Category Archives: Embracing Life

London (Day 1 Part 2; Day 2)

I think that perhaps when we are very tired, we are drawn to what we consider to be more restorative. Thus, after hours on an airplane, and many more hours since quality sleep, I was drawn to gardens. Each time I tried to direct myself toward a museum or some other edifice of marble, concrete, or stone…I found my internal compass reoriented me toward green. Too tired to fight instinct, I obliged! I spent most of the afternoon in St. James Park, which is just east of Buckingham Palace, and in Hyde Park, originally created as a hunting ground for his majesty King Henry VIII.

StJamesParkCollageSt. James Park

Hyde Park CollageHyde Park


After a good night’s sleep, I went to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens on Monday. I arrived just before the gates opened at 10 AM, and spent about 4 hours touring the area. I visited glass houses from Victorian times, King George III’s Kew Palace, and a beautiful water lily house.

Kew Gardens Collage

Monday night I traveled to Guildford for the working part of my trip at University of Surrey.

England: Food Edition Part 2

Think of England and food, and what comes to mind? Fish and chips? Boiled vegetables? Tea and scones? All these were certainly available, but I don’t think I had any of them. The food was quite satisfactory, if a little on the expensive side.


IMG_1526I saw quite a few of these coffee machines in England. I did not try them as they reminded me of Sheetz, but maybe they are better here!


IMG_1572 IMG_1573Sandwiches are very popular in the UK. Any coffee shop, cafe, grocery, or stand has a wide display of sandwiches packaged as “take-aways.” Of particular popularity seem to be sandwiches in baguettes – these were advertised prominently! Since wheat is not my friend, I can only guess that they must be good.


IMG_1519Nandos is a chain restaurant in the UK that serves marinated chicken (Puri-Puri, they call it) and sides. The seasoning was nice…I am not a huge chicken fan, but can see why it’s so popular if you do like chicken.


IMG_1527I never brought myself to try mushy peas, but my colleagues and I stopped by a place called “Bills” in Guildford for lunch, and I had the creamy pea and mint soup. It was delicious!


IMG_1529 This kale salad with quinoa was my second course at Bills. Tasty, and provided much-longed-for vegetables.


IMG_1525Dinner in London Wednesday night was at EV, a Turkish restaurant near Waterloo. This vegetable stew of aubergine, corgettes, carrots, tomato was vaguely reminiscent of ratatouille. Very tasty, and the restaurant had a really cool industrial but refined vibe. It was located under the train tracks. That really was not as unpleasant as it sounds.


IMG_1550IMG_1551This was the main (only) offender of my trip – in a hurry in Kings Cross Station to catch my train to York, I needed something quick. These pasties looked so good, and warm, and crispy that I threw wheat caution to the wind and got one filled with veggies. YUM! Regrettably, I paid for it for the rest of the day!


IMG_1568A vegan and gluten-free restaurant in York called El Piano beckoned on Saturday. The morning had been cold and misty, and soup sounded perfect. This Thai-inspired sweet potato soup was the best thing I’d eaten since arriving in the UK. The bread and cornbread were pretty decent, for not having wheat in them.


IMG_1569El Piano’s menu also feature several different kinds of fritters.  I chose the “tinas” and the felafels. The tinas were really, really good little fried bits of vegetable heaven. The felafels were not the best I’ve had. They were the first I’ve had with whole chickpeas inside.


IMG_1571For brunch Sunday in York, I opted for an omlette filled with mushrooms and aubergines. And the ever-present British potatoes.


There are things I wish I’d tried in the UK, but did not. I do wish I’d had fish and chips and a cider at a pub, but I can’t imagine the fish and chips could beat what I had a couple of years ago fresh off a boat in Gloucester, MA. I also wish I’d had some curry – it is supposedly excellent there.

And, if I did not have to avoid certain things, the pastries all looked amazing – scones, croissants, filled pastries, “biscuits.” Very tempting. It was nice to find lots of fresh vegetables and the same focus, at least in many places on sourcing locally and using natural ingredients.

