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?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When the Worst Possible Thing...Isn't

What I Gained When I Lost show
Last Tuesday the Living Room reran one of our earlier episodes, called What I Gained When I Lost. As I listened a second time, it reminded me of an experience I had back in high school:

It was the audition for Concerto Night, a competition amongst my musical peers for a chance to perform in the spotlight with a live orchestra (the high school orchestra, but still, a pretty big deal). I had been studying and practicing this particular concerto, the Beethoven I, for over a year and a half. I had all 28 pages thoroughly memorized, backwards and forwards, they were polished, and perfected. I even had two amazing master classes with concert pianist Grant Johannessen. I was ready. Except for a tiny little problem I have called Performance Anxiety.

It turned out that my cousin’s wedding reception, in which I was a bridesmaid, was the same night as the concerto competition. I slipped out of the reception line a few minutes early, and my mother and I raced our car through the slushy city streets, arriving at the A cappella room just in time for one of the last remaining audition slots. I sat there, wringing and shaking my hands to warm them up after being out in the brisk February air.

They called my name. I stood up in my burgundy velvet bridesmaid dress, took a deep breath, and walked to the piano. All eyes were on me. The room was deathly quiet. I sat down, adjusted the bench, uttered a silent prayer for help, and nodded to my mom, who was playing the orchestra score on the second piano, to let her know I was ready. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.

I listened for the opening chords, then attacked my entrance with confidence and aplomb. The runs were rapid and crystal-clear. My fingers were flying fast over the arpeggios. I was off! Then  about halfway through the concerto, in a section that I knew so well I could play it in my sleep, I hit a wrong note.

It completely threw me off. I couldn’t find the next note, or the one after that. That passage I could play in my sleep suddenly became my worst nightmare. Flustered, I went back to a section where I could start over. When I got to the exact same spot I panicked again and couldn’t find the note.  I began again a third time, and eventually muddled my way through to the end. The finish was big and dramatic. But I knew I’d completely blown the audition.

I was devastated. Everything I worked on so diligently for over a year and a half suddenly seemed all for nothing. My dreams of playing with the school orchestra were shattered. I didn’t have to wait for the judges’ decision; I knew. I couldn’t even look anyone in the eye as I trudged back to my car in the snow. My mom was powerless to console me. God had let me down. My prayers hadn’t reached him…or they got His answering machine!

I stepped completely away from the piano and didn’t touch it again for 18 months. I couldn’t stand to be part of an art where you could perfect something, and still have it go abysmally wrong on the final performance. I thought about my writing, where you perfect a story or an essay, submit it to a contest, and win a scholarship. I thought about my artwork, and how you perfect a painting, put it in a frame and hang it up on a wall. It stays that way. Everyone who walks by can see it, just as you intended it to be.

I decided right then and there that I was going to major in art. For my creative sanity. I would create pieces and frame them and hang them. Period. No risk of the final product gone awry.

Looking back on that moment—where it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen had just found me and dragged me down to the abyss—from my current mid-life vantage point, God didn’t abandon me at all. He used that moment to nudge me with a course-correction. He was being kind. And even a little bit generous. To let me discover my career path early, rather than after several other failed attempts. In retrospect, the demise of my piano-playing future signaled the birth of who I was really meant to be.

What I gained when I lost? Was my better self.

The Living Room is airing a brand new show today: Seeing Your Spouse. Listen when it airs at noon on, or tune in at your convenience on iTunes:

Monday, September 14, 2015

Epilogue: Phi-Phi's Refugee Saga

I first heard Phi-Phi Chang Anderton's amazing refugee story 17 years ago, sitting on the one chair in their mostly-unfurnished living room, while Phi-Phi sat across the room on a hammock. We sometimes laugh about it now. A lot has changed since then. Their house is absolutely lovely, beautifully furnished, and they have filled it with three beautiful children. Our relationship has grown from fresh acquaintance to deeply rooted friendship. I don't live in California any more, so we visit mostly via texts and emails...and in person every December. 

There's one thing that hasn't changed, though, across time and miles, and that's how Phi-Phi's story has impacted me and lived with me over the years. I sat spell-bound as she shared with me her attempted boat escape, her captivity, the jungle, being separated from her mother, finally coming to the U.S. and all the rest.

The back-story of how I came to write about it now is pretty interesting. I was sitting in sacrament meeting (our Sunday worship service), the weekend before Pioneer Day (July 24 in Utah), singing pioneer hymns, and wondering how we could make that cherished tradition more timely, more global, more 21st century. Suddenly my thoughts were drawn to my dear friend Phi-Phi, and how she, too is a pioneer, and a remarkable one. In that instant the Lord told me to write HER pioneer story.

I started writing what I remembered, but realized I needed way more detail, the facts had become a little fuzzy since I’d heard it from her mouth 17 years ago. So I shot her a quick email, asked if we could talk on the phone sometime. She texted me back a day or two later and said she was in town that week. Miracle! I had no idea.

