Wednesday, December 29, 2010


When my daughter was 6-years-old, she shoved four stuffed animals inside her shirt and proudly announced, “I’m having four triplets!”  I explained to her that four babies would be quadruplets—triplets are “only” three babies.  When I began to expound upon quintuplets and sextuplets, she interrupted my impromptu lesson, wailing, “I’m uncomfortable!”  Like any mother expecting quads, she was very anxious for them to be delivered.
Motherhood brings with it a wide range of emotions:  joy, sorrow, excitement and  exasperation to name a few.  I was alarmed to learn that mothering can bring out the worst (as well as the best) in you.  It grieved me to discover that I had so much yet to learn in life.  My sister then welcomed me to the “motherhood club” by stating, “When I became a mom I realized, ‘Ahhh, I get it!  Mom and Dad only started the work of raising me—it will be my kids who finish the job.’”
My own mother had this magical ability while I was growing up:  no matter how broken life felt, she was able to help me fix it.  I knew I could always count on her.  What is more, she passed on her belief in me that I could accomplish whatever I set out to do.

The sacrifices involved with mothering help us grow through both the delightful and the tearful times.  One of the lessons I treasure most that I learned from my kids is to step outside my stress and laugh with them.
"A mother is not a person to lean on but a person to make leaning unnecessary."
-- Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Mother Bickerdyke
(1817 - 1901)
She was a liability to the establishment—nosing around where she had no business, taking supplies she was not entitled to.  She was outspoken and defiantly skirted the mandated procedures.  The general in charge exclaimed in exasperation, “I can’t do a thing in the world” about her.
But her “boys in blue” called her Mother.
When her infant daughter died, Mary Ann Bickerdyke took the first steps down the road that would become her life mission.  She studied medicine to learn how to help others from dying needlessly.  She later put her medical knowledge to work as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War.
When she learned of the deplorable condition of the medical unit at the Union camp, she led a fund drive to buy much-needed supplies.  Once she delivered them to the Union base, she was appalled at the lack of sanitation so she refused to leave.  She ignored the army regulations forbidding her presence in camp and she cooked, cleaned and washed with a confidence, care and comfort that charmed her way into the soldiers’ hearts.  And their recovery rates increased.
But she pushed it too far when she insisted on roaming around the battlefields looking for the wounded.  When a surgeon asked her, “Under whose authority are you working?” she affirmed, “I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty.  Have you anything that ranks higher than that?”
Apparently General Sherman agreed because he conceded, “She outranks me.”
She spent four years traveling from one battlefield to the next with the Union Army.  She was appointed to serve on the sanitation commission.  At first she was offended when they offered to pay her for something she was determined to do anyway.  But when she realized her wages could provide her with the means of buying extras for her boys in blue, she finally accepted her wages.
At the end of the war, Sherman asked her to participate in the Grand Review of the nation’s capital.  She led a corps of soldiers in the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.  When Sherman offered her a seat on the review stand she refused, preferring to pass out water to the soldiers.
After the war, she continued serving her veterans and fellow nurses.  She helped hundreds work through the legal issues so they could secure their pensions.  She, however, did not receive a pension for over 20 years. 
Her greatest honor was engraved upon her tombstone:  “Mother to the boys in Blue.”

Baker, Nina Brown, Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952.
DeLeeuw, Adele, Civil War Nurse, Mary Ann Bickerdyke. New York: J. Messner, 1973
Greenbie, Marjorie Barstow, Lincoln’s Daughters of Mercy. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1944.
McKown, Robin, Heroic Nurses. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1966.
See also: Livermore, Mary (1888). "XXIV". My Story of the War.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Pursuit of Happiness

I was feeling pretty good about my triumphs, taking over little parcels of land one square inch at a time.  My opponent in the game of Othello was a master of the art and I a mere novice, so to see the board nearly covered in my color was extremely satisfying.  But in the end, my sister stealthily turned all my tokens against me and captured the board.   Her conquest amounted to only about a square foot of territory, yet I was devastated.  When she noted my dejection she apologized, “I’m sorry—I had no idea you thought you could actually beat me.”
Years later, my husband and I bought our first piece of property—one that couldn’t be reclaimed by a sleight of hand.  Whether on a game board or a city block, we feel a pride in ownership.
John Locke inspired Thomas Jefferson to list our unalienable rights as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” but Locke’s original thought was “Life, liberty and property.”  It’s a fitting exchange because freedom of opportunity brings happiness, whether that pursuit is external (property) or internal (our well-being).  Even when our efforts are less than successful, we still have the opportunity to try again . . . or move on to other challenges. 
I’ve never met my sister in a rematch of Othello but I did win her at . . . No, . . . What about . . . hmmm?  She’s got me there, too.  Hey, it’s not about winning or losing but how you pursue the game.

