Tuesday, April 26, 2016

London Again: White on White

A flurry of white wedding gowns in a shop window in Chelsea.

After an easy direct flight, we drove past street after street of beautiful white row houses in stately South Kensington until we arrived at our flat. Already it felt like we'd only just been away for a short spell, even though it's been nearly two years since we were last here. We quickly pulled coats out of our bags as we stood on the porch, the reality of the brisk air and chilly rain setting in: we're in London! Again!

Once settled in our flat, we walked to the tube station, then on to Chelsea to see the student accommodations.

We were surprised to find ourselves in the Bridal district, with beautiful gowns adorning many of the shop windows. It brought back vivid and memories of our daughter's wedding just four days ago, the joy still fresh. We held hands as we walked home in the cold night air. Once again we were greeted by the white buildings of South Kensingtom. Here, white signals home.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Fountain of Youth

My adorable dad turned 79 last weekend. *Happy (late) birthday, Dad!* The thing is? He looks, feels, and acts like he’s about 60. It seems like he’s stumbled upon the Fountain of Youth, and hasn’t aged a day since I left home 20-something years ago. (Actually I saw him age about ten or fifteen years the year my mom died. But the man is so full of life and resilient he looks younger now than he did then!)

Here are a few things that I think contribute to my dad’s Fountain of Youth:

Mirth: He’s so quick to laugh, has such a ready twinkle in his eye. He embodies joy. This is the guy who even made vacuuming the stairs fun, by telling me to sing Jingle Bells with the vacuum hose stuck to my face, because it looked and sounded so funny. He ranks right up there with Pippi Longstocking at turning work into play!

Caring: One night when I had to work late, he took a stack of papers to grade and accompanied me to the magazine office, so I wouldn’t be there alone, or have to walk to my car by myself in the dark. A simple gesture that meant a lot to me, and I’ve never forgotten.

Friendship: Dad still has the same group of friends he grew up with on Capitol Hill as a kid. When we were growing up, “The Boys” and their wives got together every month. Now they live far away, but I saw them together at a party two years ago, and they were laughing and joking as if they’d just seen each other last week. 

Activity: Every day he’s outside walking, hiking, biking, golfing, playing tennis…you get the picture. These days he’s also very big into The Blue Zone way of life.

Cheerleading: From the time I was a baby, he would pick me up in the air and ask, “Who’s the greatest?” and expect me to answer, “Baby Jana!” It might be a little over the top, but I never doubted my dad’s belief in me or my worth in his eyes.
Creativity: I think painting—and really any creation—brings out and nurtures our inner child. Dad has a PhD in Creativity, and he still paints masterpieces in watercolor. His inner child has been growing at a steady pace, healthy and well-fed for decades.

Learning: My dad is a master teacher—always has been—and I think one of the things that makes him so amazing is his passion for learning. He is always reading, always seeking out new adventures and ideas.

Love: My mom died over 24 years ago…and just in the last couple of years my dad married Sharon, a wonderful addition to our family, with the same penchant for giggling. They are an adorable pair, and I think their love and enjoying life together keeps them young.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents and the incredible legacy and privilege of spending time with them—the laughter, the learning, the joy, the peace and quiet, the music, the FOOD. I’m so grateful my own children have similar story-book-worthy grandparents, and a similar legacy of love, gathering, work, excellence, laughter and service to shape their youth.Thanks, Dad. I love you! You continue to inspire me! xoxo

For more on the beauty of aging, and the joy of making the wiser generation a part of our lives, tune into The Living Room: Honoring Previous Generations. bit.ly/TLRshow34

Monday, February 15, 2016

Does Prayer Work?

Ever wonder if there's Anyone out there listening or if the prayers you utter just dissolve into the ozone? Here is my own experience with prayer.

When I was a teenager, I started to doubt the existence of God. I wanted to know if there really was Someone out there in charge and if that Someone knew who I was, cared about me and loved me. It was a pretty big IF for a 14-year-old to ponder.

