Return to Monett

Monett

“So this is where you grew up,” Maggie said as we walked up to the house.

“Yeah, this is where I grew up.” I was 28 years old, newly married, and going back to my childhood home for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Our home in Monett, Missouri was on a busy highway. It was white, a bit stark looking, with a nice covered porch in front. There was a bench on the porch, where, in my childhood, Mom and I would sit on it on long weekend afternoons, watching the massive thunderclouds slowly spread across the horizon in blues, greys, whites, and blacks, until the filled the horizon with resonant, concussive booms of thunder and flashing, dazzling, flickering, snake-tongued lightning. I turned my back to the house and looked at the sky that had brought me so much comfort as a child.

The house felt huge back then, but now, seeing it as a grown-up, it felt small and blocky. Still, my mother described it as her dream home. There was a small front yard, grassy with trees, and a larger backyard that we had framed in with a large brown wooden fence. The dogs had lived back there, Tippy, our friendly German Shephard, and Brittany. I remember my brother Kenny teasing the dogs, once getting them wet then lathering them up with the bizarre combination of dish soap and mustard, then laughing with his friends at the mess; my sister Marnae came home horrified at the dried clumpy messes and had to clean the dogs up herself. (One day, when I was in the 4th grade, Brittany would escape the yard and rush into the road, where she was hit by a large truck. I still remember her body looking like hamburger as we viewed it from the school bus window the following morning.)

A large group of my family members was visiting south-western Missouri on a family vacation, going to the places we had loved as children. As Maggie and I had walked through the city throughout the day, I had been startled by how everything felt the exact same. The playground equipment in the city park, the names of the businesses (Wal-Mart and Consumers), the sign on the local swimming pool (where my sister had once pushed me into the deep end and I thought I would drown), the Chinese restaurant across the street (Twin Dragon, where we would save up quarters as a kid to buy the Cashew Chicken lunch special to take home), and the homes along the neighborhood streets (where my sister had delivered newspapers every morning with her bike), it was all the same. The more I looked around, the more I was assaulted by memories of my past. It was disconcerting, overwhelming.

In the winter, our home could be buffeted by a crippling cold and ice. In perfect conditions, the ice would layer everything in a thin sheet, from the sidewalks and cars and roads to the individual boughs and branches of trees. The ice would layer the snow and freeze there. Upon waking up, we would watch the sun rise over the icy wonderland outside and reflect back at us, shining like crystal. The branches could break under the weight of the ice, snapping off, and the whole town would be shut down as driving was unsafe until the ice melted. Now, 17 years later, the trees were bare of branches, a recent ice storm having stripped them once again.

My family moved to Missouri from Idaho in the mid-1970s, and I had been born there in 1978. We’d stay until the school year ended in 1990, the summer when Mom packed up the U-Haul and drove us back to Idaho, leaving Dad behind to fend for himself, finally unable to stay in a marriage that had been broken for far too long. We had taken most of the furniture, leaving the family room and one bedroom set up, and Dad stayed a few years longer in that empty house, before selling everything and starting his life over, first in Salt Lake City, then in Las Vegas, where he would stay for years.

I felt cold as we walked up to the house. My family was huge, and far too talkative, and my insides felt jagged like broken glass and undigested food. As I clutched my wife’s hand, my mother and sisters knocked on the door of the home. When a woman answered, they told her that we had lived here years ago and we wondered if we might be able to walk through, and she’d surprisingly agreed. The women in my family rushed into the home, eager and excited, chattering about how different things looked, while I hung back a bit, hesitant.

Then I entered, boldly.

Maggie respected my silence as I walked through the house. Though my sisters and mother laughed and chattered, I felt like I was in a crypt. I surveyed the rooms slowly, quietly, memories from my childhood flashing in my brain. We passed through the living room (I saw six year old me setting an alarm clock for 5 am, waking up early to clean the room as a surprise for mom before she woke for the day), the dining room and kitchen (I saw nine people crammed around a full kitchen table, arguing and bickering, Kenny taking giant heaps of mashed potatoes on his plate while we all complained, Dad surveying the room with an angry look, Mom still preparing the food while we devoured it, she always being the last to eat), the family room (Saturday morning cartoons, me curled up on the couch starting at five am or sometimes four, eating sugary breakfast cereals with milk and pouring more and more cereal into the bowl until the milk was finally absorbed and my belly distended with too much food), and the garage (where I had kept the box turtle I’d found, naming him Sparky, until my sister let him go). We walked up the stairs (where we would line up on Christmas mornings in our new pajamas, not allowed to come down until 7 am and only after a family picture had been taken), my old bedroom (the one where the sexual abuse had taken place, where the door would be locked and I was told to be quiet so no one could hear), my sister’s room (where I would sit next to Marnae on her bed while she listened to Def Leppard and played the Legend of Zelda for untold hours, though I was never allowed to play), and my parent’s room (where I had believed ghosts lived in the closet for half a decade and I refused to go in).

This was my childhood. This home, where I spent the first decade, plus a little more, of my life. My genesis was in this home. My experiences here shaped everything that came afterward.

Maggie clutched my hand tightly. “Are you okay?”

I could hear my sisters laughing, reminiscing about Prom dates, visits from Grandma, Sunday dinners with the local Mormon missionaries, and family walks to the Mormon church just down the block from our house.

“I–I think I’m okay,” I smiled, a bit weak. I felt empty and nervous. So many things had happened here. This was the very source of my happiness, and yet the place where it had all fallen apart. We walked out front and I breathed deep, watching the horizon, remembering the thunderstorms again.

“Hey, let’s walk down to the church!” someone yelled, and I followed behind, clutching Maggie’s hand tightly and letting the memories fall over me again.

We walked down the road, past the Chinese place, and arrived at the warehouse in minutes. It was a small building, a normal Mormon warehouse, like the ones that sat on practically every city block in Utah and Idaho towns out west. Brick building, a parking lot, no cross or crucifix on the top, a sign that read “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Visitors Welcome” sitting next to the door.