We enjoyed a wonderful 3 1/2-hour lunch at La Jolla Groves where I took copious notes, recorded our conversation, and was blown away yet again by the enormity of her journey, her suffering, and her ability to rise above it all. I was also stunned by the miracles...the way the hand of God had put the right people in place at all the right times so Phi-Phi could be who and where she is today.

I initially thought maybe I should post the story for Pioneer Day, but the scope was too great, I couldn’t finish it in time. So I’ve been sort of sitting on it…until September 3, when that sweet little Syrian refugee was washed ashore in Turkey. Suddenly REFUGEES rose to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and the Lord said NOW. I wanted to do something, anything, to help, and I felt prompted to share her story, along with some links where people could donate to alleviate the current refugee crisis.

Photos covering Phi-Phi's living room on September 5, 2015
Fortunately, I had the first several episodes already written and ready to post. I texted Phi-Phi and told her what I was planning to do, and she was very much on board. She spent several nights and an entire weekend rummaging through boxes of old photographs looking for just the right pictures to accompany each episode of the story. We texted, emailed and/or spoke on the phone daily, often many times a day, fine-tuning the details of each segment of the story. It has been a true collaboration.

I'm so humbled to have been permitted to share her amazing story, and hopefully to have been a small vehicle for outreach during a global crisis. I've been so moved by the outpouring of love and compassion from so many readers. The response has been staggering. Thank you, each of you, for reading, for loving, for caring, and for embracing a portion of humanity by investing in this story and caring for those in similar straits.

I thought it was fascinating and significant that the same week I started posting this story,  modern-day apostle Jeffrey R Holland visited Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the same three countries where Phi-Phi's harrowing journey begins—to deliver a message of healing and hope.

In a previous visit to Asia, Elder Holland said that members there are spiritual pioneers, and commended them for their strong character, saying they work daily “to take a stand, to be loyal devoted Latter-day Saints. They are courageous; they live the gospel and square their shoulders to be what they ought to be.”  Phi-Phi embodies every quality he ascribes to these modern-day pioneers. My friend the refugee truly is a Pioneer Girl.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

One Refugee's Happy Ending

L-R: Garyn, Ronan, and Gillian Anderton: Father's Day photo for Bryan, 2015
This is the final episode of a story that starts here.
Phi-Phi graduated from Occidental College in 1995 with a degree in Women’s Studies and a specialization in International Politics. They moved to San Diego while Bryan attended law school. She has worked for the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla, and at Occidental College in Eagle Rock—first as an Admission Counselor, and later promoted to Assistant Dean of Admission.

After Bryan passed the bar exam and worked in the legal field for a while, he realized that he was more fulfilled creatively working in the entertainment industry. Bryan is a master craftsman with meticulous skills and a vivid imagination. Among his numerous credits are (Production Designer): Yo Gabba Gabba, and (Set Designer/Set Builder): Pirates of the Caribbean, SpiderMan, Thor, Interstellar (this one blew me away—we saw some of the photos before the film came out and it made us extra excited to see the movie), and most recently, Straight Outta Compton.

I met Phi-Phi at their newly-purchased home in Pasadena, in November of 1998. I was asked to be Phi-Phi’s visiting teacher when they first moved into the area—what began as an assignment quickly became a treasured friendship. I was pregnant with our youngest son at the time, and just a few months later they found out Phi-Phi was expecting too. Phi-Phi and I were both working mothers, and a year or so after their oldest daughter was born, Phi-Phi and I shared a wonderful nanny, Corrina Vasquez. Our children practically grew up together in Corrina’s care! 

The Anderton Family at Bryan's brother's funeral in 2015
Though I have long since moved away from California, we have been great friends for the entire time we’ve known each other. (Phi-Phi is amazingly good at keeping in touch!) Bryan and Phi-Phi now have three beautiful children—Garyn, Gillian, and Ronan, a tiny, picture-book perfect house with a giant vegetable garden in back; and more joy than she could probably imagine throughout most of this story.

In all of our conversations and interviews in preparation for sharing this story, Phi-Phi continues to express her gratitude for all of her experiences, the painful and heartbreaking ones as well as the miraculous and joyful and inspiring ones. She insists that all of them—the whole package—are what make her who she is today.

Who she is, in my experience, is a warm, bright, beautiful and generous person with a rich inner strength and a wealth of compassion. Phi-Phi is one of those rare people who is perpetually positive, who smiles on others like rays of the sun and warms you from the inside-out. She radiates love and embodies hope. She has made her home a bastion of peace, which reflects this biblical passage: “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.” (Isaiah 54:13)

It has been an extraordinary blessing to enjoy her friendship over the past 17 years. And it has been a very humbling opportunity to share her story here. Thank you for reading through to the end.  (Click here to read a brief epilogue about how this story came to be.)

Call to action:

Although Phi-Phi is definitely one in a million, there are thousands of refugees in similar plights who need to be clothed, fed, rescued, sheltered, and loved. Just this week President Obama’s administration announced that while in this fiscal year the U.S. has accepted about 1500 refugees, next year he has increased that number to at least 10,000! This is wonderful news.

