Thursday, May 29, 2014

Blogging badly and getting unstuck.

I have something to do. It's something that I need to do, or something that I want to do. I want do it well. I want to be able to look at what I've done and say, "Good job." I might even want it to be brilliant.

And then whatever I have to do becomes scary, because in the end it might not be brilliant, or very good, or even sort-of-good. Sometimes I can push through the fear. Sometimes I put off doing it for as long as possible, and sometimes I don't do it at all.

Does anybody else have this problem?

I'm nervous every year when I plant my vegetable garden, because I might plant the seeds wrong.

I don't like setting goals, because I will probably not meet them.

I hate organizing stuff, not so much because I'm lazy, but because I'll probably do it wrong. I've never been good at organization.

But when the task at hand is an area of strength for me, I'm even more afraid of failure.

I didn't audition for any college choirs until my junior year, even though I'm pretty good at choral singing, because I couldn't face the possibility that I wouldn't make it in.

I always wanted to be on stage, but I waited until 11th grade to try out for plays. Not because I didn't have any talent, but because I was pretty sure that I did, and I couldn't risk finding out that I didn't measure up.

When I took the GRE in my 30s, I was nervous. I'm good at taking standardized tests, and my graduate program only required moderately good test scores. But I had done well on the SATs in high school, and I was afraid that I wouldn't do as well on this test.

I'm a blogger who hates writing, not because I'm a bad writer, but because I want to be a good writer, and I think that I should be a good writer, and it's hard to be a good writer, and I'm afraid that if I start writing it will be garbage, junk, bleck.

So I'm stuck. Totally stuck, and I'm in a bad mood because of it. (This post is an attempt to get myself unstuck.)

I live with a perfectionist streak and a fair amount of anxiety. Since I'm in favor of demystifying and destigmatizing mental illness, I'll go ahead and say that I've been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. It goes up and down, and the extent to which it interferes with my life fluctuates. When my anxiety level rises, a bunch of stuff that I should be doing, stuff that would make me happier and healthier doesn't happen. It's just too scary to try it.

I don't know if casual acquaintances know how scared I am most of the time. Does it show? Do I come across as someone who functions normally?

Wait, don't answer that.

I don't want to be stuck in fear that what I write isn't good enough. I want to blog badly! I don't even know if "blogging badly" is grammatically and stylistically correct. If it isn't, so much the better. How liberating to scrap concerns about word choice and usage! How freeing to write inelegant sentences and lousy paragraphs!

I could start a post like this:
Since the beginning of time, man has longed for nature walks. It is with a joyful heart that I go on one today. I walk for three reasons: a) love, b) beauty, and c) I want to take photographs for this blog.

Or this:
I dislike the straw man fallacy and I think that it should be outlawed in writing and speaking. It is bad. It hurts our society. Please consider.

I also want to sing badly, dance badly, garden badly, pray badly, exercise badly, and play the piano badly. That's my plan: just to do stuff without wondering whether I'll achieve excellence or meet expectations. It's a good plan, but I'll probably execute it poorly. I'll be bad at allowing myself to do things badly. I'll be bad at it, and that's okay.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Missed connections and the kindness of strangers.

The New Yorker blog recently published a humorous piece, "Missed Connection for A-Holes." It's both sardonic and silly, and I thought it was really funny. But then I thought of the hundreds of strangers who have been kind to me at just the right moments. So here are the missed connection ads that I'm sending out to the universe.

I was the woman at the Cheverly Aldi who forgot to bring a quarter so that I could get a shopping cart. You were the cab driver who gave me a quarter and then got in your vehicle. I wish I could let you know how much that quarter helped my day to go more smoothly.


We were new parents in our mid-thirties, waiting in line with our baby at the Kaiser medical center. You were a man with white hair and a plaid shirt, probably in your eighties. In the first few weeks of our son's life, we had already been to a dozen doctor's appointments. My recovery was complicated. The baby wasn't gaining weight. We were exhausted and insecure. You stopped and wanted to see the baby. You said slowly and solemnly, "You are lucky. You are lucky." You changed my perspective on our situation and somehow imbued that moment with love and beauty. I wish that I could have gotten to know you. I'm sure that we would have been friends.


It's 1992, and we're at the Wendy's in Germantown. You're a well-dressed middle-aged couple coming to eat a meal during the slow period between the lunch rush and dinner. I'm the 18-year-old employee behind the counter who helps you with your order. It's the fall after my high school graduation, and my classmates have already started college. I'm not in school, I don't have a social life, and I don't like my job. I feel out-of-place and left behind.When the two of you leave the restaurant, you drop a customer comment card in the box. We rarely get comments, so my manager immediately unlocks the box and reads it, then shows me the card. You haven't just circled the numbers indicating your level of satisfaction. You've written a glowing review of my performance, commending me for being helpful, polite, and smart. Thank you for noticing me and for spending a few extra minutes writing those words of encouragement. They made a big difference that day.