Being Mormon in Missouri had been strange. Later, when I went to junior high and high school in Idaho, I was part of a majority of students with over 60 per cent of the over all student population being affiliated with the church. But out here, we were part of a vast minority. Mormons from several different cities gathered for worship services in this particular church, some driving an hour on Sundays to get here, and so far as I knew I was the only Mormon kid in my school.

This little ward house, this church across the street, framed my entire family’s social lives growing up, though. We were the members who lived the closest. We had the missionaries over constantly, in their white shirts and ties. We attended meetings on Sundays in three hour blocks. I sang songs in Primary and learned lessons about Jesus, the prophets, and Mormon principles. I sat through an hour long worship service every week, taking the sacrament to remind me of my commitments to the Lord. My older siblings had gone to youth activities here on Tuesday nights, and we had ward celebrations at every major holiday. I’d spent untold hours in this very building. Yet it was just a building. Just a church, like any other, for like-minded worshippers to gather together.

It wasn’t until I left Missouri that I realized how many Mormon connections where there. The Mormons had settled in these areas, in Jackson County, Missouri, in the early days, before the governor had issued an Extermination Order and driven them out. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church, had received a number of prophecies about the area, saying it was the site of the original Garden of Eden, and that when Jesus Christ came again, in the Second Coming, he would build the New Jerusalem right here in Missouri. Then the Mormons had gone south, to build the city of Nauvoo in a nearby state, before they had moved West. But first, Joseph Smith had been killed by a mob, right here in Missouri.

I walked around the church with Maggie, soon to ex-Mormon, soon to come out as gay, contemplating the roots of Mormonism here, the roots of myself. Missouri had been a frontier back then, a place far west of civilization. The town of Monett itself had ties to the development of the railroad. And it had been a frontier for me as well.

I tuned out the conversations my family members were having about their happy memories here, and instead invited Maggie for a short walk. We walked down a long street in my childhood neighborhood, a street where I used to go trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling, where I had once injured my foot in a bike wheel while riding behind my sister, where I had scraped knees and elbows.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, concerned.

And I just shook my head, unable to form words for a moment.

“Chad? Are you okay? How do you feel?”

I struggled to find the right word, then I bit my lip nervously and looked at her.

“Haunted.”

 

 

 

 

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39 and counting

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During my time in Seattle, years ago, I worked as a therapist for a large HMO, a bureaucratic regime that had a fast-food style approach to therapy. Clients who had particular insurance types were barred from going elsewhere for services (well, without some significant personal expense). I would arrive at 8 and see my first client at 8:20, my next at 9:05, my next at 9:50, my next at 10:35, and so on. With the exception of a lunch break, it was swift, mediocre therapy, truncated and brief, with no free time in between. Instead of giving my all to every patient, I was left doing routine therapy sessions on autopilot, trying to find ways to stay awake and cognizant during the long work day.

Human problems exist wherever there are humans, but away from Utah, the problems were less related to Mormonism, the clientele more diverse. I saw the single father seeking help in getting his teenage son to stop playing video games. I saw the woman who wore a dog collar while her husband, a veteran with PTSD, held the leash. I saw the old woman with Parkinson’s who would shake and just sob about her long and happy life being reduced to this. I saw the former Hollywood actress whose sole joy in life was now drinking brandy from the bottle and watching the sunset. I saw the woman who had entered a deep depression because she couldn’t get the pregnancy to take, and she was sure her wife would leave her.

I watched this parade of humanity with exhausted eyes, burning out not because of the problems or the people, but due to the rigor of the job. My capacity to help others was limited by the sheer volume of the expectations before me. Every night, I would leave work and face gridlock traffic for a full hour during the few miles I had to drive home, and I would often find myself crying from the stress.

I had moved to Seattle to find myself. After all of those years in the closet, I needed something for me. I needed experiences that I had missed out on. I had never backpacked through Europe, spent a summer in California, or studied abroad. I’d never fallen in love during a summer in London or followed a stranger on the train home for sex or got high with friends on the beach around the campfire. I was in my mid-30s and I was grieving all that I had lost before. I’d boldly set my life aside and had taken the first giant step for myself. I’d moved in with my step-brother, taking the spare room in his home for extremely low rent. I started dating freely for the first time. I ran, I explored neighborhoods, I drank endless cups of coffee in dozens of shops, writing, reading, and watching.

My first month there, I’d cried my eyes out. I had missed my sons so profoundly. I called them every night, sent them video messages, drew them little comic strips and mailed them every week. The tears came from pain and grief. It hurt so badly to be away, and it hurt because I was enjoying it so much.

And then I got a job, one that was terrible and confining. I watched my debt increase, and I saw a version of my future unfolding, one where I was living in a city that I loved, one where I woke to a sunrise over the lake every morning, yet one where I was so exhausted by work daily that I was confining myself to a chained existence. The cost of being so far away was too much, it hurt too badly.

And so, six months later, I’d made another bold step, choosing to return to Utah and carve out a life on my own terms. No longer would I grieve the person I lost (except when appropriate), instead I would become the person I was meant to be. One who took huge, careful risks. One who stayed dedicated to his principles of fatherhood, integrity, light, and love. One who set and achieved goals that would have felt impossible just months before. Moving to Seattle allowed me to take a risk on myself for the first time in my three and a half decades. Moving back, though, allowed me to prove to myself that I could do it on my own terms, smartly and consistently.

And my has it paid off.

A few days ago, I turned 39. I’ve been back in Utah for over 3 years. I’m transformed my physical health. I’ve relaunched and rededicated my career. I’ve created a beautiful home for myself and my children. I’ve eliminated my debt. And I’ve taken huge professional risks, in making a documentary and writing a book, accomplishing things I would have never dreamed were possible. I’m in a happy, stable relationship for the first time in my life. I’m traveling. I embrace myself, all of the parts that dwell in light and in shadow both.

