Have you ever thought about why we read books? Sounds odd, I know, but sometimes I think about how much time it takes to read a book and have this fleeting thought – is it worth it? Well, I would say that most of the time my answer is a resounding YES!!! But as I’ve crossed decades, I have grown less tolerant of reading a book that I don’t enjoy and can (almost) force myself to stop reading one. We all know it when we have a good one – you can’t put it down. The story is engrossing and you find yourself looking for time to read it. I’ve gone so far as to listen to a book on audible while driving and reading the physical book at home. (This works far better with kindle because you can “whispersync” the book and the kindle will pick up where you left off when you stopped listening. Otherwise, I’m having to fast forward on audible.) When the story doesn’t grab me or the writing is banal, I think about the fact that we all only have so much time on earth and wasting it on a bad book is a travesty. Put it down. There are a million other excellent stories to read.
So, why do we read? In contemplating this question, I think back to a very young me that read voraciously and would enter reading contests over the summer between school years. (I even won a reading trophy in first grade.) I won’t ignore the fact that my competitive nature didn’t drive me to read more than I normally would have in those summer months, but it is a skill that has served me so well in my life. Setting aside the competitive component, reading provided an escape and a window into an unknown world. As a child growing up in a not-so-sophisticated suburban world, books showed me ideas, places and people that I would never otherwise come to know living in Irving, Texas.
In 2020 (pre-pandemic), I chose 30 books as my challenge. Right now, I’ve completed 18 books and in the middle of a 944-page novel (this should count as 3 books!) and another non-fiction book that I’ve been “reading” for about a year. It never occurred to me until writing this piece that I am engaging in the same practice as I did when I was 6-years-old – almost 40 years ago. (really??) For some reason, it makes me smile to think about the fact that I’ve entered a reading challenge in 2020 reflective of a challenge from 1981. Are we challenging each other in a parallel universe? Does the 45-year-old read with the same vigor as the 7-year-old? Quite possibly. I do know that the engulfing nature of a good book is the same today as it was then – the feeling of “knowing” the characters and anticipating their reactions and words when an incredible writer has brought the character to life. Not wanting the story to end or crying my eyes out at the devastating death of a character or the poignancy of how the story ends. That has never changed.
And, again, I find myself escaping the everyday through the books and stories I read. Travel is nigh impossible right now – at least to the places I pine for. So, I’m left to explore them through books and the internet. The only hindrance a year ago was finding time to travel with a busy workload. It never occurred to me that at some point I would be met with closed borders. Left with my imagination, like rolling a die over and over, I have toyed with the idea of the first locale I will visit. Knowing this will end keeps my spirits up, but for now I have my books and my imagination.
A few years ago a friend introduced me to The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. At the time it failed to resonate with me, and I never finished reading it. But then, about a year ago, someone else mentioned the book and encouraged me to read it. After locating it under a stack of books, I started reading it again and was enthralled with it. Over the following weeks, my morning ritual included reading a few pages before a short mediation. Interestingly, the book that I couldn’t finish became the book I couldn’t put down. What I have taken from Singer’s writings is this: nothing is worth holding onto in our hearts and minds; we should not permit anything in life to get stuck in our hearts. Instead, acknowledge it and then send it on its way through. “Don’t close” your heart is his advice.
Not only has this perspective helped me in my daily life in Dallas, but it was an invaluable lesson as I travelled in France. My journey began with a 3-1/2 hour delay in Dallas and deplaning before finally making our way to our destination. Given this is a trip that I have been planning and looking forward to for months, I could have allowed this to ruin the beginning of my travels, but it gave me an opportunity to utilize Singer’s suggestion. Instead of developing a bad attitude because American Airlines was stealing hours of Paris from me, I decided to enjoy the extra time for movie watching and mapping out my shopping notecards. (Yes, I have organized the shopping areas by arrondissement in order to most efficiently use our time.) To get upset and irate would have done nothing to help the situation. Instead, I focused on the fact that I was relieved that I had scheduled my train for the day after my arrival rather than having the stress of missing it due to arriving late. And, I was happy to have the opportunity to watch a couple of extra movies that I have been wanting to see.
