Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What Doesn't Kill Us, Makes Us Kinder?

Treats are the easy part of Family Home Evening, this tradition that has us gather our families around us every Monday night for a gospel lesson, an activity or game, some songs, a prayer, and then refreshments.

I am an ardent believer in Family Home Evening. I have tried to faithfully hold it every Monday night, and the kids look forward to it.

I do not, always. It's like exercise. Sometimes you hate doing it, but you're always glad you did it once it's over.

I remember Family Home Evenings in my family growing up. Like a circus, they were, with nine children to entertain, uplift, and educate, while keeping a modicum of control. The cycle continues in my own family now, circus and all, no matter my pleas (or threats) to the contrary. But I will persist because I believe in the promises made by a prophet to those who will obey. And, I think it really does make our family happier. Eventually, anyway.

Yesterday's treat was easy to decide on. I knew I didn't want something too sweet because of all the Halloween candy that has been consumed over the last several days, so Lion House Banana Bread went into the oven early in the morning. But the lesson?

As the kids have gotten older, I have felt more pressed to make every lesson count. The weeks that the teens have left in our home are numbered and the pressures they face outside of our home are increasing. I want to pack a punch with our family time. I think long and hard each week. I search idea websites and the oodles of manuals and resources that I have here at home. And sometimes, at a loss, I pray. This was yesterday.

I told God about my concerns for my family, the things weighing on my heart for each of my children. I asked Him what He would have me teach. And very clearly, yet softly, came the answer.


I stayed on my knees for a time, thinking. Yes, service. To one another. There is too much contention. Too much mean-spirited humor. Too little kindness. How can we have the Spirit in our home if we're not even nice to each other? How can testimonies grow in mean little hearts?

I went back to some websites and found just a few scriptures. The classics.

"When ye are in the service of your fellowmen, ye are only in the service of your God." (Mosiah 2:17)

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it." (Mark 8:35)

I found a great quote by Elder Robert J. Whetton that said, "Every unselfish act of kindness and service increases your spirituality. God would use you to bless others. Your continued spiritual growth and eternal progress are very much wrapped up in your relationships—in how you treat others."

Yes, yes, this is the perfect lesson for us. Teens who are struggling with their own spirituality--who find it difficult to be sober and reverent--need to be reminded that their growth is connected to the way that they treat people.

I decided to have the kids play "The Biggest Loser", a mock of that weight loss reality television show. But in this game, points are given for "losing yourself" in the service of others.

I knew it was the right lesson. Still, evenings are chaotic. Homework is strewn about. I'm teaching piano until 6pm, and then dinner (which was, thankfully, cooking in the crock pot) had to be assembled, served, and eaten. Teenage girl gets home from work after 7pm, and then the battle begins with the toddler, who every week wants so badly to be a part of "Family Evening", but who is the main source of disruption and frustration. One chance, I tell him. Again.

We sing a song, "Have I Done Any Good". Teenage boy rolls his eyes and moves his lips, but without producing a sound. The toddler jumps from the couch where he is sternly directed to sit without moving, and begins to dance wildly around the room. Teenage girl is feeling homework pressure. I can see it in her face, but she never complains. Now the toddler is jumping on the teenage boy who is laying on his stomach on the livingroom floor. I get up from the piano, and put him back on the couch. Keep smiling. Talk sweetly.

A prayer. (Hasn't worked yet.)

A few announcements and then we stop again because the toddler is now kicking the boy on the couch with both feet, and with all his might. I pick him up and carry him, crying and begging, up to his bed. As I come back down the stairs, having been gone for, maybe 15 seconds, the boy on the couch is now crying and holding his stomach. Apparently in that 15 seconds, the teenage boy has "played too rough" and has punched him and knocked the wind out of him.


So, then sweetness goes out the window. I am sick and tired of teenage boy thinking that his bad attitude can control this family. He has his hand out way too often to be given that kind of power, and I won't stand for it. So, now he has his head down. Way down. But I don't think he is ashamed, as much as he is ticked off and cursing me in his mind. Fine, let him.

I sit down. I want to cry. I want to run from the room and curl up in my bed. Throw it all out the window. The tension is thick. I wonder in my mind, "What is the point? We should just do this another night."

But no. We are supposed to have this lesson, darn it.

