It’s Good If I Say It’s Good

I am really used to sitting down at the end of the year and looking back and thinking, “Well, it wasn’t a good year but things got better and you got through it.” That didn’t happen this year, and it’s kind of weird, but I’m not going to complain. When you divorce after a relationship dies a slow death, you have a long string of bad years. It becomes what you expect. And even last year I remember thinking 2014 was terrible and I wasn’t at all sad to see it go even though plenty of good things happened and I ended the year much better off than I began it.

This year, though. It was a gamechanger. I feel more comfortable in my skin. I feel better about what I’ve accomplished. I feel confident about next year even though I have absolutely no idea what next year will look like. 

I set goals at the beginning of the year, nice general ones that I could meet in some way. It was helpful coming off another bad year to tell myself that 2015 could be better and to decide on the ways that could happen. The only goal I didn’t meet was taking pictures of the kids. (I’m sad for the lack of nice camera pictures, but we had a good year where snapping a phone pic often was all we could manage, which is fine by me.)

Mostly, though, this year brought a lot of unexpected joy. I was not expecting a new job, complete with more responsibility, more opportunity, more visibility, and more fulfillment. I was not expecting the bookternet to open up to me the way it did. I was not expecting Hamilton, which brought me my #1 evening of the year and many hours of pleasure. I was not expecting to do the kind of writing I did, including a very public coming out.

I’ve started to define who I am and what I do. I started new partnerships and new freelance relationships. I wrote pieces I was proud of, I pitched and was accepted. I finally started the novel that I kept telling myself I would start “someday.” I more than doubled my speaking gigs, with 7 presentations this year. I read WAY more books than I expected (my goal was 100, I’m past 150)

The unexpectedness is what’s made it so great. I have been steadily expecting little even if I hope for and work for more. The only problem is that I’m not sure I can maintain that. I see the progress I’ve made and sometimes I get impatient when others don’t see it or don’t realize my value and expertise. But I also know that it may not make sense to go back. I may have reached a point where my confidence in myself and my abilities is a critical piece of making more happen and continuing to move up in the world. And that confidence is going to be dashed, it’s just part of life.

I’ve been blogging for over 14 years, and I started writing in earnest as a teenager, but I think this year is one of those critical years where I found my voice. It’s not the first time I found it. It may seem weird to find your voice over and over again, but it’s true. It is not something you find and then it’s found. It is a constant act of rediscovery and rebirth as you catch up to the change in your life and what you’re capable of.

This year I reminded myself many times to stop and appreciate good things. I really needed it after last year, where I tended to get really mentally bogged down in how hard things are. Things are still hard. It’s not that 2015 was the year things got easy. There’s been a little bit of improvement, but it’s still very tight when it comes to finances and scheduling and everything else. I actually did stop and appreciate along the way, and I think it has a lot to do not just with me feeling better this year but with me doing better this year. I really worked on appreciating good things, especially good things I worked for. A lot of that started in the second half of the year and, sure enough, the second half of the year was where almost everything happened. I don’t know what it was exactly, but somewhere around there I started feeling like I could do more. And once my mindset changed, things just happened. (Okay, they didn’t just happen. I worked my tail off and they happened.)

So. I’m really proud to say it was a good year. Even if, from the outside using the criteria most people would use, it was only okay. It was good, dammit. It was really good. I am so aware of every little triumph along the way. And I don’t care if that means I’m not using objective criteria to evaluate it. How I feel is the criteria that matters most to me, and that’s the one that’s been the best of all.

Thanksgiving Non-Planning

I haven’t made my Thanksgiving meal plan yet. I may still have some black beans left over. I may make the Roasted Chickpea and Broccoli Burrito I want to try from Thug Kitchen. I will probably pick up a store-made pumpkin pie and some whipped cream as a special treat to myself. But the only turkey I’ll eat will be the deli meat I got for sandwiches this week.

As you can tell, I am not celebrating Thanksgiving. Also won’t be celebrating Christmas. It’s very likely I’ll give New Year’s Eve a pass. 

I just don’t really do holidays anymore. And I don’t miss them.

I know for most people this is a kind of sacrilege. I’m not saying it’ll be this way forever. But right now, what I want more than anything isn’t to have a bunch of people cook a lot of food and come together to eat it. What I want more than anything is a little break, a little quiet, a little time to catch up. Money is tight, time is tighter, and the opportunity to spend a little time alone with my thoughts, the projects I need to catch up on, and my Netflix queue is pretty great. 

