Archive for the ‘Spiritual Musings’ Category

17
Mar

Heroes

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

 

When we think of this word, I imagine most of us think of the firemen who lost their lives saving others in 9/ll. If we are of an historical frame of mind, we may think of the prototype—Odysseus in Homer’s, The Odyssey. Or we may think of a president we admire, a person who has mentored us, the founder of an orphanage in an underdeveloped country, an astronaut, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Winston Churchill, or General Eisenhower. These people are all undoubtedly heroes. When we study their lives, we are influenced by their courage, their optimism which refused to lie down in the face of great odds, their ability to rally people and change their hearts—giving them courage.

I have a personal hero who dedicated the best part of his life to me and my survival. He came into my life unexpectedly and didn’t look like a hero at all. In fact, he was not even a member of the church and was somewhat tipsy at the time. But, he listened to a little voice which, oddly enough, told him that I was the woman he was going to marry. He came right over, and in a manner which I have since found to be totally antithetical to his character, introduced himself and laid all his life’s innermost secrets at my feet. I was a bit overwhelmed, thought him way too intense as well as far more handsome than anyone had a right to be (I had an innate sense of distrust toward handsome men), but used the opening to bear my testimony of the Gospel. He asked me to church. I declined. (The only church he knew of was a Presbyterian Spanish-speaking church, which may explain my reluctance.) However, since I lived in a distant city and had returned there, he began a letter-writing campaign and I learned that he was 1.) possessed of a quirky sense of humor, 2.) a devoted correspondent, 3.) trustworthy and completely honest, 4.) a poet, 5.) to be relied on in any crisis, 6.) a wonderful artist, 7.) for some unknown reason completely intent on my happiness. His presence was not intrusive, like that of a stalker, he was just making himself known and, after about six months, his letters became a fixture in my life.

Then he started calling. Every day. Several times a day. Then, seven months after our first meeting, he flew to Washington, D.C. from Chicago for our first date. It lasted all weekend. Oddly enough, I had broken a date with the man I was planning to marry to go out of town and check internship locations for the next year, just to meet this friend who had intrigued me. (That was the end of the other relationship!) My visitor went home, and in an action he had thus avoided in his long dating life, wrote a letter declaring his love. I fell apart. This could not be. When he asked innocently, "Why?", I told him it was because he was not a member of my church. His reply was, "You don’t know that I’m not going to join!" And that he did. Ten minutes into the first discussion, he gained a never wavering testimony of the First Vision. I was the first LDS person he had ever met.

What neither of us knew at the time of our marriage was that I carried the genes of a very serious illness. This man, my husband, David Vandagriff, was destined for a heroism that would try him to his very core (see I Need Thee Every Hour: Learning to Apply the Atonement in our Daily Lives, Covenant Communications). In the years before and during my illness, he served as a bishop twice and the member of a Stake Presidency with huge geographical bondaries. No one who has seen me ill, and then seen me well in the past five years (the woman he married) can believe that he had the compassion, the generosity, the strength, and the courage to descend into the bi-polar Valley of the Shadow of Death with me, many, many times, always gently pulling me back to some semblance of safety. This is not what he signed up for. He was married to a woman he didn’t know. This is how he describes it: The depression began to change her. The illness did not appear suddenly. G.G. was the sun in my life, and the onset of her illness was like an extended sunset. First, the color of the sun changes, turning slowly to red as it drops lower in the sky. Then, the horizon begins to take slices from that sun, one after another, and the sun grows smaller an smaller until it disappears from sight. In the sky, there is a glow, a memory of the sun, but soon that glow begins to fade. Shadows collect in ravines and behind rocks. Those shadows grow and spread, slowly covering the landscpe. Soon the world is dark, then black, and a long night begins. (I Need Thee Every Hour: Applying the Atonement in our Daily Lives,( Covenant Communications, 2010, p. 44)

That darkness lasted twenty-five years. Certainly, long enough for him to forget that little whisper, "That is the girl you’re going to marry"–the girl with the long brown hair in the ugly bridesmaid dress. It took him to places he never thought he’d go—psych wards, emergency rooms, therapist’s offices. He had to practice law, provide for his family financially and emotionally as I was sick most of my children’s years at home.

During those twenty-five years, he evolved from a happy man to a man of many sorrows and acquainted with grief. It was an Abrahamic trial. But, he did not overcome this trial on his own. After years of endurance, and times when he would have given up, but for timely intervention from the Lord and his helpers here on earth, David and I were both finally witnesses to my miraculous healing. I came back to him, not the woman who had left, but a woman much stronger and closer to my Savior in every way, having fought "tooth and nail" to stay alive.

