Of Grapevines and Vineyards

Last year I wrote a post about my grape vine.  I was worried about pruning it back severely. The year before I hadn’t pruned it hardly at all.  We had lots of branches and leaves and no edible fruit. I wrote about mustering the courage to do something different and allow myself to fail and learn.  We ended up with a plentiful harvest of grapes last summer, but the fruit was small and not very sweet with big seeds in each grape. We ended up making the grapes into juice which with a little added sugar was delicious and I’m sure it was packed with nutrients as well.

This was one of the bunches of grapes we got from our vine this year.
That’s a lot of grapes!!
We made the grapes into grape juice concentrate which we froze in jelly jars.

This year I was late getting the grapevine pruned.  With the chaos of the coronavirus, my usual spring gardening routine has been upended.  Having an anxiety disorder when the world is in such chaos and turmoil is hard. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have OCD.  My hands have broken out in a rash from frequent hand washing. I’ve had to curtail my habit of constantly checking the news because the anxiety only becomes worse.  I can’t go to the grocery stores anymore because the sight of empty shelves sends me into panic mode.

Last night when Ben came home from work, I was barely functioning.  My hands and feet were white and cold from a Ranauds attack. Layne made dinner and Ben watched the kids while I took a bath.  As I sat in the warm water with only my thoughts for company, I felt so much darkness. I thought of how foolish we all are. We delude ourselves into feelings of safety.  We make plans and investments and conduct endless research. We think we are wise and independent. We think we don’t need God. All we need is the latest tech, no interest financing and zero down.  

Shame colored my cheeks as I thought miserably how often I have soothed myself into a false sense of security and trust in governments, corporations, 401ks, and my own preparations for family emergencies. Disaster was bound to come.  My efforts to stave off the feelings of despair seemed so pointless.

But the warm water, some medicine, and some needed support from Ben and a family friend helped me to scrape together enough hope to face another day.  We had a good morning with prayer, scriptures, breakfast together, and some outside chores. I was going to rake the leaves in the front yard. The live oak in the front loses its leaves in the spring just as the grass is coming to life after its winter sleep.  It’s urgent that we get the leaves off the grass, but I saw the grapevine leaf buds were beginning to swell. I put the boys to work raking the leaves while I tackled the grapevine.

As I cut into the grapevine, I felt a surge of confidence after last year’s success. I knew that the pruning was essential, that the harvest would depend on my work today.  Still, it was sad to cut off all the tender new leaves that were swelling in their nodes, and drops of water fell from each cut branch.  The plant seemed to me to be crying. “Why would you do this to me?” I hope it will be okay with such a late pruning. If not, my treatment may result in the death of the plant.  

Severe pruning in the early spring ensures a good harvest of grapes in the summer. We’ll see how mine does this year.
A late pruning left my grapevine dripping sadly from each pruned branch. I hope I was not too late.

My family has been reading the fifth chapter of Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It is a very long and complex allegory of a vineyard.  The Lord of the vineyard and his servants work constantly on the trees of the vineyard to produce good fruit to lay up for the season.  It is discouraging when at times they look out at the trees and see nothing but bad fruit. Then they go out and prune and dung the trees in hopes that they will be able to make a difference.  

Olive trees are very interesting. The fifth chapter of Jacob is an allegory comparing world spiritual history with an olive vineyard. Each time I read it I feel my mine opening to new parallels between gardening and people. Plants teach me about God.
Photo by Stacey Franco on Unsplash

There are so many layers to this metaphor.  I see it in my children, my ward, my nation, and the world.  Sometimes progress means cutting back. Sometimes the way forward isn’t a straight line.   Sometimes we have to hurt. Sometimes we have to cry. Most of all, we need to see our own foolishness.  Our own impotence. Our own dependence on God. There is no elite class wise and powerful enough to save us.  We are infantile in our understanding. We need the one who is Mighty to Save. We need Him in our hearts, our counsels, our homes, and our schools.  We need Him in our hospitals, our stores, and our governments. He is the only path to salvation.

I realize that this view is controversial.  I don’t wish to force the minds of anyone who doesn’t see the world as I do.  Still, I will not be silent when the need is so great and the cure and relief so certain.  It is only through the grace of the Son of God that the world will be saved. There is no other way. It is less a conversion to a certain religion and more an excavation process. We find the Son of God within ourselves. Each of us is divine. Each of us has the child or son of God within that must be nurtured and developed and revealed out of a calloused and hard shell of mortal decay.

