When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need. - Dalai Lama
These past three months have been a time of trial for me. Some sudden and unexpected pressures at work snowballed into a deterioration of my normal self-care routine. I let the rules slide on screen time, allowing myself to watch or listen to whatever I wanted and to browse social media aimlessly. I have a bad habit of watching junk Youtube videos or half-listening to podcasts while doing work around the house - cooking, cleaning, laundry, even taking a shower- and unintentionally depriving myself of much needed quiet time. Sick of the clutter and radio static in my brain, I took an opportunity last week to attend a compassion-focused meditation at a Tibetan Monastery, Drepung Loseling. A coworker recommended their Thursday night session at 6pm (free and open to the public). Entering from the backdoor, I headed upstairs to the meditation area (you can't miss it - there's an enormous gold shrine at the front) which is to your right from the back staircase. Don't forget to drop your shoes off in the coat room beforehand.
It is surprising how deeply healing meditation can be, and after only one guided meditation taught by a CBCT-certified teacher, I felt like the fog had cleared and the world felt new and full of possibilities again. The role of CBCT is to cultivate natural and spontaneous compassion for others, and our meditation, which focused on gratitude, helped me feel more open, loving, and organic around my family and my coworkers for days afterward. I even received several comments recently on having a natural glow, and I credit it to my plant-based diet but also to the wonders of mindfulness and compassionate living.
In this same spirit of gratitude, I want to take this opportunity to return to the reasons why I started my year of no shopping. I want to give thanks to my former self and to all the beautiful people who have supported me on this journey so far. Back in the winter, I came across a very compelling ad for Macy's called "The Chase." I could not have created a better illustration for how our desire for happiness and wellness can be twisted into a desire for material things. Take a few minutes to watch it below, and check in to see how it makes you feel before reading on.
When I first watched this ad, I felt a sense of elation at the end. Yay! The protagonist got the dress she wanted! Now she can finally get that promotion and marry a heart surgeon and call her grandmother and start doing Pilates and stop biting her nails! She can do anything! Macy's wants you to believe that finding a nice outfit is the first step to "Find the Remarkable You". This is such a great advertisement because Americans freaking love a good makeover story. Say Yes to the Dress, What Not to Wear, and Queer Eye are lauded reality tv shows, but it's worth examining the moral messages behind all the glamour.
Going back to the quote I shared by the Dalai Lama, discontentment leads to desire. All these ladies appear stressed, bored, and dissatisfied with their lives even though they all at least appear to be healthy, beautiful, white-collar workers with a nice sense of style. They are already the ideal they are chasing after, and yet, here they are running through the rain for a coat. (Irony, turned up to eleven! Cheeky Macy's.) Though Macy's is advertising spring fashions, they know that what women are really purchasing is physical proof that they are the type of person who owns a black bomber jacket. The same way I bought some "green" kitchen products recently. A) I do worry about plastics in the environment but also B) I can't deny that it reinforces my own perceptions of myself as an environmentalist. I didn't need fancy reusable food wrap to prove I cared about my environmental footprint, and I probably should not have purchased it considering I am not supposed to be shopping anyway. Not to mention, it was probably shipped from hundreds of miles away. No one is immune to the siren song of consumer psychology, but being aware of those tendencies is the first step.
With this, I dedicate the remainder of the year to forgive myself of previous slip-ups, to really buckle down on my spending, and to take my dedication to this project seriously. It is a spiritual and mental exercise that despite some hiccups has allowed me to do some amazing things. May everyone take this time to evaluate their own goals for 2018 and course correct if necessary.
In April, May and June, I did some incredible things that did not involve a shopping spree.
It is true the best stories are about taking risks, enduring hardships, or overcoming insurmountable obstacles. Preferably, time is of the essence and the odds are against you. No one wants to listen to a story about playing it safe. Since we returned from our trip to the United Kingdom in 2017, I have told this same story countless times and probably as many different ways, yet it never fails to transport me back to a time when I was just a tiny speck on a massive and ancient peak in the Lakes District.
