A Window into a Child's Imagination

One of my memories about heading out the door for school was my Mom reminding us that she had spies watching us.  She was someone who knew the neighbors.  Mostly their job was to report if we took our hats and coats off before getting on the bus.  For a few years, until big hair and jean jackets made hats and parkas untenable, "Operation Stay Warm" worked.

Today was my boys first day back to school.  While I don't know enough neighbors to create a spy network, I may have found something even better ...

Last week our 10 year old son shared something about his life that he hadn't told anyone in detail before.  He told his 14 year old brother first, who in a fine display of teenage grace, thought it was really cool.  

That something was that our 10 years old has been in a movie for as long as he can remember.   We've heard him mention his movie a couple of times over the years but we didn't know how active the movie was playing out in his daily imagination.  He says the movie started when he was born but he only became aware of it when he was about 6 years old.  

The movie is about his life.  He is the main actor but he doesn't have to perform because the movie is about the real him and his real life.  There are about 15 people who watch his movie, seeing everything he sees through his eyes. The 15 people were born when he was born and will die when he dies and because they aren't in this world, they have time to just sit and watch his movie.  They don't talk into the screen at him but they do sit on a couch and eat popcorn.  (A few of them are also apparently overweight.)

He says he doesn't think about his movie every day, but when he does get down or bored he remembers that being in a movie is interesting.  He says the 15 people don't mind when things are a little boring but he sometimes spices it up with auditory "tutorials" like "how to properly shampoo your hair" when he's in the shower or "how to fall asleep" when he's going to bed.  Some tutorials, like "how to sit still in the hairdressers chair and make it easier for them to cut your hair" are thankfully conducted without audio.  (We now understand the regular chit chat coming from the shower.)

You might think that a kid that feels like his life is a movie would be either self-absorbed or with his head in the clouds, but Lawton is neither.  He is both empathetic and keenly observant of his surroundings.  Perhaps because the movie is about his real life not a superhero life, the movie allows him to keep his feet firmly planted in the here and now.  He seems to see the scenery, characters and lighting of life in way more color than many of us do.  Interestingly, he says he can't rewind or fast forward his movie.  (As as regular in his movie, I would have liked to cut a few scenes I didn't know were being filmed ...) 

But the most fascinating part is when he explained how being in a movie affects his life. He said that knowing people are watching makes him want to work harder and not cut corners.  (This is so much better than spies!)  And that even though the people watching his movie have seen him make mistakes and have meltdowns, they still keep watching because they are with him for life.  Also the audience will always be the same 15 people, even if his life gets way more interesting.  It's like having an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other shoulder and a small brigade as a cape.

Many of us believe in a visible and invisible world but few of us know how to articulate it.  In the unique way only a child can, Lawton has painted a picture of what that duality might look like.  A world where you are the Director and Actor of your own movie but there is a committed audience to your every move and their role is to help you bring out your best self.

Lights, camera, action ...  



A Master of a Day

If I had to guess, the “I’m in” moment happened over a shared plate of Dutch pancakes.

This past Monday had been a lazy summer morning. We weren’t on vacation. Nothing except for a routine doctor’s appointment at 9:30am was on the calendar. It wasn’t until noon that I engaged with my three boys on a plan for the day.

I casually suggested a free museum. They forcefully rejected the idea on the rational basis of “summer + London + tourists + 1pm.” With rain threatening, we made the uninspiring decision to go out to lunch.

Because I am the Mom to three boys, lunch also involved us breaking into two teams and racing to the lunch destination. And because I am The Mom, I shackled Team Tube with an errand on the way. Team Bus won although there was some debate about possible unsanctioned running.

It’s hard to go wrong with a lunch featuring guacamole, street tacos and a restaurant foosball table. But what surprised me was the unexpected constellation of “Ok, yes, and sure” after lunch when I suggested we check out the neighborhood and walk the two miles back home.

Whether it was due to tortilla guilt or the siren song of a vegan brownie, our longest stop on the way home was at a mega Natural Food Store. Hanging out in a Natural Food Store for 30 minutes with my 10, 14, and 19 year old sons was certainly not something that had happened before. We left with two bags of groceries we didn’t really need, most of them experimental snack foods we had all helped pick out.

The best of the bunch was my youngest son’s pick of the 100% organic dried seaweed from Cornwall. The seaweed claimed to be bursting with vitamins, minerals and traces (or what we would call huge hunks) of sand and shellfish. We watched him ferociously gnaw his way through half of the 20 gram package before we collapsed in laughter reading the label: “Excess intake may enhance thyroid function. Recommended max daily intake of 5g.”

Enter the Dutch pancakes. In an attempt to cleanse the seaweed palate and make up for the Natural Food Store’s try at a carrot muffin, we made a final stop at our neighborhood street food market.

We stood outside the Camden Market and ordered a large plate of 15 Dutch pancakes with powdered sugar for the 4 of us to share. It’s hard not to feel grateful for your little tribe when you are standing cheek to cheek over a plate of doughy goodness, toothpicks in hand, and no one wants to take the last few for fear of taking more than their fair share. Overcome with a feeling of love that is hard to describe but sweeping in its power, when the plate was finally empty, I took it and dramatically poured it over one of my son’s head dusting him from head to toe in powdered sugar. It surprised me as much as it did them.

What under other circumstances might have been considered impulsive or embarrassing was received in the spirit given. They all laughed. Hard. Then much later..