It is comforting to seek solace in science, facts, and models created by the learned.  It is comforting to trust in history and tradition. These things are good and helpful, but they are not enough.  We need God. And not a God of a few select people who look or behave a certain way. We need a God who is wise enough and powerful enough to dissolve the divisions that cut us off from one another.  A God who can unite mankind into a powerful force for righteousness.  We need to be a better people than we are. We need to be more compassionate, more full of faith, and more determined to find the Savior within ourselves.

I hope and pray that we will repent before it’s too late to do so. With God there is nothing that can stop us. Without Him, we are doomed to fail whether to earthquakes, tempests, pestilences, or war amongst ourselves. Coronavirus is only one of the scourges of mortality and though this is bad, I suspect it will not be the end of the calamities we will face.

Authenticity; Keeping it Real

Jackson VanDerwerken plays Nephi in the new Book of Mormon series. He was just 16 when they started shooting. He is currently serving a mission in Brazil.

The church has put out a whole series of new movies about the Book of Mormon.  I don’t know what I expected; wooden acting, flat characters, scriptures being read in radio voice……the typical church videos.  Maybe that’s why it took me so long to start watching them. They are really good! I know when the movie is good when I read the book and the characters in my head look like the characters in the movie.  That only happens when the actor is able to capture the character. After thirty years of reading the Book of Mormon, when I think of Nephi now, I can see the actor in this series. That’s pretty impressive!  The acting, the script, the set, the filming is all first rate. If you want to know more about the Book of Mormon, but don’t feel like reading it, this would be a good place to start.

And not only am I a fan, my thirteen year old son snuck out of bed last night to watch the next episode.  Impressive. The fact that he spends hours each day watching low budget YouTube gamer videos might indicate that something as useful as scripture videos would be boring. On the contrary, I think these Book of Mormon videos have some serious appeal to teenagers. I’m no expert on teens, but one thing I have learned really fast; they can smell hypocrisy. They expect inauthentic behavior and they invent them in parents even if they aren’t there. They are creating their mask of perfection and they know you have yours. On the flip side, they seem to love authenticity. Ugly and honest reality resonates with them.

Nephi is his willing to tell the story of his family.  It isn’t the whole truth about it of course. It is his perspective and should be recognized for what it is and what it isn’t. Every family is defined differently by each member who has their own memories and perspective. We’ve all had those weird moments when a sibling recalls the details of a family vacation we can’t even remember taking. For some reason, that vacation was meaningful to that person and it was seared into their long-term memory. It wasn’t meaningful to you, so you forgot it. It isn’t that your memory or theirs is wrong. Together, your memories can create a more complete picture of the reality that is and was your family.

Family is so intimate. Our siblings and our parents shape us. Telling the ugly truths about them can feel very personal.  Life is messy. There is snot, slobber, and poop. There are addictions, mental and emotional disorders, chronic illness, allergies, muffin tops, cellulite, and a hundred other distasteful things that exist behind closed doors.  Nephi lays it all out as he tells his story. He doesn’t spare anyone, even himself and his own father and mother. When they doubt, murmur against God, and cause problems for themselves and their family, he writes it. Maybe no one really wants to have a family like Nephi’s.  We would all like to have things be a little more pretty and simple; suits and dresses sitting in a row on the bench at church. No problems here!

Nephi shares his and his family’s personal and physical struggles as they strive to obey God’s commands and make a new life for themselves in a new land.

The truth is, life is hard and messy when it comes to families and the scriptures don’t paint a rosy picture.  Jacob and Esau were in a constant state of sibling rivalry even in the womb. Joseph was beaten, imprisioned, and sold into slavery by his brothers.  In his misery, Job’s wife told him to “curse God and die.” These accounts aren’t flattering for these families. No one wants to be Job’s wife in this story. No one wants to be the brother who sells his sibling into slavery. Still, a mature reader can have immense empathy for a wife who has lost everything and feels despair or a brother consumed by hatred and jealousy for a favored sibling. The unflattering details in these accounts are important because we can learn from them. Life is hard and sin, death, and disease are real, yet not many people in the history of the world have been willing to talk about the ugly in their families.  Often no record at all is made of a person’s life and family. I have talked to people who plan to burn journals before their death; determined to keep their inner lives a secret. This seems such a waste to me. So much can be learned about oneself and the world when we look at life through the eyes of another person. Also, no sin or problem is so great that the Savior’s atonement cannot save. Where is our faith?

Nephi was one of those rare people who recorded his inner thoughts and feelings about his family and gave them to the world. Something about the story of Nephi, Sam, Laman, and Lemuel seems to reveal so much about family relationships to me as a mother of four sons. I’m glad that Nephi made the choice to share the truth about his family even if it wasn’t always pretty.  It makes him relatable. Honestly, I relate to Laman and Lemuel too. I relate to Sariah and Lehi. They are real people to me because their lives weren’t perfect. If Nephi had only written the flattering things, I think I would have seen through the deception. Brothers tying one another up and beating each other with sticks…..sounds like my world!