I had always been taught to pray, so I did. Every night I'd kneel by the side of my bed and try to communicate with Whomever was out there in the great unknown. But I wasn't sure if I was talking to anyone at all or if anyone was listening to my ramblings on the other side.

The first thing I noticed was that something felt different when I prayed—I felt different when I prayed. There was of course the feeling of my knees on the nubby carpet and my hands on the chenille bedspread. But the something different I felt was something inside me. Something slowed-down, something warm-fuzzy. I felt comfortable and secure. But that still didn't answer my IF.

Then one day, after months of all this wondering, I got an answer. The answer didn't come while I was praying, but it came when I could hear it, when I was in the right frame of mind: quiet, open-hearted, listening. I didn't see a lightning bolt, hear an earth-shaking voice or anything dramatic. What came over me was afeeling. But it was as clear as if I had heard a voice, seen a flash of light. I knew there was a Someone out there and that Someone knew me, knew I was searching, cared about me and loved me. This feeling that swept over me had that familiar slowed-down, warm-fuzzy, comfortableness; but it was bigger, richer, deeper, fuller. It tugged at corners of my soul I'd never felt before. It flooded me with joy.

Later, my young adult self started to feel disconnected again from that Being who had reached out to me as a young teenager. I was at a point in my life where I needed answers to other big questions: education, career path, marriage, etc. The decisions seemed too big to make on my own. I needed God. I wanted some concrete, specific answers.

So, I started keeping a prayer journal.

On the left-hand page I would write down the specific question I had asked or the help I had asked for. Each time I asked about that item in prayer, I'd put a little check mark next to it. Some of these had dozens of checks next to them. On the right-hand page I'd record my answers. At first, I went through the left-hand pages rapidly, while the right-hand pages lay blank. But as I started to pay attention to all the possible ways God could be communicating with me, that pattern reversed itself.

Someone mentioned something that really struck me in a conversation—something pertinent to my question that stood out for me to take notice. I'd write that down. An event or set of circumstances took place—meeting a certain person at a significant time and place. I'd write that down too. Quiet impressions, streams of ideas, thoughts that suddenly lined up with clarity and order. I recorded these as well.

Before I knew it, the right-hand pages were completely full! Not a single prayer had gone unanswered. There sat my question or plea on the mostly-bare left-hand page, and opposite that were dozens of answers—some so tiny I might not have noticed if I hadn't been watching for them; others that could only be explained by Divine intervention. Miracles. I was grateful and amazed. I knew with a more powerful certainty that God does listen, that prayers do work and that I was being watched-over and helped.

Fast-forward to last week. I lost my wallet. Somewhere between one errand and the next it had disappeared. I retraced my steps, made phone calls. I returned to places I had visited, spoke with managers who opened safes. No wallet. I scoured the house, turning over couch cushions, opening cupboards, dismantling clutter.

After several days had gone by, and the wallet still had not turned up, I started to panic a little. I checked my online bank accounts and credit cards for illegal activity, considering reporting the cards as lost or stolen. In a last-ditch effort (why I waited this long I have no idea) I took to my knees.

I asked God to watch over my wallet, to keep it safe. To point me towards its whereabouts. Then I stopped worrying about it.

The next day, as the sun was about to set and I was folding the last load of laundry, the doorbell rang. There stood a familiar clerk from our neighborhood grocery store, holding my wallet. "You left your wallet at the store," she said. "I thought you might need it this weekend." I didn't tell her my wallet had been missing for an entire week; that I had been back to the store several times looking for it, asking about it. I just marveled that a young person had found my wallet, looked inside for my name and address and delivered it right to my front door, the contents completely intact, including $90 in cash and a couple of gift cards. I thanked her profusely.

Then I paused. I got down on my knees and thanked God. For answering, protecting, locating and returning my wallet. I might not have considered it so miraculous had I simply stumbled upon it in the laundry room the next day. But missing it for a week, retracing every step, searching everywhere, then having it returned to me in such an amazing way, I could only give credit to Him (and to the sweet grocery checker He used as an assistant.)

God doesn't always answer my prayers so quickly and completely. I don't make a habit of bothering him with all my lost items and expecting him to laser-point them out for me. But every once in a while He sends me a miracle to remind me He's there and prayers work.

