My vacation to the dark corners of my soul

Matt went out of town for a job interview.  On a whim, to compensate for my anticipated loneliness at home, I decided to meet up with my brother and his family from Tennessee in Nauvoo, Illinois.  I have traveled by myself with the children before, but it has always been to a parents’ home, where there were lots of helping hands.  I figured I could handle it.

I was wrong about myself.

My post title might be a little over-dramatic, but it didn’t take me very long into the trip to realize that I don’t have the fortitude for such journeys.  I can’t figure out what made it difficult for me.  I do things alone with my children all the time.  My husband works full time and goes to law school at night.  Practically everywhere I go is by myself with children in tow.  But something about this trip kicked my trash.

Believe it or not, the seven-hourish car trip was not too bad, thanks to a stockpile of snacks, toys, coloring books, and the modern wonder of DVD players.  We arrived at the little cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River that, by providence, I had randomly discovered online.  The sunset view in the evening gives a (false) sense of peace and quiet in our little family cabin:

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My kids were out of control.  Was it because of all the time in the car?  Was it vacation excitement?  Was it the fact that dad was a thousand miles away?  I don’t know, but I’m quite sure that I was useless.  Imagine a cabin with three children, ages 6,5, and 2, totally unsupervised.  Try to get a good picture in your mind of the energy, chaos and noise.  Now add a frazzled mom in the picture running back and forth barking things like, “Stop screaming,” “Hands to yourself,” “I said put on your pajamas,” and “Get in bed now.”  Repeat four thousand times.  Here’s the weird thing: that mom was invisible.  No one listened.  No one responded.  The anarchy continued unphased by commands of the might-need-to-be-institutionalized-soon mother.  I even spanked.  I don’t spank.  I don’t think anyone was harmed by my whimpy whacks, and certainly no one was deterred by them.  I had feelings of rage and despair that I think might rival much more intense and life-threatening activities than readying children for bed.  I finally “succeeded” and they were in bed, but I was left simmering in my own dark feelings.  I hated that I couldn’t control them, and hated more that I couldn’t control myself.

This scenario repeated itself several times throughout the trip.  I’m sure my children were just being “normal,” but I felt like they were just so disobedient when I would ask them to stop something over and over and over again.  And then this yucky feeling of failure and anger and disappointment in myself would become heavy.  There were lovely moments in the trip, too.  Natalie and her cousin dressed as pioneers, and could they be any cuter?

DSCF0036We had studied the Doctrine and Covenants in preparation for our trip, and the boys were excited to visit Carthage Jail, the location of the prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom.  Can you sense the affection they felt for Joseph and his brother Hyrum as they clamored to this statue when we arrived?

DSCF0026And Natalie returned again and again to this statue of Jesus Christ.

DSCF0042We have a tradition of a donut-picnic at the temple whenever we travel:

DSCF0045And there’s no denying that the cousins loved each other’s company.DSCF0044So in all fairness, I have to say it was a good trip, and I think my children will have good memories, and perhaps even some key testimony-building moments, but for me… well, for me, I saw the ugly side of myself– the impatient, not long-suffering, and definitely not joyful and carefree side of myself.  And the I’m-a-fool-if-I-ever-think-I-can-do-this-alone side of myself.  I felt like such a dork when I would visit these historical sites and think of the sacrifices the early Saints made and the trials that they would endure as they tried to live their faith while faced with real problems.  My issues seemed so stupid by comparison.  So the trip was one of those refiner’s fire, soul-shaping adventures for me.  The kind that hurt a little, but you know something better can and should become of you.  (And the kind that makes you think that just maybe you should put your kids in time out for a month when you get home.)

Perhaps the most poignant moment for me was when I got lost on my way to church.  I was trying to get directions over the phone, but the kids were being loud and silly in the car, and my phone lost signal.  In a moment of peaked frustration, I turned around and yelled, “EVERYBODY QUIET!!!”  I am not a screamer.  But I screamed.  My children all froze in place and looked at me with wide eyes.  We silently continued toward the church.  Natalie said quietly, “Mommy, you scared me.”  I was so upset (again, mostly with myself), and the thought occurred to me that perhaps today, more than any other time that I could recall, I really needed the Sacrament.  I was acutely aware of my weaknesses, and boy, did I need grace.  I needed the power of repentance, the assurance of forgiveness, and most of all, a new start.

One of my favorite statues I saw at the visitors center in Nauvoo was this depiction of the Savior walking on the stormy sea:

DSCF0043When I think of those waters as my stormy feelings– the darkness, the chaos, the difficult-to-harness anger, I know that the Savior is the one who must calm the elements.  I need him.  Again, the lesson of my “vacation” hit home– I cannot do this alone.

We’re back home, and we survived.  Next week I’ll probably think it was a fun trip.  It was great to see my brother and his family.  My testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith and the restored gospel was strengthened.  In the meantime, Matt is helping me remind our children why they should listen better, and we’ll work on that as a family.  Because another vacation like that one, and I might lose my mind.