Europe, in Reflection

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Someone brought out a stack of family photos and slapped them down on the kitchen table. “Have you looked at these yet? They are from the family vacation to Europe, back in 2001.”

I grabbed the stack of pictures and began leafing through them. My first impression was of how young we all looked. 18 years brings a lot of change. I am 40 now; I was 22 then. My younger sister, Sheri, is now 36; she was 18 then, right out of high school. My father and mother, now 80 and 75, had been 62 and 57.

For Mom and Dad, 18 years brought with it a lot of age and health struggle, graying of the hair and a lowering of the posture. But it also brought new grandchildren and great-grandchildren, new marriages for both of them, new perspectives. Times were changing, and we with them.

And for Sheri and I, 18 years meant finishing college, starting our families, losing weight, leaving Mormonism, and coming out. It meant leaving an old life behind and beginning a new and authentic one. The differences were startling.

I viewed 22-year old me in the photos with kindness and understanding. Chad then was just off his mission and attending an all-Mormon college. He knew he was gay, but he felt he was broken and beyond repair. He was resigned to a Mormon fate of temple marriage and children, never knowing the touch of a man. He had determined he would never be happy because that isn’t what God wanted for him. He held on so tightly to that.

I flipped through these photos and I saw a young man full of ambition, with a clear heart and head, so ready to embrace the big world out there. But his soul and spirit were so locked up. He had bright brown eyes and a careful but happy smile. He had thick hair that curled when it grew long. He wore baggy shorts and tent-like shirts over his Mormon undergarments. He so hoped to be seen by the world around him. He so badly needed the world to notice the space he occupied. He smiled so wide, but was so sad.

Sheri walked up behind me. “Whoa, look at these!” She sat next to me and we laughed about the pictures. I looked over at her now, the skinny, vibrant, blue-eyed, short-haired beauty next to me. She runs now, for health, because she loves it. She watches what she eats. She i married to an incredible woman. She loves herself.

And then I looked down to the Sheri from those old photos. Her hair was longer and parted down he middle, and it hung limply on the sides of her face. She had headphones in, using them to drown out the world around her. She wore baggy clothes, shielding herself in them. Every photo in the series, one after another, showed her glowering at the camera. Not just not smiling, but refusing to smile. She looked so unhappy, so closed off, from everyone around her and from herself. It broke my heart to see the differences.

Sheri gently jostled my arm. “Do you remember that day on the trip when you threatened to punch me in the face? I was so mad at you!” Sheri was looking at the photos and ha mirth in her voice. She was teasing me. But I felt a sharp jab of pain at the memory.

I kept the humor in my voice. “Do you remember the whole story? Do you remember why I said that?”

Sheri shrugged. “I think so. But it definitely wasn’t okay, especially after what we went through with Kent when we were younger.”

Kent was our abusive step-father, the man who had terrorized us when we were teenagers. I felt another jab of pain.

“Okay, hang on. Here’s the story. We are in Europe and everything is fucking beautiful, all  Swiss Alps and Black Forests and ski chalets and cuckoo clocks. And you are all up in your music for days at a time while we sat on the bus for hours. I’d grab your arm and be like ‘look at those mountains!’ and you’d just ignore me. Meanwhile, Mom is back there crying because for some reason she agreed to go on a European vacation for two weeks with the man she has been divorced from for over a decade, and Dad never has a word to say, and I’m all locked up inside like a good little Mormon boy.”

Sheri looked up, a bit defensive. “Hey, I had my own stuff going on!”

“Oh, I know. I’m not saying you didn’t. We both had a lot going on. So no blame. Just setting the picture. I’m in the prettiest place I’ve ever been and I want to share it with someone and you keep ignoring me!”

“Well, I didn’t want to talk to you!”

We both laugh and smile. We are close enough to have conversations like this and have them remain light-hearted.

“Okay, anyway,” I continue, “we were in Austria, and I was really fucking lonely, and I asked if yo would go explore a church with me, and you said no, and I was like, ‘Sheri, please!’ and then you told me to fuck off! And I quote, ‘Fuck off, Chad,’ like so unnecessarily. And I was all Mormon so language super-offended me back then, so I responded with anger. ‘If you ever tell me to fuck off again, I’ll punch you in the face.’ That’s what I said. And of course I didn’t mean it! I could never hit someone! It was just the thing I said to get my point across. And I did, and then I immediately regretted it and apologized, but you ignored me for, what, five more days after that?”

Sheri looked me in the eyes and a bit of shock passed there. All the details came rushing back to her. “Oh. Yeah.” She was quiet a moment. “Well, I ignored you cause you pissed me off!”

“Oh, I deserved it, probably. I was pretentious back then.”

We changed the subject and kept looking at the pictures. My eyes kept switching back and forth between the sad looks on our faces and the amazing scenery. The Eagle’s Nest resort, set in the Alps. Sheri’s headphones. The green rolling hills of Salzburg. My fake smile. The centuries-old Gothic cathedral. Sheri’s glower. The intricate woodcrafting in a local shop. Dad’s stern and sad frown. Flower boxes filled with colorful blossoms on Bavarian homes. Mom’s pain hidden so carefully behind her smiles.

Minutes later, Mike and I walked outside, taking a few hours to ourselves before the big family dinner that evening. I got behind the wheel of the car and closed my eyes briefly. I was shocked to find tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks.

