Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Old Habits Die Hard

"There's something wanting in me. I see you loving Henry, and understanding him better daily, and I know that death wouldn't part you in the least. But I—Is it some awful, appalling, criminal defect?"

Margaret silenced her. She said: "It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don't fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have: love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be. And others—others go farther still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow. Don't you see that all this leads to comfort in the end. It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences—eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey."

Howard's End. E.M. Forster, page 267.

I hide things under our couches. A few years ago, when the couches had skirts, I hid unassembled, wooden cut outs under the couch. When I first got married, we had a Christmas workshop every year in our neighborhood at the local church. Lured by the finished products of women who can turn ribbon, bottle caps, baling wire, and their grandmother's corset into a chandelier, other unsuspecting women would preorder unassembled, unnailed, unsanded, unpainted pieces of wood to make up into Rudolf, Santa, cherubic pilgrims, a covey of American flags, or possessed-looking rabbits. This we did together in the church hall, sharing Styrofoam dinner plates with dots of paint and birthing stories. I dutifully ordered projects every year. Sometimes I finished; mostly I didn't. The unfinished pieces went under the couch; the finished pieces into some cupboard where they sat, remembered weeks after the appropriate holiday when I caught glimpse of them while I was looking for weed killer. I should throw them out, but, if I do, it's like admitting some kind of failure . . . that I tried this way of life and lost.

Wooden porch figures, pistachio jello salad, marshmallow fluff, tuna noodle casserole. . . I've tried.

I do not believe in the Boys Scouts of America—at all. I don't think it should be part of the church program (unless and until there's an equal organization for young women), and I definitely don't think the church organization should be used as a fundraising organism for this private organization. I'm actually appalled that people visit my house, in their capacity as church workers, to ask for money for the Boys Scouts. I fail to see the connection between an Eagle Scout and the driver's license. I do not believe that not having food storage will prevent me from entering heaven. It will help us when and if Kevin and I both lose our jobs at the same time and the dainty supply of Italian parsley, tomatoes, cilantro and basil from the pot plants (bruschetta anyone?) has run out, and we need another source of food with no cash to pay for it. But I don't know about getting into heaven because of barrels of wheat and powdered milk. (I still might be horribly surprised when I find out that's one of the questions.)

I question why white has become the only color in which one may attend church and participate in the sacrament, and why it is that sister missionaries need to look like nuns. Twenty years later, I still miss sleeveless shirts and strapless dresses. I don't think bikinis are immodest, and think every women, of any shape should feel free to wear one. Most Saturday evenings I sigh, thinking of the next morning. I would like to be cremated and spread over my flower gardens, while the Dixie Chicks sing "I wanna touch the earth, I wanna break it in my hands, I wanna grow something wild and unruly," followed by Queen, "I was born to love you." I couldn't think of greater tombstone than a big old maple growing up through me. . . . All these things are under my couch.

Yet, my sleeves have sleeves, Christian wears white to bless the Sacrament, I buy at the Macey's case lot sale; the first son got his Arrow of Light, the others play soccer, baseball and basketball on Wednesday evenings. I wish I could sing in the choir, but can't read music and can't sing high enough to just sing soprano, and Kevin's gone every Sunday anyway. But I schlep these other things with me. I sense, as Helen did in Howard's End, when she spoke of her inability to form a lasting relationship with a man, "There's something wanting in me. . . . some awful, appalling, criminal defect?"

I've paid lip service in previous posts to the idea that we are all God's creatures; we're all part of the menagerie that makes up his animal kingdom. When I tell that story, in my mind, unarticulated but assumed, is the notion that I am the horse, or the zebra, or the sable antelope. I'm never the warthog, or the anteater or the chameleon. There are times though when I come face to face with the opposite "colour" and I retreat. Last Sunday, by the end of Sunday School, I was quivering, feeling "fight or flight" rising inside me, my little warthog tusks shaking. The initial impulse is to run. Wanted to howl with Bono, "I wanna run." Mostly just run to a space that feels comfortable, where I don't feel out of sorts, where I am enough, where there is space for my cripple-crabbed response to the divine question.

