Things I Carried Home

Tuesday we returned from our 10-day journey to the West mostly intact. “Mostly” is the key word here.

Aside: Mostly, I held my shit together during the trip. There was that one incident when we finally arrived in a hotel room one block from Ogden City LDS Temple, and I started yelling expletives at my children as soon as the door slammed shut. They were fighting. We’d been in the car together for six hours, the rolling suitcase weighed 49.5 lbs. (my husband is a Boy Scout), and we were at day 5.

Hahn Vagabonds

Hahn Vagabonds

Unpacking our suitcases in the safety of my own home reminded me of a grad school writing assignment. The esteemed Alan Cheuse asked our class to describe a room, a person, or an object without including commentary. I’m sure there was a profound lesson in writing that I failed to grasp because I had to redo the assignment.

Aside: I’m a non-fiction writer; I thrive on navel-gazing. Also, my MFA diploma is safely on the wall, so I am I’m going to break the rules again, Alan.

Mixed in with the dirty laundry, these objects emerged: 

  • The Fault In Our Stars sounded like a quick read for a vacay, but I ended up reading by the bathroom light in the hotel room late one night and sobbing myself to sleep. My mother has congestive heart failure and pulmonary fibrosis, so a novel about a lung cancer patient probably wasn’t the best choice for this particular excursion that involved pushing Mom around in a wheelchair and changing oxygen tanks every two hours.  
  • Disposable booties from touring the Ogden City LDS Temple (disclaimer: I did not actually save these, but I wish I had because they were far more interesting than the tract I picked up during the tour). Growing up in Utah as a non-Mormon, the temple had an invisible DO NOT TRESPASS sign posted on it. Only Mormons in good standing can enter. The exception to this is during open houses for new or remodeled temples when the public can tour a temple before the consecration ceremony. Throughout my childhood, Mom did her best to convince me that these spaces were sinister. Nonetheless, I could not resist the invitation that coincided with our vacation. While I sat with my children and husband waiting for the tour to commence, I reminded myself to take deep breaths because I was good enough to be in God’s presence.
  • Receipt from Rooster Restaurant on 25th Street in Ogden, Utah. Back in the day, this particular street was associated with hookers and drug dealers; however, the downtown area has since undergone a revitalization. While walking to dinner with my best friend from high school, I passed an “adult” shop to have dinner at this hip watering hole. Utah has long boasted microbreweries and coffee shops as a certain counter-cultural badge of honor. Spending two hours with my wonderful friend provided so many chances to laugh and reflect on my rich life is as a mother, wife, and writer. The two vodka tonics also helped, which brings me to the item that should have come home in my suitcase:
  • Bottles of @FiveWivesVodka I’ll admit that I only ordered that brand for bragging rights, but damn if it wasn’t tasty. I’ve been lighting up twitter with my praises for the distillery in Ogden, Utah in hopes they’ll send me a case (or at least a bottle). A bottle could help relax the back spasms that started the morning after we returned home when I reached into the suitcases to sort dirty laundry.

Happy Pioneer or Pie-N-Beer Day, Utah!

When I realized that my self-imposed blog post deadline fell on July 24, I had to pay homage to Pioneer Day, or, as the Gentiles call it, “Pie-N-Beer Day.”

Aside: Saints = Latter-Day Saints (LDS) or Mormons; Gentiles = non-Mormons. My mother claims that Utah is the only place where a Jew can be considered a Gentile. This title lumped a lot of us together: Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’i, ski bums….

July 24 is a lightning rod of sorts for Utahans. My mother used to lament that it’s a bigger holiday than 4th of July. Although I haven’t lived in the state for over 15 years, the date is still seared in my brain. I spent much of my young adulthood rebelling against a celebration of someone else’s ancestors trekking across the country. One year I marked the date by consummating a relationship. In 1997, I worked in a gift shop inside This is the Place State Park where 50,000 people converged to greet a throng of Saints who were re-enacting the historic arrival of Brigham Young’s crew. The bonnet-clad crowd consisted of 45 horseback riders and 380 walkers with 61 wagons and 9 handcarts. While customers bought commemorative Christmas ornaments in the shape of handcarts, I celebrating the occasion with the purchase of a souvenir shot glass that pictured the Salt Lake City LDS Temple.

