Sunday, June 12, 2011

Let Go

(Shared at the Stated Meeting of the Albany Presbytery at the United Church of Cohoes, June 11th, 2011)

I feel very honored to have been invited to your time of worship this morning - and especially to have been asked to share my thoughts on mission and how it has impacted my faith.

I’ve been working in the mission field for three years now. In 2008, I joined five other young adults from the Presbyterian Church for a year of volunteer service in central Peru. During that year I joined the ministry of Paz y Esperanza, Peace and Hope, an ecumenical organization which advocates for survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Since returning home, I’ve been working with a homeless shelter and recovery program for women and children at the City Mission of Schenectady.

To start I feel I should share my understanding of what it means to do mission work. Over the years and even centuries, mission work has taken on a variety of different meanings, with various purposes and intentions behind them.

When I refer to “mission” I envision a call to service and discipleship, which confronts brokenness in its many forms. To me, mission work is prayerful consideration of how G-d’s Kingdom can be furthered in today’s world.

I feel it is important to embrace a broad sense of what it means to do mission work because there are innumerable ways in which G-d chooses to further His message of love and reconciliation.

As we are reminded in the Book of Romans, 12:4, Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body.

And in acting as the body of Christ, G-d uses our own unique gifts and even our supposed weakness as tools for the building of His Kingdom.

While working in an orphanage or digging wells in Africa can indeed be mission work, so can serving as an ICU nurse at Albany Medical Center, or being the traffic control guard after a car accident.

And mission work is not always reserved for high-level crisis situations and desperate times of need. While G-d’s call on our lives can be especially evident during such intense times, the opportunity for mission work can come in the most unlikely of places and at the most unexpected times.

In fact, I believe mission service can be felt most profoundly through seemingly ordinary and insignificant daily acts of service.

I first learned this from my parent’s plumber, a cheerful gentleman who came to our house from time to time to fix a broken toilet or install a new sink. During one particularly taxing job, my mom noted to him how very thorough his work is, down to the very last detail.

In response, the gentleman expressed to my mom that he does his work as if he were doing it for the Lord. In each pipe he fused, each screw he tightened, he knew he was performing a vital service that assisted others in their daily lives. He was doing mission at its most practical and thus impactful level, and all to the Glory of G-d.

I find that mission work is not about what we do or where we serve, but the condition and leaning of our hearts while you do it. Mission work also depends on the extent to which we include G-d in our service and our willingness to be changed through G-d in the process.

In preparing to leave for Peru, I wondered what exactly my purpose would be and what God’s will was in me going. After some reflection, I accepted that my call to service would not necessarily be to build a school, or adopt an orphan, or to heal a young woman from the trauma of her past.

I did not attach myself to any sweeping forms of service that would come across as “real” mission. In fact, there was nothing particularly concrete about my intentions at all.

I knew that my year of service in Peru would have very little to do what my efforts. If anything, both me and my plans needed to get out of the way, in order for G-d to work through me.

And of all the words I could’ve hung unto, to inspire and motivate myself during the year, the two most important words were “Let Go.”

The process of letting go, has been the basis for my spiritual growth during the past three years -working in Peru and now at the City Mission of Schenectady.

First, I felt the tug to let go of my ego and the thoughts that tell me what I should be doing, what I should be gaining.

For the first few months in Peru, I could barely communicate in Spanish much less contribute anything of value. Being in a new environment with different social and cultural cues that I had yet to absorb, I felt completely dependent on others around me.

I was hardly in any condition to make a difference in other’s lives, when I could barely function myself.

This initial experience stripped me of my abilities, my familiar modes of action and in many ways my overall identity. It was a process of letting go of my carefully crafted sense of self in order to used by G-d in this new environment.

I think it took that early period of disorientation to reorient myself to the particular way that G-d chose to use me during that year.

Once I endured this initial adjustment, I had the opportunity to serve in a variety of ways. Some assignments were more functional, like taking photographs at community events or cutting out construction paper decorations for every birthday party and holiday.

On a few occasions, I even stepped into a giant foam-lined guinea pig costume in 90 degree heat, for public education programs for children on preventing sexual abuse.

And there were certain invitations to service that were particularly meaningful. This was the case when I was given the opportunity to develop an art and dance therapy program for a support group of survivors.