Mike gripped my hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong. Just… that conversation with Sheri, remembering who she was, who I was, who we all are now, all that pain in a place of such beauty. I’m just–remembering.

Grieving.

Happy.

Changed.”

 

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Silver Paint and Cigarettes

The man’s face was painted silver. Thick, shiny silver. He wore a black jacket over a flannel shirt, and he had a Saints ball cap pulled low on his head. Blue jeans, tennis shoes. He leaned against a wall and took a long drag on a cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a long stream, and a low sigh exited his lips as he stood there. Then I noticed that his hands were painted silver too.

I leaned over to Mike. “Look!” I spoke in an excited whisper. The man took another long drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke out, and then he began walking down the block, away from us. Mike took brief notice, then looked back down at his phone, disinterested. But I was fascinated by this man.

“He must have been one of those guys who does street performances. He paints himself silver and stands there not moving like a statue and people stand in front of him and take pictures and give him tips and stuff. He’s one of those guys.”

Mike used his phone to navigate us to our destination, a little supper club space a few blocks off of Bourbon Street. We entered an old building with sparse decor. A band sat right inside the entrance, playing old blues songs, and the perfect mix of the percussion, the clarinet, the bass, and the piano arrested my senses. The man at the piano crooned softly into a microphone, his voice reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. (But somehow in this setting it made me think more of King Louis in Disney’s the Jungle Book). My foot started tapping as I surveyed the room. A simple bar with a bartender named Jory who was dressed like some kind of 1950s pin-up girl as she deftly mixed drinks for the small crowd. A few scattered tables and stools with six or so people spread among them, all listening to the music. No one had their phones out, and that struck me almost more than anything.

“Oh, this is perfect,” I whispered to myself. Just a few blocks away there were hundreds of people swarming up and down the street in vast crowds, tripping over each other, half-drunk. They clamored from bar to bar, shop to shop, on the street full of singers, crooners, and musicians, with a different club every thirty feet, each with its own oyster or crawfish specialities, its own drinks, its own music with horns and drums and lead singers. But this place, with this handful of people, just far enough of the beaten path, was somehow perfect.

I ordered a drink from the bar, something with rum and gin and ginger beer and cherry juice and orange peel, and as Jory began shaking it all together in a metal cup, the band started a new number. The piano shifted into the upper octaves, the bass thumped out a deep resonant strain, and the percussion shifted into some wood-block-tapping sound. I turned as the clarinet began its song, and my spirit soared with it. I took my drink and joined Mike at the table.

“This. Is. Perfect.” I repeated with emphasis, and he laughed.

“Happy 40th birthday vacation weekend,” he smiled, gripping my hand, and I laughed. We clinked our drinks together, and the clarinet soared around our heads as we sipped in celebration.

One song later, I looked up to see a cop ride by on horseback, clip-clopping through the French Quarter a literal head and shoulders above everyone else.

I leaned in to Mike. “Where else would you see that?

He twisted his lips up the way he does when he’s about to make a joke. Banter is one of the very best parts of our relationship. “Canada,” he replied.

“No, they ride moose there.” I wiggled my eyebrows.

Mike rolled his eyes. “You can’t tame a moose.”

“Well, I did,” I stated, then stroked his hand affectionately, like I was petting a dog.

“Hey! I’m not a moose!”

He jabbed at me as I simply took another sip of my drink. “Aw, I made the moose upset. Look at his cute little waaaaaaah-tlers.”

Mike broke, laughing, and the singer started crooning again. There was a growl in his voice, and it made me want to snarl in the very best ways.

We went for a walk after that, weaving around the side streets of the French Quarter, with its small and beautiful homes, its waving flags, its low lights. We passed no less than six gay clubs and fifteen supper clubs, and people were crammed into every one of them, watching the Saints play football. We heard whoops and shouts and laughter, and we held hands as we walked.

We ended up back at the same club, wanting just a bit more, and saw the band was on break. Jory waved at us as we arrived, outside on her cigarette break, and I smiled. Taking a seat at the same table. I watched the four men from the band at the bar. Two wore straw hats. The singer had dreadlocks. I wondered what their lives were like. They had wives and children, day jobs, families, and here they were on a Thursday night playing incredible music for this tiny crowd for no other reason than that they loved it. Between sets, they checked text messages, had idle conversation, had a quick drink. At the end of the night, they’d go back home by bike or in a cab, and they’d sleep before their alarms went off for the workday in the morning.

Soon after, Mike and I headed back to our Airbnb, tired from the long flight and the time change, the walking and the humidity. And I thought of that man, the statue performer. I thought of him posing with drunk people in photos for tips. The put on his jeans, his jacket, his hat, then snuck around a corner for a cigarette break, still in his silver paint. I thought of the silver paint from his lips on the cigarette, of the silver swirls that must permanently stain around his shower drain, of the canister of silver body and face paint that must stack up on the side of his bathroom, of the cigarette smoke rising slowly in the air before disappearing. Evanescent. Just like me.

Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Dark Side of Calgary

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“Maybe I’ll go on a killing spree! Maybe there’s gonna be human flesh all over the pavement!”

The man was shouting at no one in particular. He was just kind of yelling into the sidewalk. He was in his late 30s, approximately, Hispanic, with a buzzed head and thick lips. He sat on the ground, wearing camouflage pants and a thick black coat, his back to a concrete structure, and he just yelled. He didn’t seem to see me walk by. I only paused briefly, and as he quickly scratched at a purple spot on his head, I determined he was on drugs and kept walking.