But, the Lord gave me a hero, because he knew that’s what I needed. David didn’t see himself as heroic material. He definitely would have opted out if the choice had been given him before marriage. But he believed in covenants. He believed that if he did his part, the Lord would perform his—he would enable David to go on. And David did go on.

And we both learned that heroism comes, not from what we do ourselves, but for what we allow our partner and Elder Brother in suffering to do for us. Though there is an element of heroism in both our stories, for us there is one overarching Hero—our Savior, Jesus Christ.

4
Jan

In This World of Shifting Values, Where is My Foundation?

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

My husband and I have been studying the topic of “faith” in great detail.  It seems that the circumstances of our lives have never been easy, and that one trial of our faith has instantly followed upon the heels of another.  You might say that we have been blessed with a “steep learning curve.”  This is undoubtedly because we are 63 and there isn’t much time left!  Seriously, I am sure that the real reason has more to do with the Lord’s desire to prepare us for the increasing trials of the last days.

A scripture during our study entered my heart with full force.

It occurs when Helaman is advises his sons Nephi and Lehi before they go out on their missions.  He said:  And now, my sons, remember, remember that is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yeah, his shafts in the whirlwind, yeah, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down into the gulf of misery and endless woe, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. (Helaman5:12)

Following this advice from their father, the following event occurred during their missionary labors: And after they had been cast into prison many days without food, behold, [their enemies]went forth into the prison to take them that they might slay them. And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi were encircled about as if by fire, even insomuch theat they durst not lay their hands upon them for fear, lest they should be burned. Nevertheless, Nephi and Lehi were not burned; and they were as standing in the midst of fire and were not burned. (Helaman 5:23)

Now, of course, we may not be in danger of this literal burning, but what about the trials that face us in this day?

Will they cause us to be "dragged down to the gulf of misery and endless wo? Will "hail and a mighty storm beat upon us"? Will we be shafts in the whirlwind"

I am using this new year to quietly assess all my values and all the activities that I chose to use my precious time on. Are these activities building my foundation? Are they tied to my Redeemer? Or are they frivolous wastes of time, that have no connection to the daughter of God within me?

If my life, in every respect, is built upon the Savior, then I can expect to prevail, though the winds be strong, and the gulf of misery deep.

How do we build this kind of foundation?

As I attempt to do this, I realize that the first, and most vital key, is to listen to my Redeemer’s words and counsel, whether they be by personal revelation, through the scriptures, or (most often) through the words of the living prophets. My husband I have been doing companion study for several weeks now, studying the attributes of the Savior in depth, and evaluating our behavior next to his. We now feel we need to turn our attention to the great atonement sermons of Lehi, Jacob, King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Moroni. These will point the way to our achievement of our goal to take upon us the attributes of Christ. Next, as a companion to our New Testament study this year, we plan to read Jesus the Christ this year.

In doing this in the early morning, we have found that the practice sets our compass in the right direction for the whole day. We do first things first, and down our list of tasks with joy, because our daily goals have been made through consultation with the Savior in our morning prayer and scripture study.

When, on the few times that we have failed in this, we found we are blown about from task to task, achieving little, and certainly making no progress in building our foundation.

The second thing is prioritizing, and this is very important, because we both have ADD. We may get blown off track because our minds skip around so much, but we achieve extra help in staying on track through the Enabling Power of the Atonement (see Bible Dictionary under Grace), which helps us make up for our extensive weaknesses.

When things don’t go well (as often happens), we look back to the promise that the Savior gave through Lehi (and in many other parts of the Book of Mormon) and know that as we are attempting to build on a sure foundation, we will eventually be blessed, even if we have to go through the fire first.

For all of us, our lists of priorities will be different. But there are certain things that our prophets have told us must be the same:

 Love of the Lord with all our heart, might, mind, and strength (which entails humility, repentance, prayer, meditation, studying about Him, and accounting for our actions, remembering Him each week as we take the sacrament).

The second great commandment the Lord has given us, requires moving out of ourselves: raising our families in the Light, and doing our visiting teaching, home teaching—bringing the Spirit of Christ into the lives of those for whom we are Christ’s hands. It also involves service, not only in our callings but "in doing many things to bring to pass much righteousness." Some of us may be ill (as I was for many, many years), homebound, or deluged with business, but if we are prayerful, the Lord will show us how this can be done, using His "enabling power" to increase our personal abilities.

 Our talents were given to us to magnify the Lord. As we spend time developing them and using them to build Zion, we are adding to our foundation, and blessing others.

As I plan my days with my little computer-generated task list next to my calendar, I pray that I will be sensitive in choosing between my comprehension of my priorities and the Lord’s. I pray that each day will meld me with more fastness to the Rock of the Lord.

