Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tasting the Bread of Life

I passed through masses of icons, silver lanterns, and trinkets before descending the stairs into a sea of people crowded into the small cave. Heat and noise mingled in the heavy, stale air. People jostled for position, nudging, pressing, seeking to see the silver star that marked the place where some say the Savior of the world was born.
People kissed the walls. Others walked through, merely curious. One weeping woman knelt despite the throng, kissed the floor, then gave herself up to intense yet soundless sobbing. Uncomfortable with the sudden exposure to a stranger’s soul, I looked away.
By straining, I caught a glimpse of the star embedded in the rock floor; then I eagerly sought the egress that would take me from the place. I had seen what I came to see but not felt what I hoped to feel. Disheartened, I hurried out of the cave into one of the churches built over it. Few tarried there, and I found in the courtyard a more amiable spot than the one below. Freed from the sights and sounds and press, I sank onto a chair as cold jolts of disappointment intensified in me. How could this be the place of the savior’s nativity?
For years I had imagined, pondered, and prepared, and I wanted the place to elicit all the feelings I’d encountered while studying. But it didn’t. In an attempt to push away the disappointment, I let my mind wander over what I’d learned of the event in Bethlehem that I’d come to love.
Bethlehem–the name means “house of bread.” Whether or not the cave below me was the actual stable of Christ’s birth, this was the town. Words came to mind, words I had heard almost every Sunday since I was a child: “Bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son” (D & C 20:77). Christ, the Bread of Life, was born in the house of bread and placed in a manger.
As a child I had thought manger was a synonym for crib. I remembered my surprise at learning that a manger is a box made to hold food for animals, a feeding trough! Now, as I sat in Bethlehem, I imagined a manger filled with oats that beasts of burden hungrily devoured. They, like me, would eat and in a few hours want more. No matter how nutritious earthly fare is, it is never enough. The next day, even the next hour, the stomach growls for more.
In my mind’s eye I saw hands brushing away the last few oats. The same hands filled the manger with fresh straw and placed the Babe in the feeding trough. Words leaped to mind: “He that cometh to me shall never hunger” and “He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever” (John 6:35, 58). The heavenly fare offered
in the manger was not only eternal but capable of lifting us to God. How fitting that Mary should cradle her son, the Bread of Life, in a manger.
I thought of Mary, His mother. The intense emotion of birth was familiar
to me, but Mary was the mother of God’s child. I thought of the joy and the sorrow she bore and wondered what her feelings were as she wrapped the Son of God in swaddling clothes.
Oh, the swaddling clothes! As Mary beheld Him in the manger, did her heart race with premonitions of a time when she would see Him wrapped in linen and laid in another cave, called a sepulcher? In a stable-cave Mary gave Jesus mortal life, and from a sepulcher-cave Jesus came forth to give Mary and all mankind immortal life. Both caves are mortal reminders of Jesus’ condescension, or of His descending “below all things” (see 1 Nephi 11:16; D & C 88:6).
His condescension is difficult to understand. He was God “but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). The same verse in the Greek New Testament does not mention reputation but instead says that He “emptied himself.” He was God, yet He emptied himself of power to begin anew, growing form grace to grace. He was the Word, and yet He came as a wordless infant. He was the Almighty One, and yet helplessly He took nourishment at Mary’s breast. He was king of Kings, and yet He came as the servant of man. He, the great I Am, condescended to be the beast upon which all burdens would fall, born among animals at Passover time.
I thought of the significance of the Passover. As families throughout the land prepared their symbolic meal of lamb, the Lamb of God was being born, and because of His living and His dying, the nullifying effects of death would pass over us. But Passover also meant springtime–lambing season. A few miles away shepherds were helping to bring new lambs into the world. Deemed by the upper classes as men of naught, the shepherds were nevertheless saviors to the sheep. Besides assisting in the births, they nourished, gathered, comforted, and protected their flocks, sometimes risking their lives to defend them. There was deep irony in the fact that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, would be deemed by the Pharisees and Sadducees as a man of naught while in the very act of giving His life to save them.
But there is more to this symbolism of shepherd and sheep. One scholar notes that a tower called Migdal Eder–the watchtower of the flock–stood on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The sheep that where gathered there belonged to the temple flock, from which the sacrificial lambs would be taken. Some Jews believed that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem and revealed at Migdal Eder (see Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 4 vols. [1887-1900], 1:269).
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). How fitting that the angelic announcement was made to humble men serving the needs of sheep that might die in similitude of the Lamb of God. But that has not changed. It is still to those who are feeding His sheep that He reveals himself. It is to those who serve that the testimony is
revealed, the testimony that all who are unclean have a Savior and can come forth from the darkness of their tombs into the Light of Life.
Thoughts of that light brought to mind the Christmas star. Piercing the darkness, it stood above all nations, far above and untouched by anything worldly. Christ, the Life and Light of the World, is like that star. His light, the light of Christ, still guides wise men and women to their promised land, where they can behold for themselves the greatest star, the Son.
Ah, the Wise Men. Of all the stories associated with the birth, their story intrigues me most. They must have had scriptures or an oral tradition that prophesied of Christ’s birth, or they would not have recognized the sign or known where to go once they saw it. We are told they saw the sign in the East and then traveled west to Judea. It was a long journey, and once in Jerusalem they began to inquire, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).
News of their inquiries concerning a king reached Herod, and he sent for them. He was troubled by prophecies that another would rule Israel–after all, wasn’t he the king of this land? But the Wise Men knew that he was not the king they sought. After they left, they followed the star until they reached Jesus, and there they presented their gifts to Him.
And what marvelous gifts they were! We don’t really know how many Wise Men came, but tradition claims three because there were three gifts: gold, the metal of kings and symbol of a celestial world because of its refined purity; frankincense, used in making incense that was burned on the temple altar as a symbol of prayers arising and connecting God and man; and myrrh, an aromatic gum used to make incense, perfume, and ointment for embalming. I remembered a picture of a myrrh plant and was startled anew by its spikelike thorns. Even at the Christ child’s tender age, the gifts given Him bore testimony of who He was and what He would do. Gold for the King of Kings, frankincense for the Mediator between God and Man, myrrh for the body that would be buried for us.
For us! That was the most important part. If He had not died for us, no light, no sign, no bread would be enough. We would have spent our lives in futility and then perished. But because of Him, we live and will live. Because of Him, all who desire will find light. Because of Him, all who seek with pure intent will find God.
All who seek! I ventured into the crowded cave once more and looked again at the worshipers and icons that surrounded me. Something had changed. Before, these sights and sounds so foreign to my upbringing had made me uncomfortable. Now, instead of gaudiness, I saw expressions of love. Instead of strange behavior, I saw devotion. Instead of disappointment, I felt peace.
And in that moment of recognizing the peace, a symbol came to me that I hadn’t thought of before. The celebrated birth was to a virgin, innocent and pure. As if calling me from a deep sleep, chastening words whispered, It is only in a pure heart that Christ can be born again.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I’m Back!

