Day 5 – Keeping it Real in Vienna

vienna 11

It’s not Vienna’s fault, really. It’s just not fair to ask a city to be the next stop after a trip to the Dolomites. There was probably nothing Vienna could have done that wouldn’t seem like a little bit of a let down after breathing that mountain air.

Toni's contribution to Vienna Architechture
Toni’s contribution to Vienna architecture

Not that it was all bad. A little graffiti just sort of keeps it real.  Actually, there is a lot of graffiti.

Grafitti aside, Vienna has a much different feel from Venice. Venice, at this point, is a tourist hub where people get around by boat and walking. Vienna is a modern, working city where folks get around by car, bus, train, bike, motorcycle, scooter, e-scooter, horse drawn carriage, baby carriage, Segway, Big Bus, running, or, in my case, walking.

Vienna has a different smell than Venice too.  That’s a good thing.

When I arrived, I realized that pretty much everything I know about Austria I learned from 1. The Sound of Music; 2. Miracle of the White Stallions; or 3. Old cassette tape on one of the composers…I.e. the Life of Mozart. (I guess you could also throw in on a much lesser scale, 4. Woman in Gold.)

At any rate, as I started passing one ornate building and one impressive statue after another after another, I realized I didn’t know what or who any of them were and consequently, all I could think about was how heavy my back pack was and how much I regret my codependency on unreliable Siri.

If you haven’t seen Miracle of the White Stallions or heard of the Spanish Riding School or the famous Lipizzaner horses, I’m not really surprised. But apparently, some people have because I figured the riding hall had about 500 seats. Tickets weren’t cheap. And at 11:00 am, every seat was filled and folks were standing along the walls.

The empty riding hall...because I don't want to be the one to "irritate the horses"

It’s hard to describe the performance and they would not let us take pictures because it “irritates the horses” so I can only recommend you look them up or view the recent Netflix special on these beautiful Stallions. They have a way of almost dancing and a long tradition of performing that has not changed in forever.

I did notice, however, that neither the show nor the Netflix special in any way references the story told in “Miracle if the White Stallions” in which the US army saved the breed toward the end of WWII. I think we deserve a little credit in the form of discounted tickets or something. Just sayin’.

After the show, I decided to try to go to the hotel to try to drop off my backpack which, after carrying it around since 4:00 am, seemed to weigh far more than 1,000 lbs. I had intentionally booked a hotel near a train station (although a bit out of town for cost reasons), but I had never found out what train station. So it made for a very, very long walk. I felt like Christian in Pilgrims Progress carrying a heavy burden. It didn’t help that I had made a poor choice of shoes that day.

I neglected to mention that while I was looking for the Spanish Riding School that morning, I had been talked into buying a concert ticket for later that evening by a street salesman who gave me a special discount. 😉

By the time I made it to the hotel and shed my burden, I had learned that the hotel was right next to a palace (Schönbrunn Castle) which also was hosting a concert that night that sounded very similar. Schönbrunn was cool, quiet, inviting, and it was RIGHT THERE. But no, I had paid 30 Euros for a ticket to a concert all the way back in the heart of Vienna. That meant I was in for more trains and a lot more walking to end a day that had started at 3:00 am. Ugh.

So after a few hours of catching up on emails and work and fighting to charge my phone and computer with a temperamental outlet in my room, I headed back to the train station…thankfully, now I knew the closest one to the hotel (not the one I came on) and the closest one to the concert hall, so I figured all would go smoothly, but I left two hours early just in case.

What I didn’t know then was that the clever salesman had been peddling tickets that looked *almost* exactly like the concert going on at the Opera House that night.

I tried going to the address on the ticket, but Siri pulled one of her “you have arrived” stunts when clearly, I had not arrived.

Then I started asking locals who all directed me to the Opera House but after arriving there, I realized that although the ticket looked like the same concert going on at the Opera House, it was not.

After nearly two hours of walking, I was extremely close to giving up when I happened to light on another salesman on the street selling tickets for the same concert I’d been duped into. “It’s just beyond the Opera House” he told me, generally pointing. Then he gave me a map. Which was also no help.

But I found it. Somehow. And my some miracle, I was even on time.

And although I was in the cheap seats and couldn’t see much of anything, the musicians were good and the music was beautiful—Mozart, Grieg, Vivaldi, etc.

vienna 6

So there you have it…a nod to Miracle if the White Stallions and the Life of Mozart. Sunday, I plan to go to Salzburg and find out if the hills are still alive with the Sound of Music. Hopefully, my feet will have recovered by then. In honor of the Woman in Gold, I will not go to any Museums.

Not at all a bad way to spend the day after the Dolomites.

In fact, I’m hesitant to admit it…but even though I’d pick a day at the Dolomites over a day in the city every time (and I’m generally not one for concerts that begin at 8:30 pm), I do love the European way of walking every where.  I love to see couples dressed up and catching trains for an evening out.  I love the rows of little, privately owned shops and the simplicity of only buying what you can carry home.

Total steps today: 25,000 Cumulative steps: 97,000 (~39 miles)

Day 4 – The Dolomites

 

I was not a happy traveler when the alarm went off. 6:30 am was really 12:30 am EST and it felt very much like getting up in the middle of the night.

But I was very much looking forward to the group tour to the Dolomites and the directions on how to get to the tour pick place were a little sketchy, so after last nights’ experience, I wasn’t going to take any chances.

Thankfully, I had significantly lightened the load in my backpack and I at least had the benefit of the lessons learned the previous evening for navigation, but I still made the mistake of thinking I would save 15 Euro and walk to the pick up point 34 minutes away. I will skip the details and tell you that an hour and 30 minutes later, I arrived by water taxi having spent 20 Euros. But the important thing was, I arrived.