Mostly I want to flee when I come up against a person who knows, with certainty, just exactly what the answers are, and just exactly how life should be lived. The question in Sunday School last week was, "Well, wouldn't you want to avoid all the pain and suffering associated with sin?" Offered, rhetorically, as if the only appropriate answer was, "Yes, of course (idiot)." My response, unexpressed, felt like the wrong response. Like the offering a warthog would bring to the animal banquet—a decaying log loaded with woodworms, fitting to her but appalling to everyone else.

The thing is I just don't know so definitely. Sometimes the only way to know is through, through whatever it is that haunts you, follows you, dogs you. And in the getting through, there is bound to be sorrow, pain, and then knowledge. My favorite article of faith, the one I hang on to, is the ninth: That God has revealed, that He does now reveal, and that He will yet reveal. Things will change. One of my favorite prayers is "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief." It is a frequent plea. Ideas of which I was so certain, confident, sort of like the shocked "my child will never bite anybody" you utter when the childless you watches a nephew bite down for the first time, are waning. The things I do know I gather, in a smallish basket—stones that shine with a brighter, distilled light: that God knows me, and sends people, ideas, books, music, animals, young children, skies, mountains, water and wind to help me. That I can be sent to help others. That life is most meaningful when I help, when I am part of a community. That God still speaks. That I may try again, if and when I feel so inclined, hopefully sooner than later, but never too late. That at the center there is light and truth which is accessible to us all, and which will embrace and heal.

Some tell stories of their spiritual experiences with a beginning and an end. It's neater that way. Makes things more certain—definite beginning, definite ending, definite meaning. Somehow, I always find myself in the middle, always reshaping, always having to give up and to rethink, constantly paring away at the story I thought I found myself in. If I wrote a journal, the narrative would not actually be narratives at all; rather, personal essays, short, lyrical pieces of experience/emotion/fact/observation surrounded by attempts to make sense of the moment. Less absolute, less certain of universalities. More filled with moments of light that apply only to me, my personal brush with grace and revelation. Instead of the novel I supposed I would be able to draft of the things of which I were certain at the end of my life, I think I might be reduced to a haiku—just seventeen syllables but worth every sound.

So, knowing as little for sure as I do, I am shaken sometimes, when, armed with my little collection of pebbles, one cherry blossom, and a winter leaf, I come face to face with an apparent arsenal of absolute certainty, the entire greenhouse of a spiritual Home Depot as it were. I find myself lacking that attribute, and wondering if my soul, engineered as it is, is sufficient for the exacting devotion that seems to be required by those around me. The very same day I posted "Ready, Ready, Ready to Run," in which I said that I know now why Christian organizations build wells before they teach doctrine, I read a woman's account of paying her tithing in which she stated that she would rather have the living water of Christ than water in her pipes, rather have the bread of the Saviour's body than food on her shelves. On reading that, I remembered what I had written, and gave the deep sigh that normally precedes some serious soul searching. I spent the day wondering where was I that I wanted real water first; that I am wary of either/ors, and that my initial reaction was to wonder why she hadn't approached her family for help, or at least the local congregation. (The bishop's storehouse is always full). At the end of such wondering, I always feel less than enough.

Last year, I came to a spiritual resting place of sorts—a place where I needed a decision about the kind of faith and religious experience I would have, and whether I could have this faith within the collective arms of my church, or on my own. Plainly put, I did not want to feel "not good enough" anymore. I needed to identify the source of that feeling and try to move away from whatever black hole it lived in. But, I knew my reaction could not be to throw the baby out with the bath water, reject the good because of the unpleasant. I took out all kinds of doctrines and beliefs and turned them over, one by one, just like looking through the heap for a good fish at the market. Some I realized I didn't know about. Others I knew with as much certainty as experience had given me. Others were, if truth be told, not yet important to me. I looked at practices, and communal tendencies, trying to separate doctrine and culture. I "sat" for a long while, sitting, thinking, listening. I imagined life with, life without (a hard prospect when I have never known without). I came to certain personal conclusions about the kind of person I would be, about the voices I would listen to and the places I needed to be to be found about my Father's business.