My birthday itself was quiet. I saw a few clients. I exercised. I took my children to the park. I ran errands. My boyfriend made a delicious vegetarian meal and then we snuggled on the couch watching television shows. It was all of the parts of my life that bring me solidity and joy. On top of all of that, I had just returned from a week long writing trip to Vermont. Everything in my life felt perfect.

All across my Facebook wall, messages from loved ones showed up, hundreds of them, from people from all parts of my life. Childhood friends, siblings and cousins, Mormon missionary companions, actors from shows I had been in, college roommates, neighbors from my married Mormon days, my ex-wife’s parents, current co-workers, men I had dated. I felt a barrage of love and support, representing a composite of my patchwork life, and it left me stunned. I’m living a life I never thought was possible.

As I struggled to put all of this into words, my brain flashed back to Seattle. Why I moved there, and why I left. I thought of the clients I had worked with there, and wondered after them. I took time to measure out the person I am now and the person I was then, and how they are connected.

And I realize, again, perhaps more than ever, that I only have now. This moment. I can live now with authenticity. I can be happy, safe, and secure. I can tackle my most prickly parts with bravery. I can be an incredible father. I can love myself and those around me. I can continue to dream, travel, and build. I can do amazing things.

In this moment, I have created a life that I never thought was possible for me. And in this moment, I look forward to a life that I know is possible.

I turned 39. I’m so much bigger than I was at 38. And by 40, I’ll be bigger still.

So thank you, Seattle. Thank you, for pushing me to this place. And thank you to all of the parts of my life, all of the people, who have shaped me and helped me to arrive here.

I am limitless. I am bold. I’m foraging forward. I’m 39 and still counting.

Monuments

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I’m a product of everything that has come before me. Small and large, historical and irrelevant. I’m a composite of human history, events and decisions that shaped my destiny for thousands of years before I was ever conceived on this small planet. Political revolutions, marriages, tragic deaths, wars, the founding and dissolutions of nations.

Sheri (my younger sibling, and the other gay member of my family) and I (a gay father of two sons from Utah) pulled through the small town of Sharon, Vermont, watching for the sign announcing the birthplace of Joseph Smith. It felt strange for the two of us, both no longer affiliated with the Mormon church, to be stopping here. We were road-tripping through Vermont, however, headed from Brattleboro to Burlington, and when would I ever be near Sharon again.

We drove past small farm houses and a few small local businesses. This was clearly a small community. (A quick Google search confirmed that the town population was 1500). The season, in mid-November, was shifting from fall to winter, swiftly. The leaves were no longer changing, already shifted to a deep brown and most of them on the ground, just a few left clinging to barren branches. A breeze blew outside the windows, stark and biting, over the small rolling hills outside. It was lovely.

Finally, we found the turn to the homestead where the prophet Joseph had been born. How well I recalled the narrative. Toward the end of his short life, Joseph Smith had released an official account of his life from his perspective, in which he recalled growing up with hard-working parents on a farm and having been born in Sharon, in Windsor County, Vermont. The family had moved when he was an infant, and had gone on to New York, where, in Joseph’s adolescence, he encountered a period of religious revival, and he had to decide which church to join. According to his account, he prayed for truth, and was visited by God and Jesus Christ themselves, in glowing, floating, resurrected bodies, and they told him to join none of the churches and instead to start his own. I’d practically memorized this account as a young Mormon missionary 20 years before. As we drove through Sharon, I wondered how differently my life would have been, over a century later, if Joseph’s parents had stayed in this small town instead of moving. Would there ever have been a Mormon Church if they stayed?

We pulled down the large driveway toward the homestead. There was a small branch of the Mormon Church there, a cemetery of ancient graves (with no names that I recognized), a home (where the man who managed the estate lived), and a small visitor’s center. I could see Christmas lights wound around the trees of the grounds, not lit up, and realized they likely did a local Nativity scene here at Christmas time. Pleasant gospel music played over the speakers. I immediately thought of other Church history sites I had visited, most prominently Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where it felt the same: manicured lawns, Christmas lights, church music.

Back behind the center was a large monument to Joseph, a giant pointed structure towering into the sky, and a sign near it talked about how the monument had been built out of one single stone. Plaques adorning it told the story of Joseph, and golden writing wound around it quoted James 1:5, the scripture that inspired Joseph to pray for God’s revelations in the first place. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…”

“It looks a lot like a penis,” Sheri whispered, though no one was around to hear.

“Oh yes. Men and their phallic architecture,” I laughed back, and we looked around. There was a trail off to the side, brown and winding through the woods, that led to the site of the Solomon Mack homestead; Mack was a Revolutionary War veteran who’d lived in the area. It was a mile hike, but it was far too cold to venture into the woods. Just the day before, Sheri and I had visited a similar site in New Hampshire where a woman named Madame Sherri had built a “castle” in the woods, entertaining there for decades before the place burned down.

Sheri and I stood facing the woods. “Sometimes I wonder what future generations will think. Whose names will they choose to remember. What markers and monuments will be placed from our times. Or will it all just be ruins and dust, leading archaeologists to dig up our remains and wonder who we were.” We contemplated that for a bit before going into the visitor’s center.

Inside, we were greeted by Elder Abbot, a nice man from central Utah who was serving an 18 month mission in Sharon, greeting visitors. He told us the local branch of the church had about 80 active members in a 60 mile radius. “The church isn’t that strong in this area, but we are sure working on it!” He told us that in the summer and around Christmastime, the center gets hundreds of visitors daily, but in the off-seasons, only a few per day. “Church members don’t really come here. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of relevance to this place for us. Joseph was only born here. Nothing else momentous happened.”

Elder Abbot led us into the central room, where we saw a large statue of Joseph, a library of church books in glass casings, and giant pictures of Jesus Christ and Thomas Monson, the current Mormon prophet. We looked around for a bit, done after a couple of minutes.

