Sunday, September 15, 2013

Our Own Gardens

A little more than a month ago, I picked up a book written in 1932, called "Down the Garden Path" by Beverley Nichols. As the title suggests, it is a gardening book. Yet I found it to be somewhat more, most likely due to what Heavenly Father felt I needed to know at the time rather than what the author was trying to teach. In his descriptions of various plants and soils and growing seasons I began to draw gospel parallels. I am one of those people who can kill cacti. Not on purpose of course. And one of them actually survived for about five years. But I digress.

I learned, as the author did, that the type of soil has as much to do with how the plant thrives as the season in which it is planted or how much sun and water it receives. Sounds simple enough, but it is not something I thought of as I would buy seeds or starter plants, plastic pots to place upon my apartment porch, and whatever bag of soil was currently on sale. What plants flowered or bore fruit, neighborhood squirrels mauled and there didn't seem to be much rhyme or reason which plants made it to the ready-to-be-mauled stage, until I picked up this book. Faithful watering and weeding (how do weeds get inside pots potted with weed-free soil, anyway), loving conversation to said plants, threats to the squirrels that they might end up in a stew all aside, neither of my two thumbs had much green in their genes. Ah, but the wrong soil for that particular plant, or too much / too little sun (fooled, I was, by the fact that the soil was still moist, so my water/sun ratio must be correct) -- this I could understand. I haven't had a porch garden in a few years, but these are things to keep in mind with future attempts.

I hadn't picked up the book to learn anything about gardening. I had read one of the author's later books a few years ago and enjoyed his humorous descriptions of his misadventures in gardening and home restoration and observations about village life. Learning a little bit about what makes a garden grow was not unexpected, for it was a book on gardening. But learning a little bit about my life was the real surprise, and pleasant at that.

I began to think about the similarities between how plants grow in different environments and how we grow in different environments -- physical, spiritual, mental, emotional environments. How some seeds fall by the wayside and are devoured, some fall into stony places where they cannot not get root, some are choked by thorns, and some fall to good ground and bring forth fruit a hundredfold. Both that parable in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as the allegory of the olive tree in the fifth chapter of Jacob took on new meanings for me; they were no longer simply about the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but also about how that Gospel takes root in our own hearts.

I thought about that last cactus I had, which thrived for quite awhile, and then became root bound and how I procrastinated replanting it until it was too late (and it certainly did not help that the soil I replanted it in was not the proper soil). I thought about how some of those plants died simply because I had neglected them, getting distracted by other things so I did not water or otherwise nourish the plants. And perhaps I could have been more cognizant of the fondness the squirrels had for tomatoes, and somehow kept them away.

I thought perhaps I too often stop reading the parable of the seeds after the wayside/stony ground/thorns, and forget about the seeds which fell into good ground. And even in good ground, neglect can negate all the gardener's efforts. Jacob's allegory of the olive trees doesn't end with the first crop of bad fruit. The Lord and Servant of the vineyard worked together grafting and regrafting and nourishing the vineyard until it had every opportunity to thrive and bring forth good fruit. Our Heavenly Father and our Savior are just as committed in our lives. We mess up. We neglect ourselves and those under our care; we lose opportunities to bring forth good fruit and our neglect ofttimes hurts others as well. And then we listen to the squirrels -- I mean, the Adversary, and think we simply cannot ever see a beautiful garden in our lives, so we stop planting and nourishing, sometimes in our own lives as well as in the lives of others.

While I was thus ruminating upon gardening as it related to life, a friend whom I had not shared these thoughts told me she had recently received the following counsel at the temple: "Bloom where you are planted.". She wasn't certain what to make of that I couldn't tell her. But I thought I knew what it meant to me in my own life: "Do something with what I have already given you, and I will take care of the rest; I will guide you as you do so and bring forth the good fruit you desire in your life." That is what those words meant to me, at this stage in my life. However, as sound as that counsel is, it's not the counsel I received. While my friend had received counsel about blooming, I had been prompted to think about thriving. Perhaps they mean the same thing in the context of how He wishes to guide our lives, and spoke to us individually in our own vernacular.

