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Gulls & Crows

We departed Dublin in a heavy rain with a cabbie who ended up being a jerk.  He dropped us, in the rain, at the wrong place, knowingly.


Kelli then drove us to Newgrange, the premier Neolithic site sitting along the beautifully pastoral River Boyne. Green fields, cows, and sheep!  When we arrived the mist was hanging low over the river and pastures, but soon the sun came out and the skies were a most brilliant blue by the time we arrived at the tomb for our tour.


The building is 5,000 years old.  And the roof has never leaked.  Despite the large size of the exterior, inside is quite small.  A long passage to a small chamber with three smaller chambers attached.  Geometrical carvings, particularly the swirl, decorate some of the interior rocks.

We drove on to the Hill of Tara. The GPS seemed to prefer sheep paths to highways in getting us there--brave Kelli. Tara, legendary seat of the High Kings, is a chilly, wind-swept rise from which you can see far in every direction. At the phallic stone in the center we watched a woman trying to have a "spiritual" experience as she rubbed against the stone.  

At both Newgrange and Tara the sky will filled with cawing crows.  Ominous.  I felt like I was in a Game of Thrones episode and something awful was about to happen to me.  In Dublin there had been gulls everywhere. 


A enjoyed a lovely lunch at the café at the base of the hill, recommended to us earlier in the morning by a local. At the table next to us sat a host of elderly characters seemingly from a British television series, generating our entertainment.

Then more driving along narrow roads--brave, brave Kelli--to the main highway where I fulfilled my lifelong non-desire of driving on the wrong side of the road. When I asked for prayer that I not kill us all, Mom and Kelli were not comforted.  I drove across Ireland in a few hours.

That night we spent in Kinevara where we dined at a castle with entertainment of song and poetry.


In the beginning were the words


Walk around Dublin and you very quickly notice all the attention to writers and the Irish literary tradition.  And not only James Joyce.  In fact, walk around most towns and you'll notice lots of independent bookshops.  I counted three in two blocks in Kilkenny.  And many of the tourist sites promote the literary heritage of a particular region or locale.  Even the touristy Medieval dinner in a castle we attended in Kinvara made homage to the writers who had stayed in the castle, include Yeats and Synge, but also local authors whose names, stories, and poems I did not know.  Maybe one reason I felt at home in Ireland was the deep respect for literature.

In Dublin we participated in the Literary Pub Crawl.  Two actors lead a group to four pubs and stops in between while acting out scenes from Beckett, sharing Wilde stories, reciting Heaney poems, etc.  Each pub was associated with the literary heritage of the country, frequented in the past and often present by its writers.  We were warned, though, that Dublin pubs are full of "writers" who are actually just alcoholics.

The literary pub crawl included a quiz at the end.  Guess who won?


I arrived around 5 a.m., and as the cabbie said, there's not much to do at that time.  I would come to realize that the Irish don't get going till around 9.  Breakfast in most places we stayed wasn't served until 8:30 and the one time we needed to leave a place at six, the day we were returning to the airport, it was an effort to get someone to unlock the carpark, check us out, etc.  I mentioned that in the states everything is hopping by 6 and was given a disdainful grunt in return like we Americans are stupid. "Not in Ireland," he said.


So, that first day, I napped.  Then Mom, Kelli, and I went on a historical walking tour of Dublin.  The tour is provided by history students from Trinity College.  Ours was informative and fun and very interested in asking about the American election, which happened almost every time we talked to an Irish person for any length of time.

It was while listening to his tour that I was first struck by how an experience of Ireland is coloured by the history of colonization and revolution.  Dublin is currently celebrating the centennial of the 1916 Easter uprising and notices were all over the country and Dublin was dotted with historical markers of where various battles occurred. 

After a late lunch of seafood chowder at the Stag's Head we walked through St. Stephen's Green and did some shopping before the pub crawl that evening, one of the highlights of the trip.


On day two we visited Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room of the library.  Walking into the library I had a spiritual experience akin to the one I had five years ago standing before the telescope of Galileo, overwhelmed with admiration for the power of the human intellect.

That evening Kelli and I attended choral evensong at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  I like hearing the good, old words of the liturgy.

That day I also bought five books to read.

Brandon's Creek


We followed the signs down the narrow, walled country lanes to the wide spot in the road where we parked and got out.  Across from us was a field of sheep, with Mount Brandon rising into the clouds behind.  In front of us was the Atlantic Ocean through a rocky break in the land.  We had arrived at the spot where Brandon's Creek flowed through pastures and into a small bay before the crashing of the Atlantic waves.  Goats were grazing on the steep cliffs above the creek.  We sat on a stacked stone wall and listened to the creek and the surf and the wind.

