Why We Need Black History Month

A kind-of fuzzy, surprisingly clear-in-spots library memory from my childhood:

I’m holding a book that is about Black children. I don’t remember the title or what the story was or what happened that lead to this conversation. Just my hand holding the book and me saying to a librarian “I don’t think I’m supposed to read this” and her telling me (after maybe some questions on her part about why I didn’t think I could check it out? That’s also fuzzy and incomplete) “No, white people can absolutely read books about Black people. You check that out and read it.”

❧❧❧

I grew up in a small town in Utah County that was on the outskirts of the bigger towns that were still pretty small; my community was very, very white. I didn’t have a Black student in the same grade as me until I was a sophomore in high school, and when he transferred in everyone buzzed about how great our basketball team would be now. As I was not in the same social circles as athletes I never met him. (Honestly, I don’t even know if he actually played basketball.) At the grocery store, at school, at gymnastics and dance classes, at church, just walking down the street: I never saw a Black person except on TV.

I remember that my parents watched the TV mini series Roots but wouldn’t let me in the room while it was on (I was four).

I remember learning about slavery and the Civil War, that slavery was bad and the 14th Amendment was good and Abraham Lincoln was a hero.

Maybe I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in high school, but I don’t remember it specifically.

I remember many of the reading assignments I had as I grew up. I remember reading and discussing “Design” by Robert Frost and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury.

I was never assigned to read a book by a Black writer.

Even in my own personal reading (which was prolific) I read books about white people doing white-people things.

❧❧❧

It wasn’t until college that I began reading books by Black writers, and that seems accidental. I discovered Toni Morrison because her novel Sula was assigned in one of my Women’s Lit classes. Phillis Wheatley in an early American Lit course. Zora Neal Hurston because I took a couple of folklore classes; Maya Angelou in Contemporary Lit (although she wasn’t in the assigned anthology but mentioned as a sort of throw-away, fluffy writer). I found Audre Lorde through Critical Theory and James Baldwin in a course on essay writing, Langston Hughes in poetry writing. The Harlem Renaissance was briefly mentioned in some class or other.

Did I ever take an entire course that focused on Black writers?

I did not. I highly doubt that at BYU in the 1990s such a course even existed.

And yet: I loved all of these writers. Their work taught me, in ways that seemed elemental and gut-deep, how narrow my understanding about the world was. I knew my tiny little bit of Utah white culture and there were a billion other ways that people lived and experienced the world that I had never imagined. The horrors and struggles of it, but also the joy.  

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “The Mothers”

Audre Lorde’s poem “Never to Dream of Spiders”
and “Stations”
and “From the House of Yemanja”

Lucille Clifton’s poem “wishes for sons”

June Jordan’s poem “Poem about My Rights”

But there was so much to learn in those years of studying, and so many white male professors. I learned about feminism because that was what I wanted to know best, but intersectionality? Kimberle Crenshaw wasn’t a person I discovered on my own, or bell hooks. My literary theory textbooks didn’t contain any Black writers’ ideas, on feminism or anything else.

 ❧❧❧

I was in my late twenties before I met and made friends with African American women online.

In my 30s before I even knew an African American person in real life.

In my 40s before I became actual, tell-you-my-secrets friends with an African American person who lived and worked in my community.

This isn’t because I didn’t want to know Black people. It is because my life is small, and my social circle even smaller. I moved into my house in 1993 and never left, and I mostly keep to myself so I just have very few friends in general. And it’s because I live in Utah County still, which: yes, OK, it is far more diverse now. (I dare say many people here do not see this as a positive, but I do.) But it’s still mostly white, and I remain bad at making friends.

(I am deeply ashamed at all of this.)

❧❧❧

These have been my thoughts as I have worked on a display for the library of books for Black History Month. As I put it together, I had an imaginary interaction with a patron, one that is based on interactions that I have actually had, and might actually have again, and surely will be had by someone. The patron sees the display and, instead of picking up a book, reading the cover copy, and maybe checking it out, he stops whatever librarian is close to say something like “isn’t this discrimination against white people?” or “shouldn’t you just feature the best books instead of only books by Black people?” or (always in a joking tone) “Hey! When is white history month?”

One of my librarian truths is that I value diversity. I try to make sure my collections have the best books by writers from everywhere, not just America. When I put books on my staff display shelf, they aren’t all about white people doing white things. This doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It’s just my individual approach. It’s important to me not because I want to be politically correct but because that is also my reading philosophy: I read so I can be exposed to experiences and perspectives other than my own.

Since I can remember, I have prided myself for being “not racist.” For me, the realization that Black writing (and art and music and sculpture and all of it) exists and is worth my attention was so slow in coming. So gradual. I didn’t learn these stories, these perspectives, in my earliest formative years, and yet I have never understood treating people different because they aren’t white. It also took me a long time to understand that saying “I’m not racist” because I don’t think people of color  are less than me doesn’t absolve me from the impacts of racism.

