Impossible

This week I learned that the impossible can happen.

Last fall, in an effort to get my students to study harder for English tests, I announced that if the entire class pulled A’s and B’s on an English test, I would take them skiing. (I was quite sure of the impossibility.) Apparently, eighth graders need this sort of positive motivation because despite a test full of diagramming (not to mention the fact that the test was ON A MONDAY) my students pulled it off. All A’s and B’s.

I spent most of November and December announcing over and over again that “I DON’T KNOW” exactly when we are going skiing. January rolled around, and I managed to find some parent chaperones and a date that worked with everyone’s schedule. Snow wasn’t in the forecast for the week of our ski trip, but the temperatures were low enough for the little ski resort to be making its own snow. (Who skis on man-made snow, you ask? Midwesterners, who are already resigned to skiing on man-made hills.) However, as Thursday loomed closer, the weather looked very unsatisfactory, with rain and sleet in the forecast. I canceled for a later date.

The day before our would-be trip, the eighth grade boys crowded around my desk, begging me to re-schedule the trip for the next day anyway. “It’s only going to rain a little bit! Then it’s going to snow a couple of inches. It will be fine!”

A couple of inches? Uh, that’s not exactly what I read in the weather forecast.

We voted as a class, and the seasoned boarders enthusiastically voted to go anyway, despite the conditions. The novices seemed to have no idea what rain could do to snow, so they voted, “I don’t know.” I was realizing that kids don’t care about perfect ski conditions.

But I had to make a good choice here. Some students would be skiing and boarding for the first time, and this wasn’t an exactly cheap trip that they were paying for. I had to make sure they were skiing on good snow. I checked the weather again. Sixty percent chance of rain. I decided to call the ski resort and see if they could give me some advice about conditions and how they relate to beginner skiers and boarders.

Ski resort lady: “We know people who LOVE skiing in the rain.”

Of course you do. (Who SAYS that?)

Checking the weather one more time, I looked at the 60% chance of rain and decided to risk it. I rescheduled the trip for the next day. I sent home a detailed letter explaining everything they needed to bring.

But after school, I checked the weather report again, and rain looked imminent. Freezing rain was expected through the night. The chance of rain for our field trip day had increased to 90%, with four hours of rain forecasted for the morning, followed by sleet, with only a low chance of snow in the evening.

I felt like canceling again. (I was being very indecisive.) I needed to get it together. I was torn between (1) waiting to have amazing snow and making it a great time for the newbies, and (2) pleasing the impatient kids (and honestly myself who thought it would be really nice for my schedule to go ahead and “get the field trip out of the way.”) So I prayed.

God, I know this means nothing to you. Weather for skiing field trips probably isn’t on your big list of world-problems to fix right now. But it would be really handy if you could hold off the rain. Please change the weather for our field trip.

I decided that if school was delayed in the morning, I would use that as a sign that I should re-cancel the trip. Because of freezing rain, school was delayed two hours. The rain forecast had even caused the ski resort to close for the morning. I decided to check the weather again one more time. Several minutes before, the forecast had 90% chance of rain for four hours in the morning. I checked again.

Zero percent chance of rain.

Oh, I thought to myself, I must have clicked on the wrong city. Here, let’s put in Jones, Michigan, again. It popped up again: ZERO PERCENT CHANCE OF RAIN.

Now. That can’t be. Hmmm. I stared at my screen.

ZERO. Zero chance of rain.

It was one of those moments that’s really incredible, as in, the true definition of the word “incredible”: not believable. I actually couldn’t believe that it had happened. My friends didn’t even really get how big of deal it was. I told them the weather forecast had changed overnight. “Oh, really? That’s nice.”

But it was a very big deal to me.

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A majority of my class went on the after-school trip and had a marvelous time. No, the snow wasn’t perfect, but we all got to learn something new. The slopes were pretty quiet, and for a while we had the bunny hill to ourselves. The boarders had a great time in the terrain park. By the end of the evening, poetic little snowflakes were lightly dusting the machine-groomed hills.

Yes, we here in Nappanee are grateful for the day it didn’t rain.

Apparently, the impossible can happen.

Graze: Snacking Reinvented

Upon unpacking new books from my latest Barnes & Noble order (yay, New Year’s reading list!), I found a promotion to try Graze snacks. Graze snack’s tagline is “snacking reinvented.” Graze snacks seeks offer delicious healthy snack options delivered RIGHT TO YOUR MAILBOX. To try Graze snacks, you simply log in to their awesome-designed website, read about all their funky-flavored snack options, rate the offerings as “TRASH, TRY, LIKE, LOVE” and wait for your first free snack box in the mail! Every box is a surprise box in that the kitchen at Graze decides how to pack your box based on your ratings and preferences. You can, however, choose to receive a calorie counter box if you want the healthiest snacking options.

Since my first box was free, I decided to try it. In a week’s time, a thin sleek box arrived at my door. The packaging complemented the delightful little snacks. I say little because the box did only include a total of 460 calories of snacks. (For me, that’s about two snacks’ worth of snacks. But then, I’m a hungry working girl.)

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I received four different snacks, including the herby bread basket, cherries & berries, chili and lime pistachios, and peach and passionfruit parfait.

The bread basket was interesting, but so highly seasoned that I felt like I was eating the bottom of a bag of croutons. I liked the parfait bits (dried fruit and yogurt pieces), but they were kind of messy to eat. However, I absolutely LOVED the pistachios roasted with chili and lime. The anomalous taste was augmented by the extra bite from the chilis. Very nice! The cherries & berries was a combination of dried cherries, lingonberries, cranberries, and jumbo raisins, also very delicious.

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Awesome packaging! The box is printed with pomegranates. I LOVE pomegranates!

I think Graze snacks would be a great option for an adventurous busy person, who wants healthy snack options. Graze snacks can be delivered to your door on a regular basis!

I don’t know about you, but I can certainly handle groceries being delivered to my door!

I would love to share my Graze experience with you all! If you would like to try your own box of Graze snacks, please leave me a comment, and I will send you a code for a free box! (If you’re one of the first four commenters, that is.) :)

Year in Pictures

It’s the end of 2014! Where did the year take you? Here’s my year in pictures: places I’ve gone, songs I’ve sung, and all the lovely people who journeyed with me.

January 1st. Ringing in the New Year with my favorite girls. Columbus, Ohio.

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Snow-soaked Nappanee. Our frigid winter prompted ten snow days from school!

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March: saying goodbye to my first clever little apartment

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…and moving to a new place…

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May: finishing my first year of teaching and taking my students on a field trip to Chicago… Getting mistaken for a junior high student by the footman at the group entrance to the Museum of Science and Industry. “Excuse me, where is your teacher?” :D (Hee hee hee.)

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May: meeting my very first niece, Cassidy.

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Exploring her Nebraska home.

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June & July: Oasis Chorale tour to Ireland and England

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The Irish coast.

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Glendalough, Ireland.

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Conway Beach, Wales.

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Finding this weathered gravestone, seaside in Whitby, England. “She found in Christ that happiness which the world cannot give.”

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Gadding about the English countryside with these peculiar treasures.

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Having my first setting of cream tea.

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Visiting Stourhead Gardens, a dream come true. Wiltshire, England.

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August: walking through the quiet school yard before crazy days.

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Crazy days like the one where our English lecture was interrupted by the mews of a distraught kitten, stuck in the duct work. So much for John Foxe. Someone gets a new pet!

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September: 100 mph days ending with hours of school yard grading.

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October: training for and completing my first half marathon.

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November: watching the sunrise every morning in my classroom.

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Thanksgiving with my baby niece…

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…and being reunited with the sisterhood.

