The correlation between large and small

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Welfare Session of the October 1980 Conference.
One of the things that's been interesting in reading these old General Conference talks is thinking about how this is the counsel my parents were hearing when they were raising their family—raising me. I have realized how many things were part of our family culture because they were being encouraged by the prophets. I knew my parents were faithful in the church. But I don't think I realized just how many things they were doing as specific responses to specific directions from church leaders: things like having a garden, the canning and sewing and mending my mom did, the way they took care of our yard, the way they helped us keep journals. Now looking back, I'm amazed and inspired by how seriously they took the prophets' counsel, and how conscientiously they made it part of our lives.

One thing that I liked from Sister Barbara Smith's talk, "Follow Joyously," was the following sentence:
Let us make our kitchens creative centers from which emanate some of the most delightful of all home experiences.
I love that and endorse it wholeheartedly! I've heard people express dismay at how food-centered our church celebrations tend to be. I understand that it can be difficult for those with allergies or other food issues. But in my own life, "some of the most delightful of all home experiences," both in my family of birth and my family now, have been centered around cooking and eating together. I feel blessed that this has been the case. And I love that Sister Smith called the kitchen a "creative center" for producing such experiences! It makes the routine task of cooking and making meals (so many meals! Never-ending meals!) seem almost…impressive!

Sister Smith also said:
[A good homemaker] understands—as we each should—that life is made up of small daily acts. Savings in food budgets come by pennies, not only by dollars. Clothing budgets are cut by mending—stitch by stitch, seam by seam. Houses are kept in good repair nail by nail. Provident homes come not by decree or by broad brushstroke. Provident homes come from small acts performed well day after day. When we see in our minds the great vision, then we discipline ourselves by steady, small steps that make it happen. It is important to realize this correlation between the large and the small.
I read an article once talking about how thinking that something was just "a drop in the bucket" was a useless way of looking at things. "Sure, it is just a drop," the article said, "but it is IN THE BUCKET! It was out, and now it is in, and that means something!" That idea stuck with me and it's helped me try to do small things to improve life (like carrying an item one step closer to where it goes, even if I don't put it all the way away yet; or tidying a small corner of the room even if the whole thing is still mostly messy) with a little less existential despair. With so many kids, I feel like it's very important and necessary for me to have this perspective! It's so easy to feel that nothing will EVER be truly clean, the meals will never end, and the noise level will never drop below "too loud to hear oneself think." It's so easy to think, "What's the point in doing something that will almost immediately be UNdone?"

But Sister Smith's point is so good. There IS a correlation between large and small. In fact, when it comes to our daily acts, small is really THE SAME as large, just…in a different time frame. That is, the sum of those small things BECOMES the big thing over time. A small effort to make things a little bit tidier, a little bit more peaceful, a little more "delightful" in the kitchen—will contribute to a happy and satisfying home life for me and for my family. I can now see, as I talked about at the top of this post, how BIG the benefits were from all my parents' small efforts to do exactly what the prophets said they should do. They were small things and probably didn't feel impressive to my parents. As a child I didn't even notice them, but just figured that was normal and "how things were." But those small efforts have now spanned generations and are still blessing me in my life now!

Another thing that fits into this theme was from Elder Douglas W. DeHaan's talk, “Is Any Thing Too Hard for the Lord?” He tells a really cool story about bringing the crops in from their welfare farm (you'll have to go and read it!) and then he shares this insight:
Most of the blessings of the Lord seem to come in the second mile. The first mile is doing what is expected of us. As we move beyond the first mile in faith and determination, we may draw down the powers of heaven, but this only so far as we are in spiritual condition to do so.
I guess this is really this same statement from a previous conference, in different words. But it struck me a little differently—like maybe this version emphasizes our own agency a little more. It's not just that God blesses us when we endure more than we think we can. We can also CHOOSE those blessings by going farther or persevering longer than we really want to. I've had lots of experiences (like I wrote about in that link above) with being forced to go beyond what I thought were my limits. But I like the idea of deliberately saying to myself, "Well, this feels extra hard. So I'm going to have an even better attitude about it so that I can 'draw down the powers of heaven' to help me." Or, "I wish I had gotten an answer to my prayers by now. But I'm going to keep asking and trusting even longer so I can qualify for the 'second-mile' blessings."

And really, that principle shows the correlation between large and small too. The ways we get to "the second mile" are so small. They're mostly things like "hold on a little longer" or "just keep being patient" or "be willing to do a little more than was required." The second mile isn't a whole new journey! It's just...going on with the same thing a bit further, without giving up. And each small step on that path takes us closer to becoming like God!

Other posts in this series:

Mineral Basin Wildflowers

The week after we went to Lake Catherine, the girls and I had a free afternoon, so we decided to go up to Snowbird and see more flowers! (We have been here before, years ago, but not on this exact hike.) This time we rode the ski lift up the hardest and steepest parts, so it didn't even feel like much of a real hike! It was so pretty and peaceful on the lift. I love riding ski lifts because they are so quiet! You feel like you're a bird flying. It's even better than the tram (which is also fun, and doesn't have a height requirement, so it's good if you are bringing babies!…but I was glad not to be. Ha ha).

It was REALLY crowded and busy the day we went, a Friday. We had to park waaaay out at the end of the lot, and we felt lucky to find a place even there! And of course, once we'd walked in to the lodge, I realized I'd left my money in the car, so I had to run a mile back for it. It was a hot day, but a little more bearable at Snowbird than at home…and even nicer once we got up the mountain a little.
There was a baby duck in the pond on the way up. Cute.
From the ski lift, we could see the red and blue trams going along to one side of us.
Once we got off the ski lift and looked at the view, we walked through the tunnel to the other side of the mountain, into Mineral Basin. And there…

Lake Catherine Wildflowers

This year as I was trying to find a weekend to go hike and see the wildflowers, I saw that the calendar was filling up and there was only one free Saturday! And even that was not so VERY free, but free enough that we could slip away for a morning. Then when the day came, as we were driving up the canyon at 6 a.m., accompanied by many other cars, I realized that I always try to AVOID going on a Saturday! I don't know what I was thinking. Weekdays are much better! But, luckily, we went early enough in the morning that we found a parking spot at the trailhead, and the trail wasn't too crowded. Next year I'll plan better, though!

It's been just the girls and me on this hike for the last couple years, and we love that, but this time Abe wanted to come too, and we were happy to have him with us! He's great company, and a good driver, too. The road up the canyon was newly paved, so he had a great time driving around all those winding curves.
The sunrise was pretty!
It was good of Abe to come on this hike with us. He could have run the whole thing five times in the time it took us to do it once, but he stayed and talked with us most of the way up, and then ran down and waited for us a long time at the bottom! What a great guy. I like him.
I brought a different camera lens with me than I usually bring on this hike, just for variety's sake. I couldn't get the same sweeping vistas, but it was interesting trying to compose new pictures within the views I'm so used to seeing. Made me look at things a little differently.
And it was nice for close-up pictures of the wildflowers!

Ordinary, Miraculous

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Afternoon Session of the October 1980 Conference.
I've written before about my realization that something doesn't have to be mysterious or incomprehensible to be miraculous. But it's something I have to relearn from time to time. I'll experience something overwhelming and amazing, and then later I'll be tempted to look back on it and think, "Well, of course I must have exaggerated it. It's easily explained by coincidence, after all!" I have to fight that feeling and remind myself that transcendent experiences must be acknowledged in order to be repeated!

One of my favorite quotes on this subject is by the physicist Richard Feynman:
I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe… 
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
I thought about this quote when I read Elder Gene R. Cook's talk, "Miracles among the Lamanites." He recounts various remarkable experiences that he witnessed during his time in South America, and then he says:
Even though the Spirit has manifested itself in the lives of these people in many miraculous ways, the common way—the most effective way—continues to be by the still small voice simply going forth, converting them “in their inward parts” by the thousands.
When I was younger I used to think this viewpoint was a little bit of a bait-and-switch. "Oh yes, if you're faithful you'll see miracles!* (*If by miracles you mean boring ordinary things.)" But now I get it. The only ordinariness comes in the attempt to describe these miracles, in the inadequacy of words and mortal experience to capture what is eternal.

But when you are the one caught up in the miracle itself, there is nothing ordinary about it, as there is nothing ordinary in the cellular respiration of a flower, as there is nothing ordinary in the power of faith. When the miracle is upon you, your spirit KNOWS it has been touched and changed, and your heart fills with the joy of it. It is only second-hand, as we deny, downplay, or belittle ours and others' recollections, that the miracle becomes tarnished or common in our eyes.

In the Catholic liturgy, one uses the words "ordinary" and "common" to refer to the parts of the Mass that are ordered and communal—"ordered" meaning things are just as they should be; "communal" meaning they are shared among the saints. I can see those same meanings in some of our "ordinary" miracles like Elder Cook talked about: things like the way our Sunday meetings come together week after week, each person helping in his small calling, one brother teaching another brother's children, one sister doing extra where another less-experienced sister does less. It might seem like hyperbole to say "Every time we have a beautiful church service, it's a miracle"—but it is truth! We share the work as a community, following the order God has set out for us, and the result is miraculously more than the sum of its parts.

I know that sometimes it seems so annoying to have to deal with people! I can talk myself into being a misanthrope, for sure. I can barely even tolerate myself sometimes, let alone the quirks of others! But occasionally I feel like I get a glimpse of God's perspective—when I reach out to help someone, or join a ward fast, or learn of a friend's quiet struggle, or sit in a leadership meeting, or become humbled by someone's service to ME. And whenever I get a real glimpse into the individual workings that make up the body of the church; the private efforts and personal sacrifices that are behind our public acts of service—I have to echo Richard Feynman's sentiments: "It only adds to the excitement, the mystery and awe of [God's plan]. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."

Elder Cook concludes:
Let us not forget the simple truths—those godly traits, the weightier matters of the law, that have been described… They are the very basics, the essence of the gospel, and possession of them in great abundance by Latter-day Saints will be in the end the greatest miracle of all. Yes, miracles have not ceased. Today is a day of miracles. We believe in miracles. The Latter-day Saints may expect miracles according to their faith in Jesus Christ.
We may expect miracles! But only if we get over the idea that they only "count" as miracles when they are removed from the everyday. After all, if we are to become like God, shouldn't we get used to seeing what he sees: every moment charged with beauty and meaning, every cloud shot through with gold and silver, every person magnificent and beloved and divine?

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This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session of the October 1980 Conference
I think a lot about "rats in the cellar." (You know the C.S. Lewis quote.) That is, I think a lot about who I "really am" and how my behavior shows, or doesn't show, that. One thing I am frequently lamenting is how rarely I have the "right" reaction as my first reaction! A common phrase for me to say in my prayers is, "I'm sorry I have to try so hard for [desirable trait]. I wish I could do it instinctively instead of with such effort!"