I wondered if that is what I needed to do: to bloom where I am planted. But I also wondered if, like in Jacob's allegory, I need to be transplanted to another part of the vineyard. I cannot say. Shortly after wondering those things, I wandered away into other thoughts for a month and have just recently returned to the garden.

I believe Heavenly Father can help us bloom wherever we plant ourselves -- but we shouldn't forget His status as a Master Gardener. He knows what soils and climate can best nourish us, how much sun and rain we need. He knows which thorns and stones to surround us with to keep us humble and turning our hearts to Him.. He knows how much inclement weather we can handle and how much we need to strengthen and deepen our roots.

The question is, do we trust the Gardener?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Up the Hill!

As I approach the next "hill" (the big five-oh) I find myself having mixed emotions. For the most part, I'm perfectly okay with it. Sure, at twenty I imagined myself in a wholly different place at fifty. A father, for instance. A grandfather, even. It's not happened. I am however, a six-time uncle, and a granduncle well over twenty times, and most recently, a great-grand uncle. Which is pretty dang cool. My nieces/nephews/grandnieces/grandnephews are pretty cool people. We disagree on many things. But they are still pretty dang cool people.

For a few moments today I felt old, useless, unfulfilled; I felt like I've wasted this first half of my life in so many ways, through improper action or woeful inaction. It's thankfully not a feeling I experience often. Today it was a bit more deeply felt because that 5-0 number is drawing closer to reality. this is the same number I've been joking about for a couple of months, calling it the "half century mark"; I changed my answering message on both phones to the "Hawaii 5-0" theme song and ordered a tee shirt with a "Geoffrey 5-0" logo. At times I've actually felt excited over the prospect. A dental appointment yesterday told me that although there are still areas of concern,  those same areas have improved greatly over my last visit. And at today's visit to the  eye doctor I learned that there is a very little change in my right eye, but for the most part my eyes are healthy back to front and I have 20-20 vision with my prescription, which, did I mention, has changed very little since my last prescription 2-1/2 years ago? Not bad for an old guy.

Nonetheless, I did have a twinge of old-feeling shortly after noon. As I've been joking the past couple of months about the half-century mark, my totallyawesomellyfantasticish friends and family have assured me that it's okay, I'll make it, it's no big deal, etc; I have assured them it doesn't bother me and that's why I laugh at it. But then the moment came. It was a long moment. And I did what any sensible old coot, um, I mean, person experiencing such a feeling does in such a situation. 

I took a nap. Seriously, people, naps are highly underrated. Why do children fight them? They're wonderful. They're as wonderful as books and chocolate. As I'd taken a couple days off for my birthday, I felt I could afford to take a nap. Speaking of being able to afford to take a nap, I know people protest it is "a luxury they cannot afford" - Balderdash! Read the recent research on sleep deprivation and tell me you cannot afford to. Heck, read the research from 20-30 years ago and tell me you cannot afford to. It doesn't necessarily have to be an eight hour nap (and if you do need that much, get in touch with your inner Jean-Luc Picard and "make it so!") Sometimes you need a couple hours, at other times all you need is ten or twenty minutes. Fine, call it a luxury. What? You think you're not worth the luxury? You are! Leave the dishes. Trade babysitting time with a friend and don't scour the bathroom while the kids are gone; take a nap! Because guess what? You get up from your nap and those feelings of self doubt and self loathing are gone. You get up from you nap and your reluctance to do all those things you still don't want to do will be greatly diminished and you'll be more productive because your brain's not working overtime trying to figure out why exactly the blue sock goes with the blue sock not the green one and why the sour milk needs to be thrown out. It's amazing how well a rested brain actually works.

