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Author: Janae

Lessons Learned From My Mother

Lessons Learned From My Mother

“But something went wrong. For some reason, the surgeons had gotten pulled away from [my mother], mid-surgery, and left her open on the operating table for hours. A blood clot formed, causing her to have a stroke, which paralyzed the right half of her body. Everything had changed in an instant, and she wasn’t to blame for any of it.”

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My mom and me, hiking on a family trip one summer.

I grew up hiking, sledding, ice skating, climbing trees, and camping–all things which my mother taught me about. She also taught me how to sew, cook, clean, write, draw, paint, use power tools, do laundry, make my bed, decorate my house, eat a balanced diet, and so much more. As far back as my memories go, I can recall seeing my mom skillfully making Halloween costumes for all of my brothers and myself every year. I remember seeing her make delicious meals for us three times a day, bake beautiful and tasty cakes for our birthdays, and keep our pantry and fridge stocked with healthy snacks and homemade treats. She kept a vegetable garden in a large portion of our back yard and colorful flowers in pots lining our porch every summer. I recall often walking into our garage-turned-wood-shop and seeing her behind a set of safety goggles as she carefully used the band saw which my father had given her as a birthday gift. She regularly painted stunning images onto random slabs of wood or scraps of paper, creating masterpieces out of ordinary and uninteresting things. She took pictures of every adventure any of us kids experienced, whether it was family road trips across the country or our first softball or baseball game. She helped turn my ideas for school projects into impressive and award-winning realities. My mother’s hands have always been some of the most talented and creatively gifted of any I’ve known.

When I was nine, my mom started having chronic headaches, and shortly after was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was about the size of her fist, and we were surprised to learn that she’d had it her entire life. It was a benign mass of skin, tooth, and hair that had attached itself to her brain before she was even born. For over 30 years she never experienced any adverse effects from it. She had a full childhood, graduated high school and college, got married, bore four healthy children, and was living the happy life she had dreamed about when it was discovered.

After consulting with various medical professionals, she was given the choice to either leave the tumor as it was and deal with constant pain and an early death, or risk a very intense surgery to remove it. To her, the choice was obvious: she had a better chance of living out her life fully if she had the surgery.

We all prayed and fasted as fervently as possible that the surgery would all go well for mom. And we had complete faith that she would come out of it fine.

But something went wrong. For some reason, the surgeons had gotten pulled away from her, mid-surgery, and left her open on the operating table for hours. A blood clot formed, causing her to have a stroke, which paralyzed the right half of her body. Everything had changed in an instant, and she wasn’t to blame for any of it. Her beautiful handwriting was gone. She could no longer paint or draw. She couldn’t drive a car. She couldn’t keep a garden or cook meals for her family. She couldn’t even speak any of the words her mind could think. She had suddenly become a talented and gifted mind living in a broken and seemingly useless body.

As she came out of surgery, and reality set in for her, my mom knew life wouldn’t be the same. She wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed from that point. But no matter what, she was determined to move forward. So that’s what she focused on doing.

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My mom and dad, just a few years ago.

She refused a handicapped pass for our car; she explained in her slurred and broken words that she wasn’t handicapped, just a little sick at the moment. At one point she approached my dad, and humbly explained that she’d understand if he wanted to divorce her and move on with life so that she wouldn’t burden him. My dad looked at her, flabbergasted, and sternly replied, “I married you for eternity. This is just a part of it.”

Every day for weeks and months, we had friends drop off meals at our home and offer help and support for our family while mom was recovering. Slowly but surely, she went from being bed-ridden, to sitting in a wheel chair, to using a walker, to limping around on her own, and to eventually driving herself to the gym three days a week to exercise.

Now, she is a totally different woman from the one who came home from the hospital that day. She has recovered beyond what any of those doctors ever expected. She can walk up and down stairs. She talks and carries on conversations in person and over the phone. She gardens relentlessly every summer. She drives from the farm in the country, where she and my dad live, into town to run errands and buy groceries. She makes my dad lunch for work and loves to try cooking new recipes. She uses that slightly withered right hand to write notes to put in care packages and to lovingly sign birthday cards for each of us every year.

The list of things my mother cannot do herself is very short. And for those things, I always tell her, “That’s okay mom. We’ll do that when we’re resurrected after this life.”

She has passed her cheerful and optimistic way of thinking onto me and each of my siblings. The things I have learned from my beautifully imperfect mother are truly limitless. Aside from the many life skills she taught, I’ve learned four main life lessons that I couldn’t have learned any other way, all of which have influenced me in everything I do.

1. Forgive others no matter what they do to you. My parents both agreed that they didn’t want to sue the hospital or surgeons for the mistake. Trudging through a messy lawsuit wouldn’t have gotten my mom’s abilities back, and putting my mom through an ordeal like that would have done more damage than good–both mentally and emotionally. My dad made certain that the medical professionals who were responsible felt remorse and guilt for what they had done, and then simply asked for the best physical rehabilitation available. Clinging to anger and vengeance would have prevented much good in our lives. We would have been so overcome with bitterness and sorrow that we would have missed out on the love and compassion that developed within each of us. 