At 10:30pm the five of us were sitting around the dinner table, stuffed. The kitchen sink was filled was just about every pot I own. The mess could wait for the morning because …

At 9pm my 10 year old was explaining his starter dish. How he and his 19 year old brother had soaked almonds in water and used them along with several other ingredients to make a vegan Caesar dressing and how they added pomegranate seeds for color to their dish. The extra flourish was not entirely a surprise because …

At 8pm when my husband walked in the door from work, he was instructed to both “not look” and also to please clean out the food processor because it was needed for main dish preparations where silken tofu featured. By that time, I had already answered a steady stream of questions ranging from “how to take the paper off the garlic” to “where that’s thing you mix with.” But no question is too many when …

At 7pm you find yourself watching your 14 year old carefully chop 600g of tomatoes for a Prawns & Scallops with Tomato & Feta main dish and you think – oh my gosh, this. is. heaven. I’m in the kitchen with my three boys and they are not just here but they are here and fully invested. And this time, they didn’t say “Ok, yes, and sure” – they responded with “YES! YES! YES!” And all your cookbooks are scattered on the dining room table to prove it. This collective YES that started …

At 5pm when my 10 year old and I, working off our Dutch pancakes, were riding bikes and I sent this spontaneous but expectant text to his brothers: “Master Chef Competition tonight. Team Kate/Colin vs Team Quinn/Lawton. Salad and main. Dad will be the judge. Get the cookbooks out.” So when both teams were headed out the door 30 minutes later in opposite directions to different grocery stores with ambitious plans, I wasn’t thinking I might have a teenage chef in the making … I was thinking …

That feeling I had when I poured the powdered sugar over my son’s head. They felt it too. And now they were christening me back.

It’s not a mystery that the soundtrack of love still plays on ordinary days. Most days we don't hear it but some days we hear it and on very special days, we hear it together with the ones we are trying our best to love.

The Stages of a Dream (Holiday House)

Stage 1: A seed is planted.

Careful accounting of a potential extra income stream was not the reason we started talking about the prospect of a holiday house.  This view was. 

This picture was taken in Andalucia, Spain in 2013 on one of our very first trips in Europe.  It was young love at first sight.  Here’s the story of our first date.

Stage 2:  Fire hose watering.

What generous people would call the brainstorming phase, husband’s of wives with an internet connection and blind love for the words “villa” and “finca”would might call the crazy house hunting phase.  This was about a year long period when I found about 30 *perfect* houses where search parameters = nil and I seemed to keep forgetting the reality of three still to pay college tuitions.

Stage 3: Plan to paper.

Adhoc approaches may work in finding your next vacation destination but once Spanish property law starts encroaching on your intraweb searching, you know it’s time to get sangria-serious.  At some point, wanting to buy a holiday house in Spain because of the climate, friendly people and olive trees isn’t enough direction for the search box.  It was through this phase and the accumulation of many more travel experiences in Spain and elsewhere that brought necessary parameters to the search.  Honestly, we wanted to find a place that brought us a sense of rest and peace that our first trip to Andalucia inspired and to be able to share that experience with others.

The parameters ... The vast majority of foreigners considering property in Spain naturally look along the coast, particularly the Costa del Sol which is much like Florida.  We however went the less popular direction and narrowed our search to inland property in either Granada or Cadiz province, a property within 5-10 minutes of a village, 10-20 minutes to a town with services, less than 90 minutes (ideally 60 minutes) to the coast, a major tourist attraction in Spain, and to an airport.  We were also looking for a smaller sized property surrounded by protected land with open vistas of hills and/or mountains, and an already redone comfortable property connected to water, electrical and high speed internet with an existing holiday rental track record.   In short, we were looking to find a needle in a sea of white villages.

Stage 4:   The Wait.

This is the phase where week after week you get the “Sorry, we don't currently have any property matching your criteria.” and you start to think that maybe it was Italy you really fell in love with.

Stage 5:   A Match.

When you are least expecting it, a casual refresh button on a dream sometimes yields a result that looks like this.   After several years of casual browsing, this was the first and best priced property that ticked all of our boxes and then some.

The matching proof ... Not only does this property have the most stunning views of the Andalucian countryside but it also has views of the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas.  It’s within a 10 minute drive to Montefrio, recently named as one of the ten best views in the world by the National Geographic magazine.  It is a 40 minute drive to the major tourist attraction of Granada and the Alhambra, a 60 minute drive to the coast, and 90 minutes from Malaga airport.  The property is less than one acre with 6 olive trees, 15 almond trees, and 3 fig trees in production but with the acres of protected land around it – it feels like the mountain version of being on your own deserted island.  Comfort, connections, and turn-key rental business also checked.

Stage 6:  The Preparation.

This is when the spreadsheet comes out and you gather the courage to send your first inquiry email.  In this case it was directly to the private seller who is a British family who restored the cortijo themselves and who patiently answered all my detailed questions.  Through the back and forth, it was clear it was a property I needed to see in person.  I also sent an email to Andrew Forbes, the owner of the first house we stayed in in Andalucia.  As a foreigner who has bought a house in Spain and a travel compatriot, Andrew had lots of good advice including this:  “Buy the house or any house in Spain because you love it - don't buy for investment - too big a risk.”  He also told me to be aware that this part of Spain is very, very hot in summer.  And as serendipity would have it, Andrew had actually visited this property once when a friend was renting it and had written glowingly about it on his blog.   

Stage 7: Reality Meets Dream.

It is wise to bring a wing man when you are chasing a dream.   As my husband was working, he suggested our 19 year old son come as his surrogate.  Not only was Quinn a fantastic traveling companion and navigator but in one of those parenting inversions, he was the voice of reason and comfort when my anxiety got the better of me a couple of times.   

The flight time from London to Malaga is normally a manageable 3 hours but for our journey … the trains to Gatwick were delayed ... the computers for passport control weren’t operational when we landed in Malaga causing queue unrest ... then there was my driving for the first time in 7 months .. in the dark… with the GPS not working …  me yelling at my son instead of the GPS …around spaghetti freeways … in a tiny Fiat that had no pick up when I floored it … getting pulled over by a police officer for having the brights on and saying “Merci” instead of “Gracias” … needless to say, in your dreams – you forget the travel hassles.  And we were only coming from London.

