Giving back

A few nights ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet a man who must absolutely wear his life out in service to others. I was sitting at a high school football game selling cookies to raise money for the marching band, and the other parent I was working with said hello to this particular individual, who was at the game volunteering with the police department as a security presence for these kinds of community events. Mr. B, as I’ll refer to him, stayed to talk a while and spoke of the things he’s been doing; he retired from being an elementary-school teacher a few years ago. In addition to helping out with the police, he and another man help repair bicycles for the homeless once a week; he has spent a month in China during the summer of each of the past few years teaching practical English to young people; he regularly does mission trips with his church to Central America with his wife; he helps in other ways to aid the poor and homeless. I was absolutely blown away by his dedication to doing good. In addition to that, Mr. B’s late brother’s wife runs a foundation dedicated to raising awareness about traumatic brain injuries, and he’s involved in that in some way too.

In this time when we are at odds politically about how much we feel government should be involved in people’s lives, in providing for very basic needs (food, shelter) and slightly-less-basic needs (like health care and education), it still strikes me how very important it is for all of us to give of ourselves to our communities and the world at large. If every person volunteered their time just a little every week, according as their schedules and particular obligations allowed, think about what good would happen. Without any government outlays of tax dollars or resources, so many people would be helped. Even those who are the ones more “in need” can often do something to give back, even if it’s just making a few phone calls or coordinating others’ efforts.

Very likely, we would have far less need of government to take care of so many people. And think about the benefits to each person who is volunteering: an improved work ethic for themselves and those they care for; more compassion and empathy for those who are in more need or experience different kinds of struggles; an appreciation for how we are all connected and how what each of us does affects so many others.

I have written about how so often when I see so much need that I wish I could do more, but I have to remind myself that just helping one person (throwing back that one starfish…) is something. But if each of us did a little more, … wow. So many starfish would be back in the sea, alive and well and thriving.

This is a fun little way to remember to give the best gift you can give.
This is a fun little way to remember to give the best gift you can give.

At this season when we start thinking about giving thanks and giving gifts, perhaps one great gift we could give is to find a little something extra we can do for our fellow men, right in our own communities, and then sustain it past this season, right into the coming year and years. Our efforts, even if they’re small, do make a difference.

It takes a village to keep me (mostly) sane

Life can sometimes be stressful. Life can sometimes be sublime. It can also, on rarer occasions, be unrelenting in its attacks, throwing punches from the left, right, above and below and behind — any which way — to try to knock one out, making the simple adjective “stressful” woefully inadequate.

It’s been like that for me the past month or two: life has nearly knocked me out. I suppose that any of the somewhat small things that has happened to me could just be easily shaken off; it would be laughable to think that any would really make me want to walk a ledge. But the constant barrage has cumulatively made me angry, frustrated, exhausted, utterly drained and significantly less able to function.

As time has worn on and I’ve become worn out, but I’ve still had to just keep on moving forward because circumstances have simply not allowed me to stop moving, I have come to appreciate just how much I appreciate those who are willing and ready to step in and help lend a hand or just offer moral support as I try to put one foot in front of the other.

This past week I’ve been traveling, visiting family and friends and attending the college graduation of a nephew and his wife. I was already at my wits’ end before the traveling began, so being in the car for hours on end (with three of my four children all cooped up in the small space with me and my husband) and sleeping in different places and all the other things that go along with road trips have made me even more tired and nearly feeling rather out-of-body.

Even so, seeing these special people has been a little boost. We visited for a short time with my husband’s oldest niece, a sweet young woman who was just a kindergartener when we married 20 years ago. Seeing her reminded me just how much I am grateful for her influence in my husband’s life: when she was an infant, he had just returned from a two-year LDS mission and was starting to get back to school and work. But he had plenty of time to help baby-sit her while his sister worked. He loved the experience. By the time we had our first child, I was still adjusting to the whole concept of parenting and all that went with it. But he was just ready to go. He changed diapers and clipped tiny fingernails before I even did. He held her and rocked her in the middle of the night to try to get her to sleep. Even for me, spending time with her as a five- and six-year-old was so enjoyable that I began to look forward to having a small child of my own to do things with.