2. Find purpose in your adversity. When asked about her ordeal, my mom always says she would do it over a thousand times just to have the closeness we gained and lessons we all learned from it. The frustrating limits she suddenly experienced were worth the perspective she gained, the patience she learned, and the tender love she was able to feel toward others. It was worth the bonds and friendships my siblings and I created as we relied on one another throughout her recovery. The things that we couldn’t have learned in any other way have made the struggles and challenges invaluable. Her struggles have not been in vain, and understanding the good that has come from them has given them purpose and value.lessons learned from mom

3. Speak well of others. Everyone has flaws. That’s a given. Not only is it rude to point them out, but when you do that’s all you focus on. Every time you see or think something negative about someone, think of something positive too. When you do this, you’ll find that it’s easier to love others, and others will find it easier to love you back.

4. Tenaciously pursue your goals. Don’t give up. Don’t let others determine how you feel about yourself and your situation. Your life is yours to navigate, and you determine much of where you’ll go and what you’ll do based on your attitude and outlook on the future. Keep pressing forward no matter the odds or opposition that comes your way.

What are some of the most valuable things you’ve learned from your mother? What qualities does she have that deserve sharing and honoring this Mother’s Day?

 

We See Ourselves As We Perceive Ourselves

We See Ourselves As We Perceive Ourselves

The way you treat yourself is often the way you see others treat you, too.

I have a friend (I’ll call him ‘Kevin’) who doesn’t understand why he always seems to strike out on love, get walked all over by his ‘friends,’ or end up in the most unpleasant of challenges in life. He complains about it often, but when I try to offer some supportive words or an idea that might help him to improve his situation, he always comes back with something like, “When it comes down to it, I’m just not a good enough person for anyone to invest their time in.”

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Kevin has had a difficult life. That much is true. But you know what? I have too. While our struggles have been (and still are) different, I think they have been equally difficult. But I have felt like Kevin before. I have wondered why nobody seemed to respect or care about me. I wondered why I was always left out of everything and why I didn’t have any very close friends. I could never understand why, when things went wrong in my life, nobody seemed to care. I became a very frustrated, bitter, and cynical person because of this, and it showed in how I treated myself.

I wouldn’t take compliments. I would fight them and deny them. I would help others—but only because I knew I should, never because I sincerely wanted to. I would listen to someone confiding in me, but I would be more focused on calculating my retort to whatever was being said. I would spend time with friends, but I was so worried about impressing them that I never took the time to be impressed by them.

My poor self esteem had always made me unable to focus on anyone else or simply enjoy any moment. I never meant to be self-centered or focused on myself—I always thought I was trying to please others and make them happy. But I always felt like I had to be earning someone else’s respect or love. I thought I had to prove to everyone that I was worth something. I thought I needed to do more and become more skilled and talented so that I could offer more to the world. I never realized that the one person (perhaps the most important person) who I was never trying to win over was myself.

Learning to love and respect myself was (and still is) a long process. I had learned some false truths about myself as I was growing up. Unfortunately, these beliefs had been reinforced by others who never intended to hurt me, but did so nonetheless. Family members whose teasing went too far, religious people who weren’t as tactful in their words as I needed them to be, and peers who reacted condescendingly to my naivete, all led me to believe that I was less important than others. I believed that I was annoying and that my only value was determined by my skills and abilities. I believed that my worth as a person was dependent only upon what I could offer society.

But as I grew up I began treating myself better, and I noticed the most interesting phenomenon: other people began treating me better too.

Perhaps they treated me the same as they always had, but now I actually noticed that strangers were nice to me, that my family cares about me, and that my friends are wonderful and they think I am too. As I learned to do this, my focus shifted to truly be on others and their intentions instead of on myself and how I could prove or convince them that I was important.

I learned that once you stop worrying about yourself–the impression you leave on others or proving yourself to anyone for any reason–you can simply be you. At that point, you can genuinely love others, help others, and find many joys and satisfactions in life you didn’t know you were missing.

Love is Greater than Fear

Love is Greater than Fear

I’d like to tell you a true story about love.

When I was a teenager, I was terrified of marriage. How could I ever find one person who I wouldn’t get bored of, who I would care about so much that I would put his needs before my own, and who I could trust in my most vulnerable moments? I didn’t think someone like that existed. I’ve always been the only person I could trust indefinitely.

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Once I even sabotaged a wonderful relationship with a fantastic guy in high school because there was not a dang thing wrong with him. How would I ever dump him if he was nearly perfect? So I ended it because of that.

I never even had any really close friends because of it. Sure, I had people I could call friends and they called me a friend, but I never had that one person who knew my secrets, who I would call when that boy talked to me, who would come to my house all the time, and who I would have countless inside jokes with. I had one or two friends like that when I was a kid, but as I got older I put up walls and distanced myself from everyone, even my family. It seemed like everyone was bound to let me down at some point in some way, and that was difficult for me to handle.

Then I met Bob.

I was stranded in San Diego, California over New Year’s Eve, with no way to get back to college two states away in Utah. I was staying at a friend’s house, and went to a New Year’s Eve party with her and some other friends I had in the area. Bob and I met at that party. They all knew him, that he was kind of quirky but a good guy. He found out I was stranded. He loves snowboarding and wanted to try the snow in Utah, since it boasts of having the “greatest snow on earth.” He also happened to think that I was cute. So he offered to drive me up there.