To say that I have taken a break from this blog would be an understatement – but that doesn’t mean I’ve been sitting idly by. Anyone that knows me understands that my motto is “A full life is a well-lived life.” That’s not to say that taking a break isn’t a good thing – lord knows it is a necessity!
In the last year I’ve traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montreal, Maine, Crested Butte, Rhinebeck, Phoenix, and D.C. Some of those trips were to visit friends, others were to attend an event, and then there were the rest and relaxation voyages. It was a year of reconnecting with college friends and diving deep into meditation with Tara Brach; it was a year of exploring new places and returning to a few old ones; and it was a year of connecting with others on a massive scale at the Women’s March in D.C. Given this amount of travel, there’s plenty to write about here. (Here are just a few photos from these travels.)
A friend of mine recently told me that when you get older you have two birthdays. This point comes to mind as I turn back to writing on my blog. This particular post started off as a redux of our “recent” trip to Ireland that we took in May 2016. Close to a year ago now, that trip was not so recent, but it is still worth a few posts starting with our initial few days in Galway City. In some ways it was one of the best vacations that we have taken and also one of the most dramatic.
Galway City was our initial resting place, but I must begin with our arrival in Dublin. Excited to land and get out on the open road in Irish countryside, we quickly collected our luggage and headed to the car rental office. This is where some advice comes in – if you rent a car in Europe, particularly with Sixt, you need to bring your proof of auto insurance. Despite the fact that we knew this ahead of time, the paperwork we brought with us didn’t satisfy the rental agency and we ended up paying for insurance anyway. Any money we thought we were saving by using this particular company was lost due to this issue. (Plus, they did not have the manpower to accommodate everyone and it took close to 2 hours to get our car.)
Travel can be exhilarating, exhausting and expensive. Taking time off from work coupled with the cost of plane tickets, hotels, and tours can add up to a hefty bill. This doesn’t stop us from planning vacations in far off places, but if you have a “normal” job it can limit this kind of travel to once or twice a year. This is where the day-trip comes in.
A couple of weeks ago Jason and I scheduled a Saturday “date day.” Historically, we have planned activities close to home, such as visiting the arboretum or the DMA. Unfortunately, it can devolve into running errands and doing things around the house. This time, I wanted to do something different and the idea of a short road trip seemed to be the ticket.
Living in North Texas means that a day trip – somewhere you can drive to in one to two hours – doesn’t get you far out of North Texas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some interesting things to do. After searching around the internet I landed on the Dublin Bottling Company in Dublin, Texas. Just south of Stephenville, it would take around two hours to drive there. Upon mentioning this idea to Jason, he recalled reading about Dublin in Dean Fearing’s cookbook last year and was excited about the idea.
It’s hard for me to believe that our Prague – Vienna trip is over. (It’s equally hard for me to believe it has taken me over two weeks to finish this post!!) As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of my favorite parts of going on a trip is planning it. In the process of planning the trip, I learn about the geography, sites, history and art of the region. When traveling in a group, you have the added benefit of input from the other travelers, which can enrich the itinerary with ideas that may have been overlooked.
Despite all of the planning and research that goes into a trip, flexibility is key. (Of course, the same could be true for life in general.) Me, I’m a planner. I like to have everything figured out ahead of time to the extent possible. Having an idea of what’s going on in the city before landing makes it less likely that you’ll miss something because the tickets are sold out or find that no more reservations are available. Nevertheless, the ability to stay flexible allows you to slip in those last minute ideas that you wouldn’t have even known to look for let alone find during the planning stage. One of the treasures of our trip to Prague that was not on anyone’s radar was an exhibit of Alphons Mucha’s Slav Epic on display in a large hall at The National Gallery in Prague. The Slav Epic consists of twenty paintings by Mucha that he worked on for almost twenty years. The immense canvases depict the history of the Slavic culture beginning in the 4th to 6th Centuries and were gifted to the City of Prague in 1928. They are a collection of breathtaking works of art that cause marvel at their beauty and the genius of the artist who was able to conceive and complete such large scale works of such historical significance. Already a fan of Mucha, a master of Art Nouveau with a very distinctive style of painting, I left the exhibit with a new respect for the artist.
