Friday, May 30, 2014

Post-It Notes From God

One summer, years ago, when we were visiting my in-laws in London, I noticed that my mother-in-law got a little quiet, even seemed a bit brisk on the last day of our trip, as if she were distancing herself emotionally. Hoping we hadn't offended her, I asked my husband, "Is your mom mad at us? Did we do something wrong?"

"No," he answered, "I think she just has a hard time saying goodbye."

It took me a few more years to realize that the reason he understood his mom so well is he has the same struggle. He has a hard time saying goodbye.

At first, this used to make me sad. I'd drive away (or watch him drive away...even worse) and think, He doesn't love me. He won't even miss me

It's a pretty unhealthy vortex.  We talked about it a few times. 

Then came the post-it notes. 

When we were in Florida together last March, and Jeff had to fly back early to teach a class, I got back to the hotel room, already missing him, and found notes from him everywhere...inside drawers, in my suitcase, in the bathroom, stuck to my hairbrush, inside the book I was many notes! I was amazed he had (or made) the time to write them all and hide them all. And each time I'd find one it would make me so happy. 

Last week was no exception. I left for six days of painting and teaching in Capitol Reef. I found the first note in the pocket of my hoodie. There was another inside a pad of paper. Another stuck to the Q-tip box in my cosmetic case. There was one inside my sketchbook. And another inside my palette. I kept finding them all week long. The students' eyes lit up whenever they saw me find one. Each note I discovered was a joyful surprise! There could be no doubt that he loved me.

When a shower repairman was at our house last month, he said, "Umm...when I'm in people's houses every day, I notice things." I thought, "Oh, no -- do we have a mold problem?" Instead, he said, "Those notes on the mirror....are awesome!" Yes, they're on the bathroom mirror too. Now as many from me to him as from him to me. We save every one. I love all the little reminders smiling back at me from the mirror. (And apparently so does the shower guy.)

Then I got to many people seem to doubt God's love for them. They live with a constant black cloud over their heads, thinking not only "God doesn't love me," but eventually doubting His very existence. The thing they don't realize—and I include myself on the dark days—is there are love notes from God hidden everywhere. We just have to notice them, find them.

Start with nature. I just spent a week in Capitol Reef. The sheer natural beauty is overwhelming. Everywhere you look there's a gigantic post-it note from God: Here. I created this for you. I made it extra beautiful, just for you, because I love you. Enjoy fully!

Open your scriptures. It doesn't take long before you'll stumble across another figurative post-it note, a verse that strikes you in a new light, or even just a peaceful feeling, reminding you not just intellectually of God's love, but helping you instantly feel that love renewed.

Get on your knees. From the time I was a young girl I remember feeling something different when I said my prayers at night. Something I didn't feel any other time or place. A love note. From God. But you have to get down on your knees to find it, to feel it. Or at least close your eyes and clear your head. 

Visit His house. I don't think I've ever felt more precious, more loved, more cherished than when I'm inside the temple. If you pay attention, there's not just a single love note, but streams of love pouring down on you here.

Hold a baby. There is nothing like holding a precious, innocent creature so recently come from heaven to remind you of God's love. Let your gaze sink into the purity of those crystalline eyes and dive straight into that love.

Serve. Do something unselfish (and maybe a little inconvenient) to help somebody out. You'll see a love note reflected back in the gratitude in their eyes. Better yet, you'll feel it wrapped around you like a blanket and pounding in your heart. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40)

His post-it notes are everywhere, larger than life, yet so easy to miss if we're looking in the wrong places. The list above is just the beginning. I challenge you to find one, find ten, today. I promise it will make you a whole different kind of happy. You'll find joy.

What about you? Where do you usually find post-it notes from God, figurative reminders of his love? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

For the woman who hated Mother's Day

One of the things I remember most about my mother was how much she HATED Mother's Day. This saintly woman who never said a single swear word would sometimes even skip church--just deliberately stay home--one day a year: Mother's Day.

We kids didn't understand it. I remember asking her what the big deal was, and this ordinarily quiet reserved woman would say, rather dramatically, "Oh, I just can't ABIDE those sicky-sweet talks about all the perfect mothers out there. I don't want to have to stand up so they can hand me a posy. The whole thing makes me feel like such a miserable excuse for a mom."

