It has been so long since I’ve had the courage to write again! I only wrote four posts last year. There is a part of me that longs for the comfortable days of hiding before I was open with my story and my pain. I have to remind myself that honesty is a virtue and that pain is a universal human experience. It is only as we share our pain that we can find the strength to overcome it.
Last year was a year of tremendous growth for me. I’ve been going to therapy every week and sometimes even twice a week. My life is working for the most part and I have what I need. My circle is very small and everyone in it understands mental health. That has been so important. It turns out that quantity isn’t as important as quality in my relationships. I no longer use social media regularly. I’ve found the benefits of it are not enough to justify the trouble it causes me.
Unfortunately, over the past couple of years I have developed some kind of chronic illness. I suspect that the stress of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the political upheaval has overwhelmed my body. I am going to many doctors to try to figure out what my jumbled collection of symptoms means, but in the meantime I am finding ways to cope. Healthy food, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and lower levels of stress tend to help reduce my symptoms. There are some treatments that are helping me to function almost as well as I did before I got sick, so that is a blessing! Depression and anxiety live in the body as well as the brain and age compounds the damage.
I feel very good today, so I am grateful that! I hope to post some valuable content on my blog regularly again. I’ve spent much time ruminating about the benefits and drawbacks of making a mental health recovery public. There are benefits. I hope that my readers have learned some helpful information about mental wellness and how to live a more conscious and honest life. I hope I have modeled openness, introspection, and compassion. There are also drawbacks. Honesty can be painful and relationships built on lies are broken upon it. It isn’t the honesty that is to blame but the lies. But the lies are so beautiful! And the truth is an ugly duckling.
I hope the New Year finds you all well and warm. If you chose to join me on another year of self-discovery, let’s buckle up and get ready for the ride.
This morning I got a notification from Google photos from four years ago. I tapped on it and it was a picture of my mom and dad sitting next to a small Layne. I scrolled through the photos of that visit that seems like a lifetime ago. It wasn’t a perfect visit. It was awkward, but we could sit in the same room and at least on the surface, everything was okay.
And then I watched as pictures and videos of joyous times scrolled past. Austin with his chubby baby cheeks, Pepper in her tiny puppyhood, and then later as her body leaned out into adolescence. Every moment was so beautiful and yet tinged with the pain of loss. My boys are growing up. Things will never be as they were. Also the crushing feelings of inadequacy. I should have loved them better! I should have enjoyed those moments more! If I had been someone else, something else…… I know it doesn’t make sense. Even as the tears pour down my face, it doesn’t make sense. It just hurts.
I hate depression. I hate the self loathing. I hate the negative self talk stream in my head. I hate the fog that leeches the beauty away from my eyes. I wish I could banish it. Like Pandora in reverse, I could trap it away in a box. But it never goes away forever. I can come up for air sometimes. Sometimes I actually feel good for a while. I just have to remember that those times exist and will come back again.
I just came off my period. I didn’t bleed much but I had more flow than usual. I also had abdominal pain, bloating, weight gain, and mood issues. I also am still recovering from Covid. I tested positive about a month ago. It was a mild case and although I haven’t had symptoms of the actual illness for a couple of weeks, I am still trying to dig myself out of a hole of housework and garden chores that have piled up. Also, my oldest son has been taking all his end of the year AP exams and auditioning for marching band leadership so he hasn’t been doing his chores. (Not that he was doing much before.) Whenever I ask the other boys for help with his chores they get resentful and whiney.
I wish I was someone who could stand up to my kids, be confident, and not wallow in self conscious indecision! I’m weak. I know it. And all I can do is wish things were different. Or do I? Can I shame myself into becoming that person? Can I force myself; to squeeze the last drop of physical and emotional energy to reshape myself into the assertive and powerful persona I desire?
As I reflect on that, I remember some thoughts I had a while back about how through therapy, I’ve come to see how little control we really have over our lives. We are born to parents who are given the impossible task of nurturing us in a fallen world full of problems. Those parents have scars from their own childhoods and they pass on the injuries to their children. Like a blight in the garden, young and old, no one is spared. This world is not a Garden of Eden full of fruit and flowers. It is a wilderness full of disease and decay.
That realization has given me compassion for myself, my parents, and all the other miserable hurting humans on this planet. It has taken away the sting of my judgement. I have set down the judge’s gavel to extend a hand of fellowship. I know, even in this season of doubt when the mustard tree of faith goes limp in the hot sun, that a better being will come along who is worthy of that mantle. As for me, I will be a friend to mankind.
Just as important as that vital truth is its opposite. I may not have much control over my life. I may be a victim of a myriad of circumstances. Still, I have more control over my life than anyone else does. I have the power I need. God has given me what I need to accomplish His purposes, I just have to figure out how. Like a gate, the power is in the hinge. The gate cannot control the weather, the soil, the material it is constructed of, or anything else, but it can swing open and shut. It is small, but the hinge is key.
I am swimming today in an ocean of hormonal chaos. I can’t change that cocktail, but I can choose to have faith in the Master who calmed the tempest. This storm will pass. The laundry will get done- or not. The kids will finish out the school year. There will be many messes and too much screen time this summer. There will be imperfect family outings and many things broken. I can choose to embrace broken things. I can choose to see the beauty in myself and my imperfect life.