In our original Vienna itinerary we had planned a day trip to Bratislava, Slovakia. Nina, our guide, encouraged us to go elsewhere that would better serve our group. As a result, we took a day trip to the Wacahu Valley to visit Melk Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Melk, and enjoyed a private tour of the Melk Abbey museum. The museum includes historic artifacts as well as halls adorned with murals and a working library that houses books from centuries ago. The Melk Abbey, founded in 1089, is home to one of the most well-preserved Baroque churches in the world. Free from any of the destruction during the Second World War, visitors travel back in time to the 1700s when the church was converted from a gothic style to high Baroque. After our visit to Melk, we wound our way back to Vienna stopping in a couple of the small towns along the way. The small villages were charming and picturesque. The valley, known for its mountainside vineyards and apricots, shoulders the Danube River and offers some breathtaking views. For lunch, we stopped in a local restaurant to enjoy a traditional Austrian meal of dumplings with chanterelle mushroom sauce. It was divine!
When travelers visit Europe it is so easy to get caught up in trying to see everything. In every major city you can make a list the length of your arm of sites to visit and things to do, which is practically impossible due to the length of time most people are able to spend in one place. Yet, the tendency is to cram every moment full of things on the list. But, in my opinion, this is so counterproductive. Now, that’s not to say that I am not guilty of this, but I have learned that taking your time to “smell the roses” will definitely enrich the experience.
On this particular trip, we are spending 5 full days in Prague, a half day on the train to Vienna, then 6 full days in Vienna. While two weeks in Europe is such a luxury, it goes by quickly and can be quite harried if not (un)planned properly. Choosing a great place to stay both in comfort and location will take the stress level down a notch or two. When we arrived yesterday, our airbnb host greeted us and showed us around. We followed him around exclaiming “wow” every time we looked in a room. The place is lovely and has a full kitchen equipped with a DeLonghi coffee machine.
After settling in, we found the local grocery store and stocked our kitchen with the necessities – milk for coffee, yogurt for breakfast, and some fruit. This is always a fun way to dive into the culture. It’s so interesting to see the local flavor and how things are marketed, not to mention it can always bring on a good laugh . . . like this: (What the?? Since when did Texas become synonymous with corn and kidney beans?!?!?)
Enough about groceries – let’s hear about Prague. To be sure, the sites and sounds of Prague evoke romance. Everywhere you turn you can see stunning architecture, which is lit up at night adding to the drama. Ironically, while the city went unscathed by the bombing during World War II, its Jewish population was all but eliminated by the Nazis. While a solemn choice of sites, no trip to Prague is complete without a visit to the Jewish quarter and museum, which we are planning to visit on our last full day in Prague.
The following is a guest post from a dear friend of mine. Thank you, Tracy, for lending your talent and insight to the Maven’s Blog.
Saturday night I took my two-year old grandson and seven month old granddaughter to dinner at a nice local restaurant in an upscale suburb. Many families with small children frequent this restaurant so, although the staff is prepared for the ‘challenges’ of little diners, I recognize and appreciate their kindnesses. Our server was a woman who appeared to be about my age (61). She could not have been nicer. After two high chairs were delivered to the table, she lifted one child into a chair and I lifted the other. Children’s menus were provided. She cooed over the baby and caressed the toddler. Orders were placed and she ensured that the food was delivered quickly. Hungry toddlers can be cranky as grandmothers know. Half of the food on the toddler’s plate went into his mouth and the other half, the floor. I apologized. She tsked. I heard about her family including grandchildren in Peru. In addition to being helpful, patient and understanding, our server could also be “labeled” an immigrant.
After a lovely dinner the check was paid, and I prepared to leave. I scooped up the baby and struggled to free her big brother from his perch. An African-American gentleman from an adjacent table rushed to my aid, leaving his meal and family of three. I gratefully accepted his assistance. He looked down at Luke and asked if Luke minded his help. Luke acceded. The gentleman lifted Luke out of his chair and then asked if he could help us out to my car. Having already lent me such gracious assistance, I felt I couldn’t ask for anything further so I politely declined.
