Saturday, December 31, 2016

Uncertain Beginnings and Messy Middles

To make an end is to make a beginning . . . and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. --T.S. Eliot "Little Gidding"

The new year is a time for beginnings and endings. I think that's one reason I like the new year so much--it symbolizes fresh starts, closure, and it's a wonderfully-fascinating shared space for both beginnings and ends.

But as much as it is a time for the bookends of old and new, start and finish, beginning and end, it's also a time for middles (and I don't just mean our expanding ones after weeks of rich holiday treats).

We don't really like to talk about the middle of the story too much--it's certainly not as exciting as the beginning or as poignant or romantic as the end. We certainly don't like them when they are messy. That messy middle is hard. It can be a tangled mess of whys, what ifs, and what-in-the-world-is-going-on-right-nows. The middle is a time for growing pains, regrets, and questions. Sometimes, in the midst of the messy middle, it seems like we will never reach a happy ending--or even an unhappy one.

Is all of life a messy middle? Perhaps, in some ways, it is, as lives are made up of an infinite number of beginnings, middles, and ends.

Beginnings, middles, ends. Ends, beginnings, middles. After awhile, they all start to look the same.

It's not an easy idea for a girl who loves tidy endings. But when was life ever tidy?

Last summer, I took a trip across Eastern Europe with my friend Briana. It was a whirlwind adventure and--to be honest--some days we chewed off a bit more than we could manage. We had places to see and travel to almost every day of our trip, and with each destination, we made plans to see as much as we could.

When we got to Budapest, both Briana and I had things and people we wanted to see. One of the things I really wanted to see was the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. It's an incredible moving memorial, dedicated to Budapest Jews and others who were killed during the fascist regime in Hungary during WWII. Those who were killed were ordered to take off their shoes, and then shot into the Danube River.

[Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial]

I was determined to see it. But there were other things to do in Budapest, too, and I didn't know if we would find it. Also, although I loved our time in Budapest, it was also one of the most exhausting days of our trip. I was running on three hours of sleep after a very weird overnight train journey, we were hungry, we couldn't read the Hungarian signs, we were sweaty and disgusting, and we were sunburned (after living in England for ten months, we forgot that the sun actually can burn you). 

[This is a very accurate depiction of the state of affairs in Budapest. Smiling on the outside, screaming on the inside.]

So, in short, we were right-smack-dab in the middle of a very long Eastern European adventure, far from our final destination, far from home, and kinda wondering what madness had possessed us to come this far in the first place. 

We did eventually find the memorial towards the end of our day, and when we found the memorial, it was very poignant and very beautiful. But at the same time, there were a thousand other things on my mind. I had made it to the place where I wanted to be, but it wasn't the end of our journey. Not by a long shot. How would we get to the airport? Should we take the Metro or a taxi? Did we have enough Hungarian forints to pay for a decent meal or would we be surviving on chocolate? What if we didn't make our next flight? 

I sat by the Danube while Briana went off to the side to make a phone call to her family back home. 

While she talked, I thought about the memorial, about my practical worries for the trip (and some abstract ones about my life), about how far we had come, and how much farther we had to go. 

And as I watched the water lap the bank, I realized that perhaps I was focusing too much on the ending. Or what I thought needed to be the ending. 

Because sitting on the Danube's bank was an ending. It was an ending I had looked forward to all day, but I forgot about it when it turned into a middle instead of an end. I was cursing the middle, while forgetting that the middle is full of beginnings and endings which need acknowledgment and celebration. I thought of all the mini-endings of the day--getting food, washing my face, finally crossing that bridge from Pest to Buda. 

And now I was here, sitting on the bank of Danube, tired and sunburned, remembering those who had gone before, and preparing for the rest of the journey. 

It was a quiet realization, and in many ways, just for me. But it was necessary and helped me savor more moments on the trip. 

Some middles are messier than others. Travel worries are one thing. But when we or those we love are stuck in the throes of health problems, loneliness, or any number of never-ending stories, that middle can be particularly nasty and challenging. One reason the middle is so hard is because it's so uncertain. We don't know how the end will be . . . or if there will ever be an end. Not knowing is so hard.

What's also hard is when what we think is going to be a happy ending turns to be a very messy middle instead.

Some of my ancestors were Mormon pioneers. I grew up hearing stories about their trek across the Great American Plains. They were exiles, and they traveled towards the place they believed "God for [them] prepared, far away in the West."

It wasn't an easy journey. But it helped to have a dream in mind--in this case, what they believed would be their own Land of Canaan in the Rocky Mountains.

