30 June 2014

She's also determined to keep trying, no matter how many times it takes. I have a lot to learn from her.

Look at how happy she is at the end. But I think she's actually happier about her father's reaction than she is about her success. #daddysgirl

This girl is fearless. Not even 3 yet, and she's already been on a ride by herself. So much like her father (the white man photobombing in the background). I miss her.

Look at her! Pure bliss.

28 June 2014


This morning I was listening to Elder Richard G. Scott's talk from April 2014 General Conference, 'I Have Given You an Example.' I was really touched by some things that he said, but none more than his comments on trust.
"Remember, loving them is the powerful foundation for influencing those you want to help.... As a companion to that love, trust them. In some cases it may seem difficult to trust, but find some way to trust them. The children of Father in Heaven can do amazing things when they feel trusted."
I've always felt like the one thing I do really well is loving others. But trust? Nope. I have major trust issues. It usually takes me a long time to take down enough of my walls to truly trust someone. Even with people I love. That's probably one of the reasons why I'm so stubbornly independent and find it so hard to ask for and receive help from others. It's also probably why I'm so good at helping others with their dating lives but completely rubbish at my own. But that's a dark rabbit hole for another time.

The point is: I really need to figure out a way to increase my ability to trust people. Obviously by practicing. But how do you actively trust someone? I need to study this out and think about it some more before I can come up with some specific answers for myself. And no doubt I will be adding this to my list of 'Sabbatical Year' goals. But perhaps some of you might have ideas based on your own experiences. I'd love to hear them if you do!

27 June 2014

To the Bestie

This Sunday I'm teaching the YSA Sunday School lesson about David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18-24). The scriptures have some amazing examples of friendship, but Jonathan and David's relationship has always been one of my favorites. Here are a few reasons why:

  • David is anointed to be the next king after Saul, not Saul's son Jonathan. Jonny boy knows this, and loves David anyway. He believes that God has chosen the best man for the job and has nothing but love for David. Finally, a man not corrupted by seeking power and glory! 
  • Saul is overcome by paranoia and jealousy toward David and so seeks to kill him. He chases him throughout the kingdom, killing anyone who gets in his way of catching him--including 85 priests. Through all of this, David never loses confidence in Jonathan. He doesn't doubt his friendship. He continues turning to Jonathan for support and advice, and Jonathan always responds with overwhelming encouragement, love, and kindness. 
  • As much as Jonathan loves his father, he knows he's crazy and never once tries to justify his actions to David, or to himself. He also refuses to let his father get away with murdering his best friend. He always warns David when to go back on the run, risking his own life to do so.
  • The two of them covenant between themselves and the Lord to always remain BFFs. I love this. It's like friendship bracelets x 1000. But I mostly love it because they strengthen their bond with each other by bringing the Lord into the relationship. While this is normally thought of only in terms of marriage, I see no reason why we should leave the Lord out of our other relationships. And I must be right, because Jonathan and David covenanted with each other THREE TIMES, PEOPLE.
And just in case you're not convinced about how fantastic this friendship was, this is what Samuel the prophet wrote about them:
"the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" -1 Samuel 18:1 (a sentiment which is repeated at least 3 more times in the next couple chapters)
Well, I know exactly how Jonathan felt. I, too, have a best friend whom I love as my own soul. Her name is Eryn. And everything I know about myself I owe to her.

Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of incredible family and friends in my life who I love and would do anything for. But it's just different with Eryn.

She's like the friend version of my soulmate. She is the one person who I can tell everything, and sometimes I actually do. She always knows when to just listen, or when to analyze or give advice. She calls me out when I'm being ridiculous--but in the kindest, gentlest, most encouraging way... with just enough wit and sass thrown in to make us both start giggling uncontrollably. She laughs and cries with me. She knows some of my deepest fears and heartaches, and has been with me during some of my darkest hours. She knows me better than I know myself, and yet she loves me anyway.

We always tell people that we are a "different kind of fun." As an example, one of our favorite pastimes is exploring cemeteries and reading the headstones. Weird, I know, but we love it. She taught me how to be comfortable in my own skin, and to embrace my personality quirks. I am confident being myself because she first allowed me to be.

