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 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.


Homegoing

It’s hard to explain the pull I feel to return.

I wasn’t happy there. It wasn’t just the wildness of adolescence, either—because maybe I was happy then, or, at least: I felt something then, something deep and abiding that I would like to feel again. But even as a little girl, swinging on the red swing set in my back yard, I could hear the kids one neighborhood over, on the other side of the corn field, laughing while they played tag or chase or catch or whatever it is groups of kids play.

I was shy and bookish. I got embarrassed easily, I licked my lips until they were chapped, I liked my ponytails so tight they tugged at my eyes. I had a high forehead and I lived inside of it, dreamy, with flowers and fairies and stories. I didn’t make friends easily and I didn’t go to church very often.

I still remember that listening, the way I would feel torn between delving into a book or just listening to those voices unspooling. Wondering what made them laugh. I didn’t know to name it loneliness. I didn’t know how to adapt, yet, to being odd and shy and bookish, a lover of words who had a hard time speaking.

I still remember the Friday evening in sixth grade, when I walked into the house of my new friend Tiffany, who was popular and had a loud laugh and always had something to say—maybe that was the first time I noticed the sharp divide. Was there something wrong with me that she lived in a big, beautiful house on the east-side hills and had a closetful of Chemin de Fers, while I lived in my average house and had just one pair?

I still remember the loneliness without voices when, in the spring of sixth grade, my new group of friends, Tiffany included, ignored me on the Monday after my birthday party. It was years before I knew the faux pas I had made that caused my banishment: I had shown the movie Cujo at the party. An R-rated movie. A scary movie. Something good girls don’t do.

That feeling I had maybe been born with, which was at first a tiny fragment, sharp-edged but manageable, started accruing. Became, as I grew up in that small town with its snobberies and divisions I couldn’t make sense of, into a heavy, conglomerate thing. Self-doubt and insecurity and loneliness and shame and bewilderment; anger and frustration and envy; unworthiness. I started to see my identity as fully informed by those things, and whenever something else difficult happened, it seemed to confirm my deepest, unsayable fear, which was that everyone else deserved happiness, but I did not.

Why do I feel compelled to return occasionally to that small town?

A decade after I left—and maybe I could absolve myself for marrying so young if I explain it like this: I needed to leave the place I grew up—I met a woman at a writer’s conference, who lived in that small town but had arrived there as an adult. She clarified for me the way I had struggled there, what I hadn’t understood: Springville is a small town based in old Mormon money.

Ah.

It wasn’t enough that actually, my family was old. My paternal line was a part of the original settlers who established the little town in the crook of two mountains.

It was the other two qualifiers: Mormon. Money. Never Mormon enough, of course, and my dad’s blue-collar job at the steel mill certainly didn’t help.

I was never going to matter there.

I can’t explain why it mattered that I didn’t matter. I don’t matter where I live now, which is a larger and less financially divided, less snooty small Utah town, but it doesn’t matter anymore, not mattering. Maybe because I created a life, with a family and a few very dear friends? Maybe because I did the things that mattered to me. Maybe because I learned how to adapt to being odd and shy and bookish, not just adapt but embrace, and I learned how to find words.

I learned to set down that ugly, bulging, mucky stone. It’s still there, of course, but I don’t carry it with me.

I went back to my hometown for holidays. To see my mother, because she still lived there. For family parties and holidays and just to visit. When my Dad was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, before he had to have full-time care, Nathan and Kaleb and I went there every Thursday afternoon to spend time with him. When I drove into and through my hometown, I would remember. Random memories every time, but a flood of them. I felt haunted.

Eventually, my dad passed away and then, eventually, my sisters and I convinced my mother to sell her house—the place we’d all grown up in, with a yard full of flowers curated by my father and with more than one cat and dog buried in its dirt—and move closer to us.

So then almost never went back to Springville. Except for funerals. And planning my mother’s funeral. And dressing her body before she was buried.

But not for the annual parade and carnival. Not for the beautiful mountains. Not for the memories, not for the haunting.

But I still sometimes feel that tug: come back.

I answer this tug on my birthday, when I put on my running clothes and shoes, drive to the canyon between the two mountains, and go running. The return is partly about that canyon, Hobble Creek, where my grandparents sometimes rode horses, where all the Allman families, perhaps, going all the way back to the 1850s, went for picnics or for hunting or maybe, like me, to hear the rush of the water in the creek and to see the light on new leaves in spring or auburn in fall.  The canyon I would drive in as a teenager, in my 70s muscle car, when I couldn’t face going to school. The canyon with a golf course where, one early spring, the boy I was dating shoved me down in the road, slicing open my jeans and then my knees and severing, at last, the last bit of hold he’d had on me.

I know my DNA is no longer on that road, 29 winters later. But I still know the patch of blacktop where I bled a bit, and everything changed once again.

It’s not only the canyon, though. It is the mountains, too, the way they feel like home. There is a face on the mountain, and sometimes that face was mournful and sometimes benign but it was always watching me, a patron saint of stone. It made me feel seen, and even though when I drive down those streets where I used to live and I am full of knowing that while I am haunted by that town and while there is a part of my ghost that haunts it still, it is under no obligation to acknowledge its worthless daughter—even now the face sees me. An old friend who’s not going anywhere.

This year, I didn’t make it to Springville for my birthday run until after my birthday. But I still went. I almost, almost drove past my old house. I almost drove the old paths my friend Chris and I used to drive, past houses that were important to us. Past my grandma’s house. But I didn’t, because I don’t want the memories altered. For that morning, I let myself be haunted. I brought the person I am now to the place I lived when I was both myself and utterly different. I drove down Main Street, where the library used to be, past the building where I used to go to gymnastics, along the road that leads out and away.