Aside: If this religious/cultural war intrigues you, consider finding me a literary agent and publisher so you can read my memoir Outside the Temple Doors.

After I left the state, some Gentiles came up with the great idea to dub July 24 “Pie-N-Beer Day.” Consuming a slice of pizza pie and a cold beer on that day is akin to giving Mormons the middle finger.

A week before this auspicious state holiday an ad popped up on Facebook with a personalized shirt for me to purchase. It read, “Just a Utah Girl in a Virginia World.” What is a “Utah Girl?” Is the implication that I like a slower paced life and wide-open spaces? Or is it that I constantly fight against what I perceive as the dominant culture? In any case, it’s clear that the overall sentiment is that I don’t quite fit in. Which is true, but I’d never wear a shirt advertising that fact.

Aside: If you ask my close friends, they would probably say that they love my snarkiness. They’ve become my friends in response to my rather abrasive taglines: “I’m from Utah, but I’m not Mormon” or “I’m a stay-at-home mom, but I don’t do the PTA thing” or “I belong to a Christian church, but I’d never vote for a candidate from the Christian right.”

In a month, I will set foot back in the Beehive State to visit family and friends. I’ll bring my two kids and husband along. We have tickets to tour the newly renovated Ogden City LDS Temple. While living in Virginia, I’ve developed friendships with some really lovely people who happen to be Mormon. For me, being a Utah girl living in a Virginia world means that I will have to weigh my clothing options carefully and curb my salty mouth because I now care about offending some really wonderful friends. With my kids in tow, I’ll try to instill a respect for diversity in our world.

Aside: Rest assured, dear reader, that after the tour I’ll have a beer while eating some pizza pie; perhaps, I’ll raise a glass of Polygamy Porter or Latter-Day Stout to the founders of the great state. After all, you can take the girl out of Utah, but you can’t take Utah out of the girl.



Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop 2014

When I met her, Sheryl Rivett was working on her MA in creative nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins. She is currently a fiction candidate in the MFA program at George Mason University (my alma mater). Her work has appeared in This I BelieveSo to SpeakMidwifery Today, Quail Bell Magazine, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine. An essay appears in the anthology (t)here: Writings on Returnings. She is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth. Sheryl asked me to participate in this blog hop with a set of questions about my writing process. We have been in a writing group together for several years. I envy her eloquence in both fiction and nonfiction writing, her willingness to experiment with form, and her passion for researching. To learn more about Sheryl’s work and read about her writing process, visit her site. (Make sure that you read mine first because Sheryl makes me look like a slouch!)

What am I working on?

In fits and spurts, I am working on a novel set in Uravan, Colorado in 1952 that is loosely based on my grandparents’ lives. Fiction is a new realm for me, one that I was lucky to start exploring with Courtney Brkic in her MFA fiction workshop at George Mason University last fall. My “new writing” file also contains an essay tentatively entitled “Bring Out Your Dead” that examines our death rituals and what they say about us. In the past year I’ve attended four funerals. I need a place to examine why standing over an open casket becomes an opportunity to critique the deceased’s attire. Although I didn’t think of it this way initially, the essay is shaping up to be a companion piece to one that I wrote several years ago about fascination with the pregnant form. These projects provide a more creative outlet for my full time focus on finding a literary agent to represent my completed memoir manuscript, Outside the Temple Doors, about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah and later confronting my own religious intolerance as a parent.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I primarily operate in the nonfiction realm and am more drawn to developing characters rather than plot. Every day I notice things that make me say, “I can’t make this shit up.” Life is full of contradictions and ironies. Growing up, I always felt like an outsider in my community; now I am a transplanted Westerner living along the Atlantic coast. These experiences inform the way I see the world and in turn my writing. Most of my observations have a hint of melancholy laced with humor. Although I don’t set out to talk about faith, I can’t escape the myriad ways that my religious identity shapes who I am. It wasn’t until my grandmother started reading my published work that I realized how consistently sexuality figures into my pieces. Now, I carefully screen what she gets to see.

