Wednesday, August 29, 2012

OK, a LOT of elbow grease. . .

I didn't take any "before" pictures, so posting "after" ones wouldn't help you to understand just how much I accomplished today.  But suffice to say that I'm pretty sure that the tenants who lived in this house before us never deep cleaned anything, and only rarely cleaned at all.  They were also smokers, so when I say that I cleaned all the walls, I mean lots of black/grey film, and two washcloths so worn out I threw them away by the end of the day.

But I stayed busy all day, so the bathrooms no longer give me that Arlee powwow grounds uneasiness (if you've never been to the Arlee powwow ground bathrooms, substitute "New York subway station bathroom" and you'll understand), and are now looking quaint and charming.  I can't say that they're verging into "cute" yet, but give me a few weeks and some homemaking touches.  The stove was the worst part.  I was pretty sure it was possible to get E. coli just looking at the thing, but now it just looks like a very cool vintage stove (seriously--its pretty neat) and I wouldn't be afraid to eat food that was cooked on it.

I managed to get almost all the boxes to the appropriate rooms all by lonesome this afternoon (I still have about a half a dozen large boxes to take up the stairs, but my knees just didn't want to do anymore today), and this evening Doug and a couple members of the Bishopric are moving the last of the large items--king-size bed, kitchen table and chairs, piano, fridge, washer and dryer--from the storage to the house tonight.  Then we have to assemble beds and shelves and I can start putting away clothes and books and whatnots and have somewhere to put the kids to bed.

My feet, knees and shoulders all sort of hurt a bit, but it was totally worth it for the smokin' move-in deal.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Haze

As is often the case come August, Montana has been burning up all over the place, with lots of large wildfires burning all over the state, causing the skies to be a bit hazy, almost overcast-looking.  Montana is called Big Sky Country not just because of our wide open skies, unobstructed by a whole lot of buildings or infrastructure or, lets face it, leafy forests, but also because the skies are generally so gorgeous and dynamic.

Nothing is quite so beautifully, richly blue as a Montana sky in June, softened by the whitest, puffiest cumulus clouds in creation.  But summer is often a time of thunderstorms, too, with the sky being swarmed by multi-hued grey clouds and pierced by bright lightening.  The world seems brighter up here because the sky is so beautiful, and so active.

Its one of the things I missed most while living in the San Joaquin Valley, the sky.  There are a few glorious weeks in March, usually, where the valley skies look the way skies should.  But most of the year, the sky is lost in a grayish brown haze of smog, or a thick gray fog that hangs over it much of the winter.  When I first moved to the San Joaquin valley, it felt oppressive--but I got used to it.  I didn't ever truly forget about it, but in no conscious way did I notice the sky, or lack thereof.  I just got used to living in the haze.  Then we would take a trip up here and I'd remember:  there's a beautiful sky up there.  And that sky makes the whole world under it a bit more beautiful, too.  I miss that sky.

I think life is like that when we start to lose our grasp on joy--not temporary fun or occasional happiness, but that more resilient type of inner peace.  When it first starts to slip away, we feel the loss keenly.  But as time wears on, the haze becomes our new normal, and we start to forget what it feels like for things to be any different than they are:  we start to see even the past through the haze that envelopes us, so that all things that came before look much like we are now.

The causes are diverse, and so the solutions are as well.  Maybe the answer is more prayer.  Maybe its more self-honesty.  Maybe its exercise. Maybe its medication coupled with many of those things.  Maybe its having the humility to ask others to help us because we're carrying a burden that's a bit too big for our shoulders.  Maybe its having the humility to ask advice when we'd rather figure out the answer ourselves.

I've dedicated a lot the time I have so far been granted in this world to discovering more and better understanding Truth, and when I look back at the times I can now see were spent in the haze, I was unhappy because I didn't want an answer, I wanted an escape hatch.  In Lehi's dream, he speaks of mists of darkness pressing down on the people as they made their way down the path--I think I am starting to (in a very small way) understand the things of which he spoke.  Even the easiest life is rarely all that easy, and I sit in awe of those with hard paths who have managed to "press on" with great determination and hope.  But when those mists of darkness descend, we have to have the faith to hold to the rod and press on--things didn't get easier for those who let go of the rod.  They wandered off into strange paths and were lost.

Whatever mists press down on you, whatever stones there are in your path, keep holding on.  Sometimes the path is clear and bright, and at other times it is rugged and dark, but all you have to do is just keep putting one foot in front of another and the path will unfold itself before you.  One step at a time, we move forward, line upon line, until that little bit of light piercing the haze grows brighter and brighter until that perfect day.