This was published on FamilyShare on January 28, 2016.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Peace At Any Price

Liz Shropshire was one of my first close friends after moving to Los Angeles. She was studying music at USC at the same time my husband, Jeff, was in USC's cinema school. We instantly found lots of common ground...music, service, movies, and adventure. Together we sat side by side frantically copying orchestra parts for an assignment due, we ventured south of Los Angeles to visit the famous Watts towers, we served in the youth center at this beautiful Santa Monica site, a bastion of peace for us both, and one day we even helped rescue an old woman whose apartment was on fire in Liz's building. We've been through a lot together.

Amazingly, each of these stand-out activities that originally bonded us as friends now stands as a symbol of something bigger in both of our lives.

• I wasn't a music major, I knew only piano-lessons level theory, and I'd never copied parts before in my life. But somehow Liz believed in me and helped me believe I could do it too. She had the big vision. I just contributed my part. We did it together, and it worked.

• When we climbed and took pictures of ourselves on the Watts Towers, little did we know that the riots that tore apart the community of Watts in the 1960s would repeat themselves as the Rodney King riots in the 1990s, and our USC apartments were inside the first (most dangerous) curfew zone. We were survivors of a major outbreak of violence.

• Working at the youth center taught us not only to love teaching, and to love working with children, but that beautiful sacred space taught us what peace really is, what it feels like when you're standing on holy ground, and what it feels like inside your heart.

• The woman didn't even realize her apartment was on fire—something had combusted inside her kitchen cabinet—until Liz smelled smoke and pounded on her door.  I wonder how many other people smelled smoke and walked on by, but Liz is never afraid to act. She has a skillset I deeply admire—the ability to sense a need, and ACT—calmly and responsibly.

So it shouldn't surprise you that in 1999 Liz heard an NPR story about children in Kosovo, innocent victims in a war-torn country, and felt moved to act. That story tugged at something deep and compassionate inside her with such power that she decided to sell everything she had and buy a plane ticket to Kosovo. She didn't really have a plan in place at the time. She had a music degree and a ton of teaching experience in some rough, inner-city Los Angeles schools. And some loose ties to a service organization there. A Los Angeles friend encouraged her to "do what you do best" and take along some musical instruments, for the heck of it. By the time of her departure she had raised enough funds to arrive in Kosovo with $5000 worth of musical instruments to take to the children there. The Shropshire Music Foundation was born: Teaching Peace Through Music.

Liz has devoted everything she has over the past 16 years to teaching children peace—first in Kosovo, and later opening programs in Uganda and Northern Ireland—with a hope to expand to benefit the Syrian refugees in 2016. She is, without a doubt, one of my biggest heroes.

Last month Liz was in town for a conference. I dropped everything when I heard she was in town. I hadn't seen her in person since she was packing her bags for Kosovo in 1999. I went to listen to her speak, then we took her out to dinner with some friends the following night so our kids could also hear her amazing stories—how little children who used to wake up screaming every night because of the horrors they've witnessed now sleep through the night because of the soothing power of music;—how Ugandan youths who were turned into soldiers at age 5 are now learning music and leadership, and the true meaning of power and peace;—how 95% of their youth volunteers go on to attend college;—how Liz is guided by a Higher Power that continues to open doors and work miracles. It was one of the most motivating and inspiring evenings we've spent in a long time.

I tell parts of Liz's story on our latest Living Room show, "Peace, Be Still." There's a link at the top of the page where you can play it right from this site. Hear about Nelson Mandela's widow, Gra├ža Machel, and how her research backs up Liz's programs—that children heal best through the arts, and teens heal best in a teaching capacity. Liz and her children across the globe are living proof.


In the past month we've seen so much violence and disruption, drawing ever closer to home. It becomes more and more apparent how desperately we all need peace on earth, and peace in our individual homes and hearts.

"Peace at any price" is a saying my mother-in-law uses to encourage us to let go of pride and selfishness in favor of peace within the family. Liz has taken that a step further and has literally given up everything she has—including a place to live—in order to work for peace. To her there is literally no pricetag too high to teach and further the cause of peace.

