Thursday, April 26, 2007

Letter to stake presidency

Dear stake presidency,

First, thank you for your recent participation and direction in both stake conference and our ward's conference. I have appreciated your direct counsel and your personal regard and love for our stake which I have felt several times. I was amazed when you, President P, greeted me by name in the hallway of our church building after ward conference. I am not only new in the ward, but I can think of no reason that you might know me. I know that as a stake presidency you work tirelessly and at great personal sacrifice--the many hours you devote to your calling could be dedicated to your families, jobs, or, quite simply, to rest and leisure! Thank you for all you do.

I write to bring one small matter to your attention. Recently, a letter from you came to our home. Enclosed was a letter detailing the stake goals that you are encouraging our stake to adopt and complete this year. I did not open the letter when I retrieved it from the mailbox because it was addressed solely to my husband. I assumed it had something to do with his calling, or a stake meeting that he was to attend. Of course, I found out differently when he opened it later and I saw that it was intended for all stake members.

I realize that this is most likely a technical issue. The address labels were printed out, using some computer program, and the first name listed in each household record was printed out. I know that there was no exclusionary or malicious intent. I feel that, however, no matter what the cause, this (seemingly small) oversight should be remedied in future mailings to stake members. As a full fledged member of the stake, I would like to be recognized and acknowledged as an individual, capable of inspiration with regards to my calling, my family, my life direction, and my interactions with others. My husband and I are jointly the head of our household, and together we seek the Lord's will for us as a family. We want to grow as a family in beoming disciples of Christ and in nurturing our children on that path, as I know you want for us. By including both of us on the address label, you imply all this. By not including me, I know that you are not implying otherwise, but I personally felt excluded from your message.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I know that there are many issues you are concerned about and working on for our stake, and I wondered whether to even bother you with something relatively small in comparison. Please know that I am interested and invested in the the growth and development of our stake, and I and my family will be working on the goals which you have set forth for us. I am grateful that I can be a fellow citizen with the saints here in the B stake.
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Monday, April 23, 2007

Helping the Poor and Needy

This month's visiting teaching message was different than it's been in a while. The end of last year, I felt like we were talking about the benefits of membership in the Relief Society ad nauseum. This year, we've focused on personal testimony, faith, and other personally meaningful aspects of spiritual development. April's message, though, was about helping the poor and needy. I glanced at the title and was excited about it. Finally, something about reaching outside my social and church circles, a focus on a major problem in the world.

So, my partner and I went visiting teaching this morning. We sat outside on a beautiful spring day (spring is finally here! The leaves are starting to grow back.) and talked with a new sister in our ward who just gave birth to her first child. My partner is a wonderful woman and I see her quite a bit. She lives near me and we often trade kids back and forth. She is always cheerful, despite the demands of a large family.

She started the lesson by recounting a story found in this month's New Era. The author writes of her patriarchal blessing, which stated "You may help the needy with your time, effort, and means.” She feels drawn to help the poor in her area, but her first two efforts are unsuccesful. She goes home, depressed. How can she fulfill her calling? How can she help the needy? She walks into her home, and her younger brother is crying, upset from being teased at school. The words from her patriarchal blessing come back to her, and she concludes that "the poor are just as likely to be in your home as on the streets." My partner then talked about how that message really resonated for her. With 5 children, she has little time to do other things. I understand this, and can empathize with her.

The deeper implications, though, of the New Era article bothers me. If I equate the poor and needy only with my family, then I am not forced to personally confront the poor and needy in the streets and in my community. I have given up my responsibility to help them. I am not required to look beyond my comfort zone to those who may be in need.

On another level, I was upset by this thought. Here is yet one more way that children prevent me/others from having an impact on the world at large. I don't want my influence to be felt only within the walls of my home, no matter how important that work may be. I want to reach beyond my family to help others.

I'm not sure exactly how I should help the poor and needy. Obviously, there is a great deal that can be within the community of the ward. However, I feel like I need to reach beyond that boundary as well. I am glad for the chance today to think about this issue and ponder ways that I can offer assistance. I am going to do some research and find a specific way that I can help.
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Sunday, April 15, 2007

True North and A Woman's Education

Two things that I find most amazing about Jill Ker Conway

1. Her mind: she is able to read large amounts of material and piece together a large picture of a field. She sees connections between ideas, and is able to make lateral jumps across fields too. (I read articles in the Annual Review of Sociology and am entirely sure that to compile, ingest, process, and analyze a large body of literature would be SO HARD for me. That makes her all the more amazing to me)

2. Her feminism and activism for women. As an academic, she writes a dissertation about women who pioneered social work. But, her feminist interest is also personal, in the way she has been treated in her college days from Australia, as well as the world that she and her female colleagues and roommates experience.