“Can I take your picture in front of the statue?”

Sheri and I, still bundled up in our winter gear, sat next to each other, giving small smiles for the picture. When he handed it back, I zoomed in on our faces, our expressions clearly underwhelmed. Behind us were tributes to Christ, Smith, and Monson, the three men (all white, of course) that our birth family most revered. They were still looking over our shoulders, promising to judge our lifestyle choices in a weird way.

We walked out, thanking Elder Abbot with a handshake, and got back in the car. “Hey, remember that time the two gay ex-Mormons went to the birthplace of the founder of Mormonism, and they were totally bored?”

We laughed together, driving out of Sharon, but my thoughts turned to origins and long-term decisions, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my actions now meant for generations down the line. Then I clicked open my phone and realized the monument to Joseph was a Pokemon gym and I laughed even harder.

Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

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The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Oz and the real world

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My sister’s home was built in the 1880s, she thinks. It’s a nice two story apartment with a basement. She won’t go down there because she’s afraid of bugs. The home is drafty and pretty with strange placements for light switches: the light for this room is on the opposite wall, the light for that room at the bottom of the stairs.

I didn’t get a good look a the street outside, it was too dark. But in the morning, I’ll go for a long hike around the area. I’ll see giant stone buildings, long concrete stairways up to sun decks, beautiful open yards. Everything feels old. And cold. The trees have already lost their color as fall shifts to winter, and the sun is down at 5 pm.

Everything in Massachusetts feels older, colder. It has a density to it. A history. It’s different than Utah, different than the Rocky Mountain regions I’m so familiar with.

It’s quiet outside and I’m laying on an inflated air mattress. I have three blankets on me, as well as a sheet, and I’m still cold. The air is drafty and I can’t quite get warm. I feel selfish for being cold. I feel cold and old like the place around me.

I give so little thought to the comforts in my life, and to their origins. Synthetic fibers and animal parts were harvested and crafted to make these blankets, in machines built from metal, housed in buildings made from wood and stone. We men, we have cracked the Earth open, bashed it apart. We’ve felled trees, split stones, slaughtered creatures. We’ve poisoned down and around and above. And here I lay, cold and old.

I have a right to be cold and old, I remind myself. But lately I’ve been feeling a sense of dread. I’ve read theories that the world is doomed to fail. We’ve warmed the Earth, melted the ice bergs, fracked the ground apart. We’ve ripped up rainforests, depleted the oceans, killed the bugs, and genetically engineered animals to dangerous levels while driving others to extinction. We’ve doubled our population in a generation. We are killing the planet.

I’m just one, just me. But I walk on pavement, burn gasoline, run up my electricity bill, shower in hot water, breathe out carbon dioxide. On moments like this, laying cold under blankets in a drafty stone and wood building from the 1880s, it’s moments like this that I feel responsible. I didn’t build the roads, but I walk on them. I didn’t shape the metal of my car, but I drive it. I didn’t lock the chicken in the cage, but I eat its eggs even if I don’t eat its meat.

As I child, I read the Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. He created a fairy tale world that little girls and boys might want to be a part of, and he explored the land in over a dozen books. It was a simple place, and he made it decades before Judy Garland would immortalize it in the seminal movie. There were witches, legions of nome creatures, talking animals, patchwork girls, mechanical men, and men made of tin and straw. Humans from Earth could only reach it by hot air balloon, tornado, or earthquake. There were magic belts and mirrors and books, silver shoes, secret princesses, roads of yellow brick, and a powder that granted sentience to whatever it was sprinkled on. And there were entire lands within dedicated to puns, full of talking rabbits, glass dolls, and silverware. There were adventures and intrigue, yes, but the good guys always won, and no one could die. They could be transformed, imprisoned, even chopped up into pieces, but no one could die. There were four lands, each a different color, with the Emerald City in the center, a city where everyone wore green-tinted goggles to make everything look emerald.

It filled my mind with wonder. Kids from Earth could escape there, but not many did. Dorothy did, and she took her dog and her chicken and her aunt and her uncle. Button Bright did, and the Wizard, and Zeb with his horse Jim, and the Shaggy Man. I never wanted to escape there, but I liked the idea of it being there, just knowing it was there in pages, ready for me to escape to whenever I wanted. Nine decades after Baum wrote the books, they would let my mind escape.

As I got older, I escaped to Oz less frequently, but other lands captured my mind. Fictional universes almost always seemed preferable to the one I lived in. As a teenager, comic books dominated my thoughts, and I kept my brain constantly occupied with the far away and imaginary.

With thoughts of Oz on my mind, I realized it was only a template of this Earth. There were still villains. And someone had to mine the emerald for the city and the silver for the shoes. The yellow bricks had to be crafted out of something. Baum, perhaps, was distressed at the way the world was then, and created something easier to escape to. A world where no one died.

As an adult, other fictional worlds occupy my mind, ones that feel far too frighteningly close to home. White male Christian dominated misogynistic rape cultures in Handmaid’s Tale, and zombie apocalypses where people do horrible things to each other to survive in Walking Dead, and everyone obliviously fights to the death while the world ends around them in Game of Thrones. This world feels like a horrible composite of those. I sometimes just want the innocence of Oz back.

As I drift off to sleep, I think about how different things are now from when I was a child. The world has transformed in a generation. Medical science, gay culture, technology. In 30 years, everything is different. And I feel my fingers grasp at atmosphere, hoping to clutch on to a bit of hope and strength, that maybe it might not be too late for the world, that maybe we can change things just enough to avoid the disaster we seem to be facing, that perhaps my sons might grow up in a place a bit more like Oz.

 

 

Homeless

Nun

“This is my brother, Chad!” Sheri said excitedly to her co-workers. She marched me into the call center where she worked, introducing me haphazardly to the employees who weren’t on the phone. “He just flew in from Utah!”