It’s not that I don’t miss my family. But I can’t obsess about it. I’ve missed so many holidays over the years because they’re far away and the time and money just aren’t there to make the trip. The last time I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving was 2006. That came during a brief stretch from 2004-2006 when I actually went home for Thanksgiving. During my 7 years away at school I only went home for Thanksgiving once. My best estimate is that I’ve had 4 Thanksgivings with my family in the past 18 years. Saying I’m used to it is an understatement.

The first year I had Thanksgiving all by myself, the anticipation of knowing I’d be alone wasn’t great. But the actual day was okay. It was just a day. It only has the power you give it.

This week I will clean my house and catch up on my writing and sleep in and go out on a date and catch a matinee. I will slow down my life. I will let things be quiet and let myself appreciate the stillness. 

Honestly, I’ve been to other people’s Thanksgivings before and it’s just not where I want to be. It’s just not the same and I’d much rather enjoy my own day my own way than try to get a knockoff version of the holiday with someone else’s family and someone else’s traditions. 

I haven’t missed any of the holidays, actually. I just kind of stopped celebrating them bit by bit. Didn’t go to fireworks for the 4th. Didn’t get Easter baskets for the kids. Didn’t go on a date for Valentine’s Day. Didn’t do a barbecue on Memorial Day. This may all sound sad, but it really doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a well earned break. Some time off from these traditions that tend to get so bound up in to-do lists and forced togetherness. 

I do a little Christmas for the kids, and we’ll do it again this year. (Although as someone who lives an entirely secular life, I do it mostly because they’re too little to really understand why we wouldn’t celebrate it, especially when their extended family does.) It’ll probably be a few days before with explanations about Santa’s tweaked schedule, but otherwise a repeat of last year’s stripped down version

I won’t say I never get a little sad. After all, this week is the beginning of “the dark times.” That period from Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day when it’s hardest to be single and far from family. And lucky me, that period also includes my birthday, so that makes 5 holidays in short succession. But this year when I realized the dark times were upon us, I didn’t feel that sense of dread that I had last year. 

A lot has changed in my head in the last year, even though my circumstances are pretty similar. Last year I felt restless and anxious. There was a lot of pondering and yearning. This year… I don’t know, I guess I’ve settled in. I’m not starting the dark times feeling all woe is me because I don’t have a serious relationship. I have no expectation of getting one any time soon, whereas last year I was still stuck in that “why not me” feeling. 

And maybe I’m actually getting myself pulled out of the real dark times. That new phase really is here, it really did show up, and I really have gotten my brain straight. It feels good. So yeah, I’ll take my week and I’ll spend much of it in my pajamas and I’m pretty happy about that.

In Which I Don’t Like a Thing Everyone Else Loves

Many of you know, but many of you probably don’t know that I grew up Mormon. That’s usually what I say, although that can give the impression that it was only a part of my life as a child, which isn’t true. I was a very faithful Mormon throughout my teens and into my 20’s. I attended BYU for undergrad AND law school, living in Utah for 7 years. I didn’t leave the church until I was 25, after a very long and very difficult struggle with everything I believed.

You’d think this wouldn’t matter so much in my life anymore. It’s over 10 years later and I’ve lived most of my adult life without it. But if you’ve had something be a part of your life/culture/etc. for so long it never really leaves you.

Now that I live in Boston where Mormons are a microscopic minority, I am often one of the first Mormons someone has met or many times the only one. When I go on dates or when I meet new people, when it comes up in conversation it inevitably leads to question after question. Whether I like it or not, I am still an emissary from Mormonism to the rest of the world and around here everyone wants to know a whole lot of things. 

Mormonism is absolutely a phenomenon and it’s hard to explain to people. People who have no trouble believing that a woman in the Middle East 2000 years ago was impregnated by God seem to have a lot of trouble understanding why other people would believe things that are equally ridiculous but not the same kind of ridiculous that they grew up with. Religion isn’t about being rational and it never has been, but we sure enjoy making fun of religions that have a different set of ridiculous beliefs than ours. So I’ve always been a bit defensive about it, even as a kid. People don’t come at you with pleasant questions but stupid ones. And Americans have enjoyed spreading rumors about Mormons ever since the church was formed. 

I’m particularly aware of Mormonism in pop culture because of this. People think they actually understand the church because of portrayals on television or elsewhere. I admit to watching every single episode of Big Love but only 25% or so of that show rang true even though the characters were supposed to have originated in traditional Mormonism before branching off for a more extreme fundamentalist sect. (Even writing traditional Mormonism makes me bristle. There are Mormons and there are fundamentalists and while the fundamentalists see themselves as Mormons, they’re not. This is also why reading memoirs about people who left fundamentalist sects doesn’t teach you anything about Mormons.) The language would be right sometimes then drastically wrong. The culture and climate would swing across a similar pendulum from yes-that’s-it to no-that’s-not-it-at-all. It never really sustained a feeling of correctness and instead would just do what they needed to do for their plot. 