18
Dec

How Much "Soul Space" Do You Have for Christ?

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

Today my husband, David, and I viewed the Carl Bloch exhibit at the BYU museum of art.  It included several altarpieces ensconced behind “faux altars” constructed especially for the exhibit.  There were chairs placed in rows in front of these “altars” so we could sit and meditate upon the major paintings:  Christ in Gethsemane being comforted by an angel, the resurrected Christ holding a child to his side, and the resurrected Christ with arms outstretched, surrounded by people who were hurting either physically or emotionally, as though begging them to come to Him and find that His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

We were tremendously moved by the exhibit.  As I commented to David, after our recent European travels, it was like a drink of living water to see paintings of Christ triumphant instead of all the variations on the crucifixion that we saw.  The painting of Christ praying in Gethsemane was the most personal to me and seemed to possess a genuine power about it that radiated the message “He is suffering for me, because of the things I did wrong, but also so He can understand my pains and sufferings as a mortal.” (Alma 7:11-12).  I felt as though the Savior himself endowed those tragic, painted eyes with life and a sense of benevolence.  “I am bearing this only because of how much I love you.  No one else can do this for you but me.”

As we left the exhibit,  we encountered a group of adults that appeared to be on an excursion from a group home for the mentally handicapped.  I immediately thought of how happy the Savior must be that someone had made the arrangements for them to take this outing.  I thought how happy it would make them to see the images of Christ.  Then a startling thought entered my head, “They know Him better than you do.”

A metaphor came into my mind.  I saw myself as a measuring cup, standing next to one of those mentally challenged adults.  I was filled, probably up to the two thirds mark with the blessings of an active intellect that understood many things of temporal importance, a husband who loves me, three healthy, happy adult children who are faithful, and two grandchildren who bring joy and happiness into my life.  I am average-looking, with no outward problems that might make people aware of my inward struggles.  I have enough to eat (too much!), nice clothes to wear, and a lovely home.  The reason I was only filled to the two thirds line and not all the way full is because I am mentally ill and always will be in this life.  I depend on the Lord daily that my medicines will continue to work, that we will be able to afford them, and that my skewed body chemistry will continue the same, so that we won’t have to start experimenting with medicines again as my life hangs in the balance.  I also depend on Him daily to make me a better writer than I am, to reach whatever level of talent He desires of me to celebrate Him unto this secular world.  Thirdly, and most importantly, I depend on Him for His atonement, which is the only thing standing between me and a life with Satan in the Telestial Kingdom for eternity.  Christ enables me by filling my cup to the full line, making up for me what I have no control over and can’t do myself.

The measuring cup of the mentally-challenged individual appears to me to be at the one quarter line.  He can see, hear, and feel, but cannot really make sense of the world as an ordinary adult.  He is living apart from family and will never have one of his own.  He appears different than other people.  He probably has no artistic talent that will contribute to the world in a recognized way.  Because of these shortcomings, three quarters of his soul can be filled with love for and dependence upon Jesus Christ.  If Christ were here this moment, one of these handicapped adults of His would go to him, would recognize Him, and He them.  These seemingly lacking individuals know in a practical, not theoretical, way all about the enabling power of the atonement.  This little group of people are alive and able to get from day to day through the grace of God. I suspect they know the giver of that grace in a way we don’t understand.

Years ago, when my children were growing up, we knew a Down’s Syndrome girl named Lori.  Like other Down’s children that I had known, some even in my extended family, Lori’s life and personality were a delight.  Her cup of joy was filled to overflowing.  She especially loved our oldest son, and embraced him heartily whenever he came to visit.  Lori eventually became Homecoming Queen of her high school.  As she walked across the stage during graduation, she held both thumbs up as the whole school cheered.  She recently friended me on Facebook.  She was so full of the Light of Christ that she made everyone around her happy.  Contrast Lori with another teenager, not so challenged, that you may know.  Likely, they are very self-conscious, full of undisclosed angst, worried about themselves and the state of the world they are inheriting.  Unless taught by parents or missionaries, they have no knowledge of Christ, and their self-absorption leaves no room for Him.

I have always secretly pitied really beautiful people, famous people, and fearfully intelligent people.  So many of life’s paths are smoothed for them that they have no outward need for a Savior.  They think their world is complete, that they are entitled to everything they have, just because of who they are.  Their characters can become hopelessly warped and narcissistic.  Ultimately, many of them make a horrible mess of their lives, for they are only intent on themselves.  They miss key signposts that point down the roads of self-sacrifice, a solid work ethic, hardship, and the limitations that would cause them to live their lives in such a way that would bring blessings to others.

