Wednesday, September 30, 2015

There is (Still) Much Good in the World

I often find myself fearful when I hear of all the evil in the world, and it seems like the past couple months have been especially difficult to bear between the publicity of the late-term abortions being performed by Planned Parenthood (not to mention the other atrocities going on there), the rising wave of terrorist groups, and the ever-increasing incivility on pretty much any political issue raging online, on t.v., and in the papers.

It's made me want to tear my hair out so many times and scream, "Can't we all just get along?!"

But I don't want to talk about all that today---getting into the political scene has never been my thing, and I don't plan on stirring up contention now.

No---today I wanted to focus on the little miracles I saw today at the school after we got the news that one of our students had been in a terrible auto-pedestrian accident and had been life-flighted down to Salt Lake.

I explained to each class what had happened, and I gave them the opportunity to write the girl a note or a card of love and support if they so chose. I have the girl in two of my classes, so my own emotions have been pretty close to the surface all day, and each of my classes was a somber affair.

I was perusing through the cards and letters just to make sure they were all appropriate before sending them off, and I was so touched by the outpouring of love and friendship and goodwill emanating forth from all the students. Many students mentioned how that although they personally didn't know her super well, they appreciated her kindness toward everyone and her ability to light up a room with her happy demeanor and ready smile. Other students reminded her of her strength and told her they couldn't wait until she was back at school. Still others talked about how they would be there for her if she needed anything at all, and many wondered if there was anything they could do to help.

And in easily over half the letters, students wrote that they would be keeping her in their prayers (and many wrote that they hadn't stopped praying for her in their hearts ever since it happened). In fact, if you go down the 7th grade hallway, several students have decorated the outside of their own lockers with encouraging messages like #prayfor[girl] and Be Strong, [Girl]!

Because of the whole separation of church and state thing, I don't really talk about my religion with my students. But oh, how I wanted to tell them today how proud I was of them for uniting their faith and prayers for the benefit of a peer. I read their messages of hope and comfort, and I found myself rejoicing that so many of them came from homes that had taught principles like empathy and faith and service and prayer.

It is so easy to get down on the world because of the constant bombardment of negativity everywhere you turn. It is so easy to wonder how any peace is possible when there is so much turmoil and so much evil.

And then there are days like today that remind me that there is much that is good and hopeful and encouraging, and that there are far more people trying to do good rather than evil.

So thank you to my twelve- and thirteen-year-old students for reminding me in a very powerful way that there is still much good in our crazy world.

(Today I'm linking up with Autumn---check out the linkup here)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On This, My Golden Birthday (29 Things to Rejoice About)

Today on the 29th, I am 29 years old, making this my "golden birthday." I am baffled to think that I am almost 30 years old---that just sounds so...mature. *Gulp.*

Lately I've sometimes been plagued with thoughts that I'm not where I want to be and that because everything is not as I wish it (mostly with my health), there is reason to get down on myself. Luckily for me, I listened to a beautiful message last Saturday from one of our church leaders reminding me that even when life doesn't exactly go our way, there is much reason to rejoice.

So today, on my golden birthday, I am choosing to rejoice in the beauty and the wonder that has been my life so far. I am choosing to overlook the things that are not as I wish and instead focus on all the many things that have gone right, that have surprised me, or that have made me a better person.

I've been thinking about this list all morning, and in the midst of my brainstorm, I realize how blessed I really have been.

It's been a great life so far!

29 Life Events to Rejoice About

1. My marriage in the temple to my best friend and the most perfect husband in the world to me. Matt is compassionate and good-natured and funny and smart and driven, and he's everything I've ever wanted in a spouse. Oh, and it helps that he's a hottie :)

2. The birth of Raven, whose presence brings us delight and joy each and every day. She is seriously the happiest, most even-tempered baby, and we love being her parents. The thought of becoming a parent scared me for so long, but now I can't imagine my life any other way.

3. The strength of my body and mind that allowed me to have the natural childbirth I desired. There have been just a few times in my life when I have experienced something so physically difficult that I wondered if I could go through with it, and being able to endure through has shown me my own strength.

