Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris, Paris

Part 1. 

It was Paris that decided it for me. We had planned an ambitious trip, Sean and I,—to quit our jobs, put our stuff in storage, and travel Europe for a season, and I was scared. What I wanted to do was cancel it all, keep my salary, stay home, stay put, stay comfortable. And though I could resign myself to missing just about everything else, I somehow couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing Paris. Paris, Paris. The City of Light had utterly captured my imagination and now it seemed of the utmost importance for me to stroll her boulevards, drink wine in her spacious, leafy gardens, wander the halls of her magnificent museums, and immerse myself in the city of kings and tyrants, revolutions and sieges, artists and philosophers. I read and listened to book after book about Paris until the names themselves became a kind of poetry for me. Place de la Concorde. Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Île de la Cité. Ponte Neuf. Le Marais. Hôtel de Ville. Place de Vosges. Montmartre. I needed to see the place where this poetry took form and shape and came to life. I needed to follow these avenues and quais, boulevards and bridges to wherever they might lead. Paris reached out to me across an ocean and a continent and planted hope in my heart—hope for beauty, for adventure, for living poetry.

And so we went, scared yet also brave, across the Atlantic, and then, across the Channel to Paris where, for me, there was one last pilgrimage to make: if I had clung to Paris as a symbol of beauty and bravery then the Eiffel Tower had clung to me as the soaring symbol of Paris. I went alone, and on foot, along the banks of the Seine, and I can tell you that neither Napoleon, nor the Prussians, nor Hitler himself could’ve walked the boulevards with more pride and elation than I felt as the Eiffel slowly rose before me, growing ever larger in my vision with each passing step. I’d done it. I’d come. And unlike those terrible tyrants and conquering armies, I had no need to possess or control Paris; I asked only for the freedom to roam unhindered; I wanted only for Paris to keep being Paris. 

I passed directly under the Eiffel’s spidery iron splendor, and then strode on to walk and walk for hours in Paris, wherever my feet pleased to go, stopping for crêpes in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, resting in the Luxembourg Gardens in the cool of early evening, and lingering on the Pont de Sully to watch the sunset turn the Seine, for a few splendid moments, into a river of gold. 

Part 2. 

It’s just a phrase on the screen that catches my mother-in-law’s eye as we sit talking quietly in the den that afternoon. Breaking News, it says, and we turn with mild interest to find that Paris is under attack. 

It is real to me. Perhaps more real even than the 9/11 attacks upon New York, though that was my own country and more souls perished. In 2001, I had never been to New York City. I didn’t know the glint of the sun off her skyscrapers, nor the pound of her sidewalks beneath my sore feet, or the smell of the subway each time one descends beneath her thrumming streets. It is unfair that we should need to know such details in order to feel tragedy more keenly. It is so selfish that this attack is more real to me because it’s more personal: because I know and love Paris now, and because it could’ve been me. But these blows to my selfishness, these punctures to my personal world tear great gaps through which the world can pour in, and I can join others, to the best of my ability, in their suffering. 

The terrorists shot the people in the cafés, and, for that, I might never forgive them. For once I got there, once I encountered the city in the flesh, I think I loved Paris the most for her endless restaurants, and cafes, and parks where throngs of people gathered each evening to sit together and talk, and drink wine or espresso, and watch the world drift by. I know there is decadency and sloth in alcohol and relaxation pursued to excess, but there is also great wisdom in taking time to sit for hours with a friend, a loved one, a delicious drink, a plate of food, a beautiful city, a warm summer night. I found an ability to relax in Paris that perhaps my American soul had never known, and truth be told, I envied the French a bit for their ability to sit back and be still when I felt the need to so constantly, compulsively keep moving. 

Now months later I watch hour by hour as the horror unfolds and I try to imagine things like gunshots and bombs amidst the tinkling of glasses and the lively chatter of a Parisian night. I remember particularly the color of the light cast by the street lamps on our first rainy evening in Paris, though on this night there is no rain, just the shiny gold of the survival blankets wrapped hurriedly around the shoulders of victims.

I curse and I cry and I drink a glass of blood red wine. The streets of Paris run once more with blood. There is no immediate comfort. There is only the bleak hope of history: that the Paris which has survived the Terror, the Tyrant, the barricades, the Prussians, the Commune, the Great War, and the Occupation will survive once more. I believe, in the part of my heart that just can’t give up, that Paris shall yet again prevail. 

For now, I write this as a tribute and offer it as a gift to the city that made me brave by filling me with a longing for beauty which proved stronger than my fear.

For now, the City of Light is shrouded in darkness, yet there is One to whom darkness is as light. 

Here we have no abiding city; bring us safely, merciful Lord, to our eternal home.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

London Town

I know, I know. I’ve gotten a bit behind in recording the exploits of our trip, given that we’re now in Paris, and I still haven’t even written about London.

We left Oxford for London on a brisk, sunny morning, feeling sad to be leaving our friends and such a beautiful city as we schlepped our stuff to the bus stop, then onto our London-bound bus, then through the tube station, onto the tube, then the DLR train, and then across the neighborhood and up the four flights of steps to our lodgings. 