During college, my husband was well acquainted with a very beautiful woman who was a gifted actress and went on to have a splendid career in television.  She was continually featured on the covers of all the women’s magazines, very vocal about the fact that her career came first, even after her daughter was born.  She left her TV sitcom, convinced that her star was brighter, that she was made for better things.  After starring in several box-office disasters, her career tanked.  I recently googled her and found a pitiful website bemoaning her failed suicide attempt, complete with photos of herself “in her prime.”

Contrast this with the tales we always hear from the missionaries about the people in underdeveloped countries who have almost no material possessions, but are cheerful, selfless, and quick to embrace the truths of the Gospel.  Among the early converts to the church, it was difficult to find anyone who was very prosperous in a material sense.

Because of their needs, they all had room in their hearts for the Savior.

As I have said many times in this forum of ideas, I count my trial with mental health as the greatest blessing in my life.  Were it not for that, I would doubtless never have learned to rely on the Lord to literally keep me alive from breath to breath as I battled PTSD and severe depression.  I wouldn’t have survived in a handcart company, but my testimony is similar to those who endured those trials.  I have come to know the Lord through my extremities. I am deeply grateful that my cup is only three fourths full of  "myself."  As I age and become subject to things such as hip transplants, sagging eyelids, and short term memory loss, I realize that I am actually pouring out some of "myself" with each new day.  Now I know why my old and bent sister/friends that I served with in the temple were so happy despite their widowhood, their poverty, and their poor health.  They had lost nearly everything they had and filled the void completely with the love of Christ.

I can only pray that I will live long enough to be so humbled.  In the meantime, I am going to try very hard to humble myself so that the Lord will be welcome in my soul, especially during times of happiness and prosperity!

1
Nov

PTSD: The Secret Storm in the Soul

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

[This will be the homepage for a new website scheduled to be up on November 8]

I am a writer. I knew this long before I knew that I was a PTSD survivor. When I began writing the book that came to be titled The Pieces of Paris, I was in the process of learning to write "from my bones." Until that time, many events in my life were contained under a virtual lead shield. My conscious mind sent them into some dark spot inside me that I did not visit.

However, good writers are required to be emotionally honest. I had cultivated a cheerful, passive disposition, but when I began to write this book, I found myself writing a story about a deeply concealed trauma in my own life—the death of my fiancé in Vietnam. For twenty years, I had been having frequent nightmares and waking flashbacks as my nervous system mourned this heartrending loss in its own way.

As I endeavored faithfully to follow my characters through lives so interwoven with my own, I had a life-changing experience. As I sat down at the computer on what I thought was an ordinary day, I was shocked at what spewed forth from some hidden well inside me. Anger! Such anger that I had never felt anything like it in my life. It was the scene where the young man, drafted to serve in Vietnam, turns suddenly vitriolic, venting his real fears and rage on his hapless fiancée. He tells her that he is going to die—that she must get away from him, not wait, and that he is unilaterally severing their bond. He warns that if she does not leave him, she will have to watch him drown himself in the river. I wrote with tears pouring down my cheeks. Tears I had never cried for my lost love who, turning into a brutal stranger before my eyes, claimed, exactly like my character, that he would die in Vietnam.

It didn’t happen exactly like that. My ex-fiancé would endure a three-year coma, during which time I held him like a child in my arms and rained kisses and tears upon him. We cried together, his face contorted in sorrow. By the time he died, I had been married only a matter of months. Fearing disloyalty to my husband, I had never allowed myself to grieve.

I knew nothing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had no idea that I was a ticking time bomb. From those moments of anger in front of the computer, my rage grew alarmingly. Too late, I became a Vietnam war protester, writing a livid novel that worked all those buried feelings out into the open. My natural grieving process had been stalled on the denial setting for twenty years. Now I experienced rage followed by soul-ripping anguish and despair. As happens to my heroine, Annalisse, my one-time fiancé stalked me. I could feel his presence. I could feel him watching everything I did. I came to believe, like Annalisse, that I was living life for the two of us.

Gradually, my feelings leveled out into normal sadness that continues to this day. It wasn’t for another ten years that I learned that in writing that novel (which I decided I could not publish) I had experienced what was called "PTSD."

But that was not to be the end. In my fifties, a bigger land mine inside me exploded with crying jags that seemed to have no trigger. They went on for months and would begin any time, any place for no discernible reason. Eventually, pain that had hidden under my lead shield from the time I was a child descended upon me with a ferocity that felt like crawling naked through broken glass. The full weight of every buried horror from childhood through adolescence visited me all at once. I held onto life by only a sliver of will. For twenty years, I had been living in a depressed state, but nothing like this had ever happened.