I love the story she recounts in True North about earnings disparities. As a youngish professor in Canada, she is not promoted when many of her cohort of male colleagues is. She finds out that they are also making more money than she is. She schedules a meeting with the department chair, then the dean of her school, and calmly discusses the issue. With an objective eye to her accomplishments, the decision is made to promote her as well and raise her salary.

But, this is not where she leaves it. She goes on to organize a committee of women at the university to look into the overall system of pay discrepancy between men and women faculty. She is also concerned about other university employees including all the women that secretarial staff. She describes the way that she gives her own assistants tasks to help them learn broader skills and encourages them to take classes, with the hopes that in 1-2 years they will have outgrown their jobs with her and moved on to something else. Her values and her committment to women and their education are probably the main reason why she was chosen to be the first female president at Smith and explain many of her initiatives and priorities there.

I was jealous of her early graduate school experience. She talks about the intense conversations she shares with her 5 roommates, all in different fields, and the world of ideas into which she is immersed with other students and faculty.

She is deliberate in her studies and manages to knock a year off of her coursework to take her exams earlier than most. She marries a faculty member 18 years her senior in the middle of her 3rd year, in every way a true partner for her, and they embark on their life together. They go from Harvard to Toronto, then on to Smith College (at her husband's urging), and finally back to Boston.

Although she longs to have children, she is unable to do so, and never becomes a mother. I wondered how her life would have been different with children. She is able to manage immense amounts of work, long hours in the library and later in university administration, and maintaing an intense schedule. It is possible that she would have managed the same amount with children, but I wanted to see her personally struggle with balancing children and a career. Her husband suffers from severe manic depression, requiring hospitaltization at times, but she does not talk much about what this requires of her personally.

A Women's Education is probably my least favorite. Here, her writing becomes more academic and less accessible. In both this and True North, she describes in too much detail the people in her life, that do not reappear after their two pages of discussion. But, all in all, I really enjoyed reading her three memoirs. She is a master of describing place and her connection to physical places and her grounding through location was apparent.

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The Road from Coorain

The Road from Coorain is a fascinating description of the early life of a precocious and lively girl---Jill Ker, the author--who spent the first decade of her life in the rural Austailian bush on a sheep station. She and her family were literally the only ones around for miles: in the morning, when her mother would drop her father off at a corner of their property, she is terrified that she will be unable to find her way home again, and hunches over the steering wheel, trying to see the tire marks in the dry Austrailian dirt. The story of Jill's early life in prominently marked by a drought which eventually kills off all their animals, results in the death of her father (whether by suicide or accident, it is not clear), and finally eventuates in the relocation of Jill and her mother to Sydney. Coorain is left in the hands of a manager, and Jill begins school. The description of the starving and dying sheep is haunting, as are the desparate measures that the family attempts in order to save their livelihood. They are at the mercy of natural forces beyond their control. Then, her father dies in a reservoir, and Jill and her two brothers are not allowed to grieve. Her mother is also suffering from terrible grief and is emotionally withdrawn. When they finally admit to failure and leave Coorain for Sydney, Jill consciously leaves her toys and dolls behind. "I knew that in most important ways my childhood was over."

In Sydney, Jill's mother is determined to keep her children in school and works two jobs in order to pay for their educational costs. After some time, she makes a gamble, buys some more sheep for Coorain; within hours, 2 1/2 inches of rain falls, and from that point on, Coorain is financially successful and the family is able to live off its profits.

Interestingly, although her early life in the bush was important in shaping her life, Jill thrives in school. Attending a top-notch British girls school, she discovers that her mind is powerful and that she has many academic interests. She goes on to study history at the University of Sydney, and eventually enrolls at Harvard as a graduate student. I wonder if she would have had the same career if her family had been able to ride out the drought in the bush and how her life would have been different.

One of the central themes of Jill's early life is her conflicted relationship with her mother. Early on in her life, Jill's mother has iron control of the household and domestic activities in Coorain. It seems that she and Jill's father share their lives together in partnership, working hard to make their ranch successful. When Jill's father dies, her mother begins to tighten her grasp on her children, almost as though she fears losing them too. She tries to control their every move, including their friendships, their careers, and their schooling.

