Book of the Month: Charles and Emma, The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

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Recently I found this gem in my library. It is a YA biography about Charles Darwin and the relationship he had with his wife Emma. Theirs was a marriage perfectly matched in every way but one: Emma believed firmly in God and Charles believed in science. Yet together they had ten kids and they were completely devoted, even through illnesses, deaths of children, and Charles’ growing ambivalence toward religion. Despite their theological differences, his wife read and edited every one of his papers, and never stopped gently trying to persuade him that some truths were found through “feeling, not reasoning.” By using many quotes from letters, diaries, and from Darwin’s own papers (which he let his kids draw pictures on the backs of), the author portrays Charles Darwin as a devoted family man who preferred to be with his Emma above all others. Although I felt the author was a little presumptive at times, and I have no idea why it is categorized as a YA, it was a fascinating read for me and gives the reader a human side of Charles Darwin beyond the image of the walking fish that gobbles the Christian symbol on cars. Most of all, I was very moved by the depth of appreciation and respect Charles and Emma had for each other. Truly they showed that two people who don’t share profound beliefs can still share a profound love. A great read.

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Love Notes, Fried in Butter

Last night, after all the kids had gone to bed, my husband made me the most exquisite fried egg.

He made one for me and one for him, and each was fried in butter in its own little single-egg pan. We sat down together to eat them, and when I put it in my mouth it melted on my tongue . . .so salty and velvety and warm … It was like eating a bit of a sunbeam, and it tasted so luxuriously superior to the fried eggs I make for myself (which require a lot more chewing).

When Scott makes an egg like this I know that he loves me.

Next story.

Scott and I go out every week. Every. Week.  Why? Because dating is cheaper than therapy. And a few weeks ago we invited my friend and her husband to come with us.  We all sat in a booth, and my friend’s husband sat on the inside of the booth, while my friend sat at the edge. Halfway through dinner my friend stopped the waitress and asked, “Excuse me, can you fill up my husband’s Coke? It is over there in the corner of the table, and I don’t think you saw it last time you came around.”

Wow, I thought. If my husband’s Coke went dry I wouldn’t have even noticed (or cared), but this observant wife was making sure her husband was getting his refills.

I bet he adores her.

One more story . . .

Another friend of mine was cutting her husband’s hair. He was preparing for a series of important interviews that will change the course of their lives, and they both wanted him to look his best. As she was snipping away she was telling him about a book that she was reading for book club (The Night Circus, if you must know). She became so engrossed in telling him that suddenly she sheared off a section of hair that was meant to be preserved. I can imagine that the expression on her husband’s face, when he saw himself in the mirror, was that of a volcano on the verge of an eruption (well, a partially deforested volcano). She braced herself for his censure . . . but it never came. Later she told him that she will always remember his restraint in not saying a sharp word, for the words he might have said would have lasted much longer than his unfortunate hair cut.

Is there a greater love than this? Well, yes.

And no.

I have found, in close to twenty years of marriage, that “I love you” doesn’t always come in three words. “I love you” can be manifested through every action of our mundane lives. By caring for the ones we love with generous attention and loving awareness, we are dropping “love notes” all the time. It doesn’t have to be big or showy or expensive. It is as simple as an exquisitely cooked egg, a Coke refill, or a word of deserved criticism that is never uttered. And when love is spoken in this context it becomes living poetry that marks the difference between roommates and soulmates.

What’s the earth

With all its art, verse, music, worth –

Compared with love, found, gained, and kept?

–Robert Browning

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The Loudest Minds

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Yesterday, as I was bringing my kids home from piano, I entered into a line of cars that were stopped at a stoplight.

