Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stories and laws- my musings

A Segullah article I read today caught my fancy and my musings a bit. It's entitled "God of Stories, God of Laws," and the essence is that God knows each of our stories individually and minutely and intensely personally. He knows all the mitigating circumstances in our lives. And yet He still is the giver of laws as well.

It's the whole justice and mercy paradox all over again in a way, isn't it? I love the idea of stories. I try to live with the philosophy that I am always in the middle of a story, that the end hasn't happened. This is especially nice when the story is not pleasant, to know that the story doesn't end with illness or unemployment or being single forever. It's the middle of the story and I don't know how it ends yet.

But God does. In fact, that's the reason God gave us laws. Not only does He know how the story will end, but He knows what the best possible ending is. And He knows how to achieve that. He knows that obeying the laws will mean nights of heartache, periods of feeling lonely or cast off or unaccepted. He knows that so many of us will twist in our minds what the laws actually mean, and cause ourselves unnecessary pain. But He knows the joy and freedom that can come from a life lived in accordance with His laws.

A couple years ago, I had a series of conversations about the hard things that the Lord asks of us with a good friend. The thing that struck me the most was that this friend couldn't seem to get past the part about "that's so hard." I wasn't able to put my finger on it exactly at the time, but a little later, as I sat in my room, my eyes fell on a small plaque I have on my bookcase. It's small and simple, and I believe every one of my siblings has an identical plaque. It simply says "I can do hard things." The quote is attributed, in this case, to a woman who knew very personally about hard things- my mother, Brenda. I know man other people have said this, but it was her motto for years and years as she lost more and more mobility and independence. But what struck me at this moment was that it wasn't "this is hard. I am going to sit here and wallow in the hardness." It was, "yes, this is hard. But that is not enough reason for me to stop, quit trying, or give up."

Our stories, our experiences, are wonderful things. They are in a very real sense what gives us our humanity, our sense of self, our depth, and our strength. There is something quiet and powerful about getting down in the trenches of life, of realizing how much muck and filth and just plain crud there is in the world, of looking at it all and in the end being able to say, "my stories are hard. But I still choose the law. I do not excuse myself from it."

Because in the end, if God chose to let us off the hook and not give us the law, He would be an extremely uncompassionate God. He would be like a doctor who sees a patient with a smoking addition, and recognizing how hard it is to quit smoking, gives him additional packs, because it's too hard to quit, and who wants to go through the anguish of withdrawals? He would be like a parent who sees how much his child dislikes schoolwork and does all their homework for them, only to turn them loose in college set up to fail. Because God can see all the stories, He can see the ultimate story- He knows how the story ends,and He knows what the best ending is. It's for the smoker to quit and enjoy a long, healthy life, free of lung cancer and emphysema. It's for the student to learn how to study and be disciplined, so they have a much better chance of being a productive, responsible adult. It's for me to live the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity so I can honor my body and God's creation, and be able to feel close to Him. And ultimately, it's for me to keep on with the law, stumbling and tripping and making all kinds of mistakes, taking the sacrament every week with the pure joy of knowing that I am making amends and healing my self-inflicted wounds, and to trip and stumble and plod- and sometimes run in glorious bursts- back to Him.

And you know what? I think that is when the real story actually begins.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

not too long ago I found myself in a very unfortunate and uncomfortable position when a relationship turned toxic. In the end, I had to cut off all contact with this individual in order for things to die down and for both of us to be able to move on with our lives. And the interesting thing is that part of the reason I found myself in this position was this individual had some unsettled problems and unresolved angst, as well as clinical depression. And I was angry that this was the lot that this person had been given in life, and it didn't seem fair that this should define their life, and I wanted to be part of their life almost to prove that their life didn't have to be defined by those negative things.

So when I tried to break off the friendship and cut off contact, I found myself on the receiving end of the accusation that I had a wonderful support network and this individual didn't have anyone to turn to- they never had, and they would always be alone. Looking back, it was a baldfaced attempt at manipulation, to make me feel bad and guilty. And it worked. I did feel guilty. Fortunately, I happened to mention this to my cousin Sarah, and she very firmly pointed out to me that yes, I do have an amazing support network- and I built it myself. It's not something that I inherited or bought. It's the creation of my own labors of getting to know people, serving people, loving people, and spending good time with them. Even the part of my network that I arguably did inherit, my family, is still in some part my own handiwork. I engaged in the same behaviors and habits of actively cultivating relationships and being genuinely interested in other people.

the more I thought about it, I began to realize two things. First, I really do have amazing and wonderful friends, and an amazing and wonderful family- siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even great-aunts and uncles and my mother's cousins I count among my friends. But second, I thought back through some times in my life (not often, fortunately), where people have tried to make me feel bad for the blessings in my life. And I concluded: never let anyone make you feel bad or guilty or undeserving for the blessing that God has chosen to give you. Never. Because frankly, it's not their business what God has given you, and He gives us gifts to enhance our lives, increase our gratitude and joy, to teach us, and I think also simply because He loves us. Does it stink sometimes that there often seems to be such an unequal distribution of gifts in the world, be they physical, spiritual, emotional, or mental? Heck, yes it does. But I'll tell you one thing- looking at the good things in my life with disgust or shame is only ever going to increase the amount of misery in the world, not the joy.