As financial pressures eased, her anxieties were simply redirected...She could manage a sheep station superbly, but managing a social world alone as a hostess was simply beyond her consciousness. This meant that her efforts to control our destinies were mostly negative, and that our youthful quests for peers and lively social relationships took place entirely outside our home. It also meant that she relied more and more on her children for intellectual and emotional companionship, and that there was no constructive outlet for her formidable energies.

When the oldest son Bob dies in a car accident, Jill's mother turns all her energies on Jill and her other brother Barry. Her mental health declines, and she starts exhibiting signs of hypochondria, using her health to manipulate her children. She attempts to destroy Jill's and Barry's romantic attachments, and later in Jill's life, as recounted in True North, she and her mother have a deep schism over Jill's marriage.

This caused me to reflect on my relationship with both my mother and my children. Looking back, my parents made conscious decisions to limit our choices in ways that shaped my life and my sister just younger than me. They were probably terrified of the harm we could inflict on ourselves as adolescents and wanted to do anything they could to prevent anything from happening to us. They eased up on their rules as my younger sisters grew up, but for me, I think, this behavior made me feel like I had to hide anything that I thought they would disapprove of (probably a lot of different things). I think it may have also contributed to a contrarian feeling that I have. I want to be different and act differently than I think they want me to. (I'm not sure that this is directly attributable to that time period. And it's surely not onloy because of that.)

I also sense in myself the tendency to want to control my children more than probably necessary. I want things to be done my way. I need to learn to give up ground that isn't important for their sake. I can only imagine how such tactics could truly backfire as they get older.

Additionally, in the book, we see the seeds of Jill's feminism planted as she struggles to find a place as an intellectual woman in a society that disdained big ideas "and found them specially laughable in women." Upon graduating with top honors from the University of Sydney, she is turned down for a government job quite clearly because she is a woman. "It chilled me to realize that there was no way to earn my freedom through merit." This is the first time that she has recognized her position in life as a woman and began to identify with women, rather than "acting unreflectingly as though I were a man."

She is detemined to leave the destructive relationship with her mother, and applies to go to graduate school at Harvard. She is admitted, and leaves Austrailia, never to return for good.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Jill Ker Conway in Three Volumes

For book group this month, we read The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway's personal memoirs chronicling her life from birth to age 25 in Austrailia. Because I liked it so much, I went on to read True North about her life at Harvard as a history graduate student, her marriage, and her move to Canada with her husband to pursue work as a professork, and then as a university administrator, at the University of Toronto. Ker Conway also wrote a third personal memoir, A Woman's Education, detailing her 10 years as the first female president of Smith College.

I thought I could condense all three into one post, but after writing 750 words about The Road from Coorain, I have decided to separate them.
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Monday, April 09, 2007

Pearls Before Breakfast

The Washington Post this weekend reports on the results of a most amazing experiment. They line up a premier, world class violinist, Joshua Bell, to play at a Metro station. Then, they start rolling the film to see what happens. Who notices? Who stops? Who throws money into his violin case (that houses and protects his multi-million dollar Strad)?

Street musicians and performers are familiar to anyone who has regularly used public transportation. I've heard Simon and Garfunkel on pan flute, watched accordianists, and of course, heard many of the all popular violin players. And my reaction to them has mostly been to notice, but to just keep on walking. The Washington Post found that the vast majority of the 1,097 commuters who passed by Joshua Bell did was exactly the same thing. Their pace didn't slow, their eyes weren't averted toward the musician. They just kept up walking, heading towards the escalator, focusing on getting somewhere. Somewhere else.

As I read this article, I was moved. I kept hoping that someone would stop, that some person would respond to the amazing music that was being played out in a lowly, grimy, smelly Metro station. And as much as I would love to believe that I would be different, that I would have instinctively known something beautiful and precious and amazing was being created, and would have stopped to listen, one description of a commuter stopped me flat.

A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look.

I am almost entirely sure that this is exactly what I would have done. Firmly grasped my childrens' hands, tried to distract them with something else, and just kept on moving. And recognizing myself so clearly, I felt profound sorrow.

I wonder about how many times I myself have unknowingly passed by some event or scene of majesty and profound beauty, completely ignorant, intent on hurrying along, not taking time to stop, pause, and notice the world around me. More hauntingly, I wonder how often I have forced my children to match my pace, depriving them of experiencing firsthand the world around them.I

n a more spiritual realm, too, I wonder what of God's small miracles I have missed because I was too occupied with mundane tasks and daily frustrations.

