Seattle Conclusion: Homecoming

April, 2015

Outside of a few goodbye dinners with friends, and one last night spent with Zhu, leaving Seattle was relatively anticlimactic. I carried my clothes, pictures, and few supplies down the stairs and loaded them into my car. I went to bed early the night before, woke and had one last cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking Lake Washington (my how I would miss the view over the lake), showered, dressed, and left. I was on the road by 5:30 am, ready for a long day’s worth of driving ahead. I almost immediately realized I wouldn’t miss it. I had taken what I needed, and now I was ready to leave.

I tried to leave the city with the same sense of adventure and hope that I’d arrived in it with. As I got on the busy interstate toward Utah, I contemplated the new reality that awaited me back home. I had taken the biggest risk of my life in moving here, and ultimately I had only lasted six months. I didn’t feel like a failure. I wasn’t coming home to Utah with my head between my legs. Instead, I was returning changed. And I had a long day of driving to figure out what those changes meant for me, and what they were.

The storm within me was quieter now. I was safer in myself. I had left Utah with so much anger and sadness, emotions that came from an unsafe place. But now the feelings were quiet within me. Their expression was more normal. I could get mad, or sad, or scared; I could feel anxious or guilty; I could grieve, or hope, or strive, and the world felt possible and safe. I knew how to feel now, and how to process the feelings. They were gifts now. They didn’t overwhelm or incapacitate me as they once had.

Leaving Utah had allowed me to find myself. It taught me that happiness wasn’t right around the corner, it was already within me. Utah no longer felt like me being shackled in place, instead it was a place where I had friends, where I felt it home. It now represented ground that I could build from, instead of the shattered ruins it had felt like when I left.

My children were six months older now. I’d seen them every month, and spoken with them over video chat daily, but they were older. And so was I. My friends had changed too; some had moved away, some had ended relationships, others had new jobs or homes or boyfriends. And yet Utah would feel exactly the same, just without the sense of threat that it had before.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, my ex-wife, my children’s mother, had evolved as well. She was no longer attending the LDS Church, for her own reasons, and I think that I had proven to her that I was a consistent and involved father, even from farther away. She was kinder now, in a way, and perhaps she blamed me less for the end of our marriage. And maybe that was the most healing thing of all. Maybe I finally could let go of my shame there, and stop living with regrets; maybe I could march forward with my life in peace and with hope now.

Ultimately, my time in Seattle had been… simple. The lessons I learned there were things most people learned in their teenage years and in their twenties. I learned that finding love wasn’t so easy, that family was the most important thing, that loving yourself was crucial before loving others. I learned how to prioritize health and self-compassion. I learned that I didn’t want to live with a bunch of guys in a fraternity setting, and that I didn’t want to make more money if it meant selling my soul and my own mental health. I learned that debt, and struggle, and pain follow you, even if you move to a new horizon. I learned that no one gets to the destination without putting the hard work in first.

Back in Utah, I had secured an apartment downtown. A brand new beginning in a new part of town. I was taking over the lease from some old college students. When I arrived, I found they left just a few things behind: a container of protein powder, a pull-up bar, a box of Stevia packets, two folding chairs, and seven unused condoms. Within days, I would have the place stocked with furniture and bunkbeds for my children. I would need to find work quickly in order to survive. There was a gym in the basement to work out in, and my social work license was still active, so I could launch right back into life. My friends were there. In fact, Kurt, my best friend, was planning a welcome back party for me, even though he had just thrown a going away party for me six months before.

I drove toward my sons, toward my future, having no idea what’s next for me. I had projects in mind, research and writing projects, things that I wanted to do. I wanted to travel, and to get in the best shape of my life, and to achieve financial freedom for the first time. But I was beginning to believe those things were possible. I was free from the shackles of the things that had held me back before, and I was learning that only I could put restrictions on myself. I had just the right ground to build from.

I pulled into my new place and, over a few hours, unloaded my car into the new apartment. Tonight, I would sleep on the floor, with pillows and blankets. In the morning, I would go grocery shopping, and then pick up my sons, and they would come over and play with me while I unpacked. It was a new beginning. Another one.

