Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thoughts on a Snowy Morning

It is snowing this morning.  It's the kind of sparse snow that bobbles upwards and sideways even more than it floats downwards.  I watched the squirrels in the trees outside my window for quite a while after waking up.  I'm glad to live in a place with squirrels again - they bring back memories of childhood in Minnesota.  I was amazed at the perceptability of the squirrels, in a squirrel's sphere.  I watched one squirrel leap from one tree to the next, flying a distance and landing (rather ungracefully) on a small and bending twig.  The squirrel was hanging by two paws, but scrambled up quickly and continued on his way.  How did he know that branch was close enough?  Big enough?  How did he know the branch wouldn't break?

Last night was the first night of Channukah.  We celebrated with Sarah and her family and fifty other Jewish students and community members from Cambridge.  We were all crammed into Sarah's living room and kitchen with barely enough room (and sometimes not enough room) to move from place to place.  But the atmosphere was happy, lively and friendly and I enjoyed the experience immensely.  I met several interesting people, though I found myself occasionally in the uncomfortable situation of being assumed Jewish and not knowing how to tell them abruptly that I wasn't actually.  If I tell them immediately ("hello, my name is Amy and I'm Christian") I sound overly paranoid or differentiating.  If I wait until the first reference to Jewish life, it is like admitting I know nothing about that reference and then am precluded from the conversation.  I should note, most references are not addressed directly to me and do not require any response at all.  However, even smiling in affirmation helps the assumptions of my new Jewish acquaintances.  If I do respond, though, and share my own experiences in Israel or speak my own word of Hebrew, then I am admitting myself into Jewish life as a Jew who knows.  Not only is it deceptive (though unintentionally), it causes problems later when I am (for example) asked to tutor a man's children in Hebrew or asked on a date by a young man wearing a kippah (admittedly, there are bigger problems with the later scenario.  At that point I am less concerned about how to tell the young man I'm not Jewish and far more concerned with how to tell the young man I am happily married).  Despite my challenge of balancing the love and knowledge of the Jewish tradition with my identity as a Christian, though, I was grateful for the evening away from my essay.  I appreciate Sarah's friendship; I hope it continues to grow.

Late last night I watched the 2004 BBC mini-series called North & South.  It was a complex drama about 1850s industrial Britain.  It was so good, I think I will watch it again on Saturday after the essay has been submitted and the term is officially over.

Down to four days now.  

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Tonight was the first Sunday of Advent. I have never celebrated Advent before, but was so excited to attend the candlelit Advent service at Emmanuel college this evening. It was a really lovely hour. We sang O Come, O Come Emmanuel together, all seven verses. I absolutely love that song and thoroughly enjoyed the first experience singing it in a congregation. The choir sang "And the glory of the Lord" from Handel's Messiah, among other pieces. We listened to Micah 5:2-4, Isaiah 11:1-9, Luke 3:1-17, Luke 1:26-38 and John 1:1-14. The dean lit the five Advent candles on the beautiful Advent wreath in front of the altar. This is what the program said about Advent and the Advent wreath:

Advent is the season preceding Christmas.
It is a time of expectation and longing
for the coming of Christ.

The Advent Wreath 
Christ comes to bring light to a darkened world.  As the
candles on the Advent wreath are lit the illumination
increases and the darkness is progressively dispelled.
Each one represents a strand in Christian expectation of the 
coming of the Messiah, corresponding to the four Sundays of
Advent and Christmas Day itself.

I love the message of Advent, the "time of expectation and longing for the coming of Christ." I got a bit teary-eyed at the triumphant end of O Come All Ye Faithful, in which we sang: "Sing, choirs of Angles, sing in exultation, Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above;  Glory to God in the highest: O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!" I love the Christmas season and love that I can remember the Savior's coming with such joy, both with those of my own congregation and those of the broader community.  

