the Lion of the Lord

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“Welcome to the Beehive and Lion House. Hopefully you all had a chance to try one of our delicious, famous rolls with honey butter next door. Now, if you will all follow us, the tour is about to begin.”

The two sister missionaries led the crowd of 15 people through a narrow passage and up a flight of stairs, where we gathered in a room filled with a dining room table and chairs. Pictures of old bearded white men lined the walls, with Brigham Young’s being the first.

The two missionaries were pleasant-looking in colorful skirts and shirts, sweaters on their shoulders to keep them warm. One was slightly shorter with brown hair, and she had a tag that read ‘Sister Miller, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ on it, with an American flag fastened beneath it. The other sister, blonde with longer hair, had a similar tag, except her name read ‘Sister Bellows’, and her flag was Canadian. The both held a copy of the Book of Mormon in their hands as they guided the tour in this historical building.

Over the next few minutes, the sisters recounted how the Mormon pioneers had settled into the Salt Lake Valley and how Brigham Young had become prophet, and the first elected governor of the territory. This home, they explained, was where he conducted his business, as he spoke for the Lord in his day-to-day dealings, calling 12 apostles to serve along with him and run Christ’s church. (Thus the other pictures on the wall).

Sister Miller’s voice was low and it droned on a bit, like a college professor reading from a textbook for an afternoon class as sun poured in the window. She kept a false smile plastered on her face as she spoke in a voice without enthusiasm.

“And just as Brigham Young was a prophet, so was Joseph Smith, the man to whom the true Church of God was restored upon the Earth.” She then proceeded to give a full account of the First Vision, when God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees. I could recite her entire speech verbatim from my own days as a missionary 20 years before.

As she spoke, I saw a few of the tour group give each other looks, confused. One man muttered to his wife, “What does this have to do with the tour?” and another mentioned something about “propaganda.”

When Sister Miller finished, Sister Bellows mentioned how Brigham Young, no matter how busy he was, would always make sure to be home with his family every night for dinner.

“Family was very important to him. His was a forever family. What do you all enjoy doing with your families?”

After an awkward silence, a few muttered answers cleared the air. “Watch television.” “Travel.” “Play games.”

Then someone interjected with a question. “You mentioned Brigham Young’s family. Isn’t it true he had dozens of wives?”

Sister Bellows smiled, showing no teeth. “I haven’t really looked into that. But in another room you can see a painting of the wife who lived here with her children.”

The tour shuffled into another room, then another, and in each the sister missionaries gave a small historical blurb, then shared more information about the church they belonged to. Their voices maintained a lack of enthusiasm, and they sounded almost bored sometimes.

“Did you know that Brigham Young served 12 different missions? I am happy to just be serving one, here and now, so I can share my testimony of the truth of the gospel with everyone.”

“In this painting, you can see one of Brigham’s daughters who died. But as Saints, Mormons get the chance to be reunited with their forever families in the next life, just as all who believe can be reunited with their families. I’m grateful for my forever family.”

In the final room, the confused crowd asked a few last questions, the answers only increasing their perplexed looks.

“And, um, how did Brigham Young die?”

“He died of old age!” she said, finally, bizarrely, enthusiastic.

“And what about Joseph Smith, didn’t he die in his 30s?”

“Yes, he died in Illinois, a victim of an angry mob of people who had painted their faces black.”

“Ma’am, is it true that the original Latter-day Saints were, according to your beliefs, the actual Native Americans, and they believed in Christ even though they hadn’t met him?”

Sister Bellows nodded, slowly. “Yes, that is true. The Book of Mormon is an account of their ancient history, between 600 BC and 400 AD, and Christ visited them after his death because they believed in him like I do.”

“”I heard from a friend that the Church of Mormons actually owns the mall across the street, is that right?”

Sister Miller didn’t even look at the man. “Yes. Well, if you will all look over here, you will see Brigham Young’s actual desk. Over there are some dishes he ordered but never got to use because he died first. And over here, you will see a picture of a lion. The lion is there because Brigham Young’s nickname was the Lion of the Lord. He was called that because he was never afraid to share his testimony. In his honor, I’d like to share my testimony now.”

She looked straight forward, not at anyone, just through us all. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I believe there are prophets who walk the earth today and who give us new scripture, like that in the Book of Mormon. I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ. If any of you feel nice feelings of peace in your heart and would like to learn more about the church, we could gladly give you a free copy of the Book of Mormon on your way out. Now please, follow me out the front door of the house here and feel free to come back anytime.”

As I walked out of the tour, I was laughing on the inside. The friend who attended with me, the one I had been showing around Salt Lake City, looked at me with wide eyes.

“What. Was. That. Like what actually was that?”

And I could only laugh because, although this was all very familiar to me, a manifestation of the culture I had grown up in, I still had no idea how to answer him. I could only think of how differently I would have seen all of this ten years before.

So instead, I turned to him, put a false smile on my face, stared out into nothing, and said, “Welcome to Salt Lake City. Would you like to learn about my church?”

Bag of Treats

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“Welcome, Chad, I bought you a bag of treats. It’s on the floor back there. Make yourself at home!”

