Ready to enjoy the glory

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Welfare Session of the April 1978 Conference.
As I was reading through the talks from the April 1978 Welfare Session, I knew immediately which quote I wanted to write about. It stuck out to me above everything else. But I've spent all week trying to figure out WHY I was so moved by it, and I still don't quite know. I thought maybe it was because it's about looking forward with hope, but sometimes when I read it, it seems more about disappointment than about hope. So maybe I like it because it encompasses everything at once: the difficulty of mortality, the stumbles, but also the glory that will follow. Or maybe I like it because I want so much to believe in the beauty and glory of the future, and this reminds me that the glimpses I've had of that beauty and glory—no matter how immediately they seem to be followed by uncertainty and second-guessing and confusion and distraction—are real. Anyway, here is the quote (from Elder J. Richard Clarke, quoting Brigham Young):
“If any of you had a vision of Zion, it was shown to you in its beauty and glory after Satan was bound. … You did not see a vision of driving cattle across the plains and where you would be mired in this or that mudhole. You did not see the stampedes among the cattle, and those of a worse character among the people. 
“But you saw the beauty and glory of Zion that you might be encouraged and prepared to meet the afflictions, sorrows and disappointments of this mortal life and overcome them and be made ready to enjoy the glory of the Lord as it was revealed to you.”
As I write this on Christmas Eve, I'm thinking about the glory of the Lord, and wondering what Isaiah had in mind when he said that glory would "be revealed." The birth of Christ, revealed to shepherds and wise men and Nephites thousands of years ago? The resurrected Christ, revealed to "all flesh together" when He comes again? The visions prophets have seen, where the plan of salvation is unfolded and laid before them like a grand story? Probably it is all of those—but I like to think maybe he also meant the glory we see revealed in tiny pieces as we walk these rough roads, flashes of light that come but are almost immediately gone again. Sunsets, babies, skies and stars; moments of understanding between friends, phrases of music that catch us by surprise. That small, accumulated glory that encourages us to keep walking, keep watching, hoping to see more of it.

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2

Santa Lucia Day

Here's a philosophical question: If Santa Lucia Day didn't include saffron buns, would I be so keen on celebrating it? I think I might…because I do so love the girls in white dresses with [red] satin sashes…but the buns certainly do help! Even though I'm always so TIRED in December, and the thought of waking up early seems terribly daunting…but once we're up, and the cocoa is on the stove, and the girls (and whoever!) are helping me roll out snakes of dough, I feel it's all worth it. And the smell of saffron in warm milk, and the chilly blue light coming through the windows, all combine to say "almost Christmas!" to me now. We will see if I still think so once all the kids are grown and gone!

(Past Santa Lucia Day pictures are here. And saffron bun recipe here.)
I love these two pictures so much. Teddy's chubby little cheeks squinching up as he pushes down SO HARD to flatten the dough!
4

In the frosty air

There were a few days last week where we had fog—or was it smog? Or fmog, as Seb insisted on calling it?—anyway, it was foglike, and beautiful. At night you could hardly see as far as the streetlight, and if you looked off the hill at the edge of our neighborhood, there was just…nothing. A grey void, like the end of the world. The boys and I went outside at midnight one night, in our bare feet, and stood motionless in the eerie grey silence until the cold went right into our bones and we had to tiptoe inside, shivering. But it was so cool, being enveloped by the fog!

The next morning everything was covered with fog-frost, each twig and branch and blade of grass outlined with white. I thought I remembered the name "hoarfrost," and we got into a discussion about it on Instagram. One friend looked it up and found it related to "hoary," as in "old and white"—"a hoary old gentleman." Another friend said she calls this kind of frost "pogonip," which is a Shoshone word for "white death"! 

My friend took the prettiest pictures, and in them the frost is all spikes—long crystalline spikes coming off every which way like thorns. I couldn't believe it! I've never seen frost up close like that. Then I didn't get outside with my camera until the next day, but when the frost came again the next morning, I bundled up and went out with the macro lens. And this was different! Not spiky at all, but more bumpy or fluffy. Still very beautiful. I don't know what causes the difference in crystal formation: temperature? wind? humidity? But I loved looking at it up close.
The crystals on this branch were relatively long—
while these were shorter.
3

The mind is colored by what it holds

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Afternoon Session of the April 1978 Conference.

Elder Sterling W. Sill gave an interesting talk in this session about poetry, of all things. His main point was that we are shaped by the words and thoughts we keep in our minds, which is kind of the same idea behind President Packer's "sing a hymn to combat negative thoughts" advice.

But I did think it was kind of funny, because I just wrote a post mentioning some types of poetry I'm not fond of, and several of the poems Elder Sill quotes are in exactly that genre…the very rhymey, didactic, "inspirational verse" genre; the sort of thing that is written in flowing script over pale watercolors of beach scenes. It really isn't my favorite, and maybe it never will be, but in spite of that I can appreciate it for what it tries to do. I can also appreciate that it might really touch someone else in a way it doesn't touch me, and that alone makes it worthwhile. And—I also think it's really easy in our world to be cutting and ironic and make fun of anything that seems earnest or heartfelt. I'm trying to learn not to do that.

