My Tree of Life

The other day I watched Thea bustle down the sidewalk in front of me, pulling her soft blue blanket as if it were a delicate animal on a leash.  It was unremarkable.  I was unremarkable, she was too.  But a thought so distinctly flashed through my mind that the idea seared on my heart.  The thought was simple, obvious and forgotten.  It said, “This is it.  This is what you’ve wanted.  You are in the middle of it.”

I imagine this phrase will be relevant in a hundred different ways over my lifetime,  but it seemed particularly poignant because sometimes I’m too quick to cast my sights beyond these years when my children are young, when I am coming into myself as a parent, and as a spiritual being.

Living in the heart of silicon valley on the campus of a prestigious university, I’ve often found myself on the defensive about my current life.  I’ve wanted to wear a sign that says, “I got my degrees!  I plan to work full-time again someday!  I work part-time from home!  I write! I choose to be home with my children!”  We live in family student housing, which is a utopia of tiny homes that all face inward toward a common grassy courtyard and playground.  It is idyllic, safe and peaceful.  Sometimes I come downstairs in the morning to friends my son has invited over for breakfast and neither of my children realize that there is a world that can be harsh.

Yet even in the idyllic, there is always more behind the curtains of roses and greenery.  Loneliness, shame and guilt are wiley creatures can hardly be kept out of even the most pristine scenery.  There have been many afternoons sitting under the shade of the tree by the playground full of wistfulness and planning for beyond these years on my part.  I’ve tried to shove shame behind me while it tries desperately to peek around when I see other women in my courtyard coming home from work or school at 5 p.m.. When we talk while pushing our kids in the swings,  I casually mention that I already got a master’s degree and I write from home, just so they know, not because they care.  My life does not look like full-time work right now.  It looks like part-time teaching, part-time working on books and projects and mostly, being a mother.  This is not a piece defending ‘stay at home moms’.  We are all tired of both the defense and the praise. I don’t wave the flag of right or wrong, for me or my children, this is simply my life and I am lucky for it.  Your life may simply be something else.  We all have our own space full of light and shadows that were are trying to make sense of.

I realized one day, soon after my original fleeting inspiration as I walked behind Thea, that I was daily walking a path I had not recognized.  If you’re a Mormon, the tree of life, and all its components is inherent.  I, like so many, attended the youth activity as a teen where you’re blindfolded and sent on a journey through the chapel with people trying to trick you at every turn.  I knew the symbols and had drawn the pictures of the iron rod, the mists of darkness, the building and the fruit. I believed the voices of the great and spacious building to be evil, to be drunk or gruff with a smoker’s lung, I never expected that someday they might be my own.

Since being a mother, particularly in a place where it doesn’t seem the most admirable job, the voices I hear calling to me are not evil, but rather a tone not unlike my own, a voice in my head that tells me I should be embarrassed, that I’m not enough, that everyone is looking at me and feeling sorry for my life because it’s not what theirs is.  But no person can dictate the joy of another.  No person has access to the intricacies of reason, intuition and the spirit that captains the life of someone else.  We do not owe it to the world to explain our reasons.

I’m not knocking ambitions, I’ve got plenty of them.  I am working with them currently, but I also recognize that there are times when the ambitions I think I need to have cloud my view of what I currently have.  I have two children who look to me to understand the world.  I am in possession of great joy most of the time and the holy and complicated hours with these two souls are nothing short of majestic when I stop to let it all sink in.  Not all women need to or will be mothers of small children, but motherhood specifically is not my point here, it is the experience I know to draw from.  Whatever it is we are doing with our lives is not perfect, but there is likely great and even hidden pockets of meaning and beauty.

In a week I must walk a hundred times to the tree in my courtyard.  Since that moment with my little girl, I have found something more at that tree than simply not being good enough.  I have found God’s love, glimpses of it filtering down through the crisp autumn light, and again in the blue winter light, through the full blossoms of spring and into the lazy pink light of summer.  I have found greater strength and courage in my walk across the great and spacious field of my backyard because the voices from the great and spacious building that are calling desperately to remind me I’m not enough, are muffled by the fact that I am doing what I feel is right.  I am holding to a rod of iron which turns out is really just a hope and a bundle of faith. And though the fruit is not quite as obvious as I imagined it to be from all my years of reading 2nd Nephi, it is there, swaying quietly in the breeze while my children play beneath it.  When I pick it and bite in, I again here that voice say, “This is it.  This is what you’ve wanted.  You are in the middle of it.”

