For My Missionary Son

Today, you are boarding a plane to Texas where you will spend the next two years preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, you plan to attend college in a distant town. The time has come for you to leave us, your place in our family transfiguring into a different shape. A piece of the puzzle sometimes found, sometimes lost. But always remembered.

Today, you are boarding a plane to Texas where you will spend the next two years preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, you plan to attend college in a distant town. The time has come for you to leave us, your place in our family transfiguring into a different shape. A piece of the puzzle sometimes found, sometimes lost. But always remembered.

It’s strange that something so universally experienced by parents—a child leaving home—can feel so personal, so catastrophic, so piercing. I want you to go. I don’t want you to go. Eighteen years is a long time for another person to be planted next to you, roots wound together beneath the surface.

How can I let you go?

The thought of dropping you off at the airport with a quick hug and a “you got this” floods me with the same bewilderment I felt the day we brought you home from the hospital as a newborn. As I placed you in the borrowed bassinette, which you hated and never slept in, an uncreaturely terror wreathed through my body. Your life was in my hands, and I had no idea what came next or how to stop your crying.

Today, your life leaves my hands and I once again wonder how to nurture you. While food was the answer then, and often is the answer now, I know you need wisdom and perspective and faith. What top ten list should I shout at you as you stroll through security and turn to wave? Should I print out inspirational quotes and slip them into your carry-on? Or whisper timeless clichés into your ear when we hug goodbye?

Be true to who you are. Laugh a lot and you’ll get through anything. After the storm, the sun will rise. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The key is to be happy in the hard. Everything happens for a reason. Winners never quit. Crime doesn’t pay.

But these platitudes kerplunk without a ripple in the emotional pool of today. Here at the other bookend of your childhood, I once again question how to proceed. But you are the one that taught me to be at peace with my questions as we travel through life’s wilderness.

***

By six or seven, you ate questions for breakfast. You probed the caterpillars on the sidewalks and interrogated the night sky while camping. Like the husky whispers of grasshoppers, your questions suffused my every waking moment:

“Did Adam and Eve get to pick their last name?”

“How do people make plastic?”

“Why don’t motorcycles have seatbelts?”

“Are germs tiny bugs without eyes or mouths?”

At the time, I wrote an essay about your questions, hoping to better appreciate your “wonderlust,” as I dubbed it.

Now on the day of your departure, I rebound your childhood wonder and pass it back to you. Pack it in your suitcase between your cap toe shoes and motley ties. There is uncertainty ahead, like exploring a single track on your dirt bike. The view might be magnificent, but the difficult terrain must be traversed one boulder at a time. Your faith and wonder will be your suspension over the rockiest parts, those littered with questions.

Questions unearthed for the first time because missionary life will plow up your solid ground.

Think of it. What you are doing is nothing short of staggering. It’s unfurling your testimony before strangers in hopes they will do more than wipe their feet on it. It’s trying to prick hearts in a world so distracted few hear the pounding at the front door. Netflix is your competition. Along with deep-rooted addictions and apathy. Sincere people will judge you for believing in a personal God, modern revelation, golden plates, and sin.

Yet, you are more prepared than I ever was. You can talk to people. This will help you avoid a complete meltdown in front of the mission president, his wife, and scores of other missionaries after your first experience street contacting.

It happened on my second day in England in a Manchester marketplace. Our leaders paired us up and demonstrated how to approach someone on the street:

“Excuse me, we are missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we would like to speak to you for a moment.”

It seemed simple enough, but my heart failed at the prospect. Did I expect to be a missionary and never speak to people? Yet back home, I’d struggled even replying to the cashier at the bank when she asked the question; “And what can I do for you today?”

The idea of buttonholing strangers on the street spooked me as much as attempting to decorate my bunny-shaped 4H cake for the county fair. (Oh, the shame of a white ribbon!)

For twenty minutes, I struggled to keep stride with my temporary companion who called out in her Finnish accent “excuse me, excuse me” on the busy market street. I was near hyperventilating. No one gave us more than a glance.

Back at the van, the Elders grinned. “How was it?”

“Terrible,” I gulped. My nose red, tears fishtailing down my face.

I’d yet to learn the skill of hiding my emotions behind a mask of fake enthusiasm. With flushed faces, the Elders shuffled their Doc Martens on the pavement. What do you do with a crying Sister missionary?

Be kind, my son. Be kind.

***

You already sense the racket of life, the beetle-backed crunch of trials underfoot. You have experienced it yourself, like when I informed you of your impending flu shot the night before the appointment (always a bad idea for someone under ten), or when your final track season was cancelled due to a virus the size of Horton’s speck. More astonishing is your budding understanding that hardness touches everyone.  

“I’m realizing how hard it must be as a parent to watch your kids go through hard things,” you said one afternoon as we bounced through the construction on Bluff Road.

“Yes,” I said, tugging the steering wheel to avoid another pothole.

“It’s probably the hardest part of being a parent.”

“Yes.”

“I can see that now.”

Yes. You’re beginning to see. Your answers snowflaking from heaven.

Thankfully, mission work rarely resembles my first experience in Manchester’s city center. We spent little time scouting for candidates like carnies on village corners. Instead, we found people to teach while visiting members or hobnobbing with friends of friends of friends. And in these relationships with the oddest of people, you find relief from the grunt work of missionary life.  

I remember the man who spoke in such a thick Welsh accent, I just nodded along for days until his inflections clicked with my brain. He rolled flakes of tobacco into rice paper and tapped the ashes out the second story window as we chatted. In his white jalopy, he and his girlfriend drove us to castles on our day off.

In Preston, we befriended a fourteen-year-old girl, a ward of the state, who lived on her own in government housing. At church, her body jerked and seized on the second row, riving the meeting and irking the members. We had our suspicions the seizures were fabricated, a behemothic cry for attention.

On the Isle of Man, a woman daily dwindled in a recliner, her basket of pills on the end table and her tales of Ballamona, the mental hospital, fresh on her tongue. We invited her to church many times. “Don’t be obnoxious” she’d answer with a guarded smile. It was on this hidden gem in the Irish sea, I stumbled upon a lovely group of Dickensian people, including the vivacious Jane who rightly lampooned our cheesy church videos but squealed with joy when she broke from the water during her baptism.  

Seventy-year-old Phillip lingered in his Rochdale flat with his liter of cheap vodka behind his armchair. His Irish accent so thick it sounded like Chinese to my half-asleep husband years later when Phillip called in the middle of the night to say hello. In Chester, long-haired Rachel attended church and we spoke for hours in the chapel afterwards, the sunlight slanting through the windows like a prism. She wanted to be baptized and quit smoking overnight. But her live-in boyfriend convinced her that God didn’t care if they weren’t married, only that they loved each other. She stopped answering the door, and my heart ached like a sore muscle for weeks.

Like your childhood questions, the people you learn to love will be noisy, feverish, and persistent. But loving people pancakes boredom and fear. They answer the question of why. Why a mission? Why so hard?

Because of the people you will reach.

***

Back in the day when your questions ran like Usain Bolt, you grappled with the universal who-would-win-in-a-fight scenarios. All day long, the creatures matched up like boxing rivals in your mind as you sought answers from me.  

Would a pig or a wolf win in a fight? A grizzly bear and a fox? Two crocodiles against a fox? A shark and a crocodile?

This last question­––the shark vs the crocodile––stumped me. Unlike the others, the answer wasn’t obvious. In my essay, I wrote the following:

I find myself picturing a shark and crocodile in water somewhere swiping at each other with their razor-sharp teeth. They are circling, the shark chomps onto the lizard’s tail, the crocodile lunges for the tailfin of the shark. Their hideous bodies heave and hum and throb.

I wish I could show my son the futility of his question, the unlikelihood of a crocodile and shark ever encountering each other in battle. I want Drew to grasp something of the complexity of life. I could say, “Hey look, we can’t always predict who will win. Sometimes a host of factors, random or otherwise, might change the order of things.” I could thwack him with the ancient aphorism “Life isn’t fair” or enlighten him with a moral or two. “It doesn’t matter who would win,” I want to say. “Other things matter in life but not that.” But I don’t tell him. He’ll find out soon enough.

A mission will teach you what really matters in life. It will teach you swiftly, like a knife cutting through the subterfuge. And while you probably no longer care about the crocodile and the shark, there will be other creatures battling in your boxing ring.

One such creature bares its teeth every time an investigator loses heart and rejects the message.