Our family has chosen the Shropshire Music Foundation as our charity of choice this giving season. I may not be able to do what Liz does, but I can help her teach and spread peace. We are donating a portion of all our online shopping through smile.amazon.com. And we are looking at other ways to contribute financially and in kind. I hope you'll join us.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Manger Scene as a Metaphor

In pondering the beauty of this season and the birth that inspires it, I have discovered that each figure of the Nativity represents its own aspects of discipleship. If we put them all together we can grasp a deeper understanding and a composite of traits that will help to render us true followers of Jesus. At the end of each section I’ve used the words of Neal A. Maxwell—who was himself a consummate disciple—to underscore these thoughts.

These humble caregivers, among the lowliest station of society, were “watching over their flocks by night,” not unlike a mother who loses sleep caring for a sick child.

Being in the right place at the right time, these lowly servants were the first to hear and receive the news of Christ’s birth. They were visited by angels, bathed in glorious light, and witnessed a heavenly chorus.

Their response, “Let us now go,” indicates their lack of any hesitation in their journey to receive a personal witness of the things they’d been told. They didn’t worry about whether they were appropriately dressed or received an invitation. They just went.

The scriptures tell us they “came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” They sought Christ, came to Christ, and found Christ. But their discipleship doesn’t end there. Luke continues, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad” all they had learned about the Savior.  To me, the shepherds signify CARE, HUMILITY and WITNESSING.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “Discipleship means being drawn by seemingly small and routine duties toward the fulfillment of the two great and most challenging commandments.” (“True Believers in Christ,” p. 135)

The sooner we are on the way to serious discipleship, the sooner the needed spiritual and personal reinforcements and intellectual reassurances will come to us personally.” (On Becoming A Disciple-Scholar, p.19)

The wise men were prepared by learning and study. Because of their careful gospel scholarship, they were expectant of the signs surrounding the birth of the Messiah. Their focus was on the heavens, on light and truth. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
They journeyed a great distance to Bethlehem. “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 2:11) They made their journey to the Christ child, knelt and worshipped him, and laid their gifts at his feet. But their discipleship doesn’t end there.

“Being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” By not returning to King Herod, they made a deliberate and symbolic decision to turn away from the power, riches, honor and violence of the world and journey “another way,” the journey of true discipleship. To me the Magi symbolize GOSPEL SCHOLARSHIP, CONSECRATION AND SPIRITUAL WISDOM.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “For a disciple of Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is another form of consecration...How else could one worship God with all of one’s heart, might, mind and strength?” —(Luke 10:27) On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, p.7)

Gentle Joseph understood his place and was not ego-driven. He was merciful to his bride-to-me, Mary, when he learned she was “with child” but not by him. He did not put her to death, as Mosaic law allowed, and had decided to “put her away privily” rather than shame her publicly. After “the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, “ helping Joseph understand the baby’s true parentage, “...Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:” Joseph walked beside her every step of the journey.

He was a righteous father who received revelation for his family—a second visitation is recorded when an angel instructed him to take his family and flee to Egypt. In both cases his spiritual receptivity likely saved the life of Jesus, who in turn saved us. But his discipleship doesn’t end there. Joseph literally stood in for God as Jesus’s earthly father and early mentor. To me, Joseph symbolizes PERSONAL REVELATION, RIGHTEOUS LEADERSHIP, and above all, MERCY.

Elder Maxwell stated, “Discipleship in our day, as in all eras, has as a goal not our being different from other men, but our need to be more like God.” (A Time to Choose, p.16)

Though very young, Mary had tremendous “inward strength.” The angel told of her most remarkable mission, and her response resonates through the centuries. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” When she asked meekly, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” she soon learned that “with God, nothing is impossible.”

Later, after greeting her relative and mentor Elizabeth, Mary exclaimed, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” Her use of the word magnify seems to mean “celebrate with praise.”

When “the days were accomplished that she should deliver,” without mention of a midwife or other assistance “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” In the humblest of circumstances arrived the greatest of Gifts.

