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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Vain Employments

"For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.”

(1 John 2:16)

black and white photo of clothing organized precisely on a clothing rack

While God was working to draw me to Himself through various influences, I was also following my own human desires and allowing other spirits to seduce me. The spirit of covetousness, grasping greed, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16)—were all impelled by my imbalanced drive, the too urgent urge in me to be “cool” and fit in. Of course, none of these things seep in all at once or in an obvious way. Since before and after-school employment—including work for pay—was a big part of my life for a while, it was where and when I embraced and absorbed a considerable portion of this spirit’s power and influence.

By high school, attending school had become something I just had to endure and get through. Rarely did my school life, even homework, or relationships from school infringe on what I saw as my REAL life, which happened before and after school. Besides church dances and activities, even before I got my driver’s license, I began working. I wanted a way to earn my own money to buy my own clothes and make-up and such. My parents would pay half for material if I wanted to sew my own clothes, but I had to come up with the other half. There were also some things I couldn’t very well make myself, and I needed to pay for any “pre-made” clothes myself, once I was fourteen.

I’ve mentioned working for my piano teacher. I also worked for a short time for a gentleman from our church whose business was creating art and design work used for advertising his client’s products or services. He took me on as an apprentice. I had been showing promise by successfully creating designs that were accepted and used for school flyers and a school T-shirt. A schoolmate had hired me to make him a poster, and I was also doing a few portraits for friends. However, my work with Brother R— was short-lived. I think he didn’t have the time to train me in doing the painstaking, detail work that was needed. I had difficulty getting the rub-on lettering aligned perfectly (and it had to be perfect), and so on. It took more time for him to train me or re-do my work than it did to just do it himself, and his time was already limited. Apparently, he couldn’t really afford my “help.”

Once I got my driver’s license, the next job I got was working at Happy Joe’s (Pizza) Pie and Ice Cream Parlor. It served a wide variety of pizzas and ice cream. Of course, I had to start as dish washer, but I was promised a promotion to the ice cream parlor within a few months. This hope got me through the sticky, grubby, steamy, soggy months of cleaning dishes while they lasted. The manager kept his word, and I was promoted. I had been mostly working alone in the back and looked forward to becoming more a part of the community of people who worked at Happy Joes.

However, life in the parlor wasn’t nearly as joyful as I had anticipated. At first, everything I did was roundly criticized. Ineptness was not tolerated—even though the “training” I received was as minimal as possible, compressed by the nature of a busy business. This kind of “training” seemed to be the “rule” wherever I worked afterward, too.

Worse, the main pastime when a manager wasn’t around was complaining about working there, about the pay, about the hours, about the manager’s decisions, or whatever else people were annoyed about that day. This attitude of dissatisfaction also seemed to prevail at most other places I worked afterward. Almost from the start, complaining was something I decided not to participate in. I didn’t like hearing it. It didn’t feel right to be part of it. I was honestly glad I was working in the ice cream parlor and not dish washing anymore. And there was one person I worked with who was always very kind and patient with me and who generally did not complain. It made a marked difference when I got to work with her. That’s how I wanted to be.

I tried to focus on what I liked at Happy Joes. There was the sour kraut pizza—which, surprisingly, was very savory. It’s still my favorite of all the varieties of pizzas I’ve had, though I’ve never seen it offered anywhere else. It was fun to see people get all excited when the staff would bring out—with cheers, whistling, clappers, and noisemakers—either of the two biggest, huge platters of ice cream fixings to a customer’s table. Happy Joes had a great variety of ice cream fixings from banana splits and sundaes and boats to crazy creations—which I’ve also not seen elsewhere. Besides a mix of flavors, there were a bunch of toppings to choose from and sometimes flag- or tinsel- or other similar decorations to top them off. It was fun, even while challenging, to prepare these creations.

There were some things I wasn’t sure about. When the upper manager wasn’t there, sometimes during clean-up, the staff would inhale the gas left over in the whipped cream containers or the helium for balloons so they could talk funny and laugh their heads off at each other. I never had the guts or desire to try it. Now I’m glad, for the sake of my brain’s health, I never did.

Beginning with my job at Happy Joes, I felt like an outsider everywhere I worked during high school. I didn’t complain about work; I didn’t party; there wasn’t much else anyone wanted to talk about. However, though I didn’t see it at the time, the most disunifying thing of all was what was going on in my own heart. While co-workers talked, I was looking down on them for their complaining and their worldliness, their lack of my LDS standards (because they weren’t members of my church). I despised how they dressed immodestly at work and partied all the time when they weren’t at work. Besides complaining, partying was all my coworkers ever seemed to talk about—which was yet another thing I found to be fairly common in most places where I worked.

After working at Happy Joes for a while, I realized I didn’t have much time for clothes shopping or sewing; also, eventually, because of the distance from my home and school, the late shifts, and the long hours—getting longer (they were always pushing me for more), the job was starting to feel like too much. The final straw was the looming possibility of being promoted to waitress, which would have required me to wear a super short (but very cute), red and white striped dress with a frilly apron. Hypocritically—because I wore shorter shorts all the time in the summer, in public—this made me super uncomfortable. When this promotion came up, I gave my notice and quit.