Ah London. Where to begin? There are so many ways in which London was so much more than I imagined and also not at all what I was expecting. I’ll try to explain, but only with the caveat that we spent just a week there, so how much can we really know about the city? 

We arrived in London on a brilliant, sunny afternoon. I’m glad that’s the first way I experienced London: warm and bright and green. We walked through a cold, white-tiled tunnel under the Thames to busy Greenwich where we stuffed ourselves on tea and scones, visited the Royal Observatory situated in a leafy, rolling park, and bought bags of groceries which we carried back under the river to our flat. 

Highlights of London:

—The Imperial War Museums

This is a British national museum with multiple branches, of which we got to visit two. Our first full day in London was iconically grey and rainy—perfect for visiting museums—and the first one we visited was the Imperial War Museum’s main campus in Lambeth. The next day we visited the Churchill War Rooms buried deep beneath the surface of London. Personally I find it easy to quickly grow bleary-eyed in museums. I start out with buoyant enthusiasm, determined to see everything, and usually start to fade rapidly as I take in too much information too quickly. The War Museums were perhaps the finest museums I’ve ever been in. Nothing was boring, nothing was dry, nothing made me want to hurry through or skip to the end. The World War I exhibit at the main campus was nothing short of fascinating—complete with recreated trenches and sound and lighting effects powerful enough to transport you back to 1917. On the next level we saw the smallest still in-tact boat which ferried troops from Dunkirk to the British mainland during the Miracle of Dunkirk. The Churchill War Rooms were equally well-done and interesting—perfect for my history-loving soul. And it was fun to look at Winston’s weekly receipts for alcohol. (Apparently, someone once offered to pay him a large sum of money if he would give up drinking for a year, and he said something to the effect of, “Life would not be worth living.”)


If we come back with our teeth stained black, you will know why. We found ourselves wondering how we ever made it through a day without drinking tea at least three times. It’s so simple, so comforting, so warm, so charming, so perfectly suited for pleasant conversation. The Brits are on to something here. 

—The British Museum 

If you ever want to feel the full might and splendor of the British Empire, just go to the British Museum and walk through the endless halls of relics and artifacts and stone ruins culled from ancient lands. We saw the Rosetta Stone, huge stone carvings of the pharaohs, Assyrian doors and statues, Egyptian mummies, friezes from the Parthenon, and totems from Easter Island. And that was all within the one hour we had there! What a magnificent place! Also—free to visit! Without going into politics and economic systems, I have to say that free museums are pretty amazing. I especially like the way they encourage an atmosphere of cultural engagement. Museums become things accessible for even brief trips—to pop in and see a painting that you love, or visit for an hour just to explore the Egyptian hall—rather than to pay a large entry fee and then try to cram in everything in one visit in order to get your money’s worth. It’s more leisurely, and therefore, I think, more valuable. 

—Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey

If there’s a place with more history per square inch than Westminster Abbey, I’m not aware of it. When you tour the Abbey, you walk through halls and rooms and chapels stuffed full with English monarchs and nobles and Britain’s most famous citizens, and then, at the end, you reach the Poet’s Corner, and it’s like walking into a room full of friends. You think, “Ah yes, here I am last! With my people. The people I know. The people I love. The people who have added so much joy and meaning to my life.” And then you think of all the people you’ve shared your love of these authors with, your peers, your college-mates, your dearest friends. It’s a happy little corner to find yourself in when traveling the great wide world.

—The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London

The Crown Jewels were, of course, thoroughly impressive—but the best part was when I got accused of clandestinely trying to video them as I rolled by on the moving walkway that moves you like cattle past the desirable objects. I reached the end of the walkway and was immediately accosted by the security guard demanding to see my phone. I was adamant in my assertions of innocence and willingness to let her look at my phone, as she continued to assert that I was making, “peculiar gestures”. “Don’t you know I’m a rule-follower?” I wanted to ask. “My husband is the one you should be questioning!” ;)

—The Globe

We bought cheap tickets in the standing section to see As You Like It. It was so much fun to stand in a crowd, so close to the stage, with actors and actresses walking right by you. It was the most involved I’ve ever felt in a play. I was determined to stand the whole show because if the Elizabethans could do it, then so could I! But perhaps the Elizabethans hadn’t all spent the entire day on their feet touring the city of London. Or perhaps they just had quite a few pints to keep them happily on (or off) their feet. Either way, Sean and I were happy, Orlando was handsome and Rosalind was witty, but our feet were miserable. 

—Hyde Park

This may be my favorite place in London. It helped that we visited it on a sunny, relatively warm day, but no matter what, it’s an oasis in a huge city—an oasis of flowers and green lawns, old trees, stone bridges, and a calm, curving river—all set under blue skies and white puffy clouds. And after some wandering and roaming, we found the Peter Pan statue!

