Monday, March 29, 2010

Preparing for Enlightenment

Lots has happened this week. Monday I tried to update my website to move forward with testing essential oils as an adjunct therapy for Cystic Fibrosis; I found that, inexplicably, the website had broken completely. The homepage had been deleted, the login screen didn't work, and I had to call to get everything restored from a backup. Wow. Instant opposition. After talking with some people, I think that my first step will be to contact researchers in order to set up the test the 'right' way... so that it will be accepted by the Cystic Fibrosis community and the medical community as a whole. Still very optimistic, still moving forward, the website and sign-up is still in the works.

Life at work has become more interesting. Development hired a bunch of short-term part-time employees to augment each of the teams working on the MTC curriculum. That means that there are actually people in my department – people to talk with (at least for the next few months)! That makes me happy, since being able to take a 2-minute break for a short conversation makes my work much more meaningful (and keeps me from getting headaches from staring at a computer screen for hours on end). I love people.

General Conference is this next week. And, with the preparation for General Conference comes a story and a promise. You might already know this story, but there are only so many personal true stories I can tell. The first time I went to General Conference with a question in my heart was in the seventh grade. I was struggling with the decision of whether or not to skip grades – a decision which would simultaneously jeopardize my swimming career, destroy my peer group, and have massive social ramifications... but also could help better meet my needs at school. The school board had given me the option and expected an answer soon. I was completely lost and didn't know what to do, so I prayed for help. That weekend was General Conference. And my experience that Conference changed my life. It was there that I heard the words, (paraphrased) “Get all the education you can... do everything in your power to put yourself in the best educational environment possible.” It was an answer to my prayer – the exact words that I needed to move forward and the confirmation of my decision.

Since then, each General Conference has seemed to fall around a time of tumult in my life. I'm moving or making major decisions, choosing majors, or just struggling in mortality. And so I define one of my personal questions or struggles and take it with me to Conference. I ask the Lord my question and I attend every session of Conference with laptop in hand, fully expecting that a large number of the talks will address some aspect of my life. And, amazingly, they do. Maybe it's because everyone is struggling with the exact same things in life that I do. Maybe it's because the Lord tunes my ears to hear the words and remember them. And maybe it's because going to Conference with a question means that I am listening to the Spirit as He helps me find the answer. Sometimes it seems that every talk is written for me – that the General Authorities must have re-written their talks in the middle of the night just to answer my questions. And then I realize how amazing the foreknowledge of the Lord is – He knew what I would need before I even asked... and inspired those men and women to write into their talks the things I would need in my life.

Does it work? I guess that's a matter of how you look at the fulfillment of prayers to God on a global basis. Let's take two examples. First, I pray to remember where I lost something important, or for help in finding an answer to a hard question. Immediately my mind is enlightened and I find what I was looking for. In this case it's easy to say that the Lord heard and answered my prayer. Second, I pray for it to rain. Two days later we have a massive rainstorm. Obviously, the rain “fulfilled” my prayer, but what was the effect of my request? Did it rain because I prayed? Or did it rain because it was already planned; I just happened to ask for rain at a time when rain was going to come anyway? From a doctrinal perspective, the scriptures teach that the Lord does hear and answer our prayers – even those that have far-reaching effects. And we've all heard the stories of people who have prayed for rain and whose prayers have been heard. On a personal level, I know that the Lord hears and answers my prayers. Once in Naples I was doing an exchange with another missionary and having an especially hard day, so I prayed for rain (for me, rain is a sign of God's love). Within moments, a few dozen droplets fell from the sky on my arms and head. The pavement was dry, the smog was still there, and my companion hadn't felt anything. Inside my mind there was a voice, “It rained. Be happy. I love you. Keep working.” Countless other times, the Lord has answered my prayers – even when doing so affects others around me.

I know that God really does hear and answer our prayers. And when we attend General Conference this next week with a prayer in our hearts, He will inspire our leaders to share words that will answer our prayers, open our hearts, and help us hear the things we need to hear. It's a miracle, there for the asking. Knock, and ye shall find. Ask, and ye shall receive. We simply need to ask, listen, write down our impressions, and actively seek the things we want to know. I know He will. Will General Conference answer a question that you've struggled with for years of your life? It has for me – multiple times. Or will it give you a piece of the puzzle – not the entire answer? That has happened too. Whatever happens, the answers you find will improve your perspective and enable you to make better decisions in your life.