Comments

  1. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Lovely – thanks for sharing, Cherish these moments – they only come once.

  2. Ashmae, this was a beautiful piece and something so many of us can relate to, especially as mothers of young children in our culture. I did have a pang of sadness and recognition when I read this line “My life does not look like full-time work right now. It looks like part-time teaching, part-time working on books and projects and mostly, being a mother.” I am a convert to motherhood (seriously), and I really didn’t realize until recently how much I had absorbed the capitalist, male-normative ideology that has come to define our culture (because, you’re right, it sounds just like my own voice in my own head). We simply do not value care work as work at all. Only wage-earning (and therefore traditionally male) work is considered “work.” I understand this piece was not about feminist economic theory, but this understanding this has radically shifted my paradigm and the way I view the work I do as a mother, woman, and care-giver. I still struggle, like I imagine everyone does, to find the moments of transcendence in the mundane, but this is what I too wanted, or have come to want, and now that I have it, the time is so fleeting it takes my breath away.

  3. I liked this. One night, an unremarkable night at home, my little boy had put on last year’s Halloween costume, a plastic firefighter’s coat and helmet and started parading around the room. Out of nowhere (really, this was not out of the ordinary, Halloween costumes were part of everyday play) I had a very strong prompting that said to me, “remember this night.”

    That little boy is now in the Philippines on a mission and I still remember that night.

  4. I really loved the description of your here and now, Ashmae, and also the peace you’ve been given/come to of “this is it.” I am in an opposite situation of full-time employment outside the home while my husband is the one juggling lead-parent duties (a term I have fully embraced as it captures what it is exactly he is doing) of our two young boys while working full-time from home. Though you and I are performing different duties, I feel a similar judgmental stink-eye from my more conservative LDS neighbors. I may be projecting this call-to-repentance sentiment from some, but it’s definitely an undercurrent in several relationships. But, I’ve been blessed with a similar peace as yours. This is right for me and my family. That confidence to embrace my here and now and not always be looking for a peace-to-come has been a blessing in my life. I think the mocking from the great and spacious building can come from all kinds of directions, but I also have a firm hope in the fruit of the tree. Thanks for the post.

  5. Beautiful.

  6. Wow. This applies to me so much! It’s literally exactly what I needed to hear this week. Thank you.

  7. Daniel, I’m so glad to hear! Thank you for responding and I’m glad we’re all in this together!

  8. I guess we are all at different stages of our life at different times. I have never married or had children and am too old to have children now. I have my qualifications and degree-a job that stretches me but sometimes I wonder too ‘is this it?’ I can feel the mocking too in some respects…perhaps mocking is not the right word but from many quarters there is a lack of understanding about a celibate lifestyle if you are unmarried. So married or single, with it without children, working full or part time or not at all I think much of these feelings are common to us all…..

  9. great insights Claire — thanks for chiming in!

  10. Well, I wrote a long response to this, then I stepped away for a minute because a neighbor peed on the floor and then my daughter erased it? sent it to someone else? ha! I guess case and point. Thanks for your words and example of following your intuition and doing it with confidence.

  11. Such wise words. Also, so hard to imagine that now, on the beginning end of all this. I love that this community brings so many lives together.

  12. Erika! You are so correct. the language in the phrase is incorrect. I’ve known this, but also, get so caught up in the definition and appearance of work that I forgot. Thank you! It is work, it is a good work. and I’ve realized the more I work outside of the home with part time jobs, etc… that I am not only working hard at home, but also quite enjoying it, as I imagine I am a convert to motherhood as well.

  13. thank you for the reminder. We are all trying to!

  14. Claire, thank you so much. Yes, I was very much hoping that this piece would not read simply as a motherhood piece, but rather thoughts that are so common to us all, no matter what stage. I think we are all walking to our metaphorical tree and finding good fruit there, whatever road we take.

  15. Molly, I’m new here and clearly struggling with commenting so that people know I am talking to them, but I wrote a response a couple comments up. thanks!

  16. I really enjoyed this. My life has taken a turn such that I’ve put my professional life on hold for a few months and spent most of my time caring for my two toddlers. These past couple of months have been amongst the most satisfying of my life, professional and economic challenges notwithstanding. I know that all too soon I’ll be back to the grind–and perhaps that knowledge alleviates the pressures you describe–but I too have felt that this is where I am supposed to be right now.