Right, the flight time from Seattle to Malaga is 15 hours.  Noted.

The 90 minute drive to the property the next morning was better.  We arrived exactly on time and were greeted by the owners who graciously toured us around this place they had so lovingly invested the last 10 years in.  Quinn eagerly snapped photos and videos as I asked questions.  The property, and especially the setting, was even better in person than in photos.   We called Brett excitedly after the house visit and our lunch in Montefrio. 

But, by afternoon the known reservations we had talked about during the paper exercise hit me like a two-by-four.  Quinn hashed it out with me for hours as we spent that evening walking the streets of Granada.  As much as I loved the property and the potential, I couldn’t image my family and friends from the USA spending the time or money to get there.  I couldn’t imagine us getting there when we move back to Seattle.  And even though there was a great rental history and support infrastructure, I couldn’t imagine managing a property from that far away.   I didn’t want what started as a dream of a place of rest to become a burden.  And Andrew wasn’t kidding:  it was hot.  Too hot.   But it took me being there to understand it at a heart level.

Right, to embrace the slow life we have found in Spain, it isn’t about a place as much as it is about intention.  We can unplug and enjoy the scenery where ever we find ourselves.   So the dream of owning a holiday house has died – not because we didn’t find one – but because we did and it told us, “Not now.”

Sardinia, Italy: Beyond Flip-flops and the Costa Smeralda

Italy is always a good idea.  An island in Italy before the heat and crowds of July and August is a jolly brilliant Half Term School Break idea.

In terms of island size, Sardinia is like the Ohio State of universities.  In the same way you would only know a small percentage of your classmates after 4 years you can only cover a fraction of Sardinia’s vast natural beauty in 4 days.  Sicily, another place we have seen a sliver of, is bigger but Sardinia is still the third largest region in Italy with almost 2,000 meters of coastline.  This then is fair warning to balance this post with a more authoritative source on what not to miss in Sardinia.

However, if you should fly into Olbia in the North of Sardinia … a few suggestions:

First, don’t assume because the Olbia airport is small you will transit through it quickly.  Even if you are the only flight to land at 8:30pm on a quiet Wednesday night.  It took us one hour, a portion of it (weirdly? unsafely?) standing outside adjacent to the tarmac, to get through the two men/one chatty supervisor passport control line.  Either it’s payback for having chosen EasyJet or a welcome to island time.   I wish I could report I managed the wait time with an attitude of dolce vita that every other person not holding an American passport seemed to be capable of but my countenance was unmistakably prima donna.  My Global Entry passport carrying husband wasn’t doing much better.  Thankfully our children, who haven’t had as many years to be conditioned for efficiency and customer service, recognized the daggers darting from our eyes to the supervisor and redirected us.  By the time we reached the front of the line, our impatience had melted but our hunger for pasta had kicked in.

Second, because it is Italy and food is central, a late arrival is “no problem” for the kitchen.  Not only was the restaurant at the farmhouse we stayed at happy to serve us dinner at 10pm but the owner delayed her departure home for the evening so she could welcome us.   Guided by our gracious, grey-haired, quadrilingual Italian waiter, our first bottle of big but not bossy Sardinian red wine was at our table by 10:10pm.

There are many agritourismos/farmhouses scattered throughout Sardinia.  We choose Stazzo Lu Ciaccaru, a relaxing rural hotel with 10 suites, a great pool and grounds, and easy car access to a variety of sites in Sardinia’s northern tip.  It was a lovely choice and one we would recommend but there are probably many in the same vein.  Like the masserias in Puglia where you can follow coastline for miles on end, if you had the time and inclination Sardinia is the ideal place to cover more ground by hopping from farmhouse to farmhouse by car, motorcycle or road bike.  

Unlike other trips where we work to find special restaurants, we allowed ourselves to settle in to Stazzo Lu Ciaccuru for all but one of our four dinners.  We all took turns ordering the risotto with local pecorino cheese (80% of Italy’s pecorino comes from Sardinia), gnocchi with sausage ragu, tempura sardines, and the highlight was a Friday night grilled fish set dinner.  While Sardinian food didn't stand out as much as the food from other Italian regions, it did offer a little bit of everything.  We skipped the maggot cheese and donkey meat.

Rather than park ourselves at one of the stunning beaches along the Costa Smeralda to soak up the sun (which was in full supply in early June), we decided to hit the hiking trails along the Northern coastline and mountainous interior.    A car rental and a willing driver is therefore critical for this kind of trip.   However, as Sardinia is the only region in Italy without a motorway, the continuous landscape payoffs along winding but mostly generous two lane roads appeals to even back seat passengers.

Day 1: Hiking a village town and the natural beaches of the Costa Smeralda

Lucky for us, the traditional village of San Pantaleo which sits high between movie-set like granite mountains, has a weekly market on Thursdays which was one of the days we were there.   We were expecting fruits and vegetables but this was that plus truly special artisan crafts, clothing and jewelry.  We later learned that San Pantaleo is the inland playground for the glamorous people who come to the Costa Smeralda. 

After wishing there was room in our suitcases to bring something back and a lunch at the local pizzeria, we spent the afternoon scrambling around rocks, cliffs, and sand to see the best jaw-dropping natural beaches (the ones that don’t rent beach chairs and often require a short walk to get there) along the Costa Smeralda: the interconnecting beaches of Capriccioli, Romazzino, and Portu Li Coggi.   With only one afternoon, we intentionally avoided glitzy Porto Cervo, the resort heart of the area but we wished we had made it to the long walking beach of Liscia Ruia.

Day 2: Hiking inland on Monte Limbara

Designated national parks and wildlife reserves take up 25% of the island.   When we were told by the farmhouse (we think erroneously) the only way to tour the main islands of the Maddalena Archipelago was via chartered boat, we opted instead to drive inland to Monte Limbara.  It was a place that jumped off the map at my husband but largely skimmed over by the guidebooks.  The husband was right.