We were in a smaller van and it didn’t take long to see why. Winding up the narrow roads of the Dolomites was exciting enough without extra axles.

We drove through the ugly town where the people who work in Venice live, through the grape vineyards, and then began winding our way into the mountains.

It’s hard to describe the rest of the day with words. I can’t even do it justice with pictures. The Dolomites are truly beautiful and rival anything I’ve ever seen and maybe more.

Our Italian guide, Francesco, was friendly and didn’t seem to miss a photo op along the way. Even so, I was jealous of the numerous motorcycles, hikers, bikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. They definitely had the right idea.

We briefly stopped in Cortina. This small mountain town of 6,000 was just awarded the hosting of the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. It looks like it’s used to handling tourists, but I am curious how they plan to get a million people up that winding mountain rode. I suspect it will be forever changed.

Perhaps they plan to expand, but they’ll never make it by 2026 if it’s up to these guys we observed.  We had a good laugh watching this guy roll rocks down the hill with a rake one at a time while the guy below barked orders on what to roll next.

Road work

For lunch, we stopped at the beautiful lake town of Misorina. It was truly breathtaking. We all enjoyed our lunch made from locally grown/handmade pizzas, pastas, and more.

The weather was perfect. After lunch, I took the walking path around the lake and ended the stop with chocolate gelato. I definitely found my happy place.

When we got back in the car, the emails and texts started hitting my phone. My people were up. Back to reality. But it was a super fun day.

I must be getting the hang of navigating Venice. When the driver dropped us off at Piazza Romale, Siri said 17 minutes back to the hotel and it only took me an hour. Including the water taxi. Of course, it is a little more complicated to navigate with Siri in one hand and a cup of rapidly melting gelato in the other. So there’s that.

But the good part was that I was the Rialto Bridge, San Marco square, and 1,000 little shops that make Venice the beautiful city that it is. I could see why someone who likes old, charming, dirty, inconvenient, crowded cities might like Venice. At least maybe in April or May.

Venice - Rialto

But I didn’t have the least little bit of regret for spending my day at the Dolomites. If I ever turn up missing…don’t look for me in the Dolomites. Just saying.

Step Count: 20,000
Cumulative total: 72,000

Day 3 – Dublin to Venice

I still haven’t completely adjusted to the time change. Either that, or I’m suffering from a laundry induced hangover. But I made myself get up. Somehow.

An important element to my two week back pack trip was the need to wash clothes every now and again. I picked this “apart/hotel” especially so that I could do laundry and was pleased to find that there was a washer/dryer combo right in the tiny unit.

But things went downhill from there and I was probably up an extra hour of delirium last night trying to get the combo washer/dryer to work. It would act like it was going to before dissolving into incessant beeping. I even got out of bed twice to try it before finally turning the whole thing off—my clothes still locked tightly inside.

Today, I hoped, things would be different.

Things were not different. But I did need my clothes back and preferably clean. One trip down to the receptionist desk was all it took and a happy red headed maintenance man named Ian showed up a few minutes later. I was somewhat relieved to find that it had not been solely operator error and very relieved to find that he was able to fix it. Hallelujah!

Most folks I talked to thought a two day stay in Ireland was ridiculously short, but I believed I had at least gotten a fair taste of this beautiful country. In the afternoon, I would catch a flight to Venice via Cologne, Germany.

The bus stop to the airport was just across the street from the hotel, but I still had a few minutes between check out and the time I really needed to be on my way to the airport, so I thought I’d find something to eat and visit the “Castle of Dublin”—which Siri showed was only a 9 minute walk.

I followed Siri through the busy streets passing by the mix of modern and classic buildings including these churches:

And passed the Queen of Tarts where I bought a scone.

Dublin Queen of Tarts

Then Siri told me I had arrived. And I saw this:

Dublin Castle

Not quite what I had in mind.

I tried to get a Siri to recalibrate and she took me down a different street. Then another. And another. And kept telling me I had arrived. I was getting less and less about the castle and more and more concerned about time but I kept thinking it would be a shame to miss it since by all accounts I was quite close and in all likelihood there would be a bus stop right nearby it.

By the time I saw signs pointing to the castle, it had sunk in to me that the smaller bus stops I was seeing did not have the 747, the line running to the airport. If I really knew what I was doing, I could probably catch any bus and make the transfer. But alas, I did not know what I was doing…in fact, I couldn’t even find the Castle of Dublin in the middle of Dublin.

Besides, my backpack was starting to feel like it weighed 1,000 pounds. (Where are the Bostic boys when you need them? I’m not used to having to carry anything. 🙂

So I hightailed it back to the bus station and waited for the 747 and connived how I would get my stuff on the plane with an 8 kg limit without paying any fees.

When I arrived at DUB, cutting it a little closer than I would have liked, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say there were hundreds, perhaps even a thousand people in line in front of me. But leave it to the Irish to move hordes of people through a long security line efficiently. In fact, as many airports as I’ve been in, I was mesmerized by the system they had for tubs and scanners.

It was a short flight to Cologne. I researched every option I could think of to find a way to see some of the old city during my layover, but alas, three hours was just not enough so I had to content myself with getting a stamp in my passport, eating a Bratwurst, and buying a magnet to prove this trip included Germany. Then I tried to catch up on emails and texts.

The flight to Venice was also only about an hour, but even so, it was 10:00 PM local time when we arrived. Unlike Ireland, Italy was dark, hot, quiet, and much less user friendly or people friendly. Perhaps because English was no longer a thing and I was having to guess at how to get a bus ticket to where I needed to go.

