Travel Journal: Italy Reminiscing

Staying home hasn’t proved to be a major strain on me, but looking out over the year ahead and seeing travel dreams discarded and put on hold is discouraging and sad to me. I like seeing the world the way a lot of people like tacos or buying new shoes.

Our plans lost and the uncertainty of when we can make more really had me down this week. I know there are more important things in life, but this is one loss that is personal to me.

I’ve coped by flipping through old pictures and thinking back on trips and experiences I’ve loved. There may not be much to share in the way of travel recommendations because some of these trips are from the way back, when accommodations had to be cheap and I likely missed out on much of what destinations had to offer. But these experiences live on in my travel journals and heart.

I love to research and plan a trip that is just right for our family – equal parts adventure and comfort – but honestly, I’m not always that picky. I can find the beauty in any travel situation and I’m good at making do.

So, first stop – the Lombardy region of Italy and a little town named Verolanuova that became our destination by necessity.

In 2009, just before the birth of our first baby, we had an opportunity to head to Italy for a week. Brandon needed to visit a pasta production plant in the Lombardy region of Italy for work, so I would accompany him there. Then we would head down to Rome to walk through some history.

We purchased my plane ticket with excitement – a little adventure before our big adventure.

Before touchdown in Milan, our flight attendant invited us to raise our window shades and glimpse a view of the Alps below – first the Swiss Alps, then their Italian cousins. Little did I know then that I would have a chance to visit those stunning peaks beneath us years later, with the baby I had in tow and her little sister.

On this trip, we didn’t plan time in Milan. Instead, we completed the airport necessities and rolled our bags outside to ground transportation to meet our driver. Luigi would transport us (fast, uncomfortably fast) to the East on the A4 autostrada, with the villages at the base of the Italian Alps speeding by our window.

I ended up in the center seat in the back of the car, which is the story of my life because I’m A) the baby of my family, and B) petite. I wouldn’t suggest this for other pregnant women flying down the road in Italy.

Past the beautiful town of Bergamo with its yellow, orange, and red villas nestled up into the mountainside and ivory farmhouses with tile roofs dotting the landscape, we neared Brescia where we turned South toward the small town of Verolanuova.

After checking into our hotel and using a comically oversized key to access our room, I tagged along with Brandon’s work team to the office to tour the plant and meet everyone over lunch at the canteen. One of our hosts was gracious enough to honor my weird request to drop me at the far side of town to explore and walk back. She protested that there was nothing to see, but I had a feeling that their nothing would be just the something I hoped for.

Newly responsible for my care, a friendly lady named Giovanna gestured at landmarks as we drove through the small town, and wisely pointed out a gelateria I’d visit later. It was just after lunch and most businesses were closed until mid-afternoon, giving me deserted streets and the freedom to take photos like a tourist without shame.

On foot, I determined the ordinary little town was magic to me. Quiet streets lined with rustic, stucco buildings, some crumbling in a charming sort of way, but short of disrepair. The attention given to flower boxes, pots along balconies, and shrubbery showed great care for even those properties that were so old. I wandered past lovely churches, a stunning park, and stately palaces still used for government and education.

I sat for awhile in the square before noting a storm blowing in and realizing I’d better get about my walk or call for a ride. My pregnant state and a pair of uncomfortable shoes won the debate, and I ducked into L’Abruzza Gelateria to order a cup of crema and request a ride. A nice man named Maurizio retrieved me just a short while later before the storm came through.

Brandon and I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant that night, first studying the menu outside with our Italian phrase book until we felt comfortable ordering. We turned in early to get ready for another day.

After a breakfast obviously involving croissants and Nutella, and seeing Brandon off to his work day, I headed outside to read and write on the terrace under the Italian sun. My original plan was to take the train to nearby Bergamo or Verona but pregnancy and jet lag got the best of me and I was simply too worn.

I have traveled solo many times and had envisioned a big adventure day, but it wasn’t to be had. Back in the room though, the phone rang and Brandon proposed an opportunity for a little field trip. After a quick lunch in the restaurant, I gathered my essentials to join one of the plant employees and others visiting from a U.S. grocery chain on a trip to nearby Cremona.

The purpose of their visit was to see the supermarket giant Italmark and learn about its retail format, particularly the inclusion of market goods like artisanal bread, gourmet cheeses and meats, and gorgeous produce. My goal was to see beautiful countryside on the drive and buy some snacks.

I stood under the hotel portico, eyeing a local dog lounging in a flower bed, until my new friends arrived.

We drove South, our eyes fixed on the beautiful countryside of Italy’s Lombardy region, until the beautiful ivory and terra cotta buildings of Cremona came into view. Our host shared that Cremona is known for its violin-making heritage and pointed out stunning sights as we crept past toward our destination. We wouldn’t see much of Cremona this time around but it was worth the trip for a peek.