The desire to share that joy and spread it abroad is such a more powerful tool for equality than shaming or guilt tripping or beating ourselves up. No, sometimes we can't make the changes we want or bring joy to the lives of others in the ways we want because of circumstances. Sometimes, as sad as it is, we do have to remove toxic situations from our lives and that may mean removing toxic relationships from our lives. But I believe that God gives us tools to create our environment and He wants us to create as much beauty and joy as we can, for ourselves and to share with others. I think of how He created the beautiful Garden of Even for Adam and Eve, and charged them to take good care of it and cultivate it, and to be happy there. The individual in the story who tried to make them feel bad, worried, guilty, and ashamed wasn't God- it was Satan. I'm pretty sure that dichotomy holds true today, too. God has given each of us gifts. Some of those gifts were given to us as raw materials or tools and we have shaped them into new and beautiful things ourselves. Don't let Satan or anyone else ever make you feel bad about their lack of blessings, because chances are good that they had opportunities to create similar things and let them pass by, or that they don't have what you have because they have lessons to learn from a certain gift's absence.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Creativity, energy, love, and kindness

Church is one of the best things that happens to me. It's a set time every week for me to go and have three hours where I can look inside myself, set right the things I've let get crooked and skiwampus during the week (and sometimes that's a lot) and let the higher power and energy of the gospel and God fill my soul. I feel like a better person when I leave church, and maybe someday I'll be able to carry that feeling with me each week from Sunday to Sunday- that deeper fulfillment and sense of being more grounded, more sure, and (usually) more interested in those around me.

And that's something worth spending three hours a week for. I realized at some point during college that I was subconsciously upset with myself for not living up to the level I knew I was capable of all the time. My subconscious response to this was, "I hate feeling the inconsistency of not always being kind, good, and considerate like I want to be. So in the interest of consistency, I'll just live at a lower level all the time" Guess what. I wasn't a really happy person when I figured out this was how my mind was operating. But after more deliberation, I concluded that it was better to be inconsistent than to consistently live below my privileges and below my highest ability for love and goodness. I don't always hit the mark, but I'm better for hitting it sometimes than I would be for never reaching for it.

In a way it's reminding me of the parable of the talents. I've long thought that if the third servant, the one who buried his single talent, had tried to invest the talent and had lost everything, the lord would have given him the same reward he gave to the first two servants. I don't think it was the money at all that the master cared about. I think if the third servant had been bereft when the master returned because he dared to reach out and dream and be involved in the world, the master would have given him that "well done, my good and faithful servant" tribute. Because the master didn't expect perfection from his servants. He expected them to work, to make a valiant effort, to step forward and do what they could in the world.

Being the science nerd that I am, I also tend to find myself thinking in terms of the natural world. In nature, everything takes the path of least resistance. A river flows along the lowest point in the land, and towards the lowest point in the land, because that takes the least energy. An electron sits in the lowest orbital that it can around a nucleus because that's where it can exert the least energy. Chemical reactions will not take place without a catalyst of some kind unless the products will be at a lower energy state than the reactants, because that's how nature goes- from a state of high energy to a state of lower energy. And guess what. There is a natural woman inside of me who really likes to not waste energy. She likes to take the path of least resistance. It's easier to not reach out and serve people, to not go out of my way for people, and when all's said and done, it's easier to not live the gospel. It takes less energy. But do you know what happens when the electron gets kicked into a higher orbital? All kinds of magic. In some cases, neat chemical reactions take place. In some cases, the electron emits light. And do you know what happens when I get kicked into a higher energy level? I want to do things, to touch peoples' lives, to serve and comfort and make people feel good about themselves, to draw nearer to God. There's a different term for higher energy when it takes place in humans rather than electrons. We call it love.

And know what the first and great commandment is? It's all about this very concept- loving God. Living at a higher level. Not falling to the path of least resistance. So this is why I love going to church each week. And I hope that although I feel the effects don't last a full seven days, they are changing me in ways that are slow but sure, making me more consistent, stronger, higher than I was. Because the higher I get, the more amazing the view is. And the more amazing the view, the greater the sense of love. Interesting, no?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mothers' Day

There are a million posts on Facebook today from a million people who had the best mom in the world, whose mom is their best friend and who sing other praises of their mothers. That's wonderful. I am so happy for them and for all the maternal and filial relationships of strength and love in the world.