England: Food Edition Part 1

My first purchased meal was lunch in England. It was 57F out and misting, and I was cold and hungry, having eated just airplane food (not much of that!) and trail mix since my dinner of sushi before leaving Raleigh Saturday night.
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(For those of you who know I prefer to eat vegetarian, that is still true, but figuring out how to do that while traveling and also avoiding wheat and dairy is  pretty impossible. I choose feeling OK over eating vegetarian.)

Check out the verbage on the napkin. I just love how wordy it is. A tag line that is three lines long. Jeesh.

During my first, jet-lagged (or really just sleep-deprived day) I ate the above soup and trail mix. I was ready for breakfast Monday morning.

IMG_1504Note: Blurry pictures happen when you feel a little like a dork for photographing your food so you do it quickly.

A word about the coffee:  when the restauranteur delivered my coffee, I took one look and thought, “Oh shoot…I told him black. Clearly this has milk in it.” I took a sip to confirm, and it was so rich that I was convinced. As time went on and the froth on top dissipated, I realized that it was actually black, but so rich that it had me fooled. I think the coffee that came with the meal was actually an Americano (espresso and hot water). It was delicious.

Two poached eggs, Canadian bacon, sausuage, roasted to-mah-toes, mushrooms, and baked beans. Apparently, this is pretty standard ingredients for the Full English Breakfast, as the same order at Heart and Soul, a little restaurant near my accommodations at the University of Surrey, was much the same (although not quite as tasty):

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This time, I watched the server make me an Americano and charge just £1. The same coffee drink in America will set you back at least $2.50, and even filter coffee in America costs more than this.

My other meals so far:

Dinner at the same little restaurant near my accommodation at University of Surrey. They were out of everything except burgers, but luckily did have a veggie burger. The chips were great; the burger was OK.

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Dinner at Olivios, an Italian place in Guildford. And who says that English food is boring? The to-mah-toes were so fresh, and the dressing was delicious. The salmon was poached…not my favorite style, but maybe it was really good for poached salmon. I just kind of thought it tasted like canned tuna? It was really pretty, though.

I wish I had taken a picture of my lunch, which was at a nicer restaurant on campus called Lakeside. Hospitality is a really big thing to study here (is anyone surprised) and the students from Hospitality Mangement School run this restaurant. My dish was sea bass over mashed potatoes, green beans, and a creamed spinach, with a starter of beetroot mousse and something else I forgot right after I ordered it, served in a cocktail glass on a long stem. It was quite beautiful, and very very good. I felt too dorkish in that place to photograph it.

On another food note, with a little bit of extra time and curiosity, I walked to the grocery store just 1/2 mile from where I am staying on University of Surrey campus. I just wondered how different things would be from a US supermarket. Lots of things I expected…large shelf real estate for biscuits (i.e. cookies) and tea, things like scotch eggs, lots of beer and cider. Here are a few things of note:


Eggs are not refrigerated. This makes total sense. I wonder if Brits put them in the fridge when they get home with them?


This is just something I don’t understand. I see this on menus as well. I am not sure I even want to know what they taste like. Surely not like the canned LeSeur peas of my childhood? I will be fine if I die not knowing.

I just thought this was funny because when one of my daughters was younger (honestly can’t remember who it was), she could not keep from calling popsicles “Lollilpops.” Apparently others do the same!

And that’s a wrap for now…more to come! Have yet to visit a pub, or have a cider…

London (Day 1 Part I)

  

  
This is what it looks like at 3:30 AM local time south of Greenland over the Atlantic Ocean. This was the shortest night ever! It was great fun to finally see land about 7 or 7:30 local time: Ireland! I could see the cliffs on the western coast clearly. It felt surreal to know that I was looking at Ireland…this southern girl from Lee County, NC who had never been overseas.

Small biographical aside: twenty-one years ago, on my 21st birthday, I had my first plane ride and my first trip west of the Mississippi. Now, almost exactly 21 years later, I am making my first overseas plane ride and my first trip to a foreign country (if you don’t count the Toronto band trip and high school, and you really shouldn’t). Both trips were solo…and I remember feeling pretty similar feelings that time, looking down at Arizona, which felt like a foreign country to my 21-year-old eyes.