I thought that reading books by Black people, trying to understand their experiences through their words, was enough.

Of course, it isn’t.

The truth is, my grandmother, who I loved with all of my heart, said some pretty racist things.

The truth is my family line includes planation owners and thus slavery. My ancestors owned other people.

The truth is, my fumbling attempts to “not be racist” make no difference to the world at large.

The truth is I have received benefits in my life because I am a white person.

The fact that I love some Black writers’ work changes none of this.

 ❧❧❧

But it is also one of the tools I have. I will continue this work: reading authors whose lives are different from mine. Trying to understand their real struggles. Trying to vote in ways that help them. Sharing their work. Protesting book banning. Listening.

And I confess: I do find a little bit of hope in this. Are there still small white bibliophiles like I was as a child, who think that only Black people read books about Black people? Well, probably. But there are fewer at least.

And there are so many books published now. Black writers win awards (far fewer than white men, of course, but at least it does happen now) and have successful writing careers and are guests on Trevor Noah.

They aren’t a shadowy group of “Black writers” but individuals whose work has impacted my life: Claudia Rankine, Roxanne Gay, Jesmyn West, Jacqueline Woodson, N. K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Tracy K. Smith, Aja Monet.

We have so far to go. So far. But we are more aware and at least, at least there is discussion.

At least there are lists of books. You can use one as a book mark to remind yourself that Black people’s stories are just as important as white people’s. Just as worthy of your time.

There are posters in school libraries.

There is Black History Month.

There are librarians like that long-ago one who told me I could read a book about someone who looked different from me.

There are librarians like me, who continue today to say the same thing to as many people as we can.

❧❧❧

And thus I return, over and over, to one of my core beliefs, surprised again by how myriad its truth is:

It is with books we change the world.


Thanksgiving 2021

This Thanksgiving I found myself a bit…well, “sad” sounds kind of pathetic, but there you go.

I remembered so many past Thanksgivings, when we’d go to one relative’s house or another, and the house would be full of babies and toddlers and teenagers and grown ups.

Slowly, over the years, that has changed.

Parents have passed away.

Siblings’ kids have grown up, gotten married, and started their own families, so it’s just gotten difficult to have so many people, and more in-law families for everyone to rotate through.

I think that is normal with time passing, but it still makes me ache a little bit. (Having some family members’ various comments in my head also doesn’t help. “You’re alone because of your choices” and “if you were nicer and stopped sharing your politics on Facebook more people would want to spend time with you” are the two common ones that pop up at random.)

I’ve adapted, though. Over the past decade or so, I’ve made the Thanksgiving meal for just my family, plus a significant other or two, four times. I’ve established our own traditions (pecan bars, Italian sodas, mac & cheese which would horrify my mom) and enjoyed the time with my kids.

But I never stopped missing the big Thanksgiving meals of my kids’ childhoods.

The last one with my side of the family was in 2016, at my mom’s house. It was the last time Haley had Thanksgiving with her last living grandparent. Also the last one I ate with Becky. Most of the grandkids were there, even the ones who live in Texas.  I got this photo of all of the littles, but not a big group picture. (I continually learn this lesson: Even though everyone will grumble, even though maybe you did a group photo last time, take a group photo THIS TIME too.)

Thanksgiving 2016 kids

The last one with Kendell’s side that included everyone was in 2009. I got some great photos that day of my kids and of Kendell with his parents (which is awesome because his dad died the next year) but not a group photo.

2013 was the first year I made the entire meal all on my own.

Thanksgiving 2013

2017 was the last year that Haley was home for Thanksgiving and thus the last year the six of us all ate together.

Thanksgiving 2017 with haley

2019 was a dismal year, because not only were we missing Nathan and Haley, it was the first Thanksgiving after my mom died and Kendell talked me into going to a restaurant. (Never again!)

Everyone’s 2020 Thanksgiving was a COVID holiday I suppose.

For 2021, I had just planned on it being at our house with my boys and some video-call time with Haley. But, a few days before the holiday, things shifted around and my sister-in-law, Cindy, invited us to come to her house. It wasn’t the entire Sorensen clan, and there weren’t any babies, but it was enough. A crowd. Food from many different kitchens. A guest (Nathan’s friend Abe who didn’t have another house to go to). Family members admiring each other’s cooking. A group photo! (YES, someone grumbled, but I chose to just thank that person for putting up with my photograph proclivities.)

Resized_20211125_155633 thanksgiving everyone 4x6

Who knows what next year will bring. I have made peace with our smaller festivities (and appreciate that when I make the whole meal I have all the leftovers!) so whatever it looks like, big or small, I will love it.

