Entries in Deep Thoughts (38)


Ask Not What Your Earth Can Do For You...

This post is brought to you by the hellebores and muscari in my yard.

Today is Earth Day. I'm not going to preach to you, since half of you are in the 'choir,' and the other half don't care to be. Instead I'm going to give you some practical (and hopefully non-controversial) ways, big and small, that you can commemorate this world holiday. I'm sure that even the busiest among us can fit one of these into our schedules in the next several hours.

1. Clean up a local public area with your family. Members of our church did this on Saturday; many families, including ours, went out with safety vests and garbage bags and picked up hundreds of pounds of trash along a popular bike path near the chapel.

2. Buy reusable grocery bags and keep them in your car so that you remember to use them.

3. Figure out your local walkshed and enjoy using it instead of driving at least once a week. Thinking about moving? Figure out your potential new neighborhood's Walk Score. Our neighborhood is only average, getting 52 points out of 100. (Our old neighborhood in Manhattan scores a whopping 98.) That said, nearly everything I need on a weekly, nonexceptional basis--namely, the grocery store and the library--is within a half mile of home.

4. Buy and eat locally grown food. Find out where the nearest farmer's market is. Join a CSA. Patronize producers of grass-fed Real Milk. You'll make new connections in your community, and your taste buds, your waistline, and your local farmers will all thank you.

5. Read the fantastic book Food, Not Lawns, by H.C. Flores. Then plant a garden, even if it's just a couple of tomato plants in a bucket on your patio.

6. Read Michael Pollan's essay "Why Bother" from last week's New York Times Magazine.

7. Check out the funny, informative, and inspiring blog of Colin Beavan, a.k.a. No Impact Man. Colin is Walking the Walk, my friends; it's pretty great to witness.

8. Subscribe to Grist, the free online environmental news and commentary site.

9. Don't just recycle it; take steps to reduce the junk coming into your mailbox. Pay $1 to the DMA's Mail Preference Service to get off undesirable mailing lists. The Big Three credit bureaus have an opt-out function for the deluge of credit card applications many of us receive on a daily basis. Join Green Dimes! This service is terrific.

10. Just say 'no' to more stuff. Set at least a 24-hour 'time-out' period in which you consider whether you really need that new (fill in the blank). Use your library more. Share yard tools with your neighbors. Downsize your wardrobe and donate your excess to a responsible charity. To quote Emme, a prominent simple lifestyle blogger, "Living simply does not have to mean sacrifice or hardship. It means focusing on the things that are important to us and in our lives." Amen, sister.


Famous Last Words

(Tombstone image borrowed from the yet-living John Scalzi)

The wondrously fine Bea and the ever-scrumptious Adriana both tagged me a while ago for the Six-Word Epitaph/Autobiography/Memoir Meme that's been floating around Planet Blog for a some time, and I've been trying and failing to define myself cleverly but succinctly ever since.

Here are some great examples of successful memery crafted by bloggers with bigger brains than I have: Bea of Bub and Pie (scroll down a bit); Veronica Mitchell of Toddled Dredge; and Adriana of What I Made for Dinner.

(If any of you other readers have done this meme, and I missed it somehow, leave me a link in your comment. I'd love to see what you've done with this.)

Anything I concocted sounded a lot like Adriana's or Veronica's, but not as good. Finally, I decided to borrow inimitable words from my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here's what I would have carved on my tombstone (right after all the clear and accurate vital information courteously provided for genealogists of the future):

Kingfishers catch fire; dragonflies draw flame.

Someone wandering around the cemetery and happening upon these words might wonder about their context. Here's the whole poem:

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

What I do is me: for that I came.

I love to write, read, visit with my dear friends, and play with my kids. I enjoy cooking, gardening, knitting, and family history work. I swoon over fabulous restaurants, great art and music, and my husband. I could define myself by any of these daily actions, and much of the time, I probably do. But ultimately, I hope that my life will be defined by my faith and how it comes into play in my every decision.

Here are two links to more words not my own that powerfully express how I feel about my faith: the audio file and transcript of the last public words of Bruce R. McConkie, an LDS church leader who died in 1985.

Elder McConkie died just two weeks after giving this gorgeous and moving address; I do not doubt that the statements of the final few paragraphs proved true. (Warning: if you are not up for something Deeply Christian, don't bother.)