Where we grow up shapes us. Springville certainly shaped me. But it is not the only thing that makes us who we are. I don’t have to carry the stone—I can, in fact, leave it there, and only visit once a year to be reunited with the ghost of the person I used to be. Then I turn north and drive home.


A Numinous Morning at the Library

Some days, my work feels mundane. I love what I do, of course, but the negative of working somewhere you love is that the place loses some of its magic. This afternoon, for example: I spent time reordering damaged books, pulling new teen books for a YA display, and talking to patrons. Good, happy work, but what is usual. 

But some shifts feel numinous, somehow. The library can never feel for me the way it felt before I worked here (I can't smell that library scent anymore, for example), but as I come to understand the library's moods, its weather patterns and shifting people, I find a deeper, more connected sort of magic. That is how this morning felt, so here is a story told in vignettes​ that perhaps will mean something only to me...

Before the library opens, I take thirty seconds to stand at the tall windows and look at the mountains in the morning light. The air is finally starting to get a little bit clearer here, and the middle parts of the mountains are starting to turn orange in spots; this view of Cascade framed by the library windows is one of my favorites. I turn on computers and set out newspapers and wipe down keyboards. Then I clean up the blue toner powder that someone must've splattered last night onto the black-and-white printer, and then I unlock the doors.

It is a Friday morning, so my father's old friend Craig stops by. We talk about hiking, and of the peacefulness of being in mountains that no one goes to. He tells me, as he does every Friday morning, how he misses my dad and wishes they could go on a desert walk with him again. "Of course, we were always looking down at the ground, watching for flakes of arrowheads," he says, because twenty years ago you could wander the Utah desert and find arrowheads. "I know now it's illegal and wrong to take them," Craig says, "so now I leave them. But when I find one I always think your dad lead me to it." I think about the morning we buried my dad, when I didn't want him to go into the dark without anything but his clothes, so I put one of his illegally-procured arrowheads in his pocket, and how the muscle of his thigh was also a stone. For a moment it is entirely absurd that my father's friend Craig, walking carefully and slowly with his cane on his stroke-twisted legs, is here in the library talking to me about books, hiking, and arrowheads, and my dad is...where, I don't know for sure, but his body is in the ground and in his pocket there is a stone.

I help an older woman learn how to download e-books onto her iPad. At first she is unsure but as we move through the steps she starts to understand. I think about how baffling our world can be to someone raised in the 50s, when refrigerators were finally affordable enough that middle-class families could have them, washing machines were becoming popular, and the credit card was just becoming a reality (but only, of course, for men).  Our technology now is nearly ephemeral...you don't really hold​ an e-book, you never touch an e-audio book, but it still gets you to a story. I can't help wondering, every time I help someone who is initially baffled by—or actually a little bit afraid of this technology—what the world will be like in another twenty or thirty years. What else will we invent before I am dead? And will I be the brave sort, always trying new things, or the kind who is afraid?

I help another older patron who tells me that she hates fiction, especially that "wild, made-up sciencey stuff" but she wants to read something from the Great American Read list. (Which doesn't have any non-fiction.) After we talk for a little while, I get her three books in large print: Anne of Green Gables, which she'd never read but enjoyed the movies, To Kill a Mockingbird, which she'd read "years and years ago" but would really like to read again, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which she'd never heard about but agreed sounded like something she would love. I always ask the patrons on crutches or with canes if they'd like me to get their books for them, and she says she would love that. I do this to help them, but also as a sort of good-karma thing for myself, as one day I will be an old woman but still need books, and hopefully there will be someone in the future who will help me access them if I can't get to them myself.

I check people in to use our study rooms, I help a woman figure out how to see the order of a series, I tell another woman where to find Colleen McCullough's novels, and I walk an elderly gentleman over to the biography section. I have a conversation with a man who has the same name and spelling as my husband's deceased brother; we talk for a bit about how much more difficult it is to trace back Scandinavian names as the change from -sen to -dottir and back again through the line. I confess I don't know as much as I should about my husband's line, but I can trace my McCurdy line all the way back to the Scottish MacCurdy clans. 

I read my email and get caught up on book group reservations.

A small blond girl in a pink dress, perhaps two, has wandered over the bridge to my side of the library, without her mother. I watch her for a minute to see if anyone is coming to look for her. She stands calmly by one of our sculptures, which is of a crouched man. Done in alabaster that looks like the flesh of raw muscle, this sculpture is either terrifying or fascinating to our little patrons. She just stands and looks at it, carefully touching the ear. I walk over to her and ask if she knows where her mom is. She pops her binki out of her mouth, shrugs, and says "nope. Let's go find her." She puts her binki back in her mouth and reaches up to hold my hand. Her tiny fingernails are painted turquoise. We wander over to the children's section and in a few minutes find her mom, who didn't realize her daughter Kate (she told me her name with another quick binki removal) was missing. As I walk back to my desk, I remember my own days of bringing my kids to the library. I can almost feel how it felt to have their little hands in mine, and the sound of their voices, and the deep, lovely exuberance they brought to finding books at the library. For a moment I feel like all of my life has already been lived, and that every sweet, gentle moment is behind me; I swallow that familiar lump and get on with it, as there is no crying at the reference desk. (Except I cry all the time at the reference desk. Reticently.)

I go to the circulation office to see if there are any books to take downstairs with me. One of the librarians there tells me that she just last night read my essay in Baring Witness . She tells me that it's as good as anything she's read by Toni Morrison or Annie Dillard, which makes me laugh because of course it's not, but I am flattered anyway. I think about the night I did a reading with other writers whose essays are also in that book, and the way I got to a part of my essay that at first seems funny but then turns dark, and how the audience laughed and then went silent, how I felt them turn with me into the darkness, and how exhilarating it was to be, just for that moment, a person leading other people into the darkness of human nature, and how that is the one time in my life I have really, really felt like a writer.