The last two weeks I graded my Honors students’ Annotated Bibliographies (160 papers that averaged 14 typed-single-spaced pages!) And then graded all my students’ journals (260 journals!). I enjoy reading what they have written, but the sheer numbers cause brain fatigue! As I’ve read, however, I’ve learned a lot from my students. I require them to read from the scriptures ½ hour a day and then record their thoughts and feelings in a journal. In addition I stop the discussion a few minutes before the bell and have them record their thoughts and feelings about the things we have discussed.
One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how students in the same class, listening to the same words can learn (or not learn!) such different things. One student writes in his/her journal how touched he/she was and how much he/she learned and another writes that nothing made sense. This has made me a much better student in Sunday School and Relief Society classes I attend. I realize that as a student, I have to be open to the spirit and ready to learn. If I come out of a class or Sacrament Meeting feeling that I haven’t learned anything, I know that I haven’t had the Spirit with me. If the Spirit is with me, I can learn something no matter who is speaking or teaching.
I’ve also seen how pride and a negative attitude influence what we are able to learn. Especially in the classes for Returned Missionaries, some students will identify everything they haven’t already learned as "undoctrinal." The underlying premise is that if they don’t already know it, it must not be true. That smacks of pride! I work hard at teaching correct doctrine, but it isn’t even the doctrines that students will question. Some figure they already know everything in the book. When teaching Mosiah 18 a few years back, I read aloud verse 30 where Mormon who in abridging the book writes, "All this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer." Can’t you just hear Mormon rejoicing as he reads and writes about the place he had been named after! In no other place does he repeat something like this. It delights me in that I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into his personality.
But that day as I brought this point out, one young man called out, "You can’t make that kind of assumption! There’s no way you can know he was named after that place!" The intensity of his rebuke startled me. I knew I had read it and that I was right, but at the time I couldn’t remember the chapter and verse that backed me up. It only took a few minutes once I was back in my office to find 3 Nephi 5:12 where Mormon says, "I am called Mormon, being called after the land of Mormon." This was no assumption on my part, but throughout the semester I watched as his negative and critical attitude kept him from learning anything. One student this semester took offense at something said the first five minutes of class. In her journal entry, she ranted about the remarks made in such a way that it was obvious she hadn’t heard anything after that remark. But other students’ journals talked about how strong the Spirit was during the class and what they had learned. This has caused me to monitor my own attitude. Sometimes teachers do unknowingly teach false doctrine or wrong facts. I’m sure I have done it on other occasions, but if I’m in a class waiting and watching for something wrong, I know that critical attitude drives away the Spirit and I don’t learn.
Another thing I’ve realized - students often resist religion classes that are graded. They want religion classes here to be like Institute or Seminary where no grade is given. "We should just be able to learn what we want to learn. Religion classes shouldn’t be graded!" one student told me this semester. But grading gives me as a teacher a lot of leverage that works to the students’ long term advantage. When points are at stake, reviewing for tests, writing papers, keeping journals, even attending regularly reinforce teachings that might otherwise go unnoticed or not learned as deeply. But again the most important thing I recognize is that the advantage of age and life experience has taught me things I realize are important that young people don’t. Instead of balking, students could benefit by exploring the direction a teacher points them in. The whole rest of their lives they can "learn what they want to learn." But right now they have the opportunity to learn from other’s experiences and from many years of concentrated study and to be "forced" to study in depth. Again, I have to ask myself, do I let this kind of pride keep me from learning in other situations?
I do know that the Lord is constantly teaching and directing me. What I have learned from my students is that it is up to me what I learn. Negative, critical attitudes block gospel learning. Positive, loving attitudes increase learning.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Prejudice and Pride

I was once in a meeting where a man bore a sweet testimony of what he had learned the Sunday before from a 16 year old girl. Her message, simple yet profound, touched him and as he related it to us we were also touched. He ended by explaining that when the Spirit is with you, a person can learn from even a small child. The next week I happened to be in another meeting with this same man and was surprised to hear him critically report on a talk he had heard by a well known BYU religion professor. He ended his report by saying, “I didn’t learn one thing from him.” What was obvious as he reported the talk was that he had a personal bias against people who write books and go outside their ward to speak to others on religious topics.
It saddened me to think that this man had let a personal bias keep him from learning. It also made me wonder what prejudices I have that separate me from the Spirit and keep me from growing. Paul taught the Corinthians that all members of God’s Church are one body and that to each of the individuals within the body God has given specific gifts which are to be shared. He compared this to a physical body saying that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Each part of the body has a different function but all are vital. Paul then went on to explain that “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:28).
What Paul is explaining is that some, like the professor, have been given the gift not only of knowledge but of time to study and to in turn share what is learned. Others may not have four or five hours a day to study the scriptures, but they have the gift to listen and learn from the one who does have time. The person who listens also has other gifts, such as the gift of compassion and the ability to size up a situation and know exactly what to do to assist someone in need. The person in need may have musical talent that inspires the professor in his studies. What Paul is explaining is that we all need each other. We all bless each other. And if we discount any person’s gift we hurt ourselves.
As I pondered on how I let feelings toward others get in the way of my learning from them, I realized that any prejudice or bias is a form of pride. As President Ezra Taft Benson once explained, “The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means ‘hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.’ It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us.” (“Beware of Pride”, Ensign, May 1989, p.4).
It is easy to see how looking down on others is a form of pride. If someone had discounted the message of the 16 year old girl from the onset of her talk simply because she was only 16 and couldn’t possibly know anything, that is easily recognized as pride. But there is another side to the coin of pride. As President Benson explained, “Most of us consider pride to be a sin of those on the top, such as the rich and the learned, looking down at the rest of us. (See 2 Ne. 9:42.) There is, however, a far more common ailment among us—and that is pride from the bottom looking up. It is manifest in so many ways, such as faultfinding, gossiping, backbiting, murmuring, living beyond our means, envying, coveting, withholding gratitude and praise that might lift another, and being unforgiving and jealous” (“Beware of Pride”, Ensign, May 1989, p.4. Emphasis added).
As I pondered this more, I realized that Paul gives the solution to all of my prejudice and bias problems. After explaining the importance of spiritual gifts he says, “Covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). And what is that way? The path of charity. Charity is the antidote to pride. If instead of criticizing, we love, that love allows us to learn and grow from whatever situation we are in or whomever we are learning from. Indeed, charity never fails.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Empowered

Many years ago Stephen Robinson wrote the parable of the bicycle. Everyone in the Church at one time or many times has heard the story of the little girl who diligently saves her pennies to buy a bicycle and how her loving father lets her pick out a bicycle, pay her few dollars, then makes up the large deficit to buy the bike. It is a popular story to retell in talks and Home Evenings and Sunday lessons. But too often as we listen to the parable we think it applies to judgement day. At the great day of judgement Jesus Christ will step forward to save us–to make up for all we lack. But the Savior doesn’t wait until life is over to help us.
Nephi understood this concept. That’s why when his father asked him to go back for the plates, he simply answered, “I will go and do.” It wasn’t that Nephi felt he had all the
strength and skill and knowledge it would take to obtain the plates. Nephi agreed to go without hesitation because he knew that Jesus Christ had all the strength, skill and knowledge he would need. And so he went. But that is not all Nephi understood. Nephi knew that the grace of God
doesn’t always float down from heaven like rain and drench us in power the moment we first ask for it or the second we are in need. Nephi understood how the enabling power of God works.
Nephi made the long trip back to Jerusalem with nagging, murmuring brothers. But he didn’t let their complaining deter him. After they arrived in Jerusalem, Laman asked Laban for the plates and Laban refused. Nephi didn’t let that deter him. Next the brothers went back to the home they had left behind and gathered up their gold and silver and tried to buy the plates from Laban. Greedily, Laban took their gold and silver, but refused to give them the plates and to hide his robbery, he sent men to kill Nephi and his brothers.
About this time one would think that Nephi would be doubting whether the “Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). I’m sure the kvetchers Laman and Lemuel repeated those words in an attempt to make Nephi eat them. But still Nephi wasn’t deterred. He knew God would help in His own way and in His own time. And so he said to his brothers, “Wherefore can ye doubt? Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us.”
One wonders how Nephi dared pose such a question to the complaining brothers. So far all of reality is on their side. “Wherefore could they doubt?” Well for starters, they had tried to be obedient twice and for their efforts they had been ridiculed, robbed and almost murdered. You can hear Laman and Lemuel respond to Nephi, “Yea, He is able to deliver us, but will he?”
This is the question faith poses for each one of us. We’ve read the scriptures. We know He is able, but do we trust that He will? Too often we rationalize that His saving power is reserved for the day of judgement or is only for prophets and other people.
Nephi understood that faith must be tried and tested, that lessons need to be learned, but that God always helps us. So despite the hardship, despite the difficulty, he persisted and went back into Jerusalem to get the plates fully aware that it he was not doing it himself but that he was empowered by the Lord. He didn’t feel inadequate because he knew he wasn’t the one doing it.
There is much we can learn from Nephi. So often we find ourselves feeling inadequate. We are tempted to turn down callings, or to refuse opportunities to speak in meetings, or to go about our days depressed and berating ourselves because we are incapable and make so many mistakes. The truth is we are inadequate and incapable and we will make mistakes. But Jesus Christ has promised to make up for our inadequacies. His saving power is not reserved for judgement day. His saving power is offered every day. If we persist. If we trust. He will help us do whatever we need to do no matter how overwhelming the task may seem.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Stravinsky and Me

