Remember how much we love those we love

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session of the October 1977 Conference.
I really liked Elder Paul H. Dunn's talk from this session, "We Have Been There All the Time." It was on the sentimental side…but that fits my mood these days. His title comes from the idea that if we, like children on a long car trip, are constantly asking, "Are we there yet?" "How long will it take?" about our life's journey, we will miss out on the simple moments that we should be enjoying along the way. He talks especially about the need to appreciate our family members for who they are, and to enjoy them in spite of everyday annoyances. I liked the introspective questions here:
Why do those sudden moments of clarity, when we realize how precious our loved ones are, come so rarely? How do we let ourselves get caught up in faultfinding, digging, or scolding at those who are nearest our hearts? Is it ever worth it? As C. S. Lewis once advised, “Take care. It is so easy to break eggs without making omelettes.”
With a new baby in my arms all the time, I'm constantly thinking about how fast time is passing, and how fleeting the years really are, so I was nodding along in agreement with everything Elder Dunn was saying. And I was thinking about how often, even as I'm panicking because baby Ziggy is growing and changing so fast, I'm forgetting that all the other concurrent stages are passing too, for good or ill.

I saw the following graphic in an article this week (there's some bad language at that link, sorry), and in my current mental state it just about put me over the edge. Here's what the article says about the graphic:
I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood. 
Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear:

Red shows the days already spent. Grey is the days left. Isn't that terrifying?? And it made me feel so strange to think that with my own kids, once they move out of the house, our meaningful time together will not just be partly over—it will be mostly over. Probably like 90% over, even if we are lucky enough to live fairly close to each other, even if we are lucky enough to live long healthy lives. And of course, we know that the end could come much sooner than that for any of us. Really sobering to think about. Am I taking advantage of this time with the people I love?

Elder Dunn says,
Yes, even amidst our meetings and our commitments we need to really see: to see the way his eyes wrinkle when he laughs, see the tilt of her head as the light catches her hair, remember his dash of humor. Maybe when things get in the saddle and ride us, we need to step back for a moment of clarity. We need to remember why we are doing all of this—remember how much we love those we love.
Then he continues,
Concern yourself first with individuals, with relationships, with loved ones. What else really matters? Don’t imagine yourself, regardless of who you are, busier than the Lord, who puts souls first above everything else.
I wish I could have a flashing neon sign constantly reminding me of this. Or maybe a beeping alarm that delivers a mild electric shock every time I forget it (ha ha). Because I'm constantly forgetting it! But I need to somehow remember, as Elder Dunn says, WHY I am here on this earth, in this family. I need to find that clarity that shows things as they really are, points me back to Heavenly Parents and Jesus Christ, and reminds me just how fiercely and constantly I should be loving those I love.

Other posts in this series:

Squaw Peak leaves

It's been several years since I drove the road up to the Squaw Peak overlook, but Sam and I found ourselves with a semi-free afternoon and only the younger kids at home, so we decided to take the drive! The canyon was packed with people (all looking at the Fall leaves, I suppose—and taking family pictures!), but it didn't diminish the glory of the leaves! They were at their prime, and for some reason the trees ALL seemed to be "peaking" at once. Usually it seems like some of the trees are lovely and colored, and some are already dead and brown, and some are not-quite-at-their-best red yet, and some are not even changing colors at all. But this year everything was uniformly (well, not really uniformly—there was so much variation in color and intensity!—but all of it beautiful) bright and amazing. We couldn't stop exclaiming over it!
I walked down this little wooded path and, other than when I got stung or bitten on the bottom of my foot by some tiny insect, causing me to wake half-mad with itchiness for the next several nights, I felt like I was walking through a cathedral! Color and light everywhere.


Sundance with Philip's family

Our trip to ride the ski lift at Sundance when Philip and Allison come to visit has become a long-standing tradition! I wasn't sure we'd manage it this year, with Ezekiel being so new and some colder weather than usual. But we did. All the older kids helped watch the younger ones, and Ziggy slept peacefully on me in his sling the whole time! I don't think he even knew we were on top of a mountain. I should have gotten a picture of him so he'd believe me someday! Maybe Philip got one.
There was snow at the top! All the kids picked it up and made their gloves wet and their hands cold, of course. Then we warmed their hands by holding them on the side of the warm building (there is a restaurant there at the top, but we didn't go in).

