Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

A User’s Guide to Iona, Beta Version

A view of the Iona Abbey from the bay

A view of the Iona Abbey from the bay

Recently a couple of people have asked me for advice on traveling to Iona. I remember feeling a bit lost the first time I went, and couldn’t find a go-to page with information (aside from the Iona website itself, which is good but not exhaustive, especially if you’re traveling from the U.S.).

So here’s a draft guide to traveling to Iona, an expanded version of an email I sent to one of these friends. I know many of you have been there and have even more experience than I do, so please pipe up with items to add, and we’ll make this guide better and better! (Be sure to check out the stuff in bold italic.)

What is Iona?

Iona is an island in the inner Hebrides of Scotland, and is said to be Christianity’s first outpost in Scotland back in the sixth century or so. The Iona Community is an inclusive Christian community that hosts pilgrims on the island throughout the year.

The Iona Community hosts folks in one of two facilities: the Abbey, mainly for adults, and Macleod (pronounced mack-CLOUD) Centre, mainly for families. There’s also Camas, but that’s off-island and for young people—not the focus of this post.

The Iona Community doesn’t bill itself as a conference center or a retreat center, though it has elements of both. It is an experience of living in community. If you stay in Iona Community accommodations, you won’t have a private room (though if you travel with someone you can room with them, and families are kept together in Macleod’s large rooms). Also, bathrooms are down the hall, with sinks in the bedrooms. The accommodations are perfectly serviceable and comfortable but not fancy.

As part of the community, you’ll be divided into work groups and given tasks to do each day. These are minor, like setting tables for meals, sweeping, chopping vegetables, or cleaning bathrooms. Meals are family style and the different task teams serve those. Tasks take 20 minutes each day, tops, and are nice for building community and doing your part.

What is a week at Iona like?

The Iona Community’s week-long program begins with an arrival Saturday afternoon and ends with a Friday morning departure.  Some weeks are programmed, with a speaker who leads things in the morning, with afternoons free. Check Iona Community’s website to see what they have planned each week. I’ve been to a programmed week and an open week and I prefer the latter. That said, the programmed weeks provide plenty of free time, and the open weeks typically have scheduled activities, such as tours of the facilities, hymn sings, and other options. Worship takes place each evening, with different themes each day.

The pilgrimage is the highlight for many people. It’s a multi-hour trek around the island to view the various sacred sites. There’s an off-road version for hardier souls and on-road for people who want a shorter experience. The off-road version is subject to be altered or canceled based on trail conditions, and they are insistent on proper footwear—waterproof shoes, ideally hiking boots with ankle support.

Which pilgrimage should you choose? I highly recommend the off-road version, provided that:
–you’re in good enough shape
–for a 5-hour hike with frequent stops (including almost an hour for lunch)
–on uneven (but not mountainous) terrain.

The pilgrimage is usually on Tuesdays.

There’s also an evening of folk dancing, called a Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), in the town hall. It’s fun and intergenerational. Think Celtic line dancing.

If you stay in the Macleod Centre you also have access to their beautiful and amazingly-stocked craft room. Many happy hours can be spent there.

What about island activities?

Here are a few fun things to do beyond the walls of the Iona Community. (Iona is great for wandering, so get yourself a map of the island from one of the shops.)

  • Have a cream tea at one of the inns and hotels and/or book a lunch or dinner.
  • Climb up Dun I (pronounced dun ee), the highest point on the island at a manageable 331 feet.
  • Have a drink and enjoy the view at Martyr’s Bay restaurant.
  • Visit the beaches and wade in the clear but coooooold water.
  • Book a boat trip to nearby Staffa to see Fingal’s cave and, if the timing is right, PUFFINS!
    Note: I have never done this because the boat is small and the seas are rough. Bad combo for me.
  • Browse the shops for souvenirs, folk crafts, wool (aka yarn), or an ice cream sandwich.
  • Stargazing, meandering walks… anything you’d do in a wild rural setting.

Where do I start with logistics?

As of this post, the Iona Community has not yet posted its schedule for next summer. When they do, it should be here. First step is to decide when you want to go and fill out a booking form (also available at that link). Once you are confirmed, you can investigate flights and other travel arrangements (see below).

What if I want to go on my own, not as part of the Community?

I don’t have a lot of logistical information to offer on that. Go to Isle of Iona’s website and poke around for accommodations and information.