I climbed into the back seat of the car and noticed the bag on the floor, then smiled up to the front seat, where Evelyn could see me in the rearview mirror. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”

“Just look through it and see what you like. And don’t forget to buckle up!”

I slid my seatbelt across my frame and clicked it closed, then set my backpack and pillow on the seat next to me. The drive ahead was only four hours, but I didn’t want to get bored, so I’d packed a pillow in case I wanted to sleep, a notebook in case I got any story ideas, and three different books, though I knew it wasn’t likely that I would finish even one of them. Two of them were Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you could read and make choices for the characters, your decisions leading you to different parts of the book where you might meet a tragic end or wind up making yet another choice. I loved those books, and had even written a few of my own, starring my favorite cartoon characters. I’d also packed a Nancy Drew book, taking it from my sister Susan’s collection. She didn’t want me to touch those books, but I loved them so I would often sneak them away and return them a few days later, hoping she wouldn’t notice. I was trying to read them all in order.

The car was quiet for a moment as Evelyn guided it down the road and turned toward the freeway, passing the Snake River and miles of potato fields along the way. Evelyn was a nice woman in our ward, or local Mormon congregation, one I didn’t know very well. She was in her early 70s, and had agreed to give me a ride to Salt Lake City from southern Idaho when my Mom had asked.

“Are you excited to see your father?” Evelyn smiled at me again in the rearview.

“I guess so,” I smiled back. I said I was, but I really wasn’t. My parents had been divorced over three years now, and I’d barely seen Dad since the divorce, since we moved from Missouri to Idaho. He’d moved to Salt Lake, just a few hours away, but he hadn’t made much effort to spend any time with me. He was living down there with some college aged guys, I’d heard, and was working at some menial job now. I was 14 years old and I didn’t feel like he really even knew me. “It will be good to see him during summer break. Mom will come down and get me in a few days.”

Evelyn laughed, I couldn’t really say why, and accelerated the car, headed south now. “Well, do you see anything you like? In the treats?”

“Oh,” I said, “Let me see.”

I picked up the bag and set it on the seat, opening the plastic sides of it. It was a Wonder Bread grocery sack, from the store in Idaho Falls where they sold packaged sugary treats and breads. The bag had no less than eight separate packages of processed pastries, and one can of Shasta, black raspberry flavored, a carbonated sugary punch that could be purchased for a quarter from the vending machine in front of the local grocery store. I thumbed through the different treats. Twinkie. Hostess Cupcakes. Ding-Dongs. Ho-Hos. A fudge brownie, an lemon frosting pie, powdered donuts, and chocolate donuts. My mouth salivated over all of the sugar available, having no thought for Calories or content, only wanting to sink my teeth into any and all of the treats.

“Everything looks really delicious. But I’m not hungry just yet. I’ll just lay back and read for a bit if that’s okay.”

“Of course that’s okay, dear. I’m just going to turn on some gospel music, if that wouldn’t bother you.”

“No, go right ahead.” Evelyn turned on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as I placed the bag of treats back on the floor and arranged my pillow behind my head. I thumbed through my pilfered mystery novel and found my place, beginning to read.

My stomach rumbled, but I resisted the urge to reach for a treat. It was always best to sacrifice needs and to be unselfish, I reminded myself. Evelyn was really nice to have purchased these things for me, but if I didn’t eat them, that meant that she could enjoy them, or she could share them with someone else, someone who might need them more than me. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sacrifice was a regular part of my daily religion, something that God expected. I thought of several scriptures that backed that up.

Where much is given, much is required.

The natural man is an enemy to God. 

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of Heaven.

If I didn’t eat the treats now, that would be another sign to God that I served him and deserved to have him in my heart. I tried regularly to keep him securely in my heart, though it wasn’t always easy. I was starting to notice boys more, and I was very scared of getting caught looking at someone handsome walking by. So I’d developed a mantra of always keeping a hymn and a prayer in my heart. I could sing one of the religious songs to myself, like “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done” or “Called to serve him, heavenly king of glory, chosen heir to witness for his name” or “Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shall my petition bear” or “Nearer my god to thee, nearer to thee.” I found it easier to stay focused on God when I had him on my mind, just like the prophets had taught me since I was a young boy. I tried hard to follow all of the rules, including morning and nightly prayers, daily scripture study, weekly church attendance, and payment of ten per cent of all my earned money from my paper route to the tithes of the church. That also meant fasting to improve spirituality at least once per month.

Mormonism was the central theme to my existence. My family’s rituals were molded around it as were my daily activities, my thoughts, and all of my plans for the future. Months before, I had been ordained a Teacher, an office of the Aaronic Priesthood for all worthy young men ages 14-16. It entitled me to bless and pass the sacrament and to go with older Priesthood holders into the homes of members as a home teacher, where we would check on the welfare of the families monthly and teach them gospel lessons. At 16, I would become a priest, and at 18 an elder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, then I would get to go through the temple for my endowment, serve a two year missionary service wherever I was called in the world, and finally marry a woman in the temple and begin my family. I loved my church, and everything in my life revolved around it.

