as an adult is so deeply tied to my relationship as a child that I can’t write about it without writing this history first. So, my next blog post will be about my rereading of the book, but I felt like this history needed to be told for the next part to make any sense.


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.


Thoughts on Remaking

Just a little over 17 years ago, I went out on a run in order to think. In order to make a decision: accept the teaching position that was offered to me or not? On the outside, it didn’t seem like a hard choice. I had just finished up a year of school followed by a semester of student teaching. I had my second degree and my freshly-minted teaching certificate, a tight grip on a sort of surety that through teaching I could make a difference and that I would matter. Why wouldn’t I accept it?

Because in my heart of hearts, and in my discussions with my husband, I didn’t want to go to work. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I wanted to walk Jake to kindergarten and walk home with him and Haley in the afternoons. I wanted to drop off Nathan at preschool. I wanted to have lazy afternoons at home helping my kids do their homework. I wanted to have another baby. That was what I wanted.

But what my reality was was that Kendell had just come off of a year of unemployment. He had found a job again, finally, but it didn’t pay much. We were just barely making enough to survive. Me going back to work—even if I had to pay for daycare for two kids on a teacher’s salary—was the best solution.

So I interviewed at several different schools that summer. Down deep, I hoped no schools offered me a job. But, three weeks before school started, one did. And I had to decide: did I chose what I wanted (what I wanted so desperately) or what would seemingly help my family the most?

I took my kids to a friend’s house and I headed out on a run. No music. Just thinking. Just weighing my options. And right as I was running past the library (the library where I now work), I was filled with a certainty: take the job.

Take the job and one day you will understand why.

That day I was prompted to remake myself. To let go of who I wanted to be and to embrace who life was directing me to be. In some ways, I never got over that remaking. I never stopped mourning those lost days of being a stay-at-home mom when Haley was only seven, Jake five, Nathan three. The lazy mornings and after-school afternoons I never got to have with them. The meals I didn’t make and the life-changing stress I didn’t experience.

I did my best to remake myself, until I had the chance to have Kaleb, and I grabbed it. Were the three years I got to stay at home with him a remaking or a reacquainting, a way to try to get back days I could never get back? I don’t know, but eventually I got another opportunity to remake myself when I, on the spurt of a moment, applied for a job at the library when Kaleb was almost three.

That remaking was far less painful, because I could control the choice. I felt like I had a choice, and I chose to do it. I didn’t know I would uncover an identity I hadn’t guessed was in me. I didn’t know I would find my librarian self. But I did, and for the past twelve years I have worked at the library.

I’ve been thinking about that run from 17 years ago a lot, recently. You’ll understand why…I thought I already understood: being a teacher was a sort of gateway into becoming a librarian. That it happened right in front of the library where I would eventually work didn’t feel portentous then, but looking back, I thought what I would understand was just that because I became a teacher I could become a librarian.

But I am wondering if it is something more that I haven’t seen yet. That I will only understand when I look back from some place I cannot yet even catch a glimpse of right now.

Maybe this is the clichéd mid-life crisis, I don’t know.

But I feel like I am reaching another turning point in my life, a hinge that is a decision my life will bend on.

For twelve years I have worked as a librarian. I have been defined as a librarian. I have felt a thrill every time someone asked me what I kind of work I do, and I could answer “librarian.” I have loved it and I have felt like I was doing something that mattered, even if it only mattered to a few people.

But some experiences I have had over the past year or so have stripped me of that feeling—the feeling that my work as a librarian matters and the feeling that I mattered as a librarian within the library where I work.

Unlike that painful, painful choice 17 years ago, to change myself from a stay-at-home mom to a teacher, my reality isn’t really forcing me to make a change. Unlike my choice twelve years ago, I am not stumbling fortuitously into a new career.

Also unlike those other decisions, I am no longer the person I used to be. Along the way, I lost my confidence. In my abilities, in my intelligence, in my sense that I matter. I no longer have the religious faith to believe that if I just work better at being “good” I will be led to an answer or to the desires of my heart.

This choice is on me. This remaking is the one I must accomplish on my own, without serendipity or financial struggles or heavenly promptings.

I can keep working at the library for the next twenty years.

Or I can change.

The world doesn’t care what I do.

I have only one teenager still at home—that baby I wanted so desperately—and while I know you never stop parenting your kids, I am working through the process of understanding how much less they need you as they become adults.  

Do I want to remake myself?

Do I want to stay the same?

How do I remake myself when that confidence and faith I used to have are both gone?

How do I stay the same when faced with the sadness that my recent experiences have brought me?

Do I do what I want? Or do I do what might be best for my family?

Do I choose something more financially secure or do I commit to my writing dreams?

Who do I want to be for the rest of my life?

What part of my reality is set in stone and what part can be changed?

Can I remake myself? With this body that is starting to feel like a pair of worn-out jeans that is just about ready to be left in the bag of one-day-I’ll-make-a-denim-quilt jeans? With this brain that sometimes feels every second of its 48+ years, feels soft and quiet instead of sharp and quick?

If, in 48 years of living, I have come to this place where I am struggling to feel like I have ever mattered, is there any point to seeking out a new direction? Why would I matter in some different situation if I don’t matter in this one?

To be honest, I feel deeply mired in my life. I feel backed into a corner, and it seems like the potential for achieving the ambitions I had for myself is in the past now.

I’m not ready to let go of them, but I also don’t know how to achieve them from this place I have put myself through the choices I’ve made.

How do you remake yourself when you feel entirely lost in the dark?