“Chad, it’s nice to meet you!” one of them extended her hand. “I know all about you. Sheri tells me everything. I love your blog!”

I smiled as Sheri rambled on a bit. She talks quickly, full of nervous creative energy constantly. Moments later, she showed me her “fidget” drawer, full of objects she could play with so that she could stay focused on work calls and reading assignments for college. “We have an hour before I work, so I’m gonna show him around a little bit. I think I’ll walk him over to where the homeless guy lives, and then maybe over to the monastery. Then I gave him a list of things he can do tonight while I’m working.”

Sheri gave that weird laugh she sometimes gives although nothing funny had been said. Members of my family do that sometimes, give off a laugh to perhaps fill the silence or to avoid something awkward, though the laugh makes it inevitably more awkward every time. I smiled, remembering how I’d had that habit all through my school years.

Soon we were walking down he hill outside her work at 4 pm, knowing it would get dark in another hour. Sheri asked about my flight in, I asked about her classes, and we discussed plans for the coming days of vacationing together in New England. I enjoy how comfortable I am around Sheri, instinctively. She’s familiar, the sibling closest in age, and the one I had the most in common with.

“So there is this guy who lives underneath the freeway that goes over the dike,” she explained, “and he sets up tables and sells things sometimes. He has this whole section of land to himself. He has like a sleeping area and a cooking area. He is known. People walk through there as a shortcut to the shopping center.”

I found myself smiling. Sheri and I both love random encounters, and we can enjoy most any experience. We got closer down to the encampment and Sheri gave an ‘aww, oh no’ sound. Apparently, the city was changing the local area, taking out trees and building trails. Sheri had heard about it, but hadn’t realized that it might impact her homeless friend. “That’s sad. He’s been there forever. It’s kind of like his home. I wonder where he’ll go?”

We walked by the edge of the area, looking at the concrete pillars covered in graffiti. There were flattened cardboard boxes, a pair of shoes, and a random book, but no either sign of life. “That’s sad,” she repeated, assuming he had already moved on.

We started walking away, back up the hill and across a field toward a local monastery. “Did I ever tell you about the homeless guy from right before I came out of the closet?”

“I don’t think so.”

I breathed in the cold fall New England air, and began telling my story.

“Back when I was Elders Quorum President, I used to have to attend this Bishop’s Council meeting every Sunday morning before church. It would last like 90 minutes, and we’d talk bout ward business, events, members we were worried about, stuff like that. We’d give reports on budget and numbers. Anyway, the Bishop was this older serious farmer businessman guy who was very no-nonsense. One day he noticed that a homeless man had moved into the vacant lot across the fence from the church. There was this giant pine tree, and the man had set up some chairs and boxes underneath there to stay out of the cold. The Bishop was super worried about it.”

We walked up to the monastery as I spoke, and I noticed the stark white statues of the Mother Mary and Christ outside it. Sheri interrupted me, explaining that the church was open to the public, but we had to be silent because nuns lived in the building behind it, and they had taken the vow of silence. I lowered my voice as we walked the perimeter of the grounds.

“The bishop felt we should warn the ward to watch their children around this man. He felt like he could be a danger. He had acted the same way a few months before that when a registered sex offender had moved into the ward, and he had wanted to warn the families not to interact much with him. Anyway, he counseled us to keep an eye on things and said he would get it taken care of.

“During the following week, he contacted the owner of the vacant lot by looking through the records at City Hall. He got permission to go in and chop down the tree. He had the homeless man escorted away and chopped down the tree so no one could come back. All because the man claimed a tree too close to the church.”

On the edge of the grounds, we could see through the tall hedges briefly to behind the monastery. There was a stark white graveyard back there, and one solo nun stood among the graves, arms folded as she surveyed the small plot of land.

“The irony of a church denying a homeless man refuge instead of offering him aid wasn’t lost on me. And then, a few months later, I came out. And I never heard what the bishop said, because I stopped going to church, but I wondered if he worried about me the way he had about the sex offender and the homeless man. I wondered if he had warned people to keep their children from me, to watch me close when I entered the building.”

We walked into the monastery then. It was wide and beautiful, with stained glass Biblical depictions of the life of Christ lining both sides. Two people were there, praying silently on the hard back benches. The old man looked up and waved at me when he heard me enter, then returned to his prayers. A golden shrine of some kind lay at the front of the building, and I watched two nuns leave an offering of some kind and then move off to the side, entering a beeping code into a security device to enter the door that accessed their chambers, presumably. I walked to the front and saw lit candles and a book where civilians could write down the names of those who needed prayers for healing. A note suggested a two dollar donation for the prayer and candle.

Donations for prayers. Vows of silence. Shelter trees being cut down, and the homeless removed from their non-homes. It was all suddenly a bit claustrophobic and I stepped outside, returning to that view of the stark white graveyard, contemplating my old life, and comparing it to the new.

What’s a DSM?

DSM

“Chad, how did it go with your first client?”

I leaned back in my chair, contemplative. “Well, it went well, I think. She was certainly complicated.”

Kateri smiled at me. “Complicated how?”

“Complicated like complicated! Marriages, divorces, psychiatric hospitalizations, kids, child protection, drugs, suicide attempts, mental health diagnoses, and a whole lot of depression. She’s kind of a mess.”

“Well, aren’t we all?”

I laughed at that, thinking to my own immediate family’s mess of divorces, illnesses, and bouts with mental illness. And then there was me, the closeted Mormon guy with a wife and kid at home, one who had just been fired from a job after having been accused of cheating during a prestigious exam, charges I was quickly cleared of.

Kateri was lovely. She was in her mid-40s, lean and beautiful, and intensely charismatic. She had a way of addressing really serious issues that made everyone around her feel safe, and could somehow make me laugh even when she was being direct. I didn’t realize it then but some of the lessons she was teaching me early on in my career would stick with me over the following years, and would shape my therapy practice for the next 15 years to come.

