Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Random question...

for my blogging sisters.

Has anyone heard from or seen news about Leonie?
She seems to have disappeared from my radar screen.
I'm starting to get a little concerned.

Just wondering...

There will be coffee...

There will be tea and writing and reading and tears.
There will be peace and quiet and probing and questions.
There will be cutting and gluing and wandering and wondering.

I am taking a few days off.

To adjust to Kristiana's photography class schedule.

To deal with Daniel's increased need for homework help these days.

To prepare to teach two classes.

To begin writing four sessions for an upcoming retreat.

To send out birthday cards and presents to family and friends.

To keep the house in order, the family in clean clothes, and the dog in food.

To answer phone calls and emails.

To read the works of more thoughtful people than myself.

To answer the questions of more inquisitive people than myself.

To figure out ways to live more simply, to shop less, and to love more.

To let go of things and relationships I no longer need in my life.

To increase time and attention I spend on and with those that I need more of.

To cook, clean, and get ready for a Super Bowl party.

To try to find time to take care of me in the midst of all of it.

I'll be back.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Do you see what I see?

Some people go to Rome and shop.
Some people go to Rome and eat.
I go to Rome and visit churches. Museums. Coffee shops.
I go to Rome and check out statues. Fountains. Altars to peace.
Here are a few statues that caught my attention this trip.

Do you see the tiny baby Jesus image that the priest is holding? Apparently, it had been on display since before Christmas. On January 6th, the day that the arrival of the wise men is celebrated, this image was going to be put away until next Christmas. At the end of the mass that evening, the congregants were invited to come to the front and kiss it, touch it, and bid farewell. For weeks they had sung, "Venite, adoremus" - come let us adore Him. They had worshipped and adored. On my last night in Rome, we bid farewell to The Baby.

In a few months, the season of Lent will be upon us. The forty days of preparation before the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. Solemn. Reflective. Sorrowful. Michelangelo's Pieta in the Vatican - there are no words to adequately describe the emotions that I felt when I stood there in front of that statue. Her sorrow. The death of her son. The death of her hopes. Her dreams. Her beliefs about who He was.

I wish I could say I never had doubts.
I suppose I could say it - but it would be a lie.
Far more often than most people would imagine, I think:
"I thought you were the one..."
"I thought you were different."
"I thought you would outlive me. What happened?"
"How did I end up like this - holding my heart and faith in my hands,
both appearing lifeless?"

It's far too easy to ignore beggars. To avoid eye contact with peddlers of junk on the street. The best defense is simply to turn away. When I first saw this statue, I did just that: I turned away. Then the hole in His hand caught my eye.
And I remembered: "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it unto Me."
And I wondered: How many dozens of people, beggars, travelers, even friends, have I turned away from when they reached out and asked for help?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A quote I found earlier today...

A quote I've been thinking about. It came from an ad I found in a magazine (thanks, Kim!) for some kind of alcohol.

"At some point in time a man switches from
'I'll have what he's having'
to 'I'll have what I'm having.'"

Allow me to rewrite that in my own voice:

At some point in time, a woman switches from
"I'll have what she's having
I'll wear what she's wearing
I'll drive what she's driving
I'll live the way she lives
I'll buy what she's buying
I'll believe what she believes"

- to something entirely different.
Something new. True. Authentic. Personal.
But what exactly?

I'm still working on my rewrite.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Three Excellent Reasons to thank Dr. King...

The day after Thanksgiving this past November, Steve, Kristiana, Daniel, and I went to the church to have our photo taken for the church directory. Steve brought along our camera, and we took pictures while we waited for our turn.

These three beautiful, funny, happy, silly, life-affirming, and life-consuming people are my top three reasons to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Steve and I would probably not be married, and we certainly would not be living here in North Carolina if it weren't for Dr. King's life and the work he did to bring about freedom and equality for people of all races and socioeconomic classes in our nation.

The only photo I will comment on is this last one. It's the perfect picture of the three of us. I am talking. Daniel is clowning around. And Kristiana is sitting quietly in the background wondering what she did to deserve the crazy family she lives in.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

It's Sunday afternoon. Where were you two weeks ago right now?