***

Dinner our final night in Verolanuova remains one of the best dining experiences of my life. Brandon’s friend Giacomo collected us and navigated his tiny car along country roads North and then East from our hotel. Just before the tiny town of Leno, we turned off into an old farmstead turned restaurant and event space, called i Sabidi Osteria. It appears ownership of the restaurant has changed hands since then, and is now known as Edamame, l’Osteria Nuova by Sabidi.

The grounds were elegantly manicured, perfect for a party with wide lawns edged by bushes, vines, and flowers. After a long drive in, we parked and crossed the checkerboard of grey and white stones toward the I Sabidi door, tucked away in a long, pale yellow building.

Inside, we found simple and rustic décor – pale sage plaid table coverings, brick, and stone – and warm, familial service. Giacomo ordered for our table and we listened attentively, enchanted by the language and thrilled when we identified a word we recognized. I declined wine service, given the baby I was growing, and was offered white, because it was lighter. I smiled at the cultural difference and stuck with my water.

It wasn’t long before course after course of family-style Italian specialties arrived in leisurely succession. Cheeses, charcuterie, pasta, risotto, polenta, breads, beef, and dessert – enough of each for everyone to try, but not so much to ruin the next course. And there was always a next course.

I dream of returning to this dinner, to this place.

It was a perfect farewell to our time in this lovely region of Italy.

Destinations: Tips for a Successful Family Trip to Europe

Brandon and I had an ongoing conversation for a few years as to the appropriate age to take our girls to Europe. He felt like it made sense to wait until they were old enough to appreciate the history and the significant sights we may see, and I agreed. But my desire to take them sooner in life had more to do with how it would shape them as people.

I know from personal experience the richness that exploring new places has brought to my life – it started in college when I spent a semester abroad in London. With no classes on Fridays, every weekend was a chance to explore all the corners of London or to embark on an adventure to a neighboring country. I took an overnight bus to Scotland, bought a seven pound airline ticket (which seems questionable now) to Italy, stayed in some iffy hostels in Rome and Berlin, and survived a blackout on the Greek island of Corfu. I was living.

As a college student, I couldn’t afford excursions or expensive tours, but I had enough money to shop in local groceries, visit free museums, hike the countryside, and wander the city streets. Those small and sometimes uncomfortable experiences – navigating transit, trying out a new language to order a baguette, and solving my own logistical problems – gave me a confidence and an independence like no other experience in my life. And seeing all the beauty the world had to offer – both the places and the people – changed my perspective on what I thought I knew.

So last summer, an opportunity arose to take the girls (then 7 and 9) to Switzerland and we said yes with just a little apprehension. We had to consider if they (and we) could manage a family trip like this, taking into account the long flight, jet lag, and both physical and emotional demands.

The more I researched our destination, though, and the more we planned, our excitement grew and apprehension faded away. Most of our trip would be spent in fairly rural areas, giving the girls plenty of room to wiggle and run and eliminating some of the stress that could come from visiting a large, busy cities.

CYPC1907

Zermatt is storybook perfect

We traveled to Zermatt, in the province of Valais, for the first part of our trip, and then continued via the Glacier Express Train to Interlaken, which we used as a base for a couple days of easy hiking and exploring in the Bernese Oberland. Some of the things that made our trip great, however, are pretty universal and can be duplicated once you’re on the ground in many places:

 

City Wandering. Although many people we encountered spoke English, Swiss-German is the primary language of the areas of Switzerland we visited. This stretched our limits as we read signs, ordered food, and listened to those around us. We had opportunities to learn new words together and reinforce travel basics (finding a restroom, locating the bus and train station, asking for help, etc.) in another language. The girls benefited from healthy discomfort in a differently culture, but with the safety net of us being there as a buffer for them.

We live in the suburbs, so this also gave the girls a chance to practice some more urban skills like reading train schedules, changing trains/busses, presenting tickets onboard, and watching for cyclists and electric cars (often more exciting than regular cars).

IMG_6691

HPYA7002

 

Grocery Stores. Few places rival the grocery store as a source of entertainment and education in another country. In addition to being one of my favorite places to buy souvenirs (talk to me about my Swiss chocolate stash), scouring packages builds language skills, and securing what you need is a great confidence builder.

To help the girls battle jet lag on Day One (which by then was actually Day Two of our trip), we promised them a trip to Migros grocery to buy real Kinder Eggs and some Swiss chocolate. They loved choosing a treat and really perked up after they ate that second chocolate egg.

