Monday, August 29, 2011

Back to Basics

I was thinking a little about my blog this summer, and I realized that I haven't stayed completely true to my mission of this blog. I think it's fine to post things that weigh on my mind once in a while, but I created this blog to share with other people ways to be happy in day-to-day life, and I feel like in my posting, I've lost sight of that.

So, here's some awesome things about today:
- I had a religion class with my favorite professor on campus. His class sounds intriguing and challenging, and I'm looking forward to it!
- I found a fun dance class that I really want to sign up for now! (Now I just need to find a man to add the class with me...)
- My next dance class has a lot of familiar faces in it, including some great dance friends of mine. I'm looking forward to learning and growing with them this semester! And having fun :)
- The teacher for my harder class seems super nice and eager to help us succeed! He said "I don't want this class to feel like it's the students against the teacher; it's us against the material, because it's already hard enough without me trying to make it more confusing." Looking forward to working hard here as well. (...did I really just say that?)
- I ran into SO MANY friends on campus today! It was great to see some friends from dance, my study abroad, and even from freshman year! I love being around people, and campus is packed now that fall semester is getting underway.
- It was a hot day, but it's beautiful!
- I went grocery shopping, and picked up some raw ingredients to be creative with, annnnnd to attempt my own variants of Austrian cooking with. We'll see how that works out - it likely won't be very authentic Austrian, but it will likely be delicious anyway.

So, I'm back to working hard and focusing on the positive! :)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Here I Go Again...

It's the eve of yet another semester. I haven't been getting enough sleep, so I do need to go to bed early... But part of me would also like to sit on the stairs outside for a few minutes to breathe in the last lungfuls of summer. I can't believe how much has happened in just a few months! I went to the other side of the world, and I've grown and learned so much about the world and about myself: my perspectives on people and the world in general have changed, and I feel more motivated and passionate about what I'm doing with my life; I want to cut out the extra baggage and focus on the things that matter most; I spent time at home and had a chance to re-center myself in my family as well as (over the course of the summer) in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What am I going to do now? I'm not sure what challenges this coming semester will hold for me. I might guess that I'll continually be working on daily motivation to do unpleasant or tedious homework or that I'll be conquering my lingering shyness, but hey - those are things that I make progress in over time, and I'm getting better! It doesn't need to be a point of concern that I don't know what the semester will bring, because Jesus Christ does know, and He's said that I can do it. I know that as I am obedient to the commandments He's given me, He will help me, and I can do ANYTHING that I need to do. I want to love people, I want to work hard, and I want to come to know my Savior (dangerous words, because I've gotten to know Him best as I turn to Him in trials).

Time keeps moving forward, with or without me, and the hour's getting later. So I'll step out into the rain-washed summer night, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, then return inside and get ready for the next semester.

Saw this as I moved back into my apartment. Remember the promise :)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Formal Education...

I'm not going to pretend to be super-informed on this topic, but I'm becoming increasingly aware of it and increasingly passionate about it, and I would like to become more informed. The pitiful state of the American educational system is an issue that crosses partisan lines and is having a serious, continuing impact on education at all levels. I want to do something to help, but I'm not sure where to start.

I'll begin by sharing my experience in this situation. As far back as third grade, I remember people telling me that I was smart, but that I needed to focus and work harder, and that I had "so much potential." But I wasn't motivated to work harder (resulting in leaving my advanced "cluster" reading group in third grade, because I didn't like the research project). Starting in my sophomore year of high school, I began taking honors and AP (advanced placement) classes and finally felt challenged again in school; maybe I was motivated then by boredom or by the reward of college credit. Fortunately, these classes did make me work harder to learn the material, particularly in my AP U.S. History class, where I had a very thorough teacher who covered "the big picture" as well as the important figures, dates and events. But for the most part (especially considered in retrospect), I feel kind of like I coasted through high school, somehow managing to get a 3.8 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) without exerting much effort. When I got to my first semester of college, I realized very quickly that I didn't actually know how to study and work hard; I was good at taking tests, but failed miserably at motivating myself to do homework or essays. A large part of that is my personal inadequacies, but I wondered what kind of system we have that lets that kind of thing happen. How could I have "successfully" gotten through 13 years of public K-12 education without learning better how to discipline myself and invest effort into my learning?