I suppose I came to the same place Margaret did, when she advised her sister, "Develop what you have." Like Margaret's lack of love for children, there are certain things I do not love, that I will never get used to, that rub me the wrong way in this faith in which I worship. (Like I said, I love the ninth article of faith). But this faith has given me things I cannot imagine living without: like knowing we have heavenly parents who watch for us, that my soul is eternal, that this body is for pleasure and pain, that we are allowed to ask questions and answers will be given, that progression and existence is never ending, that joy is the ultimate design of this existence, that the souls of my children and my husband predate me and my involvement in their lives so I must be courteous and kind, that learning to choose well is perhaps the greatest skill I could acquire.

So (I'm not resisting well the literary urge to wrap this up in a conclusion and pull out an obvious moral), I'm learning to live in my space with my leaves, pebbles and blossoms, and allowing the others who file in with me at 9.00 a.m. to bring whomever and whatever they need into their own. It's not easy; not easy to come face to face with those "eternal differences" and not find myself either morally deficient or superior. I'm thinking I need to let the ideas/words/assertions come to me and let them flow over me, like water or good memories, feeling the need, the necessity, the desire, just as fervent as mine, to believe.

Title: Mick Jagger, "Old Habits Die Hard"


  1. "The question in Sunday School last week was, 'Well, wouldn't you want to avoid all the pain and suffering associated with sin?' Offered, rhetorically, as if the only appropriate answer was, 'Yes, of course (idiot)' My response, unexpressed, felt like the wrong response."

    But isn't it 'through the pain and suffering associated with sin' that we learn and improve? We rejected the plan of everyone being forced down one path without the ability to choose for ourselves, to make our own mistakes and learn from them. Your response was not the wrong one and you were definitely not alone in your thoughts.

    I have been struggling to explain to others why it is so hard for me to go to church and why I feel so uncomfortable there. I think you've expressed those reasons perfectly: the feelings of inadequacy that it brings, of being the weed among all of the perfect lilies . . .

  2. What was the name of the book that you read from the last time you taught in Relief Society?

    Thanks for being you and your wonderful lessons and insights. I always look forward to the Sundays that you teach.

  3. Another kindred soul, in my own very ward! Who are you, H?

  4. It might have been the Rabbi Kushner book, When All You've Wanted Isn't Enough. Or In Praise of Slowness, by Carl Honore.

  5. I started out laughing about your unfinished wooden projects, having finally resorted to taking unfinished projects or my own preferred cross stitch projects to the yearly torture (i.e., craft) sessions rather than signing up for new ones, but as I read further, I couldn't help feeling that finally, someone was putting into words how I feel about not being so %100 sure about everything as others seem to be. I, too, seem to know less than I did as a child, and yet, I am learning to approach the gospel with a kinder, gentler perspective, a perspective frequently reflected in some of your recent blogs ("Bless the Broken Road," "A Decent Melody," "The First Cut"). As I tell my husband almost every time I read your blogs, I like the way you think (and feel and express yourself). After years of depression and guilt and feeling "not enough," what you say resonates deeply. Thank you.

  6. "My Back Pages" -Bob Dylan, 1964

    Crimson flames tied through my ears
    Rollin' high and mighty traps
    Pounced with fire on flaming roads
    Using ideas as my maps
    "We'll meet on edges, soon," said I
    Proud 'neath heated brow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.

    Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
    "Rip down all hate," I screamed
    Lies that life is black and white
    Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
    Romantic facts of musketeers
    Foundationed deep, somehow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.

    Girls' faces formed the forward path
    From phony jealousy
    To memorizing politics
    Of ancient history
    Flung down by corpse evangelists
    Unthought of, though, somehow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.

