Jul 29, 2014

How to Weather Hard Winters

One of my favorite books ever, like in my list of "top five", is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I've read that she originally titled it "the Hard Winter," but her publisher had her change it, because he felt it was too harsh, the concept of "hard" vs "long."

As many of you know, the stories Ingalls wrote were autobiographical; what we'd call "creative nonfiction," nowadays, though she is such an accomplished writer, they read like novels. This particular section of Ingalls life-story stands apart from the others in the "Little House" series because it depicts a very difficult time for her family and for her little town. In The Long Winter we read about what it is like to go through near-starvation, death of exposure, being isolated on the Dakota prairie, during a wild and terrible time, from every help except for what the settlers in their little town could provide each other.

Therefore, we read of bravery. Sacrifice. Blind, dogged courage. I have two favorite parts of the story. The first is when Almanzo Wilder goes with a friend into the wilderness, under threat of deadly blizzards, to find food for the citizens in the town. The second is more relevant to what I'm writing about today: when Pa goes into the Wilder boys' store and offers a quarter for some grain he's savvy enough to know is hidden in their walls. He doesn't ask. But he also doesn't fight for it. He goes in, quietly, humbly, and tells them to fill his bucket with wheat for a quarter, so his family can eat for another few days.

Laura is the able-bodied member of her family. The Ingallses didn't have any sons, and so often it is her, going out with her father and helping him with the necessary tasks. She works hard to help her family survive.

And they do. In the end, the train gets through because of spring melt and the help of hordes of men shoveling off the tracks, and they get their Christmas turkey several months late. This story sends a very clear message--to survive, you need to pull together. You need to support each other. The very best and the very worst sides of human nature come out when people are fighting to survive. And those who make it are those who support and serve each other and accept service in return. Pa was a proud man, but he went into the Wilder boys' store with a quarter and an empty bucket because he had children to feed. Almanzo was going to get through the winter just fine, but he went off into the dangerous wilderness to find more food because he knew he would not be able to watch his friends starve around him.


I think back on some hard times of my own. I think one of my biggest failings has been my inability to ask for or receive service. It is a matter of pride. Some of us have pride that involves comparison to others' appearances, possessions, residences, professions etc. That has never been my problem. I personally wouldn't mind living in a cardboard box on the side of the road if I had to, if my family were still happy and healthy and well fed. Some of my friends could attest to that... I have a mild (or not so mild) obsession with tents and camping and backpacking. What I love is the simplicity of carrying all that you need with you. Not needing much at all to get by. I've been very blessed, however, not to have to live that way as a necessity. Perhaps my perspective would be different if I did.

However that is also my problem and my own personal brand of unrighteous pride--that sense of simplicity, of being able to get by on my own; priding myself in independence from others. I have struggled, in my life, to accept service because I feel frightened at the thought of not being able to get by on my own. Of having to depend on others. What if they fail me? And what if I can't give them anything back in return? Does that make me a broken, incapable person who always takes but never gives? Does it make me selfish and self-centered, that people serve me?

I have, however, gone through seasons in my life just like that hard winter the Ingallses weathered, where accepting help was necessary to my survival emotionally, physically, etc. And I wouldn't have been able to accept it even then, if it weren't for Loli.

for Loli's sake, I accepted a lot of things.

After everything fell apart and I found myself a divorced single parent, full-time student, part-time employee, I realized I literally could not do it on my own. I needed, for instance, someone to watch her while I finished my degree, and while I earned the money necessary to feed, house, and clothe us. And even then, I didn't make enough money to do so on my own. My parents bought a condo, which I lived in, rent-free, for two years.

During this time, I had a difficult schedule--get up at 4:45, drive Loli to Santaquin (because it was the only childcare we both felt comfortable with), get to work by 5:45, work with dozens of women struggling with tragedy, emotional upheaval, overwhelming anxiety and depression until 6pm, drive back to Santaquin by 6:45, get home by 7:30, play with Loli for an hour and give her dinner, get her to bed by 9. That was three to four days of my week.

The other days I spent trying to take care of the "everything else", taking care of my little girl and focusing on her during the time I had with her and also on bills, car maintenance, cleaning, shopping for groceries, and, eventually, dating my husband.

