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,