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?”

City Living: The Joy of the High Street

George at the Camden Coffee Shop

George at the Camden Coffee Shop

Last time I shared a post on the Joy of Not Having a Car.   This week I share a complimentary post on the Joy of the High Street. 

The High Street is the British shorthand for what we Americans call Main Street, the precursor to shopping malls.   As the center of a neighborhood’s commercial and social life, it’s where you go to get life done and get a few people to know your name.  

It’s fun to occasionally go destination shopping on bustling iconic streets like Oxford Street or on pedestrian streets like Carnaby Street in Soho but for the day to day, you need your local High Street.   Yes, there is online retail (thank you Amazon for Prime and employment of my husband), but you still need the High Street for drugstores and haircuts and groceries and take out and pubs and fresh flowers.  Every neighborhood's High Street has their own vibe which makes them more personal.

But the High Street isn’t only for a retail fix; it’s also the place you might bump into a neighbor or where you’ve put in enough foot miles to notice new growth.   In the last two months, I’ve been out and about enough to notice and stop in on three different shops on their opening day.  I was there when the deliciously decadent Crosstown Donuts opened their bricks and mortar location in the Camden Market North Yard near the Amy Winehouse statue, when Guy Gold opened his coffee bar & osteopathic treatment rooms (I don't know if I need treatment but I always need coffee) around the corner from us last Friday and a new bakery I sniffed out but didn't get the name of the Camden High Street only hours after it opened.  I need to go back another Saturday when I haven't already stocked up on hand rolled New York bagels from Bowery Bagels or the fluffy English muffins and sour dough bread from Jamie Oliver's The Flour Station.  These are dangerous streets for carb avoiders.

The High Street is also your best hope for when you’ve dragged your kids along to do some errands and promised it won’t take too long.  Promise delivered!  Last week we got haircuts, stopped at the ATM, picked up lunch (trying our 12th or so stall at the KERB Food Market), bought some new shoes (at Vans) and made it for the matinee showing of “The LEGO Batman movie” (at Odeon) in less than 90 minutes.  And even more beautiful: because it was so close, I dropped them at the theater door and they walked themselves home.

One of my favorite things living in my neighborhood is that I can flip through any cookbook and source every ingredient and related kitchen tool within a 10 minute walking radius.  Yesterday when my husband asked me about my plans for the day and I mentioned going to local bookstore (Waterstones) to skim through some Mexican cookbooks, then to a local cooking store to find individually sized skillets (either going upscale to Richard Dare or downmarket to a seconds store on Camden High Street which can't be found online) and then to one of several local grocery stores for ingredients, he lovingly gazed into my eyes and said (the truth): “Every day I’m with you is another day for you to buy a single use kitchen apparatus.” And I can-nacho lie, this neighborhood makes it easy to accomplish that.

Speaking of cookbooks, I have a collection from my chef hero: Yotam Ottolenghi.  Ottolenghi is originally from Jerusalem now living in London with several very popular restaurants (four Ottolenghi locations and Nopi) and a huge following.  He also writes a regular online food column in The Guardian.  With a city-sized Whole Foods and the fabulous fruit and vegetable grocer called Parkway Greens around the corner from me, I’ve been cooking a lot from his cookbooks.  The boys now ask for a sprinkling of zatar on their eggs.  Pomegranate molasses is my new balsamic vinegar.  Barberries save me from having to chop dried cranberries.  I’m all about finding new uses for preserved lemons, sumac and rose harissa.  And there isn't a dish that a refreshing yogurt sauce can't make better.

So imagine me reading this in one of Ottolenghi's columns:  “It’s easy to get stuck in our ways with apples. A granny smith is sweet and tart enough to work here, but why not try something new for a change? My local grocer, Parkway Greens in Camden, gets some of its apples from Brogdale in Kent …” His local grocer is my local grocer!  This has me more star struck than any celebrity sighting.  I have no idea what I will do when I see him there one day but you know I’m looking … every day.  I will get to know those apple varieties.