While we waited for the light to turn, I started thinking. I was thinking about the canyon in Utah between Heber City and Provo. I was wondering if there were very many deer that crossed that highway and if it was dangerous for drivers. But, I reasoned, there are a lot of deer here in North Carolina, so it wouldn’t be any more dangerous than driving to my own home. What would really be dangerous would be a moose. We don’t have those in North Carolina. Or an elk! After all, elk are big and have pointed antlers. But I have heard that moose are meaner. I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that bears hibernate in the winter, so if I were to go snowshoeing (which I love to do) I would not have to worry about a bear. But a moose! Yes, I would definitely have to worry about a moose. And if I were out by myself, in snowshoes, and a moose charged me, what would I do? Ring a moose-bell?  I guess I would try to hide behind the nearest tree. But what if the tree was too small and the moose was able to to reach around it with his antlers? I guess I would have to climb the tree. But I would first have to take off my snowshoes. I wonder how long that would take? Would it take longer to remove the shoes and climb the tree, or try to climb the tree with my shoes on? I would probably have time to get one snowshoe off and then start climbing. But seriously, I am almost forty years old…would I even be able to climb the tree? I might pull a lot of muscles. But what are a few pulled muscles compared internal bleeding wounds from the blunt moose antlers?  What would most likely happen would be that my one foot with the snowshoe would get wedged as I was halfway up the tree, and as the moose started ramming the tree I would lose my grip and then be swinging there, my hair brushing the snow, looking at the moose from a unadventagious perspective, watching it as it pawed the ground, getting ready for what every moose knows as The Final Death Ram.

By now my heart is racing. But then I blink and I realize that I am not on a snowy hillside hanging upside down about to be killed by a moose. I am in my car. My kids are in the back seat. I am still waiting at a stoplight that is now green and all of the other cars in front of me have left. And I am holding on really, really tight to the steering wheel.

Later that day my mother-in-law called me to tell me she read my book, The Last Messenger. “How do you come up with stuff like this?”she asked. I thought of telling her the moose story, but I didn’t want to confuse her.

There is a quote that I love. It is:

Quiet people have the loudest minds.

I originally thought this was said by Stephen King. When I looked it up I found it was said by Stephen Hawkins, which makes me wonder who stole it from whom?  It doesn’t matter because with either Stephen the noise level must be deafening.

While I’m not exactly shy, I do have far too much going on in my brain. It is why I can’t go to sleep the moment my head hits the pillow like my husband (not that he isn’t a thinker. He is. But his thoughts are in numbers which I believe are more obediently put to bed. I haven’t had a number in my head for years.) It is also the reason I worry about things that will never happen and why I had many inner anxieties as a child.

I read once that when you have a child with a lot of anxiety issues, and you have to take them to see a doctor, you should reassure them that they are not going because they are crazy but because they have an incredible imagination, and that the doctor is going to help them organize all the monsters and scary stuff (and moose) so they all stay in the proper places.

I wish someone would have told me that, because I thought I was crazy for a very long time. But it doesn’t matter, because I have learned what to do with all of my thoughts. I have found a way to tame them, organize them, and make them mind me.

I do it by writing.

I make grand, wonderful stories out of them…stories that are too fantastic to ever be true.

It is quite freeing. It also makes me grateful for challenges, because when we understand them, and learn how to turn them into strengths, they can do wonderful things for us.

But I am not sure what a police officer would think if I’m ever stuck at a North Carolina traffic light for too long and I tell him it was because of the moose.

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Teaching Kids about Trump, Canada, and the End of the World

So we just finished with an election which proved to be very historic but not for the reason everyone had originally supposed. You know the details.

My husband and I (dyed-in-the-wool Republicans but not Trump fans) were stunned when we started to see what was happening on the screen as Donald Trump’s numbers went up. As our reactions became more and more flabbergasted, so did the panic level in my kids. And why were they panicking? Because we had been telling them all along that if Donald Trump won it would basically mean the End of the World. But that had been just a joke, because someone as brash as Donald Trump would never win!

But now he was winning, and each time a new red state popped up on the screen my son went to his knees saying, “Hurry, Jesus!”

When we discovered in the morning that it was really, truly so–that Trump really was going to be the new president–we had to regroup. Instead of making jokes about bunkers and moving to Canada we told our kids what we should have been teaching them all along. Specifically, that

  1. There are three branches of the government. The president is only one branch.
  2. There are checks and balances.
  3. A president can’t even be the president for more than 8 years…and if he does a really lousy job he’ll only be president for half of that time, and if he breaks the law than he will be president for even less time than that. It is called impeachment.
  4. America has survived many presidents. Some of them were not so great. Some of them turned out better than expected.
  5. The president should be treated with respect, no matter who he or she is.
  6. The president does not have as much power to make a difference in your world as you do.