From Vallicciola which is roughly 2/3 up the mountain, there are several well signed trails that lead you through dense forests and ridge lines to the highest point in Northern Sardinia for some grand views.  Apart from an epic thunderstorm that had us take cover for 45+ minutes, the 5 mile hike we choose was one of the best hikes we’ve had in Europe. 

In route from the farmhouse to Monte Limbara, we detoured to see a lake we had read about as a hidden gem which was ho hum (Lago di Liscia), stopped in a cork forest near Calangianus,  and circled a number of out of the way, gorgeous roads on the map should we ever return on bikes.  With the delay and drenching of the thunderstorms, we skated by the town of Tempio on our way back but it seemed a look-see town.

 Day 3: Coastal hiking in “Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa” in Santa Teresa Gallura

Trading the inland mountains for coastal granite rocks, we spent our last day hiking in the Northwest corner of the island in an area called Punta Contessa Park and Capo Testa a few kilometers from the town of Santa Teresa Gallura.  A small isthmus separates the two areas, best described as massive granite rock sculpture gardens. 

We passed on the easy “A” and “B” routes in favor of the more challenging but rewarding “brown Natural Trail hike” which dipped and turned through rocky outcrops and scrubby vegetation, delivering countless dramatic views of nearby Corsica, for about 4 miles.   It was the kind of hike that makes you glad for a large camera memory card and sympathetic companions for when you inevitably twist your ankle because you are too busy looking out instead of down at your scrambling feet. 

The town of Santa Teresa is an easy one to navigate and enjoy for a post hike lunch and a good pivot point for the nearby beach and dunes of Rena Maiore.  Like so many places in Sardinia, it turns out that Rena Maiore deserved more than an afternoon drive by.  Though gelato fueled, there wasn’t enough gas in the tank to hike the cliff hike trail that extended generously in both directions but it was a great place for a late afternoon swim and a circle on the map for another time.

The Downside of Moving to a New City

Life in a new city, where people may know your name but nobody knows your maiden name, can be lonely.  When every interaction you have is with someone you’ve only had a few previous interactions with, it can feel a bit like an endless audition where you are waiting for a call back.  And really who of us wants to be auditioning during perimenopause, which if spoken out loud is as good as labeling yourself not just hormonal but also a hypochondriac.  You sometimes just want the ease of being around someone who already knows your kids names (and loveable quirks and yours too) and knows the way to be a forever friend is through a competitive game of ping pong (where I win, but it’s close.) 

The process of making all new friends simply takes time and that time is further protracted when you live in a big city like London.  Spending 3.5 hours of transit time like I did recently so your kid can have a 4 hour playdate with a new friend demonstrates the hard realities of navigating new friendship in a big city.  You want to say "yes" to every invitation but you'd also like to make it home by dinner.  It’s a known downside to this otherwise exciting life.  This is one of those weeks where I’ve felt it more than others.  I know I will “get there” with some of the wonderfully warm people I’ve already met (and more still to meet) but it’s not like college (or even a small community like Luxembourg) where insta-friendship develops because you’re all in the same boat together. 

My feeling of impatience this week probably has something to do with my husband being gone for 8 days sending gorgeous pictures from Tokyo and having spent time with an old friend who knew me when … back when I used to see the world in mostly black and white and who understands and shares the world I now see in more color.  

Common wisdom teaches us that gratitude is good for our mental and physical health.  It has helped this week. Normally we practice gratitude as a transactional checklist of things to be thankful for but this week there have been two things that keep bubbling to the surface, providing a kind of extended release of gratitude.  Better than any endorphin surge after a long run or sip of perfectly crisp Sauvignon Blanc.  

The first thing that happened this week was when I was working at the homeless Shelter.  The woman who runs the Shelter asked me if I wouldn’t mind popping upstairs to where they distribute clothing to see if there was an extra backpack.  She wanted to give the backpack to a young, immigrant woman who was new to the shelter and carrying several plastic bags.   As I don’t normally do the clothing, I had to be directed where to go.  Upstairs they take guests one at a time every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday to fit them for up to three new articles of clothing.  When I got upstairs, they were just finishing up with an older gentleman guest who I knew from the breakfast line.  He was beaming as the proud owner of a new suit, one to replace the ratty sport coat he had on and to keep company with his worn-out fedora.  As I watched the volunteer neatly putting the suit back in its protective cover while another volunteer went in search of a backpack, I recognized the Nordstrom label on the cover.  It was my husband’s suit.  I had brought it in weeks before.  Of all the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays,  I was summoned to bear witness at the exact moment where my husband’s simple act of giving joined with real, heart-pumping, human need.   It sent a shiver up my spine. 

And then …I returned downstairs with a small, very dingy backpack.   In route to deliver the backpack to the young, immigrant woman I was stopped by one of the regular guests – an English woman who has been on the streets awhile and who fills a space with her loud and occasionally combative personality.   She looked at the small backpack and the young woman’s overflowing plastic bags and led me to where she was sitting. There I watched her empty her much larger, much newer backpack and put her stuff into the too small, soiled backpack and told me to give the woman her backpack instead: “It’s an Adidas backpack!  It has much more room for her.”  This time I was bearing witness to a more costly act of giving, done without a flicker of hesitation.  The young woman’s need was greater than her own and so she did what she could.  As the middle woman, I wasn’t even one of the actors in this story and yet this story keeps filling me up and quietly asking me if I am doing all that I can. 