I look back on those years and the feeling I get from them is just.... emergency. I was constantly high-strung, constantly putting out fires. Like when our only car broke and the shop told us it was a new head-gasket (turned out they were trying to get money... I took it somewhere else and they bled an air bubble out of the radiator for free), and I was at work trying to focus on my job while trying not to worry about transportation and trying not to worry about Loli and how she was doing and whether she was being treated right and whether she was eating and whether I was spending enough time with her.... you get the picture.

I look back on my own "hard winter" and wonder what it says about me.

I learned how to accept a little bit of help and service--the stuff I had to accept for bare survival. I wasn't, however, always the best employee. I was too stressed out. Stressed to the max. And in an environment where everyone is professional... where maybe a few are enduring their own "hard winters" but everyone keeps it all to themselves... it's not quite the same, I don't think. It's not a community pulling together. It's a few people floundering to themselves in a mass of humanity all trying to figure out how to be best at what they're doing.

I didn't do as well as I could have. Well, the thing is, I did as well as I *could* have, in the situation. But people I worked with didn't get the "best" me, if that makes sense. And neither did Loli.

I look back on those experiences and wonder how I could have functioned better. I think it would have involved going to people for help instead of staying stubbornly independent and to myself. The Lori Hacking story broke during that time. And I was feeling some very strong fears, angers, and grieving. What if I had gone to my supervisor and talked to her, instead of staying behind the nursing station all day and isolating and not talking to anyone, including the patients I was supposed to be helping? What if, instead of presenting a hard, blank face to the world and keeping a wall between myself and others, I was being honest and open and vulnerable. Like "here is what I have to do this week. Just so you know." And then letting people talk back about their own stuff, and commiserating, and strategizing together... that is the stuff of which friendships are made. Of which functional, supportive communities are made.

The thing is, it has been a hard journey for me to be able to be open that way. I think my problem is, if something difficult is going on in my life, my default is to blame myself for it, to believe that I deserve it. So I feel shame, and keep it to myself. I am working on that.

I have realized, however, that some people also do not welcome vulnerability. They would rather stay in their shells and struggle alone. They feel threatened by others' sharing.

And some want to serve, and not be served in return. To them (and to me, I'll admit it) being served is giving up too much control. When someone does something for you, what might be their motive? What do they expect from you in return?

You can think of it that way, or you can see it as a symbol of something much more powerful and important. We are all the vessels of God's grace for each other. Sometime, at some point in your life, you will go through a season (more likely multiple seasons) of needing the service of others. You can either accept it and be whole, or push it away and struggle and not be as whole as God would like you to be.

In order to be strong enough to serve others, you need to accept service yourself. That is the beautiful, (sometimes, it feels like, horrible, but really, like anything really difficult, it's redeeming), truth to it all.

And how do you think someone feels about you after they serve you? Let me tell you from experience. They love you more. ANd they love you in a way that is Godly--they love you as someone they have served. It's a sort of love that runs deep, that infuses your relationship with forgiveness and mercy and longsuffering.

As anyone who has read the LIttle House series knows, Almanzo Wilder eventually married Laura. And I have wondered... how much of that feeling, that warmth he had for her that lead him to court her, came from the incident of filling her father's empty bucket?


Laura Blackham said...

(this is LO, by the way)Very true. I am the same way - I don't like to get help, preferring to do things on my own without support. At the end of my mission, though, I kind of had to face facts. We all do, at some point, I think - we need each other, whether we like it or not.

Sarah Dunster said...

we do. We were created to need each other. It is all part of the plan :)

Mark Penny said...

I have the feeling we're going to find out that salvation and exaltation are much less individual than we've been led to believe, that, kind of like Gollum, the sinners and stumblers will have had their part to play, like scientists who contribute by going down the wrong road. And that is why we have atonement, repentance and forgiveness.

Abraham Yates said...

That must have been quite a struggle. Glad to know that you are always trying to get to the bottom of situations, despite your limits, and are able to tackle car maintenance to boot. That's a nice combination of ingenuity and persistence right there. That should make your vehicle an even bigger asset for you in your life. Kudos!

Abraham Yates @ Apache Oil Company

Sarah Dunster said...

Mark- -I think you are on to something. Abraham, thank you.

Jacob White said...

I really like the conversation here and I just wanted to add in that it takes a lot of hard work to get to where we want to be. For example (although it may seem trival) I have an LDS friend who aspires to be a filmmaker and while he was trying to do it almost completely alone it never worked out (obviously) but once he started looking around for help within the ward and other places like that he started making some really cool projects and I think exaltation and the atonement work the exact same way.

To watch his latest video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFQbCLJweas