Monday, August 11, 2014

Late Summer Reflections

An errand took me into WalMart the other day, and I noticed with surprise the rows and rows of binders and crayons, pencils and spiral notebooks. I flipped through my mental calendar and realized with a shock that my children start school in just nine days. Decades ago, I measured the end game of summertime by the progress of back-to-school sewing. Sometime around midsummer, Mother would take us downtown to the fabric store and let us pick out patterns and fabric for our new school clothes. (Fifth grade included a particularly nifty pair of gouchos, light blue denim with a matching shirt. Oh, but I felt stunning!) After a trip to the laundromat and some time spent pulling the fabric to line up the grain, out came the patterns and the interfacing and the black Singer sewing machine. Many seams and zippers later, the fabric began to look like a wardrobe. And in the last days before school, Mother hemmed and added the finishing touches. I eagerly planned my back-to-school outfit, counting down the days.

Somehow, I failed to catch the sewing bug myself, and without the whir of that ancient Singer, summertime meanders along at its own pace, leaving me rather shocked to find myself at the end of the ride, not quite prepared for autumn and falling far short of the lofty goals I set for myself ten weeks ago. The biography I started writing in 2011 remains just short of complete. My blog suffers from neglect. I half-read several books and completed none of them. I never ran that 10K I intended to run this summer.

However, while the writing fell by the wayside (again), we built good memories. I watched while Son #1 married a wonderful woman, and I smiled at the delight of Son #3 as he hiked with me along the edge of a mountainside. I ran dozens of miles and biked hundreds more, clearing my head and finding my endurance. I dated my husband and discovered downtown Springfield with my daughter. I even enjoyed the state fair for once, despite the rain that soaked us while we screamed and laughed on the rides.

The next few days will find me wandering those school supply aisles with a list in my hand and an excited third grader by my side. Perhaps on my way out of the store I will casually drop my list of summer goals in the garbage can and start fresh for autumn, buoyed up by good memories and the warmth of summer on the wane.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Perfect Day

Every so often, on rare and memorable occasions, life hands out perfect days. These are days to savor, days that leave an imprint on our souls. I experienced the gift of one such day recently.  A number of years ago, two dear friends and I hatched up a Mothers’ Day plan while pushing baby joggers up steep Vermont hills on our ritual morning walk. What better way to celebrate motherhood, we posited, than by escaping responsibility for a day? So we ran away to Montreal for Mothers’ Day weekend, returning for Sunday’s bounty of cards and hugs and food cooked by hands other than our own.

When I left the Vermont hills for Midwestern cornfields, I brought the tradition with me and have sporadically lassoed various friends into my annual escape. This year, Mothers’ Day Saturday dawned brilliantly sunny and pleasantly warm. Four of us passed the two-hour drive to St. Louis switching comfortably between the trivial and the profound with ease born of long friendship and shared experience.

"The Washerwomen of Breton Coast," painting by Jules Breton
We stopped first at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM), drawn by the traveling exhibit: Impressionist France. Through the lens of Charles Marville and the brushes of Claude Monet, Jean-Francois Millet, Edouard Manet and their compatriots, we toured Paris and the French countryside, 19th century factories and the coastline. The washerwomen of Jules Breton struck a particular chord, goddesses in bare feet and white caps.

Leaving the stately columns of SLAM, we headed to 39th Street and Sweet Art, a neighborhood café, bakeshop and art studio owned by baker Reine Bayoc and her artist husband Cbabi Bayoc. While indulging in vegan eats and not quite so vegan but oh so amazing pastries, we discovered Cbabi’s “365 Days with Dad,” a project of 365 paintings celebrating black fatherhood. His paintings are worlds apart from Jules Breton but equally powerful in their own sphere.

Still munching vegan brownies, salted caramel bars and hummingbird cake, we made our way downtown to a fantastic production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph and his brothers delivered, as did the opulent Fox Theater.