One day during the summer after fifth grade, a brown package arrived in the mail with my name neatly typed on a white label without a return address. Mother handed the package to me and asked if I knew what it was. I had no idea. I’d never before received a package in the mail addressed just to me and excitedly opened the flat, square package to discover a record in a black jacket with fiery red flashes across the cover.
“Did you send for this?” Mother asked.
When I told her no she searched the wrapping paper for a note or any clue as to who had sent it. Finding nothing, Mother shrugged, and I took my prize into the house to the record player. I’d heard the story of that record player many times. It seems that shortly after mom and dad were married they had won a radio/record player console. It was mother’s pride and joy–a piece of furniture she has kept all these years. But despite the care she took dusting and polishing it, I only remember her playing music on it maybe two or three times in my life. Mother always said she loved music, but for some reason she never took the time to turn it on. One of the compartments held the few records she and Dad owned which consisted of some big band, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, and Frank Sinatra albums. I loved music and had played those records over and over. I spent hours listening while imagining that inside that brown console thumb size people actually performed every time I started a record.
Alone in the family room, I carefully opened the jacket and pulled the brand new, shiny black record out. That was the first I read the jacket. Printed in large letters on top of the fiery streaks were the words “Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite/Rite of Spring.” I’d never heard of such a thing. Bursting with curiosity and anticipation, I lowered the record onto the spindle, “The Firebird Suite” side up, lifted the arm and placed the needle on the spinning record.
Soft, dark tones filled the room, their ominous sounds startling me. What was this? It wasn’t music. Music made you sway and dance. These sounds made you cower and weep. I stopped the record, turned it over, and put the arm down on the “Rite of Spring.”
A single wind instrument began, joined by another, and then more. I’d never heard anything like that before. Not as menacing, the music had an unearthly quality that made me think of gnomes, dwarfs, fairies and witches. And while it didn’t make me sway it definitely made me want to dance. I kept listening as the music took on a militant quality broken by swirling motion that evolved into a busy sound of majestic anticipation. Mom and Dad’s records were always so predictable. Once you’d heard the first three or four phrases, you’d heard the whole song. But this music was one surprise after another. The sounds melted into my muscles and I began to move stomping, twirling, leaping, tip-toeing, whatever the music told me to do, I did until I dropped to the floor breathless. About that time the frenzy of the Shrovetide Fair began and I closed my eyes to watch the fairies do the dancing.
On and on it went–much longer than “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” or anything else among the console’s records. The music grew loud and as ominous as “The Firebird Suite” but I was so enthralled that this time I liked it. I waited and sure enough bird like sounds broke into the heavy feeling flying in just when my heart thought it couldn’t take any more.
I didn’t like all of it. Some parts were frightening. Some too compelling. But when the record stopped spinning, I was spinning with delight. My head couldn’t stop thinking about the amazing music–how my body seemed one with it when I danced. Lifted out of the world, I’d gone someplace else without leaving the family room. I didn’t know where I’d gone, but I wanted to go back and explore to learn more about the magical place I’d just been.
After that day the big bands weren’t as big and Bing Crosby had lost some of his charm. Again and again I returned to the “Rite of Spring” and every time something new stirred in me. Every time it was just as magical. It was awhile before I was introduced to other friends such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy, but upon meeting each one my love for music expanded deeper into my soul.
To this day I have no clue as to who sent me that record. But whoever my anonymous mentor was, he or she changed my life. She didn’t give me just a record. She gave me a whole new world. A world I still escape to when I need solace, comfort, or just a little rest

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thanksgiving!

As Thanksgiving approaches we all turn our thoughts to what we are thankful for. We make lists. We think thoughts of gratitude. We sometimes have Thanksgiving rituals where we share with each other what we are grateful for. But a great exercise this Thanksgiving would be to be grateful for something someone else has to be grateful for.
It is often easy to mourn with those that mourn. When someone has an accident or is ill, we do all we can to comfort and support. We take in meals. We give money. We tend children and take people to the doctor. We replace damaged goods. We do whatever is needed to help those who are in need.
But sometimes it is more difficult to rejoice with those that rejoice. When the neighbor gets a new car, are we grateful or jealous? When a friend get a great new job are we excited or envious? When blessings come into the lives of those around us, do we say a prayer of thanks or ask God, “Why not me?”
It is easy to be grateful for what we have. It is not so easy to be grateful for what others have. This Thanksgiving season, try giving thanks not only for your own blessings but the blessings of others and see what happens.

Rom 12:15 Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Have a Laugh

One day many years ago my husband came home from work growling like the proverbial bear and ornery as a napless two-year-old. My response was to stay clear of him. Carefully I prepared dinner making sure I didn’t cross his path. But my girls were wiser.
Breana was 12 at the time and she and the other girls were setting the table. I didn’t pay much attention to what they were doing until dinner was ready and I went to call Carl to eat. As I passed the table I noticed that Breana had placed a cereal bowl on her dad’s plate that was overflowing with sugar.
Gingerly, I told Carl dinner was ready and then waited to see what was going on. The girls busied themselves around the kitchen trying to look like they weren’t waiting, smirks of suppressed laughter on their faces.
Finally Carl came in, walked to his spot at the table, saw the bowl, and gruffly asked, “What’s this for?”
Breana, sobered now as she wondered how he would take it, said meekly, “We thought if you ate that you’d be a little sweeter.”
Carl broke out laughing. The girls giggled until tears trickled out their eyes and we all enjoyed a pleasant dinner. In an instant all the negative tension was dispelled.
When used correctly, humor is a powerful tool. That day the girls reminded me that I should use it more. If we are just a little creative, it is amazing the good that can be accomplished with humor.
When the kids were growing up, we had a family rule. You can argue and fight all you want–as long as you sing it. The girls didn’t always remember, but when they did it was amazing. I’d suddenly hear an operatic soprano down the hall singing, “You wore my shirt and you didn’t wash it!” And then all over the house laughter. Other times, they’d start to argue and instead of coming in with negative reprimands myself, I’d just say, “Sing it! Sing it!” They’d try, but it always ended up that the humor erased the argument. We discovered that you can’t be angry and sing. It’s impossible!
It’s an old saying, but so true, laughter is medicine–medicine for the soul.

Prov 16:20
He that handleth a matter wisely shall find good: and whoso trusteth in the Lord, happy is he.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Especially for David

The word enthusiasm comes into English from the Greek word entheos which means “inspired or possessed by a god.” Literally entheos is derived from the prefix en- meaning in and the word theos meaning God. In the 1600s the word as applied to the Puritans took on a negative connotation of excessive zeal. Today the word has a positive meaning of fervor and zeal.
The word enthusiasm never appears in the scriptures. However, the synonym zeal is used by some of the scriptural writers. Mormon tells us of the people of Ammon–the converted Lamanites–who were “distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end” (Alma 27:27). When I read about the people of Ammon, I am struck by how happy they were. Enthusiasm and joy always go together. Living the gospel wasn’t a chore for them. They delighted in it. They were possessed by God and knew He would care for them. All they had to do was enthusiastically and joyfully serve Him.
When the Lord wants to encourage us to be enthusiastic He tells us to give Him all our heart, might, mind, and strength (see D&C 59:5). I think that’s pretty much all of me! It may seem strange that by giving our love, our material goods, our thoughts, and our abilities to the Lord we will be happy. But I know it works because I’ve experienced it. The days of my life when I’ve been able to give all of myself have been the most joyful. When I am enthusiastic about the gospel, when I give myself to God, His love fills me and I am happy.

“I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour” (Eccl 2:10).

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Give Thanks

When my daughter Kirsha was three years old, I left her with a friend for a few hours while I went to a doctor appointment. When I picked her up, I noticed a bite mark on her hand that had obviously been made by my friend’s three year old. When my friend saw me looking at the teeth marks she said, “I’m sorry. Robby is into biting and I don’t know how to stop him. What do you do?”
I told her that when my children bit someone I'd flip their lips with my index finger–just one quick flip that stings.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” she exclaimed, “I’m afraid I’d traumatize him.”
I didn’t think much more about it until that night when I pulled Kirsha’s shirt off and discovered 17 still well defined bite marks covering her back and arms. Shocked I thought about my friend’s words. Bite marks still visible six hours later were painfully inflicted. Surely Kirsha cried out. The irony was obvious. Her decision not to traumatize her son meant trauma for my daughter.
I learned a lot from that lesson. As a parent it is sometimes necessary to traumatize. And sometimes a loving God traumatizes us, to humble us, to teach us, to change the direction we are going and put us back on course.
Imagine you had cancer. It is growing, but has not yet spread. Your doctor tells you that an operation to remove the cancer will save your life, but then he says, “An operation will be very traumatic and cause you a lot of pain. It might also have serious complications. I don’t want to hurt you, so I won't perform the operation.”
No one wants a doctor like that. No one wants a God like that. When we feel the pains of life, we need to trust that God knows what He is doing and instead of getting angry and turning away from Him, our proper response should be, “Thank you.”

“Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things.” D&C 59:11

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Becoming Churched

While mother was sick, I went to Church each Sunday with my dad. Dad was a counselor in the bishopric and so we went early and entered a quiet, almost empty chapel. Dad had business to attend to before the meetings and I’d find “my” bench, the second brown, wooden bench in the center section, sit down, and fight the feelings of aloneness and detachment that began to swell in me like seasickness. Being alone is uncomfortable. Being small and alone is terrifying. To my right, metal trays clanked as priests prepared for the sacrament. To my left, people slowly trickled in through large double doors. As the minutes went by, more and more people came, towering over me, moving, talking, smiling, but not at me. I was invisible. However, about the time the feelings worked their way into my eyes where they threatened to spill out in tears, the organ began to play. Organ music is unlike any other–especially when playing hymns. Most music communicates directly to the ears. Organ music communicates deep into the marrow of the bones and then quivers its way through every cell until at last it reaches the ears. Felt before it is heard, organ music has a tangible element that wrapped me in its goodness and began to comfort away my fears.
Dad sat on the stand with Bishop Duncan and from where I sat in the huge sea of the congregation all I could see over the podium was Bishop Duncan’s snow white hair and Dad’s brown, spiky crew-cut. It was a strange feeling being among so many people and yet feeling so alone. The beauty was that once the meeting started the feeling of aloneness vanished. I forgot all about me and was suddenly part of something more–I never understood what, but I could feel it, and I knew it was real.
This particular day Dad was conducting. His familiar voice sent extra comfort into my heart as he gave the announcements. Then came more organ music and all those people joined in for the opening song. By that time–just minutes into the meeting–more than just comfort filled me. Utter joy enveloped me. I can’t sing. As Dad used to say, “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” but I loved the hymns so I’d open the hymn book and sing with my heart letting everyone else’s voices wrap around mine to disguise it.
After the singing, came the quiet moments of the Sacrament. I’m not sure how old I was. I know I hadn’t been baptized yet and didn’t fully understand the Sacrament, but what I felt means more to me now than all the understanding I’ve since gained. A quiet, transcendental feeling lifted me, instructing me without words and filling me with awe at the paradox of ordinary bread and water representing the most crucial moment in the history of the world.
I realize now that sitting alone made me more perceptive to what was going on. When I was sitting with Mother the borders of my awareness extended only to her. Like a satellite my world rotated around her going where she went, doing what she told me to do, not thinking or experiencing anything but her. When she was there to care for me, I was oblivious to most everything else. But being alone I had to care for myself and that meant being aware. Thus my borders expanded to the very walls of the chapel. I saw things and felt things that I would never have experienced had she been there.
After the Sacrament, Fast and Testimony meeting began. My tall, handsome father stood, bore his testimony, and invited the congregation to share theirs. I knew Dad was speaking to everyone, but for some reason that day I felt like the invitation was especially for me. I had never had that feeling before–had never born my testimony. But I’d been to testimony meetings every month of my life and so I knew how it was done. There were no microphones in those days, people just stood where they were and began to speak. Usually I loved to hear the many different ways of saying the same thing–the gospel is true!–but that day I didn’t hear a word. All I kept hearing was Dad’s invitation and the words bubbling up from my overflowing heart.
As each person sat down, I’d command myself to stand up. But despite the desire, fear cemented me to the wooden bench. Faster than ever the hour passed until I realized that if I didn’t stand next I wouldn’t get to. That thought pushed me up, and I stood to bear my simple testimony. I don’t remember how I began, but I know that I was saying, “I am thankful for my parents,” when my Dad stood and thanked the congregation for their testimonies. Startled, I stared at him hoping he’d see me and invite me to go on. Instead he announced the closing hymn and the person who would give the benediction. My face burned in what I was sure was real fire as I sank to the bench without an amen.
I didn’t sing the closing hymn, nor did I feel the organ music surge through me. Instead I battled the feelings tearing at my heart. The prayer said, I ran from the chapel and didn’t stop till I reached home. Mother tried to tell me it was all right, and when Dad got home he apologized. I could tell he felt almost as badly as I did. He explained that it was only after the meeting when people told him what he’d done that he knew he’d interrupted.
It was five years before I attempted to bear my testimony again. I had one and I knew I had one. Even though my first attempt at bearing it was a disaster, the feelings that had prompted me continued to grow in proportion to the fear that kept me from doing so until one Sunday the feelings overpowered the fear, the legs stood firm, and the words came. It was then I learned how much stronger faith is than fear. Faith fed by years of organ music, congregations singing, people doing what’s right, people making mistakes yet trying hard to do what is right, talks and lessons accompanied by the warmth of the Holy Ghost, and especially the spiritual banquet of the sacrament slowly healed my fear.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I still love Sacrament meetings. They heal.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Becoming a Writer

My father loved books. Especially Church books. He read the scriptures and every new book about the scriptures that came out. I remember watching him read and marveling at the power of words that captivated him so that he wasn’t even aware I was in the room. I could do almost anything while Dad was reading and not get in trouble. He was far away--in his book.
But watching him read made me wish with all my heart that I could decipher the code to unlock the words so I could read myself. I wanted to go to the places he went and know the things he knew. Sometimes when he set a book down and left the room, I’d pick it up, breath in the scent that wafted off the pages as I opened the book—new books had a light, meadow smell and old ones a heavy, oily smell. I’d close my eyes to savor the taste and then slowly open my eyes as if somehow the scent was a magic power that would allow me to read. But still the black marks were only black marks. Other times when I stared at the black marks long enough, they seemed to lift from the page and dance. As soon as I focused to see better they settled onto the page and behaved. I never seemed to be able to keep them dancing.
But there was something more than the desire to read that drove me. I wanted more than anything to write my own books, and I knew I had to learn to read before I could write. I’m certain the desire to write came into this world with me. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a major part of me. Long before I could read or write I spent hours making up stories and longing to be able to write them down so they wouldn’t float away like leaves in the ditch.
One day before I started kindergarten, Dad came home with a teacher’s edition of the Dick and Jane readers and gave it to me. It was a thick green book that contained all the first grade primers and instructions for teachers on how to teach reading. I opened to the first picture page and Dad helped me sound out the words. Now that he explained it, it was so simple. Each mark had its own sound. All I needed to do was learn the sounds. For the next few weeks, I pestered mother while she dusted and scrubbed asking what sound each letter made and learning the digraphs and diphthongs. Before long I was hurrying through Dick and Jane and devouring any book I could lay my hands on. My favorite were fantasy stories, especially the classical fantasy stories by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm.
Maybe because I loved them so much, I had always figured that must be what Dad read so intently. One day I picked up a book he’d been reading—the kind with no pictures—and discovered to my horror that his books weren’t stories at all. Every book that had ever been read to me was a story. But Dad’s books were ideas and thoughts that other people had. I smiled to think that for years I had longed to read his books so I could talk with him about the stories. But in Dad’s books nothing happened to talk about. It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate Dad’s books and then we talked and I discovered ideas were even more fun to discuss than stories. That’s when Dad’s books became my passion also.
It wasn’t long after I learned to read the first Dick and Jane books, I began making my own books. I’d write my story along the bottom half of a page, illustrate the story on the top half , fold the pages, collate them, staple them together at the spine, paint a bright cover, and go door to door selling them. Most people said, “No, thank you.” But Mrs. Torrey and Aunt Nora always invited me in to inspect my books. They’d give me milk and cookies and we’d eat as they oohed and awed over the cover. They’d read the text out loud, praised my great story telling abilities, and ask when I was going to write my next book. How I loved those women.
After our conversation, Aunt Nora would reach into her apron pocket, pull out a penny or a nickel, and buy my book. Mrs. Torrey would tell me how much she’d like to buy my book, but that she just didn’t have any money right then. It didn’t matter. I’d tell her she could have the book anyway and her delight at such a gift was more than enough payment for a five year old. Come to think of it, it’s still enough payment for me. What more could I ever have asked?
Years later as I suffered through the years of rejection slips and returned manuscripts, memories of encouraging words over cookies and milk kept me going. After all, someone, someplace had liked my writing! When I finally sold my first story, I wished that Aunt Nora and Mrs. Torrey were still alive so I could thank them. When I glimpsed my first book sitting on a bookstore shelf, I said a little prayer of gratitude for two women whose small acts of kindness made all the difference in my life. Hopefully someday and in some way I can be as encouraging to someone else.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Footsteps of Paul

On May 21st to June 2nd of 2008, I'm taking a group on a cruise to explore some of the places where Paul the Apostle taught. We'll focus on the life changing doctrines he taught while walking in the very places he walked--and sailing in the very places he sailed!

