Monday, June 27, 2016

What Happens at Girls' Camp Does Not Stay at Girls' Camp

When visitors show up at girls' camp and are taken aback by the unique culture Mia Shalom offers—the singing, the screaming, the enthusiasm, the lack of inhibition, the disregard for hygiene—I tell them, "What happens at girls' camp stays at girls' camp." But that is not true at all.

What happens at girls camp doesn't stay at girls' camp. What happens at girls' camp bonds the girls to each other and to their leaders. It jump starts latent testimonies, plants seeds of faith and friendship, shows young women what being faithful can look like (it looks like Mother Gooney Bird, kind of), fosters camaraderie that we are all in something together, and garners a whole lot of good will from the young women towards priesthood leaders that show up and help—priesthood leaders who will ask the young women to attend early meetings, show up happily for service projects, babysit for the relief society, graduate from seminary, go on missions, and—possibly—confess their sins to them.

I just got back from a week at girls' camp. There are people who love and look forward to girls' camp all year. I honestly wonder what that would feel like. Instead, I get mildly depressed during the weeks leading up to girls' camp and fantasize about breaking my arm—just seriously enough to keep me home from camp and on prescription pain meds with a couple of refills. Of course, this is silly because I willingly choose to go to girls' camp as part of my calling. And it's always a good thing. So is scouting.

Before I had sons I would probably have been against scouting. It's expensive and the paperwork is dumb. There are also political concerns that I am fully aware of. On paper, Boy Scouts is not my bag. But in action with committed leaders, it turned my son into someone great. He had leaders who put their money where their mouths were and took work off to sleep on the hard ground. They taught him things I didn't know how to teach him and showed him that being one in purpose (whether the purpose was fording a stream, getting dizzy and throwing a bunch of glow sticks in the air, or living the gospel) transcends personality types, age, and background. Now he's on a mission and the people he went on those campouts with are the people he misses and the things he learned on those campouts are the tools he uses to get along with companions and move forward when he doesn't feel like it.

As a middle-aged person who is faithful in the church, I look back at my life and see that besides my mom's example, Young Women leaders were the most instrumental people in forming my testimony. I remember every youth conference and camp we went to along with details about my leaders' lives, courtships, kids, and jobs. They were awesome and I loved them because they did things with me. I, personally, am not an awesome or inspiring leader. I can never think of things to say and I'm a big party pooper. I am not changing anyone's life by being at camp. But, of the leaders who have meant the most to me and my kids, not all of them have been inspiring and great. Some are just mediocre normals—like me. And I have found that mediocre normals are indispensable to me in helping me raise my kids.

When my kids were getting just old enough that I couldn't physically force them to do things anymore, I wondered about free agency and what my job was as a parent. When your kids are little, you put them where you want them. Strap them in the car seat and go. But when they're 12 or 13 you can't just carry your kids to church. My wise neighbor told me that children need to be enticed to do good because evil is certainly offering its fair share of enticements. Parenting older kids is all about persuasion.  Let me tell you, helpful leaders who are committed and involved make this job a whole lot easier.  My shy son's scout leader taught him to look people in the eye and shake hands just by being a nice guy who shook Sam's hand every week. Ellen's primary teacher made her stop hating church and throwing fits about going to primary by bringing her a treat. I need the help the church gives me in raising my kids. I know that other people need it too.

Which is why I'm adding this post as an addendum to my last post wherein I suggested that as LDS wards and stakes we should carefully and intentionally plan activities and not be afraid to do fewer things or to do different kinds of things. I don't like doing everything that gets planned for me to do, but I don't always know what's good for me. I sort of hate camp, but I recognize its value.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson explains why we need the community of the church and can't just be Mormons in isolation in his talk Why the Church? He says:
It's important to recognize that God's ultimate purpose is our progress. His desire is that we continue "from grace to grace, until [we receive] a fullness" of all He can give. That requires more than simply being nice or feeling spiritual. It requires faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism of water and of the Spirit, and enduring in faith to the end. One cannot fully achieve this in isolation, so a major reason the Lord has a church is to create a community of Saints that will sustain one another in the "strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life."
If you think you have nothing special to add to (or gain from) the community that Elder Christofferson is talking about, here's the most important thing I did at camp: The lady next to me in our cabin has bad knees and her inflatable mattress would deflate at night so she couldn't get up. She industriously tied a rope to the leg of my cot and used it to pull herself up and out of bed in the middle of the night when she had to use the bathroom. Laying in my cot provided the counterweight she needed to get up and out. If I hadn't been there, she'd be stuck. Being cot weight was, literally, the very least I could do. But it helped and I was happy to oblige. I bet you add more than just cot weight but even if you, like me, are cot weight, that's still enough to help someone out. Laying in my bed in isolation is one thing—I like it. It's fun. But doing the exact same thing at girls' camp was better and more meaningful. I think that's an important part of being a Mormon.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Let's Do Less: Towards a Heuristic Theory of Ward Activities

