My Christmas Sermon, given December 2014, in Frankfurt, Germany

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

Déjà Vu: Why Melissa Writes –– or Doesn’t–– of Passage

I could swear you’ve been here with me before. And before that.

June 30, 2011, Singapore

You remember? I was sitting on this same chair, tapping on this same laptop, pushed up to this same desk. Around me worked a team of moving men, preparing to ship our life (and file upon file of a yet-to-be-written but contracted book, Global Mom: A Memoir) off to a new life in Switzerland.

At the same time and as part of that pre-publication ramp-up, I was advised to launch this blog right away because the whole conceit of Global Mom was based on moving, moving internationally, moving internationally often and at times unexpectedly, and doing all that while raising a family of global citizens. On this blog, I was to take you with me, real-time. Show you some of the guts of global momming. Strap you to my forehead the way sky divers strap on Go-Pros and shu-weeeeeeee! Take you for a swift transglobal spin. Prepare you for that thud-and-roll landing.

What you didn’t see, I’m afraid, was the scary stuff, all the gum-flapping and limb-flopping that was going on behind the camera. As you who’ve done any of the following know, 1) raising a family takes one’s absolutely full concentration, 2) moving that family to a new country demands even more of one’s absolutely full concentration 3) helping your family adjust and integrate once in a new country requires that much more concentration, and 4) writing and promoting a book in the midst of all that…Well, just cue non-stop gum-flap, limb-flop.

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That lasted a year. I released Global Mom a year after leaving Singapore, and just when I felt maybe things were getting steady enough for my children here on the idyllic Swiss front, I signed a contract to write and publish my second book, On Loss and Living Onward.

Just as that book went to press last spring, we announced we’d be moving again. Unlike the previous move triggered by a restructuring of international headquarters, this relocation was wholly our initiative, one we’d been deliberating for some time.  We knew we needed to remove our youngest from a school environment that was unhealthy for him and causing our family much heartache (to frame it in the very gentlest terms.) Gum-flapping and limb-flopping don’t come anywhere close.

June 30, 2014, Switzerland

There’s a moving team milling through my house as I type. Same chair, same laptop, same desk. This week alone, I’ve seen my piano, refrigerator and Norwegian farm table go out the carmine red door of my soft yellow Swiss village home with is green shutters, its plump tufts of lavender, and tumbling velvet geraniums. Such a pretty, idyllic picture. Yet there’s sorrow and fatigue creasing the corners of my eyes. Two deep breaths, and I fill my lungs with optimism and gratitude. I work alongside men –– one French, one Swiss, one Kosovoan––packing our lives in cardboard, padding my concerns in bubble wrap, and heading things in a big metal box with wheels northward. To Frankfurt.

View out my office window

View out of my office window

My husband has long since preceded us to Germany, where he’s been living weeks-over in a sterile hotel room as he starts up a new job. One moment, I’m talking with a Jean-Michel about shutting down our Swiss/French phone lines; the next, I’m talking with a Johann or a Manfred about opening a German bank account.  Our Claire is at my side, mothering her brothers and helping me negotiate the 17th move of my married life. Luc is choosing classes online for what will be a German international school. Dalton, now 18,  is practicing his cockney accent and reworking his Singaporean Mandarin for when he heads in August to South London for a two-year mission for our church.

You remember? You’re right. We’ve been here before.

Dalton

Dalton

June 30, 2007, Paris

A moving team is arguing about how to get our massive Norwegian table out of our Paris apartment. I’m refereeing. Randall’s been living in Germany for several months already, starting his new job while we finish the school year and an eight-year French epoch. Dalton and Luc, 11 and 7, are finishing their French elementary school and once in a while I drop a German phrase or two into our talks, just to prep them for the next phase in our lives. Claire, almost 16, is inseparable from our 18-year-old Parker, who’s just graduated from ASP (the American School of Paris) and is heading tomorrow for a summer of leadership courses at college in the States. He’ll use the next months to complete the applications to serve a two-year mission for our church. Come winter.

Parker

Parker

Sorrow, fatigue. Deep breaths. Optimism, gratitude.  Days are spent shutting down French phone lines and opening up German bank accounts.  My daily discipline of writing so-and-so many pages? I set it aside, knowing I only have a few weeks left with all of us together.  How we are. The all of us. Like this. Sure, I’ll see Parker over the summer. We’ve made those plans. And he’ll come to us in Germany over Christmas to stay for a few weeks before launching out as a missionary. But still. I only want to be with him. The sails of life are stretched taut with stress, but also with gusts of hope, and we’re cruising on momentum, headlong into the cresting, broad, blue seas.

June 21, 2014, Paris

“We’re pleased to welcome the family of Parker Bradford to today’s ceremony. We’ve invited their son Dalton to the stage.”

A dark blonde, blue-eyed kid wearing a white shirt, navy suit and his big brother’s tie strides up to the school administrator at the mic. It’s the same gentleman, a Mr. H., who’d handed Parker his diploma seven years earlier. Now, he hands Dalton a heavy plaque with his brother’s name engraved in brass and in ornate letters.

The kid blushes. His face is neither smiling nor frowning, but hangs between emotions. Or above them. He shifts from foot to foot. The sibling resemblance is eerie.

“Dalton, like all of you here,” says Mr. H., “has just graduated from high school, only in Geneva. He’ll be presenting the Parker Bradford Spirit Award to this year’s graduating senior who best embodies the qualities of tolerance, enthusiasm and buoyancy that typified Parker, Dalton’s older brother. Parker was a student here at ASP for eight years.  One month after graduating in June of 2007––just like you’re graduating today––Parker lost his life while trying to save a college classmate from drowning.”

The blonde brother stares out over an audience of quiet faculty and families. I’m in the back-most row in a corner, yet can hear––can nearly feel––his heart beating. I tuck my chin to my chest.

I’m struck in that moment by the flaccidity of words, how they fool only those who trust words to convey the true proportion of certain truths, realities simply too vast for language. I’m sobered by how vulnerable that whole auditorium full of families is, but how they do not know it. How luminous the boy Justin is to whom the Parker Bradford Spirit Award is given. How magnanimous the school has been to our family, how empathetic. How utterly vital a healthy school community is for families, especially those in transition. How we could have used that these last two years.

Above all, I’m struck by how quickly it’s over––the presentation of the award itself, the graduation, the passage, this life.

How I have been here before. How everything is different.

How, because everything is different, I vow to do things differently this time.

How, for this passage, I’ll truly be there for my family.  

Which means that for a little while at least –– for however long it takes –– I won’t be here.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris.