She pushes me out of my comfort zone, but is equally willing to come into it just to be with me on the days I can't seem to make myself leave it... I mean this both literally and metaphorically. In the literal sense, this usually consists of sitting in our sweats, eating ice cream out of the tub, and watching a sappy movie together. But since we've lived thousands of miles apart for the last several years, this hasn't happened in quite awhile. But in the figurative sense, I mean that we allow each other to be vulnerable, and not just allow it but invite it. I don't do that with many people.

She is far too good for me. And I know she feels the same about me. We both think the other is our better half, and perhaps we're both right. Truly, I love her as my own soul--maybe even more so.

Everyone deserves to have a bestie as amazing as I do. Finding a best friend is hard enough, but keeping one is even harder. I've learned a lot by trying to be the best bestie I can be to Eryn no matter how many miles are between us. That might sound absurd, but it's true. And although we haven't actually covenanted with each other and the Lord, I know that we have both made Him a part of our relationship. And I'm so grateful we have. It has made all the difference in strengthening and maintaining the bond that we have between us.

"The Lord be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed for ever."
-1 Samuel 20:42

20 June 2014

Today I found a place that I want to go as soon as I am walking on my own. The David Austin Rose Gardens are only about 30-40 minutes north of where I live. They look absolutely incredible! And I can't wait to go! Unfortunately I still have about 2 months before that will be possible, but until then I have all these gorgeous photographs to look at, and something to look forward to. :)

Seriously, this looks like it's straight out of my dreams. I just want to jump into it and walk around. And I CAN! #livinthedream

Yesterday was such a delightful day! I was able to go to the Preston Temple with a new friend, and it was so lovely. It was great getting to know her better and learn from her example and experience. We hit it off so well, it didn't really feel like we were just getting to know each other. I don't have that experience very often, so it was nice to click with her without having to try so hard. 

The time spent in the temple was perfect. I felt an overwhelming peace and confidence regarding my recent decision to postpone my graduation and stay here. And the trust that I've been placing in Heavenly Father to have everything unfold according to His will was reaffirmed. I left the temple knowing for certain that Heavenly Father knows and loves me perfectly, and that He has a beautiful plan for my life which He's in the process of preparing me for. I have no idea what that plan is, but right now I'm perfectly content with not knowing. Today my trust in Him is absolute, and nothing else seems to matter. It's such a simple source of joy, but it's joy all the same. 

16 June 2014

To My 'New' Life Plan

Due to my recent circumstances, I've had plenty of time to do a lot of soul-searching and goal-setting. I've also had to come up with a new life plan, as it is no longer possible for me to complete my dissertation and degree according to the original timeline.

I met with my supervisor this past week, and we came up with a new plan. I'm so very grateful for her guidance and support, as I was starting to feel a bit lost as to what to do next.

The new plan is to extend my dissertation until the end of February 2015, thereby postponing my graduation until July 2015. In October I will apply for a visa extension, and just trust that it will all work out, because it has to. Since they normally give postgraduates about 4 months after graduation to find a full-time job, I imagine my visa might be extended until October 2015. 

This is obviously a bit of a change, but since I still feel like I'm meant to be here--at least for the moment--I'm not too thrown off by this recent development. Dare I admit, I'm actually... relieved!

Relieved that I don't have to write a dissertation on a brand new topic in 2 months from my makeshift bed in the living room. Relieved that I will still have the opportunity to put my best foot forward and try to do a proper job of it. Relieved that I have some more time to figure out what I and Heavenly Father actually want to do with this degree. Relieved that I still have plenty of time to live and enjoy this beautiful life I'm building here in the UK. I love it here, and the prospect of staying for at least another year is not an unpleasant one--though my sister might feel differently

And perhaps most of all, relieved that I at least have a new plan to work with, even if something else comes along to change it again. I don't need to know what the future holds... Heavenly Father has fervently taught me over the last 10 years that He is in control, and I'm happier and more at peace when I just trust Him. However, I'm a girl who likes to have a plan, a goal, a purpose, an expectation... something to help guide my day-to-day living, something to keep me grounded. 

Now I have that again, and it feels SO GOOD. 

09 June 2014

To Creativity

**All of my alone time has led to a lot of thinking time. And since my blog is my way of keeping track of the thoughts I'd like to remember, you can expect to see a lot more random posts like this in the future.**

A few things lately have caused me to think about all the years I spent in art classes trying to discover my creativity and originality. 