It was such a profound feeling to sense that my own passion for movement and creative expression would be able to serve women who had been stripped of all dignity.

Letting go has also been a part of my growth at the City Mission. After returning from Peru, I hoped that my work at the City Mission would reflect the exhilaration I felt doing art therapy in Peru - my passions meeting a critical need.

I felt that I had paid my dues and it was time to do ministry on my terms. While I joyfully embraced the various opportunities I had in Peru, I was anxious to have some “real” responsibility.

I wanted to make some decisions, to counsel women, to teach, to make a lasting impact on the lives of women in Schenectady. I thought I was prepared to take on more challenges and to really make a difference.

I think the desire to make a difference is often a driving factor in our desire to serve others. We want to make a positive change in someone else’s life or to at least provide an answer to another’s question. And there is no doubt that this in a noble and valid intention.

However, the danger in this being the sole cause for service is that we are only satisfied when we see visible, concrete change because of our actions. As I have learned, G-d doesn’t work that way.

I believe G-d is about gradual, long-term sustainable change. And for many of us who like to see our impact in a snap-shot image, we become disenchanted when we notice that G-d’s timeline is much more subtle and elongated.

At the City Mission, we have a rather obscure volunteer opportunity called “ministry of presence.” Rather than offer a concrete task or an obvious need to fill, we invite volunteers to just “be.”

For my church, Hamilton Union, this meant coming to the community meal, not to serve dinner or wash dishes, but to sit and partake in the meal.

In this case, ministry of presence meant opening oneself to conversation with a stranger, to pull up a chair and make that initial eye contact, a gesture that can speak more loudly than Scripture and may feel more nourishing that a warm meal.

In doing mission work, we are asked to let go of our notions of productivity and our desire for concrete outcomes. We are also challenged to release certain values and assumptions which prevent us from truly serving others – to recognized the ways in which we judge the acts and behavior of those we serve.

Working with women in recovery at the City Mission, I find at times, every human fiber in my being wants to judge her, to make decisions for her, to tell her how to live her life, how to change.

In working with women in crisis, I have had to rely on G-d so that my perspective does not intervene with G-d’s ministry. If I hang onto the frustration and the disappointment after a woman leaves the center, I am unable to open my heart to the next person who enters our doors.

I have relied on G-d to give me a new lens of compassion, day after day, new eyes, new words, a refreshed mind and an uncluttered heart, when my preference would be to stop listening, to not care, to turn away.

Because, the truth is, without G-d’s grace and overwhelming power of restoration, I would not be able endure it this line of ministry.

The past three years have been a journey of letting go, and letting G-d. Of saying no to my own agenda, my “preferred” approach, my “default” method and saying, “G-d, use me to build up your kingdom. And help me to get out of the way.”

Working in mission often involves the painstaking process of losing yourself and becoming G-d’s instrument. But at the same time working in mission recaptures what makes you unique and how your individual traits and gifts can build up that Kingdom.

Mission is knowing yourself deeply yet at the same time being willing to bend and change in however G-d calls.

And as you all venture out today to partake in various forms of mission service, I encourage you to not only see what others may gain from your service or what you yourself will gain from stepping out in faith, but more profoundly, what are you willing to let go of during your service today?

Is your heart prepared to bend and incline toward G-d’s will, even if you are unable to see a direct impact? Are you willing to engage in ministry even if the outcome is uncertain?

If so, I believe you are availing yourself more fully to G-d’s transforming grace. And the extent to which you allow yourself to be changed in the process, so will you change other people and the communities we live in.

Monday, April 4, 2011


At the end of the summer, I’ll be leaving Schenectady for Kentucky to study at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I will be packing up my apartment in the Stockade, saying goodbye to my friends at the City Mission and driving to the horse country, which will be a much different reality than my current surroundings.

As I prepare to make this transition, I am learning new truths about myself and what areas of my life continue to be enmeshed in the process of maturation. These growing pains are natural, I know. But they can, and often do, catch the one growing completely off guard and unprepared.

These observations about myself were recently presented to me in the form of a one-inch professional binder titled “Clergy Assessment Report.” As part of my application process for seminary, I was asked to complete a career assessment at the Samaritan Counseling Center across the river in Scotia.

Over the course of two days, I completed several tests, both in person and electronically. These “instruments,” as they are called, are used to identify my emotional strengths and weaknesses, leadership potential, personality type and interest inventory - in other words, a glimpse into what makes me click and what makes me tick.

