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?


Book Review: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King (The Dark Tower series)

So do we pass the ghosts who haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically on the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.

(for this book “review”—it’s not really a review—to make as much sense as possible, you’d have to also read the “review” I wrote for the first three books in the series, which you can find HERE . This is less a review than a piece about my reaction and connection to the series, how it is influenced by my dad, by my reading history, by who I was and who I am now. No real spoilers but if you’ve read the books you will understand more of what I write.)

Wizard and glassWizard and Glass (the fourth book in The Dark Tower series) is a book that’s hard to categorize. Is it a retold fairytale? Yes! Is it a western? Well, there are horses running across long, grassy ridges, and desert landscapes, and shoot-outs, so, sort of. Is it horror? There’s a terrifying witch, so, partly. Is it fantasy? Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz come into the story, so, yes, there are definitely fantasy aspects.

I haven’t finished the entire series yet, as of this writing (although I am very close!), but I think this book might be my favorite. It completes the cliff-hanger of an ending from The Wastelands and carries us forward into Roland, Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy’s travels, but it is mostly looking backward: it is mostly the story of Roland’s coming-of-age experiences. (Historical fiction about a fictional character in a place that seems like it could be a historical, if fictional, place in the United States?) After besting Cort and becoming a true gunslinger, Roland is sent, with two other friends, to investigate the workings of the Good Man in the far edges of the community (also to get him out of sight of the court wizard Marlen). Here, he discovers a town that is being corrupted by outside forces that might threaten to destroy the world. He also meets, and falls in love with, a local girl named Susan Delgado. His primary task is to figure out what is truly happening in Mejis, but of course this is complicated by the love story.

I loved this book. It plays with many elements of literary tropes, so it feels both familiar and unsettling, all at once. Plus, the rest of the series feels like it focuses more on the male characters, Susannah notwithstanding, but this feels like Susan’s story most of all (although she is not the only character we experience the story through). As the story progressed, I knew where it was headed—once you know enough of women’s tales, it is not hard to guess what will happen to Susan, even if you are hoping it doesn’t. In fact, I set the book aside for at least two weeks because I wasn’t ready for what would happen. When I took it back up again, I read it without stopping, lying on the couch in my front room on a rainy Sunday, because I might not be strong enough to pick it up again.

This was the last book in the series with a physical copy that my dad might’ve read. (Also the last one that wasn’t a reprint and that included the original color illustrations.) I had it in the cupboard under the bookshelf in my bedroom with the other three books he and I both read, but I honestly don’t remember if I bought it or if I just found it at his house and brought it home. Maybe he even read it first and then passed it along to me. I wish I remembered for sure. I can say that this book felt the least Don-Allman-ish book of the series. (As I’m now reading the last one, I can say that for certainty, but even while I was reading it I felt that way: I’m not sure Dad would’ve loved this as much as I am.)

But it was a fairly Amy-ish book. It does a good job at recreating how intense first love is, how it makes the roots of your teeth burn and strips logic and care away, and how it is made to be a thing that will be destroyed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a feminist work—not at all, in fact, but it peeks just a little bit, side-eyed, at those tropes. More than anything, though, it made me think (again…and perhaps that is what I need to take from these books at this time) of how choice influences life, and what might life might be like if I had made different choices. Also of how some stories circle around your life, long after the events have passed, and how they continue to impact the way you make your choices. How memory haunts you, I suppose. And how the telling of the stories also is important, is almost a continuation of the experience itself.

Storytelling always changes time.


There is No Cure for Knowledge: Part 1

One of my most abiding memories from childhood is the cold autumn Saturday my dad took me to a BYU football game. I don’t know why this happened, as I was not a fan of football and we weren’t like other families I knew, who bought season tickets. But there we were, walking across a college campus together. He told me that he hoped one day I would go to college. He said “one day you can go to college classes and learn everything you want. You’re smart. Don’t be like me and waste your time and your smartness. Spend your time learning.” We stepped into the stadium; he bought me popcorn and a hot chocolate, and while I remember absolutely nothing about the football game (I was likely bored out of my mind, or maybe I brought a book with me), I remember so clearly sitting on the cold metal bench, eating popcorn one puffed piece at a time, imagining myself going to college. By the time the game ended and we walked back to the car, it was a certainty for me: I would go to college.