On the Pont des Arts, Paris, before the bridge became weighted with the love locks that distinguish it today.

 

 

 

 

One Last Time On Loss and Living Onward

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

This is post #199. In a couple of days, I’ll give you my final and 200th post. Between now and then, I invite you to order and read this book. :-)

On Loss & Living Onward came to be over months of unprecedented searching and researching. By “searching,” I mean grieving, which, after the initial implosion of traumatic loss, is intense, prolonged yearning.

Yes, I was searching.  Not for release from grief or its pain, but specifically for Parker, for God, for community, for truth, for understanding, for strength, for light.  Sometimes, for air.

And I was researching. From the introduction to On Loss:

“…Every morning when the children left for school and Randall left for the office or for the airport, I turned to my daily pattern of digging and searching amid piles of books spread about me in a circular mountain range. I sat cross-legged on the floor with sometimes twenty books open at once: Testaments, both Old and New and other scriptures of my faith; a poetry anthology; a modern French novel; a German lyric; a prophet’s or pioneer’s personal journal; a Norwegian memoir; a commentary on the book of Job; a stack of professional journals on parental grief; collected talks from great spiritual leaders past and present and from the East to the West; discourses from Plutarch and Plato; my Riverside Shakespeare; accounts of Holocaust survivors, 9/11 survivors, tsunami survivors; and Parker’s own words, which we have treasured in his journals, poetry, school essays, letters, and lyrics.

Oh. And my laptop.

For hours to months on end, I went spelunking through others’ words. When someone’s words hit the bedrock of the Spirit, I knew it in half a breath. There were revelatory moments when a correct insight stunned me to immediate tears or, more often, head-to-toe stillness. At times my heart would leap a hurdle or my eyes would stretch wide open; other times I would hold my breath or exhale audibly in gratitude. Whatever my physical and intellectual response, every time a writer got it, I’d quickly type those words into my files.

Unswerving, I kept at it—mining, sifting, cataloging; grieving, mourning, learning, writing; adapting. While I never found the one book that for me addressed the desperate underside of grief as well as the magnificent promise of the loving bond that endures and evolves despite physical separation, I was (to my surprise) on my way to writing one.

And today—almost seven years after Parker was taken in an early harvest that plowed our souls right open—I finished this book. I lovingly pass it on to you.”

 

 

One Last Time from Global Mom

As I approach my 200th and final post here at Melissa Writes of Passage, I want to share one last time with you the reason I began blogging in the first place: This book below.

We’re heading into an intense passage, we global nomadic Bradfords, with a new job in a new country, and each of our children heading in different directions geographically and metaphorically. In order to navigate this period I need focus, focus, focus. When our family has eventually found its bearings in our new life in Frankfurt, Germany beginning late this summer, I’ll be establishing my new, beautiful author website.  It will merge channels for  my books as well as all forthcoming writing projects alongside any public appearances and readers/audience reviews.  There, you’ll also find my regular blogpost-like essays. I hope you’ll come back to it all golden and zen-ified after a peaceful summer vacation.

In the meantime: thank you for reading my first book. In the next post, #199, I’ll post a reminder of my second book. And finally, in blogpost #200, I’ll summarize what these two years of blogging and publishing have meant to me and my family. Come back then, if only to let me know what lies in store for you over your summer!

Much warmth to my friends and readers–

Melissa

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Sin 201: The Diet Parable

My body’s been all over the map.

That’s not Global Mom talking about the places she’s lived. That’s Melissa talking about everywhere her weight has been.

(Make that had been.)

Eating at a hawker center in  Singapore.

Eating at a hawker center in Singapore. I enjoy really good food, anywhere, any time.

Note: I’ve been stable and healthy for decades. But the road to finally feeling free in my own skin was long, painful, erratic, exhausting, costly in every sense of that word, and even life-threatening. As a teenager I battled with eating disorders, which began at 13 with anorexia so severe, I lay in hospital for months and was even fed intravenously. That led to major weight swings, all tangled in the string of yo-yo dieting.  You name the diet, by the age of 19 I’d tried them all, including ludicrously long stretches of eating nothing but ice shavings with a dash of dust mites. (For protein.)

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Where did all that extreme deprivation get me? As I said, it dragged me all over the map, including to a peak when I was 80 pounds (35 kilos or 6 stones) overweight. And this all happened within my teens. For cryin’ out loud!

Which I did. Often. I was one very stuck girl. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to find equilibrium. My messed-up metabolism made what should have been the glorious gift of a human body more like a life sentence on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

First world problems, I know. But I share this whole history to explain why, 1) I sympathize from the floor of my gut with those who struggle with their bodies, and why, 2) extremes of all kinds scare me, and why, 3) I’m repelled by the word “diet.”

In fact, we don’t say or do that four-lettered word in my family.

I also share my history to show that people can find peace, freedom, balance. People can change their appetites. 

And now my husband wants to change. Here’s where our diet parable starts.

Eating with Claire. The fries were great.

Eating in St. Cergue, Switzerland with Claire. The fries were great.

Randall’s not been all that peppy. Worst health of his life, he says. My adorable husband, a natural athlete all his life with a wicked backhand and a speedy 10k, a man who’s always met life on the tips of his toes, has recently hit an all-time slump. He’s carrying some extra weight he doesn’t like. He’s winded by stairs. Achy after a flight. Sleepless. Sleepy.  And in last week’s executive physical (a day-long battery of tests administered at a major US hospital, where Randall’s overall health and fitness were assessed), he was advised that in order to return to the health and vigor he once enjoyed, he’d have to change his diet.

That word.

Those vulgar folks and their nasty white doctor frocks.

Problem is, over the last couple of years he’s tried everything to get his zip back. He’s cut down, cut out. Skipped meals. Tried to get infected with the Asian flu. But he’s still stuck.

“Okay, hon,” I told him while we jogged together this morning. “Trust me. I’ve got a plan. You’re going to absolutely love this. I made it up in my sleep, it’s that simple. This is it: we have to get you to eat much more. Much, much more.”

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

Eating. . . at the Mets Stadium in New York City.

I explained my theory, which I happen to call the Pyramid Plan. (Because a little alliteration makes it marketable. And again, we don’t use the D––– word.)

The Pyramid simply means eating a lot of the foods that are the best for your body, what your cells really need for optimum nourishment and health, the most nutrient-packed, roughage-dense foods.

“Every day without fail you build your Pyramid by eating the most of those kinds of foods. The base of the Pyramid,” I made a triangle shape with my fingers, “is 6 large servings of vegetables. Then you add 5 servings of fruits.”