But the biggest pop culture event recently has been The Book of Mormon, the musical from the South Park guys. I didn’t watch any South Park until I’d left the church, but when I did I watched it for years, I only stopped after Tessa was born and life got too crazy. And since everyone has been falling over themselves to say how great this musical is, and I’m a pretty hardcore musical nerd, I’ve spent the last four years waiting to see it.

It’s in Boston right now and tickets were finally cheap enough that I could snag a seat for around $50. I was really excited. For years people have asked me if I’ve seen it and I’ve said sadly that I haven’t and that I feel like I must be their perfect audience member and it’s really a shame.

So I saw it. And it bugged.

Let’s skip over the racism that had me feeling squirmy and uncomfortable for much of the show. Someone else has written about it quite well right here and I endorse their impressive takedown and won’t repeat it here.

But really, the show’s treatment of Africans and its treatment of Mormons are pretty similar. If you find it racist but still thought the Mormon stuff was funny, well, I don’t really know what to tell you. With both groups the writing ignores fact and settles for half-truth, plays heavily off stereotypes, and goes for the lazy joke. There. I said it. The musical everyone says is the funniest one ever wasn’t that funny.

I was disappointed. Because I know the wealth of possibility there is to make jokes about Mormons, whether they’re going to be light and loving or pointed and harsh. I know them all. But I’ve heard Mormons make better jokes about themselves. This was pretty much just the same jokes over and over: Mormons are weird, Mormons believe weird things. (Just like the Africans got the same jokes over and over: Africans don’t know anything, Africans will believe anything.) I don’t care so much about the vulgarity that has bothered people, I’ve seen (and enjoyed) far more vulgar episodes of South Park. I care about the jokes. They’re lazy. And I don’t go to comedies for lazy jokes.

Initially I couldn’t get settled because of the factchecking. Yeah, I know, it’s a musical not a journalism piece, but when your musical is all about a group of people and then gets all this stuff about them wrong, your joke doesn’t land as well. You actually make your jokes worse because you’re making a joke about a straw man version of the person instead of the person themselves when the actual person is just as ripe for joke-making.

So yeah, it was hard to settle. No, that’s not how missions work. And it’s not how the MTC works. And it’s not how mission companions work. No one (and I mean no one) actually wants a stateside mission. No one wears one-piece garments (they used to, it’s true, but we’re way way way past that). Mormons don’t have a hell the way other Christians do, and the one they do have they don’t call “hell.” Latter-days actually means now. No one says, “Praise Christ” like ever ever, in fact that would probably be found offensive if you actually said it in church. (The one fact they got right that surprised me was that they actually acknowledged that Joseph Smith was murdered, a fact that most people don’t actually know and that most people talking about wacky Joseph Smith and the founding of the church happily gloss over.)

All those errors didn’t have to kill the jokes. In fact, you could make better, smarter jokes about the actual facts. But that didn’t happen. I laughed 3 or 4 times, maybe. 

It bugs me because I spent money on my ticket and have spent the last four years being excited about this ridiculously overhyped musical. 

It bugs me more because I left that theater with a bunch of people who now associate Mormonism with this. People who were still laughing several minutes after the show was over, who couldn’t stop smiling because they’d been laughing at this stuff for a few hours. I’m an ex-Mormon, it’s true, I have plenty of very significant and very legitimate beefs with the church and plenty of them have to do with missionaries. But not one of them was in that show and I didn’t see anyone up there on that stage that I recognized. Instead we’re back to a place where pop culture has thrown out a version of Mormonism and it makes people think they know who Mormons are and how they work.

It means that when I sit down with someone who’s seen this show, they think they know where I came from and they don’t.

I have never seen a movie or tv show that gets Mormonism right to the point where it’s recognizable to me. I have read a couple of books. From a current Mormon, there’s the mystery novel The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison. From an ex-Mormon (and I’m quite critical here, since ex-Mormons can go way overboard with bitterness and miss the boat) there’s Elders by Ryan McIlvain. And that’s my very short list. Both take some fictional license. But I could tell both were written by people who had grown up living the same kind of life that I did. They got the nuance and the little things along with the broad strokes. 