I’ve never met anyone like him. On that fateful 12-hour drive, we individually decided to be open and honest with each other. Something about him seemed familiar, like I could actually trust him. So I did. I trusted him more after 6 hours than I trusted some people after 6 years. Somehow, he got through my walls and past my emotional barriers. But that’s not all–I got past his too. We opened up to one another in ways we usually don’t open up to anyone, all within the safe and comfortable cab of his blue-green Ford Ranger. I learned some deep secrets he kept and struggled with. He learned of mine. And together, we decided that we would offer unconditional love and support to each other as we trudged on through our trials, dragging our emotional baggage along with us through the muck we call life. Without saying so, we knew we were already best friends.

Four and a half years later, I was sitting on a tree stump in the woods of Tennessee, late in the summer. There Bob knelt, ring in hand, while the sun set and fireflies danced around us. I couldn’t speak for a moment after the question escaped his lips. I picked up the ring, staring at it’s glinting surfaces, and wondered why I wasn’t running the other way. I had been proposed to by a few other men, each of whom was lovely in his own way. But I never said yes to any of them. I never trusted them enough. I hadn’t told them my deepest secrets, my past, my lowest moments. If I had, I’m not so sure they would have wanted to marry me. But here was this incredible man, handsome inside and out, fully aware of all I had been through as a child, teenager, and adult. There he was, those crystal blue eyes and a perfect jawline, with a sense of humor to match my own.

How did I make it to this point? God, the Fates, the universe–whatever you believe in and call it, had somehow given me second chance after second chance to get my life straight, to pick up my shattered heart and piece it back together just for it to be broken over and over until this moment would happen. I needed this man to be in my life. And if we hadn’t met on that 31st of December seven years ago, I have no doubt that somehow God/Fate/the universe would have seen to it that we meet in some other way. But it all happened perfectly, exactly how both he and I needed.

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The love we shared then and continue to share now is unlike what I thought “love” was for my entire life. I remember dating in high school, and 90% of the time I was miserable in every relationship. But I thought that it was love, so I’d stay in those awful relationships claiming that I loved him and needed him and that he was different than the other guys… Every time.

Now, this love with Bob is actually different. He never judges or manipulates me. He puts my needs before his. He patiently listens when I say I need to talk, and talks back when I tell him I need him to respond. When I walk past him in the hallway, he always touches me somehow, sometimes by running his fingers across my back, sometimes by dramatically dipping me for a kiss. When a gorgeous girl walks past him, he’ll acknowledge the beauty of another human being, but then he says to himself, “Yeah, but she’s not Janae.” He recognizes my talents and compliments me every day. He does everything he can to make me laugh, even if it means making a fool out of himself. He’ll put toothpaste on my toothbrush and leave it waiting by the sink for me in the mornings and evenings. Before one of us leaves the house, he kisses me goodbye, and before falling asleep in the dark each evening, he kisses me goodnight. Since getting married to Bob, he’s helped me through many trials that I couldn’t have gone through alone. I’m getting better at being spontaneous. I’m a better communicator. I’ve had a baby–my other greatest fear!

If you’re in a relationship where you constantly find yourself sitting with your significant other’s arms around you, and you don’t smile and laugh often, it’s not love. If you don’t think you’re capable of loving anyone, you’re wrong. If I could fall in love and end up happily married, anyone else can. Forcing love doesn’t work, and running from it is the same as you breaking your own heart. It takes incredible strength to open up your heart in search of love, because the emotional downfalls you suffer along the way hurt and can really leave you damaged. But if you can persevere just long enough to find one of the right people, it’s worth each tear you shed and every rejection you have to endure. How?

Because you can have that love and joy for the rest of your life!

More than anything else, living in a way so that someone else can love me has made me happier. Not just because I found love, but also because it’s made me optimistic and hopeful, I’ve learned to love others, and I’ve learned to love life itself. And perhaps most importantly, even if you don’t find a spouse or significant other, you can still find love–through family, friends, relatives, acquaintances, and especially yourself.

A Midnight Stroll

A Midnight Stroll

My husband and I have only been married for 3 and a half years (and we’ve been best friends for over 7 years). But I’m pretty sure we have already figured out one of many not-so-secretive secrets to keeping a strong and happy marriage.

We go through cycles of being entirely thrilled about our marriage, and then slowly trickle into feeling complacent about it. Our marriage is never really bad, but we both just end up feeling bored, like it’s become some mundane thing. And when that happens, we find ourselves drawing apart and starting to feel unhappy together. That slows or even stops our forward walk in life because our minds are so focused on the sorrowful state in which we find ourselves.

The solution? Reconnect.

Do something together that allows you time to communicate openly. No matter where or how, remind yourselves why you fell in love. By sitting with each other in a moment away from the pressures of daily life, you give yourselves time to refocus and reset your priorities. It offers the opportunity to recognize what is most important in your forward walk together.  I call these moments “midnight strolls.”

Sometimes it’s dinner and a date. Sometimes it’s a spontaneous afternoon drive. Sometimes it’s sitting on the floor of the living room, simply holding hands. Sometimes it’s sitting on the kitchen counter eating ice cream straight from the carton. And sometimes, it’s an actual midnight stroll down an old country road.