I thoroughly enjoyed the assessment, willingly searching my inner recesses for answers to personal questions and emotional responses. I felt open to whatever observations would be made about me, especially what may be revealed about my own limitations.

However, it’s one thing to intellectually acknowledge that one might have certain hang-ups and unhealthy habits, but it’s an entirely new and unsettling feeling to have a stark white clinical analysis of one’s inner musings and interpersonal pitfalls.

After several weeks, I was mailed the final report. This seemingly innocent stack of papers, neatly divided between typed file labels, delineated my personhood with a display of colorful bar graphs and text-filled paragraphs. I quickly scanned the first couple of pages with deep curiosity and a yellow highlighter. And then my questioning began.

Is this really me? Do I actually do this? Do I really think like this? Is this how I react?

The experience of reading myself on paper was uncomfortable, to say the least. I think what alarmed me the most was the fear that what was so neatly typed out before me did not leave room for the true me - the me that is constantly evolving and changing, the inner self that is in a perpetual state of becoming.

Was there room for the new me that will arrive tomorrow, after having experienced today’s set of choices and circumstances? Was there room for the hidden me that I suppress unintentionally during times of stress or confusion, or when I just have to “get the job done?"

And most importantly, was there room for the me that I have always been and always will be, which defies being defined or labeled. The inner me, the constant me. The core… of me.

During this time, I was equally unnerved about the doubts I was starting to feel about going to seminary in the fall. Having visited the campus in Louisville just a few weeks ago, I returned feeling that I might not find a place for myself among the other students, class work, discussions and overall life on campus.

Just as my sense of self was being held in question through the career assessment report, so too was my spiritual bedrock and personal beliefs. At least, so I thought.

If I go to seminary, will my belief systems be judged, questioned and worse yet, debunked or unacknowledged? Will I feel comfortable expressing myself openly among others with different understandings of G-d and spirituality?

Will my privately crafted thoughts on theology be stripped down to a set of silly assumptions and beliefs that won’t hold weight over time? And if I still maintain those beliefs, will I feel boxed in by curriculum and conversations that I find myself in?

Then, in an important conversation with my pastor, I was reminded that “the only boxes are the ones we put ourselves in.” If that is true, and in most cases I believe it is, then what was holding me back?

Why was it that I felt so hemmed in? How was it that my limitless sense of self suddenly felt capsized and made miniature? Why did I suddenly feel so restricted? Was it really the school? Was it really the words on the page of my assessment report?

Or, as my pastor noted, was I creating my own box? And if so, couldn’t I in equal measure, break through the confines and give myself some much needed space?

It is not so much physical room that I seek, in the form of a bigger apartment and less clutter or even an open meadow outside my city window. And it's not even temporal space I am craving, in the form of extra time or a day off, although I do need that sometimes.

The kind of spaciousness I am attempting to grasp and even cultivate is something untouchable, intangible. Yet, as I was reminded, it is always accessible.

It is a willingness to be who I am in all circumstances. It is accepting that I react to life and people and my surroundings in unique ways, and those capacities and modes of response are in a constant state of change.

Spaciousness refers to a broadened scope and range of experience and thought - an inclusiveness in our own way of being, and a deep acceptance of ourselves and others.

This concept reminds me of a phrase my mom has used. A registered nurse and natural people person, my mom has learned the gift of giving people space to be themselves. Having come across people of all walks of life, she has noted, “You have to give others a wide berth.”

And I would add to that, we each need to give ourselves a “wide berth.”

In researching the origins of this phrase, I learned that the reference “wide berth” was originally a nautical term. Sailors would be warned to keep a “wide bearing” off another ship, in order to prevent collision. The idea was to maintain enough sea room so the ship could move and dock freely.

One can only imagine the level of destruction if a multi-ton ship were to try to fit precisely into a narrow docking space. Considering the moving waves and surrounding boats, it's likely that such a ship would crash head on into the closest object.

However, with enough room allowed for error, movement and the natural force of ocean waves, the ship will likely settle into its allotted space, free from harm and fully intact.

A similar degree of spaciousness is required for humans. Such openness allows a certain flexibility of self amidst life’s obstacles. As circumstances and environments change, we must retain the ability to shift and stretch in the ways we experience the world and explore different ways of responding to what we encounter.

