Wednesday, October 7, 2015

KonMari for Families

As I read the book "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up" perhaps the most common concern I kept having was, how would I do this with a big family? Ms. Kondo seems to have written her book with small Japanese families and singles in mind. In fact, as far as I can remember she only mentions children once, in reference to a single mother of one who wondered whether her child would adapt well to the changes she was implementing. She said second hand that it seemed as though the child had adapted well, but had very little to recommend on how that could be accomplished. I also often found myself thinking, how will I have time to do what she says between all my family duties? In order to "quickly and completely" purge my stuff as she recommends, I would have to put everytng else on hold and just focus on cleaning and organizing. That doesn't happen in a house full of kids. Life moves on at a very quick and busy pace. Also, as the determination about whether something sparks joy is a very personal thing, it would stand to reason that you can't make that choice for your kids. Having large families complicates the process even more. So how do you apply this wonderful process in a family home?

I was certain that while having a large family makes this process more complicated or challenging, it did not make it impossible. In fact, using the KonMari method seems to be even more beneficial the larger the family. It almost becomes a necessity for the sake of sanity! I can barely keep account of my own things, but as a mother of 5, I become by extension the steward of that many times more the amount of stuff. Being aware of what we all own and keeping it manageable is one way to run a tighter ship.

Once you have read the book yourself, there are a few basic principles I'll share that I think can help you get off on the right foot. My first recommendation for sucessful family KonMari is to effectively get everyone onboard. Doing this as a family will be a long and challenging process. You will need cheerleaders and helpers or you may loose steam. It's best to start with your spouse. Nothing will sow seeds of doubt faster in your children's minds than a spouse who is rolling their eyes, acting like this is just one of mommy or daddy's "phases", or defiantly refusing to participate. I have the benefit of having a spouse who is better at picking up after himself than I am. I think he was doing internal somesaults of joy when I was reading the book and getting so excited about cleaning and organizing our house. However, I believe it is still very possible to get even the most reluctant spouse to be excited about KonMari if you just approach it with the right attitude. It is imperative that you maintain a cheerful enthusiasm about it at all times. Take the attitude of leading them along rather than pushing them into it, or worse yet guilting them into it. Never, ever let your prompting turn into nagging! If you can get them to read the book, that's great! If you have to explain the method to them yourself, do it in an excited way. When I read the book the first time, I was so excited I was in tears! I felt an incredible liberation, a lifting of earthly burdens I had been carrying for years! I could finally bid farewell to the pounds of useless stuff I had been packing around for decades. Hopefully you have had or will have a similar experience with the book. That enthusiasm is the fuel to ignite the rest of your family's support of this life-changing transition.

If words are not effective, don't belabor the point but skip straight to the second key which is to lead by example. Ms. Kondo discusses this in her book and calls it one of the best ways to motivate your family. When she was young she became so frustrated with her parents' and siblings' lack of organization that she used to throw out their things without asking and just wait to see how long it took before they noticed. She admitted that was less effective. But she found and continues to find with her clients that when you clean and organize your own things and enjoy the peace and order it brings to your life, others will want to follow. Of course this takes committment and discipline, "constant vigilance" is the mantra I often repeat in my head. If our efforts fizzle or we aren't actually any happier no one is going to be converted. On the other hand, you will find that knowing your things are in order will bring you a sense of contentment that will make it easier to be patient while the rest of the family comes around.

Of course, if your are going to truly KonMari your whole house, eventually you will have to tackle things that belong to someone else. Because this is a very personal method of cleaning, your kids will be involved, either by directly making decisions or by you doing your best to interpret their feelings about their possessions. It will be hard to do everything on your own, so at some point you will probably find yourself working together with your children. My advice is to make it special. Even if they share a room, it's best to work with each child separately as you guide them through the process of turning their space into a joyful place. You will find it is a great way to bond and learn a little more about them, while also inspiring them. If the whole point is to whittle down your possessions until all you have left is infused with joy, then the process should be joyful, too. Enjoy it! Each family member may respond a little differently, but that is the beauty of families. Three of my children are old enough to manage their own clothes. As I spent time sorting clothes with each of them, one was excited, one huffy, and one indifferent, but I did my best to just smile through it and do my best to teach and inspire. I wondered how well their drawers would keep. After some time had passed, I had a very validating moment when I secretly found my daughter redoing her own drawers which had fallen into disarray. My son who was excited at first has let his drawers return to chaoticly crammed piles, while the reluctant one has seen the value of keeping his things neat and regularly rearranges his drawers in unique and creative ways. We are all at stages, but regardless of their enthusaiam or lack thereof, I am glad they all have the idea in their heads, and they have all at least tried it out. It is hard to maintain perfect order and I often have to redo their drawers myself or have them do it. But every time I pull out one of those neatly ordered drawers, I am reminded how great this system is. I love seeing all their clothes at once neatly in rows, and I love that I have enough space that I don't have to switch out seasonal clothes anymore. The only clothes in the attic are hand-me downs in waiting. Those drawers are like a little haven of sanity for me, and as long as I keep them up, I expect the joy with eventually diffuse throughout the rest of the house.