I have a love/hate relationship with art.

I love the process of making something beautiful that didn't exist before. I love colors and paint. I love the feel of a brush in my hand. I love examining the way lighting changes everything about the appearance of an object or landscape. I love the way I can get lost in a piece of art.

And yet I hate that I never seem to be able to capture that like I want. I hate that as much as I love painting, I'm not very artistic. I hate that I never seem to be able to come up with original ideas of what to create. I hate that I'm such a perfectionist that I would spend countless hours trying to perfect even the smallest details of a piece so it would look exactly like the image I was trying to capture.


Art was SO much a part of my life growing up. My sister had band and teaching, my brothers had sports, cars, and construction. I had art. And yet, since I graduated high school I've done very little of it. I didn't have the confidence to take any art classes in college, especially since I so vividly remembered the self-induced stress to get something perfect. I remember more than a few all-nighters and lots of tired tears shed over various assignments.


That being said, I was a different person back then. I defined myself by my dedication to my studies. And although I LIKED art, I was still too worried about meeting the requirements of each assignment rather than just creating what I wanted. It was hard for me to artistically express myself according to the parameters of a grading rubric.
Don't get me wrong, some of the pieces I created I really do love. I have a few of them framed, and I've even given a few as gifts.

None of them demonstrate an extraordinary talent... because I don't really have that. Most of these have been buried away in a portfolio for the last 8-11 years, because I was under the mistaken impression that only my 'best' work was worth sharing. But that really is an unfortunate way for me to regard all the years of hard work I put into developing even this mediocre talent. So here's to embracing the talents I have, and the opportunity to further develop them!


But I've been able to overcome a lot of my perfectionism. Not all of it. But enough that I wonder what it would be like for me to pick up a paintbrush again. Would I still be obsessed with my creative weaknesses? 


I still have flashbacks to the all-nighters I pulled in order to complete this drawing on time. An assignment about lighting and reflection, this is of a glass perfume bottle that was obviously photographed in the vicinity of something with stripes. At least I can now laugh at the amount of tears I shed over this. 
Well, I don't really know the answer to that. But I suppose there is only one way to find out... So I need a project with a purpose. My most successful pieces were those that I was able to pour my heart and soul into. Those were the pieces which I honestly felt inspired and guided through. 

I actually don't have pictures of most of those pieces, even though they were the pieces that encouraged me to endure all the other projects. 

This still-life was sponsored by both Kenny Chesney and Celine Dion's greatest hits albums. Over and over and over again. Not sure why those particular CDs were so inspiring to me at the time, but anything else I tried seemed to be too distracting. haha
I've drawn a lot of still-lives in my time, but this might be my favorite. Perhaps not the best, but one of the more interesting visuals in my opinion. I thought that basket would be the end of me, but I survived.
Watercolor paint + dancing in the rain = the way creating art should feel!
Seriously it's SO FUN! TRY IT!!!
But I do have a picture of this one. It took me weeks. Some of my happiest and most spiritual artistic moments occurred while I worked on this piece. I love LDS church history and I'm absolutely obsessed with Nauvoo. It is perhaps my favorite place on earth. I fervently prayed that I'd be able to portray the peace I feel whenever I'm there.

This drawing is far from perfect. But I felt my limited artistic abilities magnified tenfold while I worked on this. I specifically prayed that the Lord would guide my hand, and I know that He did. I still love to look at this piece because I am reminded every time of how much the Lord can magnify my meager talents, as well as how much He loves to answer even my most trivial of prayers, such as wanting to create something beautiful to represent my love for Nauvoo.

God is an infinitely creative being, and as His daughter, I've inherited some of that creativity. And while I've spent the last 9 years pursuing other avenues of creativity--namely music, writing, floral design, photography, and various crafts--I feel it might be time to at least TRY to draw or paint again.

"The more you rely upon the Spirit, the greater your capacity will be to create." 
-President Dieter F. Uchtdorf
This is one of my favorite Mormon Messages, and while I know I've posted it before 
it so perfectly goes along with this rambling of mine.

So I've determined that I will somehow include a goal to further develop my creativity as part of my Sabbatical Year... starting with an art project. 

