"Women's work" and simplicity

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Morning Session from the October 1975 Conference.

As often happens when I read these Conference talks, this week there were two passages in two different talks that, along with some other things I'd been thinking about, combined to give me the message I needed this week. Here are the passages:

From Elder Robert L. Simpson's talk, "Do It":
Spiritual sensitivity is a gift, freely given, to all who are willing to do their best. It is for those who have a desire to serve and the fortitude to take the first step, even when it doesn’t seem personally convenient to do so. As we complicate our lives, we discourage the gifts of the Spirit.
And from President Spencer W. Kimball's talk, "The Time to Labor is Now". This was a quotation from a letter President Kimball got from a woman who had met his wife at an Area Conference in South America:
I walked with Sister Kimball. I told her I could hardly believe I was walking with her. Know what she said? Well, she told me she is no different than I am. That she washed clothes, washed the dishes, and cooks food, plants vegetables, and does all the same things that I do.
Here's what I've been thinking about: the work of women. My work. Of course I know circumstances vary; I know some people dislike even thinking in terms of "woman's work," preferring instead to focus on how people all have unique roles (and there's truth to that)—but I have come to value the simplicity, the continuity, that comes from placing myself into the lineup of generations that have held these duties and privileges: this work of women. Like this South American woman marveling at the similarities between herself and Sister Kimball, I find peace in thinking about how my life right now consists of, essentially, the same things that have occupied, and still occupy, women the world over: Clothing my family. Feeding my family. Keeping my home.

I guess I bring up that peace not because it comes automatically, but because it doesn't: either because of intrinsic selfishness or because of the culture I live in (or both), it's far too easy NOT to have peace in and satisfaction with those basic responsibilities. A Catholic writer I admire brought this up: 
As I lay on the sofa, lamenting telephonically to my friend about my seriously miserable condition and the mountains of duties beckoning to — no, hurling themselves at — me — especially the baby and my phenomenally, epically, heroically messy, dirty house, she told me this: basically your family needs food and clean laundry from you right now…

So, when you are making your resolutions, at the top of the list do you have these two items: feeding and clothing your particular horde?

Because if you do, things will go well for you this year. And this is why: no matter what other duties you have, the two biggest challenges you will face will be — ta da! — cooking — and laundry.

Conversely, if you have a handle on these two areas — if you have serenity when contemplating dinner or the washing machine — you will be rational in your approach to all other areas of your life: losing weight, saving money, cleaning up, using your time well, loving your family more, having reading time with your kids, teaching them Latin, you name it! It will all go better if you have order in these two fundamental duties. Or at least our inevitable failures in this area won’t upset the peace of our family as much!

And I call these duties for a reason. First, I like using old-fashioned words. Also, some mothers really look at dinner and clean clothes as chores assigned by a particularly demanding, even cruel, parent. But in their heart of hearts they consider them optional.
They actually whine! They complain! They live with a laundry room that has piles of dirty laundry, and a master bedroom that has baskets of unsorted clean laundry! They get annoyed because their kids are hungry! They hate cooking supper!

They think that someone else will come fix all this for them! Then they spend money — their husband’s hard-earned cash — on take-out dinners, or frozen dinners, or drive-through dinners, because they can’t figure out what to have for supper; and on new clothes, because the old ones are dirty!

No, Love, only YOU can solve this problem, the problem of your life; and this is the year to do it!…

Look at it this way: if you had the profession of managing, say, a hotel, you would be darn sure that first and foremost you had a plan, a system, and a clear idea of how you would provide food, clean sheets, and a warm atmosphere for your customers. You would not whine. You would pat yourself on the back for having such a great career! If you did not do this, you would be — fired!

