5 ways to make the holidays more meaningful

The holidays can bring such joy — families gather together to share specially prepared meals, exchange gifts, and savor the particular magic that seems to permeate the air. Frosty windowpanes frame displays of trees and candles whose lights dance about merrily. The cold makes noses jauntily pink, and hot cocoa and spiced cider warm everyone back up. The scents of cinnamon and pine waft through the air.

Of course, that’s the ideal, what sparkles in our memories of favorite holidays. It’s also possible, with busy lives and the demands of work, kids’ last days of school before the winter break, and just trying to get ready for the expectations of what the holidays should be — grocery shopping, endless treks to the mall to get the toys and gadgets on the kids’ wish lists, getting lights strung around the house — to lose sight of the true meaning of the holidays.

Here are a few ideas for ways to bring back that wonderful feeling that can be the hallmark of this special time of year.

Get ideas from Grandma.

Ask an older member of your family, such as a grandmother or great-uncle, to share a tradition from his or her childhood and incorporate that this year. Grandma may tell you how when she was little she put her shoes outside the front door to have them filled with goodies from Santa Claus, instead of in a stocking next to the fireplace. This might work particularly well if you don’t have a fireplace and the children worry how Santa can get to their stockings without one!

Shake the family tree.

This free land of ours is a melting pot of many countries with their own unique practices surrounding the holidays. Your family may be a mixture of Russian, British and Norwegian, for example. Look up Christmas traditions that are common in Norway, perhaps, and pick one or two to incorporate this year in your celebrations. Christmas Eve dinner there usually features pork or lamb ribs or even cod, according to visitnorway.com, followed by the opening of gifts waiting under the tree. Get a recipe for Norwegian-style ribs and try that as a main course, and do the same for the traditional cookies — goro, krumkaker or berlinekrans.

Plan to volunteer or give back somehow as a family.

Depending on your family’s size and the ages of your children, it may be easy to find some way to give back to your community in some way or it may be a bit more challenging. Little ones won’t have a long attention span or may not be old enough to help out at homeless shelters or places that provide free meals, for instance. But anyone can find some way to serve others. Donating cans or boxes of nonperishable food items is a simple option; children can help Mom pick out vegetables they like and want to share with others. Take a box or bag full to your local food pantry. A more one-on-one way to brighten someone’s day is to visit a nursing home. Share your talents, such as music, or just sit and visit and ask an older person about his or her life. Ask him or her about long-ago traditions or holiday memories, even.

Re-emphasize your faith.

lightOur holidays are based on religious events, after all. Find a way to focus more on “what it really is all about.” Make an advent calendar that takes the whole month of December leading up to Christmas Day to remember miracles Christ performed. I’ve been enjoying the LDS Church’s #lighttheworld initiative this month so far, which gives an idea of something to do service-wise every day of the month leading up to the 25th, based on what Jesus did in his life.

Gift a memory.

It can sometimes be difficult to find just the right gift for a loved one. This year, try “throwing it back” by finding an item that reflects a favorite toy or experience the recipient had as a child. Children of the ‘80s had Atari game systems; try giving him a classic video game set in the form of an app. Maybe your grandma misses the beautiful farmhouse she grew up in; give her a framed photo of it or an ornament that harks back to it. Or try a charm for a bracelet or necklace. Have some fun!

Just don’t say ‘if you just…’

Ever had a problem; been frustrated, angry or a little depressed; felt stuck? Ever had someone tell you, “Well, if you just did this ______, you’d be fine?”

I’ve had people say that to me. And it shuts me up. It doesn’t help me, but it stops me from talking to those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it to someone else; I hope I haven’t. I know I’ve thought it. But at least for a long while now, I’ve known better than to say it out loud. And I’ve tried to remind myself of the truth:

Any one of us can have problems and challenges that, compared with someone else, somewhere, can look tiny, easily surmountable. Sometimes it’s helpful to realize others have it worse. If we look at our lives with appreciation and gratitude for the good things we have, it can help. But usually, trying to tell ourselves logically (or have someone else “helpfully” do so) that our problems shouldn’t be such a big deal does squat for our feelings.

Here’s why: we are allowed to feel how we feel. We’re meant to feel. We’re meant to have feelings in response to life situations, whether they’re kind of everyday things or unusual things. We’re meant to have all kinds of feelings all over the spectrum of emotion. And those feelings include “bad” ones. We’re meant to just feel those feelings. And what usually happens is once we allow ourselves to feel them, really feel them, we can move on to other feelings about other life events.