Spending time with my grown nephew was rewarding because he fits in so well with my little family: my children adore him and his wife, and we enjoy their company so much. It also gives me great hope for his generation of our family and makes me want to be the best influence I can be. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Sitting with my wonderful, dear friend who lives a day’s drive away is always a blessing. We get to have so little time together, but when we do, it’s renewing and enriching. I can be utterly myself with her; I never fear how I may come across. I can unburden myself and she will listen and support without judgment and with love and compassion. She can encourage me to have hope and to do better without making me feel chastised or preached to or lacking or bad about myself. She has a real gift. She’s like my friend soul mate, and I am absolutely blessed to have her.

Last, I’ve had a great deal of practical help from friends in our hometown while we’ve been gone. My oldest had to stay behind because of a school commitment, and our absence, combined with all the things that had already gone wrong before our trip, required us to ask for a lot of help for her with rides, a place to stay so she won’t be alone, and lots of other little things. A number of friends have gladly and willingly stepped in to take care of her and figure out how to solve little problems while we’re gone. Their help has eased my mind greatly on her account. My mind has been racing so much and has been so burned out by all I’ve had to keep track of and fix, etc., that I don’t know if I could have done what needed to be done for her had people not just volunteered and helped her without my even being involved.

Sure, it does take a village to raise a child (a child just thrives and learns the best with a mom and dad and extended family and friends and teachers and all kinds of other people in a community). But it also takes a village to keep an adult functioning. We’re really all interdependent. The better connected we are, the better we can keep on keepin’ on. I’m just incredibly blessed to have some good people in my life and incredibly grateful to them for helping me to survive the toughest periods of my life.

So glad I could help

Few things give me greater satisfaction than having friends (or even just acquaintances) come to me as a resource when faced with questions relating to mental health. Perhaps in part it’s nice to know that, despite my sometimes quirks or slightly “off” behavior, they still consider me a valuable source of information and even wisdom. It’s nice to be valued, to be needed, to be seen as able to dispense tidbits of guidance. It’s even better to feel that maybe, just maybe, everything I’ve gone through can help someone else, that I can maybe help cut short the long journey for them just a little, provide a quicker route that still gets them to a good destination.

I can tell you about my therapists, my psychiatrists (i.e., medicine-dispensers) and medications, the books I’ve read, the ups and downs and ins and outs. I can talk about the wacky ways my mind is able to play tricks on me, despite my hyper-awareness that it can, and a sort of vigilance about trying to think clearly and navigate life from a kind of emotionally handicapped state. I can share the surreal-ness of dealing with others who have been in worse shape than I have ever been, of their living in (and trying to reason from within) realities that just don’t line up with the reality the rest of us know. I can look back on my own experiences and say, “I wish I could have seen the whole picture from the beginning, because I would have gone right to ___.” Man, does it feel good to think that I might be helping someone jump over hurdles with relative ease and speed that I’ve had to walk around, re-jump, and move around countless times.

Again, in this latest discussion, a friend and I agreed that it would make life so much better for everyone if all of us could just open up about our real challenges. Most of us have something, a weakness or an addiction or a habit or an illness, whatever, that we find embarrassing or shameful somehow, that we would really rather NOT talk about. And there are plenty of stigmas left in our culture about lots of problems, including mental illness. It just doesn’t help that there aren’t really clear-cut answers (let alone even questions) about how our minds and emotions, etc., work. The science is much clearer with other health problems. So it makes mental illness still hazy and misunderstood and even a little scary for people who don’t have to face it head-on regularly. If just more of us SPOKE UP! Whatever your shame, your stigma, your weakness, your difficulty, just talk about it. Yeah, unfortunately, you’re probably still going to be judged and misunderstood by some, maybe many. But you could help so many others.

oven mitt

I feel so weak and so isolated sometimes, and then nervous about talking about my experience. Because like most everyone, I just want to be liked, to be understood, to be respected and appreciated. And that stigma can put a big roadblock in the way of that satisfying goal. But I want to help other people. I want to pave the way for less stigma, for more understanding, even for better science (somehow). So, I talk. I write. I blog. I’m open. It can be nerve-wracking and painful. But I’m doing it anyway. Because I’m glad I can help. So call me or write if you have questions or need advice for a family member or friend. Reach out. Sometimes you might need oven mitts, but pretty much I’ll always be happy to talk, if I can help someone else.