So millions of people have read and will read the Book of Mormon.  Now they have made a decent video series that will be watched by many people.  Judgements will be made about Lehi and Sariah, their parenting, their children and their posterity.  Laman and Lemuel surely would have felt that Nephi’s account was not fair to them. Of course, they were free to make their own scratchings on metal plates if they wanted their story told.  Something tells me they never bothered to do that. Will their anger against Nephi be fueled unnecessarily by this willingness to make an account with so much detail and honesty? Does their resentment still smolter against their brother in the afterlife as millions read his story and their unflattering portrayal? Was it okay that Nephi wrote about his family? What about you and I? Should we write the truth about our families from our perspective? If so, when and how should it be shared? These questions are not simple or easy to answer.

I’ve been doing some digital portrait art.  It’s so hard to artistically represent a person!  One portrait I looked at for hours. Something was not quite right.  I had to erase much of the face and redo it because the jaw line was wrong, the ear was not quite long enough, and the eyebrow was too far from the eyelid line.  I was trying to be accurate and fair with my first rendering, but it still wasn’t right. Writing about people can be just as difficult as drawing them. How can you reproduce a person accurately and fairly without caricature?  How can you convey the essence of a person whether in print or in art? When you are finished, there is no guarantee that the person will like it or want it to be shared. What then? You drew the bags under their eyes, or the lines on their forehead.  You drew what was there and if you took those things out, it wouldn’t be them, but they don’t like it. They want a more flattering image, but what if that image comes at the cost of authenticity?

Authenticity makes things meaningful and we humans are very good at being able to tell whether something is authentic or not.  Check out this video of a robot pretending to be a person. Some very smart people have spent a lot of time and effort to make an authentic human being, but even a very young child would be able to tell that something isn’t quite right with Sophia.  Pick up a stack of Christmas family letters and read them out. Do you get a sense of who these people are? Are the authentic contours of their lives clearly seen? Probably not. The people described are probably more like stick figures than real people.

To clarify, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the way we write Christmas cards or make robots.  I’m just trying to point out that authenticity is not something we do very often outside of art. Artistic expression is limited to very few people. There are advantages to this.  The drama of authenticity can be exhausting. Sometimes we don’t really want to know about Grandpa’s indigestion or Aunt Francis’s depression much less their deep dark secrets and sins.  There are also disadvantages to hiding our authentic selves. When the grandkids read the Harry Potter series and cry for days over the death of Dumbledore, but then don’t seem to care much at all when Grandpa dies, don’t be surprised.  Grandpa may not have seemed much like a real person to them compared to Dumbledore. We make emotional attachments to authentic human beings we can relate to. J.K. Rowling managed to make characters that connected on a deep level with many different people.  She did it by making them authentic. If we fail to share our authentic selves with those we love, we may find ourselves alone and disconnected.

I’m finding in my own life that authenticity is extremely important.  Meaningful connections keep depression and anxiety at bay not just for me, but for everyone.  No person can thrive in isolation. Yet today we live in a world in which individuals are increasingly isolated.  Transactional relationships are everywhere in our highly specialized and civilized world. We can pay people to cook for us, clean for us, take care of our children for us, and even help us process emotional trauma.  Behind those transactions, can we see the humanity? Can we make authentic connections? We can, but it can be difficult. For me it has taken some vulnerability. I have taken off some masks that I got comfortable wearing.  My blog has been a big part of making the journey toward authenticity. 

As my parents and I go through the family counselling experience, the blog has become the elephant in the room that is at last being addressed.  There are benefits to family counselling, but it is hard. I’ve had a resurgence of depressive symptoms as I have attended these sessions. I’m also reconsidering the purpose and content of my blog in light of my parents’ feelings. I’m trying to answer these tough questions.

In spite of my discomfort and my parent’s discomfort, I feel compelled to share my story with authenticity. It may seem that my efforts at expression are more trouble than they are worth to me and the people I care most about. Maybe they are. Maybe I’m wrong to share. Maybe there are things that are better left unsaid, as I’ve been told. Or maybe Nephi was right. Maybe if we share the ugly truths about our families we can put things in perspective. Our family’s ugly might not be so bad when compared with others! Also, we can learn from each other’s experiences to be better parents to the next generation. I am working on my privacy settings to try to create a blog that works for me and my family. I appreciate your patience as I go through posts and try to decide what audience I want to share with.

