Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Inclined to Say Yes

Sometimes I say no when I really want to say yes.

That's because I like to carefully consider all the particular details to what I'm agreeing to, but sometimes no is my first response until I can allay my fears.

I'm generally not the kind of girl who takes risks. I'm a rule-follower. I play it safe. 

And riding in a small cable-car on tracks hanging off the edge of a mountain is not really my idea of a safe way to travel.

But to visit the medieval village of Orvieto set high in the Umbrian hills of Italy, I'd have to take an elevator, escalator or funicular because it's dramatically situated on top of a steep mountain of volcanic stone.

Traffic in the village is restricted to locals so tourists have to park at the base of the mountain and take some sort of conveyance to get up there.

Before I traveled to Rome, I'd heard about the village of Orvieto and the spectacular Gothic cathedral that was constructed in the year 1290.

I'd also read rave reviews about the unique truffle-topped pasta the town was famous for and the sparkling white wine the local vineyards produce.

I just wasn't sure I wanted to ride a funicular to get there.

Because I'm actually quite familiar with funiculars.

I grew up watching two of them travel up and down the steep hillsides of my hometown of Pittsburgh. They were leftover from the late 1800s when steel mills populated the city's rivers.

Except we don't call them funiculars. They're inclines.

One of them in Pittsburgh is considered the steepest in the world and I’ve always thought they looked rather precarious. The little red cars traveling at a sharp angle looked as if they could fall off the hillside at any moment and tumble down into the river. 

But school kids went on field trips to ride them and tourists took them to see the impressive city views from the top of the hillside.

But during all the years I lived in Pittsburgh, I never rode the incline. 

So I considered it rather ironic that after years of avoiding such a perilous ride in my hometown, I now found myself in Italy, about to ride a funicular. 

I suppose I could have declined to ride Italy's incline, but I'd already endured an hour and a half mini-bus ride from Rome and I was too intimidated that no one else in my foodie tour group seemed the least bit concerned.

How could I say I'd rather take a million ancient steps instead? 

Besides, isn't this why I travel, to move outside my comfort zone?

Author Bonnie Gray understands this dilemma between anxiety and peace, fear and creativity in her new book, Whispers of Rest: 40 Days of God’s Love to Revitalize Your Soul.

It's a collection of devotional guides, journaling prompts and heartfelt prayers to read, reflect and pray to inspire new courage and creativity in our lives. 

Bonnie writes about finding our voices, rediscovering our dreams, and reigniting the sparks of joy in our lives that have been snuffed out by distraction, stress and fear. 

This 40-day journey offers thoughtful and innovative ways to practice recharging our souls to experience God's presence in our lives. 

"God's whispers of rest guide us to a beautiful destination of hope, an anchor for the soul in a stress-filled world." - Bonnie Gray, Whispers of Rest

The book's first chapter for day one asks us to consider saying yes and leaving the safety of what we know behind to begin a new journey filled with potential and possibility, where God's presence guides us.

Maybe we need to leave what's old and familiar and break away from the fears that hold us back. 

Maybe we need to let go of people, places, routines, possessions, expectations, roles and responsibilities to step into something new.

How can we say yes?

In Orvieto, Sophie, the foodie tour guide bought our group's tickets for the funicular and held one out to me. 

I took it and got into the cable car.

It was actually a lot bigger inside than I thought it would be. I had imagined space for a handful of people but there were several rows of seats and it was much larger than an elevator.

As we got underway, I hesitated to look out, afraid I’d feel as if I were falling off the hillside, but eventually I took a peek since the view was quite impressive.

And in just two minutes the ride was over, the doors opened and I was back on solid ground. 

I guess what I worried about all those years turned out not to be very scary, risky or dangerous.

Maybe instead what I should have been more cautious about was the food in Orvieto. 

Not only did I eat their famous pasta sprinkled with truffles {that sort of resembles squiggly worms since it's made without eggs}, but I was also talked into trying a plate of wild boar by my foodie tour group.

Let's just say I won't be saying yes to that again.

I was provided a complimentary copy of the book by the publisher in exchange for a review, but the opinions are all my own.