I take a deep breath, and I look at their faces. I start to cry, but only a little. I tell them how much I love them, and how important this is, and how just that afternoon I had been on my knees asking Heavenly Father what I should teach them, and I just knew this is what He wanted. They each read a scripture. I read the quote to them, and tell them that if we are unhappy with how we are feeling spiritually, then we need to examine the way that we are treating one another (myself included, of course). I tell them that Heavenly Father wanted us to play a game this week, and are they willing?


I told them the game. I even told them that if they thought I wasn't being serious, that they should ask Heavenly Father themselves and receive their own confirmation that this is what our family should be doing this week. I bore my testimony to them. The Spirit in the room changed. Even teenage boy looked up through his hair at me.

I gave them each a baggie with 50 pennies in it. I told them that for each act of service they did for a member of our family, they could put a penny inside the jar. But no mention of the acts of service can be made. The person who gets rid of the most pennies, who loses himself in the service of others most frequently throughout the week, is the "Biggest Loser" and will win a prize.

Immediately after closing song, prayer, and refreshments, I went to Teenage Boy and put my arm around him as he sat at the table. I apologized to him and told him, with a kiss on the cheek, how much I love him. Then I went upstairs to wash my face. Teenage boy came and met me in the bathroom. Towering above me as he does now, he put his arm around me and said, "I love you, Mom." What a moment! And then? He started looking around for acts of service. He saw the flashlight next to my bed and replaced the batteries for me. He hung out in my room after the others had gone to bed, and told me about his friends, and school.

This morning there are already several pennies in the jar. Scripture study went much more smoothly this morning. We talked about the steps that Nephi followed to receive his own personal revelation. The kids were helping each other, passing out red pencils, and opening up Book of Mormons.

Family Home Evening works. It won't work once. It won't work now and then. But consistently, patiently, over the weeks and months and years, it will work.

And it better, because it's killing me.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Steps, Baby Steps

I know a woman who married a man with seven children. His first wife had up and left them all, including their little baby. This woman that I know had become established in her career as marriage and family had eluded her thus far in life. She was in her mid-thirties when she, through a series of divine interventions, found herself taking on the sudden role of wife and mother. She had no "honeymoon" period. She never grew a baby within her own body. But seven grown children now call her 'mom'. This story would have impressed me at any time. Imagine! Well, many of us can't even adequately do that. Unless, that is, you're a stepmom.

When I met this woman, I asked her insensitively if she ever wished she'd had her own children. "They are my own children," she said. Another stepmom I know told me just before I was about to take on the role myself that I would love my stepchildren the same way that I loved my own children. She said that when people ask her which are her children and which are her stepchildren, she has to stop and think about it because sometimes she just can't remember. I took on my new role with enthusiasm and the fairest of intentions. Imagine my horror, when I found that I didn't love my stepchildren, and sometimes I didn't even like them at all. My happiness throughout much of my first two years of my new marriage was arranged around whether or not they would be here. I was insanely resentful of their relationship with their father, I was accusing of every childish misstep or misdeed around the house, I was overly defensive and protective of my own children, and I was flat out miserable. My husband had similar feelings toward my children, and we found ourselves convinced that we had made a mistake. I loved my husband, but I did not love his children. I tried to cover it up in the name of motherly/martyrly service. I cooked for all of them, I read to all of them, and I supervised them all in homework and chores, but my heart was divided. I looked forward to Wednesday's, of all days, because that is the day my stepchildren go back to their mother's house. I felt free and liberated on Wednesday's! If my children were away at their dad's, and only my husband's children were home, then I often stayed locked away in my bedroom "reading" or "watching movies" or "writing". I was really being hateful and ugly. I confess to none of these things with pride in myself, but with utter horror, shame, and even a bit of disbelief. But I sure wish someone else had confessed them to me first and saved me a lot of self-loathing over these last difficult years of transition.

There were days when I felt I might actually love my stepchildren. There were days when rays of charity shone through. I wasn't completely repulsive. But I was mostly repulsive, and disgusted by myself. Mostly, these children were less worthy than my own, and in the way of my new relationship with their father. I berated myself with thoughts of how unloving I really was, and how worthless I must be. What was wrong with me that I found loving two beautiful children so excruciatingly difficult? Come to find out, nothing.