The other feature, aside from the cliffs, which stood out to me about Ireland were the incredible number of windmills (see the photo below – top right corner). I know these things are massive, but was still suprised to be able to see the blades moving from 39,000 feet. Ireland has a beautiful countryside, yet they are clearly full on with renewable energy. Oh, America. Let’s get a move on!

  
Heathrow seemed like any other big airport, and the Tube seemed like any other subway in a major city, but emerging from the tube, I had my camera poised and ready to capture my first real glimpse of London:

  
Not what was I was expecting. When they said it was the “Green Park” subway stop, they weren’t kidding. Little did I know that this picture and view held much portent for my day.

First stop: Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace was just a short walk across Green Park from the Tube Station. Thousands of people. The gilded palace gates were pretty over the top; the flag holders that looks like giant ship masts were pretty cool, the flowers were very nice. I was not really sure what to expect or where to be looking for the changing of the guard (and could not see much or get very close due to the crowds). Often in these situations, I clue in by hearing others’ conversations. Despite being in London, everyone I walked past or near was speaking German or French.

  
Eventually, we heard band music, and a troop of Bobbies (is that even what they are called?) marched in playing instruments. They came down the flag-flanked “mall” and marched around half the circle in front of the palace, and into the gates where they disappeared from view. About ten minutes later, music again. Now, from a road in a different direction, another troup marched in, playing instruments, and disappeared into the gates. Everyone kept standing around, but I finally gave up being able to see more and departed.

I walked off, schelpping all my luggage for the week on my back, with a list of things I was planning to see: Traflagar Square, the British Museum, the Sherlock Holmes Museum, Hyde Park, Notting Hill before checking into the hostel at around 8 PM.
  
My next entry will tell what really happened the rest of the day. Best laid plans, and all that…

Receiving with joy and grace

Heading to work one day last week, I was feeling pretty depleted from my husband being out-of-town, and the morning being filled with getting the kids on the school bus, so I stopped by Starbucks  for a latte.  We are on a tight February budget, but I had a gift card I received for Christmas.  On the way there, I decided to buy some coffee beans with my gift card as well as there was not a lot of room in the February grocery budget for a bag of coffee.

Standing in line with my reusable cup and pound of coffee, I noticed a placard announcing a special:  one $5 gift card when you buy a pound of coffee beans.  “Wow, it’s my lucky day!”

When it was my turn at the front of the line, the barista took my order, handed me my $5 gift card, and waved me away, telling me that my order “had already been taken care of by someone who was feeling generous.”

I…I…was a recipient of another’s Random Act of Kindness.

I’m guessing that the giver had expected to make people smile at the very least – but perhaps even to realize the deep-rooted kindness of humans to each other.

My reaction trouble me more than a little.  Surprise…and then guilt.  “I don’t deserve this.”  “I wish I hadn’t gotten the pound of coffee – I mean it’s one thing for someone to buy me a drink, but this?”  “Oh great!  Now I have to figure out how to pay it forward and I am strapped for cash.”  “But I could afford this – why should I be getting something for nothing?”

I tried to revel in the joy of receiving a Random Act of Kindness, but I was left bewildered and unsettled.  And I guessed that was not an appropriate reaction.

I don’t think I have ever been any good at receiving.  Who teaches you to receive?  Isn’t it “better to give than to receive,” and isn’t it (more than) a teeny bit selfish to think about receiving?  Sure, we are taught to say “Thank you” and be polite, even if we don’t like the gift.  But aren’t we supposed to really focus our energy and get our joy from giving to others?

Brene Brown says in Daring Greatly that we never think we are enough.  “I am not needy enough, not stressed enough, not worthy enough, not grateful enough, not generous enough to receive a gift.  If I have stresses, it is my own fault and I need to figure out how to handle them instead of receiving energy from other human beings.  If I can’t, well, I’m not strong enough either.

When life feels hard or stressful or exhausting, I chastise myself, telling myself my problems are “First World Problems.”  After all, who am I to complain?  Look at all I have to be grateful for!  Who am I to not be joyful all the time?  I have a wonderful family, a steady job, a safe home, and food in the pantry.