Thankfully, I figured it out and was soon at the main bus depot in Venezia. It took me a minute once I got off to collect my wits and it took Siri even longer to collect hers.

Venice
Piazzale Roma

The city did look pretty in the lamplight, but frankly it smelled terrible and I was a little too tired for sightseeing anyway. I was ready for the hotel and praying the Siri would be in a better mood than she had been in Dublin that morning.

I do think Siri was trying; I’ll give her that. But navigating through Venice by foot is much like being in a 3D maze. What I originally thought were just alleys were, in fact streets, and they started and ended wherever they like in no organized fashion. Siri apparently kept losing signal and I found myself having to retrace my steps from time to time.

Streets of Venice in Daylight

I tried to ask a local where my hotel was but her either had no idea or he pretended he didn’t. That didn’t inspire confidence. Then I noticed that although the streets were getting less and less populated (it was getting close to midnight), a high percentage of folks I saw were also holding a black box in front of them—their faces illuminated by a soft glow. Either a high percentage of tourists were playing Pokémon Go or else I was not the only one on the struggle bus with Siri.

Gradually, I started to get the hang of looking for the street names on the buildings and guessing better what Siri was saying vs what she was actually thinking. The hotel sign finally stuck out in front of me and I stepped into a very, very lovely blast of AC.

Welcome to Venice. 

Total Step Count for the day: 12,000.  Cumulative Step Count: 52,000

Europe with a Backpack – Day 2

Bunratty – Cliffs of Moher – Galway

Day started with a “true Irish breakfast” although I’m not sure I can really say that since I skipped the blood pudding, beans, and bangers. I guess it was a true American breakfast at an Irish hotel. Such is life. I’m not eating blood pudding without a really, really good reason.

And I was late for the group tour and the driver today was grumpy enough to make up for the friendly guides yesterday. Alas.

But we started off back at Bunratty Castle and the “folk Park” there. There are about 1,000 steps in the Castle and I think I climbed every one of them three times…I kept having to back up to let other folks by because that’s what you do in a traffic jam on the winding narrow staircases in the towers. They were worth every step though.

The grounds were also much more interesting than I anticipated and I wished we had more time. Even though I kept moving, I was not able to see everything (maybe I would have been okay if I hadn’t kept backing up on the stairs). But anyway, I didn’t want to be late given the grumpy bus driver. And the fact that they will leave you if you’re late. Yikes.

We stopped at a little town called Doolin for lunch. Other than a tiny strip of shops, it was nothing at all. I did see a place to rent bikes which might make a great way to spend the day if you really enjoy looking at grass. And if you had a really good bike. It’s a hilly town.

Ireland - Fish and chips

From there we went to the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs were worth the whole trip. I was glad the weather was beautiful and that it was as clear as it was. I made full use of our time and, again, I could have used a lot more. But I used what time I had and tried to make my Fitbit very proud of me.


The scenic drive continued and I was thankful for the elevated bus that allowed us to see quite a ways as we drove along the coast. We stopped a couple of times for photo ops and even I took some selfies. I never take selfies.

Drive

We wound our way back to Galway where I visited the Spanish arches and once again, visited drug stores looking for a converter. The one I bought for 5 Euro yesterday worked for my computer but did not have a USB port for my phone.

Galway 2

The train ride back to Dublin was pleasant. In between trying to catch up on emails and texts, I chatted with some other folks from the tour and a much more friendly guide that had joined us in Galway. He was full of tidbits like where and how the Euro is printed and where the pictures on it were from. I learned that there are quite a few tea totalers in Ireland such that the overall alcohol consumption per capita is actually low for Europe. Who knew. I had only met one other lady so far that didn’t drink and she was from Michigan.

It was deceptively light when we got back to Dublin considering it was closing in on 10:00 pm. I had a clean efficient little room across from the church of Ireland waiting for me and rounded out my steps at 18,000…probably would have been 28,000 if we had had another hour at the Cliffs of Moher…but such is life.

My great day in Ireland wasn’t quite over, but I’ll save the rest for another day.

Europe with a Back Pack

Galway
Galway

 

Day one: Dublin – Galway – Bunratty

It was a six hour red eye from New York to Dublin. And apparently, when you book the $212 bargain ticket, they don’t give you so much as a drop of water on the flight. We arrived about 8:15 am (3:15 am EST).So it was a welcome miracle that I actually walked out of the airport feeling sorta good.

I took a shuttle through Dublin to the train station where I would be catching a group tour to Galway—a small city on the coast. They had clocked in my backpack at 7.2 kg at the airport (yes, they weigh carryons) but it felt heavy enough– I was glad I had packed light (although I did realize I had accidentally left the “perfect” electric converter that I bought especially for the trip).

The train station just felt like a lot of other train stations I’ve been in…with vendors selling coffee, pastries, smoothies, etc. I wanted something to eat although I tried to talk myself out of it on the basis of it being 3:00 am and all. But I did locate the desk for the tour group. It was deserted. So I found a seat nearby waited. Then I found water and waited. Then I got a smoothie and waited. Then I got more water.

As time for the train got closer, I began to get a little concerned, but just before 11:00, Sean showed up. Followed by Pat. Turns out, I was the only person signed up for the tour that day, but these lovely retired gentleman worked as guides and made sure I got my money’s worth.

About halfway to Galway, the train stopped and about a dozen college boys got on. They ordered beer from the concessions and after one or two, started blasting their Irish tunes from their cell phones…and then started singing along. So…I got the Irish pub experience. To be clear…I didn’t go to an Irish pub. The pub came to me.