This doesn’t necessarily mean I, or others, have permission for careless self expression that disregards boundaries and healthy human interaction. In fact, there is a certain danger in taking on a purely open-ended approach, whereby one’s mind goes every which way, leading one to have difficulty making commitments or sticking to one direction.

As my friends and family have noticed, I’ve done quite a bit of lane changing and redirection during this past year, leaving myself and others confused about where I am going and why. However, when considering various pathways and opportunities, I believe a high degree of open-mindedness, and as my mom would say, “a wide berth,” is necessary.

I have found that it is during these moments of indecision and uncertainty when G-d works most boldly in my life. And it behooves of me to not be so attached to a particular outcome or direction that I end up disregarding G-d in this process.

The truth is, I don’t know if I will be content in Louisville or if my theological questions will be nurtured or developed in the way I hope they will. But another truth is, it is not up to Louisville Seminary to make sure that happens. It is my own boundlessness and curiosity that will ensure my happiness.

It is also my responsibility to take the contents of my “Clergy Assessment Report,” and view it through a spacious lens - allowing myself to see the findings at least interesting, if not instructive and insightful.

The pages in that report are not “be all end all” determinants of my decision making capacity over a lifetime. Instead, what has been revealed shows certain trends and observations about my way of thinking and relating to others, which will create a deeper level of self-awareness.

In both cases, it is my responsibility to step outside of the box, if I feel walls building up around me. And it’s also important to recognize when that box, or that dock, or those walls, or that ceiling is of my own making.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Journeying Out

In Ann Morisy’s revealing book Journeying Out: A New Approach to Christian Mission, Morisy describes the challenges of today’s mission-minded church by noting, “Journeying out requires rising above the anxiety associated with encountering and embracing a potentially overwhelming outside world.”

One may think of “journeying out” as serving in the international mission field, with the obvious challenges of adapting to a new language, culture, tradition and terrain.

However, I have learned that the conscious act to step beyond one’s borders can be equally if not more disorienting when a quiet suburban middle-class congregation is exposed to the realities faced by its inner-city neighbors in Schenectady, New York.

The effort of my home church to journey out beyond its familiar surroundings began a few years ago with the invitation to serve dinner at the City Mission of Schenectady.

Our small but passionate Mission and Social Witness Committee ventured to the City Mission’s dining center one Tuesday evening, intending to serve a meal to members of the community.

However, with plenty of volunteers already scheduled to pass out plates of food, with plastic gloves and a courteous smile, we were asked to address another need that had gone unmet.

Down-hearted and exhausted mothers, lonely unacknowledged veterans and malnourished children sat eating their meals without anyone genuinely asking, “How are you doing today?... What is your name?... Have you been here before?”

Some would’ve preferred to anonymously pass out plates or fill up plastic cups with fruit punch and to remain slightly removed from the overwhelming need of those present.

Still others felt a particular call to pull up a chair and make that initial eye contact, a gesture that can speak more loudly than Scripture and feels more nourishing that a warm meal.

Each volunteer had a unique experience. Some felt false or insensitive, unable to relate to the apparent stranger before them. Others shared that once a common interest was found, it was startling how similar one felt to another with such different circumstances.

Regardless of how effective one felt in reaching out beyond his/her own borders, each person actively participated in a ministry of presence.

This initial act of journeying out has been the catalyst for other acts of faithfulness within my church. There has been more open dialogue about poverty in our own community. There is also a more honest critique of our tendency to isolate and protect ourselves from the pain and struggle just outside our doors.

And most importantly, there is a subtle yet deep awareness occurring in the hearts of those who return to their regular pew on Sunday morning.

There is a growing acknowledgement that church and faith is made evident most readily by sitting across the table from an individual who is not only physically hungry, but hungry for connection.

By journeying out in this simple yet radical way, I find my church entering a transformative ministry, not only for those who turn to the City Mission for food, but for those who take the risk to say hello.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lasting Change

There are certain events that easily remind us just how much time has passed – birthdays, holidays, changing seasons. Yet there are other more subtle changes and patterns which cause us to quietly acknowledge how far we’ve come, how much we’ve grown and how well we have or have not lived.

One of those subtle unexpected revelations recently occurred to me…in the form of pink plastic flamingos.