The second thing that happened this week was getting a text from my 14 year old son.   He’s been charting out routes on the Tube and photographing new stops as a kind of hobby.   As most of our text communication is short and informational, it was the length of the text that first got my attention.  Knowing that this was the same child who not so long ago had bouts of anxiety, it was the content of his text that keeps filling me up.   Here’s what he texted: “I’ve never been more happy and relaxed in my life, I’m sitting down on a bench in the bright sun at Cockfosters station at the end of the Piccadilly line.  I’m watching trains arrive and depart and there’s not a soul around plus not another hour or so until my practice.  Also got 4 new stops, loving it!”

I’ve read his text several times this week.   As most of us parents do, we wish not just for our children’s happiness but that they are able to find deep contentedness.  Part of that journey toward a contentedness that isn't tied to accomplishment or experiences is learning how to be “alone in the bright sun without a soul around.“ Which is, interestingly enough, where this post started.  

Our kids can be our best teachers.    So can bearing witness as a middle woman or man.  I have this feeling that maybe I haven’t been doing all that I can.  Of course there is more I could be doing.  Instead of waiting for a call back, I can make a call or send a text.  This week I heard the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr say that he prays for one good humiliation a day so he can watch his reaction to it.   Moving to a new city makes that prayer comes true without even having to pray it.   So now that I am at the end of this week, I can say that I’ve had way more than 4 new interactions with people --and several well timed texts and calls even today -- and thanks to my son’s good advice, I am choosing to love it!  

Portraits, Porridge and Lessons from a Homeless Shelter

A guy I recently met, Pedro, sketched this too kind portrait of me.   With sculpted eyebrows and visible cheek bones, the portrait is a more complimentary take on what I look like in person.   It also makes me look way more serious than I really am (I thought for sure I was smiling most of the time!) and curiously like I’m wearing overalls.

Likewise, this post has the potential to be self-congratulatory and overly serious without a bit of context.  So … in keeping it real:  1)  I am wearing a blue disposable apron.  2) I know many people for whom service and volunteering is as natural as breathing.  I’m not one of them.  I’m one of those people in a new city with disposable time on their hands.  3) Pedro is an artist and also homeless.

Every Wednesday I volunteer along with about a dozen other regular volunteers in a day center shelter for the homeless which serves anywhere between 75 and 100 guests.   The shelter is in a beautiful old church with high ceilings and stained glasses windows, an equal to the opulence of the neighborhood it resides in.  On Wednesdays and Fridays, the pews are moved round to make room for tables, seating areas with couches, a coffee bar, a ping pong table, an art corner.  It's a place to hang out, charge phones, borrow a computer, read the newspaper, sleep and eat a big breakfast.  Twice a week the church becomes a big, aromatic, very much lived-in living room without another analog in the neighborhood.

Wednesdays have become one of the highlights of my week.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  The first week was magical.  It was as if I walked into a place where I knew I was supposed to be.  I fit right in with the other volunteers, got the easy job of serving sausages, and felt welcomed by the guests I was supposed to be serving.  The first week one of the more sociable guests asked me: “So what skill do you bring?  Do you cut hair?  Or help people find jobs?” to which, because I was buzzing with delight in having found my place, answered, “Nothing really --- except maybe my smile.”  It seemed enough of an answer for him and a good enough reason to come back the second week.

The second week was all topsy turvy.  I realized that some people who I thought were guests were actually volunteers and vice versa.  I was doing that thing we do where we assess people based on appearance and other external factors and came to discover I had gotten several people wrong.   In a way though, that discovery was like a whack-a-mole reminding me that the line between who is giving and who is receiving is a thin one.  We all are on different sides of that line at different times. 

The third week security had to ask a few guests who smuggled alcohol in to leave.  In truth, that probably happened my first week too but I hadn’t noticed it then.  I was so mesmerized by the light shining in through the windows, my being “of service” that I missed the messiness of sharing a big, aromatic lived-in living room with people who don’t have a living room every day of the week. I didn’t see how even among the homeless, people cluster with their own kind and how there are cliques.

Homelessness is a complex issue without easy fixes.  Of course, I knew that the first week but as the weeks wear on, the knowing moves from your head to your heart.  The more you learn about the guests, the more you start to understand the host of reasons people get stuck.  Other weeks I’ve had the hard job of serving the scrambled eggs, the most popular item that always runs out first.  I’m easily persuaded to serve too generous a portion on the first helping to those who ask, as if scrambled eggs served with a smile will somehow tidy over the despair in their eyes.  But then I remember that I told James the first week that I’ve brought my smile, my contribution, and I can’t let up even when my heart is weighted down by what I see.  I’m getting better at telling the few pushy ones to wait for seconds.

The shelter is a messy place where sadness doesn't have a lot of places to hide.   I’ve had meaningful conversations with people, bizarre conversations with people, funny conversations with people.  I’ve had a heated conversation with someone where a young woman volunteer with Down’s Syndrome hugged both of us and told us she loved us with every volley of the conversation.  I’ve witnessed outright, hurtful racism.  I’ve witnessed simple acts of friendship. 

I’ve seen one of the guests in a completely different part of town on a park bench, who I warmly greeted, only to be shaken awake realizing that might be his living room for the night.  But then I saw him again the following Wednesday and we didn’t talk about where he slept that night.  We talked about Seattle; a place he once visited, and had he possible met me there in 1993? I told him it was unlikely.  What I didn’t tell him is my 1993 eyes didn’t have the same focus to see people like him.

Every Wednesday after breakfast it looks as if the crusted over porridge pot will never get clean.  Even after a hot soak, the layers of burned on porridge seem too much for the best elbow grease.  But every week the impossible happens.   A volunteer, of various strengths and sizes, muscles their way through the sticky porridge pot and it comes out looking shiny and new.  A couple of weeks ago, my oldest son who was visiting from college and came to the shelter with me, got his turn with the porridge pot. 

