Saturday, June 18, 2016

On Sadness in Salt Lake City

Last night, I had a dream. We were driving down the interstate when, abruptly, my old dog (Lucky) jumped out the window and waddled off the road into a subdivision. Our younger dog, Jesse, quickly followed him. Frantically, I dove after him, leading me on a chase through darkened backyards and fading twilight. I was filled with worry that I would never see him again, never love him again, aching with concern given his age and lack of awareness of the dangers of the world. Eventually, I reached a point where I accepted I could not find him, and I slowly retraced my steps. I came across my family, smiling as they followed my trail. They had found Jesse, who was running joyfully. But, despite their almost oblivious smiles, Lucky was gone.

Then I woke up. And I remembered that Lucky's death was not a clear and present danger; he had died when I was 13, in seventh grade. Even Jesse, in this dream practically a pup, had died a few years ago, driven mad by a kind of doggy dementia, eventually not even able to leave the house to go to the bathroom. In an unconnected part of the dream, my grandfather's apartment was being flooded by water, the rising levels threatening to wreck the place, and again I felt so worried about losing someone I cared about. Waking, he too has been dead almost four years.

It's an awful thing, to feel so worried about a loved one's safety in a dream, only to wake up and remember they're already dead. Like a damaged memory that can't even hold the certainty of the past as a kind of relief, I get the fear and ache without the resolution. And it has me wondering about sadness. What the value of it is, and what happens when we do away with it entirely.


Growing up, my family was choked with sadness. It hung in the air like a poison, a fog which blurred our vision but which we'd never acknowledge. My father would move about our house like a wounded animal, bleating (in huge, exaggerated sighs) for some kind of attention or comfort only to harshly push it away when it was offered. He was like a living ghost, corporeal enough to hurt us but so clearly trapped inside his past that he was practically unreachable from the present.

My mother was even more peculiar. Taking her tricylcic antidepressant, she had the energy and disposition to keep going (often seeming like a pack animal who carried the material realities of the family on her back while we all managed our own pains in isolation). But even though she's kinder and better to me than my father, I've always felt more distant from her. Whereas my father is drenched in sadness, rolling off of him in every moment he's alive, my mother's is compartmentalized, hidden inside somewhere she (and the rest of the world) never wish to go.

But while the pain was everywhere, we never would talk about it. No one told me my father was an alcoholic. He just seemed to act crazier sometimes for no reason (which I, of course, attributed to some aberrant behavior on my part). No one talked about his periodic outbursts, where he would scream at my mother (and to a lesser degree, my sister and I) about supposed betrayals and attribute to her a brutal callousness which even as a child I knew was fantasy. In these episodes, our family would periodically be brought to the brink of apocalypse, with my sister and I reduced to abject masses of tears and terror, saying anything he wanted us to in desperate attempts to get him to stop. And the next morning, we would all act as if it had never happened. Not a word would be said, as if it was all a fever dream and we'd all gotten over it. Even now, it's tempting to believe none of it was real. But as I have slowly worked through this awful lifelong depression, I've found my body still knows what my mind can't bear to process. The sadness is there, whether I face it or not.


In Salt Lake City, there is little room for sadness. The city is clean, the people are bright, the pursuit of perfection is a constant. Unlike the Southern United States, where people are raised to accept their fundamental brokenness from the day they're born, in Utah they're always working towards utopia. Whereas the South's Old Time Religion incentivizes the faithful with the threat of fire and brimstone for eternity if they don't comply, the LDS Church gives promises of happiness in this life and even greater joy in the next. Unlike the South, where the majority of people want things to be "as they've always been," out West people want change. Conservative as much of their ideology is, there's a desire to learn, to grow, to be "better" that constantly challenges the status quo.

Just so, I've become more hopeful out here. I see change as possible, for myself and others. I see growth, flexibility. I feel like things don't have to be the way they are. And in a city of this particular idealism, I've been pushed to move in ways the South would never offer.


I'm not sure I'd call it better, though. Utah consistently ranks as one of the happiest states, with Tennessee (and other Southern states) some of the lowest. Utah also has some of the highest rates of antidepressant use, prescription drug abuse, and suicide in the nation. In my experience, people's outside expressions are happier here. And yet, for some reason, I feel more disconnected than ever.

Part of it, I think, is that at least in the South there's space for sadness. The chords are darker. The literature is gothic. Even the grass is blue. Sin is everywhere, and we all know it. But out here? More often than not, LDS folks are true believers. As a friend put it, "people in Utah actually are what people in the South claim to be." As a nonbeliever, it often strikes me as practically bizarre, even as it genuinely seems to work for so many. But at least for me, while it does seem happier, I think there's something missing all the same.

In Inside Out, Pixar proposes that the core value of sadness is expressing vulnerability. Expressing sadness, while painful and potentially opening one to hurt, also creates opportunities for intimacy and emotional support. It's the stuff connection is made of. And in connection, we find safety. And in safety, we find the space to change. When we don't express sadness or pain, we end up like my family: disconnected, separate, going through the motions of togetherness without the feelings that make it worthwhile or the change that help us all work towards something different.

And while I've been in Salt Lake City, I've felt similarly. People are nice. People are sincere. But it all seems so surface and distant. Even in progressive, artistic spaces, I can't escape it. Both times at Utah Pride, I went to the Queer Poetry Slam and at an Arts Festival I saw some really cool storytelling and short films. It was wonderful to have those opportunities for artistic expression. But all were framed as competitions, with the audience asked to rate every film, story, and performance, and I just can't stand it. I can't stand being prompted to evaluate everything, as if I can't just experience something without having to compare it to everything else and then establish which is "better." Yes, it might push people to "try harder." But it also disconnects us from the act of authentic expression and prompts us to see it as a product for consumption instead. In the drive to turn it into something "fun," we lose the pain, lose the sadness which makes it all so beautiful.

I'm sure this is hardly limited to SLC. But much of The Beehive State does feel uniquely driven to make everything positive and good in a way that undercuts so much of the real pain that doesn't have a place in "perfection." Everyone's trying to be the best, to look the best, to perform the best. There's constant pressure to look and be so gosh darn good. Utah's "Utahpianism" is more hopeful and maybe its optimism and forward thinking genuinely results in more happiness for some. But, at least to me, it so often feels like avoidance. Like a city of missed connection.

Of course, I don't know if the South's way is all that much better. The constant aggrievement of white Christians is obnoxious, and as a friend once commented to me, the Civil War is still very present in some incredibly toxic ways. But I think somewhere between the South's holding on to the pains of the past and Utah's emphasis upon the possibilities of the future is a present space which strikes me as different.

Sadness (and even its more painful cousin, depression) is important. It causes us to step back, to reflect and observe, to think about where pain comes from before deciding to venture forth anew. Ignoring sadness causes us to do the same thing, over and over again. And when that same thing isn't working for us, we just end up in a cycle where there is pain without change.

In some ways, I feel like that's where I've been for awhile: a cycle of pain without change. But now, I increasingly want to do something different. SLC's helped give me some hope, but now I want connection. I want to find that middle space between holding on and ignoring altogether. One that acknowledges, learns, and moves. But at least for the next while, I think I'm going to practice letting myself be sad. I suspect I have a lot of catching up to do.

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