…Now I know you are not like those babies I describe above, those terrible whiners. And you probably have a better work ethic than I do! But still, have you achieved clarity on these two important areas of your home keeping duties?
I had to laugh at that, because of course I HAVE been like those terrible whiners, thinking to myself in all seriousness and self-pity every few hours, "This again?? I can't believe I have to make ANOTHER meal to feed all these people!" And it's hard work; there's no denying that. But I love the perspective that THESE ARE MY DUTIES. This (for me, anyway) is simply what it means to be a woman caring for her family! This is what I do! Why fight it? Why resent it? Why not just…get better at it? Maybe even learn to enjoy it?
And that's where the first quote comes back in. I was struck by Elder Simpson's words: As we complicate our lives, we discourage the gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes I think my life IS complicated. And in some ways it is, or it feels like it. But in so many fundamental ways, it is simple, and it's because of these very duties I sometimes resent. It's simple because of these same basic rhythms that made up Camilla Kimball's life, as well as the life of the South American woman she met: teaching my children, feeding my family, clothing my family.

When I consider these basic, simple, things that fill my life, I can be grateful for them: because I know they truly ARE a gift. And, though they are tiring and repetitive and unending, they also allow me to find space and time (if I allow it) for those gifts of the spirit I so desire: for the spiritual sensitivity Elder Simpson talks about. I know many people, in more complicated circumstances, would happily trade their complications for that sort of simplicity.

Here's one more story I ran across this week that drove home the same point. It's from the book A Lion and a Lamb by Rand H. Packer. The book is the true story of a missionary couple who lived in Joseph Smith's farmhouse in Palmyra before the Church owned any other property there. The people in the area hated "the Mormons" and treated them horribly, but over their 24-year (!!) mission, this couple gradually made great friends for the Church. The wife, Rebecca Bean, was constantly housing and cooking for missionaries and others who wanted to visit the Hill Cumorah and the Sacred Grove. There was simply nowhere else for these people to stay, and she graciously accepted them all, night after night (for 24 years!), never knowing who or how many would come, but always making delicious meals and creating a welcoming spot for them to rest. She had her own young family to care for, and a working farm to assist with, and one missionary asked her how she was able to be so cheerful and accepting of the constant extra work. This is the story she told him:
It was a hot summer day and we had a lot of visitors that day. It had been a hard day for me; I had a baby. He was just a year old and I had carried my baby around on my arm most of the day to get my work done. It was too warm and everything had gone against us and nighttime came and we had lunch for our visitors, and we had supper at night and I had put my children to bed… 
Dr. Talmage was there with some missionaries and we had really had a wonderful evening talking together. So, they all seemed tired and I took them upstairs and showed them where they could sleep. When I came down I thought, "Well, I will pick up a few things and make things easier for me in the morning." But I was so weary and so tired that I was crying as I went and straightened things around in my house. Everybody was in bed and asleep but me… 
I said my prayers and I got into bed. I was crying on my pillow, and then this dream or vision came to me. I thought it was another day…I had prepared breakfast for my visitors and my children were happily playing around and I had done my work and cared for the baby and he was contented and happy and then I prepared lunch and I called our visitors into lunch and we were all seated around the table, my little baby in his highchair and everything was just peaceful, wonderful and sweet.
There was a knock at the front door and I went in and opened it and there was a very handsome young man standing there and I just took it for granted that he was just another missionary that had come to see us. I said, "You're here just in time for lunch. Come with me."… 
[After lunch] I put my baby to bed and the little ones went out to play and then I was alone with the young man. He thanked me for having him to dinner and told me how much it meant for him to be there. He told me he thought that the children were so sweet and well-trained and I felt so happy about that. 
Then we walked in the hall together and he said, "I have far to go, so I must be on my way." 
I turned from him for just a minute…and when I turned back to him it was the Savior who stood before me. He was in His glory and I could not tell you the love and the sweetness that He had in His face and in his eyes. Lovingly He laid His hands on my shoulders, and He looked down into my face with the kindest face that I had ever seen. Then He said to me, "Sister Bean, this day hasn't been too hard for you has it?" 
I said, "Oh no, I have been so happy with my work and everything has gone on so well." 
He responded, "I promise you, if you will go about your work everyday as you have done it this day, you will be equal to it. Now remember these missionaries represent me on this earth and all that you give unto them you give unto me." 
I remember I was crying as we walked to the hall out onto the porch and He repeated the same thing. Then He started upward. The roof of the porch was no obstruction for Him to go through, nor for me to see through. He went upward and upward and upward…And then all at once He disappeared.
This story brought me to tears because I could so easily imagine myself in Rebecca's circumstances. Again, though our lives are so different (Rebecca Bean's much harder than mine!), they are also so similar! We care for our babies, we feed our families, we make our homes. And I cried because I had just a taste of a similar experience recently. Not such a vivid one—but as I was up at night, cleaning up my wet, cold two-year-old who had had another accident in his bed, and soothing him and whispering to him in the darkness so that he would stay calm and no one else would wake, I had the sudden thought that God was saying to me, "I am pleased with you for doing this work. It is just what I would have you do for My child; just what I would do if I were there." It was so small and so simple, this task I was doing, and yet I felt God's approval of it.