We'll also exlore the religious center of the ancient Aegean area, Mykonos, Turkey’s Ephesus, the Acropolis in Rhodes, The temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, and the historical, architectural and spiritual sites of Rome to name but a few.
At this point the trip includes: Rome and Naples, Italy; Athens, Mykonos and Rhodes, Greece; Ephesus, Turkey; Limassol, Cyprus; and Alexandria, Egypt.

For more information contact Concord Cruise and Travel
1-801-229-7600 or 1-888-305-9959
http://www.concordcruiseandtravel.com

As I get more information on the trip, I'll post it here. So keep checking!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Scripture Power

I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by wonderful parents. My father loved the scriptures and many a family meal was seasoned by scripture discussions. I grew up listening to stories of Captain Moroni and Nephi and all the great Book of Mormon prophets told not from a book but from my father’s heart. They were as much a part of our home life as the furniture. Because of this I loved the scriptures and read them whenever I had time or was in need which I thought was often enough. But I had only been married eight years when I found out that “whenever” isn’t often enough.
At that time I was called to be on a committee to help write lesson manuals for the Church auxiliaries. I was the youngest person on the six member committee and intimidated (to put it mildly!) by the other very accomplished men and women. The committee met weekly at five o’clock in the evening which meant that the men came directly from work and didn’t have time to eat, so sandwiches were provided. During the first few minutes of each meeting we ate and talked about our week.
It wasn’t too many weeks into the assignment when I realized that one of the reasons these people were so wonderful is that every one of them started their day with scripture reading. They didn’t just read scriptures once in a while when they had time. It was part of their daily routine just like brushing their teeth or eating breakfast. They never missed and it wasn’t because someone had told them they should do it. They did it because they loved it. They did it because it fed their souls. That was very evident by the way they talked. If time were a problem and they had to leave something out of their day, they would rather leave out the brushing of teeth or the making of the bed or the eating of breakfast than the scripture study! Mind you, none of them told me these things in those words; it was just evident.
But then something else began to occur to me. Week after week as we ate and talked about our lives, I realized that these people didn’t just read the scriptures. What they learned each morning was an integral part of their lives. They’d mention stories about the problems they were having with their teenage children and how one morning as they were reading scripture the thought came to them of what to do to solve the problem. They’d tell about caring for older parents and how just at the point of utter discouragement their morning reading buoyed them up and allowed them to serve with charity. Week after week the stories continued, not in a preachy or holier than thou way, but with a feeling of gratitude and a matter of fact certainty that scripture reading always brought those kind of results.
As I already stated, I loved the scriptures and I knew that the prophets had asked us to study the scriptures daily, but I had four children under the age of seven and somehow figured that exempted me. But as I listened and learned from these amazing people, I realized that I was cheating myself. Because of their example, I began to make scripture study a daily priority and to experience the blessings for myself.
Often in Church I’d heard stories of someone pondering a problem. Seeking answers, they’d go to the scriptures and miraculously open to the very verse that answered their problem. I’ve never had that experience. What I realized as I began to study daily is that it wasn’t always the words I was reading that brought the answers. I could be reading about Alma digging trenches and building walls to fortify cities, and somehow the answer would come to me as to what a particular child needed or what decision I needed to make to solve a certain problem. What I learned is that by setting aside time and going to a sacred place (the scriptures), I created time and space for the Spirit to speak to me about what I needed to know and to do. Yes, I learned the scripture stories and the doctrines of the gospel, which has been an enormous blessing in my life, but the greatest blessings came from what was communicated to me “between the lines.” The scriptures have lifted me when I was discouraged. They have comforted me when in physical pain. They have guided when I could see no way out of a problem. They have increased my joy when I was already happy. They have empowered me to do things I never imagined I could do. In short, I have been nourished by the good word.
Jacob once asked, "After ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire?" Jacob 6:7 The obvious answer to that question Jacob is, “No!” There is no way you can remain in the trenches of discouragement or darkness or despair if you are constantly nourished by the good word. I learned that for myself. There is transcendent power in the words of the scriptures. There is comfort, love, peace, and joy in making them part of our daily lives.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My Mother's Recipe Box

Mother was starting to get better. She was out of the bed more than she was in it, and she got dressed in real clothes in the mornings. But we were still going to people’s houses during part of the day so she could rest. One morning, however, I begged to stay home. I could help her. I was big enough. I wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be a help. I made all kinds of promises and pleaded until finally she agreed.
I was so excited when my brother, Bryant, was picked up and I was left to take care of Mom. I felt so grown-up and was even more excited because of the feeling of stability that staying home gave me. This was affirmation that things would be normal again. Life would return to the routine I knew and loved. It was proof to me that Mother wasn’t going to die and leave us. But the morning didn’t play out the way I thought it would. It was supposed to be warm and wonderful—the happy ever after ending of a terrible ordeal. But it wasn’t. Mother was irritable.
She wanted to be back to doing the work that defined her life. But her energy didn’t match her desire. She’d dust a few things and then have to sit down. She’d sweep and have to lie down. She’d wash a few breakfast dishes and collapse on the couch only to come back and find the water cold and the suds gone, so she’d start over. I tried to help, but was aware that I was in her way. I watched. I listened. I tried to figure out a way to win her favor. After all, my future depended upon it. If I was of help maybe I’d get to stay home the next day, too.
I have no idea what happened next—whether I did something wrong or said something I shouldn’t but suddenly she was very upset with me and told me I had to sit on a chair for forty-five minutes. It must have been something awful because the normal time-out was a half hour. Mother pulled one of the chrome with green nagahyde chairs to the center of the room and plopped me on it. I was not to move off the chair. Disciplining me had exhausted her. She went back to bed.
I watched the red second hand swirl past the big black numerals on the clock. It didn’t go around once before that grew boring. I twisted my legs around the cold chrome chair legs and wished I could at least have a book to read—wondered if I dared ask her for one. I scanned the spotless kitchen noticing how the light reflected in the polished wax floor. Then glancing at the counter I saw something unusual—a pile of cuttings from magazines next to mother’s recipe box. Usually nothing sat out on mother’s counters—ever. But this pile had been there for several days now and every time mother passed it, she commented on how she needed to get her recipes organized. The night before I’d heard her tell Dad that this was one task she could do. After all it didn’t take much energy to organize recipe cards, but even that she couldn’t seem to get to. She had decided to leave it out until it was done. It was her way of forcing herself to do it no matter how tired she was. Even I had recognized the sound of discouragement in her voice.
Suddenly, as I saw the pile and remembered her words, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Surely if I organized the cards for her she’d not only commute my time on the chair, but let me stay home every day ever after to help. I’d just learned to read and I knew all about organizing written things into alphabetical order. So I scooted the chair to the counter and opened the metal file box. There were already a lot of cards in the box. The first cards had titles that read, Orange Rolls, Bread Sticks, then Cornbread Muffins. No wonder mother was so distressed. This did need organizing.
Quickly I emptied the entire box onto the counter. The white index cards spilled everywhere. In addition there were light-brown tabbed cards, but instead of the alphabet like at the library, they had words on them. I didn’t bother to even read them. They were only printed on one side and so I turned the cards over and carefully printed letters on the tabs. There weren’t 26 cards with tabs, so I doubled up the last letters of the alphabet so that I had a card for every letter and put them into the box. Then I began the task of organizing. I remember feeling so proud. Certainly this would change mother’s irritable mood. I would make her so happy. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about this task any more.
Quickly I put the Apple Strudel card under the A tab and the Chocolate Delight Cake under the C tab, Savory Beef Flank under the S tab, and the Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie under the P tab. I worked fast, filled with a consuming sense of purpose and delight. Soon I had the cards that had been in the box alphabetized, but I wondered what to do with the loose clippings on the counter. I knew that pile was what really bothered mother. Many cards in the box were written on, but there were also a lot of clippings taped to cards. That’s probably what she wanted. But I couldn’t get to the tape without getting off the chair. I pondered what to do and finally decided that if I just took the box into mother’s bedroom and showed her what I had done so far, she would be so delighted she would let me off the chair. I could get the tape, finish the job, and bask in her satisfaction.
I know my smile filled my whole face. I could feel each side of it hooking onto my ears. I had a surprise and didn’t even think about the fact that I was getting off the chair before it was time. After all what would that matter when mother saw how I had helped her? I walked boldly into her room, the box stretched out in front of me as if I were carrying a crown to the queen. Mother opened her eyes half way, but before she could say anything, I did. “You know how you wanted to organize your recipes? Well, I did it for you. Look.”
She took the box, opened it, and squealed. “What have you done?”
This reaction was even more than I had expected. “I alphabetized every one for you,” I said proudly.
“You what?” Only then did I realize that she was not delighted. She sat up with more energy than I had seen in weeks. She grabbed my arm, pulled me back to the kitchen, put me on the chair, told me to stay there another forty-five minutes and that if I dared touch anything, I’d have to answer to my father when he got home.
Shocked, I watched her scoop up the clippings and recipes and disappear back into her bedroom. I’d never in all my life seen her so mad. Baffled I could only stare after her. I’d done something wonderful and she rewarded me like this? The sickness had changed her. This wasn’t my mother. Why wasn’t she praising me and thanking me? Instead she was so mad I dared not ask. Quietly I wept out my forty-five minutes and then spent the rest of the day trying to stay out of her way.
It wasn’t until many years later while sitting in my first day of seventh-grade-cooking class that I understood what had happened. The cooking teacher had a desk full of items we would need to purchase for the class. She showed us the text book, an apron that would have our name embroidered on it, a recipe box, and the white-lined index cards on which we would write our recipes. Then she held up a stack of light brown cards with tabs. Each tab had a word printed on it. I recognized them at once. Shuffling through the stack she read the words I hadn’t read that long ago day: appetizers, breads, cakes, cookies, etc.. As she explained that we would organize our recipes under these labels knowledge in the form of lightening jolted through me. That’s why Mom had been so mad those years before. Recipes weren’t alphabetized! I hadn’t organized her box, I’d unorganized it! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry—finally I understood.
I learned a great lesson from this experience that I have tried to remember. Sometimes when people hurt or hinder you, they are actually trying to help you. I also gained a deep sense of gratitude for the fact that Father in Heaven judges us not just on our actions, but on the desires of our heart.