So that is my invitation for you. Right now, make the commitment to attend General Conference with a question in mind. Ask before you go, and listen intently to the speakers and to the Spirit. I promise you that the Lord will hear and answer your prayer. He will speak to you through the mouth of His servants and you will know they are His servants. Then go out and share that knowledge with others. Go out and be missionaries!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Searching and researching

This week has been interesting, to say the very least. It started on Monday with working with new Italian missionaries at the Missionary Training Center. I volunteer each week and listen to them improve in their language and teaching skills... and some of the things I learn, I take back to my office where I help to write the MTC curriculum. Other things, I hope are just anomalies. This week I realized that missionaries need to better understand how to teach people about the influence of the Holy Ghost – how to recognize it, create a setting where it is present, and ultimately expect it. The sisters who taught me, after asking me how I felt, never really explained or put a name to what was happening. I have learned so much about the importance of the Holy Ghost – and how crucial it is to teach about it early – since my mission. The peace that accompanies learning truth is the witness of the Holy Ghost that what you are learning is true; that is incredibly important for understanding the peace that the Gospel brings! I hope that, somehow, we can help missionaries achieve some of those same insights during the short time they are trained here in Provo.

In the post-April housing search, we put in an offer on a house this week. It's a nice house in Orem near University Mall. If it goes through, it will be amazing. If not, then we'll keep looking. Whatever happens, the Lord will be involved.

Then the course-changing event. One of my cousins has Cystic Fibrosis and has been using an essential oil blend in a nebulizer as a daily breathing treatment. While he mentioned that it felt like it was working, we've been waiting with our fingers crossed to see what would happen when he had a pulmonary function test (the gold standard for following Cystic Fibrosis - CF)... and the test was this week. Result: he scored higher on this test than he did last time. Here's the reason why we were concerned: he had been using the essential oils in place of his normal mucous-thinning medication, and if we had gotten a negative result it may have easily smashed our hopes for trying to find something in essential oils to help treat CF. But it wasn't negative – it was positive – and that is enough to make me want to move forward.

In our initial test we tried to correct for everything from frequency of usage to exercise habits. But it was just one person, and while it was effective, I want to know if it is effective with a wider variety of people and a wider variety of severities. If it is effective, I want to make it available to more people... let them know about it... because CF is an awful disease and maybe this can do something to help it. That puts me in a unique situation. Traditional drug research methods are incredibly time-consuming and costly; designed to take a dozen years or more from the initial idea before they are available on the market to treat a given condition. Right now, clinical research studies require massive amounts of money, time, approval from the government before they can start, planning, staff, oversight, red tape... Which means that there is no way that any company will ever invest the millions of dollars it would take to do a study using essential oils – because it would never give a return. And the money from foundations like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, by going through traditional drug production methods, also takes years before it is available. Also, the way that clinical studies are currently designed, it would require even more costs to identify and outline exact essential oil dosage specifications – for example, listing every single chemical component in lemon oil, with exact specificity. How useful is that, when every time you grow another lemon, or even take another one off the tree, the lemon oil is going to have a slightly different ratio of components?

In the pharmaceutical industry, these massive barriers serve to protect us from unproven and dangerous medications – to keep our hopes up and ensure that no one can sell snake oil to the highest bidder. And they work on that regard. But essential oils and natural products, unlike novel drugs, are already available to normal consumers. They could, ostensibly, go to the store and purchase these products and use them with the intent to treat a given condition. And thousands of people do – that is the story of the 'dietary supplement' industry, from ginseng root to vitamin C. That's why I could give my cousin an essential oil blend, he could use it, and then report back to me the results of his experiment. Enter the trigger for my next thought: why not create a clinical trial method that would leverage the willingness of people to try new things added to the ease of obtaining those options... all guided and recorded using the internet? If ten thousand people signed up to take 500mg of vitamin C each day during the next winter and then to report on their flu and cold symptoms, that would be an impressive body of information (for or against using vitamin C as a flu preventative)... and one that would help finally put a piece of medical research into the hands of someone other than fully-funded pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and universities. And maybe I could do that with CF.

So I'm doing it.

If I were a medical doctor, I could simply follow the normal, prescribed route (pun intended) – diagnose Cystic Fibrosis, prescribe a given study medication to treat that condition, interpret results, tabulate data, and report to the scientific community. But I'm not a doctor, so I can't. Simple solution: I won't diagnose, prescribe, or treat anything. I'll simply ask people with CF who have their own doctors, who have already been diagnosed, and who decide to try using essential oils to report on their condition. By just asking them to report and using a product that is already available on the market, I can avoid the red tape of clinical trials. Yes, it will mean that everyone will need to convince their doctors to let them try it. They would have to convince their doctors anyway. It might preclude my ability to get funding from organizations and associations, but it will cut costs by a gazillion dollars... and funding organizations have ultra-long time lines anyway. If I have an idea, I want to try it tomorrow – not submit it by September for approval by next June for funding for the year after that! And perhaps it will make it harder to make the results available to the scientific community. I'll contact a few current medical researchers to ask questions about that.