"Can you imagine setting off in a tiny boat from this spot, looking out on that ocean?"  "No," Mom replied.

For this is the spot where in the sixth century St. Brendan the Navigator set sail on his seven year voyage that, according to legend, took him to North America and back.  Over the following days I often thought of this moment on the edge of land and ocean and the sense of mission that would drive someone to risk everything. 

My trip to Ireland was rich with holy moments and revelations, of these I hope to write in the coming days.

One revelation was that I have never felt less like a foreigner in a foreign land.  I felt very at home.  I may be more Irish than I realized.  Some of this is my gift for gab and my sense of humour.  The Irish are among the friendliest people I've ever encountered.  Moments after greeting someone you could be in the full swing of conversation, way beyond surface pleasantries.  Politics came up a lot.

One of my favourite moments came in a shop in Killarney, County Kerry.  The clerk asked where we were from.  Oklahoma, my sister said.  "You get bad winters there," she said.  I responded, "Not too bad, but I live in Nebraska where they are significantly more."  The clerk said, "But you're used to that, right?  Being 'significantly more'?"  Ouch, sassy.

A strange aspect of the travel is hearing the dark sides of Irish history, the colonization and attempts by the British to ethnically cleanse the island of its native population, particularly the many reminders of the famine.  Mom wanted to visit the Cobh Heritage Center which narrates the story of Irish emigration.  While the center celebrates the strength of the emigrants and their lasting impact upon the development of other nations like the US, Canada, and Australia, I left the exhibit with a sense of grief and horror.  Underlying all the joy, the beauty, the music, and the friendliness is this dark history.

And so I work to understand what I experienced and learned from this vacation, so let's tell the story, beginning with my arrival in Dublin at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, October 12 when my cabbie said, "Not much to do this early."



We leaned on the fence overlooking the old barnlot and the dry, scruffy landscape of what Willa Cather called "The Divide"--the high land between the Republican and Little Blue Rivers.  And as the hot wind blew in our faces, we understood in rich new ways the difficult struggles of the pioneers in Cather's stories.  Why would anyone try to farm this landscape, we pondered?

We were at the Pavelka farm, the inspiration for the final scenes of My Antonia, the place where Annie Pavelka (who inspired the character of Antonia) raised her ten children.  Fred and I had traveled to "Catherland," as the local signs identify it, hoping for experiences such as this.  Our hopes were more than satisfied.

As I prepared for this sabbatical I had written publicly about wanting to see some parts of Nebraska I hadn't yet visited in our six years living here.  Fred Nielsen, who lectures in the history department at UNO and is a church member, asked what those might be.  When I mentioned Red Cloud and the Willa Cather State Historical Site, Fred said he had never visited there, despite living in Nebraska for decades and reading much of Cather's oeuvre but that he planned to visit this summer.  So we discussed sharing the costs and company and going together.  This being my final week of sabbatical we almost ran out of time before finding two days that fit our schedules.


Our journey began early Wednesday morning as we drove due west from Omaha toward the small town of St. Paul and the Nebraska Major League Baseball Museum which Fred wanted to visit as "an antidote to the political season."

We diverted (through much road construction) to drive through the village of Wolbach where Fred had lived as a child when his father was the local Lutheran pastor. The town has seen better times, though the house he lived in was well maintained.

In St. Paul we first lunched at a main street café filled with hundreds and maybe thousands of cookie jars. I ate from the fried chicken buffet.


The museum was a labor of love and a very well done presentation of Nebraska's major league ball players and Nebraska baseball history with a focus on the hall of famers. Grover Cleveland Alexander, the first such Nebraskan so honored, was from St. Paul.

We also walked among the (locked) buildings of the Howard County Historical Museum—the standard old church, one room school house, general store, blacksmith shop, and railroad depot. These were attractively laid out and very well maintained. They were adjacent to the very republican county courthouse and a tasteful (unlike, say, Saunders County) war memorial with a puzzling inaccurate start date for the Persian Gulf War, which they also contend (maybe correctly) has never ceased.



We arrived in Red Cloud shortly before the Cather Foundation (located in the old Opera House) was to close for the day. "We worried about you," said the receptionist, as she gave us our keys for the Cather Second House Bed and Breakfast where we were scheduled to stay. This is the home Willa Cather's parents purchased when she was an adult, so she never lived there, though she visited in the summers and for holidays and was known by locals to use the upper porch for reading and writing.

