Embracing my Average Provo Life

Dearest Britannia: I love you, I love you, I love you.

If you know me well, and you’ve spoken with me at all in the past 4 months, you’ll know that I’ve become quite the Anglophile. Since first studying abroad 7 (!!) months ago, I’ve nurtured a deep love for England and almost everything about it. Art, food, music, culture, architecture, history, British people. I miss it on the daily, and Provo REALLY kind of pales in comparison (sorry, Provo – It’s not you, it’s me).

But lately something odd has been happening. I finally feel adjusted to Utah life, American life, and it’s freaking me out. I no longer think about the fact that men here wear athletic clothing way too often. Or the mountains and Mormons and Taco Bells and Wal-Marts everywhere. And it worries me!

Why do I torture myself like this? I know that I’ll end up being happier as I feel more comfortable in this place I know I’m supposed to be. Things will only get easier now that I don’t hate American food and American loudness anymore. But I still feel reluctant, a little ashamed, and highly uneasy regarding my re-acclimation process. Crazy, right?

Part of my fear is rooted in emotions almost all study abroad students feel after coming home. What if all the wonderful things I learned don’t mean anything? What if it was a WASTE, because, unfortunately, in my day-to-day life it doesn’t matter at all that I know who Samuel Johnson is, or what they serve at his favorite pub. No one cares that I had a touching experience hearing King’s College Choir, or that I felt all Wordsworth-one-with-nature as a I conquered a crazy rainstorm, alone, at Primrose Hill one night. My new, delightfully abstract understanding of mortality after visiting Thomas Gray’s tomb, countless local cemeteries, Anglo-Saxon burial grounds, and SERIOUSLY SO MANY DEAD BODIES EVERY TIME WE VISITED AN ABBEY OR CATHEDRAL, isn’t something I think about all the time anymore, and it’s sad. There just aren’t that many dead people here, man!

It’s a little scary feeling my memories begin to fade. I want England to take up all my time, for my experiences there to change my life here in Provo as I wake up, go to work, and come home to my shared student apartment every day.

But as it turns out, working in a kitchen at BYU (as much as I truly love it), has nothing to do with Britain. Yes, I think about British things all the time as I cut brownies or onions or whatever it is I do there (sometimes even I don’t know), but there’s nothing practical about it. Daydreaming is great and all, but no matter how hard I may try, eggplants are not called aubergines, perfect fish and chips don’t exist, and the word “biscuits” refers to bready lumps that usually make me sad because they remind me of scones without actually being scones.

In the end, my little conundrum shows something odd about me: even though I know I’m meant to be here in Provo right now, I don’t feel as fulfilled as I know I could be. It’s an odd sensation, not quite feeling like you belong in the exact place you know you’re supposed to be.

It’s not surprising. Utah was always meant as a stepping-off point for me. I’m here for my education, which has been lovely thus far, but it won’t last forever. I have no intentions of staying after I graduate. Plenty of people love it here, and that’s fantastic, but I’m not one of those people. I like the ocean, cultural diversity. and semi-urban life. Those things are quite hard to come by in these parts.

In England I felt whole in a way I’d never experienced before. I felt everything so deeply, so passionately. We’re meant to bloom where we’re planted, and I have no doubt of my blooming abilities in Provo – but in England I flourished. I thrived, feeding off of new-found intellect, greater capacity for excitement, and a deep appreciation for so many things I didn’t even know existed before getting off that plane at Heathrow Airport. Every new food I tasted, every piece of music I heard, every bit of art I could stand to behold, touched me in beautiful ways, and I, quite simply, fell in love.

I am haunted by memories of tube rides, street markets, and castle ruins, of ancient cathedrals, noble statuary, and mind-numbingly incredible museum installations. I saw the Magna Carta, guys. And original Michelangelo sketches, a Gutenburg Bible, and Beethoven’s very own handwritten manuscript. So much more too that I can’t even list here without going crazy.

I was just sooo cool when I lived in England. I was very much in my element, living a really awesome life and appreciating almost every moment of it. That doesn’t happen very often in the real world! It’s hard to come back from that!

But I have. I have come back from that, to the real world where rent must be paid and a bus won’t show up to take me to exciting British places every Wednesday morning, and that’s okay. Even though Provo doesn’t boast prestigious, nationally-supported museums, sophisticated public transportation, people with pretty accents, or anything remotely resembling a medieval castle, I can be happy here. Just in a different way.