When we got to Galway, they handed me a map and a fistful of other brochures and tickets told me to meet them back at the bus in about 3 hours.  All the work I had done to travel easy and light seemed undone as I constantly shifted the brochures around in my hands.

Galway is a great place to walk…especially for someone directionally challenged like me.  All roads seem to eventually lead back to the city center.

There are pedestrian streets of shops including about 1,000 little drug stores. I’m pretty sure I went to all 1,000 of them looking for a converter for my computer and phone. I eventually shelled out 5 Euros for a cheap one for my computer, a few more for water and a chocolate croissant, and a few more for magnets. I was thankful I didn’t have any luggage space to spare so I wasn’t tempted to buy much.  All that though, and no one gave me a bag I could put the brochures in…so now I was carrying water, a converter, and brochures.  I didn’t look like a tourist at all.Streets in Galway

Anyway… for me, the real fun of Galway was walking along the coast. There are beautiful views of the Atlantic…little boats…swans…and a small lighthouse.

The Salmon Bridge (Galway)
Salmon Bridge

I visited the church where Columbus said his final prayers before heading for his voyage to discover America. And I took pictures of the beautiful cathedral.

The cathedral - Galway
Cathedral

The streets were lively and in fact, had a lot of musicians playing here or there. One of the most prominent was playing Darius Rucker and other songs like “Take me Home Country Roads.” Glad I got to enjoy the local culture.  (Actually Irish music and American country are basically the same thing…about girls and alcohol.)

100% of our group (me) was on time for our pick up, but the bus was about 40 minutes late. So Mike and Pat and I chatted some before me and my back pack loaded on the 50 person bus and headed to Bunratty Castle.

Me and all my friends
Me and all my Friends

This road trip was beautiful. Lots of sprawling farms, sheep, and stone fences.

I didn’t understand why the banquet at the castle started at 9:00 pm until I realized that for many folks (coming from the US) it was only 4:00 pm and for the rest of the folks (Europeans), their nights are just getting started at 9:00.

The folks at Dunratty Castle made the evening fun with good food, good music (better than the train), and good humor. We sat family style packed in the ate with our fingers. The only complaint I heard was that the wine was awful, which didn’t bother me since I don’t drink and had already been in one Involuntary Irish pub that day.

Bunratty
Bunratty Castle

They wrapped up the evening with a beautiful acappela version of Danny Boy and a rousing ballad about whiskey. I walked back to my hotel as the rest of the crowd headed across the street to the pub.

All in all, it was a day well spent.  My fitbit said I had taken 22,000 steps and my feet suggested in may have been even more than that.  And I didn’t regret a single one.

 

Maybe Love is a Feeling After All

Here’s the thing. Just when you think you’ve learned something…or at least worked hard enough to graduate with a credible “B” on your transcript…you find that all you just went through was really just kindergarten.

Next will come first grade. Than second. Then third. Because God loves you too much to leave you the way you are.

I guess the good news is that as long as He is still pruning, we know that He has not given up. He is still a good father; watching and disciplining. He is still a good shepherd; pursuing and protecting. He is still a gentle potter; shaping and perfecting. He is still a wise friend; wounding and sharpening. He is still a merciful Savior; convicting and convincing. He is still a loving God; giving us free will; yet in relentless pursuit of making us more like Christ.

The last few months, I have been trying to be deliberate about being kind. I’m trying to use kinder words and more respectful tones. I’m trying to give a little more and expect a little less. I’m trying not to let my own needs be an excuse for selfishness.

But here’s the other thing. I’m learning how hollow even kind words can be when your heart is not them.

It’s interesting to me because all my life, I’ve been taught the counter-cultural characteristics of love found in I Corinthians 13. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy… The “agape” love described in this renown passage is that of learning to put others before ourselves. Love is the action of putting you before me.

I’ve been told time and time again that love is not a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is an action.

That’s why I don’t believe in happily ever after…or pretty much any Disney film…or Hallmark movie…because happiness in love is not the result of luck in finding the right person. Feelings come and go…as do good looks, compatibility, magical moments, and Christmas.

Romance is temporary; but love can be forever because love is not a feeling; it an action. It is a choice.

But I’ve always been a little confused by the opening part of that passage, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I have become like a sounding gong or a clanging symbol. And though I have the gift of prophecy…and have all knowledge…and have not love…”

I guess, against the backdrop that “love is the act of putting others before ourselves,” it makes sense that we could be a famous speaker and not have love…because we could be making the bests of speeches while really trying to draw attention to ourselves.

And perhaps we could have the gift of prophecy and understand knowledge and mysteries and not have love…because we are like that. We get big heads and small hearts.

But the third one has always stumped me… “And though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing.” Give my body to be burned? Really? What selfish motive could one have in that? Perhaps you would go down in history. Perhaps you would be well thought of by those left behind. But you would also be…dead. So what good would the admiring obituary do you if you are tiny flakes scattering in the wind? Why would a selfish person give their body to be burned?

Is the author trying to tell us that an ultimate act of sacrifice can be done without love?

If so, what happened to the theory that love is an action? Can it be that a choice to do a right action is not actually love absent the feelings…the motivation…the energy…that we traditionally equate with love and romance?

I’ve noticed that as hard as it is for me to be kind, that the recipient of my kindness can sniff insincerity a mile away. Often long before I will admit to it.

While I am focused on my sacrifice, the recipient is often looking through my thinly veiled kindness directly at my tiredness, my crankiness, and my shrinking hoard of patience. While I’m convinced that I am speaking with the tongues of men and of angels, they hear only gongs and symbols.

