Smoke and Reflection

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On my way to work this morning I came upon this view. Smoke from neighboring states’ wildfires has drifted into our mountain range and somewhat obscures the view. This haze has lingered for days, or has it been weeks? It reminds me of a roadtrip I took through the Great Smoky Mountains, where fog cloaked the peaks, not smoke. The mist was beautiful and mysterious but also inspired meditation. As the day warmed the fog eventually lifted. Here, the smoke continues to cling—a sticky, choking cloud. These Uintas should trade names with the range back East, because of all the literal smoke.

People talk of rising above the haze, finding clarity, a better view. People find a way to ascend—hike, horse, plane—or they hope for this veil to lift.

To see. To see, and to breathe.

The path isn’t clear all the time. The religious rely on their faith to nurture what they cannot see into knowledge; the spiritual also have a form of faith that guides them. The rest of humankind also believes in the goodness of others and desires improvement in themselves, but without any post-life motivation or incentive.

This is overly simplified: there are more than these three groups of people in the world, and there are definitely overlaps between these groups. Lives and attitudes and philosophies are so different. I accept this.

How do I assess the meaning in my life? What is my why?

Do I contemplate my purpose because of the smoke, or because of what the smoke obscures? Because I know the mountains are there, does this sustain my hope for better things? Does this motivate me to rise above the current smog?

What if I didn’t know what was hiding in the smoke, would my plan of action be to wait until it clears?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m being faithful, or just naïve.

Speaking of Prayer

Or, By the Grace of the Check Engine Light

My own skepticism has caused me to hesitate sharing this experience, because when I hear people share their own experiences and draw what I consider to be specious conclusions, I fear that’s how people will perceive the lessons I learned one morning a few weeks ago. When returned missionaries come home and declare that they were good missionaries and kept the commandments, therefore they got engaged within a month of returning home; or when people assume everyone in an entire region of the world was wicked therefore a catastrophe leveled the land, I tend to wince a little. So what I’m about to share may prove a little hypocritical, but the Lord’s judgment is just and for me and me alone; nevertheless I’m willing to face judgment from my spiritual peers and superiors in mortality. Or just not care. I’m fine either way now.

It was a Tuesday night, and I decided to go to bed early, because I had to take my mom to the airport at 3:30 Wednesday morning. She came up to attend my graduation ceremony for library school and had stayed with us for a full six days. The car I usually drive had a flat tire, so we planned to take the other car instead. I headed to bed around 9:00 or 9:30, which would have given me a solid 6 to 6.5 hours of sleep.

In order to sleep, one has to be sleepy, which I wasn’t. I can’t even recall that I was all that tired. I lay in bed and tossed and turned. Every half hour or so I looked at the clock, which gratefully seemed to be creeping along. I played a few rounds of sudoku on the Kindle and read a few pages of The Screwtape Letters. I tried lying on my stomach and then on my back and then on my side. I turned the pillow when it got too warm. I attempted breathing exercises to help relaxation.

Nothing worked. My mind was too active thinking about driving to the airport and potty training Z and work and everything else I could possibly think about. Reilly said if I was too worried about being too tired on the road, we’d get the whole family in the car. But I didn’t want him to be too tired for work. I told myself I’d be fine.

Time went from crawling to running, and around 3:00am I finally dozed off to half-consciousness. My alarm went off at 3:20am. Reilly got up to scrape any ice from the car windows, which there was none. I threw on some jeans and a sweater, then my winter coat. I grabbed a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator. Mom and I climbed into the car.

The ride to the airport was uneventful. I pulled into the dropoff area and helped Mom with her suitcase. We hugged each other. I cried a little. After watching Mom walk into the terminal, I got back into the car.

Just as I had pulled away from the dropoff area and driven onto the road exiting the airport, the check engine light came on. A bright yellow-orange light shaped like a drawing of an engine.

I still had 40 miles to get home.

Sometimes the engine sounded fine. I don’t know anything about cars, but sporadically the engine sounded as if it was losing traction, like it lost its grip on a thingy but another thingy would keep spinning for 5 to 10 seconds until it gained traction again. This happened every few miles the whole way home.