One thing that I've since learned about, which I feel is very significant, is the heavy emphasis on results. For one of my college classes I job-shadowed an elementary school teacher for just one day, and that conversation changed how I view teaching in public schools. That teacher (my roommate's mother, and a veteran teacher) shared with me some of her frustrations about teaching in her classroom. She said that with all the testing they do to measure results in the classroom, she doesn't have much time for real teaching anymore. I feel like that's how my "education" largely went - I learned the material well enough (and just long enough) to gain an understanding and pass the tests with high scores. That kind of education didn't really have any bearing on what kind of person I was - "an education" was a box that I checked off my life to-do list, and not a crucial formative process of my person. It was a matter of doing something, not becoming something.

I don't know that I would make a very good teacher under the system that we have right now. For starters, I would have to relearn everything that I had already learned in years past; I've been in college a while now, and I can't multiply two 2-digit numbers together in my head within a reasonable amount of time. But I think our schools (teachers and students) are suffering in more than just academics.

There are many wonderful teachers that I've had who have cared about me and been inspiring. However, there are also many teachers - especially in my non-honors classes - who seemed to go through the motions of their duty and did little besides that. The ideal that I envision is smaller classes for everybody where teachers form individual relationships with each student, and where teachers challenge themselves and their students to high standards and put in the work towards achieving those standards. I think that to accomplish that, teachers would need to work with their students for longer than a single semester; I believe that our current system, where students might switch teachers within the same subject every semester, leads to a more factory-like approach which is based on achieving specific, standardized results, and where struggling students are passed on to another teacher, to "become someone else's problem" for yet another semester of their life. That's how I felt in my junior year of high school, when I felt like I was falling behind in math; even though I had the same teacher for both semesters, I felt lost and alone in that class, and like my teacher didn't care, which really hurt me academically and emotionally. In this aspect, I feel like I could be a really good teacher, in caring about my students, believing in them, and challenging them to stretch themselves to do better. We need teachers to mentor and be positive role models who inspire students by their example, by being what they encourage their students to become.

One thing I would like to do over the next couple years is invest time in researching possible reforms and alternatives to our current educational model. I learned a little about the Austrian (general European?) educational system while I was there. One thing I admire is how a group of students has the same teacher all the way through elementary school. That would require the teachers to expand their breadth and depth of knowledge to cover all that material (and it would be really unfortunate to be stuck with a not-so-good teacher for that long), which would require a massive shakeup in how we train teachers in the U.S. today. But I really admire the investment that the teachers have to make in forming a relationship with each student, and I think that the investment and duration would inspire/necessitate greater attention to ensuring that the students actually learn the material. I've also been told and have seen some differences in teaching styles between American and Austrian teachers; Americans are a lot more hands-on and application-based while Austrians rely on rote memorization in the classroom and doing the actual learning independently outside the classroom. I can't say which is better because they produce different results, and I don't have much experience with the Austrian style. I plan to take classes, read, talk to people, and otherwise inform myself more about what other people think could be the root issues in our American educational system (and in our social era) and what options there may be to resolve these issues.

I've still got some time before I graduate. I'm strongly considering adding a Sociology minor and working for Teach For America after graduation. I'm not sure what are other ways to be involved and be a force for change in education, but it's something I want to do. I want to help change people's lives by getting young people off to a good start - by giving them knowledge, and the tools to use it well, and by giving them the love and confidence they need to believe in themselves and enable their own success. Everyone deserves those, and I strongly feel that our current system is increasingly failing in this aim.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Curious Shift

I may have written on here before about my feelings towards my hometown: I felt strangely rebellious after leaving, and felt that my environment had limited me in my progression as a person. I felt like the people who had surrounded me for years, only pretending to care about me, had built me into a box of expectations - that I was the shy, mildly smart, awkward person who was good at this and not good at that. A year ago (and even more recently than that), I still felt like leaving for college had liberated me and placed me into an environment where I could flower and achieve things that I couldn't have at home.

Today, I realized that all those bitter feelings had shifted and changed.

Today I taught the Sunday School class for the 13 year-olds, and the topic was "The Worth of Souls." As I thought about the lesson ahead of time, I thought about where I was at that age, and what lessons I needed to hear. In class we covered our identity as children of God, how Christ gave His life for us, how strengths and weaknesses make us unique and interdependent, how to affirm the worth of others, and how our worth is not conditional upon worthiness (that even when we make mistakes, we are still worth a lot because we are God's children). I bore testimony from my personal experiences that as I developed my talents, developed a stronger testimony of Jesus Christ and His Atonement, and cared about other people, I was able to develop a better sense of healthy self-esteem. Those really have been, I think, the strongest factors that made the biggest difference in how I viewed myself.

