Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Reviews: How and Why to Pray; Or Welcome to My Meridian Readers!

My latest column is up at Meridian Magazine here.  I reviewed two short but meaningful books about prayer: Anne Lamott's Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers and Anthony DeStefano's Ten Prayers That God Always Says Yes To: Divine answers to Life's Most Difficult Problems.  They both had powerful insights into communicating with the Divine that cross denominational boundaries.  I'd really love to hear your thoughts!

And if you're here because you already read my Meridian column, welcome!  This little blog is just getting off the ground, but I'm hoping to be able to facilitate more discussion here than is possible at the Meridian site.  So feel free to comment below and share your thoughts on these great books!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Day 27, Or I'm in the Home Stretch!

I haven't blogged about my Ramadan-ish experience for a while, so I thought I'd provide a brief update. I've admittedly been a little distracted with this new church calling working with the Young Women, trying to get all the positions staffed, and get all organized, and figure out what I'm supposed to be doing...  Every time I turn around it seems there's something else I hadn't thought about yet.  Oh, you need a budget proposal? Ok, I'll get right on that.  And we need to schedule New Beginnings?  All rightie, then.  And we're in charge of the joint activity this week?  Gotcha.  Basketball practice starts next week?  Now, that's the sport with the round orange bouncy thing that goes through the hoop, right?  Don't forget Personal Progress, and new class presidencies, and gotta clean out that closet, and teacher training, and ward council meeting, and monthly stewardship interview, and BYC and, and, and...makes my head spin just a bit.  Fortunately, I have a great group of young women, and some wonderful leaders to help me get everything sorted out!

One interesting development to note: I've found that as it's gotten physically easier to fast, it's gotten mentally more difficult.  Perhaps because I'm more distracted now than I was at the beginning of the month, it seems to slip my mind more easily and it takes conscious effort to remember and force myself to wait until that magic minute the sun sets...that gets incrementally later on a daily basis.

I've been plugging away at the Quran and it's been interesting to read and compare to the scriptures I'm most familiar with.  Tone-wise it's most like the Old Testament.  There are passages that sound like they're right out of Levitcus, and it frequently incorporates familiar characters and stories from the Bible, including Jesus, Mary, Moses (particularly in conjunction with the Pharaoh), Abraham, and Ishmael.  Lot and his wife (you know, the one who looked back and turned into a pillar of salt) turn up quite a bit. Jonah and Job have made cameos, too, as well as a host of other people.

It's also interesting to note where the biblical stories and the Quranic (is that a word?) stories diverge.  For example, in the Bible, Zacharias is struck dumb because he doubts the angel Gabriel's declaration that his elderly wife would bear a son. "And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words..." (Luke 1:20).  But in the Quran, when Zacharias receives this news he asks "My Lord how can I demonstrate my everlasting gratefulness for this event?" The Lord responds, "What I would ask you is not to say a word to any one for three consecutive nights" (19:10).  Zacharias's silence was a sign of his gratitude to the Lord for the blessing of a son rather than a punishment for disbelief.

Or another example: in the Bible, David was brought to the realization of his sin with Bathsheba when the prophet Nathan tells him the parable of the rich man who stole a poor man's ewe lamb.  When David reacts with anger towards the rich man, Nathan simply says, "Thou art the man" (2 Samuel 12:1-7).  The Quran, however, tells of "two disputing individuals who came over the wall into David's temple" and told David of their argument, asking him to settle the dispute. "This is my brother and he owns ninety nine ewes and I own one.  He has been arguing that I should give it to him..." David answers that the brother "was not being just to you by wanting to add your ewe to his" and then has his moment of realization: "David then thought that to be a test for him and he fell down on his knees asking for forgiveness" (38:21-24).

I appreciated this counsel: "Do not take positions on what you have no full knowledge, for hearing, seeing and feeling are all parts of what you shall be held responsible for" (17:35-36).  It would be refreshing to have more people willing to say, "You know, I really don't know enough to have an informed opinion on that topic" as opposed to shooting from the hip or making faulty assumptions or, worse, forging blindly ahead when contradictory facts are presented.

And I find this assurance comforting: "Rely on God, and He is all you need to rely upon...You will not earn penalty for making a mistake with good intention, and God is Forgiving and Merciful" (33:3,5).  That's a good reminder for this brand new, slightly overwhelmed, Young Women president...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: "Good Girls" vs. "Real Girls"

Since I recently started working with the young women in my church, I thought Rachel Simmons's The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence might help me know some of the pressures they're facing from society and give me some tools to combat them.  What I didn't expect was that I would see so much of myself in Ms. Simmons's book.

I spent a good deal of my growing up years, well into college, inordinately concerned with how I was perceived by others.  I often buried my own thoughts and opinions, avoiding confrontation and difficult truths in favor of keeping others happy.  Any criticism I received was a huge blow to my self-esteem.  I was terrified of failing, so I rarely took big risks or tried anything new that I didn't already know I'd be good at.  And on the outside, I appeared to be very successful.  I was active in my church, valedictorian of my high school class, president of the National Honor Society, recipient of the Hunter presidential scholarship to BYU, etc.  But I was so insecure that I made some not-so-great choices in my personal life to bolster my "popularity" and to try to ensure that people would like me or, perhaps more accurately, envy me.  And I kept my "bad" emotions so in check everywhere else that I would explode at my family for every little thing, damaging my relationships there.  I was hooked on "soap opera"-like drama in my friendships and relationships, because it made me feel tragic and important.

