Back From Abroad!

Back From Abroad!

lon21

We’re home!! And it was wonderful, magical, challenging, expensive, enchanting, familiar, exotic, and as always, life-changing and perspective-changing. It was a terrific adventure.

But first things first, my apologies for being extremely quiet over the last two months. The updates dwindled because of extremely challenging, very precarious events taking place at work which came to a head, spilling fourth drama the likes of which I have never seen in my professional life before. It caused anxiety and stress that I also have never experienced in my professional life, and a lot of uncertainty regarding the future. HOWEVER. It seems the storm is passing and things are really looking up, so now that the flurry of crazy has died down, I’m looking forward to directing my mental energy back to the things that make me really happy, this blog being one of them!

OK. With that out of the way…

lon1

It was marvelous, guys. I could write about the wicked financial hangover we’re nursing (…we knew it was coming, and feel it was worth it, but it still hurts!), or the inevitable let-down of returning to every day life (not as bad as last time!), or the very real challenges that the three of us encountered that make up the experience of travel…but I won’t bother, because all of those things pale in comparison to the graces upon grace that we were given daily, and the seeds that have been planted in our souls from these experiences, preparing to bloom and ripen over the coming months and years. I sincerely hope you don’t get terribly bored of seeing travel pictures and hearing travel stories, because that’s going to be a major theme of my blog for a long time to come!

We started our trip in London, staying in a beautiful apartment in an award-winning, eco-friendly building in Elephant and Castle, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that won our hearts immediately. This was the view from our bedroom:

lon2

We stayed in London for four days, and it was fantastic! We did a lot of sightseeing, catching up on sleep, walking, riding the busses and the underground…but the downside was that London was in the middle of the the worst heatwave they’ve ever had and we were hot as HELL. Poor London just doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with heat like that, and our apartment, the busses, the tube, basically everywhere, didn’t have adequate air conditioning. We were sweating buckets and remained sticky the entire time. Still, we did the best we could and saw some glorious sights:

lon4

lon5

Possibly our favorite London experience was getting to eat at St. John, a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by renowned chef Fergus Henderson. Who I met. Who I got to thank. Who I kind of fangirl-fawned over as I gushed to him, and who graciously thanked me and told me he hoped we enjoyed our lunch. Guys…it was basically the highlight of the entire trip. I almost cried several times after returning to my table, but forced myself to hold back the tears remembering I was wearing mascara. Oh, the food was outstanding, by the way! I’m planning to do a second food retrospective post for this trip, so you’ll get to see what we ate!

lon6

We visited Stonehenge and Bath:

lon7

lon8

Both were lovely. This was the most touristy thing we did, and it was fun but I wouldn’t do them again (at least not by chartered tour bus). This was a challenging day because we were all very tired and Sister was worn thin, but we still got many fun memories out of it and I will definitely remember it fondly.

lon9

Husband and I got to do a day exploring London on our own while Sister rested, and we had the best time! We visited ancient tea shops and ancient perfume shops (surprise, surprise, Husband bought his very first grown-up cologne and it’s MAGICAL). We visited the London Transport Museum, to Husband’s delight, and we visited my beloved Twining’s tea shop, to my delight.

lon10

Then in the evening we ate at this lovely place, a beautiful pub. There is so much beauty in the U.K., it’s almost unbelievable. Everywhere you look there is something ancient, eternal and charming looking back at you. The details make all the difference, and we were constantly looking at each other and saying things like “This is REAL! It isn’t Disneyland…it’s REAL!” It sounds so silly, but the beauty, the details…they fed us. They fed us right up, filling starving parts of our souls that we didn’t even know needed nourishment.

lon11

After London we took the train to Holyhead (home of the Holyhead Harpies, for you Harry Potter fans!) and stayed in a lovely B&B. I took an evening stroll by myself and was rewarded with these vistas.

lon12

The next day we took a ferry to Dublin and, after a near-disaster regarding return-ferry scheduling that Husband heroically solved, we spent seven hours in this remarkably and stunningly beautiful city.