I was led to a book called "The Enlightened Stepmother" by Perdita Kirkness Norwood, and was so relieved to read the "Five Stages of Stepfamily Development" provided in Chapter 5. I like that she emphasized two facts in this chapter:
1. Forming a stepfamily is a PROCESS.
2. Forming a stepfamily takes TIME.
With that in mind, I read on. Stepfamilies are a work in progress and some professionals say that while every successful stepfamily must move through the same five stages of development, the length of time varies enormously. Some say four to seven years, and experienced stepmothers say it may be as long as ten or twelve years. Now this may be defeating to some, but to me it was OH, HAPPY DAY!!! I, once again, in my perfectionistic and idealistic ways, was expecting immediate results that simply cannot happen immediately! Here are the Five Stages:
  1. Fantasy--This is the "we'll all be one big happy family" stage, or the "I will rescue everyone" stage. We'll all love each other, and life will be bliss. This stage is also called "Illusion". Darn it.
  2. Confusion--Clearly something is wrong! The new family is not working, but nobody wants to rock the boat, so suppression is the order of the day. Fear of failure is in the air. Insufficient preparation has taken place, and stepparents and stepkids reject each other.
  3. Crazy Time--This very difficult period is inevitable. The stress and inaction of the previous stage forces matters into the open. Everyone experiences pain, anger, dissatisfaction, guilt. Stepmothers often are swept away in an avalanche of paralyzing emotions due to disappointment that their initial fantasies are failing. Self-esteem is stripped bare, resentments smolder, serious family divisions (you and yours vs. him and his). This is decision time, make-or break time. But this stage is unavoidable if progress is to be made. Oh good, we're right on track?
  4. Stability--A poignant and exhilarating time for family members who begin truly coming together. Stepmothers usually initiate this step, perservering day after day, facing challenges and resolving them. Words like "us" and "we" start to emerge, as do small signs of stabilization. The family moves to a new level.
  5. Commitment--Beginning of final stage when change is accepted as nonthreatening. Family members choose to deepen relationships. Past difficulties are put aside, and a new atmosphere of receptiveness, trust, and respect emerges.

Finding out this information has done wonders for my beaten down soul. Every mother and stepmother wants to be successful. No one tells you how hard it will be. And while I've been sitting here wallowing in how hard it has been for me I've forgotten too often how hard it has been for everyone else too. But we're doing okay. We're right on target.

Another book that has been even more helpful has been Bonds that Make Us Free by C. Terry Warner. I realize that I was living "inside the box", and was failing to treat others as people, but rather as objects in a self-betraying way. This has opened my eyes and my heart immensely toward everyone, including my stepchildren. I am trying to stop being so absorbed with how I feel all the time, and live a truer, more authentic life. When I do this, the love just seems to flow naturally and freely. In fact, just a few days ago, I took my stepchildren with me alone on the long drive to Arizona to pick up my children from their summer visit with their dad, and we had an enjoyable time. I found myself concerned for them, interested in them, and protective of them. And having all six of my children in the car on the way home felt right through and through.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Preparing a Missionary

My cousin Mark is on a mission in Paraguay. I am immensely proud of him, and because of the wonders of the internet, I get to read his letters home every single Monday. He has good weeks and bad weeks. Even some out-of-this-world terrific weeks, but more importantly, I can read between the lines and see that this experience is changing him. He is sobered, matured, humbled, and spiritually sensitive. He already was an incredible kid, and now? Well, now, I can only imagine how proud his mother is of her boy.

And of course I want the same thing for my own boys.

My sons are growing up knowing that a mission is what is expected of them, but that it is their individual responsibility to get ready and to want to go. Most Latter-day Saint boys grow up saying that they'll serve a mission when they're 19, but to actually be prepared when the time comes, and to actually put an active life on hold to dedicate two years to the Lord is no small sacrifice. It's not a decision that can be made spontaneously, and mission readiness requires careful planning years before the actual call to serve comes.

Missionaries and their families pay for their own missions. A delightful concept, really, as we value that which we have had to sweat and toil for. Currently, a mission costs approximately $12,000, which includes the monthly cost and some extra for clothing and supplies before leaving. In order to prepare several boys for missions and even more children for college, careful planning has to happen. (It's called the penny here and penny there approach, multiplied by faith.) Even if I were wealthy, I would want my boys to earn at least half of their mission money themselves. Last year, each of the boys set up a savings account and a savings goal for the year which will bring them to their target savings goal by the time he is 19 years of age.

