Julie and Julia

We just finished watching Julie and Julia. An inspiring movie for an aspiring writer.

I had no idea when we started that it was a movie about a writer. I certainly didn’t expect a movie about food to make me guiltily realize I haven’t posted on my blog for over a month.

My biggest realization was that I would benefit from a more focused purpose for my writing. Focus is something I always struggle with. I don’t think I’m alone.

So, if you spent a year writing a blog, what would you write about?

Learning to love the Doctrine and Covenants

Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together. For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.

Doctrine and Covenants 1:1-2

As a missionary in Australia, I was very hesitant to share the Doctrine and Covenants with people. My preference was to start with the Book of Mormon. I mean, why would I share with them a book full of divine revelations for today when I could share the translation of an ancient record written on golden plates Joseph Smith found buried in the woods? Sometimes I want to slap my 20 year-old-self on the head.

Setting aside origins, there is at least one good reason the Book of Mormon is easier to latch onto than the Doctrine and Covenants – narrative. The Book of Mormon has it. It can be fun to read about Nephi building a boat. Alma struggling with a son who has left the faith is relatable. Meanwhile, the Doctrine and Covenants is piecemeal, without context (except for brief paragraphs introducing each section). Why do I care about Oliver Cowdery or David Patten? Who are they and what were they doing? The book provides little to no context. Let’s compare another book of scripture: the Old Testament. Which book do you know more about? Micah or Exodus? My bet is on the latter. Micah is way shorter, but Exodus is a story, and a pretty interesting one at that. Narrative works.

So why does the Doctrine and Covenants lack narrative? My guess is that when it was first published as the Book of Commandments, there wasn’t much need. The missionaries carrying the book with them (the main source of demand for the book), knew the context. They knew, personally, the people named in the book. They had met and spoken to Joseph Smith. They had participated in the events giving rise to the individual sections.

In the generations that have passed since the Book of Commandments was published in 1831, that personal connection has dissipated. We are multiple generations removed from the people who recorded the majority of the revelations. With the growth in the Church outside the United States, the descendants of those involved in the revealing, recording, and publishing of the book make up a smaller and smaller portion of church membership.

As a result, context is more important. Fortunately, the Church has delivered. Four and a half years ago, the church published Revelations in Context, a book telling the stories behind each section. The Church has also been publishing an official history called Saints. The first two volumes have covered the time period during which most of the revelations were published. There are Church history essays published on the Church website. And in this year’s Come Follow Me manual, there are links to even more resources.

I wonder if, at some point, more context is added to the Doctrine and Covenants itself. Perhaps portions of Revelations in Context or Saints get placed between sections. This would make the book more enjoyable to read and easier to understand. Of course, there should be some caution in editorial additions to scripture. Some of the problematic passages in the Bible are possibly the result of these editorial additions that later scribes thought were part of the original text. But since we believe in an open canon – that we are saints receiving revelation alongside the saints of previous generations – it’s certainly a possibility.

The parable of the grapefruit

Better, in my opinion, than the other parable of the grapefruit (which I find mildly annoying).

This morning my 3 year-old and I split a grapefruit. After halving it and cutting loose the segments, I placed her half on her plate. I watched as she picked at the seeds clustered around the middle. Then she asked me to pull them out. Instead, I showed her that when I used my spoon to pull out the segments, the seeds either fell off or were much easier to separate. Many of the tiniest seeds weren’t even noticeable.

Lesson: focusing on the flaws of something or someone before engaging with them – demanding that they fix every little flaw – will result in spending all our time identifying those flaws. When we start building a relationship or participating, we get the good stuff while more easily separating out the bad. There will be a few small bad things left, but they will be too small to harm us.

This parable has limits, of course. You could have a bad grapefruit. Or maybe you’re eating pufferfish. It might be good to ask yourself if you should eat pufferfish. Regardless, it’s worth figuring out whether something or someone is a grapefruit or a pufferfish, and then engaging accordingly.

2020 is over. What’s next?

In “White Christmas” (a holiday tradition for some Pulsiphers, much to the chagrin of others), Bing Crosby sings a song about counting your blessings. Well, I need more sleep. Does counting blessings help your infant sleep? I hope so.

Out of the chaos of this year, two things stand out to me.

  1. Gideon’s birth.
  2. Hitting 50,000 words on another NaNoWriMo book.

I’ve also learned a lot about how my emotions affect me. I’ve learned some of my biases. I’ve learned about my basic beliefs. I’m going into 2021 a more mature and balanced adult.

I really want to write something profound and meaningful, but I’m too exhausted. I’ll say this: in 2021, I plan to channel my frustration and anger into making a difference. I’m still working on exactly how. I will keep writing. But I’m also considering how to use what I have to improve the lives of those around me. There are so many good causes – from something as seemingly small as helping the members of my church community to bigger things like addressing the housing crisis or better childcare and family policies.

