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The Cost

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A long time ago in a land far away…

In a few weeks, I’ll be accompanying a school group on a community service trip to Tanzania, seeing my place of birth for the first time since my family left in 1978. Plans began months ago, but despite payments made, vaccinations received, and logistics discussed, I struggle to believe that this trip is really happening. I’d resigned myself long ago to never fully knowing where my story started.

I am terrified. I am ecstatic.

In addition to the suggested clothing and equipment, I’ll carry with me a host of different voices and stories: my mother’s, my father’s, and the grandparents who pledged the assurances and paid the fees necessary to relocate us to (and in) the United States. I’ve been studying the family documents in preparation. The more I learn, the more I see that circumstance and opportunity made my life possible, but not without cost.
*
Sometime between my birth and the spring of 1978, my mother and father separated – though I’d argue they were never truly together – and Mom sought political asylum in Austria. Her visa had expired, but she refused to return to her native Ukraine. In January 1978, my paternal grandparents, living out retirement in Boise, Idaho, signed an affidavit of support for Mom, my half-sister, and me through the U.S. Department of Justice, expressing their wish for us to have “a permanent home and [be] properly cared for.”

Shortly thereafter, my grandmother, Edith, wrote a beseeching letter to my mother, who faced a critical juncture. “It will not be easy tomorrow for any of us,” she wrote. “But we [Edith and Stan, my grandparents] dare to offer you what we can share because we know we both want to help you and are able to. And we are quite willing to work harder as long as we live to make this possible, and you will also know that we will work together to make a good life possible for all of us.” Though Mom rued her decision in subsequent years and journal entries, she accepted my grandparents’ offer and came to the States.
*
In all of the arrangements for this upcoming trip, I’m astounded by the credence of tangible things. It is one thing to think I might be going to Africa, and another to hold an actual, ticketed receipt; to have heard family legends versus piecing together, detail by detail, the histories written in my parents’ personal effects. I have liquidated my Vegas fund, my rainy day fund, and a good deal of non-earmarked savings to pay for the journey – tangible currency for tangible experience. Still, the prospect that I will stand on African soil, dwelling for two weeks in the landscape that so inspired my father and so changed the trajectory of my mother’s life, is almost too much to fathom.
*
In April 1978, Dad hand-wrote, and had notarized, his own terms for my financial providence: $150 per month in child support payments “until such time as Julia Moris attains the age of 18 years, or marries, or is adopted, or dies, or otherwise emancipates herself, whichever event shall occur first.” He stipulated ten points, all of which illustrate his determination to separate us from his ordinary life and everyday affairs. (I am glad that I read the document as an adult who enjoyed an excellent relationship with her father; it would have crushed me as a child.)

Money undermined my parents’ relationship, even after it “unraveled.” I represented a ledger to Mom and Dad. While on paper Mom’s figures appeared in black, she worked a string of low-paying part-time jobs to make ends meet. (Mom pridefully turned away assistance from the Moris family in instances that did not directly impact me – for better or for worse.) Dad’s column bled searing red: our connection a documented, illegitimate liability. Neither of my parents profited – at least financially – from my presence in their life.
*
I’ve always been aware of the economics of my worth: sublimating guilt over my mother receiving child support, though it never alleviated her daily worries; knowing implicitly to order off the budget menu, though the Moris family is, by disposition, generous to a fault. My mother fastidiously saved her small earnings and modeled frugality. Save. Invest. Take good care of your things. Don’t squander. Be humble. I read these lessons in years of furrowed brows and diverted glances. There were few lectures, but I learned.
*
My much-beloved grandmother distrusted Mom from the outset. “I would like to see Tina have security also, and feel warm and safe,” she wrote to Dad. “But I doubt very much that providing it for her will be of the best help. It can make a parasite out of her… To help her get to Dar – yes – and perhaps the first month of support there, but beyond that if she really tries she will be able to manage.” She warned Dad that sustained financial ties to Mom would “become an Albatross around [his] neck.” She was not wrong to express her concerns (although, again, these words are brutal on the page). Though she obviously experienced a change of heart after I was born, she realized, rightly, that my mother and I would by default be Dad’s albatross for the next 18 years, fiscal atonement for a doomed romantic misstep in Tanzania.

Mom’s six-year stint in Idaho incurred a bill for almost $5000 in foreign student tuition at Boise State University. To my father, Edith wrote: “We paid non-resident fees for her – but it was not too bad – $795 in fees, and we had her buy her own second hand books at $60 as she received $300 from World Church service to start life here, and altho [sic] it was to be shared with us, we told her she could have all for school.” My grandparents cared for me while Mom went to school and work. They invested their time and their hearts – an even greater debt to repay – in addition to the unanticipated costs of “adopting” their son’s unplanned second family. Money remained a frequent theme in the letters Edith wrote to my parents until her death in 1982.
*
There were many more bills and debts in intervening years, expenses that outlasted my 18th birthday: my airfare for every summer vacation spent with Dad’s side of the family; my first car, handed down from Grandpa when I started college; a considerable portion of my undergrad and graduate studies. I doubt my grandparents foresaw the extent or duration of their investment in my future, but they gave of themselves without falter, proving time and again their willingness to work for a good life for us, as Edith promised to Mom a lifetime ago. When it came to my wellbeing, my grandparents did not once remind me of the price of their love.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2016

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Pleasure Seekers

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town...

