Sunday, May 15, 2011

If You Want Something, Let It Go

My 1-year-old LOVES his yogurt. Sometimes I let him grab one out of the fridge. I get him all set up in his highchair while he happily turns the little plastic cup of goodness over and over in his hands, anticipating that creamy euphoria to come. But he has a hard time handing it over to me so I can open it and feed it to him. He pulls it away from me, hides it under the tray, and then gets mad at me because he wants it so badly. "Just hand it over! I'll open it and feed it to you! Look, here's the spoon!" Still, he holds onto it fiercely.

Sometimes I think Heavenly Father has that problem with us. There are things in our lives that we want so desperately, but unless we hand it over to God and let him be the one to administer the blessings, we just can't get anything out of it. Sometimes we get mad at him and blame him for things not working out, when in reality, we are the ones holding ourselves back by not surrendering our will to a higher, wiser power.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cutting Remarks About Marriage from a Knife Salesman

A few days ago I was making an exchange at a major department store where a synthetically voiced salesman was live on the floor, demonstrating the wonders of a certain brand of knives. He had the kind of disembodied voice that you sometimes hear listening to radio announcers or advertising voice overs, the kind of voice you never expect to hear coming out of the lips of a living, breathing human being. As he oiled his way through his demonstration, I smiled to myself and kept browsing for the size I needed, absently listening in. I heard the salesman boasting about the guarantee they offer on their knives: if they ever rust or wear out or break, even if it's your own fault, they will take them back with a full replacement or refund. Then he went on to quip, "Wouldn't you like to buy a car on those terms?" His voice lowered and he said in an almost sinister way, "Wouldn't you like to get married on those terms? If you don't like it, send it back!"

My jaw dropped. I could not believe he had just said that.

Not 24 hours earlier I had been having a conversation about this very problem with my husband. He had come across a rather disturbing article arguing that the institution of marriage is becoming an endangered species, and offering all the reasons why we should just let it die out and be done with it. From a Christ-centered, faith-filled perspective, his arguments were simple to refute, but from his worldly position, his arguments were frightfully valid.

The article gave 4 main arguments why marriage is a "dying institution." I'd like to address three of them, lumping 2 together. His first argument about how government involvement is a marriage killer has too many legal implications and details which I'm not qualified to discuss. The second and third arguments are closely related enough that I'd like to discuss them together. They are that first, familiarity breeds contempt, and secondly, married couples are missing out on the joy of being "chosen" on a daily basis. The real issue behind both of these problems is simply selfishness. I believe that marriage is ordained and recommended by God in large part because it is the perfect boot camp for eliminating our selfishness. Marriage can beat the selfishness right out of you, but selfishness unchecked will also beat a marriage right out of your life. It is all a matter of what we are doing with the challenges presented to us each day. But today we have an egocentric "me" society where being selfish is touted as the best way to live, so of course our marriages are suffering.

One of the things my husband and I talked about as we discussed the article was the fact that our society has turned into such an "instant gratification, money-back guaranteed, buy now, pay later" kind of society. If something we purchase isn't exactly everything we ever wanted, we have the right to return it, no questions asked, no risk involved. We use microwaves to heat our food in mere minutes, run to the drive-through for dinner, download any movie we want at any given moment within minutes. We buy on credit, sometimes with no interest for the first few months. We can contact anyone, anywhere, at anytime by phone, text or email, and hear back just as instantly. TV chefs show us how to throw together multi-course gourmet meals in 30 minutes or less. All of these technological advancements are indeed miraculous and bless many lives, but they have their downside, too. Think how damaging this "instant gratification" mentality is to a relationship that requires effort and sacrifice over very extended periods of time! Thinking you can have an amazing marriage without time and effort is like expecting to get the luscious, smoky flavor of slow-cooked barbeque using only a microwave. It's just not possible.