And I'm quite certain that that perfect day looks an awful lot like a western Montana June sky.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Best Silver Lining

In the midst of the moving madness, on my feet and totally crazy all day, Keira brought me a little moment of delight today.  Her high chair sits right next to the fridge, and as I was cleaning her up from her lunch, she spotted Doug in one of the photos on the fridge and started giddily pointing to his picture, exclaiming "Dada! Dada!" as she giggled, clapped and pointed.  She loves her dad so much.

Probably the best thing about the time Doug spent unemployed was that Keira got to have her dad around almost every day for her entire first year.  How many kids get that wonderful blessing?  She adores him, and its apparent in her playful, giggly, flirty demeanor whenever he is around.  She has missed him a lot these last four months, and even though I'm sick to death of all the moving, I'm really glad she's going to get to see him every day again.

The first weekend that Doug came home after taking the job in Anaconda, she punished him all weekend:  glared at him, wouldn't go to him, fussed when he tried to play with her.  But when she figured out that being gone was part of the routine for now, she took to soaking up every minute she could when he was home: running to him with a great big hug as soon as he got home, crawling up into bed with him in the morning and snuggling, initiating little games and just generally trying to secure his attention at any given moment.  And he's happy to oblige her.  I'm grateful that the two of them are so close--they delight each other.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Taking a moment. . .

There are boxes, piles and children everywhere, conditions that usually make sitting down to write somewhat problematic for me, but as I pack and organize with 9,000 different things running through my brain, I had to sit down and take a moment to absorb just how grateful I am for this wonderful little life of ours.

You see, last weekend, though anxiety and irritation kept trying to sneak up on me, I was able to mostly hold them at bay with the mantra "Something will turn up."  The kids and I went to Anaconda to try to find somewhere to live, since my months of online hunting had been entirely unfruitful.  We thought being in the area might bring more luck.  By the time I loaded up the kids to head home, we had found three possibilities:  a very, very large, very nice home that would cost $1200/month before any utility payments were considered; a ghetto house-turned-commercial-building-turned-house that consequently didn't work well as either, with owners/managers that had a weird vibe; and a 2 bedroom, 700 sqft house with a small kitchen, small bathroom, two small bedroom and no common space.  None of this would've been too discouraging, except we were about 2 1/2 weeks out from the kids starting school, and we hadn't even found anything, much less started moving in.  The more logical part of me wanted to panic, or resign myself to spending another semester living here (which would be quite nice except for the whole Doug being gone all week thing).  But I knew how often things didn't look like they were going to work out or be OK, how many times the last few years I saw no solution when one suddenly made itself apparent, so I never really got too anxious.  And, after we left, a coworker of Doug's got us a contact that led to a decent, comfortably-sized home to rent at a price that will allow us to spend this year paying off last year's unemployment, as well as possibly save up for a house of our own.

The Lord (and the people he has put in our life) have provided for us every step of the way.  Its not that life hasn't been challenging, hasn't been without its stresses.  Just a quick highlight reel of our life since getting married: we had Keilana 10 months after we got married, then five months later my grandma died and four months after that my grandpa died;  almost exactly a year later, we had Dylan, finished grad school, moved to Tulare and then moved to Lindsay, all in a six-week time frame; four months after that, my father lost his sister under horrible circumstances, and that same week we were both called to serve in the youth presidencies in our ward, which continued for nearly three years (looking back, it still amazes me how time and energy-consuming those callings were); six months later, Dylan spent nearly a week in the hospital in southern California, which stretched our already squeaky-tight budget to the breaking point, creating a financial hole that took nearly four years to climb out of (just about when Doug lost his job. . .), the same week that Doug's cousin and her kids moved in with us for the rest of the school year; 4 months later, Conner died and Doug got promoted to a Director, with all the requisite time and stress burdens; a few months after that, I went back to work to try to help alleviate some of the financial stress, which meant pretty much whenever Doug was home I was gone.  When that got to be too much, I finally quit a little less than two months before Kylie was born.  We welcomed her, and had actually something of lull for a while, which is probably because we were considering moving to Montana due to the way things were playing out at work--it seemed like maybe it would be a good time to move on, but we got a "no".  In the mean time, Doug was working full time, had several consulting jobs on the side, and was taking a night class at COS.  Just as that madness started to slow down, a bogus, ridiculous police report was filed against a member of our family by someone we had trusted.  Spent a couple months sorting that out, before we became embroiled in trying to help extract an ill family member from an unhealthy and abusive situation, and just after that I had an early miscarriage.  A few months later, I was pregnant with Keira, and things were getting really bizarre and uncomfortable at work.  We were starting to suspect that Doug would be out of a job, by his own choice or the vicissitudes beyond our control, before our baby was born. By early fall, my step-grandpa passed away, and my grandma was in the hospital with a broken hip.  By October (when I was about four months pregnant), what had been a quiet festering in town became open contention, with many of our closest friends (and, unfortunately, their children) bearing the brunt of it.  By the next month, Doug's boss had resigned and the City, both from a financial and a morale stand point, was in shambles, and the new boss was, well, lets just say he wasn't real fond of Doug or most of the people that Doug and I most respected, who now worked for him.  We tried to make it work, but it didn't last long, and by January, Doug was out of a job, and in the coming months, most of our friends would be much the same. Just before Easter, Doug's grandma passed away.  We tried to live responsibly on our savings while Doug finished his Master's final project and job hunted.  As our savings dwindled and we found virtually no jobs, we moved up here.