And this book helped to explain why.

Ms. Simmons starts out explaining what the Good Girl culture is, and how it manifests itself in girls' behavior, speech patterns, and internal psychology.  The second part of the book provides tools and keys to breaking the cycle and helping these young women develop into "Real Girls" instead of the caricatures of "Good Girl" or "Bad Girl."

"Many of the most accomplished girls are disconnecting from the truest parts of themselves, sacrificing essential self-knowledge to the pressure of who they think they ought to be."  Bingo.  I was a "Good Girl" who was always trying to be who I thought I ought to be, but I wasn't a particularly happy one.  In fact, I was pretty miserable a lot of the time, and I didn't always make good choices.  But I didn't see "authenticity" as a true option for me, whether it was from societal pressures or messages picked up subconsciously from my church culture or whatever.  My self-worth was inextricably tied to what others thought of me - or rather, what I thought others thought of me - and projecting a "perfect" version of myself, since I was sure the "Real" me was not good enough.  To be a "Good Girl" I had to parrot back the "right" answer to the question, be "better" than others, make sure I presented the "right" image to the world.  Who I really was, what I really wanted, far too often got lost in that persona.

Ms. Simmons explains, "Assumptions are a cash crop of Good Girl culture.  When girls are trained to avoid direct confrontation and keep the peace, they do not learn how to reflect about others' behavior and feelings, or to actively investigate why people might feel or act the way they do.  Lacking the tools to get real answers, they simply guess instead...Declining self-esteem greases the wheels of assumptions: if you're insecure, it's easy to fantasize that people don't like you. Adolescence, a time of extreme self-consciousness, also plays a role...The belief that others should know how you feel without your telling them is another destructive by-product of the Good Girl curse.  According to the Good Girl rules, being direct about your bad feelings is selfish, a conscious choice to put your own feelings ahead of someone else's."  Reading this book, I so wished for a time machine, so I could go back and shake my teenaged self.  Having feelings is not selfish!  Acknowledging and communicating those feelings is not selfish!  It's healthy!!  Argh!!!

The section on Shame made a great deal of sense to me, having just read Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. (You can check out that review here.) "To live a Good Girl life is to walk an internal tightrope.  With one's self-esteem tied up in wildly unrealistic expectations, mistakes become emotional free falls, leading girls to question their fundamental self-worth."  And that is a stressful way to live, let me tell you. "True freedom of the self is permission to make a mistake without feeling obliterated by it.  This sort of internal balance is central to developing self-confidence.  A young person can reach her full potential only when she feels the agency to take the risks that can result in great triumphs, but that may also backfire along the way."  Yes!  This was what I was missing!  I was so terrified of making a mistake that I didn't allow myself that option, which sounds great in theory, but in practice just means that I closed myself off from many opportunities.  Or I faked it really well.  Going on, Ms. Simmons says, "Success is built on a paradox: the more concerned about failing we become, the less we are able to achieve.  Good Girl perfection is success with a ceiling.  Its pursuit offers little room for the risk and adventure that yield exhilarating leaps in growth.

Now, none of this is to say that I had a miserable childhood and it's all my parents' fault or anything.  I have great parents who did their level best to help me weather this - and every - storm I faced growing up.  But somehow I missed some fundamental, foundational truths about my intrinsic worth, the value of taking risks and making mistakes, and the pointlessness of caring about what others think.

And risks are so important.  And so are mistakes.  But between societal expectations and an incompletely communicated understanding of the gospel, I think LDS young women are particularly risk-averse, afraid of making mistakes, and therefore vulnerable to the Good Girl curse Ms. Simmons warns about.  This is fodder for a whole nother post, but too much of an emphasis on all the "do not"s can unintentionally focus girls on a Pharisaical hypervigilance regarding "the rules" that misses the whole point of the gospel and grace and the Atonement.

I'm still struggling with aspects of this today, though I'm a whole lot more grounded in my "Real Girl" self now than I was as a youth.  I really appreciated Ms. Simmons's section on "Good Mothers" vs. "Real Mothers" as that's the stage of life I'm in right now.  If anything, motherhood is the single major life change that yanked me out of "Good Girl" culture.  I'd never felt so inadequate and confronted with my mistakes and lack of ability in anything I'd ever undertaken before.  But as a survival mechanism, particularly after suffering from post-partum depression, I had to start letting some things go.  I'm not always in a good mood; I yell at my kids in the mornings when they aren't out of bed yet; I don't hand-sew their Halloween costumes; and I don't always have dinner planned more than twenty minutes ahead of when we should be eating.  It's quite gratifying to hear from Ms. Simmons that "at the end of the day, the best gift a mother can give is to take--that is, take the time to find herself, set a new example, and shatter the vise grip of the Good Wife/Bad Wife and Good Mother/Bad Mother labels.  When a mother's behavior breaks the rules, she gives her daughter [and son] the authority to live by her own."