She couldn't be serious. We still didn't get it. She was a GREAT mom. Why didn't she want to sit there and be honored? Why didn't she want the young women to hand her a geranium or a chrysanthemum on her special day? She was AMAZING. Truly.

I think she had some idea in her head, some fantasy image of how the perfect mom looked and behaved, and she never quite measured up to that ideal in her own eyes. Yes, the living room was always spotless (we even dusted the books!) but the rest of the house was often in varying degrees of chaos. Yes, she ground her own wheat and filled the whole house with the aroma of homemade bread--but maybe only a dozen or so times. More often than not we ate what was on sale at the store. Yes, she baked cookies. But she didn't have them waiting on a plate next to a glass of milk when we got home from school every day. Yes, she got up and made waffles for breakfast--but only on our birthday and the first day of school. The rest of the time she stayed in bed until we were gone so she could have the bathroom all to herself. Yes, she could cook a mean Thanksgiving dinner--but a lot of the time we ate Hamburger Helper. Yes, she was perfect. Except when she wasn't.

She was keenly aware of the number of times she had raised her voice to get us to behave, the times we walked out of the house wearing mis-matched socks (or the weeks on end my youngest brother went to school with his pajamas under his clothes "to save an extra step"). The clothes piled up in the laundry room. The dishes piled up in the sink. The homework piled up on the dining room table.

Oh, how I wish she were here to read this post, called Drops of Awesome. To say to herself, "I baked bread--I'm awesome." Instead of berating herself the rest of the time. I wish I could say to that young mother, my mother, It's not about being perfect. It's about being there. And she was there. All the time.

She was there when we needed to run inside from the cold or the rain. She was there when we needed a band-aid or a fort in the front room. She was there, with her perfect pitch, to call out from the kitchen, "C-sharp" or "B-flat" when I made a mistake while practicing the piano. She was there when I needed a good idea, a proofreader, or a listening ear. She was there with the bread and the cookies and all the other mom-trappings, but mostly she was there with her heart.

She was there when I got home from a date, ready to laugh with me about the embarrassing moments so I could go to sleep happy rather than mortified. She was there when I got home from my mission and needed to talk about things I'd learned and things I still didn't understand. She was there when I got married, amazingly laundering my dress between the ceremony and the reception. She was there when I had my first baby...feeding me ice chips and putting cool cloths on my forehead.

And the amazing thing is...she's still here, even though she passed away 22 years ago.  I feel her presence and her influence often. I remember the things I learned from her. The cookies might have only lasted a minute, but the stuff she taught me (mostly through example)? THAT lasts forever.

So the gifts she gave me as a child and as a mother I can still open and enjoy today: Service, Prayer, Perception, Keeping confidences, Developing talents, Excellence, Unselfishness, Peacemaking, and Joy.

I hope that once she arrived on the other side of the veil she realized how WONDERFUL a mother she truly was...and is!

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I love you.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bodies in My Basement

I collect bodies in my basement.  

Over the years I’ve amassed hundreds of them. 
And I feel good about it.  

Every summer I take the kids to the pool. They adore what I avoid: Exposure. To the water, the sunshine. To other people. While they frolic and splash, I seek cover in the shade, fully clothed, attempting to lose myself in a novel. I note the irony of isolating myself at a pool labeled community. When I face the thought of exposing my physical flaws, my body feels more like a prison than a temple

Nearly lulled to sleep by the afternoon heat, I squint toward the pool. Hiding behind my sunglasses, I see my children and all the other people enjoying the water. Wonderful people, in every shape, size and color—some rotund and Rubenesque, others elongated like a Modigliani. Observing with my Artist’s Eye, I appreciate the distinctive beauty of each one.  

Leaning into the sunshine, I dig through the beach bag for the sketchbook I brought from my basement studio. Quickly, rhythmically, I begin to draw—sometimes without even looking at the paper. I try to capture all of those life-filled bodies in fleeting strokes: Families strolling by. Mothers standing, hips cocked to one side, talking to complete strangers. Grandmothers stooping over large, unwieldy beach bags. Children sliding and laughing. Little ones, wrapped in bright-colored towels, shivering in the sun. I suspend time, movement and space as I collect these gestures one at a time in my sketchbook. I want to save them.  The imperfect bodies are the most interesting to an artist. The rolls and folds create elegant forms. I notice that a pregnant woman's belly mirrors her toddler's, and contemplate the connection. I study the variety of proportions, and find that none is wrong. 