I fell asleep for a time, and Evelyn drove smoothly, making great time. When I woke up, she asked how I was, and asked if I might like to enjoy a treat now. She reminded me of my grandmother in all the best ways.

“I’m okay, maybe in a little while.”

Besides stopping for gas briefly, we drove the rest of the way in silence. It was early afternoon when we pulled into Salt Lake City, in a spot downtown near Temple Square, where the very origins of my beloved church were on display in museums and visitor centers all placed directly around the Salt Lake City Temple itself. My dad would meet us there soon.

I climbed out of the car and pulled my backpack and pillow with me, leaving the treats on the floor in the bag. My stomach grumbled with hunger, and I wished again for a treat, but I didn’t want to take something that Evelyn could use for herself later.

Soon, my dad arrived and Evelyn drove away with a friendly wave.

“What would you like to do?” Dad asked, his voice its familiar quiet.

“Can we get something to eat?” I asked. “I’m starving!”

inversion skies

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the flying flag flutters

the white of its alternating stripes blending into the

still white polluted sky behind it

the air is thick with the smoke that blankets the city

the exhaust fumes from cars and factories

drift upward

seamless and indistinguishable

raindrops in the smoggy ocean above

stark black telephone wires divide the expanse

small birds dot the rooftops on the horizon

finding no safety in their numbers

and haunting electric lights glow and struggle to be seen

 

I view this through cracked glass

the interior world behind me reflecting back

distorting the sounds and sights of

brewing coffee and blasting heat and lulling piano

into a soft shimmer on the window

 

this atmosphere dwells in my head my heart my gut my lungs

my fingers clutch a pen tightly

and I remember the color blue

and the heat of the sun

and the gulping of fresh clear oxygen

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Pulse

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What is happening today will be the history we talk of tomorrow.

Truthfully, America’s history of full of brutal attacks, so many that we can barely remember some that happened only weeks ago, no less ones that happened years ago. But some are so terrible, so bloody, or so unique that they find a way of imprinting on our long-term community consciousness.

You may not remember Ruby Ridge, or the Washington DC sniper, or Haun’s Mill, or Fort Hood, or the Green River serial killer, or Andersonville, or even Trayvon Martin, but you do remember…

9/11.

Pearl Harbor.

Matthew Shephard.

The Challenger explosion.

Stonewall.

Sandy Hook.

Added to that list, those events which will imprint upon our community consciousness I believe, will be the Pulse.

With all of the horrible mass shootings that keep taking place, with it being almost commonplace, we just grow accustomed somehow to the terrible. It isn’t that we don’t care, it isn’t that we don’t feel, it’s that it is too much. It is too much for our brains to process.

Picture your day-to-day routine. Pick any place. In line at the grocery store, with your children at a public park, dropping your daughter off at school, at the movies, sitting at a table waiting for the food you ordered at your favorite restaurant. In any of these places, a man with a gun could walk in, his only intent is to kill as many people as he can. He ignores cries for help or people cowering in corners begging not to be seen, he just shoots and shoots and shoots.

We watch violent movies all the time. That violence is okay to our minds generally because we know it is fake. We know it is makeup and special effects. In a situation like this, though, there is blood and brain and bone and body.

Those lives that were cut short. Boyfriends holding hands, sons texting their mothers goodbye, people rushing for every exit. This is the world we live in right now.

Gun violence is happening in every corner of this country. California, South Carolina, Florida, the northeast and southwest and every place in between. It is horrifying. It is terrifying.

It’s only been about 60 hours since the Pulse shootings. We’ve attended vigils. We learned about the attacker. We’ve seen the names of the victims. We hugged our friends and shed some tears and lost some sleep.

But this time, this time something must change. How could we have let this continue after Virginia Tech? And Fort Hood? And Sandy Hook? How can we have let all this happen without changing things?

The country seems divided politically, as it always does. One side is crying out for stricter immigration reform, going so far as to suggest a ban all Muslims from American soil. The other side is calling for gun reform; not for taking guns away but for making mandatory background checks, mental health evaluations, and perhaps waiting periods before gun purchases.

I don’t understand why things aren’t changing. I can’t comprehend it.

In Salt Lake City, I work as an on-call crisis responder. Since the Pulse shooting, I have been called out twice, in my own city, to respond to the scenes of robberies where guns have been drawn and lives have been threatened. Twice. Since the Pulse. Angry men pointed guns at innocent people and made demands. No one was killed, but in both of these cases, the victims went home with deep emotional scars that may take years to recover from.

As I type this, several survivors of the Pulse shootings are fighting for their lives in hospital beds. Mothers are going to their sons’ apartments and cleaning up their belongings: their laptops with unfinished projects, their journals which now have a last entry written in them. Bosses are cleaning off the desks of their dead employees, putting their family photographs and coffee mugs into a cardboard box. Funeral directors are preparing coffins and urns, and memorial halls are being booked out.

It’s Tuesday and tomorrow is Wednesday and my heart still hurts and I don’t know what to do to make sure this never happens again.