The problem is when we stunt that natural process by telling ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling “so bad” or by having someone else tell us so. It stops us from moving through the feelings, talking or thinking through the ideas and emotions.

Same applies to things we could or should be doing or doing better, not just what we’re feeling. Likely we’re comparing something we’re just naturally not so good at with something that really is easy for someone else, so we feel inadequate. Or we could compare something that’s easy for us with something someone else finds more challenging. And we say those dreaded words: “Just do ___.”

We all not only have a complex mix of weaknesses, strengths, natural talents and acquired skills, but we are at different stages in life. Something that was hard for us 20 years ago might be much easier now. Ditto for those around us. And something that was easy for us a year ago might be harder now because our circumstances are more challenging in other areas or we’re struggling with events that are zapping our emotional strength.

For me, I’m finding that I am feeling a general sadness in one layer of myself/my life because my oldest daughter got married a few weeks ago and moved out. But I hate to say anything to anyone because it just “seems silly.” She lives only an hour’s drive away and we can talk and visit. Every other parent my age has already had children go off to college or serve as missionaries for our church, during which time they’re gone for a solid 18 or 24 months and only generally in contact via email or letter once a week. So I feel ridiculous saying out loud that I’m grieving a little over the “loss” in a way of my first, amazing child. But it does make me sad she’s not around all the time anymore. I miss the daily interaction and talks and jokes and hugs and smiles and everything that was our relationship while I was raising her. Things are changing, have changed. It’s real to me. But I don’t want to say anything to anyone else for fear of being compared, of essentially having my feelings belittled because their “loss” is bigger. Their child is across the country or across the world … or something “bigger.”

I also find that I feel down on myself because I have generally been doing well with eating healthy, cutting out sugar and a lot of carbs, this past 10 months or so. But the past month, since right before my daughter’s wedding and since, I just haven’t had it in me to “diet” properly. I’ve been eating junk, and lots of it, and I feel physically yucky. I feel bad because I had done so well. But I also realize that circumstances are different: I’m “recovering” from all the work and stress of preparing for my daughter’s wedding; my kids are now out of school for the summer and my “alone time” is a lot less; I’m adjusting to the change of our family dynamics, and I’m trying to “play catch-up” for some work and things that got put on hold with all I did for the wedding (because I am not just an awesome mom but very capable in planning things and organizing, and the wedding was awesome too). In short, it takes a lot of work for ME to eat well. And even though I feel yucky physically and would really like to feel better, I have to have the emotional and mental energy to focus on taking care of myself, truly properly. Others might say (and heaven knows plenty of “professionals” and bloggers say) “just do it.” Just stop eating sweets. Just stop emotional eating. Right now, for me, it’s akin to saying, “Just stop smoking. It’s so easy.” I’ve never smoked, but I have certainly heard how hard it is to stop.

I’m trying to allow myself to feel, to validate my own feelings. I’m talking to a few trusted friends who are kind enough to listen and validate as well. I’m also trying to allow myself not to take it too hard that I’ve gained a few pounds and am having a hard time with the junk food. Because I also know that I’ll be fine soon enough and will get back to where I should be. If I’m not there at this very moment, today, it’s OK. I will be soon. And that’ll be OK.

In short, I’m giving myself permission to feel, to not be “my best.” And I strive to do that for others. When they talk about feelings or issues they’re struggling with, I know that even if they sound “easy” for me, they’re not easy for them. I nod, I listen, I hug. I say, to them and to myself, “That is hard. I’m sorry you’re going through that. I love you and care about you.” And it’s true, and that’s really all it takes.

Honoring the end of life

I’ve been able to attend two really beautiful funerals this year, both for people who were extraordinary, and who had wonderful families. I was struck both times by what a special experience it was to share in the remembrance and celebration of the lives of these people with their loved ones. At both, there were many, many experiences shared, sweet and tender memories and funny ones, recounted with laughter and tears.

But how often do you hear people say they enjoyed attending a funeral? That they looked forward to the funeral, that they cherished the time they took to be there?

