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!

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