I can choose to take the emotional energy I have and give myself a hug. I visualized myself split into two beings. One a mother, and one a sad young teenaged girl. The girl was overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy in a changing body she didn’t understand. The mother just sat next to her on the couch and cradled her head. The mother couldn’t tell her that someday she would understand the strange cycle of physical and emotional changes of womanhood. She couldn’t reassure her that it wouldn’t get worse and more difficult to manage. She could only just sit with her; both of them conscious of the complexity and challenge of it all, but knowing that they weren’t alone.
It seems like a different world today than the one in which I watched Kamiela Valieva skate. With the world, I was horrified as the abuse of that child was revealed. She was drugged by her coaches in a vile bid to boost her performance for their own gain. What kind of people give heart medication to a fifteen year old child? As a mother of teenagers, I was enraged. Russia was again revealed as guilty of cheating, but this case was especially horrific because they had drugged a child. Then, in the aftermath, Valieva was allowed to skate. It was a dicey situation because while she should not be punished for her abuse allowing her to skate ended up compounding the trauma. Under the incredible pressure from the controversy she humiliated herself with the worst performance of her career. Favored to win the gold, she didn’t get a medal at all.
And so the beautiful and talented Valineva takes her place with the other girls who have been abused by the Olympic system. I can’t help but see it as fundamentally exploitative at best, and blatantly abusive and harmful at worst. Even the United States has had problems with child abuse. Larry Nassar was allowed access to girls for years, so we are not without our own problems, but Russia is on another level and not just in sports.
Even before the Olympics ended, Russia began to put in motion its diabolical plan to invade Ukraine. I braced myself to endure another humiliating defeat for Democracy on the world stage. After Syria and Afghanistan, I thought I knew the plot of this story fairly well. The West fears an escalating confrontation, we retreat, and evil men seize power and victimize the innocent. The forces of tyranny get the upper hand because they care nothing for the suffering of the people and the forces of civilization don’t care enough to stop it. Enter Ukraine.
They refused to accept defeat in the face of Russian aggression. Their President, Vlodomir Zelenskyy, the man Donald Trump tried to exploit to hurt Joe Biden’s campaign, has become an unlikely hero. Refusing to evacuate to safety, he has stayed in Kiev. He has rallied his people and the world to the defense of freedom, insisting that the capitulation and retreat of the West must end. He has cast this battle for Ukraine as a battle for the survival of Democratic values.
Ukraine has suffered greatly in the past week. It is hard to comprehend what is going on because the reports and video clips are only fragments of the larger picture. There are millions of refugees. Men of fighting age are forbidden from leaving the country. They must stay and fight. Many are staying and fighting. The scenes are part horrifying and part inspiring as untrained civilians are handed high powered assault rifles. Video clips and images of brave Ukrainians have gone viral.
The Russian state has become a pariah with almost all nations rallying behind Ukraine and refusing to do business with it. Airlines won’t fly to Russia or allow Russian planes to land. Financial sanctions have caused economic devastation. Brave Russians have taken to the streets to protest the war. Russian soldiers are horrified to be fighting against civilians who hate them, taunt them, and thwart them at every turn. The Russian propaganda disintegrates in the sunshine of Ukrainian reality. This is no just war of liberation, it is a naked aggression against innocent people who just want to be left in peace. Putin’s position both at home and abroad has never been so weak.
It is an inflection point and we have Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to thank. Large gates swing on small hinges and they have turned the tide against authoritarianism. Their fate as a nation is far from certain, but the movement they have set in motion is extraordinary. They have united the badly fractured population of free people and changed the world.
Zelenskyy in particular is a remarkable figure. He is a modern day David staring down a modern day Goliath. People will be writing songs, books, and movies about this for centuries. Only time will tell how the story will end, but even if they go out Alamo style, they will still be heroes and their story will inspire generations. Zelenskyy may die, but Putin will not outlive him long I think. And Zelenskyy has earned immortality with the courage of his leadership; Putin with his villainy.
I told my boys that I’ve never seen anything like Zelenskyy in my lifetime. The only comparison I can think of is George Washington, but even he wasn’t the sitting President during the war. Also Zelenskyy is a lawyer, an actor, and a neophyte politician. He’s never been a soldier. He’s the perfect projection for the everyman called to save the world. He’s small and inexperienced. His entire persona is comedic. He reminds me of Mr. Bean. And yet, he has managed to transform his persona in the past few days into a tough guy who makes Vladimir Putin himself look like an imitation. (And he is.) It is as though the monomyth has come to life; the hero’s journey.
Each day of this conflict I have prayed that Zelenskyy would survive. Each morning, I unlock my phone to see if he lives and if Kiev is still standing. The words to the Star Spangled Banner run through my mind…..”oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave?” Have they been overcome? Each morning I have exclaimed, “Oh thus be it ever when free men shall stand, between their loved homes and the war’s desolation; blessed with victory and peace, may the heaven rescued land praise the power that has made and preserved us a nation!”