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December: chalkboard victory selfie on the last day of school. Don’t be fooled. That smile hides the desperation, the lack of sleep, and the terrified looooonging for Christmas vacation. My first day of Christmas vacation? I stumbled into the kitchen after waking up at 3:10 p.m. #tiredteacher

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After sleeping for days, enjoying early breakfasts with these two. Christmas breakfast tradition @ La Chatelaine.

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And, finally, enjoying a very quiet Christmas at home with my parents, bottomless cups of coffee, and hours of Tolstoy.

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At the end of 2014, I find myself a little overwhelmed at all the changes and adventures this year has brought. It’s been a grueling year. I feel like I’m still adjusting to the pace of teaching.

Yet as I peer into the New Year, I have undying hope. There is this treasure in jars of clay. If I am perplexed, I am not in despair. If I am hard pressed on every side, I am not crushed.

May you have hope this holiday season!
Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Half Crazy

Taking a break from my regular teacher-type reporting (if you need funny teacher bits, go here) to give you an update on the Indianapolis Half Marathon!

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The only teacherly comment I will make about running is that it really is important for teachers to have Other Hobbies besides teaching and learning. Otherwise you will go insane and poke your eyes out with Office Max thumb tacks. The latter is to be avoided, so I have taken up long-distance running. I’ve enjoyed running as physical exercise for several years now, but only last year did I get the idea to start racing. Last October, after training for three months, I spent my “first” half marathon on the sidelines, in bed, nursing a nasty case of strep throat because (a) first-year teaching gives you all the germs, and (b) I didn’t take vitamins or get enough rest.

Now I eat vitamins for breakfast, and I guard my sleeping hours like… a kind of lazy watch dog? Anyway, today I ran my first half marathon. Let me tell you about it.

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The Event
The Indianapolis Marathon and Half Marathon is a mid-size event, with a little over 2,000 participants. I would describe the race as quiet and serious. I’ve had friends tell me about crazy race atmospheres with high-fiving camaraderie, crazy cheering onlookers, and live bands along the road. This is not that race. Beforehand, participants gather around fire pits, or calmly wait in extremely long lines to use the port-a-potty. Only one runner wished me good luck. I guess we had our fair share of funny spectator signs, but the cheering was pretty half-hearted. Except for the girls at the mile 8 water stop who cheered my name (from my bib number) as they handed me my Gatorade. My favorite sign was this one woman’s sign held high: “You think your legs are tired? What about MY ARMS?” Sarcasm = my favorite. It’s a great race, though. The event staff make everything go smoothly. And the post-race cookout is worth eating.

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The Location
Indianapolis’s Hilton North hosts the Indianapolis Marathon’s Friday Packet Pickup and Expo (where you pick up your shoe chip timer, runner’s bib number, and free shirt). The hotel also hosts the Friday evening pasta dinner, which I passed up because I am VERY religious about pre-race rituals. I always eat Pizza Hut pizza the night before a long run (so many carbs). So that’s why I spent an hour driving around Indy the night before the race trying to find pizza, rather than enjoying my really nice hotel room. The event staff also coordinates morning shuttles to take runners from the Hilton to the race site. And I, ever the late one, arrived at the last second to get on the last shuttle, which was actually, a giant school bus, only to find out that I was the very last runner needing shuttling. So a very nice bus driver drove me, all by myself, in the giant yellow school bus to my very first half marathon. I sat quietly in the middle of the bus, sipping my Irish breakfast tea, quite amused. (Tea for caffeine. I had downed my ritual protein and carbs (peanut butter and honey on bread) back at the hotel).

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The race loops through Fort Harrison State Park. October weather affords some very nice scenery. When I wasn’t freaking out about randomly over-heating or how to eat protein gels while running, I happened to notice some very pretty yellow tree leaves. There are two “significant” hills on the race, one at mile 3 and one at mile 10. Some guy told me the one at mile 3 was no big deal, and he must be certifiably insane because, because it was a killer hill. After I made it up the hill, I started overheating in a way that I never do. I couldn’t cool down, and I was freaking out. I actually threw my gloves in a trashcan because I was so hot and I didn’t want to hold them anymore. Then like two miles later, I cooled down and my hands were freezing. Anyway, the mile 10 hill wasn’t bad at all (but then, I am a careful runner, and I save a lot for the end, so I still had plenty of energy left).

The End
Miles 3 and 4 crawled by, but miles 10-13 went so quickly! It was almost over too soon! I collected my medal, my race results, and then my calories.
I spent some time by the finish line, and I got to see some really great finishes, including the first-place full marathon winner, a couple holding hands across the finish line who were celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary, some runners representing World Vision, and a soldier running in full military gear. (I also saw a guy dressed like a Bavarian, complete with lederhosen and a feather in his hat. Not sure what that was about.)

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Racing
I’m so grateful to God that I maintained my health until race weekend. I also had an injury-free training, which was another improvement from last year. I set a very moderate goal, and due to a bit of discipline, I was able to achieve it. (Yay! Met my goal time!)
Racing is very different than solo running. Running, for me, is a very solitary hobby, one that I do to clear my mind. I normally run by myself. Racing with thousands of other runners was a very different experience. It was kind of cool to see how running can be a community sport. I mean, I took up running because I saw it as an individual sport, something to do by myself. I’ve enjoyed running alone, but now I’m thinking that at some point, it would be really cool to have some running buddies.
So, 13.1 miles later, by the time the other marathoners had returned home to rest in their beds and watch the Notre Dame game, I rested too went car shopping (because someone needs new wheels), and then drove to school to pick up books for lesson planning (because I really feel like staying awake right now). Rawr, my life. Amazingly, Grande Caramel Macchiatos, extra-hot, can do a miracle for one’s productivity. :D Actually, I’m feeling great! I’m barely sore at all, and I’m already thinking about my next half marathon. Yes, the next one. During the race you think that long-distance running is the stupidest thing in the world. You tend to get emotional. Mile 6 I literally had tears streaming down my face, and I was thinking, “I just want to be at home with my Mom!” But as soon as you finish, you think, “That was fun! I should do that again!”

Hee hee hee. What’s YOUR favorite race?

Dictionaries Change the World

One of my most terrifying professors in college made a very astute observation which I have never forgotten. (I am not entirely sure why her presence caused me to shake in my boots. Maybe it was her Type A personality, her imposing height, or her propensity toward free speech.) In any case, I will always remember what my professor told our class before we gave our persuasive speeches:

“Definitions are the most important part of a debate. Most arguments can be boiled down to a simple difference of definition. For example, look at the abortion debate. Isn’t the whole issue here about the definition of a ‘fetus’? Some people think a fetus is the mother’s tissue, part of her body. Other people think a fetus is a baby. These are two very different definitions which lead people on either side of the issue to come to very different conclusions. It is almost pointless to argue anything before you agree on a definition. You must always prove your definition and identify your terms before trying to persuade someone.”

It’s very true that differing definitions are at the root of conflict, and I have found that it is most helpful to carefully define issues before trying to discuss them or argue about them. Many times, conflict can be avoided by clarifying terms. In this way, sometimes “complex” issues are not so complex. Sometimes, after defining terms, we realize we aren’t even arguing about the same thing in the first place!

Think about [insert your pet political issue here]. Could this debate boil down to a difference of definition of something, someone, or some issue?

Definitions are real. Take, for example, the word “faith”. A simple enough word, but when you look it up in the dictionary, you will find fascinatingly different definitions. Webster’s Dictionary, for example, defines faith as “belief that is not based on proof.” (Let that astounding definition sink in for a while.) I do not think that this Webster’s definition is correct. In my opinion, “belief that is not based on proof” cannot be faith. It must be instead naiveté. Or silliness. Imagine that someone says: “I believe there is a magical unicorn in the world, but I do not see any evidence that it is there. But I have faith in the unicorn.” You see? Silliness.

