Spirituality

Filtering the Noise

Part of my daily routine is to open my computer and check my social media and news sources. For a long time I only had about five places that I checked regularly. That was enough to keep me apprised of events in the world and in the lives of my friends. I’ve added a couple in the past weeks, because I am fascinated by the data around our current global pandemic. It is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. All of my usual places have gotten noisier. Pandemic related news updates by the hour and the minute. Government officials at all levels are passing legislation and making declarations. Part of my morning check in is simply to see how the rules have changed today, so that I can alter my behavior and anticipate what my family will need to weather the altered shape of our lives. Grocery shopping and food resource management occupied a lot of my attention for two weeks as I shifted from being able to run to the store any time I needed something to planning ahead for once-per-week shopping. I’m also reading the news, trying to comprehend what is going on, trying to get my mind to understand it when everything I can see from my front doorstep is so very normal. Then sometimes it swings the other way, and everything becomes too frightening.

Many people are going through the same rounds of emotions. Since humans are pro-social creatures there is this overwhelming desire to do something to help others who are feeling the same things we are feeling. So, along with the increased frequency of mandates, news, and pandemic information, there is also a flood of positivity. There are more pictures of animals. People are posting videos of themselves singing. Services are being offered for free. The online world has opened up with a wealth of enrichment possibilities. This is also noise. It fills my head just as much as the hard things. Because while I’m trying to reconfigure the way I manage food, my work routines, and my children’s education, I also feel like I should be taking advantage of the chance to watch Opera for free, or listen to dozens of audio books, or watch series that are suddenly available to me. There is also the sense that I, as a creative person, should also be creating something to help.

Even on a good day, a normal before-the-pandemic day, my mind is a very noisy place. I’m slowly coming to realize that it is just as important to tune out the positive noise as it is to step away from the hard news and numbers. I will never find my center out there on the internet. It lives inside my bones and I have to quiet everything else down enough that I can listen. Listen to myself. Listen to the quiet voices of inspiration. Listen to the divine which is always there for me once I quiet the noise enough to connect with it. I’m doing my best to use religion-neutral words to describe this source of strength in my life, though my experience of it and framework for it is very much grounded in the tradition I was raised inside. In all the noise, I have been distracted from prayer and from studying scripture. This is a thing my life will be better if I correct. Meditation is not an integral part of my religious framework, but I’ve long felt that building it as a practice in my life would help me stay more centered. I don’t need more noise, more stories, more enrichment, more distraction. I need more quiet to balance out the shifting craziness of living through a pandemic and the probable economic depression which has yet to fully hit.

Now I just need to figure out how to make myself follow through on all these grand thoughts. Building a system which requires a daily exercise of willpower is setting myself up to fail.

Courageous Intentions for 2019

I’ve never thought of my self as a New Years Resolution sort of person. I’m absolutely a goal-setting person, but I didn’t like scheduling my goal setting for the onset of a new year. Yet here at the beginning of 2019 I find myself with a New Year’s Intention for the third year in a row. Not a resolution, not something I plan to will into existence, but instead an emotional approach for the next portion of my life. (I grant that the difference between resolution and intention may be splitting hairs, but this is about me, and my life, and how I want to dwell inside my life, I figure I get to use whichever words feel right to me.)

I did not decide ahead of time to find a new intention for the coming year. I didn’t consciously decide them at all. The intentions just arrived mid-to-late December as I was contemplating the year ahead of me. They were like gifts “Here Sandra, this is the focus you need for the year to come.” So I won’t complain at getting a gift again this year.

At the onset of 2017, I felt a need to Grow My Heart to whatever size was necessary to encompass the emotional load ahead of me and to love more people. When the Grinch grew his heart three sizes, he became strong and sure. I wanted that.

At the onset of 2018 I set out to Be Less Afraid. I took the strength I gained from growing my heart and used it to confront my own anxieties. I practiced staying with uncomfortable feelings instead of always taking action to resolve them.