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to write novels. I started when I was 13 or so and kept my writing hidden in a drawer or a plain notebook. That plan has been on pause since life is so crazy now, but as time passes and I think about what I do want to write when I start writing again, I’ve been thinking more and more that this is the thing I may have to write about. If no one else can give me the thing I want, then I need to make it myself, right? I was thinking that again last night as I left the theater. And I was thinking that I need to actually start it soon since my side projects are dwindling from many to a few. So I’m setting up a deadline, and telling myself to get to work on that. (Which, you know, might have been another–and some would say better–way to use up 1500 words.) 

So I guess I can’t be all angry at Matt & Trey and the Book of Mormon team. I didn’t get the experience I wanted (or the one I deserved, IMO) but I did get something that will hopefully be more valuable in the long run.

The Reasons I Changed My Name. And Changed It Back.

The Reasons I Changed My Name When I Got Married

  1. It was a symbol that we were a single family.
  2. A sign of love and devotion.
  3. Almost every woman I’d ever known had done it.
  4. I’d planned to change my name my entire life.
  5. I wasn’t far enough along in my career for my last name to be widely recognized.
  6. To make it clear I was the mother of my children once they came.

The Reasons I Changed My Name Back When I Got Divorced

  1. It was mine.
  2. I missed it.
  3. Turns out, no one cares if I have a different last name from my kids. Forms aren’t any harder to fill out, conversations aren’t more confusing, life isn’t tougher.
  4. I’d never taken the time to really think about changing it when I did it the first time, and now that I had time to think about it I realized it was the wrong choice.
  5. F—- the Patriarchy. 
  6. If I get married again to a feminist who wants to take MY name, it’d be nice if it was actually mine.
  7. During all those years when I was waiting to replace my name with another one that I imagined would be a better one, I didn’t realize what I had and how much it meant to me.
  8. People call me “Mrs. Severson” or “Graham’s Mom” or whatever, but that’s okay. People call you things and it doesn’t change you. What matters about my name is what I write down and how I identify myself.
  9. I like being at the end of the alphabet. And having the nickname J-dub or J-Wo or whatever someone comes up with tomorrow. And telling people it’s “bury as in bury the hatchet.”
  10. Changing your name, even when your name is recognized and you’ve started to build a career with it, is okay. It’s called “rebranding” and these days it’s pretty common, so I wasn’t afraid people would forget who I was.
  11. It was a symbol of reclaiming myself.
  12. I realized that I wanted to be just one person and stay that person. This is who I am. And I’m going to stay that way.


Living Another Life and Living Mine

For two weeks I played pretend. I had the kind of normal life most bloggers have, or at least something approximating it.

I drove a minivan. I dropped the kids off at half-day camp. I worked at the dining room table whenever I got a free minute and took work calls in my bedroom. I stayed in a house with 4 (four!!!) bathrooms. There was a dog running around, and a pool in the backyard that we played in each evening as the sun got low. There were other adults around so someone could run point on getting the kids lunch or taking them to the bathroom. One night someone even put the kids to bed for me while I went out. 

It was a quick visit to the life most other “mommy bloggers” have. (I hate that term, but it shows no sign of dying.) I have never really had that life, I’ve had bits and pieces of it at one time or another, but it never materialized the way I thought it would. 

I feel the distance from that life more than I should. It feels like opposition more than it should. Especially when people buy houses with big backyards and celebrate anniversaries and take vacations. (Vacations! Besides a couple of weekends away that I squeaked out back when I was married, I haven’t had a real vacation since my honeymoon. And even that was just a 4-hour drive away.)

I am working on feeling the distance less. I am trying to compare less and focus on my future. But that’s hard.

I told someone the other day that my life feels like it’s finishing a chapter. Then they asked, “So what’s the next chapter?” 

I have no answer for that. If there’s anything I know, it’s that I can’t say how things are going to go. I never could have predicted the last 10 years. Even if I caught a glimpse of a couple things on the horizon, nothing has gone the way I thought it would.

How can I say what the next chapter will be? 

I honestly don’t even think about what it’ll be. I know some things I want to accomplish, I know some things I’d like to be lucky enough to get, but I also know that none of that is a guarantee even with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. 

8 years ago I thought I knew exactly how my life was going to play out. I won’t make that mistake again.

I take things a day or a week or a month at a time. Just little steps forward, occasionally a step back, then some more little steps forward. My eyes are on my feet, not the road, trying not to slip, trying to stay steady.

Not knowing what’s going to happen is actually one of the things I like about my life right now. And there are a lot of things I like about my life right now (independence, career, city life, time with my kids, time away from my kids) just like there are things I don’t like (loneliness, no vacations, debt, bad dates).

Who knows if one day the minivan life will be mine? Maybe it will. I can’t rule it out. I can’t even rule out the possibility that I’d love every minute of it.