We visited both Migros and Coop a few times during our trip for produce, cured meats, and snacks for lunches on our hikes, and to bring home favorites as souvenirs. In fact, one of our favorite dinners of the entire trip was takeout rotisserie chicken from the famed Wilde Hilde in Zermatt, along with fresh cucumbers, Zweifel Nature chips, Ovalmaltine crunchy biscuits, and Elmer Citro. We bought a package of paper plates, tore apart the chicken with the help of a tiny plastic knife, and dined on the patio with stunning evening views of the majestic Matterhorn. Perfection.

IMG_6184

Ready for dinner with my chickens from Wilde Hilde’s

IMG_6081

The Matterhorn from Mont Cervin Palace

Our grocery store trips helped us win on a number of fronts. First, these cheaper meals helped us splurge in other areas on our trip. Second, we got to enjoy comfortable and casual dining in spectacular settings (and we had the flexibility to eat when we felt like it). And third, the girls got to experience local snacks and were eager to try some new things.

IMG_6191

Sampling of Swiss Snack Foods

 

Get Outdoors. Getting outside was our top priority on this trip and I was delighted to learn how family-friendly hiking in Switzerland can be. We are fit enough but I have some other criteria for trails, including not wanting to feel like I might fall off a cliff (I’ll never forget my Kalalau Trail hike in Kauai) or like I may lose a child in the same manner. Additionally, my in-laws traveled with us and Brandon had recently had knee surgery, so we knew we needed wider trails (to accommodate wiggly kids) with low to moderate inclines (to accommodate wiggly knees). I was able to find great information on different trails and their ratings on the web, so it was easy to choose a few that suited us. One of the best resources I found was Swiss Family Fun.

Our hiking and exploring days were our favorite days on this trip. Taking the trains and gondolas to get up into the Alps was fun and fairly simple. The trails we hiked were really well maintained and marked. And the views were simply priceless.

IMG_6795

Near Mannlichen, hiking down to Kleine Scheidegg

cropped-img_6799-1.jpg

Summer in the Bernese Oberland

The girls had the freedom to move around a bit and their personalities really showed as they shared what excited them along the way. Our oldest loved the scenic vistas and wanted her picture in front of all of them. And our youngest noticed the details, photographing each beautiful wildflower variation and slimy snail friend. Throw in a sleeve of Ovalmaltine biscuits and everybody’s happy.

 

Kid Safe Zones. While we wanted to focus on teaching our girls instead of simply entertaining them, we know their limits. For each day we were on the go, we tried to be sure there was some small thing they would know was planned “just for them.” On our trip, this meant stopping to play at every Alpine playground we passed, making time for sledding on tubes in the snow, picking out chocolates or a souvenir at neat shops. We really do ask a lot of our girls – expecting them to be courteous and quiet on the planes and trains, proper at dinner, not rowdy in the hotel room, etc. – so they need some license to be kids.

IMG_6747

Slide at Mannlichen playground

IMG_6888

Alpine playground in Gimmelwald

So would we take them to Europe again? In a heartbeat. We enjoyed the experience and our time with them, and I think much of the success of our trip can be attributed to keeping things simple (the remainder is likely due to the scenery because the Alps are well, the Alps). Despite multiple visits to perennial kid favorites like Disney World, both girls have named this trip their favorite so far.

We feel confident they can manage the physical and mental demands of this kind of adventure and of course, really enjoy it. More importantly, we know we can do the same. We’re already dreaming of our next adventure.

Books: Beholding and Becoming — The Art of Everyday Worship

BeholdingandBecomingBook

This part of our family’s life is called Fire Drills. Over the past month, we have encountered one urgent issue after another – homeowner woes, new commitments that pop up, car repairs, unexpected changes in plans. As soon as we’ve almost resolved one, another comes our way and takes priority.

In fact, as we evaluated the state of our budget early in the month, it looked like we would have some extra funds at month end to direct toward savings, and Brandon (now, regretfully) said, “It would be hard for us to overspend by that much.” I think we all know what happened next.

I’ll give us some credit — we’ve really had good humor through it all but the relentless inflow of stress has worn on us a little.

I know our situation isn’t unique. And it’s honestly preferable to what many are working through in their own lives. Some face an unmanageable amount of work each Monday, some are the sole managers of a home and family, some are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, and some battle illness alongside the work of everyday life.

What unites us is this – the happenings of everyday life can be stressful, monotonous, exhausting, and disheartening.

So how do we, as our pastor asked in church this past Sunday, keep the plain things the main things? What do we do when we are paralyzed by overwhelming circumstances? Where do we focus when priorities compete for our attention?

Just as life’s challenges are relentless, so we must be – in refocusing our attention on our Creator, pursuing a relationship with Him, and completing whatever work we have been given with a grateful spirit.