Whenever this happened my stomach sank, and I would experiment with pressure on the gas pedal and vary speeds to see if that affected the traction thingy. The traction thingy happened no matter what I did. Yet I decided to drive slower than the speed limit most of the way; I don’t know why.

The whole time I watched the speedometer and the temperature gauges, and the check engine light stayed on. The whole time, my mind was alert, and I came up with an emergency plan in case the car stopped on the freeway.

The whole time my mind was spinning, with and without traction, much like the engine seemed to be. The whole time I was driving I was praying aloud. I turned off the radio so I could hear the engine, but also so that the Lord knew I was serious about needing to get home. There are worse situations than being stuck on the side of the freeway at 4:30am, but I wanted to get home. I made this desire known.

I talked about my family and my attitude and my current level of spirituality. I apologized for not praying as much and reading my scriptures as much. I started making those deals that people make about being a better person if they survive a certain situation. I expressed gratitude for blessings, for being able to drop off my mom safely at the airport.

The distance home shrank and I steered onto our exit. I asked and hoped that the car would make it to our apartment on the slower city roads and at stop lights. Soon I was just a few miles away. I pulled up to our apartment and parked the car. When I turned off the ignition, the check engine light also shut off. I sighed with relief.

Reilly was up when I walked in. I told him about the car. It wouldn’t be until the following Sunday when Reilly’s dad would look at it to see if anything was wrong.

But it occurred to me: What if nothing was wrong with the car after getting home? What if this was just a thing that happened to keep me awake on the way home from the airport? What if the check engine light turning on was all in my head? If nothing was wrong with the car, it might look like I was just telling stories, for what, attention?

Thankfully, something was wrong with the coil thingy in the engine. Yes, it’s a bummer, but I’m also glad I wasn’t imagining it.

Reilly said that if I had been worried about staying awake on the drive from the airport, the car issue and the check engine light had definitely kept me from falling asleep at the wheel. A blessing in a slightly conspicuous disguise.

I’m grateful the situation compelled me to utter a 35-minute prayer on the freeway in the wee morning hours. The act of praying aloud also had kept me awake.

But what if I had gotten a good night’s sleep? Chances are that the car would have still acted up, and my mind would have still been put on high alert, and I still would have made it home safely. I’d still have something to be grateful for.

Instead of a prayer of desperation, I offer a prayer of gratitude for the check engine light, for the reminders of temporariness of this life, the awareness of struggles in this world, the assurance that–even when we feel we’re losing traction, and I’m just now realizing the analogy of this situation and forthcoming bad pun–exaltation will come to this mortal coil.

Sunday Firsts

Yesterday was Zinger’s first day in nursery at church. Since our ward meets at 11:00 AM, our strategy was to get Z to sit long enough for us to take the sacrament, take her for a ride so that she can nap for about half an hour, then bring her back in time for nursery.

We were able to get her to sit for the first 25 minutes of sacrament meeting. She wanted to walk around and play in the chapel, but we held her close and whispered to her how important it was to sit still. As soon as the bishop dismissed the priesthood after administering the sacrament, Reilly took Z on a ride while I listened to people bear their testimonies. I may have also briefly scrolled through Facebook and read comments in a Salt Lake Tribune article about black women in the Church.

When sacrament meeting ended, I walked out of the chapel and found my family. I asked Reilly if Z got a nap. He said no. I was nervous. We walked our daughter to the nursery room. We let her walk around, and there were a couple of times she tried leaving the room. Once the tables were set up the nursery workers put out some books and puzzles, and Z began to play. She also saw some blocks and played with those as well.

The nursery leaders asked for her name. We told them Z was tired and wasn’t really used to other children yet. They assured us they were good at getting the babies to calm down in case of tantrums.

Before we left her, we decided to change her diaper so that the next two hours for her wouldn’t be interrupted. So I took her to the mothers’ room and changed her. Reilly and I took her back to the nursery room. We opened the door, we said goodbye, and there were no tears.

Suddenly, we were free.

