Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Silent Night

This year we made a short Christmas music video as our family's Christmas card.

Merry Christmas! And may the peace of our Savior be with you all year. <3

Sunday, December 7, 2014

And Is Kind

I went to Italy last week, and the trip was, of course, amazing-- in all the ways you are imagining, and in some ways I'm pretty sure you're not imagining. I went to church in Vicenza, in a small American military ward (congregation), and it felt like home. I looked around the chapel and thought, "These women are already my friends!"  It was an odd contrast to what I've been feeling in my own ward at home where I've lived for almost a year and a half, but where I've struggled to feel like I fit in at all.  It wasn't hard to guess why I felt this way. I've spent most of my adult life in small, overseas, American military wards. The women in Vicenza spoke my language of PCSing, DoDDS schools, living on the economy and deployment. When your biological family is an ocean and a continent away, your ward becomes your family and making friends is a skill you pick up pretty quickly.

I was not ok with how I felt about my ward at home and I decided I needed to do something about it. But what? It was hard going from being the mom at church who appears to have her act (and family) all together, to the divorced single mom from out of town with troubled teens in a ward full of people who live down the street from their cousins. I was feeling judged, isolated and ignored.  And frankly, a little afraid to put myself out there and ask for friendship if I was going to get the cold shoulder.

Catholic church in Italy, not LDS,
just in case anyone was confused
While I was in Italy, I visited a friend, and I realized part way through the week that I was intimidated by him. He seemed to know how to do just about everything I don't know how to do. Assemble a bike? check. Which knife to use for what? check. Steady job with awards and a nice paycheck? check. Lift heavy weights, ski, and scuba dive? check, check, check. Connect 593 electronic devices from different countries, sync them and get them all working wirelessly? check! I mean, really? Who can actually do that?

When I told him that I was intimidated by him, his response startled me. He asked why I would be intimidated by anyone. He said he was surprised that I'd been surprised to get into a program I'd recently applied to, and he started listing things I've done or know how to do. At first I thought, "Yes, but those are all easy. Anyone could do that." Then it occurred to me, he didn't think they were easy. To him, it looked like I was capable, with no reason to be intimidated. Which was exactly how he looked to me.


And I thought, "Huh. I suppose the evidence shows that I'm a capable adult. I do actually know how to make a movie, write a novel, and put together a neighborhood clothing exchange. And if I took the time, I could probably learn which knife to use, to assemble a bike, and to scuba dive. Maybe not hook up all that electronic stuff-- but we all have our limits."

Then today in church, something happened. We had a meeting with all the women. All of them. The ones who teach other classes were relieved of duty for the day and the Relief Society (women's organization) room was overflowing. We just got a new Relief Society president, and she wanted to stress the need we have for sisterhood. I have jet lag and was seriously thinking about going home early to take a nap, but every time I thought about it, I felt a little voice saying, "You need to stay." So I stayed.

Good things always come when you listen to that little voice.  :)

In Relief Society, a few women had been invited to tell how they have felt the love of Jesus through other women in the ward. I felt a little sulky at first. Women talked about how loved they feel here and how we need to not judge each other, and in my mind I thought, "I don't judge people. I accept everyone for who they are. I'm really good at that. So what am I doing wrong?"

And then Chelsi stood up, and her message was different. She talked about how she's struggled to find friends in this ward. And women all around the room started sniffling. She talked about being scared to call people, to ask if she could join in things that were happening.

Neal Fowler
And suddenly, in the middle of her talking, I realized that the judging that I had been so proud of not doing only moments earlier, was exactly what I was doing. All the time. I was judging myself. In ways that are far from kind. For everyone else I am compassionate, forgiving and kind. But for myself I am harsh, judgemental and negative. I see that I can't lift heavy weights, have never been skiing, haven't finished my degree, and struggle to raise troubled teens by myself. And while I would never think twice about these things in anyone else, they are my focus in myself.