—The Harry Potter Studios in Leavesden

We couldn’t help it. We paid the exorbitant ticket price and went on our grand Harry Potter pilgrimage. What a place! It was less like visiting Hogwarts, and more like visiting the world’s best Harry Potter museum. I was kind of in heaven as we walked through hall after hall of the movie’s sets and props perfectly arranged, and then we walked into a room with a heartbreakingly beautiful model of Hogwarts lit in the soft blue light of twilight. I wanted to stay in that room forever, watching the lights twinkle in the windows of the Great Hall and feeling like everything is right in the world. 

What Was Difficult:

London felt like a monstrosity. It was so huge and disjointed and spread out that it was very hard to find a coherent sense of London as a city. There were pockets of London that we greatly liked, but it was difficult to comprehend London as a whole except as a vast network of buses and subways and trains and stations that cumulated in too big of a mass. It took at least 40 minutes to get anywhere, and every day felt like we had to work up the energy to venture out to a new outpost in a vast and unfamiliar landscape. It was quite draining. I liked things we saw in London, but it’s lack of cohesiveness made it hard to love London as a whole, as a place, as a city. 

What We Loved:

We arranged to stay with a friend’s uncle, so we didn’t really know what to expect except for the fact that there was a man in London who was willing to host what were, to him, strangers for over a week. That alone was impressive. And so we arrived in London’s Victoria Station and schlepped our stuff through the labyrinthine subway to the doorstep of an apartment building, rang the buzzer, and—wonder of wonders—were welcomed in. What we didn’t know is that we would be staying in a cozy little apartment right on the Thames with a stunning view of the river. That view, and the people we were staying with, rapidly became our absolute favorite part of London. We woke to the sounds of the waves on the Thames, and then fell asleep to the same waves at night. Throughout the day we watched the river rise and then fall as the tide came in and out. And then there was all the river traffic to keep one entertained—rowing teams early in the morning gliding across the surface of the water, commuter boats racing back and forth, river cruises for those wanting to see the sights, and party boats with thumping music and happy people drifting by at night in a twinkle of lights. Having the river so close brought the city right into the apartment, and made us feel a part of everything that was going on outside, without ever having to leave the couch. The rhythms of the river filled the day with a pleasant hum of activity, and filled the windows up with beauty. And then we had our hosts. Uncle T. and his daughter E. I’ll use their initials just in case they don’t want their identities broadcast all over the internet. Anyway, they made us feel right at home with their abundant hospitality and warmth. When we met Uncle T. for the first time, he said, “You are welcome here.” And we truly felt it. E. was around the house a lot and we absolutely loved drinking tea, talking about the differences in our countries, and watching Daredevil with her. The evenings were lovely when we were all together, drinking more tea, eating biscuits, and discussing all sorts of interesting books, historical events, and movies. It’s such a joy to meet bright, kind, thoughtful people in a foreign land and feel that the world is full of friends, just waiting to be met. We were touched to the core by their kindness to us, and left London so grateful for the chance to get to know them, and with admonitions for them to come visit us in California soon! 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Top As!

Oh, Oxford. We've been here for 8 days and we'd be content to stay here for another 800. Sean found a sign today that says, "There are few greater temptations on Earth than to stay permanently in Oxford," and it's not hard to see why. I actually had no idea that a place like Oxford could exist, and now that I'm here I feel like I've stumbled into paradise. We are completely head over heels in love with this beautiful city. You would have to have a soul made of pure ice to be able to resist the charm of this place: green meadows, stone colleges, brick houses, cobblestone streets, ancient libraries, cozy pubs, frothy pints, rain showers, books, hot cups of tea, beautiful old churches, domes and spires, quiet rivers, history everywhere, the wisdom of the ages, Lewis, Tolkien and all your favorite English stories hovering around each corner, and the entire time feeling like you've finally, finally made it to Hogwarts.

Our days begin with walking Riley to school, and then we turn and head towards the City Centre and a new adventure. On Wednesday we visited Christ Church College--one of the oldest and most beautiful of all the Oxford colleges, of which there are many. The thing about Oxford is that there's no campus for Oxford University--the city is the campus and scattered throughout its streets are dozens of colleges encompassing whole worlds of wonder behind their exclusive stone walls. You want to talk about feeling left out? It's enough to drive you crazy wandering around the city, peeking through fences and doorways at magnificent chapels and libraries, quads and cloisters at which you gaze longingly but of which you cannot be a part. Thank goodness for visiting hours, when--for the price of a few pounds--the colleges allow you into these mysterious old grounds and buildings for a glimpse of the academic and spiritual life that has been going on here for almost 800 years.

Christ Church College is simply breathtaking. We got to visit the staircase that they used as the entrance to the Great Hall in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Alas, the hall there, which was used as the model for the movie set's version of the Great Hall, was closed for construction. That was more than a bit upsetting! But we did get to take a free tour of the Christ Church Cathedral. Our guide, after finding out our state of origin, kept referring to us as 'The Californians' and calling the US 'your place'. I could barely contain a smile at hearing the whole massive space of the United States of America referred to so inconsequentially as 'your place'. You know, just our little country.