lon13

lon14

lon15

lon16

lon17

We decided immediately that next time, Dublin is where we’ll be coming, sorry London! We’ve had enough of you! Dublin was just…comfortable. Next to the hustle and bustle of London, Dublin was like your grandpa’s easy chair…we felt we could sink into it with a hot drink (a real Irish coffee, perhaps) and just stay indefinitely. Alas, we had to return to Holyhead…but thankfully we got a stateroom on the return journey, and one with a fantastic view:

lon18

Mostly we slept, though. Then, of course, we got to Conwy. OH, CONWY.

lon19

lon20

lon22

If you read my (long) post about Wales you’ll know my love for Conwy. I can’t possibly reiterate it here, but suffice it to say, Conwy is my most favorite place on earth. If any place feeds the starving parts of my soul, it is north Wales, and Conwy might as well be the capital.

lon24

lon25

lon23

Of course, there are other stunning towns in north Wales, like the almost absurdly picturesque Llanwrst:

lon26

lon27

lon29

We spent a few days in the north just taking in the splendor, and then said goodbye to Conwy at it’s lovely little train station:

lon31

Now we are home, jet lagged, still needing to do laundry, unpack, prepare for the work week (I return tomorrow!). But I’m going to ease back into the grind, and I have a handful of changes that I’m going to be making to improve my quality of life. Last August I wrote a post called “First Fruits,” discussing the “fruit” that travel bears in the weeks after returning home. I’m already seeing these first fruits, but I’m looking forward to the harvest, which will come in time. Of course, it feels so good to be home. Traveling is exhausting and it’s wonderful to be in my own bed again, with my own sweet kitty curled up next to me. We are so lucky and so grateful, and we’ll definitely bask in this glow for weeks to come.

 

 

Pools, Pies and Other Happy Things

Pools, Pies and Other Happy Things

Hi guys! Hope you had a lovely weekend. It sure did feel summery for the first time in my neck of the woods. It was hot enough to take a dip in the pool for the first time, but I contented myself with reading by the pool yesterday evening instead, lounging luxuriously in a chaise, a bag of new library books at my side.

IMG_0016

I want to share what I’ve been up to lately, which isn’t terribly much, but even so makes me feel like life is moving a light-speed these days! It’s nuts. I remember the heavy, dragging, almost hopeless feeling of slogging through the winter months (reflected in many of my January, February and March posts), feeling like they would simply NEVER end. Now, the days are flying by and I’m trying to keep up with it all!

The main item on our plates at the moment is health and weight (I know, SNORE). I have good news on this score, finally! I know you have patiently read through many posts of mine where I complain about food, cooking, wanting to get fit and lose weight, and all kinds of thoughts on that topic. As it turns out, I’ve finally developed a food routine that works for me, and I’ve lost nine pounds in the last five weeks, just from altering my eating habits. Husband and I are both adding in regular exercise starting this week (expensive gym membership is cancelled and use of the free gym in our complex is being embraced!). This is a fun and gratifying journey, and I hope to continue until I hit my goal. I’ll share more about what I’ve been doing food-wise in a future post. 🙂

As you know, I have a weakness for things from the 1970s. I also have a weakness for embroidery, which I used to do often for fun while watching T.V. with Grandma, or listening to an audiobook. I’ve been wanting to start embroidering again, and happened to stumble upon the greatest find ever while browsing e-Bay last week: Jiffy Stitchery Crewel Embroidery Kits from the 1970s, unopened, listed by the hundreds online for delighted embroiderers/mid-century fanatics like me to purchase!

jiffy

Some designs are more complicated than others, some are PAINFULLY iconic of the ’70s vibe (brown and orange owls, anyone?) and most are just adorable. Because they’re very small designs (they all end up fitting into a 5”x7” frame when completed), they can be done in an evening or two. I ordered myself one for around $8 and completed it over two evenings:

IMG_0007

Oh! It makes me so happy! I can’t justify buying up a whole bunch of these at once, but as they’re inexpensive, I’m definitely going to be getting more here and there to do in the evenings. It’s so nice to have a fun craft to do while watching a movie or listening to music. It makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something while relaxing at the same time!