When a very young child falls and scrapes their knee they will first look for the reaction in their parent’s face. What they want to know is “Should I cry?” If the parent is fearful the child will react with tears. If the parent is encouraging, the child will stand up, give a shaky laugh, and move on.

After school my kids came home and one of my daughters said, “I’m glad Hillary Clinton didn’t win. Because now I can become the first female president!”

I was proud of her. But there are a zillion other ways she can make an impact on the world that are more powerful than being the President of the United States.

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She That Hath Nose To Smell

Authors Note: I wrote this post a year ago but I never posted it.  With all the wonderful smells of autumn coming back to me I remembered the great deficit I had last fall. This is about how, for a few months, I completely lost my sense of smell. Or, if you are familiar with my writing, it could be about something else. cropped-vitamin-c-nicole2.jpg

I didn’t notice anything was amiss until I made the teriyaki chicken.

I got my recipe from a native Hawaiian who introduced me to The World’s Most Wonderful Ingredient: fresh ginger. Fresh ginger is amazing. It is like a lemon dressed in a kimono. Fresh and exotic and mysterious. Whenever I cut up ginger I like to take a chunk and find the nearest child and give them a whiff.  I can tell by the way they close their eyes that for a brief moment they’ve been transported to the East Indies.

But on this particular day, when I held the ginger up to my nose, I smelled nothing. Weird. Must be a bad ginger.

My teriyaki chicken recipe also calls for fresh garlic. I’m pretty sure you all know what that smells like. . . like a lemon wrapped in three or four decaying animal hides. I took several cloves, smashed them under the broad side of my knife and chopped it up. (I don’t take chunks of garlic around to my children and hold it under their noses because I want them to trust me.) But, out of curiosity I smelled my fingers. Nothing.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is garlic.

I smelled it again. Nothing.

Maybe . . . bad garlic?

Mystified, I tossed it into the teriyaki sauce anyway–along with the odorless ginger–and poured the mixture on the chicken, put it in the oven, and set the time. Forty-five minutes later my daughter comes into the house from cross-country practice and exclaims, “What is that wonderful smell?!”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What is it?”

“It smells like . . . teriyaki chicken!”

It was then that I first realized something was wrong with my nose. It is true that for part of September and October I had been sick, but I didn’t think I was that stuffed up.  Now it dawned on me that I couldn’t smell anything, and I hadn’t for a very long time. I couldn’t smell if the rag at the sink is too old or not. I couldn’t smell the pizza my friend brought into the house. I  couldn’t smell the candle at the party I went to. And worst of all, I couldn’t smell any of the fall, Octobery smells I love, including pumpkin bread or apple pie.

As the days went by and my sense of smell did not return I realized I had lost one of my most trusted tools. How would I tell if the meat in the fridge had gone bad? How would I know if my bread was done? Or burning?

When we carved out pumpkins I made special efforts to clean and dry the pumpkins seeds, and then put them in the oven. After a while I checked on them and they were burnt to a crisp. I hadn’t even noticed.

In the past I prided myself in my sense of smell. I could be upstairs and know what kind of cereal my child was pouring down in the kitchen. I could smell honeysuckle from 50 yards away. When I was pregnant I had an even more powerful sniffer. I could walk into the house and tell wether or not my husband was wearing his retainer. I was that good.

And now that tool was gone. I could smell absolutely nothing. You would be surprised how often a mother needs her nose. Ninety percent of the tasks I do during the day involve the eradication of bad smells of one kind or another. Now what was I to do?

After weeks of not being able to smell anything it starts to wear on your mind. You start to think things like, Perhaps all those smells I had once smelled were just figments of my imagination and I’ve never really smelled anything at all? Or perhaps odors don’t exist? Or perhaps everyone else who can smell things is crazy and I am the only one who really understands that there were no smells, there has never been smells and there will never be smells!

Think deeply about that for a moment.