My prayers and the prayers of so many of God’s children have been answered. Putin has not overcome Ukraine. Yet. Today I am going to fast for Ukraine. I don’t fast. I haven’t fasted in over seven years. Because my depression medication has to metabolize, I must eat every day. Still, I must fast for them. Even if it kills me, I must do it. If my faith can be even a mustard seed right now, maybe it can make a difference. Ukraine must not fall to Putin’s Russia.
In a world of discouragement, Ukraine and her leader have inspired me to fight. Fight depression, fight cynicism, fight the voice that says I can’t make a difference. The American experiment isn’t over.
Watching the tenacity and resolve of the Ukrainians has healed a part of my soul that was broken when we betrayed the Kurds. That trauma, compounded by my mom and my aunts, birthed a stone in my heart. I felt like my patriotism died. It would stir a little bit every so often, but it was on life support. Ukraine has given it new life. We have rallied behind Ukraine as I wish we had Rojava. The Kurds were no less valorous and worthy, but they were stateless and so few people were aware of them. Also, we have a real President now and not a Putin sympathizer.
My country is not dead after all. It was gravely wounded by Trump’s betrayal, first of the Kurds and later of our Afgan allies. Biden handled the Afganistan pullout badly, but he never would have been put in the situation if it wasn’t for Trump. I am convinced Trump orchestrated the treaty with the taliban as a favor to Putin. There is a special place in hell for men like Trump and Putin and their ilk. They stand next to Satan and do his bidding as the rivers run with the blood of the innocent. They spit on the graves of brave and valiant men they cannot understand and secretly fear. They seize power they aren’t fit to have and use it to terrorize and destroy everything good and beautiful.
There is no legitimate compromise with evil like that. It sticks to the soul like tar to a shoe. Don’t touch it. Stay far away from it. Don’t fear it because it can smell fear and exploit it. The only solvent is resolve; the kind of determination that has no boundaries. What are you afraid to lose? Resolve that you sacrifice it if you have to in order to win because losing isn’t an option. Nothing can be held back. The Ukrainians understand that, but as Americans we have become soft. We have allowed our enemies to divide us and pit us against one another. Ukraine has shown us what real courage in a real fight for freedom looks like.
I couldn’t sleep last night. Even with sedatives and a sleeping pill, I still was up with my mind racing until after 1:00 am. I thought of how I would like to talk to the Ukrainians and tell them stories about the Marquis de Lafayette and the Baron Von Stuben; about the birthing of the first international fight for freedom in the American revolution. I would tell them about Washington and how he would ride out in front of enemy lines on his horse to rally his troops with courage. I would tell them about the Valley Forge where America was smelted in the bitter cold of that dark night; that from the hell of that winter, America rose in triumph. We surprised the world because no one believed we could win against a far superior army. It was an imperialist army of mercenaries and they were fighting the resolve of a people just coming into their own identity.
I imagined I looked into their eyes. I could see them and feel their pain, their fear, their discouragement. And then I prayed. I felt the sleeping pill taking effect and I don’t think my words were very coherent. I know they were probably slurred. I prayed for God to forgive me my sins. I prayed for Ukraine, and especially Zelenskyy. I prayed for the refugees. I prayed for the Russians that God would soften their hearts. I stumbled my way to my bed and fell asleep at last. In the morning, I could not get up. I couldn’t even pick up my phone. I just laid there and felt waves of despair and self loathing. Why can I not be strong like the Ukrainians?
But I am strong. I asked for help. I rested a few hours. I got out of bed. I put on my workout clothes and now I am going to exercise. I will fight the depression. I will win. I always do. I will fight the discouragement and self loathing. I am beautiful. I am empathic. I am sensitive. I was created by God to be who I am and I deserve to exist; just like Ukraine deserves to exist. I will stand up and fight another day against the monster in my head.
Today I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving and gratitude and creating the life I want to live. This month has been hard. My Kindergartener got sick and was home from school almost a whole week. Then I crashed on my bike and sustained some injuries. Then I got sick and was in bed for several days with fever, chills, a wicked sore throat, and the usual yuck of fall illnesses. Finally, I strained my ankle at the trampoline park. With all of this I have had a resurgence of depression symptoms including some pretty intense episodes of suicidal ideation. My counselor contracted pneumonia and has not been available. Naturally I was very unhappy when family-of-origin drama began.
At the beginning of this year I did a cut off with my parents. I have avoided writing on my blog about this for a couple of reasons. First, it is extremely painful and for those who have experienced it, you understand just how painful and why I wouldn’t want to post about it. Another reason is that I’ve been afraid of the backlash I might get from well meaning family members with little to no mental health experience. I thought that perhaps if I veiled some of my expressions in poetry that I might avoid some of the latter. Unfortunately, I have still managed to garner the backlash I tried to prevent.
As I have reflected on my blog’s purpose, I realize that I have been holding back useful information from my intended readers. My intended readers are those who have some experience with mental health or at least some desire to learn more, help loved ones, and build a more nurturing environment for our minds. My intended readers are familiar with phrases like “family of origin,” “childhood trauma,” “suicidal ideation,” and “recovery journey.” My intended readers understand that the world of mental health is complicated and that it is best to withhold judgement of those who suffer and their loved ones who suffer with them. My intended readers deserve more vulnerable and direct communications than my poetry posts this year.