Thanksgiving in the Motherland

On Thursday I enjoyed a beautiful Thanksgiving meal with my flatmates and Lucia (one of our program administrators).  I started cooking/baking at 1:30 that afternoon in the sunlit living room while listening to the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.  It was a calm, quiet day and I appreciated the opportunity for my hands to do manual work -- peeling apples and potatoes, mixing and rolling out roll and pie crust dough, chopping herbs for the turkey -- while my mind could be still.  At 6:00 that evening my wonderful flatmates joined me in the kitchen to help with the last-hour details: setting the table, trimming the green beans, checking the rolls in the oven, carving our turkey breast, and mashing the potatoes.  It was my first Thanksgiving as head chef (or as any chef at all, in fact) and I am proud to say that it was a smashing success!  The food tasted so good and though I have much enjoyed tasting new foods and adjusting to new flavours here in Britain, I must admit how comforting it was to taste my mother's rolls and her famous apple pie, even though she wasn't there to make them herself.  Here are some pictures to capture the day:

Rolls rising in my room - it was too cold downstairs!

The day's work station: one end of the dining table

Early in the day: apples simmering and yams boiling

Sweet Lucy helping cook her first ever Thanksgiving meal

At Kathryn's request, we each went around the table and mentioned a few of the things for which we are grateful.  I was grateful for the ability to read and the ability to travel - I know it sounds silly, but I really AM grateful for the opportunity to study, learn and think about new things like I am now doing. I am so grateful for my wonderful family, for the love and friendship I share with each of my siblings and for the great wisdom of my very good parents.  As the challenges and decisions in life grow more difficult, more confusing, more multi-faceted, I am made more aware of the great blessing their counsel and advice has been and is for me.  Additionally, I am grateful for my patient and supportive husband, who has worked so hard this semester and has suffered alone so that I can get this degree from the top university in the world.  I am grateful that in one week I will be back in his arms.  Finally, I am grateful for the great plan of redemption, which a loving Heavenly Father provided for His children so that we could all return to Him one day like Him, having learned for ourselves the difference between good and evil, suffering and great joy.  I am grateful for the Lord Jesus Christ, who was willing to live and die that the Father's plan might be fulfilled.  

I am reminded of the simple words spoken to me in my setting-apart blessing last week.  Brother Robles (from Spain) speaks little English, but was able to communicate the Spirit's gentle reminder well enough when he said, "You have a very nice life."      

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Paper I Took to London

Last week I traveled to London by myself. The goal was to meet my aunt and uncle next to the information booth outside of Exit 3 from the Victoria tube station at 10:35 am. When one does not have a cell phone, it is necessary to resort to 20th century methods of meeting up. Thankfully, it worked without (much) mishap and I was able to enjoy the rest of the day as a bona fide, unabashed tourist doing all the bona fide touristy things of London (Buckingham Palace, War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Big Ben, Thames, St. Paul's, Hard Rock Cafe, show [Oliver]). Thanks Aunt Gaylene and Uncle David!

Before the touristing and meeting up, though, there were two hours and forty five minutes of public transportation, first by bus, then by train, then by tube. To pretend to be a well-behaved Cambridge student, I brought an academic book to read: Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification by David Novak. I also brought a piece of notebook paper and a pen, just to jot essay notes if I had any stunning revelations while on the train. This blog entry is a recreation of the notebook paper as it appeared when I returned home:

On one side, brief, incomplete essay notes on the question 'Is it important to distinguish Jewish-Christian relations from Jewish/non-Jewish relations more generally and what merits their study in their own right?':

"Ultimately, Jewish scholars such as Maimonides formulated a definition for relations 'out of necessity' (Novak 3) -- recognizing no integral value in the relationship but acknowledging the basic fact that Jews lived amongst Christians and had to formulate some code for such existence. David Novak formulates the question addressed by such scholars, asking 'How does a minority religion...' (see pg 4 of Novak). The Jewish need to address the 'Christian' problem in this way dominates Jewish writings for almost 2000 years - the reason (it) is important today is because the question has necessarily changed! Novak asserts that a 'radical change' in the formulation of Western society has occurred (4) and many scholars agree with him. According to such change, Jewish scholars need to reformulate a new code of Christian relations."