Another favorite spot in the neighborhood is the Camden Coffee Shop.  They don’t sell brewed coffee only coffee beans.  George, the owner originally from Cyprus, has been roasting and grinding coffee on the same premises for 40 years.  The equipment, even the old school scales, hasn’t been upgraded in that time.  George does all the work himself telling me there’s no room in the shop for another employee.  I visit George once a week (when he's there as the hours are "roughly" 9-5) for the best 500 grams of Ethiopian coffee for my paper filter and 250 grams of Costa Rica coffee for my stove top Italian espresso maker.   He’s taught me a few things about espresso.  It’s a weekly joy to feel part of something with that much history.

As a tourist, you might notice a few interesting restaurants and pubs on Parkway, our closet street for services.  As a resident, I can tell you this one street has two dry cleaners, a record shop, a musical instrument shop, four Japanese restaurants, three coffee shops – two chains and one independent, a tea house, three nail and beauty salons, two Indian restaurants, an Italian restaurant, a pizzeria, a fish and chips place, a Spanish restaurant, a French restaurant, an upscale modern European restaurant, a charity shop, two hair salons, an electronics store, a running store, a lifestyle/accessories store, a mailbox center, a movie theater, the Gap, Whole Foods and Parkway Greens (a second mention because I love them so much), lots of real estate offices, two pubs and three live music venues.  And that’s all in two blocks and before turning a corner. There's more too but it was making me hungry writing them all down.  I won't frequent some of them.  Moobo for bubble tea or Chicskin for sheepskin coats for example, but I like their names and I like knowing they're there for someone to enjoy.

A vibrant High Street is one that has services by day and a robust evening economy which I’ve heard referred to as “alive after 5.”   This neighborhood has the evening economy in spades.  Not all of it pretty.  We have yet to explore the music scene of Camden appropriate for the over 40 years of age crowd but on Parkway alone there is the famous Jazz Café, the Dublin Castle for a cheap beer and weekend live music, and Green Note - a vegetarian café bar and acoustic live music venue voted "London Venue of the Year 2015" by Timeout.  That high praise was enough for me to get our first tickets for the March 8 show at the reasonable cost of £10 per ticket.  About the same price as the Batman Lego Movie with a trade of popcorn for beer.  If you are local, meet us there?  If not, expect to read a City Living: The Joy of Live Music post soon.

City Living: The Joy of Not Having a Car

I was hopeful but uncertain about how much I would like being car-less in our new city.  I wondered how we would manage family life without a trunk full of sports equipment, crates of water bottles, on-demand pretzels and snacks, mobile phone chargers, Kleenex that doesn’t run out and a healthy supply of bags (the dry cleaning bag, the returns bag, the donations bag, the dirty shoes bag, the "left by another kid at your house" bag, the barf bag.)   I imagined a life without IKEA or worse, going to IKEA and only coming away with tea lights due to space constraints. 

I was excited about shopping with my cute trolley until I pictured walking home with a one-wheel-gone-missing trolley and a 24 pack of toilet paper balanced on my head.  (I know from recent experience that a one-wheel-gone-missing trolley is really just a very heavy, very awkward bag.)  Then I reminded myself I was returning to the land of Amazon and online grocery stores to take care of the relentless toilet paper needs even if it couldn’t solve for how to carry a large houseplant home.  (Answer: cute trolley gets dirty.  I cut off circulation to my right arm.)

Many of my concerns were about convenience and moving “freight” but I also wondered if I would miss the sanctuary of the car.  I wondered what it would be like on a rainy day after school and not having the comfort of a warm car to usher your kids into.  I wondered if the free-flowing conversation that sometimes happens between parent and child in the safety of a car would still happen on a noisy bus.  I wondered if I would get as much out of a podcast played in my ears instead of over the car speakers. 