And hid.  You see, most of the time all these various things were going on, we were also very enmeshed with a lot of the people in our lives--they were our friends, the people we served with at church, and the people we both saw and interacted with when we were at work.  McDermott was across the street.  There was simply no escape from the stresses of what we were trying to accomplish.  The physical, emotional and spiritual demands were significant.  We were also trying to wade through some very complicated family relationships that were not always going well, to say the least.  I spent a great deal of time and energy serving as a primary emotional support for a dear loved one as she struggled through a troubled marriage and tragic loss (which I don't regret for a second or resent in the least--I adore her and am happy that, in whatever way, I was able to help, but it was incredibly emotionally demanding/draining), and dealing with all those other every day difficulties and stresses of life:  trying to make ends meet (trying hard not to resent massive student loans and frustrating medical bills), cooking, cleaning and nurturing a growing family, normal work stresses, weddings and funerals and trying reestablished long-estranged relationships, etc, etc.  The circumstances under which Doug left his job left the extra emotional baggage of feeling let down or even betrayed by people we had trusted and loved, and the disappointment of finding out that, in some ways, our worst guesses were in fact right.

So when we got here, we retreated.  Neither of us made much effort to socialize beyond our immediate family.  We let people "take care" of us much more than either of us is usually inclined to.  Both of us introverted to varying degrees, we had been "on" almost constantly for five and a half years and though we both knew we were tired, I don't think we realized just how terribly worn out we were until we had a minute to pause and rest.  I was so very, very sad to leave my friends and family in California (and still miss them more than I can say), but I am so grateful that the Lord allowed us to hang out there jobless long enough that coming here became our best option--we may never have considered it otherwise, and it has been exactly what we needed.

He has provided for us all along this somewhat bumpy way.  If we had had to spend that much time wrapped up in life with any other group of people, we probably would've strangled someone, but as it was, the people around us made us better.  We were able to be so enmeshed for those years because they are all individuals of the highest caliber and I am honored that they consider us friends.  They are some of the most kind, generous, patient, forgiving--in short, some of the most charitable (in the truest, Christlike sense) people I have ever known.  Though there have been many other blessings, I am more deeply grateful for the privilege of having such friends than I am for nearly any other blessing in my life.  And, through all of that, I was periodically reminded, by an email from Sam, or a group email from the Sam/Laura/Hayley/Callie cadre, that I had even more wonderful friends in my life who cared about me than just those immediately around me.

We are also loved by large, warm, generous families.  We have four very healthy, happy, bright children.  We have never lived anywhere fancy or huge, but we have always been able to find somewhere comfortable and affordable to raise our family.  We have been blessed with excellent health (no small thing at all).  Even in our most tense, frustrated, frightened moments, we have never doubted that we have the very best of friends in one another, and I am beyond grateful to have a husband with whom I can communicate freely and easily, who loves me and loves our children and almost always puts our needs before his own.  For that love and generosity, I am happy to forgive most all other faults, as he is with me.