Encounters like this in big cities seemed relatively commonplace. Just in the last year, in San Francisco, and again in Seattle, I’d witnessed bizarre encounters like this on the streets. My boyfriend and I, during our travels, had seen one woman scream about the entire world being rapists while she scratched at open sores on her legs, and we’d seen a homeless man in a wheelchair masturbating in a stairwell right outside our hotel. Still, something about the human flesh comment left me feeling a little frightened this time around.

It was my final night in Calgary, Alberta. After a few lovely days of exploring various parts of the city, including the national park, the zoo, a couple of gay clubs, a shopping district, and a professional theater, I wanted to make my last day leisurely. Sunday had been full of church bells, slowly sipped coffee, and contemplation. I’d been writing poetry, thinking deeply about where I am in life, and determining what goals I want to work on next. The trip overall had been deeply healing. And this evening would be my last quiet night before flying home at the ungodly hour of 4 am.

I briskly walked away from the man in camouflage and noticed a beautiful courtyard park in front of a massive church just across the way. It was gorgeous in layout, with steel benches, curving sidewalks, and small manicured gardens in front of the large church. I hurriedly cross the street to check it out.

As I entered the park, I noticed the tall brown building against the dull grey sky. It had been grey my entire time in the city, but somehow it was perfect. This weather is what people think of when they think of Seattle, this gray overcast heaviness. But it didn’t bother me. I liked the drizzle, the clouds over the river. It was music to me.

I looked back down and realized that several different men were watching me from benches. It wasn’t a casual gaze, they were staring me down. I did my best not to make eye contact, but counted four of them, all of them clearly homeless and very likely high. Suddenly I remembered the building I’d passed a few blocks back, the one that had “JESUS LOVES” written across the top in giant red letters, and I realized it might very well be a homeless shelter. Had I wandered into the local version of Pioneer Park? Back in my home in Salt Lake City, there is a downtown park in a prime location that is generally very unsafe and full of homeless people due to its proximity to the shelters. This could be downright frightening.

I paused briefly at a small manicured garden full of what looked like cabbage plants. They were green, purple, and white, and came out of the ground in jagged spikes. I stared at the plants for a few moments, stunned by their strange beauty, yet still aware of the men in the park behind me.

Then I got scared.

“Fuck everyone! I fucking hate humans!” A woman stumbled from behind a group of trees as she yelled into the sky. Her hair was sloppy, pulled back into a shaggy ponytail, and she had far too much face paint on, bright blue over her eyes, pink on her cheeks, and red on her lips. She was slightly plump, likely in her early 40s (or maybe in her 20s but far older than her years). She wore a leather jacket over a black t-shirt that was cut low to reveal cleavage, a pair of jean shorts that had the legs cut off of them (likely with a pair of scissors), fishnet stockings with holes in them, and a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots. I immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

The woman tripped slightly and dropped a white container of some kind onto the sidewalk. “FUCK!” she screamed, then she bent down, nearly falling off her heels, picked up the object, and threw it across the street. “FUCK!”

She then took a leather purse from off her shoulder and threw it hard into a bench, where it landed in a pile on the concrete. “FUCK!” She slumped herself down onto the metal bench near her purse, unzipped her jacket pocket, and wrestled a cell phone and headphones out of her pocket. The cord was tangled up and as she unraveled it, she just kept screaming. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I hate humankind!” Finally, she just dropped the headphones, put her phone on top of her purse, and just collapsed her head into her hands. She started sobbing her eyes out.

I stood there frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. Should I go to comfort her, ask if she needed anything? She shook with deep, silent sobs. I looked closer and saw needle marks up and down her legs under the fishnets. I was just remembering the men behind me and how I needed to leave when another man came from behind the trees, and I immediately wondered if he was this woman’s pimp.

He was bald with a spotty goatee and a patchy face. Shorter than me, he was missing teeth and wore a dirty white T-shirt and blue sweat pants over his white sneakers. He looked at the woman, then looked at me. He had a bizarrely playful look on his face.

“Hey.” His voice was almost calm. “Trust in JC, am I right?” I didn’t answer, and instead gave one last look at the woman. “Hey, that’s my coat, right? You take my coat?” I looked at the red jacket I was wearing, then back up, and simply shook my head. “That’s my coat.”

I almost answered, but instead just turned away and started walking quickly, not running, away from the cabbage plants, the crying woman, and the bald man. I crossed paths with the men with scary eyes again, and turned right out of the park. I kept walking fast, noticing the other people around me on the sidewalk, just regular civilians, realizing none of them had been in the park. I walked a full block before I turned my head around and realized the bald man was following me. He was only 20 yards back. We made eye contact and he playfully spoke again.

“Just trust JC.”

I went from nervous to downright scared now, and walked more quickly. Was he that woman’s pimp? Was he mad at me for having looked at her? Did I step into his territory? Was he mentally ill? Did he just really like my coat and want it? Or was he just high and curious? I walked faster.

Two blocks later, he was a bit farther behind, but he was still following. I was a mile from the Airbnb where I was staying. This wasn’t going to end well. I came on a new block and realized I was passing a business. I stepped inside without looking, and realized I was in an ice cream shop.