A joint quest for the beautiful

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session of the October 1977 Conference.
Painting by Sam. Inspired by this day, and a companion to this poem.

One winter evening soon after I started dating Sam, we were driving out to the store. The sun was setting and the clouds were glowing with bright colors. As we got out of the car and I started to hurry inside, Sam held back, wanting to stay and look at the beautiful sky a little longer. I remember realizing, as I stood outside with him watching the oranges and pinks in the clouds fade, that Sam's love of the natural world said a lot about what kind of person he was. He noticed and appreciated his surroundings! He seemed to find endless delight in the sky, the clouds, and the way the light fell on the mountains. And as we continued dating, I saw more and more evidence of his love for the natural world and his desire to seek after beauty in it. It was a big part of what attracted me to him and made me think we would do well together.

16 years later, we have not had a completely blissful marriage. We've learned that marriage requires great effort and patience and forgiveness. We've had periods of difficulty or busy-ness or preoccupation when looking at sunsets together has been the last thing on our minds. But when we've managed it, this looking upward, finding the beautiful together, has been one of the best parts of our marriage. The ability to talk about and appreciate the world around us in a similar way can bring us close in ways few other things can.

That's why I loved this passage from Elder James E. Faust's wonderful talk on marriage (read the whole thing!). He says:
In the enriching of marriage the big things are the little things. It is a constant appreciation for each other and a thoughtful demonstration of gratitude. It is the encouraging and the helping of each other to grow. Marriage is a joint quest for the good, the beautiful, and the divine.
In a marriage, it's hard not to feel disconnected from each other sometimes, especially when circumstances compel you to spend a lot of time apart, having different experiences and prioritizing different things. But the effort to make it a "joint quest" can bring us closer again. If I find myself without Sam when experiencing something lovely and profound—watching a lightning storm, seeing a shooting star, hiking among wildflowers—I almost feel like I haven't truly enjoyed it until I've at least told him about it! And when we make the effort to share one of these experiences together, the effects are deepened and enlivened because of the other person's presence. I love Sam's attention to detail, his knowledge of how and why the world looks and works the way it does, his curiosity, and his determination to seek out truth and beauty. When we find time to focus on it, our joint quest for "the beautiful" seems endlessly renewed and endlessly renewing.

I know Elder Faust didn't mean "beauty" in purely the literal sense. And I know people's preferences and interests vary. I don't suppose a mutual love of skies and flowers is essential to a good marriage (though I can't imagine there's anyone that doesn't find something fascinating in nature). I think my Sebastian finds "the beautiful" in a well-planned highway overpass or a smoothly-running irrigation system. But I think the point is to FIND it! Wherever you can. To seek and find the beauty and wonder in life, and to share that quest with your husband or wife. I hope Seb can find a wife who, if she doesn't already see it, can LEARN to see the wonder in those same types of things he loves. (As his mother, I've loved the enlarged attention and circle of interests that HIS interests, and my other kids', have brought me!) And I hope that Seb will do the same for his wife, because I know that will bring them both closeness and happiness. And since all goodness and all beauty come from God, a stretching toward those things will bring a marriage closer to the divine as well. I'm so grateful for the joy I find with Sam in this joint quest!

Other posts in this series:

The storm before the calm

In the weeks before Ezekiel was born, I kept texting my friend Nancy about my absolute certainty that the baby would never come. It's easier to decide to believe this, rather than to get your hopes up for an early birth, but in this case it was also sincere: I just wasn't ready to admit that the summer was already over and everything was going to change so soon.