I think about the idea of “enough” so often that I considered using it as part of the name of this website. In the end, obviously, I didn’t, but the concept comes to my mind frequently.

I’m not the type of person who wants more things. In fact, I’m usually working to get rid of things. Years of moving have taught me to pare down wherever possible. (I’m not a minimalist, however: I love my kitchen gadgets, and I use them. That’s a topic for another post.) I’m satisfied to keep a computer for seven or eight years or a TV for 10 or 15 years, even if they’re getting snazzier, wider and thinner. I have some clothes I’ve worn for years; I have a sweater I just adore that I bought in high school (guess it’s stretched out over the years…). So “enough” doesn’t apply to stuff. Well, it does, actually: I can say with confidence I have enough stuff.

No, “enough” applies to actions. I worried in high school if I had enough on my list of activities to show my dream university I was fit to enter. (I did.) Mostly, I’ve worried over the years if I’ve done enough. As a mother for about 16 years now, I think I worry the most if I’ve done enough for my four daughters, who are truly the most precious gift I’ve been given. I have generally been of the opinion that children will do best if given plenty of free time to find their own way, to keep themselves occupied and use their imaginations and their own inner resources. I haven’t scheduled them in lots of activities or sports or lessons. I haven’t spent all of my free time finding ways to keep them busy or happy. Even knowing that this strategy seems to have worked pretty well for them so far, I have moments of wishing I could just do more or be more for them because they are so amazing, so talented, so delightful. Because they are my only offspring, and these years I have of them living at home with me are my only chance to raise them: I just get this one shot. Because they deserve everything I can offer, everything the world can offer. Again, not stuff, but opportunities.

I’ve given my girls time. I’ve read with them, countless hours curled up on our beds, usually at bedtime, with countless books, many of which are now well worn, pages slipping out of their bindings, bits torn off corners. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve just sat and listened to them talk, telling me about their days, about their friends, about all kinds of thoughts swirling in their heads. I’ve not generally considered that a sacrifice, especially now that I have a high-schooler. She in particular has so much to say, so much that’s entertaining and interesting, at turns humorous and sweet. I cherish these tete-a-tetes. We’ve had “the talk,” we’ve talked about life and the big things, about faith and family; we’ve also talked about all the hilarious things that boys do and all the tasty morsels she ate for lunch. It’s been a pleasure; it’s been a treat.

Perhaps it’s a direct result of that time I’ve spent with them that I feel the urgency to do more, to give my girls the world. I’ve seen inside their souls and seen all that is possible, and I want to give it to them. Now that my oldest has realized how much she enjoys dance, she’d like dance lessons. But when would we fit those in among the band concerts and rehearsals or church activities or that extra class she’s taking in the evenings? Or as I see how much is lacking in our educational system nowadays (thanks to legislation, lack of funding and the bad economy, you name it…), I wish I could home-school or supplement with some somewhat structured lessons of my own. Oh, there’s so much I wish I could do.

But time limits me. Energy certainly limits what I can give. My budget limits me. My own needs, weaknesses and limitations keep me from being able to give all. (If you read about my struggles with my mental health, this will seem even clearer.) The number of children I have limits how much I can give to each, in some ways (I can’t be two or three places at once, sadly). But those things don’t limit how much I love.

At the same time, I know when I think about it seriously that my limitations are just part of life, even part of my children’s lives. They live in the same world I live in, where you can’t get everything you want, where you can only do so much, where the people around you aren’t perfect. No one should be handed everything on a silver platter, now or ever. Life isn’t perfect. There are always disappointments, always choices to be made between two or three good things. Giving my children everything would be doing them a disservice.