I imagine them crossing the windy hills of Nebraska and the barren plains of Wyoming, holding onto a hope that their Promised Land would be green and beautiful--a land flowing with milk and honey . . .

And then they got Utah.

Now, I know Utah is a beautiful state. It has this rugged, mountainous beauty, and out of all the skies I've seen in this world, I still think that Utah sunsets with the sun setting behind the Oquirrh Mountains are the most beautiful.

But this rugged beauty wasn't particuarly beautiful to farmers and settlers in the 1840s who had traveled over a thousand miles to a new home. They didn't want rock climbing adventures. They wanted to grow crops and actually drink the water of their new home. Instead, they found a desert with no ski resorts, no temples, and little water except a giant, undrinkable lake of salt.

In the words of one of my great-grandmothers (and I am not paraphrasing here):

"I left England for THIS?"

I left England for this? 

I think most--if not all--of us have said similar things about our expected happy endings that turn out to be very messy middles:

Is this REALLY all there is after graduation? 

Why did we ever move here? 

I felt right about taking this job/starting/ending this relationship/fill-in-the-blank. Why are things so hard then? 

I left England . . . for this?

What we thought would be our Promised Land suddenly isn't. We haven't found the ease and prosperity we hoped for.

But perhaps the end goal was never meant to be ease and prosperity.

Perhaps the end goal is to learn how to embrace that messy middle. To learn that we have to fight for our happiness. And that means getting dirty. It means making mistakes. It means loving others deeply.

Life isn't found on shiny pedestals.

Rather, it's found on the banks of the Danube River, sunburned and exhausted.

It's found in the brown, barren deserts of Utah.

It's found in raspberry patches with sticky faces and scratched-up hands.

It's found when we choose to live life deliberately.

Yes, life is full of messy middles, but it is those middles which make our stories rich, deep, and full . . . if we let them. When we wait for the middle to end, it never does end and we miss the beauty of connections, growth, and experiences that are so unique to the middle of the story.

If we let it, the messy middle teaches us to take the joy with gratitude and the sorrow without resentment.

And so, in the spirit of New Year's, I wish all of you happy endings and beautiful beginnings . . . but I also hope that you find meaning in the middle, no matter how messy it gets.

(And in the spirit of the finest of babushka blessings, I wish all of you health, wealth, success, beautiful families, and all the best you could ever ask for.)

Here's to 2017.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

How silently, how silently

O little town of Bethlehem 
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
The silent stars go by. 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
The everlasting light. 
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. 

. . . 

How silently, how silently 
The wondrous gift is given. 
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven. 
No ear may hear His coming 
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still 
The dear Christ enters in. 

Behold, the Lamb of God, by Walter Rane

It should stop surprising me that God loves obscure people and obscure places.

That He finds meaning in what others would deem insignficant.

That although He can part seas and orchestrate angelic choruses, that more often than not, He reveals Himself and His love to us through small brushstrokes and gentle hands.

The hopes and fears of all my years were also gathered in that obscure town, in an unknown stable.

And tonight, the knowledge that He knows and loves me and that He has revealed Himself to me in small and quiet ways is more than enough for me to fall on my knees at the feet of the Manger King to thank Him for His love.

His love has changed everything for me.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Moments that the words don't reach

My heart hurts today.

This weekend, my dear, dear friend Camille Moffatt was in a car wreck and she is in critical condition.

Hearing the news felt like a punch to the gut. I've known Camille for over six years now. We met on a study abroad to Cambridge and I've considered her a dear friend ever since. Hearing about an accident like that is something you don't ever want to hear. Our bodies are so fragile, and pain is very real. I was reminded of that this weekend in a way I didn't want to be reminded. I can't even imagine the pain her family is going through right now.

I know that Camille is strong. She is brave and she is a fighter, and she is in a place to get the best care that she needs, and I pray for her full recovery.

In these moments, I am also reminded of how little I can do. I don't have the expertise, knowledge, or experience to give her medical attention. But what I can do (pray, fast, write her notes of encouragement and deliver decorations to her room), I will do. My hands are small, but they are willing, especially to somehow bless someone who has been so good to me.

And so, just like she has written beautiful blog posts about people she loves (including me), today I thought it would be fitting to share the reasons that I love Camille. Because there are so many reasons.

Camille is one of those bright souls in the world. A person you never forget, and a friend who never forgets you. She is vivacious and stylish and beautiful and funny and brilliant and good. She is good to the core. She is incredibly artistic and brings beauty to the world wherever she goes.

[I feel like this picture is very representative of Camille--just standing out in bold.]

