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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Cologne, Confessions and Opportunity Cost

I know it’s a bit retro, in a 1980s mullet kind of way, but I have to admit that I still think cologne is kind of sexy. I don’t mean Axe body spray, and I don’t mean Old Spice (even though the commercials make me chuckle). I mean good, old-fashioned cologne, the kind we used to buy our boyfriends for Christmas in college, back in the long ago day. I even miss wearing a little Estée Lauder myself. My husband bought me an Egyptian musk a while back, and he tells me it smells wonderful, but apparently it fits my biology perfectly, because once it hits my skin, I smell nothing. That’s how it should be, of course, and I even hesitate to wear the musk very often, so as to avoid offending the olfactory sensitivities of my allergic friends. Still, I miss the lovely dose of nostalgia that comes with an unexpected scent on the air. Sigh. I miss peanuts on airplanes, too. I’m such a cretin.

Since I started along this confession path, I may as well get it all out there.

I miss swearing with abandon. Yes, I still swear, but I do apply a filter much more frequently than I used to. They say that profanity is a sign of a small vocabulary. That may be, but you would be amazed at how creative a literate person can wax with a few well-chosen four-letter words. Did you know, for instance, that many expletives can morph into almost any part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb…)? I can thank my college education for that little gem of knowledge.

I miss wasting time on a regular basis. I freely admit that I still manage to lose a few hours to blogs and Facebook on occasion, but I feel guilty about it every time. I remember spending whole days wandering Cache Valley in search of, well, nothing really. And I remember watching late night TV or talking until dawn. These days, I sneak in a nap or a chapter of a book and then kick myself for the items I could have checked off my “to do” list instead. Blast that stupid list!

I miss partying. Oh, don’t have a conniption. I never drank, never felt the need to drink. But I do miss being able to let go, to dance without worrying about how silly I look. I miss late night philosophical discussions, half in Spanish and half in English, on the front stoop under the stars, with music drifting through the screen door behind me. I hardly admit to knowing any Spanish these days, afraid someone will expect me to speak, and I will make a fool of myself.

I recognize, with some heaviness, the opportunity cost of decisions I made long ago with much deliberation. I chose adventure over home, and now I begin to realize how little I know my extended family and how amazing these people are who share my heritage. In another sense, I chose home over career, and even after more than a decade away from the office, I struggle to find my sense of self without the projects and accolades. In either case, I would make the same decision all over again, but I sense the cost of those decisions more than I once did.

I find I don't mind the sense of loss too much. As long as I avoid getting stuck in the memory, a little backward glance now and again reminds me just how rich and full my life has been over the years and hints at the possibilities ahead. I don't imagine the coming years will find me hitchhiking in Yellowstone again, but the memory of my Yellowstone summer prods me to stick my metaphorical thumb out and see what surprises life has to offer down an unknown path or two.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Beginning, Middle and End

We recently renegotiated our satellite dish contract, a lovely little dance we engage in once a year when they raise our monthly fee. Consequently, we received a few weeks of free movie channels, the company’s way of saying “thank you” for buying into dozens of channels we need about as much as we need a hundred bottles of Marshmallow Fluff. I rarely watch television, but it does provide a good motivator on those days when I exercise indoors. While my husband plays heavy metal during a workout, I find the distraction of a good movie helps me bring my knees a little higher and push the weight a little longer. Nothing says “Work it, girl!” like Dr. Who or Sense and Sensibility.

I have enjoyed this temporary break from Netflix and the chance to watch a few movies I would have forgotten to watch otherwise. I do have one complaint, however. Unless I time my exercise just right (simply not gonna happen), I end up watching portions of movies and rarely catch the story from beginning to end. I start a movie with just half an hour left of my workout and realize with a sigh that I will never find out whether Sandra Bullock finally gives in to Hugh Grant’s charm or aliens win the war they have waged against a future earth. (Oh wait, aliens never win those, do they? And everyone eventually gives in to Hugh Grant; he’s just that charming.)

Having watched the beginnings of some movies and the endings of others, I have decided that, if I have to choose, I am definitely a “start in the middle and see the end” kind of girl. There is something so very satisfying about a conclusion, particularly one that someone else designed. If I come in at the middle of the story, I imagine the beginning, putting together the pieces from the dialogue and the story as it continues. But imagining an end to the story in my head feels like cheating. Besides, while I can turn a phrase now and again, conclusions have always given me fits. I tend to end my pieces rather abruptly, without much elegance or substance. Give me another writer’s twists and turns and winding up scenes, and I will watch happily while applauding their brilliance. I might even shed a tear or two if I’m feeling particularly hormonal.