Local volunteer Cheryl oriented us to the house. "I was born here," she surprised us. This was a maternity hospital after the Cather's sold it. "I also had my tonsils taken out here. The living room was the recovery room. I remember waking up and seeing that window," she said as she indicated the front picture window.

We told Cheryl we planned to walk the Cather Prairie that evening. She said that was good and that the prairie was south of town, past the Republican River. "If you come to Kansas, go back 100 yards." Humorous advice that was actually helpful later when we had to do exactly that.

She offered dining recommendations. "There are three options, and one I've never eaten at." We agreed to eliminate that one. "For breakfast, there's the bowling alley."

The next morning we stayed in and enjoyed the breakfast provided at the house—homemade granola and pumpkin bread with special Willa Cather brand peach butter which was so delicious I bought a jar despite the anticipated mocking from my husband that I had bought yet another jar of jelly or jam (which did occur when I returned home). We breakfasted on the wrap-around front porch with two other guests, one of whom is an American who is an English literature professor living in France who was preparing to teach My Antonia this coming school year.

Wednesday night we enjoyed our walk at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, identifying wildflowers using the handy flyer available at the trailhead and watching the sun set.


Thursday morning, after breakfast, we walked over to the Opera House for our tour of the Cather-related sites. "Which tour do you want? We've got the 7 building, 3 building, or 1 building tour?" We took the seven. It was $15 and why drive all this way and be cheap?

Living room--smaller


The tour included the childhood home filled with Cather family possessions and the attic room in which Willa lived, reading books late at night and looking out her window to imagine a wider world. Also included were homes and buildings that inspired various settings in the novels. We even saw some items specifically described in various novels. We were surprised to learn how many of the characters and places had direct connections to real life people and places. After the guided tour we drove around town and out into the country to see even more locations, and there were dozens more on the map that we could have seen. We enjoyed our stay in the home and our sight-seeing so much that we both intend to return and bring family. I hope to make a writing retreat there some time during a future project.

We were impressed by the Willa Cather Foundation. They have restored many buildings in town and are currently remodeling a large stretch of the main street to become the National Willa Cather Center with a museum. Knowing how sites like the Mark Twain House have struggled in the last decade, this burst of money and energy around Cather is all the more impressive.

Our experiences in Red Cloud and Catherland complete, we drove east on the minor highway 4 through very small towns, villages, and hamlets, paralleling the Oregon Trail. At one crossroads in the middle of nowhere we stopped at a tiny 19th century cemetery and marveled at how many infants and children were buried there without their parents in adjacent graves, maybe a sign that the families later moved on someplace else.

Our last stop was Homestead National Monument, which I had last visited six years ago. Fred had been there as well and toured the inside exhibits but hadn't walked the trails through the prairie and along the creek bottom. So, we did that.


I made it home in time for a delicious dinner of leftover beans and cornbread, a walk to our community garden plot with my son to pick fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, and sitting on the couch with my husband to watch Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech.

With or Without You

As we drove up the Missouri River valley last night, U2's "With or Without You" came on the radio.  I, of course, began singing along.  Then I realized that Sebastian was singing as well.  Singing U2 with our son was a great way to end our long, hot family vacation, which Michael had dubbed the "Show Off Sebastian Tour."

Garden walk

After our time in Arkansas, we visited my Mom, the extreme heat limiting our ability to enjoy the outdoors, but we still toured Lindenwood Gardens and played at the local splash pad.  Sebastian loves gardens, particularly hunting for rocks.  Everywhere we go he now collects one or two rocks. 

A quick excursion to Miami one evening allowed us to see dear friends, and we stopped in Claremore to visit my step-dad who delights in his new grandson.


In Oklahoma City we attended Cathedral of Hope, the church I pastored from 2005-2010.  Sebastian ventured up and down the aisles greeting people, many of whom were so delighted to meet our son.


While seeing family and some friends (and struggling to survive the extreme heat) we took Sebastian to some places that meant a lot to us--the parks and streets of our old neighborhood, the spot where we were married, the restaurant where we had our first dinner and date.  Our final evening he played in the pool with his cousins.


He seemed to grow up a lot during this trip.  He now gives high fives and has learned to shake hands, even venturing around restaurants to shake hands with strangers.  He gets out of bed on his own, even when they were a little too high for that.  He can slide without being held the whole way down.  And he understands more and more words.  Plus, he sings along to U2, which is really cool.