In the Stockade District, where I have lived for a year and half, there is an unusual tradition of decorating the small center square with giant flamingos on the eve of Valentine’s Day.

As I drove out to the grocery store that evening, I passed the distinguished statue of the Native American which presides over the circular plaza. The annual Christmas tree with red velvet bows and oversized light bulbs still stood behind the statue. However, what was on the opposite side of the monument was what really struck my attention.

Two flood lights lit the front of the commemorative plaque, which that night was covered with a fresh coat of snow. And there standing proudly like a fleet of colonial-era soldiers was a cluster of six giant flamingos.

They were bright pink with beady eyes and spindly legs - the tacky, garage-sale variety which function more as scarecrows than tasteful lawn decorations.

Had I not lived in the Stockade for over a year, I may have just passed by the display, chuckling to myself that some artsy teenager wanted to surprise his girlfriend with something original for Valentine’s Day. However, I had seen this before and knew it was something more.

Passing the birds on that cold February evening, I knew I was experiencing something quite wonderful - the clandestine effort of one person or a few, to repeat a silly little gesture because it symbolized something unique and unexpected.

And according to Wikipedia, under the official listing of Schenectady’s Stockade District, this tradition has been going on for over a decade.

I smiled to myself remembering last year’s display. I remembered walking to the Dutch Reformed Church that evening, for the Sunday night vesper service. A classical harpist played a medley of romantic music, from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet to the Phantom of the Opera.

As I walked back to my apartment I passed the center square at the intersection of Front and Ferry streets and pegged into a mound of snow were six or seven pink plastic flamingos. The only difference was that this year the birds were flanked by a bouquets of red silk roses, covered in glitter and sequins.

It is the acknowledgment of more subtle trends that tug on my existential heart strings. Not the anticipation of a major anniversary or the seismic changes made by the melting Mohawk River, but something more hidden and unplanned for.

Moments like these cause me to check in with myself in significant ways, asking myself how I’ve changed since the last time I encountered that place or that person... or those flamingos.

I find that I am more real with myself, more nostalgic and reflective, when an obscure keepsake is resurfaced - whether it be a lost ring, or a handwritten note rediscovered after a few years.

I relish in those opportunities to ask myself, “How have I grown since then? In what ways am I different, or the same?”

I’ve gotten used to looking out for those small shifts, the easily overlooked signs of growth, which are often trampled underfoot, like the first blades of grass after a thaw.

Working at the City Mission, I’ve learned that painstakingly gradual transformation is more real and lasting than the more obvious and sweeping signs of change that we tend to seek.

A mother who entered the women's shelter in a daze, disinterested in the child she would give birth to a few weeks later, now holds her son lovingly, acknowledging how rare and precious he is.

A new face that I encountered four months ago, her left eye blood shot with a fist-sized bruise, now radiates with maturity and self-awareness.

A young woman who was accustomed to hiding behind her long hair and hooded sweatshirt, eyes fixed to the ground beneath her, now dares to lift her gaze and engage in conversation with others.

These changes took time. Other changes will take even longer.

I now see that change can be shown in the way an individual speaks and how her head rests on her shoulders. It is expressed in the way one responds to challenge and frustration, choosing to step back and pause rather than prepare for battle.

I think it’s hard to recognize our own personal growth, especially if we strive for those grand changes that don’t hold up over time.

Sometimes it takes someone on the periphery of one’s life, observing something new or different, to convince us that we’ve stepped into that next chapter of our lives.

And sometimes it takes an inconspicuous event, like the awkward glare of a plastic bird on Valentine’s Day, to wake one up inside to the small yet wonderful changes occurring every day.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Coptic Crossings

While de-icing my car this morning and wondering if I had enough washer fluid, riots broke out in Egypt. While snow and sleet covered the ground beneath me, the streets were set ablaze in Cairo. But I didn't know any of this.

Nor was I aware of the events later in the day during an unlikely encounter with an Egyptian family over a cup of hot chocolate. In the basement coffee shop of the New York State Department of Education, I crossed paths with a family far from home, who either hid their concern or had not yet learned of the unrest in their country.

Now, as the crisis in Egypt continues, I can only think of this family.

I had driven to Albany with a young woman I work with who needed to drop off a career services application. After double checking her paper work, we meandered to the small café near the building’s exit, to warm up before driving back to the Schenectady.