What I do have here is great university with qualified professors who still have a lot to teach me. Classes start in two weeks, which terrifies me, but also gives me the comfort that I will be happily doing the intellectual things I love, once again, in the very near future.

I also have a solid support system of friends, new and old. Sometimes I forget how important friends are, and then they show up and remind me why I could never be a hermit. Heh. Did I mention I’m an introverted freak?

I have family here too, and I love them dearly. Watching my niece grow up the past few months has been an absolute pleasure, and something I’m incredibly grateful for. Her mom and dad are pretty great as well, as are my aunts, uncles, and cousins who live relatively close by. And, you know, they may live 13 hours from here, but having all my immediate family and parents closer than 8 time zones away is something I consider a blessing.

I also have a kitchen here, which is awesome, even though I hate the ancient range with lopsided electric coils and a not-very-good oven. But I can still cook my own food – big plus!

Plus, I have a job, which, while fulfilling a job’s purpose of paying my rent and buying my food, has also taught me lots of things about cooking, perseverance, and teamwork, which is cool – not to mention I’ve met some pretty great people there who I admire, and, above all, make cutting brownies and onions for a living bearable.

Before I get too mushy, let me tell you that I am actively trying to get back to England. Like, in the next year. Surprise! I’m a lunatic who will never graduate!

But for the immediate present, Provo is good. It’s home for now, and that is extremely all right. Things are good in the present, and things were good in the past. Now it’s just time to decide what the unforeseeable future will bring!

Pictured: a pretty decent place to live.

Why I Love my Useless English Major

beachy head

Look! It’s me, wasting time and accruing debt at a beautiful beach in England. Can’t you tell how deeply unsatisfied I am with my life?

Once upon a time, in a youth Sunday School class, I learned that everyone needs a reasonable career goal in mind from a young age. By reasonable, of course, the teacher meant “money-making,” and I didn’t exactly like that idea. I didn’t want to be an actuary, or an accountant, or a business mogul. I told him I wanted to write. He looked at me funny and moved onto someone else who had a reasonable career goal. His loss, I thought.

Why bring this up?

Well, yesterday I had a rather troubling experience. Until now, I’d gotten away with completely avoiding university administration, to the point where I started wondering if I could have stayed here forever without anyone noticing me. It’s been pretty great, taking whatever English classes I want while subtly hiding under my “music pre-major” status.

But, as an incoming junior, I figured it was time to make things official. I did the responsible, grown-up thing and visited the humanities advisement center earlier this week to make an appointment with an adviser. I hate bureaucracy, but this is how universities are run these days. By advisers. In departments. Who need you to make appointments to see them, or else, you’ll go nowhere.

For some reason I imagined that a humanities adviser would be enthusiastic about the humanities. You know, fully invested in learning for the sake of learning. Because let’s get real – a philosophy degree isn’t going to get you a lucrative career. It was never meant to. And, frankly, why should it? But that’s not quite the attitude I encountered this afternoon.

Instead, I was condescendingly asked “What are you planning on doing with an English major?”

I said I’d like to go to grad school. Or teach middle or high school. I always give those answers, even though I’m not remotely sure if they’re true. The adviser’s response?

“Why don’t you major in English teaching? English majors go into all these other fields too! Like marketing! And law! Teaching is not the only option. Also, there are no professor jobs right now. And you need to learn how to apply your study abroad to a job interview. And remember that school isn’t just about having fun and learning. You’ll graduate someday, especially if you take a lot of classes, so get ready to start applying for jobs NOW. And graduate school shouldn’t be an excuse to hold off a career. And don’t waste your time on a PHD. Would you like an internship?”

Her enthusiasm for an education model I hate took me a bit off guard. Oh, I’d heard stories about these people. But to come face to face with one of them? Absolutely horrifying.

This adviser was under the ridiculous impression that I declared an English major because I thought it would make me lots of money. She knows there isn’t a job market for future-me and my lousy English degree, so she took it upon herself to explain that my future isn’t completely hopeless in spite of my poor, poor decision-making skills. Ugh.

Believe it or not, none of the great, established universities in existence 500 years ago were meant to prepare you for some vague notion of a rewarding, career-focused future. They existed to teach students things, wonderful things. Cambridge probably didn’t care if you had a five-year plan. Oxford didn’t have the goal of earning you a six-figure salary. They were institutions of learning, focused on interactions with mentors and peers, with the ultimate goal of acquiring knowledge.