Camille is kind. I still remember the first time that I ever really talked to her--the moment I realized that she was my friend. It was on our study abroad to Cambridge, and I think it was my second day there. I was nineteen years old and terribly, terribly homesick. Our director noticed, and he pulled Camille aside and asked her to talk to me for a bit. She took my hand, smiled, and then had us sit down in the stairwell of the Cambridge Union Building, where I promptly started to cry and cry, blubbering out all of my fears and how I missed my family and how I didn't know if I could even be successful at this program. She just let me talk. She held me and let me talk and told me times in her own life when she was scared and homesick.

In her kindness and vulnerabilty, she gave of her confidence to me. She became my friend. And for that friendship I am so very, very grateful.

Camille is hilarious. She always makes people laugh and she is so good at bringing out a silly side of me that not many people get to see.

[I'm pretty sure we are admiring our legs here. But probably we are all just really admiring Jeff's leg.]

Camille is thoughtful. The letters she wrote me on my mission were always full of light, love, and humor. I often get emails from her or texts from her out-of-the-blue and it is just so nice to know that she takes the time to think of me.

Camille is classy. Just--so classy. I love her sense of fashion, her taste in art, and her taste in food.


Camille drops everything to help friends in need. When I went out to DC a couple of years ago to do some research, I immediately knew that I was going to ask her if I could stay with her. And even though life was crazy-busy for her at that time, she was so happy to let me stay at her place. Camille is just like that. She makes time for others.

Camille makes others feel like they are the coolest person in the world. Knowing her is the closest thing I have to knowing a rockstar.

[But I'm actually serious about the whole rockstar thing. We are all just happy to be her groupies.]

I am so grateful to have Camille Moffatt as a friend. She inspires confidence in me and in everyone she meets. I know that is true because of the way that friends have reached out to her and collaborated to support her. She is so loved. Our Cambridge Crew has banded together to help her, and I am amazed and awed at how those connections we formed six years ago are still so deep--they still last.

Friendship is deep, and friendship is eternal, I believe. And in these moments that the words don't reach, when there is suffering too terrible to name, we hold onto each other. Sometimes that is all we can do.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

If you close your eyes, does it feel like you've been here before?

Some days, some weeks, Ukraine feels closer.

This week, it has felt very close.

Part of it is the cold.
There is something about walking
down cold winter streets
in the morning that instantly
sends me back to
those grey streets of Kharkov.
The way the cold air hits my lungs
the way snow-damp city streets smell
the way the cold bites into my fingerbones.

Part of it is speaking Russian
with new friends
with a darling refugee boy from Donetsk
who knows the math
but can't understand the story problems
and who puts up with me
trying to explain elementary physics to him
in Russian
but who loves me enough
to give me one of his Pokemon cards.
(If that's not true love,
I don't know what is.)

Part of it is seeing dear loved ones
loved sisters
from my mission
and just basking in their presence
in their goodness
in their strength
in their love.
People who loved me
before I became who I was today.
People who loved me
as I struggled and wept
and as I learned about
what it meant to love.

For all of these reasons
and more
sits close
to my heart

Friday, December 16, 2016

Identical Cousins

When I was moving to Salt Lake, I was looking for an apartment. My cousin Leslie helped me find a place. It's been great being in her ward and seeing her more often.

Something else that's great is people's reaction when they find out we're cousins.

And it's great that we inadvertantly match every once in awhile. Usually at ward functions.

[Like at Thanksgiving dinner. Where we found out that Leslie is grateful for beards. And I am grateful for Hamilton. Oh wait. That's not actually a surprise.]

[We also ended up kind of matching at the Stake Christmas fireside. Maxi dresses for the win!]

[It's like we're related or something.]

[And in black and white. Just being models. Nbd.]

Leslie said that I only needed 2 pictures of us to make a blog post. But I even got four. So you KNOW it's an official blog post now.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Dominus illuminatio mea

Last month, I had the opportunity to go back to my beloved Oxford for my degree ceremony. My dad came along with me, and it was so wonderful to show him around the city that is so dear to me. I literally dragged him around everywhere--from the iconic Radcliffe Camera to obscure backroad passageways.

Going back for the week was a gift. I teared up stepping onto the platform at Oxford Station and I teared up many times while I was there. It was wonderful and surreal to be back. It felt, in many ways, like I was coming home. I just allowed the air and the light and the beauty of Oxford to fill my soul.

[With Dad by the Rad Cam.]

[Walking on Turl Street.]

[This place. Oh, how I love this place.]

[One of my favorite places to run at one of my favorite times of day.]