This week I'll start the process. I'll create a website branched from Nature's Fusions explaining the project with a sign up, information, and submission instructions for anyone who wants to be involved. Hopefully, the positive results we've had will prove to be useful in more situations... and we can improve lives of people with Cystic Fibrosis. I still have to be cautious about that... but I'm hopeful. And perhaps a new method of research – finding ways to empower consumers and turn the anecdotal into the scientific – could be the door to a new wave of health-conscious, consumer-led inquiry in medical science.

What finally pushed me was that even my scripture study and conversations with the Lord are in this same direction. I was reading my scriptures this morning and suddenly had a revelation – on alginate. Some CF patients have what are called mucoid infections of pseudomonas aeruginosa – where the bacteria creates a protective, gooey, sticky substance called alginate that is impermeable to water, air, and antibiotics (in the food industry, it's used as chewing gum). The thought/inspiration I had while reading Alma was that something simple was able to dissolve alginate. I looked it up and alginate (specifically, calcium alginate) is insoluble in water, ethanol, and organic solvents. That's why it creates a massive problem when it's in your lungs. But it slowly dissolves in a solution of sodium carbonate. You can buy sodium carbonate in the supermarket as washing soda, or make it by broiling baking soda. I don't know if breathing a solution of sodium carbonate would help patients with mucoid pseudomonas, but it's another direction to try... and I know that the Lord's revelation accurately pushed me toward that discovery, since baking soda is definitely a simple ingredient.

I'm not exactly sure what it is the Lord is trying to teach me right now, other than an intensive course in organic chemistry and medicine. Maybe it has to do with opening doors, improving lives, moving mountains and making a difference in the world. And maybe it simply has to do with listening and acting on the promptings I receive. Sometimes the Lord is quiet in our lives. And sometimes He prompts us to move forward – to do something we have never done before. That's where I am. But with God at our side, nothing is impossible. So try it. Dream the impossible dream. And then go out and share it with the world – go out and be missionaries!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Humility, Soap Making, and Faith

Learning at the hand of the Lord is a unique experience. I feel like I am a student whose teacher expects 24/7 study and practice. Life is amazing.

Lesson One: Humility & Work
Wednesday I sang at the MTC staff devotional. It was an augmented men's quartet – 2 on the bass line, 2 on tenor, 2 on alto, and me as solo. The performance went really well; everyone loved it; I was barraged by compliments as soon as we were done. But later that day, I got a copy of the recording of our performance. Most of the recording was really good, but at least one of my notes was so terribly off-key that it makes my ears hurt. That sort of typifies my recent experiences with singing. As I learn more about singing, I become more aware of how much I lack and realize the difference between someone who sings for fun and someone who has studied to sing. It began at my voice lesson a few weeks ago. My teacher mentioned that the resonance of singing as we hear it can be so different that we may actually sing off-tune... and it will sound like we are perfectly in pitch to our own ears. He then explained that I had done exactly that – in the singing exercise I had just finished, I had gone noticeably flat. I thought I had been in perfect pitch. Suddenly a dozen memories came to mind – strange circumstances when I could tell, somehow, that someone thought I was singing off-pitch. What unnerved me most was that, if nothing else, that's what I thought I was good at – hitting all the right notes, every time, exactly on. Realizing that the only thing I really thought I was good at, I wasn't really good at after all was a bit of a shock. For about 5 seconds I honestly thought about giving up on music as a talent.
Maybe someday I'll understand what's happening. I'm not amazing, yet people like to hear me sing. And I love to sing. I guess that's good enough. But singing has become a very humbling experience. I'm realizing that great singing, like anything that is really great, doesn't just come naturally. There are certain techniques that go into shaping your voice, and while having a natural talent may get you to a certain point, it will only take you to that certain point. Beyond that, it takes work, time, effort, and practice – just like every other skill. I've known that forever, but now I actually believe that it applies to music. Yes, you can become a famous musician without actually investing the time, but to really become amazing, you have to work for it.