The hardscrabble of missionary life can wear on you, your efforts blaring like a trumpet in contrast to the half-baked efforts of others. You are getting up at 6:30 a.m. every single morning for crying out loud! It’s true that success cannot be measured in number of baptisms, but some dwell on those figures. In my mission, the pressure to baptize bore down on us like the inescapable Las Vegas sun. Hopefully, your days under the Texas sun will not be as brutal.

But despite the sunburns, your mission will consist of days never to be forgotten. You will remember the streets, the houses, the smells, and your love of Jesus vibrating like a cello in your chest. You will remember the hazy, almost magical flavor of the days. And the way wading through the daily muck feels both gritty and cathartic. There will be boring days and tedious hours and times you will hide in the bathroom just so you can be alone. But there will be days where the Spirit stars your life so fully that the sky shimmers and you don’t mind the cancer-looking spot on the dog licking your face. The overarching picture of your mission will be bold brushstrokes. Days. Never. To. Be. Forgotten.  

***

When you were seven, you asked the hardest questions of all.

After finding one of our newly purchased baby chicks dead in the temporary box in the basement, you cried, “Is it just sleeping?” 

I looked at the lifeless body, as flat as a pancake underfoot the other chicks. They promenaded over the poor thing like it was a bath rug.   

I shook my head.

You sobbed. “Why did it die? Why did it have to die? “

A question that has echoed through the ages.

For you, it was the beginning of no good answers, or the end of easy answers. You wanted a reason, even if the reason was something deplorable, like the other chicks pecked it to death or we’d forgotten to feed it. But the poor thing had simply died.

Two weeks ago, your beloved aunt lost her life in a tragic accident. The circumstances fluky, fateful, divinely fixed. Why did she have to die? Such a question perplexes like a foreign language, and we get lost in the translation. But these difficult questions, the ones about death, will draw people to your message, to hope, to the resurrection, to Christ. Questions will increase your ability to understand doctrine because true inquiry always circles back to the spiritual.

So why sorrow? Why death? Why 100-degree weather in Texas?

As a missionary, you will find answers to eat for breakfast.

***

Once again, I ask my mumsy question: How do I let you go?

I can see you hitting the palm of your hand to your forehead like you always did as a tween. Silly Mom.

It’s true I might sob as hard as I did near the white van on that first fateful day in Manchester. A world without you as foreign and overwhelming to me as those first days as Sister Ott. But there will be others to help, like the seasoned missionary who approached me by the van, linked her cool blue eyes with mine, and spoke as if she held up the snake staff in the wilderness:

“Heavenly Father helps his missionaries. I know this. Heavenly Father will help you.”

I grasped at her words as if they were illuminating stones set in a steep riverbank, guiding the way up to the embankment. I climbed with the rushing water underfoot, the inky sky above. But the stones remained solid under my hands.

The stones still shine. You will have help. I will too.

It’s the reason I can let you go.

During These Coronial Times

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During these Coronial Times

I woke up one morning one week into the coronavirus quarantine and wondered if I’d been wrong about it, if it really was the crisis everyone believed it to be. The 5.7 earthquake from the day before had shaken me up and perhaps loosened some of the stubbornness in my soul.

My initial reaction was that the world was overreacting to the new virus. The hysteria confounded me, I kept looking at the numbers, the statistics. It wasn’t good news, no doubt, but it didn’t seem like Armageddon. This attitude of mine stemmed not from apathy, I assure you, but from years of practicing the art of underreaction, an imperative skill for those of us with a propensity for anxiety. Ah, the catastrophizing I used to indulge in over every rumor or report. I don’t mean to say that I fretted over little green men or secret concentration camps built by FEMA. I wasn’t a nut, just slightly more anxious than the average Jane.

Hence, I’ve learned to stop at some mental checkpoints, inspect my own papers, and trace the map for other, less dangerous roads. 

If you’ve read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, you might remember a character named May who “takes in things differently than the rest of us do … when you and I hear about some misery out there, it might make us feel bad for a while, but it doesn’t wreck our whole world. It’s like we have built-in protection around our hearts that keeps the pain from overwhelming us. But May—she doesn’t have that. Everything just comes into her—all the suffering out there­—and she feels as if it’s happening to her. She can’t tell the difference.”

In an attempt to cope with her sponge-like sensitivity, May constructs a wall of stones behind her house, a miniature of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. In the Holy Land, the Jewish people visit this last remaining wall of the Solomon temple in hopes of unburdening their griefs. After writing them down, they tuck the slips of paper into the wall’s crevices as if giving their sorrows to the wall to lament. Likewise, May scribbles her melancholy onto scraps of paper before rat-holing them into chinks of her wall. In this way, the wall shoulders some of the burden of an overwhelming world.

Years ago, I connected the low-grade nagging in my stomach to the hard-boiled truth that something horrible was happening somewhere to someone every second of the night and day. For me, the world lacked transcendence, the planet claustrophobic with tragedy. As a dear friend opined, “There is something wrong with the world.”

Like May, these dour truths sometimes swamp my senses until I find myself in a similar plight as Mrs. Bennet whose “poor nerves” had been Mr. Bennet’s “constant companion these twenty years.” Lying in bed at night, the ache in my chest spreads like dark liquid down my limbs and under my fingertips. It’s a sensation of bewilderment, a rawness in the muscles. Many might peg me as “thin-skinned” or “touchy,” but Elaine Aron suggests I’m a highly sensitive person, a certified HSP.

Whatever the label, this trait propelled me to look directly in the headlights of the worst this world had to offer. I couldn’t ignore stories lingering on the edges of my understanding. I could feel them there, whispering for me to have a look. How could I find peace with the why if I didn’t know the what?

First came the fascination with the Holocaust in my school years. We learned about the ghettos and concentration camps through lectures and assigned reading. In junior high, we watched the 1981 film The Wave that documented a California teacher’s social experiment to teach his students the lure of fascism.

For some reason, the platform scenes before the gates of Auschwitz or Buchenwald wrenched my heart more than any other detail. The rotting boards creaking underneath the feet of husbands and sons ripped away from wives and daughters, all the clinging to each other during the previous ominous journey undone in an instant.

For a long time, I was unable to eat a bowl of soup without remembering a high school assembly where a lady dressed in orange bellbottoms described her time in a concentration camp.

“The meager soup they fed us,” she cracked into the microphone, “would often be made from the juices that ran off the dead bodies.”

“Rape was a daily experience,” she added. I squirmed in my padded seat.

But the Holocaust was only the beginning. My obsession with the Russian revolution started with Dr. Zhivago and ended with Natan Sharansky’s hunger strike in a Soviet prison. A Tale of Two Cities splashed the violent proletariat of the French Revolution onto the canvas of my mind. I saw the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of Immaculée Ilibagiza as she wasted away for months in a hidden bathroom with nine other refuges. I drew parallels between the mob mentality in Life and Death in Shanghai and the mobs that accosted my own Mormon ancestors in Missouri and Illinois. Most terrifying of all was the odyssey of a Cambodia family during Pol Pot’s regime where paper money was reduced to toilet paper overnight, and the social engineering experiment killed a fourth of the population in four years. 

In the summer of 1995, I was teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen in an idyllic seaside town in Wales. One morning, a man walking his dog on the beach discovered the murdered body of a young girl. A ripple of horror swept through the town. This sort of thing did not happen in Llandudno, Wales, where the worst humanity had to offer was the occasionally rotten egg salad sandwich from the local deli. My companion and I sat with a friend while he raged against God for allowing this to happen to an innocent child. His grief permeated the room.

“How can we just go on with our lives when a little girl was murdered?”

His thick Welsh accent stretched out the vowels in murdered as if lengthening the sounds would somehow explain the word itself.

“We were all safe in our beds while she was being tortured and murdered down on the beach!” His egg-shaped face puckered with misery. Like the character May, he felt the little girl’s suffering in his own bones.

“How can you prattle on about God when a little girl was murdered?” His eyes rolled upwards to the ceiling, as if searching for God in the plaster.

“God didn’t murder the little girl,” I whispered.

The murderer was a six-foot-five monster named Howard Hughes that commandeered the wrath of the town as soon as he was arrested. “Are you coming?” the people called to each other as they ran toward the courthouse. As the guards ushered the man into the building, the crowd booed and screeched at him like cats cornered in a Shanghai alley. I have never witnessed a more bizarre scene.