So I know in my head that I really am doing pretty well by my girls, that they are happy and well-adjusted, that they truly feel loved and secure. It’s just I struggle on some days when particular things crop up that I wish they could have or do. I wage a battle in my mind and — eventually — conquer my feelings of “not-enough” with the knowledge that they are happy, that they are loved.

I also struggle with that feeling of doing or being enough outside of my small family sphere, with the wide world around me. Every day, I see people and organizations that desperately need help, that need money, that need volunteer hours. There are children all around the world who need food; who need clothes and shelter; who need a strong, loving parent. And I don’t have to look far to be aware of those children. Teachers I know have those children in their classrooms. My daughters have these children as peers. Every time my oldest, in particular, mentions to me how grateful she is that I cook healthy food for her, that she has a comfortable house and plenty of clothes, that she has two parents in her home who love her, it’s because she has been reminded at school that all too many other kids don’t have those things. And my heart breaks, it just starts opening wide and trying to send feelers out to all those other children who don’t live in my home, to show them that someone cares. Oh, how I often wish I could parent so many other kids. Practically, however, I know I’m at my limits with the four I have right now.

There are so many worthy organizations out there that I could give time to. It’s hard to limit myself to just a few. Even as I say yes to one, I know there are many others I simply must say no to. It makes me feel bad to have to choose, to say no. It breaks my heart. The need is great so many places right now, especially, with our economy the way it is, but the need is always great in terms of hearts that need healing, souls that need to be nurtured.

I can only keep reminding myself of a story that I’ve heard a few times over the years. A man goes walking on a beach early one morning and finds a young man on the shore, bending down and picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. He keeps bending to the sand, grasping one starfish at a time, and throwing. The beach is just covered with starfish, who are likely going to die if left where they are, washed up on the sand. It seems a ridiculous endeavor, this picking up starfish one at a time and throwing them back. So the man asks the thrower, “Why? Why do you bother? You can’t possibly save them all. This won’t make a difference.” The young man’s reply, as he threw yet another starfish wide into the ocean, “It made a difference to that one.”

That’s the philosophy to which I cling in those times my heart breaks because I can’t possibly save the world. There are so many people in need, so many causes that are worthy. But I have to tell myself, what I do matters to “that one.” I just read about Mother Teresa’s similar thinking: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” I am making a difference to the four children with whom I’ve been entrusted. I hope to make a difference to the women I’ve been assigned to watch over in my church’s visiting teaching program. I hope to make a small difference in what I write here, that if what I say helps just a few readers, I’ve spent my time wisely. You, my friends, are my starfish. I wish I could rescue all the starfish lying on the beaches of the world, but I’m throwing back one at a time.

I watched this video for the first time yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope that I can just make one person’s burden lighter each day because I’m willing to share. Enjoy this beautiful, inspiring message.


Easter and Christ’s role in my life

I am independent, strong, determined — even stubbornly so. I have always been persistent and goal-oriented, ever since I can remember. I have tried to stand on my own two feet, not depending on someone else to do anything for me, if I can at all help it. I know there are quite a few other people out there like me; others look in at them and either can see the facade of “everything’s great” or, if they notice the person struggling, they think, “Why don’t they just ask for help?”

That’s a darn good question. In answering for myself, I’d say, perhaps, Well, I don’t need it. If things get really bad, then I’ll ask for help. Or, it’s just habit. I’ve tried so hard for so long to do things myself that I just don’t think about asking for help until it’s just kind of … too late, in one way or another. Perhaps many who suffer from this sort of stubbornness just were forced to fend for themselves for years, physically or emotionally (I can’t begin to imagine the kind of lives some people have had to experience), so now it’s absolutely ingrained. Maybe we don’t trust that if we ask someone for help, that we’ll get what we need, or we feel that no one is able or willing to help. Or maybe I’m afraid I will be laughed at, judged and found wanting in some way, or snubbed. Perhaps it comes down to pride. I feel I’m weak if I can’t do something myself. I feel that I should be good enough on my own.