Americans (and probably many in modern, Western cultures) are far behind some more “primitive” cultures: we do not appreciate the death process or anything surrounding it; we tread with great trepidation around death; and we don’t honor those who are aging, stepping ever closer to death each day. It’s a serious problem. We have become obsessed with youth, with appearance that speaks of youth, with the notion that all that attends death is blessedly far away from the young. I’ve written at length about the problems our image-consciousness (tied in part to the beauty of youth and unwrinkled, unblemished skin) is causing us as individuals and as a society. I’ve not written much about how it’s separating us from those in our culture who have the most to give and share with the rest of us: their wisdom, their fascinating experiences, their character.

Some cultures truly revere their elders. They hold them in high esteem, treat them with great respect, seek them out, not only include them in decisions but hold them as their highest decision-makers. Their middle-aged citizens and children look up to them and learn from them, seeking to be more like them.

In our culture, ageism is the rule. We hire young workers at the exclusion of older ones. We worry about the capacity for wisdom and clear thought of those who aren’t young any longer. We put them away. We don’t want them as leaders because we are sure they’re “out of touch” with “reality.”

And then there’s death. We fear it. We fear the process leading up to it; we fear what happens when and after we die. There is little of reverence and appreciation for the process, even when someone is able to leave this existence with a minimum of pain or discomfort. We are somewhat conditioned naturally to keep away from dead bodies, and we have very little cause to interact with them. I have had the opportunity, however, a few times in my church to help dress women for burial, and I have found it to be not “gross” or “weird” or “scary” but, instead, a privilege. I have found it to be a sacred experience and a lovely last opportunity to perform a service for women who have meant something to me in my church congregation. But, again, we hear little of this kind of experience and of reverence for those who have died.

One Foot in HeavenI was able to read a lovely book this year written by a hospice nurse about the experiences she’s had helping people and their families as they have passed from this life. In One Foot in Heaven, Heidi Telpner tells readers about “good deaths” and “bad deaths” and reminds us all that we all will one day experience death ourselves, and most of us will have to deal with family members’ or friends’ deaths in some way or another. As much as we may (mostly successfully) manage to evade staring down death during our lives, it is still there. It still happens to us all. And the more we are comfortable with it, the more we and our loved ones can experience “good deaths.” Telpner tells about the poignant experiences she has had getting to know good, interesting people with loving and supportive families and how their deaths have been sweet and calm. She also tells about the people who personally fought death or had family who fought the reality of impending death and made it difficult for them to die peacefully. It’s a fine primer for all of us, to remember that death is inevitable, but how we approach it can make all the difference in how we and our loved ones live — and how we prepare to die.

So I find myself still getting surprised looks from others at times when I mention how grateful I was to attend some really beautiful and inspiring funerals, that I have been blessed to be able to provide a service to a person whose body is being readied to be buried but whose spirit is still living elsewhere (as I believe). I’d love to see this change, to see our culture become more age-friendly and even elder-centric. But I’m not holding my breath: we have a long way to go.

Great divides

Humans tend to be pretty divisive. We can be divided between individuals or, it seems even more commonly, between groups. We group ourselves in all kinds of ways, and then we cling to our groups and hiss and claw at other groups (yeah, I have cats). I’ve written about this before, and here I am thinking about it and writing about it again.

I just finished reading, for example, a compelling and fascinating book, The Good Spy by Kai Bird, about Bob Ames, a CIA agent in the 1960s and 1970s who worked tirelessly to build and maintain relationships, even friendships, with key players in the Middle East, some of whom the U.S. would have considered enemies, so he could contribute to peace between some very, very divided groups in the Holy Land and its environs. He did make great contributions to the peace process, and then he was killed in the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. The book’s examination of the complex, longstanding issues and conflicts in that area and of the passionate, extremist beliefs and actions of individuals and their groups reminded me just how bad things can get among us very flawed humans. And before anyone thinks, “Well, that’s just one small area,” let me remind them that this small area’s conflicts deeply affect the entire world.

The most recent divisiveness I’ve seen has involved a group I’m a part of, this one my religious group. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been in the news for some time now, for a variety of reasons, but very recently it has been the focus of discussions about women’s place in the church. A very small group of LDS women felt that women were being marginalized in our church, so they ultimately decided a straightforward way to solve this problem was to ask, then demand, that women in the church be granted the priesthood, which for the church’s whole history has been granted only to men. I do not have the space to discuss the doctrine involved here, but I can only say briefly that my understanding, my study, my experience, my feelings about the topic lead me to conclude that giving the priesthood to women is not the answer to certain problems that may exist (and I word it this way to recognize that some individuals in the church, human as they are, are definitely not perfect — none of us are!! — and have made some poor decisions or behaved in ways they shouldn’t have, thus making some women feel marginalized, and that does need to change).