My edit to that last quote brings up another point I'd like to make.  I'm the mother of three sons, no daughters.  And while I think the challenges that face boys and girls growing up today have some differences, I believe there are vast similarities too.  I want my sons to be "Real" rather than feel constrained by societal or religious or personal expectations don't allow them to be authentically themselves.

Ms. Simmons talks about helping girls accept their feelings by modeling using "emotion words," talking about feelings, affirming their emotions, using "I" statements.  She emphasizes the importance of recognizing when we are making assumptions and questioning them.  Simply observe and ask, she says, because "the antidote to assumptions is information."  Girls (and women) need to learn to accept criticism.  "Learning to accept criticism can help [us] live a happier life," so it's vital that girls learn not to take criticism personally or to allow a single incident to "label" them.  To encourage risk-taking, we need to develop the willingness to "embrac[e] a balanced approach to failure, and the ability to honor, even celebrate, being wrong."

Honesty is key in relationships, as well, and can be enhanced by controlling overreactions, excising the use of phrases like "just kidding" and "no offense", and accepting responsibility for your contribution to situations.  I loved her "Four Steps to Healthy Conflict"; I think most adults could use a primer on this as well:
1) Affirm the relationship
2) Use an "I" statement
3) Say your contribution
4) Ask how you can solve this together.

And her Three Rules of Relationship would have served me in good stead to have internalized young:
1) Not everyone is going to like you.
2) Friendship is one of many possible relationships in life.
3) When truth and friendship cannot coexist, get rid of the friendship.

So, to sum up this overly-long review, "Good Girl" isn't the opposite of "Bad Girl."  Those are both two-dimensional stereotypes that limit girls and women to being caricatures instead of their authentic selves.  And they are both the opposite of "Real Girls" who recognize that "being real means taking up space and having needs; it means drawing the line and saying no" and realizing that "to be yourself you have to know who that is."  I hope to help my sons, and the young women I work with, find that balance and with that, live happier lives.

[Edited 2/21/13 to add:
The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence
by Rachel Simmons
ISBN: 9781594202186
Buy it from Amazon (hardcover, paperback, ebook).
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Or go check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here!).]

Monday, January 21, 2013

Big Changes on Day Nineteen!

In every ward (congregation) or branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members are asked to fulfill "callings".  These callings might be to teach the four-year-olds or to put together the printed bulletin or to play the organ for Sunday meetings, but every function that helps the ward run is assigned to someone in a calling.  Sometimes people describe them as "volunteer" positions because they are unpaid, but I don't think that's strictly true since we don't generally submit our own names or lobby for particular callings (though dropping a broad hint in a sacrament meeting talk that I love teaching Gospel Doctrine worked out well for me once :)).  Often we can be fairly surprised at what we are asked to do.

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to be the president of the Young Women in our ward.  Having served as a Young Women president several years ago in a different ward, I already knew that working with the youth in this particular calling is wonderful and fun and rewarding, and also challenging and time-consuming.  Frankly, it's a little intimidating, too.  But I said yes, and today I was sustained by the ward and set apart.

For the last two weeks as I've been fasting, I've been studying and pondering and praying.  (In some ways, I wonder if this wasn't one of the reasons I was prompted to start this month-long fast, so I'd be better prepared when this calling came along.) And my studies and prayers and pondering have, not surprisingly, swirled around this calling: the Young Women program, what other women to call as leaders, the new curriculum, the Personal Progress program, activities, and how on earth to get it all done.  But my thoughts have kept returning to "what do these young women need?" And the answer I keep getting is that they need strength.  These young women need the strength that comes with knowing who they are and how to find their own answers to hard questions.  They need to know it's okay to ask and seek and continually be changing and learning. It's okay to be different, to take risks, even to make mistakes; that's how we grow and progress!

So, big changes afoot...  I anticipate this will take a good chunk of time, especially in the near future as I try to wrap my head around everything and settle in to the calling.  So maybe a little less time for reading and writing for a while, but all for a good cause.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Day Fifteen: Halfway There! Or, The Day I Cheated

Well, it finally happened.  Halfway through the month, I cheated on my fast.

I didn't mean to.  It happened so quickly; I had next to no time to react.  One minute I was just cleaning up the breakfast dishes and took the spoon out of the huckleberry jam to put the lid on the jar and the next I was popping the spoon into my mouth before putting it in the sink.  I mean, everyone does that, right?  Especially when it's Homemade. Huckleberry. Jam.

But this morning it was ten minutes after sunrise.  And I didn't realize it until the spoon was out of my mouth and all that yummy huckleberry goodness was delighting my tastebuds.  So I rationalized (yes, I had this actual argument with myself) that there had been so little jam actually on the spoon and if I tried to spit it out I wouldn't be able to get rid of all of it anyway and I'd still have the taste in my mouth, so there was really no reason to do anything but just enjoy it at that point.  