I watched him in my peripherals. So far, steady. We kept running, breezy-like. Then I added the next layer. “You eat 4 servings of whole grains. Along with 3 servings of lean protein. Then you need 2 servings of calcium/dairy, and to finish it off, you’ll need one generous serving of fat.

It was then that Randall noted what you’ve just noted. “You mean. . .no Krispy Kreme food group?”

We kept jogging.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

Eating gulasch in Warsaw, Poland.

“Right, yeah.” I ran straight ahead, acting clinical. “The Pyramid doesn’t include that sort of stuff because the aim is to get full on the best so that there’s not much room left for the. . . not-so-best. That way, we basically reeducate the palate. You’re not supposed to be aware of this, but we’re going to try to transform your taste buds.”

It so happens that those super foods at the base of the Pyramid also have the fewest calories per serving. The higher the Pyramid, generally the more calorie-dense the food group. What is wonderful, is that you eat well, it is sustainable, and you needn’t subject yourself or your thyroid to anything extreme. And we’re not into demonizing food. We’re learning to love the best of it.

Maybe you’re thinking of this family, who stopped eating sugar cold turkey for a year, and subsequently no longer desired what they’d craved earlier. But I reassured Randall that our focus is different. (It has to be. As you know, this jog we’re enjoying is in Switzerland. This is no time to rule out chocolate. I’m thinking of a way of working it into the Pyramid. Maybe as mortar.)

What I was suggesting to my husband isn’t first about what you can NOT eat, but what you CAN. And SHOULD. And MUST.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Eating my first birthday cake, Kansas.

Experience has taught me something important. If we keep giving ourselves false fuel, we’re training our desires for just that: false fuel. We’ll crave empty calories that fill us up, but leave our cells screaming. When we fill our empty stomachs with empty calories, we remain forever hungry. Paradoxically, we can end up overeating, overfed, but ultimately undernourished. Left unchecked, this emptiness can lead to feeling imprisoned in our bodies, sluggish, even dead-ish.

It’s a difficult cycle to break. I know.

You already see this parable with sin taking shape.

Our spirits, like our bodies, crave true nourishment.  Truth. Meaning. Intimacy. Knowledge. Service. Hope. Freedom. Growth. Creation. Love. Problems arise when we become habituated to filling our spirits with “empty calories,” with tangible or intangible stuff (like the It Handbag or maybe Facebook fame,) which we’re fooled into thinking will satisfy us, but which in the end don’t. Because they cannot. “You can’t ever get enough of what you don’t need,” goes the adage, “because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.”

Unsatisfied, famished, we keep scarfing down metaphorically “empty calories” in a passive stupor of addiction, mindlessly poisoning our systems with what will never ultimately satisfy our spirits. Shopaholics, workaholics, pornoholics. Liars, exploiters, thieves. We war, we dominate, we covet. We justify gossiping, cheating, condemning. We long for our neighbor’s salary, house, spouse. We allow drugs, binge drinking, insularity, promiscuity and bullying, every latest gadget, every designer trinket, every luxury leisure to fill the hallways of our schools,  starving our first world children spiritually, while third world children starve literally.

All the while, the sound of our innermost cells, screaming.

Eating more birthday cake, Alabama.

Eating more birthday cake, Mobile, Alabama.

Though I’m not Catholic, I appreciate this from Pope Francis:

“There’s the risk of passively accepting certain behaviors and to not be astonished by the sad situations around us . . .We get used to violence, as if it were everyday news taken for granted; we get used to our brothers and sisters who sleep on the streets, who don’t have a roof over their heads. We get used to refugees seeking freedom and dignity who aren’t welcomed as they should be…[We should fight ] this addiction to un-Christian and easy-way-out behaviors that drug our hearts.”

To undrug our hearts we might need to retrain our desires/appetites/impulses. For that, it’s not enough to just stop scarfing the bad stuff for a while. That Quickie Miracle Cleansing Flush might drain something, but it won’t retrain much. Something draconian––ever eaten only Tic Tacs for three weeks?––might feel righteous, even holy, but it won’t rehabilitate us for good. We’ll be back to Twinkies before we know it. It’s not enough to remove evil, to tell my children to not spend so much time in a daze with a digital gadget, for instance. Remove the gadget, and what you have is an empty space. There must be a desirable and  truly “nourishing” replacement that fills up –– or even crowds out –– the vacuum that remains. There has to be “nutritionally dense” matter that will fill both mind and spirit and train the soul toward those things.

As this wise voice asserts:

“Evil in its raucous, impudent, and foul forms penetrates so strongly into the consciousness of our precious young people that they scarcely have freedom of choice. We cannot isolate our young from the influences of the world, but we can teach them to differentiate so that they can avoid everything that is unclean, unspiritual, and ugly.”

-Dr. Johann Wondra, (former head of Vienna’s Burg Theater) “Art: A Possibility for Love” in Arts and Inspiration, ed. Dr. Steven Sondrup

Eating...ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

Eating ice cubes in Springville, Utah.

By filling the body and mind with the best, you are educated to differentiate and free to choose between the empty and the excellent. Furthermore, you can arrive at that magical moment when you realize with a jolt that you’re actually craving raw red peppers. Not at all like what you used to crave, the Cheet-os, Doritos, Fritos, Tostitos, Ho-Hos or anything else that ends in a zero.

Just a Plain. Red. Pepper.

What’s happened is all those good things from the Pyramid base have waged a gentle revolution, and your body chemistry has been altered. It honestly wants what is best for it.  It desires what is good.  When we fill our bodies and our hearts with the real, the good, the highest quality of nutrition—literally or figuratively–– we begin craving the real, the good, the truly nutritious. We’re nourished. We find balance. We’re free.

That, I think, is a mighty change.

Those words remind of a passage of scripture I’ve always loved. It’s about an ancient people, once a tribe of ego- and appetite-driven types (like all of us), who, through disciplined living and mindful choices, retrain their spiritual taste buds. They experience such an internal revolution, in fact, the record states they’d “wrought a mighty change” in their hearts, and they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”  (Mosiah 5:2)

Impossible? No more disposition for Krispy Kremes?

In a few posts, I’ll be back to report on how the Pyramid stands.

 

Not letting any of my cousins eat my birthday cake, Bloomingotn, Indiana

Not letting ANYONE else eat MY birthday cake, Bloomington, Indiana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video

On Loss and Living Onward

What do you say to someone who has experienced the devastation of major loss?

Nothing. Just listen.

Filmed by Michelle Lehnardt, with score by Eliza Smith, and soundtrack editing by Corbin Sterling.