Once back in the sunshine, we wandered for a time, drunk on summery air and the wonder of a few hours without schedules and demands. We stopped first at St. Francis Xavier College Church, pausing to meditate in the hush of intricate stained glass and worshippers waiting for their turn at confession. Around the corner, on the campus of Saint Louis University, we found a delightful collection of sculptures, a perfect picnic spot tucked among perennials, and a couple of stately stone lions watching over the Moolah Temple.

We rounded out our adventure under the tutelage of Mai Truong, the chatty founder of the OR Smoothie & Café in the Central West End. Sipping power smoothies and munching Vietnamese spring rolls, we reflected on a glorious day in the middle of lives that, for all of their twists and turns, have treated us remarkably well.

My grandfather loved the song "A Perfect Day," by Carrie Jacobs-Bond. "When you come to the end of a perfect day," she wrote, "and you sit alone with your thought, ...mem'ry has painted this perfect day with colors that never fade, and we find at the end of a perfect day the soul of a friend we've made." Ms. Jacobs-Bond wrote those lyrics 100 years ago after watching a magnificent sunset at the close of a glorious day spent motoring with friends. I think perhaps I know just what she was thinking that evening.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Not Just Good, But True

I belong to a church that claims to be the true church of Jesus Christ, restored by God Himself in modern times. This is a bold claim, to be sure, a sometimes unpopular claim in Christian circles. In a religious environment where the trend favors an “all paths lead to God” philosophy, the notion of a single path seems exclusive, restrictive.

Recently, I broke my usual rule of avoiding blogs that blast the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). I find such blogs and the accompanying comments divisive, contentious and frankly painful to read. However, someone I respect posted a link to a blog, and I took the bait. At the end of the essay, I found a comment that has caused me to ponder. Presumably defending the LDS (or Mormon) faith, the commenter wrote the following:

“I think a very large problem people have is judging a religion by trying to determine if it is "true." It's just not what religion is about. Good inclusive and loving religion is about goodness, not about truth. It's easy to disprove any religion technically - or any other superstition. Rejecting Mormonism by finding it untrue is silly. Judge it for its goodness. No religion is "true." Religions vary a great deal in how good they are, and Mormonism is one of the very best.”

Religion isn’t about truth? Really? If religion isn’t about truth, then what, exactly, is the purpose of religion? I can join a club or a social movement if I need an organization to help me to do good, effect positive change in the world. But I want something more powerful than that. I want the power that comes with having faith in something absolutely unshakeable, something greater than the universe, something beyond human control. I want truth.

I realize, in my quest for truth, that I will have to sacrifice to obtain it. I may have to sacrifice the comfort of personal habit or public opinion. I expect to work and find myself pushed to my limits occasionally, because I have never had a truly amazing moment of clarity and beauty that came without sweat or tears. In fact, the LDS prophet Joseph Smith once taught that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”

While Joseph Smith may not resonate with everyone, the concept that the worthwhile things of life require sacrifice certainly seems to resonate with people of all cultures and persuasions. Interestingly, as our modern culture moves away from organized religion, we seem to create our own sacrifices to replace those formerly imposed by the religions we shun. Record numbers of athletes run marathons and ultra marathons each year. Fitness enthusiasts from teenagers to grandmothers groan under the strain of a daily crossfit workout. We eat bitter kale and forego gluten and sugar and meat (which makes the WholeFoods skit by Studio C particularly hilarious). We sacrifice our families and our joy to devote most of our waking hours to our careers. We search and search and search…for truth, though we may phrase it differently.

So I will be bold and declare my search for absolute truth. I believe I have found the avenue (or perhaps the container) for that truth in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, not because the LDS church sets itself apart and closes its doors against the tenets of other faiths or the discoveries of science or academia, but precisely because the gospel encompasses and accepts all truth. The grandfather of LDS apostle Henry B. Eyring once told his son, “…in this church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is part of the gospel.” I have always loved that quote and have let it inform my life.

Another concept that I find critical in my search for truth and God is the notion that truth comes to me when I act, whether that action involves serving others, enduring with grace or wrestling through to the solution of a spiritual conundrum. Eugene England, an LDS intellectual, once wrote an essay called “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” an essay that has proved pivotal for me in how I approach my religious life.