After I got home from church, I started looking through a box of old stuff that I needed to organize. Near the top I found a letter from my mom, dated 2 December 2001. This letter came across to me now, a decade later, as my mother's heartfelt attempt to reach out to her struggling daughter. All I can really remember of myself (of my state of being, not just specific memories) from that era was that I was self-centered, dramatic, temperamental, confused and just having the usual adolescent struggles. In the letter, my mom tried to be very logical. She set out truths that I needed to internalize, that she loves me and that discouragement comes from Satan, gave me warnings of things I need to work on, and affirmed the things that I was doing right. It was really interesting to get that window into my adolescent self, and even more interesting to get that window into my mom from 10 years ago. It reminded me of how far I've come, and inclines me to look forward towards my future experiences as a mother (it's another testament to me of something I've heard a couple times lately, that parenthood is hard, and it isn't something you can or ought to do on your own - it's you, your spouse, the Lord, and hopefully other people who are available to help). Being a mom isn't something that's just going to happen to me, it's something that will "change" and "make" me.

After reading through the letter and doing a little soul-searching, I realized that the bitterness I'd held against my past is gone. I enjoyed seeing again some of the people at church who have been a part of my life in various ways, and didn't harbor suspicions or doubts as to how they really think about me. My life has happened the way it's happened, and that's ok. I am where I am now, and I'm going in a good direction. I'm going to keep moving forward and living life to the the fullest - loving, laughing and trusting, because when my trust is in God, I needn't fear anything. I can move forward with confidence and not look back :)

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I'm finally home!!

As dearly as I love Vienna and the people I met there, it feels so good to be home. I saw my family a little bit over Christmas, but I haven't been with them in my home town for over a year. And now I'm back! It feels so sweet, so simple, and so good to be with my family in our most intimate setting, our home.

A few things have changed, but I'm getting used to that now. There's new curtains in the living room, a new dishwasher and a new dryer. My youngest brother shot up in height, and one of my younger sisters is almost as tall as I am! My mom didn't put up much of a fight when my sister and I asked for something special at the store today... but I guess it helps that we were asking for raspberries and blackberries instead of more Barbies, and so that was easier to consent to. Other, slightly perceptible, changes revolve around the fact that we're all getting older and maturing, and so our relationships with each other are also changing. We're sending another sibling off to college, so there's a sense of increasing anticipation with that.

It's nice to have a small break from school and work, but that's not where I felt most of the pressure from being gone so long. My tension and soul-stretching came from not feeling as connected with my family. It feels great to plug in and recharge my sense of belonging, love, and identity with them, which was harder to come by when I was thousands of miles away at school. It's not the environment that I grew up in, because circumstances and people change over time, but the sense of mutual family has stayed the same, even if its dynamics have changed. We still tease each other, tickle each other, use bigger-than-usual words, and laugh at everyone's silly blonde moments. Families are also an effective place for observation and reflection, which I'm doing a bit of.

So, I'm really enjoying my time at home surrounded by (most of) my family (I have one brother not at home). They're not perfect, and neither am I, but we all love each other, and after all the teasing and "putting into place" is done, we've got each other's best interests at heart. We're family. There's a lot in that statement, but ultimately, it's good. There's so much potential for greatness in families. It's what we're here for :)

Saturday, August 13, 2011


I spent the first part of this week dreading the inevitable goodbyes that would come Wednesday night. Then they happened, and now it's Thursday. The goodbyes didn't go as I anticipated nor did they go especially well, but they could have gone worse, I guess... It's probably not a surprise that I cried when I got home that night, but why I cried wasn't quite what I expected either.

I love people. I'm really intrigued by getting to know people as individuals, and as I get to know who they are, I often come to love them. Like I've said, I've been fortunate enough to make some amazing friends in Vienna. Especially considering how short a time I've lived here, I think I've made some really good bonds... But when it came time to say goodbye, the guy who I thought I had the best relationship with kinda flopped, and it left me feeling pretty disappointed - he just didn't seem to care that "I made this good friend and now I might not see her again.", and he just walked away.