At the onset of 2019 the words that have come to me are Be Courageous. Being less afraid was holding ground without letting fear drive my actions. Being courageous is stepping toward things even if I am afraid. It claims ground. In order to be courageous, I’ll have to continue the practices of growing my heart and being less afraid. Apparently my annual intentions are cumulative.

These intentions aren’t goals. There is nothing I can measure. No progress I can check off of a list. I think that is good for me. Task lists are one of the ways I hide. I wield my tasks-accomplished as evidence of personal value. Not realizing I was even doing that until I started pondering on being courageous and how terrifying it felt to believe in my own worth without outside validation of it. I shy away from that, and from many other things. Courageous me must start doing and claiming the things that task lists were letting me hide from. The specific daily actions I need to be taking become clearer as I continue to think about what courage means in my life.

All of it is a work in progress, not something that will be completed. The ways I live courage in January will likely be different than in August, responding to the differing needs of those periods of time. I have to stay in tune to figure it out as I go. No simple answers or quick fixes here. It will be big and complex. Life is always complex no matter how much we try to compartmentalize and control so the vastness of existence doesn’t overwhelm us.

Be Courageous. It is a worthy work for the coming year.

Haiku and the Lives We Choose for Ourselves

Haiku is a poetic form with very strict rules about the structure of the poem. It is not the only poetic form with rules, but the very specific restraints on number of syllables per line and the ways that the lines must interact with each other produce a particular sort of beauty which can’t be achieved without those constraints. The defined limits of the form create the beauty of it. Because of these structural demands, some things can’t be said in haiku and some things can only be said in haiku.

My chosen religious tradition is one with strict rules and constraints. It asks me to not do some things and to go out of my way to do others. I’ve had friends baffled by some of the constraints that I live with. I’ve had periods of my life where some of it felt confining and others where the constraints provided safety for me in an otherwise hazardous experience, like the harness of a climber which can be simultaneously uncomfortable and life saving. I’m aware that the harness that cradles and supports me might cut off circulation and do harm to someone who is built differently.

I said “my chosen religious tradition” because even though I was born into this tradition and raised inside it, I have since chosen it for myself. I continue to make that choice regularly. I choose the structures and requirements of this form for my life, while being aware that my choice blocks me off from many things I see bringing joy to others. I am also aware of the joys that are only available to me because of the structures I dwell inside. And I know that some people born to these same structures must exit them in order to expand into the people they are. Other people must find their way into these structures to become who they might be.

The world would be a poorer place if the only poetry available were haiku. The world would be made poorer if all people were required to live the same life structures and traditions. God knows all of his children and will help us find the forms we need in order to become what we must be.

Thinking on Cultural Traditions

I was perusing Facebook when I saw a photo set from a friend talking about building their Sukkah. Not being Jewish, I went down something of a research hole learning about Sukkah and Sukkot. I’ve only been connected on Facebook with this friend for a year, but it has been lovely to catch glimpses of her family’s religious observances and cultural traditions. In this case I flipped through the pictures of them building with their two young children and I thought about how the building of the Sukkah, and religious observances in general, create a shared familial experience. It requires taking time out from regular life and doing something inconvenient. I could see that they had made this a fun family tradition, using the inconvenience as a shared bonding experience.

Once I emerged from reading and looking at pictures, I started to mentally bemoan the fact that I don’t have any religious traditions like that one. Mine is a very practical religion with a very short history in comparison to most religions. It hasn’t accumulated much in the way of religion-specific holidays. Then I had to stop and laugh at myself because I just had General Conference weekend, which is when Mormons spend an entire weekend listening to 10 hours of religious talks. It is absolutely a cultural tradition and my family arranges our entire weekend around it. We gather together and have a shared cultural/religious experience. Even my son who doesn’t come to church with us and who tuned out most of the talks, still participated in the food and togetherness aspects of the weekend.