Finding My Gem in the Geode
Have you ever read a book that just made you mad?  I was so peeved at the protagonist of The Virginian that I started asking some serious questions.  And it changed my life.

Five years ago I read a western novel for a class I was taking.  The book was about a man who risked everything to shoot his enemy.  When I was challenged to write an essay about it I asked myself why he would risk losing both his life and the woman he loved in order to fight.  I saw that he had to or that enemy would haunt him all his days.  Then I asked myself if I had an enemy that haunted me and the profound realization struck me that I did.

Only my enemy was more insidious—it was my own self-doubts.  
So I envisioned myself in the middle of a dirt road, squaring off to meet my opponent in a western-style showdown. I shot the shadow that filled my head with negative thoughts about myself and I haven’t let it “darken my sites” since.  I conquered the enemy within.
Freed from the burden of self-doubt, I fell in love with life.  I discovered the joy of joining hands with the Creator in seeking His inspiration to craft my own creations.  

That’s one facet of my story.  Owning the pursuit of my happiness helped me square up to my responsibility to value myself and the gifts God has given me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Noble Heritage

The spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit,
That we are the children of God:
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God,
Romans 8:16 – 17

When my daughter was four, her older brother discovered that she would do anything if prefaced with the statement, “Princesses do this . . .” Even the dental hygienist used this tactic, promising her “princess teeth” if she sat down and opened wide.  The moment we got home from the dentist, she raced to the mirror where she mournfully noted, “But Mom, my teeth are still just white!”  Who knows what she imagined princess teeth would look like, but after a lesson on “pearly whites” she was satisfied. 

My daughter understood that even though she was apparently a normal little girl in an average household, she was really a princess because she is the daughter of a King.  She announced to me with the sage of youth, “I am a princess because I am a child of God and the scriptures say so!  Thank you scriptures!”

A beloved prophet said, “There has come to you as your birthright something beautiful and sacred and divine. Never forget that. Your Eternal Father is the great Master of the universe. He rules over all, but He also will listen . . . and hear you as you speak with Him.” Gordon B. Hinckley, "Stay on the High Road," Ensign, May 2004.

George Washington
(1732 - 1799)
King George III ruled the British Empire, but a man of greater nobility led the Colonial Army. 

George Washington possessed many readily recognizable virtues.  For example, at the Battle of Princeton, he saw his front-line crumble in fear when their commander was crushed by the British.  So Washington forged ahead of all his men upon his white steed.  The smoke from the firing muskets was so thick that it took a few moments for it to clear before his men could see that Washington was miraculously unharmed.  He led his men to victory.

Six weeks later, the Pennsylvania Journal published this description of the Father of our country: 

"In his public character he commands universal respect and admiration.  Conscious that the principles on which he acts are indeed founded on virtue, he steadily and coolly pursues those principles, with a mind neither depressed by disappointments nor elated by success, giving full exercise to that discretion and wisdom which he so eminently possesses."

After the Revolutionary War, a group of men urged Washington to become King George I of America.  This proposal grieved him.  He honored freedom too much to even consider accepting a crown.  His noble nature was so firmly rooted in his core that he didn't need an outward manifestation of it.  He wore his crown in his character.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Deeper Meanings

I love the magical art of James Christensen.  Once he came to speak at my local library and I relished the instructions he gave us on imagination.  Something he said that really caught my fancy was, “When you’re sitting in a room and a fish flies by, that changes everything.”  For years I looked only at the literal meaning of that statement—a silly image that made me laugh.  But when I finally realized that the fish is a symbol of Christianity, it hit me a lot deeper. 
Have you heard of Sensus Plenior?  It is a Latin term meaning “fuller sense” or “deeper meaning.”  The greatest teachers used it:  Jesus, Aesop, and surprisingly, even Mother Goose.  America’s founders were schooled in Sensus Plenior.  They knew how to find multiple meanings in all the classic works.  For example, the whole concept of separation of powers upon which the U.S. Constitution is founded came from the first chapter of Genesis.  When the founders read about the sun, the moon and the stars, they saw a pattern for how governing bodies should be separated.
After I learned about Sensus Plenior, I started reading to my kids differently.  The story became the preface to a discussion of how the prince's battle with the dragon was symbolic of Christ's victory over death.  The ability to understand symbols gives the power to see beyond the literal.
Mother Goose