In the essay, Mr. England points out that “the (LDS) Church is as ‘true,’ as effective, as sure an instrument of salvation as the system of doctrines we call the gospel-and that that is so in good part because of the very flaws, human exasperations, and historical problems that occasionally give us all some anguish.” We all experience the frustrations of imperfect leaders, doctrines that may clash with our comfortable existence or with each other, or opportunities to serve with those who may drive us to the point of insanity with their habits or prejudices. But as we seek divine guidance in working through these exasperations, and as we act rather than grumble (or even act while grumbling, sometimes), we eventually push through to astonishing vistas of truth that we could not have understood without the struggle. We come to know Jesus Christ by walking in His footsteps for a time.

Yes, religion should be loving and inclusive, should inspire goodness in the community it serves. And if a religion is to truly save souls and offer the riches of eternity, it should also be true. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Those Things You Should Never Say

Go ahead, ask me when I'm due. I dare you!
I find myself deeply indebted to social media for an education that would paralyze me into silence…if I were more empathetic and politically correct. This morning, I read yet another “10 Things You Should Never Say to…” article, and something snapped. I took a little Google tour, searching on “things never to say” (an enlightening journey). I stopped at 20 pages of articles but could have trolled the internet for hours to learn what not to say to your fishing partner, your co-workers, vegetarians, a grieving spouse, a gay person, an American, a Chicano, a dog owner, flight attendants, a redhead, someone you are breaking up with, a transgender person, people with curly hair (really?)…and my personal catch-all favorite: “Ten Things Never to Say to Other People. Period.” The overwhelming majority of the articles relate to moms of all shapes and sizes and stages: expectant moms, working moms, stay at home moms, single moms, parents of special needs children, parents of triplets, moms of boys, Filipino parents, new moms over 40, new moms under 25, stressed-out parents.

Having been a pregnant woman, a grieving spouse, a working mom, a stay at home mom, and a hundred other “someones,” I thought I should probably take a look at some of the utterances that any thinking person should have known never to say to me at that particular period of my life.

Apparently, I should have taken great offense as a working mother if anyone told me that I looked exhausted. Ooh, well. The fact of the matter is that I was exhausted. My one-year old seemed to catch every childhood illness that breathed its way through daycare. I travelled frequently. Management duties kept me up at night when the baby did not. Yep, I had days when my eyes wanted nothing more than to close for just a few seconds of quiet bliss. You would have been an idiot not to notice, and it’s OK that you mentioned it. I found myself even more exhausted as a stay at home mom, and it’s OK that you noticed then, as well. The working mother blogger supported her plea for inoffensive comments with her assertion that “I am no different than anyone else.” All right, sweetie, I’ll take you at your word and stop tip-toeing around you.

Hundreds of sites list terrible things never to say to a pregnant woman. Well yes, let’s walk right into that mine field. Give a woman an overload of hormones and a few inches around the tummy and thighs (and arms and cheeks and ankles) and there really is no way to be sure you will say the right thing. Most of us cry and huff and puff and eventually get over the questions and advice once the hormones have subsided. One blog author differentiated between the childless person who offends with the comment “get all the sleep you can now” and the new parent who appropriately commiserates with the very same comment. Hmm…what if that childless person deals with infertility and is simply trying her best to relate to you in a condition she will never have, no matter how much she wants a child? I am quite certain that one of those 10 Things You Should Never Say to a Person Who Can’t Conceive runs along the lines of “You wouldn’t understand because you have never had a child.”

As a 20-something widow, I appreciated the fact that a select group of people actually could empathize with my situation and knew instinctively what to say. At the same time, I appreciated all of the bumbling attempts to connect with me by friends and strangers who knew they could never say the right thing but wanted to open their mouth in support anyway. Thank you for not letting your fear of casting offense keep you from walking across the room to speak to me. I know how long that walk can be, how you rehearse in your mind what you will say to the wounded woman who feels a pain you may never experience.