Last week I offered to do the washing up but another volunteer said he would wash if I dried.  Different than me, this volunteer was once a guest, obviously in a very sticky life situation I only know vague details about.   Watching him wash up as we talked, making it look more effortless than I’ve experienced it to be, I was reminded that people are like pots.   We all have layers of burned on crust but with the right mix of desperation, determination, and daring – the impossible can and does happen.  None of us are too far gone to be returned into something shiny and new.

So great, you love London, but what about the kids?

We’ve been living in London for almost 3 months now.  I’ve been pretty vocal about how much I love living here.  The question I’m always asked next is how the kids have adjusted to the move.  As today is Colin’s 14th birthday, it seemed like a good time to answer that question.

The answer is that the adjustment has been incredibly smooth.  For both boys.  Really smooth.  I say this with sensitivity as I know moves are usually not smooth on kids and with humility as we've had our fair share of un-smooth parenting years.  Aside from the occasional grumbling, we’ve registered few complaints and very little discontent on any front.  There’s been no day where it’s been a struggle to go to school (except maybe a weak plea on Rugby game days), not one tear shed about the move or missing Luxembourg, and recent school conferences and reports have confirmed a very positive start for both boys.  As we told Lawton, “Different School, Same Student” to which he perceptibly replied in reference to his brother, “Different School, Better Student.”  

We fully expected some churn with a new city, new school, new school system and approach to education, new uniform, new teams, no car, etc, etc.  Our move to Luxembourg certainly wasn’t this easy and I fully expect the natural bumps of life to show up here in London too.  But I’ve been thinking about why the transition itself has gone smoothly and I’ve identified several things that have likely contributed:

A second move is naturally easier than the first.   You know better what to expect and you’ve practiced the skills needed to learn a new place and system.  You hope a move grows some adaptability muscles in your kid and it’s cool when you see get to see them flex those muscles when they’re uprooted and replanted again.  Luxembourg was wildly different from Seattle but London is less different and in some ways a natural bridge back for them between European and US culture.

Their ages are right in the sweet spot for living in an urban city.   At 10 and 14 years old, they have just enough control of their bodies and reasoned thinking to make navigating a city manageable.    More importantly, they seem to have understood – with wisdom beyond their years -- that this move was both an opportunity for Brett’s career and our family.   We sometimes assume our kids don’t see the bigger picture but it’s surprising how willing they can be to go along for the ride when they sense that ride is something their parents feel called to.  It probably helps too that they see how happy Brett and I are being here. 

The sibling relationship is a fickle thing but my boys picked the very best moment to decide to be each other’s best friend.  This move would have been much different if they didn’t have each other to lean on and if they didn’t genuinely enjoy each other and share some interests. They were looking forward to finally having their own rooms when we moved here, and even though they do, they are back to essentially sharing a room.

Their new school is so vastly different from their old school and that helps them from constantly comparing.   While the boys would still tell you they miss and prefer their old International school in Luxembourg, they speak of it with nostalgia and not pining.  Things look good in the rear view mirror and that is healthy.   The things they like about their new school are different than their old school and while Lawton in particular wishes for more friends, he seems to also understand that they will come with time.

Finally, we have a Virtual Village of friends who care and pray for us and I believe have carried our boys through what easily could have been a different transition.  Hard transitions grow muscles too but apparently those weren’t the ones we needed this time.  If you were part of that Virtual Village, thank you. 

Cadiz, Spain: Cortijos, Wild Beaches, and Finding your Travel Brand

When we first started traveling as a family, I remember asking a seasoned veteran for advice and she said: “Learn your family’s brand of travel.”  What she meant was it’s easy to be seduced by guidebooks or someone’s amazing photo album or to plan a trip based on what you think you should do and see and so it’s important to overlay a filter on what you know about yourself and your family before you book anything.  I know my family does not appreciate classical music.   This is helpful filtering information when people keep telling you not to miss the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

After several years of experience, we’ve developed our family brand of travel.  It revolves around lots of activity, walking/beach hiking, good restaurants and special, usually small, places to stay outside of big cities where food features and there’s a pool.   It doesn’t even have to be a good pool.   It’s not to say that we don’t do city vacations or lay on the beach vacations but we have found our sweet spot in comfortable country inns in unique settings that take pride in feeding their guests what’s local.  It’s the B&B version of agrotourism.  What we might term B&D – Bed and Dinner. 

The best of the bunch are places with plenty of nearby activities to do by car including an iconic tourist site/city in day trip distance and ideally within a 90 minute radius of an airport.   If your family does not appreciate set menus, wants to be invisible to other guests, or is uncomfortable with “don’t know until we get there” cell phone service, please remember to filter what I’m telling you.


Brett and I have been talking about this and one of the reasons we think we enjoy this kind of travel is that it allows us to “turn off” the paralysis of having too many choices to make.   While wonderful, big cities come with a long list of must see attractions which unless carefully managed can lead to a “choice overload problem.” The problem with too many choices is that is can cause family friction in decision making and chip away at your sense of satisfaction and relaxation.   The list is always longer than the time.  Museums in our family are usually less than seamless negotiations and the so-called agony we’ve put our children through in “finding the perfect restaurant” is certain to be remembered years from now.

When we are in these more rural settings, our choices - things to do, places to eat - are naturally more limited which safeguards against feelings of regret or the fear of missing out on something important or awesome.  Fewer choices also frees up mental RAM space to really absorb the local culture.  We want to know we don’t have to go in search of a good meal and that coming downstairs will be enough to make that happen.   Not to mention that if your goal for vacation was to disconnect from the day to day noise of work and social media, the need to be glued to your phone in a city for navigation and real time research makes it harder to follow through on that intention. 

Finding these unique places does take more planning and research and so word of mouth helps.  I’ve shared about previous trips we’ve taken in this vein to Puglia, Northern Portugal, and Croatia.  We hit the jackpot again this past October over a 4 day weekend in Cadiz, Spain.   I got behind in writing about this because of our move to London but this is another gem you should know about.  