The next morning, I knocked on the door of my old apartment, the one my ex-wife had moved into when I’d moved to Seattle. My sons were inside waiting for me. The door opened, and my five year old yelled out, “Daddy, you’re home!”

And as I gathered him in my arms, his brother toddling over right behind him, I said “I am home, my boys. I am home.”

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Seattle Part 11: Resignation

February, 2015

“I’m officially turning in my 60 days notice. I know you only need two weeks, but I wanted to give you plenty of time to find someone to take my place.”

My supervisor, Katie, looked surprised. “Chad, wow. You’ve only been working here for a few months. We had hoped you’d be here for years. You’re a very good therapist. Why are you leaving?”

I shrugged. “I’m just not happy here.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“It’s a lot of things. It’s the workload. I mean, this place works us hard! I max out at about 5 patients a day, and here I’m seeing 11. My quality of work is way down as a result. I have less to offer to every one of my patients throughout the week. I come in exhausted and I leave exhausted-er, and I find myself hoping that my clients won’t show up so that I can actually breathe a bit.”

Katie nodded. “I know. We have high burnout. I tried to tell you that before you got here. That’s why we asked so many questions about coping strategies in your interview.”

“You know those woods behind the clinic here? I find myself coming in early just so I can spend a bit of time in the trees. It calms my soul. But that chair, that desk, the constant fluorescent lights, the constant barrage of people in trauma. I’m just not cut out for it. I thought I could be, but I’m not.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it?”

“Yes. If I was happy with my life here, I think I would be happy enough with my job. But I’m not happy with my life.”

Katie gave a soft smile. She was very business-like, always very appropriate, but she had a softness about her that made me feel safe. I knew she genuinely cared about me. She knew my story, the whole Mormon gay thing, the dad thing, and she worked with me to provide kind help when I needed to go home and visit my kids monthly. She had a wife and a son also, though she kept her personal life very private.

“Your happiness is important, of course. But I’ll be honest. I wish you had realized all this before we invested so much in bringing you on. We rely on you a lot around here, and I saw some potential for personal growth for you in the agency.”

I sighed, keeping my defenses from getting high, and looked her in the eyes. “I love the team here. I do. I’ve never ever felt so included and safe as part of a supportive team. And I can’t possibly speak for anyone here, but I want you to see how burnt out everyone is. Everyone leaves ashen and exhausted. We are all grey in the face by Wednesday. It’s painful to see because there are such talented people here. And I don’t mean to be ungrateful. The salary has been amazing, and I know how much you’ve trusted me. But I’ve given my all. And I don’t see the corporate climate here getting better. That has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the agency itself.”

As I spoke, I thought of the team I would be leaving here. It was the most inclusive professional team I’d ever been apart of. There was variance in age, race, gender, sexuality; and acceptance of everyone. I had an older lesbian co-worker that I adored, and I’d had dinner with she and her wife off-site a few times. A handsome gay clinician worked down the hall, and I’d hung out several times with he and his husband. A younger woman married to a Russian man. An Asian-American female, a West Indian male, an older cowboy of a man. I was genuinely fond of the people there, and I worried about them in this climate. I honored them. I trusted them. But I couldn’t stay.

Katie smiled softly, and nodded, accepting my words. “I’m glad we have sixty more days. And I think I know the answer, but then what?”

“It’s back to Utah, I think. That means I will only have been in Seattle six months. But it was enough. I simply didn’t find what I was looking for, but I did find myself. The city gave me that.” I stopped and laughed. “When I first got here, I felt like Mary Tyler Moore from the beginning of her old TV show. Throwing her hat in the air. ‘You can have a town, why don’t you take it, you’re gonna make it after all!’ But Seattle was harsher than that. It taught me to quiet the storms, to focus in and love the skin that I’m in. Instead of wishing for what I didn’t have, or never got, I found what I’ve needed all along: how to be at peace with me.”

