Beauty in Broken Places

I watched Kamila Varieva skate last night.  There is something different about her.  The announcers see it and struggle to describe it.  It isn’t that she’s an excellent athlete, artist, and performer.  It is all those things, but there is a secret ingredient that is impossible to define.  I have watched hundreds of skaters perform, but Varieva is different.  I’ve turned it over and over in my mind.  Why?

Kamila Varieva performs her short program in which she broke the record with her score. She is currently competing in the 2022 olympic winter games.

I can only think she has tapped into something inside herself; a divine spark or a secret knowledge about who she is and what her purpose is.  She is able to express on the ice something that every person on the planet longs for whether they know it or not.  She is her authentic self. Without excuse, without deception, without holding anything back; she bares her soul for the world to see.  

Everyone knows she has dedicated her life to skating.  She lives and breathes it.  It is almost as though she is some kind of ice creature who was born with skates on her feet and sleeps on a bed of snow. She reveals herself without shame to be judged.  She is the product of Russian discipline, intellect, and skill.  I try to imagine what her life as been.  

I had a childhood friend who was a German exchange student.  She was a beautiful dancer with long blonde hair.  Once we talked about ballet.  She told me her grandmother was a professional ballerina in Hitler’s Germany and she even danced for Hitler once.  She explained how difficult the life of a dancer is in Germany because of the pressure.  She said her grandmother’s feet were badly deformed and she had a lot of problems with them as she aged.  My friend had no desire to become a professional dancer.  She told me stories about Russian dancers.  I remember her look of fear as her gentle accented voice said, “Very few dancers can survive in a Russian school.”  

I assume Kamila Varieva is not a ballet dancer, but she dances like one.  What has she survived in her young life?  Is she like the widows in the Marvel Universe; a slave to forces beyond her control?  Life is complicated and I can only imagine what her life has been and what it will be ten or twenty years from now.  I do know that her skating has inspired me.  I know that somehow, she has taken the life she was given and made something incredibly beautiful that communicates with me across the miles and miles between us; across language and national barriers; beyond culture or race.  She showed me what is possible when you dare to find yourself.  She has done this because of, or perhaps in spite of, the life she was given and the choices she has made.

Sometimes my life feels meaningless.  Living in the city has a soul sucking effect on me.  I am just another person in the line, another face in the crowd, another car on the endless conveyor belt of the metroplex machine.  And yet, I exist.  In this broken world, I can gather up the pieces of my broken self and make something beautiful, something inspiring, something authentic and vulnerable and original.  I can follow the example of that Russian child of fifteen and dare to express the hope that beauty and love and joy are possible.  

In the past two years of this endless pandemic, we have all suffered mentally.  I have been so fortunate to have a counselor to talk to every week even though I can’t see her in person.  In the past six years she has been more than a counselor, she has been a friend.  In spite of the incredible difficulties I have faced, I have thrived.  I feel strong as I find solutions to problems and build a better life for myself.  

I got a set of mandala stencils that I’ve been playing with. I did this in Prisma colored pencils.

Last week I was hit by various triggers.  Like Jack-in-the-Box toys, they all seemed to pop the weasel at the same time.  I did my art.  I allowed myself to feel those feelings I had tucked away because I wasn’t able to process them at the time.  I felt the sadness, the fear, and the anger, and then I spilled them onto the pages of my journal.  Funny thing about Jack-in-the-Box, he can only be triggered if you shut him in the box.  If you open the lid, and let him out on your terms, he loses his power.  It takes so much courage to face your triggers.  It’s worth it.  The feelings aren’t as scary as you think they are.  Just like Jack.    

This mandala is also from a stencil. I am coloring it with Prisma colored pencils, gel pens, and Tombow brush markers.

Today as I did my SuperNatural Oculus Quest workout, sweat was pouring down my face and into my mouth.  I could feel aching muscles as I hit each target.  I remembered Varieva’s grace under enormous pressure, I remembered her falling on the ice after an impossible quad.  She pushed herself past the limit of any woman ever to skate in the olympics.  And she fell.  She got back up and finished her performance.  She wasn’t perfect.  She was still world class; she broke the world record; she was inspiring.  I hope she knows somehow that her fall doesn’t define her.  I hope she will learn the lesson it has taken me a lifetime to learn; that perfection is an illusion.  It limits you.  No one and nothing in the world is perfect.  We can only dare to dance beneath the bar of perfection, and maybe touch it.  Briefly.  Perfection isn’t the goal.  It isn’t the destination.  It can be part of the journey, but God requires us to dance by faith; the faith that grace and beauty can live in broken places and in broken people.

