Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book Review: Behind the Smiling Faces

Behind the Smiling Faces: An LDS Perspective on Marriage and Divorce by Renita Clark Cassidy and Alan Cassidy, 264 pages. Published by Leatherwood Press (Sandy, UT), 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59992-127-3. Retail price: $16.95.

Behind the Smiling Faces contains advice, instruction, and experiences from eleven marriage and counseling professionals and over eighteen “ordinary” Latter-day Saint couples. Even if the title is misleading and the book’s scope is very broad, the wide-ranged and varied content of Behind the Smiling Faces accomplishes the goal of the authors to represent the “people” we see all the time—“the men and women who worship with you on Sunday. . . . your family and friends. . . .[or] even you” and how “some . . . smiles reflect and inner peace and joy” while other “smiles mask . . . pain” (11).

My assumption in reading the title of this book, and seeing the cover photograph, was that it would be a depressing soapbox about how the common LDS view of the importance of a “perfect” marriage is flawed. This assumption was incorrect. Instead, this book is a compilation of information striving to demonstrate the realities of marital challenges and joys in an LDS context.

What’s the difference? For the most part, Behind the Smiling Faces is very encouraging, despite what the cover art depicts. I loved reading the advice from LDS marriage and counseling professionals included in Behind the Smiling Faces, many of whose books I have also read or heard of.

The biggest problem I found with this book is the scope is extremely broad. At first I felt like the book was written for people preparing for marriage, then for people who were married and needed advice and encouragement (don’t we all?), then for people who were thinking about divorce, and then for people who have already gone through a divorce. Because Behind the Smiling Faces tries to cover all of these circumstances, I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving it to anyone in any of those groups. For example, the divorce parts would be big downers for people preparing to get married, and the marriage prep advice would be salt in the wound for recent divorcees.

Thus the only audience that Behind the Smiling Faces fits is marriage enthusiasts, like the authors, professionals quoted in the book, and anyone else interested in learning everything the authors could think to include about an LDS perspective on marriage, but readers would need to be without any severe emotional ties to the topic.

I was also disappointed that most of the book is in interview format—questions followed by answers. I would prefer that the marriage and counseling professionals and interviewed couples would have just written their own chapters instead of the authors breaking up what they have to say.

Behind the Smiling Faces is far from a bad read, but it is confusing. Reading the author’s preface, “Words to the Why’s” (besides the fact that it should be "Whys") is definitely essential and helped me realize what the book was trying to do. I loved the compilation-type content from LDS marriage and counseling professionals as well as the real-life stories from couple interviewees, but because Behind the Smiling Faces tries to cover too much it’s not quite right for any specific audience.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Our Very First, Very Best Christmas

It was a terrible day. I woke up at five in the morning aching all over and with a terrible sore throat. It was two days before Christmas, my Christmas—the Christmas I had been waiting to start remembering my whole life: my husband and my first Christmas, one day before our seven-month anniversary.

But it wasn’t a good day. I spent it lying on the couch while my husband, Brian, made me soup and hot chocolate and did all the dishes by himself. Meanwhile, I stared at the Christmas tree, wondering what type of Christmas magic had betrayed me to this fate, and fretting that we wouldn’t be able to go to the family holiday parties like we had planned.

By nine o’clock that night my body was weary of everything—rest, food, and a whole day between sleeping and waking. Even though I was exhausted, my mind wasn’t at rest and I couldn’t sleep. This cold was ruining everything. All I wanted was for us to have a perfect Christmas. I’d decorated the house during the first week of December. Our tree, though small, looked quite magical when lit. All our shopping was done; everything was ready, but now I was sick.

For at least the tenth time, I groaned myself out of bed to get a drink. We’d been in bed for hours already, but neither of us had gotten very much sleep yet because I was so restless. Walking back from the kitchen through our tiny living room, I could just barely make out the dark shape of our four-foot, borrowed, artificial Christmas tree.