However, I am told that the Oxford English Dictionary has a different definition for faith, one that includes the idea that faith is belief based on evidence. To me, this makes more sense. I believe there is a God in the world, and I see evidence He is there. I prayed to Him, and my life changed. I see people change (who I never thought could change) because Jesus Christ is in their life. In biology, when I study DNA, I see language and communication, evidence of a message-giver (who happens to be God). I see beauty, and I’m never satisfied by it. I see humans wondering about the earth, never satisfied by the things of earth. Sex, money, power… we are not satisfied by these temporary things. This is evidence to me that there is something beyond this life, JUST LIKE JESUS TOLD US THERE WOULD BE. These evidences begin to produce in me belief in the God of the Bible. And this is faith.

But I am told that I am believing in something in which there is no proof or evidence. And to me, this feels like someone is defining for me something which they should not define.

1. Belief with no proof. 2. Belief with proof.
Which one of these definitions of faith is the correct one? Could these two differing definitions lead to very different life practices and assumptions? Do you see how these two different definitions could lead to very different conclusions about the claims of Christianity, the validity of Christianity, and the belief in God?

Dictionaries matter.

But then, I am making a point about definitions, and the idea of TRUE definitions. Does truth play into this idea of “definition” at all? Does truth have a place in the conflict in our world? Could it be that the idea that “everything is relative” is actually creating conflict, rather than curbing it?

If you find yourself in conflict, you might think about definition. Is your definition correct? Is your definition based on some majority use that happened to make its way into the dictionary? Or is your definition based on truth?

Maybe, just maybe, dictionaries can change the world.

Driving in the U.K.

I just got back from my four week Ireland and England trip, and I know you are all wondering: what were the roads like?!

I spent nearly two weeks exploring the British countryside with four friends in a massive rental car. I maneuvered a boat-size Toyota Avensis up tiny mountain roads, through narrow stone passageways, across busy highways (or, “carriageways”), and in and out of city parking lots (“car parks”). It’s probably a miracle I covered over 900 miles in relative safety.

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Many roads in the U.K. are lined with stone walls, like this one in Wales.

So what is it like driving in England? Here are some of my observations:

It’s really easy to get the correct documents because… there aren’t any. Did you know you do not need an international drivers license to drive in the U.K.? Because Ireland, England, and Wales are English-speaking countries, you do not need an international drivers license. All you need is your up-to-date American license.

Driving on the other side of the road is like getting your permit all over again. Driving on the “wrong side of the road” (the left side) is harder than it looks. It’s not simply driving on the other side of the road. You have to get used to the fact that you have an additional four feet of car on the left of you. You, the driver, are on the “wrong” side of the car. My friend in the front seat: “Wall. WALL! We’re getting close to the WALL!” It’s like I was 15 all over again.
It takes a bit to orient yourself to the left side of the road. Because I was sitting on the right side of the car, I found it hard to line up my car between the middle line and the left shoulder. The other disorienting thing was making right-hand turns. In the U.S. we get used to only looking one way (to the left) when turning right. But in the U.K., a right-hand turn is equivalent to a left-hand turn, where you have to look both ways because you are crossing a lane of traffic. Once, I pulled out to turn right, and mid-way through the intersection, I realized I forgot to look both ways! Thankfully, no one was coming!
They say that Americans driving in the U.K. find the third day to be the worst day. At first everything is new and exciting, and your concentration is at its peak. But by the third day, you’re starting to relax, yet you’re not totally accustomed to the roadway system, and this is when mistakes are made. For me, the left side didn’t seem normal until the second week.

The traffic signals aren’t hard to figure out, but navigation is impossible without a GPS. One note I will make about road signs is that in Ireland and Wales they are all bilingual. Besides English, there is Gaelic in Ireland and Welsh in Wales. It’s all very culturally interesting to read the languages, but it can be very distracting if you are the driver because you have to wade through a lot of text.
Another observation is that the roads are poorly marked in the rural areas and even in some cities. Also, carriageway signs do not feature a direction (North, South, East, West) but simply the nearest big city in that direction. Which is great if you are familiar with the location of all British cities. (I’m not.) We bought an atlas, but we ended up not using it because our car had a built-in GPS. However, the GPS had no input for a street address, so we were left to simply punching in the town name and following tourism signs once we arrived (or asking the local friendly pub owner for directions). Once we arrived at our destination, parking was always an issue. You can park on the street, but there are very specific laws and special markings (double lines, single lines, yellow lines) that mean the parking is/not/sometimes allowed. (?) We found it easier to just find a nearby “car park” and pay the parking fee so as not to incur a ticket. My favorite parking memory: ordering pork steak at the Roman Baths Kitchen, then huffing a half mile back to the car park to put five more pounds in the parking meter so we wouldn’t get a ticket. Bonus: by the time I got back from my hurried walk, my pork steak was ready.
One last note: WE DID NOT DRIVE IN LONDON. No one drives in London. Just to be clear. Park north of the city and take the Tube in.

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In cities, the street signs are attached to buildings rather than poles in the ground. Baker Street, London.

The roads are in good repair, but why are they so narrow?! I know, I know. Everything is just “bigger” in America. Let me tell you, the streets in the U.K. are narrow! Which is why they drive smaller cars. But this here American was traveling with four other people with weeks worth of luggage, so she rented a mid-size car. My knuckles whitened, gripping the wheel, as I slowly climbed up mountain roads in Wales, ancient stone walls inches from my mirrors on either side. (If you ever meet another car on these roads, you either squeeze off to the side, or one of you backs up to the nearest passing spot, a place in the road where a car can pull off to let the other car pass.) It was my luck that I met a bus on this steep road. I tried backing up, but there was a car behind me. Some of my friends hopped out and tried to help me back into this little open area by a nearby building. We were all yelling and motioning, and then I hear a $$$$$ scraping on the car. (Later, we learned it was only scraping on the muffler, not the bumper. What a relief!) I recommend renting a European size car if you can manage.

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Steep, narrow cobblestone streets in the little town of Haworth, Charlotte Brontë’s hometown.

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Small cars for narrow roads. Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire, England.

On speeding: no one drives the speed limit, and there are never any police cars in sight. None. I never saw one. That said, there are traffic cameras everywhere in the city, so you should obey/disobey speeding laws at your own risk. (Our rental car had a built-in traffic camera sensor, hee hee hee.) I finally resorted to keeping up with traffic only for safety’s sake, but I’m still watching my mailbox for a send-out ticket.

Watch out for reintegration. Coming back to the States, I thought driving on the right side again would be no problem. I was pulling out for church one morning, and I automatically turned left without looking right. Suddenly, I remembered half-way through my turn that a left-hand turn is once again crossing a lane of traffic, and I need to look both ways! Thank the Lord no one was coming! Right after the turn, I had this terrifying moment where I had no idea which side of the road to drive on! It was a very funny disorienting feeling! When reentering the U.S., make sure that you take the time to look both ways.

Happy driving!

Stonehenge, Stourhead, and Stratford: England, Week 4

Driving west out of London, we found the countryside to be a breath of fresh air. Motel-ed in Liphook. Wednesday morning we drove to Jane Austen’s house in Alton, Chawton. A lovely day! This was an even better experience than the Bronte Parsonage. I especially enjoyed how the exhibits and museum related much of the artifacts back to Austen’s writing. Austen was insanely productive, never married, and died in her 40s. For several years she lived in Bath, but she hated it there. (Which is so funny because in Bath there’s this whole museum dedicated to her. When she lived there, her writing came to a halt because she was so unhappy!) It was only when she returned to Alton in her late 20s that she began reworking her manuscripts and started publishing them. She was very close to her sister. The intimacy shared by Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is most likely autobiographical. Also, Jane Austen’s character is to be commended. At her death, Jane was praised by her brothers for her good Christian character and kindness. Jane Austen’s quiet family life in the country was conducive to productive writing. Jane Austen’s story is not without hardship, but the Jane Austen House Museum explains how Austen became successful despite these setbacks and never let her work and her craft get in the way of family and friendship.