Mosque over Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron (photo by  Mirari Erdoiza)
I suppose I apply this penchant for conclusions to my outlook on life, as well. At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, I love the thought of living in the winding up scenes of the world, a time when the history and philosophy, the literature and science, the art and music and religion of thousands of years blend together in glorious ways.  I even have a few story lines in mind that I hope to see through to the end.

  • For instance, I know the path involves devastating wars and impossible heartache, but I want to see Isaac and Ishmael come together again to honor their father Abraham, as they did once long ago in the field of Ephron (Genesis 25:9). Come to think of it, there are a few more brothers and sisters who could stand to come together in Ephron and remember a common heritage. God, for reasons of His own, may seem to favor one person or group over another in the short term, but that hardly gives us an excuse to do the same. 
  • On the national political scene, I hope to live to see some wise recess monitor teach the boys and girls in the Congressional playground to play well together. After two hundred years of setting the rules, they seem to have forgotten the basics.
  • Our world has evolved quite far from that first garden. I look forward to a day when we as a people evolve enough to remember the commission to take care of the garden, to cherish both our Eden and the plants and animals that grow there.
  • Technology that seemed fantastical science fiction decades ago has become a reality. Perhaps I will never have the chance to give the “beam me up, Scotty” ready call, but I hope to see the day when I can travel the world—and even the stars—by miraculous means.

And, though I probably will not live to see the end of the world as we know it, there is part of me that dreams of waking up on that day when everything has changed. Back in my singing days, I used to sing a wonderful spiritual called “My Lord What a Morning,” and in my mind I can just catch a glimpse of that day “when the stars begin to fall.” I can feel a bit of the wonder, breathe a bit of that new air. I imagine the stars will fall long after I have moved on, and I will find I have lived the middle of the movie, after all. But, when it comes to the heart of the matter, what is a conclusion but a commencement?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

No Apologies: I Am a Believer

(Author's Note: This piece appeared originally on the Mormon Women blog.)

Who am I? I am a writer, or at least I aspire to be one.  I am a teacher. I am a wife and mother. And I am a believer.

Why am I Mormon? I came by my religion the easy way. I inherited it from folks like my Great-Great Grandmother Decker who crossed the plains as an almost single mother and helped found Parowan, Utah. But my faith, the reason I stay? Now that raises a different question entirely. My wilderness hikes and forest prayers have never led me to burning bushes or shining pillars of light. No angel ever stopped my tracks on the road to Damascus.

And yet, like the Savior’s companions in a storm-tossed boat, I have received the witness of peace. I have read the scriptures, seeking for wisdom, and marveled as words once spoken to prophets took new life in direct answer to my pleading. I have knelt in prayer and felt the warmth of the Comforter envelop me. I have taken the advice of the Book of Mormon prophet Alma to "experiment upon the word" (Alma 32:27), acting on subtle promptings, and I have watched my faith grow as the Lord took my hand.

I have a dear friend who challenges my faith. She cannot fathom how I can accept the history of polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or support a priesthood to which I cannot be ordained. I have thought a great deal about that. Every Mormon woman at some point has to grapple with her relationship to these issues of faith and others like them, and unfortunately epiphanies come with a built-in “non-transferrable” clause. God knows the value of a good test of faith, and pioneer ancestry hardly makes one immune to the need for conversion.

For me, that conversion has come in stages. As a young adult, fresh out of the comfortable arms of home, I read scriptures on a mountainside in Wyoming and recognized a tender mercy in the magnificent double rainbow that appeared just when I needed a creative “hello” from my Heavenly Father. As a young widow, I came to the quiet realization that God’s plan of happiness was true. The plan became more than merely a lesson taught by young missionaries or enthusiastic Sunday School teachers. We really do live again. Families can last forever.

And here, in my middle age, I am beginning to learn to trust in God’s love for me, for all of His children. I have seen too many prayers answered to claim coincidence. Joseph Smith once said, “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.” (Joseph Smith-History 1:25)

While the angel Moroni very kindly lets me sleep at night, God has sent me numerous angels from all walks of life. He continues to supply the wisdom that I lack. I cannot deny that. I am a believer.