Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Metaphor

I cried the morning after he gave it to me.

I saw
a hasty, last-minute purchase
with grass growing out of the center
not decorative texture-grass
but the kind of grass I try to keep out of the flower garden
as though it had been left untended for quite some time
I saw the subtle disregard as a metaphor
and I cried.

Unwisely, I compared
it to the one we gave his mother
a stunning planter of white hydrangeas
bedecked with ribbon and bordered with trailing vines
blossoms bigger than baseballs
dramatic, understated, yet sensational
and I felt...
less than.

But because it was from him
I loved it, took care of it
placed it right out in front
made sure it got plenty of refreshing water
and affectionate sunshine

It began to grow on me

Today I saw
a container overflowing with cascading blossoms
in my favorite colors, the tertiaries
clusters of red-orange, blue-violet, yellow-green
thriving in the rain and the sunshine
casting playful shadows across the steps
and smiling at me from the porch, a metaphor
I couldn't help but cry again

I'm sorry, Honey
I was wrong
I didn't see

How beautiful it is!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Amazingly In Tune

But my servant...had another spirit with him, and hath followed me fully... (Num. 14: 24)

Whenever I think of following the Spirit I think of our friend Jesse. We met Jesse at USC when we first moved to Los Angeles. He was a well-built, rough-and-tumble guy from East L.A., a native-Californian, with roots stretching clear back to when California was still part of Mexico. He had one arm that was just a stump — it had been caught in a meat grinder at work when he was a teenager. He was now at USC doing graduate work in educational psychology. I’ll always remember the day he helped us move to our new apartment in the ‘hood, carrying our sofa with one arm...and a stump.

Jesse had an uncanny ability to take instruction from the spirit; he lived very close to the Lord, despite his rough exterior. I can remember many times in our USC days when Jesse would just show up on somebody’s doorstep and announce, “Hello, Brother Griffin. The Lord told me to bring you a pot of soup,” or some such thing. I loved how bold he was about that. I might have been willing to take someone the soup, but perhaps not confident enough to say flat-out that the Lord told me to do it.

Then one day Jesse was sent in my direction. It was a wintry morning and we were out of town, but there was a message from Jesse on our answering machine: “Good morning, Charrette. This is Jesse. The Lord told me to call you and tell you He loves you.” Doesn’t sound like too big a deal, unless you recognize the timing and the circumstances — something too soon for anyone to know. Something we hadn’t announced yet. Jesse miraculously had called me on the very morning my mother passed away. Within hours of her passing. That could only have come from the Lord. And oh, how I needed that message from God right then!

I was in awe at how humbly and precisely Jesse was willing to take direction from the Spirit. And I was touched that the Lord cared enough about me individually that morning to find such a reliable messenger to tell me He loved me. Thank you, Jesse.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bitter and Sweet, with a Lie and a Thief...

NPR has a great series called "Three Books ..." where they invite well-known writers to recommend “three great reads on a single theme”. I'm fairly certain NPR has no idea who I am. But that doesn’t stop me from opining here. So I present my second set of triplet recommendations, and heartily invite you to join me. It’s time, once again, for "3 Books".... Wait, maybe make that 4!

Let's just start out by getting one thing clear: I hate war. I loathe violence in any form, to the point of a visceral recoil. Oh, yeah, and I'm the only person I know who falls asleep in action movies. (I think it's my way of emotionally checking out when the action/violence becomes overwhelming.)

In the last few weeks I purchased three books to give as gifts, and shocked myself as I realized (after the fact) that all three books, spanning over seven different countries and cultures, are all centered around World War II. Yet they are all surprisingly non-violent. Somehow these three books manage to side-step most of the blood and gore and bring us powerful stories about humanity — how love prevails over the ravages of war on families, friendship, and forgotten freedoms. These truly are three of the best books I've read this year—not counting Miss Delacourt, which is of course in a category all its own). I can say that partly because war is not the main character here. People are. And I LOVE people!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is a series of witty letters back and forth between London travel author Juliet, her publisher, and her new (serendipitous) friends in Guernsey. The writing style is so clever and dry, it reminded me of what Brillig and I might have written to each other in London in the 1940s. This book is a charmer! At first I was just intrigued by the snarky witticisms and the epistolary form, thinking it was another, updated, 84 Charing Cross Road...a paean to book lovers. I dabbled at it slowly here and there, and laughed at the brashness this woman wielded through words.

