Thursday, April 09, 2015

Sail On

I had been in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) for about ten minutes when I started to think I had been the victim of a giant Mormon conspiracy.  A conspiracy where every human who served an LDS mission swore to never tell anyone under 21 that the whole experience was kind of terrible.

When you grow up as a Mormon in Utah, missions are somewhat ubiquitous. Nearly every male you know went on one and you likely know a decent percentage of women who did as well. My parents both went when they were young. My grandparents did it when they were old. From the time I was a tiny person and learned the missionary anthem "Called to Serve", missionary service seem both awesome and totally expected. I grew up hearing great stories from my mom and dad, listening to endless glowing mission reports at church, getting letters from friends out in the "field" who raved about what an amazing time they were having. Whenever you asked someone's mom how so and so was liking their mission it was some version of "they love it! The never want to come home!".

So when I was 21 and eligible to go, I didn't even consider NOT going. I filled out papers, I went to the doctor and the dentist, I went to interviews with my ecclesiastic leaders. I got a call to Switzerland and I bought dresses and shoes and luggage and new and unique underwear and then suddenly, my family was leaving out one door and I was leaving out the other door and I realized I had no idea what I had signed up for.

I don't know what I was expecting. I knew there would be rules and structure. I knew my time wouldn't feel like my own. I knew I would have a "companion" who would basically function like a human shadow and we would have to be together all the time. I just didn't realize what all of that actually meant. I didn't realize that as a fairly independent college graduate, it would feel a little bit like I had joined the Borg.

I also didn't realize that NO ONE HAD EVER MENTIONED THAT THIS WOULD BE HARD. No one. I cried myself to sleep the first night thinking that just about every human I knew had been through this and not one of them said, "this is a really hard thing to do". Actually, one did. I ran into an old high school crush the Sunday before I left and when I told him I was headed to the MTC that week he looked me in the eye, chuckled and said, "if you knew what was coming, you wouldn't go." I remember thinking that was a really odd thing to say to someone, not realizing I would be using that as a mantra a scant week later when I felt like my whole world was upside down. But outside of that comment, my entire life people had painted missions in such a rosy hue, I immediately felt like a failure for being scared and homesick. I think I expected that I would be enveloped in some kind of spiritual cocoon that would turn me into someone who didn't care about missing her friends, or music, or shopping or boys or the myriad of other things that I suddenly couldn't stop thinking about.

I panicked for awhile and felt like I was probably the worst missionary in the history of missionaries until I started to make friends, and run into people from my outside life who I could talk to, and I realized that what I was feeling wasn't that unusual. I felt better but I vowed that when I was back from a mission, I would try to be truthful about the whole thing. That I wouldn't sugar coat it.

I lied.

When someone tells me they are going on a mission, I get starry-eyed and I tell them it will be one of the best experiences of their lives. I don't tell them how lonely it gets, how inadequate they will feel, how exhausted they will be by the end. I tell them about the tender moments they will have, how much they will learn about themselves, how good it will feel to spend 18 months doing something that isn't all about them.

I've been thinking quite a bit about my mission and the way I talk about it these last few weeks. I was catching up with a close friend recently who just moved to a new city and took a new job. He's posted some cool photos so I asked him if things were as awesome as they looked. And he said, "well I'm not having as much fun as you are that is for sure." His comment shocked me because the last eight months of my life have sucked on just about every level. I won't go through my laundry list but save having a baby, I've had pretty much every other major life event on my plate since August and I guess I thought I had been pretty open with him about how tough it's been.

And yet. I post fun things on the internet. I tell people how rad SF is and how cool my job is and that my dad was sick and we were prepared so it's been easier to deal with the grief.

Those things are true. Just like all the things I say about my mission are true. This is a cool city and I feel lucky to live here after years and years of dreaming about it. I work for a great company and have these fantastic coworkers and I'm learning every single day. And I don't cry about my dad every day. I get waves, tidal waves sometimes, but a lot of the time I am really ok.

I do not say that I have felt inadequate and out of my element for nearly all the days since I took the new job. I do not say that sometime I feel so sad about my dad that it feels like a giant weight is pulling me down to the bottom of an ocean. That I am so worried I will be alone my whole life that there are nights I cry myself to sleep.

Do we want to tell each other these things? Do we want to hear these things? Would we still go on missions and get pregnant and move across the country and fall in love if we knew the truth about how terribly awry these things can go?

I think the answer is yes. I think we would. For the same reason I have now moved to a new place six times and taken jobs that scare me to death. Because I sincerely believe that for most of us, we know the very best way to grow, the very best chance to develop empathy and the very best way to lay bare our own weaknesses, is to go through something very hard. Have you ever watched a little kid learning to walk? They fall and they fall and they fall. They know that is going to keep happening but they keep getting up because somewhere in their new little brains, they also know this is a thing they need to master. It's hard and it hurts and they are bad at it for a long time. And then one day it clicks, and then they are so awesome at it you can't even keep up with them anymore.