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Jane Austen’s back yard.

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The street view.

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The bedroom she shared with her sister.

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I loved the light of the place.

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An English country garden.

In the afternoon, we drove to Stonehenge! A most amusing experience here. In line to get tickets, an Austrian man, in limited English says to us, “We are six. You are five. Eleven makes a group. We save 1.50 pounds if group. I checked. Okay? We are group.” We smile politely at the men, which we find out are six Catholic priests. So we became a “group.” We were asked if we were part of a “community,” and when we mentioned the Reformation, things got a little awkward. But they were very friendly priests, and we even got our picture taken with them at Stonehenge! Not to mention saving £1.50 a person!

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Rising out of the grasslands.

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Obligatory selfie.

After eating dinner in the only pub in the tiny village of Cholderton (population 210), we checked into our hostel, which was next to an exotic animal farm.

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Candlelight, flowers, and dinner at the pub.

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Thursday was one of my favorite days. My friends gave me a hard time because this was me almost every day: “OH MY GOODNESS GUYS THIS IS MY FAVORITE DAY SO FAR.”
But seriously. Stourhead Gardens was exquisite! If you want to vacation like a Brit, head to Stourhead Gardens. You’ll see the British grandpas and the grandmas in their bucket hats… the ladies in their dresses… walking their dogs… the children playing by the river… the families with picnics… It’s a lovely experience.

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Lake, picnics, swans…

I put Stourhead on our itinerary because it is home to superb architectural features including a Palladian mansion, a Palladian Bridge, a Pantheon, and a Temple of Apollo (which, in years past, I have renamed “The Round Thingy” and have received unending ribbing because of it.) The gardens, the features, and the house are rare. One rarely gets to see these sorts of places in movies. (The bridge and the temple were featured in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Also, the interior of the mansion reminded me of other period movies.) Lovely to see in real life. Do yourself a favor and read up on the Stourhead Gardens. The lake is actually man-made and the surrounding gardens and walking paths are carefully designed for artistic cohesiveness.

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The Palladian Bridge and Pantheon. It was a little more moody when Keira Knightley ran across it.

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Stunning hydrangeas. Notice the variation in shade.

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Poetry by Alexander Pope, who helped design the garden.

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The Temple of Apollo. (Also featured in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.)

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Artistry in nature.

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The Pantheon, undergoing extensive restoration.

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Inside the cool grotto.

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1720s Palladian Mansion.

 

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Entryway. Portrait of Alda Hoare, lady of the house.

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Ever heard of Chippendale? He was commissioned to design most of the furniture for the house.

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Pretties

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I asked the tour guide for information on the pottery on the mantle. It appeared to be identical to ancient Greek pottery I had just seen in London in the British Museum. Apparently, it’s imitation. At the time, all things Greek were in vogue for designers.

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A pine cabinet with 127 compartments and overlaid in precious stones.

After walking, reading, and touring the house, I had another lovely setting of cream tea.

We drove to Bath, which Jane Austen hates, and inched the Avensis up a very narrow drive to the YHA hostel, whose service and food left a bit to be desired.

Friday morning we made our way to a free car park outside the village of Castle Combe. Castle Combe is an iconic English village, full of stone and hanging baskets. Again, period movies are shot there because it is so quaint.

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Rooftop cream tea.

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Heather is a very common plant in England.

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The quaintness of Castle Combe.

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Common village house.

Back in Bath in the afternoon, I realized I was museum-ed out. I’m not sure how to admit this, but I didn’t go to the Roman baths. It was expensive, and I felt like I would have just gone inside, taken a picture, and then left. I needed a break from our crazy schedule. So I just walked the town, listening to street musicians, visiting little shops, and people-watching. It was refreshing.

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Architecture in Bath.

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Joel Grainger, a talented musician playing on the street in Bath. Check him out on Youtube!

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I met up with my friends for an al fresco dinner.

Saturday morning I was pretty peaked. We didn’t really have plans made yet for Stratford-upon-Avon. We were all kind of losing steam, but I was wanting to make sure that I made the most of every moment of this trip. On the drive to Shakespeare’s hometown, we stopped at McDonald’s for potties and food, but I refused to eat there. I was determined to find something authentic in Stratford. I really wanted to go to a Shakespeare play (I was saving money for this), but my friends didn’t want to go, and I was really starting to worry about coordinating all this because the GPS was showing that our hotel was not very close to the city center.

I shouldn’t have worried. Our beautiful hotel, the Grosvenor Best Western, was located a 5 minute’s walk from the center AND the Royal Shakespeare Company. I headed out by myself and inquired about last-minute tickets. The agent asked how old I was, and since I was 16-25, she was able to sell me a £5 ticket for the same-day showing of the RSC’s King Henry the IV, Part II! I was ecstatic!

Until the play, I explored Stratford. It was here that I first treated myself to a full traditional afternoon tea. You know those little cupcake towers? They brought one out, except it was filled with food, not cupcakes, and it was all for me! Nine tiny little sandwiches, a scone and clotted cream (of course), and a piece of cake a lemon tart.

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My “high” tea.

Strolling by the Avon, waiting for the play to start, I decided that traveling by yourself is not very fun. Avoid it if you can.

The Shakespeare play was quite the experience. These actors spend much of their acting career performing Shakespeare. It is quite possibly some of the most informed Shakespeare you will ever see. I had read Henry the IV, Part I in college, so I was at least familiar with the characters. Falstaff was amazing.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company!

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Boats and swans on the river Avon.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company!

Sunday we visited Stratford-upon-Avon Baptist Church. Very friendly British Baptists!

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Another tea adventure.

In Stratford, I also made sure to visit Shakespeare’s houses. I was a little disappointed. After paying a large fee, you entered, and the guides were like, “So here’s his house.” There wasn’t a lot of information to make it meaningful or even to relate it back to Shakespeare and his works. I walked down to the house where he lived as an adult (which I had paid to see), and inside they were like, “This is his neighbor’s house. Shakespeare’s adult residence was torn down in 1759.” Apparently, I had missed the key words like “site” and “foundation” rather than “house” at the information center. It was still cool, though, to see examples of Tudor architecture and furniture. All hand-carved.

I also visited Holy Trinity Church, location of Shakespeare’s grave (which again, was inside the cathedral, beneath the floor). I was interested in the church’s displays and explanation of Christian belief.
I also got to learn fun facts about Shakespeare, like… (shocker) his wife had a bun in the oven before they got married.

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Shakespeare’s boyhood home.

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Tudor living.

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Handcarved wooden furniture.

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Interior of a Tudor home.

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Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church.

Monday morning we had a four hour drive back to the ferry port in Wales. Entering Wales, we experienced that disorientation when the signs switch back to both Welsh and English. I found it distracting to wade through so much text. Off the carriageway, we were again winding through mountain roads and villages. Soon, we entered Snowdonia, and we oohed and ahhed at the gorgeous views before us. Our crossing on the ferry was very smooth.

Back in Dublin, waiting for a taxi, we met a Christian named Jenny. A charming Dubliner. She is a musician at her church in the Dublin city center. We found out she had just come from the London Hillsong Conference. She was fairly glowing, and wished us well on our trip home.

And fly home we did.
Safely back in the States, I thank God for this trip of a lifetime. For the lessons, the experiences, the beauty, and the culture. For singing lessons, and music memories, for happy times and for disappointments, and lush Irish greens, for black pudding and cream tea, and for Welsh mountain crags. For a small glimpse of little movements of the kingdom gospel in two island nations.

And I also thank God for home, a place to come back to. Both my real home in Ohio, and my new home in Indiana. It’s hard sometimes, but I’m slowly finding a place.
And so here the journey continues. And my work begins.
Soli Deo Gloria!