So, I took a nap, and I got up and did stuff. I've been told it's weird to spend vacation days taking care of dental and eye care appointments and chores. For me I find it greatly stress-reducing to do it this way, to take care of the things I can't take care of because I am so busy with the things I "have" to do -- and I feel less guilty about things yet undone. And I reserve plenty of vacation time for indulgences such as ice cream, a long, slow rambling walk through my favorite quiet spots in town, a movie. And, when I'm well rested, I get an amazing amount of "stuff" done, compared to trying to do it when I'm exhausted and grumpy. And getting done that stuff I hate doing grants me permission to do the stuff I like to do, like exercising my creativity in writing or drawing or cooking, which further reduces stress, which helps me get more done.... okay, enough about naps. This isn't "The Nap Blog" (although I like the sound of that....)

This is a blog about being Mormon. Check. And about being single. Check. And about being "over-the-hill". Check again. However, I reserve the right to move the hill anytime I please. When I turned forty, I began stating my age as "late thirties - my thirties passed away some time back." Soon I will get to recycle the joke with only some slight rewording. With each hill - or milestone - one cannot help but to review one's life. And I have been doing that reflecting, although not solely because I am approaching the crown of a hill. Last year I started major decluttering, and accelerated that process at the beginning of this year. When I say "major", I mean "major". I mean Holy-cow-how-the-heck-can-that-much-stuff-fit-in-that-small-a-closet-space? major, and Who-the-heck-is-bringing-back-all-the-junk-I-threw-out? major. 

It's a liberating process. I always thought it was a bit meta-physical when people talked about the negative energy of excess stuff. Well, getting rid of it does more than relieve a sense of claustrophobia; I've felt it each time I accomplish a goal for a certain area of my home, whether it be a closet or a linen closet or a bookshelf. Much of it is very easy to determine the fate of: I don't need clothes that don't fit or which fit but I don't like; I don't need eight-year old catalogs from companies no longer in business; I don't need electronics which probably could be fixed but won't be fixed because I have not the tools, time, patience, or know-how to do so. I know some of the clutter came about due to previous attempts at "cleaning", especially when company was expected: throw everything into a box and shove into a closet or what became affectionately known as "the back room". I would not have made the guest list for one of those "hoarder" television shows, as my disorganization did have some order and for the most part the pathways were not canyon-like. But it was bad enough to zap my energy, and the extent to which it did so only became noticeable as I started moving it out, to dumpsters, thrift stores, and the like. With each decluttered and freshly reorganized area of my apartment, I become a little obsessive about keeping it that way, to the point of for a couple of days of freaking out a little when any speck larger than a dust mote settled upon a newly revitalized area. In each case the madness has lasted but a short time until I settled into a cautious but more reasonable expectation of cleanliness and order.

As I've gone through box after box, separating that which I need to keep from that which needs shredding to that which can be thrown away directly and that which can be donated and found useful to others, I have found some unexpected emotional ties to the stuff I've saved. Some is obvious: letters from family and friends or magazines and articles I saved which were important at the time but are not so any longer. Some I had to process again, but I required myself to do the processing so it didn't get put into a box for another ten years. Most of the boxes were organized by year not by design but by the previously mentioned quick-cleaning sprees of the past. Some of it had items five or ten years apart, and close enough to the bottom of the stack or in the darkest corners to defy all logic, so everything needs to be gone through with at least some care. I don't doubt that I might have already thrown out something I might at some future date wonder what became of it. But considering the number of times I found myself saying things like "Oh, yeah..." and "Why do I have two of these?" and "So that's what happened to it!" and "Where the heck did this come from?" -- I don't think I need to worry too much. Clutter is clutter, and since the beginning of the year my definition of clutter has morphed into "things I no longer want nor need", and in redefining the word, I have been able to do two things: decide what is most important to me, and what is not. And that includes the emotions -- which have sometimes been stumbling blocks and brick walls to my progress -- tied to those things. Things which in all fairness, I was probably not ready to get rid of before, or I would have done so, but which can be moved out and away now. 