Let’s imagine that you are living in Europe and want to escape the cold (or madness of the world) and get some sand in your toes.  But you don’t want to fly all the way to the Greek islands to get it and you’d rather something different than Marbella and the Costa del Sol.   The province of Cadiz in Southern Spain and the unspoiled beaches of the Costa de la Luz might be your ticket.

We stayed outside the white village of of Vejer de la Frontera  in one of these country inn like places called Casa La Siesta.  The rustic Andalucian cortijo style building has eight spacious guest rooms, a separate yurt and a secluded family cottage on beautiful grounds with extra special food and wine.  Since it was October, it was too cold for the unheated pool but that didn’t matter.  It’s one of those sites where the modesty of the neighboring village masks the broad place waiting on the other side of the narrow gate.  

The abundance of indoor and outdoor common space with fruit trees, a working vegetable garden, an honesty bar and an open fire in the lounge area all make if feel more like a home away from home than a hotel.   Most of the year it is adults only but children are welcome on selected family weeks and always welcome in the family cottage.  We were there during a family week in two of the rooms.   I booked way in advance as the place does fill up especially during summer when the whole place if often booked out for destination weddings.  A generous breakfast is included and delicious three course set dinners are offered five nights a week.  The dinners were so tasty and relaxed (ie the boys could head up to bed on their own when they were tired allowing us to finish the long meal with an espresso), we ended up eating in three of the four nights.

In terms of activities, we spent every day discovering a new beach and then landing in a beach town or white hill town for lunch.   We spent one day walking miles on the long, straight golden sands of El Palmar Beach known for surfing and wind-based watersports.

We spent another day in the small but gorgeous cliff faced beach of Los Canos de Meca.

And we spent a third day in what might be the best beach we’ve seen in continental Europe, the coastal village and beach of Bolonia.  Bolonia is about a 45 minute drive from where we were staying and only 20km north of the popular destination of Tarifa

Bolonia has been voted one of Europe’s top 25 beaches on Trip Advisor but it’s mostly only known to Spanish tourists.  Here’s why Bolonia is so fab:

  • Geography is in its favor.  Bolonia sits within Estrecho National Park.  From the main highway, you need to drive 7km to get there.  There is no drive through traffic making it like a Greek island without having to take a ferry. 
  • With a population of only 117, there is little nearby accommodation which means it is unspoiled and not commercialized.  Military land nearby will insure further development won’t happen.
  • Yet, it’s not entirely remote.  There are no chairs or services on the beach but there are enough restaurants and bars, a few small grocery stores, and surfboards to hire to make it possible to spend the whole day there.   It’s also a popular place for camper vans to overnight.  It gets busy on the weekends and we heard the summer months do get crowded.
  • The beach itself has everything.  It is equally good for wading and waves.  The sand is soft and golden.   It’s a destination spot for water sports and leisure.  It’s long enough for a walk or run. 
  • The setting is gorgeous.  The beach has a natural cove on one end and is surrounded by huge white sand dunes which spread out into a forest of pine trees on the other end.  There is something good for the soul about running up and tumbling down sand dunes.
  • Not only can you look out over views of the channel between Spain & Africa, but just to show off its excellence behind the beach are some Roman ruins you can explore.  You don’t see that in Florida.

We didn’t make it to Tarifa but that would be a worthwhile day trip with more time.  As would a visit back to Zahara de los Atunes, the place where I first met and feel in love with Cadiz.  We flew into Jerez, the nearest airport, where we hired a car and drove 50 minutes to Casa La Siesta.  If you had more time, I would recommend that you fly into Seville to spend a couple of days there and then hire a car from Seville and drive 1.5 hours to Casa La Siesta. 

If countryside cortijos and wild beaches are your travel brand ... Cadiz might be worth a look see/sea.

On Being Resourceful


In the context of a culture where we’ve learned to be impatient by expecting instant gratification and where products (and even relationships) are no longer “built to last” but rather “built to make it to 2.0”, being solution minded requires both a time horizon and a creativity that goes against the grain.  I was reminded of that this week with a run of the mill household appliance issue.  

One of our favorite features of the house we are renting is the five burner gas stove with an attached side by side double oven – a full sized oven and smaller compact oven.   Despite churning out some memorable meals from the stove top, the full sized oven hasn’t worked properly since we moved in two months ago.  The problem was a faulty hinge that wasn’t allowing the oven door to fully close.  It was a small problem but with a meaningful consequence.  Not only were things taking too long to cook but the kitchen was overheating every time we turned on the broiler.  

We called for help. 

The oven specialist confirmed the problem and determined a new hinge needed to be ordered.   (Um, yes.)  The good news was the replacement hinge cost £14. The bad news was the hinge was out of stock.  The impossible news was the hinge was not just out of stock but obsolete.   Parts were no longer being carried because the oven was 10 years old.   The expert’s conclusion: there was no way to fix the oven.  The owner would need to buy an entirely new oven. 

We called for back-up.

We suggested a plan B to the property management company to see if a hinge from a similar but newer model might do the trick.  It took 3 weeks for the savior part and a new oven specialist to arrive.  Not entirely surprisingly in a world that seems geared to replacing rather than fixing, the new hinge did not work.  The second expert’s conclusion: there was no way to fix the oven. 

There would be no plan C.  We were instructed to wait for a replacement oven. 

This week we had a service call on a second appliance that resolved easily.  As the handy man was finishing up the job I told him about the oven saga and the sad story of obsolete replacement parts.  Ajay, though not technically qualified to work on ovens, offered to take a look.  

Though I thought it to be a sympathy offer, Ajay asked me to walk him through the problem.   As we stared down the oven together and I started talking about how I wished the problem was on the second compact oven which I rarely use rather than the full sized oven which I always use, the aha moment hit us both at the exact same moment: switch the hinges. 