08 June 2014

To Faith and My Father

Shawn René Blackburn
16 July 1953 - 8 June 2007

Today marks 7 years since my father's passing. It's a day of many mixed emotions. I won't endeavor to express all of them, but I felt like it was important for me to finally attempt to write about my experiences and emotions regarding his loss. I wrote this post for me, but a recent conversation with my friend Ashley changed my mind about publishing it. She recently wrote about her own grief from losing her mother here, and she so poignantly articulated many of my own thoughts. So for the sake of my family, or anyone else who is making their way after the loss of a loved one, I decided to post this.

I think I'm finally at a point in my life where the pain is more like the current tender scar on my leg than the overwhelming sensation of the freshly broken bone a couple months ago. Time has not diminished my grief, but it has refined it. It has refined me. The pain is still very real to me, but it is less raw and more manageable. 

I miss my father, sometimes desperately. But I miss him for my own selfish purposes. I miss laughing at his contagious laugh and rolling my eyes at his goofiness. I miss his vast knowledge about anything and everything being at my disposal with just a phone call or an email. I miss his courage and strength... thinking he would beat all of his cancers by sheer force of will and the miracle of faith... and his ability to encourage my own through his quiet example. 

I hate that the last words he consciously heard me say to him were so inconsequential that I don't even remember what they were. I hate that he was taken just as he was finally able to overcome his own demons. I hate that I feel robbed of all those moments and conversations--big and small--that my father should be a part of... my university graduations, meeting my future husband, my wedding, figuring out my career, spoiling my children, etc. I hate all this for my sake, and for what I'm missing out on.

As Ashley described so accurately:
"I'm sad because I wanted my last moments with my [father] to be different last moments than the ones I have. I'm sad because my life is so filled with [his] absence. I'm sad that it is [his] death that defines a large part of me and who I am today. I am sad that, one day, I will have lived more years without my [father] than with [him], and that that number will only get larger while the latter stays the same. I'm sad because I'm starting to not be that sad. That while I do have real moments of deep anguish and grief, where the tears flow so heavily and it feels like I can't breath, they occur less frequently now. I worry that healing means I won't miss [him], or that I'm somehow disrespecting [his] memory, though I'm finally realizing that what it does is just transform the pain from a gaping hole to a tight scar. It's taken me [seven] years to be okay with that, to be okay with letting go of the open wound and letting it close."
Sometimes as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we unintentionally brush aside others' grief and pain by focusing on our hope and faith in God's Eternal Plan of Happiness. This is not altogether a bad thing. However, I can't even count the times when I was told (especially AT my father's memorial services) "not to cry," "to be strong for my family's sake," and that "I should be happy because I know he's not in pain anymore." I'm not judging those who've said these things to me... they've all meant well. And I'm certain they never once meant to imply that my grief was inappropriate... 

And yet, how unfortunate that we sometimes use gospel-inspired platitudes to shame people into not allowing themselves to mourn. Privately crying myself to sleep every night for 3 months was the only real external mourning I allowed myself for a long time, because in public I felt I at least had to pretend to be strong. That was no one's fault but mine... but still, how comforting it would be for someone to just hug me and cry with me without the fear that they were encouraging a crisis of faith. You can grieve and still believe. In fact, my testimony has never been stronger as when I was in my darkest hours of mourning. I wish more people understood this. Sometimes I wish more people were really willing to "mourn with those that mourn" (Mosiah 18:9). I want to be better at this, too.

During my dad's fight with his second cancer (in his kidney), he underwent chemotherapy and my mom finally had to shave his head. To show their support, all three of my brothers and most of the other young men in our ward also shaved their heads. It meant a lot to my father, but I think it meant even more to me and my mother.

I love that I know I will see my father again... And that in the mean time, I have so many reminders of him in my life. Tanner has the same infectious laugh and self-deprecating humor. Erika has the same strength of faith and force of will. Skylar inherited my father's temperament--the great, the good, the bad, and even the ugly--but I see it most when he walks into a room and immediately looks for an opportunity to reach out or serve someone else. Logan is incredibly private like my father, and he shares the same overwhelming desire to love and provide for his family and be useful to his fellow man. I am not sure if others see parts of my father in me, but I've inherited his love for history... particularly as it relates to the scriptures and Church History.