Then at some point I was drawn into their world so completely I could not put the book down. The characters came to life, inhabiting my subconscious. One night I actually had a dream that I went to Guernsey to hang out with them. I was a little sad when I woke up and realized it was just a dream. I love these people.
I love their simple way of life. I love that they founded their whole book club in an effort to make a harmless lie become rock-solid truth. I love their silly quirks and antics, and their acceptance of the same in each other. I love the humanity that rises to the surface. I love the silly misadventures that helped them support each other through appalling wartime conditions. It makes everyone who survived the war with their humanity intact a genuine hero.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an amazing piece of literature, perhaps wrongfully classified as young adult fiction. It is the first time I've encountered Death as a narrator, and he does so artfully:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.

You are going to die.

Death describes the weight and color of souls he has been asked to carry back across the sky to their maker, and bemoans the vast amount of work he has during WWII. The main character is a young girl, Liesl Meminger, sent to live with another family outside Munich. More than anything in the world she wants to learn to read, and her love for words becomes one of the driving forces in the book. (Ironically the book is laced with a smattering of harsh curse words, although most are in German, which tends to have a softening effect similar to the British accent in Four Weddings and a Funeral.)

I love seeing the war through the girl's eyes, the contrast of such innocence against the atrocities of war, and the irony of how most adults behaved in ways that are senseless and childish and cruel. The friendships are both innocent and powerful, crossing lines of race, religion, culture, and age. The strongest theme of the book was the power wielded by words, both for good and for evil. It does so primarily with the use of metafiction — in this case strange, primitively-illustrated, yet powerful books-within-books that use abstraction and storytelling to draw some poignant insights. This book was visionary, profound and unique. I would honestly have to label it Literature with a capital L and Art with a capital A.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl growing up in Seattle during World War II, intrigued me to the point that I was up late at night googling Japanese internment camps. I found myself completely and personally immersed in the storyline from page one. There are reasons for this, beyond Mr. Ford's great storytelling. We have some dear friends whose parents lived through the grave injustices of internment. Furthermore, I was haunted as a child by the stories of such an internment camp located right here in Utah, called Topaz. I remember stories my dad told of my grandpa speaking out in various public forums against the internment camps. Dad said that after the war he and Grandpa would stop by the Japanese markets and people would slip extra gifts into his grocery bags. He was completely revered by the Japanese population that remained in Utah – his efforts on their behalf were legendary.

A week or so ago my book group had a phone conference with Jamie Ford. He was delightful and endearing and we could instantly see why the book is so widely loved – because he himself is so widely loveable. The book has a pull between the characters that is so strong it turns page after page and chapter after chapter by sheer magnetism. I loved the way Mr. Ford chose to use the innocence of children and friendship to shed light on the harshness of prejudice and hate. I loved the symbol of the rare jazz record, both broken and whole, he used to represent the relationships. I loved the characters, both fictional and real, he included. I loved the setting of Seattle, and the old Panama Hotel still standing there. I loved the sub-plot of the sympathetic gal at the post office. And the surprising goodness of the harsh-at-times school lunch lady. One more thing I should mention about this book: It is squeaky-clean. Clean enough to offer to both your children and your grandma. Pure. Innocent. Lovely. But with a compelling plot that will grip you to the very last page.

And, I can't resist adding the just-finished Sarah's Key, which shares the setting of World War II and a child as the central character, and adds France to the list of countries and cultures. I have to admit I did not love this book to the degree I loved the first three, but the image of the boy in the cupboard is both precious and searing; juxtaposing the issue of abortion with the holocaust made for an eye-opening metaphor; and it was a definite page-turner – I had a hard time putting it down, even when I knew what was going to happen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fathers: Shaping Life and Death

This post was originally published on Sunday, June 15, 2008. Father's Day. I wrote it when my blog was fairly new and my readership was small, but it is still one of my very favorites, so I'm putting it back up today. Brillig's comment from a year ago makes a perfect introduction: "I could say that it's beautifully written. But it's so much more than that. It stirs something deep in the soul, something intangible and yet completely real..."

* * *

Not surprisingly, my most salient memories of Fatherhood have to do with giving birth. Mine also have to do with death. One is poignantly heartbreaking. The other is filled with surprise and delight. Both are swimming rapturously in love and admiration.

* * *

My mom passed away from cancer when my oldest was still a baby. We shared so much throughout that pregnancy. We were both violently ill -- she with cancer and chemotherapy, and I with morning sickness that lasted the entire nine months. We talked every day, laughing and commiserating as we compared notes on who threw up more, who ached the most, and marveling at the similarities between birthing and dying. She was present at his birth, a miracle for both of us. My dad flew down to be there too – I think mostly to be with her.

She died six months later. And I remember stepping from her hospital room into the hallway with my dad, and catching sight of my white-haired 87-year-old Grandpa making his way down the hall, dressed in a suit. This look of total relief came over my dad, and tears came to his eyes. "That's my dad," he tried to explain. "After all these years, I still need him; he's my hero."