But I feel like I learned something this year.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I always say I love it the best because it’s only about food and hanging out with your family, which remains true. But it is also, I realized, more. It’s about recipes, both the ones you’ve made for the past two decades and a new one you tried just this year. It’s about passing them down, too: this year, Haley made her own rolls (which she modified into a vegan recipe successfully!), Cindy tried apple pie the way I like it (with cheddar cheese on top), and I brought the pecan bar tradition to Kendell’s family. It’s about textiles—the tablecloth and the hot pads and the towels. And dishes, inherited from my mom and from Kendell’s and some that I’ve bought myself that maybe one day, when I’m gone, someone else will cook with. The scent of cranberry and cinnamon, the cubes and cubes of butter, the hiss and steam and whisk of preparation.

It’s about missing those who aren’t there while simultaneously loving the time you get to spend with those who are. Watching your son laugh with a friend, your husband with his brother, your sisters-in-law at each other.

Life changes so much. Sometimes, at this phase, I feel like all the good changes of my life are in the past. But I also have to acknowledge that I have no idea how it will change again over the next twelve months. And if Thanksgiving is about being grateful, I think that tug and ache is part of gratitude. If you’ve lost people you loved the heartache means you were blessed enough to love them. I think when I was a kid, Thanksgiving was just about eating a meal with my sisters, parents, and grandparents. (I actually have only very vague memories of Thanksgiving before my late adolescence, which is odd, and literally not a single photo of one.) When I was a mom with growing kids it was about seeing them interact with their cousins, aunts & uncles, and grandparents and knowing that they were experiencing holidays they will someday remember fondly. (I hope.) Now that I am nearly an empty nester, it is about remembering, but I am learning it is also about savoring now. Who knows what the future will hold, so on Thanksgiving 2021, I just lived. I just felt what I felt, the missing-ness and the bitterness and the sadness over what has been damaged. The absolute joy of what exists right now. The deliciousness of food prepared with love, the compliments from others and the giving of them as well. The ghosts and the living.

And so Thanksgiving remains my favorite


Twenty Years Later, Maybe I Can Start Writing about 9-11

Almost exactly 21 years ago, my family’s life took a turn. At that point, I was a stay-at-home mom, loving my days with my little ones. Haley was five and thriving in kindergarten, Jake was two and loved going to play with his friend Ben, and Nathan was almost one, a happy, chubby baby who made me laugh with delight every day. I had a big circle of friends who also had littles, so we took our kids on outings together to the park and to community events. Kendell and I were starting to talk about maybe selling our house and moving to something larger in an area with better schools. I had started running that summer. My parents were healthy, my kids were learning and growing, we were doing OK financially. It felt like we had been given a happy, good life. (Did I think, deep down, even though I would’ve never said it, that we deserved this good, happy life? Because we were good people, because we went to church, because, I don’t know, we paid our taxes and voted in elections and kept our yard pretty? I did. It is uncomfortable for me to admit to, but it is a part of this story. I thought I had somehow earned the good things in my life, that they were rewards for me trying to be a good person.)

And then, on the Tuesday after Labor Day when he was driving his mom to a funeral in Idaho, Kendell got a phone call from his job, letting him know he’d been laid off.

I didn’t really understand, at first, how sharp a turn in the road that would be for us. Kendell immediately started looking for jobs, of course, but discovered that his lack of a degree was a hinderance. (The tech world can be a bounteous industry to work in, but it can also be brutal, and twenty years ago, aside from several big companies, Utah County was just starting to become the tech-rich place it is now.) So he went to work for a friend who had just opened a start-up company, all of them with big dreams about creating a company that would thrive. He worked there for 15 months and was paid four times. We didn’t have health insurance. I stopped buying orange juice. The severance package he had received from his old company dwindled rapidly. My group of friends dwindled, too, as it grew harder for me to go and do things with them. I’d listen to them talking about their new Dooney & Burke purses and Ugg boots and upcoming trips to Tahiti and then think about the panic I had every time I went to the grocery store; there was too much contrast. I’m not sure if I pulled away or they didn’t want to be friends with a poor person, or if it was a combination of both, but almost all of those friendships faded.

A year later, in September of 2001, I was a much different person. I had started trying to find a job and discovered that having an English degree was fairly useless unless I wanted to teach, so I was figuring out how to go back to school to get my teaching credentials. I had an intermittent gig with a scrapbooking magazine, which meant sometimes I could write an article and earn a bit of money. Kendell grew angrier and angrier over our situation. We had registered for CHIP, the free insurance through the state, and WIC, which was a way to get some groceries for free. We had started considering selling our house and downsizing. We fought every time I spent any money. One time a friend left groceries on my porch, and that Christmas my sister-in-law played Santa for us. It was a horrible, horrible time. Not only because of the constant thread of “what will we do, what will we do?” always running through my mind. But because I had been thoroughly stripped of any sense of value. That beautiful, happy life I had had was taken away from me, and all I could feel was self-hatred. I combed through my memories of everything I had done in my life, trying to understand what bad thing I had done to make God take so much away from me.