For example:

Dylan set his goal when he was 12. So he had 7 years to put aside at least $6000 towards his mission. His plan is as follows:

age 12 $200
age 13 $400
age 14 $600
age 15 $750
age 16 $1000
age 17 $2000
age 18 $2400

He plans to go on his mission in the year 2015, and if he can meet his savings goal, he will have personally saved $7350, plus interest. (This will cover any increase in the cost of a mission by the time he serves.) He is currently ahead of schedule, and I love that he has made saving for his mission a priority. Every time he chooses to deposit money instead of spend it, he is reaffirming his commitment to serve.

Obviously, at age 13 his earning potential is not as great as it will be when he is 16 or 17. But even now, there are opportunities for the taking, if he looks.

For instance, he secured lawn care work with our neighbor. He cleans cars for a family friend, he even washes windows to earn money, and gets hired to babysit! (He's very popular with kids.) Also, I pay the kids $5 for each A on their report card, and $5 for each book they finish. They pay tithing on all money that they earn first, then they might keep a few dollars for spending, and they put the rest in the bank. It all adds up, little by little, as they work toward their goal.

Money isn't the only concern in preparing for a mission. Spiritual preparation is of the utmost importance, of course, and the boys have set goals in that area too, like reading The Book of Mormon and Bible many times, attending Church, praying daily, and being worthy to receive the priesthood when the time comes.

I have my own list of things to teach the boys too, for mission, college, and life success. This list includes things like ironing, basic hand sewing, cooking, and how to properly clean a bathroom. (Their wives will thank me, their missionary companions will just be relieved.) Obviously, there is much to do.

I have watched other families of sons send out and receive home their missionaries. I have tried to watch carefully how they prepared their boys, and what factors helped make the difference in mission success. Mostly, I get all choked up every time a boy leaves, or returns. No matter whose son it is, I'm just so darn proud of him! I see the spiritual strength and confidence that is earned through service to the Lord. I see a boy leave and a man return. Recently I was in an airport waiting for a friend's flight to arrive and a crowd was gathered at one of the gates with signs and balloons. I could tell it was a missionary welcoming party. I had to eavesdrop on their happy day. I stood off to the side filled with excitement and goosebumps, and just started to cry when that missionary walked down the ramp and through the gate to his family. It was so joyous! I sometimes can't bear the thought of saying farewell to my boys and not seeing their faces for two whole years, but then again, I know there is nothing else I'd rather see them do. Helping them to prepare and sending them off is my offering to the Lord.

From Elder Rebilas' letter home this week:

There is no greater thing that a young man can do between 19 and 21 years of age then serve a mission, none. It brings the most benefits spiritually and also temporally. To all those that are still thinking, stop, and prepare. Trust me, I have felt things that I've never felt before in my life. I now KNOW that the Holy Spirit exists, I feel it every day, and sometimes I feel it leave. I KNOW that Jesus Christ lives, for I have received a witness that I cannot deny. Follow Him, preach his gospel. The rest of your lives will be blessed. I now have a plan for my life, and I have a guide that will never fail me. So, PREPARE, read your scriptures daily, learn to rely on prayer, take advantage of the sacrament, learn of it and what it means, and REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE! My mother would never let me leave without me hearing that, and she doesn't even know how much that made an effect in my life, I'm here because of her. If I hadn't had her voice echoing in my head every time I had to make a decision, I don't know where I'd be. Remember who you are, and be the example. Make our Father in Heaven proud. I love this work, I love my Savior, I love my family. I bear my testimony that I know this church is true, in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ , Amen.

Sounds like an investment that is paying huge dividends! We've all been blessed by his service. And I thank him for his example for my own sons. Someday I hope they will pay it forward as their cousin is now. In the meantime, there is much to do!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Birds and Bees

Now Aiden knows the Facts of Life.

Early in my parenting, I found a book by Linda and Richard Eyre, titled, How to Talk to Your Child About Sex, and their approach resonated with me. Basically, they recommend having age-appropriate talks from toddlerhood on up, with The Big Talk happening on the child's 8th birthday. They also detail other talks, that go into subjects like masturbation and pornography and STD's as the child goes through the teen years. I have followed their methods, even using their scripts, with each of my three children with great success, and I heartily recommend the book to other parents. Having both parents present for these talks is wonderful, but even in a single parent situation, the important thing is to help your child gain appropriate knowledge and perspective against which to filter out everything else that will bombard him from friends, school, and the media.