It's the same with music, I think. I have very definite tastes and opinions about what is good church music, and what is not—but I try to keep them (mostly) to myself because I know that some music I don't particularly like, may still be the means by which someone else feels the spirit and gains inspiration. I don't want to stand in the way of that by snobbily insisting only "my kind" of music is valuable. Although, I do think I could make a case for trying to introduce people to better music and better poetry, even if it's less popular or less accessible at first. But doing that requires me to assert that what I think is better really IS better, and I'm not sure if that's too prideful of me…

Well. Anyway, Elder Sill also quotes the hymn "O My Father," which I love and think is beautifully poetic, so it's not like our tastes are totally opposed. And I can definitely agree with this quote:
William James, the great Harvard psychologist, once asked this question, how would you like to create your own mind? But isn’t that about what usually happens? Professor James explains that the mind is made up by what it feeds upon. He said that the mind, like the dyer’s hand, is colored by what it holds. If I hold in my hand a sponge full of purple dye, my hand becomes purple. And if I hold in my mind and heart great ideas of faith and enthusiasm, my whole personality is changed accordingly. 
If we think negative thoughts, we develop negative minds. If we think depraved thoughts, we develop depraved minds. On the other hand, if we think celestial thoughts, which are the kind of thoughts that God thinks, then we develop celestial minds…
I'm pretty sure I've written about this before, but one of the most influential things one of my poetry teachers taught me was that poetry (and art and writing in general; any of the creative arts) doesn't just spontaneously appear in our minds—it comes from somewhere! There is no way to create from a blank slate. This teacher said that the mark of an immature and inexperienced artist is someone who insists that he doesn't want to read other writers (or imitate other artists, or whatever) because he wants to remain "original" and "untainted" by other ideas. But someone who says this doesn't realize that if he doesn't deliberately choose to absorb and cultivate good influences, he will up being influenced instead by the most low-quality and banal of material; material he hasn't chosen, like radio jingles and mass-market romance novels and pop culture fads.

I think of this every time I read Isaiah's words: all we like sheep have gone astray. We aren't really the independent actors we like to think we are: all of us are influenced by something! We can't really choose just NOT to have influences at all. But we can control what KIND of influences we surround ourselves with. We can fill our time with deliberate goods so there will be less time for unintentional bads.

So even though Elder Sill and I might not choose the same poems to memorize, I agree with him: memorize poems! Find good music and good art to absorb and emulate! Because I know filling my mind with the best and most celestial material I can find will help me become a more celestial person.


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5

Defending Santa Claus

I think I always liked poetry, from the time I was two or three years old and memorizing the poems my mom taught me: Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A. Milne. My dad constantly recited Robert Frost—"Birches" every time he saw me drying my hair; "The Road Not Taken" while going on walks; "Brown's Descent" at Christmas parties. I even remember writing second-grade journal entries for school in (likely terrible) verse.

But as I got older, I found I didn't like ALL poetry. I was no fan of the "inspirational" poems people would read in church: "Footprints in the Sand," "The Old Violin" and so forth. I would kind of roll my eyes when President Monson recited "I love you mother, said Little Nell" (which, incidentally, was another one of the poems my mom had made me memorize when I was little) in what seemed like every other conference talk. I liked T.S. Eliot. I liked Emily Dickinson. I shuddered to hear even a line of Edgar A. Guest.

But I had a creative writing teacher in high school that taught me something useful. Oh, he knew good poetry. He introduced me to Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, more T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Matthew Arnold. But he also said, of these other poems I so looked down on, "Just don't think of them as poetry. Think of them as verse. Their purpose is different. They accomplish a different set of goals."

Somehow thinking of it like that helped release me from my previous feelings of scorn or superiority. Instead of only scoffing at the "inspirational" sorts of poems or stories when I heard them (though, I confess, I do still reflexively wince a bit when I hear "Footprints in the Sand"…), I started trying to think, "What is this poem trying to teach? What is it that people see in it?" And often, I found myself softening and feeling more humble through that thought process.

Later, I had a further softening when I revisited the "simple" poems I'd learned in childhood and found that some (not all) of them were more subtle and well-crafted than I had given them credit for. My mentor and teacher Leslie Norris showed me that good poetry and stories for children—words that capture their attention and appeal to their ears—are actually quite difficult to write, and the best of them contain a kind of distilled wisdom, mixed with delight, that poetry for adults often only aspires to. Good poetry—and especially good children's poetry—takes the abstract and makes it concrete; takes the vast and makes it pocket-size; takes the general and makes it personal. And somehow, by miniaturizing truth, it also enlarges our view of it.

So here is what I have learned about Santa Claus…or Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas or Père Noël…he is good poetry.

Oh, I understand the Christian reaction against the over-sugared, anodyne versions of Santa Claus, and I share the discomfort people feel at having anyone or anything replace the all-important figure of Jesus Christ at the center of our Christmas worship. Certainly, families have room to differ in how they give form to the particular truths the legends of Saint Nicholas try to teach. Our family embraces a particularly low-key Santa Claus, one with no elves on shelves; one who doesn't accept wish lists because he 'already knows what we will like'; who fills only the stockings and nothing more; and who receives less-than-passionate defenses from his defenders: usually explanations like, "Well, legends say he…" or "If the stories are to be believed, he…". So believe me, I'm not trying to talk you into a more obtrusive Santa Claus if you don't want him.

But I also think that the hand-wringing angst about Santa Claus, the how-will-my-kids-ever-learn-to-trust-me-after-this-betrayal sorts of worries, are misplaced and unnecessary, and this is why: Santa Claus is poetry. Good poetry. He does for us what good poetry does: he takes a truth that is large and formless, and he writes it in small, bright strokes that help us FEEL, in miniature, what we are not yet large enough to contain at life-size.