Featuring author and bereaved mother Melissa Dalton-Bradford, bereaved parents Lana Kemp Smith, Melodie Webb, Dean Menlove, Coleen Menlove, Lisa Garlick, Dean Garlick, Tom Linkous; bereaved children Eliza Smith, Calvin Smith, Millie Smith; bereaved spouse Marshall Smith; and bereaved sibling Kevin Linkous.

Sin, 101: A Fifty-Cent Parable

In a comment thread elsewhere, a thoughtful reader asked me, “What is sin?”

Nothing like three little syllables–nine letters and a fishhook at the end–to get you right in the craw! For the last two weeks (if not for my whole adult life) I’ve asked myself this same question. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sin, in theory almost as much as in practice, has occupied both the minds and hearts––and even the best minds and hearts––for … oh, forever.

Who am I, though, to answer this kind of question? To define points of doctrine? In response, I’d rather describe than prescribe, would rather share what my life’s passage has been (and what sin has meant for me), than talking hamartiology, theology and philosophy. Besides, those -ologies can quickly get thick, inaccessible and even explosive––a mine field of semantics.

Instead of going the route of theoretical theology, I’ll break up our discussion on sin into a few simple parts, each post built on a parable taken from personal experience. Then I’ll try to offer a loose definition of some aspect of sin. I hope you’ll come back to leave a comment. I think the comment thread will be better than the posts. (Come back, at least, to hear some great stories.)

Age six

Age six, with ponytail

A 50-Cent Parable

I was six. Laura Nieminen, my friend upstairs in our apartment building, had a fifty-cent coin. It lay there, unattended, on a windowsill in her bedroom while we two sat on her floor playing dolls.

Trying to play dolls, that is. I couldn’t concentrate on a single one of her many Barbies, (I had none, by the way; she had a whole Rockette line-up, so I was feeling deprived,) I was too distracted by that flat silver disc glinting in my peripheral vision. It was magnificent. Magnetic. 

So much so, that when Laura left to go to the bathroom, I couldn’t resist. And why should I resist? I thought. I’ll never really take it. I’ll just touch it for a second, feel its weight, its slick surface, its shininess.

I took it in my hand. It was warm, having lain in the sun by the window.  The heat made it more magical. There it was, solid and glossy in my palm, with that impeccably chiseled JFK profile.

And something in me gave in, stopped resisting, took a step. Quickly, I wrapped the piece in a teeny yellow Barbie doll rain slicker Laura had told me I could have, (“Oh, I’ve got lots others,” she’d said. And that, I said to myself, meant she wouldn’t miss some stupid coin, either. She had more of everything. I had less. Taking it would be justified.)

I slipped the hot wad in my pocket, and took off.

In a dead sprint, I ran out of Laura’s room, out of her apartment, down the hallway, down a lightless stairway, down another hallway, into our apartment, and straight to my bedroom at the end on the right. I shut the door behind me. Panting, and swallowing a surge of something new and electric, I stashed the coin in its shiny yellow packaging way back in a drawer under some cotton underwear. Then I flopped on my bottom bunk, sweaty-palmed and a bit queasy. I was stiff but shaky as I closed my eyes to stare into the dark, swirling pit of what I’d just gotten away with.

Age six, contemplating a bigger heist

Contemplating a bigger heist

Weeks and months went by.  Laura never asked for her coin. This was a relief, because that meant she hadn’t noticed, and if she had noticed, she hadn’t cared. I thought. In my mind, if she didn’t missed it, and no one caught me, then I was off the hook. I’d really not done anyone any harm. I wasn’t bad.I of course never gave the coin back to her. But I never spent it, either. Honestly, I’m not even sure of whatever became of the fifty-cents.

But I know what happened to me. At first, I could think of little else but that coin. That little disc of metal clouded—or better, eclipsed—my other thoughts. And I felt not only less light in terms of luminosity, but I felt less light in terms of weight. I was heavier in spirit—my spindly little six-year-old self—no matter how much I tried to whistle in the dark or how much I smiled as I skipped on the playground.

Skipped, by the way, right past Laura. Because besides taking away my lightness of mind and lightness of spirit, my dishonesty eventually distanced me from my friend. In fact, although I got her yellow Barbie slicker back to her somehow (probably confecting some fib for why I’d run home that day, so stacking another untruth on top of the deceit of stealing) I never went back to her apartment. Never played with her again, in fact.

What’s more, I felt awkward—ill at ease—just looking into the eyes of my parents, my sisters.  Could they see into my eyes? Know what I was hiding in my room, in the back of a drawer, in my thoughts?

This preoccupation meant I was also ill at ease with myself. Because when I did look into my own eyes, (I climbed up onto the cool white enamel bathroom sink to get a good look of myself in the medicine chest mirror rimmed in metal) I thought my eyes looked. . . different? My act split me from myself. I felt regret. Worry. Guilt. I became redefined in my own mind: A girl capable of that.

In so many ways, still that little girl

In so many ways, still that little girl

And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted.  Instead, it cost me, and it still does.

***

Sin, for me, is any deliberate action (and I’ll include thought patterns as actions) that is in opposition to what our most vibrant conscience tells us is right, good and true.  Sin is also stepping over divinely ordained guidelines. Sin leads us away from light, wholeness, peace, and joy. Sin, unresolved, impedes our growth. It is real, omnipresent, and causes misery and death. Avoiding sin eases life. Abandoning sin can be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But doing so gives life, and that life is both more abundant and freer than any life we’d ever imagined possible.

***

What about this 50-cent Parable rings true or familiar to you? What doesn’t?

What from the concluding “definition” of sin works for you? What does not?

How would you describe or define sin?

Loss and Living Onward. . .To Press

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

In one month my second book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices, will be in your hands. As I write these words, talented lay-out and cover designers David and Maggie are making last-second tweaks, and sending the manuscript off to press.

Let me admit something: This book has been pushing itself up and out of my very pores for nearly five years.  It’s been close to publication with two other publishing houses. And I’ve been teetering on that slick ledge of giving up on it, oh, 174 times. But I have a persistent (bossy and endearing) cheering committee, and they wouldn’t let me hunker down in the safe retreat of silence.  Finally, this book has found its rightful channel to reach the public.

I am grateful. I am joyful. I am tired.  I am anxious.

Anxious and slightly exhausted smile. . .

Anxious and exhausted smile. . .