Reilly and I headed to Gospel Principles class. We sat down in the middle of a story the teacher was telling. One of the first things we heard the teacher say was, “And [this guy], he was homosexual.” Then she wrote on the board: [guy’s name] – homosexul [sic]. Then she continued telling the story, which offered a few more highlights:

  • “Many of their kids were homosexual. I don’t know if it’s hereditary or what.”
  • “And [another guy] was 70 years old, and he’s still homosexual.”

The teacher kept making eye contact with me, so I didn’t want to give even the remotest sideways glance to Reilly to express how weird I thought the lesson was.

But then came a story that had some context:

  • “My son came to me and said, ‘I have to thank you for something, but I’m not sure it was even you. My brothers were always beating me up. I was always on the bottom of a pile. But there were times I felt someone lifting me up above the pile, and I could see my brothers below me, and the next thing I knew, I was at the table and there were milk and cookies. I want to thank you for that.’”

My impression was that the lesson was about families, but we missed the first ten minutes, and with 20 minutes left in the class, someone came in and asked us to be substitute Primary teachers. So we walked out of our Sunday School class, being somewhat amused but not knowing for sure what we were being taught.

We found out that we were teaching the CTR4 class, which consisted of three boys. They were rowdy, as boys between 4 and 6 years of age typically are. Between Reilly and me, our combined powers of persuasion made classroom management pretty easy. (If other parents saw us, they probably would have disagreed.) We had a short lesson about missionaries. We colored pictures of children holding Books of Mormon. One boy looked at the other boys’ coloring jobs and said, “Dude, that’s scribbling.” We folded these pictures into paper airplanes, and Reilly refereed the races. We also played football because that’s always an appropriate Sunday indoor activity. I interrupted their fun to remind them if their moms ask what they learned in class to say they learned about being missionaries. Wishful thinking, I know; I should expect them to tell their moms that they played with paper airplanes and threw a football in class. The final activity was drawing on the chalkboard, which surprised me with how long they kept quiet. We ended the class with a prayer. While one boy was giving the closing prayer, another boy was talking. To whom, to what, I don’t know.

I tidied up the classroom while Reilly picked up Z from nursery. I asked how she did, and Reilly said that when he opened the door, one of her shoes was off. One of the nursery leaders was blowing bubbles, and Z was trying to catch them. I imagined her reaching above her head, trying to grab those clear, drifting orbs. I smiled.

It seems Z had a great first day at nursery, with nary a tear. She also didn’t nap the entire day. (Reilly and I each took two naps.) And she cried for about a minute when she had to go to bed.

It was an eventful day for all of us. If today’s gospel principles lesson was about families, then maybe we could take our day and talk about how our respective experiences have brought us closer together, either because they were fun (stacking blocks and catching bubbles) or slightly chaotic (teaching small boys) or didn’t make very much sense (listening to bizarre stories in Sunday School). I don’t think there will ever be another Sunday like this one. I really liked it.

Some Old Time Religion

A young man referred to this song during his talk today in church. It’s one of my favorite old gospel tunes.

The young man’s talk was about gratitude, and throughout his remarks he expressed sincere thanks and appreciation for many blessings in his life. He demonstrated a positive attitude, and he inspired me to be more grateful more often.

The Eva Cassidy recording of this song is one of my favorites because she brings out a lot of the inherent emotion in the song. Like she truly can’t help singing about the Lord in her life. That’s an admirable condition to have, involuntary proclamations of gratitude.

Thankfulness seems such a conscious state of mind or being, but I imagine many of us develop an awareness of behaviors that become second nature. Can someone be grateful and not know it?

I haven’t blogged in a month. It’s time to catch up on a few things.

  • Vacation
  • Hikes
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Paula Deen
  • DOMA, possibly
  • Games
  • Weather
  • Art of conversation
  • Movie/Song/Book reviews

This week I have to prepare a Relief Society lesson to give next Sunday. Just thinking about it gives me butterflies. I have been thinking about the lesson the whole month, so it’s a matter of organizing my thoughts and hopefully teaching a few things my fellow sisters need to hear.

Object Lessons and Objections

Object lessons are incredibly effective teaching tools, especially in religion.