However, practically the very moment we got home from our Solar Eclipse trip, I decided that I couldn't live with our laundry room for another day. We'd been meaning to do something about it for years. Saving money and getting bids and thinking about shelving. But suddenly none of these hypotheticals was enough. Even clean, the room was a depressing hodge-podge of school supplies and cleaning supplies and rock collections and allergy medicine and piles of stuff to take to D.I., and it's a very small room. Lately whenever I added actual laundry to the mix, I had been shedding actual tears of frustration. Behold:

Random Thoughts, incoherent postpartum edition

I'm in a weird place right now, thinking-wise. More often than usual, I'm sort of alone with my thoughts (I say "sort of" because there are always people around, too, needing things and saying things…which is why none of those thoughts have time to go anywhere). Still: twenty-hour day/night blends where I'm holding Ezekiel and thinking, thinking, thinking. But it's all so fuzzy and most of it is not really coherent at all. I can't grasp anything. I can't take a thought to its conclusion. They all just…drift around as if my brain is a giant snow-globe, being shaken up every now and then.
It has meant a lot of worrying, strangely. I usually manage to keep this under control through busy-ness and general strictness with myself (what I read, what I dwell on), but it does come in waves, and this last few months the swells are higher than usual. Maybe because of so many hours awake at night?

Opposites, but both are necessary

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we take a break from the historical Conference Sessions to write about the Conference we just had, the October 2017 General Conference.
I've said before that I like looking for paradox when I want to understand some gospel concept better. I think I first got the idea from my Uncle Hale, who, as a physicist, loved that sort of thing. But lately I'm realizing that what is interesting and exciting on a theoretical level can be just…difficult, in real life. Trying to make sense of the very real conflict that comes from forced decision-making: things that must occupy the same spaces of time, and yet cannot be done simultaneously. Wanting multiple things that can't coexist, and thus confronting all the places where my will conflicts not only with God's will, but even with…itself. Wanting to be stretched, but not being sure which direction to stretch in.

I ran across a good blog post recently which included this quote by Rabbi Dov Lev:
Success in life is predicated on two distinct undertakings: On one hand, an organism must advance and expand. On the other hand, it must protect and nurture. These two undertakings are opposites, but both are necessary for success. . . The same is true on every level of societal and personal existence.*
*The quote above goes on to say, "It was with this theme that God created two distinct genders, to work together in unison to accomplish their ultimate goals," and the linked post explores this theme. I like it, but that's not really where I'm going with this post.

This sums up exactly the conflict that disturbs me—I would say "lately," but it's ongoing, really. How does one "advance and expand" without doing so at the expense of "protecting and nurturing"? We need both. Our children need both. How to have self-awareness without despair? Hope without entitlement? Contentment without stagnation?

I needed General Conference this month.

So many speakers addressed this balance of opposites. I could sum up the message of Conference (my personal message, I mean) as "Optimistic self-improvement." Or maybe: "You're doing great! Now do better." Ha! My notes are scant (I was nursing a baby pretty much nonstop), so these quotes are just paraphrases. But the theme was everywhere!

Protect and nurture. Advance and expand. Somehow, I need to do both.
President Uchtdorf:
The kingdom is full of people who feel inadequate…Blessings come not because of our abilities but because of our choices. 
President Eyring:
When we are focused on love of God and others, we become fearless.
[Reading the Book of Mormon daily] has produced a sense of optimism about what lies ahead, even as the commotion in the world seems to increase. 
Sister Bingham:
Knowing Christ better helps us know ourselves better. 
Sister Oscarson:
Some of our most significant service opportunities are small and close to home. 
Sister Jones:
Doubting our own worth is an indulgence we can't afford. 
Elder Hallstrom:
Do you have the faith not to be healed? 
Elder Christofferson:
Let us not be content with where we are, but neither let us be discouraged. 
Elder Holland:
I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or demolishing our self-esteem. That is not what the Lord wants for children or anyone else who honestly sings, “I’m trying to be like Jesus.” 
Elder Rasband:
Sometimes we consider changes in our plans as missteps on our journey. Think of them more as first steps to being on the Lord’s Errand. 
Sister Eubank, quoting President Hinckley:
You don’t … build out of pessimism or cynicism. You look with optimism, work with faith, and things happen.