It reminds me, too, that much of the simplicity is in how I think of my work. When I get caught up in all the details of my calling, and the places I have to get my children to, and the things I've signed up to help with, and the things in the house that need fixing, and so forth, life doesn't seem simple at all. But even with all that, the underlying simplicity remains, if I will accept it. Serving God and His children. Caring for my family. Caring for my neighbors. It's all just…my work, and honestly, it's what I have chosen to do. And I would choose it again. It's what I WANT to do. It's what I'm BLESSED to do. Because in all its simplicity and repetition, the "work of women" does, truly, bless ME most of all.

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Nothing good is ever lost

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Afternoon Session from the April 1975 Conference.
My favorite talk in this session of Conference was the one with the least interesting title: "An Appeal to Prospective Elders." It doesn't sound like it would have anything to say to ME, does it? But it was one of the most beautiful talks I've ever read—perhaps my favorite in this whole Odyssey so far. Elder Boyd K. Packer begins by telling the story of when he was in the Air Force, stationed in Japan just after World War II. In the course of working with the people there, and doing missionary work, he learned several words and phrases of Japanese. But when his time there ended and he returned home, he soon forgot everything, having no occasion to use the language then—or ever again, he thought.

Twenty-six years later, Elder Packer received a church assignment to go back to Tokyo. And as he heard Japanese spoken around him, he found himself unexpectedly remembering a few phrases. When speaking with some Japanese children, he even suddenly recalled an entire song in Japanese! He says:
I had known that song for 26 years, but I didn’t know that I knew it. I had never sung the song to my own children. I had never told them the story of it. It had been smothered under 26 years of attention to other things. 
I have thought that a most important experience and realized finally that nothing good is ever lost. Once I got back among the people who spoke the language, all that I possessed came back and it came back very quickly. And I found it easier then to add a few more words to my vocabulary. 
I, of course, do not suggest that this experience was the result of an alert mind or of a sharp memory. It was just a demonstration of a principle of life that applies to all of us. It applies to you, my brethren of the prospective elders, and to others in like situations. 
If you will return to the environment where spiritual truths are spoken, there will flood back into your minds the things that you thought were lost. Things smothered under many years of disuse and inactivity will emerge. Your ability to understand them will be quickened.
Elder Packer emphasizes the word "quickened," which is a common one in the scriptures, for its description of how these good things can come to life inside one who has once lost them, and do so quickly:
If you will make your pilgrimage back among the Saints, soon you will be understanding once again the language of inspiration. And more quickly than you know, it will seem that you have never been away. Oh, how important it is for you to realize that if you will return, it can be made as though you have never been away
This is one of the great miracles of this work. The Lord has a way of compensating and blessing. He is not confined to the tedious processes of communication and He is not limited to Japanese or English.
"As though you had never been away"! I love that heartfelt promise! Elder Packer, as his talk's title suggests, is speaking here to men, "prospective elders," who have left the church and have doubts about their ability to return. But I thought his words conveyed hope for many other situations, in multiple layers in the talk.

Elder Packer emphasized in his story that he had done nothing, really, to maintain his Japanese. And thus he had not really done much to "deserve" any of it coming back. I have sometimes stopped short of asking for similar miracles in my own life, thinking, "I haven't done enough work to deserve this. I'm like the man with one talent: I neglected to do what I could have done, so now I can't expect to have any blessing for it." Ah, but Elder Packer promises that "nothing good is ever lost." There IS hope for me when I neglect things or do them badly. There is hope that the small efforts I do manage to give will come back, magnified, each time I even make an attempt to return to them!