There’s the one about nailing a board to a wall or a tree. If you put one nail in the board it can still spin around; the board is unstable. But if you put a second nail through the board, the board becomes anchored. This object lesson often taught the importance of the Book of Mormon, the second nail that goes with the Bible.

There’s the one about sticks or pencils. You can break one or two or four at the same time, but if you gather 10 or 15 pencils, they’re much harder to break altogether. This object lesson illustrates the importance of unity or contributing talents or time to a single purpose. Strength in numbers.

An especially popular object lesson is where the glove represents your spirit and your hand represents your body. Without your hand, the glove can’t do anything, but when the glove is on your hand, the glove becomes animated. The combination becomes a living soul.

I remember these object lessons from when I was a child. While they tend to be taught in cycles, my ability to remember them pretty well demonstrates their effectiveness.

Elizabeth Smart recalls an object lesson pertaining to sexual purity. About a used piece of chewing gum. She spoke about it at a conference about sexual trafficking, and the Christian Science Monitor reported the story.

On Facebook over the past few days, many people provided links with important conversations about sexual purity, abstinence education, and reassuring victims of sexual assault that they are not sinners/dirty/impure. Here are a few of the links I happened to click on:

Religion Dispatches

Blogs: Flunking Sainthood

Experimental Theology

I’ve read these articles and many of the accompanying comments. Being a victim of sexual assault, I think back to the object lesson with the chewed gum. I wonder what specific connections I made when I was a young girl. How could I have made sense of my worth when the person who had supposedly “taken away” my virtue was the same person who presented the object lesson at a family home evening nearly 30 years ago? Would I have been able to overcome my confusion without therapy?

That reminds me. Because I am May, and this is my month, I should remind you that May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe we can come up with different object lessons that help and inspire instead of harm and instill fear.

Sacrament Meeting Today

A lot goes on in a sacrament meeting in my ward. Babies cry and parents take them out of the room to calm them down. Toddlers toddle in the aisles or between pews. People play games with their smart phone. There are always a lot of announcements and someone is always in the hospital or had a baby or received a mission call. We sustain and release people to and from callings. With everything that happens, we can certainly appreciate the quiet moments during the meeting.

Today, people used the 70-minute block to bear their testimonies of the gospel. We do this every first Sunday of each month. The same things that happen every week in the congregation also happened today. Two rows in front of us, a dad took his fussy son out. I exchanged smiles with a flirty baby while watching a little boy waddle up to the podium to join his father. I caught glimpses of few people sending texts or playing games on phones and tablets.

Everything amused me and at the same time edified me. But in a distracted way. However, I also tried to focus on the meeting. I brought my French hymnbook to church and compared French hymns to their English counterparts. In an effort to learn the names of people in the ward, I wrote down the names of people who bore their testimony. The only people whose names I didn’t know were visitors. I was grateful to be making some progress.

The testimonies themselves were quite impressive. They were heartfelt and inspired. One in particular struck me in a way the others didn’t. The bishopric reminds the congregation that you can come up and bear your testimony as long as you can do it by yourself. Because of this, not many children have born their testimony, at least as long as Reilly and I have been in the ward.

A little girl and her visiting cousin came up to the stand. The cousin bore her testimony first, then the little girl. The little girl had just gotten baptized yesterday, and she expressed her feelings with such confidence and calmness. It occurred to me how virtually sinless she was, and her simple and powerful testimony heightened the spirit in the room. A palpable sweetness swelled and touched my distracted little heart, and tears flowed instantly from my eyes.

Even though this girl wasn’t the first to bear her testimony today, I’m grateful that she set the tone for my Sunday experience. I’m grateful for her example and especially her parents who strive constantly to give happiness to their family.

I hope to have this kind of influence someday.

A Book I’m Reading

I recently checked out an ebook called, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It has some really interesting ideas about unpredictability and causality. The author expounds on his theories about the Black Swan phenomenon, which I won’t dwell on here.

A few days ago, this quote caught my attention:

“He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once. And someone who has made plenty of errors–though never the same error more than once–is more reliable than someone who has never made any.”

I don’t think the author’s calling Christ unreliable, at least if he knows Christ and sin the way Christ knows sin. I think Taleb statement works particularly well here because the Atonement accounts for all mistakes. Because Christ knows what it feels like to make them, he becomes the most reliable person that will ever exist.