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Last week I was feeling frustrated with Bob, and he was irritated with me. He’s been busy studying to get his real estate license, I’ve been busy working online and pursuing partnerships with companies for my website, and we’ve both been trying to get the other to take care of our 1-year-old son. Obviously we needed to talk some things over and communicate our needs and goals, but it just hadn’t happened. We each started resenting the other. Our priorities were not the same, and by the end of the week we were both so stressed out and upset that we weren’t very far from wanting to give up on our marriage all together.

Luckily, I married an incredible man who is absolutely devoted to me. Late on Saturday night, Bob asked me to take a walk with him. As I was putting on my shoes and jacket, he went outside to wait for me. I crept down the stairs of my parents’ darkened house (where we’ve been visiting for the summer) and slipped out the front door. The cool night air and surprisingly bright moonlight began to rekindle something inside of me. I hadn’t realized that spending so much of my time working in front my computer had drained my energy and creativity. We walked down the long gravel driveway, mostly in silence and hands in our pockets. We walked to the end of the paved road, and sat and talked openly about how we’d been feeling. After a while, we walked back toward the house and stopped to sit on one of the hay wagons next to the hay barn. And then something almost magical happened.

We laughed together. We started to be genuinely silly and tell jokes and laugh at ourselves. And then I felt my love for my best friend getting stronger. As we continued to talk, we held hands again–something we hadn’t done all week. Before long, my love and adoration for my wonderful husband was so strong that it was practically tangible, and I couldn’t get enough of him. The irritation disappeared, the resentment faded, our selfishness was brushed aside, and we were reminded why we fell in love and got married in the first place. And then we talked about what we needed from one another. He told me all about how he needed me to support him. I told him what I needed him to do to help me be successful. And just like that, we were willing to help each other out in ways we had been avoiding all week long. We were walking forward again, both individually and together.

Regardless of where or how you reconnect, you just have to do it. You might not want to. It might be hard to find the right moment. It might be easier to just drift apart. However, if you want to keep your marriage strong and healthy, you both have to sincerely try. Being married and staying happily married is something to honor and celebrate. Giving up and calling it quits on a good marriage that is temporarily in a ‘blah’ moment is backward walking. But working toward a healthy, joyful, and lasting marriage will allow you to cover twice as much ground and gain twice as much wisdom as you walk forward together.

My own parents will be married for 35 years this August. Those years have been filled with joy, laughter, sweet memories, and many “midnight strolls” to keep their marriage happy and healthy. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

And you know what? Neither would I.

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Defeating PTSD: Recognition

Defeating PTSD: Recognition

My road to coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been a difficult one. I didn’t even know that I needed any help or that I really had a problem until someone else gently helped me to realize it.

I was 23 before I ever stepped foot into a therapist’s office. Bob and I were engaged. I was taking a full load of classes that fall semester, and working part time. Being engaged was exciting but had its difficulties. I was stressed from planning a wedding in four months, the responsibilities given to me at work from being the most experienced stage manager in the fine arts center, and trying to raise my GPA.  Aside from that, I thought life was really great. I had fantastic roommates, two of my brothers and their families lived nearby, plus autumn is my favorite season and the weather was turning crisp and cool while the trees began lighting up the mountain sides with bright shades of orange, yellow, and red.

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But even though life was what I considered wonderful, I was not in a wonderful place. My mind had a natural way of coping with the trauma I’d been through, although it wasn’t actually a healthy way of coping. It was just a raw reaction to help me survive. My mind would block things out of my memory that would otherwise send me spiraling into a huge emotional breakdown. Along with that, sometimes my memory of other events would get blocked out too. Anything leading up to a flashback or trigger would just disappear from my remembrance. Minutes, hours, and portions of days would just be gone. There are moments that I literally can’t recall–even great moments with Bob, my family, or friends. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to carefully listen to what others say about a time I can’t remember so that I can learn the details and pretend to know what everyone is talking about, because I’m not sure how to explain to someone that I honestly can’t recall things I’ve said, done, or been a part of.

Every time I had a breakdown, I would end up blocking it out afterward. In the moment, it’s sort of  like watching myself through a window, seeing what I was physically doing, but being completely unable to control or stop any of it. I often don’t recall what sets off one of these breakdowns and I never actually know how long they last. But they usually start off small, like rubbing my hands together rhythmically, and eventually I start picking at my fingernails and cuticles–sometimes to the point of bleeding. My mind would drift off to some other place. I completely zone out from reality, and I never know if that lasts seconds, minutes, or hours. I end up curled in a ball, pulling my hair and crying uncontrollably. And if anyone tries to touch or console me I usually get more hysterical.

My sweet fiance (now husband) was a witness to one of these breakdowns one night about two months before our wedding, and that is the first one that I can actually remember sort of clearly. Bob had no clue what to do when he saw this happen for the first time, and implying that it worried him would be an understatement.