There is hope for me when I feel discouraged about the amount of time it takes to really learn and study…anything. So many things I want to understand, and don't. So much time I know I ought to spend in pondering and improving, but (through laziness or busy-ness or tiredness) don't. I want to grow closer to God. I try. I still stagnate. But nothing good is ever lost:
There is a sacred process by which pure intelligence may be conveyed into our minds and we can come to know instantly things that otherwise would take a long period of time to acquire. He can speak inspiration into our minds, especially when we are humble and seeking.
There is hope in the looking back on past mistakes, when I wish I could go back and re-live certain events, undoing those wrongs. And the discouragement when I think of all the mistakes yet to be made. But even the most sorrowful of time was not wasted time, for nothing good is ever lost:
Those years of the past, that we often think to be wasted, are often rich in many lessons, some of them very hard-earned lessons, which have meaning when the light of inspiration shines upon them.
I do not say that it is easy. I am not talking about appearing to change. I am talking about changing. I do not say it is easy. I say it is possible and quickly possible.
There is hope even in the midst of my certainty that I am surely teaching my children things I don't mean to teach them, by bad example. I know I miss chances to do good. I know I ignore or misinterpret promptings. I know I am blind to some of my faults. But there is hope for my family, for my children when they falter and go astray, and for ME, when I fear I have forgotten, or messed up beyond repair, some of the things I once promised God I would do. I know, before this life, I intended to come here and be a faithful, valiant follower of the Savior. And I have a great fear of disappointing Him with my actual performance. But nothing good is ever lost:
Just as those few words of Japanese could be recalled after 26 years, so the principles of righteousness that you learned as a child will be with you. 
And some you have learned in His presence will return as moments of whispered inspiration, when you will find, then feel, that you are learning familiar things.
This awkward newness of making such a change in your lives will soon fade, and soon you will feel complete and adequate in His church and in His kingdom. Then you will know how much you are needed here and how powerful your voice of experience can be in redeeming others.
I think of loss a great deal. (Too much, arguably.) I think of it as it occurs, and even preemptively, before it occurs. I think I have deep reservoirs of what Elder Maxwell called "our mortal homesickness." It seems to be the underlying theme of much of my writing and maybe even of this whole blog. So for Elder Packer to emphasize this point again and again gives balm to all sorts of places in my uncertain and fearful soul. Our good desires mean something. Those too-short moments of sweetness with our babies mean something. The happy days mean something. The times we resolve to do better, and then gradually fizzle out, mean something. Sorrow means something. Clumsy efforts at childhood and parenthood mean something. Even our failures mean something. And when we return to that place of goodness from which we all came, we will understand. For nothing good is ever lost.

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Theodore likes to ASK for snuggles, but then he usually gets up on your lap, turns every which way, bangs into your face a few times with his head, and then slides down again and runs off. When he was a little sick recently he was much more satisfyingly cuddly. Poor lamb.
I feel like I'm cold all the time recently, so I loved having his hot little beanbag body resting on me!
Starting to feel better.
And this is his VERY favorite person to snuggle with.

Picking up color

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session from the April 1975 Conference.
I think I've always been impressionable. I find myself inadvertently imitating the style and tone of whatever writer I'm reading at a given time, or humming whatever music I've been in the vicinity of. Worst of all, I mirror people's facial expressions. I had several teachers throughout school who would comment on it. Some of them said they were unnerved by it; they thought I was making fun of them before realizing it was entirely unconscious on my part. Others said they would glance at my expression to make sure they weren't looking too grumpy that day. The teachers that were smiley and happy seemed to always like having me near the front so they could gaze upon my smiley happy mirror-face. One teacher in junior high (she glared a lot) asked me one day why I was always glaring up at her during her lectures and I had to stammer out some apology and then be VERY CONSCIOUS of putting a pleasant look on my face thereafter. And there was a frowning tour guide in London who singled me out of our group to ask what I kept frowning about.