The Mystifying Sin of Comparison

Example No. 1: Several days ago, I read Ex Libris, a collection of Anne Fadiman's essays, and immediately emailed several friends recommending that they read it. Like a beautiful jewel in a simple setting, each essay shines; considered one after another, the pieces create an aggregate loveliness that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

How disappointing it is to me to admit that my admiration for Fadiman's talent is heavily tinged with envy. It's not just that her writing is superb; my jealousy extends to her person. I've never read Homer and Virgil in the original; I don't live in a spacious and bright SoHo loft. I didn't go to Radcliffe College. Worst of all, I've never been friends with Mark Helprin.

(Many of you know that Helprin is my hands-down-favorite living writer. After hearing him read once, I asked him to sign all my copies of his books, congratulating myself all the while for my restraint in not dropping to my knees and kissing his penny-loafered feet. My love for him as a person is now tempered by my knowledge of his political leanings, but his writing remains pure magic.)

Example No. 2: I'm submitting a short story for an anthology put out by Shimmer magazine, the theme of which is 'steampunk animal fables.' (Yes, it's exactly that kind of crazy obscurity that really gets my creative juices flowing.) As much as I love the steampunk subgenre, it's been awhile since I've read any, so I pulled out two pillars--Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--to get myself in the rhythm of that unique world. Such wonder and ingenuity; such marvelous stories told in liquid and transparent prose. Instead of the inspiration I was hoping for, I put the books down with a sense of loving despair.

The Case Under Consideration: At last year's Readercon, Eric Van said, "There are two kinds of books that a writer reads: those that make you say, 'I can do better than this [crap],' and those that make you want to throw the computer out the window and never write another word." Other writers agreed. Some said they couldn't read within their own genre while working on a manuscript, while others went further and said that they saved all their favorite authors for rests between projects. If they read books they admired while simultaneously trying to write their own, they found themselves hamstrung, hopelessly blocked by the indulgence of comparison.

Writers are not alone in the comparison obsession; I've witnessed people of all kinds doing it. Children, women, men; doctors, painters, knitters; athletes, musicians, writers of computer code; cooks, bloggers, and parents. Each says to him/herself, "I can't [x] like that one. Why even try?" Or, with a shot to the ego, "My [x] is much better than that person's is." Either way, his/her own work suffers, because its creator no longer sees it for its own merits, but only in the relief it casts (or doesn't) when considered against someone else's.

If the work suffers, why would we risk short-circuiting expressions of creativity by indulging in comparison? What compensation is there for the loss of self-esteem or the false gain of a short-lived high?

(I have some highly metaphysical theories having to do with universal forces of opposition and the adversarial components of creation that attempt to answer these questions, but I won't burden you with them. At this point in my blogging life, I have a fair sense as to what will cause my readers' eyes to glaze over and their index fingers to click onward.)

Discernment is an essential part of emotional maturation. Having a distinct yet open-minded sense of one's likes and dislikes is healthy. We are taught to judge thoughtfully, to compare and contrast. "Write a 2,000-word essay discussing the relative merits of Shelley's 'Ozymandias' and Horace Smith's 'Ozymandias,'" our English professor commands, and we do our best to comply (and are graded on a curve for doing so). After we see Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, all our friends ask how it compares with Simon Langton's. Was the clam chowder at Ocean House better than that at The Oyster Bar? Exactly why are Huggies better than Pampers or Luvs? Inquiring minds want to know.

When the comparison is removed from our own realm of expertise, we can be passionate in our discussion without taking it personally. Which is better: Ted Nugent's guitar work in "Stranglehold," or Stevie Ray Vaughan's in "Voodoo Chile?" I can discuss the strong points of each virtuoso animatedly, but with a sense of detachment; I'm not a guitarist, just an ardent fan.

In similar fashion, excellent blogs like Radioactive Jam and Ransom Note Typography inspire pure admiration in me; their posts are so very different from mine that there's not much basis for comparison. (If, on the other hand, you are the owner of a blog on my blogroll that is not one of the two mentioned above, have no doubt: I love you, but I envy you, too.)

Is there a way for me to evaluate my own writing in a vacuum; can I hand a story to a friend to read without adding the self-deprecating caveat, "It's not Tolstoy?" My friend and I both know I'm not Tolstoy; why is it so essential to my pride that I remind her of that salient fact?