I know now, that there were angels in attendance who saved me. Living friends held me while I wept, and people from the other side of the veil of mortality intervened, carrying me along, sheltering me from self-harm until finally my rage and my pain were spent.

I said at the beginning that I was a survivor. But, I am more than that. I am victorious! Step by step, I felt my way to forgiveness of those who had caused my long-buried pain. I could not have done this without the understanding of a Savior (or as many would say, "a higher power") who stood as a perfect protector, friend, advocate, and mediator. As I became more devout in my understanding of Him and His plan, I began to make rational sense out of the world around me. My shield finally dropped away, and I learned for the first time to trust and to truly love. That shield that had kept pain in for so long, had also kept love out.

Once I felt that love and its honey-sweet healing power–from my Savior, my husband, my family, my dear friends–all I wanted to do was share it with the world. I had no desire so great as to heal people of the pain I had experienced. My tool was my pen (or my computer, to be more accurate).

Like I said, I am a writer. Tolstoy said that the task of real art is to carry the reader inside the author’s characters to such depth, that the reader will virtually experience everything the characters do. Recently, I realized that everything I have written is related to recovery from PTSD. My series of mysteries chronicles the recovery of a woman who was rejected by her parents and then lost her husband in a terrorist attack. ( http://ggvandagriff.com )The Last Waltz: A Novel of Love and War, is a story of another heroine’s progress from a starry eyed debutante in the Vienna of 1913 through the hell of World War One and its aftermath. Although she had no control over history, she had control over her reaction to it. Changing from the inside out, she came to know and to express the deepest reaches of that love that redeems.( http://last-waltz.com)

Then it was time to do something about that ancient manuscript about the Vietnam War. It was old news by now. In the rewriting of it, to bring it into the present day with a more timely trauma, I found deeper meaning in the journey of my characters. I realized that my opening paragraph, written far before I understood it, characterized PTSD perfectly:

It was the simple things that undid her, Annalisse had discovered. Something as ordinary as the scent of lilacs when the air was heavy, a brief measure of Tchaikovsky, or a dream. A dream like the one she’d awakened from last night—so real she could smell the Paris Metro in it. Any of these things could revive in a moment the memories she’d spent the last six years burying. They crept under the leaden shield around her heart and found the small, secret place where she still had feeling.

In Pieces of Paris, Annalisse and Dennis’s trial of their marriage became, with my added understanding, an epic similar to the first chapters of Genesis. They learned, as we all must, that there is no Eden in this life. When Dennis decides to put such notions of perfectionism behind him, he chooses honest love, just as we all must if we are to find the joy mortality has to offer. Love redeems, love purifies, and love makes us fit for heaven.

And, after all that’s said and done, life’s very purpose is to shape us, using pain as a tool to enlarge our souls so that we can serve as we are served and love as we are loved.

Do not ever put your life’s journey on hold, or cut it short. The best times occur along the way, as you come to know the higher power, and how magnificent and all-changing that power can be. As you take it into your lives and do your best to emulate it, you will enter a sphere of peace in this troubled world.

I think T.S. Eliot said it better than I ever could: In order to get to where you are to where you are not, you must go through the way in which you are not.

Courage. You are not alone.

4
May

Narcissistic Love vs. Real Love

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

I recently realized that many of the male characters in my novels were narcissists.  Most of us know that this type of person is full of self adulation and grandiose self love.  However, one the  most deleterious characteristics narcissists is listed on on HealthyPlace: America’s Mental Health Channel (http://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/malignant-self-love/narcissistic-personality-disorder-npd-definition/menu-id-1471/)

"Feels entitled. Expects unreasonable or special and favorable priority treatment. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her expectations"

I am well acquainted with this side of narcissism, as I was raised with it.  The problem was made more intense by the fact that my parents had opposing goals for me and so I was in constant danger of enraging one or the other of them.  However, this same article also claims that this kind of disorder is usually bred in people when they are very young as a protection against trauma or abuse.  I truly believe that that was the case with my parents, so I know rationally that I cannot judge them. 

The problem of many children of narcissists, including me, is that we confuse narcissism with love, as that is the only kind of love we are familiar with.  In my case, I was blessed with a husband who was as far from a narcissist as anyone could be.  However, it was an adjustment, because I was constantly looking to him for cues as to how he wanted me to behave.  He gave none, nor would he venture opinions on such things as how I dressed or wore my hair.  I had to adjust and find out who I really was apart from other people’s expectations.  It took me years to discover my own personality.

