03 February 2012

Interview with Lia Collings

Over a year ago, a good friend of mine told me of a project her sister had been working hard on. Similar to Allison, she was also putting together a book of essays written by women for women. (You can see a quote from one of the essays here.)These essays told tales of women who put promising careers and some of their goals and aspirations on hold to be able to be home to raise their children. I read the essays before I had Miss Millie and was in awe of these talented, intelligent women who had changed their lives to do what they felt they must. I admired their strength and their courage.

I emailed Lia, whose brain child this book was, and got to know her a little better through those emails along with another interview she did. We talked about doing an interview here but life kept getting in the way.

Now I am happy to tell you that we have finally done it. As I read over her answers I feel her strength of character and her determination. I have been so inspired by her and I hope you are too.

So without further ado, meet Lia Collings, creator of Choosing Motherhood.

Tell us a little about yourself and your family.
We are a happy little family of three little girls, aged 7, 5, and 3, with another baby on the way currently living in Berlin while my husband finishes his dissertation. I think the most unique thing about our family is that Justin and I have made a conscious effort since the early days of our marriage to make our family culturally independent of the world. By that I mean we’ve never owned a television set, we’ve gone to the movie theater I think twice in our entire eight years of marriage—one of those was to Puss and Boots with the whole family about a week ago—and we hardly ever read novels or plays that were published after the first half of the 20th century. In general we accept “recreation” but not “entertainment”. It makes us pretty different as a family than a lot of other families, I think.

(Interview continues after the jump)

Do you consider yourself a creative person? Do you feel that it is something that has comes naturally or is it something you have worked hard/actively to develop?
The first thing I think of when I hear “creative person” is a graphic designer or a scrapbooker or a seamstress, one of those super homemaker types. I am totally not that person. But I loved President Uchtdorf’s perspective on creativity that he shared with the women of the Church a few General Relief Society Meetings ago. As children of the Supreme Creator, of course we are creative, all of us are creative. We’re supposed to be creative, we’re happier when we’re creative. The contrast between entertainment and recreation probably comes into play here. Entertainment is a passive activity—dinner and a movie, for example—and recreation is an active one—trying a new recipe and reading a play out loud together. Both evenings would have the same result on one level, you’re not hungry anymore and you’ve experienced drama in some form, but in one situation you’ve exerted a lot more agency than in the other. Yeah, I don’t really think of myself as a creative person at all, but I’m often making up new recipes, I started a Yale Law Wives group while my husband was at law school, I turned a closet in our last apartment into a beautiful little Book Nook, pulling Choosing Motherhood together was probably creative. You think of Mozart or Picasso as being creative, but we all are in our own little way.
Frequently we have ideas of great projects to tackle but often times we get tackled ourselves. What inspiration helped you to continue your efforts in writing for and compiling the essays for Choosing Motherhood?
I have a very strong testimony of the power of a can-do attitude. Here’s my hard, scientific proof: In 11th grade, like many high school students, I took the ACT college entrance exam. There are four sections, Math, Writing, Reading Comprehension, and Science Reasoning. My mind just really doesn’t grasp scientific concepts as well as other subjects—I got a D on my first college science exam because I just cannot understand how elevators work!—so I went in and took the test expecting to do really well on the first three subjects and hoping not to do anything disastrous on Science Reasoning. When I got the results I had scored a 36 out of 36 on Reading Comprehension and a 28 out of 36 on Science Reasoning. The 28 brought my overall score way down, obviously, and when I started thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that Science Reasoning on this standardized test wasn’t really about science—they hadn’t really required any outside knowledge—it was reading and reasoning from the graphs and information given. In other words, Science Reasoning was really just another aspect of Reading Comprehension, and I had just seen that I was really good at understanding what I read. So I signed up to take the test again. The second time I took it, all of my other scores stayed pretty much the same, but Science Reasoning jumped from 28 up to 36. An 8 point jump on a standardized test just by changing my attitude.
Connected with attitude is just having faith that what you’re doing is really important. With Choosing Motherhood I really felt like I had had unique experiences that could help other women in their thinking about motherhood. I think our whole nightmare infancy with our second daughter and her health problems was in large measure to change my attitude about devoting my life to my children, and I would not wish that experience on my worst enemy. So if I can write it down in such a way that another person can experience it vicariously, I’ve helped someone. On the positive side, the mothers around me were all so incredible, and it was a unique experience that there would be that many amazingly wonderful mothers all in one place, especially since few of them would identify themselves as natural nurturers, I think. But they are all superb but different models of good mothering. I benefited immensely from their examples, their thoughts, conversations with them, but other women wouldn’t have that opportunity in person, so I had to make it available vicariously. So I had a really, really strong motivation to put together this book because I really believed it could help someone, even if it was only my own daughters twenty years down the road. Combining a belief that what you’re doing is really valuable with a can-do, positive attitude, when you run into challenges—the book actually morphed quite a bit from my original plan, but I think the end-result is much better—you just say to yourself, “I know this is a valuable project. How can I change my thinking in order to surmount this specific obstacle?”
A totally different example could be my last sewing project. My daughters were understandably hesitant to move to Germany and have to go to German school and leave all their friends at home. Capitalizing on their love of princesses (and in an effort to rid ourselves forever of the influence of the Disney Princess pantheon), I decided to make them Renaissance-style princess dresses for them to wear when we visited castles and palaces in Germany. I am not a seamstress by any means, but any monkey can follow directions, right? So I didn’t undertake this enormous sewing project as a seamstress, I undertook it as an instruction follower, and the dresses turned out beautifully! (I must say I had no idea about some of the more complicated properties of brocade and I did have to send them off to my mother-in-law so she could serge the hems, but I am pretty proud of the rest of my handiwork.) However, once you do quite a few sewing projects as only an instruction follower, you eventually become a seamstress. I’m hoping I’ll reach that point before prom dress time.