Why do I write what I do?

When I moved to Virginia in 1999, I wrote to survive. My husband started his first job out of graduate school here; I missed my previous life teaching English in a Catholic high school in Salt Lake City, Utah. I spent months in my pajamas, sipping coffee, watching Katie Couric on the Today show, and writing. A bad experience teaching middle school had me questioning my career path, so I had picked up a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? from the local library. The assignment to write about ten stepping-stones in my life gave me purpose and provided plenty of material. I signed up for a couple of creative writing classes through community education. There I met Shaileen Backman who has been my writing buddy for nearly 14 years.

My writing life continued when I returned to the classroom. At one point, I was reading E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” and George Orwell’s “To Shoot an Elephant” with a room full of high school juniors enrolled in my Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class. To my surprise, I was reading as a writer, dissecting some of the best personal essays and learning techniques from the masters. That inspired me to hone my craft.

When my husband and I decided to start a family, I left my podium behind and enrolled in an MFA program. My daughter was five months old when I began classes. Reading and writing for my courses gave me a way to combat sleep deprivation and boredom; it was a lifeline. I walked across the stage to receive my diploma while I was seven months pregnant with my son. Both of my kids are now in elementary school, which allows me more time to pound keys, trying to make sense of my world.

How does my writing process work?

I know instinctively which events to write about before I understand their significance, so I guess you could say that I write my way into their meaning. I have to trust that I’ve selected the correct piñata, as I swing a bat trying to crack it open. That takes many drafts and many readers as well as plenty of time for pieces to collect dust inside files on my computer hard drive. Often, there are six to eight iterations of a scene. My grandparents took my sister and me to Disneyland when I was a teenager. I dragged them through the ride It’s A Small World three times because I was oddly attracted to the garish displays and repetitive song. Writing about the trip years later, I kept circling back around that experience, framing it in different ways, but it always sounded like a school essay on my summer vacation. I knew there was something important there, but I just couldn’t identify what. At some point in writing my memoir, I discovered how the experience related to my spiritual journey. On those boat rides in 1987, I encountered a worldview that was more inclusive than my own religious upbringing.

Next Stops on the Tour

It is my privilege to introduce three additional writers. When I auditioned and was selected to read my essay “Sick Mama” during the Listen to Your Mother DC 2014 show, I joined a group of talented female writers. Being an intellectual snob, I quickly located the other cast members with MFA credentials and tried to impress them.

Callie Feyen originally asked me to participate in this blog tour and hosted my piece on her site in April. (Yes, I’m recycling my work.) She is a writer for The Banner and Christian Home and School and a grad student in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. Currently, she is feverishly working on her MFA thesis in order to graduate in August 2014. I had the pleasure of reading many of her meditations on writing and mothering on her blog, as well as seeing some of her yet unpublished work. Check out the post on her writing process here. She has a wicked sense of humor that will be on display later this summer when her performance at LTYM DC 2014 hits youtube. Stay tuned.

Jessica Rapisarda knows poetry and poop — a fabulous combo when it comes to writing about parenting a toddler. I had to clench all 53 of my sphincters (a physiology factoid that I learned from her blog) while she read her piece “Ground Control to Major Mom” on stage during the LTYM show. She has taught college English classes, designed a correspondence course for “amateur poets,” and managed journal production for the National Academy of Science. Currently, she works as a technical editor and writer at an IT company. She waxes poetic regarding her writing process here.

Last year I sat in the audience at the Listen to Your Mother DC show 2013 and listened to Lauren Boston read “Crazy in Love” about her mother’s self-sacrificing antics. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting her in person and finding out more about her blog and her nonfiction book At Least It’s a Good Story: Travel Tales From an Awkward American. Her humor writing has appeared in The Washingtonian, The Huffington Post and a 1996 apology letter to her parents. An award-winning writer and blogger, she has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Association Media & Publishing and Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals. Look for her post on her writing process next week on her blog.