The general reference desk is usually a little bit quieter than the fiction desk, and this proves true this morning. When I switch desks there is a barrage: two guest passes for the internet computers, one patron needs help with printing, another can't find Fahrenheit 451 even though it's supposed to be on the shelf (it was; she thought it would be thicker so she didn't notice the slim spine), another can't decipher her own handwriting and wonders if I can figure out which author's last name she wrote down (we finally figure out it was Wingate, Lisa Wingate...I'm not sure I could recreate the steps it took me to get there). A patron needs headphones, another is turning in her headphones, another tells me her story of being annoyed by the process of getting a Utah driver's license. Two different patrons ask me where the YA section is, and another can't find the Brandon Mull book he's looking for (it's upstairs in the junior novels). In an hour I don't get any work done, other than helping patrons, which is fine because that's the point.

Just before I leave for lunch, a teenage patron comes to the desk. She should be in school right now, but instead she's here, asking me for a book. "A good book," she says, "but it can't be all cheery and happy and hopeful." She looks, walks, and dresses absolutely nothing like I did at her age, 16 and feeling like the world made no sense anywhere, but a little bit of sense (and peace, and streaming light, and quiet, and books) could be found at the library. But for just a second I am looking back through time at myself, angry and wild and rebellious and always wearing black, so I show her some books that I would've liked when that was me (The Infinity of You and Me, And We Stay, Belzhar, and The Carnival at Bray​; good, but not happy). I think about how long the library has been a place of solace for me, a place of framed views, of artwork, of quiet, of refuge. A long time; perhaps all my life, or at least as long as I can remember. And today I also remember this: it is a place of connection, a place where the layers of time slip a little, when all of my ancient Scottish ancestors catch a brief glimpse of the old woman I will become in the future, when my dad's hand holding an arrowhead reaches out for my teenage wrist with its ankh bracelet, where I can see my daughter's small fingers, nails painted pink, pulling a book from the shelf, where nothing is commonplace.
 
A place where magic happens.

Book Review: Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen

A little-known story about me: When I was 17, to ensure the possibility of graduating from high school, I had to do something to make up my citizenship grade (because, you know...sluffing three out of four school terms has consequences). There were choices to make, but I don't remember what my non-chosen options were. And I rarely think about the choice I did make, even though it impacted me in ways that still resonate in my life today.

I chose to go on a ten-day survival adventure in Escalante canyon.

When I think about it now I almost have to laugh, as it feels sort of like a movie cliche to me, the possibility that they could send my gothy little soul out into Nature and have me come home as a changed person, finally good, finally wanting to wear some color other than black. Finally no one's problem, my malaise worn away by hiking.

It didn't really happen. I went out in shorts and a t-shirt, my dad's sweaty trucker hat because my mom made me take it and my favorite black leather, mid-calf lace-up boots with spikes and silver toes. I came home with fresh blisters and a sunburned forehead (because I didn't wear the hat) and I still loved my boots. I made up my citizenship grade but I don't think I was noticeably different. (At least not at first. And not on the outside except for that sunburn.)

The wilderness didn't save me or redeem me or make me normal. There would be another year of my bad behavior before things changed.

I think it must've made my parents despair that nothing ever really would make me normal.

But that experience in the Escalante did change me. It created an awareness in me of how, when you push yourself to your physical limits in the wilderness, you find a new part of yourself. I'd been a gymnast for more than a decade, so I understood pushing to the end of physical limits. I understood continuing on despite blisters. But I'd done that all in a chalky gym. Those days in the desert of Utah taught me that in nature I could gain a clearer understanding; I could see things in new light. Or even that there was a different light to see with. It took me years to put that knowledge to use—more than a decade, in fact—but when I felt it again I recognized it immediately. It's why I run and why I hike, and those two things have changed me. Have saved my life, many times over.

Wild bird wendelin van draanenSo when one of my librarian friends told me she hated Wendelin Van Draanen's new YA novel, Wild Bird, because of how it depicted wilderness survival camps as a way to help troubled teens, I was intrigued. Especially as it is set in the Utah desert. I read it quickly, in only a couple of days, and now I am continuing to think about it. As my experiences with desert survival are different than my librarian friend's, I had a different response:

I actually really enjoyed it. (Even though the ending felt a little bit too pat and​ the author did something that makes me nuts: using the word "nauseous" instead of "nauseated.")

The novel's protagonist is Wren, who is failing her freshman year of high school and causing all sorts of trouble. The wilderness survival camp her parents send her to is different than what I went to. For one, she didn't get a choice; one of the camp's employees simply comes to her house in the middle of the night, tells her to get dressed, and takes her to the airport. And Wren's experience was eight weeks long, not one like mine. There are psychologists and biology teachers and Native American storytellers, solitary Quests and lessons on interpreting scat, none of which I had. Her experience is immersive and, ultimately, transformative. 

I enjoyed watching Wren transform and the way her story was told, memories of her usual life—where she drinks alcohol and smokes pot and flunks her classes and shoplifts—brought on by experiences in the desert. Back home, she steals money from her parents, fights with her sister, wrecks havoc. As well as running "errands" for her boyfriend, who sells heroin. In the desert, she has to put up a tent and figure out how to find water and learn the process of making a fire.

When she arrives in the desert, she's angry that she has to be there at all, and starts out completely not participating in anything. But as the days go by and she gets to the end of the supplies she started out with, she has to start learning how to survive in the wild, and then how to work with the other girls in the camp. Slowly she starts to change, to find remorse for her actions, to learn how to name her own needs and control her own emotions.

While I did enjoy the reading experience of Wild Bird, it also left me troubled. Because my library friend sort of is right: It makes a great (albeit novel-length) marketing pamphlet for the magical healing powers of survival adventure camps. I do think they might be able to help some troubled kids, but not all of them, and I do think the potential for creating more harm (a group of girls away from their parents in the desert could spell, for example, trouble for any unscrupulous male councilor) is great.