It's great to get the whole family involved in doing KonMari, but it's also important to know when it is time to work alone. There are things that will become complicated when you involve too many people and their accompanying opinions. Clothes are pretty safe to do with your kids that are old enough, though I recommend doing it one on one with each child in an undistracted large block of time, like a lazy Saturday. I find when it comes to things like toys and books, I would rather sort on my own first. This is best done while the kids are away at school. Then when I am all done I bring in the kids to help me finish up. 

Here's what I like to do: while sorting on my own, instead of just having "keep" and "eliminate" categories, I like to have a third box, called my "ask the kids" box. As I go through my kids things it's usually easy to identify the things they love. These are the obvious keepers. I also take this chance to exercise my right as a parent to get rid of those things I deem too messy and of little value or interest (like those nefarious happy-meal toys). These items get put away in the garbage or donation bags before any kids can see them. So far, I have not encountered any problems with kids asking for these things later. They remain thankfully forgotten. I always keep in mind the feelings of my kids, and if there is something I would really like to let go, but I know my kids have an attachment, those things go in the "ask the kids" box. Later, I have the kids come individually and I go through that box with them. I have been surprised how many of these things they tell me I can get rid of. They are stronger and less attached than I thought. Of course anything they want to keep goes back with the stuff to keep category. Then we decide how to store everything, and the kids are made aware of the system so they can put things where they belong.

Perhaps the most challenging thing is that it is really hard to do the KonMari method as quickly and thoroughly as Ms. Kondo recommends. Despite all her arguing about doing it in one fell swoop, I feel that as a family you just have to take your time, but don't give up! There are just too many extra factors in the soup and you can't expect to pull it off the same way a single person could. For one thing, this method just can't be done with young ones about. I find I often pull out everything from the current category I'm doing only to have to stuff it all back into place because I have to go pick up kids, run errands or start cooking dinner. You just can't lave piles of stuff sitting around when there are kids in the vicinity. Putting things back over and over slows me down considerably, but it is better than trying to leave it all out. If you have an awesome friend, sibling, parent or in-law who can take your kids for long stretches of time, go for it! I believe the idea that if you do not do this quickly and thoroughly you will loose steam. I have already seen that happen to me, but there wasn't much I could do. I am not, however, giving up! It has already been longer than the 6 months Ms. Kondo says it should take to get through our house, but my vision of the end result is the motivation that keeps me going. I used to think having an organized home was a physical impossibility for me. I no longer feel that way. That is the thing that has excited me most about KonMari. My goal, which I always longed for despite my pesimistic outlook, is at last achievable and totally within my grasp! I'm not only excited for myself, but I hope my children will also benefit from this shift in habits, and that their lives will be easier in this regard than mine ever was.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Path to KonMari

In our almost 15 years of marriage, my husband and I have had 5 children, moved over a dozen times, and acquired a lot of stuff. In each place we lived, I hoped to get a handle on various collections of "stuff to go through," whether it was papers, toys, clothes, books or keepsakes. Sadly and without fail, time would pass with little change and before I knew it I had to resign myself to just boxing up my mess and transporting it to yet another home. I started to find myself gazing miserably on closet shelves stuffed haphazardly with random things, boxes of papers to sort, or piles of homeless toys, and wishing it would all just burn to the ground so I didn't have to deal with it.