My relationship with my mom was very complicated. You can probably guess that from some of my blog posts. I do love her very much, but for the last several years of her life, our roles really switched and I was the one mothering her. I took care of my mom in ways that most people don't experience until they are about twenty years older than me. And it became hard to differentiate the woman from the disease that ravaged her body. So I've been working slowly on rebuilding my relationship with her now that multiple sclerosis doesn't create such a huge barrier between us. Granted, the fact that she's on the other side of the veil does create a barrier, but it seems so much more surmountable than the disease did.

I wish I'd had the opportunity to get to know my mom as a peer. I feel like my big growing-up years of high school and college were the years that she slid down a huge hill in her health and never recovered. But I do have many sweet memories that should be cherished, especially on Mothers' Day.

Although my mom and I are similar enough that we butted heads often in my childhood and youth, she was a source of comfort and strength to me. If I was scared or concerned or anxious, I wanted my mom. I wanted her to make things better, and I knew she could. I went through an extended period of time where I was terrified of dying (and it seemed to come on every night, when I didn't want to go to bed for fear I wouldn't wake up). My mom was always the person I wanted to hold me and give me comfort. When I was a teenager with assorted medical problems, she took me from doctor to doctor, and eventually sat through my five surgeries- I didn't have any comprehension at the time that it might be hard on a mother to wait outside an operating room while her child was under anesthesia, even for very low-risk operations like mine.

And later still, when I was a college graduate with a master's degree, starting my first job in a city that was new to me, and experiencing a major depressive episode, I remember kneeling by my mother's bed one night, my heart heavy and full of terrible emotions and unnamed dread. She couldn't walk, could barely talk coherently by that point, but I needed a mother so much to hold me and tell me that things would be okay, and she could do that.

So, happy Mothers' Day. May we all work to improve relationships with mothers, children, and everyone else, regardless of whether they are with us still or watching over us.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Each life that touches ours for good: My story is not my own

Last night was the first General Women's Session of LDS General Conference, and my family and I got a bit of a surprise when we heard a very familiar story being told by the Young Women General President, Sister Oscarson. As transcribed by my sister Laura:

"I recently heard a wonderful story about a little girl named Sarah whose mother had the opportunity to help another women in her ward named Brenda who had Multiple Sclerosis. Sarah loved to go with her mother to help Brenda. She would put lotion on Brenda's hands and massage her fingers and arms because they were often in pain. She then learned to gently stretch Brenda's arms over her head to exercise her muscles. Sarah brushed Brenda's hair and visited with her while her mother took care of her other needs. Sarah learned the importance and joy of serving another person and came to understand that even a child can make a big difference in someone's life."

The reason this story sounded so familiar was that Brenda was my mother. Sarah is a neighbor girl, part of a large family of mostly boys, whose mom was one of the many, many women who came over to assist my mom during her long years of physical limitation.

I was almost taken aback at first for a few reasons. First, out of sheer surprise. Both surprise at hearing the story and surprise because I had no idea that Sarah was involved like that. Also, I'd thought about my mom's illness as our family's story, our family's experience, for so long that it almost surprised me to realize that someone else could claim it as part of their story, too.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that every experience, no matter how personal, becomes part of the story and life experience of those around us. In the case of my mom, I sheepishly admit that it's quite clear that her story was not limited to her family. Sarah and her mom were not the exception in my parents' ward- there was a full rota of women who came on a daily basis to spend time with her, to assist her with meals and getting up and down from naps, and, like Sister Oscarson talked about, rubbing her limbs to keep blood flowing and do what they could to alleviate the pain. These women gave their time and their skills and their love, giving my siblings and I the freedom to go to school, and live our young, developing lives. Of course it became their story.

Then I thought about my mom's funeral. The chapel was packed with current and old ward members, friends, and relatives- all people who had been touched in some way by my mother's life. And didn't that make her story belong to them as well in some way? Don't we all belong to each other as we influence each other for good or ill, as we strengthen and encourage and learn, and sometimes just plain endure- there is no such thing as an isolated story. My story is not my own- it belongs to the people who have lifted me, supported me, challenged me, and taught me. And just as I claim my mother's story, I also claim the stories of my father, my siblings, my grandparents, my roommates. Their choices and their experiences impact me. Their stories are not their own.

And I guess that's my first thought as I prepare for General Conference this weekend- I hope that as I sit in the choir loft on Saturday and look across the sea of faces in front of me, I will remember that we all belong to each other. It is a powerful and humbling thought.