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“…we have dreams and songs to sing…”

Music and Brick: Bits of London, Week 4

Entering London
The next leg of our trip included London. We had heard that driving in the city limits is an absolute impossibility, so we checked our options for long-term parking at a “car park” north of the city. Stanmore Station, with access to the Underground, included a large car park, so we tried our luck to find a space. We got in on the weekend, Saturday afternoon, and there were only a few spaces available. We were able to buy several days worth of parking.

Melting in the heat, we got help from the Underground ticket agent to buy single trip tickets to Putney Bridge, our Tube stop southwest of the city center. We had booked a flat a five minute’s walk from the Tube. The smoldering subway ride brought back memories of my trip to NYC last year. However, I was not familiar with orienteering on a metro system. I was very grateful that I had brought my own little Underground route map, which I had ripped out of a travel book I bought at a thrift store before I came. I used it numerous times.

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Exiting the subway, we had trouble finding our apartment and even gaining access. It took three people to get the key to work in the lock. The rest of us, dripping with sweat, gravely surveyed the open windows in the flats all along the street. We entered the cramped apartment and smiled icily at each other. (Our emotions were all running a liiiittle high. We were POOPED to say the least… we were tired, hot, hungry, there was no air conditioning, and the apartment was in no way what I would call swanky.) But. Considering it was London, we didn’t do too bad.

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Considering it was London, we didn’t do too bad.

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Yes, that is a washing machine in the kitchen.

We displayed fortitude and went grocery shopping and out for pizza. I splurged on my own pizza at Pizza Express, the hippest pizza joint in the U.K.! Okay, so it was only the second pizza joint I had been to, but it was amazing. The design of the restaurant is sleek, modern, and fun. And the food is exceptional! I ordered the “Emilia” pizza, which is chestnut & closed cup mushrooms on a goat’s cheese, garlic oil, and mozzarella base, finished with rocket (what Brits call Arugula), Gran Moravia cheese, fresh lemon juice and black truffle oil. I have no idea what black truffle oil is, but why else do you think I ordered it?

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St. Paul’s Cathedral
Sunday morning at the Tube station, we got our Oyster cards (the universal, reloadable metro card for London, which is £5, refundable) and made our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the Sung Eucharist at 11 a.m. (Attending a service is one way to get into the cathedral for free. We also, of course, wanted to attend a worship service since it was Sunday.) We ended up meeting with some of our friends from Oasis! A group of five guys had stayed an extra week in England, too, and London was their last stop.

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Photography is not allowed inside the cathedral, but I can say that its interior is one of the most stunning cathedrals that I have been in. As we waited for the cathedral choir to enter, I was numb. I felt as if I couldn’t even grasp or understand the beauty of its interior. It was so otherworldly, I had no reference point for it. Yet I was determined to utilize all of my senses and to try to really “see”… …the gold, the paintings, the pillars, the intricate carvings, even the space… all multiplied in architectural harmony and symmetry. Here lay the evidence of the wealth of a nation.

The most memorable sense I have is: light, gold, space, and splendor.

Had I not attended a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I think I would not have understood the architecture. Its grandeur (and for once I get to use the word “grandeur” in its fullest sense) probed me to ask “Why?” “For what?”
(Yes, I have been accused of being too functional when it comes to art. I guess I feel the need for integrity. Many times I find myself asking “What’s the point?” in relation to art.)
In any case, asking “Why?” at St. Paul’s Cathedral was seemingly answered in the Sung Eucharist. Joining in the liturgy, hymns, and prayers, I was able to relate this (what seemed like) inaccessible beauty back to God.

In that splendor, I could have felt insecure. But there was an element of community by attending the service… by joining the cathedral choir, organ, and congregation in singing in unison the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise” and by partaking of the Lord’s supper with believers from around the world.

Tourists, church members, and our little group sat in chairs in the “crossing” under the dome. We greatly enjoyed the cathedral choir (including the boys choir) and the Haydn mass. We were also delighted to find that the 3 o’clock Evensong included John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” We definitely decided to stay. (Orientation for non-music nerds: Tavener is a popular contemporary British composer whose piece “Song for Athene” was performed at the funeral for Princess Diana. His music is religious, sparse, and meditative. Tavener passed away last year.) Once again, I enjoyed the Evensong, especially the Tavener piece. For the first time I understood the piece as death and Heaven. Hearing it in this space, I finally connected the last line to the splendor of Heaven after death. Here is the text:

Alleluia.
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia.
Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia.
Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia.
The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise.
Alleluia.
Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia.
Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia.
Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.
Alleluia.

We were inspired, in the truest sense of the word, when we left the cathedral.

The Mennonite Game
We ran into random Mennonites from Pennsylvania at Evensong at St. Paul’s. Some of them were our mutual friends, whom we vaguely knew were traveling in England this summer. It’s a small world.

Being Tourists
Next stop, Camden Market! Honestly, we were a little freaked out by it. Pickpocket warning signs everywhere, and its garishness reminded me of Chinatown in NYC. It was pretty trashy. But fun for souvenirs, nonetheless.

We spent the evening planning our city route for the next day. Kim bought this awesome little foldy London map that was a lifesaver for us many times. It included a map of famous landmarks AND the closest tube stops.

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Stephanie, reading the paper and looking important.

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Monday morning was 221 Baker Street! We literally just went into the gift shop because the line to get into the “museum” was already 100 feet long.

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Deliberating over which museum to go to, we carelessly chose the British Museum because it was free. Let me tell you, there’s a reason it’s free. It’s one of the worst museums I have been to. The lighting was terrible, the presentation in places was embarrassingly dated, and it was hot and crowded. For some reason I was thinking there would be more British-y things, but instead, it was like Great Britain was saying, “Yeah, we conquered the world and ruled it for a while. Here’s all our crap.” And that’s what the museum was. Little bits of culture from empires and other countries. I really wished I would have gone to an art museum instead. But. I did see a hunk of the Rosetta Stone. I had to force my way through ten Europeans taking selfies with the thing til I could actually catch a glimpse of it through the smudged glass.

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London Landmarks
Only Steph and I wanted to go the Tower of London (to see the crown jewels!), so we established a meeting place with the other girls and trucked off toward the Tower and the London Bridge. This was the only time during our whole trip that A Great Problem happened. For the most part, we had had exceptional travel safety and orienteering. Considering none of us had working cell phones, and the only way we were communicating to family was through Apple technology and spotty wifi, it’s actually a miracle that we made it back in one piece. (I might brag here that I went this entire four weeks with no electronic devices, internet, or social media. I didn’t have a smartphone or an ipad to take along, and I relied on friends’ devices only for very occasional facebook blips. It was… cleansing, lol.)

We thought the Tower closed at 5. It was currently 4. That was a lot of “seeing” to do in an hour. We found out once inside that it closed at 5:30. And it was dazzling! THIS! THIS was the iconic Britain I had come to see! Armor and jewels and towers! Yes!

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Waterloo Block which holds the crown jewels. A bit of a queue.

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Tower Bridge from inside the Tower of London.

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The Tower, nestled within a modern city.

We decided our friends outside could wait a bit. Later, we went back to the meeting place at 5:45, and they were nowhere to be found. We waited, and waited, and waited. We walked around. We got food. We waited. We searched. We looked. We walked the Tower Bridge. We came back. We got worried. We got upset. We searched again.
To make a long story short, we found out after two and a half hours of searching that, at 5:30, they had returned to our flat (an hour’s Tube ride out of the city center) hoping we figure it out and come home too.
And they had made pizza.
And we had eaten dry sandwiches from a grocery store.
And it was our last night in London.

We tried to calm down.
It was late.
It was our last night in London.
We were starving.
So Steph and I lived it up at the Minories Pub (and by that I mean we ordered water.)