When cataclysm erupted in our family’s life, I turned to literature for a community, common experience and spiritual knowledge.  People who know me well know that, with the exception of math, marbled meats and sometimes sleep, I don’t do much half-heartedly. So that same intensity translated into gathering hundreds upon hundreds of statements on loss and grief. Not with a mind to ever publish an anthology, mind you, but with a heart that was stunned to a sputtering speechlessness and needed understanding. I scraped and spelunked through other’s words to speak for and to me. In time, and without having had a plan on the outset to do so, I had the makings of a major tome on grief. Those quotes–at least those for which my publisher could acquire legal permissions– together with 17 of my best personal essays, have evolved into this substantial book. I can hardly wait to get it out there.

I sent a friend and fellow bereaved mother a galley (pre-published) PDF copy. Here’s what she wrote to me just this week:

Dear Melissa,
I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending much of this past weekend with your wonderful book…My husband was not feeling well, so we were both at home, and I read and read.  I can’t tell you how often I picked up my computer and said to my husband, “Read this,”  because you were able to articulate just how I was feeling so much of the time. And you did it so eloquently and beautifully.  You were able to put into words what I felt but could not express and you did this so much better than any other author I have read.
I loved the quotes at the beginning of each section.  I must admit though that I hurried through them so that I could get to your writing.  I do plan to go back and highlight as soon as I get my hard copy.  There were so many wonderful nuggets where I paused and smiled because they nailed feelings I had experienced and interpreted what I was still trying to identify.
One of my favorites was the grief beast section.  My grief beast looks a lot like yours, and now I can put a name and description to it. It’s still lumbering around but it doesn’t come as often as it did before and it doesn’t stay as long.  But I think that now I will talk about that beast to others so they can have a better idea about how awful grief can be.
I can’t imagine how heart wrenching it must have been for you to move to an entirely new country and new community right after Parker’s death.  How did you survive?  I’m so glad that you wrote.  It must have been healing for you, but now it is healing for so many others. Even though you were so alone, you have been able through your writings to reach out to so many.
I’m so grateful that you have such a gift for writing.  All of us who have experienced the loss of a child feel like your book is balm for our grief.  I shed a ton of tears as I read, but I felt so understood and valued. I will read it again and again. Thank you.  Thank you.

You know those emails that make your throat sting and nose prickle like you’d just breathed in a whole room full of dry ice fumes? This one.  If she says it works, I’m convinced. I need that kind of reassurance.  Similar to my fears of publishing Global Mom, I have had some nagging fears for this book, too. What if I turn my son into an artifact? Will I be misunderstood as bitter, gloomy, morbid, or strangely proud of or elitist about our family’s loss? Will my family’s story not be fairly represented? Will I make grief look too easy? Too hard? Too dreamy? Too predictable? Too comprehensible? Too tidy?  Will its most helpful pages not be the ones that were the hardest to write, which were the descriptive ones (my essays), but the most helpful will be the prescriptive ones, which took just a day to whip together (the two appendices with What To Do/ What Not To Do and a suggested readings list)? Will my deep faith and profound, repeated experiences with the spiritual alienate readers who do not, perhaps, consider themselves people of faith, or “spiritual” types? WiIl this book speak with humility the truth I’ve known?

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

 

I’ve run down this list of questions plus a longer one, be assured. But I’ll let you read my writings, and you can decide.

Visit my Loss and Living Onward Facebook Page to find daily updates as well as quotes I could not include in the hard copy itself.

You can preorder now on Amazon, or wait until May 6th to order and receive your stack for yourself and for

US Mother’s Day, May 11th,

and

US Memorial Day May 26th.

 

Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

— W. H. Auden

Barbie as you've never seen her

Barbie, posing post scoliosis surgery. Mock-up for the full-body cast my mom wore for 9 months.

One whiff of isopropyl alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my first lessons about the costs of change. Though I was too young to know it then, I was destined to learn that summer and over the years to follow, just how necessary to our survival ––but how painful, risky and costly––change is.

Those were hard and tactile lessons, as hard as the shoulder-to-groin body cast my mother wore for nine months, and as tactile as her waxy scars she allowed me to touch. Her “Frankenstein scars” as she called them, came from traction rods that had run through her knees, and from the four screws that had been drilled into her skull. The longer, purplish incisions that snaked down her spine and all over her torso came from surgical scalpels.

My nightly job was to swab with big wads of cotton the visible scars that were still healing, as well as the sore patches of skin around my mom’s arms, hips and at her jaw line.  These were being rubbed raw by every one of her awkward movements against the pumice-stone edge of plaster.

Mom’s change was no figure of speech. Her change was her figure, literally. She had undergone a complete restructuring of her spine to correct severe scoliosis, which series of surgeries that I’ll describe here, if you have the stomach for them, saved her life.  Straightforward as that.

scoli charts

The collapsing and twisting of her spine (begun at puberty and exacerbated by four pregnancies) was far more than some mere cosmetic bother. No, she couldn’t wear most clothes from stores, as they didn’t fit her curved back.  And no, she couldn’t sit in a normal church pew without shoving two hymnals under the hip that was three inches higher than the other.  The real problem was that the scoliosis had advanced to where her lungs and other internal organs were severely compromised. Even her thoracic cavity was showing signs of being cramped.  She didn’t have full use of both lungs.  There was pressure on her heart. Doctors vigorously encouraged intervention.

But this, remember, was the ‘70’s.  The surgical procedures for correcting spinal collapse were still experimental. Surgery was risky. And my parents, university instructors, were of modest means.  Surgery was also costly. But the risks and costs of not undergoing the change were greater than the risks and costs of not making the change at all.

Off to grandmas house with my baby brother, Aaron

Off to grandma’s house with my baby brother, Aaron. Note the length of my Mom’s kaftan.

And so this was going to be our Summer of Change.  My mom was going to be rebuilt.  Lee Majors was The Bionic Man on TV at the same time, and so the idea of a Bionic Mom was appealing.  We four children were farmed out to relatives, and my dad and mom drove to Minneapolis, tugging a camper trailer across the ominous aridity of America’s Midwest.  In St. Paul, my mom was admitted to the hospital.

legs scoli

There, on July 1st, she was put in traction. This meant that she lay flat on her back, skewered through the knees with steel rods, to which a pulley system threaded overhead was attached. At the end of the system were tied progressively heavy sand bags. They stretched her downward, toward the foot of her bed.  At the same time, she was fitted with a metal halo, literally screwed into her skull at four points, and to that halo, another pulley contraption was tethered, and sandbags stretched her to the top of the bed.

traction

For six weeks she lay in traction. She never lifted or turned her head. Never twisted to her side without two nurses’ assistance. Never went to a toilet or looked out her window or shook out her hair. Never as much as bent her legs or reached down to scratch her shin. Immobility tested her patience, if not her sanity. The threat of blood clots was constant. But in recounting those long weeks, she focuses on watching (through pulley cords and from a mirror positioned above her hospital bed) Nixon’s televised resignation and his famous waving departure on a helicopter. “He looked as miserable as I felt at the time,” she said, “but more stiff.”