I just can't help but notice how natural goodness looks in people I admire. "She doesn't even have to TRY to be nice!" I think wistfully. "She just IS that way!" It seems like it would be so great to effortlessly think the best of people, for example, instead of having to force away envious thoughts or unfair judgements first.

But lately I've been wondering if I'm overestimating the benefits of having something "come naturally." I think it's probably still a good "someday" sort of goal to strive for (maybe if I practice being nice for fifty more years it will become second nature!) but it may not be as important as I thought it was.

Here's why I think it might not matter: I was practicing the piano accompaniment of some difficult choir music, and I wrote above one passage, where the notes cascade down in a sort of waterfall:  "Effortless!"—meaning, this part needs to sound effortless. And then as I was bashing out the notes over and over again, and circling accidentals and writing in fingerings, I was snickering to myself about that word "effortless." I thought, "If this ends up sounding 'effortless' I will really have fooled people! No one will know how much 'effort' was actually involved."

And I was thinking: would it matter at all if this had been really easy for me? Assuming that the final performance is beautiful—would it be MORE beautiful, somehow, if it was arrived at without effort? Would people hear that lovely waterfall passage and think, "Nice… but I hope she didn't have to practice that part much!" Ha ha. Obviously…they wouldn't care! At "final performance" stage, it really doesn't matter.

But of course, "final performance stage" isn't where I'm interacting with people, most of the time. So I feel self-conscious because my "effort" is so obvious! There was a bit of discussion in Relief Society a few weeks ago about not wanting to seem "forced" when ministering to others. None of us like feeling awkward, and one lady asked, "When you are just getting to know someone, how can you make sure it doesn't seem forced? I never want someone to think they are only an assignment to me!" I totally relate to that sentiment, and I've even sometimes thought, "It would be better for me not to visit someone at all, if I don't come across as a real friend!"

But when I think of ministering as a skill, like playing the piano, it's absurd to expect it not to be awkward at first! Of course it's awkward when two people try to get to know each other on a new level! Of course it feels a bit forced! We should be surprised if it doesn't! It makes sense to me that easy and "effortless" ministering (which of course takes a lot of effort) can only be developed after repeated less-than-perfect attempts. And it makes sense that putting in those first awkward efforts is a vital step on the way to getting better at it!

Elder Marvin J. Ashton presents two sets of corollaries about doing hard things:
Those who yield to adversity become weaker. [But] to the valiant, it is a stepping-stone to increased power. 
Satan wants us to feel unequal to our worldly tasks. [But] if we turn to God, He will take us by the hand and lead us through our darkest hours.
Or to rephrase that, it is only through effort that things become effortless. That is why adversity is so valuable. It shows us that we are weak, at the same time it gives us the means and the motivation to become strong. Because as Elder Ashton says, it is only as we turn to God (even in our powerlessness) that He can grant us increased power.

Other posts in this series:


This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Priesthood Session of the October 1980 Conference
I loved Elder H. Burke Peterson's talk "Purify Our Minds and Spirits." It reminded me of some other talks I've liked that use water as a metaphor for our lives. Elder Peterson talked about how, like flowing water, our spirits pick up impurities over time, and how we must filter out those impurities if we want to maintain spiritual strength.

This idea of purity and impurity resonated with me because I am often wishing that my motivations and desires were less "mixed" and more pure! I liked the idea that the bad parts of my motivations, the impurities or places where I don't really have an "eye single to the glory of God," can be systematically filtered out! Elder Peterson says:
First, there are large grates and nets of coarse screens that filter out leaves, branches, and dead animal life. The filtering system gets finer and finer as it removes other harmful impurities.
This part reminded me of something I'd heard somewhere, about how we often don't notice we are making progress in combatting sin, because as we conquer our bigger/more obvious sins, we start to be more aware of our smaller ones!

Throughout the talk, Elder Peterson gives a series of steps for performing this "filtering" process in our lives:
The secret to cleansing our spirit of whatever the impurity is not very complicated. It begins with prayer every morning and ends with prayer every night. This is the most important step I know in the cleansing process.… 
Secondly, an added refinement will come in the filtering process: [it] can be found in a daily study of the scriptures—not long, perhaps, but every day…
Third…refreshment to your spirit…comes when you do something good for another that he or she doesn’t expect. Keep it simple, but do it—daily.
I thought it was interesting that these are all daily things; you'd think it would take awhile for the water to become impure and maybe you wouldn't have to filter it until it got really bad. But obviously, if you think of drinking water, the filtration system is always in place. It has to catch the impurities constantly as the water runs by. And I like the idea that even when I don't feel much progress in the matters of purifying my heart and making my "eye single" to God—as long as my "filters" of prayer and scripture study and service are in place, I can be confident that I am indeed becoming more pure.

Other posts in this series:

It shall save thy own

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session of the October 1980 Conference
Awhile ago, one of the Young Men's Leaders in our ward shared a letter sent from one of the widows, to the young men. The letter told how her husband, before he died, had gone out every time it snowed and shoveled snow from the sidewalks of his entire street. His wife, knowing that he was sick and weak, asked him, "Why do you feel like you have to do all that shoveling?" He answered, "Someday I will be gone, and when I am, I hope someone will do the same for you." The lady told the young men that now, every time they shoveled her sidewalk, she felt close to her husband.