One of the ways in which I keep my journeys on my mind is by reliving them. For a month or so after each trip, I find myself stopping at some point during each day, taking a look at my watch, and wondering to myself, "What was I doing four days ago/a week ago/a month ago at this time? Where was I? What was I eating for dinner two or three Sunday nights ago?" Another way I keep the journey alive is by looking at the photos and rereading the journal entries. I am never more than a few thoughts or images away from anyplace I have ever been in my life. (Another question that comes up often is this: How can anyone go through life, especially at times when one is traveling, without keeping a journal??? But that's a-whole-nother topic of conversation.)

Here are a few images I have turned to recently and a few of the things I remember about when the photos were taken.

This is a detail of the turtle fountain I set out to find for my daughter. Beautifully detailed. Look at those fingers fully extended. The tiny turtle legs and shells balanced precariously on the edge of the pool of water. Exquisite. Even in the rain. I would like to think that the turtles are happiest when it is raining.

This one is of my 3euro20cent cup of cinnamon and ginger ice cream from the Gelateria San Crispino - the same gelateria that Elizabeth Gilbert frequented in her four-month eating binge through Italy as described in Eat, Pray, Love. Ate my $5+ worth of ice cream while standing at the Trevi Fountain. Smiling all the while. Trying not to look totally insane - because, really, how happy can ice cream make somebody? Well, I'm here to tell you that that ice cream on a cold day in Rome is the perfect anecdote to whatever may be ailing you! Oh happy day, indeed!

Someday, way far in the distant future, when I either hit the lottery or find and sell a flawless 75 carat diamond buried in my backyard, I will own this furniture. I will place it in an apartment overlooking a quiet plaza on a quiet street in Madrid. First, I will have to have it delivered from the furniture store on the Via Tomacelli in Roma where I found it. Isn't that a gorgeous purple chair? Can't you picture me in it, journal in my lap, pen in hand, tea on a nearby table, wrapped in a lusciously thick equally purple chenille throw? Being that I neither play the lottery nor venture out into the dirt in my backyard with a shovel or pickax in hand, I can only conclude that the chances of such a dream becoming a reality are slim indeed. That'll be the day...

This is a shot taken of the Fendi store on my last night in Roma. On my final stroll up the Via Condotti. On my way to my hotel. Giving thanks for every step, every meal, every moment. Paying close attention to as many details as my hyper-alert senses took in. Bright lights. Big city. Crowds pressing in all around.

I looked behind me, and there was that great big belt wrapped around the building. It was the perfect metaphor for how I felt: that somehow a great big belt of safety, security, grace, peace, and joy had been buckled around me. Around the gift that is my life. Thanks be to God!

And if the belt weren't enough, just a few doors away was this shop with this bow. Perfect.

Oh what a night.
Oh what a journey.
I will never forget it... certainly not with all these photos and journal pages to remind me.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Coffee Encounters Captured

I'd be lying if I said I like coffee. I don't particularly like coffee. What I like is the experience of drinking coffee. The cafes themselves. Placing the order, especially in Spanish or Italian. Watching the deliberate, well-measured gestures of the barista. Waiting. The flourish of the presentation. The tiny little cup. The foam on top of the capuccino. The sugar as it sits atop the foam for a brief moment, and then the slow descent, the fall through the frothy platform into the strong, hot liquid energy below. The quiet time to think, pray, journal, prepare mentally for the day ahead. Time to sit. In the cafe. In the moment. To remind myself: I am in Spain. Madrid. Italy. Rome. Alone. At peace. The surge of adrenalin as the surge of caffeine surges through my veins.

No, it's not really the coffee.
It's the moment. The place. The memory.
Here are a few of my favorite coffee encounters from my recent European adventure.

This first photo comes from Orio, the coffee and bread shop that was my regular breakfast joint when I took the children with me in the spring of 2005 and lived in Madrid for a month. Some of the same ladies still work there. All of the women recogized "the regulars" and offered to make them "the usual." Gotta love that, especially in a city the size of Madrid.