As you were writing your essays for the book and working with the other women who also wrote essays, what new discoveries did you make?
For me personally I think recording the health challenges experience and articulating through William Blake’s illustration what being a mother means to me has really solidified my belief in what I’m doing with my life and in how absolutely vital I am to my children, how vital every mother is to her children. “The best I have to give is me,” is TRUE, and it’s not because you have such and such degree or because you have such and such talent or you know how to do such and such, it’s because you are YOU. I think the love our children have for us when they’re young is a lot closer to the kind of love Heavenly Father and our Savior have for us than any other, because our children don’t love us for any other reason than that we’re their parent, just like Heavenly Father loves me for no other reason, really, than that I’m His daughter.
The other big thing I learned was from an essay that ended up not going in the book because the contributor was put on bed rest for a high-risk pregnancy and didn’t feel like she could continue working on it. She shared a story of a friend with two children who was serving as Young Women’s President in her ward and who really, really wanted a third child. If I remember correctly, I think this woman somehow knew that she would have a third child, but she didn’t end up conceiving until after her six or seven year term as Young Women’s president. That taught me that even though being a mother is the greatest thing we can do with our time, it’s by no means the only good thing and that Heavenly Father needs us to do other things as well. Thinking of this story really, really helped me when I had a miscarriage about a year later because we were still finishing up the book and I knew I couldn’t have continued working on it had the pregnancy continued, and then I received really clear guidance that having another baby wasn’t what we needed to be doing right then. ( I feel like I should clarify it was actually a blighted ovum or missed abortion, so my body thought it was 10 weeks pregnant but there was really no baby, just a placenta.) Anyway, I guess also having so many varied examples from different people about how the Lord directed them in their lives just strengthened my faith that the Lord takes care of us. Now that we’ve been 6 months in a foreign country I am so grateful I had the miscarriage, actually, because there is absolutely no way we could have managed living in Germany with four kids while my husband wrote his dissertation. And the Lord knew that.
When I read the essays in your book, my mind starts reeling about my decisions and my own story of how I chose to be a mother. So many people think that because of education and experience, choosing to put motherhood before career and personal ambitions is a waste of talent, intellect, and education. Obviously you disagree. Can you tell us a little more about your thoughts on that?
Oh, these days I just feel so sorry for people who think parenthood is a waste of their time, especially motherhood. Fatherhood doesn’t usually entail putting career on hold for a while. Maybe if we had more of the German concept of Bildung and less of the American idea of education it would be easier to see how parenthood is the HEIGHT of educational experience and a venue for maximum intellectual application. This is probably an area into which creativity definitely comes into play, because I think anyone would acknowledge that it takes just as much ingenuity to get four little kids to happily help clean the house as to get four adults in an office to work well together, but there’s no one to give positive feedback on a performance review or give you a bonus at the end of the year when you manage it with the four little kids. So you have to create your own set of accolades or compensation. Having an appreciative and engaged husband is probably all it takes in a lot of instances—just getting a “thank you” or a “I love watching Katharine light up when she plays with you” is really nice, and then having him feel like your children are your joint project can really make the difference in feeling validated and that what you’re doing is important and worthwhile.