From what I have read, the leader of this group finally made some choices that were too far out of the boundaries that have been set for and by the LDS Church, and she was excommunicated, or put out of the organization, according to its own rules, well known to its members. It is sad, for many reasons. But from everything I’ve learned over the years, this seemed to have become a necessary action for the church to take. It is not permanent; anyone who is “disciplined” in any way by church leaders is given opportunities and time to resolve their problems and concerns and find their way back, with support and help from these same leaders.

What I have found particularly distressing is the divisiveness this has caused within our church group. Because, the thing is, there are plenty of other groups within this large group, and these groups are now rallied against each other to some degree. Some — again, human and imperfect as they are, somewhere along the long path to being more like Jesus Christ, whom we strive to emulate — have made unkind comments on news stories online or have posted negative things on social media about the issue. Whichever “side” they’re on, their approaches are wrong.

I have many dear friends I admire greatly who disagree with me on this issue and other topics that relate to “groups” within this larger group we all share. I wish we didn’t disagree, but that’s the nature of things: we all have different life experiences and different ways of interpreting and seeing issues. Usually, we can simply remember that each “adversary” is a friend, a fellow human being, a fellow child of God, and treat them with compassion and kindness, even as we respectfully disagree on opinions. And sometimes, yes, sometimes, division will happen and sever people permanently. Jesus himself spoke of this happening. When he sent out his apostles to teach his doctrine, he told them, “I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

I believe as part of the doctrine of my faith that we are living in a time close to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. These latter days are ones that will be difficult for everyone, on many, many levels and for many reasons. I do believe we are being “sifted” and “tried,” to see where we stand, as we prepare for Jesus’s return. That’s my belief. I do make judgments about issues and where I stand on them; I cannot stand by and not make a judgment call, a decision, on most topics because Jesus has also said we cannot be lukewarm. We can’t sit on the fence. We have to choose a side, and we must do so as wisely and thoughtfully as possible, weighing things, considering, praying, seeking inspiration for ourselves. My friends and other groups may very well end up on the different side of the fence from me. Strangers I read about may end up on a different side. All I can do is state what I believe and possibly why, and still be kind and compassionate even as I disagree. I do have to judge an issue for myself, but I don’t have to judge a person who disagrees. I don’t have to be mean. I certainly don’t have to be mean and nasty online.

I do not know the future or the details of the big picture. Only God does. In the meantime, I can follow my Savior’s teachings as well as his example, by making choices that are the best ones I know how to make, trusting that we all will someday understand more of the big picture in which these issues fit, and by being loving and compassionate to all, even as I stand firm in my beliefs and decisions. I appreciate and support the statements made in a video by one female church leader:

Those who are struggling for whatever reason should be able to find within our sisterhood a spirit of warmth, inclusion, and love.

Occasionally, some of our brothers and sisters may find themselves away from the fold because of personal choices. Without condoning those choices, it is important to remember the Savior’s message of leaving the ninety and nine safely in the fold and reaching out with love, with kindness, and with compassion to the one. We can demonstrate that compassion by ensuring that our communications with one another are respectful and kind.

I will not admonish you to ‘enjoy this stage’

I think one of the worst things to hear as a parent, at least of young children and definitely of kids still at home, is “Enjoy this stage: they’re going to grow up before you know it!” Honestly, any unsolicited advice or “pseudo-advice,” which is what I’d call this admonishment, is generally unwelcome. Adjusting to parenting is hard enough — finding your own groove, your own way of handling all the changes, all the individual factors that combine to make your parenting experience unique in some ways — that getting told how to do better, or, worse, how to “think” or “feel” better about it, is a tough pill to swallow. You pretty much just wanna smack the well-intended but not-thinking person who dared to say it, perhaps with a squishy used diaper (OK, this is my reaction when I get ridiculously tired and cranky: I tend to overlook how people really can say things in well-meaning ways). Here’s my advice to improve that advice: be encouraging, give specific tips you’ve found useful, and provide a meal or babysitting if you really wanna make ’em smile!

Here’s what I know after 18 years of being a mom and being still in the middle of raising four daughters: parenting is tough. It’s physically and mentally and emotionally draining. It takes everything that’s in you and more. It makes you double- and triple-question yourself. And each stage of raising kids has its own set of challenges that exhaust your reserves (or try to) in various ways.