I think that drive stays in our not so new little brains. We don't have to be afraid of telling the truth about our shared experience because someone can tell us, "this thing is going to be hard you know," and we will say, "bring it". There is something that actually feels a lot like freedom when you stop thinking that you are the only one doing it wrong and you get to it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Natural Causes

On New Year’s Day I posted a rather audacious status update on Facebook that 2014 had been pretty great but 2015 was stacking up to be even better. 12 hours later I was calling my little sisters to tell them our father had passed away.  Be careful what you announce to the world I guess.

It seems he died peacefully. After years of sickness and spending way too many nights in a hospital, we found him in his own bed, snuggled up and comfortable after a nice New Year’s Eve conversation with the baby of the family. This day has been looming in our lives since the moment his kidneys failed a month before I left on my mission nearly 17 years ago. Somehow sitting there in his house, telling 911 that no, he wasn’t breathing and watching the nice, nice men from the mortuary cover his body, it still all felt so out of the blue. Nearly two decades of knowing someone could die lulls you in the security that actually he might not ever die.

The last few years my dad needed a lot of help. Physically, financially. My Salt Lake siblings took on big caretaker roles. I was able to write checks and spend a healthy amount of time feeling guilty about not being there. I don’t think I called him enough. I know I didn’t hang out with him as much as I should have. But this Christmas break I tried harder. I picked him up from dialysis and took him grocery shopping. I let him fill his cart with Christmas treats he probably shouldn’t have had but I’m frankly glad were some of his last simple pleasures. I took him to lunch the day before he died. We went to Rubio’s and he had a fountain Coke and a shrimp burrito. He had a hard time walking across the parking lot so I moved the car right in front of the door and it still took us awhile to get to it. He said his hands felt weird. He turned the heat full blast in my car and I tried not to get impatient with him about it. We talked about some good things that are happening in my life and he was his usual nice and supportive self about them.  There were many things my dad wasn’t able to provide for us, some things I resented for a good portion of my life. But the certainty that he was proud of me was never something I had to wonder about.

My dad wasn’t married and both of his parents and his only brother are all gone as well, so it fell to my siblings and me to clean out his house, plan his funeral, and tie up all the loose ends of his life.  There are six of us and we spent two days going through books and files and photos. Remembering a dad that some of us forgot, telling the little ones stories about a dad they didn’t know. My parents had been collegiate journalists and then owned a newspaper when they were first married so there were scrapbooks and folders full of columns they had written back when they were younger than most of us are now. We found photos of one of the bands my dad was in, back when he had cool hair and played the guitar and wanted to be a rock star. We found the campaign materials from the time he ran for State Senate, the poster of a tiny little Katie on his shoulders. The guy didn’t leave much of an estate behind but as we sorted through artifacts of his life, I felt grateful for the more esoteric things he gave me. I got some writing talent, a solid foundation of unconditional love, an example of faith that never wavered even when I think it maybe should have. I had a dad who told his daughters we could do anything our brothers could do. I’m sure my dad would have liked to see me find someone to spend my life with but he never once made me feel like my worth was tied up in my relationship status.

There are things about my dad’s life that were disappointing, I know he didn’t feel like he quite lived up to the expectations of his young dreamer self. In many ways my own adult life has been a reaction to that, I’ve been wearing myself out to make sure that I don’t get to the end and feel those same kind of regrets. I want to make sure I hang onto the lessons I learned from some of his mistakes. But in that week, as I spent time with all of my adult siblings and their lovely families, I really couldn’t help but think that my old dad did alright. He raised good people who are raising good people.

It is so hard to lose a parent. Period. I thought maybe because he was sick, and I am a full grown adult that somehow it was going to be easier.  I got to have my dad for a good long time but I find myself being sad about future things. Sad that if I get married, that person won’t know my dad. Sad that if I have kids, they won’t have a Grandpa Clifford. Sad that there are things I wish I had asked him that I didn’t. That I didn’t realize I would want to know until I couldn’t anymore.

Grieving has been a weird thing. I’ve been surprised at how physical it can be. I was in the grocery store this week, looking for a card and the “dad birthday” section caught my eye. Before I even realized what was happening there were already hot tears soaking my shirt. And I just stood there, not even trying to stop while I cried for a good five minutes. I was grateful that no one is ever in the greeting card aisle of the grocery store but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been betrayed by my own body the last few weeks.  I’ve tried to let myself feel it as fully as I can. I don’t try to cheer myself up. I don’t look for distractions. I’m grateful when someone asks how I am and doesn't get uncomfortable when I say that I’m just ok.