On the other hand, I do think they have the potential to be helpful. I just don't think it happens in the way it's portrayed in the novel.

What I pondered most seriously, as I read the book, was my friend's question: What kind of parents would allow their (already-troubled) child to basically be kidnapped and then forced to live in a tent for months on end? I've been thinking a lot, anyway, about what makes a good parent (especially a good parent to teenagers) and about the mistakes I made and what I might've done well. (I almost really wanted to read more about Wren's parents' experiences and how it felt to deal with their daughter's problems in such a way). I think it boils down to two types of parents: lazy ones who don't want to deal with their kids' problems or desperate ones who no longer know how to deal with their kids' problems.

The latter, obviously, is who I have compassion for. None of my kids have gone off the rails in the way that Wren does (or that I did), but we have had our own struggles. Parenting teenagers is hard. Even when you have the best of intentions, you cannot be the perfect parent. You make mistakes. You don't always have answers. What do you do, when you've tried therapy and talking and changing schools and consequences and everything else, but your kid still keeps involving herself in dangerous behaviors?

I think that desperate parents might send their kids to such a place because they are out of ideas. Because they feel like the risk of continuing the dangerous behaviors is greater than whatever might happen in the wilderness.

I'm not sure that this is a book that everyone will love. It spoke to me and to my experiences, but I am not exactly sure if teenagers would enjoy it. Would a "troubled teen" read this and be changed, or is it only the actual (not literary) desert that could accomplish such a thing? Would a "normal" teen read it and think...what? Man those wacked out chicks are exhausting? Or could any teen read it just for the story? I'm not sure.

But I am glad I read it, as it gave me a sort of grace. I still carry a lot of guilt for my adolescent shenanigans, for what I put my parents and my sisters through. A book like this one reminds me that I wasn't really a bad person but a person in a bad place. More than anything, though, I'm glad I read it because it brought back such vivid memories of those days in the Utah desert, when I discovered truths about friendship, when I learned how to make pancakes on a fire-warmed stone, when I spent a night sleeping in solitude under the stars. The place and time when my love for hiking and running and being outside began.


True Confessions of a Depeche Mode Fan: When the Stereo was an Altar and the Music the Voice of God

I wish I had a photograph of myself from those days—black shirt, black mini skirt, my favorite silver-toed black boots and my earrings shaped like snakes and my ankh necklace and my crystal necklace both strung on black suede chokers. My white-blonde hair and that look on my face, a vulnerable snarl that was part smile and part lifted eyebrow.

Me in what my mom called "Amy's black years": before cell phones and digital photography, we didn't take as many pictures anyway, even my parents who took a lot of pictures for the time. But I think she didn't want to capture it on film at all, the crazy, moody mess her used-to-be-normal daughter became. As if taking pictures of me might've encouraged me to continue waving my goth freak flag, as if not photographing me would discourage my efforts and make me want to wear color again (and go to school, and be kind, and stop stomping around angry all the time).

I don't really blame her, even though I do so desperately wish I had a photo or two. How does a parent know what to do with such a daughter, who curses and screams and rebels any way she can, who, when she's not out who-knows-where with her friends (also dressed in black) spent most of her time sitting in front of her stereo, as if the machine were an altar and the music the voice of God?

As if that strange music could do anything but make her feel worse.

There was a lot of Depeche Mode seeping under my bedroom door during my black years.

And yes: my mom told me more than once that if I'd just listen to something cheerier, I'd feel a whole lot better. (Imagine our conversations when I discovered Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy and Clan of Xymox and all of the other Goth bands I listened to.) What I could never put into words for her was that yes: the music that I loved was dark and gloomy, and I​ was dark and twisty, but it lifted me, somehow. It gave me a mirror to gaze into, where I could look at myself in my own eye but I could also look back over my shoulder and see others reflected there. Listening to music, I wasn't alone.

Did the dark music make the darkness or did the darkness resonate with the music?

Probably a little bit of both.

But whatever my mother's objections and however cliched it might be, it's one of the defining things about me: I am a Depeche Mode fan. Their music in the 80s and early 90s was a voice for me; it gave me a way to say what I couldn't and to understand what I felt. It's equal parts dramatic and truthful to say that Dave Gahan's voice is the sound of that time, and whenever I hear it I am transported back to those years which were both horrible and ecstatic. They were intensely painful but also intense in every aspect: friendship, affection, love, pain, hunger, the texture of grass on bare feet. I felt everything, as hard and deeply as I could feel.

(Maybe everyone feels that way in adolescence? I don't know.)

It was the way the music itself sounded. And it was the lyrics, too. Some of the lyrics were like ropes to cling to, and others were like little pieces of light that made the darkness bearable.

The Cure, The Cult, Peter Murphy, The Smiths, New Order, the Violent Femmes, David Bowie, Yaz, Siouxie and the Banshees, Nick Cave, Berlin, Erasure, Throwing Muses and dozens of other obscure bands; alternative and punk and synth and new wave and whatever else people called it: it wasn't only Depeche Mode that helped me make sense of that time.

But it was always Depeche Mode.

It was Depeche Mode because the precise mixture of sin, guilt, redemption, and a quest for something spiritual (but not religious) that imbibes their best songs is exactly what I felt caught in. Because they sang about rain and Princess Di and the meaning of love and the meaning of lust. Because Stripped, because Dressed in Black, because But Not Tonight. Because Catching Up with Depeche Mode was the best tape to listen to when I was forced to clean the kitchen. Because Black Celebration was the subtitle of my life. Because whatever he insisted upon, he was trying to be like one of the boys. Because of the summer of 1987 and Music for the Masses, which was the soundtrack for every exquisite, sweet, painful second. Because for many years I thought "Strangelove" was the only real love song, because "I give in to sin because you have to make this life livable" was the only way to make sense of anything that happened.