On the second Tuesday in September I had an 8:00 a.m. appointment. Kendell stayed home from his job (could we even call it a job at that point? After all the promises continued to fall through, after so much time of working as an “investment in the future” that never actually put food on the table or paid our mortgage?) that morning with the kids so I could go alone. Everyone was still asleep when I left at 7:30 to drive to Provo, where I would do something I had so far been far too proud to do. I drove in silence, with the radio off, and cried the whole way. My appointment was with the Department of Workforce Services and I went there to apply for food stamps. I had told literally no one that I was doing this, except my husband. I was so humiliated.

When I walked into the office, the TV over the receptionist’s desk was on. And that was the moment I found out about the attack.

Like everyone else, I watched in horror and couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I stood watching until they called me back for my appointment, when hearing my name brought me back to my little part of the world with a jolt. Isn’t that strange—New York City and the Pentagon were exploding but I still went into a cubicle to talk to a person about getting food stamps. I went through the motions, filling out the application and waiting for the woman helping me to look at it. I found out that I didn’t qualify, because we had too many assets: we still owned a car, we still had a mortgage rather than renting the place we lived, we still had a bit of money in the bank left from the severance. Once all of those things were gone (she said this like a fact, like it was a thing that would happen, not that might), I could come back and apply again. All of this conversation felt muffled and far away, my thoughts still in a city I had never actually stepped foot in.

Before I drove home, I sat in my car. I tried to name the emotion I was feeling. I didn’t have one word for it then, and I still don’t, and it took me a long time to understand it. Partly this is because I don’t feel like 9-11 was my thing to write about. I mourned for the strangers who died that day, but I didn’t know anyone personally who was lost. Me sharing my emotions about it felt like grief appropriation. The people who lost people are the ones who own the grief, and my sadness and mourning felt like an offering to them rather than my own trauma.

I have thought about that day so many times over the past twenty years. I do still feel reluctant to write about my response, but I also understand that this was an American tragedy, even for those of us who didn’t lose people we loved. What we lost as a nation was similar to what I lost during those long two years of rebuilding from Kendell’s unemployment: the sense that because our nation was “good” (freedom-loving, built on democratic ideals, a place where anyone can  succeed if they try hard enough), truly bad things wouldn’t happen here. We didn’t deserve it.

I have learned, changed, and grown so much since I was that 29-year-old woman crying in the Workforce Services parking lot, in both good and negative ways. I had no idea how many more difficult things I would go through. I have never fully regained my belief that good things happen to people simply because they are good, nor that sense of confidence and hope I used to have. My inherent belief that the Universe rewards goodness is very, very dented. I now understand that good things happen because they just do, same as difficult things. There is hatred, greed, resentment, violence, and anger inside of people, racism and sexism and ignorance, and these sometimes drive people to make destructive choices. Some people who do negative things still thrive financially and seem to have an abundance, while many, many good people struggle their whole lives. The same goes for nations; the United States does good things and horrible things and is no more immune from the violence of others than any other country in the world.

These are wounds that perhaps never heal. Even as I write this I have tears streaming down my cheeks, feeling again what I felt at 29, the desperate hope that if I just did something better, prayed more or read more scriptures or served others better, I could get back what I had so briefly, my perfect few utopian years before everything changed. (I did not get it back.) The World Trade Center attacks are not about me, but in a sense they are because they mirrored, very largely, what my small life was also experiencing. An innocence was lost, along with all of those lives, that day for this country where I live at the same time I was losing a similar innocence of my own.

Fifteen years after 9-11, I finally made it to New York City. I visited the 9-11 Memorial Museum, and as I walked through, I again found myself crying. I’m a museum crier no matter what, but this was different. Being so close to the actual iron and steel that was brought down by airplanes and hatred, I again mourned for those who died. My husband just moved away from me and left me to my crying, and I’m not sure anyone else noticed or cared, one weeping woman in the crowded memorial obviously not the point of anyone’s experience. I also mourned for myself and for how I have changed, for how hard it is to move through this life and not have parts of yourself decimated along the way.

And just as I am not the same, the United States has changed. There is more hatred and division now. That unity we had for a few brief days after the attacks is long gone. We have all had to learn to live with difficult truths. What will happen in the next twenty years? I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess, not for myself or for the country. I can only continue forward, trying to find the goodness that is also here, even if I can never be free of the sadness.


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.