I suppose that is why narcissism always comes up in my fiction as a form of "false love."  However, my heroines are always strong enough to ward off the "love" of such men, continuing to be themselves.  And usually, though not always, the men guilty of this behavior, reform, learning over time to love the heroine more than their "ideal" of her. 

Romance novels are full of narcissistic men who are changed by their beloved objects.  Two of the greatest and most beloved classics, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, have the supreme narcissists: Rochester and Darcy.  And why do we love these novels?  Because they show the tremendous power of real love to redeem and change people for the better.  It has become formulaic. 

However, one needn’t look far in today’s society to see that this form of entitlement has become rampant.  I dated far too many narcissists who were shopping, like men in a grocery store, for just the right delicacy.  In my forthcoming novel, Pieces of Paris, my very likeable, but narcissistic hero has to face a common problem: his wife is nothing like the image of her that he had fallen in love with.  He must face the decision, usually summed up as "I didn’t sign up for this.  This is not the person I married.  Do I stay or do I go?"  And we weigh his character by his decision, as we do Rochester and Darcy.

In complete contrast with this, is Christlike love.  What is its greatest characteristic?  That it is unconditional.  That He does not impose His will upon us.  That we are free to choose.  And He loves us so much, that even if we choose wrongly, even if we harm others in our choices, He still loves us and still wants us to come back to Him, and so He provided a way, through His atonement, for the penitent. 

When seen in this light, the Love of God is mighty miracle.  And yet, I have seen it in my life.  When I turned out to have a grave illness and to be a much different person than my husband "signed up for," he did not leave me.  As mentioned before on this blog, he chose instead the heroic choice of honoring his covenants.  He stood by me and helped me to find wellness.  This is Christlike behavior.

And so, as I have been nurtured and loved by a hero, it is now my turn to forgive those who were unable to nurture and love me properly as I was growing up because of their own problems with receiving true, redeeming love in their lives.  It is my turn to forebear and forgive.

And that is why this theme of the reformed narcissist is a recurring theme in my fiction.

     

9
Apr

If I Were To Die In The Next Few Minutes

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

If I were to die in the next few minutes, the things I hope I would be remembered for are that: 1.) my grandson thinks I am Supernana and that my stated purpose on earth is to wield a mean light-saber; 2.) that fed my children, even when in the midst of creating an earth-shattering plot twist; 3.) that even though it took a thousand rewrites, I succeeded in finally producing The Last Waltz: A Novel of Love and War.

The journey to the latter accomplishment is a microcosm of my adult life. The bare facts, the research, and the consuming need to tell the story of Austria between 1913 and 1938, had their birth in the Austrian Alps, 50 miles from Vienna at the Semmering Pass, where I dwelt in a hotel only partially restored from damage incurred by the Russian occupation. I lived with 79 other Stanford students, far away from urban Austrian life (except on our 3-day weekends) concentrating on the study of German language, Austrian art and architecture, Austrian music, Austrian history, and Austrian politics. Surprisingly, I knew very little about these things, as do most average Americans. I didn’t even know that seventy years earlier, Austria had been the center of European art, science, medicine, and music. In spite of or maybe because of this, large forces were at work to drag it out of its glittering past as the Waltz capital of the world into a new century where international socialism would enfranchise every man and there would be no poor. This made Austria’s aristocracy, stranded between past and future, extremely nervous and quite neurotic. Austrian historian, Frederic Morton has called this period a time of “Nervous Splendor.”

So I learned this when I was twenty. It became part of me, more so than the rest of my education because I had seen the art, listened to the Vienna Philharmonic, heard the stories of the survivors from that time, and most of all because I had visited Auschwitz. A personal quest was born to figure out the dynamics of a world where such an unimaginable horror could happen.

During a very hated job as an international banker while putting my husband through Law School, I had an hour and a half bus commute to and from Los Angeles through the slums of East L.A. This is when I personalized all the forces of that Austrian age into the characters of my novel: the debutante turned democrat, Amalia Faulhaber, the German Lieutenant with the soul of a violinist, Eberhard von Waldburg, the naïve but charismatic socialist, Uncle Lorenz, the proud aristocratic grandmother, Eugenia von Hohenburg Reichart, the passionately nationalistic Pole, Doktor Andrzej Zaleski, and the outwardly misogynistic Baron von Schoenenberg. In a single bus ride, I outlined the plot that was to be built upon and developed as I learned to write during my three children’s growing up years.

The time came when they were all grown up, and I realized I knew next to nothing about the kind of suffering that would occur during a World War in the trenches, the loss of an empire, the loss of status, and nearly all physical possessions. At best, my novel was only a superficial rendering. So I set it aside and wrote light fiction—my Alex and Briggie genealogical mysteries—for nearly fifteen years. Then I suffered a serious medical condition that resulted in my inability to write and eventually sapped all my hard-won skill.