Whatever the reason, or mixture of reasons at any given time, I am in the habit of doing things myself. As life has gotten more difficult and I have experienced various trials over the years, I have recognized I need to be better about saying the very useful words “no” and “please help me.” So I am working on it, even if it just means starting small.

This personality trait has been a real impediment in my life when it comes to faith and my relationship to a loving God and Savior. Faith itself is about believing in something we can’t see. It’s about giving up ourselves and our pride and vanity and stubbornness to a power greater than ourselves. It’s about trust. So as much as I absolutely and completely believe that there is a God and that I have a personal Savior, I still keep them off to the side somehow, saying, “OK, thanks for being available, but I’ve got this one.” I pray with great faith and a full heart for other people I know and care about who need help that I can’t possibly give myself, trusting that God will answer those prayers and help them. But when I’m struggling and feeling weak, I still don’t just give over my heart and worries to God very easily. I hang on to them. It’s absolutely crazy.

I really enjoyed reading a wonderful article in our church’s magazine, the Ensign, this month, about the arms of Christ. The author was speaking about Peter’s experience walking on the water to Jesus in the midst of a storm. He went a little ways actually walking on water. Then he doubted and sank. He cried out to Jesus, just ahead of him, “Lord, save me!” Brent Top writes,

All of us have had, are having, or will yet have a Peter-like “sinking” experience in some way and will at some time (probably many times) cry out, “Lord, save me.” Even Peter’s strong fisherman arms were not strong enough to save him. He needed the rescuing arms of Christ, and so do we. Can you imagine Peter—choking, his head bobbing beneath the surface of the water—saying as the Savior extends His arms: “No, thank you. I will swim to shore. I sank myself, so I must save myself”? Of course not. How ridiculous! Yet we sometimes do just that.

We may know in our heads that our mortal arms and hands are deficient—in fact, utterly incapable of rescuing or redeeming us—but we sometimes resist, even recoil from, the outstretched arms of the Savior. Sometimes we spiritually drown ourselves because we won’t allow His arms to cradle us. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve eloquently stated:

“May I be bold enough to suggest that it is impossible for anyone who really knows God to doubt his willingness to receive us with open arms in a divine embrace if we will but ‘come unto Him.’ …

“I am convinced that none of us can appreciate how deeply it wounds the loving heart of the Savior of the world when he finds that his people do not feel confident in his care or secure in his hands.”

This message is not new information, but it touched me deeply, first, because I spiritually almost always refuse to ask for my Savior’s help. I’m sinking and just frantically treading water, waiting for the storm to cease on its own, for me to somehow get enough strength to swim to shore. Second, I was touched by Elder Holland’s words about how it must hurt our dear Jesus when we don’t go to him for help. I know how I feel when someone I care about could use my help, and I am eager to lend support or specific help and they won’t even ask. The Savior is perfectly loving and compassionate and has the most sensitive soul and heart. He must feel hurt when I refuse his help.

On this Easter Sunday, I could write about how grateful I am for the Lord’s sacrifice, in that he gave his life so we could all live eternally and be resurrected. I could write about how much hope that gives me, that I can one day have a perfect, immortal body, and that my deceased family members will have the same, and that we can all be reunited. All that is absolutely true and deeply important to me. But on the most personal level, I am grateful today that Jesus suffered, that he already experienced, in a way I can’t possibly understand with my mortal brain, all of the pains and struggles that I’m experiencing now, have experienced, and still have yet to experience. He’s already been through it all. He’s on the other side of those sufferings, and he’s waiting to help me to get through to the other side as well. I just have to turn my heart over to him and give up my pride and my need to do it alone.

I’m not going to overcome this struggle in this life, I’m sure. I am just trying to do better, to give up my self and my bad habits, a little at a time. Today, on Easter, I say, thanks be to my Savior for always, always, always being there; for already suffering for me; for patiently waiting for me to give him my whole heart.