This is definitely a sense which I took for granted. And the biggest loser was my youngest son.

One Sunday I sat with my two-year-old on my lap all during church. Afterwards I dropped him off in nursery and then skipped (inwardly, at least) to class, only to have the door open and long arms hand me my son with the message that he needed a diaper change. Immediately. When I went to change him I discovered that he had LONG been in need of a diaper change.

This happened two more times over the next few days, simply because I could not smell that he needed a change until the damage was done and a rash had appeared.

I realized that, at least for the present time, I would have to rely on the noses of others to help me smell. I had my daughters smell the dish rag to see if it needed to be washed. I had to have my kids and husband let me know when my two-year-old needed to be changed (because he wasn’t going to tell me.) Other things I had to be more vigilant about like making sure my 5-year-old son got a bath every three days. At least.

There might be some of you out there that may have lost a “sense” that you relied on in the past.  If so, don’t fret. Just because you can’t smell it anymore, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because you are surrounded by people who can smell and you can’t, doesn’t mean you are crazy . . . or that they are. It is just temporary. No need to do anything drastic. Sooner or later your sense will come back to you and you will smell it all again: the good smells, the iffy smells and the smells who need to be sent to the tub.

Two days ago I smelled pumpkin cookies . . . and the chili at our ward party . . . and my son’s dirty diaper. And it made me grateful that most lapses in judgement, peace of mind, or faith don’t always last for very long if we are willing to hold out. One must recognize when one is in an abnormal state and be patient for things to settle back in place. And when it does you will be wiser, more grateful, and more aware than ever of whatever it was that you lost.

For what it is worth.

 

But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.  Matthew 13:16-17

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The Song of the Accompanist

 

What pleasure it is to not be number 1.

No one is watching me, but everyone would feel the loss if I were absent.

My role is vital yet no one gives me a second thought.

Like air or water.

I have to be watchful and observant. Even though I am following, in my own way I lead.

The confidence in my notes brings confidence in their voices, and when I am unsure, they falter.

It gives me a sense of power.

Humble power, if there is such a thing.

 

 

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Writing Without Regret

Today is the release day of my second book, and according to all marketing logic, this is the day I should be posting some big announcement about how awesome my book is and how you need to buy it because it will forever change your life. I should be smothering you with photos of me opening up my newly minted novels, saying things like “here is my sixth baby!” while I lift up the book, pose, and give it a kiss for the cameras.

But today I am going to break all rules of book promotion and tell you that as great as I think my book is, it is not why I breathe. It  does not hold my hand, it does not sing silly songs, nor make me cry, nor make me laugh. It does not crawl in bed with me early in the morning and commandeer the sweet spot between me and my spouse. Besides, I have always been uncomfortable when people kiss inanimate objects like trophies, medals and books, because I don’t kiss things. I kiss people.

A person in the United States can expect to live about 80 years. Raising a child takes 18 of those years. But they are really only a “child” for 12 years, and they are only a young child for five years. So out of the 80 years I will be alive, I have only five years to mother this young child. Five years out of 80 does not seem like much time.

Here is another way to look at it:

It is always tragic when a child dies, but in a way, all children die. They die every year, at every age. I adored Naomi as a three-year-old. She was so spunky and fun and quirky. She and I would dance to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue until I would collapse on the couch and she would tug at my arm to get me to stand up and dance again. (Rhapsody in Blue is a long song.) But the other day Naomi (now age 9) and I were in the car when we heard Rhapsody in Blue come over the radio. I asked her if she recognized the song. She said no. I reminded her that it was the song we used to dance to over and over. And over. She smiled but she could not remember. My three-year-old Naomi had vanished.

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But now I have a 9-year-old Naomi, and she bounces around the house singing jingles. Anytime anyone says anything she makes up a jingle on the spot. When she finishes she says “Woot!Woot!”, makes two kissing sounds, and then strikes a pose. In her spare time she goes out to the garden and belts out Broadway songs to the tomatoes to help them grow. She doesn’t even eat tomatoes. I’m pretty sure she won’t be doing these things when she’s 13. How sad will that be!