When I look back over the last nine years, it isn't all those challenges that stick out to me usually.  More often, I remember hundreds of little kindnesses, and thousands of little moments of a joy, as well as a few big moments of Divine goodness.  My life is so filled with the tender mercies of the Lord that I could never record all of them here, but I want to resolve going forward to make a better effort at doing just that:  recording tender mercies, little moments, cherished blessings, so that perhaps others might be able to better see, through my charmed life, the goodness and kindness of a loving Father.  Sometimes reading/seeing the blessings of others helps us to be more aware of our own.  Perhaps in this small way I can repay a small portion of the debt of gratitude I owe to a loving and attentive Father.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Musings on Self-Esteem and Good Cheer

I once heard a doctor who had done quite a number of gastric bypass or stomach stapling procedures make an interesting observation about his patients:  "Miserable people who don't like to change don't turn into happy people who make healthy changes just because they lose weight."  Or, in other words, those people who came to him after making genuine, concerted efforts to change their lifestyle but were unable to drop substantial weight for various physiological reasons and were simply unhappy about the effect the the extra weight had on their health were still happy (but much thinner and healthier) people after surgery.  Those who were unhappy people generally and were also overweight were often surprised and discouraged to discover that simply being thinner didn't make them a whole lot happier, and often regain a great deal of weight.

We see this same truth replayed in many movies and books and plays about a lack of money.  People who are unhappy and blame that unhappiness on poverty suddenly make it big and discover that, much to their surprise, they still aren't all that happy.  If you can't learn to be happy without money, chances are good that you won't ever have much of it.

The bigger point is that we are responsible for our own happiness, whatever our circumstances in life.  It is not your money (or lack thereof), or your pants size, or your fancy house (or lack thereof), or even the opinions (especially ill-informed or incorrect ones) of those around you that make you happy or unhappy, unless you let those things control you.  It is, in fact, a terrible error to allow our circumstances to dictate our disposition.  The Lord commands--not suggests, not implies, but clearly and directly compels--"be of good cheer".  There are many reasons for that, not the least of which is that to do so makes the trials and privations of mortal life more bearable not only for ourselves, butfor those around us, as well.

I have had times where I have felt as though I have been so relentlessly criticized for so long that I begin to feel like I can't seem to ever get anything right, that those doing the criticizing don't understand how hard I'm trying, or how much it hurts to hear over and over.  When I feel that way, I find that I usually have two options:  I can sit and stew about, get angry, cry, feel sorry for myself, which turns into a ball of bitterness that is difficult to shake; or I can find a quiet spot to engage in honest, heartfelt prayer.  When I get on my knees, I have someone listening who will let me cry it all out without contradicting me or correcting me or being irritated at my neediness.  I can engage all of that emotion openly, and then the Spirit can nudge me into the more productive part of my prayer:  sorting out those parts of the criticism that may be correct and justified, no matter how those criticisms were delivered, and tossing the rest of it out of my mind and out of my heart.  If I do that with a genuine willingness to change my own behavior, to truly improve myself, He will help me to change the parts of me that do need changing, while bringing peace and comfort to my heart.  He binds up my little broken heart so that I can be proactive rather than bitter, forgiving rather than damned in my progress by my own self-pity.

I cannot change anyone else.  But if I am going to influence their behavior toward me, I have found that the most effective way to do so is to be flexible, to ask questions rather than try to explain, to be outwardly focused, to be of good cheer.  When I succeed in behaving that way, in making progress by making healthy changes, I often find in retrospect that there was never need for much of the hurt anyway.  I often discover that things I thought were accusations were merely questions; actions I saw as thoughtless were merely part of trying to serve a picture much bigger than simply my little wants; criticisms that I thought were borne out of unkindness were actually meant to be constructive--a desperate attempt to get through my thick head how I was making myself miserable.

As much as it may be tempting to push off on them sometimes, beyond a few years into young adulthood, our parents are not responsible for our self-esteem.  Our children are not responsible for our self-esteem (a fact that will probably turn into a mantra for me sometime in the next 10 years, I imagine), and even as important and precious as our relationships with them are, our spouses are not responsible for our self-esteem.  When we focus on the things that we don't like in our lives, the ways things didn't go the way we wanted them to, and the blessings we don't have, we often fail to realize how much it effects our attitude and behavior, and how much the resulting behavior can hurt, anger and frustrate those who care about us.  We can easily become so bitter about the blessings we lack and the trials we have that we end up pushing our greatest blessings out of our lives, and we don't see it happening because our own feelings and our own actions always seem to make perfect sense to us, they seem perfectly justifiable to us, and so we start focusing on ourselves and how and why we are misunderstood, instead of focusing on understanding those around us, and why they may feel the way they do, or perceive things the way they do.  We lose our sense of good cheer and start turning into tired malcontents who cannot be pleased because, in truth, we're looking for the wrong things.