Ten years later, I miraculously recovered, and slowly rediscovered myself as a writer. But there was a change. My soul and awareness of suffering had deepened. I now understood what it took to be a survivor.

I also remembered that my writing idol, Tolstoy, had not written his epics from the point of view of one person, and certainly would not do so from the point of view of a nineteen year old debutante. And so I went into the heads of all my major characters, which finally gave the depth to my work that I had been seeking for so long.

My years of development as a writer, to this particular juncture, owe all to the learning process of writing The Last Waltz. I can only hope that my next book: Pieces of Paris (Fall, 2010) will continue that process.

5
Feb

The Crossroads

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

When I think of crossroads, I see a rural landscape with two country roads dividing the picture into four equal squares.  In the middle is a puzzled man, looking down all the emptiness, wondering which way to turn to reach his goal.

However, in my experience, when we come to a crossroads in mortality—a decision that will change our whole direction and way of life, we usually don’t see it marked.  We might be in the midst of stress, illness, despair, infatuation, or blinded by happiness.  There are people all around us, usually making demands or requiring our attention.  In short, we are not alone in a field with a clear-cut view of our direction. 

The way we choose to go is determined by the character we have spent our lives developing.  Because of this, no choices we make at our crossroads are accidental.  We won’t miss the right turning if we have prepared ourselves by putting the Lord first in our lives, by consistently praying to know His will, and by learning to recognize the Spirit.  The fact is, if we’re on the right road to begin with, holding on to the Iron Rod, we will usually make the right choice without realizing it.

I have been thinking about crossroads a lot in the past couple of days because I have been given a new perspective on a crossroad that my husband and I faced nearly six years ago.  The turn we took changed our lives out of all recognition and led us down the path we never dreamed we would find.

I was slogging along, doing the best that I could with my 22 year old illness–depression.  David was doing his best to support me and growing very weary, but remaining faithful.  Out of the blue, David and I were asked to speak with the Stake Presidency of the 9th BYU Stake.  President Griffith eased our natural anxiety by telling us this was just a “get acquainted visit,” but they were searching for a new Bishop for the BYU 28th ward.  I shrank into myself.  David had been a Bishop before.  He had given himself to the task 24/7, and that time coincided with the beginning of my illness.  It was one of the hardest periods in my life.

David informed the Stake President of this fact, and we thought that would be the end of the matter.  However, a few weeks later, we were called back in.  David was issued a formal call to be Bishop.  I reminded the leader frantically of my depression.  He said, “That’s one of the reasons the Lord wants David in this calling.”  (We have just recently learned that the Stake President, in following the Spirit, was going against our home bishop’s advice.  Our bishop was sure that I was too ill for David to leave me for long periods of time.) 

It was only because of our temple covenants that we accepted the call.  However, because of that weary decision, our lives were changed forever.  President Griffith told us that the Stake Agenda was to preach the Atonement in every talk and every lesson in our new ward.

Many of the rewards of this new calling came immediately.  Working with the BYU students was so uplifting that even I could feel the Spirit. (During depression, it is very uncommon for the person who is ill to be able to feel the Spirit.)  Studying the atonement in all its amazing complexity and applications was a completely new experience, and offered hope to us that perhaps our lives could be changed through the enabling power of our Savior’s sacrifice for us.

The third year David was in this calling, I finally knew enough about the divine subject to trust the Lord completely.  I laid my burden at his feet with some trepidation.  However, after this act of supreme faith on my part, I was given the medications to cure my illness not even a week later.  I have told that story many times in this space.

My life changed directions from down to up.  So did David’s.  He learned the skills of applying the atonement in his daily life to the extent that he was also given the inspiration and guidance to take an entirely different direction professionally.  This has proven to be a tremendous miracle in our lives.

We would still be on that sad and lonely trail if President Griffith hadn’t persisted and followed the Spirit in forcing us to choose at that crossroads.  Past experience dictated that we were in for a rough time.  However, our choice was rewarded by blessings unnumbered.  We are on a different road, a road that could only have been accessed by faith during a dark time in our lives.

I am so grateful for the choice that we made, simply because we had learned to sacrifice.  It was an “invisible crossroad” and we never had any idea that it would change us forever

4
Jan

I’m Not Slavic, So Why in the World Do I Act Like It?

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

 

All my life I’ve been a drama queen.  While this comes in handy in my profession, it is a distinct disadvantage in real life.  I ache over Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Rachmanifnoff.  They speak a musical language that goes straight to my soul.  To me, Anna Karenina is the greatest of all books, because Tolstoy understands the human condition better than any other author I have read.  The number of disastrous romances I had as a young adult defies counting.  Truly.  There were that many, including a death and a schizophrenic fiance.