It always amazes me how so much time and effort can be put into planning a trip, and then, inevitably, moments that you never could've planned just come along and sweep you off your feet. I think one of the most important aspects of traveling is making yourself available for a moment like that to arise. When I was planning our trip, I looked into visiting the Cotswolds but wasn't sure how to make it work, so I just let it go. And then a friend of a friend offered to take us for an afternoon in the country and the Cotswolds--so we found ourselves in a wood full of bluebells, straight out of a fairytale, and then driving past fields of the brightest golden rapeseed, and then wandering around the little town of Burford, complete with medieval stone houses and low-ceilinged pubs.

One of the nice things about spending such a long time here is that we've gotten to experience Oxford slowly, discovering new parts and pockets of it in our daily walks. Thursday morning we saw the Divinity School, the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theater, and the Bridge of Sighs. My absolute favorite was the Divinity School, a single, soaring room in which Oxford students used to attend lectures and take oral exams. It is probably the most beautiful room that I've ever been inside of in my entire life. I've been thinking a lot about the way space effects us, and I'm sure that learning and discussing in a room like that would significantly contribute to the quality of the education. I could live in that one room quite happily for the rest of my life.

On Friday morning we had an appointment to peek in at the Duke Humphries Library--no pictures allowed. Then we were free to roam Oxford for hours, and this is really the fun part: just wandering around, walking down whatever street or alley looks interesting, learning the feel of the place from your own two feet, and ducking into pubs or cafes whenever it starts to rain to enjoy a pint or a cup of tea. We saw the door and the lamppost which supposedly inspired Lewis's Narnia, and we spent a happy couple of hours walking around Christ Church meadow, admiring the little goslings and their parents, looking for birds, walking along the river, and picking dandelions--all with a view of Oxford's dreaming spires. My stuffy nose and the terrible exchange rate were perhaps the only two things reminding me that perfection doesn't actually exist on this side of heaven.

We spent that afternoon inside the hallowed walls of Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis lived and taught for many years. What a place. I think for the rest of my life I'll be able to close my eyes and remember the peace and beauty of the grounds and buildings there...the grey chapel filled with organ music, the silent medieval cloisters, the low arched doorways, the hall full of windows and intricately carved wood, the trees and meadows along the River Cherwell. It's a place of beauty at which we got to have just a glimpse, but the overwhelming feeling I walked away with was gladness and thankfulness that such a place exists in the world. You know how you have friends that you think of and you just feel better knowing they're alive in the world? There are places whose very existence gives comfort, and Magdalen College is one of them.

One of my happiest moments was walking home after spending a morning at Oxford's National History Museum, and coming across a group of students playing Quidditch in University Park. AHHHHH!!!! What happiness is mine! We had a long, lovely, muddy walk home along the river, through huge green meadows overflowing with fat dandelions and little yellow wildflowers. When the sun does come out here it is so cheerful and warm and makes you feel utterly buoyant. We saw three huge deer just bounding through a meadow in the broad daylight!

Saturday evening we attended Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral. We sang Be Thou My Vision by candlelight with the sun's evening rays pouring through the stained glass windows in a church that was built in the 1100's. I couldn't stop touching the wood and the stone, soaking up the feeling of being a part of something so much bigger than myself.

Saturday night we did a mini-version of a pub crawl, ending the evening by sharing a pint at The Eagle & Child and toasting to "Lewis, and Tolkien, and the Inklings, and Narnia, and Middle Earth, and all that is good and true and beautiful in the world."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Day of the Dancing Trees

Today was like something out of a dream.

Sean and I woke up early to walk our little friend to school. The sky was grey and spitting, the wind cold and blustering. We were decked out in Wellies and raincoats and walking down streets lined with brick houses and green trees and yards full of flowers.

Once she was safely dropped off, we set off to explore Oxford together, after a couple of days of mostly staying inside to recover from jet-lag. (Although yesterday was a bank holiday and we did go punting down the river to the Victoria Arms--a huge stone restaurant set on a sprawling lawn dotted with picnic tables. We drank pints and watched the kids play and made friends with a pair of beautiful hunting dogs.) All the streets were lovely and beckoning and so perfectly charming that I wanted to take pictures of everything I saw, but even that wouldn't have captured the essence of it, so I just tried to enjoy it.

We wandered into some bookshops, of course, and then got coffee at the Missing Bean, and then over to the Ashmolean. Yay for free museums!

We saw:

1. The irons that held Thomas Cranmer imprisoned before he was burned at the stake. That was quite powerful for me, given the influence that The Book of Common Prayer has had in my life.

2. The lantern Guy Fawkes was holding when he was caught under the houses of Parliament about to blow the whole place sky high!

3. Powhatan's Mantle: a huge leather skin decorated with tiny white seashells that belonged to Pocahontas's father. The mantle used to hang on a wall in the museum, but people were taking the shells off of it home for souvenirs. So now it is encased in glass.

4. The Alfred Jewel, which was housed in its own special vaulted glass case.  It's a man depicted in enamel and then set in gold--probably made in the 800's--but found when a farmer was digging in his field in the 1600's. I just love the idea of a simple farmer finding that artifact one day as he was unsuspectingly going about his business.