From that lateral position and after six weeks, she was hoisted directly onto a mobile operating table, wheeled into the O.R., and surgeons made a long curving incision across her rib cage. They removed a rib, ground it up, and like master chefs, kept the ground rib to the side like a bowl of dry oatmeal.  For later mixing.

Then they made another incision, this time along the crest of her pelvis. From there, they dug and scraped, harvesting more meal. That bowl they also set aside. They would need her own bone mortar for packing in around the base of her spine when they performed the final and major reconstructive surgery.  It involved making a long incision down the entire length of her spinal column, laying the flesh open, then packing like sand in a sand castle her own bone meal in and around the lumbar region of her spine, then bolting two long and delicate titanium (Harrington) rods to her spine and, in essence, jacking her up like a car on lifts.

Risk accompanied every phase of this surgery.  Just how serious the risk was, was brought home dramatically when sirens went off in her hospital room.  Her roommate, just returned from the same surgery mom was to undergo the next morning, had gone into cardiac arrest. Surrounded by screaming family and frantic but ultimately helpless doctors and nurses, the roommate died. Mom was surreptitiously wheeled out of her own room.

In the hallway that night, against the accompaniment of wailing and thick terror, my parents determined that in spite of every known risk, Mom would still undergo the surgery.

rib scar

back scar

Chrysalis, anyone?

Chrysalis, anyone?

I recall when my Mom came home. She was wearing a jersey red polka top and white pants grown suddenly too short, under which fit that bulky full body cast with its chin-high collar. The airplane crew drove her to us in one of those golf carts in which she sat primly, robotically, artificially erect. She was taller, thinner, weaker.

welcome home

But she was stronger. She was changed. And although to this very day her bionic spine sets off the occasional airport security system everywhere she travels, she travels. She’s around to do so. If you were to ask her now, on what is nearly the 40th anniversary of our Summer of Change, I am certain she would say that every fear and every violet scar was more than worth it.

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the worlds' most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the world’s most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

Reflecting on the changes I’ve faced in my life, I’m drawn to Auden’s keen assertion that, for the most part, we’d rather be ruined (let our spines collapse within us) than be changed (undergo risk-laden and costly improvement.) Many of us, myself included, sometimes accept the deadly or deadening way-things-are, only because change fills us with dread. Or it’s at least kinda scary. We’d rather die of the kind of fear that cramps the torso, leaving us only one lung-full of air, and room for only half a heart, than climb the “cross of the moment” and discover new life.

I didn’t know back when I was rubbing my mom’s chafe-marks with medicinal alcohol that one day I’d inherit a vertebrae or two of her bionic spine.  But I see I have.  We are anticipating our own Summer of Change. No life-altering surgeries (we can only hope) but some big realignments, including launching another book, sending a returned missionary daughter back to university, saying goodbye to a son when he heads off on a 2-year volunteer mission, and, yes, taking a new job in a new country.

I’m stiffening that spine. And if things get rough, sniffing isopropyl alcohol.

Less sullen then, but less strong

Less sullen then, but also less strong

Interview: Claire (Sorella) Bradford, Returned Missionary

Claire, our daughter, returned just three weeks ago from eighteen months of full-time service as a volunteer representative for our church in Italy. Taking some liberties here by ignoring my usual separation of church-and-blog, I want to report on her experience. I’ve captured her attention for a whole afternoon, and the following is a frank and detailed interview about her experience.

If you have any questions––any questions––Claire will respond to them here in the comment thread. Please don’t hold back: ask away! She will do her best to respect your sincere curiosity. As you’ll see, she’s used to answering all sort of questions. (And if for some reason you want this whole transcript in Italian, we do aim to please.)

Rome, St.Peter's Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Rome, St.Peter’s Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Claire, tell us about your decision to serve as a full-time missionary for your church.

I think I kind of always grew up thinking I would go on a mission. I’d always planned on it, and since both my parents went, it seemed like a logical thing to do. I prayed about the decision, talked to a lot of returned missionaries to hear about their experiences, and then knew it was something I had to do.

3 at fountain

You say, “had to do.” Did you feel pressure?

Well, yes, sort of. Maybe. There was one point, yes. I remember coming back from Tanzania, [where I had spent a semester working as a volunteer assistant warden at a juvenile detention center for boys] and not being sure at that moment if going on a mission was the right thing for me, at least not right then.  I voiced that hesitancy, and I think it surprised you and Dad.  So it made me think. You really hoped I’d have this experience.

claire cara

Can you describe the difference between your service in Tanzania and what you did in Italy?

Missionary work of the sort I did in Italy is not about working in orphanages, shelters, detention centers or building huts, digging wells. There are missions of my church meant just for that, for doing humanitarian work. They are all over the world and they do much good. But Italy was completely different, except for the fact that you’re giving 100% of your time to a cause bigger than you are, to something that should help others. As was the case with my Tanzania service, there’s really no quantifiable “gain” from going on a mission, except, I guess, that you could put in on a CV if you wanted to. But that was not my motivation, not at all. And I gained more than one could ever write up on a CV.  Also, I thought my internship in Tanzania would help me on mission.  But the work in Tanzania was different from what I did in Italy.

IMG_9101

You chose to go to Tanzania. But did you choose to serve in Italy?

Right. I chose one, the other was an assignment. If you’d asked me beforehand where I wanted to serve a mission, Italy would have been toward the top of the list. But I never told anyone. I kept that hope a secret. It was one of the places I wanted to go, and not every single missionary gets that answer or feeling right away that their location assignment is right. I remember that I’d prayed about it, and thought, well, I’m studying Humanities at university, and I don’t know if studying Humanities is the right thing, or the most practical thing, so it would be nice if getting my mission assignment would be an indication that my studies were heading in the right direction.  But I opened up that letter and ecco, Rome, Italy!  So, yeah, I realized that I should be studying Humanities. But I read that first line [ from the letter a missionary gets, declaring the mission assignment for 18 or 24 months] and the thing that got me emotional was not that I was called to Italy specifically, but that I would be called as a missionary. Period.

sorella anderson

Was Italy as a culture anything like what you had imagined it would be?