But as it turns out, after six weeks of living in London, hope has beat out uncertainty.  Big time.  I do not love being wet and cold and packed in like a sardine on a crowded subway but I actually love not having car.  It’s definitely not always easy (ie, taking your feverish son to the doctor) but I’m confident that being on foot and on public transportation has been a major contributor in accelerating our sense of belonging to our new city.  I say the belonging bit with confidence for a number of reasons:

First, there is plenty of online shopping to solve the moving stuff around issue.  So many places deliver in London.   Having well-stocked backpacks and children old enough to pack them is another adjustment. We simply take more care when walking out the door knowing that we won't be returning for a long time.  And if there is something we would have had in our trunk but forgot to bring, we pick it up along the way.  (Shoes excluded.)  Our stuff now feels like the responsibility of each of us not just the one behind the wheel of the car.

Second, not having a car takes you out of the driver’s seat.  Ceding control, where you can, is healthy for all of us.  You are at the mercy of a bus driver or train operator and try as you might, you won’t be invited to ride shotgun.   Nor can you “make up” time by leaving a few minutes later.   You have to leave with plenty of time to get where you’re going (in London anything that crosses town usually means 45 minutes) and then surrender the rest of the ride to someone else behind the wheel or the upper limit of non-perspiring, speed walking.   Plus, until you exorcise it from your life, you have no idea how much traffic, terrible drivers and the teeny tiny number of available parking spaces causing 40% of the traffic intrudes on your sense of well-being. 

Third, not having a car means regular exercise just got a whole lot easier.  It also means that when confronted with an able-bodied but tired child, you can say “this is our only option” and they will know negotiation is futile.   So yeah, sometimes you have to dodge a few piles of dog poop on the sidewalk or suffer through a hail storm in the wrong outerwear, but you are burning calories while at it.  And when you’re (and they’re) burning calories instead of eating empty ones like stale car pretzels, the endorphins send you “well done” messages that make you like your life way more than you liked your leather seats.   

Fourth, after a few goes in the car, you know the way.  But when walking or taking public transportation, there’s always something more to experience because all your senses are engaged.  You are not just getting from point A to point B but you are creating a detailed mental map.  You see tucked away shops you wouldn’t notice from a car window.   You smell the coffee shops that roast their own beans.  You hear a wide range of voices, sometimes exuberant off-key singing, instead of the monotony of road traffic noise.  Your body begins to know where the wind tunnels are and where to expect a late afternoon sun beam.  My children might also mention not having a car improves the odds of stopping for a proper snack.  

All your interactions are closer and because you don’t have to keep your eyes fully on the road, you are free to notice them more.   Depending on the time of day (ie commuting hours), you might only be able to notice the dandruff on the guy sharing your personal space on the subway which isn’t awesome but still beats risking your left bumper and sanity trying to find parking where there is none.

And finally, if belonging is about community, mass transit can be a way to enter in to it.  Sometimes that means conversation (which I enjoy) but I’m finding that sitting or standing with someone in silence is a kind of solidarity.  I love not having mobile service when I go into the subway which forces me to engage with my thoughts or a book or the London Evening Standard.  It’s a wholly different kind of sanctuary than my car was, and I have to share it not just with my family, and yet it feels like one.   I doubt my children would agree on this point (they would say they prefer the car because there is more room) although they don’t seem at all hindered by sharing their day with witnesses.  Their sanctuary is wherever you are.

Not having a car isn’t viable in a lot of places but if you live in a big city, you might be surprised how much more at home you feel in your city without one.  So far it’s been one of our joys living in London. 

Do not withhold good

Anger towards injustice can be a useful emotion. It fuels us to rise up and act. It helps us to turn a Facebook rant into a telephone call. It compels us to get out of our seats and onto the streets. It causes us to open our wallets and front doors.

There is a Proverb in the Bible that says: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it is in your power to act.” Believing it is necessary to have an immigration policy that is both safe AND fair, this week – like many people -- I have been signing petitions against the ill-conceived, not so hidden religiously intolerant Travel Ban and its authors, sending emails to politicians, and donating to charities serving refugees. You may disagree with me but that’s not the point of this post.