I’ve had a beautiful reminder of this truth during this wild season we’re living, as I’ve been able to review an advance copy of Ruth Chou Simons’ beautiful and encouraging new book, Beholding and Becoming — The Art of Everyday Worship.

In sixteen beautiful chapters illustrated with her stunning paintings, she discusses the art of everyday worship. First, we behold Biblical truths about God and His provision for us, and then we live our own story in light of that truth. As we evaluate our perceptions in areas such as work, family, failure, money, and control, Ruth encourages us to find ways to practice our faith:

“…Practice makes *progress*, not *perfect*. The race you’re running day by day, the one foot you place in front of the other, the daily choice to persevere, and the diligence to throw off entangling sin – in these God is at work to perfect your faith through your practicing, again and again, the race marked out for you.”

I read the book straight through the first time, but intend to use it as a daily devotion on my next read, as these are truths I’ll want (need?) to revisit again and again.
IMG_7937

Ruth Chou Simons’ book Beholding and Becoming: The Art of Everyday Worship lands on bookshelves tomorrow September 10, 2019, but you can order a copy now at any online book retailer. Visit Ruth’s website to learn more about her heart for the book, purchase her stunning artwork, or simply to connect.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thank in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV

This Part

img_9541

We traveled much of the past summer. Our warm summer days were filled with trips to visit family, a weekend away for my husband’s work, and a family vacation.

Travel is work, but we have the system down – purchasing mix and match outfits to aid in easy packing and child dressing, precision folding to maximize space in our packing cubes and luggage, tidying the house before we leave and stocking the fridge with essentials for our return, and unpacking as soon as we get home to air the luggage and start the exhilarating cycle that is laundry.

I remarked to a friend who understood all too well, that if I had to pack another bag, I’d cry.

Yet two days after returning from our last trip, I was reading about new vacation destinations, studying the district school calendar, and texting an out of town friend about meeting in the middle.

Within two weeks, I had booked another vacation.

Here’s what I know: I’m not very good at living in the right now. In this part.

I love to plan things – travel in particular. The beautiful world around us is always interesting to me and I can endlessly research the ins and outs of seeing it all. Planning all the logistics of trips and laying the groundwork for relaxing, wonderful experiences for my family brings me joy. And the skills required – coordinating complex schedules, finding the best value, researching activities and places, thinking through all the details, and having Plans B, C, and D waiting in the wings – are certainly in my wheelhouse. I’m able to use my talent as a gift to my family.

But when something is on the horizon – a trip, a party, a work project or other large responsibility – I struggle to take my focus from planning for it. I accomplish life’s necessary tasks in the meantime but that thing I’m planning is always in my line of sight, even if just at the edge. We skip entire days of fun and living as I prepare for what is ahead.

And there is always something ahead.

I read something that really struck me. In her book A Million Little Ways, author Emily P. Freeman says the following about showing up for our own lives. “This, right here, is all my life is right now.”

So how can I really live in this part?

Maybe this sounds like you, too? Maybe work deadlines loom, unfinished house projects stare you down, or you’re looking anxiously forward to something you anticipate – or dread.

Here are three practical ways I have been trying to get more life out of my days:

  1. Schedule life-giving activities on my calendar. For someone that loves to see the world, when I’m home, I just want to see home. I want to clean my kitchen, drink my coffee, do my laundry, and take care of my people. I know, though, that a rich life requires some friendship, fun, and new experiences. So I intentionally add an activity or two to our calendar and keep the appointment. I can’t go wild here, but I know that taking a few hours away from the tasks at hand will add to, not subtract from, our lives.
  2. Write it all down. I clearly lay out my project tasks and organize them in the order they need to be completed. For a trip, this includes things like decisions to make (are we the only couple that must add discussions about particular things to our to-do list?), necessary shopping and errands, research to complete, reservations to make, and packing. I enter these tasks into the Reminders feature on my phone and set alarms for the timebound ones. This does not need to be fancy or time-consuming. Even making a quick paper list frees your mind from the clutter of constant to-dos.
  3. Thank God for this part. I praise Him for the everyday tasks and moments spent with my family and friends. This part won’t be here tomorrow (by then, we will have moved on to that part). As we all know, life changes and these moments, for better or worse, won’t ever be the same again. Recognizing that makes me grateful for, and present in, each one.

My kindred friend with the wild travel schedule passed me a handmade gift recently – a beautiful journal with Psalm 118:24 (HCSB) on the cover.

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

This part is a gift. This part is all there is right now.

The Hospitality of Friendship

Recently, I was honored to be a guest contributor on the blog at Women Encouraged, an organization dedicated to encouraging women to grow closer to Christ Jesus, find their identity in him, and be shaped by His Word.

I shared about my experience overcoming obstacles that can keep us from true hospitality. You can read my story here.

And I’d love to hear your story — how have your friendships been strengthened by hospitality you’ve given or received?