But I have come to appreciate that each parent, thanks to his or her particular backgrounds and skills, may be better at, more suited to, or at least enjoy certain stages more than others. I am pretty sure I was not a natural at parenting babies and toddlers, although by the time I got to my third, I was better prepared and, thus, more interested in it and wanting to “enjoy” it, “savor” it, more (as much as is possible). But with my first, who was honestly a very needy, demanding baby and gave me not a second to myself, to gather my thoughts or even shower, without fussing for me, I was always on edge. Tired is not an adequate adjective to describe how it feels to take care of a newborn in any circumstance, anyway. (This is why I reiterate: do NOT tell the mom or dad of a newborn to “just relax and enjoy it.” Enjoyment requires a level of consciousness that is precluded by the exhaustion that fogs up the brain and life in general. One can just catch snippets of enjoyment.) I did enjoy my subsequent babies more because I knew a little better what I was doing and they weren’t as demanding, naturally; plus, I had other kids by then to help with them. But I still just couldn’t dive in and fully enjoy because, like I said, that requires a lack of haziness.

What I have come to enjoy so far are the school years, in some small part because I generally get a full night’s sleep every night. Mostly, though, I love to teach my kids and help them learn, and read with them (and since I love reading, I must admit I’d rather read a book that at least has a rudimentary PLOT, rather than a long selection of letters or numbers, I don’t care how adorably illustrated and brightly colored those letters may be). I also like having them be gone for part of the day, so I can have a little time to gather my thoughts, be myself, and get some things done without their assistance or accompaniment. Yes. I admit that. When they are then home I can really have more fun with them. I like teaching them as part of our everyday life, not as a “lesson.” I chatted with my nearly-12-year-old last night about mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, including my interest in subatomic particles and my desire to eventually make time to stop at the (fairly close-by to me) Lawrence Livermore lab (ooh… particle acceleration!). I mean, really, who wouldn’t be excited by the tiniest, unobservable pieces of matter being slung around inside a tube for a mile to see what they’ll do?

My girls are just great fun.
My girls are just great fun.

I found myself grateful yesterday by the simple fact that I could run inside the library for a couple of minutes and tell the same nearly-12-year-old that, yes, since she has a good stack of books for the moment, she could stay in the locked car and (probably read while doing so) wait for me. You can’t do that with littler ones. I am grateful for this stage of parenting, with a daughter who’s about to graduate high school (but hasn’t yet) and younger ones down to a nearly-7-year-old who can all open and close the car doors, buckle and unbuckle themselves and get in and out themselves. They can walk with me in the store rather than have to be stuck in a cart (although it’s still generally preferable, because it’s faster and quieter, for me to shop at Target or the grocery store by myself). They’re all potty-trained and can give themselves baths and do all the other self-care. They can even prepare food for themselves, at various levels. Yep, I’m glad to be past the stage where I have to do every detail to keep them alive and healthy. Now it’s more fine-tuning and the heftier matter of getting them properly educated and prepared for the world. It’s daunting, but it’s a stage I mostly enjoy.

I have friends who adore when their children are out of school and can pursue all kinds of things; I have friends who are/were amazing in all the cute projects they did with their toddlers and preschoolers. I know some amazing grandparents. But I no longer feel bad about not having been more like them, for instance, when my kids were at earlier stages. I am liking where we are now, despite the raging female hormones and completely unfounded crying spells. It’s fun. They’re easier to talk to, to share things with, to joke with. No, I do not treat my kids like “equals” or “friends” in that I do not expect them to be respectful of adults and do what I ask since I’m the parent. But they are so fun and so interesting that I consider them friends now. And isn’t that the greatest thing in the world: to raise your own friends?

Here’s something radical: We disagree. We can still be friends.

Civil discourse. Sometimes it seems like an impossibility, a utopia, a thing of the past. In the age of instant publication of everyone’s thoughts to a potentially huge audience, and with no way of taking back a rash, thoughtless statement once it’s escaped one’s texting or posting fingers, it feels as if cyberspace (and, thence, real space) is clogged with outrage, name-calling, and sometimes straight-up mean-spiritedness, all because we are drawing battle lines over a variety of hot topics. New blog posts that go viral, legislation, personal experiences all get hashed out in great detail as toes and fingers dig into the lines in the cybersand.

Friendship and lines in the sand: do they mix?
Friendship and lines in the sand: do they mix?