If I’m being honest, it doesn’t seem quite fair.

Because sometimes a dry, heartless affirmation is all I have to give. And if you don’t like it, you should hear what I’m really thinking. And sometimes, the silence that may seem uncaring and aloof may be the very thinking keeping me from FLIPPING MY LID. Yep. Be glad I’m not talking right now.

I feel like I should get points for trying. For holding my tongue. For saying something nice when I didn’t feel like it. A participation ribbon at least.

But Paul seems to be telling us something different. He is, in fact, pretty emphatic: if your heart isn’t it in, it isn’t love. It’s gongs and symbols.

It’s noise. But it is not music.

So I’m coming to believe that emotion is a necessary part of love after all. That love requires ingredients of vulnerability, sincerity, and energy that transform the noise of our actions into music.

A closer study of I Corinthians 13 would support this. Love bears. Believes. Hopes. Endures. It is more than action. It is something that looks a lot like what we commonly call “emotion.”

I’m coming to believe that emotion is a necessary part of love. It is the energy that brings patience and kindness to life. It is the harmony that ties the melody of our actions to the rhythm of God’s truth.

Did I mention it’s difficult?

It might start easy and get hard. Or start hard and get easy. Or ping pong back and forth between easy and hard. But it’s subject to change; therefore, it’s difficult.

It just is. I’m convinced that the only thing harder than taming the tongue is cultivating healthy emotions. Long after we have learned to behave and use kind words we have to still force our selves to blaze trails in the mind and go where we didn’t think it humanly possible. Our emotions are the final frontier.

Here’s my conclusion:

I should still say “I love you” when I don’t feel a thing. But I should let it bother me that I don’t feel a thing. I should still use kind words when kind words are all I have to give. But I should be asking God to breathe energy into my words. I should still be gentle even when I can’t be excited, but I should ask God to set a fire in my soul.

Because love bears. Believes. Hopes. Endures. Love includes emotion; it is vulnerable, sincere, and exudes energy.

It is not just the noise of our actions; It is the beauty of our emotions that makes the music.

On Being Kind

It was the kind of tired when the very thought of lifting your arm and your head up far enough and long enough to send a text message seems like an impossible task.

The kind of tired that makes you pretty sure there are two hippopotamus’ sleeping in your bedroom. One is lying on your left leg and the other on your right. You’re pretty sure that absent a crane Dragging them off, you will never be able to move again.

The kind of tired that makes you think that if you you could lift your head, and if you could move your legs, you would crawl to the window, stick your head out, and declare to the madly spinning world…STOP.

Just STOP. That is all.

That was me. That was my December.

So as the new year approached, I had nothing to give. I made no plans, set no goals, made no resolutions. I scarcely noticed that the 8 at the end of the date was turning to 9 except for a feeble attempt to recharge my Scripture memory and catch my breath.

I’ve taken January a day at a time. My main goal: to get through it.

So recently, I started wondering if I could sort of start 2019 over. And asking myself…if I could, what would I do differently? Would I try to lose weight? Save money? Eat better? Work less? Read more? Pray more?

What priorities do I have that need to be reordered? What are my biggest messes that need to turn hard corners and come to Jesus?

Thinking through the last four months, I realized that more than any other challenge I face, I struggle to apply the simple admonishment: “Love is kind.” (1 Corinthians 13).

Love is kind.

I have had a lot of opportunities to apply that verse lately. And I have failed in many of them.

Love is kind.

Kindness, I’ve learned, takes extra energy. It requires humility. It demands quick forgiveness. It means extreme self control. It is a successor of patience. It feeds off creativity. And it is often exercised while clinging to the lifesaver of prayer.

Love is kind.

Kindness is not what you say, it’s how you say it. It is not what you do, it’s why you do it. It rises above the way that it is treated and gives to those whose who take and take and take.

Love is kind.

It’s sympathetic. It’s quiet when words won’t help. It’s vulnerable when tears are unavoidable. It’s slow to judge. It is wisdom exercised with gentleness. It keeps its calm in the middle of the storm.

It’s hard.

In fact, it takes practice. I know because I’ve failed a lot. I’ve tried, and I’ve still failed a lot.

But as I tried to take inventory of my life and make sense of some tough days, I sensed this recurring theme: God is teaching me to be gentle and kind.

In a world gone mad, where women want to prove themselves tough and “equal” to be men, I need to be kind.

In the craziness of the business world and the imminence of deadlines that are not being met, I need to be kind.

In the brokenness of people around me and the constant wave after wave of needs that seem so overwhelming, I need to be kind.

With my type A personality that doesn’t understand why some people are highly unmotivated and pathetically disorganized, I need to be kind.

Even in the face of disrespect, unprovoked anger, or the foggy frustration of exhaustion, I need to be kind.

I share this for two reasons:

One, many of you know me well enough to help me work on kindness. I give you permission to make me read this every day in 2019.

Two, maybe you could also use some kindness. I hope you will join me in the challenge: finding practical, creative ways of being kind. If you need to, read this every day in 2019. Or write your own reminder and send it to me.

Thinking through the first month of 2019 has helped me shape perspective about what it important. Perhaps I will set some measurable goals; perhaps I won’t. This year, I’m setting my sights on pleasing Someone who doesn’t care about check boxes and scales and bank accounts. I may never have the satisfaction of accomplishment on this one; Just the slowly growing humility the fuels a critical element of the strongest force in the world. That’s all I need.

Love is kind.