Monday, October 1, 2007

My Grandmother's Bible

Probably because I didn’t have a grandmother, I grew up acutely aware of the wonder of grandmothers. From stories and from hearing my friends talk, I knew that grandmothers loved you no matter what you did. I also knew that rather than wait for special occasions like Christmas or your birthday to give you gifts, Grandmothers made occasions so they could give you gifts. Even though both my grandmothers died before I knew them, true to her grandmother calling, my Grandmother Mills gave me one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given.
It happened shortly before my eighth birthday. My father was going through some old boxes and found a small pink Bible that had belonged to his mother. At one time it must have been red, but it had faded and frayed with age. Dad looked at it a few minutes, leafed through the pages, and then handed it to me. “This was my mother’s,” he said. “Do you want it?”
Of course I did! I’d never had anything that belonged to my grandmothers. Excitedly I took the book into my hands savoring the feel of the hard, cloth cover. Opening the pages, I discovered it had no pictures, but delighted in the old, stale odor that emanated from the browned paper. It wasn’t marked with handwriting in the margins and lines under the words like my father’s Bible. Instead the lonely printed words lined up on every page waiting to be discovered, but I didn’t try to read it I think because I’d often heard adults say that the Bible was too difficult to read.
For the next few days, the book was never far from me, and at all times I was aware of where it was—as if it were a center that I radiated around. I took the Bible into the orchard, I held it during lunch, I used it for a table when I played dolls, I slept with it under my pillow delighting in the sensation of it emanating through the pillow to warm my dreams. Often I ran my fingers over the pink cover savoring the feel. I didn’t have a grandmother, but I had her book. She had once held this and now I was touching it. That was as close as I would ever be to her, and I tried imagining how she looked when she read the book, and where she put the book when she wasn’t reading it, and how often she read the book, and what she thought of the book.
For days this went on and then something happened. The details of where I was are unclear to me. In my memory I remember mostly the sun—as if I were outside at noon on a very bright day. But that may just be because of what happened. What I do remember is that it suddenly occurred to me that I should read the book and at the same time I was amazed that I hadn’t determined to read it before. I loved to read. Here I had a book and I hadn’t even tried to read it because of the things I’d heard about how different Bible language was and how difficult to read. But I could read! I could read well. Why had I let what I’d heard stop me? So I opened the book and read the first verse my eyes lit on: “When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing” (John 9:7).
I had no trouble reading the words, but that wasn’t the miracle. As I read, the most amazing feeling pulsed through me. I felt lifted as if I could fly and bright as if I’d suddenly become the sun, and my mind tumbled with thought. I knew the verse was about Jesus, and my body resonated with feelings assuring me without words, “Jesus is the Christ. Jesus Christ really lived and really died for you. It is true. Jesus is our Savior. Jesus is the Christ.”
I don’t know what I did next. I do know the feeling stayed with me for the next few days slowly fading until I deflated to normal. I no longer carried the book around. Instead I put it in a special place in my room where I could see it every time I entered the room and let it remind me of what had happened. Often, I read the same passage again and many other passages, yearning for another similar experience, but the intense feeling of light and love didn’t come back. However, I couldn’t read the book without the memory of that first experience returning to slightly warm me. More importantly, the things I learned have never left me.
It would be a few years before I recognized that it was the Spirit that touched my soul that day and taught me eternal truths. Until then I only understood that it was my grandmother’s Bible that had precipitated the blessing. I now realize that on that sunny day, God gave me two blessings—a testimony of my Savior, Jesus Christ, and an assurance that even though my grandmother had moved on she was and would always be a part of my life. For both gifts I will be forever grateful.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Another Lesson from my Life