Lesson Two: Color Inside the Lines
Thursday we started a new semester at the homeschooling academy where I teach. First semester, I taught physics, then Italian. I decided to return to a science-based curriculum, so I went to class with a list of subjects from which students would choose the syllabus for the course. We're spending a few classes on Astronomy, others on food science or everyday chemistry or calculus... and one on how to make soap. “Only one issue,” I think to myself, “I have no clue how to make soap.” But learning is something I love. We make soap in three weeks, so that's three weeks to gain a new skill.
Thursday afternoon I spent reading about soap-making – the ancient history and modern equivalents, safety precautions, and recipes. Friday I got all the ingredients (sodium hydroxide (lye), and oil) and whipped up my first batch.
Every single soap resource I read had included were multiple warnings about following an exact recipe. Each site had a new dire consequence for those who strayed – whether it was choking on toxic fumes, receiving caustic chemical burns, creating a “volcano” of molten soap, or becoming blind. So I followed a recipe. Sort of. First off, it normally takes 6 weeks for “cold-process” soap to cure after you make it. That was not an option. “Hot-process” soap is normally made over a burner, but I wanted to try it in my blender, since I won't have a burner when I teach my class how to make it. The biggest issue, though, was that I didn't have an accurate way to weigh sodium hydroxide. So I looked up its density and made an approximate measurement using spoonfuls. The recipe had a tolerance of about a gram. The tolerance of my measurement was about 5 grams. I wore gloves and dissolved the sodium hydroxide in cold water, added it to the oil, and put everything in my blender. But after a few minutes on high I got impatient. It didn't seem like it was doing anything. So I poured some more sodium hydroxide in. Within 5 seconds, the solution had thickened, changed color, doubled in size, and begun spouting a fountain of hot steam. It had also hardened. When I was able to cut the soap out of the blender, I tested it to see if it was done. Soap has a really interesting method of testing – it's called the taste test. You touch a piece of soap to your tongue; if it tingles, then the soap isn't done – either it needs more oil or it needs to cook longer. My soap definitely was not done. I had added too much sodium hydroxide halfway through, and now there was nothing I could do.
My second attempt at making soap was more controlled. I knew I needed to follow the recipe exactly, so I created a super-precise scale. It was made of styrofoam bowls, paper clips, rubber bands, dental floss, and part of a pizza box, and it was accurate to less than ½ a gram. I measured out the exact amount of sodium hydroxide, added it to the water, added that to the oil, waited patiently while it thickened in the blender, and then poured it out into a mold. But, because it didn't do the expand/double/spout steam thing, it never thickened and was like cold-process soap. I wasn't willing to wait 6 weeks for it to cure, so I tried broiling it in the oven, cooking it on the stove, spreading it out in front of a fan, and even frying it to get the water out (Frying soap sounds really, really strange. But frying is a form of drying – replacing water with oil – and I just wanted to dry it out). Frying soap is not a good idea. I'll get the hang of it some day.

Lesson Three: Ask
Today we had ward conference. For Sunday School, the stake presidency held a doctrinal question and answer session. I don't actually ask doctrinal questions in church anymore – I prefer finding answers on my own during my personal study, where I can search the references and really understand the meaning behind the scriptures. But I felt prompted to ask one today about 2 Nephi 7:10-11. I felt like I understood verse 11, but how it related to verse 10, and the specific purpose behind verse 10 was my issue. Every time I read those scriptures, I felt like there was something there that I was missing. Truthfully, I didn't expect anyone in the room to know the answer. But I hadn't gotten the answer in prayer yet, so I asked.
No one had the answer I was looking for. But as I listened, the Lord gave it to me. And while asking a question about Isaiah seems a bit strange, it applies directly to my life. You see, verse 10 talks about those who obey the Lord, yet walk in darkness. Right now, I have no clue what is going to happen in my future. To me, that is darkness. But there are different levels of darkness, and here Isaiah is speaking to two different types of people – both rebuking and consoling those who cannot see the light. The rebuke is for those who cannot see the blessings of God – who claim that following the Lord has no benefit for them. If they cannot see the Lord's light they are obviously lacking in some way. Anyone who honestly obeys the Lord can see His hand in his life. The consolation is for those who see the hand of the Lord, yet can't see the future – the “Lead, Kindly Light” motif. If they will trust in God and continue to follow Him, the scripture promises that the light will come.
The light I'd like is a revelation on what I'm supposed to be doing in life. And the answer, while long in coming, is that I probably won't have a career in the sense that I'm thinking. I probably won't have one job to define me for the rest of my life. That makes sense; there probably hasn't ever been a time, other than when I was a missionary, when I was easily definable with an adjective that described my life. Right now? I'm an editor/teacher/writer/aromachemist. Tomorrow? Who knows. But my long-term goals? To move forward, to knock on doors, and to open them to make a difference wherever I can. To learn as much as I can to make a difference in various ways in the world... and then to move on, taking with me the knowledge I've gained and becoming a better builder for the next project.
Job-wise, I'll probably stay at the MTC until another job comes my way after June. Will I look for one? Yes. I'll try to find someone who can point me in the right direction, talk with people, and ask for job leads. Every other job has come from someone I knew... so this next one will probably be no different.