By the time we walked home the sun had come out, and everything was green and blooming and wondrous. When I was planning this trip, I didn't realize that it would be spring when we were in Oxford. Spring has never meant much to me seasonally, but I'm so glad now that we are here in the spring. The wind is blowing the white flower petals from the trees into the air like snow, and it's so fun to see the petals scudding down the street when the wind picks up as if they are racing each other.

In the afternoon we walked once more back to Riley's school to pick her up. She was waiting for us expectantly. First we went to the park and looked for snails, walked by the canal, played on the swings and the teeter-totter. It was so windy, it could've almost blown a person over. But there are so many trees here, and the wind in the trees sounds so beautiful, and the leaves look so pretty being blown about. I told Riley that the trees looked like they were dancing, and she said, "Maybe it's Dancing Tree Day."

On the walk home we stopped for hot chocolate and buttery croissants. Riley acted out scenes from Despicable Me 2 and had us laughing so hard. Behind the counter was a giant jar of green olives that Riley and I kept looking at longingly after discovering that we share a mutual love for them. Sean walked up to the waiter and asked if he could get a couple of olives for us, and came back with a cup full of green olives which we ate with great relish.

Tonight we ate pizza, watched Tin-Tin, played games and did puzzles until bedtime.

Being silly on the swings! 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Second Jerry

As any true Seinfeld fan will tell you, there's a Seinfeld episode for just about every situation one encounters in life. True to form, there's a Seinfeld episode for our flight to London.

The episode is Season 4, Episode 12: The Airport, in which Jerry and Elaine are trying to get back to New York, and there is only one seat left in first class. Jerry famously opines about how he can't let Elaine have that seat because he has flown first class and therefore knows what he what he would be missing should he not take it. Elaine, having never flown first class, won't be pained because she won't know what she's missing out on. Or so the logic goes. Jerry ends up sitting in first class where he hits it off with a supermodel and together they drink champagne and eat ice cream and have a grand old time. Elaine meanwhile, is crammed back in coach, miserable and uncomfortable with the guy beside her falling asleep on her shoulder and many other unfortunate occurrences.

This is a much discussed and recounted episode in the Thomas family, given that my father-in-law was a pilot for many years, and my mother-in-law was a flight attendant. They've had countless experiences flying for both work and personal trips, and they know the differences between first class and coach. Because of all this airline work, they also have stand-by flying privileges, meaning they can use empty seats to fly for free when there are seats available. And sometimes, just every now and then, these extra seats are in first class

Well, Sean flew stand-by to London and I booked a ticket in coach. At the last minute, Sean got upgraded to Business-First, and then the moment of truth came: Who would get that highly desirable seat? Or more accurately, that tremendously comfortable bed?? We had just a few minutes to decide, and it was agonizing. Should we just sit together in coach as planned? Should Sean take the seat because he's flown International First Class before and would know how much he was missing? Should I get the seat so I could have that once in a lifetime experience???

Sean let me have it. He said someone should enjoy it, and it should be me. I gathered up my stuff and hurried to the front of the plane, half-elated, but half-guilty about leaving my sweet husband back in coach. (The only way I managed to barely assuage my conscience was that he had a whole row to himself to stretch out and watch movies that would never interest me.) It was far into the flight before I realized that Sean is the second Jerry. Let me explain. The Bible calls Christ the new, or second, Adam because he came to earth and did what Adam could not do. (Namely living a righteous life in complete submission to the Father's will.) Now I'm definitely not comparing Sean to Christ right now, but I don't mind comparing him to a better version of Jerry Seinfeld. Sean, the new Jerry, did what the old Jerry could not do: he gave up the seat that he wanted out kindness for someone else. I suppose you could say that Jerry wasn't able to make that choice because he had never shaped his character through selfless acts to make such a decision, while Sean repeatedly denies himself for me and those he loves, and therefore able to do the generous deed. Anyway, I'm completely overdoing it with this analogy but I love Seinfeld and I love Sean, so just humor me.

Getting back to the flight, I settled into my seat, in a row with three business men, all more than double my age. I felt more than a bit out of place. But Sean had commissioned me to enjoy the full weight of the experience, to eat everything they brought me, and try not to sleep too much and miss out on the glory of it all. (Though perhaps being able to sleep in a completely flat bed IS the glory of it!)

Feeling the need to enjoy it completely for the both of us, I spent the next ten hours lounging in a chair/bed, watching free movies, refreshing my face with warm washcloths, drinking red wine, eating course after course of the most delicious food (there were lots of olives!), and feeling like the Queen of England.

Mixed nuts served in a warm bowl
Melon and kalamata olives
Salad with fresh tomatoes, more olives!, croutons, and delicate shavings of asiago cheese

Beef tenderloin with asiago broth
Steamed asparagus
Potato gnocchi
Dinner roll
And red wine that I never once had to ask to be refilled. Practically the minute I took a sip they were there adding more to my glass.

