by Kate Hansen
Last night my smoke detector went off after a pot of rice boiled over and scorched on the burner, like it does every time. Yesterday I threw out a tiny cactus I purchased at Home Depot two weeks ago after convincing myself that surely I could keep a cactus alive. Turns out I can kill a cactus as easily as I killed my basil plant, potted orchid, and goldfish. And this morning I got in the shower after putting my baby down for a nap, only to have her wake up screaming the second I was fully wet but not actually clean, just like she does every morning. Over and over again, in a hundred small ways, I attempt the futile. I’m stuck between what makes sense and what I do.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this—I’m a child of futility. On July 24th, 1847, my pioneer ancestors parked their wagons on a desert with a briny lake and unpacked their plows. They surveyed the dusty plain, gagged on the salty lake, and planted anyway. Exactly 145 years later, I was born in a Salt Lake City hospital while fireworks lit up the sky. It was Pioneer Day: a holiday celebrating desert survival made possible by massive amounts of faith and irrigation pipe.
As a child, I loved having my birthday on Pioneer Day. My family moved north to Idaho when I was four, so every year my Utah cousins fled the picnicking hordes and parade traffic to visit us. On my sixth birthday, a baby blue Grand Caravan pulled up in front of our picket fence, and my cousins piled out. Sam, Casey, and Whitney, along with my uncle and aunt, had come to celebrate. I’d asked for a bonfire cookout at the sand dunes for my birthday dinner, and I flitted around excitedly as my parents packed coolers and sand toys. My skipping through the house and constant questions quickly wore my parents’ patience, however, and I was sent to the bedroom to put on my shoes and then help my little brother find his.
I sat on the floor and pulled my pink Velcro sandal straps tight. Sam sat next to me, likewise banished from underfoot, and pulled his Buzz Lightyear sandals on over his socks. He then stomped his feet to show me how his shoes lit up. The gray toes of his socks hung over the ends and flapped a little as he stomped. Even my child’s mind recognized the futility of wearing socks to the sand dunes. But what’s the difference between wearing socks to the desert and planting potatoes in it? Each decision certainly futile, and yet Pioneer Day celebrates over a hundred years of faithful desert harvests.
With all five children dressed and shod, we made it out the door and drove north to the St. Anthony sand dunes. I charged up the side of a dune, panting and struggling to keep my footing. As I walked across the top, I saw fields stretched out like a green and gold rug below me, reaching to the barely-pink horizon. Turning, I looked up to see pillows of black clouds. The wind began to whip my hair into my eyes, and I struggled to see through it as I stumbled to the edge of the dune. Sand kicked up by the wind pelted my bare legs. Half sliding, half running, I raced to the bottom again just as the clouds broke into a downpour.
At the base of the dune, my dad and uncle were hastily cramming damp newspaper under a pile of firewood, rain pelting their backs as they crouched over the fire pit. All the lighter fluid we had couldn’t coax that fire to more than a smoulder, though. Our wet picnic blankets flapped in the wind as we wrestled them around all nine of us. The two toddlers tried to rub sand out of their eyes with even sandier fists, and they wailed when it didn’t work. But the storm let up as quickly as it came, and we huddled around the smoking fire, soggy hot dogs clutched in our chilly fingers.
We must have known it would rain. We had checked the weather, I’m sure. What foolish stubbornness made us trek out to the desert? I can’t remember. But I do know my pioneer ancestors’ dogged faithfulness has bled into my small habits. After so many miracles, I assume the sun will shine and the rice won’t boil over. Each day I navigate the unmapped intersections of faith and futility, often wondering if the pioneers would sympathize or scoff over my dead cactus and smoke-filled kitchen.
On the drive home from the dunes, I rubbed the damp sand off my shins and wished it hadn’t rained on my birthday. My six-year-old mind saw only the ruined party. I couldn’t see the tearful joy of our neighbor farmers as the rain soaked their fields. Our family’s weak faith that the sun would shine had crumbled against our neighbors’ faithful pleading.
At home, we dragged our damp, shivering selves through the back door into the kitchen. Everything—from parents to carrot sticks—had a liberal coating of wet sand. “Take off your shoes right here and Don’t Even Think about walking on the carpet,” my mom ordered. Mini sand dunes formed as we obediently emptied our shoes and pockets. We stood shivering on the blue linoleum with lines of wet sand in the creases between our toes. My aunt wrapped us in dry towels as we waited our turns for a bath.
Finally I swished in the warm tub and allowed myself to be thoroughly scrubbed with strawberry shampoo. My mom poured cup after cup of water over my head, trying to dislodge the stubborn grains of sand on my scalp. She kept the suds out of my eyes with a hand on my forehead, and I leaned into it, suddenly tired after all the excitement. I knew Mom would never get all the sand out of my hair, but I closed my eyes and let her try. Perhaps the small futilities aren’t futile at all. Maybe they are tarnished fragments of the driving faith that kept the pioneers alive.
Wrapped in my new pink bathrobe, I knelt on the chair. My feet slipped between the slats. It was two full hours past bedtime once we’d all been bathed and pajama-ed. Our parents had given up on putting gear away and decided to feed us cake and then put us to bed. I tucked my wet hair behind my ears and leaned my elbows on the table. Freshly scrubbed and warm, surrounded by my family, my earlier disappointment faded. Even though the weather had ruined my party, it hadn’t ruined my birthday.
My mom carried in my birthday cake and placed it on the table in front of me. I leaned in to smell the homemade chocolate frosting I’d specially requested, and I stuck the tip of my finger in the frosting and licked it. My cousins crowded in close, while my parents and aunt and uncle stood back to take pictures. It was already dark outside, and the lights in the dining room had been dimmed for the occasion. Six little flames burst one at a time as my dad lit the candles. Like wagons around a bonfire, we circled around the tiny flames and sang. My lungs filled and I blew the candles out in one breath.
Today I bought a plastic cactus. I’m slowly learning to channel my pioneer stubbornness away from turning my home into a house-plant graveyard and into actual faith. The futilities of life still surface every time I make a pot of rice or take a shower. I’ll likely never escape them, but sometimes the sun does come out and the rice doesn’t boil over. Sometimes is enough for me to keep trying.
Kate Hansen is an Idaho girl living the dream in Colorado with her husband and baby girl. Kate graduated summa cum laude from BYU-Idaho in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She has been published in Segullah, the Ensign, and Connotation Press.