I am in awe of the souls who courageously parade their corpulence without inhibition. They don’t mind being exposed and vulnerable in swimsuits; they’re simply enjoying the water and the sunshine and the community. As they should.

Having cast myself to this poolside corner in relative darkness, I suddenly feel ashamed. Not so much of my body, but of the way I hide it, enshroud it, and sometimes even loathe it; the way this damaging mindset distances me from my kids. What kind of mother am I? I recognize that, in my reluctance to join my children in the pool, I’ve fallen prey to my own insecurities. In one fell swoop I’ve managed to devalue my mortal frame, a gift from God. I’ve cheated myself out of an opportunity to share a spirited activity with my children. And I run the risk of passing down a ridiculous complex to my own daughter, not to mention the children I hope she’ll bear in a future generation.  

Driving home the other day, I heard a song by Regina Spektor that seemed like a fleeting revelation. The lyrics: “I have a perfect body, but sometimes I forget. I have a perfect body because my eyelashes catch my sweat.” It’s just a silly pop song, yet it struck me with such tremendous force: My body, my children’s bodies, all of our bodies are perfectly engineered, from eyelashes to perspiration. They do what they were designed to do. Cells divide. Scars heal. Babies—entire human beings—grow inside their mothers. Before they’re even born they sprout fingernails and toenails, and develop impossibly complex parts like eardrums and eyeballs. Miracles, all.  

I yearn to develop an Artist's Eye—the Creator’s view—toward my own body. I remember that form follows function. I’m slowly learning to rejoice in my ripples and curves rather than lamenting the loss of the hardbody of my twenties. It’s easier to love the pillow of padding on my belly when I remember how I earned it: creating life, giving birth—four miraculous times. Through conceiving, bearing, feeding and nurturing children—through motherhood—I have finally used every part of my body exactly as it was designed, every function for its intended purpose. I may not look perfect, but I am complete.

I wonder: Were I to pull out of my basement the bodies I’ve collected in my sketchbooks—my creations celebrating His creations—might I somehow pull myself into that light as well? I have never drawn a body that wasn’t beautiful. I have never brought a baby into the world whose body seemed anything less than perfect. I would love to envision a self portrait with the same appreciative eye. Perhaps then I could escape this notion of a prison and celebrate my body for the temple it is...both for how it's shaped, and for the divinity it houses. 

I make a conscious decision to own my complete form and join my children in the pool. Donning a raspberry-red tankini I enter the water slowly, tentatively at first. I take a step, and then another. I try to silence the words of a former boyfriend still ringing in the back of my head: “Jana, get in the water quick before anyone sees those legs!” Wincing a little inside, I throw on an imaginary cloak of invisibility, shutting out judgement and shame. Who cares if it takes me the whole summer to turn from blue to white?! 

The water catches ripples of light, sparkling in the sun. The initial shock of cold gives way to a refreshing escape from the heat of the day. I am immersed. Lifting my head, catching my breath, feeling clean and alive, I see my children’s faces, beaming. They don’t notice the varicose veins or the dimples of cellulite. They see their mother, present and joyful, willing to splash, dive and call Marco. Or Polo. They may not be aware of the pride I sacrificed to join them in the pool, but I can tell they sense the love behind the gesture. Their smiles and enthusiasm tell me their happiness multiplied when I finally summoned the courage to dive in, all in. With them.

I'm proud of the fact that I collect bodies in my basement. Those stacks of sketchbooks are my personal witness to the beauty of the human form, in all its varieties. Including mine.

This is the piece that I presented at the Listen To Your Mother show on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. If you missed it, look for it on YouTube in mid-June. I'm in a tiny little photo, on the far left. One of our cast members wrote the poem under the photos on the LTYM website, which describes the experience perfectly.


An earlier, shorter version of this essay was recently published by Deseret Book in an anthology on body image called Why I Don't Hide My Freckles Any More.