In that same meeting, another man told the story of how when he was worried about his aging mother who lived in another country, he found an older woman in his own ward to sit next to, hoping that someone would likewise find his mother and reach out to her since her son was far away.

I've been thinking about this…reciprocity?…and wondering if it is a generally applicable spiritual principle. I know we usually get MORE than we deserve from Heavenly Father, when we serve. But I like the idea that if I am seeking or hoping for a specific blessing, I might look for a way to meet that specific need for someone else, and by doing so, gain more confidence to ask Heavenly Father to help me with my own request.

Elder C. Reeve, Sr. said:
I’d like to tell you that a person is never nearer the Lord than when he is reaching out, Savior-like, to bring another soul to Christ. The words of the poet Whittier say this truth: 
Heaven’s gate is shut to him who comes alone;/ Save thou a soul, and it shall save thy own.
Often when I am praying for someone and I ask for a certain blessing on their behalf, I will think "…and really, I could use this too, please!" So I love the idea that what we seek to help others attain, we can attain ourselves. I think I've felt it happening when I become really invested in trying to show someone else that God loves them. In the very act of doing this, as I ponder how I can be God's messenger, and think about the things He would want the person to know if HE were here talking to them, I often find myself feeling an outpouring of His love myself!

An example of a time this happened is once when I was worrying about a friend who was feeling discouraged. As I prayed, I was going in my mind through all the things I admired about her—things God must be so proud of her for—things that I wished she would believe about herself. As I went through the list, I found myself feeling the impression, "And God wants ME to know that about myself, too." It was unexpected and very comforting to feel that heavenly approval, which is something I'm always wishing for, but hadn't even explicitly asked for right then!

It makes me look differently at the idea of ministering, too, when I think that my own deep longings for love and friendship may be best met as I give those things to others. Of course I know that people have different needs. And sometimes one of my sisters may need something different than I need myself. But still, I like this idea of reciprocal blessings, and I'm going to try to be more intentional about seeking that reciprocity, looking for ways to give the very things I most need.

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The Blue Barn, and way too much about snake grass

We stayed in such a great little place in Smithfield. It was big, actually—a big blue(ish) barn that had been converted into a darling house. We loved it!

I loved the little "stage" behind the kitchen table. It was covered by screens, which could be slid aside any number of ways to reveal the toy area. The kids settled in and were playing happily there from about thirty seconds after we walked in the door. They liked making shadows on the screens, too.

What Ziggy wanted most of all was to crawl to the edge, drop a toy down onto the bench below, and then dive headfirst after it. We prevented this…mostly.

There was a big fireplace in the middle of the room, which we didn't use since it was so hot outside, but it was a good place to sit and read, and no one fell and cut a lip or chin on it, so that was good.

Gone? To the North Country? In the middle of the night?

A couple months ago Sam's family had a reunion at Bear Lake, and we couldn't go, so I started thinking maybe we could plan a trip of our own. (We haven't been there since 2010!) I found the cutest little place to stay in Smithfield, above Logan. And even though it was only a couple hours north of home, it felt special, just like anytime you go somewhere different: new places to eat, new roads to drive, new places to run. We loved it!

Our rental house was in Smithfield Canyon, and the road up the canyon was gorgeous! Everything was green, and it seemed so quiet and peaceful, even though we weren't that far from the town center. I loved running up the road in the mornings, even though I usually try to avoid going uphill because it makes me go even slower than my usual tortoisian pace. The first morning, I didn't know Abe was out running too, and it was a lovely surprise to find myself suddenly waving hello to HIM as I waved hello to the other runners enjoying the downhill while I was still toiling upward.
Another day, we ran together and Abe nobly stayed with me the whole time, even though I kept telling him to go on ahead. I was so pleased with the sight of our two shadows running together. Who would have ever thought I'd have my own son to run with? I loved it.


This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session of the October 1980 Conference
As I've expressed before, it's hard for me, at this time in my life, to ever feel truly "settled." That is, I always have a nagging feeling crowding in, that I really ought to be somewhere else, doing something else. I have this feeling even when I'm doing something I KNOW is good—reading to or snuggling with my kids, for example, which is one of those things everyone always says you will never regret, and I don't, but I do think, "I really should be getting dinner started—" or "I ought to be working on my lesson—" while I'm doing it. In the same way, even while I'm doing Family History, or cleaning up the house, or reading conference talks, I can't escape a worry that I should be enjoying and treasuring every moment with my children instead. (And of course if I'm doing something more marginal, like lying on my bed looking at Instagram and putting off thinking about what to make for dinner…or writing a blog post…the crowding feelings that I should be doing something else are even worse!)

Anyway, I have gained some perspective in the eight years (!) since I wrote the post I linked above, and I've learned some coping skills, and no, I don't think this persistent unsettledness (or "guilt," if you want to call it that, but I'm not sure it's the best word) is The Church's fault for making me feel like I have to be perfect—I think it's just a natural result of having agency, and being a mother, and living in the dimly-lit space of mortality. Maybe this feeling will always be with me to some degree.

But there are some rare and precious times when the feeling lifts, and I have the peace of knowing there is nothing else I should be doing besides what I am doing! One of them is the first week or two after having a baby. Another time is every week when I go to church, or when I watch General Conference. This is one way that Sunday, while not overtly "restful" in the matter of physical work to be done, is SUCH a welcomed Day of Rest—because (while at church, anyway) I have a rest from the stress of figuring out if I'm spending my time the best way. I know I'm where God wants me to be! And another place where that crowding worry seems held at bay is when I'm in the temple. For that reason, I have come to associate the temple with space. Not empty space, or hollow space, but light-filled, healing space. I feel like when I'm there, I have space to just BE—to breathe and think and be still without the encroaching fears crowding in.