I know that the Atonement of Christ is real, and that through the Savior the bitterness of death is swallowed up. I KNOW that. And I feel its veracity every day of my life. But that knowledge doesn't remove the grief, and that's ok. As the Prophet Lehi so poignantly taught, "men [and women] are that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25). However just before he said that, he taught that "it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things" (2 Ne. 2:11) and that one can't know joy until one knows misery (2 Ne. 2:23). Ashley also wrote, "This all sounds really depressing, but in fact it is hopeful. However, happiness and hope are not the same. You can have one without the other, but [a] mistake people make is confusing the two."

As far as headstones go, I really love what we designed. It's a beautiful mark of the wonderful life my parents shared, not to mention it has a bench! I don't have a picture of it, but on the other side there is a family portrait etched into the stone, as well as our family motto, which to me really is the epitome of my parents' faith:
"Gird up your loins
Fresh courage take
Our God will never us Forsake"
~'Come, Come Ye Saints'

Although I hate that I had to lose my father in order to really understand this eternal truth, I'm grateful to now have this eternal perspective to guide me throughout the rest of my life here on earth. I have always had hope... Hope my father would beat each new discovery of cancer, hope that my family and I would survive his loss, hope in the Atonement to heal, hope in the temple blessings for an eternal family, and hope in the promise of the resurrection. My father's death increased my hope one hundredfold. 

And yet I was not happy. That I had to climb my way back up to... using whatever tools I could find: hope, faith, service, art, music, temple service, journal writing, family history, Priesthood blessings, missionary work, visiting teaching, and of course my family and friends. It was such a gradual climb that I cannot recall any moment when I specifically thought, "Now. Now at last I'm finally happy again." But I am. I have known misery... the depths of which I didn't think possible for me. But I have also known joy overflowing to the point where I thought I'd burst. And through it all, my hope has been an anchor to my soul (Ether 12:4).

Now, 7 years later, I've been able to see more of the Lord's hand in how life has unfolded. Many of the things I previously said that I hate or make me sad about my father's absence are also many of the things I've come to be grateful for. As President Uchtdorf taught so eloquently in this past General Conference how this happens: "Those who set aside the bottle of bitterness and lift instead the goblet of gratitude can find a purifying drink of healing, peace, and understanding." I know that's true! I've seen how gratitude has been my own Balm of Gilead. 

I am grateful for the continued opportunity I have to get to know my father better through my family history efforts. I am grateful that now, no matter where I am in the world, my dad will always be able to help me out when necessary. I am grateful that I continue to learn and apply lessons from the life my father lived. I'm grateful to know that Families really CAN BE together FOREVER. And I'm grateful that mine will be if we all continue to do our part. I've personally received the purifying blessings of healing, peace, and understanding... and for this, too, I am so grateful. 

We've come a long way in 7 years. I think my family is just as beautiful--and ridiculous--as ever. We've been through a lot together, and no matter what the future holds, we've learned that ours is a family worth fighting for...
"Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?"
~'Come, Come Ye Saints'
In 7 years we've added 3 spouses (Bob, Liz, and Adrienne), 1 grandchild (Lilly), and 2 grandpuppies (Tuffy and Hayden...and yes, I am required to mention them). We've sent out 6 full-time missionaries from our immediate Blackburn clan. We've had 2 high school graduations and 1 college graduation, with 4 more in the works.  

I still have a long way to go before I can be reunited with my Dad... but I fervently look forward to that glorious moment. And I hope that until that day I might honor him by honoring the faith and testimony he so deeply cherished, as well as humor him by laughing as much as possible. So here's to you, Dad. 

P.S. As the 7th year, instituting a personal 'Sabbatical Year' seems an appropriate way to honor my dad's memory... In Ancient Israel, the seventh day of every week, the seventh month of every year, and every seventh year were consecrated to the Lord. I'm still coming up with a plan of exactly how I will do this, and this post is already far too long, so I'l write a separate post about it. But since this particular anniversary is the reasoning behind it, it seemed silly not to at least mention it here.

06 June 2014

To my favorite couple

Everything I know I first learned from my older sister.

Erika has been such an incredible example to me my entire life--even when she didn't want to be. She is one of my best friends. She always tells me like it is, whether I want to hear it or not... and she normally does so in her loud, boisterous way that only she can. She is diligent, creative, and sensitive. She is strong-willed, and yet still eager to forgive when she's been wronged.