President Gordon B. Hinckley said it best when he stated, "I have long felt that the greatest factor in a happy marriage is an anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one’s companion. In most cases selfishness is the leading factor that causes argument, separation, divorce, and broken hearts." Selfish partners are always looking for the negative, evaluating from the perspective of "what's in this for me?" and if the payback isn't sufficient, then they want out so they can go find something that meets more of their needs. The idea that we ought to be more concerned about the other person's needs has been painted as being a martyr, or letting someone else walk all over you. A selfish person will spend their time waiting for their partner to notice them, or do something thoughtful or romantic, and when nothing happens, they feel jilted. A selfless person will always be the initiator. But not only that, they initiate thoughtfulness and romance purely out of love rather than with the hope of a particular response. They aren't waiting to see whether their partner will return the favor, or even acknowledge their efforts, and they don't turn sour and resentful if there is no acknowledgement. There is no price attached to their affection. When my brother was trying to win over his future wife in high school, he gave her flowers once before a performance. Afterward he complained to me that she had not even acknowledged the gesture. I asked him, "Did you give her the flowers to try and get her to like you, or did you do it because you like her and wanted to do something nice?" I was impressed by his mature response for a teenager. He thought about that and I could see a light coming on. He is now part of a marriage founded on the loving concern each partner has for the other, and their relationship is truly beautiful to watch!

Furthermore, the idea that married couples don't ever feel "chosen" on a daily basis is a pessimistic argument. I have seen old couples, married for years, who are giddy in love and are so happy they get to be with the choice of their heart every day. Again, the focus here is too much on wanting to "be chosen" (selfish) versus daily "choosing" to love your partner (selfless). Sure, being "chosen" is fun and exciting. There is something thrilling about finding out someone likes you. We are inundated with movies about young couples overcoming initial differences and finally ending up together in some kind of committed relationship. The end, roll credits, all loose ends are tied up and we're finished. There are very few movies about happily married couples working on their 30th year of wedded bliss. Why? It doesn't fall into the conventions of entertainment. It's boring. If you do have a romantic movie about a long-time married couple, the scenario is always that they currently aren't happy (because there has to be a conflict), and they either find some way to rediscover their love or, worse, they give up and wander off to “greener pastures.” Movies seem to have indoctrinated us with the idea that romance must be exciting and entertaining all the time (which it is in the beginning), but then offer no idea as to how to make it last over 30 years. So when our life stops feeling like a movie, we get disenchanted. No one can really make a movie to show what a happy marriage is like. It would be too long and complex. But when I think about the contrast between twitter-pated, sugarcoated love, and slow-cooked love, I'll take the latter any day! It is so much richer, so much deeper, so much more reliable and comfortable. Too many people aren't giving their marriages enough time to ever get to that point, but are living on a diet of relationship fluff and junk-food, moving from one infant relationship to the next, seeking for the satisfaction of something deeper, but never quite able to satisfy their craving.

It's the "buy now, pay later" mentality. We want the reward now, and yeah, I guess we'll get around to paying for it later...someday...maybe. My sister and her husband shocked their neighbor a few years ago when they paid cash to replace their roof. They had scrimped and saved for 2 or 3 years and survived by using a bucket of roof patch purchased at a home improvement store until they could pay in full for the replacement. "Why didn't you just take out a loan?" their neighbor wanted to know. That's just the normal thing to do, and unfortunately it has creeped into the way we treat relationships. We want the results now, before the work and effort has been put into it. We don't want the inconvenience of dealing with imperfection while we patiently and slowly invest in the relationship, watching it grow as slowly as interest in a checking account. We want our chunk of relationship cash up front and ready to spend, and hopefully at a low rate.

The final argument in the article dealt with hypocrisy. How can the older generation, some of them on their 3rd or 4th marriages, smile and congratulate their children as they walk down the aisle and make their first vows? That certainly is a problem, but I don't feel we ought to toss out the whole idea of marriage simply because we can't set a good enough example of how it should be done right. Just because everybody else is doing it (getting divorced) doesn't mean we have to. We all understand that concept. Maybe instead of excusing the next generation from committed relationships because we can't show them how it's done, we should step up and set a better example.