I also feel like I have also had an opportunity to learn some things.  Our little family experienced so much love and kindness and generosity this last month. There is a quote from Anne Morrow Lindburgh about suffering that I have always loved that keeps coming to my mind:

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”

I’m trying to keep my heart open, to take it all in so I can give back the strength that has so graciously been shared with me through all of this. 

Music was important to my dad. There is a cover of Jackson Brown’s “For a Dancer” that a dear family friend put on a CD for us many years ago that I used to listen to and cry myself sick worry about my dad. It’s now become incredibly comforting and feels like the right way to finish this piece.  

Monday, December 08, 2014

Raise Your Hand

My first semester of college was so miserable I tried not to go back for a second. 

I had a perfectly adequate high school experience. I had some friends, I didn’t get bullied, I got good grades, starring roles in school plays and a healthy supply of trophies from endless Saturday morning debate tournaments. But I didn’t date as much as a reasonably cute 16 year old thinks she ought to (although I would like to tell my teenage self that she’s got TWENTY TWO PLUS YEARS of dating ahead so um, let’s not worry about getting off the line too quickly there young lady) and I always felt like the other kids were having way, way more fun than I was.  So I was convinced that college would be different, that I would be different. That going somewhere far away, where I didn’t know a soul, would change everything.

The reality is that building a brand new life is really freakin’ hard and I think it was day two before I was sobbing into the pay phone outside the student center (remember 1994?) and begging my mother to come and save me.  She did not save me. I went to classes, I worked my weird job as an usher at the football games, I spent a lot of Friday nights watching “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with my homebody roommates. I cried a lot and I was still pretty sure the other kids were having way, way more fun and that I was the world's only miserable college freshman. 

I went home for Christmas and when the girl I was supposed to go back to school with ended up not having room in her car for me, I skipped the first week of classes and tried to figure out a way to drop out. As the week progressed through, I started to miss some things about college. Some of the freedom. A few of the interesting people that I had started hanging around with. The fact that the guys in college DID seem like maybe they could appreciate a girl like me.

By the end of the week, I had hitched a ride down to Cedar City with my grandparents and at the risk of romanticizing my collegiate experience, the next 3.75 years ended up being sort of magical. There were plenty of tears and disappointments-I still felt like I didn’t date enough-but there were friendships and experiences and romances that built a foundation for my adult life that I can still feel 16 years later.

It should come as no surprise then, that I also hated the first six weeks of my mission, the first three months of my first adult move to another state, the first three months of my second big adult move to yet another state, and basically the beginning of every new thing I ever decide to do.

Which brings me to today. In the fourth month of a new life, with a new job, and a new city.

I don’t hate it.

I did hate it though. I had a few weeks where I most definitely, absolutely, ask-my-mom-because-I-called-her-sobbing hated it.

I can still remember a distinct moment in my apartment in Cedar City, after things had fallen into place and I was feeling really good about everything, thinking to myself, “ok great, so I survived starting over and now I know how to do it. I will never feel that miserable again.”

Oh 18 year old me, you say such cute things. If you could only see 38 year old me with the covers pulled over my head, trying to figure out just what I could have been thinking to give up my PERFECT COLORADO LIFE to start ALL OVER with a big hard job in a big scary city where EVERYTHING COSTS ONE MILLION DOLLARS.  Dramatic me tends to think in all caps.

This is the sixth time in my life that I have packed up everything I own and shown up in a brand new place. The sixth time. So I know how to find the Target. I know how to make new friends. I know how to make an apartment feel like home. What I do not know how to do, is skip over the part where it’s hard. I have not yet figured out how to skip the challenging part of growing.

Six months ago I knew I was coasting. I knew I was bored. So I hacked away at all the things that felt stagnant. Job. City. Personal life. It felt like the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do.

I just forgot how scary it is. How at the top of the cliff of a new life “stagnant” looks like “comfortable” and “bored” looks like “crushing it”. That when you make grand proclamations to the world about that new life, everyone kindly assumes that you are loving it and it is loving you and you can’t help but feel like something of a fraud for saying “yeah it’s rad!” when what you really want to do is run screaming back to the place that felt easy and forget this whole thing ever happened.

My new job is a terrific career move. I learn something new every single day and I’m having to work harder than I have in a long time. It has kicked my ass over and over but I’m starting to kick back and that is immensely satisfying. I am feeling like I can hang with this group of incredibly talented people. This new city is impersonal and unforgiving and there is nowhere to park and even small errands feel like a production. But is also beautiful and vibrant and I can go from seeing a band I love on Friday night to paddling in the ocean with friends the next morning. It’s a place I have dreamed of living for 12 years and even though the realities have caught up with the fantasy in many ways, in other ways it’s even better than I imagined.

But I want to be clear. I wanted to quit. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve had to remind myself over and over that the other kids are not having more fun than I am.  That I am not the only one who wants to hide under the comforter when facing newness at every turn. It’s so nice in our super connected world that you can get cheers from all over the globe when you take on a challenge. But the flipside is that it can feel extra lonely when no one raises a hand to say “yikes you guys this is hard!” So, yikes you guys, this is hard.