If you go on your own, you’re always welcome to worship with the Community in the Abbey Church–services are daily–and the pilgrimage is also open to all, as well as the Ceilidh. Those events are in the early part of the week, so plan accordingly.

What do I need to know about traveling there and back?

If you can manage it, I’d get to the UK a few days before you head to Iona. This allows you to get over your jetlag. And IF heaven forbid you lose your bags, which happened to people in our group the first time, it gives you time to be reunited with your luggage before getting to the island.

Americans: Our family flew into Dublin a few days early and saw the sights there, then flew to Glasgow. Dublin is a great airport because when you return to the U.S., you do all the customs and immigration at the Dublin airport before you leave. So when you get to your home airport you just collect your bags and head home. Highly recommended.

Whatever you decide to do, you need to be in Glasgow by Friday night so you can start the journey to Iona first thing Saturday morning.

There is information on the Iona website about travel from Glasgow and back. It involves a 3 hour train ride, a 45 minute ferry ride, an hourlong bus ride, and a five minute ferry. This sounds very complicated but it’s quite easy, especially in the summer. If you leave Queen St. Station in Glasgow on the 8 a.m. train you pretty much can’t go wrong. They’re set up for pilgrims to come to Iona. Just follow the crowds.

 Breaking down the steps, you need tickets for:

  1. The train from Glasgow to Oban. Buy ahead of time so you’re not rushed that morning. Using the Rail and Sail site to get both train and Oban ferry tickets.
  2. The ferry from Oban to Craignure on the island of Mull. Buy these the day of at the terminal on the dock, or see previous note.
  3. The bus ride across Mull. Buy them the day of. Seriously. They’re lined up right next to the dock. I can’t remember if they accept credit cards or cash only, but it’s £11 round trip, so bring enough cash just in case.
  4. The ferry ride from Fionnphort (pronounced FIN-eh-for, best I can tell) to Iona. Same disclaimer about cash/credit, and I can’t find the price, but it’s less than the bus ride.

How about going with children?

Traveling to Iona with one’s family is obviously a huge expense, but for us it was worth the saving up and the effort. Sadly, some communities welcome children more in theory than in practice, but Iona really takes hospitality seriously, including for little ones. The Macleod Centre is a comfortable, accommodating place for children. (Remember, they’ve got that amazing craft room.)

I was curious to see how our plugged-in, chicken-nugget-eating American kids would do in a remote location with no Internet and unfamiliar food. (Iona serves mainly vegetarian options, and they’re good about accommodating allergies and sensitivities.) I’m sure our kids ate more than their share of bread that week, but they were none the worse for wear. And they really “got” the place, and enjoyed getting to know people from other countries. You know your own children and your budget, but I encourage you to give it a try if you can.

What about packing?

  • Pack light and plan to handwash items in your sink. There is a drying room in the Abbey and Macleod, and while it’s better than nothing, it mainly succeeded at giving our supposedly clean clothes a slight mildewy smell.
  • Layers and good footwear, preferably boots.
  • You do not need any dressy clothing while there. Worship is casual.
  • There are some boots and waterproofs that can be borrowed, but I’d bring your own.
  • Make sure you’ve got one of these outlet adapters if you bring electronics.
  • If you get carsick easily, bring Dramamine for the bus ride across Mull. It’s a single lane road so there’s a lot of pulling over to let other traffic pass.
  • Friends: what else should be added here?

Miscellaneous

  • There is no Internet access in the Iona Community’s centers. You can access WiFi at one of the nearby hotels for a small fee.
  • You can eat at the cafe on the ferry from Oban to Mull, but do yourself a favor and stop at the seafood shack for some prawn sandwiches instead. Get ‘em to go and bring ‘em on board. Nothing fancy, but fresh as can be.
  • Then when you get back to Oban on your return, stop by the George Street Fish and Chips shop for some piping hot takeaway (cash only).

Have you been to Iona? What have I left out?

~

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Selfies, Social Media and Sarah McLachlan

My sweet mother and I at Wolf Trap last Saturday night.

My sweet mother and I at Wolf Trap last Saturday night.

My mom and I went to see Sarah McLachlan at Wolf Trap on Saturday night. It was a great night to be on the lawn, and a lovely show. (By the way, just how much Wolf Trap picnic food is provided by Trader Joe’s? A LOT.)

I’ve got technology on the brain these days as I work on my book, so I was interested in how people were experiencing the concert with and through their smartphones.  It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to Wolf Trap, but I’ve seen the norms change dramatically even during that time. Whipping out one’s phone to send a text or check Facebook used to be rare and (I sensed) frowned upon. By now it’s the norm, at least on the lawn.