Apparently, I am not alone in this sentiment. For instance, I had a recent conversation with my good friend Cathy, who has also moved her family of 7 many times, often across oceans. When I said I had contemplated arson as a means of solving my clutter problem, she could totally relate. Before each move, she would pare down their belongings, and ship most of what was left by slow boat, taking just enough to live off of for a few months with them to their new place. Every time, she would find herself hoping the slow boat would just sink. When the shipment arrived (as it always has) she would pare down even more because she had discovered in many cases that they had lived just fine without it. It's no wonder Cathy's home is always so neat and attractive.

I think most of us would agree that in general, our society is way too buried in stuff. Stuff is so available to us, in so many varieties. Even "poor" people in this country can have houses full of possessions. Families in 3rd world countries live with so little, and yet we often hear stories of how happy they can be. Stuff doesn't make us happy, but advertising is constantly trying to sell us that lie. Quite to the contrary, owning too much stuff has the effect of binding us down to this world. We are forced to shift our focus to the burdensome responsibility of managing all our stuff instead of actually living our lives.

I have never been good at managing clutter. I try to blame it on my right-brained creativity, but that doesn't make me feel any better. When I am focused on a project I can be sadly oblivious to the mess that I or the kids are making all around me. In all honesty, it probably comes down to plain old laziness, either that or lack of faith that I can ever actually get my house clean. Whatever the cause, I feel like my inability to clean my house is my big fatal flaw (I have many others, but this is the one that has pained me the most). I knew it was particularly frustrating to my husband, who grew up in a home where his mother seemed to keep the place effortlessly clean (though I am sure much effort went into it). On the other hand, I grew up in a home with a high clutter tolerance. Mom tried to teach us to keep things neat, but she admitted that she wasn't very good at it, either. Her excuse, she would say in more candid moments, was that her mother had never made her work. Although her dad would make her and her siblings do the dishes, Grandma's philosophy was "let them enjoy childhood, because adulthood will be hard enough." Sometimes, I've been told, Grandma even did major homework projects for them. Mom tried hard to make up for it, though. She bought Don Aslett's popular books on cleaning and taught us all how to scrub down the bathroom and mop and dust and vacuum. She made chore charts and in the summers we had rigorous inspections before we could go out and play. But still, the clutter accumulated. It seemed like a constant battle. When Grandma would come for a visit, she would take on her mother role again, trying to relieve Mom of her work load. She would clean house from top to bottom and return home so exhausted that Grandpa would threaten to not let her visit again. It would seem that Grandma was a cleaning queen, but when I visited Grandma's house, I noticed that even though she knew how to "clean" house, it never felt tidy. They had boxes stacked in many bedrooms, and by the time I was in college, we couldn't sleep at their house when we visited because the spare rooms were too full of stuff.

Apparently this wasn't so much a cleaning problem as it was a hoarding problem. I think this all came to head for me when my grandparents and my grandpa's brother (who lived similarly) all passed away within a year of each other. Because my Mom also passed away that year, my siblings and I became more directly involved in the task of sorting through the stuff they left behind than we otherwise might have been. The experience has been eye opening. The sheer volume of possessions acquired by three people in their 90's who had lived in the same houses for more than 60 years (for their whole life in my great-uncle's case) was mind boggling. Some of it was pretty cool stuff, treasures even. Lots of it was mysterious. Lots was junk. We're still not done.

As I've watched this process unfold I have looked around at my own stuff and envisioned what it will be like for my kids someday to have to sort through all of it. Would they feel obligated to keep things when they didn't even know what it was, where it was from, only that it must have been important to Mom because she kept it? Would it take them months or years to sort through the mysterious messes I had left behind? I didn't want to do that to them.

I had already been praying regularly for the ability to get my home in order, for the necessary skills to make decisions and put things away. With this new motivation to not burden my children with my mess when I die, I prayed with even more fervor, but still the desired results escaped me. In my mind, the biggest issue was time. I felt like the daily tasks of cooking, doing dishes and laundry, chauffeuring kids, and general cleaning was all I had time for. There were lurking piles and boxes of stuff that I always had on my mind, but they were never a high enough priority to displace the daily grind. Those unfinished projects weighed heavily on me. I desperately wanted my house to be clean, but it seemed impossible. Sorting, organizing and storing my things properly was the project I could never finish, and therefore I could never have the tidy, pleasant home I wanted. It never even occurred to me that the solution to my clutter was not how to organize and store it, but simply to let go of it.

