Back From Abroad!

Back From Abroad!

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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…

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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:

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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:

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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!

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We visited Stonehenge and Bath:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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.

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

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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! ❤

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Hello Lent.

Hello Lent.

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“Lent is a time to renew wherever we are in that process I call the divine therapy. It’s a time to look at what our instinctual needs are, look at what the dynamics of our unconscious are.” –Thomas Keating

I’m scheduling this post to go up early, before Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, to give any readers who want to participate in Ash Wednesday/Lent fully but weren’t aware it was upon us (hey, you never know!) a heads-up. Mardi Gras will be celebrated by bringing doughnuts to my team at work, and an early Valentine’s Day dinner at home with Husband. Hope you all have a wonderful run-up to Ash Wednesday!

Lent. Where to even begin? Lent is my favorite liturgical season. It resonates. It’s powerful. The secular world feels it too—lapsed, or cafeteria, or wholly secular Christians go to Ash Wednesday services and give things up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is NOT a holy day of obligation, and yet masses are often standing room only. What is this phenomenon?

People who have never encountered Lent often think of it as a time of somber misery and self-sacrifice, and in some ways that’s true. It certainly can be. What they don’t understand, which is indeed a profound and resonant irony, is that we CRAVE this time of reckoning. I think one explanation for the overwhelming popularity of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that the human soul craves a memento mori in a world that bombards us with the lie that immortality is achievable and suffering is avoidable…that life is about looking and feeling good, so we should chase those things forever on a nihilistic hamster wheel.

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The thing is…our souls know these messages are false, and like cleaning house after a raucous party, we crave the harsh soul-scrubbing and deeply personalized asceticism Lent offers us. It’s the antidote to the slow-acting poison of an “I’m ok, you’re ok,” culture, a materially driven culture, a nihilistic culture that leaves us, even subconsciously, cringing interiorly at its crass falsehoods.

There is nothing in the secular world that does this. No time or holiday or event that grabs our shoulders, stares into our eyes and says, “Life is hard. It’s full of suffering you can’t escape. You’re going to weaken, and die, and decay. And that’s ok. Your suffering isn’t for nothing. The arc of life isn’t a tragedy. You don’t need to be a slave to your body’s desires and cravings. You don’t need to be a slave to your heart’s desires and cravings. You can do the hard, good thing and in doing so, you’ll sanctify yourself and the world. Now go do it.” There is nothing in our culture that does this, because this message is inherently counter-cultural. To be told to lay down the transient material to free ourselves to choose the good– an objective, not subjective, good– that is counter-cultural.

I was so pumped for Lent last year. I had prepared very consciously, had a list of spiritual practices I was going to adopt, things to give up, things I was going to begin. Lent began on March 1st. On March 13th Grandma died.

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It was such an interesting experience—having to put down the mantle of self-imposed discipline and symbolic mourning, and pick up the mantle of actual mourning. Actual death. Every single goal, every single plan, every single hope and idea went directly out the window. I ate ALL the sweets—cake, chocolate, doughnuts…I spent a fortune on eating sushi for dinner almost every night for literally weeks. I didn’t pray. I didn’t talk to God, or Grandma. I just sat in my house, first in a stunned shock and then in an agonized bereavement. At the time, I thought my Lent had been a total failure. Looking back, it was the most real, painful Lent I hope I ever experience. I had thought I knew what I needed to do to temper my soul, but God had other plans, and I was swept along by them as in a current, with no choice but to yield.

I didn’t want to make too many plans this year, but it’s always good to decide on concrete goals rather than general, wishy-washy ideas so that you have something measurable to hold yourself to. Many of my goals are going to be tucked away in my heart, where only God can know them, and likely I won’t even share them with Husband. Husband has these too…silent promises known only to him. These goals aren’t secret, rather, they are sacred…kept safe in quiet corners of our souls where they can germinate in this winter cold, and hopefully bear fruit by Easter.

I can tell you a bit about them, though: I always try to do the hard-and-fast traditional abstinence from meat (not just Fridays!), desserts, treats of various kinds, and expensive or indulgent meals. We don’t eat t a lot of meat, so I’m expanding this to include dairy for myself. I often begin new spiritual practices, or dedicate myself to old ones that have fallen away. Husband and I try to prioritize charitable giving in ways that are most feasible to us. Bad habits get tackled and extraneous demands on our attention are pruned.  Not everyone’s sacrifices and penances look like this, and that’s ok. We do what’s calling us, what is placed on our hearts, and despite what it might look like from the outside, there isn’t a hierarchy of holiness determined by self-imposed suffering. It’s not about suffering– it’s about a quiet transformation.

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A few final thoughts on Lent:

We love Lent the way we love having a sparkling clean house. Scrubbing the toilet isn’t fun, but the result is always worth it. To put a more nuanced point on it, Lent shows us that the process of scrubbing– the sacrifice, the painful, un-glamorous, tedious, hard part– is the part that does the most good. The clean toilet, or whatever metaphorical object you care to replace it with, is just a pleasant addition to the value you gain inwardly in doing the hard, good thing. In the end, you want to be a person to whom “keeping a clean house,” comes naturally and without constant struggle. Practice makes perfect!

