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.

 

 

The World Keeps Turning

The World Keeps Turning

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When I was twelve I developed an obsession with dragons—the monsters of European legend—full-winged, long-snouted, fire-breathing mythical beasts. When I say obsession, I am not speaking in hyperbole. I had books about dragons, and posters of them. I had dragon necklaces, earrings, candles, statues. I had an incense holder shaped liked a dragon, mouth open to let the steady stream of smoke issue forth. Grandma cheerfully and enthusiastically bolstered my dragon collection, surprising me with tiny figurines, beautiful decorative candles, and many other dragon-y things. One weekend in eighth grade I visited a bookstore in Sacramento with a friend and her dad. Browsing a table of shiny new paperbacks, my eye came to rest on a book that would change my life: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Intrigued by the title I bought the book, brought it home and started reading it in slow spurts, flipping through to find parts that attracted me, skipping much of it. It was a dense tome of historical fiction—no dragons to speak of—about the reign of medieval King John and his relationship with the princes of Wales.

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The writing was beautiful, and the book remained a treasured item, but at the time I wasn’t quite ready for it. Over the next few years I often thumbed through it, seeking out the passages I’d come to enjoy reading, revisiting parts that sparked my imagination. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally finished reading Here Be Dragons cover to cover. By then my obsession with dragons as literal creatures had faded, but Sharon Kay Penman had fueled a new passion—dragons as people: the Welsh people, who proudly fly a red dragon on their country’s flag. The sweeping, epic tale told with Penman’s signature meticulous historical accuracy was the single most entrancing piece of fiction I had read (except perhaps, for Harry Potter). A few months after moving to San Francisco and settling into my new room at Grandma’s house, I bought a language book (we had no internet) and taught myself Welsh. Actually, I taught myself Welsh pronunciation to the best of my ability. My intent was to decode the mystifying Welsh words and names scattered liberally through Penman’s book—“cariad,” “Adda” “Llewelyn,” “LLanfiar,” “Gwenwynwyn,” “Powys,” “Tangwystl,”—or to make sense of long proverbs the characters sometimes utter (“Y mae dafad ddu ym mhob paridd”). How on earth does an English speaker make sense of these bizarre strings of consonants?

So, I taught myself. I taped words for the days of the week, colors, and numbers on my wall like in a child’s bedroom. On the computers at City College (where I had enrolled in a Culinary Arts program) I began planning a solo trip to Wales, mapping out all the places of historical significance I wanted—no, needed!—to visit, the places “my friends” had touched and built.

Because you see, I had read this book so many times now that these people (who called out to me that day in the bookstore when I was twelve), were my friends. They made me care about them. They taught me things. They weren’t just names in a textbook. They were people with faults, hopes, dreams, loves…such is the magic of well-written historical fiction. Not only did I consider these historical figures my friends, I had begun to devour more books about their lives, and about medieval Welsh history. In a local bookstore I found the next two books in Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy—Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, both equally engrossing. I celebrated Welsh victories, I cried over Welsh tragedies. I held the land of Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon) close to my heart, valuing their unique culture and language, lamenting their centuries-past conquering by English king Edward the First.

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In early 2012, after I had moved out of Grandma’s house and into an apartment with my husband, Grandma had a series of significant health crises that would culminate in her never returning home. Otherwise alone in San Francisco, I was run ragged for weeks visiting her in the hospital, helping move her to rehab facilities, staying with her…only to see her slide back into acute illness (she developed life-threatening C. Diff in the hospital) and enter the ICU. This was the first time in my life that I had been confronted with Grandma’s mortality, and the experience traumatized me. I remember the three-month span as agonizing. Unfathomable. Exhausting. I almost never stopped crying. There was a period when we believed her death was imminent, so I kept my cell phone next to my head in bed as I waited for the call I was certain would come any moment, to give me the worst news I could imagine. Up until this point, I had understood Grandma’s mortality as an intellectual concept only. I knew she would one day die because all living things die. But I hadn’t understood it emotionally, and I couldn’t bear it.

Coupled with this trauma was the immediate necessity of cleaning out her home of fifty years and preparing it for the rental market. Gutting a place that had been my home, that contained some of my most cherished childhood memories, was agony. That’s the only way to describe it. I turned to my literary friends for comfort.

I re-read The Reckoning, which tells the life story of Llewellyn the Last, the final Welsh prince who was conquered (and murdered) by Edward the First’s forces in 1282. His death was of extreme significance. It signaled the end of Welsh independence for all time. He was profoundly mourned. His death wasn’t merely the fall of a beloved leader, it signified the fall of Wales. Penman deftly retells the aftermath, including a true anecdote of a bard named Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch who wrote and performed an elegy for Llewelyn in the days that followed. The elegy is long—this was an era that revered spoken poetry as entertainment—and conveys a grief so raw, so painful, and so haunting that it instantly resonated. I felt the bard calling out to me from the page, speaking to my unexpected grief at the devastation of life as I knew it, especially in one particular stanza:

“See you not the ocean scourging the shore?

See you not the truth is portending?

Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that world is ending?”

See you not that world is ending? Grandma was dying, something I couldn’t understand, and her house (my house!) was being packed up and disposed of…and my world was ending. I thought at the time that if I could have tattooed the entire elegy on my body somewhere I might have (an impossible feat). They were the only words that spoke to my pain, my confusion, my seemingly inconsolable grief and despair.