I know our country suffers from institutionalized racism and problems stemming from illegal immigration. I agree that we need to first acknowledge and then work to solve these challenges. But on one Saturday evening in Southlake, Texas, a Peruvian immigrant, an old white woman and a nice black man’s interactions showed me that we don’t need to make America “great again.” America, with its varied and serious problems, is already great.
This morning I am feeling a lot of gratitude for the space I have at home. I’m especially grateful because I have an entire room that’s all mine. It is filled with lots of things that I love: books, magazines, art that I’ve made and art that’s been given to me, photos of friends, my various creative projects, etc. As I write this in my comfy chair, my big dog, Cliff, is taking a nap a few feet away. Every once in awhile he slightly parts his eyes to look at me when I’ve made a bit too much noise for his taste. This is heaven on earth.
If you are feeling wistful or a little envious, then that means you need to make a place for yourself as well. It probably means that you have devoted everything in your house to others and not laid claim to a piece of it that’s just for you. With this post, I hope to encourage others to make their own space and give themselves the time to enjoy it. I realize that, for a lot of people, having an entire room of their own is not practical or even possible. But, that’s not a good reason for not claiming a space of your own. It can be a corner of a room or a drawer of personal items. It can even be a room that is used by the rest of the household, but that you make into your own for an hour or thirty minutes each day. For some, just getting up 30 minutes before everyone else in the house to enjoy a cup of coffee at the kitchen table while the house is still and the energy is low is enough.
Even more important than having a space is allowing for quality alone time. The key part is the “quality” time and not necessarily alone time. For those that live without a roommate, you may find that you spend lots of time by yourself, but do you give yourself some quality time to just relax, nap, take a bubble bath, etc? Living in a society where everything moves at warp speed can make it hard to slow down, but it is good to have some time every day when we can simply sit and breathe.
It really is amazing the things that keep me up at night. As a light sleeper, I am woken up fairly easily and can usually go back to bed quickly. Yet, if I have a lot on my mind it can prove much more difficult. This has been the case lately. The myriad of noises pulling me out of my slumber range from a cat sucking on her fur, a verrrrry long dog drink out of the toilet, or the neighbor’s dog behind us that loves to start barking at 3:00 a.m. because we have a nest of coyotes living in an abandoned house nearby. Yep, it happens all the time.
In my waking hours it’s a bit easier to analyze the things that are keeping me up, but I start to have anxiety about being up at 2:25 a.m. and thinking about what I’m going to pack for my upcoming trip or whether I’m going to have everything ready for a client meeting that week or what color I want to use for the kitchen backsplash. One night in particular it seemed like I was up for 3 or more hours just lying there with my eyes closed and “thinking.” This makes for a long workday and triggers all kinds of other issues – needing coffee late in the day to stay awake, not feeling good physically so it’s hard to concentrate, and generally wishing the day was over so I could get – you guessed it – some sleep.
The interesting thing about this latest sleeping phenomenon is that it reminds me of when it was a regular occurrence. Years ago I struggled with sleep so much that I would have a very hard time staying awake at work — to the point that I would sleep under my boss’s desk during lunch. I would literally crawl under the desk, get into a ball and nap for about 45 minutes. Sometimes, if I was lucky and got there before anyone else, I would catch some z’s on the couch in the women’s bathroom. Today, I just dream of having a couch in my office. I’ve heard some people swear that their key to success is a short afternoon nap. I believe this. Then there’s the Bill Murray 60-second nap, but I’ve never been able to master that.
Not one to enjoy sleep deprivation, I will try almost anything short of a sleeping pill to sleep through the night. What I have found is that if I am using the tricks that I have been taught to stay centered, I can most likely avoid this brain churning at 3 a.m. The first item of business is to write and write and write some more about what’s bothering me. As I mentioned yesterday, writing morning pages is an excellent way to empty my head. Then there’s meditation – even 10 minutes of it can change my perspective. While I’ve always thought that the “right” way to meditate was to do it in morning, when I’ve done it at night it helps me to get centered before bed. There are a number of apps that are great to start a practice and have some cool guided meditations that include specific meditations for relaxing at night – check out omvana and calm to name a couple. Lastly, talking to someone about the fears (and they are almost always fears) that are keeping me up or just simply taking the action on the list to remove an item from my plate will go a long way toward a restful sleep.