After Dinner:
Cheese & crackers
A delightful little glass of port

Ice cream sundae

I explained the situation to my flight attendant, and she asked if I'd like to take an ice cream sundae and a glass of Scotch back to Sean. I don't know if I've ever felt happier, navigating the narrow dark aisle, bearing treats for Sean, and knowing how happy it would make him. We visited a little bit, and then it was back to living the high life for me. 

I laid my chair out flat, plopped my fat white pillow behind my head, and snuggled down under my fleece blanket to watch movies, and read, and sleep while our plane arched across the sky toward London and sunlight.

When we landed they said, "Welcome to London! We have a new royal baby--a little princess!" People on the plane started clapping and cheering, and I thought to myself, "This must be a dream!"

My mom told me that she was praying I'd be blown away by this trip. I would say that so far her prayers have been answered abundantly.

Timmy, the only bear in first class! 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Last Night in the Nursery

The night before a move (and trust me, we’ve had many of them) Sean and I usually lay in bed, feeling a bit melancholy and wistful in the darkness. One of us finally states what we’re both thinking: “Well, tonight is our last night in the nursery.” The line, of course, comes from Peter Pan, when Wendy is informed by her frustrated father that it will be her last night in the nursery with her brothers and tomorrow she will have to Grow Up. 

I can remember watching that movie as a child, and feeling the sharpness of that break. Tonight is comfort, and security, and familiarity—tomorrow is new, and unknown, and frightening. What I didn’t realize as a child was how often life involves leaving the nursery. I thought once was enough. You are a child, and then you Grow Up, and it’s over and done. The realization of my adult life is that you're never done growing up. We leap over a hurdle into a strange and new world. We learn to live in that world. We make it as cozy and as comfortable as we can, and often times hope we can stay in our protected little nest forever. And then, before you know it, it’s time for the next challenge! 

I’m tempted to resent all the change, and the disruption, and the circumstances that call me forward. But what I have to do is to try to push it all aside and bury down deep into the true things of life. The truth is that the purpose of life is not to be comfortable. (Thank God for that. Comfort, at the end of the day, is really such a small thing to live for.) The point of life is a journey home, and a journey requires movement. We must fare forward when our time comes. 

A quote that’s been helping me a lot lately comes from the painter, Georgia O’Keefe. She once remarked, “I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

My instinct is usually to avoid the things that scare me, so I love this reminder that just because a thing is frightening doesn’t mean that’s a good reason not to do it. I also like the humanity of it. Fear is one of our most common experiences, but it’s something we often feel like we need to dismiss or ignore or hide away where no one can ever find out the truth about how terrified we are. It’s so much healthier to just admit the fear is there, but that it’s not the last word on who you are or what you're capable of. 

So yes, I’m scared to leave the nursery once more, and venture out into the great wide world. But fearful is not the only thing I am. I’m also brave, and adventurous, and loved, and super excited for this trip that we’ve worked so hard to make a reality. 

Tonight, the nursery. Tomorrow, we fly to London! 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When I Was a Pioneer:

Giuliana and I have spent the last year or so reading through the American Girl books. We've read Samantha, Molly, Caroline, and right now we're reading about Julie, a girl growing up in San Francisco during the 1970's. Among other things, Julie loves the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the books get mentioned frequently in her stories.

Last Thursday, library day for her class, Giuliana came home from school and plopped Little House on the Prairie down on the table in front of me. "It's real," she told me excitedly, "I found out today it's actually real." I stared at her blankly for a moment, thinking, "Of course it's real, why are you telling me something I already know?" And then I realized, it was news to her. She had thought Little House on the Prairie was something made up for an American Girl doll book. The brief thought of it gave me the chills. Thank God these books are real.

I picked up the book lovingly, wondering when the last time I held a Little House book in my hands for purposes other than moving from one home to another had been. (A year or two ago I listened to Little House on the Prairie on audiobook, and perceived it through the perspective of an adult for the first time--which lead me to the conclusion that Ma was super-human. I don't know how she did it.)

But to hold a book in your hands, to feel the texture of the pages, to know the curve of the font, to study the spare beauty of the black and white illustrations--well, that is another thing entirely. I swear I would recognize a page out of those books anywhere, so deeply are they cemented in my psyche. I know exactly what the pages of the Little House books feel like between my fingers.

As I held the book and began to flip reverently through the pages, waves of nostalgia flooded me, and I actually thought to myself wistfully, "I remember when I used to be a pioneer." It wasn't, "I remember when I read these books," or even, "I remember when I played Little House on the Prairie as a kid," (though I did both of those things copiously)...It was literally, "I remember when I was a pioneer." 

My parents read me the Little House books at bedtime until I was old enough to read them myself. I loved those books. I imbibed those books. I took them into me and believed them and acted them out for hours each day, in the wide open spaces of time that my sisters and I had to play pretend. In his phenomenal work The Deathly Hallows Lectures, John Granger talks about the "alchemy of storytelling" and the power it has of "blurring the distinction between the subject who is reading and the object hero being read about," and how "the transformation of the story character affects and transforms the [reader]." (p. 40) In other words, the magic of a story well-told is that it allows you to become the main character and grow from their experiences. 