What do you think of this idea: We should have fewer church activities.

While you're thinking about it, let me tell you two things.

1) If I lean a particular way, I lean towards being more anti-social than social. I like discretionary time. It makes me happy. I don't need to feel really busy to feel good and I believe that unscheduled time often leads to great ideas and important, unplanned moments.

2) In retrospect I can see that planning, attending, setting up for, serving during, and cleaning up after activities I didn't want to go to is good for me. In fact, aside from having and raising children, this aspect of the church—doing what you don't want to do—is the only thing that has made me a better person over the years (still not that great though because, as you'll see, I'm going to complain about it).

So, basically, I recognize that I enjoy activities less, probably, than the average person while also acknowledging that attending church activities is, generally, a good thing.

But still, what if we had fewer church activities? How would that be?

In his talk, To the Saints in the Utah South Area, Russell Ballard said,
"Now, some of you may be overprogrammed with lots of activities, including good ones. Please be careful not to overprogram your children. Turn off social media and other outside distractions from time to time to sit and talk and enjoy each other’s company.You don’t always have to fill up your schedule totally. Please carefully look at your calendars and consider where you might cut back a little and enjoy a less hectic life more fully. The Lord counseled us to find time to “be still, and know that I am God.”
For example, this week we had a ward campout (which we couldn't make it to). My daughter, a Young Woman, had a stake campout the same night. My 9-year-old had a movie night the previous evening for Activity Days. My husband has a 4-day campout next week and my son, age 13, has a different campout next weekend. We also have YM/YW every week and church on Sunday (obvs). I'm visiting 2 wards this Sunday for my calling and since I'm certified Telestial, that maxes me out church-wise. Also, we just spent Memorial Day together as a family. Then my husband left town for a business trip and I went to The Cure. My daughter gave me the concert tickets for Christmas and I went with my sister—All good things which kept us plenty busy.

One way of looking at this embarrassment of riches in terms of family activities is that it is wonderful. We have all these options of things to go to and do. But are we being spread thin? Are we engendering FOMO in our children by underestimating the value of free time? Are we just trying to kill time and fill up every second? Should we consecrate our time and resources more intentionally?

I've noticed that much of what happens in the church happens in meetings where very good, well-intentioned people say things in order to participate that they don't really feel that strongly about. We've all done it. The youth are notorious for it, especially when it comes to food. Mark my words—they'll say they want more variety than just chocolate chip cookies at the multi-stake dance, but inevitably all that will be leftover at the end of the night will be cranberry-white chocolate and peanut butter cookies. Mark my words.

Activities get planned because we find ourselves in meetings to plan activities. And we should definitely have activities. But I think we could have fewer. When you have less it means more. Plus, you spend less money, burden busy families/people/leaders/kids/parents less, and allow for spontaneous connections and fellowshipping to occur organically, much like Clayton Christianson describes in his book The Power of Everyday Missionaries: The What and How of Sharing the Gospel.

Are we leaving room for that kind of thing? Yes, I do want to get out of going to so many activities. But it's still a real question.

In addition to over-scheduling, which I view as an extension of my generation's tendency towards hyper-parenting, I think we sometimes stuff too much into activities as well. And, like our parenting style, it's not that we don't care. We care a great deal. In fact, our greatest fear might be seeming like we don't care.

