Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Middle

I turn 39 next month. That sounds so. Old. I remember my dad’s 40th birthday. As in, I was a viable human person when my father turned 40 and I heard people making all the requisite over the hill, mid-life crisis jokes. My mother was having her sixth baby right about my age and as a ninth-grader I was whole-heartedly dismayed to discover that my old, old mother thought that was OK. 40 was practically dead the end.

But 2015 is a different time to be approaching “middle age” than 1987 was and aside from some slight biological freakouts that a woman my age who would still like a young’un or two is bound to have, I’m pretty comfortable with the distance between me and the big four oh.


When I turned 30 I decided that I had done my twenties a little bit wrong. I am basically all the cliché things you would think about an oldest female raised by devout Mormons. I’m a hyper responsible, rule following, people pleasing, bundle of nerves. Always working, hustling, doing the right thing, being nice about it. These are not bad qualities. I like these things about me. But it also means that I worry a lot. That I feel guilty a lot. That I am exceptionally hard on myself. That I said no a lot because I am also scared of a lot of things.  I wanted my 30’s to be different. So I made a decision that my default answer would always be “yes”. Not to things that were against my moral code or things that hurt people. But to be thoughtful about why I often hesitated over things that seemed out of my introvert comfort zone and to really try to say yes if there was not a compelling reason to say no.

My experiment went well. My thirties have been filled with the kind of adventures and possibilities that seem to grow exponentially once you show that you are open to them.  Saying yes means experiencing things you never dreamed of. But sometimes that also means putting off things that you DID dream of.

I was with some friends this summer who were talking about a triathlon they were training for and I made the mistake of saying that I have been wanting to do a triathlon for like ten years and never have. Don’t say that to the kind of people who regularly train for triathlons. And definitely don’t say that to people who know you are a default “yes” person. Because you will absolutely find yourself committing to train for a race that is exactly one month away.

For YEARS this was something I had wanted to do and for YEARS I came up with excuses. But as Jess and Rob shot holes in all my reasons for not being able to do this one, I could hear how silly it must sound for a grown woman to protest so much over something she clearly wanted to do. Some friends helped me throw together a training program, I found a pool nearby, rented a wetsuit and even kept up my running when an out of town photoshoot threatened to derail me.

Training was even more fun than I thought it would be. I had forgotten how much I love to swim and enjoyed exploring the city on my bike. I got back into running shape. And then came race day. My friend Jess was racing a different distance so she was there to help me set up my transition area and to cheer me on. I loved every second. Even the few panicked moments at the beginning of the swim where I was convinced I would drown and refused to put my face in the water for the entire distance. I passed people on the bike. Lots of them. I felt awesome on the run. I loved looking down and seeing my number in marker on my arm.  I cried at the finish line. Mostly because I was so damn proud of myself but a little bit because what on earth had I been so afraid of? Why had I been talking about this for ten years and not doing it? And what else am I not doing that I’ve been talking about?

So that’s it. That’s my theme for my 39th year. Do the things you keep talking about. I’m kicking off the year with a weekend in Austin at the Austin City Limits Music Festival-a thing I’ve been saying I was going to do for ages.

Saying yes built up a series reserve of confidence and an invaluable sense of possibility. The next logical step is to channel that into dreams and goals that become easy to dismiss as you get older and more “practical”.

My thirties have been fantastic and when I say that I even mean this last pretty terrible year as well. I still worry too much, I still look around at what everyone else is doing and feel behind too much, and it seems like I'm developing new flaws as fast as I'm working on getting rid of the existing ones, BUT, I'm also getting better every day at relaxing into myself. I'm excited for what I'll feel like when I'm working on the theme for my fifties (!). 

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.