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We ran into a problem Tuesday morning. We had to check out of our flat at 10, and it was really out of our way to take our luggage all the way back to the car, but we still had sightseeing to do. We could have dropped our luggage off at a bus or tube station (certain stations will hold your bags for a fee), but Kendra and Sarah were done with the city, so they took our bags and went back to Stanmore for the morning.

Kim and Steph left for the London Eye. (Which I chose not to go on because I deemed it a $50 ferris wheel tourist trap.) I headed out alone for Westminster Abbey.

I wasn’t sure which exit to take out of the tube station, but I picked one, and as I climbed the steps, soaring above me was Big Ben!

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I converged with the throngs, and headed toward the Abbey, location of the 2011 Royal Wedding. I was debating between going in or not (by this time, I was running out of money, and the $30 price tag was a bit steep), but I decided to go since I had come this far. I waited in a very long line for half an hour. Again, no photography allowed. It was also very crowded. I got to see the graves of Chaucer, Darwin, Dickens, kings & queens, Mary Queen of Scots, Rudyard Kipling, and Isaac Newton. It’s all very intimate. You would think they would be in this large outdoor graveyard, but they are actually buried underneath the cathedral. The carved slabs functioning as grave markers are actually the flooring of the cathedral.

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Westminster Abbey.

I personally prefer the light interior of St. Paul’s over the Gothic interior of Westminster. But. Part of that has to do with the times in which they were built. St. Paul’s was rebuilt in 1669 after the Great Fire. Westminster, on the other hand, was finished in the early 1500s.

We made our way to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament before walking by St. James’s Park on our way to Buckingham Palace.

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Strangely, Big Ben is really… big.

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When we arrived at Buckingham Palace, there were crowds of people, a marching band, and little red men. The British are coming!

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We spent some time in Green Park before heading out of the city.

Traveling Mennonite
I will take a break of all this royalty to say that we, as Mennonites, were a bit of an anomaly in England.
Scratch that.
We were a traveling Amish freak show. Especially the choir. People were very puzzled, perplexed, amused, or curious. Honestly, the pointing and the stares came off as a little rude. England was especially bad, compared to Ireland. We got really good at answering questions of “What’s that thing on your head? What ARE you?” There were two tracks, really, depending on which sort of person asked. “Have you heard of the Reformation?” In which case, we’d do the crash course in church history. Or the classic, “Have you heard of the Amish?” (if the person seemed non-churched) and then we’d carelessly align ourselves with bad characters from poor, misinformed reality T.V. shows. Most of the time it felt like a lose/lose situation. Sometimes I get asked this question and I’d really like to turn it around. “Well, who are YOU?” How can anyone answer that question in 30 seconds flat?

Leaving London, we met a parking attendant at the car park who asked us first if we’re Romanian. (?) We talked about the Mennonite church, and he soon opened up about his own life. His partner died tragically in a car accident 18 months ago, and he’s struggling very much and asking God some very real questions about why his partner had to die but yet evil people are kept alive. He was very pleasant, yet very honest. We spent a long time talking to him, sharing some of our own experiences and ending up praying with him. This was one of the more positive interactions of meeting people on the street. If you think about it, pray for Mickey.

Wales and Whitby: England, Week 3

Monday morning, July 14th, my travel group met, ready for our two weeks of England adventure! Our group of five was made up of two of my friends from choir, Kendra and Sarah (sisters), and their friend Kim and cousin Steph (who had just flown from the States). We had been planning this trip for months.

Okay, let’s be honest, Kendra and I had done most of the planning. I, of course, had a lot of opinions about where we should go. Kendra also loves literature and history, so she agreed mostly, and the other girls were pretty much like “Yay, England!” so it was a win-win. (Spoiler: I was dragged to 221 Baker Street even though I’m not a Sherlock Holmes fan. And, believe it or not, I balked at going along to Stonehenge. I KNOW IT’S A BIG DEAL. But, I paid a lot of money just to stare at some rocks that historians are still scratching their heads about. But I got the selfie, and that’s all that matters, right?)

Those of us from Oasis were pretty excited about heading to the coast for some rest and relaxation!

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Our first matter of business was getting from the hotel to the ferry port, which proved to be a 40 euro taxi ride. Yes, it’s quite expensive traveling in Europe! Our ferry was quite late getting in, due to rough seas, which led to a late departure. We had a very specific time to pick up our rental car at the Holyhead port, and I was worried we wouldn’t make it on time. Our crossing was quite rough. We had booked the fast ferry which meant we were on a smaller boat, which only increased the roughness. We arrived one hour late, but thankfully before the rental car agency closed. We picked up our keys for our brand spankin’ new Toyota Avensis which had plenty of room for us 5 and our luggage. I cautiously invaded the driver’s seat.

“WHAT IS THAT CAR THINKING!” I yelled.

“Um, you’re in their lane,” Kendra says.

We were delighted to find a built-in GPS in our car.  Navigation would have been impossible without one. The “carriageways” are well-marked in round-a-bouts (using place names for direction, rather than “east” or “west”), but roadways were otherwise poorly marked. Many times we simply punched in the town name for lack of a street name and house number. Many of our destinations were fairly famous landmarks, so we relied on other signage once we reached the general town location.

Driving on the left side of the road was very disconcerting at first! Quite disorienting. It’s like having a driver’s permit all over again! The most dangerous thing for me was forgetting to look right when turning right.

We began traveling toward our house in Wales which we had booked via airbnb and found ourselves traversing quite narrow roads! We checked the GPS to find where we were: “Unnamed Road.” Steep inclines, narrow passageways between old stone walls, and no turnarounds in sight! The GPS leading us ever upward, I gripped the steering wheel, terrified of meeting another car. What would I do with this Avensis boat? WHAT IF I WRECK THIS SILVER WHALE IN WALES?! We continued climbing higher and higher. The girls were ooing and ahhing as we wound higher in the Snowdonia mountains, past sheep farms, and misty mountain landscapes. Inevitably, I MET A BUS. Now, there’s barely room for my car on this road, much less passing another car. I had no idea what to do. I tried backing up, but there was a car behind me. Some of the girls hopped out and tried to help me back into this little open area by a nearby building. We were all yelling and motioning, and then I hear a $$$$$ scraping on the car. There goes my bank account. Landing roadside on a little mountain in Wales. (Later, we learned it was only scraping on the muffler, not the bumper. Praise the Lord!)

We finally reached the town of Bryn Pistyll, and we hadn’t found the house. There were cars everywhere in the narrow town, but no people. Weird. We finally stopped at the only open place of business: a bar. The barkeeper: “Ooo, Sally’s.” We found our little abode nestled in the tiny town of Tinydom. It was a great space and Sally pointed us to food two towns over in Llanchid. Not very near to Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. ?? Welsh, did you swallow some dry feathers? Sally did her best to explain the Welsh double consonant.

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Cozy beds in Wales

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We even had the option of building a fire!

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The walkway up to our house.

We picked up some fast food and raided a gas station for breakfast goodies. (We picked up some nice yogurt and fruit, actually.) Back in our bright little house, we brewed coffee, giggling with terrified excitement about our hair-raising drive, and cranked up the supplied tunes (we had never heard of Bananarama), and wrapped up in blankets to beat the damp, cool weather. The mountains looked very Lord of the Rings-ish.

The next morning I had the most beautiful drive of my entire life. Leaving Snowdonia National Park, driving along the Welsh shore, sun beaming on sparking sand, water and wet green mountains, blue skies and white clouds. One Republic on Welsh radio.