Illy enjoyed in the galleria on the corner of the Via del Tritone and the Via del Corso in Roma. The Espressamente cafe.

Actually, this wasn't coffee; this photo is of the cup, tea strainer, and other goodies needed to enjoy a pot of tea at La Baguette. Red berry tea. Please do not fail to notice the slice of linzer cake topped with confectioner's sugar and a small dollop of whipped cream. Dessert for dinner - oh, yeah!

On one of the rainy Rome mornings, I ducked into a tiny little place called Bar Milano just across from the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the chiesa where I sat through a mass in French. A capuccino for 95 euro cents; that's about $1.45. Nice. Two gentlemen standing at the register when I walked in. I took my place in line behind them. We each placed our order and paid at the register. The woman who took our orders and our few coins then crossed the cafe to make the drinks herself. Perfect.

As I left, she called out, "Arrivederci." Farewell. Her tone of voice seemed to express, "See you soon." Maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part.

Finally, it was time to say farewell to Europa. At Rome's Fiumicino Airport, I bellied up to the bar and ordered not one, but two, capuccini. Four packs of sugar. (Did I mention that I like the sugar??!!) A slow farewell to the well-established morning ritual. Farewell to my 2nd favorite European city. Farewell to yet another great solo adventure. Not sure if you can see it in this photo, but the cup on the left had a heart-shaped foam topping.

Ciao, Roma.
Ciao, bella.

Beginning in 2005 on that trip with the children, I established the habit of collecting many of the empty sugar packets - making sure to shake every grain of sugar out of them - and gluing them into my journal. Every time I flip through my travel journals, I come face-to-packet with the memory of coffee, of quietness, of a journey well-traveled. Nearly every sugar packet used in the coffee cups pictured on this post resides in the journal seen in the bottom photo. Inexpensive reminders of dearly cherished times.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The toughest part of solo travel...

Without a doubt, the toughest part of solo travel for me is going out to dinner alone. Finding a restaurant that doesn't treat solo diners with disdain. Finding a place where I am not stared at, mostly with pity it seems, because I am alone. Facing the prospect of eating, having a glass of wine, savoring dessert, and then walking back to my hotel alone. Especially in places like Rome and Madrid where dinner is rather late.

Some nights I will pick up something in a take-out kind of place and eat it as I walk home. Sometimes I take things back to the hotel room and eat them there. Sometimes I simply have gelato for dinner - and eat it walking. Last week in Roma, I ate gelato for dinner while walking in the rain. It sounds pitiful, but I was actually quite happy. I kept thinking: "I'm in Roma. It's raining. And I'm eating gelato. What could be better than this?"

And sometimes (as I documented in this photo of a most wondrous salad - notice the thick slices of mozzarella cheese and the sheen of fragrant olive oil!), I take the plunge, go to the eatery of my choice, enter boldly, walk and take my seat with my best posture, eat, drink, pray, love myself, and return to my hotel with my belly full and my spirits high.

The bottom line is this: I'm away. On my own. Eating.
Learning new ways to take care of myself.
All is well.
Yum, yum.

One of my favorite things to do on my trips is find a local coffee shop, a cafe where I can have coffee daily, where the folks behind the counter get used to my face, and welcome me when I return. And when such a local choice isn't easy to find, I seek out somethings familiar. In Madrid, that familiarity is found in Starbucks.

After a particularly long walk on the morning of December 28th and two cups of coffee at the cafe that had been our family's favorite place way back in 2005, I made a pit stop at Starbucks, to pee and get some tea. The following day, I went shopping with Eduardo, Leticia, and Alvaro. We ducked into a Starbucks for a hot drink on a cold morning. Next to my seat hung this poster, and I liked it a lot. Here's what it says: At the top - "A space for you." At the bottom - "A moment to think, create, work, dream, enjoy. Welcome to Starbucks."