Now if we separate Christ from the rest of mortality, I can understand being a little skeptical of a person who has never sinned. Taleb’s premise states that the fragilistas have little to gain because they fear making mistakes, and the ones they do make are huge and destructive and difficult to bounce back from. The antifragile don’t fear mistakes; they thrive on them, and the mistakes they make aren’t as big and they can make more of them. The more mistakes they make, the more they have to gain.

This is a little aspect of the book, but I like it not because it encourages me to make mistakes. It actually supports what I believe on a religious and spiritual basis: Even though I don’t go out of my way to make mistakes, I can rely on the Atonement when I do make them. He already knows all the lessons, and my sins can help me learn them. Taleb emphasizes that reliable people don’t make the same mistake more than once. This is repentance. If what I have to gain from the sins I commit is to become a better person and strengthen my relationship with Christ, that will in turn help me to become more reliable. However, because I won’t or can’t commit all the sins I can’t ever become as reliable as Christ. At least in my finite perspective. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be helpful to others. That doesn’t diminish any meaning or fulfillment my life should have.

Anyway, Antifragile presents some fun philosophy. I enjoy following the author’s thoughts as they wander. Antifragile is a good book because I can allow myself to disagree with some of the author’s ideas. While I haven’t formed full arguments yet, I quite enjoy the inner monologue. Certainly, this book offers a lot of unpredictability through its structure and ideas, and my quasi-formalistic mind can appreciate how the book’s form contributes to its function: As I stumble through ideas I haven’t thought about before, I find myself learning new things. Not necessarily because Taleb lays it all out in the open, but because what he does present helps me tinker the new things with what I already know. That experience alone holds a lot of potential.

That experience is so very easily practical, because we all know that we ought to try to make the best of what we can’t always predict. There’s only so much we can do to prepare. But if we can rely on true sources of strength and love and if we can thrive from volatile circumstances, then we phoenix our way out of any ambush, the ashes. Resurrect in more than one way.

Not sure why I’m reading a 500-page book to explain what I already know. Well, yes I do.

Neighborhood Sad

This past Sunday at church, the bishop announced from the pulpit that the son of a family in the ward was playing soccer last week and suddenly collapsed. The boy’s family took him to the hospital. The bishop said if anyone spoke Spanish in the ward, the family would appreciate a visit.

Wednesday nights, I go out with the Relief Society presidency to visit women who have recently moved into the ward. We introduce ourselves to these ladies, and we welcome them to the ward and reassure them of our desire to be their friends.

Tonight, while we were getting into the Relief Society president’s car to make some visits, the second counselor reminded me of the bishop’s announcement and said she received an email saying that the boy had passed away. She also said that because the family had spent so much time at the hospital looking after their son, both of the parents lost their jobs. It’s bad enough to have bills you can’t pay for, but for that to add another layer to a pile of grief and sorrow just breaks my heart.

The boy was 11 years old. It’s so much harder to get through sadness without answers or explanation. But I guess that the family isn’t really thinking about getting through it right now so much as feeling it. Feeling helpless, alone, crushed. Feeling angry, lost, numb.

I want to do something for the family, and going to the funeral doesn’t even seem an earnest effort at anything. Donate for the funeral or to a fund until parents can find work? Make them dinner? I want to show support. There has to be something more, something demonstrative, something that really matters. I’ll have to pray and ask for inspiration, an outlet for compassion or a way stretch out a hand; I need to see how One knows exactly what this family is feeling right now would do.

Churchery and Blogs I Read

It’s a little weird when someone you don’t know all that well approaches you and says that they’ve been reading your blog. Then they say something about your life that you know you didn’t tell them, which is pretty jarring until you realize that they read it on your blog.

You get to know people through their writing, and you feel a certain closeness to them. They recount experiences that you can relate to. They help you to remember that you’re not alone in this world. Even though you haven’t met them, even though you’re not friends, they understand that parts of life can be especially hard.