The shop was empty except for a small Asian girl working behind the counter. She greeted me, and I approached a bit nervous. As she described their unique ice cream methods, I felt myself begin to calm, and then I heard a tapping behind me. I turned around and saw the bald man standing right outside, tapping his hand softly on the glass. He was staring through the window right at me and wanted my attention. What kind of fucking Stephen King nightmare was this?

I turned back to the Asian girl, and told her how the man was following me, and how maybe we should be ready to call the police. She couldn’t be more than 17. She looked over my shoulder at the man, then smiled reassuringly. “This is a sketchy area sometimes. I don’t think he will come in.”

“No, but I have to go back out at some point.”

A few minutes later, I sat at the table, eating a scoop of mango ice cream that I didn’t even want, and tried to avoid the man staring at me from outside. There were no other exits that I knew of. How was I going to handle this? I opened up my phone and began to Google the Canadian police phone number. There was no way I was walking out there.

When I looked back up from my phone, the man was gone. I waited ten minutes, then wandered up to the window, wondering if he was around some corner. A mile was a long way to walk with someone after me, and I’d been mugged pretty badly once before (back when I was a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia). Instead, I summoned an Uber. The car pulled up within two minutes, and I rushed outside and jumped in, my heart thudding in my chest.

Twenty minutes later, I called my boyfriend to tell him what had happened. Knowing me far too well, he responded simply.

“Huh. That’s scary. I’m glad you are okay! But I bet this will make one hell of a blog post.”

Calgary Loft 3

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In America, I’m often asked if I’m really from Canada

There is something about the way certain words leave my mouth

The mix of Missouri and Idaho on my tongue

“See you ta-mohr-ow” or “hey, I’m soar-y”

Seem unfamiliar

 

And now I’m in Calgary and they sound nothing like me

 

It’s strange here, in a good way

Everything is the same, but slightly altered

Like looking at my world through a different lens

 

Cinnamon tastes a little different

And the air breathes a little cleaner

Product labels bear the same names with different words and designs

And things seem to cost a little more but actually cost a little less

I don’t speak metric or Celsius, I don’t know how to measure in kilometers

And the trending fashions seem like something out of 1995

 

Last night, a drag queen yelled, 

“Anyone here from the East Coast?”

And she meant Halifax and Charlottetown, not New York and Boston

 

I think perhaps I’m suited for these colder climates. 

I feel at home in my flannel and jeans, my knitted hat with the floppy strings

Conversation comes easily, and people laugh at my jokes

 

It doesn’t feel upside down, just a little tilted

Slightly sideways

 

Yesterday, I drove through a nearby national forest

And had to lurch my car to a sudden stop

When a large grey wolf ambled out into the road

She wasn’t in a hurry

She trotted across the highway, as if she were out for a stroll

And disappeared into the trees

I sat stunned, blocking the cars behind me

But no one honked impatiently

They simply waited for me to gather myself

And then continue driving

Into the trees

Ones that smell just a bit differently than the ones I’m used to

 

Seattle Part 5: the Dream

September, 2014

I waited until I had a job before moving to Seattle, but once I arrived, they had me wait a few weeks before I could start. My social work license had to transfer, and my background check had to clear. So I ended up with a few weeks to play tourist.

I had first come to Seattle when I was 15, back when my mom was married to Kent, the man who used words and fists to prove his points. (They had divorced when I was 17). The trip had been a whirlwind, lots of time spent with Kent’s family, very little time in Seattle, and then a trip up north, to British Columbia and Vancouver Island. And I had also come to Seattle a few times as an adult, when I was married, and once after coming out. I had a good sense of the city’s most tourist-y spaces, the Space Needle and Pike Market, a few of the gay clubs. But overall, it was brand new to me.

The idea of Seattle was so romantic to me when I first arrived. The way the streets laid out into different neighborhoods. The idea of an entire city with its own history and its own people, one that didn’t revolve around Mormonism. The rich and vibrant gay community. The tech industry. The theaters, the markets, the coffee shops, the restaurants. The delicious cool ocean climate. The rain. The lakes. The nightlife.

I spent a few days exploring different parts of the city, wandering the streets, always with a book in hand. I found quirky street art, wandered through book stores, and drank delicious coffee. I wandered through the university campuses, took a few city tours, and learned as much history as I could. I got a library card, perhaps my prize possession in any city, and felt more legitimate. I was a resident. I had moved here. I’d done something just for me.

My first Saturday in the city, I took the bus down to Pike Market with the plan of spending the entire day. I got there early and watched the shopkeepers arrive with their various wares: carved walking sticks, hand-drawn cityscapes, feather jewelry, fresh-squeezed lime juice, home-grown mushrooms, huge bouquets of flowers. As I listened to conversations, I began to realize the organics of this place. Store front spaces were highly competitive, and very expensive. Rent for a space had to be paid in advance, and was expected in full regardless of sales. Some store fronts were permanent, and others changed hands every few days. The stations that were farthest out were basically just a section of concrete wall, not even a chair or an electrical outlet included, and the peddlers just set up station. Parking was supremely expensive, so most people were just dropped off for the day, and they were expected to be there for the entire day, from early morning until late afternoon. The early morning was a mess of delivery trucks and patrons unloading their supplies and setting up shop.