Hollywoodland

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While I walked the streets of Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I automatically pictured myself living there and wondered what it might be like. I learned major lessons about myself when I moved to Seattle briefly, the primary lesson being that me in another place is still just me, just in another place. I think people romanticize ideas about themselves with fresh starts, that if they were in a different home, a different job, a different situation, that with just the right opportunity they would thrive, be happy, find love, be powerful, have success.

And as far as opportunity goes, Los Angeles has it in spades. Entire companies looking for writers and actors and producers and cameramen. Start-up companies, production studios, agents in every direction. And literally millions of people seeking to make successes of themselves. The city must be rampant with ego and heartbreak, rejection and depression, a never-ending thirst to find the next best thing, and constant compromises to sacrifice some ideas for others in order to find new chances and hopes.

I pictured myself seizing my own opportunity, my own ego and desire for success, and transplanting myself here. I pictured getting some room in a crowded place and filling it with cheap furniture, knowing I would swiftly tire of my roommates. I pictured myself finding some day job to support myself while I waited for my social work license to activate in California so I could do therapy on some corner, subletting from someone. I pictured myself getting a lot of date requests initially, being new blood in town, but not being able to ever go out because child support and living expenses and daily bills, and then those interest levels dying down after I had been in town a few weeks. I pictured myself finding local coffee shops to write in, streets to walk, parks to read in. I pictured myself finding a new routine, a gym, a grocery store, a favorite divey restaurant.

I pictured myself traveling back to Salt Lake City every month, at no small expense, renting cars and finding hotels or friends to stay with while I spent powerful moments with my sons, my lights and life. I pictured sunlight and beaches and palm trees and lots of thinking. I pictured writing and writing and writing as I watched the people and had new experiences, and then talking to others over and over about how I want to do so much with my life, write a book, have my blog and my LGBT Snapshots Channel on YouTube be incredible successes. I pictured moving to a new apartment, then another, trying to find my feet as I made new friends.

I pictured the seasons passing quickly. Valentines Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and then a New Year, all while my sons age and grow and me in daily contact but not there with them. I pictured that new year, my energies still pooling toward shifting ideas of success but just not quite grasping it on my terms, and having to make the inevitable decision of trying to keep knocking on doors for more and more opportunity, or changing my very idea of success itself.

I pictured waking up and looking at that famous Hollywood sign on the hill, longing somehow for the days when it said Hollywoodland, and then realizing one day that it was just big letters on a big hill.

All these thoughts in my head, I sat down on a bus stop bench and felt the sunlight soak into my skin. A young black teenager with saggy jeans and a hoodie, scruffy facial hair and sunglasses, sat next to me and struck up a conversation.

“Hey, man, do you mind if I play you one of my tracks?”

I turned, not surprised somehow, though I should have been. “I would love that.”

He pulled a discman out of his backpack and set it on the bench, then began to play a remixed Reggae soundtrack, explaining how he was trying to find a new and unique sound, telling me how he loved music, especially Electronica, and how he just wanted people to hear how he heard. I told him I loved the music and asked him how old he was, and he smiled, a big bright full smile, and told me he was 16.

I told him he was an amazing talent, and to keep it up. He vowed he would.

Then he asked me, “What are your talents, man?”

Again, somehow unsurprised, I tilted my head slightly, thinking about my answer.

“Well, I have a lot I’m bad at, but a few things I’m great at.”

He laughed, “I know how that is!”

“I’m good at helping people. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I love the human story. But more than all of that, I’m a dad.”

The young man nodded a few times. “I can respect that.” And then his bus came, and he shook my hand and boarded.

I looked back at the Hollywood sign, thinking of ambition and dreams and the ground beneath my feet, then I called my sons.

Gusher

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It’s four am and I’m listening to NPR as I’m driving down a dark windy road in north-eastern Utah. I’m sure the terrain all around me is absolutely beautiful, given the signs I’m seeing telling me I’m in a national forest, but it’s pitch black outside. My headlights illuminate the windy roads around me, and I navigate them with speed. I rarely see other headlights, not at this time of day. When another driver comes toward me, we both courteously dim our headlights from bright to standard, then turn them back to bright as we pass each other.

I’m appalled by the roadkill. I have seen at least a few dead deer, a porcupine, three rabbits, and two skunks, their obnoxious and cloying odors stretching a full mile around their tiny corpses. In addition, I have slowed my car at least four times in the last hour, once for some large bird, twice for rabbits, and once for another skunk, animals that scampered across the road at fast speeds. I roll my eyes at each of them silently, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier for them to just wait the ten seconds for my car to pass and then to cross, cause it ain’t like there is any other traffic out here.

I haven’t spent much time in this part of Utah, though it isn’t far from where I live, only a few hours drive. The whole state is packed with mountains and bodies of water, so I don’t have to look hard for beautiful places to visit. I know there are lots of camping areas here, several reservoirs, and a ton of hiking, but the towns are small.

The reporter on the NPR station I’m listening to is interviewing a woman in Canada, who is sharing her opinion on American politics. I can’t remember her exact words, but she says something like “American politics is the best reality show I’ve ever seen, only much more horrific. I’m on the edge of my seat wondering what they will do next. America is rather like the crazy neighbor who lives next door. Mostly I leave them alone, but on occasion, I have to peep over the fence to see what shocking thing they are doing next.” She voices her support for Bernie Sanders first, Hilly Clinton second, and then admits that Canada is mostly a nation of Democrats. She talks about Prime Minister Trudeau’s state visit with President Obama, and outlines some of the complicated trade history between the two countries. I navigate the turns with a smile on my face.