Faint etchings on the page seized my attention like a whisper.  The hint of intrigue beckoned me to explore the possibilities it held.  Deciphering the words, the text had a disappointing ring of familiarity:
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

But after a closer look, an interesting pattern emerges.  All of the characters in this nursery rhyme have similar symbols:
Moon--Its phases are a birth, death and rebirth.  Its renewal of life symbolizes an eternal mother so some cultures associate it with a Mother Goddess.  The light it reflects from the sun illuminates darkness just as the mind reflects light and knowledge from the Divine Son.
Cow--Also a maternal symbol since cows give nourishment for new life.  The horns are like the crescent moon and the cow is considered celestial. (Thus the term “Holy cow!”)
Cat--Is also related to the moon because of the way its irises widen and narrow like the waxing and waning of the moon.  So the cat stands for the changing nature of the moon.  It is considered stealthy, but since it seeks to follow its desire the cat also represents liberty.  
Fiddle--Stringed instruments also represent feminine qualities.  Music stands for harmony and happiness. And Dance is an expression of creativity and the rhythm of life.
Dog--A companion of the mother figure, representing loyalty and watchfulness.
All of these characters are secondary to the main action of the rhyme:  the dish which runs away with the spoon.  Here is where the rhyme takes on a deeper meaning.
The Dish serves Bread, which symbolizes our daily toil and sorrow.
The Spoon is a vessel, such as Cup which means to be open and receive the Living Water and forgiveness.
So, "the dish ran away with the spoon" means that our sorrows depart with forgiveness.
          Granted, one must either be well-versed in symbology or have a symbolic dictionary at hand to get that level of meaning out of some of the nursery rhymes.  Others are far more obvious, like Mary and her Lamb.  It is a rewarding exercise to crack open such a geode and find the sparkling gem hidden within. 
Source for information about Sensus Plenior:  Dr. Oliver DeMille's speech, "The Freedom Crisis."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Not Ordinary

There are no “ordinary” people.
C. S. Lewis

Last winter I was shopping for my rock-collecting daughter.  While admiring a  gorgeous geode, the merchant told me the story about where it was found:
At an excavation site, mounds of gray rocks were unearthed. The heap of rubble was bulldozed into oblivion.   No one questioned if the stones had any value. But then one was crushed, revealing beautiful crystals inside. Though outwardly plain, the rocks held hidden treasures:  gems within geodes. What formed the crystals?  Heat and pressure.  What brought them to light?  Opening up.  

Shinichi Suzuki wrote in Nurtured by Love, “Anybody who takes up an art [or the quest for excellence] is apt to think of the object of his ambition as something very far off, . . . The real essence of art turned out to be not something high up and far off.  It was right inside my ordinary daily self.  . . . If a musician wants to become a fine artist, he must first become a finer person.  If he does this, his worth will appear . . . in everything he does.”

Sarah Frances Rucker Williams
(1849 - 1934)
“They don’t call her one-shot-Sarah for nothing,” Cyrus’ final comment hung in the air as he punctuated his statement with a warning look directed at his children. The offense they were to avoid on pain of punishment was the crime of laughing at their Great-Aunt Sarah.  
Upon entering Sarah's home, Cyrus would swoop to grab the newspaper and open it wide as the family settled in for their visit.  The trouble with Aunt Sarah wasn’t that she was boring but that one never knew what wildly random thing was going to pop out of her head. So the kids had to keep themselves braced to stifle any laughter she might elicit for their father feared she would take it for mocking.
It did not escape his daughter's notice that Cyrus chuckled freely, his face hidden behind the newspaper.
Sarah was a fascinating character--a legend in my family history.  She was my father's grandmother and had the reputation of possessing the "energy, ability and . . . determination to carry out any undertaking."
Sarah smoked a pipe with a curved stem, wore red flannel underwear and possessed a book on etiquette.  Her posterity speculate as to whether she ever opened it.  Or maybe she did the same as my older sisters who thumbed through the book and laughed at the Nineteenth Century sense of decorum. 
  • She was known to announce in front of guests that the dinner glasses could be returned directly to the cupboard as "they had nothing but water in them."
  • Once she walked up to a snarling bobcat armed only with a fence post.
  • At age 78 she put the local ranchers to shame by saving their herds' hide and dispatching a troublesome coyote.  She succeeded where they failed by taking her time and watching the coyote's pattern for three nights before positioning herself where she was able to take care of business with a single shot. 
Crusty on the outside, strength and determination on the inside--my great-grandmother epitomizes the "Gem in the Geode."  It was said of her that she always did whatever needed to be done, no matter how difficult the task.