When I'm feeling a little lonely, a little down, I do exactly that: take a moment to think, to create something in my journal, to dream, and to remind myself to enjoy every step of the journey. Even the faltering, lonely steps.

When all else fails, even when all else goes swimmingly,
I find a house of worship, a place to kneel and say thanks.

This photo was taken at St. Peter's Basilica just before the start of the 5 pm mass on Friday, January 4th. As always, I pulled out my journal to record the moment.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

25 Things I Love about my life right now

1. being at home on a chilly Saturday evening

2. watching my children play basketball - both of their teams won! Daniel has another game in an hour...

3. homemade pizza

4. writing in my journal

5. reading Thomas Merton's Dialogues with Silence

6. talking to friends on the phone

7. chocolate brought home from Spain

8. reading blogs I love: there are many, many wise women out there in the blogosphere

9. rain

10. sunshine

11. listening to my ipod while ironing (I admit to liking to iron when I am listening to music. otherwise not so much)

12. going to the supermarket - such bounty from which to choose

13. reading novels with Kristiana and discussing them (We just finished I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Next up: Their Eyes Were Watching God)

14. cuddling with Steve on the couch ... and in bed

15. watching Maya climb into her new bed and lie down

16. ice wine

17. earl gray tea

18. german rock sugar from teavana

19. my blue fleece slippers

20. the welcome home sign the kids made for me

21. the scent of the candle Steve gave me for Christmas

22. the lemon soap I bought in the shop just off the Campo di Fiori in Rome

23. looking at the photographs from my trip

24. stilton cheese with chunks of lemon

25. crawling into bed and resting my weary head on my super-firm pillow

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Are you ever scared?"

Amy wrote and asked me the question that is the title of this post. Am I ever afraid when I am out and about, globetrotting alone? The easiest answer to that question is: yes and no. Truthfully, I am not afraid - in the sense of "I could die if I do this." Or "What if I get raped or robbed or drugged in a restaurant?" I really don't feel that sort of fear or panic.

What I do feel are occasional waves of heightened awareness. I will be walking down a street and get the sense that someone who is approaching me is paying more attention to me than I'd like. Or someone approaching me from behind is walking too close for comfort.

In the former situation, I avert my eyes from that person's eyes, and I watch their feet as they go past. As long as they keep moving and don't slow down, I'm fine. If they slow down or appear to be approaching me, I look up, directly into their face, and stare right at them. I am adamantly clear (by my expression) that I am NOT afraid. That I will stand up for myself. That I know who I am, Whose I am, and I am not lost in their country.

Here's an example. One afternoon last week, as I walked down a noisy, crowded street in Rome, a homeless man approached me with his hands extended for money. I shook my head and began to walk around him. He grabbed both of my arms and tried to keep me from going around him. I looked him directly in the eye, and said, firmly, "No. No." He was quite surprised at my strong response, immediately let go, and moved on. Was I afraid? Not at all. I know (or felt rather confident) that he wasn't going to hurt me. His intention was to frighten me into giving him money. When it was obvious that I wasn't frightened by him, nor was I going to give him anything, he left me alone.

(By the way, that is the only time - since 1986 - that a person has ever touched me like that. Lots of times, people ask for money or try to get me to look at them or speak to them or buy something from them on the street. But physical contact is not the norm. In August of 1986, on my first trip to Europe, I was groped on a train by the conductor! By the ticket-taker!!! Same response: "No, no, no." He left me alone after that. That night, alone in the sleeping compartment on that train, I was afraid. But I also decided then and there to not let that incident ruin my entire trip or take away my love for European travel. The resolve I began to build that night has only grown over the past 21 years. I will NOT give up my rightful place on earth to creeps and jerks like that. No way.)

If I feel like someone is too close for comfort behind me, I will choose a store window or restaurant doorway ahead of me, and when I get there, I stop and look in the window. I casually look at the person who is behind me as well - letting them know that I know they are there, and that I am not about to pretend that I don't know. By stopping suddenly on the sidewalk, I force the person behind me to move on. I have never been afraid at those moments.