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town…

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
– Rudyard Kipling

Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a community much like that of any other small town. While the sun crested the high alpine peaks, residents prepared for their days, readying for work of one kind or another, inside or out of the home. Children rode their bicycles to the elementary school. Birds chirped as farmers loaded aging pick-up trucks with hay bales and feed. Cars passed through the town’s only stoplight, heading north to more prosperous cities and south to larger towns: stop, go, stop, go.  And each day, a shadow coursed along in pajama pants, jittering, thrusting her hands, visible one moment and gone just as quickly, as if to convince onlookers she was never really there at all. Except, she was.

*

I can only speak for the town in which I live, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that addiction addles other communities as well. His face and temperament might vary, but he wears a similar outfit wherever he roams: an overcoat of hole-filled secrecy, shoes worn thin from tireless searching for the next fix. Whispers follow him, though few care to look him directly in the eyes. In my town, his name is Meth. He has an alarming number of friends.

*

As children, we’re warned not to do drugs. Our parents admonish us, as do schools and billboards. Culturally, however, we do drugs all the time, often in multiples, each one yielding a specific desired result: pain killers, anti-inflammatories, allergy relievers, anti-depressants, contraceptives, cholesterol lowering agents… Drugs are commonplace and abundant. People use them for leisure, for pleasure, to improve quality of life; others take drugs out of necessity, medical or otherwise. Into our bodies they go, dissolving into the bloodstream, workhorses for end goals. The distinction, then, isn’t that we should abstain from drugs, but that we should avoid the drugs with the potential to destroy us.

*

Problems are easily overlooked when the user has no name, but, in this small town, it was only a matter of time before I would see (and know) my first before-and-after. I encountered her a few weeks ago, hastening along Main Street, eyes bulged, punching the air around her head, cigarette in hand. Did she recognize me? Did she catch my wince before I looked away? Did she register my shock at her haggard appearance? Growing up in Brooklyn accustomed me to unanticipated doses of fright, but it seemed unfathomable that the girl before me was the same girl I remembered from just last year. Today, she is a wiry, crackling, frayed piece of electricity paying a dear price for her pleasure.

*

One of my friends has a strong background in drug and alcohol counseling. Lacking first-hand experience, I consulted with him to round out the research I’d done online, and what he told me helped me understand meth usage from a neurological perspective. Basically, meth floods the brain with dopamine (a chemical tied to motivation and reward that makes people feel really good) for a much longer duration than we usually experience from doing other activities that make us feel good, like eating good food, having sex, or working out. Its biggest danger, he explained, “is that it makes other activities seem pointless by comparison…. When the animal part of our brains know that with a phone call and a quick injection we can feel incalculable pleasure, it makes putting in the effort for going for a run and feeling a little bit better seem like a much less satisfying option. We tend to take the path of least resistance for the highest gratification.”

*

I am an outsider to the world of illegal drugs, but addiction is relatable, because it spills into alcohol, tobacco, exercise, food, creative expression… anything, really, that promises the chance of happiness or fulfillment. Social pressures, genetic inheritances, and slick marketing conspire to weaken resolve.  I understand the human appetite for pleasure.

*

Utah has its highlights and its struggles. As a non-Mormon, I will forever be a minority, a member of the 30% fringe, though I attended college here, live and work here, and, as the only child of my parents’ union and subsequent separation, have enjoyed the state’s natural offerings every summer since I was a baby. Countless observations have shown me that ice cream satiates (and palliates) the appetite of the state’s majority, who abstain from hot tea and coffee, alcohol, and tobacco – and vice in general – as a religious and moral imperative. Ice cream is obviously not a drug, but any child can tell you that its sweet creaminess has its own mood-altering effects.

*

The state has also been scrutinized for its high use of anti-depressants. Some contend that residents are more likely to seek medical assistance because they are forbidden to imbibe in the substances that others typically use to elevate moods, legally attainable or not. An entry in the Mormonism Research Ministry suggests that the pressure of striving for perfection could potentially lead to higher rates of depression. I think winter and relative isolation work in tandem to foster sadness. Winter days crawl along, prolonged nighttime encrusted in snow. Salt Lake City, with its dense population, experiences a thermal inversion that blots out the sun with a dense layer of smog for days and weeks. My town does not experience the inversion and is, for the most part, blessed by crisp, blue skies, but the days are so very lonely and hollow, making the world feel too small at times. How we cope varies. Pleasure is pleasure, and we seek it in whatever ways we can.

*

The minority fringe blisses out on caffeine in the form of tea and coffee, as does a large part of the overall global community. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, caffeine is a “behavior-modifying chemical” that “stimulates the central nervous system, relieves drowsiness and fatigue, and quickens reaction times.” And yet there are no awareness campaigns or recovery programs for caffeine addicts. Those who quit consume other, easily acquired drugs until the jitters, headaches, and cloudy irritability pass. The Coca Cola website tells me that there are “34, 750 ways to describe” how the popular beverage makes a person feel.  In 2009, the soda’s motto was “Open Happiness.” Who wouldn’t want to drink in happiness if that was all it took?

*

Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a writer who recoiled in the raw face of addiction. Her shock unnerved her. Her mother’s family had lost brothers and uncles to alcoholism. She remembered sneaking outside to smoke in high school and college: those dizzying, intoxicating first drags. She felt the beckoning warmth of a morning cup of tea, black and sweet, radiating against her cupped hands. Even her chosen field of interest condemned her: musings on food and drink, near obsessive in tone, for which she held – and still holds – such reverence. She had peered into the frenzied blue eyes of someone who might under other circumstances be her friend and judged, only to recoil at herself, deeply ashamed by her reaction.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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