Because that voice made my jaw hurt and my throat grow a lump and my skin prickle; because of those words. ​Because of those words.

I'm thinking about Depeche Mode and about that version of myself (when I was sad but passionate and so afraid of people finding out I was strange that I wore the strangeness right out in front of me like a shield but I was never afraid to stand up and do what I wanted, especially when what I wanted wasn't acceptable) because as I'm writing this, Depeche Mode is playing a concert in Salt Lake City.

And I, the person who every one of my high school friends knew loved DM more than just about anything, didn't go.

Partly I didn't go because who would I go with? If I'd made them, my husband would've gone or my sister would've gone. But they would've been going for me, not for the experience. I wanted to go with my best friend from high school, but she was being a responsible parent tonight. She would've gone for the music. I could've looked at her and remembered how we were together before we had to be responsible parents, when we knew what was in each other's closets as well as our own, when sometimes I would wear red, but only her magical red jeans. When we still intimately knew every ache each other had. She could've seen the Amy I used to be like a figure drawn on vellum, right over this older and wiser but less brave and interesting and wild version I've become.

And that's the other reason. Going to a Depeche Mode concert will remind me of how much I have changed. In good ways—I have many mediums, now, for understanding myself and my experiences. Music, yes, but also art and writing and poetry and hiking and running and even opening my mouth to talk, to tell, to speak my story. I understand that pulling the darkness over me like a cloak is a sure way to lose myself in darkness; I know that I don't have to be sad to be good. I know what I need forgiveness for, and redemption, and I am at last learning what I don't have to carry guilt for.

She was reckless, the Amy I used to be. But I think she was also braver. She cared less about what people thought. She was willing to dive in and do anything. And she—I—was passionate and ambitious and certain the world had something waiting. Back then I thought I was exceptional and the world just hadn't noticed yet, and bumping into that old belief with my current, mediocre self might've just been more than I could stand.

(But I still would've gone if Chris could have.)

I do know this. If I had gone, I would've worn something black, especially my black Docs that've been everywhere with me for a decade. I would've bumped into old friends and old boyfriends and none of them would've been surprised to see me there. I would've sung along because I still know all the words, and that voice would've made my teeth hurt and my skin prickle.

And I would've taken pictures so I didn't have to wish for one.


An Ax to the Ice: on Action and Choice and Black Clothes

On Tuesday when I went to work, my boss (who is also one of my best friends) said “You aren’t wearing black today!” and I dug her in the rib with my elbow because she was right: I had on my kitten sweater, which is the softest thing I own (it’s not really a cardigan made out of kittens, but it feels like it) and happens to be bone white. And I wore light grey. It’s the first time I haven’t worn black in…I don’t remember how long.

Wearing black has long been code for depression for me. It’s also the color I feel the most comfortable in, so it doesn’t always mean “I’m stuck under the ice” but, when it’s literally the only thing I’m wearing…that’s a sign. When I was a teenager and black clothes were literally all I owned, my mom used to say “If you’d just wear some color you’d feel better,” which naturally made me want to go out and buy something new—and black. Because, yes, mother, wearing yellow or pink would totally fix everything, my snarky teenage self might’ve said. Except, I didn’t because I didn’t understand yet (and I don’t think she did either) that black wasn’t the sickness but a symptom of it.

But it’s also a choice. Wearing something non-black on Tuesday didn’t exactly help anything. The elephant is still sitting in the room (it would be so much easier to write about this if I could also write about what is happening, but I can’t), I am still down in it, and I don’t really feel better for having worn something non-black (does bone white and grey count as color anyway?)

Except, choosing to not wear black, even just for a day, does give me a small lift. Not the clothes themselves, but the choice. The control, the fighting back.

“Thank you for acknowledging my actions,” I didn’t say to my boss, because that would be weird, but it is what I thought.

Action.

Choice.

It’s hard to do those things when you’re stuck inside depression, but they are the things that are required to get you out.

So today I’m just writing a list of things I’ve done, choices and actions that will help me to start moving up out of the darkness. A sort of self-acknowledgement, a marker so I know I did some things once so I can continue doing some other things.