When I became pregnant with our second child, a daughter, I missed my mom like never before. The nausea and vomiting seemed so much worse because I was suffering through it alone. I couldn’t call my mom and commiserate about any of it. And I couldn’t imagine having another baby without her there. (Although I frequently dreamed about her during the most trying times.) The pregnancy seemed endless. In fact, it kind of was. She was due November 17th, and wasn’t born until December 3rd.

My water broke around midnight. Knowing I was in labor for 23 1/2 hours with our firstborn, I didn't bother calling anyone in the middle of the night to let them know...there was still plenty of time for that. The doctor said to wait until I was “really uncomfortable” before we went to the hospital, so I hung out at home, doubling over the kitchen counter when the contractions got fierce. All of a sudden, around 2 a.m. I declared that I was, indeed, “really uncomfortable” and we went to the hospital. By the time they checked me in, it turns out I was already dilated to an 8. They gave me an epidural to help me sleep -- and I think so the doctor wouldn’t have to come down in the middle of the night.

Our little daughter popped out in just two pushes at about 9:50 the next morning. We called our families to announce that we had the first girl, and wheeled her off to the nursery and me into the recovery room, where I settled in for a long winter’s nap! Jeff went home to gather a few things, and as I was just waking up, still groggy, I remember hearing the hospital room door squeak open. I slowly turned to see who it was, and there stood my Dad! (He said he knew where my mom was going to be this morning, and he wanted to be there too.) I have no idea how he managed to get there so fast, how many people he had to pay off at the airport to get him on the first flight out, but at a time when I was missing Mom and feeling very much alone, to have my Dad just magically appear at the hospital was about my favorite surprise ever. "That's my dad," I wanted to say. "After all these years, I still need him; he's my hero."

Amazingly, too, he stayed and helped. Like Mom would have -- fixing breakfast for everybody, taking turns with the baby in the middle of the night. It endeared him to me like never before. And Dad STILL does an amazing job of filling in as both mother and father to us kids, staying involved in our lives, hosting family dinners, taking care of our kids, loving and nurturing us. A natural giver, he blesses us in extraordinary and unselfish ways.

* * *

In October 2000, my husband, Jeff, was away for the long weekend, picking up some heirloom furniture for our daughter’s room. I was home with the kids, nearly six months pregnant with baby number 4, unpacking boxes in the new dream house. When I first noticed the baby wasn’t moving, I phoned him immediately. I tried to reassure him: “The book says it’s normal not to feel any movement for a few days at this stage” but I could hear the deep concern in his voice. At his insistence, I called the doctor and ordered a follow-up ultrasound. Just to be safe.

My husband was late for the ultrasound appointment, so I sat there in horror, alone, as the doctor found no heartbeat and told us what the options were for delivering a lifeless baby. They asked me to wait, alone (in tears that bordered on convulsions) in a room-that-was-more-like- a-closet until he arrived, 40 minutes later. I then had to sit through the whole painful doctor spiel a second time, for Jeff’s benefit.

As we walked into the hospital delivery room a day and a half later, I was struggling with all kinds of emotions that kept bubbling to the surface. It was strange to walk into this familiar maternity ward that had, until that moment, been such a happy place and now wore a shroud of gloom, knowing that this time there would be no treasure to take home. I fought back feelings of anger and resentment toward my sweet, wonderful husband for being away when the baby stopped moving, being away when I threatened miscarriage and had to go to the emergency room passing clots, being away when the doctor delivered the unthinkable news. Part of me wanted to push him away forever, but a bigger part wanted to pull him infinitely closer. My steps were heavy, and my heart was heavier.

Once we were settled inside the delivery room, Jeff gave me an incredibly beautiful priesthood blessing. He summoned our Father and poured out peace, promised a deepened understanding of how it pained a Father to lose a Child, requested health and healing, and said my mother would be hovering nearby.

The delivery was a physical and emotional hell, nothing I’ve known the likes of. The only things that could calm me, emotionally or physically, were classical music and the memory of Jeff’s blessing. Somehow I stopped shaking and survived.

When the baby was born, so small I could cushion her whole head in the pillow of my palm (I still recall the weight of it there), they made prints of both her hands and her feet, and allowed me to hold her and cradle her and look at her and love her for as long as I liked. I touched each tiny finger, each tiny toe, and marveled at how complete she was, despite weighing less than a pound. She had our youngest’s perfect little button nose. Our daughter’s beautiful rosebud lips. There was no doubt she was ours. She belonged. But she’d already gone home.

When the nurse came to take her away, Jeff was holding her. I watched as he wrapped her so lovingly in her little blanket and said his last goodbyes before he kissed her tiny forehead and handed her to the nurse. I cannot describe the rush of love that I felt for that man at that moment. It was overwhelming to witness the immense tenderness he demonstrated for our little departed daughter. His sweet, intimate farewell to her is among the most priceless images I hold onto. I felt unspeakably grateful for him and his enormous heart.