And this process has taught me about different types of clutter in my life, ones not so easily seen nor easily taken out to the trash, and certainly not things I wish to foist upon new owners. These are emotional, mental and spiritual clutter; brought into my life by mistakes I made or harm caused to me by others. Things I did not consciously hold on to but which I did so anyway. There was a talk in General Conference in October 2006 which imagery has stuck with me all this time but which is in my decluttering process coming to have a deeper meaning. In it Elder Shayne M Bowen talked about airports and parks being built upon landfills, and gave one definition of a landfill as a place where garbage is buried and the land reclaimed. He asked the question of what the city fathers would think if he took a backhoe to the airport or city park to dig up all his old garbage? I think of this because I see that in my own situation, my garbage (physical or emotional!) never made it to the landfill so there was never a chance of reclamation. And so, without ever meaning to, I halted my own healing process.

Oops. 

I read a lot of blogs. I have found a number of fascinating blogs through links friends have posted on their Facebook pages, through random browsing, through stories on NPR, and of course the blogs of my own friends. I have come to greatly appreciate people from all walks of life and have gained a deep gratitude for the deeply personal things which they share. They have experiences I have never had and probably never will. I have not faced watching a spouse of many years deteriorate from dementia or from cancer. I have not experienced painful reconstructive surgeries from horrible accidents. I have not struggled with gender identity or same sex attraction. I have not struggled with alcohol or drug addiction. I have not felt alienated because of the way I look or where I came from. I have not been divorced, and the pain I have felt in never having married pales in comparison to what others have felt. I'm not married so I don't know what it feels like to raise children,either contumacious toddlers or rebellious teenagers (save what I can remember my parents doing or the quasi-parenthood known as unclehood), nor do I know what it feels like to desperately try to have children but not yet being blessed such. 

I can imagine these things -- and the posts are often written with such candor that I feel deeply some modicum of what they do, but I'm certain my imagination falls short of the mark. I've not experienced these things and with the possible exception of the child rearing (for I know when toddlers aren't being contumacious and teenagers aren't being sullen, they're quite lovely people), I don't want to; I'll keep my own trials, thank you very much. But having said that, I am profoundly grateful for what friends and strangers alike have written about their trials. I am grateful that they shared not just their struggles but their victories. I am grateful for what insights I have gained into my own struggles and for the reminders that we are here for a purpose and that God is mindful of us. I am grateful for the reminder that single or married, male or female, healthy or not, we can learn from and teach one another; we can help each other over the hills. Or better yet, we can help one another up the hills, one at a time, traveling together; to experience the beautiful vistas God has prepared for us to see but which we can only see if we keep moving upward, and being cheerfully willing to climb the next one. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Purpose

Last month I was released from my calling as counselor in the Elder's Quorum. I had been in three presidencies over three and a half years, first as secretary and then as counselor, as presidents either moved away or were called into a bishopric; for a month prior to my release I was "acting president" (and indeed it ofttimes felt like acting) and feel I learned nearly as much in that month as I had in three years prior. Over the course of that whole time period I learned much about the way the Church is run, what our Heavenly Father expects of His children -- as well as what He has in store for them, and much about myself (not all entirely pleasant.) And I gained a great appreciation for Heavenly Father's children and their individual journeys as well as my own, and that has changed my understanding of, and attitude towards service.

Last week the rest of the new presidency was called and sustained, and it was with a curious mixture of relief and sadness I was not part of the new presidency. I felt relief because I was tired; not tired of the learning and growth, not tired of serving (indeed I felt a little lost without the extra tasks during the week), but the tiredness that comes when you stop motion for awhile, when you realize you hadn't realized you were tired. I had learned so much, and grown so much, through that service that I felt a bit lost, not knowing "what's next." I feel a greater willingness to do whatever comes next than I recall ever feeling before, yet still lost. Not a without-purpose kind of lost but rather in knowing there is a new path, but I am not yet seeing it. I'm not seeing my purpose.

Yesterday and today was stake conference. It was wonderful. But it almost wasn't, because I almost didn't go. Yesterday, after much internal debate about the weather and the cough I had woken up with the day before, I decided neither was a viable excuse and that the problem lay with me. I have a good friend who often points out to me, whether speaking of herself or of me (much to my chagrin) that when we say "I can't" what we are really saying is "I don't want to." I know from past experience that the times I do not want to go, whether it be a regular church meeting or a stake meeting, general session or Priesthood session, if I go anyway, I am always glad I did; I always get a great deal out of the meeting. Recognizing that is usually the only push I need. Last night it wasn't enough. But after I prayed I realized I needed to simply make a decision: Go, or don't go. And once I decided to go, I knew who to call to carpool, whereas my previous calls had been unsuccessful. It was a reminder that new pathways are generally only opened up when we're in motion.