This is not the first cutoff I have done with my parents, but this is the longest one. I tried to resume some limited contact with my mom around mother’s day, but we are back to no contact until after the holidays. Family of origin drama is just too much for me right now. I have to be there for my children for the next six weeks.
It’s hard to cope with the reality that you experienced serious trauma as a child. It is almost unbearable when those you love who hurt you so badly deny and minimize your experience, make excuses for themselves, and then shame you for the pain. I have been accused of being ungrateful, unforgiving, and cruel. Those minimizations and accusations hurt more than the original offense. I am comforted to think that the Savior knows the pain I feel. Perhaps he alone will ever truly understand. He whose piercing gaze fell upon the leper and resisted looking away will not fail to see me in my broken state. Like them, I cry out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
This post is for those who, like me, who find that in their recovery journey, that they must limit contact with people they love. Love is not a purchased commodity. Those we love have not earned our love. In order for love to be real it must be freely given with no expectation of reciprocation. Sometimes we have built empathetic connections of love with people who continually hurt us and keep us from building a healthy and happy life. They sabotage our efforts, contradict our therapists, and pressure us to continue harmful behaviors. These relationships are unlikely to change unless the empathetic connection changes. Sometimes the relationship can’t continue without great harm to recovery.
Cut offs are so hard. We love the person. We want them to understand. We want them to see that they are hurting us and for it to matter to them. We want the unconditional love from them that we have been giving. Some people are just unable to give that kind of love. It’s okay to let go. Sometimes it’s important to let go. This is hard for people raised in codependency.
My family of origin has a lot of problems with codependency. I was raised to believe that I needed to be unselfish to be good. That belief system has driven me repeatedly into burnout. I am finally making some progress in rooting out those codependent virtue/vices and replacing them with healthier values.
Virtue/Vice One: I need to put others first. Selfish women don’t deserve love. I was taught that women feel fulfilled in the home taking care of their family. I was taught that good wives and mothers put their husband and children’s needs first, often go without and make sacrifices for their family. I thought that when I skipped meals, showers, personal growth opportunities, and social activities that I was being a good person. Over time, resent built up and motivation evaporated. I thought that my sacrifices would make me feel fulfilled and that my efforts would be reciprocated and rewarded. Instead it seemed that everyone became accustomed to my behavior and even felt entitled to it. The love I craved felt insufficient and it was. I wasn’t behaving virtuously, I was being codependent. I was expecting my husband and children’s love to sustain me and make up for my neglect of myself. It left everyone frustrated and resentful.
Now I understand that putting others first doesn’t make me a good person, it makes me a resentful person. I understand that I don’t have to earn love. My husband and children love me because they are empathetic and loving people. I love them because I am an empathetic and loving person. I don’t earn their love with my unselfish behavior. I model healthy self care for them and teach them to do the same. They aren’t responsible for my happiness and I am not responsible for theirs.
Codependency keeps us in unhealthy relationships for too long. It is a habit of thinking that shifts responsibility. “I am responsible for everything,” says one codependent person. “You are responsible for everything,” says the other. Because neither of those statements is true, no progress is made. Codependency is like a tug of war, two people waste time and energy pulling against one another and getting nowhere. It isn’t going to be enough to stop pulling. Its okay to put the rope down and walk away.
Virtue/Vice Two: It is unkind to distance myself from people who hurt me. Christ commanded me to love everyone which means I need to put my mental health at risk rather than set healthy boundaries. This is a classic codependent virtue/vice. Keeping toxic relationships and people in your life is not healthy. Proper self care requires you to keep yourself safe from harm. Sacrificing your safety to enable someone’s toxic behavior is not a virtue, its a codependent vice.
Virtue/Vice Three: Doing family cut-offs is cruel. Family relationships need to be preserved no matter how detrimental they are to your mental health. For many years I have kept family relationships in my life that have hurt my recovery. Some family members have repeatedly reinforced toxic narratives, minimized abusive behavior, and blamed victims. Because I believed in the sanctity of eternal families, I kept trying to change toxic family members.
The truth is, eternal families are healthy families. Each individual is accountable for their own behavior within the family system. Not every individual has equal power within the family system. The parents have the bulk of the power and the responsibility for the overall health of the system. Children within the system, even adult children, have little power to change the system. Eventually healthy adult children will outgrow an unhealthy family system. That’s not cruelty, that’s life. If you want an eternal family, you need a healthy family. If your family isn’t healthy, it won’t last anyway.
Habits of codependence are reinforced with practice. It takes two to tango in the dance of codependence and the steps are unconscious. I’ve had to surround myself with people who have healthy boundaries in order to begin to see my own codependent habits.
Unfortunately, that has restricted my circle of friends to a very small group. Churches sometimes teach codependence as a virtue. Women at church are especially proud of their codependence. It is the whited sepulchre of mental health sins. On the outside they are virtuous servants of mankind while inwardly they are seething with the sickly rot of resentment. From such stay far away!