Our first stop was the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. Excellent museum because photography is not allowed. This causes one to pause and experience through the sense the life Charlotte and her family would have known. The historians maintaining the house leave no leaf unturned. Special paints, dyes, and wallpapers are specifically manufactured so that the house appears exactly as it would have in the 1840s. I was left to memorize the perfectly recreated blues and grays… the specially-ordered wallpaper… the facts (that Charlotte had 9 months of happy marriage… that she and her siblings were writers since their preteen years, creating tiny books and newspapers). It was an excellent museum with wonderful accompanying walks in an outdoor natural space. You can even visit the Bronte church and walk further down into the adorable town of Haworth. Wonderful place to visit! I wished we could have stayed longer.

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The Bronte Parsonage! Home of the brooding Brontes.

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The moors. I don’t have pictures of the more melancholy moors, but they are breathtaking!

After overnighting in the Great Horse Lodge, we moved on to Thirsk, of James Herriot fame. I decided to skip this museum to save money. I was content to sit in the town market and journal. British locals came and went all morning, walking their dogs, parking their bikes, chatting with villagers, sitting down casually. It was here that a young mother handed Kim a tract and said, “God bless you. Jesus loves you.” First person who tried to witness to me in England! Interestingly, the tract gave several options: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, and Evangelical Christianity, before finally landing on Christianity as the only way to God (through Jesus Christ). Once again, another layer.

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Thirsk, home of James Herriot.

Since we were heading north to the coast for several days, we picked up groceries, fresh produce, and baked goods from the farmer’s market and nearby bakeries. We could keep these in the refrigerator at our hostel.

After boarding the Avensis, soon there were squeals of delight driving up over the hills into Whitby, with the Abbey looming in the distance. We would be staying at YHA Whitby, in a rambling old estate very near to ancient cathedral ruins, right on the cliffs. We lugged our suitcases up countless flights of stairs to find several people already in our dorm-style rooms. Well, let’s make friends, I guess.

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Our home for the next three days.

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Whitby by the sea!

We walked 199 steps down into town. The tiny, narrow cobblestone streets were for walking only. The gulls honked endlessly, and the smell of fish and sea air puffed our noses. We ate our first helping of fish and chips. That evening we walked the pier and watched fishermen in the rain, before finally returning to the hostel and drinking bottomless pots of tea and raiding our personal snack bag in the smelly, self-catering kitchen. The day ended with a dark, spooky walk to the car park to move our car because we forgot that our parking meter expired early in the morning. The Abbey loomed spookily in the darkness.

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Clouds rolling over the pier.

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The North Sea. Do you see any Vikings?

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Grave of Caedmon, earliest English poet. Seventh century.

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Whitby after the rain.

Thursday dawned bright and clear. I woke up around 9 in my bed, staring out the window to a clear sky and the birds calling. Our YHA accommodations got us into the stone-walled Abbey ruins for free. Very interesting. Beautiful, but also sad. So this is what the church has come to? Closed down in the 1500s because of a greedy king who wanted an heir and needed a divorce to get one?

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The Abbey ruins at Whitby.

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Soaring arches.

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Open to the sky.

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I spent time reading by the wall with the colossal ruins in the background. Later, I spent time reading in the gardens.

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For dinner, we went to the famous Magpie Café, which serves the best fish and chips in England! I whole-heartedly agree! Delicious HOT fish with amazing house-made tartar.

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Sometime during our Whitby days I was determined to be on the beach at sunrise. On Friday morning I work up at 4:45 and noticed it was light already! I booked it down the flights of steps for walking and exploring. The light on the Abbey was incredible. I walked further and further, nearer and nearer the cliffs. The sun was pouring over the watery horizon, beaming its warmth onto the chilly shore. I hopped the safety fence and found a spot in the wet grass on the cliff’s edge. I pulled out my Bible and read John’s gospel, chapters 14-17, where Jesus speaks to the disciples. In this passage, I was so struck by the words of Jesus, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The simplicity of this message moved me.

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As I stood by the cliffs, by the sparkling water, the smooth sea, the beaming sun, thick wheat, and with the ruins at my back, the words of the song “Build Us Back” ran through my mind.

“Though the mountains be shaken
The hills be removed
Your unfailing love remains…
After all that’s been taken
Your promise still, still sacred
You build us back with precious stones.”

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After this unforgettable morning and more rest, I joined my friends at Sherlock’s in Whitby for our very first cream tea experience. “Cream tea” in England refers to a certain setting of tea and scones. It includes a serving a tea and a fresh scone with a side of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Clotted cream is a whitish-yellow buttery substance, which you spread lavishly on your scone, along with jam. We enjoyed it immensely and looked to order it increasingly everywhere in England afterwards.

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Our last day in Whitby included souvenir shopping and reading in the parlor at the hostel. Confession: we were craving American food that night, and we scoured the town, before finally scoring two large American-style pizzas.

Saturday morning we left Whitby for sizzling London! Cities and Stonehenge to come!

 

Song and Sun: Ireland, Week 2

Oasis Chorale Tour Continued
After staying up all night on the ferry and visiting Powerscourt Gardens, we gave a concert at a YMCA in West Dublin. This concert experience was quite informal, and we deviated a bit from our normal repertoire. First, our choir had been advertised (via a huge sign outside) as an “American Gospel Choir.” I hope no one in the audience was disappointed with our predominantly sacred choral selections! Yet due to the nature of the space and the amount of children in the audience, we made it a little more fun by doing crazy Oasis warmups with the audience beforehand and even singing Irish and American folksongs as warmups. We sang “Home on the Range,” lol. After intermission, we collaborated with Maureen, an audience member who sings with a gospel choir in Dublin and who sang for us “There is a Balm in Gilead.” We also pulled out our improv skills when a young boy in the front row (from the Irish Travelers cultural group) asked us to sing “O Happy Day.” It was after this concert that I enjoyed talking with the Irish audience members over “tea and buns.” I met two Irish women who were friends, and we had a lovely chat. (I was interested, however, that they described themselves as being from two different religions, Christianity and Roman Catholicism. ? I was uncovering even more layers to the religious culture of Ireland.)

Tuesday we had a much-needed mid-tour rehearsal. I haven’t written much yet about the choir experience, but I will say this. We are blessed with an amazing director who recognizes the diversity within our choir, especially regarding musical experience, education, and talent. Patient and encouraging, yet prodding and stimulating, Wendell Nisly empowers choir members by creating a safe space for musical giving and taking. Responsibility and a humble heart are the core values this year. And these come through discipline. Our director’s humility, creativity, and resourcefulness, specifically this year, continue to push Oasis to further artistic integrity, and it’s so exciting to be a part of it. We as a choir are learning from each other what it means to be disciplined musicians who humbly give their gift, both abroad, and at home in our own communities.

A sappy quote from my journal from this day: “By this point in the trip, I’m realizing that I’m having so much fun. I’m making friends, having interesting conversations, making beautiful music, and touring beautiful Ireland and meeting wonderful people. It’s touching.”

Tour Life
To give you a little glimpse into choir touring culture, I’ll explain what our typical day looked like. Many times we stayed in hostels and had breakfast together at the hostel. Then in the mornings we traveled or spent time touring local areas. For lunch, we were dropped off in city centers or at travel stops and we were on our own. These were always fun times to try local food. We would get back on the bus with all kinds of stories about the little pub we found or the new food we tried. This particular day in Drogheda, I ate at the Copper Kettle with Joy, and I tried brie and bacon on brown bread with tomato relish. We also ordered “tea for two”. My dish came with a salad, red beets, and coleslaw.

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Debbie Downers
I should also at some point post pictures of the REAL travel life in Ireland. You guys get to see gigantic roses and pictures of gorgeous architecture, but you don’t have the privilege of seeing midgies (Irish fleas). Or daily lugging your suitcase up four flights of stairs at a hostel with no “lift.” Or banging your shower knob every 10 seconds so the water stays on because if you don’t it automatically shuts off so that you, the wasteful American, don’t use up all the groundwater in Ireland. Yes, these are the real Oasis Ireland tour memories. But. I think tourists can focus on certain inconveniences, or they can simply deal with them, as an adventure, make memories, and LIVE UP the trip of a life time!