Drawn from stencil with gel pens and brush markers.

When I took off the headset at the end of my workout, I had to blink.  It wasn’t real.  It felt so real!  I thought of the miracle of VR.  I hit targets in China, Scotland, and a dozen other places I didn’t recognize.  Some I couldn’t even pronounce, but I felt like I was there.  I interacted with a coach I’ve never met.   I thought of the science and technology that made such an experience possible.  People can do such incredible things!  God has made us a little below the angels.  He waits for us to find ourselves.  We are the greatest gift he has given us and if we unlock the potential within, we will amaze ourselves with the majesty of his creation.  

Because there are so many people on this planet, it is easy to forget the worth of a soul.  Infinite.  The value of infinite things is a constant.  It doesn’t matter if there are billions of people on this planet, each person is still of infinite value.  Each person, no matter their circumstances or their choices, is touched by the finger of God.  If we want to know God, we can find him by understanding his creation.  The self.  

Thanks for taking this journey with me as I find myself.  Let us join our faith together, take on discouragement and fear, lift ourselves up to dance on this mortal stage, and if we fail, we can pick ourselves up and try again.  The rewards are worth the effort.  

What I Need

Parenting is a marathon.  It feels great while you’re doing it, it pushes you to the mental and physical brink, and there is a let down when you stop.  Of course, I’ve never run a marathon, but that’s what I imagine it’s like.  This morning I got ready to send my son to summer camp for a week.  As his car drove away, Pepper and I walked into an empty house.  The remains of last night’s chicken nuggets and butterfly shrimp littered the kitchen counter.  Baskets of laundry seemed to me to sit pondering in the silence; wondering where their owners had disappeared to.  

My mind has been ruminating endlessly the past few weeks.  Wesley is constantly on the computer playing Minecraft and the computer is my preferred writing place.  Rather than fighting him for the computer, I’ve taken the path of least resistance.  Instead of siphoning off my thoughts Dumbledore style, they are crammed in my head screaming for release.  Now he’s gone and I have a few hours to myself, I’ll see what comes out.

This morning in my quiet room with only sweet Pepper there to receive my love and nurturing, I sat on my bed and looked at her gorgeous soft, shiny coat.  It’s black, but I’ve learned from drawing it that there are places that are white and light grey.  That’s what makes it look shiny.  Things are always more complicated than they seem.  The human brain, always aching for simplicity, wants to see Pepper’s fur as a single color.  It is black.  It isn’t midnight, moon grey, scintillating silver, or morning fog.  That’s too complicated.  Black and tan.  She’s a chihuahua mix.  But she isn’t.  She’s a mutt with bloodlines that are uniquely hers; an angel crafted through time and given by God to me to comfort me in my blackest midnight. But it isn’t just black.  Life is like that.  It isn’t black and white.

So many colors in her fur! So many more than just black and tan. Still, it’s simpler to say she is just that.

But I understand that if I had lived a different life, I wouldn’t see the complexity either.  And I would relish the simplicity.  Nature is always yearning for simplicity, stasis, harmony, balance.  Rivers take the smoothest and easiest path.  The brain craves rest.  Thinking takes energy.  Seeing is work.  And yet I think.  And yet, I see.

And for that I will never rest.  I will run the marathon.  So today I paused in my frenzy of thought and prayed.  It has been a long time.  Sometimes it’s easier to feel the guilt and push it away than actually do the thing that will put the guilt to rest for good.  Praying felt good.  God reminded me that I’m not such a bad person as my brain likes to tell me I am.  

My brain likes to insist that my good intentions pave my road to hell.  Every glass of milk I give my child is half empty, not half full.  My efforts are never enough.  It is like the God in my head is a version of my teenaged son with a gift for ferreting out my every flaw and hypocritical act. The real God sees me different.  And in that quiet moment, I remember that He isn’t the demanding perfectionist my brain likes to think He is.  My heart poured out to Him all my shortcomings and failings and He calmed that storm with a simple thought.  “Do you think I need your efforts, my child?  Don’t you remember that I am the one with the loaves and the fishes?  I am everything you need.”  

