When I was no more than seven, I remember gently removing the shed skin of cicadas from the slat-wood fence in my parents' backyard. We would gather roly poly bugs and watch them curl and uncurl. One of my greatest ambitions was to find a queen fire ant, so I could have my own colony. I kept a careful eye on the date tree in our front yard, finding out that coconut trees and date trees were very different things.
I asked millions of questions, and stored the answers in the back of my mind. I climbed olive trees and dreamt of dinosaurs flying overhead. I read every book I could get my hands on, immersing myself in the stars, in the layers of the earth, in learning about peach trees and honey bees.
When we visited my grandparents, I followed one around and fed his calves and goats. The other taught me about herbs and roses. I learned that spiders love grape arbors, and that dog food doesn't taste good.
Later, I looked into the maw of a dormant volcano, smelled the sulfur pits, watched humpbacks dive on the horizon. I gathered and preserved sea urchin, learned about man o' war jellyfish, and how to pick blackberries with minimal scratches. Everywhere I lived, there were new explorations and always, always more to learn. What I could not learn by experience, I learned from books. Sometimes, I feel as though I have lived dozens of lives in my short years here.
Even now, as an adult, the number of things I want to do far outnumber the hours of my day. Now, my life slips by as I sit at a desk and design marketing brochures. I wake up, chivvy the kids out of bed and to school, then come home and chivvy them from school into bed. It is not a world of exploration any more.
And yet, this morning the sun crested the mountain range to the east, shooting long fingers of sunshine into the fluffy grey storm clouds. My daughters smiled and laughed, wondered where "mommy monster" was and called me silly when I growled at them and chased them out the door. They talked about the interactions between them and their friends, their teachers, and other family members. They kissed me on the cheek and raced my car as I pulled away from the curb.
I am not an ideal Mormon. I am a single mother, with more things to do than time to do them. I have darkness in my past, which triggers panic, fear, or anger at times I do not expect it. Church is hard for me. Life is hard. The Conference talks are generally not for me. I am not the target audience for much of anything. Sometimes, it seems that the very gospel itself is not for a woman such as I—damaged and unsure how healing could happen.
My life is nothing like I planned, nothing like I was led to expect nor anything for which I was told to prepare. My heart is sometimes full of pain. But it is just as full of joy.
And this is the Gospel.
For every shed cicada skin, there is a dead bird, its neck broken and head chewed off. For every glorious burst of sunshine, there are storm clouds. For every cleansing rain there are floods and darkness. This life is a mortal one, a never-ending dance of pleasure and pain, glory and despair, success and failure. And it is all beautiful.
Never again will we be given this kind of opportunity: to experience pain with the promise of healing, or a chance to sin and yet repent. Jesus Christ has given this to us, the beauty and monstrosity, so that we can learn to choose what is good, to make our contributions to this life ones of healing, peace, and love.
The "Gospel" of eternal families, genealogy, Scouting, home-baked casseroles, stay-at-home mothering, magnifying my calling, and sunlit faith may not be "for me." I will probably never be that kind of Mormon. I may never be "Celestial material." But I can learn how to pluck salvation from transgression, how to serve joyfully in sorrow, how to carry the burdens of others so that the Lord might carry mine.
He is the God of the infinite heavens and of the fallen sparrow. He has brought this Church in all its imperfection and messiness to earth so that I might learn of Him. And, for me, the lessons I'm learning are moving past the doctrines and teachings and into the experience. How better to learn of a God who would suffer all pain, to "bleed at every pore" than to endure our suffering in glorious recognition of all that is still good in our lives? How better to learn love than to serve those who hunger for it?
That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, raw and real. And it is glorious.