Celebration of a Life Well Lived (Close to Home – Part IV)

I received word Wednesday that my Grandfather had joined my grandmother in heaven.  I cried on and off through the course of the evening…sad because I miss him already.  Happy, because I knew he was ready to meet the Savior He had served for so long.

I saw him last just a few days before.  He lay in bed in the dim light of my aunt’s living-room-turned-hospice-care.  He was weak, his speech was slurring, and he confessed that he could not remember my name.  Even so, I could tell he loved me and was grateful I came though neither of us seemed to have many words.

I gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek and spent a few minutes plucking out hymns on the piano by his bed.

At 101, I think we would all agree, he lived a full life.  If you’ve read my other blogs, you have some idea of the incredible man my grandfather was, serving in World War II, then as a missionary in Japan, then as jack-of-all-trades in his rather long “retirement.”  He was fun, hard-working, and all-together inspiring.

We loved his annual visits growing up because they were always punctuated with lots of ice cream. But since they didn’t live nearby, I actually got to know him more as an adult than I did as a kid–making long drives to Jacksonville on the weekends.

We biked, talked, swam, danced, and played lots of dominoes as they plowed their way through their 80s and 90s.

Over the years, his hand gradually grew heavier on my shoulder as he walked.  Then eventually, walking had to be traded for a golf cart, a then a tricycle, then a motor chair, and finally, a bed.  Aging was difficult for a man who had always been so strong and independent.  Sometimes, he let it be known that he was done with this life and ready for the next.

My mother and four aunts have been amazing and over the last year have traded off spending weeks at a time caring for him instead of dropping him off at a nursing home to spend his final days smelling like moth balls and staring at a television set.  [They have set a high bar for my generation. :)]

After receiving the news of his passing, all of them gathered at my aunts’ house and I joined them for a few hours.  We missed seeing him in the next room, but though it was quiet, it was not an altogether somber atmosphere.  Most of what needed to be said had already been said. It had been a long goodbye.

In many ways (and acknowledging that the death of no two saints will be the same), I felt this is what it should look like–no regrets, no greed, no fighting, no despair. Just a life remembered.

Today was back at work; business as usual. This evening, I busied myself with cleaning my kitchen and scrubbing the bathrooms.  It was just another day.

But as I was cleaning, I came across a plastic box that Grandma had sent home with me after one of my frequent visits to Jacksonville. I thought it contained mostly legal papers she wanted me to go through so I had never really opened it.

That was the beginning of hours on my bedroom floor pouring through letters, articles, and even a few comic strips, photos, and newspaper clippings.

The clock was turned back seventy years.

My Grandfather has always been a good correspondent and a creative writer.  I have saved many letters he wrote me over the years.

But now, I found fascinating his letters written to his mother from war in 1946 and to my grandmother (his girlfriend) in 1947. Some handwritten in his masculine cursive on stationary supplied by the Red Cross; some typewritten on thin sheets of tissue-like paper.  Some still had envelopes stamped “U.S. Army Postal Service.”

He loved his mother. He loved my grandmother. But most of all, he loved Jesus.

Nearly every thing he wrote was woven with Scripture, his work, the gospel, and the lives of others around him. Even his love letters are beautiful expressions of a resilient faith.

In one letter he wrote of rescuing three Japanese injured in a motor crash. In another, of traveling 30 miles–by train and foot–to see comfort a desperate mother trying to care for her dying son. He wrote about purity. He wrote about burnout and the struggles faced by an Army chaplain and other chaplains who had effectively given up.

He kept a few clippings of articles he wrote–published here and there–and even kept a few of the prayer letters from the mission field (and even after their retirement). He wrote after he moved to Florida that he expected that he would fade away.

I remember seeing him the summer of 2001 and him commenting how he probably didn’t have many years left to live. He felt like the greatest failure of his life was that he had not led enough people to Christ.

I think he was wrong in both accounts–he had rich years left; and he has no reason to regret his life. He reached other teens as a high schooler; he didn’t give up as a chaplain; he pressed on as a missionary; and he didn’t fade away in retirement. He followed hard until the end.

And I’m so glad he wrote about it.

I hope to take his letters with me as we celebrate his life together on Sunday. But I also want to publish some of the highlights of his writings here…mostly for family but also for anyone interested in reading snippets of a live well lived.

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.

Living for Jesus (Close to Home – Part III)

The bright sounds of trumpet floated through the air calling children toward the station wagon parked in the middle of the village. Young children, and sometimes their parents, would gather around to hear Bible stories taught using exciting flannelgraph figures.

The ministry was thriving. Each of the three churches they started matured into and took on a life of their own. One in particular, Hamadera Bible Church, still exists to this day.

The Oestreichs added another daughter to their family, Jeannette—whom George named after his mother. Then another, Kathryn, whom George named after his aunt.

During their first furlough, when the family learned they would be adding a fourth child to the family, George promised his sister, Jeannette that she could name it if it turned out to be a girl. Unfortunately, he was traveling on deputation when Frances gave birth. She attempted to call her sister-in-law when their fourth daughter was born, but could only reach her mother-in-law. Mrs. Oestreich said she knew that Jeannette had planned to name the baby girl Marcia, so Marcia it was.

Unfortunately, she was mistaken; Jeannette wasn’t planning to name the baby Marcia. But it was too late.

The fifth child was a boy, George Washington Oestreich, named after his dad. And the sixth was named Lois, but her siblings called her “Penny.”

Not many women have six children and don’t get to name any of them. But, perhaps it goes without saying…Frances was a special kind of wife and mom.

The kids grew up going to a combination of Japanese public school, home school, American boarding school, commuting to American schools in Japan, and attending school in the US during occasional furloughs. This meant that they had pretty much lived their lives being considered “Gaijin” (which means “foreigner” or “outside person.”). Life was always changing.

