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.