Nor am I saying that immigrants and refugees are the only people who deserve our action. You might have another. [I’ve also been looking for a good charity that supports our Veterans – particularly those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan - with job retraining as they are another marginalized group of people that I believe deserves the attention of those with the power to act. If anyone has a suggestion, please pass it on.]

I’ve been thinking however that while anger is useful for getting us out of the chair, as it did me this week, it is not sustainable on its own. If we want to really serve those who deserve our action we need to positively feed our faith in the long arc of justice enough so that our anger will be starved. We should love our world enough to engage with it, including in the public square, to want to see it as it was created to be. We need to surround ourselves with historians to lengthen our lens and believers to restore our imagination of what healthy interdependence can and should look like in a world full of color and differences.

For me, part of feeding my faith in justice is joining together with the people of my church here in London who believe and live out the invitation that: “This is a church that loves and accepts everyone … you are so welcome here.” Every Sunday I look out over the congregation which is full of people from every race and dozens of countries, so many of them young, and it brings me to tears every time. Every time. I’m trying to hang out with them more. I recently heard someone say, “The coals in a campfire burn bright and put off heat when huddled together but if that coal were to jump away from the fire, it would die out.” Action from the privacy of your home can only do so much. Action together, in whatever form that looks like, burns bright.

The other way I’ve been feeding my faith in justice has been a very small thing. On my regular runs in Regent’s Park, I make it a point of looking every Muslim woman I see in the eye and offering a smile. So far, every smile given has been returned with a smile that is somehow deeper and more beautiful than a courteous one. It seems to be saying “hello and thank you” at the same time. That too is a kind of fuel to remind me there is nothing different between white eggs and brown eggs - no difference in yoke or taste. You only know a bad egg once it’s cracked.

I was recently asked to do one of those online tests to find your strengths. I don’t like doing those tests and yet it confirmed for me where I should be investing myself. In some ways, this post is me trying to build on one of my strengths: positivity. This is a time in our country (and others too) where we all need to be exploiting our natural strengths. May you therefore use your time, resources, and even the platform of FB to take your strengths – which are uniquely yours and desperately needed - and work them out for the public good.


The Naturally Nervous First Year Parents Crop

Closed groups on Facebook can be sources of good information and sometimes, awesome entertainment. This fall as my son was entering his first year of college we joined a FB group for the parents of his incoming class. We 700 members are the cream of the Naturally Nervous First Year Parents Crop.

The posts contributed by the moderator around school events, housing, campus safety, etc have generally been helpful as have some of the parent questions and comments. Most parent members passively receive information. And then there is the smattering of …

1. Questions that Google has an answer for. As in: “What time does the football game start?”

2. Questions that Google has an answer for AND that you really should not be figuring out for your man child. As in: “Is there a Fedex or post office on campus. My son needs to ship something.”

3. Lost and found questions better directed toward campus security than parents in the off chance they have the kind of relationship with their student whereby they talk about other people’s missing things. As in: “My daughter lost here watch near X over the weekend. Did your student find it?”

4. The needle in a haystack questions. As in: “We are going to be on campus and while there, we need access to a marimba for our high school son to practice. Any leads?”

5. Delivery questions that Amazon can’t handle and therefore no one but a roommate or friend is likely to handle. As in: “Is there a delivery service that could deliver cold medicine and a vaporizer [in the next 2 hours] to my daughter who is sick during finals?”

6. The safety-first parent questions. As in: “Where we can find earthquake safety info and plans for the dorms.”

7. Delivery questions that make you feel guilty for only sending snacks from Amazon Pantry. As in: “Has anyone ever tried successfully to have birthday balloons and/or Edible Arrangement delivered to the dorms?”

8. Questions that make you want to cringe for the parent/student relationship. As in: “Does anyone know where grades will be posted?”