I've thought about this scripture in Alma a lot:
Nevertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God.
And in my mind, the companion scripture to that one is this one:
And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;  
Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space
I know that the "space granted" to us for mortality—the space to make mistakes and to try again without the immediate consequences that justice demands—is a great blessing. I probably don't even feel quite how great of a blessing, not having known the alternative. But I'm especially grateful for the "spaces granted" within that larger space, spaces like prayer and the temple, where I can feel the effects of God's light bringing peace and calm and stillness and silence! I don't mind the happy chaos of a big family. The crowding, the chattering, the constant happening. I'm grateful for it. I even like it. But it makes me feel so desperate, sometimes, for SPACE. And in the temple, I find it.
May I declare without apology that every living person should seek earnestly for the blessings of the temple as his ultimate goal. For there you will find peace; there you will come to know what security really is. There, in the house of the Lord, you can learn what you need to know to be truly free. There, tucked away from turmoil and strife, is the chance to be totally unselfish—a rarity in today’s world.  (Elder Robert L. Simpson, "The House of the Lord.")

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This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session of the October 1980 Conference
There's a piano piece by Rachmaninoff called "Lilacs" that I've been trying to learn for probably fifteen years now. Admittedly, I don't practice much. And I have learned and performed other things in that time. But something about "Lilacs" seems to have defeated me. I can't ever really perfect it because I can't figure out how to memorize it. And I can't memorize it because I don't know quite how to practice it. And I can't practice it because I can't understand it! It has just been a baffling effort for me, all around.

But I LOVE the piece, so I can't quite bring myself to give up on it! I keep trying, off and on. I asked my cousin, who taught me piano at BYU, and he said, "Memorize each hand separately." I tried that. But even then something seemed to stop me from mastering the piece. I knew the notes. I could play through the piece reasonably well. I practiced slowly, I practiced each hand alone, I practiced in sections, I practiced with the metronome. But I just didn't GET it!

Ever since we got our new grand piano, I've been trying to do more practicing again, and I got out "Lilacs" for the millionth time. One evening as I was bashing my way through it yet again, I suddenly had the thought that I ought to pray for help learning the music. "Okay," I thought, "I can pray for that in my prayers tonight"— though I also felt hesitant, like it would be a weird thing to pray for, since I'm only learning "Lilacs" for fun and not because I NEED to for any reason. (Certainly, I have often prayed fervently over performances or accompaniments, and I've prayed general "help me get better at playing the piano" prayers—but I'm not in the habit of praying over each practice session!) And furthermore, I wasn't sure it was even a prayer that could be answered, because obviously what I needed on the piece was just MORE work! I already know how to practice the piano! I've been doing it for my whole life! When the music doesn't sound good yet, it just means you need to practice harder. Heavenly Father isn't going to just suddenly make me able to play a piece if I haven't done the required work! …These are the thoughts that were going through my head.

As I thought these dismissive and doubtful thoughts, again the feeling came: "Pray for help NOW." Surprised, I took my hands off the keyboard, closed my eyes, and said a quick and apologetic prayer for help. Then I started practicing again. And I don't know if I can describe exactly what happened next, but I'll try.

Almost immediately, I noticed similarities between two sections of the piece I'd never noticed before. One was a slightly-modified "echo" of the other. Seeing that connection made me look at the organization of the piece in a new way: the form was not quite as I had always thought it. I saw that I could break the music down differently into sections, and that the sections related to each other more deeply than I'd realized. I saw what had always seemed to be disparate elements suddenly coalesce into supporting and interdependent parts of a larger structure.

All that probably sounds abstract, but it was most undeniably specific in its effect. I felt like this piece, which had remained opaque to me for so long, was suddenly clear in my vision. I could see how it was put together, and simultaneously how I could dismantle it into its component parts and then reassemble those parts through my practice. Thirty minutes after my prayer, I felt I had made more progress toward learning the music than I'd made in the past fifteen years. It was amazing! I kept saying, "Oh! So that's it!" as I played and looked at this music that almost seemed made up of notes I'd never seen before—or maybe more accurately, of notes I was recognizing for the first time. I could not deny the dramatic, instantaneous effect of my prayer for help.

Pondering it afterwards and wondering what on earth had happened, I had so many questions! Why did the sudden understanding come NOW? Why that clear prompting to pray for help with something I didn't ever think of asking for help with before? If I'd asked ten years ago, would I have learned the piece faster, or was I not even ready to receive the help until I'd put in some preliminary amount of work on my own? And maybe the biggest question of all—why did Heavenly Father even CARE if I learned "Lilacs" or not? "Developing my talents" in a general way so I can play the organ for church, I can understand. But learning a specific piece that was not for a funeral or a primary program or a sacrament meeting or a concert? Why would it matter? To teach me that God knows EVERYTHING better than I do? Even how to practice the piano?

