Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sarah's Most Favorite Work Conversation Thus Far

The following interchange takes place in the "Coffee Room" (that's what the plaque says) on 13W, Sarah's floor. The high-tech coffee machine/tea brewer/water heater has just finished dispensing hot water into a biodegradable/made-from-corn cup to give life to Sarah's packet of instant oatmeal (a pretty typical Sarah workaday snack).
Machine (via insistent blinking text on a small digital screen): CAUTION--YOUR DRINK IS HOT.

Sarah (out loud, to machine):
Caution. Your mom is hot.
Then Sarah, stirring her oatmeal with a coffee stirrer, laughs all the way to her office. First door on the right after the hallway to the elevators.

This is not the exact version we have in our office, but close enough. If there's an "Enjoy Your Drink" that comes up for us, it certainly isn't on an angle. That would have caught my attention.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

When we were younger, my brother dreamt of taking one room of the house and spray painting it gold.

In the past two weeks, I have spray painted gold the following things:
  • a dozen IKEA picture frames
  • the rim of a $2 IKEA clock
  • the faceplate & screw of an electrical outlet
  • the interior walls & wire lattice work of the giant dark wood china cabinet I bought on Craigslist (before I decided it was a no go)
  • a light switch (though unsuccessfully--anyone know how to make spray paint stick on a light switch?)
  • various parts of my body.
Spray painting things gold is by far my newest favorite pasttime.

This is part of my efforts to make the space around me more beautiful. After two years at Melville (my own domestic heaven), I have learned the value of being around beautiful things. My new standard is this: I want to be around things beautiful enough they make me want to be a better person.

At first my current roommates didn't understand this, and then they laughed at it, and now they use it as a guide to understand how I'm feeling about the things in our housescape.

Roommate: Sarah, how do you like this toaster? Is it ugly?
Sarah: It's not too bad. It's okay.
Roommate: Hm. You mean, it's just not beautiful enough that you want to be a better person?
Sarah: Yeah. Well--yeah.

(I hope they're not worried that I'm sizing them up similarly. They needn't--once again, I have found myself living with really, truly beautiful roommates.) (Wait--that was sizing them up. Well, okay, I did it. But they came out victorious! Hooray for beautiful roommates!)

To this end--the house improvement end--my roommate Erika and I have done a variety of things: bought all new, beautiful dishes; painted the kitchen white and "starry sky"; bought a fat and high red couch and armchair for recently unfurnitured living room; bought a china cabinet on Craigslist, borrowed a truck to move it, negotiated it from the District to my house in Virginia, unloaded it almost (almost!) before it started to rain, moved it around a million times, spray painted gold on the inside and the lattice work (and my airways, no doubt), and then decided the china cabinet was a no go; bought another much better china cabinet online; and spent a Friday night shopping for and thinking strategically about what on earth to do about the 12 accent tiles in our kitchen back splash that are limpid and bleh prints of flowers in vases. No resolution. Yet.

The no-go cabinet.

I worry, of course, that this is a superficial way to use my money. That I should be devoting this money to paying off my law school loans/supporting African refugees/donating money to fast offerings/saving/traveling to see my family, etc. But Melville--it meant something. Its loveliness made us calmer. It made us glad to see each other. It helped us love the world more and treat it more tenderly and feel more satisfied from day to day, from red bowl of cereal to polka-dotted cup of hot chocolate. It's a remedy for the world's elite, I know. Who but a small fraction of earth has the luxury to buy $8 dessert plates? And who on earth actually has the gall to say it's because it will help them lead a better life?

But I believe in transforming my spaces, and I want to be better at doing it. There's value in this. There's got to be--it has made such a difference to my last two years. There's got to be a scriptural analog to this, more even than just a house of order.

Maybe (and I'm thinking aloud here), maybe this is part of what God was saying during the creation. Maybe not only "It is good," as in, it's a good idea, let's keep it, that will work, I am pleased. But maybe more, or too, "It is good--it makes life good." Creations so beautiful, they make life good.

God on Day Three: "Yup, those fish definitely make me want to be a better person. Let's keep 'em. Good work, team."

Good work, team.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Because This Was Too Long to Say in Church on Sunday, I'm Raising My Hand Right Now. Please Call on Me.

This past Sunday in Relief Society, my ward was discussing some of Joseph Smith's letters to his wife Emma. The letters were written on his many trips away--to preach, to set up business, to establish the church, to rein in the church, to deal with the lawsuits and allegations and legal charges laid against him. Etc. This was one of the points of the lesson: Joseph Smith was away a LOT, but he loved his family.