My marriage isn't perfect right now, but I'm in it for the long haul, and I have every expectation that it will be perfect someday. Perhaps the greatest incentive for long term commitment is the idea that we have forever to reach that perfection. If we feel like this life is it, there's certainly going to be some pressure to find happiness and perfection right here. The problem is, it can't be found in this imperfect world, but it is guaranteed in the perfect world to come.

So in response to the salesman at the department store, I wanted to tell him, "No, I wouldn't want to get married on those terms." Trying to equate the marriage commitment with the decision to buy a kitchen utensil puts it on a level far beneath its deserved reverence. As much as I love cooking, I know my relationships with my kitchen tools and gadgets are all safely one sided. That knife is never going to send ME back. Even still, I have a responsibility to maintain my tools and not abuse them if I want them to serve me well over the years. That's about as far as I dare take the comparison. Marriages are an entirely different relationship, one deserving our utmost respect. With his degrading and distasteful quip, that knife salesman lost whatever business he might have had from me. On the other hand, I could have thanked him for getting me thinking about this even more, and giving me a great lead in for a blog post. If I had done that, though, I'm sure he would have still tried to sell me a knife.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Cake

Happy birthday to my rambunctious, mess-making, food-sneaking, balloon-stabbing little boy. You are the joy of my life. God blessed me with you and your dynamic little spirit because he knew you would stretch me to my limit, and in doing so, I would grow just as much as you are growing.

Today I made you a cake. You asked for a strawberry cake, which I anticipated since I know that's your favorite flavor, and I already had a box of Duncan Hines waiting for you in the pantry. Maybe it's all the cooking magazines I've been sorting through lately, but somehow I started having visions of fluted piles of frosting and dipped fresh strawberries, and that simple strawberry cake-from-a-box took on a new dimension. I had mentally tagged a recipe for white chocolate frosting among those I had saved in a file, and since I had all the ingredients on hand and it sounded like such a perfect complement to the strawberry, I chose to use it for your cake. Last night I dipped five fat shiny strawberries in white chocolate and made little green leaves out of colored chocolate to stick on the tops so the whole thing would be edible. This morning I baked the cakes, then I made the frosting. It was a long, arduous process, involving whipping egg whites, boiling sugar and water to the "soft ball" stage, beating the syrup into the whites and continuing to beat for half an hour while it cooled into a marshmallowy cloud, whipping over a pound of butter and beating that in, and finally melting 2/3 pound of white chocolate and beating that in along with a splash of vanilla. Then it had to cool even more while I mixed the middle layer frosting with a strawberry puree and stuck the two layers together. I frosted, I decorated with my fancy frosting tips, I stuck the strawberries on top, and embellished each frosting floret with those little pink pearl candies you wanted me to use. The result was spectacular, and I brimmed with joy as you oohed and ahed over the cake as it sat on it's little perch in the fridge awaiting the big moment.

But tonight, when I cleared the dessert plates from the table after you had gone to bed, I had a twinge of sadness. I should have played with you today. I really meant to. Making that cake and cleaning up afterward just took up so much of the day. You hardly even ate your slice. As I scraped most of it into the trash, I realized with regret that you probably would have been fine with store bought frosting and a few candles. So I'm sorry I didn't give you the gift of time today. I hope you will forgive me, and that you'll play with me tomorrow. We'll build your new lego kit and talk about that "peeps" restaurant you've been planning. I'll try to save baking cakes like the one I did today for a time when you can do it with me, because I can tell that's something you'll enjoy learning to do someday.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"What were you thinking?!"

Due to some rather excellent timing, I'm one of the lucky moms that has almost back-to-back birthdays to celebrate in the household. This is the first year we get to celebrate my youngest two children's birthdays spaced a mere 9 days apart from one another. It is making for an interesting dynamic, and although I am blessing the fact that all my saved baby clothes have fit in the right season, I'm having second thoughts about the hullabaloo of consecutive birthdays which we now get to experience year after year.