The State-worker lunch crowds had subsided and the café was completely empty, except for four employees who seemed to be much more jovial than I would expect from someone wiping the counters of a windowless one-room cafeteria.

As we approached the cash register, a wide-grinned middle-aged man came from behind the buffet and offered us each a sample of Turkish delight. With the winter freeze just outside the walls of the cafeteria, I instantly imaged the Chronicles of Narnia and the Winter Queen with her bottomless cache of Turkish delights. Otherwise, I had never encountered much less tasted this Middle Eastern delicacy.

A citrus flavored jelly-like cube covered with confectioner sugar, the dessert looked more like a sample of fine cheese, which the gentleman assured us it was not.

“A gift from the Middle East, from Egypt” he offered. “Enjoy!” And with that, we each hesitantly took a bite, and eventually our faces and heavy coats were covered with white sugar.

I was overjoyed by the unexpected hospitality and warmth. At this point, there was really no need for hot chocolate, but the Styrofoam cups were already filled and steaming hot, so we sat down in the adjacent eating area.

A short time later the gentleman and his wife and sister joined us in the room for their own lunch, pita bread and falafel. As they chatted quietly in Arabic, I waited for a quiet pause in which I could ask where in Egypt they were from. “Cairo,” the wife replied. “Much different from here.”

I imagined the arid desert climate and almost 8 million inhabitants, bustling market places as well as the modern amenities of a mega-city. I asked what Cairo is like and she provided a litany of exciting tourist sites. However, what I would have really liked to know is what her kitchen looked like and what kind of flowers grew in her window sills.

But what she did share was her obvious sense of pride about her home and culture, a place and its people that she misses yet cannot return to, except for short visits. It is a clash within the Egyptian community that caused her and her family to immigrate to the United States three years ago.

The family is Coptic, native Egyptian Christians, who as a religious minority, are subject to significant discrimination in their country. While Egyptian Christians represent a rather large minority, 10% of the population, there is an ongoing struggle for religious freedom.

Having settled in the town of Colonie, the couple has found reasonable work cooking and serving meals at the State education building. Their sons are well-adjusted, studying at Hudson Valley Community College and Colonie High School. However, the parents miss their careers and livelihoods in Cairo, the wife a college-educated librarian and her husband a French professor at a university.

Neither have found work in their respective fields and have surely struggled to preserve their integrity and identity in this economy. However, there is one thing that has kept this family close to home, especially during the bleak winter months when the glow of the Nile River must seem oceans away – and that is their faith community.

The couple shared joyfully about their local church, an Egyptian Coptic church on Madison Avenue in Albany. The moment they mentioned Madison Avenue, I asked whether the building used to be a Presbyterian church.

Sure enough, their church on 820 Madison Avenue, is the very church in which my grandparents and parents were married, the same church in which my mother grew up.

The yellow-brick and limestone building was built in 1897 and enlarged ten years later. Its Romanesque arched windows and doorways pour light down the long center aisle, which my parents lined with candles on their wedding day.

Sold by the Albany Presbytery in the early 1990’s and soon purchased by the local Coptic community, the church is now full of life as it once was.

“You must come and visit!” offered the wife of the couple at the cafeteria. With two services and prayers spoken in Coptic, what she emphasized was the gathering time afterward. “Food! Plenty of food we have to share!” And somehow, I knew I would be welcomed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

French Recollections

There’s nothing like a snowy day in Schenectady to make one dream of springtime in Paris. In fact, just as the sky released a heap of flurries across the Northeast, one of my best friends decided to purchase plane tickets for a 4-day pilgrimage to the city of unfettered romance.

Looking for some ideas off the beaten path, my friend asked me where I stayed during my two-week trip to France, on my first solo visit to Europe over five years ago. Top two reasons to keep a travel journal: mid-winter inspiration and travel advice for friends!

All I had to do was visit my parents' basement and dig out the vintage lined journal of random musings, sketches and ticket stubs to pull together a list of places to go, stop and linger in and outside of Paris, France.

It is such a thrill to absorb the essence of a city which prides itself on the daily art of living - street musicians on the bridges crossing the Seine and an endless array of chic cafés lined with wicker chairs facing the street, for effective people watching.

Near le Quartier Latin, the Gothic steeples of the Notre Dame preside over l’ Île de la Cité, with no signs of moving any time soon. There is a timelessness to the city but also a feeling that time is absolutely present, every moment alive and ready to experience.