I had been hired as a new therapist for a small agency in the town where I lived in north Idaho. After all of the stress of my previous job at the Department of Children and Family Services, this job sounded incredible. Previously, I’d been making about 15 dollars an hour doing impossible work that never seemed to end. This job was offering me 25 an hour for therapy services, the major drawback being that I would only be paid when I actually saw clients, and not paid when clients didn’t show up. I would also not be paid for doing any paperwork or phone calls. It was a major career shift, but it felt empowering, and my wife was supportive of the new situation. The job would work me two days per week in the home office, and two days in a remote town about an hour’s drive north. It would take several weeks to build up a full clientele, and we’d have to tap into savings for a bit before then. And as a perk for working there, I had a brilliant new clinical supervisor, who would help me in my transition for one hour per week in the coming months.

And so after the background check, applications, interviews, paperwork, and orientation process, I was up and running as a brand new therapist. I felt excited and overwhelmed after seeing my first client.

Kateri walked me through the sections of the standard mental health assessment form. It would take me over an hour to fill it out that first time, orchestrating the client had said into careful sections, like Family, Bio/Psycho/Social history, Spirituality, Health, and Trauma history. Kateri instructed me on the importance of getting notes done while everything was fresh in my mind. Writing had always come relatively easy to me, and I quickly typed up a detailed paragraph in each section, with Kateri giving me gentle hints.

With the assessment finished, I reached the diagnostic section at the bottom. “Okay, Chad, here is where you enter your multi-axial diagnostic assessment.”

I looked over at her, confused. “I’m sorry, my what?”

“Your diagnosis in the five axis format.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

She cocked her head, confused. “You don’t know what a diagnosis is?”

I laughed. “Of course I know what a diagnosis is. But I don’t know what this multi-axial thing is.”

“Chad, it’s the format for diagnostics. It’s laid out in the DSM-IV-TR.”

I looked over on the shelf at my DSM book, the diagnostic book of mental disorders the company had provided for me. “I, um, I’ve never used a DSM.”

Kateri laughed, thinking I was joking. Then she realized I wasn’t. “How is that possible?”

My cheeks flushed red, and I wasn’t sure shy. “In college, I had to choose an education track. I chose the Children and Family track, not the Therapy track, or one of the others. I never took a diagnostics course. I’ve, um, I’ve actually never opened a DSM.”

Kateri choked. “Are you fucking kidding me? You got a Masters degree in this field without ever actually opening the diagnostic book?”

My voice was small. “Yeah?”

“God!” She made eye contact. “Look, I’m not mad at you. You’re great. But I’m appalled that the college is not requiring the diagnostics course. That’s insanity. You just did a therapy session and you don’t know how to diagnose someone. God, that’s nuts.”

I felt very small as she cancelled her next appointment so that she could stay and show me how to use the DSM. Diagnostics turned out to be extremely complicated. The DSM itself was hundreds of pages long and explored dozens upon dozens of complicated diagnostics. Over the following weeks, I read the book non-stop, constantly checking the rules and consistently frightened that I would get something wrong. Kateri was patient and kind with me, bringing me up to speed on a skill set that I should have developed long before I had the job. In short order, I was seeing new clients constantly and completing mental health assessments like clockwork, even being praised for my efficiency.

I write this from the vantage point of 2017, back on experiences I had in 2005. I’ve had a long career since then. But from time to time, I reflect on my poor preparation for a job I would spend thousands of hours in over the following years. Eventually I would teach entire college courses about how to use the DSM. And I opened every class with this very story.

the Licensing Board

FBI

“Hi, Chad, I’m Fred Hill, from the FBI.”

I shook the agent’s hand, confused. “O-kay, Mr. Hill, how can I help you?”

“Well, first, why don’t you take a seat.”

He indicated a hard-back chair across the table from him. We were in a conference room at my workplace at the Department of Children and Family Services, where I had been working for the past year in my first post-college job after getting my Masters degree in Social Work. It was an incredibly stressful job. I was living in north Idaho and being paid minimally to work in an extremely high stress environment, trying hard to get children reunited with the birth parents they had been taken from for one reason or another. I was constantly stressed out and losing sleep, and could feel my hair going prematurely grey. In my capacity as a DCFS worker, I had met with policemen, judges, attorneys, guardians, parents, teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and probation and parole officers in this room, but this was the first time I’d met an FBI agent. I automatically assumed he was here regarding one of the teenage kids I represented for the state. A few of them had a penchant for getting into major trouble from time to time.

“Chad, it has come to my attention that you recently took a licensing exam for your professional licensure with the state of Idaho, is that correct?”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Yes. About a month ago. I barely passed the exam. I got a 72, the passing score being 70. I’d taken the exam once previously and didn’t pass, getting a 68. ”

The idea of the exam itself still put giant knots in my stomach. It cost hundreds of dollars and was a four hour test. I’d had a 3.9 GPA in college, yet this impossible exam with its subjective and misleading questions filled me with anxiety. Not passing it meant waiting months to take it again, paying full price each time, and it directly influenced my ability to be hired. It was like the Bar exam for attorneys, except much less stressful and for social workers.

“Yes, I had those facts already.” The agent consulted some notes, then looked up. “It appears you are being charged with potentially undermining the integrity of the exam itself. Pardon me, not charged. Accused.”

My heart started thudding. “Accused of undermining–I’m sorry, what?”

“It seems you might have cheated to pass the test.” His eyes were on mine, searching. Only later would I realize that he was watching closely for my reaction to his accusation, seeing if I looked guilty or not.

I was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? I barely passed it!”