Of course, life got messy, as life does, and once I’d destroyed my chances at the university I wanted to go to the most (the University of Utah) and my scholarship opportunities, I found myself twenty years old, married, and trying to live in a religion that focused on women having families, not getting an education. But I still had that same certainty that I wanted to go to college. So I pieced it together. I worked at a software company that would pay for some college costs, so I went to the local community college while I worked full time and got my Associate’s degree. After that, we built our house and I had Haley, but I wasn’t done yet. When I was laid off from my job, I had access to a reeducation grant, so I grabbed the chance, swallowed my pride, and did what I had never wanted to do: walked back onto the BYU campus and applied. (It’s another entire blog post to explain why that choice was hard for me.)

For me, college was always about books. During the two years I wasn’t going to school, I vowed to learn everything I could about books, reading, writing, and literature, so I haunted the library. (The library where I work now, strangely enough.) Those years of scattershot reading taught me about feminism, history, mythology, racism, oppression, ingenuity. Even grammar! I found genres I’d only had vague ideas about before, like essays and microfiction. I delved into poetry and discovered poets I still love today. I read novels. I read some Shakespeare. I tried to read what I thought I was supposed to read: Hemingway and Hawthorne, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but I found I liked women authors better.

I was shaping my reading and learning tastes at that time in my life, and I think that my ability to be unencumbered by professors’ opinions during those years was immensely helpful. I learned to like what I like rather than what someone else thought I should like. But I was also learning. About history and other cultures and writing styles and genres and how writers are grouped. I was also learning how to think. All those books taught me that there are uncountable ways of being in the world, and mine is just one of them, neither right nor wrong; the myriad ways of looking at human existence is one of the astounding parts of human existence.

 I ended up loving many things about my experience at BYU. While I didn’t have the traditional college experience with dorms and roommates and making life-long friends, I learned. Yes—even at a conservative, religious university, I learned so much. Those two years of studying on my own meant that I had odd pieces of knowledge that my classmates didn’t have, and sometimes (OK, quite often) their perspectives were baffling to me, but again—it was about learning all of the things one learns from an English degree, but also it was about learning more of people. I had fantastic professors and horrible ones. I finally learned what people meant by “critical theory.” I learned that in literary circles, Dead White Male Writers are revered by many…but there are counter cultures, too, and I explored those whenever I could.

When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, Haley was four, Jake was one, and I was unknowingly pregnant with Nathan. A friend asked me, a few days after I graduated, what I would do next. At that point, I was exhausted. I wanted to just spend time with my kids. So, for a couple of years, that’s what I did. I graduated, and then I became a stay-at-home mom. I still held that image of myself I had created during the football game so long ago, a mental picture of who I would be as an adult. It had crystalized: I wanted a PhD, I wanted to be a college professor.

But again, life got messy. For a long time, I have felt like the Universe has wanted me to understand that sure…I’ve learned a lot about humanity, but it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t have value because it is sort of invisible. My form of knowledge means I can go to a museum and tell you stories about many of the things there, but I can’t create anything anyone can sell. I can’t program computers or write software programs or create apps. I don’t have medical knowledge; my skills are just in understanding, and that isn’t very marketable. I ended up being a high school English teacher, and then a librarian. Am I done? I wish I wasn’t. I want to get a Master’s degree. Somewhere in the messiness, however, I lost that ability I used to have, that belief that my dad was right, that I was smart enough to do anything. I don’t feel that anymore, so I don’t know how to take another step. Part of me started with what the Universe wanted me to know: my accumulated knowledge is sort of useless. The world doesn’t care.