4. The church mission I served from 2009-2010 in El Salvador. Not only did the experience allow me to gain greater insight into my spiritual beliefs, but it also made me more or less fluent in Spanish, introduced me to some of the dearest people I've ever known, and refined my nature so that I became much more outgoing, generous, and service-oriented.

5. The experience of running a marathon with my husband in 2012. I'd always dreamed of running a marathon but was never a runner until I just decided that one day I was going to go for it. Most people probably wouldn't recommend going from only being able to run about 3 miles to running a marathon in the space of 4 months, but I've always kind of liked doing things differently than most people. Running a marathon taught me that I could do really hard things, and it was probably one of the main sources of strength I drew upon when I was going through the natural childbirth experience.

6. My graduation from college in 2012. Because of the kind of home I grew up in, I always assumed I'd go to college and graduate, but it still was a great accomplishment, especially since I reached my goal of graduating summa cum laude.

7. Becoming a full-time teacher in 2012 (as you can see, 2012 was a big year for me!). There have been a lot of ups and downs with this job, but I can now finally say with certainty that I did indeed go into the perfect field for me--teaching stretches me like no other job ever has, and it's a privilege to be able to teach the rising generation and see the growth in them over the course of the school year.

8. Starting a photography business in 2014. True, the business is just a small little side job at this point, but I was scared to death to put myself out there as a photographer, especially when I'm not even close to the photographer that I want to be yet. I was remarking to Matt just the other day about how even from the time I opened my business officially last year to now, I can see enormous growth in my ability and skill, which is something very encouraging indeed.

9.  Learning to do various styles of dance as an adult (mostly country swing and ballroom, with some modern dance thrown in). I've always dreamed of being a dancer but figured I'd pretty much missed my chance since I didn't stick with it when I was younger. However, as I entered college, I decided to just go for it, and now I actually teach a little country swing class at my school.

10. Reading through over a third of the books/works listed on the 100 Most-Recommended Classics. My goal is to read them all in the course of my lifetime, but I'd say I'm making pretty good progress.

11. My willingness to try out new things and go on new adventures (even when they scare me), including rock climbing, cliff jumping, wakeboarding, jet skiing, snowmobiling, and zip lining.

12. Having both Matt and me go through college debt-free. Need I say more?

13. Getting bit by the travel bug and having the opportunity to go on some pretty amazing vacations in my lifetime--an Alaskan cruise, an almost-three-week stint in Europe, Washington D.C. on a choir tour, Florida beaches with friends...

14. Learning various musical instruments in my life, starting with the piano at 7, the organ at 12 or so, the guitar at 17, and the violin at 19. I'm not equally good at all those instruments, but I'm so grateful for the discipline and the passion that studying music has given me.

15. Speaking of music, I can't leave out getting to be in a musical (Footloose) when I was a high school senior, which had always been a dream of mine. I also can't leave off making the show choir as a senior as well. So many fun memories!

16. Getting over my shyness. I was painfully shy growing up (especially when I was the age that my students are now), and finally learning to speak my mind and come out of my shell was a Big Deal for me.

17. Winning a few writing contests (some in high school, one in college). Writing has always been something I've loved doing, so it was pretty gratifying to be recognized for it (and get some extra cash, to boot).

18. Becoming a "real" cook. I played around with baking for years, but it was getting married that really pushed me into trying to get really good at it. I'm still not The Greatest Chef of All Time, but I am now fully comfortable tweaking recipes and even creating some stuff of my own, which is much more than I could have said even three years ago.

19. Tending my own garden and then canning produce from it. Matt and I did a garden for two summers in a row, and I learned a ton from the experience. Not only do I much more fully appreciate anything homegrown, but I experienced the satisfaction that only comes from knowing you've produced food for you family without having to rely on anyone else.

20. Graduating from seminary. I've always been active in my religion, but I'm proud to say that I graduated from seminary having completely read most of the standard works of scripture (with the exception of the Old Testament, which I'm reading now) and memorized probably several dozen scriptures in the process.

21. Discovering who more of my paternal ancestors are. My mom had done genealogy for years, but she had never been able to discover some of the ancestors on my dad's line. A few years ago, when I got called as president of our church's young women's organization, I had my mom teach me how to search old records and find family names. The times when I've found my ancestors' names myself were some of the most spiritual experiences of my life.