I wonder, too, if sometimes we as mothers are just overly sensitive to the opinions of others. I think two of the essays in Choosing Motherhood bring up being at the glitzy party and being asked what you do. That an awkward silence follows the answer that you’re a stay-at-home mom doesn’t mean that your interlocutor thinks you’ve wasted your life, it probably just means that your experience is so far removed from their daily life they don’t even know what follow-up question to ask. If we as mothers thought of our chosen career as being just as noble as the human rights activist, we’d gush about our current work just as torrentially as they would and not even need to be asked a follow-up question.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
Yeah, survival! Living in Germany with no car, limited language ability, one child in a German Grundschule and another in a German Kindergarten, and the general cultural and lifestyle differences has really given me a new perspective on what the many immigrants in the U.S. are experiencing. What brave souls! So other than trying to navigate a family of five through a year in a foreign country and growing a baby, I spend my time trying to learn German and letting Julia Child teach me the art of French Cooking. I figured I could save money on ingredients if I undertook that project here, plus there’s not too much skill involved in frying a sausage, so I think I have German food down. J

If you could have a dinner party with the six people who inspire you most, who would they be and why?
I have to go back in history to answer this question, not because I don’t know any inspiring people but because I know so many! My husband endlessly inspires me, and I have dinner with him every night, and we both frequently comment how surprised we are that our friends are friends with us, because they’re all just so amazing by any standard and we feel so ordinary. So, over the whole gamut of human history, six people with whom I’d like to have a little chat:
Julie B. Beck, General Relief Society President. I think Sister Beck is a rock star, and my interest in sitting down with her kind of connects to Choosing Motherhood. I found it so interesting that after serving as a counselor in the General Young Women’s Presidency for five years under Sister Tanner and seeing the problems and challenges facing 12-18 year old girls and young women all over the world, Sister Beck’s very first address to the entire church after being appointed General Relief Society President was “Mothers Who Know”. What were the issues she saw with the youth of the church that she felt would be eradicated if only their mothers were doing the things she suggested in her very first address? Other than that I think her vision of Relief Society is really inspiring and really gets back to what was originally intended for the organization. I was reading Women of Covenant shortly before Sister Beck was called and some things I heard her say at the beginning of her term as president just really impressed me. I also think the publication of Daughters of My Kingdom was really inspired, as was calling Sister Tanner to write it. She’s another amazing woman.
Mormon: General, Historian, Prophet. My other inspiring religious figure is the ancient Nephite prophet Mormon who abridged the Book of Mormon, a book held to be scripture by members of my church. Mormon seems like a Renaissance man to me and in all the best ways. He’s wise, he’s intelligent, he’s thoughtful, he’s a leader, he’s a fantastic father, a righteous man, a writer. And just look at those Arnold Frieberg paintings—he totally went to the gym. J I like his description of himself as being “a sober child”. I think he was a watcher and a deep thinker. I’d love to hear more of his thoughts on civilization and politics and rearing children in troubled times than what we get in the Book of Mormon.
Michelangelo. I’ve heard that it only shows your ignorance to name Beethoven as your favorite composer or Michelangelo as your favorite artist. I think that’s just posturing. Michelangelo is in a world all his own in my opinion, so I guess we can squabble about second, but he defines art for me. I feel like when we talk about Plato’s idea of Forms and there being a perfect, heavenly chair or whatever, and everything else being only a shadow or reflection of the true, perfect chair that exists somewhere (I haven’t read Republic for a while, so I don’t remember the theory exactly) we’re talking about Michelangelo and his art. Despair and heart-wrenching anguish is Michelangelo’s Pietá. The masculine, creative power that defines God is God as depicted in The Creation. He somehow captured an ideal above and beyond human experience. How did he do it? What was he thinking when he came up with these, not just how to paint or sculpt something, but to sculpt that subject? How did he see it? How did he cope with living among the everyday banalities when there was so much beauty in his head? The man was a total, beautiful genius. Even if he did wear his boots until the skin came off with them because he didn’t remove them even for sleep. Geniuses are always eccentric.
