The Bread and Milk of Living03159_000_007
Here we are, working through our daily lives, often into the wind. We are trying to discover who we are and what is important. In the process, we find ourselves filling many roles and searching for serenity as life rises and falls between the blessings of heaven and the bedrock of testimony and faith.
Gradually we come to understand that we are dependent upon a power far greater than our own, and as we learn to rely upon our Heavenly Father, we also come to know our need to depend upon ourselves and to bring forth the best that we possess in order to live this tough life with style, with buoyancy, meaningfully, using our heads. Daily we strive to use our resources to the utmost—to give form and relevancy to our many activities, to do nothing unimportant, and to enjoy it all.
In my own struggle to live well, I have pursued an idea for some time now that helps provide form and joy to my life. I am mostly at home. But I do have time to think—and one of the things I think about most is the bread and milk of living. In other words, I think about how to make daily life my friend. Mortality, after all, should be an adventure, not a burden.
Some years ago, my son gave me the key. He was six and learning to play basketball, and the day came when he made his first basket. It had been a long pursuit. He can still feel the heaviness of that basketball and remember how high the hoop seemed to be.
When he made the basket he came running into the house to tell me about it. Sharing his excitement, I said, “Hurry back outside and see if you can make another one.”
“No,” he said. “First I have to draw a picture of me making it.”
That moment—unforgettable, puzzling—slowed me down. It made me thoughtful. It captured the intensity of human experience and forced me to confront myself.
All of us make our first basket, but do we stop and draw a picture of us making it? In other words, do we think about what we do? Do we pause from doing to reflect? Do we assign importance to the small daily happenings of our lives by giving them our attention? Do we preserve them somehow?
As I was growing up, I was entranced by my grandmother’s stories about her childhood. Finally, about thirty years ago, I began a five-year interrogation during which I would ask questions and she would write her memories, one by one. I persisted, seeking more detail, sending her in dusty directions.
Both of us were amazed at what happened. Her mind flew, alighted, flew once more. Her heart felt again and again the original pain and pleasure of all her years.
Back and forth from one end of Utah to the other went our letters—or one of us—until finally we realized we had better organize what she had written into chapters and type it up. I hurried to do this because both of us could see that what we had loosed could not be contained. In fact, her memory muscles had so relaxed by this time that she continued to send experiences for the rest of her life. There are two supplements to her life story.
There had been much more to write about than she thought there was when she began remembering. And something even more unexpected happened when she contemplated the finished product, held it and read it and laughed and cried and was astounded—startled—at the richness of her own life.
She could not remember doing much noticing, let alone thinking, about what had happened to her as she went along. Yet now that she could stand back and look at the whole of it and relive it and see herself more clearly, she was pleased with mortality. It hadn’t let her down after all.
Grandmother’s life had first attracted me as a writer because of the historical significance of her childhood in the United Order. That needed to be recorded. But aside from such historical significance, I began to see the beauty and disappointments of her life, the pulse of it, the heartbeat. The richness of it and the power lay essentially in the little everyday happenings that formed its greatest part: soapmaking day; gathering sand with which to scour the knives, forks, and spoons; the square of cheese that sometimes lay beside the nightly meal of bread and milk; the gift slipped through the window on Christmas Eve; the despised school teacher, and the adored one; the best dress—the only Sunday one—ruined at the grist mill. Could it ever be replaced? When? The pain of being scolded by a young husband for putting too much salt on his boiled egg; his long legs at family prayer time when it was so hard to find kneeling space in the small kitchen.
As I look back, I know that seeing my grandmother’s life come alive helped me understand the need to value my own experiences, too. Her earthshaking experiences were the essence of her life. Such earthshaking experiences are the essence of your life and mine, too. There is importance—even magic—in the mundane, in the bread and milk of living. It is one way to arrive at truth. It is a sure way to befriend mortality and make life an adventure.
Latter-day Saints have hopeful natures. We view mortality with affection. If we are writers, or selective readers, we know that a poem or short story has the power to give form and relevancy to our lives. The writer looks at the sequence of common days, sculpts out a scene or emotion or act or even a color or texture, and thinks on it until she feels it and owns it and can shape it with language into a poem or story with a beginning and an end. Then she gives it back to us so that we can have an experience we slighted the first time around, or perhaps missed altogether.
A good story or poem illuminates human behavior in some way, throwing light into the shade, exposing unlikely moments by the power of language. The gospel gives us our greatest insight into the nature and meaning of existence, but literature can help because through it we also have great experience; we nod at the truth about mortality that emerges from these experiences. In good art as in true religion, what we know is verified. We come to understand ourselves and others better. Whether it is about death or simply dishwashing, a boil or a simple blister, a poem or story helps me become objective about myself. It enables me to put a little distance between me and life; and, since it is impossible to read life with my forehead resting on the page, literature helps me stand far enough back to see.
