It was a stressful day getting to this point—I’ll spare you the boring details—but there’s nothing like a train ride to calm the mind and lull a person into a lovely Sabbathy space. I can see why Amtrak’s writing residencies are so popular. Some day…
I write and talk in workshops about creating margins in our lives. I get a bit frantic without a buffer between this thing and that thing. Unfortunately, I have not done well at margins lately. But as grace would have it, my host in NJ suggested the train, even though I could easily drive. And I’m glad she did. Train travel is a buffer experience. (Oh look, there goes Wilmington!)
October is a big month for our household. Robert has some travel, I have a couple of speaking events I’m really looking forward to in Alexandria, VA and Austin, TX, and our church’s 100th anniversary is happily upon us. Oh, and did I mention our 20th wedding anniversary? It will all zip by if we are not intentional about creating some breathing space in between those good but immovable objects. Wish us luck… and I wish you luck & grace too, for the living of your days.
No, not this website—the actual blue room, our dining room-turned-office and craft space for which this website is named. The Blue Room is a symbol for the stuff in our lives that doesn’t work that needs to be reimagined to embrace the way things are, not the way we think they should be. With three young children, we never used our formal dining room. But I did need a study at home. And the kids would benefit from a place where they could play around with glitter, paint, glue and stickers. Preferably a place without carpet…
So during Snowpocalypse of 2010, our Blue Room was transformed from a useless place to a space for life and creativity.
I realized recently that despite the symbolism of the Blue Room, the walls have been adorned with the same artwork I’ve had for a long time. I don’t remember when I got this labyrinth poster (scroll down for the only image I can find online), but it was well before the 1999 gathering being advertised.
And Jane Evershed’s First Supper has been with me for many years. As a former Baptist who grew up with a blond Jesus and very male-centric images of God and Jesus’ closest followers, I love Evershed’s table, with 12 multi-racial and beautifully adorned women raising their glasses into the air. (Which one is the host at the table? Which one is Jesus? None of them. All of them.)
But life moves on. And now I have one of these, a rendering of the cover of Boston Magazine from last spring:
Peace, love, and running.
Here’s poster #2. Brain Pickings is one of my favorite sites, and Maria Popova recently published Seven Life Lessons from her work on the site. The folks Holstee Company came up with a beautiful graphical rendering of it. It arrived last week and is hanging on the nail I used for the Evershed poster. The placement isn’t quite right in the room, but I love it. A closeup from their website:
Which brings me to the giveaway. The Holstee company initially sent me their manifesto poster by mistake. The corrected the order, and asked me to keep the poster. But I want to share the love. So comment here or on my Facebook page with a recent “Blue Room” experience: either something you’ve reconfigured to fit your life as it really is, or something you know you need to reconfigure. (Or a general “hi” is fine too.) Each comment will be entered once. Submissions are due by Friday August 22 at midnight EDT.
Here’s Holstee’s manifesto poster (actual size 18×24″). Good luck to everyone!
Robin Williams in The Birdcage, one of my favorites.
I don’t feel a need to comment at length on the events of last week. Many have already done so, and done it better than I could. But I did want to share two links that, taken together this morning, gave me a bit of hope and perspective.
The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions – to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience.
The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who’d had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between).
We tend to avoid conversation because we think the other person won’t want to engage—but the research showed that was not the case: “[Study participants] predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk – in fact, this didn’t occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.”
I’m pretty introverted in public spaces. And it’s taken some time to feel OK with that. I’m a mother of three and a pastor—I engage with people a lot; I don’t need to do it everywhere. Still, I sometimes challenge myself to strike up a short conversation with a stranger, and it always feels good to do so.
We are made to connect.
The second link is this video from The Dish, called Suicide Breeds Suicide. Jennifer Michael Hecht, who wrote the book Stay: A History of Suicide and Philosophies Against It, addresses the issue of “copycat behavior” following a suicide. For example, she reports that young people whose parents commit suicide can be three times as likely to attempt suicide as a result.
I don’t like the phrase, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Robin Williams suffered from a life-long illness. His struggle, while it seemed to wax and wane at various times, was as permanent a condition as he could possibly imagine. Still, there are folks out there who believe that the world will be better off without them in it. That’s demonstrably false, according to the research about suicide contagion.
Hecht puts it like this: “If you don’t kill yourself, you are saving someone’s life. …I don’t want to dwell on the guilt of what you do if you harm yourself, I want to dwell on the wonder of how much you meant to people you don’t even know. …The one thing we need to add to that is gratitude, and I don’t mind starting it: I’m grateful. You’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, who had experienced suicidal feelings, responded to the video:
When I was at my lowest ebb, I definitely knew that if I ended my life I would hurt others around me – my family, my friends. But in the two or so years I struggled with those feelings, I can tell you it never once occurred to me that killing myself might lead someone else to end their life. Such a thought would have been abhorrent to me, and I couldn’t help wondering after I watched Hecht’s video whether suicide prevention counsellors make that point to those at risk of harming themselves. I think if they did, some of those people would step back from the brink. It’s one thing to hurt yourself and rationalize that your pain is greater than the pain you’ll cause others through your death; it’s quite another to think you might be compelling some of those who knew you to step into that abyss themselves.
Watch the whole thing here—it’s short:
We are made to connect.
And we are made connected. There’s no avoiding it.
I wrote recently about attending the Sarah McLachlan concert with my mother at Wolf Trap (outdoor arena in the DC area). In the post I shared how social media impacted the concert-going experience, in mostly positive ways. But I also had a very low-tech experience that was significant.
I spent most of the concert sitting on our picnic blanket on the lawn, but at one point I was lying down on my back, looking up at the sky. It was a mostly clear evening, and as I was looking and listening I realized with a start that a star had appeared where there hadn’t been one visible before. I had seen the star emerge in the sky. I then spent the next couple of songs trying to catch each star as it slowly came into being.
(I know, the stars are always there. It’s poetic language, people!)
I thought that bit from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark when she and Ed take time to watch the moon rise. They realize it’s probably been two decades since they’d last done so, and they ask one another why. BBT knows the answer and it lands with a thud: “We’ve been busy. For twenty years.”
Before two Saturdays ago, when was the last time I’d watched the stars come out? Have I ever?
We’re off today for about 10 days of vacation, and there will be lots of time and space for this kind of activity. See you on the flip side. Hope you have a chance to do some star-hunting too.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.