But also within the messiness, I have continued to read. I thought that getting a Bachelor’s degree would teach me everything I wanted to know, but of course it didn’t. Knowledge is endless, and it is spread out everywhere. It’s not just found in one source, and almost everything has a piece of truth in it somewhere. I might not have advanced degrees, but I do still have knowledge.

So here I am: a middle-aged white woman with a couple of Bachelor degrees that don’t matter much to the world at large. I know a whole lot about books and history and about finding information. I can teach you how to structure an essay and I can give you a book of poems that would change your life if you read it. I could tell you how to correctly use a hyphen and what the difference is between an en- and an em-dash.

Meanwhile, the world is insane with a pandemic and racial uprisings. What do I have to offer?

Every day, I read Facebook threads and listen to conversations where people say things that I consider to be shallow and narrow-minded. And while yes, dear Universe, I so thoroughly understand your point, I also have started to realize: education matters.

I mean, I know that. I have always known that.

But the world’s current issues are telling me more and more: education matters. Knowledge matters. Most importantly, the knowledge that your way of looking at the world is not the only one—knowing that matters.

My next post will continue these thoughts. It’s the one I sat down to write this morning, but I couldn’t write it without explaining these pieces of my history. In the largeness of today’s social issues, my little thoughts are likely unimportant. But I’m going to share them anyway, because I also know this is true: narrow-mindedness got us into these issues, and the only way out of them is with the wide-open thought processes that education can bring.

[You can read the second part of this post HERE.]


Thoughts on The First Three Books of The Dark Tower Series

"Perhaps you saw what place our universe plays in the scheme of things—an atom in a blade of grass."

Back near the end of February, I helped Nathan figure out how to use his library card to download audio books, so he could listen to stories while running and weight lifting. I gave him some suggestions of things he might like, but told him to search and see what spoke to him.

A few days later he told me he’d downloaded The Gunslinger by Stephen King and wondered if I’d ever read it. We were texting so I didn’t expound much, but yes: I’ve read it. Gunslinger cover

In the 80s, when I was a teenager, I was discovering books. I had always been a reader (I don’t think anyone who really knows me could separate reading from my identity) but in my teenage years my relationship with books changed. They weren’t just stories or a way of spending an afternoon in sunlight, or even a place where I went to find friends anymore. Reading, I was beginning to understand, was a way of saving myself. It was as if all the answers to all the questions had been scattered into all the books, and all I had then were questions and a world full of books at my feet.

I’ve been looking for answers—and finding them, often, in books—ever since.

My dad was a devoted fan of Stephen King and likely read almost everything he wrote (until his last illness took reading away from him). In those teenage years, I also loved Stephen King. I don’t know exactly when I read The Gunslinger. It was published in 1982, but I don’t think I read it when I was ten. My guess is I read it in 1987, when the sequel, The Drawing of the Three, was published. My dad bought the first two books, and what piqued my interest in reading them was listening to him chuckle to himself as he read Drawing. He liked to read lying on his side on the floor of our front room, with a cup of coffee for company. I asked him why he was laughing at a Stephen King book—as everything I’d read by him had been scary and I hadn’t noticed any humor—and he read me a little bit of the beginning, where the lobstrosities attack Roland. He wasn’t really laughing because of humor, he told me, but because he just admired King so much. “That man can write a story,” he said, and then sipped his coffee and went back to his book.

Drawing of the threeI read, and discussed with my dad, the first three books of The Dark Tower series. Even years later, sometimes he’d just say “did-a-cheek?” or some other lobstrosity sound at me, and we’d laugh just a little bit.

The Waste Lands, which was published in 1991, was probably one of the first fifty or so books I bought for myself. That was the year I was dating Kendell and trying to create my adult life. I was still living at home and there is another memory of my dad lying on the living-room floor, talking again about King’s genius, because in this book he managed to make a train into a malicious monster, and wouldn’t it be great if we could also have a billybumbler?