My next couple of jobs were in clothing stores. My time at both of these locations is mostly a blur now. There isn’t much to remember—except clothes! What did I do with the money I was making? This is where my covetousness and greed kicked into overdrive. I never took a paycheck home. I bought—or put on hold to buy later, with my next paycheck—every cute shirt or top or jacket or scarf I especially liked, every skirt or pair of culottes or Levi’s or overalls or shorts or swimsuit I couldn’t live without. The designer dresses I “needed” were generally too expensive for me. Their purchase might take up a whole paycheck or two. So, I would somehow find time to purchase the pattern, material, and notions to sew my own prom or homecoming or other fancy-event dress—always for a third of the price or less.

This led me into becoming an avid bargain hunter when it came to clothing and accessories or material, patterns, and notions. I would even go to Denver, miles away, to “save” money. My mom would have to go with me when I was buying material since she was paying half. I never saved up enough money that I could go and buy what I needed and then my parents could just pay me back later. If anything, I was getting pretty good at borrowing in advance of my paychecks coming. I had to have things now, if not sooner! Yes, I had a job, but my main employment was spending money—on myself.

My Dad teased me that I had wine taste on a beer budget. It was true! I was always seeking more and better than what my means would allow. Though I hadn’t absorbed the modern mantra that I somehow “deserved” more and better; I was doing perfectly fine on my own, in my own time, at being an ungrateful, perpetually dissatisfied piece of work.

Along with dating and being with boys, my world revolved around clothes and looking attractive. I wasn’t just a little self-absorbed. I was TOTALLY self-absorbed. It took me a couple of hours to get ready for school in the morning if you include both the time I spent at home before LDS Seminary and my time spent in the bathroom after I got to school before classes began. Once the initial novelty of new boys in seminary classes wore off, I’d wear curlers to seminary—even hot curlers that were supposed to work instantly, so they could cool down and my curls would last longer. If not curlers, I would bring along my curling wand or even my hair dryer with a curling brush to style my hair.

Then there was the makeup. Yes—as seems to be a young woman’s inclination—despite my young, fresh, unlined, supple skin and beautiful natural coloring as a teen, I believed I wasn’t pretty without makeup. I believed the ads featuring gorgeous women. I’d first clean my skin with an “essential” skin toner or freshener, then apply a coat of a “natural” foundation cream to my face to hide any real or just threatening blemishes. I’d apply a “transparent” rouge to my cheeks and a shiny, “clear”—with a tint of color—lip gloss. Then came eyeliner, eye highlighter, mascara, and making sure my eyebrows were plucked just right. At night, I’d carefully clean it all off. I’d have to buy special face treatment for pimples (since all the makeup was clogging my pores much of the time). Sometimes I’d wear a treatment mask on my face that was supposed to cleanse, refresh, and stimulate my skin.

I coveted bubble baths that I couldn’t have very often—if at all—at our house with our bathroom situations. I remember taking one at Nana’s house once, feeling like a queen all the while! I manicured my nails and then painted them with one of the latest “natural” colors I had painstakingly purchased. Being “natural” was the “in” thing in Boulder (I think it still is, but it’s called “organic” now).

After elementary school, it was contact lenses (a new thing)—no ugly glasses for me! The twenty-four-hour retainer I wore to straighten my teeth went into the trash the minute the initial time the dentist gave for wearing it was up, even though he and my parents were encouraging me to wear it just a little longer. Thought and effort toward how I looked took up the better part of almost every day for me.

The only purist decision I made during this time was to refrain from wearing earrings or getting my ears pierced. This was my chosen way of being “different” from my peers. If hair coloring had been a “thing” then, I probably would have colored my hair. Same with getting tattoos, etc. I worked very hard at being “different,” like everyone else my age who was seeking the same thing (to be different from their parents but not each other).

With my appetite for new clothes, I could hardly “afford” all these accessories and beauty aids; so most often I’d talk my mom into getting the “smaller” things for me, one at a time. Or they’d be on my Christmas or birthday wish list. Santa and my parents were as generous as they could be to me. Still, my lists never ended. There was always something new I was sure I couldn’t live without.

I was completely absorbed in outward appearances and outward behavior. I never once considered what was in my heart—except guilt. I would give up anything I felt very guilty about based on LDS standards or my family’s or LDS community’s expectations. This “guilt” was most often based on human assessment—real or imagined—not necessarily on God’s judgment. I was covetous, grasping, and greedy without realizing the extent of it. I wished deeply for others’ approval and sought it with all my heart by adjusting how I looked and acted. I adjusted, of course, based on my own perceptions—true or false—regarding others. The only One I wasn’t seeking approval from was God. I was trying to be “right” with myself and my world, which is always, at best, an exhausting, never-reachable, ever-unsatisfying, effort that left me empty and lonely.

Thankfully, God didn’t leave me there, but it took time for Him to turn my will in another direction; and things would get worse with me before they got better.

The LORD: “I was enraged by their sinful greed;

I punished them, and hid my face in anger,

yet they kept on in their willful ways.

I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;

I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners,

creating praise on their lips.” (Isaiah 57:17-19)


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