Growing up I was very much aware that mothers were dispensable. I was also aware that for most of my friends that fact didn’t even appear on their radar screens. To them mothers were fixtures like the kitchen sink or walls of a room—just there, always there. But I knew differently.
My mother’s mother died from complications of diabetes when Mom was 17 years old. But it wasn’t just her death that shaped my mother’s life. For years before her death, my grandmother teetered between this life and the next. Mother often recounted stories of coming home from school and finding her mother in a coma, or family outings where the main event became insulin shock. Because Grandmother’s health was so precarious, the burden of housework and caring for her two younger sisters fell on my mother. On top of this, my grandfather dealt with the situation by retreating someplace deep within himself where no one could reach him. He was kind. He was quiet. He was gentle. But he was a living shadow. The real him lay buried in an unreachable spot.
I know mother never realized how often her past surfaced or in what ways it did. But for me it seemed a running dialogue that underscored everything else. So much of what we did was punctuated by her past. Often she would say things to me like “When I was your age, I did all the cooking.” Or “My mother never could do anything like this with me.” Or “If I ever wanted an ironed shirt I had to do it myself.” As I grew older the dialogue changed to include, “When I was your age, I didn’t have a mother.”
These statements confused me. I was never sure why she was telling me these things nor did I understand the emotion that accompanied them. The heaviness always seemed foreign to the activity they punctuated. We might be playing a game or innocently eating supper and suddenly the words and the far away look in her eyes would descend over the event like a wet, wool quilt. At times I felt like somehow she was blaming me for the fact she didn’t have a mother. I realize now that was absurd, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what I had to do with her past and why she kept connecting me to it as if I were an integral part of what had happened.
This is why I knew that mothers weren’t as constant as walls and sinks. Mothers sometimes died and left terrible scars on the people they loved.
That’s one reason her sickness jolted terror through me. The other reason is that no one explained. When someone said “a fever of one-hundred-and-four” I had no intellectual way of knowing whether that was a good or a bad thing. But the sound of their voices and the looks on their faces told me more than I wanted to know. I heard other words and phrases like “six months pregnant,” “rheumatic fever,” and “stay in bed.” And bed became the place she always was now. Before Mother was constant motion. She rarely even sat down during the day. But even worse, bed was the place my grandmother always was in the stories mother told.
Dad wasn’t used to her like this either. I observed the consuming grimace on his face, and knew that my grandfather must have looked just like that. Surely that was the look that preceded the withdrawal into himself. But the most frightening thing was that I had become invisible. No one saw me. Mother couldn’t see me for the pain and the fever. Dad couldn’t see me for the worry. Neighbors dropped by with food and good wishes, but didn’t think to look for a cowering five year old observing from the shadows of the room. It was mother that was sick. Mother that was the focus of their attention.
Dutifully, however, the Relief Society arranged for me and my brother to be tended during the day while Dad was at work. There were five women, one for each day of the week, who took us into their homes the weeks mother was ill. It was then I discovered that not all days have the same number of hours in them. Saturday and Sunday were very short. We could stay home because Dad was there. Most of the other days were long, but Mondays were so long they never seemed to end. Instead they flowed on and on like a thick, muddy river. The woman who took us on Mondays was older and had only been able to have one child, a daughter my brother’s age and in whom the very breath of life centered for that home.
Anything I did the girl screamed until her mother came running to the rescue. “What’s wrong?” she would ask, her face drawn tight. And Alice would inform her of my crimes. I had touched her toy, or I had looked at her, or I had refused to play with her, or I wasn’t being nice to her. I’d never seen a child exert such power over an adult and while it fascinated me to know that it was possible, I hated being set in the corner to learn my lesson or being made to apologize to “Sweet Alice” when it was Alice who had grabbed the drum sticks out of my hands because they were hers. I took to sitting in a corner plotting ways to escape. I remember wondering why I couldn’t be invisible here like I was at home. But even my withdrawal often sent Alice into shrieking fits and her mother running to save her.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays were long, but not terrible. On those days, I was merely an interruption, an extra mouth to feed, an added task to perform. In those places the pain wasn’t inflicted by anyone. Instead it sprang out of the situation—missing Mom, worrying about Mom, being in a strange environment. Being around people too busy to notice I was hurthing. The miracle was Thursdays which were almost as short as Saturday and Sunday. Sister Loosli was young and had only sons about our ages and in her home I was a person rather than a task. She told me how excited she was to have a little girl about the house. The first day she picked me up, she told me to bring my doll to play with because she didn’t have girl toys. But the best thing was that she bought me paper dolls. I loved paper dolls. But the more amazing thing is that she actually sat down on the floor and played with me. We spent time cutting out the paper dolls, dressing them, and acting out all sorts of plays with them as the main characters. Together we also fed and rocked my Tiny Tears doll to sleep and laughed when she wet her diaper.
Because of all this, I’m not sure why it was on a Thursday that I ran away. Maybe it was that the other women were more controlling and I didn’t have the opportunity. Or maybe it was just that my emotions came to a volcanic boil on a Thursday so I had to run. Or maybe it was that her kindness made me even more homesick. Whatever the reason, it was on a Thursday that feelings choked in me so violently I couldn’t breathe. I knew that to get air, to escape suffocation, I had to go home. No matter the cost. No matter the consequences. I had to go home. And so I ran. It was a fair distance for a five year old, but I had no trouble finding the way.
I remember watching the green shake-shingle house grow closer. I remember the terrible burning in my lungs from running. I remember seeing the front porch steps, and lifting a foot that quivered from exhaustion onto the step. I remember the effort of moving up the steps, panting, reaching out my hand, feeling the cool metal under my sweating finger tips and turning it only to find that it was locked. Falling against the door, the tears gushed—pushed out of my eye sockets by intense pressure.
For a long while I sat on the step. The sun was out, but I was cold. No one passed. I had no idea what to do next. The thought of going back didn’t occur to me. Was mother dead? Where could she possibly be, but dead? She was too sick to get out of bed. I don’t know that I thought about anything but death. Feeling it. Knowing it. Experiencing it. Wondering what would now happen to me. Would the rest of my life be Mondays? Would even the Saturdays and Sundays ever again be good?
I don’t know how long I sat on the hard cement before Sister Loosli drove into the unpaved driveway. I knew it was her, but refused to look. I couldn’t, however, escape the sound of the car tires crunching the gravel. Slowly Sister Loosli got out of her car, walked to the porch, and sat down beside me. I don’t remember her words, but she wasn’t mad. She didn’t yell at me. She didn’t scold. Instead she sat beside me sharing my pain. No longer invisible, I cried and she listened and then explained to me that one of the other sisters in the ward had taken mother to the doctor’s office. Mother was alive and even though she was sick, she would get better. No one had told me that before.
The Loosli family moved awhile after mother recovered. I’ve never seen Sister Loosli again. However, every time I see paper dolls, I think of her with great fondness and gratitude.
The Catholics canonize saints—men and women eminent for their piety or virtue who have made a mark on the history of the Catholic Church. We Mormons, on the other hand, are challenged to be saints. Perhaps the difference is that for us becoming a saint doesn’t mean making a difference in the history of the Church as much as it means making a difference in the history of the people around us. Sister Loosli is a saint.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Confidence

I know that if ultrasound scans had been available when mother was pregnant with me there would be a fuzzy picture of pre-natal me with my right thumb in my mouth. How do I know? Because that same thumb spent most of the first eight years of life in my mouth. I found great solace in sucking that thumb. Whenever life presented me with chaos or pain or discomfort (anything negative!), I stuck my thumb in my mouth and things got better. It didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, the thumb was always available. It always soothed.
But there was one problem. Mother didn’t like it at all. She tried everything to get me to stop. She coaxed. She belittled. She coated my thumb with foul-tasting ointment. She threatened. She bandaged my hand. She scared me with stories of ugly buck teeth and the importance of a beautiful smile. Despite all her lecturing, I had trouble understanding the tension my thumb sucking caused. I could see no way that it hurt her or any one else in the family; so why would she deny me something so wonderful? Why did it make me so unacceptable to her? No one else (except an uncle who made fun of me) seemed to care whether I sucked it or not.
But the message was clear. As much as I loved sucking my thumb, I wanted my mother’s approval even more. So I tried to stop. During the day when the thumb found its way into my mouth, I’d force thoughts of the germs Mother had told me about to parade in my mind. But by the time the thoughts of debilitating disease, intestinal worms, and chronic pain became revolting enough to male me remove the thumb, I rationalized that the germs were washed off and in my stomach anyway. I couldn’t do a thing about it now so I might as well enjoy.
Other times I’d concentrate on how happy she would be if I stopped, and how happy I would be to make her so happy. But then I’d rationalize that what she didn’t know couldn’t make her unhappy and since she wasn’t there at the moment to watch, it didn’t matter. One of us might as well be happy.
Night time was the most difficult. My thumb possessed sedative power. But I tried so hard to sleep without it. I’d put my hand under my pillow to keep it away from my mouth, but it seemed to grow bigger and bigger and the weight of my head on the thumb made it throb. Some nights I swear there was an invisible magnetic force pulling that thumb into my mouth and it was all I could do to resist it. I’d lie awake for what seemed like hours resisting the pull until it finally found its way into my mouth and I’d sleep peacefully. I tried sleeping with mittens on but they came off easily. Despite how it burned my mouth, I sucked off the foul-tasting ointment that Mother said would do the trick. I still don’t understand how I managed to do that while the benign taste of lima beans caused me to dry heave. In short, despite resolve after resolve, the thumb always found its way into my mouth.
After years of sucking, I bore the mark of the thumb sucker–the dreaded buck teeth. Large gaps bordered my two front teeth so that every time I smiled my lower lip slipped behind my two front teeth. Now besides knowing that I was a great disappointment to my mother, I became aware that I was a joke to neighbors and relatives. One Halloween I wore what I thought was a costume in which no one would recognize me. After all, the only thing that showed were my eyes and my mouth. But every house I went to people called me by name. Exasperated by the fact that I hadn’t fooled anyone, I finally asked one lady how she knew it was me. “You can’t miss those Bugs Bunny teeth,” she said with a laugh that I can still hear.
By then stopping the thumb sucking was not just a matter of pleasing Mother or about being laughed at. It was about what I was. By the time I reached eight years of age, I had defined myself as a person who could not keep a promise to myself or to my Mother no matter how intensely I wanted it. I knew I was a hopeless failure. And if I couldn’t please or win the approval of my very own family, how could anyone else like me? The desperation of these thoughts corroded other areas of my life until I knew that somehow, someway I had to conquer the habit or live forever in thumb-sucking hell.
Mother had tried everything. I had tried everything. Or so I thought. Finally one night as I knelt to say my prayers I poured out my heart to my Father in Heaven. I told him I couldn’t stop sucking my thumb. I told him that because I sucked my thumb no one could ever love me. Would He please help me? I begged. I pleaded. I repeated all the ills my mother had told me occurred because of thumb sucking. I told Him I didn’t want any more of those things to happen to me. Please would He help me stop sucking my thumb.
There was no immediate miracle. That night the thumb still found its way into my mouth, but it didn’t taste as good. The next night I prayed again and each succeeding night I repeated my request. And after many nights of praying, I finally managed to fall asleep without the thumb in my mouth. It was a marvelous realization. I could do it!
But the next night the thumb went right back to its accustomed place and we started over. Begging. Pleading. Hoping. I don’t know how long it took, but it was weeks not days before I finally put the habit behind me. But I did put it behind me. The thumb has never been in my mouth since that day. I had done something very, very difficult to do. But I knew I hadn’t done it alone. My Father in Heaven had given me strength that I alone didn’t have. He had empowered me so that over time the horrible habit was broken. And with His help I had conquered.
It would be many years later–when I was fifteen–that I finally got braces to correct the buck teeth. My sixth grade picture captures the Bugs Bunny teeth in all their glory, but there is no record of all the jokes and remarks I had to endure. I had overcome the thumb sucking, but I still had to live with the consequences. People still made fun of me and every time I looked in a mirror or saw a picture of myself, I was reminded of how ugly I was. It took me years to gain any sense of confidence, but the irony is that the confidence finally came from the same source as the lack of it.
Ever since that experience, when I come up against a problem or challenge that looks too difficult, I remember how very hard it was to keep that thumb out of my mouth. “I’ve encountered a thumb sucker,” I tell myself and then I pray and work and pray some more until I’ve met the challenge.
I used to wish I had been born one of those people who are beautiful and wonderful and without problems like sucking a thumb. You know the kind of person I mean–people that life flows to without much effort on their part, people that can do everything the first time they try. But at this stage of life I’m grateful I’m not one of those people because I don’t know how they ever learn to rely upon the Lord. After all, reliance is the first step in our spiritual growth. First we rely upon the Lord, then we grow close to Him, and finally we become like Him. That’s one thing Mother didn’t tell me. Thumb sucking can also be a blessing.