The good news is that we have the power at any point to stop that cycle.  At any moment, we can go to our knees and tell the Lord how we're feeling, and then sincerely, humbly ask, "Lord, what would thou have me do?"  I know from many of my own experiences that if we ask, and really mean it, he will help us mend what's broken in ourselves, and strengthen what's not.  He will help us to see the best in those around us, despite their flaws or occasional failings in the way they behave toward us.  He will help us to recognize the ways that they show their love for us, and focus on those things.  He will open our eyes to the bounty of blessings with which we are surrounded.

Making those changes, accepting criticisms that are hard to hear, is tremendously challenging.  Being grateful and looking on the bright side in spite of our tribulations is not easy--it is one of the biggest challenges of mortality.  But as Nephi said, the Lord gives no commandments to his children without preparing a way for them to accomplish the things that he has commanded.  We are able to be of good cheer because he has overcome the world and we "encircled eternally in the arms of his love".  He anxiously looks for more opportunities to help shoulder our burdens.  As we develop a personal relationship with the Savior and genuinely and consistently work steadily with him to smooth and polish our rough edges, the criticisms don't have the sting they once did.  They still hurt, and sometimes when they contain too much truth they can cut pretty deep.  But if the Savior knows you are humbly doing the work to strengthen that weakness, you will be at peace with him, and so the hurt won't last.

Each of us is responsible for our own life and for the person that we are.  While I'm sure the Savior understands better than anyone the effects that others have upon us, when it come right to that last moment as we stand before our Savior to be judged, we can't be faced with our weaknesses and sins we haven't repented of and start saying, "Well, I know that's not OK, but it really HIS fault."  This isn't a police interrogation where you can get less time for rolling on the other guy--you own your life.  You.  We can have little shadows of that moment in prayer where we get an honest look at our standing with the Lord, and we can say, "Well, my dad picked on me, so its his fault I'm this way", or we can say, "Whatever brought me to this point, Lord, this is where I am.  How do I move forward? What would thou have me do?"  Until we can honestly say that, with a heart willing to do the work necessary to make those changes, both good cheer and self-esteem will elude us.  Because when it comes right down to it, both self-esteem and the positivity that accompanies it come from hard earned personal progress and an abiding faith in the power of the Atonement. Without that, no amount of validation from the world or anyone in it will ever make us happy.

To My Children

A couple of months ago I was in a meeting where we were given a piece of paper and a pen and told to imagine that we knew we only had 3 minutes left, to imagine to whom we would write and what we would say.

It was easy for me. I immediately knew who I wanted to write to and what I wanted to tell them.  I remembered a time many years ago when a loved one went very off course and, very contrary to my normal behavior, I offered my two cents--unsolicited.  I kept it very brief and to the point, but I told her that the only reason I said anything at all was because I was a mother.  She chose a very different course than the one her mother, who died when this girl was very young, had chosen.  I thought of some of the more difficult choices I have made over the years to ensure that my kids had certain things in their life that had lacked in my own.  I thought of all of the choices I have made to try to give my children the best possible chance of having genuine joy.  I imagined what it would be like to watch from the other side, unable to shake some sense into that child and say, passionately, "This isn't what I wanted for you!"  As a mother, I couldn't not say something.

As we went about this task in class, I remembered that experience, and realized that I don't want there to be any question in my children's minds what is important to me and what I want for them, so I thought I would share here what I wrote with my three minutes.

Love each other:  muster every bit of kindness, forgiveness, patience and thoughtfulness that you can for each other.  Other people will come into your lives, but you will continue to need each other, and to understand each other, in a way that few other people ever will.  Listen to your dad.  He wants the best for you and loves you more than you can possibly understand right now.  Nothing is more important to him than you:  he dotes on you, and he will need your hugs now more than ever.  Go to church with him every week, and pay close attention to what is taught in primary, and Young Women and Priesthood.  Pay attention to what your daddy says--he is knowledgeable and insightful and will be a wonderful guide for you.  Get ready for baptism, and never take your eyes off the temple as your goal.  Do all that you can to be worthy of temple blessings.  Nothing--nothing, nothing, nothing--will ever bring you as much joy as the forever family you form in the temple, so long as you continue to selflessly serve that family.  So be picky--be careful in your choices of those whom you date, and then trust the Spirit in guiding you in choosing a companion.  The Lord knows what he's doing.  So please, please, pray often and read your scriptures so that you can get to know him, so that you will know and recognize his voice.  He loves you, even more than I do.  He lives and will take your hand and guide you home.  Learn as much as you can, about as many things as you can and think hard and seriously about the decisions that you make, but when it comes right down to it, trust in God, not your own understanding.  I love you so, so much.