Marcus Agrippa. Agrippa was Augustus’ right-hand man in the Empire, and it has always impressed me that he had no qualms about being second best. That seems so uncharacteristic of highly capable men, and Agrippa was so varied and wide-ranging in his abilities. Maybe it was a David and Jonathon sort of relationship or maybe Agrippa just didn’t like the limelight—I don’t think so, though. I think he had a very noble character and I think it would be really exciting to meet him.
A deceased ancestor of mine. I really like doing family history research. I find it a really rewarding mental exercise and since lots of Mormons like to do it but my parents are the first Mormons in their family, there’s a whole lot of research to do. There’s one specific person I want to meet though I don’t remember her name now and meeting her would just be representative for me of so many other ancestors and so many other ordinary people who lived in the past. This particular woman lived in a little village in Bisingen, Hohenzollern, Prussia in the early 1800s. She must have been a good Catholic because her marriage was recorded in the little church there, as were the births of her three children. The deaths of each of them were also recorded, I think in every case before the child had reached a first birthday, and then finally, soon after the death of the last child, this woman’s own death was recorded. I imagine her death was related to complications associated with the birth of her child. Such a sparse history was probably recorded time and time again for so many women throughout history. I would just like to talk to her, ask her about her life, ask her what gave her joy and hope and the strength to go on every day. I was really pretty distressed when I found these records, actually, and when I returned home from the Family History Center I told my husband about this woman. In response he shared something that really inspired me. He said, and I’m paraphrasing his paraphrase, though his paraphrases are basically direct quotes, “Many of these people [for whom we search and perform LDS temple ordinances] lived very hard lives. Perhaps some of them died wondering if God even knew who they were. But each of these people will have their name read in the temple of our God, and they will know that they were not forgotten.” I thought that was such a beautiful idea.
What books are you currently reading? What is on your list of favorite reads?
Right now I’m mostly reading the Old Testament and The German Genius by Peter Watson, a cultural history of Germany trying to reclaim Germany’s illustrious intellectual and artistic past from the grave of Nazism. I like reading cultural histories because then I get good ideas for novels and plays to read--you know, things that have stood the test of time or had an impact on their era instead of what fleeting thing is on the top of the New York Times bestseller list. I really, really like Will and Ariel Durrant’s The Story of Civilization, by which they mean Western Civilization. My favorites are pretty standard—George Eliot’s Middlemarch (we named our second daughter after Dorothea), Dicken’s David Copperfield (I completely agree with Tolstoy’s sentiment, “If you sift the world’s prose literature…Dickens will remain; sift Dickens and David Copperfield, will remain; sift David Copperfield, the description of the storm at sea will remain.”), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s funny, I’m usually hesitant to read a “classic” novel because I think only smart people read them and they probably only read them in order to feel smart, but they’re classics because they are accessible to everyone. To some degree. Like I said before, we have a general rule not to read anything written in the latter half of the 20th century or beyond—partly because there’s been so many marvelous things written before then who has time for that stuff anyway, partly because there was such a drastic shift in world views. I don’t know if it was industrialization and capitalism and the subsequent alienation and shift from family to the individual or what, but it’s just not as edifying. Maybe once I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare I’ll feel authorized to move on, but I’m pretty far from that.