There was a long gap between the third and fourth books, and in that time, I changed. I got married, I had Haley, I went to college. By the time Wizard and Glass came out, in 1997, I was pregnant with Jake and in my last 18 months of my English degree, buried deep in critical literary theory, classic British novels, Greek mythology, and writing techniques. My dad bought the book, and handed it to me after he finished it, but I only read the introduction (which reacquainted me with the story at least) before setting it aside. Precocious little book snob that I was, I thought it would be a waste of time.

My dad continued on the journey with Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, but I did not.

So when Nathan asked me “have you read it?”, all of these connections passed through me. Remembering how much I loved the first three books, and how ashamed of myself I am for not reading all of them with my dad, and how I’ve thought about rereading the series every time a new book has come out, but it didn’t feel like it would be the same. No one I know now would respond to “dad-a-chum?” with anything other than a blank stare. I told Nathan that, and he said “well, how about you read it with me this time then?” and I said “done!”

(He lost interest and didn’t finish the audio, but that is OK. One of the things I have learned from books is that some books must come to you at the right time, and sometimes your initial interest in a book doesn’t spark an actual affection, because the book isn’t the right one for you at that time.)

Rereading books that were pivotal to your younger self is sometimes a dangerous proposition. You might find them empty or shallow instead of brimming with knowledge and beauty. You bring a different self to the story; you know different things and have been changed by your experiences. You might be disappointed. Wastelands

So I can say: I couldn’t read these first three books with the same innocence I had when I read them the first time. Parts of The Gunslinger were disturbing to me. I didn’t understand feminism or rape culture or the persistency of violence when I read it at fifteen. Did Roland rape Sylvia Pittston with his gun? Even if he is the protagonist and carrying on the noble tradition of eliminating evil that disguises itself as religion—I can’t forgive this scene, and it was so startling to me. How had I forgotten it? I also can’t decide: is his depiction of Detta Walker in Drawing racist? He spells it out that she is like a caricature of representations of black people, so he is using the imagery that white people have created about black people in a sort of sardonic way. But he also calls her (not the depictions) evil. (I cannot imagine anyone writing a character this way now.) She hates white people, but is also evil, so I don’t know how to balance that. And, over it all: this is a violent story. There is so much death.

On the other hand: I know so much more now than I did when I read these as a teenager. I didn’t understand the archetype of the hero’s journey, and the way quest novels influence our society. I hadn’t read Tolkien so I couldn’t be delighted at the way the story nods its head across the universe toward the fellowship. I know the lines of poetry that get slung slantwise. I recognize almost all of the songs that are referenced (although I had to look up “Velcro Fly”).  I even can pick up some of the Easter eggs from other books.

Here’s what I didn’t expect, though.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how we don’t always understand the impact of our choices. I am certain there are choices I’ve made that have altered my life in ways I will never completely understand, ever. It is easier to see how other choices altered my life. It’s like…maybe one day, seemingly at random, you decide to drive a different route to work. You still get to work and you move on with your life, but what you don’t know is that if you had taken your usual route, you would’ve been in a horrific car accident that left you missing your left leg. (Or whatever else you can imagine.) You never lived the life that could’ve been made by one random choice, so you don’t know that life, and you don’t even really know that you missed that life. Except sometimes I think you bump into it anyway. (In my head I also carry half-formed images of who I might’ve been if I had made different choices.) I bumped into this…this doubling of possible outcomes, I guess, several times as I read. Like Roland with his doubled memories of his story with Jake and without Jake, and the same for Jake with Roland. I couldn’t see, of course, so clearly as they can. But there is something of my alternate selves in these books, and I didn’t expect to find it there.

This concept forms the backbone of the story of The Dark Tower, at least so far as I have gotten. (I finished The Wastelands this morning.) The rose that Jake crouches next to in the abandoned lot in New York, and the suns inside: to me, all of the could-have-been lives are inside that rose. “It was a moment of passage,” Roland tells Jake. “A time such as must be at the Tower itself, when things come together and hold and make power in time.” Those moments of power in time are the choices we make, and we don’t always get to see clearly how they bind us.