As the market opened, it was quiet. Everyone clutched cups of coffee and wore jackets. I casually strolled through the place, looking at ornate African cloths, jars of exotic spices and small shelves of kitschy figurines. I was tempted and assaulted by every aroma: freshly fried doughnuts, grilled onions, lines of frozen fish, juicy peaches, burnt sugar, homemade bread, barbecued ribs. And there was a sea of diverse humanity working there, people of every color, age, height, nationality, and style. I watched and listened, losing myself in it all, forgetting it all.

By late morning, the tourists arrived, and as mid-afternoon approached, even more. The empty hallways and passages swarmed with people. Street musicians played violins and guitars and saxophones, entertaining and hoping for tips. The crowd became so dense that I couldn’t move through it without careful navigation, bypassing backpacks, strollers, and families as I worked my way from one end of the market and back, wanting to see how fast I could do it.

Finally, tired and needing sustenance, I bought some delicious items from a few vendors, then made my way to the entrance of Pike, where I sat on a bench and faced the ocean. No one knew me here. No one asked any questions. No one cared that I was gay, or where I was from. No one knew anything about Mormons, or my failed marriage, or those years I spent hiding in my own skin. I could breathe here. I could get lost, and I could breathe.

As I walked away, blocks from Pike Market, I passed through Belltown. And I sat on another bench, seeing a ‘for sale’ sign, advertising a high-rise condo inside. It was a large beautiful building full of condos. Men in suits and women in professional dress walked around me. The building overlooked the ocean. And for just a moment, I let myself dream.

Maybe I would meet an architect, or an engineer, or a lawyer. Maybe I would fall madly in love with someone handsome and kind, and we would spend evenings sipping wine, weekends going on hikes. Maybe he would cook for me and I would write him poems and we would fall in love, suddenly and slowly. Maybe we would buy this little condo in Belltown, where we could have friends over, where we could walk along the ocean front and talk while holding hands. Maybe on Saturday mornings, I would walk down to Pike Market and buy fresh vegetables and flowers, and I would come back to the condo and put things away. Maybe my future was here. Maybe my sons would come down on holiday breaks, or for full summers, and I would show them this miraculous city, and they would both feel loved and important and also know that I was happy. Maybe I would open a little corner office where I would see clients a few days a week and I would write the rest of the time. Maybe I would end up feeling like this was my path all along, and I wouldn’t grieve my past anymore. Maybe this was how it was always meant to be, with Mormonism, and self-shame, far far away.

Maybe this would be my new life. Maybe this was my future. Maybe… maybe I could be happy here. Maybe I had possibility.

All your Moose-Bucks

“Wait, why Saskatoon?”

Every Canadian who learned who were on vacation from America asked us this question with shock, in a way that showed that they loved their city but they wouldn’t understand what would bring an American there. (I think it would be like a person from Ogden, Utah wondering why a man from Australia had chosen that particularly city for vacation, it just didn’t compute.)

Even Sonja, the kind Canadian woman who worked the WestJet check-in counter at the Saskatoon Airport, wondered why. “What did you even find to do here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

We’d done lots of things. Live music, beers, nightclubs, art galleries, live theater, long drives through the lush Saskatchewan farmland, historical exploration in small resort towns, long walks and talks, exploration of local neighborhoods and universities, coffee shops, and window shopping. It was difficult to explain that we’d chosen it to see a different side of life in a different place, somewhere far away but somehow just close enough to home. And in Canada, familiar to the culture of the United States but just one parallel universe away, with customs and currency just one degree off from the familiar. A place where people spoke the same, but the vowels were just a bit longer, giving an almost Irish lilt to the accents. (Example, instead of home, they say hohme, the oh just a bit longer.)

Sonja understood. “It sounds like you just chose a city with a great and unique name. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

I gave her a wide smile back. “The best name. And a place I’ll probably never make it back to.”

Adapting to the culture here had been mostly easy, with just a few rare exceptions. Without WiFi accessible on the phone, due to international data plans, we’d been left to use an ancient GPS in our rental car to get us places, and in at least one case it directed us to a spot around 160 kilometers away from where we’d needed to be, keeping us in the car an extra 2 hours to get back to where we needed to be. (But we’d seen an awful lot of wheat fields, flat horizons, and farm houses along the way, even stopping for some Rum Raisin ice cream at a random business built on a field, and served by a lovely woman with terrible teeth).

One day, we’d visited Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take some old tours of the city’s tunnels, built back in the 1920s and 30s, one about Al Capone’s alleged boot-legging business and one about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants for decades during the construction of the local railroads and the years afterwards. The tours had been run by local actors, all short and squat, who mostly seemed bored with their jobs as they recounted fascinating history in a character voice. Yet parking in Moose Jaw had been impossible. Most places in the province had allowed us to use credit or debit cards to pay for parking, but this city only had old-fashioned parking meters, and we had to stop into several places to first get Canadian dollars, then to make change for Canadian quarters. (Now I have a collection of Canadian coins and bills, what seems like play money with pictures of British royalty on it, in my wallet, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it).

We’d gone to the two local gay clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what the local culture was like. One Friday, at Diva’s, we had been the only ones at the bar, and finally left at 11:30, baffled. But on Saturday, at Pink, the bar had been packed with men and women in flannel, all with thick bushy hair, some even in mullets, wearing styles that were reminiscent of the mid-1990s in Idaho and Utah: backwards ball caps, cigarettes tucked behind ears, baggy jeans, and hoodies over untucked flannel shirts.

We’d seen a local play, a first viewing of a production written by a local gay man, one that featured gay parents struggling to raise a son with schizophrenia all while getting in touch with their own roots. It had been moving and wonderful.

