This Year

This year was the year a lot of things went wrong. But it was also the year Christmas started to work.

When you spend the holidays with a big group of family or friends, little kids aren’t such a big deal. You celebrate the way you always do, you trade off with the kids, and it’s the same as every other year. But when you spend the holidays with just your little family and your family has only one adult, the formula changes. 

At our house we have thrown out most of the holiday trappings. I don’t spend hours working on a big meal, partly because it’s hard to do while also keeping an eye on kids, and mostly because the kids wouldn’t eat any of it anyway. And the traditions I’ve wanted to put in place haven’t always worked, little kids are fickle and everyone has to be treated the same and that just isn’t always going to fly.

But this year! This year we kind of got it. 

I didn’t put in a lot of extra effort this year. Actually the week before Christmas was really awful, a pile-up of bad thing after bad thing. So I came into the weekend with a bare minimum of plans. What I remembered, though, was my previous attempts at starting holiday traditions that crashed and burned because the kids were not interested. So this year we had traditions, but like much of our lives, they were simple and low key.

We bought a real tree this year. We’ve never had one before, and it was definitely a sacrifice this year in particular since the move has money tighter than usual, but it looks great. The kids helped me pick out ornaments and a star for under $30 and a few leftover ornaments from previous years plus gifted ornaments from friends meant we had a real tree decorating this year. 

One tradition I’ve been committed to doing with the kids is one my parents started. If you don’t give allowances and budgets are tight, kids can still give gifts with little money and risk with one simple trip: the dollar store. This one mostly worked, but neither Graham nor Tessa likes being alone. At all. And since secrecy is part of the deal, logistics were a little tricky. But each of them got two dollars to buy a gift for each other and for me. Dollar store gifts mean expectations are low, but the impact was really there this year. They both kept talking about the gifts they’d chosen, I had to tell them about a hundred times, “It’s a secret!” They were just really excited. Graham had me open my present from him before he opened any gifts himself. And while Tessa got me a card with a kitten on it “for a favorite niece,” I’m calling it a win.

Christmas Eve pajamas are always a win. You can take that to the bank.

After we opened pj’s, I decided to do a Christmas Eve dinner that was different and fun, but still the kind of stuff my kids actually like. So I got a bunch of red and green veggies (bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber, celery), cut them up, and served them with a big bowl of ranch (and hummus for me) to eat while we watched Muppet Christmas Carol. The kids were thrilled to eat on the couch and enjoyed the dipping. I was just happy they ate and that it took only a little while to prep.

I stayed up after the kids went to bed to wrap presents and watch White Christmas, a little tradition of mine ever since the divorce. In the past it’s been bittersweet, but this year I was just used to it, it was the thing I always do, so it felt better. I thought about cooking our Christmas breakfast (strawberry muffins, settled upon after a few other efforts that flopped) then but ultimately decided the kids would eat the candy from their stockings in the morning anyway and no one would be wanting breakfast until at least 10. Which was 100% accurate.

I let Christmas Day just be. The kids enjoyed their new things, we went to a movie, we had a normal dinner. What makes my kids happy is routine, safety, comfort, so we had enough of normal with special thrown in to keep everybody happy. 

Christmas was Sunday, the kids were staying until Wednesday, and there would be no reinforcements. No school, no camp, no childcare, just me and them. The holidays are notoriously awful to try and do a big thing with your kids to get out of the house because everyone else had the same idea. So I was trying to think of ways for us to use the time. I planned a few activities.

But in the end, we didn’t do most of them. Because we were fine. Everyone got along. I gave one time out. I didn’t need to yell and only a couple times had to be called in to mediate or separate. Instead we were all just good.

Sure, I let them eat more candy than usual. I let them watch TV. I let them play video games. Because if not Christmas break, when? Everyone was in a good mood. We listened to music. Tessa and I played card games over and over again. Graham gave me regular updates on his video game status. Everyone was just good.

I took family pictures, which was a hilarious undertaking. Turns out my camera doesn’t take a wireless remote and no one carried a wired remote in the store so I had to use a self-timer. I also couldn’t find my tripod so I had to set it on a chair, squat down to make sure it was in the right place, hit the button, jump up, sit back down, pull the kids in close, and hope it turned out. Did that about 20 times. The kids were great sports, though. And I need to do it more often.

family picture

The kids left and I didn’t feel tired or worn out or in need of quiet time. I realized I had days left in me, which is much better than I usually feel, even when everyone has school or I keep the kids for a short time. 

I was on my own for New Year’s Eve but had an invitation to go out and took it. I danced in the year and it felt good.

This year was not an easy one. It was not a good one. There were not personal victories. In many ways I accomplished less than the previous year. But this last week was a reminder that there have been lots of little good things along the way, there have been bright spots in the thick darkness.

I do not have a milestone or accomplishment to present as my 2016 thing. I had hoped to finish the first draft of my novel this year but realized this summer that it wasn’t going to happen and made peace with that. Life gets in the way and that is nothing new. But that manuscript is over 80,000 words and I did most of that work this year. If I was going to pick one thing this year that I’m proud of, it’s that this year I decided to act like a person who is a real writer. I call myself a writer. I think of myself as a writer. And the funny thing about that is that you start to believe it eventually, even if I don’t feel like I have a lot to show for my writing this year. It’s a long process, it’s a tough process, and I’m squeezing it into the small openings in my life and that is okay. 