Good Art Work

Museum plaza

The first time I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art about five years ago shortly after it opened, what stood out to me besides the pretty setting, the architecturally marvelous buildings, and the fine collection was the people.  When Ann Walton opened the museum she wanted it to be free and open to the public and to bring fine art into a region that was often lacking.  Of course free museums have become more common now, but at the time this was a new thing.  And the people in attendance at the museum were not the sort one usually saw in museums.  It was a noticeable difference.

The second time I visited, later that year when Michael, Mom, and I jotted over from her house for a quick, after holiday tour, what impressed me was the fine collection of queer art--both gay artists and gay subjects.  And some of the cards even drew explicit attention to the gay themes.  A daring step in Northwest Arkansas, I thought.

But then Northwest Arkansas is always a bit of a paradox.  Eureka Springs represents that quite well.  The old Victorian heart of the city is very gay-friendly, with rainbow flags and gay-owned businesses and one of the first equality ordinances in the state.  But the outer ring of more modern hotels and attractions is very evangelical, include the towering statue of the Christ of the Ozarks and the Passion Play.  When I was a kid, we stayed in the outer ring, as an adult we stayed in the heart of the town.  The whole region is like that--liberal pockets surrounded by right-wing fundamentalists.

This visit there was a noticeable increase in African-American art and more attention to it.  

I continue to marvel at the fine collection and the wonderful buildings.  I have yet to enjoy the trail system, as the days have either been too hot or too cold when I've visited.


Sebastian's new mobility made him not as easy a museum guest as he once was, but still not too bad.  Fortunately Crystal Bridges has a great kids space, where he played with other children, and some wide rooms where he enjoyed making noise and running around.

My favourite new addition was the installation of four massive sculptures--one in the courtyard and three along the trail from the upper parking lot--of the four seasons.

Good work is being done with this museum.


Old Ties

Town Square smaller

I was 27 years old in 2001 when I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas to become the Associate Pastor for Student and Family Life of Rolling Hills Baptist Church.  Now I'm 42 and many of the youth I worked with at the time are older than I was then.  I'm now older than some of the parents were then.

Since 20o5 I had made no extended visit to Fayetteville, returning for a couple weddings and a few funerals or a quick stop going and coming between Oklahoma City and Eureka Springs when visiting the latter for a romantic weekend.  So there were many people I had not seen in more than a decade.

I've always loved Fayetteville.  I enjoyed visiting there before I even moved there, as it contains my favourite used bookstore.  The area is rich with artists and farmer's and natural beauty.  Michael and I have often talked of retiring there.

This trip we stayed in the home of Brad and Sherri Fry.  Sherri was my realtor in 2001 and when my house wasn't ready for my start date at the church, she offered to let me live with them for six weeks, which I did, sealing a lasting bond.  They came to Omaha last summer to meet Sebastian and this visit Sebastian and Brad in particular developed a close bond.  

Rolling Hills is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of their church plant this coming Sunday.  I wrote the pastor that I couldn't make that celebration but would be in town the week before and that my family would come to church that week.  He wrote back welcoming me and invited me to share a reminiscence.  Introducing my husband and son to this Baptist congregation I served was a remarkable moment for me.


After church we lunched at the best fried chicken in the world--AQ Chicken's "Chicken Over the Coals."  Sebastian was so tired he slept on my shoulder throughout the meal, compelling me to eat fried chicken one-handed.  I have decided that the key parenting skill is learning to do everything with one hand.


That evening dear old friends the Wardlows, the Fergusons, the Spicers, and Julianne Brown came over for a visit and to meet our son.  The visit was filled with such encounters with former youth and youth parents and other Fayetteville friends, occupying our lunches and dinners.  Tuesday night we met up with Julie, Aaron, and Jonah Weegens.  Julie had been a high school student in 2001 and I performed her wedding sometime later.  When Jonah was born six years ago he was the first child of one of my former youth, so Michael and I made a quick stop to hold the newborn baby.  Now he and Sebastian played together.  What a delight.


We stayed up late each night sharing stories and laughing.


And we visited some of my favourite places. The arts colony of Terra Studios where Sebastian frolicked among the quirky sculptures, we bought some new art, and even Sebastian picked out a pottery bowl that he liked. The Farmer's Market, encircling the town square with its well-maintained gardens (the Pride display in the visitor's center was a welcome site). Hugo's for the Blue Moon Burger.  Wilson Park for the whimsical castle.  And there were a handful of other places we didn't get to.