I think one of the most important things I learned (and have probably written about before) from my poetry teacher Lance Larsen at BYU was that ALL OF US are impressionable. People like to think they aren't. Sometimes aspiring poets would come to him proud of how original and "untainted" they were. "Who are you reading?" he'd ask them, and they'd reply, "I don't read other poetry because I want my own work to sound fresh!" He'd sigh and point out that, lacking the deliberate influence of someone competent, they were instead being influenced by all the drivel they WEREN'T seeking out: advertising jingles, 'poems' in sacrament meeting about footprints and the old violin, angsty pop music. And it showed in their work.

I had a composition teacher tell me much the same thing about music composition. "Students think a melodic idea is good just because it was the first one that came to them," he said. "The opposite is more likely to be true, and unless their musical influences are very deliberate, they're more likely to have bad instincts than good. The crafting of good music is usually more conscious than intuitive."

I was much struck by these comments, and I determined on the spot to make sure I was choosing my artistic influences actively instead of passively! I don't know if I do very well at it. But I do have much less patience for reading sloppy or incoherent prose these days! I used to finish a book just because I'd started it. No more! My free time is too rare to waste any of it reading garbage. But, of course, I know there are many other things influencing me without my even knowing it. It takes a lot of effort to seek out excellent movies to watch, and I'm often feeble and lazy about that. I frequently opt for silence rather than music, which means all I'm mostly hearing is my kids' piano practicing or whatever's playing at the grocery store (hardly a nourishing musical diet…luckily I'm not composing much these days either).

But Elder J. Thomas Fyans' talk in this week's General Conference session made me think again about what influences are coloring my worldview. I loved the metaphor he used, drawn from tributaries of the Amazon River:
One interesting feature about these rivers is their different colors. The Madeira, for example, is called a white river because its waters carry fine clay particles along its course. The black color of the Rio Negro comes from decaying organic materials picked up in the forests through which it passes. Still other rivers flow over white sands and often appear emerald green or turquoise blue. 
Just as these rivers are colored by the substances picked up as they flow along, so the streams of our thoughts are colored by the material through which they are channeled. The scriptures indicate that as a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7.) The material we read has a great effect on the nature of our thoughts. We therefore need to be concerned not only with avoiding unwholesome literature, but we must fill our minds with pure knowledge, and we must see that our children do the same.
This made me think about how much I am influenced by living in the stream of modern culture. It's not just specific ideas I'm likely to be wrong about, but even the WAY I'm thinking: what I consider important in life, what I think I'm entitled to, what I see as admirable. When are my thoughts taking their color from the world's view of motherhood, or marriage, or what a happy life and home and family should look like—and when are they taking their color from God's view of those things? How often does my discontent or my impatience or my resistance to something come from an influence I never even knew I was choosing, but which is affecting me all the same? 

Elder Fyans then goes on to talk about how the scriptures and the words of modern prophets are some of the best words to deliberately color our minds with. He quotes President Kimball's statement that 
[When we get] casual in our relationships with [God] and when it seems that no divine ear is listening and no divine voice is speaking, [we are] far, far away. If [we will] immerse [ourselves] in the scriptures, the distance narrows and the spirituality returns.
Then Elder Fyans continues:
Through our scripture study we will come to consider [the] great leaders of the scriptures as our personal friends, and their messages will take on new and added meaning. We will learn that people of days gone by were not so different from people we know today.
I've found this to be absolutely true in my own life. It is becoming more true even now as I read these old Conference talks and learn to know more of their voices! But there is even more reason to let our minds run over the words of God:
Now, if I may, I would like to return to the analogy of the rivers. Some rivers are sluggish and meander through low places. Their waters are dirty and full of debris. These do not furnish the electricity that brightens our cities and serves our many needs. 
Other rivers flow down from the high places, tributaries adding to their volume as they flow. Their current is strong, and as a result these furnish electricity for our needs and great ships sail upon them carrying the products of man’s labor.
This is what the words of God can do in our lives! Cleanse us, nourish us, even power us! I especially liked the idea that even if I don't do as well as I'd like at finding time to fill my mind with great ideas, with great music and poetry and literature…the scriptures contain all of those things! And they are all of those things to my mind, because they will bring the spirit into my life. Immersing myself in them, as often and as deeply as I can, will bring all the reward I could wish for.
Where do the streams of our thoughts flow? Are we reading the scriptures? Are we listening to the counsel of our present-day prophet? Are we catching the vision of really living the gospel? Are we feeling the sense of urgency—an urgency to repent, to share the gospel, to prepare for the second coming of the Savior, to obey all God’s commandments?
Being conscious about my influences is a goal I made in college, but it's one I could stand to revisit for more than academic reasons. I've always felt a bit sheepish about my facial-mirroring habit, and I've tried to dial it back a bit so I don't embarrass myself! But what's even more alarming is to think of all the times I'm mirroring the thoughts and priorities of people I don't even WANT to imitate. I would so much rather choose to be  colored and influenced by One who will always teach me goodness and truth: Jesus Christ! And I can do this by keeping His influences all about me. Elder Fyons' concluding question makes me resolve to do better: 
As we read the scriptures, our thoughts are lifted heavenward by the counsel of the prophets… 
Why not color your thoughts with eternal, prophetic utterances and truths this very day?