My eyes flash to the bright screen of my phone, showing the map of the area I’m driving through, and a few of the names of small Utah towns, some of them unincorporated, some just groupings of farms and houses, others cute little towns. I’ve never heard of most of these. Duschene (pronounced Du-shane). Strawberry. Myton. Ouray. Altonah. Neola. Randlett. Tabiona. And then Gusher. Gusher? There is a town called Gusher, Utah? A few houses, fences, barns, and cows are visible in the dark, then I’m already past it.

I think back to the history of this region, how it was settled by Native American tribes for hundreds of years until the fur trappers and gold miners moved through here. Then the Mormons came in the 1800s and settled in the Salt Lake valley. Brigham Young sent members of the Mormon church all over the region, for hundreds of miles, creating farming communities, mining industries, trade posts, and settlements. I’m not a big fan of Brigham Young, but I have to admit that his settlement of the state of the Utah at the time was absolutely impressive.

Later, during my long work shift, I look up some of the communities that I’ve driven through. I look into the origins of their names, some after Native American chiefs, some after early settlers, some after rocks or crops. But I am most fascinated by Gusher itself. About ten miles outside of Roosevelt (a much larger town for the area), it’s described as a “roadside settlement” rather than a town. I learn that when it was first settled, it was jokingly called Sober City, a name given by the locals, making fun of the town’s habit for getting drunk. They later renamed the town Moffat, after David Moffat, a railroad magnate, but the town wasn’t successful and it shut down for decades until, in 1922, a man named Robert Wood moved to the area and named the town Gusher, hoping to make a successful oil business there, though that never happened.

I think of the farmers that have lived there likely for generations, the same families there since the beginning. The demographics for the area list the residents as, literally, 97.99 % white, and well over 90 % Mormon.

Later, as I leave the city of Vernal, I take the same road back to Salt Lake City. This time, I can see the small houses, the barns and cows, the fences, the rolling hills and trees, the snow-capped mountains, and, yes, the roadkill. Gusher looks nearly the same in the daylight as it did in the dark, an eyeblink of small town Utah farms where families have built their homes and lives.

I pull my car over at one of the reservoirs and look out over the beautiful mix of rock and water, and I think of my grandmother, who spent over 90 years in a town in southeastern Idaho with a population of less than 500 people. And from her little space there, she had five children and dozens of grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. She worked as a schoolteacher. And from her little spot on the globe, she made the world a better place and impacted hundreds of lives.

I turn back from my spot on the road, from which I can’t see another human in any direction, and I wonder about my grandmother, and about Gusher, and about history, then I get back in my car and drive toward a different kind of civilization.

Uber-involved

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This weekend I signed up to be an Uber driver. As if I’m not busy enough.

The idea is appealing. I can log on when I want to, accept the fares that I want to, and make a bit of extra cash during times when I don’t have my kids or when I’m not at work. I had to send in copies of my vehicle insurance and driver’s license, and get my car inspected, then I had to download a driver app.

And so, on Saturday night, after my plans ended, I opened up the app and clicked ‘go online’ for the first time. “Well, here we go,” I thought.

Within seconds, the app rang loudly and I pushed a button that told me the first name and the location of the person I would be drive, but there was nothing about them or where they were going. I clicked a key that gave me driving directions toward her and began working my way through the complicated downtown traffic, made much worse by a police cordon; I later learned the police had shot a young black male and people had had a small riot over it.

Soon I picked up a young woman with spiky gelled hair and a thick leather jacket. She was on the phone. She piled into my front seat, said “take me to the nearest grocery store” without actually looking at me, then returned to her phone call as I drove her a few blocks away. “Listen, mom, grandma has been a grumpy bitch for years , even before she got the cancer. But I’m telling you if there is one thing I know about it’s pot. Drive her to Colorado, get her some medical marijuana, and watch–she’s gonna cheer up and get happy, feel better, and it will cure her cancer. Trust me.”

I dropped her off, closed the fare (about $4, all sent electronically) and got another ping, soon driving to pick up a middle-aged couple who wanted to try out a new trendy bar. After driving a sad, very drunk girl home from another bar nearby, I logged off the app and went home, that was enough to start.

But seven hours later, I was back at it at 5 am. I drove a man home to his wife after he’d been out all night drinking, and he hoped his wife wasn’t angry with him. I drove a couple home from a friend’s house, where they had stayed up all night partying, and we went up and down the streets until they could find where they had parked their car. I drove three men from India to the nearest Wal-Mart… so they could get haircuts. I drove a woman from Peru to her job at an architect firm.

At 2 pm, I drove a very drunk couple back to their apartment. The woman rolled down all the windows, sang loudly to the radio, and kept calling me Chad Michael Murray as she reminded me, repeatedly, that it was “Sunday, Funday.”