(Oh, and full disclosure, I've also been taking the sacrament - similar to Catholic communion for any non-LDS readers - on Sundays, so a small piece of bread and a tiny sip of water.  But I don't count that as cheating for purposes of this fast since it's a regular, covenant-renewing ordinance of my faith.)

In other news, my latest book review column is up at Meridian here.  I'm doing a couple of columns on "self-help" or "self-improvement" books and started with Brene Brown's Daring Greatly, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and then a brief how-to on civility.

A few other tidbits...we're signing Josh up with a different wrestling club to hopefully preserve any enjoyment of the sport he has left.  We finally got the bid on what it will take to fix our pool up and it was a painfully hefty number, not quite as much as a brand new pool, but getting kinda close; we still need to decide if we're really going to do it.  And Will only has about twelve weeks left in braces.  He's planning to gorge on popcorn and caramel the second those things come off.  Exciting times around here...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Eleven, Twelve, Dig and Delve

The time between sunrise and sunset is slowly expanding.  At the beginning of the month, I had to last from 7:39 a.m. to 4:09 p.m., exactly eight and a half hours.  Today as I type, I'm checking the sunrise/sunset calendar I have bookmarked and while sunrise is only four minutes earlier, sunset is thirteen minutes later.  Starting my fast a little earlier doesn't bother me, though it has caught me off guard a time or two, but those last few minutes seem interminable some days.  By the end of the month, my fast will have stretched to an additional hour every day.  Small things are still tempting along the way, the treats at my son's Pinewood Derby yesterday morning, my husband heating up the (really yummy!) leftovers we brought home from our dinner out last night, the chocolate chip cookies sitting in the jar on top of the refrigerator calling my name... But on the whole it's become easier to fast.

The title of this post is from that old nursery rhyme, "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe." It seemed appropriate because this fasting experiment is really causing me to dig and delve.  Especially since the initial physical discomfort waned a bit, I've been trying to dig deeper within myself to try to answer the questions that prompted this voluntary daily (temporary) deprivation and to stretch the limits of my self-control.  I'm digging deeper with prayer and pondering.  I'm digging deeper to find the patience to not yell at my children.  I'm digging deeper to find new ways to reach out to and serve others.

I'm also delving into scriptures, both familiar (like the New Testament) and unfamiliar (like the Quran), and I'm trying to help my children learn to delve into them, too.  I'm delving into personal introspection and contemplation of who I want to be, who I'm supposed to be, and what I need to do to get there.  I'm delving into an exciting, but also slightly terrifying, new situation I'm facing that requires some seeking and asking and stretching up front as well as on a continual basis.

After plateauing for a few days, I feel like some productive digging and delving is happening during this pseudo-Ramadan of mine.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ten Down, Twenty to Go; Or Movies, Movies, Movies!

The physical aspect of fasting has become much easier in the last couple of days, almost to the point of not even noticing that I'm skipping a meal.  Which is good in some ways: no headaches, the day goes by more quickly, I'm not desperately trying to distract myself from wanting food.  But in some ways it's almost counterproductive; there are times I almost forget I'm fasting.  This morning I almost licked the huckleberry jam off my fingers after spreading some on the boys' toast.  My fingers were literally millimeters away from my tongue when I remembered and it was excruciatingly difficult to force myself to wash them instead of lick them.  It was huckleberry jam, folks!  I also find myself slipping into more of a casual attitude with my prayers.  When my stomach was growling every few minutes, it was a good reminder to take a second to offer up thanks or just check in with the Almighty.  Without that fairly constant, though minor, physical discomfort, I'm not remembering to pray as often as I mean to.

I actually miss water more than food.  Before this month, I had gotten in the habit of filling a glass with ice water and sipping on it throughout the day, refilling it several times.  I look forward to sunset for my little snack, yes, but mostly for the big glass of water I can chug down.

Now, about's very rare that I actually go to a movie theatre, sit in the dark with some pop and popcorn and watch a first-run film.  And it's happened three whole times in the past month!  First The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, then Les Miserables, and finally Lincoln.  And I found them each quite profoundly moving for different reasons, with powerful themes that speak to different facets of the human experience.

I love the world that J.R.R. Tolkien created, and though I was concerned when I heard that The Hobbit would be filmed in three parts, I was still inordinately excited to see Peter Jackson make it come to life the way he did The Lord of the Rings.  And I was completely engrossed in the film from start to finish.  The story of dear, stodgy Bilbo breaking out of his comfortable hobbit hole and the expectations of his familiar life to become a burglar on a quest to the unknown makes me believe that, as Galadriel assures Frodo in the later trilogy, "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."  And that change is possible because first Bilbo, and then Frodo, made choices to step (far) outside their comfort zones and stretch themselves.

In this first Hobbit film, Gandalf, explaining to Galadriel why he included Bilbo in the dwarves' party, speaks a Truth: "It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay, small acts of kindness and love."  That sentence gives me hope that while I may not be able to make great actions to combat the evil in the world, I can have a positive influence over my immediate community and relationships.  And besides all that, The Hobbit is just a great adventure story! (I read it aloud for the boys at bedtime last year and they loved it.  My goodreads review is here.)