If any readers would like to join me in donating to the urgent cause of aiding today’s refugees, here are a few links to sponsoring sites with A- to A+ ratings by Charity Watch:

American Refugee Committee
Catholic Relief Services
Church World Service
Doctors Without Borders USA
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
Lutheran World Relief
Mennonite Central Committee
Mercy Corps
Save the Children
United States Fund for UNICEF
World Vision

Friday, September 11, 2015

Pioneer Girl Falls in Love

Bryan and Phi-Phi during their courtship, and 20 years later.
This is Part 9 of a story that starts here.

Toward the end of her freshman year at Oxy, Phi-Phi was asked to speak in sacrament meeting at the Glendale Singles Ward—the Mormon congregation she was attending while at school. Her talk was a condensed version of this very story—about her refugee background and the miracles that brought her to America, to the church, to a new home and family.

A tough, rugged blue-eyed blonde named Bryan Anderton had moved to the Los Angeles area in January 1991 to intern with renowned photographer Jay P. Morgan. He had been attending the same ward for a couple of months, but Phi-Phi had never seen or noticed Bryan.

After church the Sunday she spoke, however, Bryan waited for her outside the building, about 25 feet away from where his motorcycle was parked. He introduced himself and told her how much he enjoyed her talk. Phi-Phi instantly loved his blue eyes. She was also attracted to his quiet confidence. “He was handsome, but so down-to-earth.” They chatted for a minute or two, then Bryan asked if she’d like to take a ride on his motorcycle sometime. Suave pick-up line. And very sweet, she thought. Phi-Phi protested, “But you only have one helmet.” Bryan quickly responded, “We can change that.” Two weeks later they went to the Honda motorcycle shop in Glendale for their second date and purchased two matching helmets…and they’ve been together ever since!

Bryan was quite a bit older than Phi-Phi, but her experiences had given her an unusual level of maturity, and truly, she was an “old soul” to begin with! Even though she was only 20 when they were engaged, Phi-Phi was overjoyed that love had found her when she was not looking for it or expecting it. She realized that she was as ready as Bryan to plunge into a loving, committed relationship.

That September, Bryan took Phi-Phi to her first-ever rock concert to see his all-time favorite band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. He proposed to her right there at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater before the concert began, and she happily accepted!

Phi-Phi was also reunited with her birth mother that same September—13 years after they parted ways in Cambodia. She was able to take some time off from her studies at Oxy and went to Europe for two months to become reacquainted with her mother. She was there on her own for the first five weeks, and then Bryan joined her for the final three weeks.

Bryan and Phi-Phi were married in the Manti, Utah Temple (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) on April 2, 1992.

Here's a link to Part 10, the big finale!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Pioneer Girl Goes to College

Phi-Phi with "mom," Margie, at high school graduation.
This is Part 8 of a story that starts here.

Phi-Phi’s senior year was tumultuous, to say the least. In her words, “It was exciting, joyful, stressful, heartbreaking, and intense. There were so many conflicting emotions.” —and so many miracles. Her heart was broken multiple times and shattered into many pieces. Yet that same broken heart was somehow still beating in her chest, keeping her alive, moving her forward. Phi-Phi was very eager to start college in the fall, start meeting new people, and begin a new chapter of her life.

She lived with the Stahelis for the next five months, calling them Mom and Dad, while she graduated from high school and continued there through the summer.

Phi-Phi was a conscientious, hardworking and disciplined student and earned outstanding grades and wonderful letters of recommendations from her counselor and teachers, and was consequently accepted by every college to which she applied.

Even with every door open for her, Phi-Phi chose Occidental College—a small liberal arts college in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles, just a 25-minute drive from San Gabriel. Phi-Phi selected Occidental for its academic excellence, its diversity, and its proximity. It turned out to be an excellent fit. She is very grateful for her Oxy experience.

The first year of college was academically rigorous, and a challenge for Phi-Phi. Having always been an excellent student, she was surprised to find herself suddenly getting B’s. But she forged ahead, in typical Phi-Phi fashion. The Stahelis continued to provide a wonderful home for Phi-Phi during school breaks and weekends, making the short drive to Oxy to pick her up many times during her freshman year.

In October of 1990, when Phi-Phi found out she had passed both the verbal and written parts of her U.S. citizenship exam with flying colors, it was a very emotional experience. Everything she’d been through since the age of six came flooding back to her…the aborted boat escape, the prison, the long walk through Cambodia, the separation from her mother, the bicycle trip through the jungle, the refugee camps in Thailand, the danger, the starvation and dehydration, the oppressive heat, the move across the continent, the death of her father. It was so much more than just the exams and the paperwork. This was her life.

The realization that she couldn’t call her dad (who had been with her through the entire journey), nor could she call her former boyfriend (who had been the love of her life until their breakup a few months earlier) was devastating and overwhelming. Instead, Phi-Phi reached out to the Stahelis, and Margie picked her up and brought her home.

Read part 9 here.