Her husband, John, is her other half. They've been 'Erika & John' for half my life, and I really can't imagine anyone better for my sister and for our family. He is the older brother I always wanted and often needed. He is patient and kind, always going out of his way to serve others. And he makes the most amazing Mexican food a girl could want.

Many things I want in my future marriage I first saw embodied in theirs. When the rest of our family was falling apart, they were steady and strong, and they helped hold us together. And now that most of us live thousands of miles apart, they are still the ones who help hold us all together. Even through their own heartbreaks and triumphs, they have done everything side-by-side as eternal partners. Together they work harder and better than anyone I know. They make an incredible team, and together they really can do anything!

Tomorrow they celebrate their 11th Wedding Anniversary.

So here's to Erika & John!
They look SO YOUNG here! haha

Forgive the 'Mexican Creeper' mustache... he'd just been at fish camp for 2 months. 

04 June 2014

Baby Steps

Who knew that learning how to walk again was going to be so exhausting!

I didn't realize that I had crutched so much over the weekend until I woke up Monday morning and couldn't move my shoulders. However, Monday was the big day I got to start putting partial weight on my leg, and I wasn't about to let a bit of soreness stop me!

I "walked" around the living room a bit, and then decided to venture upstairs to get some cards to send out. I managed to go upstairs, but coming down was a different story. So I had to resort to sliding down on my bum again. I took a break to write the cards, and then thought I'd try my leg at walking to the mailbox that's down our street. It isn't too far... maybe 70ish yards total there and back.  I had to stop a few times, mostly to give my hands and wrists a rest. But I made it! By the time I got back I felt pretty woozy and laid down so I didn't get sick. I was pretty well knackered for the rest of the day, but I was so proud of myself! My first outing BY MYSELF in nearly 2 months!!!

I made the same walk on Tuesday and stopped only a couple times, so that's progress, right?! Oddly enough my wrists and elbows are really hurting... I wouldn't think that I use them more to put partial weight on my leg than I do only using one leg, but what do I know. I can definitely feel the metal plate and screws more acutely, which is a really bizarre sensation. The only way I can think to describe it is when you have a sensitive tooth and eat something cold, and you get that weird twangy feeling into your head. It's like that, but in my leg. WEIRD.

Well, today I thought I'd try to walk the other direction down the street and see how far I could make it. But it's been pouring rain since I woke up, and no sign of it stopping. So, I guess I'll take a few turns around the church tonight at Institute. I really want to see if I can build up enough stamina to walk the 1.5miles to church before this Sunday. I know that might be a stretch, but I need some goals. Independence is so close I can almost taste it! :)

Look Up!

I think one of the most delightful parts of the weekend was actually being with people. Everyone seemed to put away their phones for the most part. During rehearsals, the Monkey Forest, Church, meals... all of it. Of course people still used their phones, but not as much. I think I only even looked at my phone maybe 4 or 5 times the whole weekend, and that was usually to check the time. I REALLY appreciated being able to BE with people.

When I got home, I saw this video, and I thought it was a great illustration of this. Life is better when you Look Up and actually LIVE IT!

03 June 2014


This past weekend was perfect! The Lord answered all of my prayers. After a stressful week of frantically writing my last 2 papers for University, I needed a break mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I just needed to find my zen again. And boy did I find it.

Before I left Saturday morning, I prayed that this second Lamb of God performance weekend would be inspiring, uplifting, and encouraging for me. I so desperately needed to feel at peace with all of the uncertainty I'm currently facing. Since I broke my leg I've mostly been in survival mode, and it's been difficult to really feel the Spirit as much as I've needed to. With the looming cloud of my assignments no longer hanging over me, I knew that this was the weekend I'd been needing.

So Saturday morning we drove up to Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the weather was GORGEOUS. As an added bonus, my leg was feeling pretty good. We had a tech rehearsal and then went off to the Monkey Forest for the afternoon. Jon was kind enough to wheel me around the park... The paths weren't actually paved, so this was even trickier than usual. But he was so gracious about helping me, and never once complained about getting stuck with the cripple rather than hanging out with the rest of the group. It was SO nice to:

  1. be out of the house!--I can't adequately express the extent of my cabin fever over the last 6 weeks; 
  2. spend the afternoon with a really great friend; 
  3. be doing something NEW again!; and
  4. not feel bad about needing someone's help--not sure why, but the guilt of dependency was gone, at least momentarily.