I want to write a whole post on Les Miserables, so its mention in this post will be short, but again, I loved this film from beginning to end.  And I can say that, despite the fact that I don't care for Hugh Jackman's voice (I prefer my tenors less reedy), nor Amanda Seyfried's voice (I find her vibrato a bit grating), nor Russell Crowe's voice (was it just me or was he a little flat here and there?).  I've seen the stage musical, and the film, just by nature of the medium, was so much more intimate and, I thought, emotionally intense.  I'll deal with the thematic issues in another post, but even my husband who passionately hates doesn't at all care for musicals liked Les Mis.  (He even admitted to shedding a tear when Gavroche was shot.)

And finally, Lincoln.  Lincoln really should have felt ponderous and plodding.  At two and a half hours and with the number of times Daniel Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln stopped to pontificate or tell a story, it should have felt six hours long.  But it was so masterfully done that I was almost startled when the inevitable and oh-so-sad end came.  The film doesn't shy away from the brutality of war, the intimate, messy, bloody, ugliness of it on every level, and that is hard to watch.  It also shows the human cost of slavery for both the slaves and their owners, and the entire country.  Tommy Lee Jones's turn as Thaddeus Stevens is particularly enthralling.  The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which I picked up at one point a couple of years ago and couldn't get through (pitiful goodreads review here).  I'm going to have to give it another shot.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Day Seven & Eight: Doggie Drama & Human Nature

I lost track of time Tuesday morning and had to eat a whole bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with banana slices in about three minutes flat.  My children were impressed.

In addition to developing that new skill to add to my resume, we also had some doggie drama Tuesday. Our old, blind, and deaf cocker spaniel disappeared some time Monday evening.  She is beloved by one neighbor family in particular - they give her doggie treats whenever she shows up and even have food, water, and a comfy box set up with an old blanket for her on their back porch - so we figured she was spending the night with them as she's done a time or two before and didn't worry too much.  But she still hadn't come home in the morning.  So Gene walked the neighborhood and drove up and down the highway, I called all the neighbors whose phone numbers I had and knocked on the doors of those whose numbers I didn't have and posted a lost dog report on the county animal services website (including contact info).  I was afraid she was gone for good.

(Now, this is the same dog who wandered off while we were camping and huckleberry-picking in eastern Oregon, got picked up by some concerned dog lovers and taken to the nearest town - in the complete opposite direction from home, of course.  Some other dog lovers in town volunteered to take care of her until someone could come get her.  Gene's folks were able to pick her up a couple of days later and we finally got her back after another four weeks or so.  I figured she'd used up all her good canine karma on that high adventure.  O, me of little faith...)

A couple of hours later, I got a call from a stranger: a sweet Good Samaritan named Debbie.  She said that she'd seen my posting on the Spokane County website and noticed a dog on Spokane city's website that seemed to match the description.  I checked it out online and it sure looked like our Sage (though they thought she was only 9 years old and had her under the name "Clover" - at least it was another plant-related moniker). So I called Gene, who was just finishing up work, and he went down to the city shelter to bail her out of doggy jail. The shelter verified her license with the county and her rabies shot with our vet, charged us $35 ("So what exactly does my license fee pay for then?!?" asked my husband...) and gave us back our dog.

Here's the strange thing...she was found Tuesday morning wandering around the parking garage at Northtown Mall - between six and seven miles away from our house!  With her age and difficulty getting around, especially in the snow, that seems like a long way for her to travel on her own in about twelve hours.  Our working theory is that she may have gotten down to the end of our street or even onto the highway where someone thought she was cute and sweet and picked her up.  Then as they were driving along they started to realize that a) she was old, b) she didn't see or hear well, and/or c) she can get pretty stinky in close quarters.  So they let her out at the mall.  While we have no way of knowing what really happened, and I hate the thought that anyone would be that thoughtless and cruel, I was gratified by the sheer number of people who were concerned about her and wanted to help her find her way home.  It buoys my hope in humanity when a single act of cruelty or thoughtlessness is so outweighed by the kindnesses of so many others: the Good Samaritan Debbie I mentioned above, the folks at Spokanimal, all our neighbors. A woman who lived close to the mall - I believe the person who found her and called Spokanimal - actually posted about her on craigslist hoping to alert her family.  Another woman who saw the craigslist posting matched it to the Spokanimal impound list and called to make sure we'd found her.  There are a lot of good, kind-hearted people in this world.

But back to more directly Ramadan-related stuff...I wanted to briefly highlight a book I read a little more than a year ago, Why I Am a Muslim by Asma Gull Hasan (read my goodreads review here).  I especially appreciated her attention to breaking down myths and stereotypes about her faith and her delineation between the doctrines of Islam and cultural traditions that have grown up around those doctrines (a delineation that I think those of all faiths, including my own, ought to consider frequently).  One point of doctrine that I learned from Ms. Hasan is that of fitra.  Fitra is the idea that everyone is born Muslim in the sense that "we are born wanting to submit to God's will, that we are all born innocent and able to recognize right from wrong."  (In related news, the word Islam itself means "voluntary submission to God.")  I struggle sometimes with reconciling the tension between the dueling concepts of our "divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) as children of heavenly parents and "the natural man" so castigated by Mosiah (chapter 3, verse 19 - read it in context here).  Fitra is a repudiation of "original sin" and provides such a positive and an encouraging picture of human nature, which I think our doggie drama of yesterday bears out.