I'm having coffee with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

It's the Dry Season

“Drought,” my niece said looking out the window of the car as we drove out of the neighborhood. “We’re in a drought.”

“We are?” I looked to see what she was looking at. 

It was just a green field, no brown patches, but I guess it was true that it hadn’t rained in a while. It was the typical spring dry season in Florida, after all, before the daily thunderstorms of summer arrived.

“Drought is one of her vocabulary words this week,” my sister explained.

“Yep, drought,” my niece said, still looking out the window. "D-R-O-U-G-H-T."

Fourth-grade vocabulary words.  

That's one I can relate to.

I’ve felt a little parched too lately.  

And about as inspired and lively as one of those headless statues I saw all over Rome.

It’s hard to write when I feel stressed and wilted and tired.

So I thought maybe what I needed to do to spark some creativity was to read instead. 

And when I say, read, I mean I decided to read more.

I always have a stack of books beside my bed that I'm meandering through, but maybe what I needed was to get lost in some really good books.

So I drove all the way downtown, to the county’s largest library. 

Library at the American Academy in Rome

I roamed over three floors and checked out a huge stack of books. 

Far too many to carry in The Great Gatsby tote bag I brought with me to stash them in as I wandered through the shelves.

When I got home, I started reading five or six to see which ones drew me in the quickest. 

But after a week or two, that huge stack started stressing me out. 

I knew I’d never get through them all, even if I renewed them several times, so I started skimming and reading faster. 

I read while I ate, while I watched TV, and propped a book open while I blew-dry my hair. 

It occurred to me that maybe this reading-to-relax idea was backfiring because I wasn't really feeling refreshed, revived or inspired.

Maybe instead what I really needed to do was just write.

But I had nothing to say. No ideas, no words. 

A writing drought.

But I sat down at my desk anyway and started typing. Anything.

I know that words on the screen trickle into sentences, and even if they don't make complete sense at first, they eventually flow into paragraphs that slowly spring to life.

Because that’s the thing.

About writing, or whatever it is we do with the artistry, talents and abilities we've been given. 

Even when we're depleted and lackluster, they somehow infuse us with passion and fulfillment and life again if we pour out what little we have and offer it up to God, while holding it out to those around us.

Apartment in Rome

Maybe it's not just a blog post.

Not just a penciled sketch or painted picture or a home-cooked meal or another packed lunch. It's not just a spreadsheet at work or another sale closed or the hundredth email returned.

It's more than time spent with a child's geography project or an out-of-the-way errand for a spouse or coffee with a friend. 

It's where our purpose and passion collide in the abundant rushing stream that waters our souls, pours out refreshment, and anchors our roots deep in God's wisdom, knowing we can weather the next drought.

In due season, even though we might not see it yet, we know that God is doing a new thing in us. 

And maybe we can't yet feel the streams trickling toward us that will end our dry season and desert-wandering, but we know they are on the way. 

Just because we can't see the refreshing rain showers from where we are right now, doesn't mean the clouds that will revive us aren't on the horizon. 

Faith is believing in the unseen and the yet-to-come. 

So it rained last Saturday. 

I'd checked the weather just the day before and the forecasters said there was no rain in sight. 

But things can change overnight sometimes.

There were rain showers off and on all afternoon. 

Just when I thought it was done, I got out my patio cushions and sat outside with my laptop, but it wasn't finished yet. 

The raindrops sprinkled on my laptop keyboard and since the sun was still shining, I searched the sky for a rainbow. 

I couldn’t find one, but my view was blocked by trees and the top of my screened patio. 

I felt sure there must be a rainbow somewhere.

Maybe it's just a little further ahead of where my eyes can see right now.

A little note on the photos: the books are from the library at the American Academy in Rome and the garden photos are from Rome's public park, Villa Aldobrandini.

I'm having coffee with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

When You Could Use Some Prior Knowledge

Now that I’ve returned from my trip to Rome, I’ve been combing through my photos {all 3,123 of them}, trying to pinpoint exactly what I took pictures of. 

I recognize the major landmarks, of course, like the Colosseum and Vatican, but it’s the neighborhoods and fountains and piazzas I can't always identify.