Does receiving fully actually require vulnerability?

When we receive, we are not in control.  We are not in control of the gift that is given.  We are not in control of determining whether we deserve it, or how big it is, or whether we are able to pay it back.  To receive from others, we have to believe that we are enough, and that we deserve kindness, just because.  And ideally, there is no expectation that we are able to return the gift in kind.

A well-meaning stranger just wanted to treat the next few Starbucks customers to coffee and a smile, but I am wondering if this person had no idea what I think the real gift might have been:  the emotional and cognitive dissonance that forces me to examine some really hard questions.

May I learn to receive gracefully and joyfully when it is my turn, and give gracefully and joyfully when I have energy to spare…

Not (fill in the blank) enough

In my last post, I reflected on the introduction to Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.  I wrote about how I think of resisting vulnerability as a strong identification with ego, and I identified times when my ego is attacked and I respond defensively so that I don’t have to feel vulnerable.

In the chapter I have just finished (ch 1), Brown discusses the culture a scarcity that we live in.  It’s actually a culture of perceived scarcity – we feel more scarcity than we actually experience; it’s rooted our cultural perspective.  We hear in the media (or have noticed ourselves) that people have become increasingly narcissistic of late, and the cause of this, according to Brown, is not a moral failing.  The cause is a culture that tells us that we must be extraordinary in all that we do.  Our inner dialogue mirrors those cultural messages, and we tell ourselves that we are not, or do not have, enough.

Monday morning I read a Becoming Minimalist blog post that Joshua Becker wrote about his reaction to the messages sent by the advertising played on the Super Bowl over the weekend.  At least three of the seven myths he noticed prevailing in the ads directly relate to the idea of scarcity.  After all, to be motivated to by something, we must believe that we need something we don’t have.  Advertisers feed this scarcity myth and thrive on it.  Not unlike a virus, they insert this bit of information into our minds until we start perpetuating it ourselves and becoming sick from it.

1.  Not happy enough. (Becker’s “Happiness is for sale” myth.)  Advertisers assume that we realize we are not happy enough, and if we just had a Coca Cola, we could “Open happiness.”  If we just had a VW, we could “Get Happy.”  How would our culture be different if we all believe that we were already fully equipped for happiness? 

2.  Not extraordinary enough because we are not confident enough to become extraordinary. (Becker’s “Self-confidence can be quickly found in the right purchase” myth.)  Advertisers tell us that their product will make us into the person that we want to be, because who we are now is certainly not enough.  We are too ordinary, our family lives are too mundane, our jobs are too routine, and our success is too minimal.  If we just had more confidence, we could figure out a way to really shine.  How would our culture be different if we celebrated contentment and human connection instead of longing to stand out and be “awesome”?

3.  Not young enough. (Becker’s “Youth culture represents the pinnacle of life’s seasons” myth.)  Getting older is portrayed as a process of losing worth.  Advertisers sell us skin-firming creams, gray-covering rinses, and wrinkle-fading make-up.  Celebrities, who are also victims and also are complicit in this culture, fight aging with plastic surgery and Botox and thus perpetuate the “not young enough” myth of scarcity.  How would our culture be different if we celebrated the joy in every stage of life?

I work with college students, and find myself walking a tough line when helping young people make decisions about their lives.  They see messages that they should “find their passions” and stand out in the crowd. Some get so caught up in how their resume will look that they forget that they should focus on growing and developing character, not on amassing a list of things to put on a C.V.  Some actually realize that they don’t need to wow everyone to be happy, but struggle, wondering what is wrong with them that they are not shooting for stardom.  Many see choosing a less stressful but more balanced life path as a failure.

I struggled for a long time with accepting ordinariness.  Having been very successful in high school and revered by my peers for my accomplishments and chances for success, I attended a very good private liberal arts college and graduated with high honors.  I was used to feeling that there was something awesome about me, and was told that I was smart all through my youth.  When I hit adulthood and real life happened, I was lost for a long time, wondering why my life was so ordinary now when, before, I was always extraordinary.  It took years before I was content and measured my happiness by how my life looked from the inside out, instead of how I thought it looked from the outside in.