I drove two teenage girls to the mall, and they hoped their mother wouldn’t find out they were going to a business on a Sunday. I drove a moustached woman all in leather to her job at a call center, and a very shy man from Pakistan to his job in a kitchen. I drove a man with a major nosebleed all the way up to Snowbird Ski Resort so he could meet some friends, then drove a couple of economics professors back from there to the Airport so they could catch their plane.

North, South, East, West, on the freeway and off, turning around in driveways, passing slowly over speedbumps, through yellow lights and stopped at greens.

Out of 25 fares, I got two tips for five dollars each, and by day’s end, I had earned about $250. Not bad for a first time driver, I thought.

I stretched heavily, my back sore from a full day in the car, my head spinning at all the people I had met, and I calculated getting out of debt and all of the things I could do then.

I went to bed exhausted, then woke in the morning, my finger already on the Uber button.

What’s Your Name Again?

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It’s 2 in the afternoon on a perfect August Monday in Salt Lake City, and I’m in my favorite coffee spot with a tall drip coffee and my journal. Down the table from me, an older man loudly lauds his career accomplishments to an unimpressed woman as two teenagers who type on their phones frantically. Across the room, three college aged men type on their computers, and a beautiful girl reads the newspaper.

Behind me, I hear a guy talking on his phone. I turn around and catch a good-looking guy, beard, likely in his early 20s , stirring his coffee as he talks to a friend on the phone.

He isn’t here. I told you he wouldn’t be here. We chatted for a few weeks, but he’s gonna be a flake like all the others… I know, I know. I gotta keep trying or I’ll be single forever. It’s just–oh wait, he’s walking in. Gottagobye.

I look curiously toward the door and see a blonde guy, early 20s, both ears pierced, cute, walking in. I see him make eye contact with the guy behind me and walk toward him. I turn back at my coffee, thinking it’s rude to eavesdrop, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

Hey, you made it.

Yeah, sorry I’m late. I couldn’t find parking.

No worries, I got you a coffee. Hope it isn’t cold.

Thanks, man. That’s nice.

As I jot the weekend’s events in my journal, they discuss the basics: what they do for work, some of their hobbies, where they are from, and I find myself writing less and listening more.

Yeah, I’ve only been in Utah about a year. Came here for school. I like it, though.

Oh, I hate it here. I grew up here. My family is all here. I mean, I don’t hate it-hate it, I just haven’t ever been anywhere else, except for my mission in Brazil for a couple years.

So you grew up Mormon?

Yeah, super Mormon. My whole family is Mormon. I came out like two years ago and they are going crazy with it all. They think I’m an apostate and treat being gay like I’m a drug addict or something.

Oh, that sucks. I didn’t know much about Mormons before I moved here. It’s a real thing here, though.

Oh definitely. I try not to date guys who used to be Mormon anymore. Too much drama.

What do you mean?

Oh all these shame issues. Guys who grew up totally ashamed of being gay. Family problems. Did the whole mission/BYU thing. Some guys even got married and had kids before coming out. I just get sick of the drama.

But doesn’t that–I mean, did you go to BYU?

Well, yeah. I just, I mean I don’t judge. I just get tired of the same stories.

I hear that. I don’t like drama either. But everybody’s an individual. I mean, every gay guy had to come out to their family and like take that whole journey. My family is cool now but they weren’t at first. Utah isn’t so different.

I think Utah is different. Mormons are different though. Especially in Utah. It’s like the church is the government and the families all follow it and it’s just such a big deal.

But have you ever lived anywhere else? I mean after you were out of the closet?

No. Just the mission.

Okay. Anyway, what do you do for fun?

I hear them talk about hobbies and interests for a while. One mentions his dog while the other talks about the gym. I realize I’m not even writing now, engrossed in their conversation, and thinking of the billion first dates I have been on that sound exactly like this in some form.

So what do you look for in a guy?

You kind of asked me that when we were chatting. Sense of humor. Guy who takes care of himself and can hold a conversation. Not in a hurry, but looking for a relationship ultimately.

Oh yeah, I remember. I’m all of those things. I’m one of the good ones.

Yeah, you said that in chat too. It’s been good getting to know you, John, but I probably better get back to work.

I had a good time. Would you like to get together again some time?

Yeah, that’d be cool. Text me later.

Before it gets too awkward, what was your name again?

The guy laughs, tells John to look back at his chat, and then leaves to head back to work. In seconds, I hear John get back on his phone.

Hey, he showed up. I totally screwed up and forgot his name, though… He’s cute, looks like his picture. Ugh, I’m going to be single forever. Why can’t I find a guy who wants to date me?… Yeah, I’ll call you tonight. I’m meeting a different guy from Grindr for dinner in a bit.

Interview with a polygamist

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I never really planned on being a third wife. It just kind of happened that way. After my first marriage fell apart, I just… I needed some comfort. I confided in some friends about how difficult my life was as a single parent. I grew closer and closer to them. And when they invited me to be a part of their family, it just made sense to me. 

Let’s start closer to the beginning. Did you grow up Mormon?

Yes, I grew up in a very Mormon family. But the Mormons don’t practice polygamy. I mean, they used to. 