The agent explained that there were allegations by the testing center that I had compromised sensitive testing materials. The exam had been held by an independent testing center in Spokane, Washington, at the local community college. I had had to sign up weeks in advance. On the day of the test, I’d arrived early, checked in all of my things, and been shown into the testing room where it was just me and a computer, with four hours to answer the multiple choice questions. During the test, I was given two sheets of scratch paper and a pen, and those were the only tools I was allowed to use. I’d been allowed one ten minute break during the test. During the long, anxiety-ridden test, I had made random notes of words and numbers on the scratch paper, and during the break, I’d placed those random scribblings in my pocket while I’d gone to the restroom. I’d been out of the room approximately seven minutes.

“Upon reviewing the video footage of your test, we noticed that you removed the papers from the room. I was brought in to look at the results and determine if you did or did not cheat. I represent the testing agency in this region.”

My head was pounding with stress and confusion. “Wait, my random scribbles on a page–in the bathroom–how would I have cheated?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you showed the notes to a friend. Maybe you had a fax machine or a cell phone ready.”

“That’s ridiculous! Every exam has randomly assigned questions in a random order! How would I have possibly cheated! What good would those scribblings do anyone?”

“Mr. Anderson, it was against the rules to remove those papers from the room itself.”

“I just went to the bathroom!”

“Yet you removed those papers. Did you or did you not know it was against the rules?”

“I–sure, I guess so. But I wasn’t thinking about that then. I had to pee, and I was full of anxiety. How would I have helped anyone cheat?”

The agent’s voice lowered and he asked me several more questions. He told me he would need a written statement from me, and stated that I might wish to consult with an attorney first. I told him that one was absolutely unnecessary, and filled out a lengthy statement right then. Weeks later, the agent told me that my candor and unwavering statements confirmed to him that I wasn’t suspicious and helped him believe my story that nothing illegal had happened. I’d made a mistake in following rules, but that he believed it was accidental.

Two weeks after his visit, I lost my job. It was illegal for the state to keep me employed without a license. Tw months after that, the state board of social workers met to review my case and, determining I had done nothing wrong, finally issued my professional license. Ultimately, this series of events left me briefly unemployed, and then finally hired by a different agency as a therapist, an entirely different career track than the one I had been on, and one that I found paid better and was intensely less stressful.

That was 2005. It’s now 2017, and I’ve been operating as a fully licensed professional for over 12 years. As part of my professional responsibilities, I supervise a group of recently graduated social workers who are preparing to take their licensing exams. At that time in my life, that was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. Now, this story gives me one hell of a cautionary tale to tell.

Pot and Coffee

pot

The morning was cold and rainy in Missoula, Montana, and rather than drive somewhere, I was in the mood to walk. There was a heaviness in the atmosphere, a wet weight that clung to the trees and showed up as wisps of clouds and fog across the sky. Against the dense green backdrop of pine trees and rolling hills, and over the river, the fog rolled and made everything just a bit magical.

My head felt full as I walked along the railroad tracks. The night before, the film crew and I had conducted a particularly heavy interview for our pending documentary, and I was still processing all the new information, the tragedy and pain of it all. The storyteller side of me was on fire, but the therapist side felt disheartened and exhausted. So, while the two sides battled it out, I walked.

After a time, I stepped up onto a road and noticed a small shop in an old brick building advertising coffee with a paper sign. It had the word ‘green’ in the title, but I didn’t realize what that meant until I stepped inside and smelled the pot.

The door opened with a small ‘ding’, a bell attached to the door announcing my entrance. The room was sparse, with a few black leather couches and some patio furniture, tables and chairs arranged against wooden walls and floors. It was an old building with a history, I could sense that much. On the back half of the room were lit up counters showing off baked goods, all of them edible pot concoctions, like snickerdoodles, lollipops, cinnamon rolls, and cookies, each wrapped individually or in bulk, each with a price listing next to it.

“Hey, welcome, man, how are you?” A skinny, good-looking white guy was behind the counter on a stool, shuffling through some business cards, probably looking for a phone number. He was likely in his late 20s and he had a killer smile. “I’m Kyle. How can I help you?”

I walked over to the counter. The shop was completely empty except for the two of us. “I saw your sign for coffee. It’s cold, sounded nice.”

“Right! Coffee!” Kyle stood up quickly and enthusiastically, knocking his stool back a bit. He caught it with a hand and set it down with a little flair, like he’d just done a magic trick, then he laughed. “Yeah, man, I got a fresh pot in the back. Ill bring it right out. Take a seat.”

I found a seat at one of the patio tables, and Kyle brought out a styrofoam cup of coffee. It was likely something from a K-Cup machine in the back. “Coffee’s free, man. Just glad to have the company. Make yourself at home!” He got me the Wifi code and I sat down to blog as we chatted idly over the next few minutes.

Kyle explained that he’d grown up in Missoula and he loved it here. He was putting himself through the local college, working at the pot/coffee shop during the day and as an Uber driver at night. We laughed about the fact that the shop had very little in the way of coffee. Kyle had a local girlfriend and talked about his philosophies of just getting through life by being a good person. As we chatted, old Metallica songs from the 90s played on the overhead speakers.

Soon the bell dinged again and Kyle rushed out of his seat again to rush to the door. “Evelyn, welcome, lady! How’s your rainy day?” He held the door open as a woman in her mid-60s entered. Her hair was gray and plastered against her head. Her face was angular and she wore a thick and baggy brown coat. She was hunched over, clearly in pain, and she had a cane supporting her weight. She slowly made her way into the store.

“Oh, Kyle, I’m well, thank you, dear. Do you have my usual order ready? My arthritis is something terrible in this weather.”

“I do, yes, ma’am. Enough to get you through the week.”

“You’re a lifesaver. My grandchildren are coming over this weekend.”

I watched casually as Kyle brought out an order from behind the counter, seven individually wrapped baked goods that Evelyn would presumably use daily to help keep her pain levels manageable. I wanted to ask her how long she had been using pot, and if she’d ever tried prescription painkillers in the past. As a therapist, I had known so many clients over the years who had struggled with chronic pain issues. From cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis, or old injuries, or chronic migraines, or recovery from a surgery. I thought of them self-medicating with alcohol or addictive medications that had harsh side effects. Now here she was, in a state that had approved medical marijuana use, picking up an order of cookies that would keep her pain levels down and keep her relaxed while allowing her to be with her family and grandchildren, not impaired and not constantly suffering.