On the other side, this:

  • Musings on Public Transportation (including making the city seem small)
  • Leicester Square as old friend
  • Theater as old building really, not just a building decorated to look old and thereby fancy
  • Lots of gold in the city -- on gates, clock towers, churches, theatres
  • no drinking fountains
  • ate dinner under John Lennon & Paul McCartney's shirts
  • British accents & movies

Those notes, needless to say, were not about my upcoming essay and the academic reading I was supposed to be doing. They were about thoughts I had during the day and wanted to save for later. Here I am repeating them verbatim on my blog, which I hadn't intended exactly. But I find that physical notes of memories become themselves nostalgic, and I relish those physical reminders of a good day now gone. Because I had actually intended to muse on some of those points in a future blog point, I will now elaborate those that need elaborating:

Musings on public transportation: I find public transportation odd, having not grown up with it. Perfect strangers come into very close contact for sometimes long amounts of time. Personal space disappears. Yet the experience is somehow very private. Everyone sits deep in thought, remembering his own things. And then the person squeezed into the small seat next to you stands up and walks out the door into the wide world of unknown experiences and thoughts that have no connection with your own life.  

Leicester square as old friend: After spending (a lot) of hours standing in front of the Empire Theatre in Leicester square that fateful premiere day, I have to admit feeling a kind of comfort when walking past that exact spot on Tuesday evening, after a long day of seeing strange new sites. It felt, strangely, like coming home.  

No drinking fountains: means I am always thirsty in Britain. Sometimes very much so.  

British accents and movies:  Before Cambridge my experience with British accents was almost exclusively limited to the big screen. Which means that now, sometimes, if I forget myself when surrounded by normal British people talking about ordinary British things, I find myself thinking I am living in a movie.  

Oh, and about the word David Novak really likes: if you didn't know like I didn't.     

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Remembrance Day

Just a few thoughts about Remembrance Day.  Interestingly, it came this year just a few days after Veteran's Day in the US - I don't know if it is always like that of if it ended up that way this year.  But there was a marked contrast between the attitudes of Britons that day and the attitudes of Americans on Veteran's Day.  First, the remembering doesn't happen only on Remembrance Day.  It begins on the first of November when people start wearing red poppies on their chest:

The physical reminder already makes it more meaningful and the symbolism of the poppy is sobering.  It comes from the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, written about the fields of red poppies growing on the battlefields of WWI:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 Poppy wreaths start appearing on the war monuments and memorials erected around every English town:

On Remembrance Sunday (the 14th), we stood for two minutes of silence in sacrament meeting.  The rest of the meeting was dedicated to talks about Remembrance Day and they were very emotional talks.  The war was closer to home here.  There was a tangible sense of sadness and of sorrow for the young lives lost during the world wars and subsequent wars.  People took time to mourn.  I was reminded of the long lists of names written on the walls of every church in Cambridge (and undoubtedly in every parish church across Europe) that memorialized the young men who died on the fields of battle.  I was reminded of my grandma's brother who died in Belgium during WWII.  I was reminded of (and grateful for) my two grandfathers who fought and lived.

On Tuesday in London, Uncle David, Aunt Gaylene and I stumbled upon more Remembrance Day poppies on the grounds of Westminster Abbey:

Most are placed there by loved ones with an inscription written in their memory.  Sections of the lawn are dedicated to individual battles and wars and include the most recent British deaths in Afghanistan.  Sections are also provided for soldiers who died in other armies.  What a monument to the horrible tragedy of war.  What a way to remember those who gave their lives.    