In some ways, yes. I’d lived in West European countries, I knew many cultural aspects of Latin Europe. There weren’t any big surprises, like I wasn’t surprised, as some other American missionaries were, maybe, that Italians built their cities up on hills, that there were strong and distinct dialects, huge 4-hour long meals, stuff that looked sometimes a bit chaotic. Most things for me were not that shocking. What was actually surprising was how much I loved Italy more than any other culture I’d ever lived in. I didn’t expect anything to pass up France or Norway or others places I grew up. Yet I felt so connected so quickly.

Ribs, anyone?

Ribs, anyone?

What do you ascribe that to?

I wonder if it’s the fact that I was serving 100% of the time while I was living there. I loved the people so much. Their quirks (others missionaries on occasion would criticize these things), just all made so much sense to me. They were endearing! They are such a loving people, but they didn’t feel fake or salesy or superficial.  When they trust you, they bring you into their home and treat you like their own child. They are extremely loyal and passionate and yes, some things they do don’t always make sense to outsiders. Look, it’s not really a country run on practicality, hyper organization, some mathematical spreadsheet. It is a culture that is driven by a love for the arts and architecture, painting, the language, the food, passion. And not passion of a sexual nature. How do I say it? There’s a HEAT. Italian culture runs on HEAT. Fluid, flowing, warm and Mediterranean heat. It’s not uptight or antiseptic. It’s more like doing yoga instead of doing punishing crunches and push-ups.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

Roman countryside

Roman countryside

Gelato

Gelato

So, was a mission anything like what you had imagined it would be?

No. I think I thought the things that made me a good university student would make me a good missionary. I think I thought, okay, I’m organized, task-oriented, goal-driven, I’m good at getting things done, I’m a hard worker, I’m a rule-keeper.  I thought those qualities would make me a good missionary. In school, I could master the system. I could control it. At university, if you do this and this and work really hard, you will have success. You can get a certain grade. It was a straightforward formula. But I don’t think any missionary can ever say they have “gotten” or “mastered” the work.  No missionary ever “masters” it. You don’t master some formula then you can do anything, and you learn very quickly that that’s not at all the reality. Some missionaries are great with language, some are gifted socially, some are deep and sincere, but none of that can control other people’s lives. Nothing you do can control how people will act or react to your message about religion, especially about Christ. I wasn’t expecting that.

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So that sounds hard, not being able to see quantifiable results even from a lot of effort. Can you share other things that were hard?

Being tired emotionally and physically. You want to give your best, and sometimes you want to be all there, but you are totally exhausted. I felt limited by my energy. It is hard to constantly be thinking about other people, all day long. Not just the people you are teaching and working for, but also the people you are working with. If you are in a leadership and training position like I was, ( for many months I trained missionaries newly arrived from America), you have to be thinking about a lot of other missionaries and their needs. That can be exhausting, though always rewarding, with time. Also, it is hard to follow all the rules.

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Please tell us about the rules of being a missionary.

Well, I just mentioned that Italy is a culture run by heat. But as a missionary, you can’t get too close to people either with the language or in touch. In European languages, like Italian, you have the formal and informal form [the lei form and the tu form]. As a missionary, you are supposed to only use the formal form, although in some missions with other languages you can use informal form. To keep relationships professional and to guard an emotional distance (important as a missionary) you’re asked to be formal, socially distanced. Spiritually close, but socially distanced, if that makes sense.  All you want to do is love them, and for me, especially in the south where I served on the island of Sicily for many months, it felt sometimes strained and unnatural to be in such a warm and loving environment but hold my arms at my side.  Not hugging my many friends was hard for me, but the rule was to help me remember the dignity of my calling.  I said to myself more than once, “For the sake of my name tag I will restrain myself.”

During your mission only platonic relationships are allowed. That goes for interaction with those interested in your message, members of the church, other missionaries you work with. There can be no romances, no dating, no flirting, no interactions beyond the strictly professional. Friendships are very encouraged. But they have to be wisely balanced, keeping things non-romantic. This encourages an environment of mutual support and safety and total focus on your work.

claire and friend

Some rules were a challenge, but I understand that not all rules were hard for you. What else was not hard?

Italian wasn’t really terribly hard for me. I had to study, but I was lucky that I loved to study, and I love languages, and that I loved, loved, loved Italian more than any language I had ever learned. I even loved the grammar. (I’d hated French grammar.) But Italian grammar! I’d sit and look at grammar book for hours and hours. I became known as the Queen of Conjunctivo. (or the subjunctive case).

Being away from family was not so hard. Italians would always ask, “How long have you been here? Don’t you miss your family?” The very idea of not being with family for 18 months was shocking to them. They live at home for 30 or 40 years, sometimes. Much more immediate family cohesion than I’d seen elsewhere, especially in the US where people move apart from parents early on. Not in Italy!

Not being paid was not a problem. Not dating, not going to movies, concerts, not reading the newspapers or literary books, not surfing the Internet. That wasn’t really that hard, neither was keeping a strict daily schedule . . .

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Strict schedule?

As a missionary, you’re required to be up at 6:30 a.m. to exercise until 7:00, then to do different kinds of study (alone and as a companionship) until you leave the house at 10:00. Then you leave the house and work until 1:00.  Then you have lunch and language study until early afternoon, then you are working (out on the streets talking with people, or visiting and teaching people in their homes, and we also taught a popular English course) until 8:00. From 8:00 until 9:00 pm, you have dinner, then until 10:30 you study again and go to bed.

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Sounds regimented. And this was every day except Sunday, 18 months straight? When did you relax?  And visit the Vatican?

Every missionary has something called a preparation day, or P-Day. In my companionships, we spent very few P-Days inside, just lounging. Sometimes, we did a spa day.  We soaked our feet, did facials, painted our nails, got our hair cut.  Most often, though, we went to interesting cultural sites, went food and/or clothes shopping. In all of this, we always wore our name tags. We’d called it a tourist P-Day, but we always wore our name tag, so we could be identified and so we acted the part.

Missionaries on their preparation day

Missionaries on their preparation day

How about never being alone, and always being with a companion you did not choose, but were assigned to?

Oh, that was okay. I served with 9 different Sorelle [sister missionaries] including when I was in the Missionary Training Center.

You didn’t know anyone of these young women before being assigned to work with them?

No, not a one. That’s hard for some people, I guess, but it was not hard for me, although I had prized my alone time before becoming a missionary. I’d had my own room at university, my own car, I was a very independent person and loved doing things my own way.  But I can count on one hand the times in my mission when I needed to sit alone on a little balcony in one of our little mission apartments.

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You lived in how many places/apartments?

I lived in three different apartments, three different cities, two different zones. I lived in Ragusa (Sicilia), Roma 3 (Roma), and Palermo (Sicilia).

And you trained missionaries, right?