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But when she is 13 she will be doing something else interesting . . . and on and on. So there is loss, but there is also such great discovery! How wonderful children are! Yet how fleeting!

It was always the great dream of my heart to have a family. But hearts do have room for more than one dream, and when I got the idea for my first book I knew that it had to be written down, and I had to be the one to do it.

So I started writing, and right away my imagination took me to places that were far more interesting and exciting than laundry, sweeping, diapers, repeat. My mind was electrified with ideas–ideas that turned doing the dishes into brainstorming sessions and vacuuming into opportunities to solve plot dilemmas. Everything around me was punctuated with meaning and symbolism, from the feathers of a bird to the perfect swirl of hair at the back of my baby’s head. I certainly knew my life had “meaning” as a mother, but now I had a dazzling new purpose. I had become an idea volcano. If someone had hooked up a brain scanner to my head during those first few years of writing I’m sure the machine would have exploded.

Mothers need kids. But mothers also need something to keep their minds from petrifying. My antidote was writing, and wow, was it effective. I could easily sit in my room and write for hours a day, oblivious to the world, and I would be as happy as bear at a boy scout jamboree. It was my husband who stepped in and made me realize that my writing had become my drug. He reminded me that the real stories are happening outside my bedroom door. And if I am sitting in here typing away while they are out there, I will not be in their stories.

Scccrreeeach, went the brakes.

After that I restructured my writing schedule. I did everything I could to not write when my kids were around. I wrote early in the morning, while they were at school, and while they watched tv. I sacrificed my free time, not theirs, and I never wrote on Sunday.

What this means is, my progress was very, very slow.

But that was okay, because I was consistent. And ultimately it all worked in my favor. You see, I always got interrupted before I could conclude my writing sessions, so during dull moments (folding clothes, driving, loading the dishwasher) I would re-work the scene in my mind, and in the meantime my kids were constantly giving me new ideas to spice it up. It was the perfect writing environment: I was surrounded by inspiration yet I was kept away from my computer. Then, when I was finally able to get back on my computer the ideas poured from my fingers like Niagara Falls.

And now I have two books and five kids and I don’t have regrets about the time I spent because I did everything I could to put my kids first. I didn’t let writing bewitch me into slicing away time from my kids. I was part of their stories, just as they were part of mine. Plus, they had a mom who was energized and happy because she was in the midst of creating something extraordinary. And when Mom has a skip in her step and a sparkle in her eye, the kids are the first beneficiaries.

I went to LDStorymakers conference last spring. It was bigger than I expected. There were 700 writers there! Who knew that many Mormons liked to write? The conference chairperson was Jenny Proctor, author of several books and mother of six kids.  I was not acquainted with her and wanted to introduce myself (since we are both from North Carolina), so after the opening ceremonies, as people drained from the room to go to their classes, I followed her, waiting for my chance.  As she was finishing up her conversation with the conference photographer, I couldn’t help overhearing what she was saying.

“I want you to take a picture of me when I am up at the podium. Only, I want you to take a photo of me from behind so that you can see me and the audience. I really want to my kids to see what I do. I want them to see how big this is.”

She didn’t say “I want to post this on Facebook so people will see what I do and how big this is,” or “I want to post this on my blog so people can see what I do and how big this is” but she wanted to show her kids. Because kids trump everything.

My favorite characters are not the ones who live in my head, but the ones who live in my home, and my favorite stories are the stories they are making for themselves. They constantly surprise me with their plot twists and cliff-hanger endings, their unpredictable, entertaining, laugh-out-loud fun. I want to keep turning the pages of their stories for as long as I live. They are books I never get sick of (though they DO make me tired) and books I want to keep reading over and over again.

When you have the opportunity to choose between your child or your muse, always choose the child.

Okay, I’ve said enough. Buy my book if you want. It really is good, and it gave me a lot of joy to write it. But if I accomplish anything of importance in my life it will not be writing novels. That is why you will never see me kiss my books, and you will never hear me call my book “my sixth baby” because my baby are sacred words, reserved only for the choicest people I know, with whom I have the privilege of sharing my home, my life and all my stories.

 

 

 

 

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