I bought too many books at the library book sale, and you offered to walk me to my car so that you could help me carry everything. My car was parked at the far end of the parking lot. Thanks.


It was January 1996, somewhere along the Missouri stretch of Interstate 70. We were three college kids driving a 1979 Mazda hatchback across the country. It was the middle of the night, and all of a sudden the road was icy. We spun off the highway into a snowbank in the median. We didn't have cell phones, and we were stuck there until you came along with your truck and your chain and pulled us out. We didn't have time to have a conversation with you. And it was dark, so I don't really know what you look like, except that you looked kind of amazing, kind of like a hero.


I'm in the supermarket and my two-year-old has a meltdown. Before I can stop him, he grabs a jar of pasta sauce and throws it on the floor. Shards of glass and red sauce are everywhere. You're the employee who has to clean it up, and I'm really sorry about that. You soothe my embarrassment and cheer up my little boy, even when you have every right to be annoyed with us.


This was about ten years ago, and I had just broken up with my boyfriend. I wandered into a strip mall, feeling bereft and hopeless. My glasses needed repairing, and I went into your store. You insisted on fixing them for free, even though I told you that I hadn't bought the glasses from you. Maybe you were hoping to gain a loyal customer. Maybe your motivation was profit, not kindness. But it felt like a little bit of grace, and I really needed that right then.


I'm at the Beltsville Costco, waiting in a long line, antsy because I don't want to be late picking up my son. When I'm almost at the front of the line, I notice that the sign says, "This register is closed." I say something surly and am immediately ashamed of myself. I look around for another long line to join, and I notice you in the line next to me, gesturing for me to go in front of you. The man behind you smiles and nods. You two are making the offer together, and you both wear the expression of someone who is presenting a lovely surprise to a child. I protest. You insist. I say, "Thank you," trying to acknowledge with my body language that I know I don't deserve kindness like this after my grumpiness the moment before. You beam at me and say, "To God be the glory."


I was having a particularly  horrible morning with the boys that had had practically unhinged me. You worked at my son's school and were helping with the morning drop-off. I was inexcusably rude to you, and I was mortified by my behavior later. I wanted to apologize, but it was easier to avoid you instead. After two or three weeks, I finally approached you to say, "I'm sorry." Your graciousness amazed me. You insisted that I had nothing to apologize for (not true) and tried to take part of the blame (which was not warranted — you were just being nice). Before I left, you told me that this was your last day working there before you started your new job. I went home and cried because I had almost missed my chance to make it right. I cried because it was a tiny, perfect moment of mercy.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A question for my kids: What would you like to do about that?

Several years ago, when my first son was a toddler, I was at the playground with a few friends and their young children. One of the boys, who was about six years old, ran up to his mom and said something like, "I'm thirsty," or "The sun is in my eyes," or, "I'm hot." His mother's response impressed me.

She did not say, "Go get a drink of water from the water fountain," or, "Put on your hat," or, "Rest in the shade." Instead, she said, "What would you like to do about that?" Her tone was not sarcastic or off-putting. It was matter-of-fact with a nice undercurrent of warmth. Her son thought for half a minute and then figured out a solution to the problem.

When my son was old enough, I started asking him that same question. I want him to be independent and resourceful, and this is a small way that I can help him develop those traits. Here's an example of how I use the question: Yesterday, when we were walking home from school, he told me that he was thirsty. When I asked, "What would you like to do about that?" he remembered that he had a bottle in his backpack with water in it left over from lunch. The problem was solved, and more importantly I didn't have to solve it for him.

Of course, this question isn't appropriate for every situation. Sometimes my son needs me to give him an immediate solution (e.g. somebody's bleeding), sometimes I don't allow him complete autonomy (e.g. he's hungry, but he can't have a snack an hour before dinner), and sometimes he just needs a hug and a kiss. But there are times when this approach is effective, and it encourages him to figure out how to solve the problem himself.

Even if my son still needs my help with the problem, the question allows him to think about his options and what assistance he needs. It helps him to be more of a self-advocate and less of a whiner. And when the problem can't be solved immediately, my question helps him to process the situation and understand that I am not a magician who can teleport him home immediately or produce a treat out of thin air or make Daddy come back from work sooner.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mothers in the scriptures: Looking beyond the stripling warriors.