Katie sat back and tapped a pen against the desk. She was thoughtful for a moment. “You’re a good man, Chad. You’re talented. You’re young. Stop wasting time wondering what life could have been, and instead live. All the pieces are already in place. Don’t give for the ones you didn’t start with, and take the ones you have. Your sons are beautiful. And the future is whatever you want it to be.”

I walked out of her office pensive. This felt like my last day, but I had a few months ahead. My entire world could, and would, change in two months. (I had changed a lot in the two months prior). It was the end of my lunch half hour, but I took the last ten minutes to go outside and into the woods. The leaves, the mud, the rolling water, the wind against tree trunks, the dirt under my feet. It was hard to believe that civilization was all around. The hospital over there, the apartment building, the school. I couldn’t see any of it through the trees. I could retreat here to forget. All the complications around this wider, tranquil center.

And Seattle, I realized, taught me that more than anything. How to find the woods in the chaos. How to find peace.

Seattle Part 7: Halloween in the Big Gay House

November, 2014

After a little over a month in my new city, I accepted an invitation to live with a couple of new friends in their large home. They had a spare room open, and the rent was affordable. It was a brand new beginning once again.

I moved in at the beginning of November, on a week end day, and as I unloaded boxes, I had this sense that I was being given another chance to do things right. This could be my college years, those I had missed out on the first time around. I’d been so caught up in Mormonism that I had drowned myself in church, missionary service, school, and work. In college, I had never dated, never sat around with friends on the couch getting high and laughing at movies, never cuddled with a guy who stayed over late. I’d had roommates, but I’d been deep in the closet then, inauthentic. And here, a house of young attractive professionals, who seemed to live the very life I’d been looking for. There was a hot tub, and a big kitchen, and everyone seemed confident and fun. They called it the Big Gay House.

I’d only been there for a few hours and was barely settling in when I learned the roommates planned to go out for the evening to the local gay bars to celebrate Halloween. It was a few days after the holiday, but they assured me everyone would be dressed up and ready for a very fun evening of drinking and dancing. I’d been out to the clubs a few times since I’d moved here, but never with a group of friends like this. I had very fond memories of dancing with my friends in Utah, and this sounded delightful.

So that evening, after it got dark, I put on my slightly scandalous boxer costume: red silky shorts, boxing gloves, a red cape over my shoulders, and a black stripe drawn over my nose. I was shirtless, and wore tennis shoes, and it was cold outside, but I was working hard at becoming more comfortable in my body, and this seemed like a nice chance to celebrate.

The roommates offered to drive to the club, knowing a good place to park, and as we headed outside I realized how briskly chilly it was, and how little I was wearing. We laughed together and soon arrived at the club. I reminded the guys that I didn’t have a house key yet, and asked how late they wanted to stay out, and they said they would play it by ear.

An hour later, I was on the dance floor, slowly sipping a vodka cranberry and dancing with a very cute guy, when I looked up and realized I couldn’t see my new friends anywhere. I kept dancing for another 30 minutes or so before excusing myself. I scanned the dance floor, the patio, the bar, and the sidewalk outside the club and couldn’t find them anywhere. I sent a text, asking where they were, and thirty minutes later I got the answer that they had decided to walk to another club, Neighbors, one about a half mile away. “Sorry we didn’t tell you! Must have forgot!”

Frustrated, I clutched my arms around myself in the cold and briskly walked to the next club, where I paid a cover fee to get in. This club was packed full, but mostly with straight couples, I realized. I saw the roommates out on the dance floor, dancing and drinking, clearly enjoying themselves. They saw me and gave me huge enthusiastic hugs, and the evening went on from there. I danced, had a second drink, and relaxed into the evening, as I watched the predatory behavior of a few straight college guys chasing girls around the dance floor, the girls pretending to be demure. I’d never been in a club like this, gays openly dancing among the straight guys, the music blaring, the drinks strong, and most of the room in costume. It was magical in its way. But as 2 am rolled around, this being much much later than I normally stay out, I began to get very tired. I looked around and realized that, once again, the roommates were gone.