I’m thankful there’s a day to celebrate fathers—My own father; my grandfathers; the father of my children; and by extension, our Heavenly Father—all of whom I love, admire, and aspire to emulate.

We'll be spending most of Father's Day weekend visiting our oldest son at boarding school, which should be another joyful reunion. I hope there are joyful reunions awaiting all of you this weekend.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What I Know About David Archuleta's Dad

Once, when I was a missionary, someone started some rumors about me that spread like wildfire. Granted, they weren't libelous or salacious, but they did hurt my feelings. Then, I got a new companion, Hermana Taggart. And after spending a week with me, she got on the phone and put all the rumors to rest. Just like that. She called every single person involved and said, "That's not true. Charrette doesn't do that. She's not like that at all."

Beginning last night, the media has been all abuzz over Jeff Archuleta. And it's not pretty. But the media can't stand the idea that someone (David) could actually be that squeaky-clean, that happy, that good. So they call it pretense. A persona. A gimmick. And when given the opportunity, they latch onto anything negative and run with it.

I don't know what happened last January. I suspect nobody does, besides Jeff himself. And I don't really want to know. Because it makes me physically sick. And also because it's none of my business. But the media has suddenly made it everybody's business.

So, in the spirit of Hermana Taggart, I want to tell you what I DO know...
Because I've known Jeff Archuleta since, well, the day I was born. Our dads are best friends. And in college, so were we. We loved going to concerts together, watching movies together, and talking about things that run deep.

Jeff is a very talented jazz musician. We had the chance to perform together a couple of times, and his trumpet and flugelhorn put my piano to shame. He comes from a long line of talented performers.

He is smart. Off-the-charts smart.
And he's strong. He had some really tough growing-up years. And he somehow turned his life around and never looked back. He was stalwart. In fact, he was instrumental in my decision to serve a mission. Here's one example of something I learned from him:

When I was in college, Jeff came home from his mission eager to show me what he had learned in the 24th chapter of Luke. He’d have me read a verse, then ask what was happening. At first it seemed too simplistic:
So what’s happening here?
They’re walking down that road?
Okay, next verse. Now what happened?
They’re talking about Christ.
Good. What happens next?
Christ draws near.... (etc.)
He said, “Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever read?”
I looked again. “Well, yeah, it’s cool that he comes to them right when they’re talking about him, and they don’t even know it. And I like the part where they burn inside and realize it was Him.”

“Look at it again”, he said. “When you break it down to simple subject-and-verb basics, this chapter becomes an exact outline of the steps to gaining a testimony. This is how it works.”

I looked again, tried to see what he was showing me, and suddenly saw with new eyes. Just like in those verses: “Their eyes were holden, that they should not know him.” And then all of the sudden I got it.

This chapter took on a rich meaning I’d missed before, and every verse came alive, pointing out how we come to know the Savior, and how that knowledge is manifest in our lives.
That basic subject-and-verb, what I like to call the bare bones or Skeleton, of Luke 24:13-53 becomes an outline of the steps required for each of us to obtain a testimony, to know Christ. And patterns like that show up all over the scriptures when you stop and look for them. I have never studied the scriptures the same way since that day.

A lot can happen in twenty years, since we were in college together. The last time I saw Jeff Archuleta was at my grandpa's funeral, in 2000. (And from a distance, at David's concert in March.) There's more to this story than any of us will know. But it's not fair to cast a shadow on David. Or anyone else.

Sometimes really good families have really big problems. And sometimes really good people make really big mistakes. The bottom line is we don't know what happened. None of us does. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, he probably took that plea in abeyance to protect his family. And I'm willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt.

In the meantime, I am going to pray for Jeff and his family. I hope you'll join me.

(Comments are off on this post.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flung into Surrogate Parenthood: Not One of Them is Forgotten

Our 10-year-old, Mr. Cool, went exploring in the mountains yesterday...and came home with two newly-hatched baby quail. At first I was mortified. We went through the whole rigamarole about how mother birds will reject their babies if they detect the smell of humans.... But it turns out there was no nest anywhere in sight, no siblings, no parents. These baby birds were either orphaned or abandoned, and he brought them home to rescue them. So we reluctantly said okay. And then Mr. Cool set out to take care of them. He took his job very seriously.