That was the magical revelation that the KonMari method introduced to me. It was at the same time both terrifying and liberating. At first, I felt my hoarding instincts screaming in resistance at the thought of getting rid of this or that thing I had kept for years. But every time, I found myself slowly realizing that I could in fact let it go. Not only that, but the thought of doing so was thrilling. It feels like the contrast between flying on a big, bulky crowded airplane and the rush of hang-gliding. It may be a little scary out in the open like that, but you get to feel the wind and see the view and experience what flying is really all about! 

As I read the book, I felt like my mom and my grandparents were behind this gift, that they wanted me to read it. It seemed like their effort from the other side to break the cycle of hoarding that had plagued 3 generations already. I also felt like the author, this little Japanese girl who grew up reading housekeeping magazines and staying in from recess to organize her school classroom, who went on to develop the KonMari method and write a book about it, was sent to this earth just for me, to liberate me from the shackles of too much stuff. Her philosophy has blessed many, many others as well, of course, but I still can't get over how perfect the timing was, and how precise the solution was for my life.

I think a person has to come to KonMari willingly. It is not something anyone can talk you into doing. It has to spring from a desire to simplify and finally solve the problem of an overly cluttered life. I am still learning how to apply it, and I still need to develop better skills at just putting things away. But for the first time, I feel like I can do this! That feeling is so empowering! Not only can I do this, but I believe it will be finished far sooner than I ever imagined. The thought of all I will be able to do when it is done is incredibly exciting to me. Maybe I'll even take up hang-gliding :)

My other posts on KonMari:

Friday, April 24, 2015

What is this KonMari?

I've been sharing a lot of Facebook posts about "KonMari" lately. Some of my friends have been graciously cheering me on while others may feel a little left out of the party with all this esoteric talk about "sparking joy" and the "magic" of throwing practically everything away. Some of them may even be bored of my bragging, which is really not what I mean to do. I'm just having the time of my life and I can't help talking about it! In an effort to spare my Facebook friends from the gushing, I decided it was time to blog about this huge turning point and share a little of the magic I've discovered.

In simple terms, the KonMari method is a way of paring down your possessions to the minimum of what you need in order to live a happy, joy-filled existence. It was developed by an adorable Japanese woman named Marie Kondo and explained in her international best-selling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up." Ms. Kondo has also assumed the title "KonMari" for herself as well as her method. This book fell into my life the week after my 40th birthday, at a time when I was feeling ready and excited for a big change. I had never heard of the book before, but a friend shared it on Facebook and something told me I had to read it. As far as I can recall, I have read only one other self-help book in my life. But I felt compelled to read this one and put myself on the waiting list for a digital copy from our library. Even though I was number 134 on the list, I miraculously got my copy two days later and started reading right away.

Within the first few paragraphs I was both captivated and terrified! "This woman is going to make me throw everything away!" I thought. I felt my breathing get shallow and my head swim with all the reasons she couldn't make me do that. She just didn't understand. I need my things. But somewhere else inside, I knew she was right, and that if I would keep reading, it would make sense. The book had the draw of some kind of thriller novel and with the gripping curiosity that keeps you reading a classic "who-done-it", I plunged ahead. Obviously, we have to keep at least some of our things to survive, and I wanted to find out her criteria before I gave up on the book entirely. Finally I landed on the crux: KonMari teaches that we should not choose what we throw away so much as what we keep. And the way we choose what we keep is by asking ourself for each and every item in our home, "Does this spark joy?" Those things that do are the things we should keep. I was flooded with relief and excitement. That was something I could do! Not only that, but the thought thrilled me! She proceeds to describe the kind of environment you could live in where you are only surrounded by things that bring you joy! That sounds like heaven, truly! What an awesome place that would be, and absolutely yes, I wanted to live like that! From then on, I was totally hooked. I could barely put the book down and devoured it in about 2 days. Within a week I started the thrilling process of turning my life around.

The KonMari method as outlined in the book is not perfect, but the principles behind it resonate deeply with me. Several circumstances, especially events over the past year, led me to a point where I was definitely ready for this. I'll talk more about that in a future post. For now, if this sounds at all exciting to you, I highly recommend finding a copy and reading this book as soon as you can. I will continue to share my thoughts, some of the reasons I love this method, and some of the tweaks I've had to make to fit it to my life and beliefs, particularly how it applies to large families, since that is not something the book addresses very well.

