[Written while my husband drove our family home from Spring Break on Sunday, March 18, 2018]
I told my friend the other day, “We are all slaves to sin. Our taskmasters just wear different faces.”
I have long wanted to blog about learning to just hold on. I refer to more than the feeling of impatiently waiting in a line at the Social Security Administration Building or some other government bureaucracy. I mean the kind of holding on that keeps you leaning into the storm when all you want to do is quit.
I am a slave to the constraints of time and the expectations I place on myself. I recently added something else to my list of self-expectations because I finished breastfeeding, and I would hate to let that time and energy slip back into No Man’s Land. I realized that my health and happiness as a woman depends on me choosing to take care of myself instead of wondering when I’m going to get a break. So I borrowed the makeshift gym we’d made for the kids as a Christmas gift, and I made a space for my thrice-weekly workouts. I would love to work out every day, but sometimes the availability of bendy clothing, the timing of a shower while baby sleeps, and my inability to be in two places at once limit this small achievement to three miracles per week. I could now be the patron Saint of the Mommy workout.
When my initial goal in January had been to work out at least five times per week, it was easy to believe that the basement gym had just become another destination forever out of reach. In the photos above, I documented for a friend what took place when I had finally reached that point in my morning when I could work out. Preschooler peed on the stairs and infant awoke too soon from his nap. So that month I spent at least four days each week just looking longingly at my workout space as I raced down to the basement to grab a can of tomatoes or a larger-sized clothing item for a child–or let’s face it, for me–from the storage room. So I made a new goal—I would work on my “holding on” muscles.
The main feature of our children’s new gym is a climbing rope suspended from the ceiling. Since the ceiling is only about seven feet, a five-foot-nine woman won’t be climbing that rope from a standing position. But considering that this woman has also never done a pull-up in her life, a lot of room for improvement exists.
Since I am that woman, I have devised a compromise as a woman committed to taking care of herself while still caring for her marriage, children, and home. I make time to just hang onto the rope for a moment. Nothing extravagant or impressive. I can’t even support my entire body weight yet. If I were really committed to this goal of being able to pull myself up, I might also try to decrease my weight, but I can’t seem to walk past a dessert bar without grabbing hold of something there too. So I tell myself I am a little closer to my goal each day simply because I am holding on to something worthwhile. And now that I generally work out at least three times each week, holding on is getting easier.
A few years ago, I heard the marvelous announcement that a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be built in my hometown of Ft. Collins, Colorado. I jumped and whooped with joy as I listened on a Saturday morning to the LDS Church’s General Conference. I also happened to be cleaning out my car in the relative comfort of my own driveway. Living in Utah Valley, my listening choice was not that unusual. It’s like the Super Bowl of Church events, and I had just been told my team (well, lots of people I love) had just won the coin toss, though chance had much less to do with this kind of a blessing than faith and consistent effort toward a worthy goal did.
I had not imagined that I would be traded to my Ft. Collins “team” again. Within a couple years of the temple’s announcement, my family and I had sold our home in Utah and moved to a home in Northern Colorado. During our first month in what would be the new temple’s district, we attended a broadcast of the groundbreaking ceremony. The joy and anticipation at having a site so nearby for an elevated form of worship and service to our God was palpable among the thousands gathered with us. This was just one of the dozens of church buildings this broadcast reached, and we felt extremely blessed to look forward to “our” temple’s completion.
In the two years it took for the temple to be ready for us to attend, my parents moved from Ft. Collins to another town in the temple district. Now when I drove to their home, I actually passed the temple site so that I could witness its progress.
But instead of feeling excited as it neared completion, I began to feel something entirely unexpected: I felt a wistfulness, almost a pang of disappointment. I now had three children, and I knew how often I had attended the temple when I had only one or two children and lived in Utah where I had my choice of at least five temples within thirty minutes’ drive. The reality of how much I had neglected attending despite the obstacles before me felt like a preview of things to come. Instead of seeing the temple and thinking, “I’m going there some day,” it became a place that would stay forever out of reach; a new way for me to fail.