One snarky blogger ended her post with a statement that brought her a little redemption in my eyes. “The questions and words should not be filled with judgment but with support.” Yes, yes! Exactly. If you want to be helpful, tell me what I should say in support instead of automatically assuming I mean to be judgmental. I don’t (well, most of the time, anyway). Generally, I genuinely want to connect with those around me who deal with addictions, depression, stress, illness and a host of other challenges that life throws at all of us. I try my best. I fail a lot. And I will continue to believe that freezing in silent fear of saying the wrong thing is generally much worse than reaching out my hand in love and trying my best to connect with another human being.

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013: Gratitude for Good Things

The Family, August 2013
Last January, following the example of our niece, I plunked a Mason jar on the kitchen counter and labeled it "Good Things 2013." We began to fill the jar with reminders of moments both awe-inspiring and (more often) quietly joyful. As the year enters its closing scenes, the jar fairly bursts with little scraps of folded paper. We will open the jar on New Year's Day, and you will thank me for sparing you the long list of happy events that matter mostly only to those of us who lived them. Still, since the year has brought such an abundance of memories, I'll pick out just a few to give you a glimpse of life with the Wallace/Larsen clan over the past year.

January marked our 19th wedding anniversary. That means, of course, that in just a couple of weeks we will celebrate 20 years of marital bliss. Once upon a time, we planned to celebrate our 20th in Scotland or Italy. As the milestone drew closer, we scaled the plan back to a return to Key West (where we celebrated our 10th). Now, with the day fast approaching, I'm thinking we'll maybe go out to dinner and catch some live music downtown. Reality has a way of catching up with us!

In February, Brad and I discovered the Central Illinois Jazz Festival in Decatur, an event we will most certainly make an annual tradition. Then we sent Alec off to Logan, Utah for the out-of-staters weekend at Utah State University. After a weekend of college life and snowboarding, his senioritis really kicked into gear!


March brought spring break for the kiddos, which began with our one real snowstorm of the year and ended with a wonderful family getaway to St. Louis. We built a magical snow castle, cavorted with butterflies at the Butterfly House and crawled through endless tunnels at the City Museum.

April flew past, with May and the end of the school year fast on its heels. Alec and Juliana celebrated the end of early morning seminary, while Jared and Kristina left 7th and 1st grade in the dust. Days later, Alec graduated from high school and wowed us with his senior piano recital. We love having a houseful of pianists!

July brought a flurry of house guests, culminating in Devin's long-anticipated return from his mission to San Antonio, Texas. Nothing stacks up to that first post-mission hug...even though we only got to keep him home for a week before Devin and Alec headed off to Logan and a semester as roommates at Utah State. Juliana flew West days later for an absolutely perfect bucket list hiking trip in the Wind Rivers. Brad took his turn in the Rockies in October when he joined the boys in the Salt Lake temple as Alec began preparing for his mission to Paris, France. (He's scheduled to enter the MTC on January 22, and he's beyond excited!)


In November, Brad and Jared officially ended the football season with a tournament in Missouri, and Brad thoroughly enjoyed what will probably be his last chance to coach one of his sons in football. Then we put the pads away and pulled out the basketballs for the next few months. Even Kristina gets into the action this time, playing on two teams.

Now here we are, basking in our Christmas goodie hangovers. Brad's parents and sister and our big boys all made it to the prairie for Christmas, and we are filling every bit of remaining space in the memory jar. For the first time in years I have enjoyed the Christmas season from beginning to end. For that, for family and for countless gifts from the Savior whose birth we have so enjoyed celebrating, I find myself filled to the brim with gratitude.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sarah Laughed

And Sarah Laughed, by Abel Pann
My husband reminded me that I left the story hanging with my last post. "Aren't you going to write a followup post?" he asked. It was a momentous week, after all--surprising, humbling, a turning point. As I predicted, by the time I clicked Publish on my last post, I had found my equilibrium. The sun began to shine again, and peace returned. But it was only intermission. The story had yet to play itself out.