I still have those questions. And I'm still not proficient at "Lilacs." (It's improving, though! In ways I never thought it would!) But I thought of this experience when I read Elder Ronald E. Poelman's talk quoting Brigham Young on the Spirit of the Lord:
In the words of Brigham Young: “If a man is called … to manufacture the clothing that is necessary for the Saints, and he goes at that business with his eye single to the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth he is entitled to the Spirit of the Holy Gospel, and he will receive and enjoy it just as much as if he were preaching the Gospel. … [He will have] the spirit to know how to raise sheep, to procure the wool, to put machinery in operation to make the clothing for the advancement, benefit and building up of the people of God on the earth. And the Spirit of the Lord is here in these labors—farming, merchandizing and in all mechanical business just as much as it is in preaching the Gospel, if men will live for it” (in Journal of Discourses, 11:293–94).
I'm not sure if my experience is an example or a parable, but either way I can testify that the Spirit can, indeed, teach us anything. I've been asking myself how much other amazing help I've been missing out on by not asking for it more specifically. I said half-jokingly to Sam, "What else should I be praying for help with? How to make the bed? What ingredients to add to a recipe?—but I really do wonder. If God can show me a transformative view of a difficult piano piece, what other parts of my temporal, practical, everyday routine—or the things I usually think of as merely temporal—can He transform?

At the same time, I've been thinking about President Young's promise that if we "go at our business" with the "building up of the kingdom of God" in mind, we will have the Spirit guiding every aspect of our lives. It makes me want to find more creative ways to deliberately MAKE my "temporal labors" into spiritual ones. Is there some way my learning "Lilacs" COULD become important, and bless other people? Is there some way I could more specifically devote or dedicate my everyday labors to God? And if I did, would I receive even more help from the Spirit of God?

I don't know if there's someone out there who literally needs to hear my "Lilacs" or if that was a blessing just for me. But I now know better than ever that God can teach us anything—anything!—we need to know. How much more will He teach us if we ask for help in carrying out His work?

Other posts in this series:

Longest Day Campfire

We always like to do something outside to celebrate the Longest Day of the year (also known as my brother Philip's birthday, the best of birthdays!) but this year, circumstances conspired against us—by which I mean that certain parties argued and fought with certain other parties until an executive decision had to be made, dispensing early bedtimes all around. Goodness! That was sad. But, a few days later we had another free evening and a more cheerful household, so we headed up the canyon for a campfire! It seemed like high time. The last time we had a campfire, it was on our Eclipse Trip and baby Ziggy wasn't even born yet! 
It had been so hot the few days before this, and it was STILL hot even in the canyon, but there was a breeze and the sun was low, so it was pleasant to sit and watch the men make the fire. I'm so glad I never have to make the fires! I learned how at Girls' Camp, of course, but I would so much rather someone else do the chopping and the wood-laying and the fiddling with kindling and matches. Luckily, the boys always seem to love that part, so everyone's happy.
Triumphant sword-holding pose, with hot-dog-roasting stick

One day in Jerusalem

The owner of the company that invited Sam to Tel Aviv organized a day trip to Jerusalem for the group, which consisted of Sam and Abe and the other presenter, as well as his wife and mom who had accompanied him. They were really excited about getting to see a place that they had heard of and imagined all their lives!

Before they left, they talked to a few people who had been there before, and got all kinds of recommendations about what to see and do in Jerusalem, but they weren't sure they would even be able to get there from Tel Aviv at all! So it was awesome that their hosts had it all planned out. But there were a few disappointments about it, too. Since they were with a group, they couldn't simply worry about their own interests, or be on their own timetable. And they didn't get to see a lot of the specific places that would have been meaningful to them, like the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden or the BYU Jerusalem Center or the Garden Tomb. Sam said it was also a little difficult to be with a guide who was obviously not religious, among a group of people that were also not extremely religious. Although they got to see some wonderful sites, Sam said it was hard to capture a feeling of sacredness or awe at those sites when the others seemed to feel mostly idle curiosity. 

However, with all that said, they LOVED being in Jerusalem and experiencing the Old City, seeing the many types of people, and experiencing the very different atmosphere and character of this complicated, ancient place.
Sam and Abraham both said that one of the most amazing things they did was standing on top of the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem with the old city wall, the gleaming gold Dome of the Rock, and the olive orchards spreading out beneath them. They said it felt surreal to be standing in the same spot where Jesus stood when he lamented over Jerusalem and the wayward House of Israel. The city looks so beautiful laid out against those hills and Mediterranean skies!
One of those churches down at the bottom of the hill is thought to be on the site of the actual Garden of Gethsemane. I love that there is still an olive orchard (garden? grove? what do you call them?) around it. But I wish everyone hadn't come and built churches over everything! It seems so disappointing that you go to visit Golgotha and instead of a hill like you imagine, it's just a church with rocks in it! Oh, I know, I know. If they hadn't built churches then maybe the sites themselves would have been ruined or forgotten by now. But it still seems sad (and especially when the different churches argue about the different sites and the relics and traditions anyway!).
Those rectangles clustered at the bottom of the picture are gravestones in a Jewish cemetery. They remind me a lot of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin!
There are some parts of the city visitors can't go into now, for security or whatever other reasons. But they did get to go down to the Western Wall, which is all that's left of Herod's temple (the Dome of the Rock is built on the spot that temple used to stand). I've seen so many pictures of this place! And now I've…seen more pictures of it. But Sam and Abe have really been there! So cool.

Half-hearted obedience

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Afternoon Session of the April 1980 Conference
Have you ever had thoughts that sound like these of mine?:

"I really don't feel like going to the ward activity. I would so much rather stay home. But I know we should go. So we'll go."
"I wish I didn't have to substitute-teach the 12-year-olds on Sunday. But I said I would. So I will."
"I wish we hadn't signed up to clean the church today. We have so many other things to do! But I guess we might as well go get it over with."