So more a traditional Mormon family, then. In Utah?

Yeah, small town in central Utah. Very Mormon family, very Mormon community. I’m still Mormon, by the way. Just more a variation of all that. 

Tell me more about that.

Back in the beginning, the Church was restored to the Earth and the leaders said they were prophets and apostles and that they spoke for God. They formed entire communities, like Nauvoo, Illinois, and then Salt Lake City, and the leaders were leaders in both government and church. So when they said to go on a mission, the men went on missions, leaving their families for years. And when the church said no coffee, everyone stopped drinking coffee. And if you didn’t listen, you were disobedient, and usually excommunicated, which meant that you couldn’t go to the highest level of Heaven with your family. 

Go on.

So the early leaders of the church told everyone that God wanted the men to marry multiple women. In some cases, that meant a man had two wives, and in some cases, it meant literally dozens of wives. 

That sounds intense.

What do you mean?

Well, the dynamics of that alone. Church/faith communities where men are encouraged to take multiple wives. The household dynamics of women having to share a husband. Who has seniority, who gets along. The pressure on the man to provide for everyone, and the pressure on the women to set aside any concerns and share their man so that they could show their faith. And then, if you didn’t go along with it, you would be kicked out Heaven. Intense.

Yeah, some of those old stories make me really sad. Men would get married at 20 and have a few children. Then as their wife’s body began to change as she went through childbirth a few times, he would find a new young wife, then another and another. Then the same thing would happen with her, and the next. And all those children, I can barely keep track of my three!

Yeah, two kids is plenty for me to be responsible for. I can barely afford my rent and the costs of two. Can you imagine the medical costs for a family of 75? Food, housing, toys, school? That makes my head spin.

And some of the old stories, like men in their sixties marrying girls who were 17. Abuse and rape. A few accounts in the early days of Joseph Smith approaching some of his friend’s wives to be with him.

Women seen as commodities, that only had value as long as they were pretty and child-bearing, it seems like.

Well, I wouldn’t say they didn’t have value. But, yeah, they were supposed to clean the house and raise the kids and that was it. Anyway, the Church had thousands and thousands of families in polygamy relationships for a bunch of decades.

You would think there would be more men than women… where would all the men find more wives?

I have no idea. The Church went on like this until the early 1900s, when they officially disavowed the practice due to pressure from the government. And then things got tricky, because God had supposedly revealed polygamy. They were now three or four generations into it, and the Church started teaching that while polygamy is still something that will happen in Heaven, we can’t do it on Earth anymore. 

So did you know about polygamy growing up?

Only a little bit. It’s something that we barely talked about. Most people in my family and in the Mormon church kind of just don’t like to talk about it. They just focus on the parts of the Church that they like. It’s kind of like how Americans talk about slavery; they see it as something that was part of the past but don’t really want to dwell on it. 

It’s getting harder to ignore these days, though. All of the media attention to the Warren Jeffs case and the FLDS, and the Big Love show. All the media reports and documentaries.

Exactly. So I was a faithful Mormon girl and married in the temple to a returned missionary and we had a couple kids, but he had health issues and he was a huge jerk. And he stepped out on me a lot, and we fought and it was ugly, and after almost twenty years of that, we were both tired of pretending, and so we divorced. And I was single for a while. And then, last year, I became a third wife. 

Okay, so take me a back just a little bit. Your new husband and your new sister-wives, tell me about them, are they Mormon?

Actually, yeah. There are still pockets of polygamists all around, especially in Utah. Neighborhoods and schools, sometimes whole towns. Way more than people think. I mean, the man can only legally marry one woman, but there are spiritual wedding ceremonies performed to multiple women in lots of cases. Some of these groups belong to branches off the LDS Church, like the FLDS, where they have their own prophets and apostles. And some of them are still part of the main Church, they believe in Thomas Monson as the current prophet and they go to Church every week, but they lead polygamist lives because they think its part of their own salvation, something God commands. They just can’t tell anyone about it. 

So your congregation knows your husband is married to his first wife, but you and the second wife are just seen as single women and mothers in the ward?

Actually, yeah. We get pressure put on us, she and I, to find men and get married, but we just smile and say we are too busy or we can’t find the right person. But we are actually married, just not like they think. 

Is there anyone in your life who knows about you being a third wife?

Very few people. My mom found out and she won’t talk to me. My teenage daughter told her, and we had a huge fight. A few of my close friends know, and they are sweet to me. But most people wouldn’t understand. 

So tell me about your family.

That’s the million dollar question. My husband and his first wife married young. They met at BYU and were very happy together. They had a few children as he graduated and started working, and they bought their first house. No one in their family is polygamist, but they shared a love for old church teachings together. Eventually they decided together that they wanted a second wife together. They found a community of Saints who are very private and practice polygamy. And then they found the second wife, and courted her together. They weren’t really looking for a third wife, but I grew very close to them and they surprised me by offering the idea. They brought me and my kids into the family and we’ve been together ever since. 

How do the dynamics work in the family?