One of the women in my Relief Society said something about how it's evident that Joseph Smith put his family first, that they were his first priority, and that that's clear to see from his letters. And though I think that probably this is fundamentally true--that probably he did love his family more than anything else on this earth and probably they were his first priority--I don't think that's clear from his letters (even ignoring the fact that we were reading excerpts), if for this reason alone: Joseph Smith was away from his family A LOT. And, some might say, often voluntarily.

I sat on my padded plastic chair and thought about this. My father was away a lot when I was growing up. I'd wager (metaphorically) that he's still away a lot. And this is due primarily to his church callings. He was called as bishop of my ward in early 1989. He was called as stake president of our stake in 1993. And when in 1998 we moved--to be closer to his work, I thought--we moved right into the part of the stake they were chopping off to become its own district, and Dad was called as district president. He was unsurprised. That was ten years ago almost exactly. It's been twenty years since Dad sat regularly on our bench with us at church. It's been twenty years since he's been home regularly on Sunday mornings and since he hasn't had to go out multiple times a week for church-related meetings. Most of my memories of my dad from during my high school years are of him standing in the kitchen at 11 pm, tie off and white shirt sleeves rolled up, eating something microwave-reheated off a plate, while I sit at the kitchen table, reeling off about my day and my many life decisions. "Right, right," I can hear him saying. He is holding his fork, looking at his plate, and swaying a little from side to side. Periodically, he picks up a white ceramic mug and drinks some water.

And so, this past Sunday, I asked myself this: How is it that I can tell that, even though my dad spent a lot of time away from us doing church stuff, we were his first priority? How is that I can reconcile my desire to call us his "first priority" when, in reality, he so often chose to be away from us, thereby de facto prioritizing something else? And, more generally (even trenchantly, perhaps), how do we, as a religion that preaches so loudly--so consistently and, these days, so publicly--the central importance of the family, reconcile our claims that we value family above all else, even as we ask these men, these women, these families to spend so much time necessarily apart? (Despite the church's many attempts to get us to streamline our church work and increase time spent with family, a fair amount of church service necessarily means time away. You can't really make a daddy-daughter date of bishop's interviews.)

And, in good interior monologuing fashion, I came up with an answer. While my Relief Society teacher was teaching away, I realized this: I know that we were my dad's first priority because I knew--I KNEW--that he would rather have been with us. I always knew that he would rather have been at home with us. I knew that not even in his heart of hearts was he kind of glad for the responsibility or the power or the self-importance or the whatever that could come from being such a figure in so many people's lives if he were a less humble and a less good man. He loved us the most. He enjoyed us the most. And if he hadn't been called to do that work, then he certainly would have gotten into his car and come home straight to us. And to a sitting dinner.

And I can only think that he was able to communicate that to us because it was really true. Families are smart. They can read between the lines and sense deep truths and pick up the small messages sent by the small acts made by the small parts of us. They can accrue.

So that's my answer. I think that the only way to make our families know that they are the most important thing to us (after our commitments to keep our covenants and serve God) is if they really are. If, in our heart of hearts, we really do love them most. And that, my friends, is the kind of purity only Heaven can help us to. Because, let's face it, if I had had a kid while I was still making sacrament meeting programs, there's a good chance that kid would feel, alas, a little bit nexted.

Please heaven, help me love my hypothetical children so much more than I love the Microsoft Word drawing toolbar and the looks on people's faces as they see what I've got for them this week that my kids never have cause to wonder if I spend so much time on the program because I secretly don't want to be with them. Please. Please. Amen.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Week Late But Oh So Great

I don't take nearly enough pictures. This is all I have of the Halloween night that highlighted last weekend's adventures in which I had three sets of guests in town simultaneously: Becky R. and a BYU MPA contingent, Reija and Jeff from the Rochester parts, and a few key appearances by Mikey J., my former compatriot in SLS/LDS '08 crime (he was the only other single LDS kid in my class). They all came to Virginia and hung out with me and, on Halloween night, they made my vision come true: there we were, at 11 pm, roasting marshmallows Reija and I had decorated with colored sugar* over a fire Rebecca built in the fire pit we have stashed in our backyard, listening to Mike tell his stories and entertain us all. And then we played hide-and-go-seek in my house (with the lights off). I lost.

The long and short of it is: I'm almost 28 ("practically 30," as Michelle was wont to say), and I just had the best Halloween of my life.

It was a long time coming.

(Thanks, team. Would you consider: Halloween '09?)

*In the picture, Reija's holding the marshmallow version I made of her--red hair, blue eyes, purple shirt, surprised smile, and all.