IMG_7336

 

 

On Folk Songs and Living Forever

IMG_7679

Years back, our daughters spent a few nights in their grandparents’ care while my husband and I were on a trip, and at bedtime the first night back in our home, my oldest surprised me.

“I want to sing you a song.”

Her small voice began rising and falling into a nonsense folk song her grandmother – my mother – had gathered in the days of her childhood. One I had heard but never recalled well enough to sing on my own.

I smiled, impressed at her quick memorization of the lyrics and tune, and together we crafted a quick video to text to my mother, now at her home hundreds of miles away. Grandma was equally impressed; they had sung it only once or twice during the visit.

Months passed and while visiting my own grandmother in the nursing home where she lives, we showed the video to her. Peering at my smartphone screen, her eyes filled with tears and with trembling voice, Grandma said, “My daddy used to sing that to me.”

And we all teared up, and I bit my lip and was so grateful for the sweet moment.

That silly song – so meaningful to this old woman who years ago was promoted to the advanced memory care wing. A woman who often asks the same questions over and over – even the hard ones, like where her husband has gone.

She can no longer live in her house, or even in the same community where it still stands. My grandfather has been gone over ten years; yet each visit requires gentle reminders that he has died.

Her parents are gone. Her siblings have all passed. Her roots are seemingly gone.

But for a moment, she heard her father’s voice in her great-granddaughter’s song. The roots grew deeper and she was home again.

I never met my great-grandfather, but this visit gave me a glimpse of a man who took the time to smile and delight his daughter with a song. And she still safeguards that little treasure in her heart.

We have the same opportunity to sow riches into the lives of those we love, whether they be lyrics of a song, a message written on a page, or thoughts or feelings we dare speak aloud.

Our words have lasting power.

The words we speak and the songs we sing can travel on in our children, grandchildren, and loved ones.

Not only has God blessed us with the gift of together – of relationship; we also have this precious way to hold onto one another, even though we may be separated for many, long years.

My great-grandpa lives on in a song. What words will tell your story?

Don’t Miss the Turn

I walk to the edge of the garage, smiling and raising both hands in a double wave as my husband drives my two precious girls off to school. It’s another morning in the days since I quit riding along so I could cup their sweet faces in my hands before they climbed out with their backpacks.

When the car is out of sight and the air falls silent, I turn and step quietly across the grey floor and inside the house.

My youngest began school for the first time this fall, and what was supposed to be a half day without her quickly turned into a full day when our school district made some last-minute schedule changes. Without warning, I was thrust into my role as mother of school-aged children, alone in my home for most of each week’s daylight hours.

I’m grieving a beautiful life of quiet mornings, children’s programming, coloring, and snuggling. Handing my youngest over to school feels like discarding her childhood – almost like it didn’t matter.

If you ask me how the school year is going, I’ll say she is really enjoying Kindergarten and share how surprised we are that she has adjusted to her new routine so easily. But selfishly, I’m sad for this part of life – this chapter of my life as a mom – to end.

As a parent, I have no choice but to help my children embrace new parts of life. I encourage them to look upon new activities and special days at school with excitement and not dread. I ask if everyone else dressed for Purple Day, what they learned in art class, and if they played with any new friends.

My forced smile is the only way I know to move them, and myself, forward. Because I know forward is the right way to go.

Autumn is the dying off of old to give birth to the new. And the cold of winter will be broken by buds of new life, new beauty and wonder. I trust that there is goodness ahead.

But goodness is not just way off in the distance – it’s right now. There is joy and sweetness even in these fleeting moments of transition. Can I embrace that?

God holds great things for us in each season and the time in between. With our heads turned back, remembering days sipping cocoa and watching Cinderella, we might miss the goodness He has laid at our feet this very day.

Yes, the leaves are dying, but look at the beauty the changing of seasons brings with its rich hues and curling leaves. We savor and celebrate the golden fall colors, but do we treasure the changing of colors in our own lives?

While my sweet baby sheds the leaves of the past, I look at the beautiful way God is turning her life! She is more capable than she knew. She is growing and she is blooming. And the turning itself is beautiful.

When a leaf drops in your life, I challenge you to look beyond its loss and to see what God is doing right there in that very moment. Don’t waste the gift – for He even makes change beautiful. Don’t miss the turn!

What leaves are falling around you now? What goodness is God providing through the colors?

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…” Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV)

Books: Come & Eat – A Celebration of Love and Grace Around the Everyday Table

Come-and-Eat-by-Bri-McKoy-3

Hospitality is one of my “things.”

Things I ponder. Things I enjoy studying. Things I have to practice.

