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.
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.
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.
I awoke from a deep sleep to a hand grabbing my shoulder and someone gasping, “It’s you!” It was the middle of night. It was also the middle of my friend’s disturbing dream. She was comforted to know that I was not a mustached stranger and promptly fell back asleep. But the interaction left me staring at the dark ceiling, my heart pumping.
Morning came soon enough. We made ourselves tea with the electric kettle in our room and took our time getting out the door. Why rush? While planning our trip, we had both decided we’d rather see less at a leisurely pace than see everything and fully experience nothing.
We gathered a few recommendations from our host and then made our way downtown, where we dropped off our luggage (we had rented a different airbnb for the following nights) and crossed the scenic Ha’Penny Bridge.
Our host had recommended Keoghs for an Irish breakfast. We gladly took his suggestion. I am not a bread person, but I spent the rest of the trip trying to track down more of this bread to eat with those thick slabs of creamy Irish butter. And the greens that garnished the breakfast? Peas!
We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin’s former execution site, which is now a lovely park full of Dubliners out for a bit of green during their lunch break. We paused before a gruesome monument commemorating the Great Famine of the mid-1800s. A North African family stopped us to ask directions. “¿Habláis español?” they asked and were shocked when we ended up speaking in Arabic instead.
We booked a tour to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. The Book of Kells is a stunning copy of the four Gospels in Latin, supposed to have been copied by monks around 800 A.D. We only saw one open page, highly protected. Apparently, how long each page is exposed to light is carefully monitored. In the Long Room, a room of one of the world’s most stunning libraries, my friend and I pulled out our audio tour earbuds and sat on the wooden benches to drink in the odor of old books and to feel the smallness of us in a great big world of knowledge.
Then we remembered our luggage and began to consider what would happen if the 5:30 closing happened before we were able to retrieve it. So we meandered through downtown, with only a pitstop at Butlers Chocolate Café, another of our host’s recommendations. We carefully selected our hot chocolate and the little chocolate that came with it, wrapped in a small paper baggie. I have never had such amazing hot chocolate. Never. We moaned our way through our creamy cups, enough-rich and not-too-sweet but just-sweet-enough. We lingered long enough that we had to rush to retrieve our luggage before the storage center closed for the evening.
From there we went to our new airbnb, the “Country Cottage Oasis,” which will require a blog post all of its own…
True love drives away laziness, that’s what a young friend learned in philosophy class. It drives away apathy too.
Then why do I grow apathetic to the woundedness that surrounds me?
Overwhelmed, that’s what I am. Overwhelmed by the dissonance of compassion and my own limits. I am one person with moderate abilities and stamina. I cannot be a superhero no matter how hard I try. My tiny contribution of self-sacrifice will not change the world.
And so I begin to seal off my heart, and what began as love is reduced to apathy.
Or was it even love to begin with?
When I fill my schedule to the brim with world-changing activities, what is my motive? Can it be love? It might be, but, if I’m honest, my motive to change the world often starts and ends with pride. And it’s a pride that turns apathetic when I refuse to be humbled by remembering my limits.
There always will be busy seasons in our lives, some longer than others, but a sustained frantic pace, even under the pretense of love is not truly loving.
Love isn’t defined by the absence of laziness or apathy. The real meaning isn’t found in the absence of something. It’s not even found in the presence of something like hard work or compassion. It is ultimately found in the Presence of Someone.
When I realize that I am not the one who must save the world, I am freed. The burden to be the savior rolls away. Finally, I can stop panicking over my limits in light of all the work that needs to be done. I am finally free to love well.
I can sit with someone who needs to cry. I can make cupcakes for a team event. I can read a captivating book. I can agree to tutor another student. I can have a friendly chat with my neighbor from the patio. I can probe deeper into the heart of a young woman who isn’t sure who she wants to be just yet. And I can do all of this, recognizing that I am just a small piece in what is happening, and, praise the Lord, I get the joy of being a piece.
I am a created being, created with limits. And that is very good. Why? Because the work does not begin and end with me but with the One who is limitless.
For an excellent resource on human limits, I recommend You’re Only Human by Kelly M. Kapic.
Maybe you think I don’t notice that bruise on half your face. You light the room with a smile and a dignified calm.
But I wish I could grab him by the throat and not let go until I know that he will never touch you again.
Except with love.
But how can I know unless you tell me? And how can you tell me unless you trust me? And how can you trust me when you just met me and he calls your phone and you need to go before we even know each other?
We say goodbye with an embrace, two kisses, and a few besides.
Then I stand and watch you walk away, wishing I knew the you behind that sparkling smile.
I meant to start out earlier than I did. But I didn’t. I meant to take a morning tour of the bell tower of Murcia’s cathedral. But I didn’t. Instead, I read a sign that said tours were offered October through June and said nothing about tours during tourist season.
I gave up that plan for the time being and wandered over to the bus stop in time to climb on a bus to Rueda de la Ñora, a water wheel located in an otherwise unremarkable village outside of Murcia.
Still sleepy, I yawned the whole way out of the city. It would have been easier had I worn a mask that allowed yawns and didn’t grab both my nose and my chin in a vice grip. It was unfortunately one of those city buses that didn’t bother to say where it was or where it was going at any given time. Enter Google maps.
The water wheel was worth the visit. However, there was no shade and it made my visit shorter than I would have liked. I was the only tourist there. The wheel was commissioned in the 1400s although it’s been replaced various times.