The main topic last night was member missionary work: a topic that usually makes me go "ugh." Not so this time. The focus wasn't on lists of friends and family, nor on commitment challenges - i.e., "I will have x number of people ready for the discussions by date y. While not inherently bad, these methods are limited in the effectuality for a couple reasons: because we become discouraged when what worked so well for others doesn't work so well for us; and because those methods measure our "success" by another person's agency. We haven't found our own voice, or used our own talents and own experiences to share those truths so vitally important and dear to us; or we have expected that which is so obvious to us is going to be equally obvious to those we so valiantly and clearly (clear to us, anyway) share it with. Our job is not to convince others, but to share with others - and who do we share with? Doctrine and Covenants, Section 1 answers that. the message is for all; therefore, we share with all. And we do it by finding our natural way of expressing those things. And we ought to set goals within the realm of our own agency, not the agency of others, and God will provide the rest.  Just as he prepared us and continues to guide us to deeper understanding, so he will for those we love and those we don't even know yet but can still have an influential good for.

Today's talks, for me, continued where last night's left off. I was most moved by our stake president's closing remarks. Summarizing talks from both days, he spoke on covenant keeping, admonishing us as the Lord is hastening the work, we need to hasten our covenant keeping. He spoke of how a covenant is often compared to a contract, but that's not quite accurate. The terms of a contract are negotiable by both parties, and a covenant is not: the Lord sets the terms, and we accept (or not.) But he asked why we would want to negotiate those terms in the first place, for the terms are "ridiculously generous in our favor." And he gave the example of we give an ounce, and we receive a ton in return. It is true. The scriptures tell us again and again if we are obedient to the very best of our abilities, we receive "all that he hath." All. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty amazing to me. Our stake president said he prefers to think of covenants as a promise: a promise to become. We promise to become like those who went before us, we promise to uplift and succor others, we promise to become sons and daughters of God, to become holy and sanctified -- and we are promised by Him the ability to do so.

And then our wonderful stake president (if he reads this: don't let that statement go to your head!) gave us an example that brought tears to my eyes. He asked his son to bring his three month old granddaughter forward. And as he held this beautiful child in his arms, he told us that right now, that child is helpless and entirely reliant upon her parents to feed her, clothe her, change her when she's made a mess; to teach her, to comfort her, to love her. And sometimes when the parents have done all that, their child still cries, because she is sad, or confused or frightened. But he as grandfather can look at that child now and see her as a toddler, and a growing child, and as a teenager going to the temple, and as a young woman raising a family of her own, and as a glorified, exalted being. And the distance between now and that day is much, much smaller than the distance between where we currently are and where our Heavenly Father can see us, and can lead us to. We, like that child, are entirely dependent upon our Heavenly Father. He feeds us, physically and spiritually. He clothes our spirits in physical bodies and provides for our daily temporal needs. He teaches us. He forgives us and gives us new chances. When we make a mess, He tells us, Oh, my dear child, you have made a mess; come, let me change you. And sometimes we are still unhappy and we cry because we are tired or lonely or lost or confused.

Our Heavenly Father can change all that too. It's difficult to live the Gospel in a world and culture not friendly towards spiritual things, whether we are single or not. Last autumn our stake was privileged to have an Apostle of the Lord, Elder David A. Bednar, come address us before our stake conference; it was like a bonus conference. To the challenge that it is difficult to be a member of the Lord's church, he countered: "It's more difficult to not be."

In closing, our stake president  invoked blessings upon us: to be happy; to make and keep our covenants and to become all our Heavenly Father has in store for us.

And I left conference with a little deeper understanding upon what my (not really lost or hidden after all) purpose is: to not give up, to keep moving forward, to serve, to follow, to become.