By putting those books in my hands, my parents, in a sense, gave me the opportunity to be Laura Ingalls. I got to roam the prairies, live in log cabins and sod dug-outs, and learn to be brave and strong in the face of the great frontier and the great unknown. 

As I grew older, more stories would come: I read to tatters the Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, from the Dear America series. I spent hours in front of the computer, virtually crossing the Oregon Trail, and when my computer time ran out, I'd put on my coonskin cap, hitch up our two stick horses to the covered wagon that I made out of blankets, pack up supplies, and head West with my sisters and baby dolls. 

This has got me thinking about the ways in which the stories we love as children shape our imaginations. These stories supply our beliefs and expectations of what life should and will be like, they provide us the material for our dreams, and they teach us what we are capable of. I'm finding myself very grateful for the pioneers who provided a living example of courage and the spirit of adventure, as well as grateful to the artists who captured their experiences in the form of story for the benefit of both children and adults. And I'm thankful to Laura Ingalls Wilder for making it possible for little girls to dream of crossing frontiers and discovering new lands. 

I now think it should've come as no surprise to my parents when I moved to California after high school. The writing had always been on the wall: my future lay in the West. That's what a person does, I had learned: one must strike out for a new land when the time comes. The hope and dream of the pioneer had been planted within me since those early bedtimes, when my parents took me across the prairies, page by page, every word pushing me farther westward. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

When the Wind Changes: A Reflection on Endings

In Disney’s beloved musical classic of eponymous title, Mary Poppins, perhaps the world’s most famous nanny, tells her charges (who want to know how long she’ll stay) that she’ll be leaving when the wind changes. When the wind changes. The words strike me as sad and wistful, yet piercingly true. Things on this side of heaven don’t last forever. In modern parlance, the words for me have become, “I’ll stay through taxes,” which is important to my boss who is a CPA. When tax season ends—these words strike me as far less poetical, but wistful, and sad, and true, nevertheless.

Yesterday at work a few of my tasks were assigned to someone else, and I wanted to protest, until I realized that this is part of leaving—and leaving is something I initiated, and something I must accept. My work will be portioned out over the next six weeks—to the housekeeper, the kids, the parents…perhaps a new nanny or personal assistant. This is part of leaving: becoming unnecessary.

As you can probably tell, I’m having a hard time with it.

Sean and I have begun to talk with our littlest housemates (the children of our friends, ages 4 and 2) about the fact that we’ll be moving, traveling, not living there anymore. When she saw a helicopter in the sky a few days ago, the four year old asked her mom, “Is that Sean and Carolyn?” It’s adorable, and it hurts like hell.

What makes it so hard is that we’re leaving things that we love. I’ve loved my job; I adore the kids I take care of; our housemates are dearer to us than we can say; our church community has been our rock for the past two years. I often wonder: How foolish are we to leave these things?

Two things have been helping me in this time of farewells and transition.

The first is a poem I found on the blog of a friend* of a friend….It reads:

is full
of good things.
You can't have them all.
Every glory comes at the cost
of another. Ours is the splendor of the lilies,
of grass and of dust. Revel in your bounded brilliance,
and the unending streams of light
you will never hold.
That there is
such good,

I actually hesitate to write after sharing this poem; its brevity aims straight at the heart of the matter and says what must be said perfectly: You can’t have them all—which, of course, is exactly what I want. I want my life in Southern California, I want to travel Europe with Sean and our family and friends, and I want to live a full life Northern California, too (not to mention the millions of other things I want on top of all that). I want it all, greedy human being that I am. 

The poem states the problem, yet also offers the solution to wanting it all: revel in your bounded brilliance. Limitations give shape and direction to our lives. They allow something with form and purpose to be created, rather than an ongoing blob of endless desire.

A long time ago, when I was going through a painful break-up, I read something by Amy Carmichael that would become in many ways a koan to lead me through life: In acceptance lieth peace. My most deeply peaceful moments have always come when I accept where I am, who I am, what has happened to me, etc. And so I am learning to accept my limitations with gratefulness rather than resentment.

Also, a very wise person recently told me that it’s okay to have seasons in life.  What a novel idea! The natural order is organized by seasons (albeit very mildly here in Los Angeles), why should our lives not be as well? I have great peace in being able to view the parts of my life as seasons that have purpose and beauty, but are not intended to last forever. There are things that last forever, thanks be to God, and I can stand on those as the seasons of my life progress, and I journey ever closer to the life of the world to come.

*Poem by Elena Johnston, whose poetry I highly recommend. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thoughts on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

A week ago today I stayed up until 2 a.m. finishing William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I was determined to not let the sun rise on February without finishing that book. I needed it to be over. You can really only spend so much time immersed in Nazi Germany without beginning to go a little crazy, or get at least a little depressed.

It was a huge personal accomplishment to finish this 1500 page tome. Growing up, it always sat on my dad’s bookshelf and intimidated the hell out of me with it’s dark, imposing presence and swastika-bearing cover. I was convinced I wasn’t brave enough to read it for so long that reading it became like a rite of passage, an act (however small) of courage. A little slap in the face of Hitler: You have no power over me.

