Saturday, September 5, 2015

Where are they now, those women who stared from the mirror?

Part of packing up my life/organizing my room as I get ready for Oxford means that I find a lot of old notebooks and journals. I have too many of them. But the thing is, I'm not one a person who just collects pretty notebooks. I use them. All of them. Every single page.

I'm a writer. It's what I do.

My journals are . . . how do I describe them? They are similar to my blog posts, but they are more personal. I know that the more skeptical among you are saying, "Really, Meg? Because this blog can get pretty darn up-close and personal sometimes." I know that it can. Frankly, that's how I prefer it. I like to be as genuine as I can be without being overbearing. I have a way that I portray myself online, and for right now, I'm good with that--even if it does mean that I am more personal than some people would be comfortable with.

But, even though my blog posts can verge on the diary-esque at times, I hope that my thoughts and experiences are useful to people. I write with an audience in mind--and that audience includes both friends and family members who tell me that they enjoy reading my blog and myself, honestly. I try to write things that I would enjoy reading if they were on someone else's blog.  

Anyway. My journals are much more personal than these blog posts. They include many more names, feelings, angst, dreams, hopes, etc. than I would ever feel comfortable sending into the vast universe of the Internet.

My journals are also full of more self-reflection than these blog posts.

Last night, I finished up a journal that I started about nine months ago. I always have this sense of melancholy accomplishment when I finish a journal. I also have this ritual I do--I like to look back and see how I have changed, what I have learned, and what I hope to improve about myself. It's part of the narrative I write about myself, I suppose. I want my narrative to be one full of growth and change, hope and redemption. (See this article in The Atlantic for a more-detailed analysis of this idea of how we shape our narratives--I think it's fascinating.)

When I write my journal posts, I am limited--I only have the understanding of what I experienced that day or that week . . . I can't see what the future holds. But when I look back on my old journal posts, I am an omniscient reader.

I know exactly what grade I will get on that essay, how that first date will go, or what graduate school program I will choose.

And I know how I have changed--for better or for worse--from those days before.

Often I laugh out loud when reading past journal entries. I laugh at how silly I am or how melodramatic. Sometimes I cry. I cry for the pain that my previous self experienced or inflicted on others. Sometimes I am impressed by the wisdom of a February 7th or April 16th Megan. Yet reading the entries from February 9th or April 28th help me realize how easily I forget. It's a cycle of epiphanies and amnesia, bitterness and healing, pride and humility, hard hearts and soft souls.

That's part of the story of the last nine months. That cycle. The give-and-take. Hope, despair, grief, healing, pain, joy, expectations, cynicism, anger, love . . . they are all a part of me. We can't choose what life or others throw at us. But we can choose what to do with our circumstances. Hard hearts can soften. Moments of struggle bring the greatest growth. And I can choose to be an agent and claim a space of choice.

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I've learned this summer is that the cure to our maladies (particularly grief and heartbreak) rarely--if ever--come in some dramatic package. Rather, it is by doing the little things step-by-step and choosing to keep moving forward that we make it. Peace and healing take time. But they come. If we are searching, moving forward, and trying to reach out to others, healing comes. That I believe.

It is also impossible (and unhealthy) to try to make things the way they were before. We learn from the past, but we don't live there. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says, "We look back to claim the embers from glowing experiences but not the ashes. And when we have learned what we need to learn and have brought with us the best that we have experienced, then we look ahead, we remember that faith is always pointed toward the future."

Last September, I fell in love with a song from the musical Ragtime. It's called "Back to Before," and it is sung at a critical junction in a character's development. It is a moment of self-realization . . . and disillusionment. Listen to it--it will be worth your time, I promise.

[I'm also including a link here, just in case the video is taken away.]

Since I know that you most likely did not listen to it (although if you did, kudos to you--it's beautiful, isn't it?), here are the lyrics:

"There was a time our happiness seemed never-ending
I was so sure that where we were heading was right. 
Life was a road, so certain and straight and unbending
Our little road with never a crossroad in sight. 