Even though I carried a tiny notebook in my purse to jot down names and places, I soon realized it was impossible to pull out a pen and paper while following our tour-guide-host, juggling my camera and snapping photos. 

So I never once wrote anything down.

It was all I could to keep a grip on my bag, dangle my camera off my other arm and not twist an ankle as I kept an eye on the uneven cobblestone streets.

I took a lot of photos of churches too, that I'm not sure of.

There's one around every corner in Rome, and it seems as if half of them have Santa Maria as part of their name.

Some churches had their names above the door {although in Latin or Italian} which helped since I could snap a photo to remember. Some churches had cute little gift shops where I could buy a postcard or bookmark. 

But most names of the churches in my photos are still a mystery to me and it's going to take some research to figure out exactly where I've been.

I've been rereading my guidebook, scouring the library's history and travel sections, and ordering books on Amazon.

Which seems as if I'm going about this whole thing a little backwards since I should have spent more time gathering knowledge about Rome before I got there, not after my visit.

To cut myself some slack, I did do some reading -- since I'm a planner at heart -- but even six months to prepare was just not enough time for me to conquer all there was to know about Rome.

Like the little elephant statue I'd never heard of.

On our last day in Rome, the foodie-tour-group-host told us to meet her at the elephant statue for our farewell coffee. 

Elephant statue? I looked at her blankly. I hadn't come across an elephant statue the entire week.

You can’t miss it, she said. It’s quite famous.

She said this about nearly everything in Rome. {And it's true, of course.} 

But not knowing about the elephant statue only reinforced the idea that I should have spent more time learning about what I was going to see.

{Especially when I shot dozens of photos inside a building I thought was the Pantheon -- that's it below -- only to discover I was in a nearby church instead.}

A little knowledge makes a big difference. The more you know, the more you can control. Not just in Rome, but in life.

{Or so we think.}

We can make our plans - - about what we'll do for a career, who we'll marry, where we'll live, how our family will grow -- and we can set our goals because as long as we know what we want, we can make it happen.

{That's what we've been told, haven't we?}

But I've realized that knowledge about how life should work doesn't always correlate to how God works through our skills and experiences and education that form our earthly knowledge.

Because if I yield to how he's working in my life, he's offering me something far better.  

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! -Rom. 11:33 {NIV}

Just thinking about how he's moving the pieces of my life around to form a complex and exquisite pattern beyond my understanding brings me joy. 

It doesn't matter if I can figure it out now or in the future or when I someday stand in his presence, it's enough for me to trust him. His depth and richness are unfathomable.

That's why after years of living in the strength of my efforts to plan and arrange and control, I'm taking only the portion of God's wisdom and grace that I need for today. 

Because tomorrow there will be a new serving of it -- I think of it as a manna of sorts, just enough for one day -- inviting me to help myself to what I need.

And knowing that is enough for me to ease up and rest in that knowledge.

Even when there's a centuries-old elephant statue in Rome that I hadn't heard of. 

So when I finally located the piazza and saw the elephant up close, I thought it was rather unimpressive. 

I thought it would be bigger. Kids were running around it and tourists were resting on its base.

But now I feel a little sheepish since the elephant statue is actually more than a little famous. It was created by the Renaissance sculptor Bernini in the 1600s, and it was all over the news just six months ago.

Vandals damaged the 350-year-old elephant by breaking off one of its tusks, and Romans were understandably indignant.

It’s been repaired now, but had I known, I would have taken a closer look. 

So last week the book I ordered from Amazon about Bernini and his elephant statue arrived.

I added it to my stack of books on Rome growing ever taller on my dining room table, and hoped that it will give me some insight on remembering the tourist spots in my travel photos.

I've heard, after all, that an elephant never forgets. 

I'm having coffee with Holley Gerth at Coffee for your Heart.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Mysterious Wisdom of Nancy Drew

If favorite books are like good friends {and I think they are}, then Nancy Drew is one of my oldest and dearest friends.

I grew up reading about her adventures, along with her fellow girl-detectives -- Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames and the Bobbsey Twins -- but it was no coincidence that Nancy Drew was my favorite sleuth. 

