My favorite part of the beach is feeling the immenseness of God while seeing the careful details of His creation–a tiny shell, a delicate strip of seaweed. And all of the while, the waves rhythmically pummel the grainy shore.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes that maybe God is like a child in the way He enjoys the repetition of His creation. It’s not that He is stuck in a rut or that He even has a factory that stamps the same design on daisy after daisy. Instead, He delights in the repetition of His creation like a child, “[exulting] in monotony.” “For we have sinned and grown old,” writes Chesterton, “and our Father is younger than we.”
I think about this as I pick smooth pieces of broken shells out of the sand around my towel. The sea creeps closer. Then the wind picks up and I turn my back to it and watch people walking their dogs along the walking path. On top of the mountains swelling beyond the port, are caps of brilliant snow.
The roar of look-alike waves settles something so deep in me that tears prickle behind my eyes.
Just that week, darkness had threatened with a roar, but the roar of a starving lion rather than a roar of majestic waves. And for a few awful moments I had felt its breath on my neck, breath that smelled of despair.
Will the lion come back? My heart races to even consider it. Please no, God. Not again. But, if I’m honest, there are tired days I want to let myself be consumed, as if stopping the struggle could bring relief.
I pack my things–my damp towel, the handful of broken shells, and my sunglasses. As I walk to the bus stop, the salt from the ocean spray still clings to my lips. I lick them. And then I lick them again. The salt remains. I smile, imagining that I smell like the sea.
My heart has quieted. Perhaps it was in the faithfulness of the Father’s repetitive creation. Or the delightful majesty of ocean and mountains. Perhaps. But even in the bitter wind, His Presence is here.
Below are a few things I’ve seen or experienced recently. They’re not written in any particular order or of any particular importance (or of any particular grammatical observance, truth be told). Just some snippets of life.
Speakers wound up in trees and fastened to light posts play “Joy to the World” as I walk down the street, in step with the music. Then I notice others in step with the music–a Muslim family, several Spanish businessmen, and others. “Let eevery heeeart prepaare hiim rooom…”
Russian classmate #1 is disgruntled that she cannot absorb a complex Spanish grammar structure. Russian classmate #2 says: “You’ve only been here 7 years and you want to understand everything. Calm down. We’ve been here for 20 and we still confuse this.” Bulgarian classmate begins to giggle. “Yes, calm down! You still have 13 years of confusion ahead of you!”
After a rain, crushed snails in crushed shells dot the walking/biking trail like flattened M&M buttons.
An elderly man I meet on my morning walk that tells me that his mornings are better on the days we cross paths.
Little boys at the Kings’ Day parade, squeeze around me to get to the front, chattering in hopeful Arabic and clutching rumpled plastic grocery bags to fill with candy.
A winter evening curled up with a book and a cup of lemon balm tea…and Christmas lights I hesitate to take down.
A shopkeeper tells me how long I should spend with the friend I am planning to visit in another town. “Are you going to spend the night at her place? No? Then you need to go before lunch and eat with her and spend a lot of time with her before you leave in the evening.” Oh, how I love to hear the North African perspective on relationships!
As I walk by, an elderly man comes out of a café to speak to me. “How tall are you?” he asks and all five feet of him steps back in surprise when I tell him. He says that the other day he was breakfasting with another man in the café. When I walked by, the other man said he would not like to take me out for breakfast. Because I was so tall, surely I would eat a lot! That makes me self-conscious as I walk home, realizing that my oblivion doesn’t exempt me from being a topic of discussion.
On my way to catch a bus, I notice a lady with her head in the dumpster. She doesn’t have that look of someone who usually sifts through others’ garbage. (And I’m not judging because I have rescued a few garbage items in my life.) But I pause, curious as she bats her broom handle around. “Can I help you?” She mutters something about losing an item. She doesn’t know if it could possibly be in the garbage she took out. I peer in and see a lavender bag of trash on the very bottom of a very empty dumpster. She doesn’t relinquish the broom when I reach for it, but I hold open the dumpster lid while she fishes around. Finally, success! She snags the handles and pulls it out little by little (still muttering). I manage to avoid the linty end of the broom that is headed my way and still make it to my bus on time.