When it comes to relationships, I’ve prioritized quality over quantity. I have also prioritized relationships I feel I have some power to influence. I’m not investing in relationships with people who are rigid, defensive, and self-righteous. The truth is, there are not a lot of mentally healthy people in this world. There are enough mentally healthy people, but you have to look for them. You might find them in unexpected places.
The holidays are a strange mix of emotions for me. Being in recovery isn’t easy, but I have enough faith to believe it will be worth it. My best to all of you who find yourselves in a complicated place this season. You aren’t alone. As I celebrate the birth of the Savior, my model of mental health and altruistic virtue, this month, I hope I can better emulate Him. I hope my words bring you light and hope and not despair.
The axe forgets. Only the tree remembers.
You had an ideal childhood.
We played games
We went on vacations
We loved you
Those things are all true
But you don’t remember
Feeling your throat in your mouth
As each smash of your hand
Reverberated through my body.
Afraid to run.
Afraid to breathe.
Seeing stars come into my eyes
Terror mixed with shame
You don’t remember the thrill of fear
Travelling up my spine
When I heard the door open,
And I knew you were home.
The rush to hide.
To make myself small.
You were fear personified
And I ran from you.
Like a child runs from
A monster in the closet.
You don’t remember
That desperate need to please
To be good enough
To earn your love
Like a famished beast
It consumed joy and peace of mind
In the womb
Before it could be felt.
Or maybe you do remember
But you want to forget
The memories of your own small self
You defend the ones who hurt you.
You side with them.
They still have the power
And you are still trying to earn their love.
The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.
Can the axe remember that it was once a tree?
Long ago before it became a brittle and dead thing
Designed to destroy its children,
It was green, and it swayed in the wind,
As it flowed through the branches.
Can the axe remember?
Let’s write a different story.
Let’s change the ending.
The powerful can remember
The pain of their choices
On those they forget.
Let’s give the future fertilizer,
And put the axe in the shed.
A timeout for a while.
Let's dig a hole in the Earth
And in that soft soil,
We can grow some seedlings.
And they won’t fear the axe.
And they won’t remember
What they don’t have to forget.
The axe can remember
And the tree can forget.
Cold and hard
Silent and still
My heart raging
My throat bursting
My shoulders constricting.
“YOU DID THIS!”
The echoes reverberate
Off the empty chairs
They stand accused
With no defense
“YOU DID THIS!”
The sound blossoms
Across the generations
Like the ripples of a fetid pool
A pool they made
And I had to live in.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And there was nothing I could do
To help you
To protect myself
Powerless, alone, silent, still.
“YOU DID THIS!”
Tears stick in unfocused eyes
As blood drips down my face
At pain unfelt
At justice denied.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And I paid the price
For your mistake
The sacrificial lamb
“YOU DID THIS!”
But I won’t become you.
They won’t atone for our sins.
I won’t curse the future
To justify the past.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And it isn’t my fault.
I can walk away
From the darkness
Into a rebirth
A new beginning
As I’ve progressed in my faith journey/crisis, I’ve pondered on what values I want to pass onto my children. Society is at a crisis point in values. Is it virtuous to wear a mask, or stand for freedom and go without? Is it virtuous to welcome refugees and desperate migrants into your nation, or to build walls to shut them out for the safety against those who would do us harm? Conflicting messages, laws and policies are shouted from leaders. “Defund the police!” “Build the Wall!” “Don’t tread on me!” This is a confusing time to live as an adult, let alone as a child. I have my work cut out for me in raising my children with a coherent value system.
As I’ve tried to orient myself and discover my core values, there are a few things I’ve learned. First, the value of a joyful life. I’ve lived poor and I’ve lived with money. I’ve lived in bad weather, and in good weather. I’ve lived in sickness and in health. I haven’t lived in joy very often.
I remember in my childhood, my Grandma Henrie’s apartment complex had a swimming pool. I looked forward to our visits to see her each year mostly because I got to go swimming. I would cling to an inflatable tube and spin in circles for hours. That exhilaration was something I looked forward to through all the months of snow and ice in Idaho. Now as an adult, I have a community swimming pool nearly in my backyard. It is so close, we can walk to it in less than five minutes. Yet for the four years I have had access to it, I have hardly ever used it. When I would take the kids swimming, I would usually stay in the shade on the side of the pool and watch them joyfully splash and play. Maybe I thought joyful living was supposed to be for kids.
I got an Apple Watch for my birthday this year, and one of the features it has is the ability to track swimming for exercise. This changed things for me. By the middle of the summer, I was going to the pool with the kids every day. I would swim laps while they played and I would get my exercise in. It was a little boring after a while, but it was refreshing and it was good for the kids. Austin would cling to my back as I plowed through the water. I taught him the strokes I was doing and he picked them up. It was beautiful to see him relax and learn to move in the water with confidence. Later, I watched a synchronized swimming routine in the Tokyo olympics. I read about artistic swimming. I watched videos on how to do a few moves. I ordered a swim cap and some nose plugs on Amazon.