But I need a functional government and a church community.  I need assurances that my children are going to grow up to be competent adults.  I need money in my bank account and friends to affirm me.  I need.  I need.  I need. I need to understand it all right now!!

But I don’t need.  I don’t need anything but Him.  He leads my soul to the still water.  He soothes the wounds the world has given me; the wounds I give myself.  And He heals me.  And I remember what I forgot.  He is everything I need.

And yet we understand Him so imperfectly.  We imagine Him to be a simplistic version of our own creation.  We remake his image like a child with a crude crayon on brown recycled paper.  We hold it up as the true God of Israel and then the sheep stray.  We forget that He is not our toy soldier. He is not our mascot to be remade at our convenience.  The human mind could study Him for a lifetime and never unlock His secrets. He is not of this world and no human mind can comprehend Him.  

How Great is Our God?  How Great is Our God?  How Great, How Great is Our God?!?  Tongue cannot tell, nor heart can frame.  Yet we rise from the dust of our creation.  We reach for Him and He reaches down to us.  For a moment, He opens my eyes to see; I am more than this world.  I was born for a better world.  My heart is comforted in my uncomfortable; I will never fit here because I belong with Him.  He and I know that and it is enough.

Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

Honoring Adam and Discovering God through Self-Knowledge

On Sunday there was a guy sitting in front of me that was obviously a visitor. I love seeing these people in our congregations because they add variety and interest to what is often the same stale mix. (No offense to my ward family.) He had a beard and a darker complexion. I thought he looked Middle Eastern. He had on some nice jeans and a casual shirt. He didn’t seem to have come with anyone.

During the opening song, I sang mostly soprano because a sister I love was sitting behind me singing alto beautifully and it was nice to harmonize. I put extra effort into phrasing and vowel pronunciation. I just started MCO practices again and so I had had a refresher on good singing and was putting it to use. After the hymn the bearded man turned around and said in a thickly accented voice, “My God bless and protect your singing voice!” I was surprised and flattered.

After the meeting I spoke to him and he said a curious thing. He said, “Remember, the first commandment of God is to honor Adam.” This was news to me. I had always thought that the first commandment of God was to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. Seeing my skeptical expression, he elaborated saying that it was not literal, that we were to honor the Adam in us.

I have been pondering that interaction for several days. Jung taught about a phenomenon called “synchronicity” which I haven’t studied much about yet. The basic (very basic) idea is that things happen for a reason and that when you are working hard to improve yourself and your life, help will come in unexpected ways. I think that this swarthy gentleman was supposed to say what he said, and that it was meant to emphasize the thread of understanding that I have been weaving about the self and God.

Jung understood the profound difficulty of studying the human psyche. It’s like trying to study a microscope while using the microscope to do the studying. We are fairly competent at studying lower order creatures on this Earth, but the study of ourselves, our morality, our motivations, our core needs and desires; we are still cavemen drawing stick figures in the dirt. Self knowledge begins by knowing that you know nothing.

Have you ever thought that you don’t really know what you look like? Even mirror images or selfies reverse the image. What we see is also usually a stagnant image that is often posed and inorganic. My husband and children probably know a lot more about what I look like than I do. That goes for the psyche as well. Often we don’t know nearly as much about ourselves as we think we do.

There have been numberless multitudes of human beings that have lived on this planet since Adam and Eve, and yet each of us repeats the same patterns of behavior; birth, development, often parenthood, and finally death. It’s like reinventing the wheel over and over for eternity. Often parents and grandparents are able to pass on useful traditions and helpful maxims and morals to their posterity; but there is so much more that we can do.

This iconic painting shows God’s connection to man who is created in his image.

Imagine for a moment what Adam must know. I believe that once we leave this world, we watch with our spiritual eyes as our descendants go through their mortal experience. Adam, having experienced mortality himself would have first hand experience, and then also the opportunity to witness his countless descendants experience mortality. Compare his knowledge about us and our current challenges contrasted pwith the pathetic lack of knowledge that we have about ourselves. We are not mortal beings, we are eternal beings. Do we honor the Adam that is in us? Do we seek to know ourselves as we are, and resist the urge to see ourselves as the flat two dimensional image on our cell phone screen?