In my life, I'm usually seeing these moments as relative successes—because I did the right thing in the end! I didn't just slip away like I wanted to. Sure, I know it would have been better to do those good things happily, but I feel some satisfaction for at least doing them reluctantly!

But here's what Elder Mark E. Peterson said in his conference talk:
There is no reward for half-hearted obedience. We must become vigorous and enthusiastic about living our religion, for God commands that we serve him with all our heart, with all our might, with all our strength, and with the very best of our intelligence.
With him there can be no halfway measures. We must be fully for him or we may be classed with those who are against him.
Got that? No reward—for half-hearted—obedience!

I keep wondering about this. Is the "reluctant, but doing it anyway" obedience I described above—is that what Elder Peterson means by "half-hearted obedience?" And is that sort of obedience really worthless? If it is, how does one avoid thinking "what's the point of even trying to be good, then?!"—and giving up entirely? (This would happen sometimes in my youth group when I was young. We would joke about it. "If you don't LOVE to go to the service project, there's no point in going, since you won't be blessed for it anyway!")

I don't know, but I have a couple of ideas. One way I think of it is to divide desires into levels: our current and immediate desires, and our deep and underlying desires. The former, for me, are often selfish and misguided. But my deeper desires are (usually!) to serve God and follow His will. Even when I am struggling against an immediate selfishness or laziness, that deeper part of me wants to be better and is determined to keep trying.

This explanation (from a discussion on honesty) says it well:
The failure to repent means embracing the sin, embracing the lie. Repentance is what explains why not all sin is hypocrisy. The person who is trying to repent is making their whole life, including their sins, comport with their faith. The individual who is “faking it until they make it” is orienting their actions towards the gospel, even if they are not exemplars yet.
I also think "half-hearted obedience" might mean something like "temporary" or "limited" obedience. In other words, obedience that has an end point. Obeying only until you get rewarded, or only after you understand fully why you're doing it. Those don't seem like the sort of obedience God wants. But simply "obeying, but not with much enthusiasm" seems like a different category—not an ideal place to be, certainly, but surely it is at least a point along the path to happy obedience?

It might seem like I'm protesting too much and trying to find a way that I'm NOT in the wrong when I'm less-than-enthusiastic, and I don't mean to do that. I'm just thinking about a discussion we had in Relief Society when one of the sisters was talking about how hard it was for her to keep the Sabbath Day holy as a single mother. How sometimes she dreaded even coming to church. And many people told her (and I agreed)—"Well, but you're here, aren't you? That means something! That matters!"

If she believed there was "no reward for half-hearted obedience," might she decide not to come to church at all?

Or someone I was talking to who said she doesn't like to go to the temple too often because then it "stops feeling special." She seemed to think that only the transcendent, exciting temple trips were worthwhile, and the routine or "half-hearted" ones weren't. But for me, often, my tired, imperfect and yes—even half-hearted—temple trips ARE meaningful, and I DO gain benefit from them, whether in revelation that comes later, or just in the peace and satisfaction that comes from knowing I served someone else.

Surely the person whose temple work I'm doing can benefit from even my imperfect obedience?

Well, whatever Elder Peterson meant, I do think there is wisdom in his underlying message, which is that we need to aim for enthusiastic obedience! And I think we can progress toward it. I love this quote by President Monson:
Courage is required to make an initial thrust toward one’s coveted goal, but even greater courage is called for when one stumbles and must make a second effort to achieve.…Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’
Obedience (even grudging obedience, I would say) is one of the best and most sure ways to gain the presence of the Holy Ghost. So if we can even start to obey—if we can take one step into obedience—then the Holy Ghost can get to work on us, changing our hearts. And then we can keep making those second and third and fourth efforts President Monson is talking about, resolving to "try again tomorrow" for the better, enthusiastic, wholehearted obedience which is what God truly expects of us in the end.

Other posts in this series:

Two men in Tel Aviv

Sam got invited to do a workshop in Tel Aviv, Israel, and though I really wanted to join him, we both knew that taking a fifteen- or twenty-hour flight with a nine-month old was the very worst kind of madness. So we decided Abe could go with Sam instead. Everyone who heard about it said, "What an amazing opportunity for a 15-year-old!" And they were right! It was amazing. Abe was so excited.

I decided I'd write a couple posts about the trip (even though was not I technically...present) because if I don't, who will? And someone ought to. Sam and Abe did write to me every day, and they told me about all their pictures afterward, so I feel like I know something about it! I edited Sam's pictures to look way better, too. How lucky he is to have me! Ha ha.
While Sam was giving his workshop, Abe amused himself by doing his Rubik's Cube, helping carry things, playing games on Sam's iPad, reading, and going running in the 90-degree heat (why? why?). But that was only for two days, and they had eight days total in Israel, so that gave them some free time to see the sights!
Tel Aviv is right on the Mediterranean Sea, and it's a big modern city in a lot of ways. This picture was taken from Jaffa, looking back at Tel Aviv. I have always liked looking at the pictures of Jaffa (which used to be Joppa) in the back of the LDS Bible. Jonah went there before going to Tarshish. Peter raised Tabitha from the dead there. So interesting!