One book that we go back to again and again—we try to read at least portions of it once a year—is a book called Arm the Children by Arthur Henry King. BYU TV just aired an episode about Professor King in their series LDS Lives, I think. He was British and a literary critic—mostly Shakespeare, I think—and after spending his whole life analyzing and criticizing texts he came across the Joseph Smith story at around aged 60 and felt just from the style of the account that Joseph Smith must be telling the truth. He ended up joining the LDS church and coming to BYU to teach and Arm the Children is a collection of talks he gave in various venues, mostly with the theme of how arts and culture support the gospel and how the gospel supports art and culture and how we need to use arts and culture to raise our children in an increasingly degraded world. This book resonated so much with us that when we saw that the BYU Bookstore was selling their last ten copies before the book went out of print we bought all ten of them and gave them to 8 families we really appreciated and kept the other two, one to have permanently, one to lend out.
I know that you care a great deal about education, for yourself, your children, and others. How does creativity play a role in pursuing your goals in educating yourself, your children, and in your goals in education reform?
Yes, we do care a great deal about education. Living in Germany has introduced me to a single word that I think captures my idea of education—Bildung. While “education” in America immediately makes us think of K-12 or university or a stack of textbooks, in my understanding Bildung would shed the formal education framework, add music and drama and dance and political discussions, and conjure up an image not of a brain being expanded but of a soul being enlarged. Once you get outside of the ‘education’ box—which takes some creativity, I guess, because you begin to think of anything as education and anything as an opportunity for raising yourself a little higher—you can create an educational opportunity out of anything. One example that has just come up is in dance. I love watching ballet and uplifting modern dance, but I’ve never taken a dance class in my life and only know plies from an exercise video I watched once. But after a few exposures to some ballet here in Berlin, all three of my girls have been leaping and twirling around the house on their tippy-toes, humming the Swan Lake and Nutcracker suites to themselves. It just so happened that I picked up an antique book of old Scottish dances from a bookstore here to give to a friend, and it just so happens there’s a section on teaching the steps to young children. So I’ve arranged for someone in the ward who does know about dance to give me a crash course on deciphering choreography notation so my little ballerinas can start dancing some simple Scottish reels. It takes a little thinking to “create” a learning opportunity, but I don’t think it really takes that much.
As far as how that relates to my ideas for education reform, fundamentally I think the idea is inherent in the very word education. I haven’t looked at my Latin for a while (Classical Studies was my major at BYU, but I graduated years ago now) but I’m pretty sure that “educate” comes from ducere meaning “to lead” and ex meaning “out”. I think education is both leading out and amplifying the good things already present in a person and leading out and abolishing the bad things. Like I said, I haven’t looked at it in years, but I’m pretty sure the ancient Greek model of education had a three-fold focus on music, dance, and then logic/rhetoric. I think using music and dance from the earliest ages with children, who naturally have a great need to move their bodies and to employ their vocal chords to the max, is a great way to educate them. I’ve come across a few things about German education reform in the early and mid 1800s and am finding that others have thought similar things about looking to the Greek model and especially that the way the Greeks thought, wrote, and taught lent itself to an involved and responsible citizenry. In this age of mass media and mass communication, the study of logic and rhetoric is absolutely vital. Justin and I were talking the other day about how it’s interesting that you can usually tell whether a source of information can be trusted—be it an e-mail, a newspaper article, a radio ad, a documentary—within a paragraph or two just by the style and word choice. This subject had come up because Justin was speaking with someone who didn’t feel like he knew what he could trust when he was reading things, essentially this was a person who believed anything in print, and we were talking about how we haven’t really felt like that. As we were trying to pinpoint from where this ability to discern between sources