Today, I’m apparently here, at an accredited university, to learn how to make money at a vanilla desk job, and I find that so absurdly boring.

It would be one thing if she truly cared about my future as an individual, but that’s certainly not the impression that I got. The university wants high job placement rates. Students like me are no help to this endeavor. So they try to brainwash us humanities and arts students. They tell us that we should only be here to train ourselves for a job, so they’ll look good when we find ourselves doing something we might not even like, right out of college.

Please don’t make me one of your statistics, humanities advisement center. I honestly don’t care what the school’s job placement rate is. At all. I go here to learn things, and I’ve deliberately chosen not to learn how to make money, because that isn’t something I am at all interested in. I realize I’ll have to deal with getting health insurance and some sort of salary someday, but not yet. Let me appreciate school for being school.

Stop trying to find me a career. I’m twenty years old, and I don’t want one yet. I can’t say that I ever will. I will not be a leech to society. I’ll get a job. I might work in a kitchen, call center, or department store for the rest of my life. Maybe I’ll become a published author. What’s it to you?

And what is it, exactly, that is wrong with the struggling recently-graduated English major stereotype? Do we collectively think that we’re all better than that? Because I don’t. Maybe I want to be huddled in the corner with my typewriter and a threadbare wool blanket, eating a cold can of baked beans with my rusty silver spoon as I ponder the universe. It builds character, after all.

Don’t make me feel inferior because my major doesn’t tie directly to a lucrative career. It certainly doesn’t bother me, so why should it bother you?

I am lucky. I have family and friends who understand and support my educational decisions, but not everyone has that benefit. There’s no way of knowing how many potential Miltons, Austens, or Tolkiens have gone the way of the law degree just to “do something useful” or “find a job that will buy you a large house.” If everyone throughout history felt the pressure to find a reasonable career and just stop there, we would be so horribly deprived of art, music, literature, and All That is Good. This world would be a horrifically boring place.

So I’ve decided that this is what I want to do with my English major: I want to go about my life an educated individual. I want to understand humanity better, more fully. I want to feel the human condition at the highest possible level, read and interpret what’s been written and studied and adored for decades, centuries, millennia. I want to be able to understand logic, form my own well-constructed arguments, write for the sake of writing and maybe for some money as well. Those things won’t magically direct me to an amazing job, and that’s okay. I surely won’t waste my valuable time at the university trying to pretend that they will.

I study English because I love it. I love studying the written word. I love writing the written word. I love England. I love all of these things enough to spend thousands of dollars to learn about them, without any reasonable expectation to make a decent career of it, and I think that’s fantastic. In fact, I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity.

I shouldn’t have to tell you why my English major will make me a better salesperson, accounts manager, or computer scientist. I can tell you how it will make me a better human being, and that is why I’m here. That is why I choose to learn.

Why Don’t I Drink Coffee?: What Growing up LDS Taught me about Being Different

Being observantly religious can be a challenge for anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian Orthodox, extremely catholic, whatever. If you behave differently than the general population, you’re likely to realize a lot about yourself and the way others perceive you for being different from a relatively early age.

In my life specifically, telling people I’m a Mormon, people who would otherwise assume I’m perfectly normal, average, what have you, has also been a challenge.

I never had a problem talking about my religion before sixth grade, when a few friends and I discussed faith, to the best of our 11-year-old abilities, one rainy afternoon. I casually mentioned to my nondenominational Christian friend that I was a Mormon. He was less than enthused.

Turns out, his pastor was quite anti-Mormon. He’d read the Book of Mormon, see, and knew that it didn’t hold the truth that the Bible did. The book was a deception, a work of Satan. Et cetera, et cetera. I think a lot of us LDS folk have been there at some point in our lives.

It was the first time I felt truly unusual. This boy who, until I mentioned my specific faith, seemed to have very similar beliefs to my own, alienated me for things he didn’t even understand, and it hurt.

I wish I could say it got better in high school, but it really didn’t. I went to early morning seminary most days – by the way, current LDS teenagers, you’re all amazing, and the day will come that you’re not expected to attend gospel lessons with your peers every morning at 6AM, and that day will be as glorious as it sounds. Can you tell I’m not a morning person? Really, go to seminary. Just remember it won’t last forever. Probably.