We did a bunch of online research to help him figure out how to feed baby birds, then Mr. Cool brewed up a special mushy concoction that only a mother could love, and offered it to them in a little dish. When the birds wouldn't eat...he further solved the problem by asking for a syringe. (After reading this post you know I happened to have one handy.) We detached the needle and it quickly became an ideal baby-bird feeder. Here he is, feeding the fluffy little guys by hand, through the syringe (he had to do this about every 45 minutes, until they finally went to sleep):

At one point I offered to take him to Blockbuster to rent a movie, and he said he’d rather stay home and take care of his baby birds. Surprised, I asked him, “Really? Are you sure?” Then he said, “They’re just so little and cute, I’d do anything for them.” Wow. A sacrifice. He gets it. The kind of love parents feel for their children. He's beginning to feel and to forego in much the same way for these baby quail.

He got up at 4:30 this morning to check on them, and fed them a little more. And I couldn't help thinking, he'll be a wonderful father someday.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father [knowing]. (Matthew 10:29)

(Oh, and speaking of good dads, my brilliant husband was both quoted and touted in Salon.com, which was then picked up by the New York Times. Check it out...and then check out the season finale of Jer3miah, here.)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Just do it.

Shot needles. The pharmacist had to have noticed the horrified look on my face when she handed me the bag of syringes. Swallowing a tablet or two is one thing, but I don't think my new doctor said anything about injection when he blithely wrote out the prescription. Is this for real? I actually have to give myself a shot in the stomach every night before bed?

The first night I uncapped the needle, drew out the serum, swabbed myself with alcohol. And sat there. Staring. Staring at the needle, poised millimeters from my skin, for umpteen minutes, perhaps upwards of an hour, waiting...for what? Just the right moment? Is it really going to hurt any less the longer I wait? One thing becomes obvious: I am clearly not at risk for any kind of self-harm. :)

I try to channel my mother, who had to give herself a regular schedule of morphine shots when she was dying of cancer. Still, the needle remains poised. And my skin unpierced.

I try to calculate which angle might be least painful, and at what speed. In which direction should I thrust it in, and from how far away? Like it even matters.

Intellectually I KNOW it's not going to hurt. Or if it does, that little prick will last for what, ten seconds? And yet there is such an enormous difference between 1/4 of an inch outside your skin and 1/4 of an inch inside your skin. Might as well be the Red Sea. Seems impossible to cross.

I start to cry. Just a little. Not because it hurts. Or because I am afraid. But because I can't do it. And I don't know why.

I am such a wimp. In desperation I hand the syringe off to my husband, close my eyes...Done. That was it? That seriously didn't even hurt. Why couldn't I just do that myself?

Well, the next night I did. After only about forty minutes of staring at the needle.

Then the next night I whittled it down to about seven minutes.

And now, I hardly give it a second thought. The whole process is done, painlessly, in under a minute. For some reason, the waiting, the staring, the over-analyzing...only made things worse. Agonizingly so.

Suddenly, Ffwwwccchhhtt! A new pair of synapses connect in my brain. This is feeling like a metaphor for a bigger, broader issue. (No, not my hips.)

What else am I staring at, putting off, anticipating unpleasantness, waiting for just the right moment? Making it all worse by stalling? What about that toilet in the master bedroom, begging, pleading to be scrubbed? (Done.) And that painful call to the credit card company disputing a finance charge? (Done.) Eliminating that smell coming from something that's been left soaking in the sink too long? (Done.) Attacking the pile of clutter on the back patio that's been there since we remodeled, um, a year ago? (Done.) And all relatively painless.

There are more ugly jobs waiting around the corner. Big ones. Scary ones. Ones that might hurt a little. But I have a fresh way of looking at them now.

As if I haven't seen enough Nike ads to know this already...there is value (and even a form of pain relief) in the phrase: Just do it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No Other Mother (please!)

When I was in high school my mom got homemaker burn-out. Suddenly the house wasn’t all clean and organized, she stayed in bed until we left for school (ostensibly so she could have the one bathroom to herself), I became the default cook, and the laundry room became a black hole. Seriously, you only tossed stuff into that abyss at your own risk, never knowing if or when you’d retrieve it.

And now a confession: Being the heartless, irreverent teenager that I was, I made up a clever song about this new phase of life we were entering, to the tune of "For Unto Us A Child is Born" (and of course coerced my younger siblings to sing along). It went like this:

For unto us an other mother...

Mrs. Mom
She is our mother
We’ve requested
to have another

And the new one will do all the washing and the ironing!

And her name
shall be called
The mighty mom,
The everlasting mother,
The queen of clean.

Of course we were all laughing, even my mom.
We were totally joking around, and yet...

Years later I wrote her a letter. I sat up through the night and wrote to her with tears streaming down my face about how sorry I was for being disrespectful like that; for even hinting that we’d ever think of replacing her.

And what a sting of irony that carries, now that she’s gone.