Evelyn left, after sipping on some free coffee from Kyle, and another man came in, Bill, him talking about his anxiety after a car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury, and after that, Sam, a younger man who struggled with severe headaches. After that, there was a lull, and Kyle came back by to chat.

“So you just see customers every day who come in for their orders?”

“Yeah, man, absolutely. These are good people. They just have to get the doctor to approve their cards, then they have the right to pick up their alloted order. I mean, before it was legal here, they would just do it anyway, but they could get in trouble for it. Now it’s legal and it’s regulated.”

I only stayed an hour, collecting my thoughts on paper and sipping my free coffee. Soon, I had my bag back over my shoulders and my coat zipped up. I offered Kyle a hearty handshake before stepping back out into the drizzle, the fog, and the green, sorting through my thoughts. My time in Missoula was at an end, and somehow this seemed the perfect way to go. The two different sides of me, the storyteller and the helper, had stopped arguing with each other, finding kinship in a man who helped others by baking cookies and legally dealing drugs.

And so with the taste of cheap coffee in my mouth, the scent of marijuana on my clothes, and my head full of things to get done, I stepped back on the railroad tracks to walk toward home.

just another mass shooting…

texas-shooting

Yesterday, I got word about another mass shooting. This one, in a Christian church. In a small unincorporated township in rural Texas. Eight members of the same family died. The pastor and his wife were on vacation, and their 14 year old daughter was killed. A one year old child is among the victims. A pregnant mother and three of her children are among the victims. The grandmother of the killer’s wife is among the victims. The shooter was an angry white man with a history of domestic violence and mental illness, with military training and mysterious motives.

It wasn’t the first shooting this month. It wasn’t the first shooting with victims in the dozens in the past few months. It wasn’t the first shooting in a church. It wasn’t the first murder of children. It was just… another shooting. And somehow, this time, that’s all that I’m able to process.

Weeks ago, when that man opened fire on the country concert in Las Vegas, I spent three days obsessively searching for information about the victims, wanting to honor them. I felt duty bound to remember them, and to not click on a single headline about the killer. I posted over 50 photos with synopses about their lives, and I took detailed notes. I even wrote a blog about holding vigil about them.

But this time, I’m numb. Again. (Still?) Vegas hit me more personally. It’s closer to home. It’s a place I have spent lots of time in, on the streets of. Virginia Tech, years ago, and Columbine before that, they hurt be deeply. Though they were places I’d never been, they are academic environments, a college and a high school, and I know the culture there. Sandy Hook hurt me more. As a father, the idea of waiting helplessly there to see if my child is among the living, the images of artwork and bulletin boards and school lunch menus and tiny desks, the idea of that becoming a place that is no longer safe, it hurt me on a primal level.

And the Pulse shootings. They haunted me for weeks. I’ve been in so many clubs in so many cities, there for a relaxing drink, some music, and some conversation and dancing, or entertainment. The idea of someone with that much hate.

I just, I’m numb. Today, I’m out of outrage. I’m out of fear. I’m out of pain. I’m out of hurt. I’m out of anger. I eek clicking back on the news website to see an update, and then not clicking on it. I don’t want to feel it again.

I don’t want to jump on social media and see the Conservative/Liberal debate over gun control laws (we need them!) and how the media is biased toward whites by calling them misunderstood and mentally ill while railing against people of color by calling for immigration bans. I don’t want to read posts about the corruption of America. I don’t want to see the statistics of how gun violence is increasing. I don’t want to see the charts with pink and blue and red lines that grow up and up and up. I don’t want to talk to relatives about how humans have always been bloody and vile, with their atomic bombs and concentration camps and war machines, and how assault rifles and rented trucks and car bombs are just the latest worries of our generation, not the most corrupt just the most current. I don’t want to realize that social media and news outlets will be outraged and titillated by this for about 72 hours, until the next horrible news drops.

I don’t want to explain to my children why there are people in the world who might hurt them, who might be so full of anger that they went to inflict as much pain on them and the world as possible before they remove themselves from it. I don’t know how to tell them to be afraid enough, nor do I want them to be afraid. I don’t want them to walk around in perpetual fear that someone could speed at them with a car or enter their school with a gun.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to hear a choir sing. In Latin. About death and remembrance. I sat on a hard wooden bench. There were easily 75 people in the room. As a male baritone sang words that I didn’t understand, his beautiful voice hit my heart, and I wondered what would happen if that man entered this room. Would there be warning? Who would be hit first? Where were the exits? Would I scream, fall to the floor, play dead, shield my loved ones, rush toward the exit, try to disarm him? Would my loved ones be among the dead? After the service, I crossed a crosswalk and I realized how swift it would be if a car careened toward me, trying to take out civilians.

I don’t know how to feel these feelings. I do grief for a living, yet I can’t process my own. I’m desensitized. I’m exhausted. I’m wounded and it can’t stop bleeding. Words like ‘massacre’ and ‘bloodbath’ and ‘terrorist’ and ‘mass casualties’ leave my fingertips and my lips far too frequently now.

And so, I’ll do what all humans do, what I would tell others to do, what I am growing accustomed to doing myself. I survive. I wake up and I make my coffee. I read my book. I see my clients. I process through how I’m feeling. I walk and feel the cool air and the warm sun. I exercise. I buy a T-shirt. I open my computer and I blog about being numb. And soon, another day has passed, and I’m still here, and I keep finding ways to fight for a world that I refuse to lose hope in.

That’s what the families of the victims have to do. And the law enforcement officers who responded. And even the loved ones of the killers themselves. And if they can get up, so can I. I’ll fight for a better world for me, and for my sons.