Once I started to think about it, I realized that I’m surrounded by cultural traditions, but I’m so embedded in them that I don’t even notice them any more. I have no idea which parts of my life would seem fascinating or extraordinary to someone from a different cultural tradition. So that is another gift of glimpsing my friend’s traditions, it helps me gain a better view of my own.

When Religion isn’t Shared

It is Sunday afternoon and in just over an hour five members of my family of six will be departing for church. The sixth stays home because he’s not sure he believes in God and he no longer wants to be at church. It took courage for him to state his lack of belief to his religious parents. It took much out of his parents to accept his statements and to allow him to stay home. I still have unprocessed emotions about this, some personal, some religious, some parental. I still have hours when my mind runs loose on all the ways I could have taught better, been better, chosen differently. The voices of self doubt tell me that his choices are my fault. Except, my religion teaches the importance of free agency. We all get to choose. Even my son. Even if he chooses to walk away from something that I hold dear.

This leaves me with a set of choices. I have to decide whether to make church attendance a battle ground. I have to decide whether my desire to have him at church supersedes his desire to not be there. I know there is a theory of belief which says I should make him come because if he comes the spirit has a chance to speak to him. I also know that an angry and resentful mind is not fertile ground for belief to sprout. Instead we have chosen to respect the choice that he has made about church attendance because belief can’t actually be forced. Outward compliance matters less than the inward experience of connection with (or disconnection from) God.

I’m now faced with the challenge of building family culture and connection that is not centered in a shared religion. It is possible that my son will find his way to belief. It is also possible that he won’t. Either way I want to have an ongoing relationship with him. I want him to be a connected part of our family. Connection is fostered by common values and interests. We still have many of those. It just requires us to stop assuming common ground based on a set of religious teachings and start having important conversations to find where it actually exists. Which, truth be told, is probably something we should be doing even if we all went to church together. It isn’t just my son I’m trying to discuss belief with. I’m talking with Howard, my other children, myself, God.

The discussions are ongoing and evolving. My son is in the middle of being a teenager and thus doing a lot of work to discover who he is, who he wants to be, and what he believes. I’m also doing a lot of work to build structures to help him face his choices instead of fleeing from them and to help him learn that sometimes the only way to get anywhere worth being is to do all the hard work. Naturally I hope that some of the hard work he will do will lead him to know God and get his own answers. But that is between him and God. Fortunately one of the things that God has been telling me lately is that He loves my son as much as I do and that I need to give them space to work things out. So I will. Even though it is hard.

Brilliance, Darkness, and Quotes from Van Gogh

I went searching for a quote from Van Gogh that someone quoted to me recently. This one:

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh

It has a lovely thought about the importance of creating even in the midst of self doubt. In searching for that quote, I found an entire wikiquote devoted to Van Gogh. I began to read Vincent’s letters to Theo, and discovered they were full of the amazing thoughts of a brilliant mind who battled depression and other mental health issues without recourse to modern pharmaceuticals.

This one in particular cried out to me:

Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!
Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve spent the past several years dwelling in a place like the one Van Gogh describes; keeping going, but not counting on things getting any better. Except lately it feels like the endless gray is beginning to clear. I’m beginning to look around and feel that there was something after all. Many of Van Gogh’s other thoughts speak to me as well.

I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Vincent Van Gogh

I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself.
Vincent Van Gogh

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
Vincent Van Gogh

Seeing his words, seeing the darkness and light that he struggled with in his own mind brings a new dimension to the paintings. I have a new found respect for who Van Gogh was, and a new grief that he struggled for so long with no societal support and without the resources necessary to continue.

I know so many people who are like this: brilliant, shining, thoughtful, good, and swamped by darkness generated by their own minds. I wish it were not so. And even as my world begins to feel brighter, I am aware that storms will come and go in the years ahead. But I can’t let some imagined future storm stop me from enjoying the sunshine today.

