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.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

This is Rabat

I'm writing from Morocco, from the capital city of Rabat. This is where I attended and graduated from high school, where I became aware of international politics, where I discovered chocolate crepes and brochettes (grilled, spiced shish kabobs), where I learned dressage and vaulting, French and a few words of Arabic. Where I made friends and where I grew up. Being here has brought back a lot of memories of people, sights, sounds and smells. I'll write part two of my Moroccan travels later. Tonight, I want to give you a feel for Rabat. 

This is Rabat

The dusty smell of the air, like honey and wood smoke mingled together.
The occasional waft of tobacco or the acrid stench of urine.
The rattle of petit taxis. 

The forceful onslaught of Arabic. 
Al Humdu Allah!
Bartering women and merchants.
Kaftans and djlabas, oncoming traffic, 
cats scurrying beneath stairs.
The touch of a breeze at sunset, exactly the temperature of skin.
Piles of trash. 
Brochettes grilling at the entrance to the medina.
Hibiscus and palm trees. 
Epiceries with fruit, cheap chocolate behind glass, juice in cartons, and boxes piled to the ceiling.

Couscous, small and pliable, spilling on the floor.
Vegetable and meat tagines. 
Fresh squeezed orange juice. La jus d’orange presser.
Patisseries. Almond cookies, chocolate cookies, pistachio cookies.
Parlez vous Francais?
Oui. Oui.  

Bonjour, Madame.
Leather poufs, polished wood, brass lamps and stacks and stacks of rugs.
For you good price! Come look!
Polished stone, silver and amber.
Durhams. Fifty, one hundred, a thousand. Coins and crumpled bills.  

Croissants and crepes.
The press of the sidewalk on throbbing feet.
Beep Beep Beep of car horns at green lights.
Fine red dust powdering the cracks of the sidewalks.  

Arabic stop signs.
Kisses on cheeks. Labess, Labess.  
Cafes and restaurants bustling at night.
Mint tea and Moroccan bread.

Men in little chairs on sidewalks, smoking and talking.
Women in scarves, jeans, kaftans, t-shirts, skirts, and leather.
Black hair, black eyes, henna and silk.

The dissonant rise and fall of Arabic music.

This is the city I love. This is Rabat.

The Moroccan flag flying above King Mohammed V's tomb

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Retro Shock, Springtime, and Stealing Lilacs

Peter informed me the other day that he would let all his kids get iPhones. And I laughed. When I told him his kids might not even know what an iPhone was he was incredulous. The conversation went something like this:

Peter: Why wouldn't they know what an iPhone is?
Me: Because they'll be old fashioned by the time you have kids.
Peter: You mean, like CDs are now?
Me: I mean like 8-track tapes are now. Or record players.
Peter: What's an 8-track tape?
Me: Exactly.

My kids don't all have iPhones, but I did get them Kindles recently and it was a good decision. Peter has been whipping through classics at about one a week, and even Naomi has been reading more, although she still prefers listening to her soon-to-be-outdated iPod.  I get my textbooks on my Kindle app and have been reading novels (when I have time to read novels) on the Kindle as well. Yesterday I saw the hardback copies of the books I just finished and was surprised at how thick they were. I'd thought they were short books.

When I was reading a hard copy, physical book recently, I swiped my finger up the page to scroll down and wondered why it didn't scroll. Later that day I stood in front of a door at a shopping mall and wondered if the mall was closed because the doors didn't open when I approached-- before I realized I had to pull them open myself.  In a public restroom my daughter said the sink wasn't working when she held her hand under the faucet and no water came out.  I recently watched my grandson (Yes! I have a grandson. And two granddaughters!) try to work a cell phone that wasn't touch screen. He concluded it was broken and went back to the iPad where he swiped it with his thumb, opened Netflix and scrolled down to find the Tigger Movie. He's two.

Sometimes it's not future shock that gets us so much as retro shock.

I jump in my Prius, push the start button, check the back-up camera, and as I drive away, push the phone button to make sure I didn't forget my iPhone which doubles as the back-up hard drive for my brain. And I wonder what it would be like to time travel back to living in the 1940s.

From Pintrest, of course
Something about spring makes me wish for a simpler life.  Green things sprout, flowers bloom and something inside me, perhaps a genetic memory from my ancestors, tells me to put on a sundress and straw hat and go plant vegetables and fruits.  Never mind that I have never successfully grown anything edible in my life and have trouble getting the grass out front to stay alive. When life is erupting from winter-dead branches anything seems possible.

And so I pick lilacs, old-fashioned flowers that feel like sundresses and lemonade, put them in a vase on the table and consider myself a gardener of fine lilacs. There is a poem I think of every spring as I struggle internally with the nearly overwhelming temptation to steal lilacs from strangers' bushes.  For 50 weeks out of every year I go about my life with no temptation to steal anything. And then the lilacs bloom.

Stealing Lilacs 
by Alice N. Persons

A guaranteed miracle,
it happens for two weeks each May,
this bounty of riches
where McMansion, trailer,
the humblest driveway
burst with color—pale lavender,
purple, darker plum—
and glorious scent.
This morning a battered station wagon
drew up on my street
and a very fat woman got out
and starting tearing branches 
from my neighbor's tall old lilac—
grabbing, snapping stems, heaving
armloads of purple sprays
into her beater.
A tangle of kids' arms and legs
writhed in the car.
I almost opened the screen door 
to say something,
but couldn't begrudge her theft,
or the impulse
to steal such beauty.
Just this once,
there is enough for everyone.

This year I looked outside and realized with a shock of joy that I have my very own lilac bush in the backyard.  I want to hang a sign on my fence saying, "Help yourself. There is enough for everyone." It feels so 1940s, but then, the world could use a little more retro.