Even though I couldn’t see it in the dark, at the top of the tree was an ornament I had made long ago in Young Women’s—a nativity picture cut from a Christmas card, hot-glued inside a Mason jar ring, and the whole thing tied with a bow. All the sudden I thought, what was Mary and Joseph’s first Christmas like? Not only was it their first Christmas as a couple, it was the very first Christmas that the entire world had ever had. As I thought of Mary, delivering her firstborn child in a damp and dirty cave, with nothing but prickly straw for bedding, suddenly having a cold didn’t seem so bad. I thought of the picture on the homemade ornament, of how Mary and Joseph smiled, beamed, so loving down at the infant child.

Why would Mary smile? Did she know that her very own baby would one day feel all the pain that she had felt that night, would one day suffer for all the sins of the world, the world which had left him homeless and friendless for most of his life? Suddenly I realized that while a little cold had thwarted what I thought was important for this Christmas—all the trappings, presents, and holiday cheer—weren’t really the meaning of Christmas at all. What Christmas really means is our gratitude for the Son of God who was born of Mary as an innocent infant. Though he stayed innocent all his life, he took the punishment for all our sins—for yours and for mine. Keeping Christmas doesn’t mean decorating my house and baking sweet treats, it means remembering Jesus Christ in thought and deed.

As I crawled back into bed, my mind was heavy with quiet, sober, but happy thoughts—thoughts akin to those that made Mary smile just minutes after intense travail. What came to my mind wasn’t the tune of “Jingle Bells” or “Deck the Halls,” but the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Begotten Son; that whoso believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This time it was me, instead of someone in those cliché Christmas movies, who was learning what Christmas is all about: the love of God and the love of Jesus Christ.

As I started falling asleep again, sore throat, fever, and all, I quietly whispered, “I love you,” to my husband.

“Really?” he whispered back, so softly.

I nodded once then, realizing he couldn’t see me in the dark, smiled and said, “Yes.”

It really was going to be the best Christmas.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Housekeeping Can Mean Love

When my husband and I took the Marriage and Family Relations class for Sunday school, it seemed like every time someone talked about disagreements in marriage they mentioned doing the dishes. I turned to my husband and raised my eyebrows. He shrugged. We didn’t squabble about doing the dishes—actually quite the contrary. Sometimes we fought over who got to do them. This was because we learned that housekeeping can mean love.

We all have certain chores that we hate. Growing up, my brothers hated cleaning out the rain gutters. My sisters and I hated pulling weeds. Even my wonderful mother hated ironing. House and yard keeping chores are so repetitive and overwhelming that they often make the whole family grumpy. My mom’s tricks to make chores fun for individuals (like watching her favorite movie while she ironed) or creating games and races to get all her kids to work together to clean up (with a promised reward of fresh cookies afterward) don’t have the same charm for work that has to be divided between spouses, especially when it’s just the two of you.

When I was first married, I wanted to be a super housewife. I wanted everything cooked and cleaned to perfection so my husband would always be completely comfortable. I wanted to dote on and pamper him just like the women in 1950s TV shows always did. But after about two weeks, as we both started full-time jobs, then I found that I couldn’t do it all—tidying, cooking, washing, folding, vacuuming, scrubbing, wiping, dusting—so many chores and we didn’t even have kids yet!

Before I started going crazy with all the work, thankfully my husband came to me and said that he wanted to help. Because I’m naturally an overzealous perfectionist, it was hard for me to let him help at first. I knew that I could do any chore faster and more effectively than he could and just the way I wanted it done in my own house, but I also didn’t have the time or energy to do everything on my own. When my husband came to me and asked me how he could help with the housework, I gave his request some real thought. It was probably selfish, but I asked him to make the bed every morning. Making the bed isn’t a very difficult chore so I felt comfortable giving him the small responsibility, but this request was also selfish because for whatever reason I’ve always hated making beds.

Brian responded to my request like the lovesick newlywed that he was. Like a sweet child, he was so proud to help me and to contribute to the housework. I felt bad at first because I thrust the chore I most dreaded on him so I wouldn’t have to do it. I’ve since learned that I didn’t have any reason to feel guilty. Making beds wasn’t such a bad chore to him as it was to me. As he faithfully fulfilled this small responsibility every day, he felt needed and that he was contributing to my happiness. I felt that he was too. Every time he made the bed, he was saying, “I love you.” Every time he made the bed I could feel that he loved me.