Other posts in this series:

More piglets

When baby Ezekiel was only three weeks old, our friend Tillie the Pig had another litter of piglets! 17 of them! So we decided to make the drive out to Erda and have my midwife Cathy give Ziggy his three-week checkup at her house instead of mine. We loved enjoying a Fall day at her peaceful farm and holding the cute little squealing, squirming piggies (along with our own little Ziggy-pig, of course!).
Some pig!

Waiting anxiously for each rock

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Welfare Session of the April 1977 Conference.
During this project we've read through several of these Welfare Sessions now, and it's hard to avoid a sense that they are all the same! Because the subject matter is so tightly focused, I guess, there is a lot of repetition and it's hard (for the speakers, apparently, and certainly for me!) to think of anything new to say! There are lots of practical matters addressed: how to set up the Bishop's Storehouses, what kinds of commodities wards can produce, etc. I assume many of these details have changed over the years. Then there are spiritual themes that come up repeatedly: work is ennobling, service and charity are essential, generosity blesses both givers and receivers…the same principles appear in these sessions again and again.

But although, through so much repetition, it would be easy to lose sight of the value of those principles, it's always the stories that remind me what church welfare is really about. Sister Barbara B. Smith told this one, which on the surface isn't even about welfare. It's about a husband and wife that went to buy landscaping rocks for their yard. The rocks were big and heavy, and they were collected at the top of a hill, and the husband started complaining about how much harder this would make everything. So, his wife said she would go up the hill and roll the rocks down to him.

The husband described how his wife started noticing things about each rock she chose. She seemed excited about the merits of each one, and she would describe them as she rolled the rocks down to her husband:
"Soon she called out, ‘Here comes the first rock. Here comes another one.’ Then she said, ‘Oh, this rock is a beauty. I hope this one won’t be too heavy for you to carry.’
“I said, ‘I’ll carry anything you roll down.’
“Then she said, ‘Look at this rock. It has real character. Here comes my favorite.’”
He said, “She actually had me waiting anxiously for each rock!” And then he said, “In this endeavor, as in many other of our projects together, she had given me not only the help I needed but a perspective that often eludes men.”
As I read this I thought about how the concept of "church welfare" sounds kind of boring and abstract and administrative. It sounds just about as boring as "going to pick up a bunch of rocks." :) But my kids love rocks! And as we've studied rocks together, we've experienced the same thing as the wife in the story above: once you start really looking at rocks—picking them up, examining them, turning them toward the light—they become beautiful! Every single time
When we're out collecting rocks, there are usually huge piles of them. From far away they all pretty much look the same. But after just a few minutes of careful looking, the kids have found favorites. And they've become attached. If they happen to drop a rock after "choosing" it, they'll look anxiously for it on the ground. They'll carefully check through our collection buckets to make sure their special rocks don't get left behind. And that's just how welfare, real welfare (or I guess not necessarily just official church welfare—but charity in any form) works. The scope of "helping all God's children" is huge and impersonal and daunting. But as we serve in our own little spheres, our own Relief Societies and neighborhoods, this is the real-est kind of reality there is! It's the place our religious ideals actually coalesce into something tangible. It's where we learn to show love to people we have no "obligation" to. It's where we get to know our neighbors and they become dear to us. It's where people come to feel, on more than an abstract level, that they are of worth to God. The people in my ward who have been bringing me dinner since the baby was born are doing it for ME, and for OUR FAMILY, not for abstract principles. And we—personally, specifically—are the ones who feel their love as we eat it. 
Every time recently that I've heard a story of someone who helped others after Hurricane Harvey, or read about relief efforts in Mexico City, it's the specifics that make me emotional. Same with the church membership reports: they read the statistics in Conference about how many new converts have joined, and it's mildly interesting, but every time I read a real person's conversion story, no matter how small, I feel determined to share the gospel more readily and be more fully converted myself. 

So this talk was a good reminder to me: If you find "church welfare" boring, it's probably because you're not participating in it. Because when you are part of a charitable cause—when you're connecting with real people, helping or being helped, giving and receiving love—there is no tedium and no indifference. The people we serve become beautiful and meaningful in our eyes, and we are anxious about the well-being of each one. As Elder J. Richard Clarke said in this same session: "These are not statistics, brothers and sisters; these are real people with real needs."
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