Monday, November 15, 2010

Red Carpet

Alright, I admit it.  I went to see the world premiere of the seventh Harry Potter movie in Leicester Square last Thursday. Here is my defense as given to other Cambridge friends:
Can't you imagine yourself having even a little bit of fun watching the world go mad for a couple of hours? I'm not going in order to get Rupert Grint's autograph...not at all! I've never been star crazy in my life, but I think it sounds like loads of fun to watch everyone else go star crazy. Red carpets, celebrities, tabloids, screaming fans -- the whole thing is so utterly bizarre I would absolutely love to experience it first hand just once in my life. Aren't you in the least bit attracted to the ridiculous, even sometimes?
Unfortunately, the world didn't go mad.  Brits must be too proper!  I was hoping the atmosphere would be filled with the same kind of buzzing excitement I have experienced before midnight movies and sought-after tickets or seats in the Marriott Center.  I was expecting some kind of pre-show tailgate party, with music, pizza delivered and card games.  Instead, everyone stood quietly and patiently for hours on end, looking, for the most part, rather somber.  Of course, it was not the most comfortable thing; we were standing in a pack for literally the entire afternoon and evening, and it did deluge three separate times during the day.  I am posting pictures of the day's many "transformations" below:

Hair down
Hair up (picture taken after one of our deluges - please
note the facial expression of the girl behind me)

Reading (like a good Cambridge student)
Giving it up as a lost cause

Sky five minutes after the picture above was taken
(hooray London!)

Fenced (by 3:00 we could leave but couldn't return)

View into the central premiere space
View blocked :(

Cool enough
Cooler (Lights and Christmas trees added, though the
trees are hard to see in this picture)
Such was our afternoon.  I will admit for you now what we didn't know until about 8:00 that evening: we were standing on the wrong side of Leicester square.  We arrived on the tube and saw in front of us a theatre, a Harry Potter display, fences and a red carpet:

We naturally assumed we had arrived in the correct location and promptly took our spots.  What we learned (after standing for an hour through the premiere without seeing any of the celebs we knew were signing autographs just across the fence) was that we had parked ourselves in front of the guest theatre.  Basically, we saw a lot of people who know people, but who aren't "people" themselves.  That wasn't exactly what we had planned.  However, the trip wasn't entirely fruitless.  We saw a newscaster who is undoubtedly well-known somewhere in the world:

We watched the poor girl practice her part (walking across the red carpet, speaking to the camera and then proceeding to walk straight into the pillar next to her - presumably in a choreographed attempt to enter platform 9 3/4) about 200 times.  She was coached by both the producer and the cameraman.  I've been dying to find the actual clip somewhere; we think it might have been a Spanish MTV or Disney.  If anyone has seen it, please let me know the YouTube URL. 

We also saw the contestants of X Factor.  Since all three of us are Americans and don't follow British reality shows, that didn't mean much.  But everyone else was happy:

Don't worry.  We did see some of the Harry Potter stars:

Dean Thomas
Mr. Weasley (not on the stairs; look directly to the left of the purple glove)
Ron (Rupert Grint) [just trust me here.  I promise he's the blurry
head in the middle]
Hermione (Emma Watson) both here and below [Here in the
 middle with the short, dark hair.  Below in the center left.]
She was definitely the star of the show.

We also saw Kingsley Shaklebolt and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe).  Daniel came down after Emma and Rupert and I had decided, by then, that I just wanted to watch instead of wasting my time trying to get him on film (I actually didn't think I had been able to snap the pictures fast enough initially, so I was pleasantly surprised to find my pictures of Mr. Weasley and Emma).  

Unfortunately, we were unable to see any of the other actors and actresses because they all entered another theatre elsewhere in the square.  I was disappointed, I admit, but at the end of the day, there were other joys that made the experience worth it.  First, I was able to spend the day with and get to know Christine, the wife of one of the other new students in the Cambridge LDS congregation.  I was also able to meet Victoria, a ten year old celeb expert who wanted to add Emma Watson's signature to her home collection, which includes the signature of Angelina Jolie.  And I got to talk quite a bit with her lovely Spanish mother, who was so excited to hear our "beautiful" American accents (she had learned "American English" in school). She and I were so comfortable with each other by the end of the day that we shared my package of milk chocolate Digestives (British cookies), passing it back and forth like old friends.