But this post isn't really about the woes of too-close birthdays. It's actually about balloons; birthday balloons, and the juxtaposition of balloon ecstasy against the despair of balloon death. You see, last week, when it was our youngest's first birthday, I made a special trip to the store to get a large happy-looking mylar balloon. It was shaped like a birthday cake, complete with candles standing up along the top. I don't usually get balloons for birthdays, but I thought it would be a nice touch. My almost-5-year-old was ecstatic when I brought it home, and enjoyed showing it to his baby brother. It can't have been more than an hour later that he came to me very apologetically to confess that, despite daddy's warning not to play with the balloon, he had taken it into the kitchen where the ceiling fan was lazily spinning, and there it met its demise. We tried to patch the hole with packing tape, but it was too late, and it would barely stand upright on the floor. Despite his mistake, I was truly proud of my boy in that he made confession so readily instead of trying to cover his tracks, and I told him so, but I still ached inside at the waste of money and effort.

So this week, when I took my three boys to the grocery store, I promised my almost-5-year-old that if he was very good, he could pick out his very own birthday balloon at the end of our trip, even though it was two days early. He was, truly, very good. The only trouble he gave was the every-five-minute question as to whether it was time for his balloon, yet. But the magic moment finally arrived, and despite an accidental escape to the grocery ceiling and a subsequent rescue by an obliging store clerk, we had a large Sesame Street bus-shaped mylar balloon riding merrily with us on the way back home.

Not an hour later... do you already see where this is heading? I thought we had learned our lesson. I thought we had made solemn vows not to release the balloon to the mercy of ceiling fans or do anything deleterious or detrimental to the fragile membrane that is a mylar balloon. But as I was setting the dinner table, I heard my 7-year-old reprimanding the almost-5-year-old for doing something with a screwdriver. Yes, he had punctured his balloon with a screwdriver. Again, I felt like tearing my hair out. Again, the packing tape came out, this time to much better effect. Again, I found myself wondering why I bother. "What were you thinking?" that common phrase of motherhood, actually escaped my lips, as ineffective as I know it is to even ask. I try not to use that expression any more, as I realize it always implies that someone wasn't thinking, and is therefore bordering on sarcasm, a big parenting no-no.

I'm glad my boy is curious. I'm glad he is daring. I'm glad he is adventurous. I can't wait to see what world changing discoveries his inquisitiveness will lead to. Meanwhile, I'm keeping the packing tape handy.

Becoming a Finisher

Last weekend I had the amazing priviledge of accompanying my husband to a Time Out for Women event in San Antonio. TOFW is hosted by Deseret Book, the publishing arm of the LDS church. It's a great event for women to escape their sometimes mundane or demanding routines and have some time to refresh and be inspired by speakers and musicians. My husband was the invited singer for Friday night, and since I grew up in Texas and love San Antonio in particular, I decided to tag along.

I learned many things over the weekend which I would love to have the time to share. But in case I don't get the opportunity, I want to share at least one thing which is already making a huge difference in my life. The theme for this year's TOFW is "Choose to Become," and as attendees, we were asked to choose one thing that we could implement in our lives that would help us to get a little closer to the woman we are supposed to become. I have chosen to become a finisher.

That may seem like an odd or a simple thing, but it dawned on me this weekend that one of my biggest problems is I am not a finisher. I got this idea from a book I bought at the event about parenting. One of the chapters was about teaching our children how to be finishers. As I read, I suddenly realized, that is the reason I have a hard time keeping house. I don't finish tasks. I start a lot of things, like dishes, and meals, and projects, but I never quite fully finish them, which includes the clean-up part. I get distracted or burnt out or just lazy. If I am going to teach my children to be finishers, I have got to learn how to do it myself.

So not only am I doing the dishes, now, I am drying and putting them away and tucking the drainer under the sink. The counters and table are wiped, the chairs at the table are pushed in. I'm seeing this little lesson in every nook and cranny of my activities, now, and I'm realizing just how far-reaching this concept is. Not only do I need to finish my household tasks correctly, but I have to learn to finish my interactions with others correctly, finish keeping the commandments correctly, finish my life correctly. When I sweep up the last emotional bits and pieces of my life and tuck the broom away for the last time, I want to have that same satisfaction, knowing that I completed my assignment the right way, down to the very last step.