More on KonMari:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mikulas and the Enduring Joy of Family Traditions

Several studies have found that a big key to family happiness and closeness is the practice of having traditions. In that arena, my mom was an expert! We had daily traditions like prayer and scripture study, weekly traditions like journal time and Family Home Evening, but our very favorites had to be the annual traditions which circled around "the most wonderful time of the year," Christmas. I think all my siblings can agree that the tradition we were most excited about was the one granted to us by our Hungarian ancestry. My mom's maternal grandparents were Hungarian immigrants, and one of the traditions they brought with them from their homeland was the celebration of Saint Mikulas Day (or Saint Nicholas) on December 6. Grandma and Mom grew up celebrating it, and now the fourth and fifth generations are continuing that tradition.

The thing I remember most about my great-grandmother Block was that she baked lots of cookies and she always insisted on us having a big glass of milk and as many cookies as we wanted when we visited. I got the feeling that cooking for her family was a way she expressed her love for them. Grandma and Mom were the same and making Mikulas dinner was definitely a labor of love! Even though the dishes seem a little plain, almost peasant fare, most of them took practically all day to prepare. I have often wondered how the Hunagrians used to do it wihtout all the fancy kitchen gadgets we have today.

One dish we learned from great-grandma was the Krumpli Noodli, or potato noodles. After boiling and mashing potatoes and kneading them into a dough (which mom often did at least in part by hand), she would roll out long snakes, cut them and roll each noodle between her palms to taper the ends. These would be laid out on floured sheet pans to dry a little, then be boiled in batches and tossed with toasted buttered bread crumbs. It took forever and made a big floury, sticky mess, but every year we'd roll up our sleeves and do it again. There was also the Palacinta Ham stack, a dish mom never recalled her mom or grandma making which she found in a Hungarian cook book. It incorporated a traditional Hungarian crepe, called a Palactinta, which grandma did make quite often and is now a breakfast staple among all my siblings. Normally we ate them rolled up with jam, but for Mikulas dinner mom would layer the crepes flat with a creamy ham sauce and cut it in wedges like a cake. She also served red cabbage sauted until tender and stirred with sour cream. I never ate it when I was a kid, and now I crave it but rarely bother making it because no one will eat it with me.

But the crown jewel of the feast was always the dobos torte, or drum cake (visit my cooking blog for the recipe!). It was traditionally a 9 layer cake (though we usually just did 8 layers) spread with a silky chocolate icing and topped with a hard golden candy top. The layers were a delicate sponge cake baked in swivel pans. I remember the old tarnished sliver pans mom used only once a year to make the cake, unless one of us had a heritage or cultural foods day at school, and then the dobos torte was the usual choice we were all proud to share. The story was that it was called a drum cake because you had to smack it hard with a knife to cut through the candy top. A true officianado could make a perfectly straight crack rather than shattering the surface, and a well cracked cake seemed to be symbolic of good fortune in the coming year. Later we did some research and found out it was probaly just called a "drum cake" because the baker who invented it was Mister Dobos, a name that just happened to mean drummer. Misinformation aside, the cutting of the cake in our home was always attended by great ceremony, and a well placed smack was met with a hearty cheer. 