I am not approaching 2017 with any particular goal (though I would really like to start my 2nd draft by June). I am not going to say that it will definitely be better than last year. If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that thinking you are on an upward swing doesn’t mean anything. Things can turn bad quickly and they can stay that way regardless of how hard you work or how much you deserve. I’m building a life and I just want to keep laying bricks this year. And that will be enough no matter what happens.

Welcome

I have written several posts about moving and could never put any of them up. They were mostly emotion dumps and didn’t make for very good reading, though it felt good to write them. This one started as a few paragraphs I was going to turn into an essay that I was going to try and submit. But then things took a turn and I realized it was now a different thing entirely. The move happened right when it did and everything that’s happened around it is part of it so why avoid the issue? Anyway. It has been a tough move. It has been tougher than I expected. I am getting by but I am not happy. I hope it will get better. And here are some thoughts.

As I get within 20 miles of my destination, my stomach starts to tighten. It isn’t the butterflies of excitement or the churn of anxiety, it’s something inbetween. It’s a feeling I will get to know well in the coming days. I am driving to my new apartment, a place I have never seen in a town I have never visited. The weekend I spent on my leisurely drive from New England to the South, complete with a full day of DC sightseeing, is about to come to an end. The hours I spent alone in the car, drinking a giant soda and listening to an audiobook, have been the most peaceful ones I’ve had in weeks. I am about to leave the bubble of my Civic and return to the work of moving.

From the moment I arrive things start to go wrong and they do not stop. Nothing big enough to declare the move a disaster, but sufficient to make not one thing easy or simple.The bathroom mirror has fallen off its moorings. The alarm starts beeping and won’t stop. My work equipment arrives but the monitor has no power cord and I can’t use any of it for a week. Graham starts his new year-round school only to start a 3-week break two days later. My new coffeemaker is missing a part, without it the coffee is weak and hardly drinkable. All of these and so many more little things add up and add up until it feels like the entire universe is hostile to me. Or perhaps not the universe or fate or anything that abstract, but maybe this place.

I have lived in the South before. I was looking forward to coming back. But something feels off. Have 6 years in New England turned me brittle and bitter? I am skeptical and suspicious of my newly suburban environment. I am used to roads that are too narrow and too crowded, tightly packed buildings and stores with aisles where two people can’t pass each other. Here everything is wide and comfortable and welcoming and I meet it all with distrust.

There is another thing I cannot help but notice. There are Trump signs everywhere. I have lived in red states for much of my life. It isn’t new and yet it feels different than it used to. I have been pondering my first tattoo for years, but now I feel the need to get one soon and make sure it’s highly visible. For the first time in my life I’m pondering piercing my nose. It feels necessary to make it obvious that I am not what they think I am. In Boston everyone was trying so hard to be unique that it didn’t seem worth it to try. Now I feel like I must try as hard as I can, I must go big, I must not be subtle.

The thing I feel mostly is that I am not home. But that’s beside the point because I’m never home. I have moved and moved and moved. I do not have an answer to the question, “Where are you from?” and I pretty much never have. I do not really know what it is to have a home. Which makes me wonder if it’s something more specific than that. Boston was not home, but it was a place where I felt welcome.

Feeling unwelcome is something I’ve known for a long time. I grew up being told I was different and that people hated us. But they also said that we were special and chosen and that’s just what happens when you’re God’s chosen people. I didn’t mind the rude questions, the jokes, the ignorant assumptions about what I believed and what it meant about me as a person. I was openly, proudly, happily Mormon even though I was in a very small minority. I spent a few strange years in the majority, at least outwardly. I felt like I wasn’t the person they all thought I was. It was easy to be there but it was not comfortable.

When I left Mormonism I was unwelcome again, this time from the group that had always held me as one of them.

I went out on my own, settling in heavily red Southern states, doing legal work for those in dire need. I didn’t fit in, but most of the time I didn’t care. This was normal. This was life.

Before now, the most unwelcome I ever felt was when I moved to New England, a place where I expected to be greeted with open arms. Here I was, an overeducated atheist queer liberal, where else would I be able to be so fully myself? But Massachusetts has its own kind of friendship, one that is hard won, one that must be fought for. I spent 6 years there and gradually the hard outer shell cracked open and I found myself not embraced exactly, but for the first time I was in a place where a majority of people were a lot like me. I could say quite openly that I was a queer person and an atheist without worrying about the consequences.

Maybe it’s this whiplash, this return to the world of unwelcome after feeling confident and seen. Maybe I let my guard down and I don’t know how to raise my defenses back up again quite yet. But today my country has told me that I am unwelcome here and so are many others. This time I do not want to crack them open and get past their defenses. This time I do not care if they ever accept me. This time I feel like I must be utterly myself, blatantly myself, conspicuously myself at all times.

Now I am asking myself what that looks like. What does it look like when I do not worry about blending in, but instead figure out how to stand out in a way that feels true. It won’t be a quick or easy answer, but today I know I need to start. There is a long road ahead and I need to do this one thing.

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.