I faithfully follow the blogs of two people who have been married for 10 years. On Monday they announced through their blogs (here and here) that they are getting a divorce. Over the years their blogs have shown what a great couple these people are. They’ve expressed love and appreciation for each other, and they’ve written about how they support each other in situations where they have struggled with mental health.

They announced their separation a few months ago, and when they announced their divorce, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of sadness for them. It made me think back to my parents’ divorce, and I guess I felt like lending a little bit of support and sent Dooce an email. Here’s part of it:

I didn’t understand my parents’ divorce when it was happening. They announced their separation in 1997, during my junior year at BYU. Everything finalized sometime in 2002. My mom was an immigrant and worked a minimum-wage job, and my dad’s lawyer somehow convinced him to sue Mom for child support for my then teenage brother. Dad came out looking like the bad guy.

But Dad has always seemed like the bad guy. Navy man. Almost draconian in disciplining us. We were spanked (belts, switches, whatever he could get his hands on), we were afraid of speaking up or forming original thoughts or developing our identities. He never listened, and he was always right. So I guess he felt he didn’t have to listen. The more I thought about it, and the more I talked it through with a therapist, the clearer the reasons for the divorce became.

They say that sometimes divorce works out to everyone’s happiness. Mom has since remarried, and my mental health has greatly improved. But my brother has stopped talking to my heartbroken dad, who has recently developed dementia and now convalesces at a Veterans Affairs place in Oklahoma. (When the house emptied, he moved from my childhood home in Florida to live closer to his sister.) I say “but,” but maybe Dad has found a little soothing in his blurry moments, like white noise or static on a tv screen. And maybe his lucid moments–when he recognizes his sister, when he and I have a good phone conversation–provide a little peace, too.

I see my dad in a different light.

Dad’s dementia has been an interesting extension of my therapy, an added reason to forgive him for the physical, sexual, and mental abuse I received as a child. He never remembered the sexual abuse (two isolated incidents), and I’ve debated confronting him about it for so many years. But now he’ll never remember it again, so why should I keep clutching a hurt that’s healed? When my aunt called with the diagnosis, it was like the tide came in after 25 years, and the sand I was holding in my fists magically washed away. I could finally swim.

Not that the divorce caused Dad’s dementia: causation, correlation, blah-blah-blah. Yet the divorce did seem to allow other events to unfold. And everyone in my family has learned to take varying degrees of charge of their lives. The happiness has been hard to find sometimes, but it has been there for the finding.

Today in church we talked about forgiveness, and one of the points that people kept mentioning was that many people don’t even realize they’ve offended you. They don’t set out to hurt you, but somehow it seems easier to assume maliciousness, so that you can take the high road and forgive. Which seems silly. The most sensible thing is not to take offense in the first place, because you don’t know the lives of those who may have hurt you. The better thing is to try to be more understanding, because forgiveness sometimes is so unbelievably hard.

Then again, if an offense is committed and your feelings are truly hurt, the other people may need your forgiveness as much as you need to forgive. It depends on the situation, I guess. So maybe my point here is not to let the grudge fester. Don’t let your refusal/unwillingness to forgive hinder your ability to see and the best in people, to understand them, to see them in a different light. Forgiveness can bring out the best in us, which is what the Lord always sees.

The happiness is there.

Let’s Play Inferences

Facts:
I checked my grades for my religion class on Thursday
Apparently I received a 7/10 on a weekly journal assignment
I reviewed the journal assignment
I sent the professor an email contesting the score
The email may have sounded slightly annoyed, but I tried sounding as nice as possible

The professor’s response:
Ouch… sorry your journal was misgraded… It looks great to me and I have given you three more points. The reason it was marked down is my TA misunderstood what you were doing. It is fine. Press on. I continue to like your creativity…
[Professor]

Conclusions:
Ouch: I may have come across more annoyed than I intended
three more points: My overall journal score is now perfect, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be
TA misunderstood: This does not surprise me, though I’m a big fan of smart and competent TAs
I continue to like your creativity: The entry was relatively creative. Duh.

***

Now it’s your turn! What are your conclusions from these statements?

1. General Conference was great and dreadful in all the expected ways.

2. This week will be insanely busy.

3. I know I should want to get married, but most days, I just don’t feel it.

Have a great week!