I fell asleep at some point that night, and I don’t know if I got 30 minutes of sleep or seven hours of sleep. But I woke up to my alarm clock, and went about that morning as usual. Bob showed up for breakfast, but I’m not sure if he had even gone home. I think he ended up sleeping at my kitchen table for a while, afraid to leave me alone but equally afraid to be in the same room as me. Over our bowls of cereal, he brought it up as gently as he could. I think this is the reason I remember that breakdown at all. I knew it had happened, and even though I was trying to move on past it like I always would, Bob wasn’t going to let me do that anymore. He had gone to therapy for depression in the past, and it had really helped him. He carefully constructed his thoughts and, in the most loving way possible, asked if I’d at least give therapy a shot. I’d always been of the opinion that therapy was a bunch of baloney. I don’t know where I got that idea, but it stuck with me for some reason. At some point I figured it couldn’t hurt, and just to appease my dear fiance I’d try it once.

As my initial appointment with my therapist, Liz, wound down, I was excitedly penciling in twice weekly visits in my planner for the next month. There was something about her–her personality, the way she spoke to me, how she helped me work through these issues–that I found myself absolutely needing my appointments with her. I had never been able to recognize that I had such a serious problem. And, perhaps most importantly, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I could see a way for these triggers and my past trauma to not affect me so dramatically. After living the way I had for the majority of my life, I was thrilled at the prospect of being free from the agonizing grip of a disorder that I never knew that I had.

Defeating PTSD

It’s been three and a half years since that night and following day when I walked in to the campus counseling center. The journey has been difficult, excruciating, terrifying, and depressing. But the results of going through this journey have brought peace, acceptance, comfort, and joy. I’ve been through many, many more breakdowns since that one Bob first experienced. He has learned to help me through them. I’ve learned to trust him through them. I’ve learned to love myself for the first time in my life–to be content with the person that I am, and even smile at myself in the mirror. I’ve learned to stand up for myself, give myself a voice to be heard, and recognize that I am truly an important and valuable person. I’ve helped two other specific young ladies, who have suffered similarly as I have, to get onto the road to coping with trauma as well, and they are both in happy, successful places in life now too.

 

we're a happy familyThe goodness that I have experienced because of PTSD far outweighs the badness that it has caused me. I am stronger because of it, I’ve been able to find others who have needed my experience and help, and I am who I want to be. I’m thriving now! I’m not surviving or just making it through the day–I’m blossoming exponentially. I’m succeeding at living life. I’m conquering my fears. I’m enjoying things that I never knew I was missing out on.

If you’re in a place where, deep down, you know you’re in denial about needing help, please let me be the loving support and gentle push you need. You might be missing out on a full, joyful life. You might be missing out on meeting the best friend you’ve ever had. You may be keeping somebody else from being inspired by you and your success. You could be missing out on the life that you were meant to live–a life filled with purpose, love, laughter, sweet moments, happiness, lasting relationships, and every other good thing you may not yet know you’re desperately hungry for. You can have all of that. You can face down those paralyzing problems that keep you from thriving.

You can find help–whether it’s conquering an addiction, dealing with a disorder, or overcoming some other seemingly impossible task. You have the support right here–from me, from the other Forward Walking authors, from fellow followers of this blog, and from people you haven’t even met yet. We’re all cheering for you. It’s time you cheered yourself on too.

Book Review: Spark: A Creative Anthology

Book Review: Spark: A Creative Anthology

This is a paid review of Spark: A Creative Anthology (Volume III). Regardless of the amount paid, the review is my own honest and true opinion of the book, be it positive or negative.

As I read Spark: A Creative Anthology (Volume III), I was excited to release my inner artist as I let the words permeate my mind. This piece is exactly what it sounds like–a book filled with creatively and interestingly written poetry and stories. Most of the works have a sketch or image to accompany them, adding to the artistic vibe the book already offers. It’s a celebration of stories and moments captured mainly through the written word. My favorite part of it is the fact that there are stories and poems that perhaps everyone can relate to. Through the telling of heart-wrenching stories or giving brief, poetic glimpses at moments frozen in time, this book will put you in touch with your feelings and help you to think critically about your own life and the moments that make it up.

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(Click on the image above to purchase.)

The stories are about ordinary people. Some stories are true, some fiction. Some are strange, thought-provoking, or unusual. Others will tug your heartstrings and fill you with inspiration. And there is something to be gleaned and appreciated from each one.

One story in particular coincides closely with the mission and themes of Forward Walking, and so merits further review:

The Story of a Mother is a wonderfully-written, true story about two young parents, Mika and Jarom, who endure one of the most difficult struggles that I have ever learned about. The trial–which lasts several months and lingers with them for a lifetime–is thoroughly explored, and their thoughts and feelings are documented every step of the way. I especially like the snippets from their journals that are included through out the story. These people are so easy to relate to that, by the end of the story, I felt like I knew Mika personally and had endured everything right alongside her. Although there is much heartache and sadness in Mika’s words, there is also an underlying drive within this couple to move forward and to try to live a full life in spite of the hardships they face. This drive something that moves us all through our challenges, and it is something we can all learn in order to become a little bit better.

In the story, Mika and Jarom attempt to do various things to cope with their trial: make lists of things they’re grateful for, search for humor in ordinary circumstances, allow themselves to grieve, create and embracing moments of laughter and smiles, distance themselves from reality when they need a break from it, communicate clearly, and rely on others when they are at their wits’ end. By giving us a glimpse into their lives, this wonderful couple offers great perspective for those of us who have never dealt with serious and life-changing challenges of our own.