The constant calling back

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session of the April 1980 Conference
At church on Sunday, Sam and I were in the teacher council class with Baby Ezekiel, and we put him down on the floor in the middle of our circle of chairs. Ziggy is just starting to crawl, arm-over-arm, and he was quite delighted to have this big open space to do it in, so he enthusiastically set off, hiccuping loudly, and all the people in the class smiled down at him as he made the rounds of the circle. He would crawl to one person and try to bite his scriptures, and then crawl to someone else and grab her shoes, and then crawl to someone else and smile up into her face, and so on. Every once in awhile Zig would get a little upset, so someone would pick him up and coo at him for awhile, and then they'd set him down and off he'd go! It was so cute, and it made me a little teary because I felt like everyone else in the room was watching and loving Ziggy right along with Sam and me. It felt like a true ward family—so many people we love and who love us too! Zig seemed so safe in that circle--venturing out and exploring, but watched over and bordered by so many friends who loved him.

I thought about that loving border of friends when I read this quote from Elder Marion G. Romney's talk on the Book of Mormon:
We must not permit our minds to become surfeited with the interests, things, and practices of the world about us. To do so is tantamount to adopting and going along with them... 
If we would avoid adopting the evils of the world, we must pursue a course which will daily feed our minds with and call them back to the things of the Spirit. I know of no better way to do this than by daily reading the Book of Mormon.
I know all about that sort of consistent "calling back" because I feel like it's such a constant need with children! During school, I am always having to redirect them back to what they should be doing! Or having to remind them five hundred times a day to speak kindly to each other! And with Ziggy, it's the same sort of thing—constantly getting him out from under chairs he can't fit under, or steering him away from the stairs, or pulling him back from the edge of the bed.

And I feel it with myself, too. I don't want to be "surfeited with the interests, things, and practices of the world," but I do get that way anyway! I have so many resolves in my prayers every morning, but then I find myself immediately forgetting what I mean to do! It takes a constant "calling back" to focus my mind on spiritual goals or spiritual promptings. And sometimes I'm not sure how to do that calling back on my own! I like President Romney's reminder that the Book of Mormon can serve that purpose for us, if we will read it daily. It can gently nudge us back into the circle of Heavenly Father's love, when, left to ourselves, we might persist in heading out of it!

I've never really liked the saying that "it takes a village to raise a child" (not that I don't agree with the sentiment, but it's what some people MEAN about the role of government, etc., when they quote that statement that annoys me)—but as I watched Ziggy happily crawl from person to person in our circle at church, I couldn't help but imagine that same kind of circle of people around me in my life. Maybe some of them are spirits who have passed on, like my Dad or other relatives. Some of them are friends and leaders that care about me, and even prophets and apostles I've never met. Some of them are my family members here on earth. But as I bungle around trying to figure out how to get where I want to go, I feel their influence steering me gently but steadily back to the fundamental truths I know I should focus on. I feel their love urging me to stay firmly in the holy places they have taught me to look for.

And I like to add the prophets in the Book of Mormon to that mental image, because they truly have been among those calling me back to things of the spirit. King Benjamin with his piercing questions. Alma the Younger, boldly telling and re-telling his experience being reborn of God. Mormon's constant interjecting voice, reminding me that in a centuries-long quest to teach the truths of God, the stakes were real and powerful for an entire civilization. And of course the voice of Jesus Christ that is woven in and through the words on every page.

I don't always feel like I have the personal encounter with Christ that I am wishing for as I read the Book of Mormon. But I know as I keep engaging with it daily, I will have that "constant calling back to things of the spirit," allowing me to move closer and closer to Him all the time.

Other posts in this series:

Problems solved better and more quickly

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Priesthood Session of the April 1980 Conference
Just a couple random thoughts sparked by this week's conference:

Elder Marvin J. Ashton (or "Marv" as he said President Kimball called him, ha ha) told a cool story about visiting the prison with President Kimball. He told how kind and respectful the prophet was to the inmates, and the line that stuck out to me was this one:
Do you have the skill and capacity to be friendly to others when, in your limited vision, they may not seem to deserve it?
Well…do I? Hmm. Working on it. Sometimes it's easier with strangers than with erring children…

I also liked it when Elder Theodore Tuttle quoted some earlier apostles about family history:
[Elder Ballard said] “the spirit and influence of your dead will guide those who are interested in finding those records. If there is anywhere on the earth anything concerning them, you will find it.” And Elder Widtsoe said, “I have the feeling … that those who give themselves with all their might and main to this work receive help from the other side, and not merely in gathering genealogies. Whoever seeks to help those on the other side receives help in return in all the affairs of life.”
Help in all the affairs of life! I want that. And since we're talking about the blessings of temple work, I'll include the quote I read in this week's Sunday School lesson (also from Elder Widtsoe):
“I believe that the busy person … who has his worries and troubles, can solve his problems better and more quickly in the house of the Lord than anywhere else. If he will [do] the temple work for himself and for his dead, he will confer a mighty blessing upon those who have gone before, and … a blessing will come to him, for at the most unexpected moments, in or out of the temple will come to him, as a revelation, the solution of the problems that vex his life. That is the gift that comes to those who enter the temple properly.”

Other posts in this series: 


The girls (and Teddy, but he had already gone inside, I think) like to sleep in the playhouse sometimes now that it's summer. (It's not a whole playhouse really. It's our shed, but one end of it is a playhouse. It's tiny and it has nothing in it but some carpet scraps, and they all have to bundle themselves in there like a row of little hot dogs to lie down, but it looks like a tiny version of our house, so we love it.)

Here they are inside one night:
So snug!

Anyway, this was a morning where the girls were wearing new nightgowns and putting on some sort of little production for me. And the air was warm and the birds were singing and it was all quite lovely.
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