I am at the counter of a North African store when a little boy comes in, not even big enough to see over the counter. He sets a hand-written list on the counter. The shopkeeper grins at him, “Peace be upon you, Arkan. How are you? At peace?” He looks down at Arkan’s mother’s list, reading aloud the first item before Arkan interrupts him. “I want a sucker.” Ahh, that’s how it’s done. And I wonder if suckers are free because he is so stinkin’ cute or if his mother ever notices that the grocery bill is always a little more than she anticipated.
I like to imagine that this year I will have it all together… whatever “it” is.
I will eat better, walk straighter, live unstressed, except now and then when my body is due for a good ol’ adrenaline rush. I will invest more deeply in the friends I have. Care more and help to carry the burdens I sometimes ignore because I just can’t handle theirs and mine. I will write more…and better, of course.
All of those ideas are good and hopeful. But today, as I sat down at my makeshift desk in my makeshift guest room and wrote about my relationship with God, I wondered: How is it that I can spend so much time with Someone and still know Him so little? And misunderstand Him so much–often not grasping His big picture nor sharing His heart for those around me?
Healthy eating, straight walking, unstressed living, friend investment, and better writing are helpful goals. But, I want knowing God to be the big focus–the all-encompassing focus–for me this year.
Have you taken the time to contemplate Christmas: the beauty and hope…but also the earthiness? God made flesh. Immanuel.
I read recently that the Bible doesn’t record the bloody agony of Jesus’ entrance into the world, not because God is ashamed of Jesus’ humanity in light of His deity, but because those things were so normal that they weren’t noted. Everything was remarkable about a virgin great with child. What wasn’t so remarkable were the hours she spent delivering that Child.
Jesus was divine, yes. But He was also human. And when we forget His humanity, we forget how much we are known.
Hebrews says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (4:16). Why? Because He was tempted as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, He can sympathize with us in our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).
That, of course, is only one part of the Word being made flesh, but it’s a part that I tend to forget. We are not fighting life’s battles alone. We can come boldly to the throne of grace to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
Here is Joy. Look, right here! See her in the slippery soap suds puddling around the soap dish? And in the far corner of the deepest cupboard you're cleaning, Back, back, back until you can just dab the dirt triangle with the corner of your rag? Do you hear her bursting through the speakers of your car stereo? Or in the grunt of an awakening work computer? She's here on the supermarket shelf, coming along free in the celery stalks just because. Do you see her? In the scuffed magnet that pins a child's artwork to your refrigerator? And in the orange flame waltzing on the tip of a match as you light a candle and open the front door? She's whisked into the batter and adds just the right nutty note…or is it woody…or just plain sweet? She's here. Always here. Even when your neighbor tells you never ever to add cinnamon and now you've ruined it completely. Yes, sometimes Joy tastes a little like hot noodle soup during a head cold. Or enlivens an aroma with a world of redeemed memories. She's more than a good tiding at Christmas. She's now. Today. Riding along on the eternal breeze of faithfulness. Look for her.
I am determined to finish writing about my trip to Ireland today. I doubt it can be as much fun to read as it is to write because it is I who get to relive all of the memories. And with time, the bad memories fade–the exhaustion from a missed night of sleep, the grimy cottage, and so on. (Although, for the record, there aren’t many “so on”s.) It is the good memories that grow and blossom and put a little burn in my heart: that marriage of pure happiness and incredulity.
So, where did I leave off?
Saturday. I will skip over the morning escapade with the washer and the dryer and our hostess because I already wrote enough about our experience. We arrived downtown during a morning drizzle. My friend stopped to ask directions from a group of jolly men sipping their foaming Guinness outside of a bar. She did it for the experience, I think. For the kicks and giggles. It turns out the men weren’t Dubliners and couldn’t help us despite their trying. But they fit well into the friendly Irish stereotype we had already formed in our minds.
We managed to find a market after studying a map and then trailing someone with a market cart. We paused at one of the stalls for some mouth-watering paprika almonds and a free sample of creamy mozzarella balls. The drippy weather and the live music made the tiny market charming, although we probably couldn’t find the place again if we tried.