Picture of me taken yesterday with my cell phone when I got home from choir.

I have heard the argument that there is no point to this quest for self-knowledge. It won’t put bread on your table, get your chores done, or fill your 401K. Why do it? It’s hard work! The response I have to that is that it is the only way to keep the first great commandment of God.

My thickly accented friend at church said that the first commandment was to honor Adam, or the Adam within us. The Savior said the first commandment is to love God. They are the same thing. Think about it. How do we love God? We’ve never seen him, we don’t understand him, and he is pretty much unknowable. Kind of like the Self. In fact, we are told in scripture that we are created in the image of God. (A lightbulb should be popping up over your head about now.) We can only love God if we know him. We can only know him if we study the one who was created in his image. That would be you. The Self.

One way that I have found nuggets of self-knowledge is by keeping a dream journal. In our dreams we are uninhibited by the social constraints that force us to mask our true selves. We are free to engage in all kinds of crazy behavior. My dream self has jumped off of buildings, murdered people, possessed a pet lion and a pet tiger, worked in a prison, worked as a secret agent, married many different men, had sex with many different men, given birth to babies I’ve never seen in real life. Each one of these dreams tells me a little about myself and who I am underneath the layers of other’s expectations and my own masks of self-protection.

Several of my mandalas that I made during my last depressive episode six years ago.

Drawing mandalas is another path to self-knowledge. A couple of days ago I was drawing a mandala and taking videos periodically to document my process. I plan to do a post on here with the videos and pictures since several of my friends on Facebook expressed interest in making them. During this process I saw something unexpected. I saw a repeating pattern of birds in my mandala. Then I saw sunrises, trees, mountains and wind. Gradually the mandala took shape in my mind. It is going to be something of an image of direction, new beginnings, facing challenges, and fostering hope in eternity. As I drew, I found that what I thought were birds were actually butterflies. I have also had two dreams of butterflies in the past month, so that is a powerful symbol of metamorphosis that is consistently coming to my conscious mind.

This mandala has taught me a lot about myself and how I see the world. Nature is very important to me and being in the city all the time is hard for me. Trees, butterflies, flowers, and mountains fill me with joy and soothe my anxiety. I need connection with nature, which makes winter harder for me emotionally than other times of the year. I must prioritize some time each day to get out of the house and away from the city, even if it is only at the park or something. I need to make time to go out in the garden and get my hands deep in the soil and in contact with living things. During my meditation, it would be useful for me to visualize mountains. Little things like that will help my mental health just as well or better than taking another pill. I will post a picture of my mandala when it is finished as well as the video of my process.

Another thing that has helped me develop self-knowledge is to revisit my childhood. Children don’t wear masks. Children are their true selves and that is one of the things I love about them. They have not yet learned to be polite, project a false image, and conform to the expectations of society. Because of this, your childhood can tell you a lot about yourself.

As I child I lived in the country. I loved to play in the water, ride my bike, explore new places, and have adventures. I liked to spend a lot of my time alone or with only one or two friends. I spent a lot of time reading, dreaming, and imagining adventures. This tells me that I have an active imagination, an introverted type of psyche, and a thirst for novelty. I engage in risky behavior at times. It also tells me, again, that I have a need for nature. I have a curious disposition and a ready intellect, but I am unmotivated by social pressure and competition. If something is difficult or boring, I will avoid it which can limit me in my achievements. I crave novelty which makes habitual behaviors distasteful.

With this self-knowledge I can anticipate what career options would work best for me, where I am likely to feel bored and under-stimulated verses where I would thrive. I would probably enjoy working in a nursery and teaching gardening classes. I might like being a children’s swim instructor. I might enjoy a career as a flight attendant because of the novelty of new people and places. It helps me to have a close friend and mentor to help encourage me to do hard things and push through boring tasks to accomplish more than I would do on my own.

Anyway, to the man who sat in front of me in sacrament meeting, thank you for your insight. I hope that I can always keep God’s first commandment to love the Self by honoring Adam and discovering God. I hope that as I share my journey with you that you might find self-knowledge that can enrich your life. God bless!