“Trained”: You get a brand new missionary that has to be taught the ropes and the language. Yes, I trained four different new missionaries, new “greenies” they are called.

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What did it mean to be an STL?

A Sister Training Leader is an assignment given by the mission president. It means having responsibility for the emotional needs of the various sisters under your stewardship. There is a chain of command within a mission, and it is so stressful being the president of a mission (in our mission alone covering all of southern Italy, there were almost 200 young missionaries. You can imagine the needs that keep coming to the President and his wife.) So, the missions are divided into zones and zones are broken into districts. District and Zone leaders try to handle what needs arise, but if it can be dealt with on local level, (homesickness, language frustrations, health concerns, problems with a companion) you can do what you can as a Sister Training Leader to influence that part of the mission. Sister missionaries would sometimes call the president asking for help, and the Mission President would ask me to take care of it. He would say, “Sorella Bradford, you’re my ‘guy’ for this issue, okay?”  I served in this capacity for 9 months, so the whole second half of my mission.

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What did you learn from sharing messages about Jesus Christ?

(Long silence. Thinking, thinking…)

I found that a lot of people had a kind of memorized or scripted concept of God or an impersonal relationship with Christ. Not that I am any better than anyone else, but it really struck me that few understood that Christ was their personal Savior. They’d  heard things, maybe, from their parents, from school, from sermons, or rumors from grandparents, some truthful but some untruthful things, that they had heard and  memorized.  How many times did I hear, “I’m devoutly religious and I practice my faith,” but in a deeper conversation about the New Testament, for instance, this good person had little idea about Christ’s life, His miracles, parables, they had based their belief, it seemed, on a cultural norm or tradition, but hadn’t gotten much deeper than that.  Then I think we surprised them. They were taken aback that a young foreigner believed in Christ and would then express these very personal feelings about Him.

What did you learn further about teaching others about faith?

To teach simply. Especially going straight on a mission from college. There was a bit of a temptation to use complicated words and teach complex concepts and just blow people out of the water with major gospel knowledge. But the best lessons were when there was a conversation and we spoke simply.  Then I felt something powerful and special. We all did.

Claire and Martina

Claire and Martina

Can you give an example of teaching and having that special thing happen?

Martina. Normal, Roman through-and-through. Married. It was amazing from the very beginning. It was incredible to see someone so prepared for what we had to teach her. She had zero previous knowledge of or background of the church, she had no concept of certain doctrines. She was just, oh what’s the word, someone so normal, just a very normal woman who had some normal human questions and needed someone to just explain certain things, and she did her own research, and came to church and loved it. She was, ah!, incredible, It was incredible to see her progress and learn and become happier. Honestly, I went out of every lesson thinking, WOW.

As missionaries, we want to serve and help anyone who will listen to our message to live happier, more stable and productive lives, have happier families, better health, all that. When they progress and desire more, then we invite them to be baptized. When we invited Martina, she said yes. Her husband, who said no at first, later changed his mind and now both have become members of that congregation in Rome.

How are they doing?

Incredibly.  They are the strongest members in that little congregation.  I’m going to go see them next month. (Big smile. Little squeal.) I hope I know them forever.

Martina at her baptism

Martina at her baptism

Sounds like you miss it. A lot. Was it hard to come home, back to civilian life? Um…to…us?

Yeah. It’s hard to be home. A mammoth let down. For a lot of reasons. I had developed a strong identity that I don’t feel I brought back from my mission. It’s hard for me to be feeling like I’m not the person I was. I can’t demonstrate that I was a responsible leader in my mission, that I was entrusted with decision-making power by my president, I also feel far less on-the-go; the next day as a missionary was always planned and full, now that structure is gone. I really miss a culture that is loud and spontaneous, and so I feel a little lost, floating. I was so needed as a missionary. And so challenged. And I had so many people to love, who needed me.

Even if you’re busy at home doing all sort of good things, nothing will compare to the importance of the world you were in as a missionary. I just loved watching people change all the time. That is a satisfaction I’ve never experienced  doing anything else. It’s just such a dense spiritual experience, and life feels. . . a little superficial right now.

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Is this why you wanted it to last longer?

Yes. I begged to stay longer. But to tell the truth, I was so exhausted in the end. I don’t think the body or the mind is made to live with such intensity permanently. Still, maybe two years would have been the best for me.

If I can insert myself, Claire, I’ve often told you and others that the greatest blessings of my life have flowed from my opportunity to have served a full-time mission (in Austria in the ‘80’s.) The person I married, what I studied in undergrad and graduate school, where and how we have raised our children. Can you speak to that?

No question, this mission will have a huge impact on the rest of life. I can’t say from here what the long-range blessings will be, I can speak in theory. I want to live at some point again in Europe, probably Italy and probably long-term, not just a vacation or semester, but live there. That is my dream.  I won’t use Italian in my remaining two semesters of university, but I have no idea how it will affect my masters studies. For sure, I’ve gained countless life skills, tons and tons of life skills. What I hope is that my mission refined my good qualities, and showed me weaknesses I didn’t know I had. I feel like you can’t go through a process like a mission without being transformed.

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And since coming home as a transformed person. . . you have been keeping weekly email contact with another missionary still serving in Italy, someone you met at the very end of your service. Am I right?

Yes.

Can you ––?

Um. . . This is all new, so I am still not sure of how to––

Would you care to­––?

Let’s just say it’s pretty serious.

But can you tell us about hi––?

He is incredible. He is Italian. And I am committed.

Sounds like it.

(Interviewer and interviewee smile.)

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Any last thoughts?

It is not easy approaching people all the time, trying in the very few seconds you have to convey all of the joy and love you have for this gospel, for the message you are sharing. It is not easy watching people make great steps in their lives, seeing people make such progress, seeing them be happier, and then letting it all go. Letting all of it completely go. It is so hard watching that, and knowing that our job is not to force anyone, not to convince them. So you don’t. That is up to them and their God. You try and communicate why you love your mission, why you love what you are doing, and hope that they will feel that love. All of that difficulty is worth it, however. I have found my best friends in my mission. Some are missionaries, some are members of our Church, but not all of them. I have incredible friends that, for some reason or another, decided to not take our lessons, or decided to not be baptized members of our Church. But I love them so much anyway. You just get to be part of all that love, and it is so rewarding. So worth it.

 From an address Claire gave at a recent youth evening, where she spoke about her mission:

“Many of our missionaries begin their missions thinking they are going to repay Heavenly Father for His goodness toward them by serving Him for 18 months or two years.  But before long they learn an important eternal truth: you can never do more for the Lord than He can do for you.”

––M. Russell Ballard