Anyway, seminary each morning, church for three hours every Sunday, abstaining from coffee while growing up in SEATTLE; all these things made me different. I didn’t curse, my shirtsleeves covered my shoulders, and my discomfort regarding R-rated movies definitely stood out as unusual. But beyond these few little quirks, no one really knew what my deal was.

As my LDS friend quoted 2 Nephi in her peer-reviewed essay in our freshman English class, I questioned whether I was a bad Mormon for never, ever envisioning myself doing such a thing in a secular environment. When she neglected to participate in the extra credit movie viewing after school because of the film’s rating, I wondered if I was making the wrong choice by watching it after careful research on the reasoning behind it’s strong rating (it was 7 f-words, mostly in subtitled Russian, if you’re curious).

Throughout high school, my testimony was strong, but I avoided public discussions on religion as best as I could, unlike some of my LDS peers who felt perfectly comfortable explaining our idiosyncrasies, even proselytizing to their nonmember friends. I occasionally felt bad about it, but eventually realized that avoiding the topic wasn’t a character flaw or spiritual weakness, but a coping mechanism. Young people aren’t great at understanding differences, and that mattered a lot to me back then.

The fact is, I kept myself in the Mormon-closet because at my high school, you either a) didn’t really care about anything except maybe drugs; b) belonged to the local Christian church; c) belonged to an interesting, exotic, religion; or d) smugly waved your Richard Dawkins lit around as you basked in your “well-informed”, clearly-intellectually-superior atheism. Obviously, I was none of these things, and I didn’t feel like answering the questions I knew I’d get after “coming out” as anything different. I applaud those who did, but that just wasn’t my style.

I already knew Mormons weren’t well-received in that culture. The few times my faith happened to come up in casual conversations or in the classroom, the topics typically revolved around racism, homophobia, polygamy, or weird end-of-world predictions. Was it my job to set them straight? Maybe. But I really wasn’t comfortable with the idea.

When our meetinghouse next door to the school burned down after an arsonist’s very intentional attack, typically-opinionated, current-event-focused teachers ignored the literally smoldering building visible through the third-story window. An adult marching band tech commented that he felt bad about the fire until he realized it was a Mormon church, then he thought it was awesome. Had I witnessed such a hateful remark today, I would totally go all angry-woman on the loser and he’d probably feel like a judgmental piece of crap afterwards, but at the time I felt vulnerable, victimized, and alone.

But the fire brought with it many hidden blessings. So many students expressed concern and sadness over the burning down of our church building. Of course there were those who were insensitive to the situation, but the majority appeared sympathetic. Local churches reached out, left cards and flowers, even opened up their sanctuaries to us if we needed a place to meet. I felt loved, united in humanity rather than severed by minute theological differences, and it felt good.

Eventually I became more open about my religion, as convenience necessitated. Why am I not drinking coffee as I board the early bus to the band competition? Because the leaders of my religion discourage it. Do I think I’m better than my friends because I don’t drink coffee? No. That would be stupid. People would ask me these things, and it always surprised me that they assumed I judged them for doing perfectly normal, acceptable things I’ve chosen not to participate in. I don’t care if you drink coffee! Really!

It wasn’t quite as hard as I was expecting, though. I had a lot of good, wholesome discussions with friends of different Christian faiths, and they didn’t completely disown me after I told them I was Mormon. When I got accepted into BYU, I excitedly told people, even though I’m sure I have teachers out there convinced that I’m destroying any intellectual potential I once had by attending such a backwards institution. I was mostly excited to go to a place where I didn’t have to explain why I only ever drank caffeine in the carbonated form, but there are certainly other benefits, too.

Surprise, surprise, though. Utah’s crazy. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE being able to go to my food-centered job and simply say “I’m fasting today” to get out of tasting stuff, no questions asked. I LOVE going to church with my roommates and neighbors. I LOVE singing hymns and praying in some of my classes. I LOVE not having to worry about keg parties and strange men spending the night in my bedroom. Really, I do. It’s great, it fosters an amazing sense of community. It exposes me to the diversity within the church. It’s a wonderful environment for an LDS young adult.

But there are other things I don’t love, or remotely understand.

I see people FREAKING OUT about gay marriage, claiming it’s one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, “opening the floodgates of perversion”, and I feel baffled at the level of drama this particular supreme court decision has brought into our collective LDS life. I just got back from England. Same-sex marriage is legal there. Everything was all right church-wise. Really.