How do we keep living when children are snatched from backyard tents and murdered on sandy beaches? How do we breathe or eat or think of anything else when a tsunami across the world sweeps away 200,000 people in one big gulp? How do we assign meaning to the little details—how to decorate a room, which movie to watch, dill or sweet pickles­—if microscopic antennaed orbs are attaching onto lungs and killing people?

The coronavirus is the world’s latest tragedy. The dialogue swathes us like wraparound skirts. We talk of nothing else, adopting new buzzwords to our vernacular overnight. Social distancing. COVID-19. Stay safe, stay home. Flattening the curve. Shelter in place. Masks became the new fashion with a variety of motifs: pineapples, psychedelic cats, outer space, cows, donuts, classic black, or the American flag. More than just a fashion statement, our decision to wear a mask or abstain reveals our political leanings, our feelings about freedom versus community responsibility.

Daily numbers are tossed to us like candy from a parade float, random and erratic. We scramble around in the heat and pick up the ones we like off the pavement. We might disregard China’s unreliable fatality numbers, but we pay attention to Italy. The projected number of worldwide deaths skyrocket. They shut down the world. Colleges, NBA games, college sports, churches. Then the public schools, restaurants and business deemed “non-essential,” dentists and orthodontics, ballet studios and karate dojos, the clothing stores and my salon. The world collapses like an empty milk container.

The shutdowns jar me to the bone. I feel abandoned by a world already seeped in social distancing because of our usernames and passcodes, our “text before you come” protocols, and the epidemic of ghosting.

I think: We are trying to contain something that cannot be contained.

I think: The world is always in crisis. What is it about this threat that overshadows all else? I know it’s politically incorrect to compare this pandemic to the flu, but people do die of the flu every year and it is just as tragic as dying of COVID19. I look directly in the headlights of COVID-19. And then, like the others, I look away.

Several years ago, my family bivouacked on a blanket to watch Fantasmic, Disneyland’s nightly show on the Rivers of America. For hours, we had traded off sitting on the blanket to reserve front row seats for the performance. When the show began, Kate nestled into my lap to watch the decorated boats pass by with dancing characters, water effects, lasers, and sanguine music.

In the middle of the pyrotechnics, the crowded pavement swayed as if dancing with the music. Wow, how are they making the ground move? I thought, figuring it was somehow part of the show. Afterall, we were at Disneyland. We’d been jostled and cajoled all day long. For all I knew, we could be sitting on a platform of sorts, with gears and a motor embedded in the cement. The rocking motion mirrored so many of our favorite rides. It was only when the lights on the boat went dark, like the flip of a switch, and the music faded away that I realized something was amiss. The world was still.

“Earthquake,” my husband said. “That was an earthquake.” I deadpanned while the kids scrambled to their feet. “Really?” they yipped. Someone on the blanket next to us called out, “Everyone okay?”

Slowly, the crowd stood, pulling our blankets from the ground. No one seemed to be hurt and after about an hour, the staff finished the safety checks on the rides, and the park resumed its humdrum throb of motion. Even Fantasmic restarted but by then, we’d forfeited our front row position.

I wonder how differently I would have reacted if I had been somewhere else during the earthquake. If I’d been suntanning on an oversized towel on a secluded section of the beach or watching Dora the Explorer with Kate in our hotel room. Surely, I would not have mistaken the shaking of my somatic foundation as merely a special effect for a show. The contrast would have been as jarring as Jack Bauer cracking a joke in the middle of his 24 hours of frenzy.

But because I’d just disembarked from the twists of Space Mountain and the theatrics of Michael-Jackson-meets-the-Dark-Crystal in Captain EO, the actual quaking of the solid earth beneath our blanket blended in quite nicely with my prevailing mood.

Do I underreact to the coronavirus because I’m already overstimulated to tragedy, my nerves wired too tight to vibrate from the pluck of a pernicious disease? Have I become conditioned to the rides that drop my stomach and siphon my breath? Is coronavirus just another coaster headache?

Or do I choose to underreact because it’s the only way I can live in this world with my ultra-sensitive skin? Soft-pedaling is my survival weapon in the daily battle between protecting my heart and plowing compassion. I question the COVID-19 restrictions because they seem a moot point in the paradoxes of this life. We prepare food for our families even as others starve. We cheer our kids on the soccer field even as other kids are sold into slavery. We decorate our houses even though one shake of the earth might crack the vases and jolt the pictures from the walls. We hike mountains while others battle crippling diseases. We answer the dentist’s question about flossing even as a virus storms the world. Unless, of course, the dentist office is closed because of the virus.

It has always been like this. We gather the joy and surrender sorrows to the wailing wall. We stare into the headlights of tragedy when necessary but afterwards, look away from the glare to the sunset, the gravel road, the deer bounding through the trees. We mourn with those that mourn and allow their judgements of God. We learn to sway with earthquakes and viruses and our dark history. Mostly, we learn to exist in the heart of the paradox. The scope of human suffering juxtaposed against a simple, perennial hope. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.”

I wake up one morning eight weeks into the coronavirus quarantine and no longer wonder if I’ve been wrong about it. It is both crisis and business as usual.

The Truth About Santa Claus

My essay for this month will not be posted here, because it was accepted and published by The RavensPerch, an online literary magazine. (I could not be more thrilled!) You can find it here:

https://www.theravensperch.com/the-truth-about-santa-claus-by-kristen-ott-hogan/

The staff would love you to rate and/or leave a comment on the website.

The essay is about my daughter, Autumn (pictured above), and her reluctance to grow up (and mine too), and our obsessions with characters and stories. Enjoy.

Taming the Deer

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There is something in the way my daughter cuts across the soccer field after another game that makes me afraid.  Her body sags with defeat even though her team won the game.

“Good job.” I hug her.

“Thanks,” she mutters in my shoulder. “But, Mom.” She pulls back. “I’m the only forward who hasn’t made a goal.”

I try to stop it from happening. To blanket my mind with objectivity and logic. But these words trigger a familiar commotion and panic in my brain. My thoughts bound up a hypothetical mountain like a deer chasing one shadow after another, and I have no choice but to cling to its back like a rodeo clown.

In this moment, I believe nothing more tragic could be happening to my daughter. The horror of it. How can she live this down? She’s disappointing her coach, her team, herself. I’m lost in fresh hysteria.

But I play it cool with my daughter.

“Well, I’m sure you’re not the only one. What about the midfielders?”

“I’m talking about the forwards.” She winced. “It’s not the midfielders’ job to make a goal, Mom.”

She says Mom like I’m a dumbbell. Usually, she’s a very nice girl.

Here’s the truth. My brain can be dangerous to my well-being. It can conjure up a host of dangers and worries while whittling down my self-esteem to the size of a popcorn kernel. If allowed free range, it will tailgate my peace and run it right off the road and into a ditch. It’s real grunt work, keeping my brain in check, trying to pinpoint and uproot the thoughts causing me grief. It’s easier to let the rhinorrhea of obsessive thoughts flow unhindered into my neurotic hanky. At times, I’d like to remove my brain, unscrewing and removing it like the hard drive of a computer. Other times, I treasure my brain, obsessive snot and all. It’s this love/hate relationship that I find so uncanny. Our brains cause us no end of heartache.  And joy. And boredom. And curiosity. And dread.

At the next few games, I haggle with myself under the shade of the sport’s umbrella.

Making a goal is not the most important part of soccer.

Yes it is. Make a goal, Autumn.

It matters more that my daughter is playing well, improving, and having fun.

But she needs to make a goal.

This experience is perfect for her.

Make a goal now!

Before bed, I pray for Autumn to make a goal, but it feels wrong, like praying for a new car or a pet panda. Shouldn’t I be praying for her to have the experience she needs? Isn’t that real faith? Trusting in God’s plan over our limited perspective?

But I balk and pray for the goal.

Meanwhile, my daughter never mentions the issue again. She lives day to day as only a teenager can. The fuss is my own Frankenstein. It’s not about my daughter and her goalless status. This is about the white-knuckled tactics of my brain. Her mantra isn’t Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! Nope. That’s all mine. And this is not my first obsessive rodeo. I’ve tormented myself about my marriage, my kids, the state of the world, my friendships, the terrorists that one time I swore were lurking in the rocks by our campsite in the isolated Utah desert. I suspect my brain distracts itself with this sort of hackwork to avoid the real work, the full-throated stuff of life.  

The British philosopher Alan W. Watts wrote:

“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be another experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality.”