The truth is that God has developed a sense of peace in me that is inexplicable - peace that passes all understanding. I am always aware that I am not alone. There are no foes that can defeat me. There is no one out there that can harm my soul or my spirit. I am no less protected and loved and cared for alone in Rome than in Charlotte or New York or Connecticut. Peace truly reigns.

This photo was taken this past Sunday morning. Read on.

This past Sunday, on my last day in Rome, I left the hotel in search of a fountain that is known for its turtles. As I had purchased several small turtle statues for Kristiana (who loves all animals!), I decided to find that fountain and take photos of it for her.

So early in the morning, I set out on my long walk. It was raining. The streets were mostly deserted. Heightened alert. "Pay attention, Gail." Every couple of blocks, I stopped and looked around me. Is there anyone walking down the street behind me? Does anyone seem to be watching me or paying attention to me?

At one particular corner, the answer to that last question was an unmistakable "Yes." There was a man walking on the street across from me who looked over at me three or four times. He slowed his pace and seemed to watch to see which direction I was heading. Because it was raining, I had an umbrella up. I lowered it so he wouldn't be able to see my face, and I watched his feet. He slowed down. I did too. I walked across the street to the side he was on as that was where I needed to be. He slowed down even more, but he was still ahead of me, so I ducked into a doorway and stood still for a minute or so. Peeked out. He was further along on the street. I stayed where I was for another minute or two. Peeked out again. He was gone.

I continued down the street in the same direction he had gone. Turned the corner onto what I thought was the street I wanted and picked up my pace considerably. I didn't want him to see me if he backtracked. I was the only person on the block. "Keep paying attention, Gail."

I looked up at the street sign: wrong one. Oops. "Keep walking, Gail. Don't turn around." Half a block down on the left side: Sanctuary. Refuge. A church. I went inside. Sat down on a pew. Took a deep breath. Prayed and thanked God for the alertness He'd given me and the safety He'd provided.

Then I pulled out my map. I was on the right street. At the next corner, the name would change to the one I needed. Two short blocks down on the left: the turtle fountain. I took photos. All along the way as I walked on to my next destination, I said my favorite prayer of all: "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Lord."

Was I afraid? No, I really wasn't. Alert? Attentive? Prayerful? Absolutely. But I refuse to give up my curiosity about the world on account of fear of the unknown or fear of potential harm.

That is a great question, Amy.
The simplest answer is this: No, I am not afraid when I am on these trips.
Two Scriptures flash through my mind frequently while I am away.

I am the Lord, the God of all mankind.
Is there anything too hard for me?

(No, Lord, there is nothing too hard for you.
Protecting little old me here in little old Rome is nothing for You.)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God,
and the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(At the end of each of the three Italian masses I sat through
- four actually - three in Italian and one in French -
the priest says, "Andate in pace." Go in peace.
In my mind I answer, Yes, I will go in peace.
On these trips, truly I am at peace.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Just to Whet Your Appetites...

Can you see me in this picture? Took thie photo while wandering aimlessly down a beautiful street in Madrid. Window-shopping. Trying to find ways to document to myself that I was there. Really there. On the street in my favorite city in the world. Also - I am always tickled when I see words in English in Spanish and Italian ads. I always wonder how many passersby understand what the words mean.

With my little friend, Alvaro, on New Year's Day. Taking an "autobiographical" photo. I really like this picture. He's a fantastically alert, funny, active, life-loving boy. Blessings on him - and his family.

In Roma. In front of the Castel Sant'Angelo. Another self-portrait. (Thanks to my photography instructor from Arm's Length Studio, I am a much better self-portrait artist!) A sunny day. Hundreds of people all around me. Speaking half a dozen languages. Buying and selling all kinds of things. Gaping at architecture and art. Sculptures and each other. There I was. In the midst of it. Alone. Surrounded. Filled. Overjoyed. A wondrous, wonder-filled journey. So many stories to tell. So many lessons learned.

Gotta go prepare myself for tonight's spiritual journaling class - it's the first meeting tonight. So much to do (and enjoy and experience) and so few hours in which to get it all done (and enjoyed and experienced).