IMG_0006

After all those months of saying I was going to make a pie, I FINALLY did! I made the strawberry balsamic pie from the Four and Twenty Blackbirds cookbook. Husband generously said it was the best pie he’s ever eaten. As all I did was copy a recipe, I can’t take credit for that but it WAS unbelievably scrumptious and even amid this weight loss journey, I was happy to make room in my daily calories for a few pieces.

IMG_0009

Saturday I made homemade Thai iced tea with coconut milk, and visited two different libraries for all kinds of wonderful books and DVDs. While my stack of books is too huge to share in its entirety, these are two books I’m really looking forward to. I began The First Muslim this weekend and am finding it fascinating. I picked it up because I realized that I know almost nothing about Muhammad or the history of Islam, so I think it’ll make me a more educated person. So far, it’s beautifully written. I haven’t started The Year Without A Purchase yet, but it looks so promising!

The next four weekends are filled with get-togethers, camping trips (for Husband), friends, and summery activities of all sorts and I’m reveling in it. I feel more invigorated and motivated than I have in a long time, and so thankful for that. Husband and I have many other things going on behind-the-scenes that are strengthening our relationship, and it feels good to be in the midst of what feels like a renewal, of sorts.

What do you have going on these days? What are some things currently bringing you joy? Take care, all! ❤

IMG_0012

To London, With Love

To London, With Love

lon1

Sitting in the back of our MiniCab, we craned our necks to take in every detail of the landscape flying past. I hadn’t realized how far Heathrow was from London proper. Our driver, who had been so patient as we delayed and delayed, waiting in the endless customs line to enter the country, zipped down the freeway through construction detours, weaving carefully and quickly through traffic snares. I’m sure my eyes looked like saucers. It was like waking up and having the whole world as you know it reversed, the uncanny valley of familiarity meeting otherness.

We sped past farmland, neon yellow with flowering mustard, football stadiums, and eventually row housing that looked alarmingly decrepit. Entering London, we pulled to a stop just as a pedestrian smashed in the window of the car next to us, shouting. The light turned and we sped away before we could see what happened. I hadn’t known what to expect, but what I saw wasn’t it. Ancient buildings filthy with centuries of grime shot past, miles and miles of hyper-urban landscape swarming with people who didn’t look at all like myself, more hijabs than I had ever seen in one place, above-ground trains, unfamiliar signage and crossing signals, and the sheer immensity of London intimidated me…in fact, it terrified me.

lon9

Before we exited the cab at the Citizen M hotel, I was convinced I hated London. I was fearful, so nervous. Just the cab ride had given me real culture shock. I had expected something thoroughly Anglicized, romantic, quaint, something Victorian, something posh and refined. Maybe I expected a village, but instead I had gotten something like New York City—overwhelming urban sprawl that I hadn’t fathomed. I’d known about London of course—it’s types of crime, it’s population density, it’s demographics. That’s what’s so silly about my unexpected reaction. I knew London wasn’t those things I had been expecting! And it’s embarrassing to admit that I was at all taken aback by such things, but I’m being brutally honest here– I was. It was like meeting a blind date who’ve you’ve only seen a tiny, pixelated picture of. Suddenly you see them in the flesh and regardless of what they’ve told you about themselves, they are nothing like what you anticipated. I wanted to hide in my hotel. I was afraid of so much otherness, so much that was unfamiliar.