    A self-ordained professor's tongue
    Too serious to fool
    Spouted out that liberty
    Is just equality in school
    "Equality," I spoke the word
    As if a wedding vow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.

    In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
    At the mongrel dogs who teach
    Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
    In the instant that I preach
    My pathway led by confusion boats
    Mutiny from stern to bow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.

    Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
    Too noble to neglect
    Deceived me into thinking
    I had something to protect
    Good and bad, I define these terms
    Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.

  7. White is the only color that men may bless and pass the sacrament in because it is a sacred ordinance. We would not attend our temple ordinances wearing purple or blue...it is much the same. It shows respect for an important ordinance.

  8. Since when? And why and how?

  9. Dallin Oaks's General Conference talk last fall titled "Sacrament Meeting and the Sacrament" is an excellent talk and I highly recommend it. In it, he quotes a statement made previously by Jeffry Holland which is “May I suggest that wherever possible a white shirt be worn by the deacons, teachers, and priests who handle the sacrament. For sacred ordinances in the Church we often use ceremonial clothing, and a white shirt could be seen as a gentle reminder of the white clothing you wore in the baptismal font and an anticipation of the white shirt you will soon wear into the temple and onto your missions”.

    The words "wherever possible" indicate that this is not a mandate.

    I believe that the thrust of this blog entry is that there are so many ways that we can feel as though we are falling short of the expectations imposed by men, not God. Unfortunately, we can perpetuate these feelings of inadequacy in ourselves and others when we believe that there is only one way to do things that have nothing to do with revealed doctrine.

    I happen to think that Boy Scouts is wonderful and have some very well-thought out arguments on why a scouting program is unneccesary for girls in the Church. Nevertheless, it is ridiculous to think that scouting is the only avenue for growth and development for young men. We can always invite and encourage others to join with us, but it is wrong to make others feel guilty for choosing other meaningful paths. I for one, simply do not do crafts (unless it is part of my calling...which it is).

    I took my Deacon-aged son's white shirt to the cleaner yesterday and I'm told it won't be ready until Monday. A clean, pressed, blue shirt is hanging in his closet. I hope that he will choose to wear it on Sunday rather than not participate in the ordinance of the sacrament at all and that that those who are being served by him will not cast judgement on his choice to do so.

    Tessa, I think you should throw out all the unfinished crafts. Things like that serve no purpose!

    Love your blog!

  10. And, HST, if you were a "real" mother, you would wash and iron your son's shirt with your own hands! Not take it to the cleaners, like some second class of women who don't really know how to home make! Like me.

    See, that's what we do to ourselves. My feelings after reading the comment posted by Becky were that there was a "duh" after the sentence. Like it should all be so absolutely clear. I am sure, or hope at least, that there wasn't that intent. The interpretation of an undercurrent was of my own making. And that's where the internal discipline comes into play. To not allow that particular tape to spool over and over again in our heads.

  11. Well, you see...after working all day outside the home, I had a few errands to run. I had to pick the kids up from the sitter, buy some pre-made crafts, and drop checks off at the kids' tutor and our housekeeper. Then, I had to stop by Costco for a week's worth of warm and serve meals as well as a pie I hope will pass as homemade for the ward function. Then, I picked up a couple of $5.00 pizzas and caffeinated drinks for dinner to eat while watching a PG-13 movie with the kids. With a schedule like this, I usually don't have time to launder and iron our shirts.

    I'd like to feel better about myself, so can I wash our clothes on a rock in your backyard stream within the next few days? :)

  12. I threw out a box of outdated unfinished Enrichment crafts a while ago... but I do love just sitting with the women in my ward and talking. I don't really miss the crafts, but I do miss the sitting around talking.