One more story.  This morning as I was eating my breakfast, I mentioned to Will that I had to hurry because I only had about 10 minutes left until my fast started.  He asked, "What's the point of fasting, anyway?"  So on the fly, I gave him three "points" of fasting.
* First of all, fasting helps us learn self-control.  We can do hard things, and deny ourselves things, even when we don't want to.
* Secondly, fasting helps us focus on God.  It's something we do because He's asked us to and, especially when coupled with prayer, it shows our desire to draw closer to Him.
* Thirdly, fasting helps to turn our hearts to others.  Every time my stomach grumbles, I can remember those who are hungry not by choice, but by lack of the necessities of life.  Both Latter-day Saints and Muslims (and other faiths, I assume) closely link fasting with alms-giving.

How would you have answered Will?

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Snowy Day Six...

We woke up Monday morning to about five inches of snow.  It kept falling, that really fine, tiny-snowflake kind of snow that doesn't seem like it should accumulate all that much, but is like the sneaky ninja-stalker of snow-kind because when you look back a half an hour later there's this huge amount of snow covering everything, so we ended up with 7-8 inches. Which is really really pretty...when I'm standing in my warm house looking out the window.  Not so much when I have to drive in the stuff.  And normally it's not such a huge deal to just stay home all day.  The older two boys catch the bus, if Evan misses a day of preschool, big whoop, you know?  But today was Meals on Wheels day.

I've had my bi-weekly Meals on Wheels route - every other Monday - for just over a year now and I love it.  It's a pretty easy route, usually only six to eight stops, and there are a few folks on my route that have been there since I started.  Before Evan was in preschool, he came along with me and, man, was he a hit with the "grandmas and grandpas"!  Over the summer, all three boys accompanied me and took turns helping to carry the food up to the door.  (I like to think I'm instilling a habit of service in them, a recognition of the needs of others, but who knows.)  It's such a great program; my grandpa used it for years when he was housebound and it made a huge difference for him to be able to stay in his own home.

But I'd heard traffic reports.  And people were saying the roads were just awful, cars sliding off the road, buses getting stuck, etc.  And I just hate dealing with that, so as I'm pondering the possibility of calling and telling Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator that I don't think I'll be able to make it, she calls me.  And reminds me that they're still delivering today and they're just calling everyone to make sure they'll be able to make it.  And do I volunteer at Such-and-Such Elementary School?  (Why, yes.  Yes, I do.) My son goes there and he's been telling me how much he likes when you're there helping him.  It's so great that you're able to do that!

So, I told her I'd put the chains on the van and do my best.  Sigh.

And so I put chains on tires.  For the first time in my life.  All by myself.  And it really wasn't that hard.  I think that means I'm officially an adult now.

Anyway, with the chains the roads weren't too bad, and I only almost got rear-ended once (that I know of). All the "grandmas and grandpas" were a little extra grateful today (which made me feel bad for even considering finking out).  They're always very pleasant, of course, but several actually seemed pretty surprised to see me on their doorstep holding the black plastic tray full of chicken patties, mashed potatoes and green beans; two pieces of bread; individual-sized Smart Balance butter tub; and 2% milk carton reminiscent of middle-school cafeterias.  One ninety-two-year-old who had shoveled his own walk that morning so I wouldn't have to trudge through the snow (he's one of those I've had on my route since my first day, just a real sweetheart) even insisted on giving me some chocolate almond cherry clusters that I managed to resist until 4:16 today - two whole minutes after sunset!  Impressive, no?

Ramadan Experiences, Day Four & Five

Saturday (day four) was the first day I didn't have a killer headache by the time the sun went down.  Hallelujah!  Maybe my body is adjusting to this fasting deal.  I have to admit, it's easier to focus on the purpose of fasting and to be un-cranky when my head isn't pounding.  That's one of the struggles I've always had with the standard 24-hour LDS fast - horrible headaches that make it difficult to move, much less feel all spiritual and at peace.  Or maybe that's supposed to be part of the growth aspect of fasting, finding a way to push through the discomfort and "get it" when you feel least capable of it.  C'mon, those of you who actually enjoy fasting: help me out here!

This weekend my two fasting worlds collided as this Sunday is the regular monthly fast for LDS congregations.  I decided to keep both fasts, so no eating from Saturday evening to Sunday evening, and Sunday dinner was after sunset.  The 24-hour fast wasn't as difficult as usual, maybe because I'd been prepping for it all week with my sun-up-to-sun-down fasts, maybe because of the new schedule. (Our ward switched back to the morning schedule, so we started at 9:00 and were done at 12:00.  I can't express how much I prefer that to the 1:00-4:00 time slot we suffer through every other year.)  Lots of time for family togetherness, resting, scripture reading in the afternoon.