Eight is a great age. According to our Church, it's the age of accountability. It's an age budding with maturity, but still fresh with innocence. And even though I got tangled up in life and didn't let Aiden in on the 'most awesome, beautiful secret ever' until he was 9, we still reaped great rewards.

With great intentions, I had been leading up to our big talk for several months, telling Aiden that I felt he was old enough now to know about the most awesome, wonderful, beautiful secret in the whole wide world. He was intrigued beyond belief. The Eyre's recommend making a night of it, with a special parent-child date to celebrate. About a month ago, Aiden and I went out to dinner at Panda Express, one of his favorites. The other kids were out and so he and I had some alone time, and he reminded me that we still hadn't had our special talk. I knew it was time, so I fastened up my nerves.

I asked him what the most wonderful thing in the whole world was. He said me, which is a great answer, but we fished around a bit more and came up with families. (I'm still included in that answer.) We talked about the love that we feel for families and what we do for people when we love them. He gave great answers, like telling them, hugging them, and doing things for them. We talked about the different kind of love that moms and dads feel for each other and how they might show their love in a little different ways, like more hugging, and kissing on the lips. And then I told him that it was that love, between a mom and a dad that brings children into the family.


I asked him if he had ever wondered how babies got inside the mom's belly, and he said 'not really', but that he would like to know. He thought Heavenly Father put them there, which was what I told him when he was small. I asked him if he'd ever heard the word 'sex' and he said yes, but that he had no idea what it meant. I told him about a very special hug that husbands and wives can do to show their love for each other and that sometimes that hug helps a baby to start growing inside the mother's tummy, and then I had him read aloud the book Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle. It's just cartoony enough to keep things light, but with very direct and correct information about bodies and lovemaking and how it all 'works'.

It was delightful. Aiden giggled at some parts that were funny, but more than that he was completely fascinated. He wanted to look at each picture and read each caption. He'd had no idea! And he really felt like he was being let in on the biggest, best grown-up secret in the whole world, which was exactly what I wanted.

He asked some questions, and then we talked about just how special sex is and how you wouldn't want to go around giving those kind of 'big, special hugs' to just anyone. That person would have to be the person you loved so much and were committed to, and wanted to have a family with. Sex is just too special and too sacred to go giving it out for fun. We talked about dangerous things that can happen when people don't hold sex to be special and sacred, and how he would want to marry someone who felt it was as special as he did. We talked about how he would hear lots of things about sex, especially now that he knew what it was, and that he needed to remember that lots of kids don't have parents that tell them the whole truth and so some of what he might hear might not be all the way correct. He knows that whatever he hears he can come and ask me or his dad right away and we will answer him. And we talked about how some people like to make jokes about sex or say bad things about it, and that's just because they don't understand how special it is, and we shouldn't join in those conversations because we know differently. We talked about how some movies and television shows only focus on how good it feels and not how special it is, and that we needed to remember that we know better and that we should avoid the things that could make us feel uncomfortable. It's because sex is so amazing and sacred that the world and Satan want us to disregard it and not keep it special. He got it.

His little freckled face was aglow. It was a sweet time between us, as it had been with his brother and sister before. I have found it so much easier and better for your parent-child relationship, if you are the first person to explain sex to your child. When you have a clean slate to work with, there is no squirming or embarrassment. It's really not that awkward at all. And you can make sure that the child's first impression is the one you want him to have. That will be the most lasting. I have found that because I came to them with the knowledge, they continue to come to me for information about things that most kids/teens would never approach their parents about, and they know I will always give them the straight-up truth. I value this closeness with my children so dearly.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Joy in the Journey

In 2000, my husband and I took our three children to Alaska for a family vacation. At the time the kids were 6, 4 ½, and 6 months. Alaska had been a dream of both of ours; something about the wildness of it, the breathtaking majesty of it. We were dying to go, to make Alaska real for us, instead of just glossy images in travel magazines and coffee table books. Being the homeschooling family that we are, we also look for opportunities for our children to experience the world. Adam and I could have gone alone on this trip, but then we would have been plagued with thoughts of, "Oh, I wish the kids could see this!" Thus, it wasn’t really a matter of question.
Adam planned an event-filled itinerary for us. After all, if we were finally going to Alaska, we wanted to see it all. We rented a minivan and toured around, using Anchorage as our hub. We stayed in Anchorage, took some day trips, traveled as far south as Seward, back to Anchorage, and then as far north as Fairbanks. All in all, during the two weeks we were there, we drove almost 2000 miles. That’s a lot of driving with three young kids-- especially with a nursing baby and a daughter who is notoriously carsick.