  1. I signed up for a ballet barre class. I didn’t just go to the first free class, but I actually got out my credit card and paid so I could keep going. This was hard for me not because I thought the class would be physically too difficult (it’s actually perfect; it’s making me sore) but because I thought it would be filled with fabulous women. You know what I mean…wealthy, skinny, successful women who aren’t super friendly because they don’t need any friends because they already have a bajillion, equally wealthy, skinny, and successful. Fabulous! But, I found literally no fabulous women there. Just friendly ones, who introduced themselves to me and told me where to buy their cool non-skid socks and asked me about myself. The combination of social and physical was a balm to me. I have six weeks left and I intend to go as often as I can.
  2. I saw my sister. Back in November Becky asked if I would want to go see Mamma Mia! at the new Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake with her, and I said yes, having no idea how awful I’d feel in February. If I could’ve not gone, I would’ve backed out (she doesn’t know that I actually thought about not going). But burrowing into my house and avoiding people is part of the problem. So I went. Just before the play started I told her a story that ends with Kendell saying “the damn lions are just so frustrating” and we started laughing and as I laughed I thought I don’t remember when I laughed last. Watching a play, wandering around a city, finding a restaurant and eating there on a whim just to see if it was good (it was): just not being inside my house. Laughing. Enjoying a story. Those are things I need but don’t give myself enough in the first place, but doing them with the woman I trust the most was a gift I didn’t know I needed.
  3. I think that there is a perception that depression is the same as sadness over something happening. That is true, of course: I am devastated by what is happening. But not all difficult or devastating things lead to depression. I think this place I am in is a culmination of too many devastating things: so many surgeries, and the almost-dying in April, and the election and my sprained ankles and then this current experience; it was the last thing, the one that finally made all my coping mechanisms stop helping me cope. So, here is what I am feeling inside my depression: Grief. No one has died, but something has. I think I will feel this grief for a long time, even if the situation improves. There is something empowering about labeling what I am feeling. I am grieving because this experience is difficult (one of the hardest things I’ve experienced), and because it is the end of something, and because it is changing things in irrevocable ways. Grief, though. It is different than depression; it will last longer than the darkness. You cope with it in different ways, and to be grieving without being depressed is the closest thing to a goal I have. But just being able to say it, to understand it: it is a sort of a light.
  4. I am pondering an ah-ha moment. A friend of my is working on a research project about mental health, and I answered her survey questions. One absolutely dropped me, or at least, my response did. “How do mental health issues influence your normal life?” she asked. As I thought about what I do to avoid or cope with depression—running, writing, making sure I go outside, trying to be cognizant of my thought patterns—I realized that who I am is so tightly connected with how I cope that they are the same. Who would I be if I weren’t trying to cope? Where could I put my emotional energy? This was a revelation to me. Perhaps I have been wrong in thinking that coping is the way to deal. What if I could actually heal instead of cope? What could I do then?
  5. I am eating better. OK, not entirely healthy; I haven’t managed to eliminate sugar entirely. But I’m not stressing about 100% of anything. I’m just trying to do better, to listen to my body’s cues and eat only when I am hungry, to stop when I’m full, to put healthy stuff in my mouth as often as I can.
  6. I went outside. It has been warm here in Utah; yesterday was 69 degrees. So I put on my running shoes and my favorite running skirt and I went to the mountains to walk on the river trail. It is still winter, colorless and drab, and the snow in piles by the trail is dingy and exhausted. But still. Moving outside: this is what I need the most.

Thank you for all of your comments on my last post. They mean the world to me. They mean light can still be found in dark places. They weren’t actions I took, but actions brought to me that were, to distort Kafka’s idea, an ax to the ice. My movements are small, there is still so much to break through…but I am moving.


A Babe with The Power of Voodoo

It wasn’t only David Bowie.

It was also Robert Smith and Dave Gahan and Morrissey and Brian Ritchie and Peter Murphy and Ian McCulloch and Ian Astbury. Siouxie Sioux and Bjork and Annie Lennox. Everyone from Bauhaus, in all their configurations.

But certainly it was David Bowie.

Even now, every time. I hear his voice (doesn’t matter the song) and I still get a tingle. A rush, a spurt. A little piece of the wild, angry, sad, passionate, creative person I was as a teenager.

My friend Chris and I were talking about just this on Saturday, when she found herself driving through the little town where we became friends. Where so much happened, ugly things and brilliant things, when we were unhappy and messed up and more than a little bit crazy. But that version of myself—she was braver than I am now. Truer to what she was, instead of what people wanted her to be.

Brave and true. Unhappy, yes, but because of things that happened to me, not because of the things I did.

Another friend, who I met long after my crazy teenage years, asked me once about being a goth girl. About how she didn’t understand it. Why would you want to look so weird?

The impulse is self-protection, of course. It is putting the weirdness on the outside, where it’s the first thing people see, so if they’re surprised by your internal strangeness, it’s not like you didn’t warn them. It’s a preemptive strike.

I only wore black clothes. I didn't care what people thought. I immersed myself in the music of flamboyant, creative, passionate, and yes, strange artists because they felt familiar to me. They were who they were and not only were they unapologetic, they were the musicians they were because of the strangeness. I needed that because I needed examples, needed proof that being who you are is the way to be who you need to be.

And no one more than Bowie. His music, his appearance, his words.

He brought his authentic self (which was built on constant change but also on creativity, on making) to the world, unapologetic, and it made me value my own authentic self (instead of mocking it, or hiding it, or covering it up). He was true to his mutability, always, and by being who he was he gave me courage to be who I was.

Or maybe it was just who I wanted to be—a babe, to sum up, with the power of voodoo. I’m not sure I ever was that, but I thought I could be, and the thinking—the believing in the possibility—is still a creative power for me. A thing that makes sparks.

I think somewhere along the line I started believing the idea that to be a grown up I had to abandon that self I used to wear so brazenly—that my wild side belonged only to my adolescence. But I think about Chris, driving our old route along our old haunts. I think of how I felt, thinking about her there, bumping into our old ghosts. It makes me sad, a different sadness than the kind I had as a teenager. A sort of disappointment—that I didn’t keep on being who I was.

But she’s still here, my wild, strange, fierce self. I want to let her out more—want to be who I am instead of who this world expects me to be.

I want to put on my red shoes and dance the blues.

I can’t be too old for that. Because watch this:

 

David Bowie, sick with secret illness. Wrinkled. Almost seventy. And still, moving and passionate and creative. Still making. Still being who he was. His voice still makes me feel that spark.

I wasn’t part of his tribe. I never met him, or even saw him in concert. But he was part of my tribe. Part of the group of people who inspired me and encouraged me and helped me make peace with being different. No—not just peace. I am an adherent of uniqueness, deep down. Even though I look like a middle-aged, Mormon mom. I don’t wear it on the outside much anymore, but just like my anhks and crystal necklaces are still in my jewelry box, just like my steel-toed boots are still in a box in the closet under the stairs, I still have it. The abhorrence of commonality. The avoidance of the norm.

And I know—half a bajillion people are thinking about David Bowie today. So probably I’m not that unique anyway. But still. I am a former goth girl who loved David Bowie not so much for his strangeness but for his refusal to hide it. But most of all for his songs.

