Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Sigh. Did I mention that I love my husband?
Did I also mention that I'm currently suffering from a temporary case of writer's block, seasoned with a dash of ongoing limbo and served up on a dish of winter that stubbornly refuses to give way to spring in quite the timeframe I had hoped? And there you have the crux of the matter, if I am to give way to perfect honesty. I have run smack against a bit of life I cannot control, and I find myself thoroughly cross with the situation.
It's a bit of a tightrope, this tension between control and delicious surprise. On one side of the wire, I plot my life hour by hour on a calendar, depend on my grocery app and keep a detailed "to do" list, sorted by priority and date. As backup, I refer to two white boards in my kitchen: one for those things I really, really need to remember in case I forget to look at my task list and the other for chores the children need to accomplish before any fun ensues. I assume the overflowing junk drawers (not one, but two) in the kitchen help to offset the rigidity of the white boards.
On the other side of the wire bubbles an insistent need to escape the list app, pull out of routine and allow myself the luxury of the unknown, the unplanned. Sometimes I long to hang on to the boat and ride the waves, ready to gasp in delight at the breathtaking view around the bend. I find that the best moments usually lurk outside of my orchestration. But to surrender to another conductor requires a trust that I find difficult to muster with any frequency. So I long for order and crave random and find myself attempting to balance between the two.
When Nick Wallenda crossed the Grand Canyon on a tightrope 1500 feet above the canyon floor, he held a 30-foot-long, 43-pound flexible pole in his hands. The heavy pole held his center of gravity toward the safety of the steel cable and kept him from leaning dangerously far in either direction.
And me? I have that husband (whom I love), four wonderful children (whom I also love), and a dog (which I tolerate). They require meals at regular intervals and rides according to schedule. We have a comfortable routine of morning prayer and bedtime hugs. And when the routine leans threateningly toward monotony, I can count on the unexpected to pull me back to center. The dog will vomit on the carpet just before company arrives. Snowmen will require building after a spring storm. Impromptu chats with a teenage son will last for hours. Calls for service will shatter my schedule. And sometimes, on a quiet winter day when I had other plans, my husband will stay home from work.
Monday, January 12, 2015
|"We became acquainted with (God) in our extremities"|
Like many LDS children, I began each school year armed with a priesthood blessing of counsel and comfort from my father. Invariably, that blessing promised me "learning experiences" during the course of the year. I soon realized that those experiences generally came accompanied by an uncomfortable amount of pain and frustration.
True to Dad's inspiration, I have had many opportunities over the years to learn through trials. Those difficult periods have taught me bits of empathy and a degree of humility. Scriptures have come alive as they suddenly felt more applicable than ever before. I understand more about unconditional love now, about the blessings of suffering, the purifying role of sacrifice, the freedom of forgiving and seeking forgiveness. I rarely seek for learning experiences, but I do appreciate them (sometimes through gritted teeth). I appreciate that the process of feeling stretched to the point of breaking makes me stronger and allows me to see the hand of God and the compassion of others in my life. I love the epiphany moments, even if they come in the pit. After all, a light shines brighter in a dark cellar than in the light of noonday.
But what about those times when we hit bottom and keep going, or when we hit bottom repeatedly without the hoped for relief, without the brilliant light of understanding? Christians of all faiths (my own included) love to quote 1 Corinthians 10:13 and point out that God will not give us more than we can handle. I agree that God is faithful, that He will provide a way to escape temptation. I have less confidence saying that God will never allow us to be submitted to a trial beyond our own capacity to "handle it."
Long ago, Elder James E. Faust gave a talk about the refiner's fire. In the talk, he used the example of the Martin handcart company, an ill-fated company of Mormon pioneers that ran into harsh conditions crossing the plains. Fully one quarter of the members of the company perished on the way West, and all endured great suffering. And yet, not one of that company abandoned the faith. As one survivor said years later:
"Everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities. ...
“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.’”
Elder Faust explained: "Here then is a great truth. In the pain, the agony, and the heroic endeavors of life, we pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. In this way the divine image can be mirrored from the soul. It is part of the purging toll exacted of some to become acquainted with God. In the agonies of life, we seem to listen better to the faint, godly whisperings of the Divine Shepherd."