Over the next 30 minutes, multiple text messages went unanswered. They were gone. I walked back to where we had parked the car, and it too was gone. They’d left me there. Simply forgotten me.

It was now past freezing outside, and I began to realize I didn’t have a key. I opened my phone up and got an Uber, barely remembering my  new address to get home. A few minutes later, I was at my new home, the roommate’s car in the driveway. The house was dark. I walked up to the front door, where I could see one of the roommates passed out on the couch. The other must be asleep in his room upstairs. It was nearly 3 am now.

I knocked. I rang the doorbell. I knocked again. Then on the window. I shouted through the window. More doorbell. I called both of their phones and could hear them ringing. More doorbell. More knocking. Finally, the roommate on the couch looked up, stumbled to the door to unlock it and let me in, and then walked, without a word, up the stairs to sleep.

I entered the house, shivering, and closed the door to my new home behind me. This was my first night here. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase. I’d been forgotten, left outside. I’d wanted the adventures of a college student, and, well, I guess this is what it was going to be like. Drunken dancing until 3 am? Left behind by friends? Shivering on a front porch in only a pair of shorts in the middle of the night? Is this what I had been after?

In my new room, I pulled the covers up over myself. I was simmering with self-shame, with anger. I was 35 years old. I’d given up most everything to come here, to find myself. A thousand miles away, my sons slept in their small beds. I missed them so much that I physically ached. And what had it all been for? This?

I closed my eyes, exhausted. But before I fell asleep, I vowed to myself anew that I would become healthy. Strong. I would do it on my terms. For me. For them.

 

Skunktrap

The air in Leamington was clear. Sometimes I forget how polluted the skies in Salt Lake City can be until I drive outside of it. It’s like my lungs just adapt to the smoky congestion, and when I get away I remember how to breathe.

Leamington is a little stretch of nothing in the center of Utah. There are no businesses. I saw a one-room post office as we drove into town, turned onto a dirt road, drove round some bends through farmland, and parked in a dusty outcropping of the house’s driveway.

Like the rest of Utah, Leamington was settled by the Mormons a few generations ago. I pulled up the Wikipedia page and read about the original settlers, establishing farmland, growing sugarcane to make molasses, rerouting water through a canal, and growing crops, which they would take to a local mining town (appropriately named Eureka) to sell. (I drove through Eureka later. It has a few gas stations, and more homes. The closest business to Leamington was a few dozen miles away). Eventually, the settlers built a little branch of the railroad. The Mormon church and the local cemetery are the only things listed as noteworthy to visit. Still, a few hundred people live here, which seems like so little until you realize that a few hundred is still a lot of people when you line them all up.

My friend Tyler and I got the kids out of the car and surveyed the rolling farmland around us. We could see cows in the distance, crops, shades of green and brown. I could hear songbirds and the sound of many buzzing insects.

“What kinds of animals live out here?” A, my 6-year old, asked.

“Well, lots,” Tyler answered, having grown up in the area. “Owls, birds, lots of voles, tons of bugs. Mule deer.”

“And what kinds of predators?”

“Raccoons, coyotes, red-tailed hawks.”

We knocked on the door of the farmhouse where we would be sleeping for the night. I’d confirmed this reservation weeks ago when we first planned to come to this remote area of the state. As I reminded the boys to be on their best behavior, our host opened the door.

She was a plump woman in her late forties, her hair pinned back, her granddaughter on her arm. She wore an apron over her white shirt and black pants. Beyond her on the wall, I could see a large picture of a Mormon temple, and a family portrait with she, her husband, and their six children. This was a salt-of-the-earth, hard-working family. I knew from the online profile that the husband worked nearby as an engineer, and that she was a housewife, though the older four children were all out of the house now.

“Hi, I’m Chad!” I said, enthusiastically, waving at the grand-daughter. I saw the woman’s smile slowly drop as she realized there were two men there with children. Her eyes flashed between us, one to the other, and her mouth dropped open. Her face paled. There was a long, pregnant pause as she tried to figure out our relationship. (I would later explain that while Tyler and I are both gay, we were not a couple and would be sleeping in different rooms. It’s quite possible we were the first gay people she’d ever met.)