I went from swimming laps in the pool for exercise, to doing somersaults, handstands, and all kinds of acrobatics in the water. It was fun! I remembered what it felt like to be a child and rejoice in the ability to move joyfully. I stretched and swam and spun in circles. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t felt for years. I felt awake after years of sleepy depression. It has been almost a month since I rediscovered the joy of swimming. I’ve been doing it every day. After my morning swim, I feel energized, and clear headed. I feel a rush of ideas about other joyful things I could do to fill up my days. Planting a new flower, making some delicious food, planning lunch with a friend, or doing some art; these ideas prance through my joyful mind and the anxieties of the pandemic and Afganistan crisis fade into the distance for a while. No matter how stressful the circumstances of my life are, a few moments of joyful, purposeful living can make those burdens easier to bear.
The value of joyful living is one I want to pass to my children. Rather than pack their schedules with classes, chores, and activities and then nag them all the time to practice and work harder, I want to instill in them the need for regular joyful living. I want them to find the thing that makes them feel alive. They don’t need to do it for a living or even become good at it. It isn’t the task or activity itself that matters, it’s how you feel when you do it. God said that men are that they might have joy. When we live joyfully, we fulfill our highest purpose. When we deny ourselves of joyful living, we deprive ourselves of a core need.
Another value I want to pass on to my children is the value of kindness. We live in a world full of people. There are millions of us interacting with one another on the roads, in the stores, and online. We are witnesses to thousands of deaths, births, sicknesses, failures and triumphs every day. It is easy to begin to believe that people are not valuable and that our lives have little meaning. Each act of kindness renews our faith that there is worth in the human soul. When our act of kindness blesses another person, we make an impact on the world. We matter. Even if the person we are kind to is most insignificant and the kind act imperceptibly small, it makes the world better.
The third value is introspection. It is so easy to see sin and folly without. It is much more difficult to see it within. Introspection is the often uncomfortable scrutinizing of our own selves. We get to see our flaws with razor precision when we introspect. When we are familiar with our own soul, its strengths and flaws, its twists and turns, its folds and flaps, we are less vulnerable to flattery, less desperate for affirmation, and more realistic with our expectations. This leads us to the final virtue. Compassion.
Anyone who has done much introspection knows that compassion is the only remedy to the pain of self knowledge. To see yourself accurately, you have to reckon with the painful reality of your own sins and fallen nature. If you have children, this pain is compounded with the knowledge that you have passed these things on to your posterity where they will likely repeat themselves in an eternal dance of despair through the following generations. Compassion is the ability to love fallen things; to see beauty in broken. Our children, our parents, our family, our friends; we are all broken and fallen things. We cut one another with our broken parts. We bleed because we are alive and we dare to love one another in spite of the risks. Compassionate eyes can look at this messy scene and see the beauty in it. We can love the participants without judgement and without shame; knowing that we are all in need of redemption. Somehow, all these things will work together for the benefit of all of us.
These four values are the core values I want to pass on to my children. I hope that I can teach them through example the benefits of living this way. I wrote a short parable I am planning to share with them tonight at dinner. Hopefully this will help instill in them the values I want them to learn.
The Joy of Thy Lord
“The baby is crying again!” he said with disgust. “What’s wrong with it now?”
“He just wants a little snuggle,” his mother said softly as she picked up the squalling child. “See, now he’s feeling better.”
Later, at play, “Mom, I stubbed my toe!” he screamed in pain.
“Here, let me kiss it better. Do you need some ice?” his mother replied.
“No, I’m a tough kid,” he said, rubbing the tears from his eyes. Somehow the kiss always made it feel a little better.
Later at school the child saw a boy teased and rejected, chased away from the others. “What’s wrong with him?” he thought. He remembered his mother and thought, maybe he just needs some love. And he invited him to play with him and his friends. The playground was a kinder place.
Many years later the boy sat trying to do his schoolwork as his younger siblings played loudly behind him. “Can’t you make them stop!” he roared to his mother.
“No, I can’t, and if I could I wouldn’t. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate, isn’t it? Try to be patient. They are young. They will learn to be quiet just as you have learned. Some things cannot be rushed,” she replied.
He went to a quiet place to finish his work. He thought angrily of how easily the other students seemed to complete their assignments. Why could he not learn this faster! Then he remembered his mother and he thought, “Be patient with yourself. You will learn it, just as they have learned it. Some things can’t be rushed.” He took a deep breath and started again. The bedroom was a kinder place.
Years later the boy came home to visit from college. He ate a full meal and packed up food for his small apartment pantry. “Thanks Mom! I’ve been SO hungry. I wish I could cook as good as you can!” he thought of the macaroni and cheese he had been eating for a week.
“It takes time to learn to provide for yourself. You will learn. There is always food waiting for you here until you do,” she said as she kissed him goodbye.
On the way home he saw a weather beaten man with a cardboard sign that said, “Hungry. Please help me.” He thought of his mother and wondered why this old man hadn’t learned to provide for himself. Sometimes these things can take time, he reasoned. He took some bread he had taken from his mother’s kitchen and gave it to the man. The neighborhood was a kinder place.
And so the boy became a man and he learned patience and love. He gave to those in need and he waited patiently as the Lord worked his miracles in the life of each person. And he knew God. And the world was a kinder place when he left it.