What finally got me to read it (aside from the fact that Sean gave it to me for Christmas)? Well, it’s just a small tidbit, but I think it’s important. An acquaintance on Facebook posted one day that she had just finished reading it. This acquaintance planted the idea in my head that I could read it too. Two things about this are meaningful to me:

1. I had always thought of this book as a “man’s book”. The more I read history, the more I realize that in many ways it is a male dominated genre. That doesn’t necessarily bother me, I just don’t want to be excluded—or exclude myself from it—because I am a woman. The acquaintance who read this book and then posted about it, is someone who I consider to be infinitely sweet and kind and feminine, and yet: she read this book. That must mean I can too, I thought to myself. I can and will be a part of this world. Interestingly enough, I just read a fascinating article about, among other things, a woman trying to write in another male-dominated genre, and the effort and frustration that go into that. With regards to history, I can’t help but think of Adrienne Rich’s line, “Time is male.”  There is a lot to think about here, especially as I continue to devour history books.

2. Do you guys realize the hugeness of the fact that somebody else simply did something, wrote about it, and that was enough to plant the seed of belief in my mind that I could do it too? Now I know this is a very small example, but I think it illustrates a wildly important truth: what we do affects other people. It’s very basic, but we often seem to forget that we don’t operate in a vacuum. Even our smallest actions influence and affect the way other people inhabit the world, think about themselves, and dare to dream and act. Katherine Center says, “You have to be brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs.” If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is. It can be something as small as showing girls that it’s okay to love history—that they have a place here too.

As for the book itself, it was an incredibly well written, fascinating tale of evil and horror. Reading it felt like living inside a game of Risk/dystopian novel/Darwin and Nietzsche brought to life.

In the midst of all the atrocities and evils, there were two things whose presence surprised me as companions along the way, and gave me comfort as I journeyed through the Valley of the Shadow:

1. Humor

This may be controversial and offensive, but I do not mean it to be. Humor is not the only response to Hitler/Evil; nor is it always appropriate, but sometimes it can help. I found it made me braver and brought me comfort at times to laugh at the absurdity and insanity of Hitler and the Nazis. I couldn’t help but laugh at Hitler when he called himself the savior of Germany, or said he would long be remembered as the greatest ruler that Germany ever had. Sometimes people are so stupid/evil/insane that derogatory humor towards them is appropriate. (I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor here, too). Laughter can give power. There’s a way in which Hitler was infinitely stronger than me, or any individual like me. He could have, and did, destroy millions of powerless people like me with barely a word—and yet, we retain the power to laugh at him. It’s not enough to completely defeat him, of course, but if humor can add even an ounce of bravery to our spirits or a feeling of defiance toward evil, then I think it matters.

Shirer illustrates this point, of humor as a weapon, throughout the text as he continually refers to Hitler as “the Austrian corporal” or “the Viennese tramp” or “the failed artist”. He calls Goering, “the fat Reich Marshall”. It has a way of bringing these monsters back down to earth and reminding the reader that however atrocious and horrific these men were, there’s a sense in which they were just men and not invincible.

Obviously, the world could not defeat Nazism through humor alone—men braver than I will ever be still had to storm the beaches of Normandy, and fight and die—but why not claim humor and laughter as a valuable armament in the all out war against it evil?

2. The Weakness of Evil

This is a strange concept in the face of the power that Hitler accrued and the damage that he inflicted. As I read through the book, I spent a lot of time becoming increasingly afraid of Hitler and, in a sense, feeling terrified and paralyzed by the Nazis’ might. And then something very interesting began to happen: the Third Reich began to fall apart. It started to gradually disintegrate. You know why? Because they were evil. Literally, their wickedness destroyed them—and it was like an epiphany for me: oh, that’s right! Evil destroys itself! Evil cannot survive, in the long run. It’s self-destructive! Did I learn nothing from Harry Potter?!?!?!

I had become so shortsighted for a while that I began to think that evil could actually win. And I know it’s nuanced—I know the Nazis really did win for a while, and rampaged and pillaged and murdered in ways that can never be recovered from in this life. I don’t want to make light of that. But I read once that in many ways the “punishment” for our sins is often just the natural consequence of our behavior. For instance, if I am rude or unloving to Sean, I’ll probably reap a time of disharmony in our marriage. If I am selfish with my money, I won’t get to experience the joy that comes from being generous and giving freely.

In the same way, Hitler experienced the natural consequences of his behavior. Vast armies rose up to end his wicked ways. He destroyed himself physically, becoming weak and ill and completely incapable of using his mind to think rationally. People will roll their eyes at the Harry Potter reference, I’m sure, but Voldemort sowed the seeds of his own destruction by destroying his soul and blinding himself to the truth. Hitler did the same. By his own evil he made it impossible for himself to survive. And that is something to take comfort in. Though evil may outlive us, it is not stronger or more sustainable than what it right and true and good.  

Anyway, those are my initial ramblings on this vast and overwhelming book. Make of them what you will, and correct me where I’m wrong.