In a recent talk, Elder Holland spoke of a young woman who, when asked why she was so hard on herself, replied, "So no one else beats me to it." I cringed when I heard that because it's exactly how I feel. If I point out my faults first, others won't have to.  How unkind is that?

1 Corinthians 13:4 says, "Charity suffereth long and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up."

As my friend in Italy pointed out, being self-centered does not have to mean thinking about how good you are. It can mean thinking about how incapable you are. It simply means you're thinking about yourself-- good or bad-- instead of focusing on helping others.

The solution, I think, is two-fold. First, I need to be kind to myself, and not envy what others can do. Do you know that song, "Kindness Begins with Me"? This gives it a whole new meaning. And-- at least as importantly-- I need to focus on the women sitting next to me, many of whom were discretely dabbing their eyes while Chelsi spoke and, I realized, feeling every bit as alone as I have been. What was I doing to relieve their suffering? As I looked around the room, I remembered times when nearly every one of those women had said hello to me, smiled, been kind and happy to see me. I need to get out there and do what I'm good at-- making friends in a short amount of time. Because one thing the military life taught me was that there is no time like today to be a friend.

I'm also tackling the weight lifting thing.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Tonight after CrossFit, where I’m getting better, I had a reality hit me. 

I’m completely single. Not temporarily. Not for a moment, sort of a little bit single. I’m completely single. I looked around my bedroom and it was shocking. Everything is only, completely, singly mine. It made me dizzy and things looked odd. My shoes. My face wash. Only mine. The flowers. The bed. Not waiting for someone to come back home. Not holding their breath for someone to new arrive. Simply, singly, mine. Alone.
My body is mine. My clothes. My house. My car. My bills. My food. My responsibilities. My children. My life.
This is the oddest feeling ever. I cried. And Cried. And then I looked in the mirror and saw me. Singly, only me. Not attached to anyone. Not waiting for anyone. Independent.
I feel very much like one of the characters in the book my agent is sending out next week. And I wonder how I wrote about a reality I didn't fully appreciate until just now. The kingdom is mine. Someone has to rule it. And I’m the one. I have people to help, but this life is only, singly, mine. 

I had thought being strong meant being a wife and mother. I'd thought reality was Happily Ever After, and this was a quick detour around a little bump in the road.  Now I discover reality can also mean being completely, utterly single.
And for the first time ever I think, “So this is what it feels like to be a grown up.”  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Looking for the Dead Body

I’ve been on a roller coaster lately with great highs when something beautiful happens and I find myself soaring in the clouds, seeing the big picture and feeling so blessed I can hardly comprehend it.  And then the stresses of life hit me full force, my knees buckle and I crash under the weight of single parenting, bills, caring for teens with special needs, and trying to remember that I am lovable whether the people I love respond in the ways I’d hoped to my outstretched hand or not. From those low points, with my knees in the dirt at the bottom of the valley, it’s hard sometimes to look up and believe I’ll ever soar again.

As I was listening to a talk by D. Todd Christofferson the other morning, I was struck by how similar my own struggles—and perhaps all of our struggles—are to Christ’s disciples in the last weeks of His ministry. They had great highs during those last weeks when things looked so good. They thought they could see what blessings were coming.  Jesus was a king riding into Jerusalem to shouts and palm branches. They had Him with them, were learning great things, people were being healed and even raised from the dead.  Really, how much better could it get?

And then everything crashed. Judas betrayed Him. There were mock trials. Peter’s knees hit the ground, in a manner of speaking, when he betrayed Christ three times. And in front of his disciples and mother, Jesus was hung on a cross and killed in an unbelievably cruel manner.

MarLeah Cole
I think of Mary Magdalene. She started preparing Christ’s body for burial on Friday—a tormenting thing to have to do—and had to stop at sundown for the Sabbath. What must that Sabbath Saturday have been like for her?  She thought she knew where things were going. Christ had been with her, and now He was gone. Hope must have felt so very far away. I suspect she cried a lot, and hard.  I suspect she wondered why, and what would happen now, and if things would ever be ok again.  I’m certain she felt alone.  I know that loneliness far, far too well.