Shame Dreams

“If people knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me,” I remember telling my mom in high school. What I meant was that the only way I could be accepted was hiding behind choir dresses, drama masks, memorized lines, and stage makeup. The real naked me was flawed and broken and something to hide.  This is shame.

In the scriptures, Adam and Eve only understood shame after they ate the fruit and the first thing they did was make clothing to hide their nakedness.  Nakedness is a powerful symbol for shame; a concrete way my brain chose to show me last night that my battle with shame is far from over.

Nakedness. I had three naked dreams last night. I dreamed I was staying in an apartment in a sky rise. I was getting ready for bed and was totally naked before I realized that my blinds were open exposing me to the whole city. I walked to the large window to close the blinds and saw that a woman was laughing at me, pointing and taking pictures. Of course, I couldn’t get the blinds closed before she got a few shots of my humiliation.

The next dream I went to church and realized I had worn a see through dress. It was clearly inappropriate for church, but I insisted on staying at the meetings.  I needed to be there regardless of how uncomfortable I was or others were with what I had worn.

The third dream, I was riding a bike. I looked down and realized I was dressed in a babydoll lingerie outfit. The wind was exposing my bare legs that were covered in thick black hair.  I tried to pull the sheer fabric around my legs while balancing on the bike and I wove dangerously around the busy city road I was navigating.

Clothing hides our nakedness. It shields our vulnerability. We chose what we wear, we don’t choose how our naked body looks. We can appear to be thinner and more attractive depending on what we wear. In the scriptures the prideful wear clothing to show their wealth and put themselves above others.  Clothing is also a symbol of our fallen natures.  Adam and Eve didn’t wear clothes until they had transgressed.  Only then were they ashamed.  Only then did they need to hide.

Is nakedness a sin?  It can be a crime.  Indecent exposure is illegal in many places.  There is almost no social taboo quite as universal as nakedness.  But…..is it a sin?  I don’t think there is any scriptural evidence for it being a sin.  Nakedness in the scriptures is associated with poverty and profound grief.  There are commandments regarding sexual interactions, but usually our fears about nakedness and dreams about nakedness are not about sexual sin, they are about shame.  It isn’t doing wrong, it’s being wrong.  It isn’t disobeying God’s commandments, it is about disobeying social conventions and facing the disdain and judgement of others.

So what do my shame dreams mean?  I read this excellent article this morning that analyzes naked dreams with the Jungian method.  Jung happens to be one of my favorite people ever, so it had to be good!  You can read it here.  Basically, the naked or semi-naked me in my dreams is symbolic of the vulnerability I feel at showing my authentic self on this blog.  The real me.  No masks, degrees, costumes, or stage lighting.  No memorized lines, scripts, or coaches to correct me. 

For the people reading this, I don’t think you have any idea how difficult this is for me to do.  I am a fairly good writer, but what I have to say is so profoundly naked.  Each time I write I find that I care a little bit less about how people see me.  Each time I bring my messages back to the Savior I remember that only as I transform my fear into faith and fear only Him, I become free.  Free to be the woman he wants me to be and His true handmaid.

I wish I could tell my dream self to blow that woman a kiss out of my apartment window.  Let her post my unashamed face on her instagram if she wants!  Better than feeling humiliated for doing something stupid that everyone does sometimes.  I wish that I could tell my dream self to wear that transparent dress like a boss.  It is going to be the new fashion in Relief Society soon.  I wish I could tell my dream self to own those hairy legs.  Eve’s legs were most likely hairy and Adam didn’t care.  Neither did God.

In the end it isn’t going to matter whether or not I pleased other people.  It will matter whether or not I please my Master.  He once said in the scriptures, you can’t serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or hold to the one and despise the other.  You can’t serve God and mammon.  He’s saying, you can’t please both.  You can’t serve both.  In this life, you have to choose.  This is me choosing Him and writing my testimony another day, owning my nakedness and brokenness before God.

I know that He lives.  I know that His power is real.  There is nothing that is impossible to Him and I will praise his name all the days of my life.  I fear not what man can do, for in Him is my trust.  He is my rock and my salvation and through Him I will be saved.  Though I be naked, yet He has put a royal robe around my shoulders and in Him I am not ashamed.

This is called "The Shame Tree."  It was drawn on my trip to New York last month.
This is called, “The Shame Tree.”  I drew it last month on a trip to New York City.