Well, we spend every Sunday together as one family unit. Otherwise we alternate evenings. He works, and we all work, so family in the evenings. I see him two nights per week on a rotating schedule, Monday/Tuesday, Wednesday/Thursday, or Friday/Saturday. We stay in contact online the rest of the time. It’s actually very seamless for us. We all love this life. 

You were referencing the old order earlier, and how women were victimized and marginalized–

Let me interrupt you there. I’ve given this a lot of thought. There is an enormous difference between expecting women and men to be polygamous, and having consenting adults choose this life. We are raising our children, both sons and daughters, to be free thinkers and to choose the lives they want for themselves. We have no expectation that they will join us in polygamy. We don’t condone the actions of men like Warren Jeffs. This is a life that works for us, and not for others. It works because our husband is a just and good man, and we all love him and believe in this life for us. 

Ensign Peak

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One Saturday several months ago, it rained endlessly, great buckets over the valley, grey skies draining out their excess on the dry land beneath. On Sunday, the skies cleared and the sun washed warmly over the wet expanses. I made my way to the hills and parked my car at Ensign Peak Nature Park, not far from my home in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve lived here four years now, give or take a few months, but I’ve never been to this particular park.

Flags fly at the bottom, which is fitting as the word ensign means a flag or standard. Apparently back in 1847, when the Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young marched a group of men up to the top of this hill overlooking the city. He concocted a story about being shown this valley by the ghost of Joseph Smith in a holy vision and declared this is where the Saints would settle and build their new land. They named the hilltop Ensign Peak, referencing an old scripture from Isaiah in the Old Testament.

As I hike the relatively easy half mile incline to the top of the hill, my heart rate increased with minor exertion and my thoughts strayed to the thousands of people who had hiked this trail before me, going back generations. I get like this sometimes, existential, somehow connected to humanity going back to the beginning and pushing forward into the generations to come, my spirit extending outward beyond myself, soul open, eyes wide.

Life stirs in the bushes and trees around me. This Earth that supports life in all its forms, from the smallest of aphids to the largest of whales, from a single blade of grass to a sycamore tree, from one quiet infant to an entire race of humans each warring for their own interests and screaming for validation. A squirrel scrambles to the side, a bird flits up to a tree top, a cricket jumps across the path.

It only takes me 20 minutes to reach the top, and I find a rock to sit against, rolling my jacket up behind the small of my back. There is a little tower of rocks, man-made, up at the Peak, commemorating the space. I don’t let myself look at the horizon, not yet. I just want to experience life here for a moment. It’s warm, there’s a breeze, the ground is hard.

Over the next 20 minutes, I shut my eyes and just listen to the errant conversations around me, snippets of dialogue, voices among loved ones, words that only exist for the amount of time it takes for them to be spoken.

“How long are you in town before you head back to Berlin? We have to take you to a Bees game while you are here!”

“Mom! I already have four likes and two friend requests, look!”

“Sorry about my dog, she just makes that noise when she’s excited, but she would never hurt anyone.”

“Honey, did you forget the snack packs? He’s gonna want his snack pack.”

“I love you, too.”

I notice the quiet within myself, my own internal voices are silent. Those persistent drives and discomforts about the empty bank account, the need for better nutrition, the lack of abs, the lack of a boyfriend… they are silent for now, and it feels amazing. My face, my hands, my neck, all exposed skin soaks up the sunlight and the breeze.

After a time I stand and I take in a slow view of the horizon. The sun hangs low over the Great Salt Lake in the west with the Oquirrh Mountains on the horizon, the city stretches on endlessly to the South with buildings and roads as far as I can see, the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains give color and life to the east. The beautiful State Capitol building lies just below the peak, the smaller Salt Lake City Temple (the Mormon holy building) just beyond that, the University of Utah to the west, enormous apartment buildings jutting all over the valley.

I think back to the how the horizon has changed over the years. Back in 1847, this was a wide open expanse, all brown rock and blue skies. By 1900, the Mormon temple must have been the biggest building, with only small roads and homes around it, now it is dwarfed by concrete and metal businesses and dwellings, beautiful but barely noticeable unless you are right next to it. Before that, this peak must have been used by the fur traders and trappers who moved into the region, seeking to pillage its resources for wealth. Still before that, Native Americans likely used the same view to scout out resources, water sources or animals for hunting, or perhaps as a vantage point to watch for enemies. And it will keep changing as humans die and new humans take their places, as buildings and roads crumble and new structures are built over the old. What will be the view from this peak in ten years, fifty, one hundred?

I keep my back to the others who come and go behind me, still catching bits of their conversations.

“Dude, if you can’t run up this hill, you definitely aren’t ready for a marathon.”

“Should I text her again? No, you’re right, I just gotta wait for a response.”

“This is my first climb since my knee surgery. I can’t wait for a real challenge.”

“Humans,” I think, and I realize I’m smiling. Humans indeed.

I’m there for another ninety minutes, thinking, peaceful, centered, not worried about yesterday or tomorrow. These are the moments to live for, these spiritual moments in nature. I find them in nature, in the human story, in myself.

As the sun sets, I descend. There is a poetry to this place. An ensign raised for a new land, a peak from which you can see with clarity all around you, every potential, every pitfall. An ensign for myself, and one I plan to return to often.