The trip was healing and restorative for me, strengthening and in some places retying bonds.  But it was mostly fun, sharing people and places I enjoy with my family.

The Pivot

After our 13 mile hike along the Eagle Creek Trail, we returned to Hood River for flights of beer and burgers at pFriem.  I was very excited by the note in the men's bathroom above the changing table.  This hospitality is lacking in so many places which don't even have changing tables in the men's rooms.  


Across the street was Waterfront Park and a creative, unusual playground area with grassy berms, climbing walls, giant wooden xylophones, and more. I missed Sebastian in the moment.  Clearly my mind was pivoting to my return home.

The lake was filled with paragliders, their colourful chutes floating across the crisp blue skies.


We meandered along the waterfront and I took my shoes off in order to enjoy the grass on bare feet--making sure to avoid the goose shit.

Friday we slept in, ate breakfast in Parkland at a place decorated with reggae and NASCAR memorabilia and a poster from The Crow.  The coffee was very bad.  

We cleaned up the cabin and departed, deciding to drive up and over the mountain instead of down the gorge.  We arrived at McMenamins, where Dan had brought me three years before, for lunch and to kill time drinking beer and playing shuffleboard.  The place was filling up with evening concert goers, but we enjoyed the activity and browsed the shops, including watching the glass blower.

Dan dropped me at the airport early so he could get home to his wife.  He had to leave town again the next day for a church conference.

As I've typed this probable last post on my Oregon hiking journey, I've been listening to Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, always a great accompaniment to the landscapes of the American West.

Lunching with Chipmunks


For our final day of hiking Dan recommended Eagle Creek.  "It's a great waterfall hike."  Plus it afforded nice stops and opportunities to decide if we would press on.

We began early in order to beat the rush on a nice day.  We took the first two miles leisurely, often pausing to take pictures and to enjoy the scenery.  When we made the return trip I had forgotten how much was contained within this first phase of the hike.

With clear sunny skies predicted, we didn't pack our rain gear.  Which means it rained on us a couple of times that day.


At two miles were Punchbowl Falls.  Shortly after those falls a bridge was down, but most folk wanting to go higher just forded the stream.  

A little more than a mile past Punchbowl you reach another waterfall at the end of a long crevase.  This is the best view of the fault that originally formed the valley.  The water at the bottom of the crevase is very clear and moving gently (though quickly).  But the entrance to the slit is a loud and beautiful rapids.  Fortunately this splendid spot is traversed by High Bridge.  Dan and I chose to lunch there.




Shortly after we stopped, two chipmunks ran across the bridge behind us.  We threw them some bread which they nibbled a few feet away from us.  As we lunched, they stayed with us, coming inches from us at times.  A few things, like some peanuts, they crammed into their cheeks and ran off into the brush, maybe to store for later?  The moment felt like a genuine friendly communion with two animals.  "Companions," Dan said, referring to the literal--those with whom you share bread.

Taking in the glory of the view I told Dan that my funeral plan is for people to receive ashes to spread someplace that is significant to their relationship with me.  I told him this spot was where he would have to deposit his share of my ashes.


The trail had been fun, but not rough.  At times we held the hand railings on the narrow, rocky cliffsides, and we had been rained on, but we weren't tired and the time was still early, so we elected to continue another three miles to Tunnel Falls.  We made one more long stop on our ascent of the valley, sitting beside the creek casting rocks into the stream.  I stood momentarily in the cold water to refresh my feet.

The final 40 minutes or so of the ascent we weren't taking time to look about as much, determined to reach our endpoint.  And Tunnel Falls did not disappoint.  A thundering tall falls with a tunnel carved behind.  Standing on the slick rocks as the spray rush passed you loudly felt dangerous and joyfully exhilarating.  We whooped and hollered and took many pictures and videos.



A brief rest and we started our return cutting our time in half on the first half back.  The chipmunks were still at High Bridge, now eating with a different group of hikers.  We also saw four other Nebraskans on the trail.


The final two miles after Punchbowl felt much longer than they had in the morning, and when we reached the end, we took our boots off and let our tired feet soak a little in the stream.  We had hiked almost thirteen miles and around 1100 feet in elevation and back.  Even though we saw many hikers much older than we are, the day made us feel younger than our age.

However, the tiredness and soreness the next day and the days after reminded me, I am really 42.