All of us writing about Bowie: we were Ziggy’s band.


on Not Drinking the Wine (a story from Italy)

When my mom and sisters and I went to Italy 18 months ago (how was it 18 months ago?), we went in an organized tour. There were about 25 of us, I think, and the four of us were the only practicing Mormons. I got the feeling that there were some opinions in the rest of the group about having the four of us along...you know, the weird, judgmental religious folks who never swear and always dress modestly and don't drink alcohol.

(Maybe it was just my own natural awkwardness in large groups that made me feel that way, and it wasn't ever overtly stated. It was just...something I felt and gathered by my other natural large-group behavior, which is clamming up and then watching everyone else mingle and laugh together and act like normal, functional social beings.)

It wasn't really a problem, of course, at least not for me. I liked almost all of the members of our group and had started to really enjoy them, hearing their stories and even sharing a few of mine. I hoped that they'd overlook my Mormonism and see me for the whole person I am, my religion being just a part of my identity. And it was fine until the night we had dinner at a Tuscan villa. The Corsini vineyard is an absolutely beautiful piece of the world—exactly what you'd imagine when you hear the words "Tuscan villa." An ancient house authentically restored (one day I will set a short story in the kitchen of that building) and a dim and cavernous cellar where the wine aged. They also had an olive grove and a little factory where they processed their olive oil. 

_MG_0974 tuscany

We were served some of that olive oil with our dinner and it was perhaps the most extraordinary flavor I have ever tasted. Extra-virgin, of course, and with a wild sharpness I never knew existed in the world. I didn't want to dilute it by dipping bread into it. Actually, what I wanted to do was drink it. Just little sips. Or dip my finger into it, over and over.

The dinner was held at the vineyard's small restaurant; our group took up the entire loft space, filling the wide, wooden tables. It was far enough into the trip that we all felt like friends, so there was talking and laughing and telling of stories and sharing what we'd discovered in Florence earlier that day (what I discovered in Florence: a burning desire to return to Florence). The food was delicious, with that olive oil and a crusty bread, a cheese risotto that I will never forget, and a meat dish that might have freaked me out if I knew exactly what it was (I still don’t know). 

Included with our meal were four glasses of the house wine, and because of that, there was a great kerfuffle when we all sat down; everyone wanted to sit by us because they knew we'd probably not drink our wine. More for them! As the meal started to be served, they started bringing the wine, each type served with different parts of the meal. And as each glass was brought out, and someone else asked if they could have mine, I grew more and more uncomfortable. I felt like my inside were writhing, as if my heart itself were shaking and my lungs rippling. I finally had to excuse myself and go find the bathroom, not because I needed it (it wasn't that kind of writhing) but because I had to get away.

Not from the wine. Not from the people drinking the wine. But from my perception of what the people drinking wine were thinking about me not drinking the wine. 

I wanted, in fact, to stand in the middle of them and make a (sober) pronouncement. "I've gotten sloshed before!" I wanted to tell them. "I've been just as drunk as any of the rest of you. I’m really not a prude." I felt like they thought I was a foolish, innocent, manipulated adult acting like a baby. Not tasting what I imagine was some fairly delicious wine, simply because my religion told me I couldn't. 

And that isn’t why I don’t drink.

I’m not a drinker because my sister is. Because I am missing an entire relationship in my life, because of alcohol and drugs. I’m not a drinker because yes: I am afraid of being an alcoholic. I haven’t forgotten—how that feels. How things hurt less, how it is to have a thing to turn to when all of the other things become unbearable.  How sweet and lovely it is, to forget, to laugh, to drop what is too heavy right into the bottom of the bottle. I know myself, know my own proclivities for self-harm and the desperate need to feel blank. But I also know the other side of it, know that all too soon the blankness seeps into everything.

I would rather feel the hard parts than find the numbness has also invaded the good parts.

But what it felt like, that night in Italy, was that they felt my not drinking was a judgement against them. Which isn’t true. I know that we Mormons have that reputation—of being judgmental. But that is a blanket statement, one that is too small to cover all of us. Yes, there are many judgmental Mormons. There are racist ones, too, bigots, chauvinists. Just as there are in Catholic churches and Baptist ones, in the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith—in universities and hospital staff and the people who work at the grocery store.

We are not all uptight, judgmental people. We are many things. (The people in the church itself are, I think, finally beginning to learn this as well.) Mostly we are, like everyone else, just human. Imperfectly human. Some of us are open minded. Some of us question, wonder, and doubt. But we are all trying to find our way—the close-minded as well as the liberals.

I finally went back to the table. For a few minutes, I thought about drinking the next glass of wine the waitress brought me. I thought about proving it to the rest of them, that I wasn’t immature, that I wasn’t controlled by my religion, that I could choose whatever I wanted. My writhing finally settled, though, when I chose not to. If I am not immature, I am also old enough that I don’t need to impress anyone by drinking. And besides: what is the difference between me judging them for drinking (which I wasn’t doing anyway) and them judging me for not drinking?

So I didn’t drink. I gave my next glass of wine to someone, and the last one to someone else. I ate my delicious meal and I savored that olive oil—I did, I confess, dip my finger in, more than once—and I even managed to tell stories and laugh with the rest of them. Even sober.

A few days after the vineyard dinner, when we were walking through the horrid little ugly town outside of Venice where our hotel was, one of the group members put her arm around my shoulder and said “You know, when I heard that there would be Mormons in our group, I was a little bit worried. But I like you and your family. How did you all turn out so open-minded?”

I couldn’t speak for anyone else. In fact, I’m not sure that I even spoke well for myself. But what I told her is this: I have learned that my spiritual journey is just that: it is mine. My sisters’ are theirs, as are my kids’ and my husband’s and my friends’. I can hope to influence them. I can share what I believe. But I can only find the answers that are right for me, because that is all I have dominion over. This means that I have to find my own way. I doubt and question nearly everything, until I understand it. Or if I don’t understand it, I figure out how to fit it in my life, or sometimes how to not have it fit but still go on my way. (So much of any Christian religion is a distraction anyway, from the real point, which is learning and trying to be like Christ.) I am open minded because I think that each person is on his or her own journey, and it isn’t my place to direct them. Most of religion is us fumbling in the dark. It isn’t cut and dried, it isn’t black and white. It is choosing and navigating and falling and getting back up; it is entirely between us as individuals and God, and I can’t get in the middle of that. I can’t say that my choices are right for anyone else but myself.