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  14. HST -- Whatever happened to teaching self-sufficiency and "mission prep"? ;)
    Why haven't you taught your son to wash his shirt on the rock himself? ;)
    And your kids should be picking up their own pizzas and drinks. ;)
    Then you'd have time to finish all of those half-done crafts! (Not to mention growing, canning, etc. your own food instead of buying it at Costco). ;P

    B (& TMS) -- From what I understand (but could be totally wrong), white shirts for blessing and passing the sacrament is a strong recommendation/suggestion but NOT a requirement:
    As HST quotes Oaks & Holland above: "May I SUGGEST that wherever possible a white shirt be worn . . ."
    And from the Ensign article (Aug 2004) "Worshiping at Sacrament Meeting" by Elder Russell M. Nelson [Adapted from a worldwide leadership training meeting for Bishoprics and branch presidencies]:
    "Administration of the Sacrament: ...Those who administer the sacrament ARE TO LOOK THEIR BEST AND BE DRESSED APPROPRIATELY. White shirts not only look nice, but they are a gentle reminder of other sacred sites, such as baptismal and temple ordinances, at which white clothing is also worn..."
    NB: Neither of the above quotes say that white shirts are required. They are strongly SUGGESTED because "they look nice and are gentle reminder of other sacred rites..."

    TMS -- I'm just a fellow ward member too shy and insecure to identify myself.

  15. I can relate to Becky's comment because I have spent 40 years of my married life in a ward where the Priesthood who bless and pass the sacrament, all wear white. In fact, our stake president has encouraged all of the brethren to wear white shirts in case they are called upon to help with the sacrament. We have very few young people in our ward. At 65 years, I have lived just long enough to have seen how standards have slipped and attitudes toward sacred things have taken a real nose dive. I was required to wear nylons, skirts or dresses, and shoes with no open toe all through high school. Now my grandchildren go to school alongside youth who wear pajamas, flip flops and skimpy clothing, that leaves nothing to the imagination. No rules are enforced as to language, clothing, hair, etc. I know of several community churches by me who use the casual dress and loud rock band, for the drawing card to their meetings. It is about Reverence. I am happy to dress appropriately and so are the men in my area. I realize that in hot humid climates, everyone goes in sandals and open necked shirts out of necessity, but most of us do not have to dress down to walk into an air conditioned building. As a final note, the gospel is too important for us to have argument over these kind of things. Let's just love one another and show respect for our leaders when they "recommend" guidelines. It will be for our benefit.

  16. Your comment about how my earlier comment having a "duh" about it like I thought you didn't understand the simplest of things made me cry.
    That was not my intent. Perhaps with time, you'll come to understand why I feel the way I do about it. It was meant to be stated as an opinion not a blanket fact. Perhaps I didn't state it like I should have. I agree wholeheartedly with the above comment: "As a final note, the gospel is too important for us to have argument over these kinds of things. Let's just love one another and show respect for our leaders when they "recommend" guidelines. It will be for our benefit."

  17. You don't know me. My sister, Jennifer introduced me to your blog. Thank you for bravely sharing your insights. I'm a lifelong member, myself and all my children Temple married. At age 55, I've have served in nearly every capacity a woman can serve in the Church. Over the years, I have heard all of the above comments. I think the real point here is, that I haven't heard YOUR point of view before (anywhere but in my own head) and it is wonderful to have a forum (not Sunday School)where you feel safe enough to express it. You validate my insecurities and give me courage to stand up and teach yet another lesson when I, sometimes, feel like an inferior imposter, carrying out my duty teaching principles I haven't mastered or even fully understand because I hope and believe it is all true and that this is the pathway back. Thank you. If you, whose gift is not just articulating, but forming your thoughts so beautifully, feel that way, it is ok for me to. Privately, I feel acceptable to my Father, it is the ward members' judgement I fear. I mean really, does ANYONE have a strong testimony of EVERY aspect of the gospel? We wouldn't need to be here aymore, would we? I wish I had your gift of self examination and expression, but as long as you share yours, you give me voice.

  18. HST,

    You won't believe this but I was going to invite you to wash your clothes in the stream along with me while I squatted on the hill like an Indian rag picker planting perennials. We could have bonded under the full moon-- and done a bit of howling.

  19. Thank you, Diane, for expressing my feelings regarding TMS and her ability to put a voice to the thoughts of others like you and me.