On Sunday morning she gathered her burial spices and went back to the tomb to finish the horrible task that was also the one way she could, perhaps, find some peace.  Oh how hard it is to do these tasks—the things we wish we never had to do, but in the dark valley where we are, they are the best way we can find peace. We bring spices to bury our hopes and dreams. Mourning and hoping to make it through the unbelievable hard things this life requires, we do the small things we can do to try to bring a glimmer of peace. 

But when Mary got there, Christ’s body was gone. And even this last, small thing was taken away.  I ache as I see her fall to her knees in the dirt outside the tomb and cry for everything she has lost.

But from her knees in the dust, she saw only a tiny, broken fragment of what was really happening. She saw the empty tomb and unused spices and loss and even tragedy. Did she remember the things He taught before He died about his own resurrection?  I think she probably hadn’t understood the words He said.  How could she?  She saw His death, felt the dark reality of the Saturday when she knew He was gone, and now she saw the very real, very empty tomb.

Kneeling there in the dirt, she had no idea what these pieces meant. They looked like broken hearts and lost dreams and irreplaceable loss—when in reality they were parts of something more glorious than she could ever imagine.

Greg Olsen
Mary was hoping and praying for the greatest peace she could imagine—when right behind her was the living Christ. Not only was her friend alive and whole, but He had opened the grave for all of us, made repentance possible, and changed all of eternity in the most glorious ways imaginable. But Mary, not seeing any further than the stone tomb, mourning that she couldn’t have what she so desperately wanted, was looking for a dead body.

How often do I do the same thing?  I see what looks like a tragedy—really see it, with my own eyes.  I suffer through Saturday alone, crying and hoping I can go back with my spices and try to fix, as best as possible, what I’m certain is the bitter end. And when I’m certain nothing can get any worse, I find the tomb empty and fall to my knees in the dust and beg God for the blessing of a dead body.

When standing right behind me, calling to me with his hands outstretched, is the living Christ with blessings He promised that I didn’t understand.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Stretch Marks

My daughter after open heart surgery
My younger sister recently had her first baby-- an adorable little human with fuzzy hair, a cute nose and tiny perfect fingers.  Her baby's entrance to this world was a bit stressful, including a C-section, the cord around his neck three times, and a stay in the NICU.  While I haven't asked if she has stretch marks on her belly from carrying him, I'm certain she has stretch marks on her heart from delivering him. Having a person we're attached to-- literally attached to-- come into life and brush so close to death changes us forever. We're stretched in our ability to love, to ache, to plead in prayer, to worry, to be exhausted and to rejoice. 

Motherhood is like that. It stretches us. And the stretch marks on our bellies are only the tiny beginning. 

My daughter and granddaughter
I see mothers stretching all around me. Our children stretch us with their needs, their innocence, their love, their anger, their insecurities, their very existence. Being completely responsible for bringing another person into the world and helping them navigate through potty training, sharing Tonka trucks on the playground, auditions for the part of fairy princess, first dates, speeding tickets, heartbreaks, college applications and into adulthood changes us. How could it not?

Our strength is stretched when the little boy we love scrapes his knee and we realize we have to get over our fear of blood in order to scoop him up, clean the wound and assure him it will be all right.

Our love is stretched when our daughter yells, “I hate you!” and slams her bedroom door and we have to set aside the deep gash in our own hearts to heal the hurt in hers.

Three of my kids after playing in a water fountain in Spain
Our fortitude is stretched when our son pushes every limit, argues with every request and brings us to our knees, pleading for wisdom to help him be happy in world where he can’t always have things his way and strength not to give in when he pushes us down but needs us to stand strong.

Our forgiveness is stretched when our daughter comes home from middle school in tears because the girls she thought were her friends made fun of her during lunch, and we’re reminded strongly of our own time in 7th grade as we set aside our own hurt feelings—past and present—to help her learn about self-worth and forgiveness.