So that even when we ran out of time to visit Newgrange in Ireland (an earthwork structure in Ireland that PREDATES Stonehenge) you simply sigh wistfully, and move on. But also try to get a picture of it while the bus is zooming past.

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It’s there! It’s there! I can see it! There on the left? The round dome?

On Tuesday night, our choir was once again warmly received by the hosting congregation, Drogheda Presbyterian. We were delighted to sing to both church members and visiting community people. A big shout out to John Woodside for his promotion of the event! By this point, we were becoming increasingly attached to our audiences in Ireland… their endless thanks and appreciative encores. The times of fellowship following our concerts were highlights enjoyed by all of us.

Thoughts on Choir
One reason I continue to sing with Oasis is because of comments like this that I heard: “Your music brings us back to what it’s all about. It’s very special in that way.” A capella singing, sung beautifully, with a message of truth, has the power to do that, I believe. At Drogheda, I had an interesting conversation with someone about the crafting of our repertoire, and its mix of sacred, emotional, and even evangelistic pieces. I think that the type of music Oasis sings has an awakening power. I have been to choral concerts that have awakened in me a sense of longing, one that I can almost not articulate. It is a longing for beauty and peace, which we get a temporal taste of through good music. It is my desire that those who experience this longing will turn to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, through whom we find eternal life and that beauty and peace which all humanity longs for.

Another part of choir tours is the indispensable bus time. A note: jamming over 40 emotional, spontaneous, artistic musical divas onto a bus for two weeks can certainly make for some interesting times, not to mention ridiculous games and memories, like “Bus Hide and Seek,” group surveys, and endless verses of “The Fields of Athenry”. We also get into really great discussions about things like music, architecture, poetry, bear hunts, and avocado. I was in this great conversation about the problems and issues of poetry and theology in new hymns, and we were reading a new hymn in which the theme was about how our eyes will be opened and the veil will be drawn away once we get to Heaven, and we will know God fully. I was commenting that I agreed with this sentiment… Here on earth, we do not fully understanding God’s ways… in our humanness, we cannot fully understand God now, but we will know Him fully once we get to Heaven. (This made sense to me because sometimes I feel very distant from God.) Then someone, almost irritated, said, “He will only be fully known then? WHY?”

That comment convicted me. I realized the indication. If God is not fully known, whose fault is it? Is it not true that God will be found by those who seek Him? “Ask, seek, knock,” Jesus says.

But many people react to this truth. Many people respond: “I HAVE sought. I HAVE tried.” Perhaps we sometimes forget the amount of time it takes to “seek” something. Remember that a little bit every day goes a lot farther than one cram session at the end. The Lord will be known, and it will be by those who actively, regularly seek Him. Discipline, then, is indispensable to the Christian life. Discipline is my goal. Seeking God, His righteousness, and His purity. If God’s love and comfort are the deepest longings of my broken, sinful heart, I must seek Him with all diligence. This idea of discipline is something that has been rolling around in my mind for a while. It’s true that diligence and discipline bring results in many different areas of our lives. I have seen this work personally through things like long-distance running, music preparation, and even in developing a prayer life. But this is a lesson I’VE learned, in very personal ways, recently. So simply “telling” you this may not be very inspiring.

On the Road Again
Wednesday we drove to Limerick, Ireland, so obviously we had a limerick writing contest! The Listowel congregation graciously hosted us in their homes, and we were treated to some good ole Irish hospitality! Our hostess treated us to tea and a walk to the nearby beach. She also served us British goodness called Eaton Mess (strawberries, cream, and meringues). The best dessert I ever had in Ireland! Our concert was held at a community center, an old church that has been renovated into a concert space. In the morning, our hosts drove us the scenic route on our way to meet the bus… past the mouth of the River Shannon, to Ballybunyan beach (where John Bunyan was from), past the Bill Clinton statue (?), and the Jesse James pub. On the way, I had an interesting conversation with our hostess’s son about the use of story in music. He’s an Irish country music singer/songwriter who dreams of making it to Nashville. All the best, Stefan!

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Apparently palm trees grow in Ireland.

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Touring Ireland
Tourist day! Thursday we went to Killarney! Or, as the locals call it, “KillARRRney.” It’s one of the most famous tourist towns in Ireland. Here I ate my first “fish and chips” at an Irish pub. Later I also tried the European goodness of “affogato,” a coffee drink made of espresso and ICE CREAM. In the evening, we checked into our hostel in Cork. Joy and I darted off to the city center. We were content to bum around Ireland’s second largest city! We met other choir members on our walk back, and we ended up goofing around, gadding about the city. It stays light so long here. It doesn’t get dark til after 10:30 because it’s so far north.

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St. Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney

 

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Plaich and chips.

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Cork at night.

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Fanta at night. :)

Nearing the end of choir tour, it’s easy to get “peopled out.” Crammed on a bus all day, it’s very hard to create necessary “alone time.” However, Friday’s Dunmore East cliff walk was healing for the soul! The tide was in, so some of us had to dash through the water, and others over steep rocks to reach the cliff-side trail. The sun was out in full abundance. The gulls, the waves, the grass… all things bright and beautiful!

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The ground and grass were so soft, it was like jumping on a mattress!

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In the evening, Oasis Chorale hosted a dessert social at Dunmore East Christian fellowship in order to meet the church people. Lots of fellowship, tea, and music-making. Saturday we held workshops with the children and church people. Those choir members not involved in the workshops were free to go down to the cliffs or explore the city of Waterford (of Waterford Crystal fame).

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Shiny Waterford Crystal blingy bling.

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Saturday evening’s concert was at Christchurch Cathedral in Waterford. A lovely location with an engaging audience. The church sits on the site of the most famous marriage in Irish history, the marriage of Aiofe to Strongbow (a Norman from England) in 1170. This marriage effectively gave him rights to the Kingdom of Leinster. Luckyyyy. Now Ireland belonged to him.

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In an interesting note, this church was built in the 1700s. Before that, a much larger cathedral sat on the spot. Men from the city tried to convince the church leader that they needed a new cathedral. The church leader was very confused because he was quite content with his Gothic cathedral. The men wishing for a new cathedral, however, were local businessman and builders whose pockets would quite benefit from a new building. When the church leader walked into the cathedral, these businessmen would have someone hide and drop mortar down on him to convince him that the old cathedral was falling apart. He finally consented to build a new cathedral. But tearing down the solid piece of work proved to be a failure! They tried and tried to break through the eight-foot thick walls, but they could not! They finally resorted to blowing up the church with dynamite.

The new architect was interested in creating a space with a lot of light. You’ll notice the yellow walls and the lack of stained glass. Interestingly, there exists a sun star with Hebrew lettering at the front of the church. The letters spell the word “Lord” but this symbol is Masonic, and it’s conjectured that the architect was a freemason. The chandeliers have been donated by Waterford Crystal.

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We certainly enjoyed the acoustics in this space!

Sunday morning we worshipped with the Dunmore East congregation, and our last concert was at Kilkenny Presbyterian Church. I might comment here that, interestingly, this is the first time we heard the Gospel message explicitly preached in Ireland. I appreciated this introduction by Pastor Martin.

This was an emotional concert for us as it was our last concert. The bus ride to our hotel was full of laughter and giddiness. We checked into our rooms and then congregated on the hotel lawn for one last loud hurrah. My choir friends and I laughed and giggled til early in the morning. Then we all farewelled. I was really glad this was only the half-way point in my crazy trip! I was sad to leave my new friends, but so excited for two more weeks of English countryside!

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Next up: Weeks 3 & 4 – The British Invasion!