The staff of the Washington Post found one interesting thing in their observation of the passersby. All the children turned back to look at Bell, and tried to stop and watch. Every single one. To my dismay, not one single parent stopped, but hurried them on their way.

Like most children, mine do not have the false sense of urgency that I often force upon our days. They are content to stroll along, picking up rocks, playing in the water, and looking at dogs. They like to giggle and dance and chase each other and jump on the couch. Their eyes are newer, and they are more attuned to the world around them.

I admit, I have a hard time stopping and and enjoying the moment for what it is. The Post article quotes W.H.Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

I do love this idea, that pausing to take in the world around us will more often give us life than hurrying from one location to another, either physically or metaphysically.
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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Music

I love to play the organ on Easter. It's one of the few times where I can literally pull out all the stops, throw down some trumpet, and really let it rip. I love the exuberance and jubilation of Easter hymns, especially Christ the Lord is Risen Today. The choir sang a simple, yet beautiful arrangment of He is Risen in the middle of the meeting that gave me goosebumps. (On the other hand, I'm not very fond That Easter Morn, which we sang for the opening song today.) I practiced a lot for this week, including learning a new version of Beautiful Savior for prelude. I played one of my favorites for postlude: a Douglas Bush arrangement of All Creatures of Our God and King, in trio and fanfare form.

I felt the spirit of Easter today most in singing with the choir and playing the closing hymn and postlude on the organ. I need to make music a bigger part of my life.
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Thursday, April 05, 2007

"Mother Come Home"

I haven't been reading the Ensign much. I looked through the February issue and found only one thing that had any resonance at all for me--the article was a stripped down version of a FARMS piece about the symbolism of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It had some depth that I could actually chew on. But, for the most part, there isn't much there that I enjoy reading. I don't find the personal stories to be inspirational without the context that comes from knowing someone. And I dislike a strung together compilation of GA quotations on a topic, without any connecting essay, and find it difficult to digest.

When my mom was in town, she mentioned an article from April's issue about a mother who made a decision to stay home with her children, despite having many opportunities for success in the business world. I can't remember if she actually said I should read it, or just implied it. So, yesterday, when I was cleaning out the magazine basket, I picked it up to look at it.

It was clear that the woman writing was a smart and ambitious woman. Her article chronicles her desire for a high powered business career changing over time to desiring to stay home with her children. I would love to meet this woman and talk with her. It is clear that she has worked though a lot of issues and sought the guidance of the Lord in all of them. But, I felt that her representation in the article didn't do justice to her struggles. She had these desires, it was hard to turn down the job of a lifetime, but she felt like she should and so she did. Motherhood was very hard. What does that tell me? I want to know how she managed the day to day routine of staying at home. I want to know if her change of heart took place over many years of struggle. I want to know if she felt happy staying home and how she dealt with life when she wasn't so contented. I want to know what she did to keep her mind nimble and active while staying at home, and how she uses her talents that made her successful in the business world as a mother. No, none of this is addressed. Instead, there is a standard "pray, follow the Lord, and you will be blessed" line, combined with a bunch of quotes about the importance of being a mother. That may be what it boils down to, but it doesn't help with the day to day details that, woven together, form who I am as a mother and a woman.

It's been a hard week. Spring break. Ha! MJ keeps saying, "This is spring break, not winter break!" The weather has been depressing. In a fit of exuberance during an 80 degree day last week, I put the heavy coats and boots away. This morning, I finally broke down and got them back out again, since with the wind, the temperature felt like 1. Yes, 1 degree. Almost below zero. Then, there's no school, no dance class, no routine. And I have had less than my usual low levels of patience with my kids. All of it has added up to an unpleasant week, complete with my monthly (or maybe it's more like every two months) major mothering breakdown.

I'm not sure what to do or even how to figure out what to do. And I find that frustrating and depressing. I did love Elder Holland's talk about receiving a new tongue at GC last weekend. That's certainly something I need as a mother.

One of the things that bothered me the most was the title of the Ensign article: "Mother Come Home". To me, it suggests pitiful, mewling cries from forsaken children who are floundering and are being denied nourishment of all forms due to their mother seeking identity outside of the home. And it implies that mothers' primary identity should be domestic in nature.

I have decided that we are going to start getting the Ensign in Spanish. That way, I can work on my dwindling Spanish skills, if nothing else.
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