President Harold B. Lee said something similar: "There is a refining process that comes through suffering, I think, that we can’t experience any other way than by suffering. … We draw closer to Him who gave His life that man might be. We feel a kinship that we have never felt before. … He suffered more than we can ever imagine. But to the extent that we have suffered, somehow it seems to have the effect of drawing us closer to the divine, helps to purify our souls, and helps to purge out the things that are not pleasing in the sight of the Lord. ... We must be refined. We must be tested in order to prove the strength and power that are in us."
Purging Helps Us to Transform
I have noticed lately that these purging experiences seem to occur most often in conjunction with a commitment to a new phase of discipleship. One friend recommitted to her faith after several years apart and almost immediately experienced debilitating health problems. Another finally relinquished an addiction of decades and found unexpected trials that rocked his confidence. Positive transformation does not always immediately result in blessings. Occasionally, a purging accompanies such a transformation. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.
First, as we become new people, we must necessarily shed our former lives, slough off the trappings of the people we used to be. As Elder Faust suggested above, the refiner's fire melts away the dross, and we experience a rebirth.
Second, at times we doubt our own transformation. Have we truly repented? Are we strong enough to hold to this new commitment we have made? Will our conversion stick? Abraham made a covenant with the Lord that would shape the world for generations to come. God promised that he would be a father of many nations. And then God asked Abraham to sacrifice the miracle son, the very posterity He had promised. Elder Hugh B. Brown said of that sacrifice that God knew perfectly well that Abraham would sacrifice anything He asked, but that "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham." Likewise, when we come through these purging experiences, having made the sacrifice asked of us, we, like Abraham, can know that our transformation is real, that we are truly committed to God. We need that confidence that comes with knowing ourselves.
Is There No Other Way?
My husband posed an intriguing question as we discussed these purging experiences recently. "Is there no positive way to become a new person? Why does this refining process always have to be painful and negative?" I pondered that question for some time. The refining process seems to work best through pain that brings us literally and figuratively to our knees, that forces us to acknowledge our nothingness before the Lord. I thought about why that is, about what the refiner's fire accomplishes in us. The process seems to accomplish several key purposes:
- We come to recognize our complete dependence on God. We feel a great need.
- We accept God's will unconditionally.
- We relinquish everything that gets between us and God: every sin, every wish, every bit of our own agenda.
- The Spirit burns within us. (This is where the true purging occurs.)
- We see things from an eternal perspective.
- We are willing to sacrifice whatever God asks of us.
- Our prayers become true communication.
"Do you want guidance? Have you prayed to the Lord for inspiration? Do you want to do right or do you want to do what you want to do whether or not it is right? Do you want to do what is best for you in the long run or what seems more desirable for the moment? Have you prayed? How much have you prayed? How did you pray? Have you prayed as did the Savior of the world in Gethsemane or did you ask for what you want regardless of its being proper? Do you say in your prayers: “Thy will be done”? Did you say, “Heavenly Father, if you will inspire and impress me with the right, I will do that right”? Or, did you pray, “Give me what I want or I will take it anyway”? Did you say: “Father in Heaven, I love you, I believe in you, I know you are omniscient. I am honest. I am sincerely desirous of doing right. I know you can see the end from the beginning. You can see the future. You can discern if under this situation I present, I will have peace or turmoil, happiness or sorrow, success or failure. Tell me, please, loved Heavenly Father, and I promise to do what you tell me to do.” Have you prayed that way? Don’t you think it might be wise? Are you courageous enough to pray that prayer?"
In short, are we courageous enough to truly stand naked before God and acknowledge that we are nothing without Him? Can we give it all up in order to become what God has designed for us to become?
Thorns That Heal
The ancient Apostle Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) that he had begged the Lord to remove. "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me," he said. God did not remove the thorn. Whether that thorn represented a physical malady, an addiction from which Paul craved to be healed, an enemy who refused to back down, or some other trial, we do not know. But we do know that Paul eventually accepted the thorn as a part of his mortal experience, as a gift from God to help him to be strong.
If we accept it, God will offer deliverance through our refiner's fire. We may not find the trial removed. In fact, the fire itself may become our deliverance if we can develop the ability to trust God enough to hand our trials over to Him.
James E. Faust said, "Out of the refiner’s fire can come a glorious deliverance. It can be a noble and lasting rebirth. The price to become acquainted with God will have been paid. There can come a sacred peace. There will be a reawakening of dormant, inner resources. A comfortable cloak of righteousness will be drawn around us to protect us and to keep us warm spiritually. Self-pity will vanish as our blessings are counted."