Lent is a time for personal retreat from the things the world wants to inundate us with, distract us with. The world wants all of your spare time to be spent on Netflix, and Facebook, and Reddit, and Twitter, and bad food, and anxiety, and obsessions, and lies. Lent offers us a retreat from these things, because these things aren’t spiritually enriching, and they don’t define us. It is weird to say to my Facebook groups “I’m checking out for Lent, see you in six weeks!” but it feels so good. And if that’s too much retreat from any given thing, that’s ok. Sundays are mini-feasts and technically don’t “count,”so if you care to observe them traditionally by revisiting whatever it is you’ve put aside for six days a week, that’s fine! The one exception to this is if you are trying to break or build a specific habit, in which case Sunday indulgences could compromise the overall goal.

Despite all this talk about tempering ourselves during this time, Lent is a really profound time to think about the world, and to orient our perspective so that we no longer appear to be at the center of it. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. At least two of these direct our attention to the world outside our own heads, outside our own experiences. All three do, in fact, but if you’re new to fasting I can tell you that you think about yourself A LOT while hungry. But even this type of self-focused thinking can help us to reflect on the world around us– how many people in the world feel hunger all the time, and how lucky am I that I only feel this way if I choose to?

St. Benedict warned his sixth century monks that during Lent, they shouldn’t be taking on anything that is truly burdensome or harsh. This isn’t about setting ourselves up for failure or pain. This is about reevaluating our place in this cosmos, our relationship to God, and what we need to do to bring about order from disorder.

Keep an eye out for my next post, “20 Thing To Do For Lent,” a short list of ideas for preparing your home and your heart for the upcoming season, as well as ideas for things to take on this year.

Whatever you choose this season, whatever you take on or give up, whatever changes you make, whatever resolutions sit nestled in your heart, may they all be graced with guidance, love and mercy. May you have a blessed Lent!

 

 

*Photo credit in this post goes to Senior Airman Jensen Stidham for his beautiful photo of a little girl receiving ashes at the Shaw Air Force Base, February 2015.

 

 

 

 

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Ghosts of Christmas Past

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Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world. She owned it. She reveled in it. Christmas was a glorious celebration of things she loved most in life—children and gifts. Gift giving was her love language. There are few people in the world as materially generous as she was. She had grown up poor during the Depression, with an alcoholic father, her mother dying when she was just twelve. Painfully, she recalled the single dress she wore to school, day in and day out, the bags of goods handed out, or brought to their home, marking them the poor family on the block. There were other poor children, lots of them in fact, but that didn’t matter. She was still ashamed. When she had money later in life, when Poppie was retired and their house paid for, they could do anything they wanted, and so they did it. Part of what she wanted was to bring joy through giving. Boy, did she do it.

It varied from $5-$20 here and there, candies, treats, spontaneous dinners out any old time… to $1,000 for a friend who had a medical bill come due, $100 tucked into anonymous Christmas cards for our friends who had no idea where they came from or who the giver could be, grocery shopping sprees for my then-boyfriend (who would become Husband), and vacations by boat and by plane to faraway lands with her two loves—Sister and me.

But like I said, Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world.

For years, decades, since before I was born, Christmas Eve was celebrated at her house at a big party for friends and family. Aggie, her oldest sister, and Aggie’s husband Unc, Gloria, a dear friend and neighbor, Auntie Geri, a best friend and relative of Poppie…and so many relatives besides. All are dead now, and she was the last. The ghosts of Christmas Past.

Her tree often went up December first. We helped her decorate, of course. Every kind of beautiful glass ornament shone from the artificial tree that almost touched the ceiling with it’s pointed glass gold topper, the bottom branches laden with her handmade ornaments. She’d made them over the years, full of beads, lace, sequins, and every color of the rainbow, each a little treasure. Beneath the tree was a village, every little house and shop lighted, a mirror for a skating pond, miniature Christmas trees and white fluff for snow completing a scene I wanted to shrink down into and live in. An army of nutcrackers of every shape and size stood sentinel atop the hi-fi cabinet near the ceiling. Bringing them up from the garage each year was like greeting old friends. The cavalry of rocking horses, also of all shapes and sizes, surmounted the mantle, no less than fifty Christmas cards tucked behind them from every friend, relative and acquaintance she stayed in touch with by mail.

And after December first, there were so many other things to do each year that marked the coming of The Best Holiday Ever. One afternoon was always reserved for making gingerbread boys, which we would decorate with multi-colored powered sugar icing, and every kind of candy sprinkle imaginable. One evening was slated for visiting Auntie Marcie’s Christmas Bazaar—a craft sale held in the basement of her cousin’s San Bruno home as a church benefit, amid a bustling party. We loved this sale, because everything was handmade and charming, and affordable for children who needed to spend their allowance money to buy their family gifts. Alongside my parents she would sit in the school auditorium as we sang in the annual Christmas pageant. These events, and many more besides, were sacramental in their ritual and sacredness—to her, they made the season bright, and through them she made it bright for us.