After a quick clearance call, Ajay went to work to swap the faulty hinge on the full sized oven with the good hinge on the compact oven.  In the process he also discovered several loose screws on a previously unnoticed brace piece that was causing gaps for the heat to escape.  In less than five minutes of work, not only was the full sized oven closing perfectly but the compact oven with the faulty hinge – because of less weight on the hinge and the tightened brace piece – was also completely serviceable.  Problem solved.  Thanks to Ajay's crisp thinking.

Of course life is not a cake walk even if I can now make a cake.  It’s a totally unimportant story however I’ve been thinking about how it might apply to being solution minded in a world of much more than broken ovens.

First, there will always be a debate on when to fish or cut bait but to be solution minded means we need to persist past more than two failed strategies and ideally have a few ideas going simultaneously.   There was no thinking about the oven as we waited the 3 weeks for the savior part.  In this situation we only explored up to plan B before we gave in to the impulse – sanctioned by experts -- to throw away what we had and start over.  The new oven would have certainly solved the problem and insured immediate safety but not without significant financial cost to the owner, inconvenience to us and the larger environmental cost of creating unnecessary waste.  

Second, it reminds me that it’s not only the experts who solve problems.   I assumed the experts had looked at the issue completely but they never really asked me any questions.  Ajay’s success with my other household issue stimulated my belief that he might be able to crack the code on the oven.  Experts may be good at diagnosing the problem but sometimes someone from the outside is able to look at the bigger picture and hear the problem in a new way.  The oven experts could only see the offending hinge but Ajay standing shoulder to shoulder with me was able to see another path by listening closely to both the problem and how I was managing around it. 

Finally, sometimes solutions are as simple as re-balancing what’s already there.  The oven fix didn’t require a single new part.  Instead it required a redistribution of parts that were already there – moving one hinge that had been overworked to a new place where it could get some rest.   It also required the thoroughness of someone to get under the hood of the problem and tighten down a hidden brace piece that was causing as much if not more leakage than the obvious derelict hinge.  Most importantly, it required a stated openness to compromise – a broken compact oven in favor of a working main oven – before we knew it was possible to have both.

In a world where we are desperate for solutions, may we pursue past early setbacks with creativity, patience, and an openness to stand shoulder to shoulder with the person who has knowledge and the person who’s living with the thing that is broken.   We might be surprised to find there is less to compromise than we thought.  Golden breadcrumbs could be around the corner ...

City Living: The Joy of an Urban Garden

This is my little urban back garden.  Isn’t it cute?  It’s one of the features of our tall terraced house I proudly show off from the kitchen window and again from the second floor window whenever anyone comes round to visit.  If you’ve been here, you’ve no doubt heard me gush.

This past Saturday night, after an epic wind storm, I woke from a light sleep with a startle.  The wind and the unusually brilliant sun the day before had caused me to realize something I couldn’t quite believe.   I embarrassingly had to admit that as many times as I had smiled at my garden from behind a glass window, I had never actually set foot in it.  Not once in the 9 weeks we have lived here.  

Sure it’s been winter and not exactly time to be hanging out in the garden but had I really been that preoccupied with exploring everything out my front door that I never even bothered to open the back door of my own house?  The answer was yes.  Though there was no one calling me to account and because it was the dark of night, I honestly felt a little fraudulent for having bragged about a place I hadn’t yet taken the small investment of time to get to know.  My own back yard.

The garden isn’t on the way to anywhere.  There is no exterior gate.  In fact, the only way to get to it is through the house, through one set of doors on the ground floor – a floor of the house we rarely use.  This past Sunday afternoon, as it was my first visit, I fumbled opening the ground floor door.  I brought with me the modest-sized Clean Green bag we ordered when we moved in and found where my traveling husband had left the rake, broom and dustpan.  I thought to enlist my children to help but soon decided it was probably a one person job.  It was.  I didn’t know enough to give instruction yet. 

The wind storm had knocked a lot of leaves and branches down and so the bag filled quickly.   As I moved around the perimeter of the garden, I couldn’t help but notice how much bigger the tree in the center of the garden looked from ground level.  How it provided shelter over the entire space - and not just my garden. I picked up as many leaves as would fit in the bag, knowing that a single bag would not get the job done.  I swept up debris that had collected in the corner.  I noticed where new buds on the trees were forming.  I imagined a time when the garden would be in full bloom.  I marveled at how such a green oasis could exist in such a dense, concrete space.   The 45 minutes felt like 10 minutes.  It was invigorating.  The bag was full but the job wasn’t done.   I have decided to do it again next Sunday.   

It’s got me thinking about how we all get so busy with the demands of life, the season we are in, the density of our time – we bypass the work it takes to enter into our inner lives.  We assume we can get to it later.  We think viewing what’s going on in the garden of our hearts can be short circuited behind the safety and comfort of a glass window.  But there is so much going on at ground level that can’t be seen from a window.   

It often takes a wind storm for us to finally crack open the door and tend to the first order of mess.   You could hire the clean-up work out but not without handing over the keys to your house.  If you’re willing to find a rake and grab a bag, once the downed branches are cleared, you have the chance to take inventory of where things are growing and dying and shedding and being made new.  The bag will fill up quickly at the start but the invigoration of seeing visible progress in such a short time is a kindness that invites us back.  The theologian Eugene Peterson says, “Our deep center gets buried under the everyday debris of routine and chatter, while we shuffle about out of touch and unaware of our true selves.”

An unseasonably warm day could happen tomorrow.  Someone could come over to your house in need of a breath of fresh air.  Will you point to your garden from the window or will you fumble with the back door making it obvious your garden isn’t ready for company? Or will you throw open the door and say, “Check this out!  This is my little space in a noisy world.  Can you imagine what it will be like in full bloom?”