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But you know what’s funny? For a poem considered to be one the greatest examples of Welsh poetry and European literature of all time, the entire elegy is almost impossible to find. In those dark days, I scoured the internet, finding most of it in an ancient e-book someone had scanned and nowhere else. Even today when you Google it you might only find pieces of it, or articles dedicated to its historical significance…but not a translation, end-to-end. In the years following, I tried to revisit it several times, but it was difficult to track down. This piece of poetry had been my one comfort in my darkest days, but it was elusive, and I felt like the only living person on the planet who cared about it.

God works in mysterious ways. Grandma didn’t die in 2012. She stabilized, and then moved to assisted living in Roseville, improved and lived another five years. We occasionally talked about that terrible time, how upset I was, how horrible it had been…and how transformative it had been for me. After some time had passed, I realized I could now conceive of a world that didn’t contain Grandma. I had been abruptly forced to consider that reality, and never having considered it before, I had believed the world was ending. But I now knew what it was to feel the worst grief and pass through it, and I told her more than once while discussing her eventual passing that I knew I would be ok when the time came. I wasn’t saying it merely for her sake, but because I knew it to be true. I would be ok. I knew that day would come now, and I understood that life would move on.

So it has. Painfully. Sometimes with despair and lamenting and disbelief. But it has.

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In 2016, my husband and I traveled to Wales. My dream trip to the land of Y Ddraig Goch became a reality. I wanted to hear with my own ears the language I had stumbled through alone, never having heard it spoken by a real person. I was elated and humbled at the prospect of visiting the graves of “my friends,” the places they touched, the views they gazed at, the craggy mountains they loved. That spring Grandma was healthy, and we kept up a steady correspondence of written letters and phone calls, sometimes several of each per week. Leaving the U.S. on my first international trip was exciting and daunting in equal measure…what if something happened to her while I was so far away?

We started in South Wales, in Cardiff, the capital. While the signage of the country was in both Welsh and English (which delighted me), I heard almost no spoken Welsh. No matter. I’d heard that Welsh was more widely spoken in the North…and that made sense. The North, Gwynedd, was home to my friends—Llewelyn the Great and his wife Joanna, his grandson Llewelyn the Last, and countless ladies and men who lived and changed the course of empire. We took the train to Conwy in North Wales and after checking into our motel, walked to the center of the beautiful, ancient walled village.

Turning into the little square, he appeared just like that. Right in front of me, like he had been waiting for me the whole time—Llewellyn the Great, perched atop a column, painted in vibrant color, beardless but with a mustache in the medieval Welsh fashion. My friend. Crown atop his head, sword and shield at his side, he looked every inch a prince. My prince. I carried the words that spoke of his grandson’s death in my heart—a heart now bursting with happiness, longing, the joy of reuniting with someone you love. I had cherished the story of his life and was comforted by the elegy for his grandson’s death. I might have been one of few people that cared about the elegy, but his homeland loved him as I did—certainly more so!—and I was thrilled to be there.

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We visited many lovely places on our trip, and our last day in Conwy we took a final walk around town, window shopping and enjoying the sunshine. On a whim, we stepped into visitor’s center that we’d missed our first day. It only contained a few rooms but was beautifully maintained. Husband veered left immediately to gaze lovingly at some maps, and I wandered into the far rooms, gasping with delight at detailed timelines depicting the lives of so many of my “friends.” The last room was dimmed, and I stepped into its silence alone, sitting myself down on the bench in the center. My jaw hit the floor. My eyes filled with tears.

On a series on silk banners in white lettering atop a deep purple background, spangled with the nighttime sky, was the elegy. Huge, the banners took up an entire wall, and were lovingly lit like a precious treasure in a museum. In the dim silence, the room felt like a chapel. Indeed, it was a holy place for me. In both Welsh and English, the elegy was displayed in its entirety—the lament of a nation, a people, a way of life…a lament because their world was ending. I read each word as silent tears streamed down my cheeks.

“Have you no belief in God, foolish men?

See you not that the world is ending?”

But it didn’t end. Almost a thousand years later I was here, visiting these words. Hearing Welsh. Seeing Wales. A year later Grandma would pass, and I would remember this lament and reflect that it did indeed feel like the world was ending. But it wasn’t. And it didn’t. And it won’t.

There is a Welsh word with no English translation that I’ve treasured for a long time—“hiraeth.” The literal meaning is something like “nostalgia,” or “homesickness,” but the common understanding is deeper. It’s used to indicate missing a time of life, an era, or a person, while being grateful for their existence. It’s a bittersweet concept, the merging of gratitude and loss. It’s hiraeth I feel now, remembering Grandma. The days of inconsolable tears and frantic, panicked grief have dimmed, the hole she left remains. What fills it is the missing. The gratitude. The loss. The remembering. Hiraeth contains sadness, but it hints at containing joy, for what would we be wistful for if not for joyful places and times? Why else do we miss things? How else could I be homesick for her…homesick for a person?

In a few weeks I’ll be in Conwy again, looking up at my friend, the Welsh prince. I might visit the elegy, if it’s still there. My inner twelve-year-old will revel in the abundance of dragons, my inner thirty-year-old will remember the letters I wrote Grandma on the last trip, heart brimming with hiraeth, knowing I can’t write to her this time. And so passes the world, though it does not end, even if it feels like it might. I’m looking forward to this new adventure with people I love in a place full of friendly ghosts who remind me–

“Have you no belief in God, foolish girl?

See you not that world keeps turning?”

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To London, With Love

To London, With Love

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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