What I ended up crying about was wondering what I gained from my experience living in Vienna if I couldn't even make lasting friends or speak German. I cried because I made an investment and was willing to care about people I might never see again, and it didn't feel like it was reciprocated after all.

I spent some time thinking and conversing with my Heavenly Father that night. One thing that I realized even as I was hurting was this: that Jesus Christ doesn't just love the people who love Him back, He loves people no matter what, even if they deliberately and maliciously hurt Him. True charity or love is loving people even if they don't love you back. Honestly, I can't make assumptions as to whether someone loves me or not, but if I love someone no matter what, then that's becoming more like Christ. And that's something that I also realized about the relationships I've formed in Vienna - that I really do love them. Not necessarily in a "I-want-to-marry-you" kind of way (most of the friends I made were guys), but in a "I-enjoy-your-company-and-desire-for-your-happiness" kind of way. And that was really cool to recognize, so I'm glad for that.

The previous two sections were written tonight, on Saturday, and I've had a little more time for my initial feelings to mellow out. I'm still going to miss my friends. I'm also going to hope and have faith that I'll see them again someday, and that love invested will return a profit. Increasing my capacity to love is always a good thing, and prepares me to love people even more down the road. That's all I can really do - thank Heavenly Father for the beautiful opportunities I had to meet some of His other children and establish connections with them, and trust Him when His Son says, "Fear not to do good, my sons, for whatsoever ye sow, that shall ye also reap; therefore, if ye sow good, ye shall also reap good for your reward." Doctrine and Covenants 6:33. Even though it hurts sometimes, I'm just going to keep loving, because now I have faith that that is what we're here for; I haven't always believed that over the years, but now I'm believing and acting on that promise. And for that lesson and assurance I thank my God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Pivot Point: Forward and Back

Some things I'm going to miss about Europe:

- Coffeehouse/Café culture. I'm usually a slow eater when I'm with people, but tend to rush more through meals by myself. In Europe, I've learned the value of slowing down and enjoying the meal, the atmosphere, and the company. 

- Pedestrian access. I think that because (1) Vienna is a big city, (2) gas is really expensive in Europe and (3) Austrians are very energy-conservative, they really make things accessible without needing to use a car. The system of subways, streetcars and buses is kind of complicated sometimes and takes a long time, but it's better than the alternatives. There's also distinct sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and jaywalking is pretty much verboten, which helps pedestrian safety. 

- Making everything beautiful. The architecture, public gardens, and the lifestyle with my host mom are examples of this. A lot of times in the US, things are strictly functional, and aesthetics are considered unnecessary or extravagant. If you need to build something, you might as well make it so that it looks good. And if you need to take a little extra time or money to do it... It's worth it to stretch yourself a little. Beauty, in its many forms and interpretations, inspires the loftier parts of human nature.

- The food. There's delicious food everywhere in the world, and I've thoroughly enjoyed sampling the Austrian variety. I think they have more kinds of bread, cheese, and spreads here than in the US, and definitely a wider variety of nicer chocolate. I'll love having my own kitchen back, but I'll miss some of the food we eat here. 

- More than anything else, I'm going to miss people. I'll miss the fun and meaningful relationships I've had with my roommates, other students, and teachers. I'll miss even more the people who I won't have an opportunity to see when I go back to school this fall. I pray and hope that I'll come back to Europe, but I don't know for sure that I'll see my Austrian friends again. Thank goodness for facebook, skype, and other methods of communication. What can I say? They're more than just casual acquaintances that I've encountered in my two months, they are friends who I care about. I want them to be happy and to be successful, and if they are having a hard time, I feel pained for them and want to help. I feel blessed and privileged to have known such amazing people in my time here; I've learned so much from them. 

Things I'm looking forward to in the States:

- MY FAMILY!!!! I haven't seen them for 8 months. I might have the chance to go home for a week (I haven't been to my hometown for a year), and while I won't pine away if I can't see my family before Christmas... I'm really, really, really excited to hopefully see them. It's my family, and they are the most important thing to me next to my faith. It's been too long since I've been with them; they're a part of me.

- Having my own apartment back. I'll be so happy to have my bed, and my room, and my kitchen, and my fridge... I'll have to pay for laundry again, but at least I can do my own laundry on my own timetable. I'll be able to do my own grocery shopping again too. Yeah, I'll be limited to walking distance again since public transport isn't as good or accessible, but having my place and my sense of independence - having my own life back- is going to be a nice welcome-home kind of feeling. 