The Pattern

The Pattern
I didn’t know it at the time, but that day when I was five years old, the thing that happened, was a type of my whole life. Looking back I see how it has predicted the rest of my life, as if it set my life on a trajectory it has never fallen off. Sometimes spinning. Sometimes sliding. But always powered by the same missed cues.
Mornings Mom worked hard at scrubbing, washing, dusting, putting away, sweeping, anything that made things cleaner or neater. Even at the young age of five, I was aware that she couldn’t stop. Once her feet hit the floor in the morning it was work, work, work until dark had long had its way with the world. Anything that kept her from her work, no matter how wonderful it seemed to me, amounted to an unwanted interruption.
That’s why Mom vigilantly peered through the kitchen window while she worked watching for visits from Geneal Fowler who lived next door. I never figured out why she watched, because it didn’t change anything. Mother could never be dishonest and not answer the door or pretend not to hear the knock. Instead she would see Geneal coming and say, “Oh, no. I don’t have time to visit today,” then she’d answer the knock, smile, and invite Geneal into her kitchen. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Geneal. They were best of friends. It was just that Mother had to be working–had to be accomplishing something on her always long to-do list and couldn’t bear to be interrupted. Often during the visits she’d keep right on scrubbing and washing while Geneal sat at the kitchen table and chatted. This particular morning, however, Mom sat down across the table and listened.
I liked Geneal. She was everything Mom wasn’t. She moved leisurely, like she was dancing, and she read books, and played the piano, and hummed and sang right out loud. While raising her small children her house was never tidy, but it didn’t bother her. At the time I even suspected that she planned it that way. My guess was that it actually made life more interesting for her because finding anything in her house was like going on a treasure hunt—like playing a game all day long. Among her other talents, Geneal was an actress. I’d heard talk about her great role in the Ward play (which I hadn’t been allowed to attend) and knew that this year she had been chosen director of the Roadshow.
Discussion of that Roadshow had been one of her favorite subjects for a few weeks now so I knew all about it. Every time she sat down at our kitchen table I listened for any tidbit she might reveal. I knew it had an “under the sea” theme and that the costumes were going to be luminous and glitzy with an ethereal quality. I wasn’t sure any of those words meant, but by the way Geneal said them, I knew they were amazingly wonderful.
As the days passed by a great desire stirred in me. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be in that roadshow. I wanted to act on the stage and have people applaud and make them laugh or cry. I was convinced that if I just had a chance to show her what a wonderful actress I was, she would let me be in the Roadshow even though I wasn’t in mutual yet. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to sing and dance and write plays and I feared that if I didn’t start now, people would think I was a scrubber and washer like Mom and I’d be doomed to a life of toilets and ovens and waxing floors while exciting life went on all around me but without me.
Well, this particular morning Geneal breezed into our house in an unusual state of concern. She was still sure they were going to win the Stake competition for best roadshow. After all, they had the best talent, the best costumes, the best music. But there was one problem. She needed someone small and “wiggly” who could play the part of the fish. The girl, the one who was perfect for the part, had broken her ankle and needed to be replaced. What was she going to do? Everything depended upon having a fish who could move with just the right fishy wiggle.
Her words pierced me with the same jolt I’m sure a fish feels when it bites down on a hook. This was my chance. I could wiggle. I could be the best fish ever. I’d been listening from the corner while playing Jacks. I scooped up my ball and Jacks, put them in their bag and stretched out on the floor as if to take a nap. I waited a moment, listening to my mother suggest names for a perfect fish actress. None of them were me. But there was hope. At each suggestion, Geneal sighed and said, “She’s too tall,” or “She’s not agile enough” or “Are you kidding? She couldn’t wiggle if I put ashes in her pants.”
Now was my chance. I imagined in my head a fish swimming in the water. Dad had taken us fishing often and I knew exactly how fish moved. That stroke of knowledge gave me courage. Certainly it was a sign that this was meant to be. From my place on the floor, near Mom and Geneal’s feet, I began to squirm and wiggle, propelling myself across the floor to the oven. Neither of them noticed. Using my feet like oars, I turned myself around then wiggled past them to the back door. In my mind, I looked exactly like the fish I’d seen in the small stream the summer before. My shoulders propelled me, my hips always curved in the opposite direction to make just the right S shape. My arms hugged my body, but I let my hands flail out just below my waist like fins. I wiggled my fingers to simulate the way I remembered the fish fins shivering in the water. But still neither Mom nor Geneal looked in my direction. I stared up at the ceiling and let out a loud sigh. Still they went on talking as if I weren’t there.
I made two more passes across the room and then grew desperate. How could they not recognize the fine acting? I couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better imitation of a fish. If they would just look at me! Again I “swam” past the table, this time with more force, more “S” curve to propel me. And they talked on. Now, in desperation I could think of only one thing to do. I “swam” right into their feet, under the table, where my wiggling couldn’t be ignored.
“What in the world are you doing, Sherrie?” Mom asked. “I haven’t mopped that floor yet today and you are going to be filthy dirty. Why don’t you go into your room and play.”
I wiggled out from under the table in one last burst of energized hope, and gazed up at Geneal. She was looking! Flailing my body like I’d seen fish do when Dad pulled them from the water, I gave it every fish-wiggle I had left in me and ran right into the oven. It hurt, but it was good. I could envision it in my head and I knew I looked just like a real fish! Geneal raised her eyebrows and stared quizzically, but didn’t say a word.
“Sher-rie!” My mother warned, the two long syllables of my name hanging in the air like volcanic ash making it difficult to breathe.
Where had I gone wrong? Dejectedly I rolled over, climbed onto my knees and slowly stood up. I glanced one last time at Geneal, but it was clear she hadn’t recognized me as a great fish-actress. Hurriedly, I fled to my room, buried my head in my pillow and wished I were far away in another world.
A few weeks later, Mom and Dad took my brother and me to the Roadshows. Since I’d avoided Geneal’s visits after the day of my unofficial tryout, I hadn’t heard any of the news. I didn’t know who had the fish part, or if Geneal thought they were good or not. I wondered if I would recognize which part it was and thought about closing my eyes through the whole show so as not to feel the disappointment.
But when the lights went down and the music started, I couldn’t close my eyes. I watched and in the first minute the fish-actress appeared. There was no mistaking. The costume was iridescent and shiny—beautiful. But unlike me, this fish stood on her tail and did a hula across stage. The depths of my misunderstanding jolted through me. Geneal wanted a walking fish not an on-the-floor-slithering fish! If only I’d known. When she said she wanted a fish, the only thought I had was of a fish propelling across the stage head first, tail following. How could I have been so wrong? But in the awareness was a great hope. I could still be an actress. It wasn’t my acting that had lost me the part. It was my misunderstanding. Next time, I’d find out what kind of fish was wanted.
At least that’s what I told myself. But ever since, it seems I’ve been busy trying to fill a niche while everyone around me wanted quite a different niche filled. When I squirm, they want a walker. And when I walk, they want a squirmier. Still one of my most cherished hopes in life is to squirm at the right time. I haven’t given up.