Our friends had given us a suggestion: "You know," they said, "they make these TV’s for cars now. They have VCR’s and you can just pop in movies and your kids will be just glued to the thing so you can drive in peace." Hmmm. "But," I said, "how will they be able to watch for animals out the car windows?" After all, we had psyched our kids up for this grand adventure by promising them abundant wildlife. We told them about the moose just walking around like they owned the place, bald eagles everywhere, maybe even a bear!

Our friends said, "They can look when you get there. Isn’t a nice peaceful car ride worth it?" Now, don’t get me wrong. I drive around with kids all the time, and I’m not oblivious to what that can mean. I do like nice, peaceful car rides, but this was our adventure. Because we would be spending so much time in the car on this trip, the car ride was a good deal of that adventure. I didn’t want them to wait till we got there to look around and be amazed. I didn’t want them to miss the Dall Sheep on the side of the mountain, or the waterfalls cascading down the sides of mountains from melting snow, or the ethereal blue of the icebergs floating in the bay thinking they could probably see that "when we stop". I wasn’t going to zone them out for the sake of a ‘nice, peaceful car ride’ and sacrifice the learning and their big, wide-open eyes, and the excitement that we could experience all together as a family. So, we opted for no TV and VCR.

We did stop many, many times along the way. We stopped at all the scenic viewpoints. We stopped for Adam to follow a moose up a grassy embankment. (Not the smartest idea, I know, but Alaska gets to you that way.) We stopped to watch a cocky red fox trot down the side of the road with some fresh road-kill in his mouth. We stopped for Lyndsay to throw up. We stopped to nurse the baby. We stopped to stare at Mount McKinley. We stopped for potty and food breaks. We stopped to watch salmon. We stopped to eat salmon. We stopped for Lyndsay to throw up. We stopped to touch the Alaska Pipeline. We stopped to nurse the baby. We stopped to watch for whales breaching. We stopped to watch a baby mountain goat manage with finesse the sheer rock face of a mountain. We stopped to watch dozens of regal bald eagles sitting on the wet sand of low tide. And you know what? It was fantastic fun. It was as if we had been transplanted to an untouched world of beauty, and we all learned so many things every single day. Who would have wanted to watch movies? We did sing songs. We did listen to books on tape. And we played lots and lots of guessing games. But in all those things, and in all the wonder around us, we grew as a family, all along the way. It was a time none of us will ever forget. Even now, though that marriage ended within two years of our trip, he and I both regard that adventure as one of the finest we ever shared, and we each are grateful for the experience. The memories and the joy were in the journey. What made the difference for us was not waiting to be somewhere, but enjoying getting there.

So it is, hopefully, with my personal journey in motherhood. I need to continually remind myself that the joy is in the process of raising children, not in having them raised successfully. I am prone to staying on the road with the car on cruise control, focused on my goal of educated, articulate, well-mannered, poised, and lovable children. I must remember to look out the windows from time to time and just enjoy the scenery. Much of the journey is simply the monotony of doing that which has been un-done over and over again. Much of the journey is drudgery and boring. Much of it is thankless. But there are scenic points along the way, and I don't want to miss them because I'm focused on the destination!

It isn't all that far off that my nest will be empty. In four years my oldest child will go off to college. Her siblings will soon follow suit. My days of little ones underfoot are short lived. When my oldest was born, I thought I had forever. I see more clearly now. If I don’t pay attention to the scenery along the way, I forfeit one of the greatest thrills of the motherhood ride. I love the days when things go smoothly. But that isn’t every day. It isn't even most days. I'm learning to be okay with that. I want to play outside with them on a sunny day. I want to talk with them past bedtime. I want to read them another story, even though they're teenagers. I want to play a board game even though there are dishes to do. I want to be in their presence with absolutely nothing to do but be. I want them to enjoy the ride, just as much as I am. And once I get them to where they're going, I want them to always remember the way back home.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

On Gliding and Soaring

Driving down the 210 Freeway yesterday, I noticed five large birds gracefully soaring over a mountain top. I watched them, and marveled. I remembered a science lesson I had taught the boys a few months ago during our in-depth study of birds: gliding and soaring are different. I had never thought about it before, and maybe I had even used the terms interchangeably on occasion, but they are not the same.