As I passed over the pages I had written during May 2005, I relived the morning walks, park strolls, museum afternoons and quiet evenings eating French hot dogs “emporter” (to go) on the benches surrounding the Eiffel Tower.

And by hot dogs I mean two spicy franks smothered with melted Swiss cheese, walled in by chewy baguette bread. Even the simplest of pleasures are upgraded to pure mastery in Paris!

I came across a journal entry that seems to capture the full-bodied living that takes place in the hidden corners of this famous urban landscape and extends to even the most rural corners beyond Parisian borders:

Sunday May 22, 2005

It’s been a few days since I’ve written… a sign that I’ve been too busy just living. I’m in the train on my way to Strasbourg and my heart and mind are filled beyond their limits with wonderful stories and conversations, thoughts, faces and images, all pointing to the peacefulness and pure goodness that can be found and protected in this world.

In the hostel yesterday morning, I woke up early and packed my bag while my Swedish roommates Alex and Asa slept. I realize I could’ve packed even less. I originally planned to do some reading in the Jardin du Luxembourg and headed that way before 9:00am.

En route I realized I was near le Rue Moufftard and remembered the market! It was a tearfully calm morning. The roads were damp and most of the family-owned stores were still closed. I passed the Pantheon and the back of the Sorbonne and aimed toward Moufftard, a narrow cobble stone street rolling gently downhill.

As I entered the market area, it was smaller than I thought, which in my opinion was nicer, better, more intimate, perfect! My college French teacher, Chantal, invited me to stay with her family Saturday night and I was on a mission to get a nice hostess gift for Chantal’s mom.

I peaked down one of the first side streets and notice one vender, a flower stand with two shelves of fresh flowers and a small store front that read,”Le Passé Simple” (the Simple Path). I stopped and asked the woman who owns the shop what would be a nice gift to bring Chantal’s mother. She had some beautiful bouquets of dried flowers, which I concluded would be ideal.

After exploring the rest of the market, which took a total of five minutes, I returned to the flower stand while the shop owner and her husband prepared the bouquet with some extras. I asked if could take a photo of their flowers and they were flattered and pleased that I thought to ask.

That simple common sense gesture opened up a wonderful conversation with the couple about tourists and language, my heritage and their flowers. I was overjoyed when they thought I was Dutch. I like having an invitation to talk about my German heritage and can politely disprove that all Americans are rude tourists.

The couple gave me a souvenir postcard of the Rue Moufftard and I harbored a hope that I would one day find someone to open a small flower shop with.

I quickly headed to the Gare Nord (North Train Station) to meet Chantal and her boyfriend Carlos, where we would travel together to Chantal’s parents’ home in Chevincourt, just one hour north of Paris.

During the pleasant train ride into the country side of Compiègne, I admired a thirty-something mother and her baby, seated placidly on her lap. The image reinforced my conclusion that French mothers and their babies simply don’t fuss.

When we arrived in the Centre Ville of Compiègne, I could barely contain my excitement. Then we saw Chantal’s mom just beyond the train station entrance. She stood with a warm soft face, shoulder-length dark hair and mother’s arms. At that moment I found my new home - a kiss on each cheek and I am there.

Claudine (such a perfect name), drove us around the city, stopping briefly at the annual Medieval Festival. We viewed a monument commemorating Joan of Ark and later passed two old churches and one of Napoleon’s ornate palaces. Claudine also pointed out a castle in the countryside on our way to her home in the small village of Chenvincourt.

Chantal’s friend Aude, who had joined us from Paris, tucked her toy-size dog SoHo under the front seat, his face peaking out curiously toward me. It felt so grounding to have her little dog with us, a sign that nothing could possibly go wrong during the stay.

As we chatted about the age of the castle and Claudine’s new job in the south of France, I admired the rings on her right hand. She gripped the steering wheel as we sped around open roads, her soft round hands adorned with two pretty gold rings, one with delicate pearls. It made me think of Mom.

At Chantal’s house, I was introduced to her father Jean, clothed in tattered overalls and covered in dirt. A typical county Frenchman, he was busy gardening. Chantal showed me around the house, a whitewashed brick farmhouse that was used as army barracks over a century ago.

Jean entered the living room and insisted that I have an “imperatif” or before-dinner-drink. I was offered a sweet Portuguese liquor while others had rum. Shortly afterward, we gathered around their outside patio for a full meal.