But something made me think of that song again last week. In an even darker way. I read this book called Coraline. And true to the blurb on the back, it scared me half to death, this children’s fairy tale. I think it’s really written for adults. And the villainness is called the Other Mother. (Yikes! It sends a chill down my spine and a shudder through my shoulders just typing that.)

Whatever possessed me to pick up that book, I’m not exactly sure. If you recall this post, I am terrified of being scared. Almost to the point of phobia. In a nutshell, I believe this wholeheartedly:“God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and of a sound mind.” But something about this book intrigued me. (Besides, Orson Scott Card was one of the endorsers, and he seems fairly trustworthy to me.) Honestly, I think the biggest factor in my decision was this interview I remembered between Kimberly and Rebecca Weybright, the creator of Noctober. There, Rebecca gave such an articulate and convincing defense of the whole genre of "dark speculative fiction." She said some things that made so much sense to me, including this nugget: "I find questions infinitely more interesting than answers, and I want to be left asking some provocative ones at the end of a reading experience." So, in the spirit of Kimberly's renowned risk-taking, I dove into a new book, and a new genre.

What I found, despite the frightening images, was a brilliant allegory, and one of the best depictions of evil (and how desperate it is to have us in its clutches) I’ve encountered lately. It shed so much light on being drawn in by curiosity. And even on how addictions can take hold of us, becoming relentless tormentors. It caused me to ask myself a lot of searching questions. It reaffirmed what I said yesterday: Life is worth the scary parts.

Anyway, the girl wanders into a counterfeit house, hauntingly similar to her own, with a seemingly-perfect Other Mother, who offers to play with her, fixes her favorite meals, supplies endless toys and a closet full of dress-up clothes. She looks surprisingly like her real mother. But has black, soul-less, button eyes.

As the story unwinds, the Other Mother becomes uglier, and her intentions more selfish, and her love wholly feigned. She begins to bear no resemblance to the real mother as she desperately reaches out to possess, to use, to control this little girl. And offers to give her — sew on, in fact — a pair of black button eyes.

Coraline realizes she wants nothing to do with this Other Mother, who doesn’t love her at all, despite her declarations to the contrary. She wants her real mother, who is often too busy to play with her and leaves her to explore on her own, who rarely cooks, but who loves her deeply. She wants her real father, who is distracted at work and who experiments with recipes that go awry but who is clearly kind. She wants her own room and her own clothes and her real life, including the boring parts.

And so do I. I never REALLY wanted an Other Mother. (But can you see how a chill gripped me when I read that, and remembered my silly song?) I want a mother with faults and foibles, and maybe even an irritable streak. But someone who is real. Who guides me to selfless truth. Whose love is real. Even now that she's gone.

And I want to be that real too. I want to know and love what is real; to seek "things as they really are." I want to teach my children to appreciate what is real...and to shun the world's counterfeits at all cost.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

E Ticket!

I ran into my cousin the other day at a wedding. This is a cousin I haven’t seen in years, but she’s a passionate person and a great talker, and we suddenly plunged into a very fascinating conversation about, well...life.

She said, “When I got married, I thought it would be like this magical escalator ride to the celestial kingdom.”

And I countered, “But when you felt the track nudging toward the top, it turns out it was just a brief pause before a terrifying plunge, and the next thing you knew you were being hurled downward at break-neck speeds, then whipped around a corner..."

“Exactly,” she said. “I was counting on that escalator ride. I didn’t sign up for a roller-coaster.”

“Yes you did,” I practically interrupted. “We all did. You’ve just forgotten.” She gave me a puzzled look, so I continued, “We knew before we came here it was going to be a wild ride...and we WANTED the e-ticket. We shouted for joy!”
“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?...When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?(Job 38:4,7, italics added)
That image of the roller-coaster stayed with me. Can you imagine the shouts of joy if you told your kids you were taking them to Disneyland right now? And if you told them Space Mountain might be a bit scary because it whips you around in the dark, do you think they’d say, “Okay, then, never mind. Let’s just stay here and do crossword puzzles?” No way! They want the whole adventure.

Or you could try and protect them from being frightened by the abominable snowman on the Matterhorn and tell them, “Okay, we’ll go to Disneyland, but I don’t want anybody to get sick or hurt or scared, so you’re only allowed to ride Small World.” Can you imagine how ANNOYING that would be? Even once?

But instead, our heavenly parents bought us an all-ride pass...complete with the lovely parts, the sweet parts, the gentle parts...but also the boring parts, the annoying parts, and, yes, the scary parts. Because they LOVE us.

Our family’s been on one hell of a roller-coaster ride this year. Literally. Sometimes it felt like we were riding straight through hell! And yet, I don’t think I’d trade all the frustrating, heartbreaking and downright terrifying experiences of the past few months if it meant I had to give up — or even dilute — that sublime reunion we had with our son a few weeks ago.