stemmed, we concluded it was probably partly from having worked on a historical project for an extended period of time in which you are trained to always question the source, partly just from education, but mostly from reading the scriptures. When we talk about any sort of canon—the Western Canon, the Scriptural Canon—we’re talking about an accepted standard. For me the scriptures are the standard of truth, and the way they tell their story is the standard for the way one conveys truth. Take the story of king David. I think it is universally accepted that when David with all his wives took the wife of another man and then had that man killed in an effort to cover up his action, he had done something abominable. Certainly according to the moral standards set forth in other books of the Old Testament this was a reprehensible deed, not just adultery but murder, as well as coveting and probably bearing false witness at some point along the way. But whoever is recording the story of David never makes any condemning statement about David. We are simply given the facts of the case. Of course by the inclusion of certain details—the little bits included about Michal in the chapters leading up to the account of Bathsheba are so interesting to me, and I think are included for a reason though once again the author makes no judgment calls—we are led to believe certain things, but there’s no impassioned effort on the part of the author to persuade us to do or think or believe anything. That is so different from all the information we get today which is almost always trying to persuade us to believe one thing or the other. So teaching children from the time they’re very young how to recognize rhetorical devices and logical jumps, i.e. having a certain kind of phone actually has no bearing on how much fun you have or how many pretty girls hang on your arm, or that every member of the political party in opposition to you isn’t a brainless devil incarnate, the world would be a lot better off. And then maybe our politics and advertising wouldn’t be so embarrassingly ridiculous!
Describe a typical day. What routines do you have?
I’ve really gained an appreciation for our traditions since coming to Germany. I think Tevye has it right in The Fiddler on the Roof, traditions really are what keep the unstable fiddler from falling off the roof, and even when they’re forced to leave Anatevka, their traditions will follow them wherever they go. I think it was really helpful for our girls that even though we moved to a totally new place with a new language, new friends, new home situation, new school situation, we still had family scripture study with a pancake breakfast every morning and we still had our family reading time book and a song before bed every night. And then of course having the same church classes every Sunday and Family Home Evening every Monday. I think it’s even helped that I spent so many years perfecting the art of sandwich bread, because they really don’t like the sour taste of European whole grain breads so I make the same bread I was making in the States for their sandwiches and as something that will at least keep them from going to bed starving when they just really can’t stomach the foreign entrée I’ve tried at dinner. So their transition to everything was remarkably smooth. Other than their being awesome kids and our praying a lot for that to be the case, I think our little routines really helped things.

How does courage play a role in the many different aspects of your life?
I’ve heard Elder Holland quote a world-class swimmer saying that the key to his success is to “Stroke when you don’t want to stroke, kick when you don’t want to kick.” We used to focus on a value every month and memorize poems and scriptures that had to do with that value—I don’t know if you can tell, but we’ve toned things way down since coming to Germany. I figure a 7 hour immersion course in a foreign language is traumatic enough on a young mind! Anyway, “courage” was our value one month and we defined it as “doing the right thing even when it’s hard and even if no one else is doing it.” I am constantly just having to use sheer force of will to get through my day, especially since I feel yucky and am so tired from being pregnant, and I often have to fight away the rationalization that I don’t have to do this because no one else is doing this. Who cares what someone else is doing? They’re not me. They don’t have the same purposes and end goals that I have. I guess that’s how courage comes into play. And then courage to just get out there and fail, because you’ll have to fail a few times before you can succeed. This mostly applies to my speaking German right now.

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