So there's a program and decorations for everything. Some people like to do these kinds of things and some people get stressed out by it.  As with any large group of different personalties—different strokes for different folks.  For the most part in the church we can  accommodate different personality types by being observant and thoughtful and by not being pushy. But occasionally the less showy but more thoughtful approach gets dismissed or devalued because it doesn't look like a lot of effort. I heard about about a time in a BYC meeting where a thoughtful young man got uncomfortably grilled on the "spiritual value" of  a "just for fun" activity which he had carefully planned and carried out to appeal to his less active friend in the ward, which it did, which, hooray! "That's what I'm talkin' about," says Jesus.

(When I was in Young Women our theme for camp was Care Bears. And we picked "Party Bear." It was a blast and I'm still active. So.)

What do you think? Is more more or is less more? Should we provide as many options as we can for all people of different types and phases in life and let everyone opt-in or opt-out as they please? Or should we just have fewer activities? Ahhhhh. Doesn't that sound nice?

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Bowie, Bingham, and Prince: What I Learned From the Deaths of People I Didn't Know

It's been a tough year. So far we have lost Prince, David Bowie, and my friend's dad Merril Bingham.

I don't mean to minimize the grief of the people who knew these guys personally by talking about what they meant to me as someone who never met them, but they did mean a lot to me. I can imagine how much they meant exponentially to their close friends and family.

First we lost Bowie.

For whatever reason—his presumed other-worldliness and immortality?—this was a jolt. Stardust, dead? Radio silence. I cried a lot. It surprised me. You rarely realize the things that have been the most formative in your life—things like Rocky I-III, primary songs, cereal commercials, and Fashion.

Bowie was singular and his vision is truly unique. In a world of Star Trek reboots and Ghostbusters makeovers, we forget what original concepts look like. Sometimes they look pretty weird.

I've been watching MTV since day one, so Bowie invaded my psyche like Snuffleupagus invaded my imagination.  When you think of it, which one's existence is more likely?

I don't know why, but I never saw Labyrinth until I was an adult. (I picked sides as a kid: Coke, not Pepsi. Burger King, not McDonalds. NeverEnding Story, not Labyrinth.) But David Bowie's music videos are just as fanciful and formative—Blue Jean. China Girl. (If I like their race, how can that be racist?Modern Love is my favorite song from that time period. But I went back (and you can go way back and it's all good). His songs are like stories and kids love stories.

I knew Bowie was a wild man. The stuff I heard about him was harder to imagine or understand than his vision of the earth in his song 5 Years. Says Bowie of his early life, "I was very promiscuous."

But I find the arc of his mortal life beautiful. Married to Iman for the last 24 years, settled into fatherhood, still creative, still prolific—he aged and he was interesting. He wrote a lot of music that is important to a lot of people. His song about a spaceman went to space and came back to us via satellite like this. Whut? Bowie was the real deal and he left a mark.

Here's what I learned from Bowie:

Wear what you want
Middle age and beyond can be a creative and defining time
Pursue what you like (I joined a roller derby league the day Bowie died, for example)
If you feel like a freak (or a kook) you're not alone
Different is fine; different is lovely

A few days after Bowie died we lost Alan Rickman too. Also sad, but this didn't really effect me. I had already mourned Snape's death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

In February my friend Josh's dad passed away unexpectedly. I didn't really know Merril Bingham. Initially, I experienced the sadness of his loss only through Josh and for Josh. I didn't lose anything—I never even met the guy. But his life and death profoundly changed me at his funeral, which was beautiful.

Brother Bingham was neither rich nor famous–a father of 8, a city engineer for Provo. I don't think he was a perfect man but he lived a meaningful life and within his sphere of influence he was beloved and helpful. He changed the world—one guy from Provo changed the world for the better just by being a nice guy, working hard, serving in his church, and loving his family. All 8 of his children spoke at the funeral—their different personalities highlighted charmingly (Josh is clearly the funniest one) with each short talk.  Merril Bingham was beloved and important and all he did was his best. That's all it takes to make a legacy and it inspired me. I left his funeral sad for those who knew him, but personally motivated to be a better person. Merril Bingham was a devout Mormon who served his neighbors and ward his whole life. One of his friends eulogized him this way:

"Is the Gospel true? Look at the man."

Here's what Merril Bingham taught me:

Love my family
Spoil my grandkids (when I have some!)
Make my city better
Serve willingly, happily, and with style
Pay attention to people around me and help them
If my legs were thin enough I could wear one pair of tube socks taped up around my knees and another pair over them (but they aren't so I don't need this tip)

Last week Prince was found dead at age 57. His death is so tragic because he died alone in an elevator in his house from a presumed accidental overdose of prescription medicine. Ugh. Poor Prince. I love Prince.