Here’s another example. Remember, I was a wild, angry, rebellious teenager when I read these books. I was in a dark, dark place. Whenever I wanted, I could’ve jumped right in to doing whatever heavy drugs I could get my hands on. But I never did. I wonder about that a lot—in that rose full of the possible lives of Amy, there have got to be several addict versions of myself. And when I got to the chapters about Eddie when he was in his junkie days, it hit me. It was as if the person I had been reading that book—this exact copy of this book, the one I held in my 15-year-old hands—left an annotation. I clearly remembered feeling what I felt as that version of myself: a deep aversion to becoming like Eddie, to having a monkey, to being taken to awful places and terrifying experiences and the thread of jail because of drugs.

It might be too much to claim, but reading it I felt it anyway: Partly I’m not a drug addict because of Eddie Dean.

(Or, to be more specific: because I decided to read the book that had Eddie Dean in it. If I didn’t chose to read it, Eddie Dean never existed for me. It is the choice that matters the most.)

And o how I wish my dad was here so we could talk that idea out. He would understand.

So, today: I finished The Wastelands. I can’t believe how long I have left Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy riding on Blaine, starting their riddle competition. I still have mixed feelings. I still feel like I am reading something that is not quite my style, even if the metaphysical, layers-of-time concepts resonate. When I’ve mentioned my rereading to other people online, some have warned me that I will be disappointed by the ending, and some have promised me I will love the rest of the books. So I am expecting nothing, just picking up what I left off more than twenty years ago. These books—as with many others that have changed me in some way—are much like the doors that appear over and over within their pages. There was a drawing of myself, between one world and another, when I started the story so long ago. Maybe the rest of it will only be a story, just a thing I read during a quarantine. Maybe a new, altered version of myself will be drawn along the way, into some subtly-altered life I didn’t know I could find a door to.  Either is fine with me, because I swear: there’s a little bit of my dad, peering over my shoulder, reading along with me.

There are other worlds than these.


On Corona Conspiracies: Two Truths, or, The Group You Don't Want to Belong To

Two truths I have learned about medical issues over the past twenty years:

  1. What happens to one person in a family happens to every person in a family.
  2. Doctors, hospital, medical procedures: these things fix you. They repair you. But “fixed” doesn’t mean “the same.” Afterwards, you will always be repaired. There will always be a scar; there are always repercussions.

Facebook_1587048003638_6656561789854605205_683115615255973As we’ve reached this phase of the corona virus pandemic—the phase where people start to say things like “see, it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be” and “the number of deaths didn’t justify the shutdown” and even “it was a hoax designed to strip us of our liberties”—I keep thinking of these two truths I have learned.

Until you have experienced severe health issues within your own family, you cannot understand the full impact of the issues, how they pervade almost every aspect of your life, how the fear, once ignited, is sometimes less noticeable but never stops burning.

Once you fully understand the frailty of the human body, once you witness it with your own eyes, you can never stop knowing it.

So when I read things like “people are overreacting” or “this isn’t as bad as the media is portraying it” or even (especially!) “we should all just get the virus and move on with our lives because then we’d all be immune” I almost can’t breathe in the face of such unknowing ignorance.

It’s a luxury, really. A privilege to be in the group of people who don’t understand those two truths. I almost envy that person I used to be, who didn’t know these things.

(I say “almost” because I will never not value the pieces of knowledge I have gained in my life, even if it hurt to learn. Especially if it hurt to learn.)

But I’ve learned them, and the other truth is that these are painful pieces of knowledge to acquire. Part of the staying-home, part of the mask-wearing, part of the everything-is-closed: all of those efforts will help some of you never belong to this group. I think of the people I love who nevertheless do not belong in this group, and I want to spare them this inclusion. (Even though I know life can bring it to anyone at any time.)

When you mock or doubt the quarantine procedures you are illustrating you don’t know these truths, and I hope you never have to learn them with your own body and psyche. So here: I will expound.