Eve Naming the Birds (detail), William Blake
For Mormons, the classic Mother's Day scripture is Alma 56:47-48. These verses praise the mothers of the stripling warriors, an example of successful motherhood that has been referenced in countless sacrament meetings, lessons, and church publications.

If you're not familiar with the story, here's the background: In the Book of Mormon, a group of people found God and became pacifists, taking a solemn oath against violence. Years later, those men would have rather died than defend themselves against the invading army. But their young teenaged sons had never taken the oath of non-violence and so they went to battle to protect their families, trusting God to deliver them.

The young men believed that God would protect them because of the faith of their mothers, saying, "We do not doubt our mothers knew it."

Why does this particular passage of scripture get so much attention? These nameless women seem to represent our Mormon ideal of motherhood: As the behind-the-scenes force for good, they are powerful in their faith and beloved by their children. They inspire their sons to be courageous and righteous, and they inspire us to create a legacy of faith for our own families.

But what can we learn from other mothers in the scriptures? We have many stories in the scriptures of women bearing, raising, and influencing their children. Some are substantial narratives, and some are only brief glimpses.

In the New Testament, Timothy was influenced by his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois, both Christian converts praised by Paul for their "unfeigned faith."

In the Old Testament, Naomi, bereft of children and husband, had such a close bond with her daughter-in-law Ruth that their relationship was immortalized in these poetic words, from Ruth 1:16.

Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.

Eunice, Lois, Naomi, and the mothers of the stripling warriors are inspiring examples of successful mothers. But we also find women in the scriptures whose experiences with motherhood were complicated, painful, even tragic.

There is Sariah, the first woman mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Sariah, who was overwhelmed with anxiety for her sons when their return from Jerusalem was delayed. Sariah, whose older sons repeatedly tried to kill their brother. She had two more children in the wilderness when she was old enough to be a grandmother. Later, she was so devestated by her sons' abuse of their brother that she fell ill and was not able to care for her youngest children.

There is Eve, the "mother of all living." At her first son's birth, her words expressed the universal sense of awe at holding a new child, a new person: "I have gotten a man from the Lord." As an adult, that son murdered his brother.

There's Rebecca, whose twin boys were rivals, even in the womb. Rebecca, who was inspired to help her younger son trick his father and cheat his older brother out of the birthright that would have been his.

There's Hagar, Abraham's concubine, who was banished from the home with her child after Sarah (Abraham's first wife) bore a son in her old age. Hagar, who wandered in the desert with her son until they ran out of food and water. She could not bear to watch her son die and left him to take his last breaths alone, or so she thought, before an angel saved them both.

There's Leah, married to a man who loved her sister Rachel, whose saving grace was that she was able to bear children, even when her sister was barren. But her sons sold their half-brother into slavery, and lived lives full of moral and sexual scandal.

There's Rachel, who was able to have two children after years of infertility, but died giving birth to her second son. There's Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, who was given to Jacob as a concubine in order to bear children upon Rachel's knees, children that Rachel would count as her own.

There's Hannah, who brought her son to serve at the temple as soon as he was weaned. There's Jochebed, who put her son Moses in a basket into the river to save his life. There's Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptist in her old age and then had to raise her son as a widow after her husband was murdered.

There is Mary, mother of the Lord. We read about the annunciation, her pregnancy, and the miraculous virgin birth. We see her again as Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, and later at the crucifixion. But the only glimpse we have into Mary's experience actually parenting her son in his boyhood is the story of Mary and her husband mistakenly leaving him behind at Jerusalem.

The family had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. When they started home, Mary and Joseph did not realize that their son had stayed behind until they had already traveled a day's journey. It took them three days to find him. He was "in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions."
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? 
And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. Luke 2:48-50
This passage contains the only words of the young Jesus recorded in the Bible. And in this moment, mother and son seemed to be talking past each other. Mary had seen an angel, she was raising the Son of God, and yet she did not fully understand her child or his remarkable mission. As a mother myself, having experienced the miracle of giving birth and the frustrating realities of parenthood, this story is particularly poignant for me.

In the scriptures, we see mothers suffering through infertility, mothers who are widowed or abandoned, mothers who witness rivalry and violence between their sons, mothers who lose their children through death or separation. Mothers in the scriptures were sometimes confused, they were sometimes depressed, they sometimes feared for their children's lives. They inspired their children, but they also failed them. They raised prophets, but they also raised scoundrels and murderers.

This is the complicated picture of motherhood that I see in the scriptures. This is what helps me get past the idealized expectations that we mothers in Zion sometimes have for ourselves. Motherhood is glorious, but it is also painful. Success in the home is mixed with failure; joy is mixed with sorrow.