When I attended a gospel principles class in a family ward last week, and the elderly teacher almost exclusively focused on the laziness of impoverished Americans in his self-sufficiency lesson, I had a really hard time taking any of it seriously, especially after he talked about how wonderful the great depression was because it encouraged hard work. I wanted to go all “is this really how you think Jesus talked about helpless widows and lepers in the streets??? What, again, is the purpose of the bishop’s storehouse???” on him, but I didn’t, because I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference.

I firmly believe that our church is imperfect, run by imperfect leaders who are trying their best to share the divine perfection of the gospel with imperfect members, and that in itself can be a controversial opinion. I sustain our prophet and apostles, I believe they are divinely appointed, but they are not infallible. They sometimes disagree on things. I sometimes disagree on things. Such is life.

And I know that a lot of my problems with Utah and some particular inhabitants are mostly my fault. If I wasn’t so crazy-stubborn-opinionated, none of these things would even bother me. But I am. And they do.

Yet there’s something important beyond these petty, freaking annoying cultural issues I’ve come across that means so much more. When you get past the politics of it all, the judgments, the wildly-diverse (and sometimes not diverse enough!) opinions held within the church, there lies something beautiful and true.

Whether I’m struggling with people who just don’t get me, or people who think they get me and really, really don’t, Heavenly Father’s love for all of us remains constant. Even though I’ve spent most of my cognizant life feeling somewhat out of place, unable to understand everyone and everything around me like I wish I could, there is still a place for me in this church, and that is a wonderful, valuable thing.

As I look at the people around me every Sunday – and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, because, again, I live in Utah – I realize that nobody is quite what I would consider “normal”. They belong to a religion that believes that a teenage boy from New York found gold plates in the ground that told a story about Jesus visiting the Native Americans. They believe that every human on earth, and more, existed before our physical births, that God created our spirits long before we possessed human bodies. They believe that it is our godly duty to procreate, to produce bodies to house these spirits, so that they might learn from their time on earth just as we are, eventually progressing into a redeemed eternal life that transcends death. It’s crazy.

Of course they’re a bunch of weirdos.

But they’re my weirdos, and I count myself among them, because this sacred doctrine makes me whole, and allows me to have hope in this sometimes-hopeless world. My ancestors believed it, and sacrificed immensely for it, fueled by their testimonies. My living family members believe it, many of my best friends believe it, and even though it isn’t always easy, and even though it doesn’t always make complete sense, I believe it, too.

For all you fellow Mormons out there who feel like you don’t belong, in or out of the religious context, stop. You do. Even when others don’t understand. Even when you feel like people are hardcore judging you because you don’t always hold traditionally-Utah-conservative viewpoints. Even when you feel crazy for your unusual beliefs in a world that doesn’t give much value to unusual beliefs, you are loved beyond comprehension. You are never alone.

Jesus the Christ died on the cross so that each one of us will be redeemed – that includes the non-believers, the fence-sitters, the fringe-thinkers, the skeptics, the sheeple, the very eager, the over-judgmental, and whatever it is you think you might be. We, united, are children of one Heavenly Father, and there’s nothing we can do, say, or even believe that will ever change that. It’s easy to get distracted by trivial differences, but with faith and diligence in keeping the commandments to the best of our abilities, we can come together under that one perfect gospel and learn what God has in store for us.

Being different is a drag, I know. But isn’t being a cardboard cutout equally difficult? I can’t imagine my life without the church. I can’t imagine living in a world where my secular opinions are predetermined. Because I learned early on that unique qualities are valuable despite what other people might think, I can confidently say that I’m grateful for my God-given differences – they make me who I am.

We are told that we will someday become perfect under God, and I fully believe that, but I don’t think that “perfect” in this sense means identical. Though we tend to think of this perfection as a vinyl white picket fence, flawless and without any particularly interesting features, I don’t think that’s what Heavenly Father wants from us. I think He wants us to develop our craggy, natural-wood features, grow stone-like strength from our inevitable imperfections, embrace the industrial chain-link. There is beauty in this diversity, and I tend to think that He wouldn’t have made us all so crazily different if he wanted us to end up all the same.

If you’re a white picket fence, be a while picket fence, but by all means, don’t pretend to be a white picket fence when you’re actually a brick wall. This earthly life is about learning. Learn who you are, and become it. We’ll all be blessed in the end for trying.