After the initial awkwardness passed, she greeted us with a forced smile and invited us inside. She showed us the rooms where we would be sleeping in the basement. The shelves down there were packed with thirty years worth of clutter, almost hoarding levels of clutter. It was organized, but it felt like it would cave in on us. Board games, books, notebooks, old art projects, and Tupperware containers full of knickknacks. The beds were lacy and plush, with names of children stenciled onto pillows. Family photos, pictures of Mormon prophets, and pictures of Jesus lined the walls. Somehow, it was all incredibly comfortable, being in the home of this family, one who had carved out their entire existence in this stone farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

After the kids settled down, I walked back outside to grab the suitcases and came face to face with a skunk. It was less than ten yards away, and I immediately felt my heart rate go up. It was quickly gobbling food up from a cat food dish, and it lifted its head to meet my gaze. I could see its jaw working, up and down, then it ducked to get another bite. It was strangely beautiful. It’s face was majestic in a way, and the pattern of black and white shaggy fur ran down its sides, with a thick tail flowing behind it. It was right in front of the car, and I stood watching it for a minute, calculating the risk of getting sprayed if I stepped toward it, but it scampered away after another bite, rushing down the driveway and up a hillside. It flowed as it moved somehow, and I had images of Pepe Lepew from Looney Toons rush through my mind, jumping gracefully as he chased the female cat.

After a good night’s sleep, the four of us woke to a hearty farm breakfast. As we sat to a meal of banana chocolate chip pancakes, sausage, fried eggs, fresh fruit, milk, and juice, the farmer’s wife told us about getting her degree in biochemistry before she chose to stay at home and raise her children. She talked about how much work it was to maintain a home this size in this location, and how much she loved living out here, yet how isolating it could be. I talked about my documentary project, Tyler quipped about science with her, and my sons bragged about how they wanted to grow up to a geologist and a farmer, respectively. It was a lovely meal,  and I could see her relaxing around us, perhaps realizing that gay people are just, well, people.

As the kids finished their breakfast, I packed the suitcases and went outside to load the car. I looked back over toward the car, and skunk was back but this time it was in a cage. The cage was small, triangular, and barely big enough to contain the small creature. It was panicked, scratching at the ground, unable to get free. It raised its head and I swear it made eye contact as it made a helpless little squeak of a sound. My heart pounded as I went the long way around, loading my suitcases in the trunk before heading back inside.

“There’s a skunk out there! In a trap!”

“Oh!” The farmer’s wife looked delighted. “Good! It finally worked! My husband placed cat food in the skunktrap several nights in a row to catch it. The darn thing keeps eating all of the cat’s food and scaring the grandkids. We used to get a lot of skunks around here, but this is the first one in a while.”

“What will you do with it? Do you take it out in the woods somewhere and let it go? Do you kill it?”

She grimaced. “Well, neither. If you get too close, it gets scared and sprays. In fact, as it starts to get hot outside, it will start to spray in panic. It’s going to smell around here today. But we will just wait for it to die. Skunks are nocturnal, they burrow during the day to stay cool and hunt at night. It won’t take long for it to overheat.”

A look of disgust crossed my face. “You let it cook to death?”

She frowned, sympathetic. “I don’t like it either. But if you see a spider in your house, do you step on it? Living in a place like this, we have to protect our space, and that sometimes means letting creatures die.”

When we left, I walked the kids the long way around, and told them that the skunk would be let go later. The looked at it with fascination and fear. It was getting warmer out, and it was sitting calmly now. I could see it breathing. We loaded ourselves into the car, and as we backed up, I took a long last look at it’s flowing tail, it’s frightening beauty, its helplessness. It was facing its inevitable end after seeking an easy food source in a dangerous place. And it had been caught. I humanized the creature, determining that it was facing its own fate.

We drove down the hillside, through the dusty farmland and back to the highway. I left Leamington, thinking of history, of humanity, of skunks, and of traps.

Skunk