lon5

Husband was ecstatic. He wanted to walk, to dig into this place and get to know it. Knowing I hadn’t traveled all this way to sit in my hotel being afraid, we walked to a tea shop I wanted to visit, and ate savory pies at a fancy restaurant. Following a route Husband made up as we went along, we passed the Royal Courts of Justice, the London School of Economics, strolled by Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. We walked and walked and walked. And as we walked I relaxed a bit, amazed by the sights, sounds, smells, all the differences large and small that made this place “other.” Endless monuments, endless beautiful architecture, endless accents of many types. I was impressed by so much of what I saw, but I was also unable to form a real opinion—I felt like a toddler, taking the whole of creation in for the first time, with no frame of reference through which to judge it or to orient myself.

lon11

And then, when it looked like I was beginning to soften, I had a bit of a meltdown. After many hours of walking, and after Husband’s thoughtful warnings that we had a long walk still ahead of us, I became very physically and mentally weary and began to crack. It was in the theatre district that I started to panic. Swarms of people were out on the sidewalks, ales in hand, enjoying the warm late afternoon sunshine. I perceived that it was growing late and I was exhausted, quickly getting hungrier and hungrier. Husband showed me how far we had wandered from our hotel—we were at least an hour’s walk back. I had had just enough novelty and suddenly felt overwhelmed, stranded, frightened, and alone for no good reason at all. I actually started crying a little (I’m not proud of this memory). I moaned and groaned, and was a thorough pain in the ass for poor Husband who was having a ball and couldn’t see what the matter was! Patiently, he led the way back to our hotel as I seethed in high dudgeon and anxiety that continued to bubble up, despite the good time I’d had over the last few hours. I can’t remember what we ate for dinner, but it was near our hotel. Our jet lag kept us up very late despite our exhaustion, and when we came-to it was noon.

I woke up knowing that I hated London. I had wanted to befriend it on my terms, ones I had imagined for it, and it had failed me. Nevertheless, I was willing to try again. I regretted sleeping in so late. Still, we had enough time to walk over to the Tower of London by way of Borough Market and take a tour, before meandering leisurely back to catch a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the nearby Shakespeare Globe theatre. This second day, rested and well-fed, the vastness of London—cobblestones, wide streets, enormous bridges and seemingly endless sprawl—was less of a shock.

lon6

We had a wonderful time! I got a picture with the first female Beefeater, we ate sausages and cake, drank ale and tea, saw the burial sites of people like Anne Boleyn. As I stood in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula I closed my eyes and imagined– my soul remembering a time and place never seen, manifesting love for people never met, missing memories never had. So many sights in London make you feel this way. London holds the present in its palm, but gestures at the vastness of yesterday, reminding you that you are merely passing through…that it alone will remain. This experience was so different compared to the day before. Well rested, I was better oriented. I felt safer, I had a mental grasp on the place I was in. The crowds of people I felt were pressing in on me the day before were, today, just people enjoying the sunshine.

lon8

That evening, we climbed into the balcony of an historic theatre, roof open to the warm night air, and spent the next four hours transported into another world—one of hilarity, beauty, and utter magic, the evening stars twinkling overhead. We left the theatre and grabbed huge bowls of pasta across the street, unable to find words adequate for what we had just experienced. “That was, hands down, the best performance of any kind I have ever seen in my entire life,” Husband proclaimed. I smiled in total agreement as I devoured spicy fusilli. Something had clicked that day. First impressions aren’t always accurate. I had given London a second chance, and it had wooed me. I began to “get” London. It was working its magic on me, but I had to approach it on its terms, not mine.

lon3

We boarded a train the following morning and spent the next few hours whizzing through impossibly beautiful English countryside dotted with sheep, low stone walls and hedgerows bisecting green meadows spilling over with blooms. I realized why England is known for its lush greenery—every nook and cranny, where in America there would dwell a weed, here bloomed a flower. At the base of stop signs, sprouting from cracks in sidewalks, every growing plant turned a colorful face to the sun. We disembarked in Cardiff, Wales and in unseasonably warm sunshine we sat in the verdant and charming Sophia Park sipping tea, falling in love all over again—with Wales, with the United Kingdom, with traveling, with each other.