This simple delegation of housework was the beginning of how we learned that housekeeping can mean love. Since those first few weeks, we’ve developed a routine that keeps both of us involved in the housework. That doesn’t mean that it’s strictly even because we have different schedules, preferences, and abilities, but we are always working together, at least at heart. Brian continues to make the bed every morning. He also vacuums the entire apartment on Saturday and empties the dishwasher whenever he’s home and it needs to be done. He doesn’t have any other “assigned” chores, but I know that he’s willing to help me with any work projects around the house that I can think of. Reciprocally, when I can tell he’s tired and needs a restful evening, I rush to do the dishes all by myself because I know that he’ll do the same for me on my hard days and I want to tell him that I love him.

In our first year of marriage, we didn’t have a dishwasher, so doing dishes took a lot of time. I found that there was a moment of decision when the sink was full of dirty dishes. Do I leave them and ask Brian to do them when he comes home, or do I do them now so that neither of us will have to worry about them later? I think I’m right to say that I don’t have to always choose to do them myself; some days I am tired and what I really need is for him to come home and say “I love you” by helping me with housekeeping. However, on other days, I need to buckle down and do the work to say “I love you” to him. By realizing that housekeeping can mean love, it is love, selflessness, and honesty, not laziness or selfishness, that makes the decision about how to divide up the housework, and that work, and love, brings us closer together.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Our Family Journal

It was almost a year ago when my husband and I took some advice and guidance from general conference and applied it to our family. I never thought that a General Conference talk could still impact my life this much a year later. As the first talk in the Sunday Morning session of the October 2007 General Conference of the Church, President Eyring taught the members of the Church by example “to find ways to recognize and remember God’s kindness” (Ensign, Nov. 2007, 67). As President Eyring related to us the account of his first inspiration to begin keeping a family journal and how keeping the family journal was a daily blessing for him as he “became ever more certain that our Heavenly Father hears and answers prayers” and “felt more gratitude for the softening and refining that [came] because of the Atonement of the Savior Jesus Christ,” President Eyring also shared that that his family journal has since been a blessing years later to his sons as “reading of what happened long ago helped [them] notice something God had done in [their] day.”

After hearing President Eyring’s talk, I knew that this was the perfect use for a wedding gift that had been dormant for months. One of my former Young Women’s advisors had given us a beautiful wedding gift: a leather-bound journal with gold-edged pages and an artistically textured cover. She also pasted our wedding announcement in the inside cover of the book to make it especially ours. I knew that such a wonderful gift deserved a wonderful purpose and all summer I had been brainstorming how we could use the journal and put the gift to good use. I toyed with a lot of ideas in my mind, but nothing ever stuck or gave me enough motivation to begin writing in the journal. The summer ended and we were well into autumn before the answer of what to do with the beautiful journal came where I least expected it, in President Eyring’s talk.

After General Conference, my husband and I prayerfully decided that we should follow President Eyring’s example and use our wedding gift to start our own family journal. While President Eyring used his family journal to write down “evidence of what God had done” for his family each day, we decided that we needed to use our family journal to write down a moment when we were happy each day. Every night we take turns and each write a sentence or two in our family journal about a happy event that day. We have found that by writing in our family journal we have been more grateful for the many blessings that Heavenly Father gives us each day. As we approach General Conference this year, I’m excited to have a year’s worth of entries in our family journal. Soon I’ll be able to look back and see what blessings had come into our lives exactly a year ago. This exercise has been important in motivating us to keep important family records and has helped us draw closer as a family as we seek to recognize the daily blessings that the Lord gives to us.

In beginning a family journal of your own, you could do as President Eyring did and ask: “Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?” Or, you could personalize the idea of a family journal and prayerfully adapt it to your own family’s needs. This could mean a happiness journal, a gratitude journal, a journal of family spiritual experiences, or a blessings journal. As you seek his inspiration, the Lord will bless you with promptings of how you can better keep baptismal covenants as a family to always remember him. President Eyring has promised us that as we “will find a way to preserve [memories of God’s messages] for the day that [we], and those that [we] love, will need to remember how much God loves us how much we need Him,” these memories “will soften [our] hearts to allow the Holy Ghost to testify to [us].”