Friday, March 7, 2014

It's not fair . . . to compare

I just reread my last post. Which was almost 11 months ago. Let's just say it's been a very intense year. And maybe sometime I'll post some stories, because they may be useful to other people who are going through challenging things. Maybe when the stories aren't quite so close to home.
For tonight, it's a general, personal reflection. In reading my post from last April, I can see how I was at the beginning of a long health journey that isn't over yet. I wrote of feeling tired and lacking energy. Well, the bad news is that the fatigue hasn't gotten better you. It's worse. So much worse. I have good days and even good weeks, but I also have weeks when I wonder at what point I need to talk to someone at work about cutting my hours back. I go to choir rehearsal and feel exhausted at the thought of doing that for seventeen more years. Some days, there's no energy to be friendly even, I have to save all the energy for myself and my functioning. I can't send it on other people.
And this is hard. It's partly hard because there are no answers yet. I have almost a book of lab results telling me that I am very healthy. I have four hours' worth of MRI scan telling me my brain and spine have no abnormalities. I eat a very clean diet. And yet I feel this way. (I will add that I am continuing to work with a couple of doctors on additional possibilities. I am even a little hopeful right now that I may have some new test results back on Monday that may tell me something). But it's cruddy. It's not who I want to be and it's not who I am. But it's my reality right now.
So sometimes little things can put me over the edge. Sometimes all it takes is a Facebook post from a friend who is elated that they were able to run X miles, bike x miles, lift X amount of weights, or any other kind of challenge. I get mad. I cry. Because it's not fair. It's not fair that I want to do those things so much, and I can't.
and then I cry more, because images of other people come into my mind. People like my mom, who have even less freedom and autonomy than I do. Because when we get down to it, I'm still very mobile. I can still take care of myself. I can still do things and live an okay life. And then I get more mad, because I'm upset at what I can't do, but so many people can do even less than I.
And you know the only way that it doesn't drive me crazy, this train of thought? It's coming around to realize tha I'm right- it's not fair. But what's not fair is the comparison. What's not fair is ranking people in any way like this. And the ranking can go either way- it's possible to be active and energetic and think that makes you better than other people, and it's also possible to be very limited or handicapped and look down on others because they don't know how hard life can be.
And so I work on having a quiet heart. On knowing that no matter where I'm at, no matter where those around me are at, it's not fair to compare. It's never fair and it's never productive.
It's been a good but challenging week. And coming to this realization may be one of the best parts of it. Isn't it interesting how we learn lessons over and over? And yet it's not even fair to compare myself now to myself in the past and what I knew then, because the Maria today is a different person than the Maria then. And isn't it better to re-learn than to never have known at all?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Just a little finger exercise

It's spring in Utah. I know this because the weather can't make up its mind. I think it snowed last week, just a little. But this morning it was full light outside when I felt for choir at 6:45! I had to check my clock and make sure I wasn't an hour late!
I realized something recently. I've been in something of a survival mode lately. Some burnout has hit me, and I think it's time to slow down a little. I'm sure Charles, the chief man in my life right now (okay, okay, the only man in my life- okay, fine, my boyfriend), would laugh if he heard me say that, because he thinks I don't know how to slow down unless forcibly made to. And there may be some truth to that. All this last week when we were Skyping at night, I had a large embroidery hoop in my hands with a baby blanket on it that I was working on. Amazingly, it was completed in time for the baby shower yesterday. And I get restless if there's an evening with nothing planned and before you know it, I've filled it up with projects. There's always sewing projects to work on or, this time of year, yardwork to do, or meals to prepare for the nights when I'm gone until 10 PM. I do kind of want to slow down. The problem is finding that happy medium between keeping myself so busy that some days I am exhausted and being so relaxed that none of the things I need to do get done. And how do I define things that I NEED to do? See my conundrum?
I think part of it is an intense internal drive to create. It doesn't necessarily matter what I'm creating or how- creating a garden by planting seed in my indoor nursery, or digging up grass so there's more room for flowers, or even putting in hanging pots. Creating clothes, blankets, and other projects by browsing through a fabric store, running my fingers over silks, cottons, polyesters, suedes, seersucker- finding patterns that interest and excite me, or being really creative and a little crazy and creating my own. Creating beautiful (hopefully) music either on my own, in voice lessons, or with the choir. Creating a healthy body for myself by swimming, jogging, biking, and weight training (yes, triathlons have completely rewritten my exercise regimen). Creating beautiful spaces inside by arranging furniture, pictures, and knicknacks. Creating beautiful memories on hikes, bike rides, and campouts. How do I slow down without losing precious experiences and memories? It truly is a puzzle. I'm working on meditating more and such, and if I keep it up long enough, some of what I'm doing will stick. And that will be fantastic.