But what I do know is that my meandering, hilly experience has brought me to some truths. These are my truths and I own them because I worked for them. They aren’t true for me because someone told me they were true, but because I thought, prayed, pondered, experienced, learned. Not being a drinker is one of those truths. I hope my kids can learn that from me rather than the hard way, but I also know that the hard way is sometimes the only way, and that some choices must be made and remade over an entire lifetime.

Maybe not all Mormons are like me. (That’s laughable. I am not much like many, many Mormons.) But not all of us judge. Not all of us think we are the only right answer. Not all of us fit the mold. And many, many more than others might think are choosing what we choose not because The Church told us to choose it, but because we decided. It is in the deciding that the power lies.

(This blog post written as a response to an interaction I had with a library patron today, who ranted at me for a good five minutes about how much she hates Mormons because "all they ever do is judge anyone.")


When I Was Friends with Lani

We were friends in ninth grade---ninth grade, when we were just 14, just 15, just beginning to cast off the awkwardness of early adolescence. We met in English class and she introduced me to Danielle Steel's novels. We'd sit in my bedroom listening to whatever music I chose—Alphaville, The Cure, Roxy Music, New Order. We'd sit in her bedroom listening to whatever music she chose— Bronski Beat, The Human League, Joe Jackson, and U2, endless replayed loops of The Unforgettable Fire and War and The Joshua Tree. We went to the mall where we spent innumerable hours looking at earrings. We made and ate snacks (caramel popcorn, chocolate chip cookies, nachos, spaghetti) with the ravenous, guilt-free hunger of teenage girls. We talked about boys. We spied on the boy who lived at the end of her street and she told me secrets about him that his girlfriend, who also lived on their street, had told her. (Secret things I never could imagine happened in real life, only in books.) We laughed together all the time. 

I still remember the tinkling arpeggio of her laughter.

We didn't know, when we were 14 or 15 or even 16, barely. We didn't know that the uncomplicated, bland, and endearing weft of our friendship would soon turn sharp and hard, nor that it would grow into a complicated thing—a rivalry? a pair of antagonists? We didn't know that she'd make choices her mom didn't agree with and that her mom would kick her out of the house, nor that she'd come to live with me for a week before Thanksgiving until my mom, too, couldn't stand it and called her mom to come and get her. (She told her she was ridiculous for kicking her out and that no matter how awful a teenager was she needed to be with her family, especially at Thanksgiving, and now I can imagine my mom chiding her mom but then I was so mad that I literally kicked a hole in my bedroom wall.) We didn't know that our junior year would be a miasma of awfulness, nor that she would move into an apartment with Chris and it would be a series of small disasters, nor that some slight crack would widen into an ugly ending involving lies, craziness, shouting, a masking tape pentagram, and a newly-fledged witch (of the Wiccan variety) who showed up at my door to curse me. (We were, after all, goth girls together). We didn't know that late in the spring, despite our ugly explosion at friendship's end, she'd tell me what was happening behind my back that everyone knew but me.

She didn't know that when she was brave and true enough to tell me that secret, all of my hard feelings dissolved and while we were never friends again and I never understood her crazy and she never understood mine, I forgave her. I forgave her so swiftly it was like running downhill.

We didn't know that we'd go along in our lives making choices, each of us with one daughter but our lives on different trajectories. We didn't know we'd have all sorts of hard experiences and all sorts of joys, and that every once in awhile the memory of our old friendship would flutter into our thoughts—when I was in Hawaii I thought of her, and when I make caramel popcorn I remember, every time, the first time I made it with her when the caramel bubbled over and burnt on the stove, and when I listen to U2, still, she's at the parameters of my connections.

I didn't know I never would apologize or tell her I'd forgiven her.

Never, now, because we also didn't know she'd be attacked in the winter of her 40th year and that it would prove, six months later, to be her undoing. We didn't know she'd walk right up to the darkness, and then open the door and shove herself through the other side. That all the other horrible things would add up and add up and add up and the sum would be too large to carry. That she would leave by the saddest, loneliest method.

When I found out about her suicide—too late, even, to attend the memorial service—it felt like cutting. The knowledge felt metallic, thin, and sharp. It felt like the beginning of a nose bleed, which sounds odd but undeniable: my junior high best friend's death felt visceral. We haven't been friends for a long time (in fact, I had the equally ridiculous thought that, had we been Facebook friends at least, I could've stopped her) and there was that ugly end but how sad. How sad.

If this friendship had been written in a novel, there would've been a moment. A stray bumping-into of each other, at an airport in Belize, perhaps, in front of the popcorn stand at a movie theater, in a mall we only went to because our daughters needed a strapless bra or some blue tights or, of course, a perfect pair of earrings. In a novel we would've had some way of recognizing each other's regret. Of saying "I'm sorry for how I treated you" even though the details have grown soft and fuzzy.

But life isn't a novel, or if it is it's one of those horrid post-modern contraptions that no one can bear to actually read. I can't say I missed an opportunity to apologize, but I never made one, and now it's too late, and I'm left with that silver sadness and, oddly, with a sort of resolution: figure out who else I never apologized to. And remember that hopeful person I used to be, when I was friends with Lani. Be more adventurous and determined. Live brighter. Learn all the lyrics and sing along, laugh over burnt caramel. Dissolve into the luxurious fact of my life. Of being alive.

And take her with me a little bit.