We meandered to the Chester Beatty Library, but when we stepped inside, we both decided we’d rather not do the tour. We may never know what we missed, but it was nice to decide to miss it together. We caught a bus to Phoenix Park, where we picked up free tickets to tour the President’s house and then crossed the sunny lawn–yes, the sun was beaming by then!– to a picnic bench under a tree. It was there in that slice of heavenly greenness and almost-warmth that I was able to say a prayer for our Airbnb hostess and my own attitude toward her. The residual irritation of the morning faded and stopped marring the day. We ate our picnic lunch. Without trying, we had planned the perfect amount of time to eat a relaxed lunch and then meander down to the tour bus.
We were about 15. A very small tour. Our guide was amazing, explaining the obvious points of interest in the house as well as the lesser noticed nuggets that mortalize history somehow. Some of the other people on the tour added a layer of excitement, like the elderly gentleman who decided he was thirsty and went over to help himself to the bottled water on the president’s desk. And his wife, as composed and sweet as a queen, continued to look composed and sweet in her darling hat even as her husband raided the president’s personal stash. We admired the ceilings–I especially enjoyed the Aesop’s fables one–, the artwork, and the vast back lawn.
After the tour, we refilled our water bottles and headed back downtown. For the first time, I managed to nab a seat in the front of the upper level double decker bus.
Our next stop was a Luke Kelly impersonation concert on the lawn of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. We had thought we’d like to tour the cathedral as well, but nope. That was another tour that we both decided wasn’t something we wanted to add to our afternoon. (Is it any wonder I came home with a stash of travel money still in my wallet?) So we sat on a concrete lip of the edge of the sidewalk and watched the concert and grew chillier.
Then, at my friend’s insistence, we decided to use the free hot drink vouchers we had been given upon entering the concert. We stomped into an elegant hotel restaurant in our winter gear and backpack… maybe looking a little homeless at this point. And we almost lost our nerve, but my friend wanted a cuppa badly enough that she summoned her courage and soon we both had steaming to-go cups of milky Irish tea. We meandered down the street and then stopped to sit on the pedestal of a statue just across the street from the Christ Church Cathedral. We talked about life. People may have looked at us oddly, sitting there on a statue at a busy intersection with our cups of tea, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t notice.
After our tea, we were hungry. We walked to Lundy Foot’s, a restaurant that offered a traditional beef stew. In retrospect, it may have been more of a tourist attraction than a real Irish pub. And the musician was playing Jonny Cash. But the men at the bar (my sneaky and blurry photo below) seemed Irish enough and animated the atmosphere, especially after a couple of “jars” and a goal or two in the soccer game.
The beef stew was amazing. So was dessert. We left, flushed from the warmth of the place, and wandered home, happy.
I have very few pictures of Sunday. We had decided to take one day of the week where we would not plan anything. Originally, it had been our “curl up in front of a fireplace” day, but since that was no longer an option, we walked down to the bay. We spread our rain gear on the grass and held a mini church service, ending our time by praying for each other. It was a special time, minus the dog poo on the bottom of my friend’s shoe. We ate our picnic lunch and then strolled up to Insomnia, a coffee shop, and picked out some comfortable chairs. I ordered tea with tea brack, which didn’t end up being my favorite, most likely because it was packed with raisins which I don’t especially like.
We read and journaled in perfect together-solitude. I even crocheted. Then we returned to our Hairy Haven to pack up. We said our goodbyes before bed and I left the house by 5 the next morning.
The bus app directed me to a stop. When the airport coach came, I held out my public transit card hopefully. The driver asked if I had a ticket. Instead, I asked for directions to a Dublin airport bus that would accept my card, but he didn’t know. I finally nodded and decided to pay the extra money to save myself the hassle of finding the right stop. I pulled out my wallet.
Then he asked, “Is this your last day in Ireland?”
I nodded. “I’m going back to Spain today.”
He pushed my money away, patted my shoulder, and quietly said, “Get on board and make yourself comfortable.”
And with that, beautiful, wonderful Ireland sent me back to Spain.