Enjoying the monkeys was an added bonus, obviously. They really were fascinating and entertaining to watch. I'm sure they feel the same way about all the people they get to watch in return. Jon and I saw a couple showdowns between the males, but for the most part the monkeys were pretty chill. Birthing season is from May to August, and they had one baby born about 4 weeks ago, so we got to see him. ADORABLE.

Seriously, could he be any cuter?! I don't need to own one, but I REALLY want to hold one someday. I need to figure out how to make that happen. 
After the Monkey Forest we went back to the chapel to eat dinner and get ready for the performance. The orchestra did not come up for these performances, so we sang to just a piano and the occasional cello. We performed in the chapels at both N-u-L (Saturday) and Manchester (Sunday), but the overflows were open with chairs all the way to the back. I think the total combined audiences for the weekend was about 1000 people, including a lot of nonmembers. Incredible! Both stakes worked so hard to put together these special musical firesides, and all the members really pulled together to invite as many nonmembers as they could. Such a great missionary opportunity! I'm SO grateful that they didn't waste it. 

Also, because they were special musical firesides rather than just concerts, we were able to start and end with congregational prayers. They still applauded at the very end (which I kinda wish they wouldn't have), but regardless, the Spirit was so incredibly strong. I honestly can't remember the last time I felt the Spirit strong enough that my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. But both nights (and Saturday especially), had the most palpable Spirit, particularly as we sang the Savior's prayer in Gethsemane. The choir actually sings in Aramaic, so the audience doesn't exactly know what we say, but the Spirit is so powerful at that moment... the meaning of the words is not lost on anyone. 

These performances were also different because all the lights were on. The audience could see all of us clearly, and more importantly, we could see them. This led to some very emotional performances as we could all watch the audience' reaction to the Spirit. Oh man. It really was an honor to participate in this incredible experience yet again.

Four other girls and I stayed with the Manchester Stake Patriarch and his wife, Brother and Sister Knipe. They were so lovely. I had to stay on the couch downstairs, but I slept great! I woke up to a glorious Sabbath day and really felt ecstatic about the day ahead. Probably a combination of no looming deadlines, a really fun Saturday, a powerful performance the previous evening, another full day ahead with so many friends, and the chance to partake of the Sacrament... I can't explain it but I was so filled with JOY. And even better than that was the overwhelming PEACE I felt in facing the many unknowns in my future.

We went to the Manchester YSA ward, and I really enjoyed all of the meetings. However, Sacrament was Testimony meeting, and it was so great! I'm not sure the last time I participated in a Testimony meeting that was actually focused on the Savior like it should be, but it was. I was deeply touched by the Spirit and the testimonies of my peers. I feel so blessed to know so many wonderful YSA men and women who are so diligent at keeping their covenants. It inspires me to be better, and I'm grateful for their examples. 

We had lunch at the stake center, where we performed Sunday night. However, we had awhile to just relax, so I got to LAY ON THE GRASS IN THE SUN. Seriously, it was a notable highlight. 

As I was crutching my way to the car, I was stopped by President Preston, the Manchester Mission President, who wanted to thank me for participating, in spite of my obvious excuses to stay home. We had a brief chat, and I told him my brother was one of his former missionaries, which he just loved. As soon as I said "Elder Skylar Blackburn" I heard a "YOU'RE A BLACKBURN?! I KNEW YOU LOOKED FAMILIAR!" from behind me. I turned around, and who was standing there but none other than Sister Mady Clawson, who's currently serving in Manchester. Her family was in my ward in Indiana for a few years, but I hadn't seen her in about 12 years. I babysat for her and her younger sisters a few times, so that made me feel really old to see her on a mission. haha But it really was SO GOOD to see her! And to meet President Preston, who I'd heard so much about from Skylar.

All in all, it really was the most spectacular weekend, full of peace and joy, the Spirit, and incredible friends. I really couldn't have asked for anything better. I'm grateful for an ever merciful and loving Heavenly Father who answered my prayers in the way I needed.