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I'm not sure what's happening here, but I don't think it's right.
A bunny for a bunny.
Date with Abe—Joseph Smith Building

Never fail to respond

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Priesthood session from the April 1975 Conference.
I was touched by two experiences President Marion G. Romney shared in his talk, "We Need Men of Courage." They seemed more deeply personal than is usual in a conference talk, maybe because they both talked of opportunities missed and duties undone:
Not all acts of courage bring…spectacular rewards. But all of them do bring peace and contentment; just as cowardice, in the end, always brings regret and remorse. 
I know that from my own experience. I remember when I was a boy of 15 and we had been expelled from Mexico in the revolution. My folks went to Los Angeles from El Paso, Texas. I got a job there among a bunch of Mormon-haters, and I didn’t tell them that I was a Mormon. Sometime after that, President Joseph F. Smith came to Los Angeles and had dinner with my parents—a very humble dinner; I can remember that it was very scant. He put his hand on my head and said, “My boy, don’t ever be ashamed that you are a Mormon.”
You know, I have worried all my days that I didn’t have the courage to stand up to those ribald men.
I felt almost protective of him when I read this. He was only 15! He had just been driven out from his home! Of course he would be scared of these "Mormon-haters"! But he obviously felt deeply that he could have, should have, done more to stand up for his beliefs.

Then the next experience:
I remember another occasion when I was in Australia on a mission. I went up to visit the Jenolan Caves—very wonderful, spectacular caves. And as we walked through them, the guide said, “If some of you will get out and stand on that rock over there and sing a song, it will demonstrate the capacity of this cave.”

Well, the Spirit said to me, “Go over there and sing ‘O, My Father.’ I hesitated, and the crowd walked on. I lost the opportunity. I never felt good about that. The only thing that ever made me feel the Lord had forgiven me was when I heard President McKay say,“I was inspired one time to do a certain thing when I was in the mission field, and I didn’t do it.” He said, “I have always been sorry since.” He said, “Never fail to respond to the whisperings of the Spirit. Live so you can receive it, and then have the courage to do as it instructs.”
That's really two stories in one, because it talks about President McKay missing an opportunity, too! And President Romney's missed chance was such a strange thing—what good would singing "O, My Father" have done? I wouldn't have wanted to do that either! But what blessing (for himself or someone else) did he forfeit, not doing it? He knew there was something lost.

Still. I love the fact that these two men knew full well that they had fallen short in the past, but it didn't cripple them. They just told themselves, "I won't make that mistake again. Next time I'll listen. Next time I'll respond." And they advised us to make the same commitment!

I read something from a BYU devotional talk recently along those same lines: "Never suppress a generous thought." It's a good thing to ponder. Why spend so much time wondering and analyzing if the spirit is truly telling us to do something? If it's a good thing, just do it. If it might be a prompting, just follow it. "Never fail to respond." And thus God leads us along, and we prove to Him that we (clumsy followers though we may be) truly do desire more spirit, more revelation, more guidance from above.

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