- April 1979 General Conference, Elder James E. Faust, "The Refiner's Fire"
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Chapter 21: "Striving for Perfection"
- Power from Abrahamic Tests, by Truman G. Madsen, Meridian Magazine, http://www.ldsmag.com
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball,Chapter 22: Revelation: “A Continuous Melody and a Thunderous Appeal”
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
|Elder Wallace in Paris|
year mission to France and Belgium. So far, he has served in Cergy, France (just outside of Paris), in Nivelles, Belgium (not far from Brussels) and now in Lorient, France (in Brittany, on the Atlantic Coast). He loves his mission and has grown immensely already.
Over the next few months, Jared finished up eighth grade and grew an inch or two. He's now officially the tallest member of the family and is working hard to rival his brothers in the gym. He had another great football season, and now piano and trumpet keep him busy when he's not studying or working out.
|Devin and Mattea's Wedding|
A high point of Kristina's year (and all of ours!) was to add another girl to the family. In June, Devin married Mattea Andersen. We thoroughly enjoyed their beautiful wedding in Brigham City, Utah, and Jared loved hiking in real mountains during our stay. Devin and Mattea are living in Logan this year while Devin finishes his degree at USU, after which they will leave for the mystical world of graduate school. (Stay tuned for location!) We love Mattea and are thrilled to have her in the family.
|Wales with the Norm & Kris and Sylvia & Gary|
With the start of school, life ramped up to lightning speed, it seems. Football for Jared gave way to basketball for Kristina and Coach Brad. Brad and Juliana plug away at their jobs and unwind with piano (Brad) and exercise, books and the occasional house project. Life is good!
Friday, December 12, 2014
Somewhat of a recluse by nature, I appreciate that this calling forces me to seek out other women, moving beyond the comfortable routine of my life and away from my favorite spot on the back row. Often, I am privy to both the minutiae and the momentous in the lives of my sisters, feebly offering counsel when they request it, as if by virtue of my office I have somehow stumbled upon a store of wisdom previously beyond my reach. I observe as they offer service to one another and as they discover their own talents and power in that service. Those moments inspire me.
There are other moments, too, when I walk into the darker valleys with these women. Because I work with the bishop of our congregation in order to lift the families and the women we serve, I learn much about their struggles. And herein lies today's dilemma. Perhaps the grey clouds this week have filtered my vision, but I begin to see primarily pain and illness, disappointment and sadness in the world around me. Jobs refuse to materialize, bank accounts fail to balance, illness stubbornly clings to those who are weary of its presence, children flail against the enormity of all that life expects of them, parents and friends stand by helpless. And I, it seems, have nothing to give them. I offer an ear or a prayer but little of any tangible value.
At the same time, my perspective shifts, and I have yet to determine if the shift is a positive one. Like those I serve, I chafe at a reality that often fails to match up to my expectations. I want to live within my means. I want to eat more responsibly. I want to reach toward my potential and achieve something wonderful, instead of slogging through each day just to accomplish a couple of the "must dos" on my checklist. But as I look around me, I begin to tell myself that to dream about that potential is foolhardy. I have a good life, a wonderful family, so many blessings that others will never have. To want more, to expect more, out of life would be ungrateful, perhaps even unkind, and certainly selfish.
At times like these grey days, I find I have to give myself the same advice I would give anyone else:
- Keep dreaming. Dream big and don't apologize for it. Be willing to sacrifice lesser things for your dreams. Family and faith are not lesser things.
- If something about your body bothers you, you probably already know what you need to do about it. Stop making excuses and do it! If there is something beyond your ability to fix, learn to love it.
- Illness happens. Depression happens. To everyone. Remember that God gets it, that He knows exactly how you feel and that He cares. He may not take the burden away, but He can make you strong enough to bear it, and He will truly help you to shoulder the load. Remember that others also struggle under burdens of physical and emotional illness. Reach out to them with the empathy your struggles have given you. That empathy is a gift to be used.
- Love those around you. Truly love them. Remember that God loves them way more than you do, and that He will watch over them just as He watches over you. You do not have the responsibility or usually the capability to solve their problems. That's OK. Just be there for them when you can and pray for them when you cannot.
- Ask for miracles. Expect them. Understand that they may not appear exactly according to your design or in your timetable, but know that the miracles will come and in a way and a time that are best suited for you. Look for them and express gratitude for each and every miracle you see.
- If you are trying your best to do the right thing, to be in tune with the Spirit, to find the path God wants you to be on, then keep moving forward. It will all work out, even though right now you walk through a fog.