Certainly, there are the terrible versions of Santa, just as there are bad poems. There is the sappy, sing-songy version of Santa that doesn't teach anything except that a sort of horrifying omniscience is watching children and meting out not-particularly-appropriate justice. And there is the "inspirational poem" Santa, the bland and generalized Santa that seems to stand for a bland and generalized belief in "love" or "Christmas spirit" without any explanation or expectation of what those things must move us to become.

And of course, I don't think the legend of St. Nicholas is the only way to make Christmas comprehensible to children. Other cultures do it differently; other traditions do it differently. But even the true story of the Savior's life—the compression of His great spirit into a baby's mortal body, and the temporary narrowing of His eternal journey into a mundane, earthly one—is itself a sort of poem, a story, a simplification; a way for our small and finite minds to reach and find commonality with His infinite one. So I don't think God disapproves of us, in turn, telling the even smaller stories that can make a place for Him in the minds of our children.

Because the true Santa, the mortal-being-turned-immortal-by-his-acts-of-love, is a light that points us to more light. With his compelling and delightful generosity, he teaches us about mercy and grace long before our intellect can grasp those concepts; long before we can even find the words for what those gifts make us feel. This is what poet and theologian G. K. Chesterton said about Santa Claus:
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way. 
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation.  I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking.  I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it.  I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them.  I had not even been good – far from it. 
And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . .  What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still.  I have merely extended the idea. 
Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void. 
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.  Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill. 
Of course Saint Nicholas is real. He was a real man who lived on earth and is now in heaven, as this insightful post points out. So there is nothing deceitful about "believing in" this person (and, honestly, when it comes down to it, even something that is a myth can be true). But who Santa Claus is to us now is also real, or can be if we want it to be. Who he is now is an ideal made concrete: a being who loves to give in secret; someone who gives not because we are good, but because he is good. Someone, as Chesterson said, who is "benevolently disposed" towards us and "gives us toys for nothing." Santa Claus, like all saints, shows us one way an abstract ideal can be "made flesh." I used to be made slightly uncomfortable by the Catholic idea of "saints" in general. I thought their emphasis on the saints was too close to worship. And there are some theological differences, no doubt, but now I have come to appreciate the way that Catholics celebrate the truth that mortals who seek God, mortals who stretch to great good, can become—and have become—a little like God. It's really the same as what we, members the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe. We are all striving to be saints! We are all seeking to take the large story of God's goodness and write it, in small and simplified form, in our own lives.

And so now, just as I have a fresh appreciation for the children's poetry of A. A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson, I have a fresh appreciation for the magic of Santa Claus. I don't think he should be the main focus of our Christmas. But I think he has a place there, if we want him. And I think that he—like a good story or poem—teaches us through enchantment and delight and a little bit of mystery, truths that may remain unlearned through years of joyless study.

As Matthew Warner writes in this excellent article,
Our modern scientific minds have turned us into impotent story tellers. Telling stories is an art performance, not a repeating of scientifically verifiable facts. There are lots of ways to tell this story without lying to our kids. Again, if your conscience is bothering you about it, then it probably means you should be telling the story a little differently. 
I like to think of it this way. When we read a good bed time story, we read it like it’s real because it’s more fun and impactful that way. You learn more and it exercises the imagination. But at the end when your kid asks, “is that really real, Daddy?” the answer is rarely as simple as a yes or no. 
Do princesses and castles exist? Yes, honey. Does princess Jasmine? well, no. Or maybe she did exist, but this story is only partially true about her. Or maybe she never existed, but the situations in the story are real. Maybe the scene is made up but the lesson is not. Does magic exist? No, not really. But do some moments in life feel magical? Absolutely. Are super heroes real? Yes, although they may look differently than you think. Dad, does anyone really have special powers? Yes, but not like you are thinking…better ones, that you’ll only realize are better when you’re older and wiser. 
With Santa — just as with Genesis and so many other great stories — instead of finding out the full story immediately in one sentence, the full understanding is something that sets in over time as we are ready. That’s the mark of a great story.
You don't have to lie about Santa to enjoy the fun and mystery of his story. And obviously you don't have to even follow Santa traditions at all! But I hope that every child, in some way or other, and especially at Christmastime, gets to enjoy the wit-and-delight side of life; the joy of words and stories. Poetry, though it can teach truth, isn't for moralizing. It's for playing with language, for turning it around like a jewel in your hands, just to see it sparkle. And Christmas, that sparkliest and most joyful of seasons, deserves any bit of hope and magic our poor attempts at storytelling can assign to it. I think He whose birthday we are rejoicing in, would approve.
5

Some times I have cried

Why am I writing this when then are so many other things I ought to be doing? Nobody knows. But, here we are.

Some times I have cried (or at least had tears in my eyes):
  • At a London performance of "Starlight Express"
  • While attempting to peel hard-boiled eggs
  • While reading Revelation 21:4-5
  • The time I forgot to put the whipped cream in the pie filling
  • When Teddy said about Ziggy, "He's the cutest baby in the wo-wold!"
  • While on the phone with T-Mobile Customer Service
  • When Jane Eyre says, "Reader, I married him."
  • After getting a negative response to my question about drill batteries from a worker at Home Depot
  • When my Peter Rabbit mug got broken
  • When recounting the story of "The other wise man" to my son in the car
  • When I realized it was already morning and I was still feeding Ziggy in my chair
  • When I was thinking about Nutmeg dying someday
  • When Junie pinched her finger in the car door
  • When some guy helped me figure out how to put air in my tires
  • While the children's choir was singing "What Sweeter Music"
  • When Daisy cut Junie's hair
  • When Sebastian said about ocean zones, quote, "You can't make me care about these EVER."
  • When I tried to play "Lilacs" on the piano after a 2-year hiatus
  • During the last twenty to twenty-five minutes of "Scrooge"
  • When a lady at the library told me not to walk behind the circulation desk
  • While hearing a reading of You are Special by Max Lucado (even though I hate You Are Special by Max Lucado)
  • When Teddy threw his head joyfully back against my nose
6

What is truth?