Speaking of, I haven't really shared anything from my reading of the Quran yet.  Most of the first few sections or suras are really long, in the neighborhood of 200 verses, and so far, at least, there aren't stories or narrative through-lines in any of them, so it's sometimes hard to keep track of the topic.  It seems to jump around a little.  But that could also just be my lack of familiarity on this initial exposure.

I've been pleasantly surprised at how much the Quran mentions not only Jesus, but Mary, too:
3:45-48 "The angels said: "O' Mary, God brings you good tidings with a word from Him; his name is Jesus, son of Mary, a man of status in this life and the life to come and one of those closest to God.  He talks to people from the crib and preaches to them as a middle aged man, and is one of the righteous."  She said: "My Lord, how would I have a child and I have never been touched by a human?" He said: God creates whatever He wishes; whatever He wants done, all He needs to do is say: Be, and it is. God will teach him the Scripture, wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel."

There is a frequent two-fold emphasis on belief and good works:
2:62 "The believers, the Jews, the Christians and the Sabaens who believe in God and the Last Day and do good works will have their reward with their Lord and they need not be afraid or sad."

And this bit of wisdom jumped out at me.  The context is specifically talking about spouses, but I think it can be applied widely to how we treat others:
4:19 "Treat them kindly, since even if you dislike them, God may put a lot of good in things you may dislike."

I also like how often the Quran explicitly states God's attributes: God is Forgiving, Compassionate, Merciful, Knowledgeable, Wise, Capable.  At first glance, each of them seem fairly obvious, but that last one in particular seems like a no-brainer.  I mean, of course, God is Capable!  He's all-powerful and can do whatever He wants to.  But then I got to pondering on how often I might mentally set limits on God based on my own mortal, fallible, finite understanding, particularly limits on some of his other qualities like being Forgiving, Compassionate, Merciful.  It certainly gives me something to strive for.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My Personal Ramadan, Day Three: Observations

Day Three: Friday, January 4

* I've noticed that I often want to eat during the day not necessarily because I'm hungry, but because I'm bored.  And because I "can't."  I'm so ornery.

* In related news, I don't think of myself as a very social-butterfly-type person, and I don't often go out for lunch, but over the past three days, going out to lunch with a friend has come up at least four times.  I also don't often stop at the little drive-through coffee stands that are so ubiquitous here in the northwest, but the one I pass by every time I drive into town that makes really yummy hot chocolate has been calling my name more loudly than ever.

* Good discussion with my boys this morning as we read Matthew 5, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, when Will asked "What does meek mean?"  Also, a bit of incredulity from them when we read Matthew 5:44 about loving your enemies and doing good to them that hate you.  Can't blame's hard for me to understand and live, too.

* The copy of the Quran that I requested from the library came in, so we went to pick it up this morning.  I'm excited to dig in!  The translation I checked out is a new translation in contemporary English from the classic Arabic, published in 2008.  Reading the introduction, the translator seems determined to divine the original intent of the text rather than perpetuating the common understanding of the verses based on language that has changed in the past 1400 years.

* I've been much better about planning what to have for dinner and getting it ready earlier than usual.  Maybe because food is on my mind all. day. long...

* I think I'm doing a little better at being less cranky and staying calmer and more pleasant, especially with my kids, but I need to do more planning for the good deeds aspect of Ramadan.  Being a stay-at-home-parent often limits my interactions with those outside my immediate family over the course of the day, so unless I want to make my children's beds every morning and call that my good deed for the day all month long, I need to get more creative and proactive.

* Coincidentally, several books I've read recently or am currently reading have focused on vulnerability.  In The God Who Weeps (here's my goodreads review), Terryl and Fiona Givens identify vulnerability as *the* defining characteristic of God.  And right now I'm about halfway through Daring Greatly by Brene Brown whose TED talk about vulnerability went viral (you can watch the twenty-minute talk here [edited to add: and read my goodreads review here]). In a nut shell, vulnerability is the birthplace of love and joy, connection and belonging.  It requires courage and compassion, the willingness to embrace the uncertainty.  And it's scary.  Scratch that, it's terrifying.  I hate being vulnerable, but I'm coming to realize that that's exactly what I need to develop in order to live more fully and authentically.  This blog, and this Ramadan experiment, are baby steps into that vulnerable void.

Friday, January 4, 2013

My Pseudo-Ramadan, Days 1 and 2: Returning and Reporting

Day one (Wednesday, January 2) got off to a bit of a rocky start.  You see, it was the kids' first day back at school after the winter break, so the morning was a bit frantic busy with making sure my seven- and ten-year-olds were up, getting dressed, completing chores, eating breakfast, brushing teeth and getting out to the bus stop on time.  Honestly, the whole process actually went much more smoothly than I had feared it would after two weeks of sleeping in and getting chores done sometime before noon-ish, and the boys were dare-I-say pleasant and cooperative as they got ready for school.  So as I watched them climb on the big orange school bus from my kitchen window, I smiled, congratulating myself on getting through the morning rush and reached over to open the refrigerator to start on my breakfast.  And then I remembered.

The sun was up.  My fast started forty minutes ago.