I’ve been the recipient of great hospitality and know how good a generous heart has made me feel. And I’ve had some practice being hospitable, as our family has surrounded ourselves with community in a city where we have no immediate relatives and as we’ve hosted those immediate relatives in our home when they travel our way.

Being a gracious host doesn’t always come naturally for me. I’m one of those blended extrovert/introverts social media is so excited to discuss these days. I’m fine in a crowd, comfortable on a stage, willing to speak up, and I enjoy being with others. Until I want to retreat to my house like a leggings-wearing hermit until I’m ready to people again.

And often, the Holy Spirit’s nudging to show love to others doesn’t happen when I’m refueled and ready to step back outside. Isn’t that convenient?

Certainly there is a heart behind the practice of hospitality – one of love for others and extending the grace that has been given to us. Author Bri McKoy of Our Savory Life has written her first book on just that.

Come & Eat: A Celebration of Love and Grace Around the Everyday Table explores the art of loving others through time at the table.

Bri’s blog, Our Savory Life, is a collection of stories and recipes (many Paleo and grain-free), so I dove into the book expecting delicious food and tips for building fellowship and community. I was prepared to make a grocery list and some dinner invitations.

More than amazing meals and useful tips, Come & Eat is a challenge to be intentional about life around the table, by being present and willing to follow God’s lead.

It is about reaching out when it’s awkward. Extending an invitation when it’s inconvenient. And sometimes, saying ‘yes’ when you kind of (really) want to say ‘no.’

Through engaging stories about meals and hospitality, and thoughtful questions that encourage introspection as well as looking around us, Bri reinforces the importance of meals and tables in our human experience.

She discusses the need to first show up at our own table, recognizing its great value to marriages, families, and friendships. Prioritizing time at the table naturally emphasizes the importance of our relationships.

She also demonstrates the value in making room for others at our table. Whether they are people just waiting for an invitation…

“May we understand that a lot of days there are people walking around replaying a harsh reckoning of themselves and their own failings, and may we interrupt that with an invitation. May we replace their internal dialogue with, ‘You are loved. You are known. You are seen. Come with me, and eat!’”

…or people in our lives that need our attention…

“If your table is the destination for people, then the people who sit around it are a divine invitation. And you’ll miss that divine invitation if all your preparation doesn’t lead to you actually sitting down with them and participating in the fellowship of the table.”

Stashing random Legos in the guest closet (don’t open that!), artfully arranging a charcuterie plate, and turning on some casual music matters not at all if I don’t see – really see – the people around my table.

Enjoy the People

Then Bri challenges us to (get ready for this) INVITE OURSELVES TO OTHERS’ TABLES. Fear not, this does not involve arriving unannounced to acquaintances’ homes and saying, “Hey! Do I smell tacos?”

There are times an invitation to your home just isn’t practical or possible, but there is still a need. Jesus lived this example.

“Jesus was, without shame, an expert at finding a place for himself in others’ homes. He wasn’t afraid of entering into the lives and worlds of others, places that were perhaps more comfortable for the people he was looking to reach.”

Bri recounts some opportunities she has had to do this, from delivering a meal to someone living on the street, gifting a cup of coffee to a stranger, or watching for someone in need of a kind word.

And sometimes, this means simply showing up and learning to live in the discomfort of others’ pain and suffering.

“He is not calling us to rescue anyone; he is calling us to pull out a chair and sit amongst the broken.”

Our presence says, “I can’t help. But I will sit here with you while you hurt.”

God calls us to the table for deeper fellowship with one another. The simple invitation to “Come, and eat” is a great place to start.

Person is Extravagant

Come & Eat: A Celebration of Love and Grace Around the Everyday Table by author Bri McKoy is available in bookstores September 5. Reserve a copy before September 5 at www.comeandeatbook.com and enjoy pre-order gifts including early access to book content and a digital print download.

 

Destinations: Sedona, Arizona

Taking the time for a vacation, while fun, is often a difficult thing to do. It is hard to justify time away from the demands and business of every day life. And it is maybe even harder to justify that same time away, when your family will stay behind.

Which is why, in 20 plus years of friendship, I had never taken a trip with my girlfriends.

Until now.

Usually spread across three states and two different time zones, one summer we had the chance to laugh and talk live in the town where we met. That day, our lazy pool party afternoon slipped away much too quickly, but not too quickly for us to commit to a girls’ weekend the following spring.

We had few criteria for our destination – somewhere new for each of us, somewhere warm, something active to do, good food, and a patio.

We settled on the stunning red rocks of Sedona and started making plans.

I’m all for feeling like I’m on vacation time once wheels hit the runway at the airport, but sometimes a little more effort is required to get to your destination. Making the time investment to drive the two hours from Phoenix is not unlike the time investment to maintain solid friendships. It is entirely worth it.