- My friends. With school starting again, my friends are regathering back to our college town after visits home, internships, and this year, a lot of guys I know are coming back from serving LDS missions. It'll be wonderful to be together with my best friends again, enjoy each other's company, and support each other in the crazy ups and downs of life. It'll also be interesting to see how people have changed since I saw them last, and to see what people I meet this semester.

I'm not done in Vienna yet, but these are my thoughts right now. It's going to be a schizophrenic week, with times of intense stress and relaxation/enjoyment, but hey, the days will go by with or without my permission. I need to make sure I rely heavily on Heavenly Father, because I can't stay sane or feel peace without Him. When I stop being blockheaded and trying to do things on my own, and get myself back into the scriptures, I'm able to feel so much more peace and happiness than otherwise. I'm so glad that the gospel of Jesus Christ is here to help me get through life in the best, most fulfilling, gratifying, learned-some way possible. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is Christ's church here today. I testify that in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Email to My Family

Last week, I got an email from my missionary brother which got me thinking. I wrote in my journal about it a couple days later, then emailed an excerpt to my family a few days after that. I thought it might be beneficial for others to read it too, so here's that email. 

From my journal:
"In [my brother's] email to me this week, he said something about following the Spirit, and that if I wonder what it sounds like, it sounds like me. That got me thinking a little about how I would describe what it feels like to follow the Spirit."
"I've been asking for the Spirit's help while I'm buying souvenirs, and it's been helpful. Sometimes I'll make my selections but feel unsettled about it. Then I'll think some more, re-evaluate, and put something back (sometimes surprising myself), and the stress vanishes. Sometimes I feel the Spirit telling me to wait and be patient, and sometimes it just says 'Either way is fine. The choice is yours.' I'll usually feel the Spirit as inclinations in one direction or another. Often I don't get confirmation until after I've made my choice. It usually speaks to me in feelings. And sometimes I'm left to act on my own knowledge and wisdom."
A couple times too, I've had some time to wander around downtown, and I've just asked Heavenly Father to guide me as to where I should go. I was guided through the streets in the same way I described, by subtle feelings and impressions in one direction or another, and I tried to keep a general sense of direction as to where I was. It's funny because both times, I ended up finding small churches to visit (and then I had help in visiting a couple other places too). To feel in tune with the Spirit, I kept a prayer in my heart, sung hymns in my head (especially ones like "Lead Kindly Light"), and tried to keep an open mind/heart. Then I followed the feelings I had and received either confirmation or a "stupor of thought."

I know what it feels like to have the Spirit, and I know that it's a good and desirable feeling and what I should be doing. So even when I'm feeling lazy or rebellious, I know the direction I should be going, and I can work on humbling myself and getting back on the right path. I still need to work on always inviting Heavenly Father to be a major part of what I'm doing, and sometimes I'm slow to listen to the Spirit when it whispers. But life is a process and requires constant repentance and change. The Spirit is awesome, testifies of truth, brings peace, and always leads us to do what is right. 

I love you guys!!! Hope you're all doing well, and I hope to see you soon.

P.S. If I don't see you until Christmas, can I just use your souvenirs as your Christmas presents? ;)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Winding... Down or Up?

I have just over a week left in Vienna, and I have just over 2 weeks before I leave Europe. That means a few things:

- I have a week or less to make sure my Humanities homework is caught up.
- I've got about a week to visit any last museums, cafes, or other sites I haven't gotten to yet. There's a lot planned for our whole group, so I need to utilize my free time REALLY well.
- I need to work on planning my last week in Europe before it happens.

At the same time though, I haven't had the desperate, end-of-the-semester panicked rush that I usually have because I've procrastinated until the end. It's kinda cool. I think that having a vacation for the week in the countryside helped me to relax, enjoy myself, and regather my energies so that this week, I actually feel motivated (on my own) to schedule my time well, prioritize my to-do list, and get out of the house (instead of settling in places where I'm comfortable).

It'll be an interesting time - logistically and emotionally - for the next couple weeks... Actually, for the next month. I still don't know what I'm doing when I get back to the US, so it'll be... interesting. I'll be leaving Europe, maybe seeing my family, moving back into my apartment, starting school again with a few new roommates... Is life winding down at the end of the semester, or just winding up? It sure is a party.