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things. I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Matthew 25:21
“I look forward to his smile every day!” she said with her characteristic sparkle in her eyes as I dropped off Austin this morning. “So do I,” I said subdued. And I remembered that I do look forward to his smile. Every day when I pick him up from preschool and recognition lights his eyes, when his brothers come home from school, when he sees that I made him a Nutella sandwich folded in half, when we get to his favorite page of the picture book. His smile. His excitement. His boundless energy and imagination. In a depression fogged mind, those moments are like a drug. They get me through. “Look at them,” she said lovingly. I saw those little four year olds sitting at their desks in her classroom. They are so beautiful. Everything good in the world seemed crammed into that little preschool class this morning. “This is the best job in the world,” she said. And she’s right. Caring for these little ones is the best job in the world. Austin is my sunshine and my joy. I walked out of the school with my heart a little lighter as I thought of my boy and my dog. Sweet Pepper would be waiting for me at home.
Yesterday, Pepper was sitting in my lap with her liquid eyes searching mine. She seems at times to have the wisdom of the universe in the depths of those eyes and I wonder if I’ve had it all wrong. If God isn’t above us but below us. Is God really in marble halls and stately throne rooms in the vast heavens? Or is he in the furry body of a rescue dog…….Perhaps both. Austin and I were talking about Jesus last night before bed. Pepper was curled up beside him. We had just read Owl Moon, so he was uncharacteristically calm. He said, “Did Jesus make us?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “And Pepper made Jesus.” I think he meant Jesus made Pepper, but the thought of Pepper being the creator of the Savior was intriguing. She looked at me again with those sagacious eyes and I could almost imagine her as queen of the universe.
And so the boy and the dog get me up in the morning. They give me a reason to get out of bed. My older sons have to fend for themselves. My ten year old came into my room ten minutes after his tardy bell had rung. His face was unruffled. “You’re late bud. Why aren’t you at school?” I asked. Realization dawned on his face and then it crumpled into despair. He has been tardy so much this year. I have screamed at and pleaded and punished both myself and him to fix the problem. Today I just hugged him and said, “It’s okay. Everyone is late sometimes. Just get to school. It will be okay.”
****Trigger warning; murder of children*****
Last night I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake after reading a story about a Pennsylvania husband and father who came home from work on Valentine’s Day to find his wife and six year old son murdered in his home. He was shot in the forehead, but not seriously injured. It wasn’t until later that he found out who had tried to kill him and who had destroyed his family. It was his one surviving teenage son who has now been charged.
This father had a good life. He had a wife he loved. She was in the middle of making his favorite meal for dinner when she was killed. He dropped the flowers he had bought for her on his way home when he was shot. The teenage son appeared to love his little brother dearly. What happened? There have been theories. Apparently the parents were racially prejudiced. Some find comfort in the thought that somehow something these people did caused this tragedy to occur. I find no such comfort because I know, as all of us do deep down, that tragedy can happen to any of us. The renowned doctor in China who tried to raise the warning about the coronavirus covid-19 died from it. Hundreds of people are dying because they chose the wrong cruise ship, they live in the wrong city, they boarded the wrong plane. It is estimated that 2% of those who contract the virus die. As I considered the 75,000 people who have contracted it. That is thousands of people. Thousands of families ripped apart and changed forever. Why? Because of the random cruelty of life.
At work Ben got a message from the IT department of American Airlines. An employee of theirs collapsed at his desk job. He was rushed to the emergency room where he died. His wife is due to give birth to their second child tomorrow. He has a three year old daughter. As I looked at the photo of their family, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. They were clearly Indian (from India). They looked to be in their twenties or early thirties; thin and fit with the wife very pregnant and a cute little girl with short dark hair. I have no idea how he died or why. I don’t know if they have family support or if he had some kind of insurance. Fortunately the American Airlines family has raised a considerable amount of money for them. Still, the story left me shocked and confused.
So last night my mind ruminated to a dark place. Exhausted and unable to rest, thoughts of despair overwhelmed me. I tried to pray. I tried to connect with God. There was no relief. There was no faith or hope. No future beyond the darkness surrounding me. I finally fell asleep and woke up late and exhausted.
And now I come to the keyboard to write again. To try to make sense of it all. I have a therapy appointment this afternoon, so hopefully Shama will be able to help me. On the surface, I’m doing really well. I’ve been organizing and cleaning. My house looks better than it has in a very long time. Old piles and projects that have been cluttering my ADHD life for literally years are now put away. New projects are arising with new positive energy. Still, it feels like I’m playing the part of Atlas carrying the world on my shoulders. I’m running the car on fumes and when it stops I put in a half gallon of gas so that I can drive another mile. I’m irritable and on edge. I’m one news story away from despair.
Breathe……and again……taking in the present moment. Life is a crucible, but God is good. He gives us moments- brief but sufficient, to refocus and recharge. All good things come from him. Nothing bad happens on this Earth but that he can turn it to good. Even when the Son of God was taken by men, humiliated, tortured, and murdered; God turned it to good. God can take the political rancor and polarization, the rank injustice and cruelty, the chaos and destruction, and turn it to good. And he will. The Savior said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” I used to think that was a strange thing. Why would the sad be blessed? I was taught that happiness was a virtue and it seemed a contradiction. It doesn’t anymore. If you are already happy in this world, why would you look for a better world? If you are happy on your own, why would you come to Christ for comfort? Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Blessed be the name of my merciful comfort, even Jesus Christ, Him who ransoms me from the darkness of my night. I will place my trust in thee and cast my burdens at thy feet. I will dare to hope another day.