The beautiful desert setting of Phoenix and Scottsdale slipped behind our rental car as we navigated the scenic drive to Sedona. We watched and waited for the red rocks to appear, and while the scenery slowly changed over time, it wasn’t until we were about to Sedona that we saw the stunning red peaks. And within minutes, we were slowing into peaceful, elegant Sedona, nestled among the towering rocks.

IMG_6406

We chose the Arabella Hotel Sedona for its central location, great online reviews, and budget price. We planned to be outside more than in, so were careful to check out its patio areas and be sure there was a balcony. If hiking is part of your Sedona plan, you’ll find the Arabella Hotel to be nicely located in close proximity to some great hiking, only a short drive away. In fact, the Margs Draw trailhead is adjacent to the property, allowing easy exploration of Munds Mountain Wilderness. Even if you’re not a hiker, throw on your tennis shoes and walk up the short trail behind the hotel for some spectacular views. It’s worth a visit at both sunrise and sunset, or really, anytime you’d like to look at something that takes your breath away.

We had a great experience there — clean room, comfy beds, enjoyable outdoor spaces, free continental breakfast — and it didn’t hurt that the Elote Café, with its delicious Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, sits on property.

Speaking of the Elote Café, if you are wondering if you should visit, you should. Go early and plan to wait a while (no reservations here). But as we’ve discussed, sometimes a little time investment is worthwhile. Once you’ve got your name in for a table, get in the margarita line and remember to respond with an enthusiastic “yes!” when they ask if you’d like some house seasoned popcorn to enjoy while you wait.

If you’re wondering what to order, get the Elote corn (fire roasted corn with spicy mayo, lime, and cotija cheese), and the Shrimp con Espinacas (grilled wild mexican shrimp with sauteed spinach in chipotle crema) or Carnitas (slow-roasted Niman Ranch pork shoulder with sun-dried hatch red chile sauce and crema).

Elote Café was one of our favorite food stops in Sedona, so it makes sense that chef/owner Jeff Smedstad was named a James Beard Award Semi-Finalist for 2017 Best Chef: Southwest. So if I haven’t convinced you to visit, hopefully that will.

Although pink jeep tours (Google it — it’s a thing) and helicopter tours abound, if you’re able, hiking is the way to really see the beauty of Sedona. It’s one thing to gaze upon the red rocks, and another to be entirely immersed in them. If you’re not able (or plain don’t want to), the jeep tours are off-road and will get you out in nature.

We found the guide book Sedona’s Top 10 Hikes by Dennis Andres invaluable in planning and enjoying our hikes. The guide is comprehensive, sharing logistical information (parking, prices, restrooms, etc.) as well as historical background and great commentary on each hike. It is also quick and easy to reference and small enough to carry on the trail. And most importantly, we found Dennis’ assessment of trail difficulty to be accurate, which aided in selecting appropriate adventures to suit our varying skill levels. If you wonder why that was important to me, ask me about the time I thought I’d die on Kauai.

We visited in May, which meant desert flowers were in bloom but the late mornings and afternoons were beginning to get warm. As such, we chose to start our days with an early hike to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and use the rest of our day for less taxing activity like long lunches and dips in the pool.

My favorite hike was the Brins Mesa Trail. It was a moderate uphill hike to Brins Mesa along Mormon Canyon. It was a lovely outing with the views becoming increasingly spectacular the higher we climbed. From the Mesa, we crossed over toward Wilson Mountain for a rest and snack. For this roughly 5-mile hike, we carried a lightweight daypack with food and water bottles, as well as an additional backpack with a hydration bladder. For the daypack, I love these Eddie Bauer Stowaway Daypacks for travel because they stow easily into an onboard pouch but offer a lot of space. As always, sturdy hiking shoes or trail tennis shoes are a must, and plan on them taking on a red tinge from the soil if you don’t scrub them. We had the trail mostly to ourselves on the way up, but began to cross paths with other hikers on the way back.

A much more leisurely hike is Red Rock Crossing along Oak Creek near the base of Cathedral Rock. This trail is near a park, so it was much more populated with families and such. There are many lovely sights to enjoy on both sides of the creek, particularly toward Cathedral Rock. We were unable to locate a footbridge so crossed the creek barefoot twice (probably not a good idea but we’re here to tell about it). Our only disappointment with this hike was that it wasn’t far enough from civilization.

Big hikes in the morning means leisure in the afternoon. My favorite afternoon was spent with a long lunch with wine flights at Rene Restaurant. Rene is set in the charming Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, which is a beautiful setting for whiling away the day. Wander in and out of shops and galleries, and stop for a bite to eat. Rene has a peaceful courtyard patio that was a perfect place for a ladies’ lunch.