We’d watched a local band, the Royal Foundry, a husband-and-wife pop/folk duo whose songs are newly gracing radio stations across Canada, give an incredible concert for a group of 30 people in a small jazz club. The singers’ parents and grandparents had been in attendance, and we’d clapped and tapped our feet to their incredible energy and music, sipping on Old Fashioned drinks and continually commenting on how amazing the band was.

On Sunday, I’d taken hours to walk through the rain through the local University of Saskatchewan, weaving in and out of buildings, watching students study and write in quiet corners of the library and classroom buildings. I read the placards about local Nobel Peace Prize winners, and had admired the “collegiate gothic” style of the buildings. It had been beautiful, and filled me with a longing for my academic days.

We’d been picked up and dropped off by a Vietnamese immigrant, whose car we had rented for the week through a phone app. Nguyen, as he’d asked to be called, talked about this Christian family in Viet Nam, black-listed in their home town for being Catholic. His parents had worked for years to afford a Western education for their son, and now he was here working on a PhD in business, in his sixth year of school. He discussed his “maybe girlfriend” who lived hundreds of kilometers away, a girl he was interested in because he had met her at a college Bible camp years before.

So why Saskatoon? For all of those reasons. These random encounters. The music and art and theater, the rain, the buildings, the farmland and history, the never-ending niceness of the locals, and the wonder that we’d had this weekend to explore and be parts of these things.

When we first landed, my best friend Tyler and I had laughed that we didn’t understand local currency, and I’d joked that they must use Moose-Bucks.

Now that we were leaving, Tyler asked if ‘d wade the experiences in, if I wished we had gone somewhere different instead.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” I said with conviction. “Not for all my Moose-Bucks.”

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Saskatoon Shines!

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Years ago, I learned to find peace when I traveled, respite from life. Parts of me would come alive when I left my home in Utah and stepped into a new and unfamiliar place, where I could place my feet upon new streets and breathe new air. Travel became crucial for me and for my development, and my soul cried out for it. I traveled to survive.

Now I travel simply because I enjoy it. I like frequent getaways to new places. I enjoy walking and seeing what I can discover.

Saskatoon snuck up on me. It was a word that merely escaped my lips after a stressful day at work, and suddenly I had booked plane tickets for a few months later. And now I’m here, looking out at the expanse of the flat Canadian prairie country and farmland around me. I’m staying on the 21st floor of a tall building, and my view overlooks the river and a few bridges, into the distance and over the city. The skies are grey and I can see the Earth curve on the far horizon.

There is something about being somewhere I haven’t been before, and with a place like Saskatoon it is likely a place I will never be again. The city isn’t particularly magical. It’s drab, all browns and greens and grey and blues that seem muted, like Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. The people are kind, and funny, and go out of their way to be helpful. The architecture is normal. A cold breeze blows across the river. It feels like a normal metropolitan western city, with many of the same restaurants and department stores that I would find back in America.

But for me, it isn’t about the city, it’s about the experiences.

It’s wandering into a city government building to explore and having a long conversation with the security guard about canola farming and the changing temperatures of the northern farm land and the tax incentives for farmers who are looking out for their families’ well-beings generations down the line.

It’s stopping in the tourism office and chatting with a delightful potato bug of a person named Debbie about her passion and love for the city.

It’s stepping into a random restaurant and having a friendly Asian man with much too long fingernails serve you thick noodles in vegetable broth with freshly sliced mushrooms, eggplant, and cabbage, and talking about how good life is with your best friend.

It’s seeing Canadian geese on a Canadian river in Canada.

It’s sitting down and clutching a cup of coffee for warmth as two women loudly cackle while another man rushes into the place looking like he forgot where the bathroom was, and then realizing that look never quite leaves his face.

It’s going out to a nightclub in the late evening and hoping to interact with locals and then leaving two hours later, having been the only ones in the establishment.

It’s repeating a joke to a Canadian woman: “I heard that in Saskatchewan you can watch your dog run away for three full miles.”

And hearing her take it far too seriously: “Well, I suppose, but that is more in southern Saskatchewan, we get a few hills here and there up here.”

It’s complimenting a woman on her niceness, and indeed the seeming niceness of all Canadians, and having her respond, “Well, we are nice, yes, but we are sarcastic too!”

Travel sings to my soul. It takes me to a spiritual place in my own head where I can be anonymous in a crowd and just absorb. I didn’t travel, much, until just a few years ago, and now the memories I can capture in my journal or blog or just in my own head resound within me constantly on a playlist. Ocean Beach and Provincetown and Missoula and Reno and Fillmore and Little Armenia and the Castro and Pike Market. The list extends, and each place brings a smile to my face, though nothing note-worthy happened in any of those places except for long walks and life on my own terms. Community theater, vegan restaurants, saloons, beaches, live music, coffee shops, book stores, and strangers.

Travel releases me. It puts me in tune with myself. It gives me voice. It sings to my soul and through my fingertips. It slows me down and brings me back into my own self.

Yet travel also exposes me. It strips me bare. My insecurities, fears, doubts, shames, regrets, and worries work themselves out of me. At some point on every trip, I feel small and scared. I worry about insurmountable tasks. I think of my children and get tears on my cheeks. I grieve for losses. I think of the unfinished: the book, the documentary, the fitness goals. I shift to gratitude and I wonder if I’ll lose all I’ve gained. But even these parts of me are valid, vital, crucial. They are always within me, the bones upon which I build myself, and it is freeing to feel them there and let them breathe.