After dinner was over, sometimes while enjoying our cake, mom would read a chapter of Kate Seredy's classic, "The Good Master." The story tells of Márton, a well-to-do yet humble and generous rancher who lives with his wife and son on the pastoral plains of Hungary. His sickly, feisty neice whose mother has passed away comes to stay with them for an extended visit. Her shenanigans keep her aunt, uncle and cousin hopping, but they eventually tame the little savage and she snuggles her way into their hearts. Mom would skip to the ending chapters and read the one that takes place on Mikulas. The two cousins, Jancsi and Kate, start off talking excitedly about the aniticpated night-time visit of the mysterious St. Mikulas and what he might leave in their shoes, when Márton tells them both that they won't have to wait or even wonder about him because they are picking him up at the train station that night. The astonished children bundle up for the snowy sleigh ride and travel with father to the station. They can't believe it when they really do pick up a white bearded man in a red and white fur trimmed suit and escort him around the neighborhood delivering toys to all the children they know. At the last house they have run out of presents, and the two cousins choose to give up their own cherished gifts because they know these children are very poor and may not have anything otheriwse. That part always made mom's voice quiver a little. But the part that always got her was when they return to their cozy house and the children discover that "Mikulas" was in fact Kate's father, come from the city for a visit. Mom's tears were Kate's tears as she is reunited with her father. After Kate's father expresses his wonder at how his little girl has changed and matured, the children ask about who the real Mikulas is, and he gives one of the most beautiful explanations I've ever heard about the tradition of Santa Claus. Try as she did, Mom could never prevent the crying, and sometimes I vainly thought I could at least keep it together if I were to read it. The first time I did I was far from home and sharing this cherished
tradition with some new friends. Despite all my expectations, I bawled. I think mom's tears came because of the deep love she had for her family, the sweetness of reunions like that of Kate and her Father, the joy that comes from seeing the goodness in each other, and the infinte joy that comes with this season and the knowledge that thousands of years ago, a little baby came into the world as the greatest gift of all. Those emotions are powerful and I suddenly understood why mom had such a hard time holding back the tears. Knowing this story was so precious to mom, my sweet brother Joseph thought to read it to her a few days before she died. I recently came across this photo, where you can see the well-loved and weather-worn copy mom always used.

The final part of our Mikulas tradition was just before bed, we would each make sure our best Sunday shoes were standing in wait near the fireplace or the front door. In the morning, they would be filled with little gifts and lots of chocolate. It was never anything as big as what we'd get at Christmas, just a little a little "appetizer," something to tide us over until the big day arrived.

I'm so grateful that my husband has fully adopted this tradition with me, and helps make sure it is special for our children. I imagine they will all do it with their families. This year, the first without Mom, going through the process helped me feel her near, and I know she was happy to see the legacy being handed along to the next generation. It is not about the presents, or even about the food. It is about the people, about the ties that bind us, about the sense of family and what makes us unique. It's having a mutual secret delight, something to look forward to that only you and the people you love the most could ever fully understand. I'm sure it wasn't always easy to do one more intensive thing at this busy season, nor is it any easier for me with two added birthdays in December to also plan for. But mom always came through, and now I don't think any of us would skip it for the world.

I hope each of you has a very special something that you always do with your families, and if you haven't got one, that you'll be inspired with a great idea! I'd love to hear a little about your traditions in the comments if you'd like to share. Merry Christmas everyone, and may the love and joy of this season fill your hearts every day of the year!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

That We Be Not Confounded

I recently came to the Book of Ether in my personal scripture study. Though the book is packed full of sweeping history, epic battles, successions of kings, cycles of righteousness and wickedness, and insightful gospel lessons and observations, the story I have been thinking the most about comes right at the very beginning. Moroni, who condensed and summarized the writings of the prophet Ether into the 15 chapters we have in the Book of Mormon, sets the stage by taking us back thousands of years to when the world was young and the peoples of the Earth spoke one common tongue. As punishment for their wickedness, the Lord confounds the language of the people, causing chaos and confusion and putting an end to their blasphemous tower-to-heaven project. But there were a few faithful among them who seemed to have known this curse was coming. Perhaps they had been warned by prophets. One of the faithful was Jared, who approached his brother, Mahonri Moriancumer, evidently a man he looked to as a leader and man of God. He asked his brother to petition the Lord on their behalf that he spare them from the curse and not confound their language. When that request was granted, he asked his brother to include their friends in the petition, so that they would have a cluster of comrades able to communicate with one another. This became essential, as there was an important undertaking on their horizon: a trans-oceanic exodus to a promised land on the other side of the world.

Thousands of years later, in our day, I find significant parallels to this account. With all the confusion of issues and the persuasive rhetoric flying around, there are many times that I feel like praying for myself, and likewise for those I love that we may not be confounded, that we can see clearly and perceive truth. The prophets past and present have warned many times that in the last days perilous times would come (2 Timothy 3:1), that Satan would rage in the hearts of men (2 Nephi 28:20) and that his cunning would be so great that even the very elect would be deceived (Matt 24:24). Not one of us is immune to this danger. In the early days of the restored church, the prophet Brigham Young saw first hand the apostasy of formerly stalwart church members, leaders, and even apostles, who may have seemed incorruptible at one point but sadly succumbed to the temptations of the world. He wisely said that he personally would never declare, "I will never fall away," because he knew that no one is immune to that possibility, and to make such a claim is practically throwing down the gauntlet at the feet of "old scratch" and setting yourself up for failure. Having a strong testimony is a wonderful blessing, and certainly a goal worth striving for, but even the strongest tree can die if it doesn't get the nourishment it needs. A testimony is a living thing, and likewise must be cherished and nourished and protected if it is to stay strong.