Her stories had everything I loved. Two chipper chums in Bess and George to make mysteries fun, travel to enthralling locations, and plenty of dusty attics to explore, secret passageways to uncover and lost diaries to find. 

Besides Nancy was smart, capable and always stylish -- everything my pre-teen heart aspired to be.

And it was thanks to Nancy Drew that I practically became a speed-reader because I couldn't wait to finish the book. 

I never liked pausing in the middle of the story with an assortment of clues that didn't add up and a slew of unanswered questions. 

I'd seclude myself up in my bedroom, finishing a book in one day so I wouldn't have to lie awake at night, wondering how the mystery was solved. And then I couldn't wait to start the next one.

Evidently Nancy's appeal continues today.

Last weekend I went with my 10-year old niece to watch Nancy and her pals solve her Biggest Case Ever in a play staged by Orlando's repertory theatre. 

To my relief, Nancy hadn't changed a bit since I last read about her. 

She still had her zippy blue roadster {which she drove while wearing an ultra-fashionable scarf} and she found an old map with a puzzling riddle about a long-lost treasure. 

Occasionally throughout the play, the lights would dim and Nancy would turn to the audience to share some words of wisdom with us about sleuthing.

And then she seemed to look straight at me. 

{I was just a few rows from the stage, after all, quite close to my favorite heroine.}

She said she's discovered that when solving a mystery there are no coincidences, and what seems to be coincidental usually requires a closer look.

I think Nancy's onto something. 

{As she usually is.}

A chance meeting, someone crossing our path that seems like a fluke, a variety of random occurrences -- are they really coincidences or is God at work in the smallest details of our lives?

That's a mystery I can't seem to crack and I've been doing a lot of thinking about it lately.

But when things in our lives look a little dark, or clues don't add up, or what we see isn't making much sense, does it mean that God isn't there in the midst of our lives and at work in those very details?

I wonder if we're confused because we just can't see what he's doing.

Maybe he's the underpinning of it all. He's the one holding us up. 

Maybe he's balancing it all as we ineptly search for clues to confirm our actions, our direction and our intentions. 

And I think there is evidence that what happens to us isn't random and meaningless.  

That's why we have the biblical examples of people, who were just like us, to remind us of the truth about coincidences.

Was it a coincidence that Pharoah's daughter just happened to be in the Nile river at the same time baby Moses in a basket floated by her so she could raise him in a palace that prepared him to turn the tide of history?

Was it a coincidence that new-girl-in-town Ruth just happened to be gleaning barley in Boaz's field, only to discover he was a kinsman of her mother-in-law Naomi, and would become her husband securing her place in the lineage of Christ?

Was it a coincidence that Esther just happened to be chosen out of a myriad of women competing to become queen for such a time as this, to take a risk and save her fellow kinsmen?

So isn't that enough inspiration for us?

I think coincidences open the door to shed a little light on the dark quiet spaces where God is working in mysterious ways. 

And when we believe that he is personally concerned about us and working everything that happens to us into some sort of ultimate good, we can live at peace with the mystery.  

Although that's why I enjoyed the play about Nancy Drew so much. In just two quick hours, the clues made sense and the mystery was solved.

I can't wait for my niece to read all my old Nancy Drew books and get to know her like I do.

But at least she's already met Nancy.

After the play, my sister and niece took a photo with the cast.

I stayed behind the camera, too in awe of my old friend Nancy Drew, to get too close to her. 

I'm having coffee with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

When You're All Over the Map

I’m a miserable map-reader. 

I suppose that’s why there’s Siri. 

But she’s not always helpful to me and I get annoyed with her. 

Just the other day when I asked her to take me home, she scolded me in a cheeky tone saying, “Valerie, I don’t know where home is.”  

{I thought Siri should already know where I live since she spends a lot of time with me at home, but she impertinently pointed out that I hadn't entered my home address in my phone settings.}

So when I was in Rome, I kept my phone use to a minimum and instead relied on my mother’s navigational expertise.

Now she is a master map-reader. 