To quote the tagline of a movie my husband produced a few years ago, “Life is worth the scary parts.”

So tell me, have you found your life to be an escalator ride, a long, tiring stair climb, a stationary bicycle, or a roller-coaster? And, if given the chance, would you trade your e-ticket for a smoother ride?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Following the Leader

I have a favorite "bloggist" (as Miss Heidi puts it) named Jessica. The first time I ever read one of her posts, here, I dubbed her a kindred spirit. I was in awe of her insights...and her ability to express them. She has an artist’s soul. She runs deep. And her writing is often like poetry. Rich and spare at the same time.

Jessica’s profile used to describe her and her husband as “Christ-followers.” I loved that term. And I loved that she declared it so unabashedly. (Another friend I would readily label as a "Christ-follower" is Heather of the EO. That lady has a heart of pure gold, and an easy, everyday way of describing her faith and her journey.) Reading Jessica’s profile gave me pause. I wondered at my own inability to label myself a “Christ-follower”. (Which is basically just a friendlier, more everyday term for “disciple.”)

I use other labels for myself all the time. I know I’m a mom. That’s a given. It comes with the territory. It defines my job and my heart in a single syllable. I have no problem calling myself an artist. It’s not just what I do for a living, it’s Who I Am. I also might refer to myself as a pianist (or at least an accompanist). I wouldn't be caught dead calling myself anything but an alto in the choir (I identify so strongly with that label, I would never defect to the soprano section!) I’ve often been called a teacher, and even "professor" by my students. The very act of blogging shows I’m willing, on some level, to call myself a writer. Clearly I’m comfortable with a handful of labels. So why has it never occurred to me to call myself a Christ-follower?

I definitely love the Lord. I have absolute faith in his loving, saving power. And I try to follow along. But in all my following, I fall short. All the time. I never seem to think I’m quite good enough yet.

Still, I promised to take his name when I was baptized. And I keep on promising nearly every week when I take the sacrament -- the very sacrament He instituted over 2000 years ago. For a year and a half I even wore a missionary badge that said I represented Him. So what is my hang-up? Why don’t I think of and describe myself first and foremost as a Christ-follower?

Well, a while ago I was preparing a talk and was guided back to this favorite passage of scripture:
“Wherefore...pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ...” (Moroni 7:48)

So there’s some kind of amazing love that is characteristic of all genuine Christ-followers. If you read back one verse he tells you just what that love is:
“But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever;” (Moroni 7:47)

Okay, this makes perfect sense. Because Christ himself said, “By this shall all men know ye are my disciples: If ye have love one to another.(John 13:35, italics added.)

So it’s not our callings, our titles, or our labels that define us as Christ-followers. It’s our LOVE.

Love? I can do. And need to do better.

Now, that love is a sticky thing.
Because, you see, it requires our obedience:
“If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

And I think to myself, I can’t do that. I can try. But I know I’ll fail. —Don’t worry, I’m not planning on breaking any BIG ONES. I’m not planning on breaking any at all. But, like I said earlier, I fall short. All the time.

The cool thing here is that there’s an escape hatch...
and it’s Love.

“Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much:” (Luke 7:47)

At least I know where I need to focus my energy and my prayers. Because I do want to be filled-to-overflowing with love that is self-renewing, and as ever-giving as it is ever-lasting, as pure as it is powerful. Simple, sanctifying, saving. I want to be a Christ-follower. Even if that label only ever shows on the inside.

But I have a hunch that if my heart becomes reshaped, softened, pure...I’ll be more comfortable using that label. Not so much as a descriptor of me, but as a reflection of His love.

But I’m also beginning to wonder if I did start referring to myself as a Christ-follower, if it would propel me to greater heights, and greater love, simply by the power of suggestion. You know, change me from the outside in. I’m still not quite ready to write it up there on my profile. But I think I’m ready to engrave it on my heart.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Open Letter to Luisa Perkins, Author of Comfortably Yum: Food for Body and Spirit

Dear Luisa,

Once upon a time, when I was first married (and still in the knight-in-shining-armor phase of our relationship) I truly viewed my husband as a future King (okay, I still do) and believed with all my heart he should eat like one. I had been the unofficial cook in my family for years, but still had an arsenal of very few recipes that were fit for a king. So late at night, while he was shooting footage for film school, I was up reading cookbooks. Studying the way ingredients were combined and herbs were used. Drooling over the ones that sounded truly delicious. Experimenting on a daily basis. And expanding my repertoire exponentially.

I haven't done that for years...