The very fact that a bird can fly is an interesting lesson in physics. It begins with the airfoil, which is the shape of a wing, and then involves flight terms such as air pressure, lift, drag, and thrust.

In the 1700's, a scientist named Daniel Bernoulli performed experiments with objects under water which help us to understand how things are able to fly. Water, like air, applies pressure to everything it touches. Daniel Bernoulli discovered that water moved differently over the top of an airfoil (wing shape) than it did underneath it. Water going over the wing moved faster, while the water moving on the bottom of the wing stayed the same. So, the water on the bottom of the wing pushed up more strongly than the water on the top of the wing pushed down. In the air, this difference in pressure causes lift, and the bird is able to get up off the ground.

The bird must flap its wings to speed up the air moving over its wings and this creates a force called thrust. But even though the speed of the air going over the wing allows lift, staying up in the air is a challenge, because another force called drag pushes against the bird as it flies.

If you watch a bird fly, you see that it flaps its wings for a while and then sort of coasts through the sky with outstretched wings. This is called gliding. The longer the wingspan of the bird, the longer time it can glide, but gradually the bird will drift downward because of the drag on its wings. After a time, the bird will have to start flapping again to overcome the drag and gain lift.
Soaring, on the other hand, is more like surfing for birds. Surfers live to "catch the wave". If a surfer catches a wave, he can then ride it all the way back to the beach. In the air, there are heat waves called thermals that rise up from the ground. Soaring birds are designed to know where these thermals are and then to jump on top of them and ride. In a thermal, the rising warm air will lift the bird higher and higher. Some thermals are very tight and the bird must then soar in a tight circle, but other thermals are very large and the bird can go a great distance before having to turn with the heat wave. Thermals form early in the day, as the ground warms up and that warm air rises, and I imagine that besides the advantage of giving birds a chance to look for food without expending the energy of flying, soaring must also be pretty cool bird recreation.

I think I have periods of gliding and soaring in my life too. Gliding is when I can coast for a time on work or effort I've previously expended. Like, if I clean my house really, really well, I can glide for a time without having to worry about housework and the rooms stay fairly tidy. The drag is (and the pun is completely intended) that life continues to happen and dishes pile up, floors get dirty, and nobody has anything clean to wear. The mess returns and I must flap my wings to get back on top of it all.

Gliding might also be when I eat healthily and exercise regularly and I am able to lose a few pounds or maintain an ideal weight, and so I coast for a while on that effort and jump off the bandwagon to enjoy some guilty indulgences like ice cream, or too many cookies, or the most decadent brownies. Before long, the drag has pushed against me and I must get my butt in gear, literally.

I may also go through periods of spiritual gliding, when I drift away from a daily routine of scripture study, and my prayers become more rote than sincere. I can coast along for a short time on my stored up testimony, but quite soon the drag works against me, and I find myself slipping. I must exercise my spiritual thrust quickly, and flap like mad.

But I have times of soaring in my life, as well. To me, soaring is more personal, when I can "catch the wave" or "ride the thermal" that God has designed me to instinctively find and then it feels so right and so good, that it's almost effortless. It's as if He and I are riding together as co-pilots. We're protected from the drag. No one else can see my thermals, just as the thermals that the hawks ride are invisible to our eyes. But just as I can see the hawks soaring and know that they've found one, I believe those around me can sense when I've found my own thermal and I'm soaring.

I've had times in my life when something that I'm doing becomes so effortless, I feel as though I'm soaring. Sometimes I call it being "in the groove". I think using our God-given talents, or when we are in line with our personal missions in life we are swept up into thermals and we can freely soar. At times when I'm writing, or teaching, or mothering, or playing a piece on the piano, suddenly the effort is gone, and I stretch out my wings, and I soar. I'm soaring when I'm in complete harmony and peace in each of my relationships and I am so filled with pure love that I feel like I must be glowing because of it. I'm soaring when I'm lost in the service of other people. It's as though I'm completely in line with what I was put here to do, and I'm filled with a euphoria that witnesses to me that I've found my thermal.