So right off the bat, on the morning of the first day, I found myself mentally debating over just eating a small breakfast and then extending my fast in the afternoon a bit longer.  Or maybe I could just start the whole experiment tomorrow.  Or...there had to be some work-around, right?  But no.  The sun was up and I didn't want to begin the month by making excuses, so I sighed and closed the fridge.

I was actually surprised how much easier it was than I thought it would be, especially after missing breakfast.    I found that the stomach grumbles served as a reminder of what I was doing and why, and prompted brief prayers of supplication or gratitude in addition to the more formal prayers in the morning and evening.

As for scripture reading, at the beginning of the year, my boys asked if we could read the Gospels in the New Testament for our family scripture study, so we read the first couple of chapters in Matthew before they left for school.  It was a review so soon after our traditional Christmas Eve reading, but I was particularly moved this time by Matthew 2:16-18, when Herod commanded the slaying of all the children in Bethlehem.  (I read a Christmas book by Chieko Okazaki called Stars and some of her thoughts on this passage really stuck with me.  My goodreads review is here.)  The boys are asking more questions and wanting to discuss the ideas in the scriptures now and I enjoy helping them figure out and apply the lessons there for themselves.

As for the rest, I admit to being grouchy by the end of the day when certain boys Wouldn't. Stay. In. Bed.  That's a rough time of day for me; I need to work on making bedtime less difficult for everyone involved.

Day two I got up a little earlier and made sure to eat breakfast before getting the boys up.  It was a fuller day getting my youngest to and from preschool, buying a long list of groceries at two different stores and then putting them away at home in between, and an afternoon of volunteering at my sons' elementary school.  The day went faster, but by 4:10 (I'd never been so grateful for my northernly latitude and its subsequent early sunset), I had a raging headache and was almost a little queasy.  I broke my fast with a glass of milk and a couple of Tylenol.  I found myself so grateful that unlike so many others in this world, my hunger was voluntary and self-imposed with a definite, known endpoint.

That evening I had book club, well, one of my two book clubs.  (I love my book clubs - both of them.  I honestly look forward to them all month long and find them absolutely vital to my mental health.  I'm sure I'll write more about them later...)  It was a well-attended evening - about a dozen of us showed up - and the conversation was wide-ranging from the new film version of Les Miserables to the fiscal cliff.  We even talked about the book a bit!  (It was Sister by Rosamund Lupton, a compelling murder mystery, but also exploration of family relationships.  Read more here.)  I had the opportunity to do a good deed - one of the purposes of Ramadan and one of my goals for the month - and sew up some seams that had come apart on a friend's quilt while chatting.

Two days down, twenty-eight to go...

Ramadan and "Holy Envy"

(I'm trying this blogging thing again since it kind of stalled last time.  I'm sure it will morph as I go along, so don't take these first posts as any indication or implied promise of what future content will be.)

For the month of January, I will be observing the Muslim pillar of Ramadan.  Sort of.  It's actually my own personal interpretation and experimentation with my understanding of the structure and purpose of Ramadan.  The main features are a fast from food and drinks starting at sunrise and continuing until sunset, a focus on frequent prayer, an intense commitment to scripture reading (many Muslims read the entire Quran over the 30 days of Ramadan), and a personal spiritual renewal through good deeds, charitable giving, and avoiding negative thoughts and emotions.

I'm not Muslim.  I'm Mormon; a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  And I believe strongly in leaving room for "holy envy," one of the ideas that Bishop Krister Stendahl of the church of Sweden promoted in his wonderful "three rules of religious understanding."  To me, holy envy means being humble enough to recognize the good in other faiths, the practices and tenets and beliefs that have the potential to draw us closer to the Divine and help us navigate this life more gracefully and joyfully, and being willing to incorporate them into our own personal expressions of faith.

I've had some exemplars and inspiration to come to this point.  In 2011 I discovered Andrew Bowen and his religious immersion on Project Conversion.  For each month of the year he practiced a different religion to the fullest extent possible (at least for one who wasn't officially joining any of the faiths and was only doing each religion for a month).  I was impressed by his all-in commitment and his fair, honest, and loving treatment of each faith, including my own, on its own terms.  And last year I was moved by a book I read called Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess, in which she chronicled her attempt to live a different spiritual practice each month of the year (read my goodreads review).  A Ramadan-like fast was one of the early ones she adopted, and I enjoyed reading her story of growth through all of her (what she called) "failures".  Finally, last week I read an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune.  In January 2012, she participated in a personal Ramadan-like fast and wrote about the benefits she felt she had gained from the month.  (You can read about her experience here).

So here I am.  I want to feel closer to God.  I want to be more humble and joyful, less grouchy and self-absorbed.  I want to make a gesture of my commitment to work toward those goals.  Ramadan seemed to fit the bill.  Now, I am hedging my bets a bit.  I did deliberately choose a month during which the days are short (the "real" Ramadan this year is in July so the fasts then would be almost twice as long as mine are right now).  And I'm not a total stranger to fasting with a religious purpose; though I have to admit that Fast Sunday has never been a day I've approached with happy anticipation.  (Latter-day Saints fast once a month, usually on the first Sunday of the month, but not always, and the fasts are officially 24 hours long.)  So here's hoping and trusting that my "holy envy" will help me learn...