Again, though I don’t write about the really controversial topics on this blog or go into detail about my opinions on some of them, it may be fairly simple to figure out where I stand on certain things. I am religious and conservative. As I said in my previous post, about body image and “feminism,” sometimes people’s conclusions about what I think might be different from what I actually believe, but in general, they’re probably going to be mostly right. But the reasoning and the emotion and compassion and time I’ve taken to draw my conclusions are almost NEVER going to be as cut-and-dried and automatic as some might assume, which is a point I’d really like to make clear.

The past years, for instance, have brought same-sex marriage to center stage in the national consciousness and in legislation. And it’s been interesting to have discussions with friends (and acquaintances and their acquaintances) about the various issues that tie into that hot topic. Various states are still in the process of approving or banning it (or having their voters’ decisions overturned); attorneys general are weighing in; states are introducing legislation that deals with related issues to gay marriage (Arizona’s current potential law trying to safeguard business owners who would like to exercise religious opinions on it is a biggie this week). As all these legalities make their way through the various systems to some kind of eventual, kind-of-final resolution, many still have mighty strong opinions about all the ins and outs.

Again, I won’t talk about all my opinions on this topic. There are some truly good sites out there that do better than I could for all the sides. What’s interesting to me, however, is HOW we present these ideas. And in many ways, it is NOT a pretty picture. It’s ugly out there, folks. Discourse is so far from civil it’s not even on the spectrum sometimes (is it DATcourse? ha ha).

But when I’ve talked about this topic, for example, with friends I adore and respect and think the world of in cyberspace, mostly Facebook, I’ve found that though the discussion can still get a touch heated, it’s still pretty respectful. And so far I’m talking about people who are all of my same religious persuasion and similar backgrounds, I’d roundly say. And we still have very different and strong opinions about all the issues-within-the-issue. Here’s what I love, though: that it stays respectful and devoid of name-calling or (mostly) generalizing. I’ve not changed my mind, and I am sure they haven’t, but we’ve had some interesting discussions and even insights and ideas that were generated. And we walk away still liking and loving each other.

I think about this when I drive sometimes: when there’s a driver who’s been doing something that’s “making me crazy” on the road, it’s once or twice been someone I ended up knowing! And when I know who it is, then my frustration just dribbles right out of me. I think twice now when someone’s really going slowly or ___(fill in the blank) because I wonder, “Could it be someone I really like?”

I wonder if it’s possible to do this more in public discourse. Could we imagine that the people we’re “talking” with in cyberspace, for example, are decent human beings, ones we might be friends with in real life? Can we treat them with the respect due to that kind of relationship? This isn’t a new idea: it’s all about not de-humanizing people. (In extreme situations, severe de-humanization — or objectification, if you will — has led to slavery and genocide.)

I’ve been taught from these discussions and hope I’ve said something that might give someone else “on the other side” a new insight or understanding. And if we were all together in person, I imagine us smiling, shaking hands, and heading out for a nice dinner together, laughing, joking, and just enjoying time together as friends. Now THAT’s pretty radical.

It’s not just paper and ink; it’s love

I just finished reading a New York Times review of a book about letter-writing (I doubt I’ll have time to read the book itself, To the Letter, by Simon Garfield) and was reminded once again how much I appreciate and enjoy the written word. I suppose that should be obvious, given that I am a writer and here I am writing on a blog. I’m not just one of those people who savors language and words and how, used just so, they can sometimes express what it feels impossible to share outside of the seemingly wordless depths of the heart. Sure, I can and do use the sublime gift of language to share my feelings and thoughts through electronic means, but I really do like to take a pen and commit those ideas on a more permanent medium. It just seems a bit more serious and heartfelt to show my feelings in a way that’s more tangible and keep-able.

I love to receive, too. And, yes, I’m one of those old-fogies-at-heart who bemoans the loss of the art of writing notes and letters. I still frequent the Hallmark store. I have pretty notepaper and thank-you notes, and I relish using my good ink pens, shaping letters carefully and making sure my words not only sound appealing but look nice as well. Since I like those things so much, I do enjoy receiving them, as well. I love knowing that someone I care about took the extra time to put pen to paper (or card) to express their love for and admiration of me.

my arms around youSure, I have folders in my documents file on the computer, some of which hold electronic correspondence from others, and I have kept emails that mean a lot to me. And it’s admittedly kinda nice that these don’t take up any physical space (neatness, too, is a virtue I value), but I also have a few boxes’ worth of just letters and cards from people who have meant a lot to me. They take up real estate in my closet, but I’d never part with them.