22. Getting to experience love and loss. This is one thing that might not immediately come to mind when we think of things to rejoice in, but I'm glad I've had the experience of loving and losing, whether the loss is through death or through a breakup or just from a growing apart. I have learned so much from so many, and I would be a far different person had I not met and known all those that I have lost. Also, going through love lost has taught me to appreciate each moment with the loved ones in my life right now.

23. Working in various jobs under various bosses and circumstances, including tutoring for the university, bookkeeping for my old neighbor, and working as a secretary. Even the job that I hated (the secretarial position) taught me a lot, and I'm glad I went through that hard time in order to find out what I would and would not put up with in a work environment.

24. Simplifying my life and possessions a couple years ago. When I discovered the idea of minimalism back in 2013, the idea immediately seized my attention and has never let go. I have since drastically pared down many of my possessions, simplified my calendar, and tried to focus my life much more on the things that really matter. I'm not even close to where I'd like to be, but the discovery marked a big shift in my thinking and pursuits.

25. Playing on various sports teams growing up, including softball and basketball. I never got to be very good, but I'm thankful to my parents for encouraging us to be team players and be active, and that athleticism later translated to sports I was a little more adept at (like running and tennis).

26. Having the good fortune to have made really, REALLY good friends throughout my life, many of whom have stuck with me through thick and thin ever since I met them (some for as many years as we are old). Even though I often feel a little guilty that I don't see or talk to my friends as much as I'd like, I am often thinking of them and am grateful for the influence they are on me.

 (I wish I had a picture of all my good friends, so don't despair if you're not in this picture and we're close, lol)

27. Learning how to drive stick shift. (I don't think I'll ever go back!)

28. Blogging for 8+ years. There is no other hobby that I've stuck with for so long that I do on such a regular basis (except for maybe piano back when I was still in lessons, but I only play a couple times a month now). Keeping this online space has changed me for the better and doubled as the best kind of scrapbook, and it's a hobby I don't plan on giving up anytime soon.

29. Embracing what I'm naturally good at (teaching, forming lasting friendships, hosting game nights or other functions, cracking dry jokes that only about half the population gets) and coming to terms with what I'm not (coddling students like I'm their mother, keeping my house uber-clean, making small talk). Basically, I have realized that some people will always criticize me for doing things very much my own way, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't embrace who I am. As a missionary back in El Salvador and then in my first couple years teaching, I really let some of the comments get to me, and I often wondered if I should "lighten up" more or adopt some other strategies for connecting with the people I was teaching and meeting. Then, after many awkward and unsuccessful attempt trying to be someone I wasn't, I just let myself be who I naturally was---and I found out that life is much better when you're genuine and authentic. I know I still have a lot of weaknesses I'd like to work on and things about myself that I'd like to improve, but I've learned to just be happy being me!

This may have been the longest post of all time, but hey---I only get one "golden birthday" in my lifetime, so I'd better make it count, eh?

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Little Apple Picking, A Lot of Apple Eating

When asked the other day how we found out about the u-pick apple orchard a few towns over last year, I had the most cliché answer in the book: I had googled local u-pick orchards last September because it seemed like "all the other bloggers were doing it" come autumn-time, and I didn't want to be left out.

Because if there's one thing you can count on finding on pretty much any lifestyle blog out there, it's all the autumn worship--the swooning over pumpkin-flavored treats and the lighting of cranberry-scented candles and the picking of dusty-sweet apples at a local orchard. (And loads and loads of pictures of positive proof that it all actually happened because if there's not a picture and you didn't put it on the blog, it might as well have not occurred.)

So we basically had to go.

Besides, I just loved drooling over all the gorgeous orchard pics (since I have a dream that will likely remain unrealized of owning a huge property that has at least a dozen fruit trees or so on it).

So off we went to the Paradise Valley Orchard, accompanied by our good friends and lacking nothing but a dog to frolic through the sprawling trees with us (although it's probably only a matter of time before that too happens since my husband has been begging me for a puppy basically since we were newlyweds, and my daughter thinks dogs are about a billion times funnier and more interesting than humans).