Until last night. Your new cookbook, Comfortably Yum: Food for Body and Spirit arrived in the mail, and I sat down and read the entire book, cover to cover. I couldn't put it down, despite the deadlines that are gripping my psyche, and the dustbunnies that are not only multiplying but rapidly becoming ferocious dragons all over the house.

I read. I laughed. I nodded in agreement. I found a soulmate. I was inspired.

This made me laugh:
Elga called it a dessert when she gave me the little handwritten index card, but I know she must have been kidding, because, um, see, Elga, it doesn't have any chocolate in it. But it makes a fantastic breakfast item...
This spoke to me in words I hadn't yet found to describe:
Cooking well is an art and a joy and a way to nurture yourself and your household all at the same time.
In this aspect, and many others, you are my twin separated at birth (although I am quite possibly not "as far down the food obsession continuum" as you are.):
We don't just savor delicious things; we are transported, practically Meg-Ryan-in-When Harry-Met-Sally-style.
(I would add here that Brillig just sent me a hilarious laughing-out-loud email busting me for using the word orgasmic in reference to the restaurant where we ate last night. My sister-in-law literally let out a rhapsodic squeal over the layer-upon-layer-of-chocolate dessert, as if she had just won not only the Showcase, but also the new Corvette...and I countered to the waiter, "I'll have what she's having.")
Our food addiction was enabled for many years by the fact that we lived in New York City, which is pretty much Mecca for restaurant goers. We never could bear to repeat-visit places because there was always something new to try.
Substitute Pasadena for New York City, and I could have written the west coast version of this paragraph, verbatim.

I read the excerpts from your travel journal and think about the way Jeff and I ate our way through Italy, and sixteen years later we still remember where we ate the best risotto, the best gelato, and the truly transcendent ribollita (which set Jeff on a quest to find the perfect recipes so I could duplicate it all at home. When we returned we invited our friends over...not for a slideshow or a travelogue, but an authentic Italian dinner.). I can't wait to try Patrick's pasta sauce.

I read about the way you're training your children to love good food, and thought of one of our family mottos: "Parkins aren't picky". (We're just very, very choosy.) I read about your son wondering aloud why he's the only one of his friends who doesn't like school cafeteria food, and it reminded me of this classic:

We took our youngest to preview several preschools when he was three, one of which actually had its own lunchroom. Mr. Cool saw a poster on the wall showing the food pyramid, pointed to it and said, "Mmm. Yummy fish!" The woman guiding our tour said proudly, "Yes. We have our own lunch room. Do you like fish sticks?" Mr Cool gave her a blank stare. "Actually," I explained, "he's never had fish sticks." "Oh," she said, recovering nicely,"but I bet you like tater tots!" Again, a blank stare. "I don't think he's ever had tater tots either" I explained. "Well, what do YOU like to eat?" she asked him directly, and without missing a beat he responded, "Salmon and couscous." Just like that. I pray we haven't ruined our children.

Even now, as I read...
  • I am thinking of all my wonderful food snob friends with whom I've shared many excellent meals and cherished recipes, and would now like to share this book.
  • I am wondering how you manage to stay so impossibly thin while eating so much bacon and cheese and potatoes and heavy cream.
  • I am reveling in the commentary, delighted by the way you were able to put so much of yourself on every page, in every recipe.
  • I am loving that you quote Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.R. R. Tolkien, Broadway musicals, and name a dip after Lynard Skynard.
  • Most important, I am reminded why I love to cook. How the alchemy of the kitchen, the flavors and aromas, has such power over me. I am reminded that I LOVE to nurture my family through good food.

I longed to tell you that when I made a local restaurant recommendation to our wonderful Kimberly during her writers' conference weekend, I noted: "I'm positive Luisa would LOVE Pizzeria 712 (sustainable, organic, gourmet wood-fired pizzas)"...so I guess I wanted to let you know, I get it. I might not always do it, but I get it.

I find myself wanting to have long conversations with you regarding...food. Debating, for example, the merits of sea salt over kosher salt. Sharing recipes and philosophies. Breaking bread. I especially want to tell you that my grandmother made those very same beloved salmon patties, but no one's quite been able to reverse-engineer the recipe, so I'm grateful for yours.

And, while I'm certain that house next door to you is WAY out of my price range, and would make for a long and tiresome commute for my hubby, I'm finding it very, very tempting.

Thank you for this wonderful book. The title is perfect. (And, after reading, I have to concede that the subtitle is even more fitting than my own clever half*).

Well done, my friend!



*Backstory: I won a copy of Comfortably Yum: Food for Body and Spirit in a contest a few months ago, in which Luisa challenged her readers to come up with a title for her new cookbook. There ended up being two winners, one for the Comfortably Yum (me) and another for the subtitle (Deb Barshafsky). Said copy arrived yesterday.