Anger in. Self hatred, regret, despair. Why did I share? Why did I speak? I am broken and they are too. There is no point in expression. The fruit of it is judgement and gossip and pain. Stay hidden. Stay safe. Stay alone.
Why hope that someone will care? Why hope that someone will understand? Why hope that by sharing my broken, that someone else might not feel alone?
This life is darkness and despair. Expect the worst in others and yourself because then you won’t be disappointed.
But he didn’t hide. He shared. He spoke. He gave hope because he revealed himself. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoso believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life! There is hope in him.
So I will set anger on the table and look at it for a while. Anger in. Anger out. Broken relationships like shards of glass scattered on the table. I will wait as always…..on my face, at His feet.
I grabbed the empty wrapper in frustration. “Where did it go! It was just here!” Wesley’s bony form was hovered over the Arby’s sandwich. After over a week of the flu, he had become even more thin and for a moment I was encouraged that he had finally taken the sandwich I had offered him repeatedly. Then Layne and Wesley locked eyes. I groaned audibly. This was another one of their food fights.
All Christmas break they had been fighting over food. Once Layne made waffles and refused to give any to Wesley. Layne insisted there was not enough for Wesley to have one. Wesley insisted that he was starving to death and needed to have a big stack. Meanwhile I was trying to get Layne to share while frantically mixing up and cooking more waffles. Ten minutes later, everyone was gone from the table as I ate my small waffle. I had traded with Wesley who was indignant that he had gotten the smallest one. I had added a second waffle to his plate, hoping that he was as famished as he claimed to be. He wasn’t. His two waffles sat abandoned on his plate. I think he ate one bite. The food wasn’t the point. It was the fight. It is always about the fight.
So Wesley had turned his nose up at the sandwich I had offered him, and I had offered it to Layne. When Layne came down to get the sandwich, Wesley had taken it for himself. But was not eating it. He didn’t actually want the sandwich. It was about the fight. So of course my offer to cut the sandwich in half was met with hysteria by both boys, each insisting that they had claim to the entire thing. I was supposed to choose. There was supposed to be a winner and a loser. That was the point of the entire exercise.
I had been fighting panic all day. It was the dreaded companion I didn’t want but could not be rid of. Ben had been helping me limp through the day, taking breaks, planning, and writing. The food fight was the last straw. I felt the panic take over as I shouted at them. “I can’t make you get along! I can’t make you be kind to one another! I can’t make you be happy! I can’t do it.”
That led to the major meltdown. Finances were tight, the car needed repairs, the washer was on the blink. We had just replaced the T.V. and the vacuum. They had both gone out unexpectedly. I hadn’t made anything for dinner and Ben and I were late getting off on our date. If we didn’t leave soon, we would get back late, then I would get to bed late, and then we would be late to 9:00 AM church.
A new year comes with serious challenges for me mentally. I fall back into old perfectionistic patterns. “This year,” I say intensely, “This year I will do it! I will finally take my life back. I will get the trains running ontime. I will make everyone happy, keep everyone happily progressing along the straight and narrow path, be organized and disciplined, and get it right.” Then the days of January pass one by one and I find that I am still the disorganized mess I have always been. The clutter of last year still remains in piles around the house. The energy drains from me as I realize that nothing has changed. And it never will change; not the way I want it to.
Stuff will break, money will be tight, the boys will fight, and we will be late. Panic will come and I will shout and cry and pull my hair. We will pull out of the driveway for church at 9:00 and slip into sacrament meeting after the sacrament. We will try and fail and try again and nothing will be perfect- except when it is. And those moments will be brief and glorious.
Today sacrament meeting was one of those glorious moments. Every testimony seemed to speak to my soul. Each member who spoke seemed to share a piece of themselves with me and my loneliness lifted. I felt a real spiritual connection with each person and with God. I talked to friends. I gave and received hugs. I met my new Primary class! Each little face seemed to be a new adventure; a new soul to find and bring to the Savior.
One little boy came into sacrament meeting with his Mom and three little siblings. I didn’t recognize her. She was by herself and was even more late than we were. Her curly hair and dark skin reminded me of my Tedford children. They weren’t at church this week and I was sad for that. Seeing this woman and her little ones gave me hope and joy. I was so happy when I found out that little boy is in my primary class!
And so I begin another year. Another year of battling crippling anxiety and debilitating depression. Another year of alarming headlines and unhinged tweets. Another year of political campaigns and disinformation campaigns. Another year of wars and rumors of wars as we march into an uncertain and ominous future.
And yet as I write this today, this moment, I feel peace. Satan is real. The pain is real. The diseases are real. The chaos and fear are real. But so is He. And he is Mighty to Save! I am enough because of his grace. I can face this year and this decade, and whatever is left after that with hope and optimism only because I know He will be there to walk the road with me.