One of the great things about live music is the way it knits together audience and performer as a community, albeit for a limited time and in a particular place. Does the use of social media expand that community, or does it dilute the overall experience? Or are both possible? (I think you know I’m a Both kinda gal.)

Before I go further, let me say this: the vast majority of cell phone usage I saw was from people who were way older than I am. So those of you clearing your throats for your “kids today” lecture, save it. This is a seriously intergenerational phenomenon now.

Here are some ways I witnessed people using their phones during the concert… or did so myself.

  • Looking up Sarah’s Wikipedia page to see how old she is, because she looks amazing. (She’s 46)
  • Taking notes on her setlist, presumably to download tunes later, or create a playlist.
  • Googling the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, a free program for underserved kids in the Vancouver area that provides high-quality music programs and lessons at no charge, which Sarah mentioned during the show.
  • Random checking of social media during the slow moments.
  • Texting friends to say, “I’m here watching Sarah McLachlan and remembering so happily our Lilith Fair days.” (That was me. Shoutout to K and G)
  • Receiving a photo of one’s children proudly displaying the awards they received at the swim team picnic that evening. (Also me.)
  • Lifting up glowing screens during the slow songs, with or without the benefit of the Candle app.
  • Recording snippets of songs to share with friends.

My guess is that some of those activities seem legit to you, and others make you bristle. Which ones and why?

It should be said, I could’ve done without the gals in front of me taking repeated selfies after it got dark… with the flash.

I also could’ve done without the people next to me talking loudly during much of the first act. Oh yeah, that has nothing to do with smartphone use. But wait! I thought technology was the downfall of polite civilization! You mean people can be boorish and rude without benefit of their cell phones? Get outta here! ;-)

What Does ‘Spirituality’ Mean?

A photo taken on the path beside the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

A photo taken on the path beside the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

My next book is currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. Which raises the question, what is “spirituality”? When growing numbers of people say they are spiritual but not religious, what do they mean by that?

I’m working on that answer for the sake of the book.

There’s been a lot already written about the Internet/digital culture and its effect on us mentally, psychologically and relationally. What does having the whole world in your pocket mean for one’s attention span, or ability to synthesize information? Does constant connectivity make us happier, or more anxious? How does social media bring us closer and drive us apart?

I’m not interested in rehashing those writings so much as bringing them in conversation with one another. In my view, spirituality encompasses mental, psychological, and relational health—and much more. And I don’t see spirituality as a vague woo-woo concept so much as an integration of all aspects of our lives—the ways we observe and think about the world; the ways we move within it; the ties that bind and break. And for many people, spirituality means a connection to something larger than themselves, whether it’s God, a sense of mystery, the human family, or the planetary ecosystem.

I’ve found two recent definitions that are helping me home in on this. One is from Brene Brown and her book The Gifts of Imperfection:

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.

The other is from Richard Rohr and his book Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi. It came to me by way of his daily email. Rohr writes about mysticism, but I think his words relate to spirituality too:

False mysticism, and we have had a lot of it, often feels too much like “my little Jesus and my little me,” and doesn’t seem to make many social, historical, corporate, or justice connections. As Pope Francis says, it is all “too self-referential.”

If authentic God experience first makes you overcome the primary split between yourself and the divine, then it should also overcome the split between yourself and the rest of creation. For some, the split is seemingly overcome in the person of Jesus; but for more and more people, union with the divine is first experienced through the Christ: in nature, in moments of pure love, silence, inner or outer music, with animals, a sense of awe, or some kind of “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” experience.

I’m interested in your definition of spirituality. Where do you resonate with the definitions above? What is missing or off-base from your experience?

 

The Improv Life: Stop Trying to Be Clever

Leave the cleverness to these guys.

Leave the cleverness to these guys.

The writing workshop I attended in Collegeville involved unstructured writing time each morning and afternoon (heaven) with group gatherings in the evenings. One of these gatherings was a workshop on improv led by Greta Grosch, an actor and group trainer in Minnesota.

Greta led us through a series of exercises that built nicely on one another. We started with games in which we passed various words and movements around a circle, then worked our way up to improvising scenes. Which sounds more impressive than it was. We are all amateurs, our group is somewhat introverted, and as writers, our creativity often comes after staring at a blank page or empty screen, not after a facilitator points to us and says, “You. Go.”