I’ve heard the mantra a thousand times: Live in the precious present moment. I’m finally listening. Anything to stop the endless pawing at my brain. When it happens, that split second when the deer is about to bolt, I try to galvanize my five senses.

I fling off my sandals at the soccer fields and hunker in the grass. Funny how sharp the blades feel against my newly shaved legs. I flick off a few ants from my ankles. I listen to the jabbering of the spectators on the hill behind me and taste the melting tonic of dark chocolate on my tongue. Driving home, I rub my palms along the hard leather of the steering wheel. I’ve never noticed the pencil-thin canal sandwiched between two houses even though I’ve driven this road for years. I roll the window down and smell the mixture of hydrogen sulfide and decaying brine shrimp drifting across the wetlands. The seat warmer pulls the chill out of my bones.  

 At night while praying, I rub my knees against the carpet and feel the pliable mattress beneath my elbows. I smell my tangy face cream and listen to the pitter-patter of tiny feet sluffing bed. My husband sighs at the bathroom sink; the house shuts down.  

In the here and now, the iridescence of my life lengthens and deepens. Guilt evaporates in the absence of a past. Worry scatters like October leaves, collecting on the fences of the future. My mind pools in peace. It’s always going to be about this moment, the now of my life. Gratitude pulses through my current heartbeat, not the heartbeat from a month ago. My prayers reside in the moment I utter them. Living in the moment is the only way I have found to get off the bounding deer. It’s true I find this present-moment-nirvana as difficult to achieve as deciding on a throw pillow at Ikea. 

But when it happens, it’s glorious.

Third Grade Cinderella

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I once bribed two girls to be my friends.

It all started when I made the colossal mistake of inviting that girl Kim to play with us at recess. Julie and I had been best friends since first grade, inseparable in Miss Larson’s class held in the trailer south of the school. For two years, we’d stuck together like the ham and Miracle Whip sandwiches in our My Little Pony lunch boxes. (This was the eighties, folks, and my metal lunch box with its matching thermos meant more to me than my home perm.)

When we landed safely together in Mrs. Bailey’s third grade class, I anticipated another fun-tangled year with Julie by my side. She was the prettiest girl in our grade, with ashy blond hair that could be successfully primped without the atrocious feathered bangs showcased by the rest of us.

Kids wager so much on appearances and this weakness proved my downfall.  Kim ranked second after Julie in beauty with thick, curly, dark hair. In my mind, she was a suffering princess in need of friends. One recess, she was playing alone on the heat-conducting metal slide, so I invited her to join us on the rusty merry-go-round. (In these days, playground equipment was more dangerous than a loaded gun.)

Kim joined us that recess and every recess afterwards. I can’t remember how quickly I discovered three makes a crowd, but it could not have been long.

At first, our hopscotch and four-square games hobnobbed with goodwill, the autumn sun pulling the freckles out from underneath our skin. But soon enough, Julie and Kim began the shopworn ploy of whispering. They whispered during recess games, by the classroom sink, and in their desks behind me while I diverted my gaze to the window. Were they talking about me? I kept tagging along with them, but my smile stonewalled and dwindled.

The first breakup happened just days after the whispering began. I can’t remember it exactly, but I imagine it went something like this:

When the recess bell rang, I twisted around to face Kim and Julie. “What do you want to play for recess? I brought my Chinese jump rope?”

I’d just finished drawing a picture of the three of us, Julie sandwiched in the middle with her wavy blond hair while Kim and I hovered on either side. We each donned a red tulip over our left ear, and I’d written The Three Musketeers across the top. (I still have this picture, so I know it’s authentic). 

Kim and Julie glanced at each other. “No thanks. We want to play our own game.” They didn’t add without you but the meaning was implied. With that, they shuffled out of the room leaving me behind.

I kept my eyes glued on the three musketeers in their fancy dresses, the two-dimensional grass sprouting giant-size daisies until the picture bleared.

In elementary school, I cried a lot. Yeah, I was one of those kids. But it was okay, because I had the perfect cover. I pretended to have allergies, bad allergies that caused my face to redden and my eyes to water. Whenever someone asked me if I was crying, I’d just reply with my go-to line, “No, my eyes are just watering. They do that sometimes.” It was the perfect subterfuge, or so I thought.

My eyes watered acres that day. The devastation seeped through my thin skin. I’d like to say I stood up for myself, that I retorted with “Forget you, mean girls!” and found my way to the pell-mell group that played kickball at recess. But instead, my heart walloped like a wild horse trying to find a way back to the herd.

Even at that age, I understood my neediness came across as a crapshoot, so I decided to pretend everything was normal. Maybe they would forget about dropping me like a hot potato. The next day, I secured a red-rubbered ball for four-square and scampered to save a court near the basketball hoops. When Julie and Kim exited the building, they glanced in my direction but ducked their heads to scavenge for a hopscotch rock instead.

It was official then. I’d been ousted, unseated, given the pink slip. No doubt these friend-jilting experiences are a dime a dozen on the playground, but when it happens to you, it’s your own private Challenger explosion.

For me, the years rush backwards like a pinball to halt and hover in this one pain.

“Are you crying?”

“No, my eyes are just watering. My eyes do that sometimes.”

I only cared about getting my friends back. Nothing else mattered. Cursive and times tables could take a hike. I did what any third-grade-girl would do. I wrote a note. With a vibrant-colored marker on brown paper, I scribbled:

Dear Julie and Kim

You are both really pretty and nice

I like you a lot

Will you be my friend?

Love, Kristen

I carefully folded the paper into thirds and stuck a daffodil sticker over the fold to seal it. I slipped it behind to Jenny.

Later, Julie passed me a note sealed with a tawny cat sticker.

Dear Kristen

Kim and I will be your friends for the rest of the year

You are very pretty and nice.

Love, Julie and Kim

I smiled so wide my cheeks bunch up like parentheses, and my allergies dissipated. It’s official. They would be my friends for the rest of the year. I revered the note as a binding document, signed and notarized. My friend crisis was over.

At a sleepover, Kim pushed my sleeping bag aside so hers would be in the middle. She dominated the conversation and when Julie’s twelve-year-old brother walked through the den, Kim zeroed in on the opportunity.

“He likes you,” she razzed and even in my naivety, I sensed the jab behind the compliment.

By Monday morning, Julie and Kim buzzed like bees in the desks behind me.

“What are you talking about?” I swerved in my seat.

“None of your business, Kristen,” Kim deadpanned.

The bell rang for recess, everyone ran out, grabbing coats from the hooks in the hallway. I watched Kim and Julie prance out of the room. They’d promised. We will be your friends for the rest of the year. I was crumbling inside like the eraser particles waiting to be swept off the paper.

Outside, I wandered aimlessly around the gray field in my puffy coat, my hair hitting my face like dead seaweed. They were following me a short distance behind, their arms linked together. I stopped, hoping they would catch up and say it was all a joke. But when I stopped, they stopped, keeping the distance between us. They followed to hound me, even though my wildly sensitive heart flung the thought away again and again. They followed like shadows.

It was time for extreme measures. I needed an ally and quick. Back in the classroom, I walked over to Mrs. Bailey’s heavily laden desk.

“Can I talk to you for a minute, Mrs. Bailey?”

She glanced up, pulled off her glasses, and folded them gently. “Sure sweetie. Come into the alcove.” She hiked up her thick stockings, as I followed her into the small area that held supplies and a sink.

Her pale green eyes searched my face as I blurted out the situation. “My friends, Julie and Kim, don’t talk to me or play with me anymore.”

“Oh dear,” she muttered, “Why are they doing that?”

“I don’t know.” My eyes clouded over. I must be allergic to something in the alcove, maybe the scented markers scattered on the countertop.

“Oh dear me, don’t cry.” She pulled me into a side hug before I could explain my allergy situation. “Remember you’re a special person. I bet they will forget all about it in a few days. You are a beautiful girl.”

Now, let’s be clear here. I was anything but beautiful in the third grade. I’d yet to don the glasses that would swallow up my face with their sheer size, but my hair was stringy, uneven, and I’d caved to the call of the feathered bangs. The bags under my eyes were as thin as onionskin, and my insecurity cloaked me like a Lisa Frank t-shirt.

Mrs. Bailey saw beyond my awkwardness. She didn’t see it at all. That was the power of Mrs. Bailey. I mattered because all kids mattered to her. I couldn’t articulate this at the time, all I knew is how I felt when she listened to me. I tugged at her kindness like a lifeline.  