I love what President Deiter F. Uchtdorf shared recently about the apostles at the last supper, how each one examined himself and asked if they might be the traitor whom the Savior prophetically declared was among them. In humility and sincere self-evaluation, they looked inward rather than pointing fingers and suspiciously accusing each other. True disciples are not afraid to give their hearts a good long looking at to see what is there, or ought to be there. They are not afraid to ask the Lord to help them look and see with His eyes, and they are not afraid to hear the Spirit whisper that all is not right and change is necessary. In fact, they expect it, and even relish it, because it means they have the chance to work side by side with the best partner, master, and friend ever. Why would we want to look at our hearts and say to our Lord, "All good here. You can move on to the next person. In fact, let me tell you who needs your help..." Why would we want to pass up the opportunity to embark on a lifetime journey to self betterment at the side and with the help of the master of the whole universe?

I can't say it any better than President Uchtdorf: "...None of us likes to admit when we are drifting off the right course. Often we try to avoid looking deeply into our souls and confronting our weaknesses, limitations, and fears. Consequently, when we do examine our lives, we look through the filter of biases, excuses, and stories we tell ourselves in order to justify unworthy thoughts and actions.

"But being able to see ourselves clearly is essential to our spiritual growth and well-being. If our weaknesses and shortcomings remain obscured in the shadows, then the redeeming power of the Savior cannot heal them and make them strengths. Ironically, our blindness toward our human weaknesses will also make us blind to the divine potential that our Father yearns to nurture within each of us." ("Lord, Is It I?" Priesthood Session, October 2014 General Conference)

It seems to be getting harder to discern truth from error, both in ourselves and in the world at large, but I still believe truth is there to be perceived. Just like the ancient Jaredites, there is an important work for us to do. We may not have to build barges and sail across an ocean, but we do have metaphorical oceans to cross as we prepare for the coming of our Lord. We have to speak a common language, or we cannot work together. And I believe it will take much earnest prayer and diligent living of the principles that have already been given to us in order for us to succeed. We can't waste any time debating about tangent subjects or passing the blame for our personal and collective failings. We have a world to prepare, and the instructions have already been given. Press forward saints!

Image credit: Jaredite Barges, by Robert T. Barrett, from the Gospel Art Library

Monday, September 22, 2014

Be Your ^Best Self

A prevelant theme in current popular thought is how important it is to just "be yourself." We're done with the overwhelming expectations of society, the unattainable ideals, and the narrow definition of both "acceptable" and "in." We are who we are, we're good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us just the way we are. As I raise my children in this brave new world, I am grateful that they are reinforced with acceptance for their uniqueness, that they are taught to love themselves and not be ashamed of what makes them "different" from their peers. However, when I see the mantra "Be Yourself" engraved motto-like on posters and book covers, I always want to insert a little carat symbol and make one small change. I'd like it to read, "Be Your Best Self." We certainly should not overwhelm ourselves with expectations that are currently out of reach, but on the other hand, we can not fall into complacency in our quest to feel content with who we are at this moment. We have to find the balance between self satisfaction and self motivation, so that we are at peace with where we are, but are always reaching for something better. I could easily look at my shortcomings (housekeeping, lack of patience, or selfish use of my free time) and say, that's just who I am. I'm being myself. Don't knock me for having flaws. I could go on in my ways without the unnecessary stress of having to overcome something that is just part of my nature. Nobody's perfect, and that's okay. Well, it is, but not in the long term. I still have faith in people's power to change. I think we owe others that faith, and we certainly owe ourselves that faith. It may be a long and very gradual road, but I believe it is the only true path to lasting happiness and peace with ourselves.