What will you do in 2021 to improve your community?

Star Wars films ranked

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. The Last Jedi
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. Star Wars
  5. Rogue One
  6. The Force Awakens
  7. Rise of Skywalker
  8. Solo
  9. The Phantom Menace
  10. Revenge of the Sith
  11. Attack of the Clones

These aren’t definitive. Empire Strikes Back has steadily risen in my rankings over the years. I’m unconvinced if I actually like Solo better than the prequels. Rogue One might deserve a higher spot on the list. But this is a good approximation for now.

#lighttheworld – what brings me peace?

Several years ago, Alisha and I got into an argument. As these stories usually go, I don’t remember what it was about. What I do remember was that following the argument, I went and straightened up the shoes in our closet. A small, simple act that immediately helped me feel more at peace.

I feel more at peace when I can spend some time ordering the world around me. You’d think with all the chaos my kids create, I’d be getting a lot of opportunities for peace these days. I think it only works if that order can last for more than a few moments, though.

The other thing that brings me peace is writing. When I have time to write something on this blog, I usually walk away having loosened the knot in my chest. I have also found that when I make the time to write during the day, it is easier to be patient and positive with my children.

I think in some ways these two acts are tied together. When I can write, I am seeking to order the world around me. Writing is the way I identify and link together the patterns in the chaos of the world. I love to connect disparate ideas, seeing how I can learn about one aspect of the world by comparing it to another.

I hope that reading these blog posts is at least somewhat as helpful to others as writing them is to me.

Voter fraud and what does a vote tell us?

It took some time, but a winner clearly emerged from the election. Despite concerns about potential foreign interference, voter fraud, and voter intimidation, the Department of Homeland Security declared this “the most secure [election] in American history.” It went on to say that “[t]here is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Fears about “poll watchers” scaring away voters didn’t materialize. This election was a remarkable example of how we as a people, even in the midst of intense partisan rancor, still value our institutions. I am grateful to live in this country. I’m grateful to have a long history of functioning democracy.

We have plenty of work to do, still. There are people who struggle to vote and it should be easier. This election is proof that making voting easier does not increase voter fraud. Perhaps those who want to make it easier could spend less time talking about the lack of widespread voter fraud and more time talking about the safeguards in place. I have learned a great deal about that in the last couple weeks and it has been enlightening. There were cases of voter fraud, but they were limited and we caught them.

I also want to take a moment to talk about what a vote means. While reading about the vote on election day, I came across one reporter who discussed what this vote will tell us about America. That idea stuck with me. What can we tell from a presidential vote? Can we tell anything?

People have always tried to cast light on the darkness in every society. In ancient China, priests carved symbols – precursors to modern Chinese characters – on turtle shells. Then they would heat a stick and touch it to the shells. When the shell broke, the crack would pass through various symbols and those symbols would be interpreted to make decisions. In Greece, people would travel to an oracle and ask for guidance. The guidance was often cryptic and could be interpreted in a number of ways.

Today, we have votes. While some of the analysis of votes is more scientific than reading turtle shells, there’s plenty of errors and plenty of just plain bad analysis. One story political experts completely missed this year was the huge swing Latino voters made to Republicans. The story told about Republican immigration rhetoric and how Latinos react was clearly wrong. One they got right was the “red mirage,” the lead Republicans had in the vote on Election night, which shrank or disappeared completely in the following days. The story about Democrats voting by mail in large numbers and Republicans waiting until election day was demonstrably correct.

Experts can tease some interesting information out of statistics connected to voting. So why are they sometimes so wrong? A huge reason is because one vote is a miniscule amount of information. Even over the course of a lifetime, a person will only vote for president about a dozen times. Statistics doesn’t work well with those kinds of numbers. We try to read the turtle shells, to decipher the oracle’s words, but the reality is that the information simply isn’t there.

I think there is also a relationship lesson in this. You cannot know a person’s heart based on who they voted for every 4 years. It simply isn’t enough information. Stop trying. Stop judging. If you proclaim love, then love.

I’m not saying this is easy or that I’ve got it down. It’s hard. And loving someone doesn’t mean you overlook harmful actions and words. Call those out. Help people see they ways in which their decisions affect others. But ending relationships and communication with someone because they voted for a different presidential candidate than you is petty. We are better than that. Societies don’t collapse because we keep talking to each other. They collapse when we stop.

Keep calm and be patient

I think that it’s true that this election is a big deal. It will have a major impact on the direction of U.S. policy for the next decade, at least. It will likely have a major impact on the shape of the Republican party. If Trump loses, Trumpism will (hopefully) collapse. If he wins, then it will likely have a longer life.