LDS General Conference

I love General Conference. It reminds me to set aside regular things and feed my spirit. After a long run of heavy work focus it was nice to listen while I worked in the garden on Saturday morning. Then it was nice to half-listen while I played a four-hour-long board game with my sons. I’ll have to take time to listen to that session again with more attention. There was good stuff in there that I missed. For Sunday sessions we gather everyone into the family room and put conference on the big TV. It is nice to have a time to be quiet and be together.

I have much to think about and attempt to apply in my life. Some of the talks I’ll need to read and listen to again. I heard words on accepting and loving everyone around us. Elder Christoferson spoke against shame culture. Elder Uchtdorf had an entire talk about using fear as a motivator, that while it can work, it doesn’t transform people. He said that fear is not the way to lead. Many of the things said connected to many of the things I have been thinking about. Some intersected with personal issues inside my home. Others seemed to speak directly to the politics of the US which have been adding so much stress to my life.

Even more important than the specific words are a feeling of renewed connection to my spiritual roots and my LDS community. I’m calmer and happier this weekend than I have been for some time.

Perseverance and Adversity

Yesterday at church we had a lesson on adversity. The major theme of the lesson was that we need adversity in our lives because overcoming it makes us better people. I believe this is true. The most self absorbed and least empathetic people I’ve known are those who have never had a hard thing happen to them. The older I get, the fewer of those people I know. We all get knocked flat eventually, hence the need to address this fact in a spiritual context. People of faith have to reconcile belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the fact that life is terrifyingly unfair. The lesson kept returning to the message everything happens for a reason. Many of the women around me seemed to find that very comforting. I sat there and thought how I don’t believe that God deliberately smites people with problems to make them grow, but that I do think he allows natural processes and choices of others to bring pain. I’m sometimes angry with Him about that. I also thought of dear friends who I knew were hurting right that moment and how hurtful it would be if I were to say such a thing to them. In fact just the day before I’d given one friend this card which reads “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” (You should check out all the empathy cards at that link. They are the cards that cover the cases which are not covered by all the other cards. Brilliant.)

The thing is that when people are hit with something breathtakingly hard, they have to grieve. Part of that is being angry, really angry, often angry at God if they believe in one. Those of us who are bystanders to that pain want to be able to fix it. We want our loved ones to be at peace emotionally even if the hard thing continues. We say we want it for them, and we do, but we also want it for ourselves because watching pain reminds us that someday pain will come for us. And we have little control over what it will be or when it arrives. So we try to take the person who is in pain and jump them ahead to acceptance. We want to give them an answer. But that doesn’t work. Particularly if they are in the part of grieving where they need to be angry.

I don’t think I understood the value of anger in adversity until I read Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings. The book is a hundred small stories from her experiences counseling the dying, the recovering, the doctors who help the dying, and all those in the blast radius of cancer cases. In one of the stories, Ms. Remen says she is always glad when she sees anger in a patient. Anger comes from a vital will to live, to demand that the world be different and better. Angry sufferers are more likely to fight and to recover. Anger bestows strength and forward momentum. The gifts of anger can obviously be used in destructive ways as well as constructive, but the vital energy of it is critical to surviving hard things. I’ve recommended Ms. Remen’s book before, I do it again here. It is worth reading.

After listening for a time to the church lesson, I raised my hand and expressed the thoughts in the prior two paragraphs. I added that when we are close to someone who is wounded, stricken, injured, our job is to mourn with them, be angry with them, and walk along in their journey toward acceptance whatever peace is right for them. We can’t give them our answers, they must find their own. I’m pleased that many of the women who were saying everything happens for a reason, nodded along to this as well.

This morning a friend (who is mid-chemo therapy) posted a link to an article about Death and The Prosperity Gospel. My church is not the only one where “everything happens for a reason” is the party line. The article does a fantastic job of taking a look at the harmfulness of assuming that blessings and prosperity are rewards for good behavior. That doctrine is comforting because it provides the illusion of control. If we are good, then our lives will be blessed. I even think there is some truth to that. Our choices definitely affect our outcomes. This is an important lesson for people to understand: choosing well makes life better. Yet we also have to acknowledge that life is hideously unfair. We do not start on even ground. We are bequeathed unfair loads of challenges, economic status, and family situation at birth. This is compounded by societal unfairness that smooths the path for some people and smashes others. Our choices can make our lives better, but prosperity is not an accurate measure of goodness.