I wish I remembered how long the flipflopping lasted with my two friends. An entire year or just a few months? It stretches like a Chinese jump rope in my memory, but I hope I didn’t put up with it for months on end.  The ordeal was prolonged because of the good times mixed in with the bad. Like when Kim was out of town and Julie and I stood with linked arms, watching our clay volcanos erupt with the mixture of vinegar and soda.  Or when our game of hopscotch overshadowed any other consideration, and we fell into the habit of kissing our rock for luck before each throw.   

But the good times disappeared like a twinkie when I’d hear the whispering again. Once, I found myself hidden in a bathroom stall when Kim and Julie rushed in at the start of recess.

“Hey Julie,” Kim called from her perch, “let’s not be Kristen’s friend anymore. I don’t want to play with her. She’s always crying.”

“I know. It’s stupid.”

They clamored to wash their hands and race out the door. I hid in the stall for the rest of recess. My eyes watered so much my chambray jumpsuit grew damp.

“Mrs. Bailey? Can I talk to you?”

“Oh dear, are they at it again? I want you to do something for me. Will you do it?”

I managed a nod.

“I want you to stand in front of the mirror every morning and say: I am special. I am special. Mrs. Bailey says I’m special. Will you do that every morning before you come to school?”

I nodded obediently but seriously doubted it would help me reclaim my friends.  

“And one more thing,” Mrs. Bailey added. “Find some new friends.”

Find new friends?  How do you go about finding new friends in the third grade? The idea seemed preposterous, like changing your favorite color or walking home from school a different way. This strange idea of Mrs. Bailey’s skirted around the edges of my focus, sidestepping the limelight.

This is when the bribing happened.

Once again, I pulled out the paper, but this time I wrote two separate notes. One for Julie. One for Kim. I wrote about how beautiful they were and how nice (really?) and how much I missed playing with them at recess. Please be my friend again? I pleaded. Folding the papers into thirds, I then taped a quarter on top. This time George Washington acted as my seal.

I remember the look on Julie’s face as she read my note on the school’s front steps, the sunshine blaring down from the west. She touched the quarter and smiled. I knew the bribe had worked just by her posture, her arms spread wide, exposing her heart to the sun. I received a note back the next day:

Dear Kristen

You are very preety but I don’t have any money for you now.

I would like to be your friend.

I’ll sit by you at lunch time.

You’re super great. Love, Julie

The bribing was my last grand gesture, my final plea. We were friends again, for about as long as it took to spend a quarter. This time, when the dreaded whispering began, and they retreated to their private club, the anger settled into my stomach like oatmeal. I blamed Kim entirely and told some other kids as much. It felt good to say it. To finally move past the place where reconciliation was possible.

But word got to Kim. At the next recess, she stood before me with a smirk that drove the bugs back into the cracks at my feet.

“I hate you,” she stated, her dark curls whipping in the wind.

As she walked away, my heart collapsed like risen dough ready for kneading. To be hated by someone felt terrifying, like being challenged to a fight at the dumpster after school.

“Mrs. Bailey, Kim said she hated me.”

In her polyester wrap-around dress, Mrs. Bailey knelt so she could look me in the eyes. “Sweetie, no one says you have to play with them. It’s time for you to find new friends. That is the only answer to your problem.”

I studied her round face, the curls from her pageboy haircut resting above her eyebrows. Her placid eyes never left my face as I stared back, swallowing the light she was giving me.

In the years following this experience, I saw only the bruises, the damage to my fragile self worth. Surely my skittish social skills and confidence poverty could be traced back to this third-grade ordeal. My loneliness? Clearly a byproduct of third grade bullying. Like the famous optical illusion, I saw only the white vase, the elaborate curves and swells against the dark background.

Only by writing about the experience has my perception finally shifted to see the other image: the mirrored faces in the black, the shallow foreheads, orthodox noses, and posed lips. How did I not see it before? The salient picture overshadowing the other.

The heart of the story was not the mean girls or the aftermath trauma but the woman, third-grade-teacher extraordinaire, who listened to my woes and repeated simple platitudes that rang true. She taught me the basics of compassionate self-talk while pocketing my idiosyncrasies, my watering eyes, my victimitis. She fusspotted my problem until I found my way.

The years rush backwards to halt and hover in this one kindness, in this moment when a beloved teacher restored my little life through compassion.

Maybe I could find new friends. But how do I find them? I walked around the playground. Girls clustered around a hopscotch with their lucky rocks. At the swings, a girl in red Levi’s reared up for an underdog push. She ran forward, thrusting the swing up and over her head. Her friend flew into the open sky, squealing. I saw a girl named Wendy rocking her body in time with a swinging jump rope in front of her. She dashed in and jumped in rhythm. The two girls twirling the rope started to chant.

Cinderalla, dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss a fella. Made a mistake, kissed a snake. How many doctors will it take? One. Two. Three. Four.

When the rope hit Wendy’s ankle, she stumbled to catch her balance. They giggled as she untangled her legs. They continued with swirling arms, a rope, and dancing feet.

At lunch after purchasing my carton of milk (for a quarter), I carried my lunch box towards the table where Wendy and her friends sat. My stomach lurched and bounced like a small rubber ball. I set my lunch box on the table next to Wendy and slid into the bench.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hey. I wish my mom made me home lunch,” Wendy said, pointing to my lunchbox.

“I know. School lunch is gross,” I ventured.

The something in my tummy bounced to a stop, like an abandoned ball on the playground.

The Reason Why

Photo by Trang Pham on Pexels.com

The mother is heroic at the viewing. She comforts the disheveled tweens who swell in mass to the casket’s edge. She thanks them for being a good friend to her son. She hugs each mourner in their slipshod clothes. Her son has died, but she inoculates them with the relief that someone is bearing the unbearable.

I first notice the camouflage wireless controller while waiting in line near the wreath of white lilies and tropical bromeliads.  Around the casket is a display of items showcasing his life. A jacket from his favorite sport’s team. A baseball bat. The TV playing a slideshow of a dark-eyed child with a carnival smile. The wireless controller near his hands. A ballcap folded into fourths and placed over the wound.

 “Just a tiny hole,” his mother explains to the pockmarked girl in front of us. “Just a tiny hole so we covered it up with his hat.”

I’m fighting the disheveled crowd and the thick greyness of the room. Something is missing that I usually feel at such events. Something sacred, something cathartic keeping the heaviness away like sandbags against a rising river. There is only thick greyness here. I look at the controller once more before I greet the mother I barely know.

Near the funeral potatoes, a lady whispers to me that he’d been bullied. There it is: the lacquered answer we can run our fingers over and find no roughness or scratches. He was bullied. Kids can be so unkind, she says, her eyes bright and wrinkled.

My chest narrows around my heart. Surprised, I realize I find this explanation petty and calculated. Bullying is the buzzword these days. I’m anemic to acceptance, I’m furious with the excuses. It all begins to feel like excuses. Nothing makes sense.

“The human violence we abhor and fear the most, that which we call ‘random’ and ‘senseless’ is neither,” Gavin de Becker writes. “It always has purpose and meaning, to the perpetrator, at least. We may not choose to explore or understand that purpose, but it is there, and as long as we label it senseless, we’ll not make sense of it.”

I form my own theory. Because of the camouflage controller, I suspect the boy was influenced by video games. My husband confirming that this boy played the violent ones only adds weight to my suspicions. He talked about them at weekly scout meetings. He spent hours in the cyberspace tunnels with the bark of gunfire and the blood. Day after day, disappearing into an unearthly world of violence, fading from the pale remains of daylight, the smells of reality. This is what I picture in my mind.

His parents failed him. This is what I think and there is shame in accusing two strangers ripe and raw in grief. His parents failed him by allowing him to play those games. I’ve summed it up in one airtight ideogram.

My assertion salves the shock of the tragedy. It pencils in the lines between the dots to reveal the hidden picture. If his parents failed him than all I need to do is avoid the same trap. If violent videos games are the culprit than I simply need to ban those games from the life of my children. There. I’m immune to such raucous grief.  

I’m passing judgement like a New York Liberal on Ben Shapiro. These parents breathe and love and fear like me. Yet, I cannot let it go and there is research to validate my concerns over the violent video games. I am driven to interpret, to understand the why and the how. Why did his parents allow him access to those games? How does a young kid fixate on suicide? What is the source of the darkness that paws at the brain and canopies the light?  