One afternoon, Frances watched out the window as two boys followed young Jeannette down the street taunting her by yelling “Donguri me,” “Don gurime” all the way home; but once she reached the safety of her gate, she whirled around and yelled “Kitsune me!” (which meant “fox eyes” or “slanty eyes”) and then darted inside.

But perhaps it was for the best that they would never fully “fit in.” Home was not a town in Pennsylvania or in Japan…which meant that home was never a long, long boat ride away.   Home was where a close family became closer still.

During the summers, the Oestreichs would try to spend a few weeks with the chattering monkeys at Lake Biwa, a beautiful place near Kyoto. One summer, a friend gave them a boat that had only one small problem—a hole in the bottom. George did his best to fix it and it worked—unless, of course, you count the time that it sprung a leak in the middle of the lake carrying a load of extremely proper church ladies.

00242_s_15amfm4v2z0242_r.jpgFrances and her friends were none too pleased with the impromptu baptisms, but Frances shouldn’t have been too surprised. From the day at the altar, life with George had never ceased to be an adventure. Whether he was raising pigeons or dreaming up ways to make ice cream in a land with little refined sugar or dairy, George was always up to something.

Years flew by and one by one the kids left for college in the US. Their oldest child, Christine, and her husband came back to Japan as missionaries. Also, George, Jr, or “Gwo,” as he was called, returned to Japan for the summer of 1979 and spent time working alongside his parents. He was strongly considering returning to Japan as a missionary himself upon graduation from college. His best friend, Shuji, had been saved at a branch church “Midori Machi” Bible Church and was also considering full time ministry.

At the close of the summer, Gwo returned to Bob Jones and George and Frances began school themselves—teaching English and living for Jesus. They looked forward to being together again their kids the following summer during a well-deserved furlough.

Just weeks before their terms came to a close, the couple received devastating news. Gwo had been in a terrible car accident and died at the scene.

It was a blow to the whole family, but especially to his parents, who were not able to make it back in time for the service and burial.

Like most parents, they never expected to retrace the final steps of one of their children; especially their only son. He had been effectively forced off the road by a speeding driver. George even found the hood ornament from his son’s car in the tree that took his life.

They recognized the sovereignty of God through the pain, but it still seemed that his “homegoing” was premature. It was so easy to focus on the way that he had been robbed of life. He was never able to graduate from college, get married, make the ministry his own, or have a son to pass on the family name. It didn’t seem quite fair.

But George was no longer a “Gaijin.” He wasn’t just close to home; he was home.

Perhaps it was then George and Frances decided that their work in Japan was concluded. It was time to make their home in the US, closer to their daughters.

00310_s_15amfm4v2z0310Over their thirty three years of ministry, the Oestreichs had seen Japan transition from a war-torn nation into an industrious and modern society. It went from broken and bleeding to self-sufficient and proud. Despite the Emperors’ having admitted to the county that he was not, in fact, “god,” Shintoism remained firmly rooted in the society. And while many of the young people begin to reject the traditions and chains of this dead religion, they often turned to Buddhism or to nothing at all. While the need was still great, the door that had been wide open to the gospel was gently closing.

Still, they weren’t quite ready for “retirement” if that meant sitting around a house all day. For that matter, they had never owned a house. They rented a trailer and took jobs managing the trailer park— George in maintence and Frances in bookkeeping. The thrifty ways continued and so did ministry.

And their years in Japan continued to bear fruit. Although they were few, the Christians were faithful. George’s friend Shuji attended seminary at Grace Community and returned back to Japan to serve as senior pastor.

And, of course, they continued to use every opportunity to win souls to Christ. George listened to kids quote Bible verses in Awana clubs, he led Bible studies for inmates in a nearby prison, and he and Frances both wrote cards and letters to an ever-increasing number of grandchildren…who were spread all over the world.

One week a year he would go visit grandchildren in California, and during the summers they would make the trip back to Lake Shehawken. George would ride his bike, swim, and take peaceful rides in the canoe his father had bought him when he was twelve. Lake Shehawken was a peaceful, unchanging haven in a crazy, fast paced world. In the evening, soft strains of trumpet would drift across the lake. “Trust and Obey,” “Living for Jesus,” and other hymns and choruses were never far from George Oestreich…whether coming by trumpet, booming baritone, or a happy whistle.

When George was 80, the Oestreichs moved again; this time to Penny Retirement Community near Jacksonville, FL. This was officially “retirement” although the only thing that stopped was the paycheck. It was okay; they had always been prudent with their money. They were used to having a little income…and living on a little less.

They stayed active; George rode his bike, swam, gardened, played tennis and trumpet, did landscape work, and taught Sunday School and Bible Studies. As the 80s rolled into 90s, he complained that the folks in his Bible study were getting old and didn’t focus very well. But he stuck with it, noting some of the residents in the memory ward could often sing hymns from memory even when they seemed to have no other recall.

Grandma faithfully cooked and cleaned and managed the finances in addition to her own volunteering activities—sewing, arranging flowers, serving meals, and more. She kept up with the names and birthdays of the five daughters, sons-in-law, nineteen grands, grands-in-law, and non-stop great-grands (28 I think…at last count).

If their family had one complaint, it was that George and Frances were too far away. They took turns trying to convince the Oestreichs to move closer to family. But they seemed content to live their simple, slowing life in Florida where they prayed together every morning and played Dominoes every night.

They held out until the end of 2016. He was 99. She was nearly 98.