The paragraph in that article which hit me most was this one about grieving:

One of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem. My academic friends did what researchers do and Googled the hell out of it. When did you start noticing pain? What exactly were the symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I can out-know my cancer using the Mayo Clinic website. Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: Do I have any control?

I’ve actually seen this happen. Years ago I was present when a friend of mine informed people that he had five years to live. I watched him bear the brunt of their reactions, person after person. He ended up comforting his friends about his impending death. I think of that, and I think of the article about How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. It can be so hard when a friend gives you bad news to not try to make it better. It is hard to not attempt to exert control over the situation. Yet what sufferers need is for us to meet them where they are and just be with them in acknowledging that what they’re going through sucks.

I wish I had better answers than this, but I don’t and that is the point. I would dearly love to be able to fix it when Howard has a depressed day or when my son is so lonely and isolated that he lays in bed crying. Instead I just have to be willing to stay in the pain with them and remind them that the pain will subside, that there are choices we can make which may help, that they are loved by me and by God, both of whom hurt for their hurting. And that if they listen carefully, God will help them turn this experience into future strength and usefulness. If they need to be mad at God for not fixing it, I stay with them for that too. So does He. It doesn’t feel like enough, but over and again it is what is needed. Mourn with those who mourn. Comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

Smashed

photo

It was not the outcome that anyone intended, yet somehow we ended up with shards of something that used to be whole. The shards were sharp, able to do more harm if they were not handled carefully. This is the story of many of my days these past couple of years. It is the story of yesterday when a person came to my house to talk to me about behavioral issues with one of my kids. The person departed and I was left with shards, not even sure where I fit in the metaphor. Am I the broken thing? Or am I the one who has to figure out how to clean up? Feels like both.

I went to my room and cried for a while. Then I talked with my child and we both cried for even longer, because harm has been done and needs to be made right. My child is both harmed and the one at fault. I have to spend energy preventing my mind from trying to analyze all of the moments that led up to the one where things were smashed. As if I could alter the outcome by finding decision points that led to alternate timelines. My mind also tells me that I’m blowing it all out of proportion. It is, after all, only a small broken thing. Clean up will be quick and we’ll move onward.

Except that I end up smashed (or cleaning up after smash) so often lately. Those tiny shards scatter themselves and sometimes I find my self bleeding because of shrapnel from something I thought I cleaned up long ago.

This too is part of the holiday. The house is filled with beauty, but also with things that are more prone to breaking. The pressure to make sure the moments are glowing and meaningful, also means that some of the fragile things will crack. I may be one of the fragile things. I am to be my best self, but that is difficult in a season which increases the demands on my limited resources. Even the articles, speeches, and pleas to simplify are commandments with which I must struggle to comply. Thus I find myself contemplating the shards of an ornament on the floor of the front room. Thinking about all the ways in which Christmas breaks people.

And also the ways that it heals people. And how sometimes things must be broken before they can become something else. And how the metaphor begins to fall apart before I’ve found my way through to an epiphany. I would like to have an epiphany. I would like to have a shining moment where I can clearly see that all the smashed days were necessary, part of a grand plan designed to help me and mine grow. I’m certain that some of them were critical. Perhaps yesterday was one of them. I’m also certain that some of them were just the result of human beings clumsily bumping into each other and accidentally doing harm. It would be nice to be able to see which days were which.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe I’m better off treating all the smashed up days as if they were important. Maybe it is only in trying to find meaning in the shards of something broken that the brokenness gains any meaning at all. I do believe there is a plan, and it begins with me fetching a broom. We learn by doing, struggling, smashing, cleaning up, and moving on.