I fit right back in. It was just so good to see beloved faces, to walk familiar streets, to run in Christ Church and Port Meadows, and to just be there again. It was amazing to me how even the scent of laundry detergent brought me back to last year. It brought me back to late nights writing papers while doing laundry, or reminded me of warm embraces from dear friends. 

I missed it. It surprised me how much I missed it. Oxford will always have a part of my heart, and I am grateful for the opportunity to go back and remind myself of who I became there and to be surrounded by people whom I love and who love me. Who knew that a year could change you so much? That year was certainly golden. And going back for my degree ceremony was icing on top of a most-beautiful cake. 

[Speaking of cakes, look what my friend Mary got for me! I seriously have the best friends. And not just because they give me cake.]

The degree ceremony was a treat in and of itself. My dear friend Hannah (who is studying at Queen Mary's this year--she's just amazing), came up from London to celebrate my graduation and to be the designated photographer. It was so great to have her there (so thank you, Hannah! Love you bunches). 

[Hurray for Hannah!]

The degree ceremony is steeped in tradition. All of it (except for the vice-chancellor's speech) was in Latin. We were presented to the vice-chancellor and the proctors twice. The first time, they called us up based on our degree and our college. We grabbed the right hand of our college dean, and then we bowed to the vice-chancellor and the proctors. 

They read us an oath, where we all swore to be loyal, obedient, and faithful to the University and its interests. (And again, this was all done in Latin, so I didn't actually know what I was agreeing to. But I agreed to it anyway. Kinda like those new terms of use forms that I always click, "I agree" to even though we all know that very few of us read the entire thing.)

[Graduands in the Sheldonian. If you can spot the girl who looks lost, that's me.]

[Lining up for the first presentation.]

[Bowing. So much bowing.]

[Walking out to the Divinity School.]

After the initial presentation, we went back to the Divinity School to get our new robes. Nick, the Head Porter of Corpus Christi, was the one assigned to help all Corpus graduands get their new robes, so he helped me put on my new robes and green hood. (Also, fun fact--there is this "inner sanctum" in the Divinity School where only a select group of people get to go--like, it's used to officially elect new vice-chancellors and such--but that's where the Corpus Christi robes were, so I got to go into the room of the Divinity School where not many laypeople get to go! That was really cool. I was geeking out.) 

Anyway. Back outside, we waited to go back to the Sheldonian Theatre. Once it was our turn, we were presented again. This time ,everyone just cheered for us. It makes you feel like the coolest person ever.

[We're baaaaack.]

[We're so delightfully awkward. None of us really know what we're supposed to do.]

[More bowing.]

[More delightful awkwardness with all of this pomp and circumstance.]

After you've been presented the second time, you can finally wear your cap. You line up outside the Sheldonian and the chancellor and the proctors come by in a procession, and you doff your hat to them. (Again, why does that happen? I don't really know. Tradition, that's why.) 

And then, you take pictures and celebrate! 

[Master Meg!]

[Master Meg in her cap!]

[Except I soon learned that wearing the cap was a bit overrated. But the point is that I NOW HAVE A CHOICE.]

[Rocking the Oxford regalia.]

[With Hannah again!]

[And with my former housemate, Mimi! She was so kind to come by and say hello.]

[With Dad. :)]

[Outside of the Radcliffe Camera.]

[It was really cold and windy that day. But it wasn't raining. And that is the important thing.]

[At Corpus Christi.]

[So fun fact. This tree at Corpus is my favorite tree in the world. At least, at this moment it is. I love this tree. I love it so much.]

[Glorying in the beauty and majesty of this tree.]

[In the library. I actually am Hermione Granger.]

There were so many celebrations that day (and that weekend). I ended up graduating on Guy Fawkes' Day (aka Bonfire Night), so there were fireworks and bonfires all night long. So much fun. Again, I'm so glad I got the chance to return. 

[Remember, remember . . .]

As a final word (well, a final few hundred words). I think that it is fitting that Oxford's motto is "Dominus illuminatio mea," or, in regular English, "The Lord is my light." It is fitting for me, anyway. It is a necessary reminder of how I got to Oxford and what I am supposed to do with the opportunities given me. None of us are self-made. And I wouldn't have been able to go to Oxford without the sacrifices and help of many people. 

I would be ungrateful if I did not acknowledge the help I received--from friends, advisors, family members, and from a loving Heavenly Father. 

The Lord is my light, and He has given me so much. I am grateful to believe in a God who values truth, knowledge, and growth. Light, knowledge, and truth are intertwined in some beautiful ways. The glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth. 

There are many ways to gain that light and truth. Through different disciplines, different people, and different experiences. I know that I gained much light, knowledge, and truth during my time at Oxford. 

And that light and truth has changed my life forever.