To me, the holidays bring a sense of belonging. There is a warmness, an extra niceness.
Yes, the world gets frantic and grumpy when the store shelves aren’t stocked with what we want and the check-out lines are too long and the children need naps and, well, so do we but we still need to make that Aldi stop because Wal-Mart was out of pumpkin pie filling.
But then we come home and the individuality fades and there is a togetherness again, even in the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen.
Celebrating far from family isn’t quite like this. The sense of belonging is lessened. Not vanished, but subtle, something I need to search for. But those remaining shards are precious too. Even from far away, I belong. And that belonging tints the world with bright, warm tones and I find myself extra happy this Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
I don’t want to spend the holidays wishing I were somewhere I am not. I choose to contribute to the joy of right here, because this is where I belong too.
Ten things I’m thankful for this year:
the great faithfulness of a loving Father
Spain’s acceptance of my 5-year residency application
the tail-end of COVID-19
friends and neighbors that I bump into every time I step outside
strong family dynamics, even though I live thousands of miles away
opportunities to travel and experience other worlds
You may be tired of hearing about Ireland. I was only there a few days, after all. I suppose I could be succinct, but where’s the fun in that?
Friday morning we rolled out of bed at 4:45. We had packed our lunches the night before, so it didn’t take us long to get out the door and to the bus stop. Some of the grief from our place of residence had been eased by sleep. We were determined to love the day.
We had booked a day tour from Dublin (east coast) to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway (west coast). Our guide gave us a fascinating peek into Ireland’s history and culture as our coach bumbled out of Dublin. Then it was time to sit back and enjoy the scenery as the sun rose over the Irish countryside. Mists came up from the green rolling land, promising that fairies and leprechauns were real after all. It was breathtaking, but only one small part of a breathtaking day.
The weather was perfect: a mixture of sun and clouds and a constant but empty threat of rain. And the cliffs–Oh, the cliffs! No wonder the place was full of tourists with their cameras. My heart wanted to stop at the wild beauty of the place. (And having a cardiac arrest at the Cliffs of Moher would not have been so bad, really. Rather romantic.)
As we wandered up and down the marked trails, soaking it in, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I had stepped into a very beautiful photo.
We traveled through the Burren, our driver skillfully maneuvering the mammoth tour coach down skinny roads next to steep drop offs. We made a brief stop for photos in the National Park where craggy rocks dropped off into the ocean in impressive cliffs.
Our guide gave us another fascinating history lesson before we stopped at the Kilmacduagh Abbey ruins. I wanted an hour or two to roam, not 10 minutes.
Our last stop was Galway, an outstanding city on the west coast. Our guide told us just to go and enjoy the city without trying to see too much. That’s the best way to experience Galway, he said. He also gave us a list of restaurants, recommending the famous Galway fish and chips.
My friend bought us dinner at McDonagh’s for an early birthday gift–smoked fish and chips and fresh oysters. The last time I had tried oysters, I had wanted to gag. But that was in rural Illinois, about as far from the ocean as you can get. Would I gag this time? I was nervous as I squeezed lemon on my oyster. To make it worse, the place was packed even at this odd hour and we were sitting elbow to elbow with strangers.
But I didn’t gag. The smooth oyster that slipped from its shell into my mouth was fresh, clean, and sweet. I eyed the leftover oyster on the plate until my friend generously gave in.
While my friend did a little shopping in an Aran Island wool shop, I sat outside to listen to buskers who looked like brothers. They seemed to enjoy my enjoyment of their harmony, maybe especially when I dropped coins in their guitar case.
The entire evening felt enchanted. I slipped a few euros in my pocket and we wandered the streets of downtown Galway, stopping to listen to almost every street musician, even the dude singing “Galway Girl.” The way the Irish value the arts is something one can sense, even in a brief interaction with the culture, such as I had.
And, wouldn’t you know, we found another Butlers and strolled back to the bus, hot chocolates and truffles in hand. Darkness fell as we rode back across the island to Dublin. It was a day that made be believe I wanted to stay in Ireland forever.
Well, except the dirty little cottage that we had to return to.