General Conference Notes

Usually I try to make my blog entries generally accessible rather than specific to my religion and context. But twice per year my church has a set of meetings called General Conference that are broadcast worldwide and during which the leaders of my church speak about matters of scripture, faith, family, doctrine, and policy. The most recent conference was held this past weekend and I had a lot of thoughts I wanted to write about. Some of it may be more specific to my faith than usual. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormons.

This particular conference was filled with talks that seemed directed to me. So much so, that as one talk finished and the next talk began, I often wished for a pause. I wanted time to assimilate and think through my reactions before launching into a new topic. Fortunately the talks are still available via streaming from the church website lds.org. Also I’ll have a print version in the church magazine next month. There will be ways for me to review the information and pause to think it through. Truthfully, it is not that the words spoke directly to my various situations. It is more that the words exist and all of the experiences and thoughts in my head exist, then there is this space between the words and my thoughts where inspiration flows. That space is where the words are transformed into the messages I need to have epiphanies about my life. I need conference, church, and scripture study because I have to get into proximity with good words. I need the inspirations that come into my head as a result.

One of the thoughts, which I’m still mulling over, came as a speaker was telling of the power of the atonement of Christ. He said that Christ’s healing is complete and leaves no scars. I thought of the people I know who struggle with mental illness and with ongoing problems as a result of emotional trauma. Observation and science tells me that they will struggle for most of their lives. Yet I do believe in the power of Christ to truly heal. I do not think that the people who struggle, myself included, lack faith enough to be healed. Yet God does not heal everyone. Some of this I can ascribe to eternal perspective rather than earthly perspective. Heavenly Father and Christ know that the pains of this life are temporary. They know that struggle is how we grow. Striving to understand suffering and miracles is the thought-work of a lifetime. My comprehension continues to evolve. Sometimes I am able to move forward in faith, trusting that all will be made clear. Other times I am more frustrated and angry. I don’t have any answers, but I think it is good for me to open my mind and heart to these questions. Conference reminds me what the questions are.

I was much taken with the talk by Devin G. Durrant. He described a process for picking a scripture each week to ponder and memorize. He made up a word, ponderize, to name this process. I don’t like the word. It feels cutesy and diminutive to a process with great spiritual potential. As he spoke about the process, I knew that it was one that I need. He bore a powerful witness of what this process can give to people. I loved listening to that witness, though I winced a little every time he used his word. I’ve put up my first scripture. I’ll be thinking about it this week. And I’ll be trying not to think about made up words.

My grandmother is dying and I am watching my parents navigate the decisions and grief that are inherent in that process. Over the last months I have observed her decline. A few months ago she was in rehab to learn to walk again after a surgery. Now she is in a permanent care facility and physical therapy is focused on getting her to eat. I will be surprised if she is still here at Christmas. I’ve watched this process tear my Dad apart. My Grandma is his mother and he has no siblings to share this burden. I watch, knowing that someday it will be my turn to help parents in their decline. I am learning from their example what to expect and how I might handle it. With all that in my mind, I found David A. Bednar’s talk on Sunday afternoon to be profoundly comforting. In his words I was able to see that a reduction in physical capability only changes what a person can offer the world. It does not render the person irrelevant. To quote Elder Bednar “Physical restrictions can expand vision. Limited stamina can clarify priorities. Inability to do many things can direct focus to a few things of greatest importance.” As I listened, I understood that growing old and infirm can be a gift both to the aged and to those who care for them. It was good to feel that. I’ve been quite focused on the hard parts. There is grace in my Grandmothers imminent departure, God’s grace. As her memories become confused, the anxiety which plagued her whole life is dropping away. She is becoming distilled, ready to travel elsewhere. And we are all becoming ready to let her go.

I will be continuing to interact with the words and messages of this General Conference. I have more inspirations that I need. For now, life is good and all my people in my house are aimed in good directions.