During part of her grieving process, Mika turns to writing, using words to express and shape her feelings and flurry of emotions. One thing in particular that stuck out to me, is that Mika makes a list of things she likes to hear from people or things people can do to help her. At one point she writes, “…it’s human nature to mourn with those that mourn. And I know my friends are mourning with me because the thing I hear most is, ‘I wish I knew what to say.’ A lot of the time, I don’t know what to say, either. Or when people want to do something concrete, either I can’t come up with anything on the spot or I’m not in the mood to admit that I need help.” Her honesty has earned my respect and compassion, as it will anyone who reads her story.

Time heals Mika’s wounds little by little, and after thoroughly grieving, her depression gives way to happiness once again. She writes: “If you have glasses or contacts, think of how the world looks without them on. It’s like I had been seeing everything blurry, but without realizing it was blurry. And when I finally could see again, it was refreshing and exhilarating and joyful.”

The hardest part of Mika and Jarom’s story is that it is real. It is a real story about a real trial. Although I kept hoping for a miracle of some sort throughout the entire story, the truth is that the ending is real. In her own words, Mika admits, “I realize that every time I talk to anyone or post on my blog, I work hard to tone my emotions down so as to not be too depressing or hopeless or heartbreaking.”

While it’s not what you might consider to be a movie-style, happy ending, this story does end on a very positive note, giving purpose to this mother’s tragedy. She finds strength and meaning in telling her story. She knows it “won’t unbreak anyone’s heart… But in some tiny way, it will help.”

That’s why she shares it. It’s how she keeps walking forward in life, and it has inspired (and will continue to inspire) many others to do the same.

 

Who Determines Your Worth?

Who Determines Your Worth?

Stephanie was 21 years old and engaged to a man she was crazy about. Everything but the gown was planned–the date, the colors, the venue. Announcements were out, the vendors were selected, and the bridesmaid dresses were picked out. It was her future, and she was thrilled about all of it.

The lucky man was in the military, and would go a few days at a time without being able to contact Stephanie. It had been about a week this time. He called, and Stephanie excitedly answered, eager to hear his voice and speak with him again. Before she could say anything besides hello, he said, “I don’t think the wedding will work out. We should take a break or something.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, confused and shocked.

“I guess I mean we need to break up,” came the reply. He went on with excuses and reasons, saying that he didn’t think she was strong enough to be a military wife and that the relationship wasn’t worth the trouble of long distance. But all Stephanie heard was, “You’re not worth it.”

After that conversation, she didn’t hear from him again–except for an accidental pocket-dial from him one time.

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This sudden change in Stephanie’s life was devastating. Everything she thought she knew and understood about herself and their relationship had been flipped upside-down. She discovered that she had been cheated on, that he had lied to her, and that he was simply not the man she thought he was. She found herself depressed and unmotivated, lost in a blurry mess of alcohol, drugs, men, and near suicide attempts. After one such attempt, Stephanie realized that something needed to change.

“Where had my life ended up after this guy? Everything I believed about myself was all wrapped up in him. When he thought nothing else of me, I believed my worth was nothing. It didn’t matter what my family or friends thought I was worth. All that mattered was my worth to him. When he was gone I didn’t have anything left. Who had I become? Who did I want to be?”

She needed faith in something.

One night she found herself sitting at the beach, searching for some peace and clarity. She was reading her Bible as the waves rhythmically rolled in and out from shore. Through her anguish and tears, Stephanie said a prayer out loud, asking God if He loved her or even cared about her. She was immediately overcome with the impression of a warm embrace, and felt an almost tangible love filling her heart and soul. That very personal experience reassured her that not only is God real and someone who loves her, but that Stephanie is of indescribable value to Him. She is worth something to God. “The value of something is only based on what someone is willing to pay for it. Christ had paid the ultimate price for me–His life. That is what He considers me to be worth.”

After that simple and profound experience, Stephanie slowly came to discover herself. She wanted to follow her dreams, do what she wanted to do, be who she wanted to be–independent of what anyone else thought.

Stephanie says that, looking back at all of the pain and sorrow, she’s grateful for all of it (even the poor choices she made) because of what she learned. “No matter what I do in life, no matter if I’m a terrible wife or mother, no matter if I fail law school or don’t go anywhere with my life, my worth was predetermined before I even came to earth.”

Even now–4 years later–at times she still struggles with her feelings of low self worth. “I’m terrified of being inadequate and overlooked. When I’m not as involved in activities or church functions as I’d like to be, it comes back a little. But when I reflect on that experience at the beach and some other recent ones, I remember that I am significant and I am enough.  If I had been the only person ever to live on the earth, and Jesus needed to die for me, he would have done it anyway, because I am worth it.”

FW image 06Shortly after Stephanie was getting through the worst of that awful period in her life, she met Justin. “We were falling in love with each other, but my belief in my self worth was still shattered. I thought I wasn’t worth loving. One night I was trying to get him to break up with me because I couldn’t break up with him. I compared myself to an old, broken-down Pinto when everyone wants a shiny, new Mercedes. Before I could go on, Justin said, ‘You’re not broken to me.’ It made me realize that I wasn’t seeing myself as others saw me–or more importantly, how God saw me. It occurred to me that it is okay to see myself as beautiful and whole. I needed to see myself as that because it’s true. It’s who I am.”