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session of the April 1978 Conference.
Sam and I were talking this week about how sometimes, living in a world where we can access information so easily, we start to feel like we can know more than we really can know. We've gotten used to being able to use the internet to support our side of an argument, find out a name we've forgotten, learn some needed skill. And it's easy to start assuming everything can be learned that way.

But it can't, of course. Some truth only comes through the spirit, through connection with God, and through an investment of time and effort and self. Some truth is too big for us to fully comprehend. Some is only comprehensible as we purify ourselves to receive it.

And there is another danger, too, as we become aware of how truth and untruth are mingled in our world. If we see too much "fake news," we might go to the other extreme and start to doubt that one can discern between truth and error at all. Probably we are all more susceptible to misinformation than we like to think. We can all be fooled, especially when "evidence" mirrors what we want to believe anyway. But it is a mistake to conclude, as some world-weary sorts do, that because of this, truth is unknown and unknowable.

That's how I imagine Pilate as he talked with Jesus. Cynical, weary, and slightly smug—sure that he was wiser than those wild-eyed fanatics who would follow anyone charismatic enough to stand out in a crowd. And sure that to his slightly derisive question "What is truth?" there could not be a satisfactory answer. But, as this talk by Elder John H. Vandenberg reminded me, Pilate was wrong:
With the question “What is truth?” Pilate left Jesus standing alone, without granting Him the courtesy of reply. One wonders why. Such action leads one to believe that Pilate feared the truth, perhaps as others might fear it—not being willing to face up to it, not wishing to take upon themselves the discipline and responsibility demanded by truth. 
Jesus said, “Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.” Those who are “of the truth” are those who sincerely seek after it. All of mankind should be seekers after truth for it is the supreme essence of their lives.
Truth does exist, and we can find it. Not easily, always, and not without sacrifice—but truth is there for those who are humble and diligent enough to ask God for His help to reveal it.

Elder Vandenberg quotes Francis Bacon as saying that
…the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.
"The belief of truth…is the enjoying of it." I love that because it reminds me that my search for truth isn't some esoteric quest for arcane knowledge that no one will ever use. It's something that makes a difference. It's not just useful to find truth, it's essential—because whatever true principles I can learn and apply will transform my life into something better and more joyful than it could ever be without those truths in it. 

Truths like "Loving your enemies brings you closer to God" and "He who loseth his life shall find it" aren't the sort of truths I could easily discover myself. They aren't taught by our world, and they are in many ways counterintuitive to my nature. But by coming to Jesus Christ, the ultimate Truth, I can learn such things. And knowing them gives me the ability to choose happiness, whenever I want it!  I can't think of a better gift from God.

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2

Homemade Peppermint Marshmallows

This seems like a good time to revisit homemade marshmallows, because my heart has softened to them! As you may recall, the first couple times I made these I was unimpressed, and even after I found a recipe I liked, I was unsure if they were worth the effort. But as we've kept making them over the years (the children insist that it's a December tradition now), I've started liking them more and more. Last year we added vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract, and that was really good. (I always keep this on hand and I looooove it!)

And then this year it occurred to me that we could add a different flavor and make these into peppermint marshmallows. So we crushed up some candy canes to sprinkle on top, added peppermint extract, and had something amazing on our hands. These are awesome (and remember, I really had to be talked into liking marshmallows in the first place). We're on our third batch this month! If you have the pan all greased and ready before you start, and if you beat the egg whites as the sugar mixture is boiling, and crush your candy canes as the marshmallow mixture is being beaten in the mixer, you can have these made and ready to chill in a half hour, easily. Set them outside to cool for a few hours, and they will be ready to go in your hot chocolate after Family Home Evening. :) I can unequivocally state, finally, that these marshmallows are worth making!

Peppermint Marshmallows 
Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen

About 1 cup powdered sugar
5-6 crushed candy canes (put them into a ziploc bag and hit them with a mallet or rolling pin)

4 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
A few drops of red food coloring

Spray bottom and sides of a 9x13 cake pan with pan spray, and dust bottom and sides with some powdered sugar. Sprinkle half of crushed candy cane dust onto bottom of cake pan.

In bowl of a stand mixer, sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cold cold water, and let stand to soften.

In a heavy saucepan cook granulated sugar, corn syrup, second 1/2 cup of cold water, and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, to 240°F, about 6 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour hot sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is dissolved.

With stand mixer, beat mixture on high speed until white, thick, and nearly tripled in volume, about six minutes.

In separate medium bowl with cleaned beaters beat egg whites until they just hold stiff peaks. Add these egg whites to the sugar mixture and beat until just combined. Add peppermint extract. Add a few drops of red food coloring to make the mixture a pale pink color.

Pour mixture into baking pan and sprinkle other half of candy cane dust over marshmallows. Sift 1/4 cup powdered sugar evenly over top. Chill, uncovered, until firm, at least three hours. (I usually just set the pan outside for a few hours.)
The marshmallows look so pretty in the pan!

Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto a large cutting board. Lifting up one corner of inverted pan, with fingers loosen marshmallow and ease onto cutting board. With a pizza cutter, cut marshmallow into roughly one-inch cubes. Sift remaining powdered sugar back into your now-empty baking pan, and roll the marshmallows through it, on all six sides, before shaking off the excess and packing them away.
3

Invitations I have refused

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Priesthood Session of the April 1978 Conference.
Remember when President Hinckley challenged everyone in the church to read the Book of Mormon before the end of that year? I didn't do it. I can't remember why. I think I had just recently finished the Book of Mormon and was reading the New Testament or something. Anyway, I thought, "This is intended more for people who haven't read it yet, or who weren't otherwise planning to. But I know I WILL read it again sometime, so I don't need to necessarily do it right now."

A few years ago, our Stake President challenged the youth (and whoever else wanted to) in the stake to memorize The Living Christ. Again I felt like I had a pretty good reason for not doing it: our family had just barely memorized the Proclamation on the Family and that seemed like enough to worry about! I had also just gotten called as Young Women's President, and I reasoned that while I could "support" the young women who wanted to join the memorization project (and many of them did), I just couldn't handle the thought of adding another thing to what I was already doing.

Both of these times, I knew that accepting the invitations would have had benefits. I said to myself, "I know I'd be blessed for doing it. But I still just don't want to."

But…I did feel sorry later, both those times, and many other times when I've opted out of an opportunity I could have taken. The Living Christ memorization project was a wonderful testimony-building experience for those that did it. They still talk about how it has affected them. And the read-the-Book-of-Mormon challenge was the same way. There have been service projects, Relief Society activities, even meetings of various sorts—after which, when I've heard others talk about their experiences, I've realized wistfully, "That was a missed opportunity. I should have done that."

There have been a few challenges from the prophets lately that I've really wanted to take up. President Nelson talked again about studying The Living Christ, and remembering my previous failure to do so, I have resolved to do it with the kids this time! But that challenge was issued in April and we still haven't gotten to it. We intend to! But…we haven't. Then there's the challenge to read all the scriptures about Jesus Christ in the Topical Guide (the one that President Nelson said made him a "changed man"). I'm working my way through those. And of course, there's President Monson's challenge (reiterated multiple times in the most recent conference) to read the Book of Mormon every single day! Our bishop also usually gives a family challenge of some sort every year too.

Well…that's a lot to do! But…

When President Nelson was talking about his scripture study, he said that although it's tempting for all of us to think, "I don't have time for this," that is not a "faith-promoted" response, and that instead we should commit to make time, and use what time we have to do the best we can. That's inspiring to me (since I can only imagine how busy HE is!). President Eyring is equally inspiring, with the way he obediently took up President Monson's Book of Mormon challenge even though he could have easily rationalized (like I did above) that the challenge was for "someone else."

I don't really know where I'm going with this. I don't necessarily think it is wrong to refuse some invitations. Or at least it's understandable. You really can't do everything! And I think weighing and choosing between good things in a realistic way is a skill we all need to develop. So I'm not sure how far to go with it. I do think we could reasonably assume that anytime we DO accept a challenge/invitation from a church leader, we will be blessed. But I don't know that the converse (anytime we DON'T accept one we will be sorry) is true. Maybe God just understands when we fall short, and blesses us for whatever we make an effort toward. Maybe just not doing something is its own punishment. But…I don't know. More and more as I get older, I want all the blessings! And I'm not sure how to reconcile that with my actual (limited) abilities.

With that lengthy introduction, I'll quote the conference talk that started me thinking about all this in the first place. It's a talk by then-Elder Howard W. Hunter. He tells a story about a fourth-string quarterback that never expected to play in a game. In the last game of the season, he took off his shoes on the sideline, and of course, that's when the other quarterback got hurt and the fourth-string guy got called in. There was no time to put his shoes on, so he just had to go in barefoot, with predictable results. Elder Hunter uses this as a metaphor to remind us that we always need to be prepared for gospel opportunities the Lord might have in store for us. He says:
I want to invite the young men in this audience tonight to keep their gospel shoes on, to believe in the opportunities that lie ahead… 
As surely as I know anything, I know you young men are needed and will be called on to help the kingdom in the years ahead. Indeed, we call upon you now. We need your company and your friendship and your service and your standards. Some of your assignments may seem small to you, but they are very important and they prepare you for greater service to come.…
Then Elder Hunter describes some of the good things President Kimball did in his youth (like reading the Bible from cover to cover—another thing I've never done and am trying to do, very very slowly). He concludes:
Though [President Kimball] may never have dreamed it would someday be his, all of his life he has been getting ready for the assignment he now has.
It made me wonder what things in my past have prepared me for what I am doing now, and more importantly, what assignments God may now be preparing ME for in the future? What if one of these invitations I think I'm too busy for is exactly what I need to prepare me for what's coming next?

It doesn't solve anything to think of it that way, really. It doesn't make the allocation of time easier, or the weighing of different good options less confusing. But it makes me more determined than ever to just…try, I guess. To try to never refuse an invitation that might bless me. To try to at least approach these challenges with the faith and determination of President Nelson and President Eyring. So that when the hard and harder trials come my way, I can say to myself, "All my life I have been getting ready for this"—and dive in, unafraid.