Perhaps at this time of the year, where we shop so much online and send e-holiday cards and e-gift cards, we could take just a few minutes to write a personal note. Maybe after Christmas, when life isn’t quite so hectic. Perhaps as part of a physical thank-you note to someone who gave us a gift we unwrapped or just has given us the gift of themselves, we can get out a nice ink pen and craft a few heartfelt words of love and appreciation. What a present that would be!

Faith, intellect, and Big Issues

I have for a long time considered myself an “intellectual.” I enjoy learning about various topics, researching them, learning different viewpoints, and forming opinions. I like to be able to use my mind to consider the facts as I know them and draw rational, reasonable and considered conclusions based on what I do know (which is always going to be limited given my capacity for understanding and the limitations on my time and energy and even priorities). I still do appreciate listening to others’ own conclusions and having some respectful discussions, even disagreements, about the various topics.

I also am a person of faith. I have come to realize and appreciate just how much faith informs my life, my opinions, my decisions, my goals and entire worldview. It provides me a solid foundation, an inner compass, that keeps me grounded and at peace. I firmly disagree with any ideas that this is just because it “fills some void” or that religion is something made up by weak people to comfort ourselves. I have had too many personal, private, sacred experiences to confirm to myself that faith is real, although sometimes a little elusive or hard to understand. At the same time, I definitely appreciate just how different my faith can make me from others who either do not have faith in religious beliefs or do not share a similar religious belief system as I have.

Lately, it has struck me that sometimes it is impossible to form what other intellectuals will consider a reasonable argument to discuss matters that are truly based “on faith.” Religion and religious beliefs can often actually be reasoned in some way, based on some information. But on some beliefs and principles, we “of faith” truly go pretty much entirely “on faith.” And it can be frustrating as at least a “part-time intellectual,” maybe, to not be able to express clearly to others of that like mind what goes on in the chambers of the soul.

Generally, I have not found these two aspects of my being to clash; rather, I believe they complement each other, work together, to make me the person I am, to make me better, to make me take the time to thoughtfully consider issues in my mind but also in my heart. I like the conclusions that I come to using these parts of myself.

But sometimes, as I said, I simply cannot use both parts equally. Sometimes, the reason part is honestly a much lower portion of the process, and the issue goes almost entirely through the heart, through the faith “processor” inside. And with some really big, even very divisive, issues that are current in today’s society, it is impossible for me to be able to have a rational, reasoned discussion with someone else who is processing their thoughts and ideas through an entirely different section of themselves.

That’s faith. I am a writer, a wordsmith; I value language and all it can express. But there are a few things that I find very difficult to put into words. And then there are others that I just KNOW, through that “gut” part of me, that I have to let go of my need to have an explanation. I have to accept that some things we may never know, at least not as mortals living in this brief life (which, again, given my worldview, is just a tiny fraction of an eternal existence). And I’m actually OK with that. I’m OK with believing that some things are either not for us to know now, or not possible for us to understand now, for any number of reasons because we are eternal beings essentially in embryo, barely grasping the Big Truths from our limited understanding at this stage of our lives. Someday we’ll have enough understanding, wisdom, knowledge, faith, experience — what have you — to finally be able to get “it” … whatever “it” is that seems to confound us right now (fill in the blank with Big Issues).

I do have strong opinions about certain moral and societal issues right now. I know that others will definitely disagree with me. I try to disagree respectfully and hope they do the same.  But some issues have progressed even to divide people within my own faith community, and I have found that particularly perplexing. Though we share faith, religious tenets, and some ideals, somehow we are processing our ideas through very different “processors” or at least in very different ratios. I would like very much to have a great discussion about one or two of these really important issues with these friends who share my religious belief, but I find I simply cannot bring together a rational argument that will stand up to theirs. It is simply because I am using my faith “processor” more.

All I can say is this: I disagree, but I can’t possibly have a reasoned discussion. Too much of my ideas are tied to my faith, to my “gut,” to my feelings. Perhaps some come from adherence to tradition; perhaps I am just very orthodox. Either way, I wish I could say with words just what I want to say. But I’ve been racking my brain, and I just CAN’T. I fear that I will be derided a bit because I’m relying so strongly on feelings, on my faith. Either way, I simply cannot turn away from what I feel.