As most of my readers know,I am bi-polar.  So were my Slavic greats.  Genetically we speak to one another in a language that is the most intelligible there is for us.  Such a would-be Slav am I that I got both my graduate and undergraduate degrees in Slavic history, politics, and economics.

My finest work as a novelist is about the fall of a great Slavic Empire, and is full of tragedy, angst, and neverending love.

Most of you probably do not know that I just went through a semi-emergency hip replacement—my second in six months.  Because of my delicate mental state, these major surgeries are a great trial.  Having overcome my twenty-five year bout with depression only three and a half years ago, you would think that I would remember what it was like.  But, no, the black beast always falls on me, taking me by complete surprise.  It is entirely chemical and only happens after I have blissfully lived in a manic state for close to two weeks.  Then the crash comes.  I can’t begin to describe how horrible it is to revisit this country where I lived for so many years. 

I know there is a God, because as I gained a true testimony of the atonement, I held on until hope came in the form of life-changing medication. 

However, once having lived in that black place, those emotions are never erased.  And that is why every taste I have is informed by Slavic melancholy.  I haven’t known much mania, but that unnatural state is one of high vigilance, seemingly clear vision, and non-stop creativity.  Before my late crash, I wrote for hours every day, starting directly after surgery, and including one complete night.  I plotted a very complex novel, peopled by extraordinary characters and happenings I never would have dreamt in my normal state.   So, it’s a tradeoff.

And that is why I’m Slavic.  I guess my final word on the subject should be thank heavens that:

1.) I live in the day of mood-stabilizers, and

2.) I married a stolid Swede.

Thank you,, Lord.

17
Nov

Gratitude

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

Since this is the week of Thanksgiving, it is fitting that I should have an experience that makes me extremely grateful for my health and for modern medicine.  As most of my readers know, I had a complete hip replacement last May.  I am still not completely recovered and it was one of if not the most painful thing in my life.  It beat natural childbirth (times 3) and kidney stones.  So, imagine my feelings when two days ago my other hip “went.”   During our trip to Florence, we walked everywhere and I was in constant pain.  I guess I overdid it, but anyone who knows me, knows that isn’t unusual.  I have a high pain tolerance and manage to make it through most things of a physical nature.  However, it’s not necessarily good for or respectful to your body, so it certainly doesn’t count as a virtue.

I couldn’t get into the doctor until today.  Over the weekend, I was certain I was in for another round of surgery without pain killers (I’m allergic) that would make it impossible for me to write my planned novel on Florence before the deadline (Apr 1).  I anticipated an extremely painful cruise to Greece which I might be better off cancelling, and didn’t know how I was going to take care of my coming grandchild.  By far the worst risk to my well-being is my mental health which was taking quite a hit imagining all that pain.

However, I prayed anyway.  I prayed that somehow this would all go away. 

When I went to see Dr. Jackson, he took x-rays and was extremely puzzled.  There appeared to be nothing wrong with my hip at all.  He referred me to a back doctor, because he had never seen such a bad back (severe scoliosis).  The back doctor said that the problem was definitely in my hips and has scheduled me for a shot in the hip joint tomorrow which should take away my pain.

No surgery this time!  The mystery isn’t solved, but I’ve been given a very great blessing.  I still can’t believe it.  I have never realized what a blessing it is to be able to work.  I am so so grateful that I will not be having surgery next week.  I’m so grateful that the Lord has provided for me to be able to go on with my work, my plans, and the chance to be with my daughter when she  has her new baby.

I can’t possibly express how grateful I am for these blessings.  Thank you, Lord.

27
Oct

Dreams

   Posted by: GG Vandagriff

I am here to remind you that even in these uncertain times, it’s good to plan and to have dreams.  Read “Cast Not Away Therefore thy Confidence,” by Elder Holland and you will see that it is the adversary that wants us to see the world as gray and hopeless.  We all have a mission to prepare for the most glorious event the world has ever known: The Second Coming of our Lord and Savior.

Cut away the dross, the worries, the horrible scenarios and find hope.  And then go forward with that hope, and pursue your dreams.  Put your life in order, so you can receive the enabling power of the atonement.  With God’s help, we can achieve so much more than we ever, ever dreamed possible.

Ezra Taft Benson once said that by turning our lives over to the Lord, he could do much more with them than we could.  I truly believe that.  Since I have done as he suggested, my life has changed beyond all recognition.

I’m happy to be alive an to have future adventures dictated by the Spirit!

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