“It’s really weird for me to say this, but I love myself. One of the best things I’ve gained is the perspective of who I have the potential to become and how to get there. I know the end of my story. It’s like the end of a fairy tale: And they lived happily ever after. It doesn’t matter what happens between now and then. I just know my happily ever after is coming.”

Stephanie and Justin have been married for only about a year and a half, but during that whole time she’s been learning endless things about herself as well as experiencing what a loving, lasting relationship is like. She’s excited to open up about her past struggles. It’s liberating. It’s therapeutic. And most importantly, she’s over it.

“I want these parts of my story to be out there, because someone else out there is going through the same issues that I’ve overcome. If one person could be benefited from the trials I’ve been through, I’d do it all over again.”

She would, because everyone and anyone is worth it.

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For more information on Stephanie and her journey of faith and spiritual discovery, see her blog here.

Together We Are Perfect

Together We Are Perfect

Six years ago, I was serving as a Mormon missionary. It’s something I did full-time for a year and a half of my life before getting married or finishing school. I learned some of my most valuable life-lessons in those short, cherished 18 months. I made friendships that will last forever and came to know myself more clearly than I had up to that point in my life.

Depending on the area I was asked to serve in, I attended multiple congregations on Sundays, sometimes up to three in a single day. Our standard church meetings lasted three hours, with leadership meetings an hour before or after those standard meetings. Church was quite literally my life! You can imagine how many gospel lessons I heard each Sunday. They all mostly run together in my mind when I reflect on my time as a missionary. But there is one that has always stood out because the message behind it was so important for me to learn.

I had been paired with a missionary companion in one area who I did not get along with well. I spent most of my days biting my tongue, rolling my eyes, and trying to ignore her loud personality. I found myself trying to do things my way, sometimes without including her in my plans. She tried my patience constantly. I found myself resenting her every night as I knelt and prayed before crawling into bed, pleading that she might change or learn how to be more tolerable.

On this particularly memorable Sunday, nothing was different. The same tension existed between my companion and me, and I was struggling to feel anything positive. The woman who taught in our Relief Society meeting that day had no idea what she would do for me as she prepared her lesson for that day. Her words instilled within me the most wonderful desire to live the “Path of We,” though at the time I did not know what that was. I remember some of her words as clear as day:

“Some of us have God’s hands to create beautiful artwork that enhances our lives and homes. Some of us have his eyes to see others for who they truly are. Some of us have His ears to hear and make music that will inspire others. Some have hearts to love others the way He does.” She continued on in her simple but profound words, naming countless attributes, and how they are each small portions of our Heavenly Father’s nature. “Together, all of these characteristics make up His perfect personality.” None of us have all of them because none of us are perfect like Him. We each lack many traits that others have. Once we all use our strengths and talents together as one, we become more complete and perfect, like Him. 

Her words and thoughts were some of the most profound I’ve ever heard in my life, as simple as they were.

It became so apparent that we all need one another to make up for our faults, to pick up our slack, and to become more perfect. We really can’t do it alone. I realized suddenly that I had been on a path of independence. I had been excluding my companion because I couldn’t see the parts of God’s personality within her, and I had been refusing to allow my own strengths to make up for her faults.

The following week was amazing. Our weekly report to our leaders may not have shown any kind of difference, but there was a new harmony between us that made our efforts more meaningful. I laid aside my frustrations with my companion and instead began focusing on letting her do that which I couldn’t. When she had a hard time or forgot something, I picked up her slack without thinking twice. We suddenly found ourselves laughing often, praying more fervently together, teaching others in a more unified and powerful way, and developing a friendship that I never thought would exist. I began to see her the way God does. I came to love her more dearly than I ever believed possible.

Since that Sunday, I’ve looked at each person I meet differently. I try to see what they can do that I can’t, and I try to use my gifts and talents to help them in the ways they may need. I find people whose characteristics compliment my own, and then we work together in harmony and happiness to uplift and strengthen each other. I find others who possess the exact attributes that I need in my life. I’ve learned to accept and rely on them for those. I married a man who truly does “complete me” and I look forward to finding out what attributes my children will have to offer others as they grow. Because of this simple perspective, my life has become full of purpose, friendships, love, joy, and satisfaction.

Together, we can do more than we ever could if we were alone. It’s only then that we can do everything our Creator would have us do in the Forward Walking of our lives.

To Know Your Children

To Know Your Children

img_1674Janene was a nanny for a married couple who didn’t seem to have any interest in raising their child. The mom wanted a career, and the father didn’t want anything to do with rearing his son. Janene worked 21 hours a day, seven days a week, caring for and teaching their son from the time he was four weeks old until he was one year old. When the boy was about ten months old, the mom came home from work one day and said to him “Smile for mommy!” When he didn’t respond very well, Janene encouraged him saying, “Oh, you can give your mom a better smile than that!” The baby boy gave Janene a huge smile, because he was so familiar with her and loved her so much. However, the mom took the fact that her son didn’t know who his own mother was as a wake-up call, and quickly stepped up to be more present in his life.

“I’m actually grateful for them being horrible parents. Well, I shouldn’t say horrible, because they did love him. They were just misguided,” Janene shares.