In the realm of hobby: can I knit a sweater and enjoy it for its own sake without wondering what Eunny Jang or Amy Singer would think? Can I enjoy the neighbor's perennial border without wretched feelings of woe when I look at my own?

It is when comparison is turned inward that it poisons. I take absolutely no joy in a sense of competition with others (no, not even when I'm beating you at Boggle). It's my goal to get to a secure enough place emotionally that I can appreciate the work of others without compulsively analyzing how it stands up next to my own. How to get there? I'm still fumbling around on that key point of strategy; when I puzzle it out, I'll let you know.

And if you figure it out first, please share. I'll be disappointed that I wasn't the one for only a minute, I promise.


Gaping Maw

I struggled with depression for many, many years, but about year ago, I kicked it in the teeth and banished it from my presence for a good long time (I hoped forever).

Oh, I've had sad or frustrating days since, days in which things have gone wrong, or in which I think I'm a bad writer or mother or laundress (or all of the above), but those have been just normal dips in the ride we call life.

Depression is palpably different. Today when I wasn't looking, it came back and snuck in the back door like a mangy dog, laughing, drooling, and reminding me what a black plague it is. And I hate it, because even a whiff of it reminds me of what a constant, unwelcome companion it once was. I don't want it back in my life again.

I'm hoping it's just a hormonal thing. I hear pregnancy plays havoc with hormones (yes, my somewhat atrophied sarcasm muscles get a bit of exercise when I'm depressed).

Here's how I know it's depression, and not just temporary doldrums:

The house is full of terrific books, but I don't want to escape into a single one of them.
The house is stocked with a variety of good food, and I'm hungry, but nothing looks appealing enough to eat.
Rowing to the song stylings of the Black-Eyed Peas and Lenny Kravitz doesn't cheer me up.
A long bubble bath doesn't cheer me up.
A long snuggle with Daniel doesn't cheer me up.
A long nap doesn't cheer me up.
The idea of popping in Persuasion, Fanny & Alexander, The Magic Flute, or A Room with a View and knitting for a couple of hours doesn't cheer me up.
The prospect of dinner with my hot husband at a great restaurant for Date Night tonight doesn't cheer me up.

This is not good. Not good at all.


Playing Catch-Up

DAY TO READ campaign

First things first: join me on January 10th for Reading Day! (I know; as if I need an excuse to read.) It'll be fun!

I skipped a few Scavenger Hunt items Thanksgiving week, so today I'm going to try and combine a few so we can end this whole NaBloPoMo thing gracefully tomorrow. I think it will work out. I apologize in advance the contributors; I certainly don't want anyone to feel like I have given them short shrift.

One of my BBFFs (Best Blog Friends Forever), Brillig, thought I should write about being both active LDS/Mormon and politically liberal, which is a somewhat unusual combination, for some unfathomable reason.

Goofball, a darling Dutch friend who has given me invaluable help with research on one of my novels, had two requests: 1) give the details of my weirdest travel experience; and 2) tell more about my faith.

And Jenna, my fellow recovering Mary Kay Sales Director, and one of the best women I know personally, wanted to read more about my church mission experience.

I can see a bit of a pattern there, so work with me as I answer in rather non-linear fashion.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed 'Mormons' over 150 years ago) are Christians. It's very important that you know that; apparently there are groups out in the world who claim we are not Christians. But Jesus' name is in the middle of the name of our church for a reason: He's at the center of every aspect of our religion.

We believe that God speaks to people today through prophets just as He spoke to prophets in ancient times. Joseph Smith was the first of these latter-day prophets; he organized the church in upstate New York in 1830.

Here are our official Thirteen Articles of Faith, written by Joseph Smith in 1842 in response to questions from John Wentworth, the editor of The Chicago Democrat.

Here are other facts about our religion and members of the church.

Here's a great explanation of the LDS view of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Goofball, if you have any other questions, please email me. I can go on and on about this subject; it's very dear to my heart.

My 'weirdest' travel experience was definitely my mission for our church. I've done a fair bit of traveling, all of it very positive (except for our family cruise a few years ago; we'll never do THAT again). But my mission was unusual for many reasons.