We had two other meals of note, at Bella Vita Ristorante and L’Auberge de Sedona’s Cress on Oak Creek. Bella Vita is a cozy, dinner-only restaurant with excellent service. From our hotel, it was a bit of a drive, but it would be an easy drive for those staying in West Sedona or a great option for dinner after a visit to nearby Jerome or Prescott.

The elegant Cress was our splurge dinner and a really enjoyable night. L’Auberge has two culinary options with indoor seating or patio dining on the banks of Oak Creek which allow diners to take in the lush and serene creek-side, such a contrast to the red rocks just moments away. Cress boasts a prix-fixe menu and allows reservations, where Etch Kitchen & Bar serves an a-la-carte menu and at the time of our visit did not take reservations. Both have an extensive wine list. The food is delicious and inventive, the plating is elegant, and the service here is impeccable — from our personable, attentive, and knowledgeable server to the efficient and friendly valet (complimentary!).

There are many other places to see and things to do in Sedona, but we didn’t have time for them all. For the spa-lover, there are many great options, although we chose other activities to fill our time. We did make a visit to one “tourist” stop, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Despite the large crowds, which somewhat detracts from the serenity and sacredness of the place, the chapel itself is a wonder and the surrounding walkways offer spectacular panoramic views of the area. I’d suggest asking a hotel concierge or visitor center staff for the best time/day to visit to avoid the crowds. Parking was a harrowing experience on the busy afternoon we arrived, particularly for this driver.

Sedona is a fairly sleepy little town come nightfall, but that worked just fine for us. We were focused on taking advantage of the daylight hours to explore and simply take in all the beauty and peace that is Sedona. The adventures and downtime together nurtured our friendship. I am so glad we took the time.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
Image Credit: Alison Joyce (featured image, Brins Mesa trailhead, the Mitten, and Chapel of the Holy Cross)

Waiting on Spring: A Lesson in Contentment

Greatness

Our family has been sick, one person after the other, one illness followed by the next. Add to that various other life stressors which pop up at inopportune times between and during each hard stretch, and life starts to feel comically hopeless. Our hearts are hovering somewhere between the dark shadow of late Winter and the brightness of the Spring the groundhog under-promised but over-delivered.

When life gets hard, I put my head down and plow through whatever activity is necessary. I work through the to-do list, focus on the next task and slowly, things will turn. I move a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer and stuff a new one in. I sanitize the countertops again, take another bag of trash out, wash my cracking hands for what seems like the hundredth time that day, and remind my little people to wash their own hands and take another small sip of water. Then I check the list to see what’s next.

We just have to make it through one more night, I tell myself. Life will be better when we get through this.

But lately, we walk out of one mess into the next. We have just enough time to breath, catch up on housework, and make new plans before the next crisis comes along. Then the cycle repeats. We cancel the plans, and fall behind again on the housework. Grab your thermometer – we’re back on the wheel.

And I’m hearing Paul say, “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11b)

I ignore Paul for a moment, because I am, after all, a pretty content person, especially when it comes to things like belongings or my role in life. Then I hear it again and pause. Whatever the circumstances? That complicates things.

I’m under no illusion that I should expect comfort or ease as a Christian. In fact, I believe things can be quite the opposite. Yet here I am, always looking forward, waiting for the load to lighten or the clouds to part.

I’m seeing that the space between hopefulness and contentedness in the moment is more fuzzy and gray than I believed. Can I be content in this moment? Can I praise God for life as it is right now? Can I cling to the promise that He works things for my good?

I often remind myself to thank God for my blessings when life is hard. We are sick now, but thank you, Lord, for bodies that heal and access to healthcare when we need it. My car isn’t running today, but I am grateful to have the resources to get it repaired. I’m exhausted from the tasks and stress, but thank you, God, for a family that needs my care.

The relentless waves of tough times got me thinking there may be a lesson for me here and one morning, some verses in 1 Samuel 2 caught my eye. Here is Hannah, who ached and prayed (and prayed) for a child, praising God for the long-awaited gift of her son Samuel. Her prayer was broader than gratitude, though. Rather than simply thank God for Samuel, she praised Him for His faithfulness and His power. In fact, she spent almost the entire prayer doing just that.

I may be further from contentment than I knew.

Can I praise God not simply for what I have “left” but for who He is through it all?

For I know this: His greatness is not dependent on my circumstance.

Focusing on my changing circumstance and my wavering outlook leaves me buried in frustration and despair when the waves come too quickly, and reliant on my own strength to make it through with spirits intact. Focusing on an unchanging God despite my circumstance steadies me and gives me a hope far more substantive than I could generate on my own.

I finish the laundry, climb into bed, and offer words of praise to the One with all the world resting in His mighty hands. Then I breathe.

Image Credit: Ron Gaedke (Montezuma Valley)