My outrage builds when the time comes to explain the situation to my eleven-year-old son. He asks me the unanswerable. 

Why? Why would he do it?

I say that sometimes people feel really, really sad. They lose all hope. They might have a mental illness that hinders their ability to be happy. It’s a disease and maybe this boy couldn’t think clearly. I say all these things to my son, but my words yawp hollow as a windchime.

I want the reason to be violent video games. It makes perfect sense—the bloody images, the assault on the spirit, the way killing can be rewarded with points and popcorn. I’ll dig with clenched fists for proof, for conclusive evidence. I want it to be true because it reinforces my world view.

The truth is I’m trying to avoid the pain.

Teen suicide may be a reality in our world, but it takes a brave person to touch the devastation with tender and open palms.

And I remember. I remember my own precious nephew filling empty Powerade bottles with gasoline one autumn afternoon before biking into the hills behind his house. There, next to a patch of scrub oak, he set himself on fire. He was fifteen. When the pain became hysterical, he ran down the hill, tumbling and rolling, the fire extinguished before it scorched his face. But his heart was lost for a while. He fought to get it back for days, weeks. Years.      

I sat with my sister in the waiting room at the hospital’s burn unit. He was going to live. Together we worked to make sense of it, to figure out the why. At first, he claimed someone else did it to him. Two delinquent kids on bikes. Next, he blamed a shadowy figure, a hallucination, for bullying him into using the gasoline, the lighter, the flame.

We considered schizophrenia or a psychotic break. Maybe his chronic depression had finally slipped into the dark river of suicide. Or his anxiety had revved up, banging inside like a crazed ping-pong game until something snapped. And what about his gravitation to emo music, dark comedies, and yes, the horror video games?

All we knew for sure was he wanted his feelings to vanish with a flick of a match.

“I can’t believe he felt bad enough to do this,” my sister whispered.

I would never blame her for this tragedy or accuse her of failing her son. Why would I narrow the complexity of the situation to a video game? I was too close this time. To close to avoid the grief, the helplessness, or to disregard the strength and vulnerability of the people involved. Why do we seek to find blame whenever a tragedy happens? It requires courage to accept the ambiguity, the grief.

And the pain, pure and driven.

A harsh winter storm rolled in a few days before the suicide. A storm pregnant with so much snow that driveways filled up minutes after they had been cleared. The snow lingered in drifts and mounds around streets and sidewalks. School was cancelled, kids frolicked in frigid backyards. Then came an ice storm, freezing the rain on the ground, a glass sheen over the wide-eyed beauty of the snow. A simple grocery trip turned dangerous when my minivan failed to navigate the icy incline on my driveway. Slipping about, I managed to carry the bags into the house where I hibernated the remainder of the day.

The world felt treacherous for weeks afterwards, a mixture of the icy roads and the chill of the tragedy. I recognize now I shielded my heart in the beginning with slapdash icy assumptions. Assumptions that missed the point whether they proved true or false. I failed to look beyond the reason why to the pure undertow of human suffering. The place where empathy thrives.

I hope to be more cautious next time. Not abandoning the search for answers but treading more deliberately in His footsteps. I hope to find my heart more like fresh snow—soft, pliable, and resilient. Strong enough to hold up the skiers. Soft enough to make angels in the snow.

To learn more about my nephew’s story, please check out his memoir on Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Phoenix-Flame-Memoir-Mental-Illness/dp/1692102257/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=phoenix+flame&qid=1569874198&sr=8-1

                                                                                                                                                            

Nov 2019- The Sound of Seagulls

The Sound of Seagulls

*Some names have been changed

The evening we met Hilda was gray and full of shadows. Her hands were thrust deep into the pockets of an ankle-length trench coat, as she stepped onto the cobblestone street. We stopped her by the streetlamp and asked if she believed in God.

“Of course. God is wonderful!” Her broad and open face dwarfed her withered figure.

I pulled out a Book of Mormon from the pocket of my wax jacket. She accepted the book only after we assured her it was free. Her breath smelled of alcohol and onion pie.

I’d arrived in Llandudno, Wales, about three months earlier, straight off the plane from home. It was the autumn of 1995, and as a Mormon missionary, I’d encountered strange circumstances, but nothing to prepare me for the loneliness I was about to witness. Loneliness so haunting it cried like seagulls on the shoreline.

At dawn in this idyllic town, the seagulls yapped on the beach of the Irish Sea. I’d hear their cries in my dreams during that last precious hour before the alarm sounded, and we fell on our knees to recite scripture and say morning prayers. I’d think of them flying free for days at a time on the air currents above the waves. When they gathered on the gray beaches, they faced the wind for a quick takeoff. Their sharp and persistent cries reminded me of the first waking moments as a missionary. The moment when the fear, loneliness, joy, and love surged under my skin.

My companion, Sister Herreman, and I began visiting Hilda every day. She’d open her door with a grandiose sweep of her arm. Her voice choking on a squeal, “Come in! Come in! I’m so thrilled you would come see me.”

She oozed with interest at first, even asking to join the church during our first visit. We set a baptismal date and started teaching her the gospel. We should have known it was all too smooth, too golden to be true. But for a time, we had news to report to the Elders. Someone to fill the spaces on our weekly schedule. Someone to save.

When we explained our mode of baptism as complete immersion, Hilda protested in the typical phobic manner. “No, no. I couldn’t do it. I’m deeply afraid of water.” She bore down on the word deeply as if the word alone would save her from all earthy suffering.

“That’s ok, Hilda,” we soothed. “We believe in following Jesus Christ’s example. We will help you.”

Many people expressed some fear of water. But as in other cases, we assumed it wouldn’t stop her in the end.

Hilda lived in contrasts of light. I preferred visiting her in the daytime when the picture window on the north wall of her flat let in streams of sunshine It rested on her gray head as she worked a crossword puzzle while we taught her about resurrection, prophets, principles. Sometimes the veiled sun only canvassed the floor beneath the window and didn’t reach the center of the room where we sat. When winter darkness descended around four in the afternoon, the harsh light bulb over the kitchenette did little to illuminate the sparse room. In the gloom, I thought of seagulls seeing infrared color and soaring under a violet sky.

Hilda accepted everything as if we were serving her rapture and peace on an earthenware platter. Her dialogue flowed sticky and false. Oh yes, that’s lovely. Of course, I believe it. Yes, I understand what Jesus did for me.  

But one evening, Hilda opened the door and shuffled back to her folding chair without a word. A scratchy wool blanket cloaked her shoulders, and the room held a heaviness like tapestries draped over old furniture. She slumped with a cigarette in her trembling fingers. The volume on the TV was low and menacing.

“Hiya Hilda, you alright?”

Her voice was cold. “Did I ever tell you I have two sons?”

We shed our coats and backpacks. “No. We didn’t know.”

“They never come to see me. They never help me. I have no money.”

Sister Herreman and I glanced at each other. From past missionary experiences, we recognized the foreboding feeling, both tender and dreadful.

“Hilda,” Sister Herreman ventured, “are you ok?”

“I will never, ever enter a church again in my life. I will never, ever pray again. I hate God.” Her eyes, dark pits of rage, dithered against her transparent skin. “My husband, Ray, died two years ago. I wish someone”—she fought to bring the cigarette to her ash-white lips—“would tell me what I did. They blame me for it. They blame me for Ray’s death. My own sons accuse me.”

“Hilda?”

She pushed herself out of the chair, a flimsy, wavering body of ninety pounds. It was as if she contained the force of the world’s suffering in the jerky movements of her frame. She walked to the door. “I hate God. I will never enter your church. I will kill myself first.” Her voice scraped with hatred. Her bony fingers reached for the door handle. “Get out.”

We struggled on our backpacks and approached the door. “We’ll come back later. Hilda? Ok?”

In the hall, I turned back to catch Hilda’s face for an instant before the door slammed shut. A face dark, walleyed, cavernous. We hesitated in the hallway of the building, the tired sunlight hovering in the cracks around the front door. Then we pushed out the door and stepped onto the cobblestone street

I never wanted to go back. But predictively, the Elders asked us to return. They chalked up Hilda’s schizoid behavior as cold feet about baptism. I found that explanation ridiculous.

“But she was disturbed. I’m not sure how she will react if we show up again. She made it pretty clear that she didn’t want anything to do with us or the church.”

 “Go back,” Elder Newton repeated. “Remember to exercise faith, Sister Ott.”