On my walk back to the bus, a dog gave me a series of ferocious barks from a terraza overhead. The sun tilted just right so I could see the gray shadows of his snapping jaws on the street beside me.
I stumbled across a bakery on my way back to the bus. “Why not?” I thought and stepped inside. It was a real bakery, one where the cashier came to the counter with her hands covered in flour. She was brisk but kind as I carefully selected a chocolate-filled pastry.
The bus deposited me at Circular Square, which is more or less a giant fountain in the middle of a roundabout. It was unoccupied, making me wonder if anybody in Murcia appreciates their own landmarks. (And do I appreciate the landmarks of Mytown?)
The Archeological Museum of Murcia was free so it was worth a look, I decided. I’m not much for museums and the history here in Spain is so ancient it becomes unremarkable after a while. I skipped the evolution of man section which put me ahead of the only others in the museum. So I basically walked through the museum alone except the security guard who greeted me every time he circled past. I should have tried to make off with a Roman pillar to give him something to do.
On the way back to the cathedral tower (by this time, I had bought a tour ticket online), I passed through Plaza Santo Domingo and found a startling human rights monument in the middle of the plaza, like a silent scream.
I arrived early for the tour, which didn’t bother me. I plopped down in the shade in front of the tower and people watched. We were a large group, not my favorite way to tour, but I had already decided that the pros would outweigh the cons. The tower’s history was fascinating, from how the construction paused for 200 years when the tower began to lean or how the resident rats nibbled the edges of the old manuscripts to avoid the poisonous ink.
The group was frantically taking selfies at every turn as I cruised past, photo bombing everyone. (Okay, that’s probably just what it felt like.) Tucked inside the walls, there was the impression of coolness, but it also felt muggy. But however hot and sweaty, we all made it up the 17 ramps. The quarter hour chime at the top was exhilarating. The bells thundered inside of my head.
After lunch in the air conditioning at my Airbnb, and some time to unwind, I tried to go to a coffee shop which was closed. “August,” I grumbled as I meandered through downtown and eventually ended up at CaféLab again where they recognized me and spoke to me in English.
I picked up snacks at Día and then spent the evening on the couch with guacamole, fresh mozzarella, and a show on the fancy-schmancy TV that the Airbnb host had painstakingly explained to his clueless guest.
Although August in Spain is not the best time to be a tourist, Murcia is a city I could easily fall in love with, even in August. You could argue that three days is hardly enough time to fall in love. And spending those three days almost exclusively downtown–only glimpsing the outlying barrios from the bus window–you could argue that I don’t even know her. So we’ll call it an infatuation.
I arrived in downtown Murcia close to three p.m., perfect time to check into my airbnb, eat lunch, and rest on the couch in front of the air conditioning. (Aaaah, what luxury to control the temperature!)
My apartment was within a few minutes of the cathedral and well, pretty much all of downtown. Downtown was full of churches. As the hour changed, bells sounded from every corner, clapping through the narrow streets. I stood, enchanted.
I parked in CaféLab, an utterly charming coffee shop. The aromatic ambiance made it hard to choose what I wanted–one of each? I finally opted for the mango smoothie.
As a non-Catholic, I am fascinated by cathedrals, but I also find them a little creepy. Like, I didn’t come to church to see a mural of Saint Bartholomew being skinned alive. I toured the cathedral, reading the signs, staring at the statues and paintings of saints, and wondering what the cathedral builders would think if they saw all of us walking around in sneakers, snapping pictures.
I walked along the river, enjoying the view and the parks I stumbled upon. Eventually, I rested on a bench to listen to the gentle clacking of loose bricks as feet passed over them.
Pasarela Manterola, a pedestrian suspension bridge, moved as we walked across it, just enough to make me wonder if my mango smoothie had made me tipsy–Am I imagining this mild motion sickness? A young man serenaded us with “Stand By Me” while ducks below fought over the bread crusts someone had tossed to them. When I peered over the railing, they eyed me expectantly.
“So darling! Darling! Staaaaand by me. Oh, stand by me…”
I strolled through the Paseo de Malecón and tried to snap a photo of red red roses that decided not to be photogenic in the blazing sunlight. And there was a catalpa tree with long beans dripping from it. I would have studied it more had a man not been lounging in its shade.
From there, I circle back to find the Arab walls. The smells began to overwhelm me in the way that they often do when I allow myself time to smell them. I smelled chwarmas before I passed the chwarma shop and then a spice that transported me the North African old medina. Shadows grew. Men with fat, unlit cigars dangling from their lips crossed my path.
Somehow, with a malfunctioning sense of direction, delayed maps app, and winding downtown streets, I ended up in Plaza Mayor instead of in front of the monumental Arab walls. There in the plaza, the silence was astonishing. Someone with squeaky shoes left squeaky echoes after she had disappeared around the corner. I just stood there and listened for long moments.
I made another attempt at the Arab walls. And another. At my third pass-by, I realized street work hid the walls from view and made them inaccessible. Apparently, the “open 24 hours” listing on my maps app doesn’t apply to August… or maybe I still didn’t find the right spot.
On my way back to the apartment, I crossed through Plaza de las Flores where everyone was in slow motion, eating an early dinner or meandering through the warm plaza. And me? Enough exploring for day one. I had an evening date with the air conditioning.