Back in the days when we spoke in civilized voices 
Women in white and sturdy young men at the oar. 
Back in the days when I let you make all my choices . . .
We can never go back to before. 

There was a time my feet were so solidly planted
You'd sail away while I turned my back to the sea. 
I was content, a princess asleep and enchanted 
If I had dreams then I let you dream them for me. 

Back in the days when everything seemed so much clearer
Women in white who knew what their lives held in store
Where are they now, those women who stared from the mirror? 
We can never go back to before. 

There are people out there unafraid of revealing 
That they might have a feeling or they might have been wrong. 
There are people out there unafraid to feel sorrow, unafraid of tomorrow, 
unafraid to be weak . . . unafraid to be strong! 

There was a time when you were the person in motion 
I was your wife, it never occurred to want more. 
You were my sky, my moon, and my stars and my ocean . . .
We can never go back to before. We can never go back to before! 

I think that we all have multiple times in our lives when we have those startling paradigm shifts: we realize that life can never go back to the way it was before. Our "little roads with never a crossroad in sight" suddenly become tortuous. We realize that there are many winding roads with multiple crossroads . . . and we are forced to make difficult decisions. Decisions where we both lose and gain.

We wake up from our enchanted sleep and find that we have been been living someone else's dreams instead of living our own lives with purpose and fulfillment. Those "women in white who knew what their lives had in store" and who seemed to have all the answers fade from the foreground; their images become blurry and clouded from doubt and disillusionment. Life as before can never be the same.

But in those moments, instead of wallowing in self-pity--or even allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by shock--we need to choose action over cynicism or fear. We choose to move forward in faith, even while we grieve (or rejoice, depending on the context) for what was lost. We can choose to be "unafraid to be weak, unafraid to be strong." To live deliberately. To realize that doubt and disillusionment are parts of life--of growing up--but that doesn't mean we have to stay in those valleys.

We can claim our agency. And re-claim it time and again when life tries to swallow us whole.

Fight for our happiness.

As I was re-reading a few of my past journal entries, I came across one that I had written after a "we can never go back to before" moment. A paradigm shift, so to speak. And a deeper understanding as I wrestled through questions and struggles of my own. I hope you will indulge me as I share it hoping that these thoughts will be helpful for someone, somewhere:

"Where is the mercy? I think we all ask that--or we all will ask that--either cynically or out of despair at some point in our lives. Where is the mercy? Where is the mercy in the history of a world that is full of plague, war, rape, slavery, and oppression? Where is the mercy in our own lives? Our own lives which are also full of sorrow, disappointment, despair, and loss? Where is the justice? Where is the compassion? And where is the mercy? [. . .]

"Sometimes we wonder where God is, or why God "did" or "didn't" do something. But often, God doesn't do anything. Not in the sense that He's not there or that He doesn't care. But in the sense that He doesn't take away our agency. He allows us to make stupid decisions. So that we can learn. So that His justice can come to pass.

"I mean, God could send an angel with a flaming sword to stop every bad thing from happening--every genocide, every stock market crash, every war. He doesn't stop every break-up, every broken arm, every sickness.

"He could. And don't get me wrong--sometimes He does. Sometimes He does. But most of the time, He lets us choose. And our mistakes hurt others. And others' choices hurt us. He is the God who weeps. Who weeps because we hurt each other. Who weeps because we choose ourselves over Him. Who weeps because He loves us. But who loves us enough that He doesn't and will not take our agency away.

"So there has to be something powerful about agency--so powerful--that God will not take it away from us . . . that He will not force us. But that He will guide, direct, persuade, and ultimately weep--mindful of us and mindful that this use of our agency is the only way we can learn. It is the only way we can progress. Desiring and choosing the Lord's way helps us become like Him. But we have to really want it. He wants to know if we really want it. What are the desires of our hearts? Shto ty hochesh? What do you want?"

We can never go back to before. But we can move forward. We can choose to claim our agency and be the leading ladies and heroes of our own stories.

Agents to act instead of being acted upon.

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