Unfortunately for us, we must have had poor luck with our timing this year since many of the apple trees which were actually ready had been picked over pretty good. (Last year, we were among some of their very first customers on opening day and had the pick of the place, and when we went back for a second round, pretty much almost everything was ripe, so there was plenty to go around).

However, we were not to be deterred--we borrowed one of the poles special-made for getting apples from the very tops of the trees, and Matt and Aaron amused themselves trying to literally pick the trees clean.

There was no reason to be disappointed, though--it was a perfect end-of-summer kind of day with just a slight bite of fall in the air, and we were surrounded by sunlit fields and apple-scented breezes and good company.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how traditions start, and what traditions Matt and I have started together since getting hitched four and a half years ago. Some have been intentional (like our special Christmas dinner), and some haven't been (like this orchard visit that started, honest to goodness, because "all the other bloggers were doing it"). And some of our favorite past events might become traditions (like the pre-Thanksgiving feast we had with a bunch of friends), or they might just remain one-time happy memories in the storybook of our lives.

Only time will tell.

But however traditions start, one thing I know for sure is that they're important.

I think it's important to have events that are repeated year after year, with new memories accumulating each time and the bonds of family and friendship that tie them all together growing stronger and more precious with the passing of time.

Not only do traditions give something to look forward to, but they give us pockets of strength and support and love to look back on. They give us a sense of stability when everything else is changing. They give us a yardstick to look back on, measuring the growth that comes with each new year.

Now that we have Raven, I'm sure that our number of traditions will start to multiply rapidly, and it will be so fun to document them year after year. There's just nothing that can quite compare to seeing pictures taken of the same event over the years--they may be just quick snapshots of a few brief moments in time, but it's so fascinating to see how much life changes in just 365 days.

This year, we had a bright-eyed five-and-a-half-month-old who sucked on an apple for the first time and liked to mirror whatever Daddy was doing, from staring off into the distant fields to reaching up for an-almost-just-out-of-reach piece of fruit.

Next year, we might be at a different orchard due to a job change. Or maybe I'll be pregnant again. Or maybe our life will take a detour unforeseen to us (as it's been apt to do these past six months especially).

Whatever happens, I gather strength from knowing that I have fun traditions to look forward to, whatever our circumstances in life.

(Oh, and in case you were worried about us not getting enough apples, don't you fret--the Paradise Orchard always has pre-picked stuff inside their little shop, so we stocked up on loads and loads of Honeycrisp apples and fresh-made apple cider).

Until next year, apple orchard! (Or until we run out in a few weeks and go back for more...)

(And in case you're curious, here's the post from our trip to the orchard last year when I was still in the first trimester of pregnancy but hadn't told anyone we were expecting yet)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I Actually Managed to Surprise Matt w/ an Overnight Getaway

I've decided that either A) it's hard to plan a surprise for your spouse (in general), or (B) I'm not very good at planning surprises, because it has taken me almost four and a half years to successfully plan a big surprise for Matt. Sure, I've planned some small little treats as surprises (like picking up a little pastry or piece of cake from a bakery for him on my way home from work or wrapping up a new DVD and giving it to him "just because"), but I had never really tried my hand at planning a "big surprise" (you know--like one that required planning and a lot of forethought and everything).

Well, now I can say I've done it (and successfully too, although I was sure that he was going to catch on because he kept coming in the room when my mom and I were whispering about it).

The idea for an overnight getaway was actually not motivated by the desire to surprise him for his birthday (which is tomorrow, and which was the superficial "reason" for the trip), but by my growing realization that we needed some time away with just the two of us. I remember very clearly thinking when we were first newlyweds that I didn't understand why married people often said that they needed to "plan for romance" or "work on the marriage." Because we both had so much time together with just the two of us and were so head-over-heels twitterpated, the only thing we seemingly needed to work on at the beginning of our marriage was reining things in a bit so we didn't make the people around us uncomfortable.