We arrived in Keswick, Cumbria on July 1st, 2017, barely stalling out as we crept our way up yet another narrow and unappeasable hill (Britain seems to be full of them) to the Ellergill Guest House bed and breakfast. Keswick is a small town on the shores of lake Derwentwater, it’s original occupants predating any written records. Derwentwater is surrounded by small settlements, smooth-topped peaks (called fells), and scooped out valleys. Hiking all of the fells is a lifetime pursuit, and in the 1950’s, the locally famous Arthur Wainwright published a series of seven books detailing each one. The photos are all hand drawn and given such care and attention, you feel as if you are reading a treasure map. I gripped the pages a little tighter, enveloping each word like honey on a spoon, and searching for some hidden but essential clue.
On our first full day in Keswick, we set out through the town for a hike to CastleRigg Stone Circle, a steep but relatively short hike from the city center. In the midst of a sheep pasture, a circle of thirty-eight megaliths stands guard over the valley below.
After this beautiful hike, I was feeling pretty ambitious and we headed back to our room to plan out the rest of the day. Our bed and breakfast had an assortment of hiking guides in various states of entropy. Feeling a strong kinship for all things worn and well-loved, I picked up a small yellow manual written for American travelers with black and white print and plenty of notes scribbled into the margins. I came upon a page that described a “highly pleasurable ramble for walkers of all ages and abilities.” The idea of a “ramble” felt so quintessentially English, I needed no further convincing that this was the “ramble” for me. Unfortunately, this hike was only 2.5 miles round trip, and we had the entire day ahead of us. Flipping through the book I found a longer version of this walk at 6.5 miles estimated to take about 4.5 hours. Perfect! It was just barely 1pm now and the last bus back home left at 6:55pm. What could go wrong?
Following the map for the route “Catbells & High Spy”, we hopped a ferry to the trailhead and began our hike. Though the climb was treacherous and often rocky, we saw people of all ages scrambling their way to the top of Catbells fell. We were in good spirits, and when we finally got to the top, we were triumphant. It felt like the thick white blanket of clouds opened up just for us; the summer sun poured over the valley below and illuminated the path to our hard won victory. It was breathtaking, so perhaps we lingered there too long.
The trail continued along the ridge to the fell Maiden Moor. Though we had completed our initial summit while climbing Catbells, the trail would plateau momentarily before whipping up and down like a dragon’s tail, obscuring our view to the even high and steeper climbs ahead of us. It felt like every rocky scramble we surmounted revealed an even longer, harder climb just ahead. It was mentally exhausting, and to make matters worse, this terrain made it impossible to tell when we had actually reached the top of Maiden Moor and also when we started to descend it.
Our final summit was High Spy, marked by a massive stone cairn. By this time we were exhausted, running out of water, and sick of “rambling”. The air was getting cooler and the wind picked up. With only an hour to descend over 2,000 meters before the last scheduled bus, panic set in. There was no clear trail marker to guide us back down the mountain. The manual mentioned turning left at a small cairn, but centuries of hikers had left stone cairns speckled all the way down the ridge. We came across one lone female hiker who attempted to give us directions, but after twenty minutes we were still not descending though we saw a trail below us heading down.
Rather than wait for the paths to converge, we b-lined it straight through a grassy peat field. Within seconds, our boots sunk into a hidden wetness below, the soil so waterlogged that murky black water flooded our boots. At this point, Britton had reached his tolerance level, and I did not blame him. He howled in anger and pain as he twisted his ankle dragging his waterlogged feet through the muck. We would miss our bus. We would be stuck on this mountain all night. We’d die from exposure. We’d never make it back to the guesthouse. The only pair of shoes he packed would never dry. We’ll break our legs. We’ll break our necks. He was panicking.
Barely half way down the mountain, we now had thirty minutes to spare. Still standing in water, I looked at Britton who was walking, slightly favoring one side. I did not know if we would make it down to our bus in time, but I knew we could make it down the mountain. I surged forward, kicking up grass and mud, and pulled Britton along by the sheer force of my will. “Where are you going?” Britton screamed.