Now, if you don’t read stories or poems—or write them—don’t worry. The benefits of such activity can be realized in many other ways.
Willa Cather insisted that “artistic appreciation should include all the activities of life.” She wrote: “The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house and on the side runs a truck garden and a chicken farm and a canning establishment, and. … enjoys doing it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs.”
Among my friends are four women who are artists in their own ways. Surely they have a friendship with life. They are human, with weaknesses and problems. But they are artists.
I am thinking first of a sister in our ward in Missouri whose regard for others gives significance to every encounter. She never just walks on by; in her presence we like ourselves. Her manner with everyone is not simply warm—it is interested. It is not simply interested—it is encouraging. She never lets you down. Such refinement in human relationships is not simply personality—it is art. Must she paint or write or dance or even read books to be a creative woman? Of course not.
Another sister can decide at 11:00 A.M. to have pie for lunch. I have never seen flour and shortening and intuition maneuvered with such efficiency and style. She begins. It is done. She is timid in public life, afraid to teach a class in church, or even pray. But when she is making a pie she is comfortable. She is an artist in an important corner of her life where hesitancy and doubt are nonexistent.
Part of my legacy as a Latter-day Saint woman is another grandmother who buried seven of her twelve children, but who never let go of an ideal. After being married for many months with no child on the way, she said pleadingly to her husband, “Will we never have children?” Through his priesthood, he promised her that they would.
When she was expecting a child, she did her work sitting in a chair. She nurtured and weeded her garden moving along the rows in a small wagon. She spent weeks in bed before and after the birth of each baby.
At the death of a child—whether a few hours old, or age twelve, twenty-three, or thirty-three—amid tears, a final kiss on the cheek, and a whispered promise of eventual reunion, she clung to her divine devotion to motherhood. No pain or loss ever shook her from the path her feet had taken—the commitment she had made to bear children no matter what it cost her.
Was she an artist? Why not? Art is form. Art is meaning. And her commitment to an idea gave form and relevancy to everything she ever did.
Another friend is an expert in husband-treating. Looking at myself, a wife exasperated by a dropped sock or a closet door left open, I am awed by her accomplishment. The governing thought of each day seems to be to please her husband, to help him, to make their home pleasant. When he walks into the kitchen where she is working, the rest of her world seems to fall back into shadow. He is the center. This sister is not demonstrative. I don’t even know what she does. Is it her trust? Her innate unselfishness? Well, it is wonderful to see. She is an artist.
Every one of us can become an artist in another creative activity that breeds optimism and self-knowledge and shapes our lives. I refer to journal-keeping. It is talked about so much nowadays that we may make the mistake of not doing it just to be different. But it is a crucial assignment—in my opinion, necessary and beyond value. Why? Because daily recording forces us to confront ourselves daily. We must select and then write happenings before we have time to worry about whether they are important enough to record.
What do we write in our journals? Almost anything. Nearly everything. You decide, but for goodness sake don’t worry about whether it is important enough. If it even whispers of feeling or interest, write it down. Do that to a happening and you have rescued it forever from being trivial. Think about it as well and you have quadrupled its value in bringing you and mortality into warm friendship.
A young woman who enrolled in a writing class of mine several years ago had married at eighteen. As part of her preparation to leave home, she wrote a detailed story of her life to that time—the proms, the crushes on boys, the pals, the births of her little brothers, the fun times—everything she could remember.
Within about three years of her wedding she lost her father in a violent accident which left her mother partly paralyzed, she nearly lost a premature baby boy, and she underwent surgery for fast-spreading cancer.
Would she ever, now, go back and record the first eighteen years of her life? Wouldn’t it seem too frivolous? Unimportant? Wouldn’t the exuberances and youthful thrills be overshadowed forever? They deserved attention; and because she gave it in time, they are preserved in such a way that her sons and daughters will read them and identify with them and know their mother better.
We live in the present, and when we write it now we are bringing a perspective impossible later on. A little boy drew a picture of himself tossing a basketball through a hoop. The experience is preserved. We need to encourage our children to recognize the value of their experiences. Sometimes a teacher will send children off into writing fantasy or concoction. But if children can learn to write about their own lives, however uneventful they may seem to an adult, and if they can then share them with others, they will realize both their universality and their uniqueness.
Art, and our journals, help us value each moment of each day. They help us relish life as we go. So does simply recognizing the richness of daily life and pacing ourselves to enjoy it. Even the most fleeting moments need our attention and thought. Happiness lies much in knowing that what is happening may be earthshaking—not just in being there and moving on.
Mortality is our friend. Don’t speed through it, skimming its pages, but pause between baskets to draw pictures—or to draw thought and meaning. It is the depth of experience that matters, not the breadth. Breadth we measure in newspapers, maps, calendars, mementos, and picture postcards. But depth is silent and invisible, awaiting discovery—or creation. That is the true bread and milk of living.