Our humility is stretched when our son reminds us, at the end of a hectic day, to read scriptures together before bed and then offers a sweet and heartfelt prayer.

My mother, me and my younger brother
Our understanding is stretched as we try to know our daughter’s heart and what she really wants in life, and how we can help her reach her goals and dreams.

Our time management skills are stretched almost to the breaking point with dentist appointments, grocery shopping, dance classes, parent-teacher conferences, making dinner, doctor appointments, shoe shopping, picking kids up from school, dropping the dog off at the vet, basketball practice, play practice, last minute science fair projects, and personal scripture study. 

Our faith is stretched when our daughter lies in the hospital connected to wires and tubes and monitors, when our son refuses to go to church, when we see what our child needs and know there is no way on earth we can provide it, and we turn our lives—and our children’s lives—over to the Lord, asking only that His will be done.

Me and my granddaughter
The stretching changes us forever. Never again will we see ourselves as the center of the universe, hear the words breast-feeding without emotion, take for granted free moments alone in the bathroom, overlook the potential danger in the combination of a pebble-strewn road and a scooter, fail to empathize with mothers buckled into passenger seats beside new teen drivers, or get completely over the twang of mixed emotions at college applications.

Motherhood brings out our best and our worst.  It reveals our weaknesses in Crayola colors under the bright lights of the kitchen table and offers opportunities with nearly every breath to soften our edges as we become stronger, wiser, happier, more resourceful, and better able to function on very little sleep.

Far more than the marks on our bellies, motherhood stretches us to be more than we ever thought we could be, leaving its marks forever.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Something to Struggle With

"[God] is the best writer, too," Gabriel said to me.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Because he gives every good writer something to struggle with and try to work out by writing down. That's genius."

- John Corey Whaley, in Where Things Come Back

Mike McCune
When I was little, I used to pray for a tornado to suck up my house. We lived in Minnesota and things like that happen there. I couldn't believe it when my friend, Dawn Thompson, had the roof sucked off her house, while mine-- miles away-- was left untouched. Had she been praying for the same thing?  Because if not, that was totally unfair.

I also dreamed of becoming a writer.  I composed poems in my head as I dawdled along Hamline Avenue, late for school. I told myself tragic stories about parents abandoning their children as I tossed newspapers between screen doors in the fading sunlight. I devoured every book I deemed worth reading in the school library, and dreamed of the day my own name would be shelved alongside names like Madeline L' Engle and JRR Tolkien.

Sam Howzit
One thing I knew for certain was that no one could become an author without living an interesting life. Otherwise, where would the stories come from?  So I prayed for a tornado. Or a kidnapping. Or a meteor crashing through my roof. Anything exciting to pay my passage into the world of authors.

I don't know how many nights I spent in tears on my knees begging God to not let me have a boring life.
So maybe what happened was my own fault.
Because one thing is certain.
God was listening.

But really-- is anyone's life boring?

I noticed a shocking thing in the Bible the other day, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head ever since.  Brace yourself.

Jesus had a hard life.

Artist Del Parsons
Yes. I've read the Bible before. I'm a Mormon, and a Christian, and I've read it multiple times. (Well, ok. Not Leviticus. I skimmed that particular book once and moved on.)  And I knew Jesus had a hard life, but I guess I'd always thought it was because He's the Savior and had to do hard things to save us. But the other day it occurred to me that the Atonement was what came at the end of His life, and being a God, He could have set up the world however He wanted, including so that things could have been full of preaching to happy followers, converting missionaries who would sing rousing songs and march out to convert the world. Love, Peace and Harmony.  And then, at the end of a glorious life of good will to men, He could have performed the Atonement to save us all and risen triumphant into heaven.

But He didn't.
He had a hard life.
And so has everyone else who has ever lived on this earth.
And for the first time, the pattern that was obvious all along sunk in. Hard lives serve a purpose. For everyone. Good people and bad. Nice people and mean. People who mess up their own lives with addictions and little girls who pray for tornados. Even, apparently, perfect people.