Wales was one of the best adventures of my life. I won’t go into it because I could write a novella about my love affair with Wales, so I’ll save that for another time.  Trust me when I say, we fell HARD for the Welsh people, the Welsh countryside, the Welsh language, and everything Wales had to offer. It was a visit to Middle Earth for us, and it nourished something deep inside the quiet parts of our sleeping souls we didn’t know we needed.

lon2

I boarded the train back to London on our last day in the UK and sped back to the city that made me feel a thousand different things. For the second time, we walked. We walked to the Houses of Parliament, walked to the London Eye, walked to King’s Cross Station to visit Platform 9 ¾. We stopped for the second time at Twinings on the Strand (established 1706!) and spent a small fortune on tea. This time around, I wasn’t anxious. London, after such a short and volatile romance, had us both at its mercy. I accepted it on its terms, not mine, and its generosity overflowed. I teared up again flying westward, leaving pieces of my heart behind. I had always ached to experience Britain. Now I had, and despite my anxieties of various kinds, I had fallen as deeply in love with it as I always thought I would.

Some people hate traveling. There are several I know in my immediate family alone who could gladly die happy never having left home again. And after lifetimes of hard work, why should they leave home to spend money elsewhere and be uncomfortable for a brief period of time? Travel isn’t easy. It’s hard on the bank account and hard on they body. If you’re like me, travel can spark anxiety and strangely agoraphobic episodes! The unknown and unfamiliar can be legitimately terrifying, even when there isn’t any real threat present. Being in unfamiliar places can be threat enough to a person prone to nerves at the best of times. But here’s the thing…

lon10

Stepping far outside our comfort zones forces us to adapt and reveals parts of ourselves we might not know exist. I didn’t expect to react to London so negatively. After that first day, I didn’t expect to ever thaw towards it, either. But in a remarkably tiny space of time, I not only had all kinds of preconceived notions quashed, but was forced to reflect upon what those preconceived notions meant about me, about what makes me uncomfortable and why. I got to reframe my discomfort, and ultimately let it go when I realized that much of it was baseless and silly. And that was liberating and rewarding.

The upshot is that I have absolutely zero qualms or anxieties about our forthcoming trip. London is far too old, far too big, and far too complex for me to ever fully “get” it, but I like to think that we are friends insofar as a person can befriend a place. I’m looking forward to introducing Sister to it, and to seeing Husband (London’s fast friend) reunite with a place he appreciated from the beginning. I’m excited to see parts of it I haven’t seen, taste things I haven’t tasted, and step once again outside of the familiar—the place where true adventure begins. We’ll reunite on its terms, not mine, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

lon7

A Trappist Retreat

A Trappist Retreat

vinagrapes2

It’s finally, finally Summer vacation!!

Husband and I took just over two weeks off of work and headed north to the Sierra foothills to spend time with our families, and to get some much-needed nature therapy. I’ll be posting some of the wonderful adventures we’ve been having in future posts, but for this post, I wanted to share what I did the first four days of my vacation— a wonderful retreat with my mother to the Trappist monastery The Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux in Vina, California.

vinabike

My mother and I had the pleasure of doing a three-day retreat to New Clairvaux last January. While it was restorative and peaceful, our hearts were heavy and rather than being spiritually fruitful, it was largely just a rest for us both. Time away from our troubles. Grandma had been very ill and unhappy, and she had been put on hospice care the week prior, which was both a blessing and cause for sadness. After Grandma passed, my mom decided to treat me to another retreat in the warm summertime…and boy, was it incredible! 

The Abbey of New Clairvaux is home to some amazing Trappist monks who have traditionally supported themselves by growing prunes and walnuts. Within the last ten years, however, they have branched out and began growing grapes and making award-winning wines, as well. Located just north of Chico, they are really in the middle of nowhere…and the peace and quiet of their abbey is unparalleled.

vinagrapes4

Their four-day weekend retreats are self-guided, meaning you determine what to do with your time yourself while at the abbey. There are many lovely things to do!