When we landed in Saskatoon, the welcome sign said “Saskatoon Shines!” But I haven’t seen the sun yet here. On the first night, the sun was setting, and pinks and oranges blended in with the grey clouds.

“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, and a woman nearby took notice.

“Oh, that is pretty, yes, but we get much better sunsets than that one. That one is just okay. Sorry ’bout that. Keep watching, no worries.”

She apologized for the quality of the sunset. And somehow that single moment captures the essence of this trip for me.

As I type this, the sky is still grey, and river still flowing, the colors still drab.

And the Earth is still curving, and me with it.

Saskatoon may not shine much, but it shines for me.

Losing my lube in Canada

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“Everyone here is no nice!”

I had only been to Canada a few times before, once to Victoria, Vancouver Island as a teenager on a brief family vacation, and a few times to British Columbia during my married Mormon years. Yet now I was on my way for an epic (well, epic on my own terms) five day vacation to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a city I had kind of chosen at random a few months before when I wanted to plan a trip to look forward to.

“They are nice!” Tyler said back, and I thought of the dozens of South Park and How I Met Your Mother episodes I had seen making fun of Canadian niceness.

My best friend Tyler and I had arrived at the airport in Salt Lake City in plenty of time, and we’d been surprisingly moved to the “premier” section of the small plane, a watered down version of first class, with drinks delivered in glass containers with ice, a small pillow and blanket, and a bit more leg room. The flight attendants and many people on the plane were clearly Canadian and proud of it, many wearing maple leaves on their clothing or apparel showing off their favorite Canadian sports teams.

We heard plenty of “Oh, sorry!” and “Hey, no worries” in our interactions. When Tyler accidentally spilled some of his complimentary water on himself, the flight attendant, adorable in a black skirt and white top and with her hair in pigtails, handed him napkins. “Here you go, sorry about that, no worries, no worries.” And he and I had laughed.

“Maybe you’ve finally found your people!” Tyler joked.

I have a weird way of pronouncing certain words. I grew up in south-western Missouri, where they have thick hillbilly drawls, and then spent my teenage years in eastern Idaho potato farming country, where the locals talk more like farmers and hicks, with long vowels and lazy consonants. I have a nice strong baritone voice, but I give those long vowels to certain words, and I have a bit of a drawl sometimes, so I tend to say a few words funny, like “soar-y” instead of “sorry” and “to-moar-ow” instead of tomorrow. I’ve been asked many times before if I’m from Canada. The flight attendant had said ‘soar-y’ and ‘no woar-ies’, causing us both to giggle.

“Maybe I have found my people!” I laughed back, just as we heard a woman from somewhere behind us yell “Oh my Goad!”, and we giggled even harder.

We walked off the plane into the Calgary Airport for our layover, and noticed beautiful artwork along the walls, much of it celebrating local wildlife, like geese and moose. We checked out handsome men in flannel and kept bantering back and forth.

I jabbed Tyler with an elbow. “Is it safe for you to enter the country again? Weren’t you on the Canadian Mounties Ten Most Wanted list years ago? If they catch you, I don’t have nearly enough Moose Bucks to bail you out.”

If anyone was annoyed with the giggling American gay male thirty-somethings, we didn’t notice, just excited to be in a new space. We lugged our luggage down the long line toward customs, our declaration forms and passports in hand, and some very polite agents, one a brown-skinned man with a thick beard and a turban, ushered us through quickly and without incident.

Then we made our way back toward the security line to re-enter the airport for our connecting flight. I slipped off my shoes, unpacked my laptop into its own bin, removed my coat, and then hefted my large carry-on bag up onto the conveyor belt. A nice man ushered me through the metal detector, but then something in my bag raised concern on the X-Ray machine.

“Excuse me, sir, is this your bag?” The Canadian TSA agent (although I’m not sure that it is called the TSA in Canada) was a short man in his early 30s with thick glasses and a large bald spot. “Please step this way.”

He led me to the end of the row as people continued passing through security. He informed me he had to look for something in my bag. “Do you have anything sharp, hazardous, or liquid in the bag?”

“Nothing sharp or hazardous. I do have some liquids in my toiletry bag. But I had this bag on my flight from Salt Lake City to Calgary and everything was fine.” I did a mental inventory of the contents of the bag as he unzipped it. Toothpaste, moisturizer, deodorant. And then I remembered I had packed a bottle of lube. The boyfriend and I keep a large 8 fluid ounce bottle of lube, that cost about fifty dollars, next to the bed, but it was more than half empty. I had packed it for… well… personal reasons (come on, my mother reads this blog) thinking that it was empty enough to be safe.

Sure enough, the man with the bald spot opened my toiletry bag and held up the bottle of lube in front of his face. Then he held it up in the air a bit, as if to show his fellow employees. He turned to me, a bit too loudly, and said, “Well, sir, your personal lubricant exceeds the maximum number of allowed milliliters.” My brain seized a bit, having no idea how to compute milliliters.

“I, um, it was fine on the last flight.”

“It’s against federal regulations.”  He continued holding it up in the air, and I felt my cheeks start to turn scarlet. “You have three options. You can be escorted out through security and recheck your bag, because this personal lubricant is not allowed on the flight, then come back through security. You can choose to have me discard this after you surrender it to me. Or I can give you a mailing package and you can mail the lubricant to yourself.”