Hard lives serve a purpose.

And since not everyone becomes authors, the purpose is apparently something beyond giving us something to write about.  Although that doesn't hurt.

And since I truly believe that God's purposes are good and kind and not intended to make us miserable, I have to assume that the purpose in life being hard is also good and kind.

My son recently read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, and I recently heard an amazing talk (sermon) called Grateful in Any Circumstance, by Dieter F. Uchtdorf-- both of which share a similar idea. We have reasons to be "filled with gratitude" no matter what our circumstances are. It's not about being grateful for something. It's about being grateful in our circumstances. Whatever those are.

Because really, whatever our circumstances are, unless we are actively screwing up our lives ourselves (something I am certain is possible, but generally try to avoid), God put us here. And it might look like hell from where we are standing, but somehow hard lives serve a purpose. For everyone. A purpose that in the end has to be good and kind.

I don't have answers for why girls in Africa get kidnapped, or babies are born addicted to crack, or college students who are going about their day trying to pass exams get shot.  I know it looks like hell. I know it feels like hell. I also know the Atonement is real and I've felt its inexplicable healing power in my own life. It's personal. And it's real.

My house never got sucked up by a tornado. But lots of other stuff did happen. And sometimes I feel the Atonement and am nearly overwhelmed with gratitude for the stuff God gave me to struggle with and try to work out by writing down.

That's genius.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Holding Hands

A friend said recently that he could understand my wanting someone's hand to hold as I sit in church.  I've thought a lot about the truths and lesser lies in that statement, and I'd like to share what I really want.

Tim Parkinson on Flickr
Tonight my daughter came to me, asking again if she can go to camp this summer. I've been actively avoiding this topic for months.  I said no when it first came up. No, you can't go. No, don't ask me again. And then I doubted myself.  Maybe she should go... maybe she's matured enough, recovered enough, strong enough...  Maybe this will be an opportunity for her to make friends, to start sprouting those wings of independence she'll need in a few years when she leaves home. Maybe she's strong enough.  But maybe she's not.

Three years ago she went to camp, and it didn't go well. "It didn't go well," meaning a few stolen knives, several broken down doors and one psychiatric hospital later she was still trying to recover. And that was with a dedicated camp counselor assigned only to her.  To say it was traumatic for everyone involved would be a gross under exaggeration.

But she's doing better. Shockingly, miraculously better. She's wanting to make friends, trying to understand people and humor and friendship, noticing other's emotions and showing empathy.  All things I was told, once upon a time years ago, she would never be able to do.

Nicolas Raymond on Flickr
So I question myself.  I look at the camp papers, hear her talk excitedly about the fun activities the girls will be doing, and what I want-- what I desperately yearn for-- is a partner in this crazy ride we call life.

I want to sit up together at night, after the kids are in bed, and say, "What do you think?  How is she doing?  Is she ready for a few nights in a row away from the security of home?"  I want someone else who loves her and knows her and cares about her to talk with me about the pros and cons, to weigh the consequences, and to share the burden of making a decision about something that should be so straight-forward, but is about as clear to me as how to fix Social Security.

At the same time as the camp decision, I'm starting a new job and trying to stretch myself like Elasti-Girl to accommodate one more necessity. Fitting in twenty hours a week should be easy-- another straight-forward issue-- like resolving the national debt.  I'm also working on a really great project with my older daughter, making a book about my mom and her childhood. While I love the project, I wasn't prepared for how facing the reality of my mom getting older would shock me like tripping over a tombstone in the dark.

Aimee Heart on Flickr
In all of this, I want a partner. When I lie down at night I want to feel that while mortality involves death creeping ever closer and children who need more than I know how to give, it also involves having someone with me to brave the storms, solve the puzzles, and touch toes with under the covers.  I want someone to put his arms around me at night and tell me I'm doing a pretty good job and it will be ok.

I don't want someone's hand to hold in church. I want someone to hold my hand in life.