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
On New Year's Day 2014, Brittany Maynard received a staggering diagnosis. 29 and recently married, she now contemplated brain cancer. Surgery proved ineffective, and by April doctors told her the tumor had grown into a grade 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that would likely claim her life within six months. Brittany and her family researched the options, none of them pretty. Treatment could prolong her life but not save it, and the side effects of the treatments themselves would drastically reduce the quality of what little time she had left. The tumor already promised a terrifying decline. Adding side effects of radiation and chemotherapy seemed unpalatable.
Have watched a loved one die from a grade 4 glioblastoma, I claim some experience with the indignity of the death the disease inflicts. I have watched a once handsome and athletic body grow puffy and weak with steroids. I have wept with frustration as the honor student struggled to pass classes that once came easily to him and finally struggled even to remember how to tie his tie. I held his hand as he recovered from yet another seizure, and I injected morphine to control the awful pain. I fought with insurance companies, propped a bowl under his chin while he threw up blood, and talked long into the night with him about what it might feel like to leave this life. In the end, I changed the diaper of a man who no longer recognized me. No one deserves to die that way.
While Brittany struggled with her own illness, another young woman also contemplated a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Lauren Hill, a high school senior and standout basketball player, had just signed on to play basketball for Mount Saint Joseph University in Cincinnati when she was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare form of brain cancer. 90% of children with DIPG die within 18 months of diagnosis. Like a glioblastoma, this cancer offers no pity to its victims.
Brittany and Lauren both took their fight to the next level, although they chose very different paths. Brittany began to research "death with dignity," or physician-assisted suicide, hoping to die on her own terms and spare her family the pain of watching her decline. She lived her last months deliberately, cherishing time with loved ones and building memories. At the same time, she joined forces with Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life nonprofit advocacy organization, to share her story, one that has sparked a national debate. She allowed herself to be vilified by those who disagreed with her choice, feeling that her cause was worth the cost. She ended her life on November 1, surrounded by love and still in control.
The day after Brittany's death, Lauren Hill played her first college basketball game. Mount Saint Joseph games usually draw a crowd of 50 people. For this game, 10,000 tickets sold out in 30 minutes. Lauren had chosen to spend her final months raising awareness of DIPG, in the hopes that increased research could help those who come after her, children and families who need a voice. For the past several months, she practiced with her teammates and worked tirelessly for the cause that hit so close to home, all while undergoing painful treatments and suffering the debilitating effects of her disease. In the opening seconds of the game, she scored the first basket of the NCAA season, and the crowd erupted into cheers. Doctors say Lauren has weeks left to live.
I have thought a great deal this week about these two women. I find Lauren's story incredibly inspiring, much moreso than Brittany's, if I have to be honest about it. Fighting to the end always makes for a better story, especially when that fight includes two basketball teams and 10,000 fans coming together to make a dream come true for a girl who has decided to use her last weeks to help make possible the dreams of other children. One would have to be heartless, indeed, to find fault with Lauren and her end-of-life choices.
At the same time, I cannot quite bring myself to condemn Brittany. While I have watched a loved one suffer the agony of death, I have not personally felt the pain, the nausea, the terror, the disorientation, the loss of mental and emotional competence that comes with an illness such as hers. After 9/11 I told myself I probably would have jumped from the tower rather than allow myself to suffer death by fire. And I tell my husband that if I ever face severe dementia, I want to die alone in a nursing home rather than have my family see me in such a decline (although I have a feeling I would change my mind if that scenario ever became my reality). Is that really any different than Brittany taking a lethal dose of barbiturates only weeks or even days before the cancer would have claimed her life anyway?
I know so little about death. But one truth I have learned is that regardless of how many loved ones or journalists surround us, we each face the end privately, in the quiet moments of faith or fear, in the contemplation of our lives behind us and the possibilities ahead, or simply in the day to day struggle with illness and pain. Most of us get no rehearsal for our meeting with death, so it's game on when he turns his attention to us. We cannot with any certainty know how we will react or what path we will take, so perhaps we should spend a little less time condemning the end-of-life choices of others and a little more time following Lauren's example by living with dignity.
When asked what her daughter's epitaph might say, Lisa Hill responded with, "She never gave up, not even for a moment. She never strayed from her goals. She lived and loved with passion and desire." That is how one lives with dignity. Death will take care of itself.
Monday, August 11, 2014
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
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|
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.