And, granted, even after the baby has come, I have felt no decrease in our affection or even too much of a shortage of one-on-one time (since the baby goes down for bed so early). However, I did begin to realize that our time together was not always top quality--often, we spend Raven's sleeping time catching up on chores, vegging out in front of the computer or t.v., or trying to squeeze in some exercise or doing other solo activities. I found that I missed proactively working on our marriage relationship--something that had been so easy to do before, but that now we actually had to be much more intentional about.

So the idea was hatched--I would see if my mom could take Raven for about 24 hours while we escaped to a nearby locale, and I would do my best not to spill the beans (a difficult feat since I'm used to telling Matt virtually everything).

Because I wanted the trip to be special, I made plans for us to visit a location that we'd never been to together--Park City--and do something that we'd never done before. Once the surprise was revealed to Matt, I gave him a list of options of fun activities like horseback riding, zip lining, pedal boating that would be new to us as a couple that he could choose from. (In case you're curious about how I revealed the surprise getaway---I left a note taped to the laptop that told him he was invited to a surprise overnight getaway and gave him a list of what clothing/items to pack. I generally wake up a lot earlier than Matt because of my job, so he didn't get the note until he woke up and checked his email--long after I'd left the house.)

And what activity did he choose?

Zip lining!!

Neither of us had ever been on a "real" zip line before (and by real, I mean really high), so the epic zip lining tour in Park City was a pretty big adrenaline rush! We chose to do the more expensive option that included a 2,000 foot zip line experience over the canyon in addition to a shorter (800 foot) trip over a slight hollow.

All in all, I was reminded about why it's important to keep trying new things with your spouse, and I re-discovered that both of us are kind of adrenaline junkies (since we both went full throttle the entire way).

(This angle doesn't do it justice, but this is the canyon we zip lined over)
The rest of the trip was spent eating at a jewel of a local find (Sammy's Bistro), relaxing in the hot tub at the hotel, and hiking around a bit.

Note to self: Planning out the trip and entertainment/dining options beforehand using TripAdvisor = excellent idea! We were definitely not disappointed with what we chose to do (and everything we did was chosen after careful research and reading of many reviews on the site)

True fact: Before this trip, I had never ridden on a ski lift before in my life. Maybe that explains why I was kind of obsessed with them and kept taking so many pictures? I just thought they were so fun!

All in all, the trip served many purposes and reminded me of many important points:

1. It is so important to get away with just the two of us.

It was important that we went out on frequent dates before, but it's of even greater importance now that we're parents. At home, we're so often in the role of mom and dad that we sometimes don't work on our role of husband and wife. Outings with just us two help to counterbalance that a little.

2. It is so important to talk about and/or do something that has nothing to do with your kid(s).

So much of our daily life now consists of getting tasks done around the house and taking care of Raven, which means that the majority of our communication tends to revolve around our giant to-do list rather than on our thoughts, feelings, dreams, and so on. Sure, we do talk about those things some of the time at home, but they are often overshadowed by the tasks at hand. Getting away gives us a chance to refresh and rediscover and reevaluate who we are as individuals (and not just as parents).

3. Spontaneity and surprises breathe new life and excitement into a marriage.

It's important that our life not become SO routine that there are no surprises because that's the surest way to end up in a funk, and fast. After becoming parents, we definitely need to be much more intentional about being spontaneous and planning surprises, but it can still be done (and it's important that it be done).

4. I married an individual, not a husband or a dad.

What I mean by this is that sometimes, I forget that Matt is still a person outside of his roles as parent and spouse. It becomes so easy to just peg someone into their role box and forget that they are a unique individual with interests and aspirations that lie outside of those roles. I talked about this very thing in my post on trying out new things with your spouse.

5. Getting to experience new places and new activities is much more important to me than spending money on a possession.

The past year or two, I've discovered an important truth about myself--I would much rather receive an "experience" as a gift or treat than an item. Because I now know this, I'm trying to plan a lot more events and activities and trips around things like birthday and Christmas instead of using the money to buy presents, something that has increased my happiness and life satisfaction a hundredfold, it seems.

A big shout-out to my mom for watching Raven so we could enjoy this little getaway, and a big shout-out to my handsome hubby (who turns 29 tomorrow)!

Until next time, Park City--
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