——————————————————————————————

And here is where I step into the story. Because I was there to help them with their final move.

It was not difficult because Grandma had reduced their lives to two rooms and, even then, did not seem attached to the few things they had left. They did not want to do long goodbyes. They did not want to do goodbyes at all.

I felt bad for them…although we wanted them closer and believed this move was for the best, I hated the thought of them leaving their friends. Of them having to start over at life. Of having to adjust to a million little changes from where the toothbrush would be kept to what meals would be like. Change can be difficult no matter what the age; I couldn’t really put myself in their shoes and understand what it would be like for two dear saints in their late 90s.

But when I asked Grandma if she was sad to leave, she said, “Wherever you go, you’ll have friends…if you’re friendly.” After years of being a “Gaijin,” she was no stranger to making friends. Again.

But I knew underneath her resolve, there was a realization that it would be hard to make friends this time. She was nearly blind, on oxygen, and she had outlived all of the folks who could identify closely with her life experiences.

As we pulled out of Penny Farms, I turned around to see my grandparents in the seats behind me embracing this new adventure the same way they had done all of the others…holding hands.

I smiled. She would not be lonely. Grandma’s most important friends were coming with her.

(Stay tuned for the fourth and final part – “Celebration of a Life Well Lived” coming soon.)holding hands

Holding Hands and Letting Go (Close to Home – Part II)

The taxi pulled up to Hampden Dubose Academy in Mount Dora, Florida. George was nervous as he jumped out and prepared to execute his surprise visit on Frances. He hoped to lie low and not create a big stir among the tight knit staff and students as he called on her.

It wasn’t that he needed to be nervous exactly…since their chance meeting during his first furlough back to the states, they had been writing.

Frances had been teaching at Hampden Dubose Academy for seven years; and while the ministry to Christian children of missionaries had its joys (including time teaching students such as Elizabeth Elliott); her family said (perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek) that the long hours and no pay had turned into borderline slave labor and nunnery. Her family encouraged George to “get her out of there;” and George’s sister (who had been roommates with Frances at Wheaton) offered helpful hints along the way. The families seemed to be all for the union.

In addition, not being big on suspense he had written her before leaving on this second furlough and asked her to marry him and she has said yes. So this surprise was just…well…the fact that he was there. And the ring, of course.

But it turned out to be George that got the surprise at Hampden Dubose. Or rather, he learned there is no such thing as surprises at Hampden Dubose. The first girl he saw offered to help George find Frances. But, unbeknownst to him, she was the headmasters’ daughter and tipped off both Frances and her parents that he was there before he even found her. And while his reception by Frances was warm, his overall reception at Hampden Dubose was quite cool.  They didn’t want him to take her away.

[I tell more of my grandma’s story including in this blog.]

Five months later, June 5, 1948, George and Francis were kneeling side by side in Canadensis Moravian Church. Her in her wedding dress, and him with a gaping hole in the bottom of his shoe. The depression years had been good preparation for mission life; he was (and still is) that tight.

[If you missed it, read more about their nearly 70-year marriage in this blog.]

George’s second tour in Japan had only served to convince him even more of the unique need and opportunity for the gospel. George had been assigned to a chapel in Hamadera (Osaka). Whole families from the US moved there as part of the occupation and the two groups were integrating as Japanese often worked for them as household help. His new chapel soon became a mix of American and Japanese. It was the first time in their lives that these Japanese had the freedom to read or even own a Bible.

And while most Allies were struggling with a hatred for the Japanese after the brutalities of the war, George had an unusual love for them. Perhaps his lack of racial prejudice traced back to the way he saw his mother eat with, pray with, and celebrate with Maddie, their black housekeeper in his early years.

During the war, he had not had much direct interaction with Japanese since he saw only one Japanese surrender…an old blind man who came out of the jungle with a rice sack tied to his sword.  Even then, George had done his best to protect him and even get treatment for his medical needs.  The old gentlemen was in such poor shape, he had maggots even in his eyes. The old man didn’t understand his kindness and neither did the other soldiers. It was all he could do to keep him alive long enough to reach the aide station.

And George had seen enough of the Japanese cruelty to understand the animosity. His responsibilities had included not only spending final moments with dying soldiers, but also writing to their families afterwards. Even worse, during his time in Manilla, he saw the aftermath of the atrocities committed to women and children.

Maybe that was why the Japanese were so surprised by the civility of the American occupation forces. Despite the bitter traces of the atomic bombs, the Japanese were anxious to learn English and learn from the tall, white Americans busy releasing the grip of the Emperor who, until now, had been not only their dictator, but their god.

Ministry in Japan took off immediately with receipt of a telegram. Another missionary named Esther Bower who worked near the Mikimoto Pearl farm (on the East Coast of Honshu) needed help restoring their bombed out mission. Together, they were able to start a church and a kindergarten.

So after kneeling at the altar holding hands with a man with holes in his shoes, Frances stood up to a new adventure as wife of a missionary headed to the war torn nation of Japan. There was no candidate school, language school, or transition time. She and George would visit churches, start a new “Mino” mission, share about the opportunity to minister in Japan, begin a family, take a long boat ride across the Pacific, and begin a new diet of fish and rice.

George’s brief time in reserves came to an end when he found out he had been given orders to Korea. The orders had been sent to Philadelphia by mail and then, slowly, by boat to eventually catch up with him in Japan. By the time he received them, he was already considered AWOL. There was nothing to do but write back and let them know that his service in the US Army was over.  He was fulfilling a different set of orders: that of “bringing the blessing of the gospel.”

(Stay tuned for Part III…because stories worth telling just can’t be rushed.)