It is a constant battle to fight the culture of scarcity.  My children feel it despite not being exposed to much advertising.  They want a certain fleece jacket that their friends all have, new technology gadgets, a television in the house,  a bigger house, and trips overseas like their friends take.

I’m interested to see where Brené Brown takes this in Daring Greatly.  I think the best antidote is gratitude.  Interesting how two major spiritual issues have already risen from my reading of this secular text:  ego and gratitude.

Control, Predict, Know.

I have spent the past few days exploring an idea presented in the introduction to Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly.  Brown relays her conversation with her therapist, Diane, who asked her what she does when she feels vulnerable.  Brown’s response is that she will:

“Clean the house. Eat peanut butter. Blame people. Make everything around me perfect. Control whatever I can – whatever’s not nailed down.” (p.6)

Hmmm.  This sounds oddly familiar.  How much do I, too, react to feeling vulnerable by attempting to tighten my control over things, to distill a messy situation into certainties I can control, predict, and know?

First, I need to define what I think “vulnerable” means.  Brown says is it the “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (p. 2) that we all face in our lives.  Since vulnerability is uncomfortable, we try to protect ourselves from it – the more we tend think we must protect against it, the more that reflects how much we live in fear and disconnected to others.  This sounds so similar to the concept of ego that I was first introduced to in Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, and that I have learned more about through readings in Eastern thought and Buddhism.  So I see vulnerability as the vulnerability of our ego, and I see how much we try to protect ourselves as a reflection of how strongly we identify with our egos.

So, back to my question.  How much do I, when I feel my ego being under fire, react by attempting to tighten my control over things, to control, to predict, and to know?  And, if I do, what does this mean about how much I identify with my ego and how much work I have to do?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Exhibit A:  I felt vulnerable when faced with chronic digestive issues.  My ego did not like the uncertainty and the possible dietary implications, especially when eating in social settings.  I responded by purchasing multiple books and iPhone apps and spending hours poring over websites about using diet to control and prevent IBS-like symptoms.  When control and certainty both proved utterly elusive, this caused me terrible frustration and led to even more fanatical obsession with finding a silver bullet (no wheat? no grain at all? no sugar? probiotics? no dairy? grazing instead of large meals? no coffee?).  Add on the sobering realization that all this frustration, obsession, and anxiety probably has a lot to do with how my digestive system is working in the first place.

Exhibit B.  I feel vulnerable when visiting family members who have a lot more material wealth and disposable income than I do.  My ego does not like feeling like my lifestyle is not up to par with others, or at least that they might not think so.   I respond with irritation and stubborn unwillingness to participate when the conversation turns to about home improvements and expensive handbags and designer children’s clothing.  I respond by feeling more resentment than gratitude for their generous gifts beside which mine seem mere tokens (not so proud of this!).  I respond by coming home and wanting to go uber-minimalist in my lifestyle as a rebellion.

Exhibit C.  I feel vulnerable when in a room of people I don’t well and I am unsure how to strike up conversations.  My ego does not like the riskiness of trying to connect and possibly failing.  I respond by clinging to my self-imposed label of “introvert” and sticking to the safe and predictable:  talking to people I know well, getting snacks, pulling out something to busy myself with.  (Yes, this means I miss a lot of opportunities for connection with others…)

Exhibit D.  I feel vulnerable about laying all this stuff out where anyone can read it.  My ego asks, “Why am I not just doing this in a private diary?  Why online?”  It does not like the idea that I might blow my cover and people might see that I am human (surprise, surprise).  I might respond  by eventually deleting all these posts and pretending they never happened and hoping no one read them.

Not surprisingly, it looks like I respond in a very, very human way to vulnerability.  I don’t think I am the most disconnected and fearful person out there, but I have been aware (more so at some times than at others) of my ego and the fact that when it feels threatened…well, that’s when I am not at my best to say the least.  I’m excited to start looking at this ego issue through Brown’s lens of vulnerability…it’s a slightly different angle, and perhaps one that might help me in my journey to let go.