Food was always a highlight of the Christmas Eve party. The dining room table was moved aside, pushed against the front windows to become a buffet table. As the food was warming in the oven and on the stove and in the toaster oven (no microwave in her house), the Christmas dishes were laid out—serving platters, tiered cookie trays, dinner plates (purposely mismatched), appetizer plates (also mismatched), and serving utensils all lovingly collected over decades, all Christmas themed. Everyone got a different Christmas plate, but she always took the one Spode with the Christmas tree on it.

The coffee table held the mini hot dogs, and the butterfly-shaped dish with mustard and ketchup in the wings, a shot glass of toothpicks and a stack of cocktail napkins handy. The dining room table held the feast. Two kinds of stuffed shells (chicken with white sauce, spinach with red), pizza squares, teriyaki chicken wings, “Swedish” meatballs (really Italian), macaroni salad, Italian cold cuts, deviled eggs, homemade baklava, little finger sandwiches, smoked salmon, and trays of cookies. The butterballs and shortbread were brought by Gloria—dear Gloria, with her booming voice, her perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, her painted fingernails, who always took the corner chair in the living room by the hall next to the hi-fi. She ate pigs feet, and drank whisky, and was Irish and feisty, and loved Sister and I like we were her own grandchildren, but really we were no relation except of dearest friendship. She loved watermelon candy. In the run up to Christmas, I’d go with Gram to the Sweet Factory at the mall and fill blue-striped cellophane bags full of all their watermelon flavors to give to Gloria Christmas Eve. She was generous, and always shared with me.

All the many presents Sister and I got from Grandma and Poppie, and from everyone else except Santa, were opened Christmas Eve. Toys and clothes, books, cards with checks inside…all the generosity and love that marks the season overflowed in the living room, where everyone sat on the claw-footed sofa, love seat, chairs lined up around the edges with TV trays open before them and Burl Ives or Andy Williams crooning from the record player. She was Swedish, she always said, and the Swedes always did Christmas on Christmas Eve. She wasn’t wrong. Her father, such as he was, was from Stockholm. They had always done presents on Christmas Eve. It was just what she knew and loved.

Sister and I wore our Christmas dresses, usually matching, with white stockings and mary janes. Grandma wore her festive trousers—our favorite ones, black with multi-colored polka dots—and held a highball of brandy and ginger ale clinking in a lowball glass. Poppie sat in the chair on the other side of the hi-fi from Gloria, an uncharacteristic beer in a tall pilsner glass propped on the Infinity speaker (vodka and soda would follow), his cheeks immaculately smooth, white moustache trimmed ever-so-neatly, smelling of original Old Spice and soap.

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I can hear these ghosts now. I can smell them and taste them. I can feel their hands on my cheeks, see the joy on their faces, feel the warmth of their hugs. And I absolutely cannot fathom that they are dead and gone, and that this Christmas—a relaxing, loving, delightful Christmas—was the first in what will be a lifetime of Christmases without her. Without them. Without any of them. With all of it totally dead and gone.

In the months after her passing, I realized just how easy it would be to develop a real kind of psychosis. If I just spoke the way she did, said the things she said, made her gestures (all known by heart), I could just become her, and so keep her alive. If I sang her songs, if I told her stories, if I called myself “Fessie,” with an “f,” the way only she did…I could be her, and she wouldn’t have to leave me. Each time that thought occurred to me, I immediately realized “this is how multiple personality disorder happens.” Maybe. In a way, those thoughts were the same kind of everyday intrusives that anyone has– “I could step in front of this B.A.R.T train,” “I could totally just drive off this cliff,” “I could yell ‘bomb’ in a crowded airport,” the kind that for healthy people are immediately followed with “That was a weird thought,” and then dismissed as the fleeting fiction they are. “I could create a second personality so as to keep my dead Grandmother alive,” seems infinitely more complicated, and uncomfortably reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie plot, but, naturally, it too was followed immediately by “No.”

“No. That’s not how we keep our loved ones alive.”

“I know. But I could…”

“No. You couldn’t. Everything you’d be trying to hold on to is already gone.”

“I know.”

And I do know. I know that the way I keep them alive is by reliving their memories, and sharing them. Right now, they hurt so much. They hurt so much that over Christmas I tried really hard not to think about them at all. And I did great! Until two days ago, when the dam failed again and I apologized to Husband through spontaneous sobs that came unbidden as we were falling asleep. I think he’s learning that the tears aren’t the hurt, they are the healing. I’m learning this too.

I’m learning. I’m remembering. I’m holding on.

 

 

 

 

A Trappist Retreat

A Trappist Retreat

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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

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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):

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You can visit their sweet bookstore and gift shop:

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You can visit their beautiful rose garden:

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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):

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

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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:

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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