I pray that as I go through this process that I will be guided by Him who is Mighty to Save.  I know that as dark and difficult as this journey feels right now that it will have a happy ending.  There is hope and peace and blessings at the end of this road and maybe even along the way. Thank you for walking this path with me!

Part One; I Meet a Conman

The small television loomed large in the small family room in rural Idaho.  “He’s so hot,” Tiffany said with a dreamy expression. I looked at the screen with Pierce Brosnan’s face gazing lazily at me.  “I like Magnum PI,” I retorted. I had a crush on the mustached crime fighter for years. Some of my earliest memories center around feeling weak in the chest as I watched Tom Sellek play Thomas Magnum, a tough guy private investigator who looked rough and rugged.  In contrast, Peirce Brosnan seemed like a fake to me. He was! Remington Steele was a fake, a con man, a liar. I think that bothered me even then, before I could really understand what the differences were between the two men.  

“He has a mustache!” Tiffany replied with a scandalized tone.  “How would you even kiss him.” If felt a flutter as I thought of Tom Sellek’s mustached face kissing me.  “It wouldn’t be that bad,” I defended. She rolled her eyes condescendingly. “Remington Steele is way better! He’s so suave and his suit is nice and he just looks at you and you melt.  And, he’s kind of a bad guy. That makes him cool.” I didn’t understand that.  

I was a straight arrow.  Even as a little girl, I saw the world in black and white and Remington Steele was gray.  I liked to watch the show, but I didn’t trust Remington Steele. Tiffany liked to get away with stuff.  Even small cons on my parents seemed not to bother her in the slightest. If you could get away with it, there was no problem.  I couldn’t live that way.  

Years later I watched her graduate from high school, so anxious to get on with her life and leave her childhood behind, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of loss.  She was leaving me behind as well. I didn’t have a great relationship with her, but I thought things were getting better. She was no longer the bully that she was when we were little.  She was always left in charge as the oldest back then, and Tiffany loved to tattle and blame me and criticise me endlessly. I hated her and the feeling was probably mutual. As she became a busy high school student and I started looking up to her a little, things got better.  We shared shoes and some clothes, and sometimes talked about boys or school. She would give me advice. Constantly. Sometimes it was helpful, but I didn’t like how she always seemed to want to know everything. I was smart too. Now she was leaving and I was heart broken. She didn’t seem to care at all.

We still saw a lot of Tiffany as she attended the local college.  She dated a lot of different boys, but nothing seemed to ever work out.  She graduated from the nursing program and moved to the big city to make her mark.  She was living in Salt Lake City and working as a nurse when she met David. He was a cell phone salesman with a palm pilot in his pocket.  His smooth charm and sad story won Tiffany over and before anyone knew what was happening, they were getting married.

“He’s been married before?” I asked.

“Yes.  Don’t be so judgey Bridge!” she retorted.

I was self aware enough to realize that I was judgemental.  I had boycotted the senior prom my junior year because they had decided to have prom at Retrix, the only dance club in town.  I thought Retrix was the most unholy place in Rexburg and I couldn’t believe that the school was forcing us to support that kind of place.  Nothing came of my solitary protest and the next year prom was again at Retrix. I toned down my outrage and I ended up going to it. I was a little disgusted with the way the couples were dancing, but I had enough social awareness by then to keep it to myself.  I was learning that the world was bigger than Rexburg and my Mormon upbringing. Tiffany was in the big city now, and she might know a few things I didn’t about the world outside. Even so, I didn’t like how fast everything was going. We hadn’t even met David and now he was going to join our family.    

“He’s awesome.  You are going to love him.  He’s so spiritual and nice and handsome…..” her words and her tone sounded familiar.  It was like Pierce Brosnan. He was too good to be true. He was rich and a body builder and he had this sob story about his past that cast him as a pitiful victim of bad circumstances.  His parents had divorced right as he was getting ready to go on his mission. He had to stay home to help his family work through the traumatic experience. Then he married a woman who ended up going crazy and stabbing him in the back with a knife from their kitchen.  He moved out and got a restraining order against her and filed for divorce. Now he was getting his life back together. He was going to be rich. He was going to be powerful. He was full of drive and determination, and seemed to have just a little bit of a Machiavellian streak; just enough to make him willing to do whatever it took to be successful and that’s what Tiffany wanted most.  So what if his past wasn’t ideal? It was his future that mattered, and he was going to be successful.  

I never questioned his story.  I never speculated that David’s ex-wife might not be the woman that David and his family painted her to be.  I never considered that his man might be a con artist; that like Remington Steele, the person he was pretending to be was very different than the man he actually was.  I was hopeful that he was a diamond in the rough, a bad boy ready to be a good husband and father as I watched David and Tiffany walk out of the Salt Lake Temple as man and wife.