  1. What happens to one person in a family happens to every person in a family.

I don’t only mean that if one person in your family catches develops COVID-19 you’re likely to all get it (even though that’s true). Let’s say, just for the sake of illustration, that only one person in your family develops COVID-19. Let’s say it’s your 17-year-old daughter. She is the one who will suffer physically, with the fever and the body aches and the inflammation and all of the other symptoms. Maybe it gets so bad she has to be put on a ventilator. All of these things she experiences within her own body. It happens to her.

But it will also happen to you, too. If you are her parent you will anguish over not being able to heal her. If you get to be in the hospital with her, you will anguish for days by her unresponsive body, watching machines move her lungs, while you wonder in terror what the outcome will be. You might be faced with impossible decisions to be made in behalf of this person you love but can no longer communicate with.

You, yourself, will forever be changed. It will scar you emotionally forever. And it doesn’t matter if you are the parent of this sick person, or the sibling. The sick person experiences the sickness but the whole family suffers alongside of her. Her brother watches their father weep and is changed. A husband cannot console his wife; a preschooler doesn’t receive the emotional help he needs because everyone is consumed with fear and worry.

And it’s not just the days of sitting by her bedside. Your relationships with your other children will be affected, as will your marriage. You will see your parents in a different light. Sometimes you will look at your friends or your extended family members who didn’t have that experience with bitterness. How blithely they go about their lives, making decisions without ever having had to stare right at death.

“Let’s all just get it and move on” is not a solution. It is a hypothetical concept that is only appealing if you do not know completely how medical challenges change everything.

Your family will never be the same.

  1. “Healed” doesn’t mean “restored.”

Let’s go back to that teenage girl hooked to a ventilator. Let’s say you don’t have to make the choice; let’s say she starts to improve. She comes off the vent, she breathes on her own, the medications work their way out of her body and she wakes up.

Let’s grant her no mental deficiencies from being on a ventilator.

She will still never be the same. On the vent, her body has broken down some. Her muscles have deteriorated. Her body has changed. From now on, on the other side of COVID-19, she is different. We don’t know all the ways, exactly, she will have changed, because this is a novel virus. Novel here doesn’t mean fiction. It means new. It means we don’t know the story of how it will continue to affect the body.

We don’t know exactly how, but it will.

Once your body has experienced such devastation, you are always, from now until your death, fixed. You are always repaired.

Because our bodies can’t be restored. They can’t be remade to their former non-fixed, non-repaired condition.

That’s not how bodies work, and this is true for any medical condition.

You can have cancer and be healed, but your body is changed.

You can have a heart attack and survive; they can fix your heart with surgery but you will always have a repaired heart.

Even ortho surgeries: they can replace your knee or your hip, possibly your ankle if you are truly unfortunate, and the surgery will (probably) fix the pain. But the replaced joint will never be the original joint.

Are you doomed to a life of horrible weakness because you’ve had a medical crisis? Of course not. There is life and happiness and everything else on the other side of it. Once you heal.

But you have to learn your new limitations. You will eventually realize you are not the same, and you will grieve for what you lost.

And this grief and those changes will also affect your family.

❦❦❦

These two truths rotate around each other endlessly. You will all move on, your family and your repaired daughter.

But none of you will ever be the same.

I share this knowledge not because I am a doomsayer or full of fear or overreacting, but because of the empirical data my life has brought to me.

Some things you can’t avoid. Cancer, congenital heart defects, diabetes, lupus. Arthritis in your hip or knee or back. Alzheimer’s. Life just happens.

But a virus? With a virus, you can make choices that at least will make smaller the possibility of you having to experience it.

You can protest.

You can reject social distancing.

You can seek out sources that dispute scientific facts.

You can refuse to wear a mask.

You can refuse the eventual vaccine.

But none of your refusals will change those truths: everyone you love is affected and no one is ever the same.

This is bitter knowledge. This is a group no one wants to belong to.

But I am saddened in knowing how many will soon be joining me within it, especially knowing they didn’t have to.

Choose wisely, my friends.