Other posts in this series:
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People and things I thought were worth taking pictures of

Some miscellaneous pictures, with no particular theme…except the theme of people being cute.
Bright eyes
Fish face
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A world of castles

[There are so many castles in this post, you will be completely overcome with castles by the end of it. You won't be able to take in a single other castle. But just imagine how WE felt, seeing them in real life! I've saved this post for last because it was my favorite part of our trip.]

A long time ago, right after I graduated from high school, my friend Rachael and I got to go on a trip to Germany with her grandpa (who is the Candy Bomber). I know, I'm always going on about it. But it was SO exciting. And such a formative experience for me. We were 18, we were best friends headed to the same college, we were taking this amazing trip together AND we got to be part of her famous Grandpa's entourage! It was just the best. That was back in the days when camera pictures had to be jealously meted out because you only had a couple rolls of film with you. And half the time, you'd get your pictures back from the developer and they'd all be blurry, or overexposed or something. So I really don't have a good pictoral record of that trip. But I have a record in my memory, and especially of a place called Rudesheim. I can remember riding there on the train, gazing out at the scenery and chattering excitedly with Rachael, with her grandma sitting there across from us, full of her typical serenity and reserve, probably wishing we wouldn't be quite so giggly. The trees across the river were emerald green, and every so often we would glimpse a perfect fairy-tale castle peeking up out of the trees. When we got to Rudesheim we rode an aerial tram above the vineyards overlooking the Rhine, and it was so quiet, and the sun was so warm. I remember Rachael and I clutched each others' arms in pure delight, overcome by the beauty and wonder of it all. I really think it was the most beautiful place I have ever been. We cried a little as the tram came to a stop, and we made a solemn promise to each other that someday, we would come back. "With our husbands!" we squealed, hopeful but hardly daring to believe that there would ever BE such a thing. 

I've thought about that place so many times since. It almost seems like a place that exists outside time and space, waiting there unchanged and unchanging for us to come back someday. (And we WILL!) I knew it was somewhere near Frankfurt, but I had never even really looked for it on a map, because, as I said, it seemed too magical to be on a map! 

Well…I still haven't gone back. But after we visited Drachenfels and loved it so much, that night I was looking online for something to do the next day that might be similar; maybe another castle we could visit. I ran into some information about the Rhine river cruises that floated through the Middle Rhine Valley, which people were describing as one of the most beautiful places on earth. And suddenly I saw Rudesheim on the map and realized it was in the same area as the river cruises I was looking at! It was about three hours away from us by train. Strangely, my first emotion upon realizing this was…I don't know…something like fear. I wanted to go to that place again. But I also didn't. I'm a different person now. I see with different eyes. And I was so afraid it wouldn't be what I remembered. I couldn't get past that feeling. And I didn't want to go without Rachael!

But of course, I also wanted Sam and Malachi to see this amazing area! So, I decided we would compromise by finding another, closer, spot along the river where we could get on one of the cruises. (And in a lucky coincidence, it happened to be the very last day these riverboats were running, before stopping for the winter!)
As we rode the ICE train down to Frankfurt, and then the regional train from Frankfurt toward the Rhine, it was drizzly and grey and cold. I was worried that we might not be able to even see anything from the boat! I was praying (apologetically) for just a little sun. Even just a little! I promised to try to appreciate and enjoy whatever weather there was. But I wished for just a clearing of the sky, so we could see the beautiful things around us.

When the train pulled into the station, it was still raining, and we had only minutes to find the boat dock, so I pulled the baby wrap over Ziggy's head and we RAN. We were so afraid we wouldn't make it. We had farther to go than it had seemed on the map. But finally we were racing breathlessly up to the ticket office, and hearing the ticket man yell to the boat to wait one more minute, and then boarding the boat in a flurry of apologies and coats and camera bags.

And just then…the sun came out! It lit up the hills and cleared away some of the fog, and warmed up the upper deck where we were settling ourselves. (There was an indoor lower deck with windows, but somehow looking at the scenery out of a window wasn't quite the same!) The deck was nearly deserted, except for a young couple enjoying a romantic outing together (we seemed to be forever disturbing romantic outings, on this trip), so we stood there exclaiming to each other, and taking pictures, and ducking under the canopy when it rained, and leaning over the side railings when it didn't. I couldn't quite believe we'd made it and we were actually doing this!
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Zons

While we were in Germany, a girl who lives near Düsseldorf and follows Sam's art on Instagram sent me a nice message, saying that if we liked Medieval villages, we ought to visit Zons. It was a place I had researched a little before we came, but it was so hard to figure out stuff on German websites. I couldn't tell what was going to be too hard to get to, or what would even be worth attempting to see…only to find out it was inaccessible or closed for the season or something! But based on this girl's recommendation, Zons seemed worth doing. It was tricky to get to: regional train and then bus and then walking, and all of this in tiny, out-of-the-way, non-tourist areas that would probably not have any signs in English! It was our last day in Germany and I felt so responsible for making it a good one, since I'm usually the one planning what we'll do and I was afraid we would spend the whole day getting lost! But at least Sam would be with us. So we made the attempt.

And, miraculously, nothing went wrong! I even managed to read the bus schedules correctly and get us on the right bus, and as we rode along the winding roads into the countryside, with all the school children heading home from school, and the mothers carrying their shopping, I could almost imagine living here, in one of the old brick houses tucked away behind tiny gardens and rows of trees.
We didn't know exactly where to even go, but we got off the bus and walked toward a church tower, which seemed like a promising landmark.
We passed a square full of pigs. I wish I knew the story behind them. Even if there had been an explanatory sign, we wouldn't have been able to read it!