LDS missionaries are mostly young men and women. 19-year-old boys are strongly encouraged to go on two-year, full-time missions; if they choose, women may go for 18-month missions when they turn 21. Missions are a highly structured, ascetic experience. Missionaries are expected to forgo dating, television and movies, most music, and reading of anything other than the scriptures. In addition, they are expected to be with their assigned companions all of the time.

Missionaries have one day off per week, called 'Preparation Day' (or 'P-Day'), when they do all of their housecleaning, food shopping, and laundry, with a little time left over for limited sight-seeing and physical recreation. At all other times, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., they are supposed to be sharing our faith with people in their assigned area. They may be knocking on doors, holding street meetings, or meeting with people referred to them by other church members. They also spend significant amounts of time every day (they wake up very early) engaged in prayer, meditation, and scripture study.

You may wonder how many young people could possibly be willing to take up such an arduous and monkish existence in this day and age. Well, in 2006, there were over 53,000 LDS missionaries serving all over the world.

When you put in your paperwork for a mission, you have no idea where you will be sent. You could end up in Hong Kong or Helsinki, Guatemala or Ghana, Connecticut or Korea, Uganda or Utah. If you'll be learning a foreign language, you typically spend two months in one of several Missionary Training Centers (MTC). If you are going to an English-speaking country, your time in the MTC is just two weeks.

In addition to proselytizing missions, there are also humanitarian missions, family services missions, family history missions, temple missions, and church historical site missions. As I mentioned before most missionaries are young single men and women, but senior couples and senior single sisters are actively encouraged to serve as well.

Missionaries pay their own way as much as possible. When they have not saved enough to support themselves for the length of the mission, their families and congregations (called 'wards') contribute as well.

Why did I go on a mission? I had been wanting to all my life; I had been raised thinking that it was the right thing to do. I thought I'd probably be pretty good at it. It's a concrete, measurable way to serve. For Mormons, it is a rite of passage, one of the ways we come of age. Like running a marathon, it's a significant accomplishment. But the biggest reason I went is because I wanted to share the good news of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible.

I was called to go on a French-speaking mission to Montreal, Canada. I was thrilled; I had studied French since first grade and was anxious to put it to good use. At the end of March 1989, I entered the MTC in Provo, Utah. After a great learning experience there, members of our group flew to Montreal and were assigned to various areas throughout the province of Quebec.

My area was Laval, an island suburb of Montreal. My senior companion was fantastic; we hit it off right away. She'd been out for over a year, and she was the perfect mix of enthusiasm and energy tempered with a lot of experience and wisdom.

I met people from all over the world in Laval; Quebec takes in many French-speaking immigrants, so we talked to people from Haiti, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, and Egypt, as well as many native Canadians.

I woke up every day excited and happy; there is something unique about giving up worldly concerns and devoting yourself as fully as possible to serving in a cause greater than yourself. I learned new things about myself, my relationship with God, and the world on a daily basis; it was the greatest spiritual experience I'd ever had up to that point in my life.

Unfortunately, in October of that year, I got horribly sick and had to return home from my mission. Doctors determined that there was no way to know when I would get better, so I was honorably released after only six months of service. I was crushed, but I believe these things happen for reasons we sometimes can't see for a long time. It took me over a year to convalesce fully.

I would go again in a heartbeat; in fact, Patrick and I plan to serve as many missions as possible once the kids are grown and on their own. I very much hope all our children will decide to serve as well. It's an experience I recommend highly.

As for my political beliefs and how they mesh with my religious beliefs? Let me be as tactful as possible; I have no wish to alienate the very large portion of my readers who belong to the party I actively oppose.

God gave us the earth and commanded us to take care of it; therefore, preserving the environment is a crucial issue for me.

Jesus asked us to take care of our fellow man; social and governmental programs that make taking care of the poor and disadvantaged easier and more efficient are a natural outgrowth of that admonition.

Our eleventh Article of Faith allows all men the privilege of worship according to the dictates of their own consciences; therefore I believe in a clear separation between church and state.

The Book of Mormon (which I believe, along with The Holy Bible, to be the word of God) clearly teaches that defense is the only reason sanctioned by God to take up arms; I have never believed that the conflict in which my country currently finds itself embroiled can be rationalized as 'defensive' in any way.

Whew! We've covered a lot of ground today. If you're still reading, thanks for sticking with me. You're the best.

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