But we’re almost certainly not going to know the results tonight. Early counts will not be conclusive. Any early calls are unlikely to be correct, since there will be so many mail-in ballots to count. Some states will have fairly conclusive results to report tonight, but most won’t. Some states will take days and even weeks to count them all. If the race is close, that means it will take a while to know who wins.

Another factor will be legal challenges. President Trump and the Republican party have been filing many lawsuits to restrict the counting of ballots. Democrats have been defending those counts or filing their own lawsuits to expand the availability of ballots. The outcome of these lawsuits could affect the outcome in some states.

The final factor is how willing everyone is to accept the vote counts. President Trump questioned the accuracy of the vote count in the election he won. He’s been raising the specter of voter fraud for years, claiming that if he loses, it’s because Democrats cheated. Many of the other leaders of the party, however, have committed to a peaceful transfer of power. Trump is not the Republican party, as much as he would like to be.

My point is that we will know the winner, but it will take time. We all need to take a deep breath and be patient. And whatever happens, the future of this country is not in the hands of whoever gives his inaugural address on January 20. It is in our hands. It will be determined by how we treat our neighbors and by how we build (or tear down) our local communities. If we all commit to build rather than destroy, then no president can stop that.

By the light of the moon

On most evenings, I find myself walking through our dark backyard to dump food scraps on our compost heap. Coming from our bright, well-lit house, I can’t see much on the way to the compost heap. There is a backyard light, but I haven’t taken the time to fix it since it burned out a year or two ago.

Dark shapes loom up on either side. Because I’ve seen the backyard in other light, I know it’s just the trampoline, then the shed. It’s probably a good thing we didn’t have the compost heap when we watched the first season of Stranger Things, because that short walk would have been pretty terrifying.

Last night was different, however. I walked out and the entire yard was lit up in the soft light of the full moon. I could identify everything I saw. Just the reflected light from the moon was enough to entirely change the character of the backyard from a potential Halloween nightmare, to a pleasant place to spend a minute or two in the evening.

In our interactions with the people around us, most often we are out on a dark night, with only the light of the stars and maybe a sliver of moon to provide illumination into their lives. We see dark shapes and rough outlines, but not much more. To discern what those shapes are, we need to spend time with people, allowing our eyes to adjust so we can make out some details about the shapes in the lives of others.

Occasionally, circumstances give us a full moon. For various reasons – shared challenges, shared interests, whatever leads to things “clicking,” we can see what makes the shapes in their lives. We understand those people on a level deeper than the average person in our lives.

And, of course, there is the rare occurrence of the person we see in broad daylight. We not only see the shape and details, but all the vivid colors of their life. We share in the beauty of their lives. Spouses, children, siblings, best friends. These people are rare for most of us.

Seeing another person in the light of the full moon or in daylight depends on circumstances beyond our control. Perhaps I think of it in this manner because I’m not a socially adept person. I can’t easily identify why I was able to connect deeply to a few people over the course of my life. But I do think there are choices we can make to see people with greater light.

First, I can choose to connect more frequently. I wouldn’t see my backyard in different lights if I weren’t going out there every night. I don’t spend as much time out there as my wife and children would like, but I do try to walk out the back door at least once a day. We can’t expect to understand a person after only one conversation or even a few. It takes repeated contact.

Second, I can choose to connect in different circumstances. I can easily identify the dark shapes in my backyard at night because I’ve seen them during the day. If my only interactions with other people are when I cross paths with them for work or when I’m taking the kids to school or in abbreviated social media comments and replies, I’ll never get the opportunity to see them in a different light. I’ll never get the chance to see anything other than those dark outlines.

Third, we can choose to spend more time with others. Frequent short contacts in different circumstances aren’t enough if a conversation is never sustained for more than a few minutes. Even on the darkest night, if I spend a few minutes outside, I begin to make out more details of the shapes around me. I may not see the texture of the shed’s walls, but I begin to identify the edge of the roof and the corners.

Finally, why does this all matter? Why would we want to connect more deeply with those around us? Maybe I’m just an introvert and that is ok? Regardless of our comfort level, whatever the light, we have a path to walk in this life. We need to keep moving forward.

If we do nothing to understand the dark shapes around us, fear and pain will result. Without any context for why those around us act the way they do, without seeking to know why they make their choices, we will waste away in darkness, lashing out at things we don’t understand.

There is a better option. By seeking the greater light, we will see the beauty in the lives around us. And even if what we see is ugly and broken, how can we offer help if we don’t know what is wrong? We will never see the true problem without looking in the light.

I can’t choose to go through this life alone, or with just the few people I have already seen in the light of day. I will continue to meet and interact with new people. My greatest fear isn’t the dark. It is the refusal to look in the light.

What I read before writing this post:

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2019/02/young-adults/you-dont-know-what-you-dont-know?lang=eng

https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/14craig?lang=eng

https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/david-brooks/finding-the-road-to-character/#byu-header

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13:12