I will be curious to see how these issues resolve themselves. In the meantime, I’ll continue to exercise both my intellect and my faith in all matters that matter to me and to the world around me.

How much should we really say ‘anything is possible’?

I’ve thought about this idea a lot, but seeing this little article reminded me: “Do we really want cartoons telling our kids they can do anything?

Now, I haven’t been thinking a lot about the idea in terms of cartoon or movie themes, but the media portrayal of this concept is one facet to consider. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen motivational posters, pins, memes, etc. online or somewhere out and about that say something to the effect of, “If you work hard enough, you can do anything you can dream of!” In the case of this article, it addresses the related but even less likely trope, “If you dream it and believe hard enough, it can happen.”

I don’t believe either one is right, true, or even healthy. Let’s just think about this: how many people do you know of who dreamed of being NBA stars or actors? How many of them actually achieved their dreams? My husband played basketball in high school and was pretty talented. Problem: he’s only 5’8″. I think there have only been a handful of players in the past few decades of NBA history who have been that short. So my husband still sighs sometimes: “If only I’d been taller.”
I also happen to know a couple of people personally who became actors. And they’re not even particularly well known. But they are making a living in the movie business.

pie in skyI’m in no way saying we shouldn’t encourage each other, particularly children and teens, to dream big. But at the same time, we’re doing them a disservice if we tell them “all they have to do” is believe hard enough or work hard enough and their dreams will come true. Because in reality, those kinds of pie-in-the-sky dreams don’t usually come true for most regular people. Even those who dream of going to a particular university (which isn’t quite as lofty or nearly-unattainable) quite often can’t, no matter how talented or hard-working they may be. Sometimes we may try and try and work really hard, but things just don’t fall into place; there are mountains in the way that we simply can’t climb over or move.

Even as I write this, I must clarify that I’m an optimist. I love to encourage people and to shoot for the stars myself. But I’m also midway through my life, and through personal experience and plenty of observation, I know what reality tends to be. What the odds are. Sure, we hear of stories of people who “beat the odds.” But the nature of “the odds” is that one person is the exception to the rule, while the rule comprises a million others. Only a few win a million bucks in the lottery; the rest lose lots of hard-earned cash.

Let’s still encourage each other and young people to work hard, to do their best, to dream, to envision futures that will please them. But let’s also help them to shape goals and futures that are realistic, that have a touch of “dream” to them but still a good chunk of attainability. Because don’t we want more people to really be able to achieve their goals and find that glowing, wonderful satisfaction in reaching that star, even if it’s still in our own galaxy?

Perspective is everything

I’ve always known that each of us has a different way of seeing life and the world based on our own unique background. Our opinions come from what we’ve read, seen, heard and learned, all steeped in our own self-hoods, our childhoods, our family and friends, what we’ve had or not had. So I definitely respect the fact that we won’t all see life very much the same at all. And that’s OK. It makes life and interactions with each other interesting.

sunsetBut a pertinent layer of the package of beliefs that each of us carries is that of how we see our life in an even bigger potential picture. Some of us have no belief whatsoever that anything exists outside of the 20, 40, 60, 80, or 101 years we might live on this Earth. But others of us believe that mortal life is just a part of our whole existence. For instance, I believe in the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is that we were created as spirits by a loving God and we lived as spirits with Him and learned what we could before we were born on Earth, which is a vital and necessary part of our learning and growing process as people. And after we die, we have a whole eternity ahead of us. This life may be 10 or 100 years long (and whatever it is, it can feel like a very long time), but it’s still a tiny portion of our whole life. Not to say that it’s not very, very important, but it’s short when you look at the big picture.

I’ve definitely come to appreciate recently just what a huge difference just this one facet of belief about life, which we all experience but experience differently, makes in who we are and how we approach life and other people in our world. We may debate about politics or moral issues and have vastly different ideas about how things should be legislated — or not. But if we don’t appreciate even a little each other’s backgrounds, it makes it impossible to understand the other’s point of view. It also sometimes means that, once we learn and understand a little about the “other side,” we likely will still stay in our own corner, sure of our own way of thinking. But at least we will have had the time to “travel,” to walk in someone else’s shoes.

I know many people don’t agree with some of my opinions, just as I don’t agree with theirs. That’s OK. But I know where I belong in the “big picture,” and having an eternal perspective makes all the difference for me.