  17. eponymous says:

    this is water

    I’ve always thought the Book of Mormon prophets’ reminder to “Remember” is an essential characteristic of a truly successful life. Remember what? That is the critical question and the answers we find to that are only discovered in examining what material life has given us and what we can personally do with it.

    President Eyring provides insightful perspective on remembering as well:
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/10/o-remember-remember?lang=eng

  18. I love how this post embraces all sorts of walks and situations and encourages us each to stay awake and notice what is around us. “You are in the middle of it” is a great reminder for me, as a person who often feels like I’m just racing to get to the next great pit stop with a view. It’s hard for women to validate what they do, whether they are working or staying at home or have kids or don’t have kids. As a working mom, I feel like I have felt your same anxieties, only from the opposite angle. I’m hoping what I can take from this post is to drop all of the voices from others or myself that question how I do my life so that I can actually pay attention as I do it. I love your posts, Ash.

  19. Beautifully said, and so easy to relate to. I too have felt these feelings. It’s always amazed me
    How environment, culture, and situation can so strongly shape our feelings. I strongly recommend (to every wife and husband) “Beloved Bridegroom” by Donna Nielsen. It’s an amazing book which has not only given me appreciation for Jewish traditions, and helped me understand the parables in scripture better, but has made me embrace my womanhood and motherhood in a way I couldn’t otherwise imagine. It has helped me see the nobility and reverence Motherhood deserves, ideas which have been lost in our western culture.

  20. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Been there–done that! Thanks for reminding me of the wonders of life as I get closer to the end–or the transition!

  21. I think it’s almost a little sad that the words “not simply a motherhood piece” could be said. I feel as if your torn between two trees here, the tree of life, which is represented by your family experiences, and the tree of knowledge of good an evil. All have fallen after tasting these latter, many others have been ashamed and left after the former.

  22. Alt, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right in that I am often torn between two places I feel are important and valuable, both for me and for my family. I think that is the beautiful struggle of the gospel, that there is a place to work through that tension and rely on spiritual guidance to get us safely and joyfully to a better place.

  23. Thank you, Mary! I would guess it’s probably not an end, but yes, a transition. Blessings to you as you go!

  24. Caroline, thank you so much for the book recommendation. I’m putting it on my list now. I do, (obviously) need all the help and resources I can find (I think we all do), to help us understand our position as parents because there is little validation when you simply look to western culture. thank you!

  25. Grover, thank you so much, and I’m glad you did get the sense that this post is certainly not about doing things just one way. My work too is learning to “pay attention” to my own voice and the voice that intuitively tells me what is right for me and my family. You’re doing a good job!

  26. Ashmae, thanks for writing this. I enjoyed reading your perspective. Your thoughts hit close to home.
    I know assuming is dangerous but I inferred that you are married and perhaps your husband is currently enrolled? I think that can add to some of the unintentional defensiveness esp once children are involved (Hey, I am accomplished as well! There’s much more to me than my mad caretaking skills!) I spent many happy years in awesome academic environments–just wait until you move away, then you’ll know what real alienation is like ;)
    I liked when you said, “We do not owe it to the world to explain our own reasons.” Sure, we don’t owe anyone anything and it’s easy to be defensive when you are living an alternative lifestyle (that’s how I describe my Mormonhood :) However, I’ve found that when I am open with others about some of my reasons for the life choices I make, it’s often been a chance for meaningful conversation.
    I especially liked your line “We are all tired of both the defense and the praise” of stay at home moms. I find it especially cringe-worthy if it’s insincere/coming from anyone but my own husband.

  27. I really identified with this post although my wife and I are in a different place. We have gone through the several unsuccessful fertility treatments. We are both closing in on 40 now. Still, I really identified with this:

    “a voice in my head that tells me I should be embarrassed, that I’m not enough, that everyone is looking at me and feeling sorry for my life because it’s not what theirs is. But no person can dictate the joy of another.”

    And I also can identify with your conclusion. Although I’m not blessed with children, everything else in my life is what I always wanted. So thank you for articulating a feeling I often have that, despite my sorrow, still brings me peace.

  28. Lupita, thanks for your comments. I especially loved your suggestion about being more open about my “alternative” lifestyle. In fact, just today I was able to have a really nice conversation with a new friend from another faith because I was open about what I am doing now. I’ll keep working on it!

  29. Marc, I read this comment while my husband was sitting next to me and i had to read it to him as well because it is such a brave and meaningful way of looking at the world, so while I may have articulated something in words, you have articulated something very powerful with your example. blessings to you.

  30. I love you for this. Yes.