Flummoxed and stuttering, embarrassed at the idea of mailing a bottle of lube to myself, I instructed him to simply throw it away, and he placed it in a container behin him as I repacked my bag and wanted to get away from there as soon as possible. He just stood there watching. This particular Canadian had no intention of saying Soar-y.

As we walked away, Tyler kept giggling, teasing me, but I was red faced and wanted to be out of there. I pictured the security technicians watching on their cameras at the American tourist with the giant bottle of lube.

Then Tyler tapped me on the shoulder. “You realize that man back there is totally going to take that lube home and–”

“No! No! Enough!” And finally I giggled again, ready for a weekend of new experiences in the land of nice.

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?”

Trump Towers

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“Well, there it is,” the older woman said in her thick European accent. “Trump Tower.”

“Well, it’s more like a hotel. Do you think it will be used for hosting foreign dignitaries?” The younger woman looked sad as she said it, snapping a shot of the building on her phone. “I didn’t realize how close it was to the White House.”

“I’m sure many diplomats will try to stay there to impress the president. But maybe he will let them stay there for free.”

Both women stood thoughtfully silent for a moment before I chimed in. I had been standing nearby, on a long walk through the streets of Washington D.C. I had taken my own photos of the Trump hotel as they had been talking.

“I don’t think he will be letting anyone stay for free,” I scoffed.

The older woman laughed. “We can pretend. I’m trying to comfort my daughter. She is college-aged and living here in America currently.”

The daughter continued staring at the building. “I just can’t believe it is happening. I keep looking at all of the states, even here in the District of Columbia, and I see how the majority supports Hillary Clinton. How could this man have won?”

“Well, speaking for a lot of Americans, we can’t believe it either.”

I introduced myself to the two women, Annaliese, attending college locally, who was showing her mother Linda around the city. Both women were from Armenia. I explained that I was a tourist to the city also. There was heaviness in the air as we became basically acquainted. They asked what I had been doing in the city, and I told them about my adventures.

“And then yesterday, I went to the Holocaust Museum. Have you been?” I asked.

Linda looked down, a sadness heavy on her face for a moment. “I have no need to go there. My mother’s generation was that of the first genocide, the Armenian genocide.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and there was a pregnant silence for  a moment. Then Annaliese asked me what I thought of the museum. I looked back over at the Trump hotel, and sighed.

“The first part of museum was dedicated to the political circumstances at the time. It told of Germany, struggling with political sanctions after World War I, and how the economy was slow to rebuild and the people were dissatisfied. Despite all of that, Germany had a lot of cultural things happening. It was becoming a safer place politically for homosexuals and for women, for Jews and other religious groups. It seemed to be changing, slowly, for the better. And then Hitler happened.” Both women looked at me and seemed to want me to continue. “Watching those exhibits, I saw how Hitler surrounded himself with people who admired and emulated him, and how he used the plights of the average German to propel himself into power. He used propaganda and political loopholes within the German system to seize larger and larger pieces of political influence. He exploited crises to gain sympathy and seemed to operate on a message of ‘Make Germany Great Again’, and then he took over and appointed others just like him into positions of power. And then the world watched what happened next.”

Annaliese looked at the hotel and then at me. “That sounds painfully familiar.”

I nodded twice. “Yeah, the museum was extremely uncomfortable for me. I must have had 75 moments of ‘oh my god, that sounds like America right now’. Political campaigns built on propaganda that exploit the disenfranchised. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women. Fear-mongering and gas-lighting.”

Linda stuffed her hands in her pockets, avoiding the cold wind. “And the rest of the museum?”

“Well, the rest of the museum was all that happened next. I cried lots of times reading about the people killed, and how they were killed, the people experimented upon, the ones who barely escaped with their lives. It was horrible. The museum was so beautifully built, and we must remember what happened, but it was horrible. I’m sure it was similar to the stories your mother told you of the Armenian genocide.”

We stayed silent for a moment again, and I felt the need to clarify. “Look, I don’t think we are headed for genocide in America. I don’t think that would happen again. But I do worry about what comes next for us. It’s a heavy time here after things have been going so well.”

The conversation lightened up for a few minutes and we talked instead of food and music and entertainment, of aspirations and climate and family. And then the women headed along their way, after having me take a photo of them in front of the Trump hotel.

I continued my walk then, past incredible buildings full of history. I saw names emblazoned in plaques and pavement: J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass. The sheer history of these streets. The sheer weight of the footfalls of the men and women here who have influenced a world’s destiny and changed billions of lives for better or worse, from right here on these streets.

I came around the bend and saw a few handsome Secret Service agents screening the credentials of four men and women dressed like Christmas carolers, admitting them to the White House grounds for some sort of event. I looked at a construction crew building a stage for the upcoming Inauguration of a new President. I watched a crowd of Americans gathered at the perimeter staring at the White House in all its grandeur, realizing, as I was, that it is just a building like any building, and a small building at that. A Muslim family stood arm in arm, the women with their heads wrapped, the men with heavy beards. A black mother held the hands of her three daughters, all in pink snow hats. A lesbian couple hugged each other tightly. An elderly father pushed a stroller while his daughter carried the child inside. We watched, all of us, the silent grounds around us, wondering in unison what the future holds.