Life is good.
God is good.
It is good to be home.

PS. This morning as I prepared Daniel breakfast, he said, "I'm so glad you're home, Mom." Glutton for compliments that I am, I asked him why he said that. "Because I can talk to you about anything. I can't talk to Kristiana about anything because she's not old enough. And Dad, well, I just can't talk to Dad. But I can tell you everything." As I turned my back to him and poured boiling water over his peppermint tea bag, I smiled. When I turned back to him, I said, "I'm glad you can tell me anything, dude. And I'm really glad to be home."

PSS. Thanks for all of your "welcome home" comments. And prayers. And emails. I am blessed to have you all in my life. Blessed beyond measure.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Finally, I'm at home...

To make a very long story short, I made it to Chicago on time yesterday and made it to my gate just before boarding. Then there was an gate change. Then there was an aircraft change. Then I was bumped from one flight to another.

Finally, the final flight of the night was cancelled. I was transported to the O'Hare Crowne Plaza Hotel along with a bunch of other "distressed passengers" - all of us with our "distressed passenger" vouchers in hand.

I was back at the airport at 6 this morning and airlifted out of the windy (and rainy and stormy) city at 9:30 this morning, reunited with Steve at the airport in Charlotte at 12:45 or so, then with the children 45 minutes later here at home. Daniel, my dearly devoted son, stayed home from school today so that he could be here upon me return.

It is good to be home.
It was a fantastic journey.
All is well.

Must go; the children are calling me.
Yup, I'm back!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Still in Roma...

but not for much longer. Just one full day left and then an early departure on Monday morning. A long flight to Chicago, a ninety minute layover, and then a flight to Charlotte. (That type of route is the cost of flying on frequent flier miles... Plus there is the fact that Charlotte Douglas International Airport has no direct flights to Spain or Italy... London, yes. Frankfurt, yes. Lots of Caribbean and South American countries, yes. But flights to either of my two favorite overseas escapes, not yet. C'est la vie.)

I am calling on all my prayer warrior friends to lift me up on Monday, my long day of travel. With such a short layover in Chicago - and having to get through customs and find my connecting flight - I am nervous about missing the second flight. Please pray that it all goes well and without much delay. Pray that they will let me take my bag with me onto the plane - it's just one of those little rolling bags... yes, I travel very lightly. Thank you in advance for all your support in these final days.

Thanks also to all of you who have prayed already, who have sent emails and posted comments here on the blog. I am enormously grateful for all of your thoughts and words and support. Often during the day I think of my friends and loved ones and smile. I often sit down in churches and museums and restaurants and write in my journal, thinking of stories for my blog, lessons for my upcoming journaling class, working on Shimelle's Journal Your Christmas ideas and giving thanks for all the ways in which this journey has made me stronger, more peaceful, and more accepting of all that God has in mind for me every day. So many surprises, moments of sheer joy, grace, providence, and mercy beyond all measure. Truly, this journey has been beyond all I ever thought or imagined.

I look forward to getting home, downloading the hundreds of photos and two videos I have taken, and decompressing, as it were. I have picked up many trinkets to give to family and friends as well.

One of the final sites for me tomorrow will be the Ara Pacis, the ancient altar to peace. I will find a quiet corner there, take a seat, and pray for peace. For peace all over the world. For peace in the lives of all of you who write to me, think of me, and pray for me. For all of you who read but never comment. For those of you who comment, send emails, and have even come to meet me... LISA!!! And for those I have yet to meet but know that I will.

Peace. Paz. Pace.
To all.
Ciao from Roma.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Sto In Roma

That means, "I'm in Rome" in Italian. I arrived from Madrid nearly an hour ago and will leave this lovely little hotel Steve found for me and go wandering the lovely, ancient streets of this Eternal City... or at least, that's how it is known.

All is well.
I am well.

Just a few more days, and then I'll be heading home.
Gotta make the most of the time I have left.
What a grand adventure it has been thus far.

Off I go...
Felice anno nuovo - Happy New Year.