There are plenty of little nooks and crannies in the lush garden to relax with some devotional reading or in which to pray:

vinagreen2

vinagreen1

You can visit the beautiful koi pond behind the visitors center:

vinapond

vinapond2

You can visit the St. Cecilia Chapel, where I had the pleasure and honor of praying for many dear friends, near and far:

vinachapel

vinachapel2

You can visit their fantastic library, stuffed to the gills with Catholic books on all kinds of topics (an additional two big bookcases not pictured):

vinalibrary

You can visit their sweet bookstore and gift shop:

vinabookstore

You can visit their beautiful rose garden:

vinaroses

At mealtimes, you can get a simple, wholesome, vegetarian meal prepared by the monks in the guest kitchen (pictured– a mid-day snack of salad, homemade wheat bread with cheese, home-grown prunes and sliced melon):

vinakitchen

vinafood

You can even choose to eat in the silent dining room, if you decide to do a silent retreat:

vinakitchen2

There are many outdoor tables, including this awesome table made out of a huge slab of stone that reminded me very much of The Stone Table from Narnia:

vinatable

You can take a walk on the paths surrounding the orchard and vineyards:

vinagrapes

One of the days we were there, we visited their tasting room. We got to enjoy a taste of six of their incredible wines! If you are a wine drinker, I highly recommend joining their wine club (info at their website). In the Trappist tradition, everything they make is excellent.

vinawinery

vinawinery2

A must-see is the chapel that they are re-building, which was originally a medieval chapel deconstructed and shipped to the U.S. by William Randolph Hearst:

vinastones

This is a monumental task, and they have been at it since the early 1990s, I believe. The stones were shipped over, and then unceremoniously dumped in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when the Hearst estate decided not to use them. As a child, I played on these huge stones in the park! Thankfully, after petitioning the Hearst estate, they were given the stones and are using them to construct this chapel, set to be completed this year.

One of the most enriching aspects of visiting the abbey is getting to attend the liturgy of the hours with the monks. Vigils at 3:30 a.m., Lauds and Mass at 5:45 a.m., Terce at 9:00 a.m., Sext at noon, None at 2:30 p.m., Vespers at 5:45 p.m., Compline at 7:35 p.m., after which begins Great Silence (no talking until Mass the following morning). Visitors don’t have to join the monks for these short periods of chanted prayer and contemplation, but it is SO worth it to join them. It creates structure during day, and keeps God on your mind while chanting the ancient psalms to ancient melodies.

vinagreen3

I went for many long walks, and was blessed with much insight into spiritual issues I had been wrestling with. It really goes to show that when you take the time to listen— to slow your pace, to quieten your mind, to do nothing but speak with your Creator— God will answer you. It can be such a revelation that it isn’t God who refuses to speak to us, but us who refuse to listen for his Voice.

vinagrapes6

In January, I had been facing sadness, anxiety, and stress. As uncharitable as it is, I felt envious of the monks. They chose a life that renounced all of the complications that I had, seemingly foolishly, bought into. All of the things that had been driving me crazy, I had to go back to. There was no escaping them. I wanted to stay with the monks, and I was filled with a hopeless anger at myself that I’d done the things I’d done to build this life of complicated worldliness. I regretted having to return home so much.

Yet this time, I didn’t feel that way. I’m happier and less anxious about my life, for many reasons. Grandma passing is one of them, in a strange way, because the anxiety of her suffering is over. This time around, I found such calm, peaceful happiness. I felt so enriched, so blessed. I had so many little encounters that were placed before me with such clear grace and wisdom, and my heart swelled in gratitude many times.

vinagreen5

I am so grateful to have had this time to visit with them again, and that it was so spiritually nourishing. I sincerely hope everyone who wants to may be given the opportunity to visit them. While most of us do have to return to the hustle and bustle of regular life, the wisdom of the monastics can direct us, guiding us in even the most hectic of times, reminding us to invite peace and silence into our daily lives, no matter where we are.

Abbey of New Clairvaux website: http://www.newclairvaux.org