First, the meat: free-range chicken and sausage with head-splittingly hot mustard. Then came the salads, marinated cabbage, cauliflower and herbs and beets with parsley. I sat across from Claudine and learned that she is French Vietnamese. She later showed me her beautiful collection of Chinese pottery and perfume bottles. Above a small Buda statue and petit cactus garden hung a picture of a fisherman’s boat made out of rushed egg shells.

Throughout the relaxed meal we conversed about the French language, and Jean, seated beside me at the head of the table, imitated all of the different regional accents. We eventually moved on to the cheese course and Jean gave me the background of each cheese. I love this tradition!

Then Claudine brought out, oh my goodness: raspberry ice cream with tropical fruits including mango, banana and a white fluffy Asian fruit. Responding to my fascination with each fruit, Claudine went inside to the house to retrieve a huge reference book on fruits, nuts and legumes.

As we lingered over small cups of thickly steeped café, my mind seemed to detach from my body, as I acknowledged how blessed I was to be sitting at the table. Behind Claudine, a full moon was beginning to appear while Chantal’s brother Jean Maris put on a mix of Latin music and classic jazz.

That night I slept in Chantal’s sister’s old bedroom overlooking Jean’s garden of pear and lemon trees. I smiled when Claudine, who had true oversight of the house and its occupants, announced, “lights out!” It was midnight when I finally put head to pillow, where I lay joyfully exhausted.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Self Care

Of all the trivial luxuries one might think of in a down economy, getting a manicure at the local salon might be one of them. But my mom always taught me that taking good care of oneself is not a luxury. In fact, it is an investment in personal well being, something that is priceless when prices for everything else are high.

Around this time last year, my mom called to ask me what I wanted for my birthday. My parents had decided on a $50 budget, since I wasn’t a kid anymore and could take care of my own needs. I completely understood their logic, but nevertheless, I broke down in tears over the phone.

It wasn’t that I wanted a big screen TV or any other electronic devise for that matter, since I’m probably the most “unplugged” person in my circle of friends. My outcry over the birthday budget was that I felt in need of so much care that I knew it would break the bank.

A $70 massage for my shoulders and back, $40 for a pedicure for my dry feet, and another $15 for a nail treatment because I had reverted back to nail biting, picking, and just plain twitching.

On top of all this, I had contracted some kind of itchy eye-lid rash, which made me feel like a freak every time I woke up with my right eye swollen shut. That had already cost me $120 because I went to the doctor while switching health insurance.

So what did I want for my birthday?... A complete make-over.

And by that I mean a full mental, physical and spiritual assessment that would somehow make me feel balanced or dare I say thriving. At the very least I wanted to feel like myself again.

After my tears had receded, my mom helped me address what I really needed. She softly said, “Lynn, honey, it looks like you need to invest in yourself. You would spend money to travel to Europe and other exciting places. Why not spend some money on internal travel.”

Ding ding ding!

I instantly understood what she was getting at. In the months preceding my birthday breakdown, I had went from a year of volunteer work in Peru, a short adjustment back to my life in the US and within a month, I had entered direct-line ministry at the City Mission of Schenectady. I had taken little time for myself, much less assess what my needs were amidst such rapid change.

Internal travel. The moment my mom suggested it, I realized that I had not taken care of myself in the die-hard ways my mom had taught me – overseeing my health by taking care of my skin, my muscles and even my hands and toes.

My parents made their $50 contribution to the “Lynn Self-Care Fund,” and I made up the rest. I called in for a massage at Body Sense on Union Street in Schenectady and speed-dialed Debbie, my beloved manicurist since age 15. Yes, teenagers deserve manicures too.

This year, as my birthday approaches, I’m finding myself with a similar need for self care. But this time, before the onslaught of fatigue and helplessness arise, I’ve decided to take precautionary action. In fact, I just got back from getting my nails done and have a massage scheduled for Saturday.

My mom asked me again what I would like for my birthday, and rather than burst into tears, this time I cheerfully proposed that she and my dad contribute to my personal “massage fund.”

My mom happily agreed and the next day in my email inbox, I found an automated gift certificate from Body Sense massage studio with a note that read “Lynn, Happy Birthday. Self care is a good thing. Love, Mom and Dad.”