9. The parent/student selfie upload. Cute on your FB page. A little weird on the parent page.

10. The 100% school spirit post that includes no question or comment just an overuse of the school slogan, emojis and hashtags. It’s all there. Sometimes with a band video clip. Fight On!

God bless us as we Fight On letting go of our children. We are a funny bunch.

We are family

There are 20 minutes in each week I dread. From precisely 7:15pm to 7:25pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s the 10 minute walk my 13 year old son takes from basketball practice back to the Tube stop, far from home and in the dark.

Just now I pulled up the thesaurus and replaced “fear” with “dread” as if shedding fear, an emotion experienced whether a threat is real or imagined, is as simple as a search and replace. It takes more than that – often a communal effort – which, in this story, actually happened.

Now I came to these 20 minutes of weekly dread by choice. We want to honor our son’s desire to play competitive basketball which for him, in London, means a long transit. But we don’t have a car and it is not practical for my younger son and me to spend every Tuesday and Thursday from 4-8pm accompanying him to and from practice with a stop for falafel or fried chicken in between. I made the commute with my son until he felt comfortable doing it on his own. It didn’t take long for that to happen.

His basketball club is far outside the buzz of central London. It is not a destination stop. There are no tourist attractions. There aren’t even many street lights. If I’m being honest, the source of my fear wasn’t only because of my son’s age, the distance from home, the change of Tube lines, the dark and a general feeling that the area isn’t the safest. At a deeper level, I was scared because my child is white in a neighborhood that isn’t.

Did I just say that? I have no evidence, no experiences, and no hard data that should make me fearful. And it should be noted, my son is not afraid. And though it would be convenient, I can’t chalk it up to maternal instinct or unease because this is not my home country. No, that confession comes with a heavy dose of guilt. I know there is racism and stereotyping in my heart to even feel that way. I am ashamed to think that my 20 minutes of neatly scheduled discomfort is what a mother of color would feel EVERY time her child walked out the door, except hers would be grounded in a blanket of real – not imagined - experiences he and I will never have.

I would prefer to bury this confession except something happened to mitigate, though not completely erase, that dread. I didn’t “solve” the problem by hiring an Uber to take my son to and from practice which I could have done practically speaking but not without a cost to my son’s developing independence and him appearing even more entitled to his teammates than his latest Nike shoes already do. Something much more beautiful happened.

After the first practice where coach recognized I wasn’t there, he gathered the team around and told them to walk my son the 10 minutes back to the Tube stop. The entire team did it without question or complaint. (All of them except for my son live in the neighborhood.) I considered it a nice gesture of welcome to the team except that he’s asked a group of boys to do the same thing after every practice. When my son told his teammates recently it was ok he knew how to get to the Tube stop, they said: “No, we have to walk you. And if Coach finds out we didn’t, we’ll be running all practice.” Last practice Coach drove by to check on them, where every guy he asked to escort my son was there. Coach got out of the car to make sure my son understood: “Since you aren’t from around here, it’s better for your teammates to walk you. We are not just a team. We are a family.”

When I emailed Coach this weekend to thank him, he said it again, “You’re welcome. We are not just a team. We are family.”

You see I was kicking myself for seeing color but they saw it too. But where my instinct was to push down the reality of the color differences, their instinct was to face my son’s vulnerability as “other” and encircle him as you would any family member. I am humbled by how this team has embraced our son both on and off the court. It was so immediate and not because he is a star player. He is among talented players, many already towering over 6’3” at 13 years old. I know their model of familial love has instructional value beyond what I can grasp just yet.

It reminds me too what while I will never know when it means to move in the world where we are judged by our skin color, those brief flashes of discomfort we all experience from time to time – even the “managed” kind like my 20 minutes – can be openings for us to enter into a conversation we actively try to avoid. I found it interesting when I turned on my favorite podcast yesterday, “On Being” and the latest episode happened to be “Let’s Talk About Whiteness” by Eula Biss. I guess it was something I needed to hear. Maybe you, my white friend, do too.