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Prayer as faith-food

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session of the April 1978 Conference.
Elder George P. Lee had some remarkable stories in his talk—like how his older brothers tied him up and tried to make him drink wine and beer. (They sounded like Laman and Lemuel!) But here's the section that stuck out to me the most:
Your faith needs nourishment through prayers. Exercise the muscle of the faith until it is one of such strength that it will sustain you. Beloved youth, get on your knees. The Lord has a testimony just for you—one that fits your size and needs—but you have to ask for it.
Your faith needs nourishment through prayers. I keep thinking about that statement and why it might be true. How does praying (a faithful act) nourish faith, other than just being a way to exercise that faith? You would think faith would be nourished by fulfillment—like, if you had faith the sun would come up and then it DID come up, your faith would be nourished.

And actually, I think this principle IS related to that. I was thinking awhile ago about how if you don't ask for something, you can't have it granted to you. So, for example, suppose I get an unexpected check—a tax refund I'd forgotten about, or something—in the mail. That would be great, but not really a miracle. But suppose I had been asking God for help in paying my rent, and THEN the check arrived. In this case, it would seem much more like a miracle! So even if God was responsible for the blessing in both cases, in the first case I wouldn't really even recognize it as a blessing.

It could be something a lot smaller, too. Something really mundane, like seeing a hummingbird. If I haven't been praying for anything, IF I even notice it at all, I see it and think, "Huh, that's pretty. Dad loved hummingbirds." And it's just a thing that…happened. But if I've been praying, "Please help me know that my dad is aware of me from the spirit world. I miss him, so please help me somehow feel his love"—and THEN I see a hummingbird, I can now interpret and accept that sign for what it really is: a blessing and an answer to prayer.

Furthermore, as someone commented in our Sunday School class the other day, "If I pray for something and it's granted, that's wonderful. I know God answered my prayer and I feel his love because of it. If I pray for something and don't get it, that is also wonderful. That gives me a chance to exercise even stronger faith because it's faith in the face of apparent silence. This is an opportunity for even more spiritual growth." But the key is that neither of those scenarios can transpire if we don't pray in the first place!

Prayer helps clear our vision to see the blessings God is already giving us. Prayer helps blessings seem like blessings.

"But," I can hear someone protesting, "if I pray for enough things to happen, then everything will start to seem like a miracle!"

Exactly.

Other posts in this series:
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More around Düsseldorf

This was a long avenue in Düsseldorf with a canal running down the middle of it, and lined with trees, called Königsallee. There were lots of fancy stores, and some guy let Malachi sit in his McLaren P1. 
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The Cologne Chocolate Factory: a moral tale

Malachi loved the Cologne Cathedral so much that he requested we go there again on another day. There were some other things we could do in Cologne too (a zoo, a chocolate factory), so it seemed like a good idea. One of my favorite things about riding the train there (it's about 40-50 minutes from Düsseldorf by train) was seeing the cathedral towers suddenly appear out of the city from various angles. I knew to be watching for it this time, and it was so fun and surprising every time, as you were walking along what seemed like rather ordinary streets, to suddenly realize you were approaching one of the most famous architectural landmarks in the world! It just serves as a reminder that there are hidden wonders all around us…

But that is not that moral part of this tale.
It was kind of a chilly morning, so Ky and I decided to go to the chocolate factory since that was indoors. There was a museum talking about the history of chocolate, with various applicable artifacts. It wasn't terribly different from this exhibit, but still interesting.
We were quite tired and suffering from Museum Knee by the time we were done with the exhibit, but then there was a hall where you could watch the chocolates actually being made, with samples, and that revived us wonderfully. There was a cool machine making molded chocolates and then placing them on a conveyor belt to be wrapped, which you can watch in this video if you like that sort of thing:
Then we were feeling a bit peckish, so we stopped at the chocolate cafe for something to eat.
(This guy is always peckish)
At the cafe, there was a menu in English, thank goodness (…although "Schokolade" is fairly easy to decipher), and Malachi got the Hot Chocolate and I got the Cold Chocolate, which sounded like it would be sort of a float or milkshake of chocolate. Having built up enormous appetites with all our walking that morning, we waited with great anticipation until the waitress brought our orders at last.

Malachi took a sip of his. Then I took a sip of mine. And…it was HORRIBLE. Absolutely, horrifyingly HORRIBLE. Probably the worst taste that has ever crossed my lips. I was first shocked, then saddened as I thought to myself how cultural expectations had probably caused this terrible misunderstanding. The Germans in Düsseldorf must just have different tastes, I reasoned. Perhaps they made this chocolate from straight ground-up cacao beans (it did sort of remind me of a bitter cacao bean I had tasted once). Perhaps they would be equally shaken if they tasted a milkshake I made. Perhaps it was an acquired taste, or I had just been caught off guard by the unexpected. I took a cautious second sip.

HORRIBLE! I looked at Malachi with dismay. Were we both to suffer this dreadful fate? But he seemed to be enjoying his hot chocolate. I tasted it. Delicious. I was so confused!

Malachi and I spent a few minutes marveling at what had occurred. How was this possible? Even the darkest of dark chocolate had never offended me in this way. I hoped the waitress wouldn't be disgusted with me for a leaving a nearly-untouched drink! I decided I was probably just not as adventurous of an eater as I had liked to think myself. It was slightly embarrassing. Malachi had a sip of the cold chocolate and didn't like it either, but he was just a boy! We sat in silence for a time, while I fed Ziggy and flipped idly through the menu.