As many of you know, the basic rule of improv, is to yes-and. It’s a decent way to live one’s life: to build on what’s offered (especially if you can’t change it).

Yet everyone in our group struggled to move the scenes forward. It’s amazing how ingrained the word but is in us. We resist the suggestion our partner gives us because we think we had a “better” idea. Or we have no idea how to run with what’s offered, so we veer off in our own direction. It’s not about rejecting the person; it’s about retaining some semblance of control. Yet improv is about mutual discovery. You agree to be swept along just to see where the thing goes.

I’ve done just enough improv that it’s not excruciating anymore, but I still like the theory more than the practice. I’m intrigued by improv, not because it comes naturally, but because it doesn’t.

But every time I do improv there’s a breakthrough.

Last time I wrote about improv it ended up on Collegeville’s blog. That time I had this realization: people aren’t looking at you and judging you nearly as much as you think. This is very freeing.

My takeaway from Greta’s workshop was this:

Don’t be clever.

What stops many of us from moving forward is the pressure to think of something good. So we stand there, racking our brains for a zany line or action. The silence not only kills the energy of the scene or game, but it raises the stakes for whatever’s eventually going to come out of your mouth. People expect it to be awesome, a bar that we novices mostly clear accidentally and serendipitously.

I realized how much more fruitful it is to do something, anything. Just act. For me, improv isn’t about learning how to perform for others (yet?) but how to silence my inner commentator long enough to act intuitively. In the beginning, my question was “Can I come up with something clever?” I found it helpful to shift to “How quickly can I respond to what’s been offered?” A quick response is uncensored, almost instinctive. And it may stink or it may be funny, but at least something happens that moves the action forward and gives one’s partner something to work with.

The problem is, many of us know improv through Second City or Whose Line Is It Anyway? We judge ourselves against the masters, but these are people at the top of their craft. (They’ve also learned the forms so well that the scenes they build aren’t truly anything-goes. If you watch closely, there are jokes they fall back on and moves they make that, while not quite scripted, aren’t truly spontaneous.)

As a sometimes-control freak with a perfectionistic streak, cleverness is my enemy. It means I never make the initial move, write the first word, because it’s got to be just right. A life lived improvisationally means that you start. Don’t just stand there, do something. Almost anything will do, because that first move provides information you need in order to make the second move.

Read other blog posts about improv here.

Death and Dying on the Internet

I’m back from Collegeville and a fruitful week of writing. I’ve now got a very (very) rough draft for book two, currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age.  It’s a shorter book than Sabbath in the Suburbs, and I’m still planning to publish it via e-book, though a print option will be available. I’ve been in touch with an editor and a friend who does e-book production for a living. This thing will happen.

The final chapter will be about how the Internet has impacted the way we think about death and dying. It’s turning out to be one of my favorite chapters to research and write. Here’s some of the conversation about the topic on Facebook.

One of the cool things about writing a book is that people send you things. Today Dave True, a friend and professor at Wilson College, sent along this post from the Religion and American History blog by Laura Arnold Leibman. Key quote:

In The Hour of Our Death (1987), Philippe Ariès argues that an “invisible death model” has dominated twentieth-century American life.  In this model,

Death’s medicalization distanced the community from the dying and the deceased.  Individualism ruled, nature was conquered, social solidarity waned, and not the afterworld but family ties mattered.  Western society surrounded death with so much shame, discomfort, and revulsion that Gorer (1965) even spoke of a pornography of death.  Death became concealed in hospitals, nursing homes, and trailer parks.  Yet, the death of death remained, a fear corresponding more to people’s social than biological death. 

Accompanying this dispossession of the dying person is a “denial of mourning” and the subsequent invention of new funerary rituals in the United States (Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death,” Death in America, ed. Stannard [1975], 136).  Excessive displays of emotion both by the person dying and those they leave behind are considered taboo and “embarrassments.”  …

What interested my students, however, was the impact of the internet on the “invisible death model.”  Have we entered a new era regarding death and loss?  They noticed in particular three results of the internet.

Check out the post for Leibman’s observations.

And in case you missed it, Katherine Willis Pershey also sent this along–a beautiful expression of solidarity and care for bereaved parents. Their little one spent her entire life in the NICU and they wanted to see her pretty face without the tubes. Members of the Reddit community responded:

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I like the middle one, but they are all haunting. And they are all an offering to total strangers, which makes them beautiful.