 Did my faith have the power to change the outcome of a situation? To change the direction of another person’s life?

***

Hilda answered the door with the familiar squeal of joy. “Hiya! My dearest friends in the entire world. Please come in. I’ve been hoping you would come by. Can I get you something to drink? I hope you don’t mind if I smoke?”

Foolish in our relief, we eased into the chairs, sensing a sudden movement might send Hilda sprawling into her alter ego. We pretended the earlier fiasco never happened, lacquering the memory as trivial and cryptic. I doubted Hilda remembered any of it.

“Hilda,” I risked. “Tonight, we need to talk to you about your smoking.”

“Oh yes. Such a terrible habit. I’ll quit right now. Tonight.”

And to show her determination, Hilda rubbed her cigarette out in the pewter ash tray next to the TV. Leaning back, she gazed at us like Mother Teresa enduring the heat of the African sun. “I will do whatever it takes to be baptized.”

From then on, it was anyone’s guess as to how we would find Hilda. She became a vase of brittle clay that might crumble if we made the wrong move. In the morning, she would flatter and bleed platitudes of praise. That same evening, her face was rancid with darkness as she ranted against God. Then we started experiencing the change firsthand.

“Please come in my lovely friends,” she would say. “Have a seat. I wish I had something for you to drink.”

Several minutes later, right smack dab in our discussion about the spirit world, her luster evaporated before our eyes. She’d mention her sons. How they never visited her, never helped her with money. Her face crumbled like seaweed in the sun.

“They blame me for Ray’s death. But the strange thing is I don’t remember Ray dying. I can’t remember anything about it.”

“You don’t remember your husband dying?” Sister Herreman said, her voice flat and unmoved.

“No, I can’t remember,” she monotoned as if in a trance. “I will never, ever enter a church again.”

We always left when she started with her “never evers.”

***

We picked Hilda up for her baptism on a Saturday morning. My chest constricted with the pressure to see a baptism through to the end. If we failed, our lack of faith might be blamed. In theory, I knew faith could never usurp free will. But at times like this, faith and agency no longer seemed juxtaposed as harmonious principles of the gospel. They sideswiped one another. My conviction about baptism crashed against Hilda’s cliff of ambivalence.

She’d gotten into the car willingly, but afterward, everything felt forced, like a well-intentioned intervention gone wrong.

“Come on, it’s not bad,” we tried. “The water’s not scary. You’ll feel good afterward.”

“No. I don’t think I will.” Hilda looked out the car window and beneath her skin, there seemed to be an undertow of dark emotion. She lacked the ability to make connections as if she was alone without dreams or history.

In a blur, we arrived at the church and somehow got Hilda changed into a pair of white trousers with an elastic waist. She made no fuss about following Elder Williams down the tiled steps into the water. Wraith-like, she took Elder Williams arm while he demonstrated how to use her other hand to plug her nose. He raised his right hand and uttered the baptismal prayer. Bringing his hand down on her back, he braced to help her back into the water.

Time stalled and thickened like hazy heat waves on cement. Hilda remained rooted, stiff, and unyielding to the gentle pushes of Elder Williams against her arm.

“Just bend your knees a little, I’ve got you. I’ll bring you right back up, I promise.”

The seconds ached forward but Hilda would not give way to Elder Williams’ coaxing. Sister Herreman and I stood speechless in the hallway in front of the font. Our zone leader, Elder Nickels, moved to the stairs, muttering encouraging words and ideas at Hilda.

“It will be only a second under water. You won’t notice it. Would it be easier if we went forward, Hilda?”

Elder Williams tried guiding Hilda forward as if he hoped her body might twist into a graceful dive. There seemed to be no life in her face now, only empty eyes staring at the accordion curtain. The font, Hilda, the Elders—it all seemed to blend into a tunnel of whiteness. Elder Nickels started entering the font. The water surged around his feet, ruining his suit.

Then Hilda screamed. The harshness of the sound ricocheted off the walls and entered the lifeblood of the empty rooms. Life washed through Hilda’s eyes as they melted into the raging pits we had come to dread. “Let me go home,” she hissed. A sorrow rose into the air around us. I knew Hilda no longer cared, if she ever had, about promised blessings. She only cared about leaving the water and smoking a cigarette.

Elder Nickels stood for a moment ankle deep in water. Then he stepped back up the stairs with empathy carried in his shoulders. “Ok, Hilda. Let’s get you home.”

We rushed into the restroom. Hilda stood in her bra by the sink. The wet trousers clung to her legs. She looked like a survivor of a concentration camp as she reached a bony hand into her bag and pulled out a cigarette.

“You can’t smoke in here,” I rasped. “Not in the church!”

Ignoring my pleas, she stared empty-eyed out the frosted window, her fingers trembling to bring the lighter to the cigarette in her mouth. She blew the smoke out in deluded wisps, as if hoping to rid herself of all thought and remembrance. She seemed a fossil, or a relic.

Later, Elder Williams lamented, “I should have just dunked her. Done it before she knew what was happening.”

Baptism at any cost?

No. I am grateful Hilda’s agency, fallible though it might have been, prevailed in the warm water in 1995. It submerged our desires beneath its surface. I could not heal her mind or free her from her addictions. I could not transfer my testimony into her heart or provide for her financial needs. I could not force baptism and all its blessings upon her. I could not unpack her loneliness into feasible bundles. She coped with her life by whimsical daydreams or dark anger. How much of her life was in her power, I will never know. Yet her volition endured in a white-walled font and I felt the joy of it, the preciousness of it, even among the bare bones of disappointment.

My faith harmonizing with the seagull-like cries of her free will.

I saw Hilda on the street weeks after we’d lost contact and right before I left Llandudno for good. She passed us along main street—handkerchiefed, bent forward, lugging an oversized bag over her shoulder. For a moment, the sound of seagulls tugged memory to the surface. An unconscious reflex cast my eyes immediately to the ground to avoid an awkward greeting. But not before I caught the stormy eyes, the thin frame hobbling down the street, the hands trembling for the nicotine. A face that might, at a moment’s notice, soften and smile and invite us in from the cold.

Oct 2019-Beauty for Ashes

Beauty for Ashes

I’d jammed my day with tasks, every minute accounted for and assigned a purpose. My checklist included a trip to the orthodontist, scrubbing the shower, reading with the kids, writing in the morning and again in the afternoon, driving my son to kindergarten, picking up lunch for a friend, teaching piano lessons, making roasted cauliflower soup for dinner, and Christmas shopping with my husband. The stress was self-imposed. At the time, I found it perfectly acceptable to cram my days like Jack Black in a wetsuit.

I hustled the kids out into the van as my mind raced down the list of tasks. I was counting on no wait at the orthodontist, or I would be hopelessly behind schedule. My writing time usually became the sacrificial lamb. Drew buckled Kate in her seat as I slid behind the wheel, turned the key, and shifted into reverse. Then it happened.

First came the serrated sound of impact, metal against metal. Second, the horrifying realization. The garage door had been innocently creeping up the metal rails when I’d given it a sudden punch to the gut with the back bumper of my van. In short, I had backed the car right into the garage door before it had opened completely.

What an idiot!

Immediately, shame siphoned away all the momentum I had for the day and gloom settled in like fog. Turning the car off, I jumped out with an intense longing to skedaddle out of my own skin. I’m such an idiot. I’m such an idiot, I muttered to myself, my hands gesturing wildly as I circled the space where my husband usually parked his Civic. Wade is going to kill me. My mind howled. My hands shook.

My twelve-year-old son, Drew, emerged from the car. “Mom, don’t freak out. It’s going to be OK,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I hissed.

He stood looking at me like a puzzled Christopher Robin.

We got back in the car (we had an orthodontist appointment after all) and I slowly inched out of the driveway like a student driver under surveillance. The garage door would no longer shut so I left it open, the shelves of tools, sleeping bags, and motor oil displayed like my sins to the world. The falling snow gathered on the driveway before the open door. It might blow inside, paling the shelves and garden tools with white dust.

In the orthodontist’s waiting room, I slunk to a corner sofa, hoping to avoid the gregarious receptionist. Drew sat next to me. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s just the garage door. At least our house didn’t burn down.”

I eyed him with suspicious wonder. He was, no doubt, referring to the tragic incident six months earlier when the house next door caught on fire and within minutes was consumed in flames.

Is this kid for real?