My mother has logged years of navigating our family vacations, studying the map in the front seat of the car. She'd advise my dad on the best routes to take, as every summer while I was growing up we wound our way south from Pittsburgh to the beaches of Florida.

So if she’s with me on a trip I don't worry about looking at a map, confident she'll get us where we need to go.

But Rome’s streets were all Greek to her. 

We’d optimistically head toward one of Rome’s neighborhoods and before we knew it, we were curving around an ancient building or ducking down an alley or looking up a steep flight of steps. 

We wondered where in the world were we?

We'd walk another block looking for landmarks only to be met with the name of a street {often abbreviated} we couldn’t seem to locate on our map. 

By the end of the trip my mother was so rattled by the apparent loss of her navigational skills that she was reluctant to venture out.

Which resulted in the night we opted for take-out at Pasta Chef in our neighborhood  -- rated #1 on Trip Advisor -- and dined on antipasto salad and lasagna in the dining room of our apartment, as I'd imagine the Romans must do. 

{Which also proves that losing your way is sometimes rather delicious.}

Frequently we were surprised as we headed out, armed with maps and cameras, sure we were walking toward the Forum only to find ourselves confronted with the Colosseum instead.

We were constantly asking how'd we end up here?

But mostly we were mystified and thought maybe our difficulties with navigating Rome were because official signage for tourists is non-existent.

But unofficial signage  -- in the form of graffiti -- is abundant and was quite useful in helping us find the famous Trevi Fountain. 

After walking for 45 minutes, we spotted the words Trevi with an arrow, sprayed in red paint on the side of a building.

{At least one past traveler was thinking of his fellow tourists and was kind enough to paint -- and point --the way.}

And it's possible we were a bit exasperating to our fellow tour-group-goers, who brushed off our worrisome questions when we asked for directions to the Spanish Steps.

Oh it's easy to find, they told us {all of them Rome-returners}, just follow the crowds.

Surely everyone in Rome couldn't be headed to the Spanish Steps, could they? 

But when we finally reached the famous set of 135 steps, maybe they were right, for it seemed as if half the world were there, basking in the sun.

Ironically, the entire time we were in Rome, we had what we needed.


Several of them. 

In brilliant color, detailing the neighborhoods of Rome, and we still couldn’t find our way.

And yet, isn't that what we often want for our lives?

We want directions mapped out for us. Exact instructions for life's major choices.

We want to know the plans God has for us, what work we should do, who we should marry, where we should live. 

We ask God for clarity for difficult decisions. We pray for a big bright spotlight to show us the way we should go. 

But we rarely get those things. Instead he gives us his presence.

He promises to go with us, wherever it is that we happen to go.

Maybe instead of trying to map out our course and look so doggedly for signs, we might take a look backwards. And notice how far God has already brought us.

We might realize that we've navigated obstacles and pushed through confusion and persevered despite a thousand questions.

We might see that we've ended up in a tight spot, encountered a dead end, retraced our steps and recharted our course.

Maybe finding our way isn't part of the journey. 

It is the journey.

And could it be how we find our way to God? 

In the Vatican's Gallery of Maps, I gazed at vivid frescoes of Italy painted on the walls during the sixteenth century. 

It was startling to see how accurate the map-makers were as they depicted mountains and land and sea long before Siri or satellites. 

As I made my way through the long corridor of symbols and coordinates and arrows, trying to make sense of the maps, I didn't realize that just ahead was what I had long been waiting for.

The map room is a prelude to the Sistine Chapel. 

It's the last stop on the long journey through the halls of the Vatican to reach the historic, magnificent art of Michelangelo painted on the chapel's ceiling.

Maybe we don't realize just how close we are.

To finding God’s will; working out his purposes; living the life he created us to live.

Maybe we're already there.

So with this trip to Rome, my mother has declared herself retired from map-reading and told me to use Siri instead.

But I'm not so sure I agree with her.

Her map-reading skills took us all the way to St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. 

Which is, after all {when you take a look at the map}, quite a long way from Pittsburgh.

I'm having coffee with my friends at Holley Gerth's place at Coffee for your Heart.