And so it is with each of us. The Lord teaches us lessons tailored to our individual needs. He may focus on humility, hard work, or the importance of faith. Or He may choose something as unique as making soap. But He will teach us – and as we walk in His path, He will give us His light. Not enough to see everything, but enough to walk by. And as we continue to walk in the light, it will grow brighter and brighter... “until the perfect day.” Look at the hand of the Lord in your own life. Find the lessons of light that He is trying to teach you. Then go out and be missionaries!

Sunday, March 7, 2010


A week ago I wanted to quit my job at the MTC. I wanted it more than almost anything in the world. I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything, I wasn’t going to be accomplishing anything, and I didn’t really matter. My managers could hire anyone else to do the job and, while it would be inconvenient to train new employees, they could do it just as well… and work would move on. Simultaneously, I wondered (and stressed) about decisions with Nature’s Fusions. I wondered if I should continue teaching part-time, and what subject to teach. I wondered about which institute class to attend. I wondered if I should apply for medical schools, business schools, graduate schools, or any schools, for 2011. I wondered if I should be a temple worker. I wondered if I should stay in Utah or move to Chicago or just pick up everything and run away to Italy or China.

The only reason why I didn’t quit was that, just as clearly as I felt I wanted to quit, the Lord made it very clear that I was not supposed to. He simply told me to wait. So I waited. And then this week happened, and again I am left praising Him for His goodness and mercy. 

One of my mentors suggested that I talk with my supervisors about my concerns at work. I did, and they promptly gave me new responsibilities, freeing me from the one (which has consumed my life these past few weeks) that made my brain ache. I also learned about a project that is due in only a few months… the kind of project where I can be an active part and make a difference. And there was talk about making the office a more people-friendly place – moving workstations to be closer as a team, helping one another on diverse projects, turning on music in the office. All it took was some patience (for the new project) and action – asking for help.

I had wanted to attend some upcoming expos for Nature's Fusions – the Home & Garden Expo, the Women’s Expo… but, after looking at the cost involved, it doesn’t really make sense for us. Not only is there the cost for entering the exhibition, but also creating a booth, covering the floor, having giveaways and promotions, paying extra for electricity, and sometimes paying a premium to make sales. Total that up, and it’s much more than I really want to pay for advertising. And my brother-business partner is out of town during every Expo we wanted to attend. I could go alone or find someone else, but I’ve decided to simply spend less. It’s coming from my bank account, anyway. We’ll keep looking – and if we find an Expo with a much smaller entrance fee then maybe we’ll go. In the meantime, we are moving forward.

I decided to keep teaching part-time in Draper – this time, a mix of different science disciplines based on what students what to learn and what I want to teach. Some of my students are already excited at the prospect of learning about ‘anything’ in the world of science. It’s really an open door… and if they choose something I don’t know, then I guess it will be a good learning experience for me, too. Hopefully there will be a bunch of students (and parents) interested in the concept.

And all the rest of my decisions are as of yet unmade or un-makeable. I don’t know where I’ll be living after the end of April. I don’t know what my plans are for graduate school. I don’t even know which institute class I’ll attend this week. But there is something I do know. The Lord is my shepherd; no want shall I know. 

My mind is strangely calm right now. I can’t really see forward, and yet, for some odd reason, I don’t really feel the need to see it. I’m not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I’m not concerned. Just days ago I wished I had a more clear direction… and now I’m ok that I don’t even know which way I’m going. I am suddenly aware and yet alright with ambiguity in life – ok with not knowing exactly where I am or where I am going, because I am not alone. I’ve always been afraid of being lost… and yet, something deep within me leaves me with a sense of profound peace… peace because I can face anything, even the amorphous mass that is around me… peace because at my side I have a God who cares about me… peace because I know that, if I am doing all I can, that, combined with His power, will be enough to assure me eternal happiness.
That’s really all there is to life. Do your best, keep the commandments, and rely on the Lord. And then everything will work out for the best. There will definitely be bumps in the road, shadows and darkness to overcome, mountains to climb and rivers to cross. But, with Him at our side, we will always come out victorious. I know that God is involved in the details of our lives. I know that He cares about us. And I know that, if we will turn to Him and follow in His ways, He will ultimately lead us beside quiet waters and give us rest for our souls. We will be happy – here and in eternity. Have faith, and believe! Go out and be missionaries!
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