Despite my son’s attempt at perspective, I couldn’t shake the stupidity of what I’d done. It was the most ridiculous of all my mistakes. It was on par with Jar Jar Binks or Watergate. How was I going to tell Wade? When I returned home, I yanked on the garage door until it slid closed. Then, in some sort of She-Man frenzy, I attempted to push in the dents with my bare hands. I wanted to fix it, erase my mistake, go back in time. I cancelled my lunch date, I didn’t write, I forgot about the homemade soup, I didn’t take a shower. Instead, I sobbed on the side of my bed and tried to pray.

My inner dialogue rose to a frenzied pitch. “Who does that? Who runs into their garage door?”

“Actually, a lot of people,” Wade reassured me when I finally summoned the courage to share the news. “It’s a common mistake, Kristen.”

Bless him.

Could my husband be right? Could this not be a big deal? Could I be overreacting just a tad bit? As funny as it sounds, I didn’t consider these possibilities at first. During the initial emotion, all I could do was rubberneck the wreak. It held my gaze like watching Michael Jackson dancing “Thriller.” It took an interaction with my husband to deflate the mountain back into a molehill. As the undertow of self-reproach slowly eased its pull, I scrambled up from the floor where I’d been rat-holing tissues under my knees.

The pendulum swung to the opposite side, and I began to wonder why I had overreacted to the point of rejecting all my goodness because of one lousy mistake.

***

In my neighborhood several years ago, a teenage girl was sunbathing in the hot sun on her driveway. Because of the earbuds nestled in her ears, she didn’t hear the truck roar to life in the garage. Her older sister checked the mirrors to make sure the coast was clear. It looked clear to her. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a garage door to impede her progress down the driveway.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. Not the one that tragically died two days later in the hospital from brain injuries, but her sister, long-limbed and vivacious, who’d been behind the wheel and had asked her brother to jump out and see what she had just run over. “Probably a bike,” she’d suggested before her life changed forever.

It was a terrible accident, no one at fault. Everyone said it. Law enforcement deemed it as such. The media emphasized it. But how could she breathe?

I willed her to know it wasn’t her fault, that it could happen to any of us.

***

After backing into my garage door, I worked to change my frazzled mama status because frazzled mamas run into garage doors. I calculated the cause and traced the evolution of the error. If I avoided all the pitfalls that lead to metal against metal, I would be safe from relapse.

Now, I see clearly my problem lay in my behavior after the garage door incident, not before. I can’t avoid mistakes. There isn’t enough slowing down in this world to dodge accidents or avoid risks. I could very well run into the garage door again when the imminent soccer game starts in five minutes and we’re still waiting for my son to finish in the bathroom.

My mistakes are strewn behind me like fallen leaves, a brown and wilting trail of inevitable regret. I cringe at this memory not because I drove like a peeved off Herbie into the garage door but because I treated myself so harshly afterwards. This was my mistake.

If I struggled to forgive myself over a garage door, how could my neighbor navigate through the emotions of forgiving herself? I prayed she was stronger than me.

We’ve all heard the slogans. Mistakes are a part of life. Accidents happen. We harm others and they harm us. We learn valuable lessons from our mistakes and failures. People run into garage doors and tragically over loved ones. I remember Wade’s words, “It’s a common mistake.” He meant garage doors, of course, but after it happened, many came forward with similar driveway tragedies to comfort the girl and her family.

The consequence of my mistake, my miscalculation, consisted of a crooked door. For my young friend, the loss of a beloved sister. Both events started from the same place, backing out in a hurry, our thoughts directed at destinations and the mundane tick-tockings of the day. It’s a testament to the unfairness of this life that my consequence lasted a few short hours, while hers will last a lifetime.

I’m quite certain she still has bad days—the brown leaves mixed in with the red and orange—but she remains vibrant and generous. I recently heard her speak to a group of young people. She spoke about faith in God and choosing light instead of darkness. She was strong behind the microphone, cloaked in courage and confidence.

“I do not believe,” she said, “that this life is a test to see who can suffer the most. This life is for joy.”

We applauded her with our tears. There’s relief when someone finds a way to bear the unbearable.

Maybe it helps her to know tragedy comes to all of us. Maybe she’s learned to forgive herself again every morning. She must have ways to cope when the darkness threatens. She must intimately know the mental ruts she can never allow her mind to wander. If she can find a way to face every day with hope, I will try to treat my own mistakes with a little more grace. I will try to see the beauty in the ashes.

***

Every fall break, we join family friends for a camping trip to the west desert. I affectionally call it “The Wasteland” and we fantasize that the Tatooine scenes from Star Wars were filmed there. It’s a place that even the environmentalists care little about and leave us alone to roam the knolls on our dirt bikes. We ride pell-mell on trails dotted with sagebrush and heave over the whoops and the sand dunes. With each of us insulated in our bulky helmets, we point and nod to communicate. At the wide-open flats near I-80, the kids scatter to make figure eights in the salt and push the limits of their speedometers.

Back at camp, the kids spend hours digging a hole in the ground, an activity that can only be explained by the accessibility of endless dirt mixed with boredom. Last October, they dug deep enough to hit saltwater. My daughter and her friend shaped the wet clay into bowls and plates and attempted to harden them into pottery over the fire. The younger kids carved a bench in the side of the hole and ate their dinners there as if it were a clubhouse or a foxhole.

The landscape feels abandoned. As if God ran out of the good stuff during the Creation and simply rippled this part of the earth with His fingers in a desperate attempt for some contrast. But at dusk, the colors flare across the western horizon like your own private fireworks show and my throat swells like an Adele crescendo. The view is humanlike: ruthless, raw, and lonely. A place where mistakes glitter like sand in the sun. We can’t live a life without mistakes. Nor would we want to miss out on their barren beauty.

In the camping trailer, I hear the muffled sound of dirt bikes roaring to life on the desert. My daughter clambers up the metal stairs and pulls open the screen door.

“Mom!” she says and holds up her helmet.

It’s time to risk another ride.

A writer’s life or children?

Before I started having children, I attended a writer’s workshop in Salt Lake City.  Five hundred dollars to attend classes and panels discussions, meet editors and agents. I remember one such panel vividly, five or six successful (published) writers/poets bedecked behind a long manila-colored table.  I don’t recall the specifics of the discussion but I remember several statements from the writers:

You can’t spend an hour here and there on your writing and expect to do well.  You must make the necessary sacrifices. You must put in the hours to work on your craft. 

I made the decision not to have a baby. I wanted to be able to dedicate everything to my writing.  At first I sat around the house restless and aimless, cleaning out a lot of closets and making detailed recipes. Then I began to work and the success came.

The only way I have been able to be successful and met deadlines is because I have no life.  I have no children. I don’t see how you could be a successful writer if you have children. It seems impossible to me.

At the time, I dismissed these statements. As much as I was in love with the written word, I couldn’t imagine making that sort of ultimatum in regards to children. And although today I still believe they were wrong in matters of the heart, they may be right in many practical ways. It IS hard to find time, energy, and inspiration with kids skylarking  in the background.

This dilemma- writing verses children- has haunted me through the years.  As each child has come, my personal time to pursue my dreams shrinks ever smaller like drapes slowly closing on a window.  As a mother, there is a certain amount of immovability you must honor so that your children can move and sprout. You must try to be emotionally constant, steady in the daily routine. Children need your time. I cannot spend eight hours writing. I cannot. This knowledge has pained me greatly. I felt like I must give up one dream or the other.  Since my precious children were already breathing on this planet, I thought I must give up my writing dream.

But now, I’ve made peace with the conflict. It was a matter of simply acknowledging (accepting) the order of my priorities.  If push comes to shove, my children will win. I’ll choose them every time. And if in the end, this choice prevents me from being a successful writer, I’ll never regret it.

However, I don’t want to use my blue-eyed kids as an excuse for failing in my writing pursuits. On most days, I don’t have to choose between writing and being a good mother. Writing will come second when necessary but I will continue to write when I can.  Right now that’s a few hours a day if I’m lucky.

Even after all these years, I cannot halt the itchiness in my fingers to write, write, write. Likewise, I cannot plot a world without my kiddos as the main characters. I’m glad the choice isn’t one or the other. If my children are the foamy waves crashing against my soul than my writing is the gentle undertow.

CS Lewis wrote: I read so I know I’m not alone.  Reading/writing allows me to experience feverish emotions without upsetting the balance of my life.  Through writing I can have wanderlust and bohemian dreams.

And through my children, I can see the face of God.