I knew the difficulty of not only finding childcare for my children so I could attend when my husband’s schedule permitted, but of also keeping my kids illness-free enough to have a babysitter. Add in the misery of months and months of morning sickness that mixed poorly with temple ceremonies and the necessity of staying near a baby who would only breastfeed, and it often felt impossible to get to the temple with my husband more than twice a year. The temple setting is generally only for adults, and I felt the cumbersome burden of prioritizing something before my children.
And perhaps because I idealize having a clean home with completed projects and a tidy yard, I often let the never-ending work of home ownership keep me from even considering something “extra” like participating in the ceremonies at the temple. The messes before me have more immediacy than the eternal impact of serving those who have already departed this world.
I had not yet learned the principle of holding on. Not just holding on like the strain of listening to off-key elevator music while awaiting the opportunity to speak with an actual human being. Holding on in preparation for the days when, with the Lord’s help, I manage to orchestrate a miracle. Holding on for the days when I pass up on the ideal way of attending the temple—with my husband for a full ceremony—and instead, accept that strengthening of my spiritual muscles as I attend with my friends while my husband cares for the children; or I go through a less time-intensive portion of the service with my husband since that is all the kids, sitter, or I can tolerate given the circumstances. I come home a little stronger, with an elevated view of my roles and potential as a woman and as one of God’s children, and hopeful that I will be ready when an ideal situation is within reach.
Sometimes making progress feels as simple as spreading one’s wings and flitting into the future. Other times, it looks like nothing is happening because the storm is upon you, and like a hummingbird in a hurricane, it is all you can do to just hold on and envision a better day.
How does this relate to being a slave?
My kids watched the “good parts” version of The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston over President’s Day weekend. Then as we drove out to Utah for Spring Break three weeks later, we listened to music from the animated film, The Prince of Egypt, which also retells the account of the Hebrew people enslaved by ancient Egypt and how God provided a means of escape through an unlikely man named Moses.
The music brought up many questions from my children, and since I’d been busy with a sick baby (his first tummy bug) during the Commandments movie, I had only answered from my best memory of what the Old Testament actually reads. So while my husband and his truck carried us safely through a dark canyon last Sunday and while our illness-free baby slept, I read from the book of Exodus to find out how closely the songs and movie had followed the scriptural account, specifically regarding the plagues God sent with the intent of humbling Pharaoh.
Through faith amidst affliction and through God’s eventual intervention, the Hebrew slaves gained physical freedom. But because of how they misused that physical freedom and turned to the traditions of their oppressors, it was only through decades of struggle and adherence to strict rules that they gained not only freedom from oppression but freedom to enjoy their lives. As I have mulled over the story of the Hebrew slaves, I saw an analogy for myself.
I like to tell myself that the obstacles between me and my goals are these tangible things—the shackles that bind me, the yoke upon my back, the sting of a taskmaster’s whip. And therefore, once those obstacles are removed, I will find my way to some unreachable place, from the heights of the Lord’s temple to the basement with my makeshift gym. Gone are my impediments and here is my freedom to live my life fully.
But freedom is not simply an absence of physical enslavement. Strangely, as soon as I have freed up my time to do the thing I thought was out of reach, the taskmaster in my mind cracks the whip and says, “You dare to raise your eyes above your work?! You dare to look past it as if the world owes you more than the satisfaction of completing a task?! Back to work, you mindless beast!”
The things and people around me may represent tasks, but they are not my taskmasters. I am not enslaved to laundry, dishes, meal-making, and childcare. Even when all of those things are completed, I am tempted to fret and worry and make more work for myself. It’s like I want to please the taskmasters and deepen this belief that I don’t deserve to live joyfully because I, or my accomplishments, are not yet enough.
If I don’t first master my mind whilst I submit to some of the obligatory work of being a mother, then my freedom from tasks frees me but little. Giving my will to the taskmasters I have created out of fears, false beliefs, and reliance on only myself as my liberator will keep me enslaved even when the tasks of being a mom prove that they are not, in fact, endless. What is endless is the power that my choices—beginning with my thoughts—have over me. So today I am exercising that power by choosing to write. One more shackle tossed aside.
[Adding this at the time of publication: Much thanks to my parents for watching our children so that my husband and I could attend the temple together for a full session last week on our anniversary. Asking for and receiving help places miracles within reach.]