Something was nagging at me about the (HORRIBLE) taste of the drink. There was something familiar about it. It tasted almost…like…the smell of coffee. (I have never tasted coffee; it's a religious thing.) So when I saw that the menu also offered a "Cold Coffee" drink I suddenly became very suspicious. The next time our waitress appeared, I asked her, "Is this drink made of chocolate, or coffee?" She smiled pitying at me. "It's chocolate. Schokolade." I felt embarrassed, but pressed on: "Are you sure? It's just so…bitter." At that she looked puzzled. "Bitter? No…it should be quite sweet…" She peered at the drink more closely and then turned abruptly. "One moment. I'll go ask."

In a moment she was back, looking shamefaced. "I'm so sorry. They made this one with coffee. Let me make you a new one." Sorry? I felt like dancing for joy! Cold German Chocolate wasn't horrible! What reassurance! What relief! Yes, I had inadvertently drunk a substance I never intended to drink in this lifetime…and I felt strangely disgruntled about that for a minute…but the Platonic ideal of chocolate could now remain pure and untainted! I was so happy.

When the Cold Chocolate drink finally arrived, I took a cautious sip, and it was wonderful! Ice creamy…rich…delicious. Everything I had hoped. And so all ended well. But I was left with a vast awe for my fellow humans who, voluntarily, DO drink coffee. What on earth do you see in it? And, remember, the version I tasted was full of cream and ice cream and probably other ingredients…so it ought to have been more palatable than the pure version. I've heard coffee is an acquired taste, and okay, I get that, but for what possible reason would one want to acquire it? All my life, I have watched people drinking coffee in movies and in cafés with idle curiosity, wondering what it would taste like, but not really wishing to try it. But now! I just can't believe it is a substance that anyone ever thought of as a food for human beings, let alone enjoys consuming. *shudder*

But even THAT is not yet the moral part of this tale.
This is a picture of the chocolate we brought home with us from the Düsseldorf trip. We got some after our adventure at the chocolate factory, and some at Heinemwummmummmn, and some at pretty much every other chocolate shop we passed on our travels. (We ate some of it as we went, of course.) It looks like quite a bit, doesn't it? A few of these bars were to give away, but most of them were just for eating ourselves (and maybe sharing with the children…occasionally…if they were lucky). And we did fill up the spaces in our suitcases with this chocolate quite tightly. After our Great Regret of not bringing back enough chocolate from our Berlin trip, we were determined not to make that mistake again. 

(I might briefly mention here how much we love the "Goldschatz" RitterSport chocolate. It is so good! I happened upon a review of it somewhere which was acting like RitterSport in general was for only the least refined of palates, Philistinic palates if you will, but I will proclaim my love for it nevertheless. Even after tasting so many [all delicious] types of chocolate in Germany, it remained one of my top choices. And this "Goldschatz" [Gold edition?] was a milk chocolate with 50% cocoa in it. It was intense but not dark, if that makes sense. Mmm. Sam and I are both already mourning the inevitable day when what we brought home is all gone.)

So when we packed up to leave Germany, we felt rather pleased with ourselves, and with how much chocolate we had amassed in a relatively short space of time. But when we got home and I lay it all out on the bed and contemplated how many children would want tastes of it, I realized with dismay that it was nothing like as much chocolate as we'd thought. It was a pitiful amount. Paltry. And I could see with painful clarity how soon it would all be gone. How I wished I could go back and warn my former self of the inadequacy of her efforts! Alas, I could not, and thus we see how vain and foolish are the efforts of man. But you, reader, I can still warn (**moral alert!**), and I do so now in the strongest possible terms:

When visiting Europe, bring home more chocolate than you think you will possibly need. Much, much more. And then add just a bit more just to be sure. OR YOU WILL BE SORRY! As I am, even now.
8

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne is one of those places (like Germany itself, actually) about which I wonder HOW we English-speakers have the audacity to call it what we do. In German the city is Köln. So why don't we call it "Köln," or at least, if we harbor a justifiable suspicion of umlauts, "Koln"? And if we're going for a spelling that gives a more phonetic pronunciation, surely we could think of one without a "gn" in it?

Well, it's a mystery to me, but the city itself was wonderful! After we went to Drachenfels, we headed back on the train to Cologne, which is quite close to Düsseldorf. I didn't have a sense of any of the geography before we went, but the city of Cologne is about equidistant from Bonn on one side, and Düsseldorf on the other. And they're all along the Rhine, which flows UP (well, you know, downstream, but north) from the southwest side of the country. 

I had heard of Cologne, of course, mostly because of Cologne Cathedral, which must be mentioned in every study of Gothic architecture. When we went through Cologne on the train on our way to Königswinter, we saw the ghostly spires of the cathedral rising up through the misty clouds. But in the afternoon when we came back, the clouds had thinned and the sky was brighter. You walk out of the train station and the cathedral is RIGHT THERE. It is amazing and surreal, kind of like walking out of Westminster Station in London to see Big Ben not fifty yards away. Looming dark and massive above us, it was breathtaking. (This picture is actually of the other side, once we'd walked around a little.)
There are a lot of Roman ruins in the area, including this archway and wall. There was a Rome museum we didn't go into, but we peered in the windows and could see old Roman mosaics on the floor. Very cool.
We did go inside the cathedral, and it was stunning—just the vastness of the space was impressive enough, but together with the stained glass windows and the intricate piecing and carving of the stone, it was almost too much to take in. You can never really get a picture that captures that Gothic splendor.
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