I imprinted on Prince in the 80s just like a baby duckling imprints on her big sister's Purple Rain album and the Purple Rain VHS tape her mama duck buys her. Prince was a marvel. Prince was a presence. Prince had a very dirty mind.

For me loving rock stars helped me understand that loving—and I mean really, deeply loving and genuinely caring about—someone isn't the same thing as endorsing their behavior. It also isn't not that. Loving and caring is on a separate plane from judging or condoning behavior. It's a weird thing to say because my love for rock stars is kind of immature, but I think they've taught me an important lesson. Of course I love my mom because she's hardworking, takes care of me, and has always been an example to me and done right by me. But I also love Prince, who has "earned" my love by virtue only of being Prince. Why do my imaginary relationships teach me as much as my real ones? Who cares. I love Prince unconditionally, Darling Nikki and all. I know how to love unconditionally in real life, too.

The mortal arc of Prince's life is beautiful to me. I think what I'm finding out is that everyone's is.

You all know Prince and his royal badness. There's much about his experience that I can't relate to. He was a virtuoso musician, successful and rich and insulated from the "real world" to some degree.

But later in life he famously quit swearing, using a swear jar at Paisley Park. He became a Jehovah's Witness and actively proselytized for his faith. He struggled to reconcile the conservative views of his church with its tenets of compassion and acceptance of other people.

I know how that feel, bro.

Prince taught me a few things too:

Give people the benefit of the doubt, you never know how much pain they're in
People can change
Even if people don't change you can love them how they are
Give, donate, help, and serve quietly without a lot of fanfare
Ask yourself, "Is there anybody I'm afraid of? Is there anybody who if I walked into a room and saw, I'd get nervous?" If not, you're cool.
(And a few other things that are beyond the PG rating of my blog)

Rest in peace Bowie, Bingham, and Prince. The world is better for you guys being in it. I'll see you on the flip side.

Friday, April 08, 2016

X-Files Watch List: Seasons 3 and 4

Are you still with me on the X-Files project? Good. (Don't worry, you can start any time.) If you're reading this post you should have watched Seasons 1 and 2. If you did, you already will have started Season 3 because X-Files is rife with irresistible season finales and you won't be able to wait or need me to tell you to proceed.

You're lucky Netflix will just autoplay the next episode and all you have to do is sit there, immobile, eyes glued to the TV. Back in the day we had to wait for months to see what happened to Mulder in the buried train car in the desert.

In fact, X-Files is the show that really pioneered season-spanning arcs, which are commonplace now. Stick that in your peace pipe and smoke it--which Mulder will do in Season 3!

Now, let's dive in. Remember, I've narrowed the episode list down by about 50% to include only essential "mythology" episodes (long arcs) and quintessential "stand-alone" episodes. Feel free to watch every episode if you like—at this point X-Files gets very good with few stinker episodes. But if you're pressed for time, the most important thing for you to focus on right now are the following episodes.

Season 3

The Blessing Way
Paper Clip
D.P.O. (Jack Black and Giovanni Ribisi are in this one.)
Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose
War of the Coprophages
Piper Maru (Named after Gillian Anderson's daughter.)
Jose Chung's "From Outer Space" (First and best of X-Files quirky, meta-style--one of my all-time favorites.)
Quagmire (Notable for Mulder and Scully's memorable Moby Dick conversation.)
Wetwired (Mulder kicks a car in anger and we find out that he is colorblind.)
Talitha Cumi

Season 4

Home (Warning: this is a truly horrifying episode and the first TV show I ever saw that came with a viewer discretion warning. Worth it!)
Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (Another one of my all-time favorites.)
El Mundo Gira*
Paper Hearts
Leonard Betts
Never Again (A rare Scully-centric episode with a tattoo voiced by Jodie Foster—just go with it. )
Memento Mori
Small Potatoes (This episode is loads of fun for Mulder-Scully shippers, which everyone is by now.)
Zero Sum

*Not essential, but this episode has some cultural significance because it gives us "El Chupacabra.

Let me know if you're watching and which episodes you like best. I love talking about X-Files!
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