That experience sparked something inside of Janene that led to a desire to adopt as well as bear children. Janene’s husband, Ellis, has been supportive and completely on-board with that plan from the first time she told him of it. But being able to have children was far more challenging than simply deciding to get pregnant or adopt. Janene miscarried her first pregnancy. When she was pregnant a second time, she made it far enough to get an ultrasound, which showed a healthy boy developing in her womb. But at 23 weeks, her cervix dilated and her dreams of mothering that baby boy were gone. She named him Harrison.

That heartbreaking event led to discovering that Janene has an incompetent cervix, which means that while she could conceive, her body couldn’t maintain the pregnancy. Her next pregnancy almost ended at 13 weeks, but after a procedure to keep her cervix closed and then bed-rest for the remainder of the time, she was able to give birth to a lively girl at 33 weeks. She was named Lara. Janene got pregnant four more times after Lara was born, but none of those lasted more than 12 weeks. It was then that Janene realized it was no coincidence that she had such strong desires to adopt.

When Lara was three years old, she got two new siblings. Lara was overjoyed and promptly played dress-up with her new brothers, AJ and Michael. It was one of the best days in that family’s life. Janene and Ellis then found Naska, and during her adoption the couple also discovered that AJ had a biological brother, Kaleb, and adopted him as well.  Janene and Ellis now had five children, all within 3 years of the same age.

“I didn’t adopt to save the world,” Janene explains. “The Lord just gave me my kids that way.”

When it comes to different or special treatment for any of the kids, there is absolutely none. Each of them are equally loved, taught, and disciplined. Lara gets really upset when people make derogatory comments about her siblings being adopted or different from her in any way, and Janene firmly believes that people who distinguish between adopted and biological children cause unnecessary issues. “Either way, they’re yours,” she says.

Each of the kids have varying difficulties or disabilities. Naska has mental retardation and autism. AJ has Tourette syndrome. Michael and Kaleb each have hearing loss as well as cognitive processing issues. When I asked her how she has gotten through so many struggles with her kids, Janene said, “How many kids challenge their parents, regardless of being adopted or biological? You don’t think about it. You just get through it.” Both Janene and Ellis have gone to great lengths to ensure that each of their children has the best possible chances at being able to contribute positively to society, and enjoy a happy and full life.

Michael, AJ, Lara, Kaleb, & Naska

Naska’s progress and accomplishments stand out greatly to me. When Janene and Ellis found her, she was was malnourished nearly to the point of death, weighing only 19 pounds at five years old. The worker who introduced them to Naska even said that, given her condition, it would be understandable if the family chose not to adopt her. But after one look at the tiny girl, Janene just knew Naska was hers.

I first met Naska six years ago. She couldn’t speak and had a hard time listening to anyone who spoke to her, on top of other day to day struggles. But with careful attention, Janene and Ellis have been able to discover the sweet, loving, fun girl within her. At one point Janene determined that Naska’s long hair caused sensory overload, and so started cutting the child’s hair short. Now, when I ask Naska about something she likes, she’ll repeat the word with a thumbs up and a big smile. And if she doesn’t like something, she’ll repeat the word and very seriously shake her head while saying, “No.” She can be a little possessive of the family’s dust mop, because sweeping is her chore at home–and she’s really good at it! She enjoys helping Janene make brownies, and always licks the mixing bowl and spoon clean once the brownies are baking. She loves music with a good beat, and she’s not afraid to dance to it no matter who may be watching. She also won’t hesitate to express her love for her mom. Hugs are readily available for Janene any time she asks (and sometimes when she doesn’t). Naska also has a crush on a boy at church and tries to impress him by dressing nicely when she sees him. She’s like any girl, with likes and dislikes, good days and bad days, as well as feelings and needs. Much of that beautiful girl’s personality would be unknown if not for patient and discerning parents who have given her every opportunity to blossom into a truly lovely young woman.

“If you have a child with special needs, you are their greatest advocate. If you can’t do that, you go get someone who can do that for you,” Janene vehemently says. She and Ellis have dealt with unhelpful school systems and teachers who try to ignore the special needs of some kids. They are adamant about parents knowing the laws and school system regulations. “No one wants to label their kids as ‘special needs,'” she continues, “But are you more worried about a label or your child’s needs? Use the label to achieve what your child needs.”

To parents who are planning to or have already adopted, she says, “Just be a parent. Don’t be an adopted parent,” and adds, “Some kids come from horrible circumstances and you’ll feel sorry for them. But don’t focus on that. Don’t worry about giving them time to adjust and adapt. Just be consistent immediately.”

Janene still has dreams of having a little girl with black hair in dreadlocks. But when she looked at how incredibly full her plate was after adopting her fourth child, she realized she was done… for a while, anyway. Once her kids are grown and moved out, she’d like to work in foster care, finding kids in the system who need a home–especially groups of siblings. She hates to see brothers and sisters split up, because she understands how valuable those relationships can be.

“The problem is, I’d probably collect them all!” she jokes. She simply loves children, especially the troubled ones who are in need of proper love, attention, and discipline. And if any of them turn out to be her children as well, she’s not opposed to adopting again. After all, that’s how she was given most of her children in the first place, and though they have filled her household with chaos at times, they have also filled her heart with more love than she thought it could hold.