I’ve never been sorry that I stuck out the hard part. The truth is the best things that have ever happened to me have sucked a little bit in the beginning. I guess it’s how I know I better hang on.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

My three songs

My pal Heather of the fantastic Fuel Friends blog tagged me on Facebook today to pick three songs that most accurately speak to who I am. This was a way, way harder assignment than I would have imagined. And if you ask me tomorrow the songs will be all different. But it was really fun. Here are my three songs. 

Fast Car-Tracy Chapman

There is a photo in my baby book of me sitting on the floor, enough of a baby that sitting is probably all I knew how to do yet, listening intently to my dad play the guitar. Music was on all the time in our house and I had parents who made sure we got a good variety of it in our little diets. There are a lot of artists that I loved as a kid and then discarded but one of the few who made it through to my adult life is Tracy Chapman. Even today, when I hear the first few bars of “Fast Car” I can instantly put myself back onto my white wicker day bed in my bedroom wallpapered with pink striped and a ballet slipper border. Even though the theme of the song was probably more adult than I understood, the song was wistful, and wistful is what you are looking for when you are 12 and you want to feel things and dream things.  I didn’t really listen to her again until college when I bought her album and it’s feminist and racial storylines started to make more sense to me. Her next few albums were far less political but she writes intense, deeply emotional songs and she seemed to release one during all the major eras of my young adult life. For someone who has often been described as both intense and deeply emotional, I suppose it makes sense that she is one of my favorite soundtracks.  I finally got to see her play after my mission and it’s still one of my favorite shows, nothing flashy, just Tracy playing song after song I knew by heart.

Fake Plastic Trees-Radiohead

I moved to California for a job when I was 25. I arrived full of the naïve expectations of anyone whose sole experience “moving away” consists of the relatively safe perimeters of college and an LDS mission. Which is not to say I didn’t know what it meant to feel crushing homesickness or loneliness, or “what they hell have I done-ness”. But both missions and college share the safety net of being surrounded by people also going through crushing homesickness and loneliness, friend-making, distraction-providing structure and a firm expiration date. Showing up in LA with a car full of everything I owned there was no Welcome Week to attend, no cafeteria full of fellow nervous missionaries. No one knew I was coming and no one would have cared if I turned my little Honda around and drove straight back to Utah. A friend who had made a similar move a few years earlier told me it was a good opportunity to figure out “what you are like when no one is telling you what you should be like”.

I was miserable for months. But he was right, with no one around to influence me, I figured out what kinds of movies I wanted to go to when I was the only one deciding, discovered what kind of friends I would make when there was no way to tell who was “cool”. I formed a relationship with my faith that wasn’t based on everyone around me being Mormon too. I was 25, a college graduate, a returned missionary, and had just worked on an Olympic Games and yet it felt like I was just starting to settle into my adult self.

One of the defining factors of that little era was a huge shift in my musical tastes. I made some friends who had varied ears and liked making mixes so I was constantly listening to new things. I was training for a marathon and in those days pre-iPod that meant hours and hours of the same 12 songs on a Discman. Someone put “Fake Plastic Trees” on a mix and although I feel like the ultimate cliché even writing this, it was on those long runs along the beach that I fell wildly, deeply, hopelessly in love with Radiohead. I wasn’t cool at all though, I bought “The Bends” instead of Kid A and listened to “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was” and cried about boys like it was my job.

I am not the first girl to move from Utah to California and fall in love with Radiohead. Probably not even the first one to do it while training for a marathon. But I can’t look back on time of my life without nearly passing out from the weight of all the nostalgia.

Islands in the Stream-Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton

When I was a little girl and I would think about God, which was a lot because I was a little Mormon girl, I thought He looked like Kenny Rogers. Truthfully, as an adult when I try to picture God, He still kind of looks like Kenny Rogers. My dad liked Kenny Rogers and I had every word to the The Gambler memorized at a younger age than I probably should have.  And then there is Dolly Parton.  Some day I will get around to writing my piece on my “Board of Lady Directors” about all the women I would seat on my Board of Life and you will see all the many and varied reasons she would be the Chairman of this Board. But for the purposes of songs that describe me, Dolly gets a nod for being a smart, talented, unapologetically ambitious woman but also managing to be funny, generous and positive. There is some trickiness to being a woman in the world of sports and I’ve never wanted career success to come at the expense of remaining the nice person I hope is the real me. You might be surprised to know how often I think "hmmm, what would Dolly do?". 

Also I chose this song because although I’ve never been one of those girls who daydreams about her wedding, I’ve already asked my friends Jed and Rebecca to sing this at the reception should that occasion ever arise. So there.