Image courtesy of Matt Banks at

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The "Trust Fall" that is the Atonement

While praying recently, I thought over all the things I had done wrong that day and by extension all week--all the things I needed to repent of. I thought of all the times I had lost my patience with my children, the times I had sighed in exasperation when they asked me for something while in the middle of "my" projects, the minutes I had wasted in idleness. I felt the surge of desire to be better, that elusive ideal, the proverbial carrot dangling constantly in the distance that should be driving me along, but doesn't seem to do any more than aggravate me. Why do I fail so much? Why do I want so badly to be good and yet fail so consistently? Why can't I overcome my fatal flaws? Why is it such a struggle?

My mother let me read her journal once when I was struggling through a difficult time. I was pregnant with my fifth child, my husband was burdened with a challenging work situation, and we were both feeling overwhelmed by life. Mom brought me her journal that spanned her years from having 2 children to having her 5th. She thought it would be helpful for me to see that I was not the only one to have walked that difficult road. It did help, and it also gave me a special window into her soul that longed for the very same thing: perfection. She yearned just as much if not more for the same seemingly unattainable goal and felt just as much remorse over her lack of its achievement. But from the outside, to me she was amazing. She was as good as they can possibly get. She was close to the spirit, trying her hardest and doing her best. She lived what she believed. And yet she was still plagued by feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. She struggled her whole life to be good, right up to the end.

And then she died.

As this thought washed over me, I wept. Mom struggled her whole life to be good, and probably never felt good enough, and then it was over. That seemed so bleak, so horridly hopeless. And she was ten times better than me. If someone like her could feel so inadequate, where does that leave ME?

But then a thought came to me: we can not make ourselves perfect. It is, just as we thought, absolutely impossible. And it is meant to be. We can't do this alone, so why do we constantly try to? Why do I constantly try to do this alone? I need the Savior. It is only through him, with him, and by him that I can become perfect. But in my mortal rebellion, I prefer trying to be perfect the way I envision. So I construct my plan for reaching perfection and I decide what I work on and work towards. But it always falls apart. Why? Because my vision of the perfect me is actually flawed and imperfect because I don't have a perfect persepctive. I cannot see the big picture, so how can I even think to make the blueprint to build the perfect me? Why would I even attempt it? Is it a power thing? Do I want to prove something? Or do I want to take all the credit for myself? No, I have to go to the master builder and ask him for the Plans. And then keep him by my side as he tells me what to build and which parts to work on first. I have to give commmand to him.

This wasn't really a new thought. I have realized many times in my life that I needed to rely more on Christ to help me overcome my weaknesses. I knew I needed him. But time after time, it seems I start forward with that in mind, then eventually slip back into trying to do it all on my own. I call it the "my do it!!" syndrome, because that's what my son says when he wants to do something all by himself, like brushing his teeth, or getting dressed. I let him try, and when he struggles the most and I try to intervene, he screams at me again and I have to back off. I try to wait patiently for him to wear himself out doing the thing that is almost impossible until he is the one that says, "help me."

I guess there are times when God does the same with us. There are times when he wants us to learn independence. He doesn't want us to come to him for every little detail of our lives. He wants us to be self-reliant and proactive. He said, "men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will and bring to pass much righteousness." But there are things that we can't fix on our own, and the more we try, refusing the divine assistance we need, the worse things can get.

Handing it all over takes an incedible amount of trust. It makes me think of those "trust fall" activites meant to build team work. On the few occasions I have done this exercise, I barely knew my "team," but already felt a bond of friendship and even love. With my back turned to them, unable to see but hearing their chants of encouragement, I would fall five feet down into their supporting arms. There is always that moment of terror, that you've made a horrid mistake, or that someone you are depending on might fail you, and your stomach lurches. And then you feel the cradle of all those arms, braced to catch and protect you, and it's hard not to laugh in delight. In a similar fashion, I can't see my Savior, but I feel him, I hear him, and he has known me longer than I currently know myself. He calls out to me, "I'm right here. I promise I will catch you." I have to throw my life into his arms, and trust that he will break my fall and bear me up. I have to work hand in hand with him as we create the me he needs me to be. Only then can I be made perfect, because his atonement fills the infinite gap between what I am and what I need to be. As soon as I place myself in his command and stop fighting against myself, I am perfect and whole, and it feels even more exhilarating than landing in the outstretched arms of my friends.