The trick then, is to balance out the gliding and the soaring, and to know that to everything there is a season. For birds, thermals only form in the early hours of the day. They can't just soar in circles all day, avoiding the work that birds must also do. There are nests to be built, and eggs to lay, and mates to find (well, fortunately the birds get the order right more often than we do!), and young to raise. There is food to be found, and migration to prepare for. They know their season. They know there will be another thermal to ride tomorrow, and though there will be lots of flapping, there will also be some gliding to rest tired wing muscles.

And there will be rejoicing because they can fly.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dad's Letters

Every year in May, I receive two cards from my dad: the first is for my birthday, the second for Mother’s Day. What my dad may not realize is that this collection of cards and the letters he has written inside them is one of my most cherished possessions. In them, he has celebrated milestones with me, encouraged me, and carried with me my heavy burdens. His counsel and wisdom have served as a constant beacon of light to my soul.

I am the oldest of his nine children, the one affectionately termed his "firstborn in the wilderness in the days of his affliction". His life has rarely been easy, filled with heartache, disappointment, and disaster, but Dad has taken the mighty lessons he has learned through discipleship and mentored me in word, in deed, and in his heartfelt letters.

He has shared with me his memories of the night that I was born:

"I have a distinct memory of how my knees knocked together as I drove your laboring Mom-to-be to the hospital. I have never been so frightened and anxious. And they wouldn’t let me into the Delivery room, so I had to pace back and forth outside on this black and green square linoleum tile. But they only charged me $350 for you, which was the best deal I’ve ever made. Reduced for quick sale! And not a blemish or flaw anywhere."

One of my most treasured letters came around my birthday, just shortly after I confided in him that my husband was ending our marriage of ten years:

"Happy Birthday Sweetheart! Another year and you’re more dear. I am writing to tell you the great news: Heavenly Father loves you, and the Lord is standing by you. If you stand still, or kneel, and close your eyes and look up, you’ll feel the love. I promise. And just behind your right shoulder, giving you strength and admiring your faith and goodness, is the Savior—smiling. I’m with you, little one, little wonder. Keep praying for strength and compensations from Heavenly Father will flow to you. This is your time of empowerment. These are your greatest days yet, your shining hours, my precious daughter. I love you. I’m proud of you."

As my years of trial went on, his faith and encouragement were unwavering, and literally became an anchor to me:

"I think this past year has been your year of greatest personal growth so far. I am amazed by you. I can imagine the great service you will be expected to render in the future, once Heavenly Father is finished constructing your confidence."

An avid genealogist, one Mother’s Day Dad felt prompted to send me to the temple to do work for some female ancestors who knew something of hardship and endurance. He sent me four names, with a little history about each one, and the following counsel:

"Please take care of them. They’ll love you. These were all wonderful women who raised their families during difficult times. They were full of faith and goodness. Your service to them will be greatly appreciated. Keep the faith. Smile a lot. Be cheerful in your adversity."

You can bet I ran to the temple! And I was blessed by the experience, and reminded that even during times of trial, we should look outside ourselves and be of service.

Dad uses his cards to bear testimony, and because he does so, mine has been strengthened:

"The greatest test for me is when my prayers are not answered quickly. I’ve decided that I will never doubt my Heavenly Father’s awareness and love and kindness, no matter how long it takes for the answers to come. I will believe no matter what, as steadfast as a tree. Let the storms come; let armies overrun me; let the heavens be silent; it won’t erode my confidence in the Almighty."

As most fathers do, my dad thinks that I am beautiful, smart, the greatest of mothers, and a gifted writer, but by far the most touching compliment came in my birthday card a few years ago:

"I am very honored to be known as ‘Jenna’s Dad’. I’d rather be ‘Jenna’s Dad’ than a King. Really."

I feel the very same way about him. Really.

Not all of my relationships have come so naturally, or have been so blessed. I once heard a psychologist say that those who have the most difficult relationships with their earthly fathers often have the hardest time trusting in and accepting the love from their Heavenly Father. I feel fortunate that I have been blessed with an earthly father who leaves no doubt in my mind that my Heavenly Father loves me, is tender-hearted towards me, and who cares for my every need and feeling. Because of the example of my dad, I find myself wanting to connect more deeply with my Father in Heaven. And I’m pretty sure that means he’s a success.

Dear Dad,
I saved every card and every single letter. I am indebted to you. My face gives away that I am your daughter. I hope my life does too. You are my hero. Happy Father’s Day.
All my love,