Surely no one knew and loved Jesus quite like Mary, who birthed him, nursed him, and nurtured him. Yet her discipleship doesn’t end there. Mary understood the sacredness of her mission and refrained from sharing much of her glorious experience. Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” To me, Mary represents the qualities of SUBMISSIVENESS, PURITY and RESTRAINT.

Elder Maxwell wrote, “Even articulate discipleship has its side of silent certitude.” (Meek and Lowly, p.57)

At this point we can find some common threads in our quest for discipleship.
We can agree that each of these representative figures from the Nativity deeply and personally KNOWS AND LOVES THE LORD. As a corollary, their deep affection for the Savior also prompts them to keep the second great commandment, to LOVE AND SERVE OTHER PEOPLE and deal with them MERCIFULLY.

I imagine that truly knowing the Lord causes us to see ourselves in relationship to Him, resulting in GENUINE HUMILITY. There is no self-deprecation here. Disciples merely choose to compare themselves to God rather than compare themselves to other people, resulting in a humble perspective that both honors God and unifies the human race.

This expansive brand of humility naturally breeds a deepening degree of SUBMISSIVENESS. When we know and understand His greatness, His goodness, we more naturally bend our own will to meet His. We obey—not just the written commandments, but the promptings of the Spirit that move us outside our comfort zone and away from the clipboard to be “anxiously engaged” in seeking out His will and doing it, daily, hourly moment by moment.

May we each deepen and find joy in this journey of a lifetime.

Friday, October 2, 2015

My Perfect Day: What Would Your House Look Like?

Back in California, fifteen years ago, we purchased what had been our dream house for YEARS. When the kids were little we’d walk past this house with our strollers, at it admiringly, and sigh, “If only…” And then, nearly a decade later, the dream became reality—the house was ours: century two-story Craftsman, big wraparound front porch, French doors and coffered ceiling in the dining room, spacious living room with fireplace and built-in bookcases, quarter-sawn oak floors, big second-story window seat…I could go on and on. It broke my heart when we decided to move. Second only to leaving our wonderful Pasadena friends was leaving this gracious Historic Highlands home.

The house we subsequently purchased was nothing like it. Built in 1978, complete with peach shag carpet and vinyl siding, it seemed the opposite of who we are and what we were seeking. But what the house lacked in old-world charm it had like no other: Spirit. We bought the house for the feeling inside. We spent a small fortune and fixed it up the best we could. Made it comfortable and livable and lovely. Ripped out the carpet and replaced it with Brazilian hardwood. Tore down the wallpaper, patched the resulting holes, and chose lovely shades of paint. Opened up the kitchen so it flowed better into the family room. 

Then all of a sudden one day I realized I was living in my dream house. Not our Pasadena dream house, a completely different dream house—the house I dreamed of when I was a child. 
I used to love watching The Waltons on television. I thought Olivia Walton was the source of all wisdom and loveliness, the crotchety grandparents were hilarious and adorable, and all the siblings saying good night at the end of every episode made theirs the coziest house ever. I also loved that there was a light on upstairs while nighttime journaling was happening. Never mind that they were living during the Great Depression—the food always looked amazing. I loved seeing the kids walk to school barefoot, along the banks of a stream. I fantasized a big, two-story white farmhouse like the Waltons, and wanted to live THERE…wherever there was. 

What I realized that day is that THERE is HERE. It's uncanny, really. I live in the big, two-story white farmhouse I envisioned as a child. We live on a beautiful wooded acre that feels as private and secluded as if we lived on a Virginia farm. Our dogs run through the trees, over the grassy hillsides, and deer and quail come to visit. Coveys of kids gather and walk to school, meandering through our yard. For the first several years we even had a stream running through our yard. I got exactly what I wanted. But I had no idea when we bought it.

I think what I learned is that “perfect” doesn’t always look like our mind’s conception of perfection. But it does answer our deepest desires.
On The Living Room's social media channels this month we're discussing topics centered around discovering our core identity through imagining our perfect, average day. This is Day 2: What Would Your House Look like?