Do you remember the Old Testament account of Sarah and Abraham? Like most good Hebrew women, Sarah desired to raise children. To add strength to that perfectly righteous desire, God had promised Abraham that his posterity would be as the sands of the sea. And yet, not only did Sarah fail to conceive, but she had to watch her handmaid, Hagar, deliver Abraham's child in her place. For decades Sarah suffered the disappointment and shame of her childless condition, until at last she reached menopause. And then, one day she stood in the tent door listening while a holy man told Abraham, "Sarah thy wife shall have a son." What did Sarah do? She laughed to herself. The holy man promised the impossible; it was past time.

A couple of days before my recent fit of melancholy, I sat in the temple listening for the inspiration and answers that generally come to me there. The thought that tiptoed through my mind was a vision of Sarah and the gift of Isaac, a gift that came to her only after she had given up hope. Like Sarah, I had for decades desired a particular blessing. It was a perfectly righteous desire and, like Sarah, I had mostly given up hope of receiving that blessing. Mostly, but not quite. Recent events had rekindled just a spark of my hope, and the reminder of Sarah fanned the flame.

Sadly, the evening brought a resounding "no," seemingly straight from Heaven, and the loss of a newly revived hope sent me spiraling downward. My heart cracked just enough to let the faith drain out and the melancholy rush in to take its place. My husband flew to Utah on a trip that now seemed pointless, while I wallowed back at home. But sunshine and exercise, friends and the memory of faith lifted me. I still doubted my own ability to recognize inspiration, but I decided I could live without the desired blessing. After all, I had lived without it for years already.

In the midst of the calm, the phone rang. Astonishingly, the resounding "no" had turned to a "yes." Only after it was impossible did the blessing arrive. The next day, some of the people I love best of all stood together in one of the places I love best. Back home, I smiled. God remembered Sarah, even though she laughed, just as God remembered Rachel and millions of other covenant women. And God remembered me. It feels good to be remembered. I'm humbled that I dared to think my Father would forget me.

It occurs to me that I have not, in fact, really told the rest of the story. After all, most of the telling belongs to other actors in the scene. Truth be told, I suspect that in the end this episode will prove to be just a small part of a tale that continues to unfold. But it is enough to remind me that my notions of possibility can hardly hem in the God of the Universe.

Friday, October 11, 2013

One of THOSE Days

I feel very fortunate to have dodged the clinical depression bullet. But every once in a while, melancholy
descends briefly, leaving me in a tangled heap on the floor, tears hot on my cheeks. I fantasize about cutting a tiny X on my ankle, mostly just to feel the purity of the pain. I resist. Even on a dark day I realize that some doors need to remain firmly closed. Eventually, I stand up and walk slowly from room to room, one foot in front of the other. I pick up a toy, start a load of laundry, wash a dish, tidy the pile of music in the front room. I'm listless, but I begin to catch momentum. Then an email sets me off and I collapse again, wrapping my arms around my gut to embrace the stab of utter uselessness. Part of me stands apart, shaking my head at the silly dramatics that no one else sees in the empty house.

Years ago, on another day like this, I called home, needing my father's usual wisdom and comforting words. But Daddy answered the phone in a bad mood, and I hung up quickly, feeling defensive and cheated. Prayer feels like that this week. God hears; I'm sure of it. But He declines to answer, busy with more important things than my petty mood, or accurately recognizing that I can muddle through just fine on my own and need the experience anyway. I will agree with God tomorrow, probably even pulling some profound tidbit from the process. Today, though, I feel abandoned, my faith buried under cynicism.

Evening wallowing loses its charm after a while, so I exercise. For an hour or so, I can outrun or out bike the melancholy. As my legs pump and my heart beats, I feel strong. Endorphins push the gloom away, and I rise to the surface to take a deep breath. Before long, I'll float to the top for good. By the time you read this, in fact, today's cynicism and gasping sobs will have faded into a memory of a day that I let the world win.

I hope I keep the memory, though, hope that in some way I can imagine these hours of melancholy stretching on for days or weeks. Then perhaps when I come across a friend buried under the waves, the heart that feels like stone now will find the empathy that I need to stretch out a hand. Perhaps I will stand on someone's porch, like a friend did for me today, not so much saying the words that needed to be said but offering a small patch of settled ground to help me gain my balance.