We were going to get down this mountain. We were going to drink a beer tonight in a pub. I kept telling him to just keep moving, and though he resisted every single step, he dutifully followed me down pastures littered with sheep poop (I stepped in all of it – I did not care) and through an abandoned slate mine ripe with tripping hazards and plate-sized pieces of sharp, slippery rock. I was terrified every second that one of us would fall to our deaths, but I was a woman on a mission, ignoring my husbands pleas behind me in an all out effort to get us back to safety.
When our feet finally hit a stone road, I began speed walking with Britton still trailing behind me miserably. If I hadn’t been focused on finding the bus stop, a stroll through the small community of Rosthwaite would have been bucolic, peaceful. We zoomed past small homes and businesses, shuttered for the night. My legs objected to every movement, but I was just short of a sprint when we turned a corner to discover the main road and a small bus stop covered in vines. My watch said 6:55pm. Was the bus running late or early?
A minute went by but it felt like a heartbeat. A whirring mechanical sound announced the arrival of a double decker local bus. It swung around the corner, stopping abruptly. The bus driver pulled open to door in surprise, and said, “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
You and me both, sir.
What followed was the most cathartic bus ride I have ever taken. Collapsing onto a seat at the front of the bus, gazing out the second story windows, we watched the countryside roll by like a waking dream. The fells that nearly killed us were towering over us again, looking down with indifference. Our 4.5 hour “ramble” took 6 hours and left us mentally and emotionally drained. I felt terrible for leading us into this mess, but I also felt elated that I got us out of it as well.
In the year or so since this hike, Britton and I still look back on this adventure fondly, and appreciate the knowledge we gained. My love of hiking has only intensified since our trip, but I can assure you, any future trip to the Lakes District will include plenty of extra time, plenty of water, and the most updated hiking guide I can find.
It would be hard for me to think of any word besides "bewitched" to explain my husband's bizarre obsession with the 1960's British sci-fi classic "The Prisoner." The year he decided to re-watch the show in it's entirety, he started walking around the house shouting "I am not a number! I am free man!". Between bites of toast at breakfast, he would cheerfully discuss the pros and cons of each Number Two, eventually landing on Leo McKern as the favorite. Overnight, a blue blazer with white piping on the collar became the height of fashion in our household. Turtlenecks in summer were no longer faux pas. Thus, when Britton first proposed we add Portmeirion to our U.K. itinerary in 2017, I knew the depth of his enthusiasm for this place.
Three hours off the beaten path through abandoned slate mines, over babbling brooks, and in between the rain-drenched glacial peaks of Snowdonia National Park, we arrived by car at the bottom of a very busy little road leading down to the Portmeirion hotel.
When we arrived we were greeted with one of the most tranquil hotel rooms I had ever seen. The bay window overlooked a shallow estuary, framed on both sides with rolling moss-green mountains. A layer of mist wreathed the glass panes, giving you the impression it was much too cold and damp outside. Best to stay in and snuggle. Though the day was overcast, the natural light in the room was warm and glowing, inviting you to curl up, pour a glass of their complimentary sherry, and read a book. Some mornings I still wait to open my eyes, hoping to find myself back here again.
Portmeirion is an ad hoc tourist destination, designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the mid-twentieth century to resemble an Italian fishing village. I had little hope I would find something worthwhile to see here. After all, it's only claim to fame was it's relationship to an obscure 50 year-old television show...surely my husband was the only pilgrim still longing to visit it! I'm going to turn this post over to an equally accomplished yet less prolific writer to help you understand how wrong I was. Here are Britton's first impressions...
Our “Arrival” (coincidentally, the title of the pilot episode for “The Prisoner”) occurred shortly after mid-day. The road to enter Portmeirion branched off to the left from the main road. We were immediately greeted with a sign that had the striking Pennyfarthing logo from the series and the words “Prisoner 50th Anniversary 1967-2017”. The excitement of that sight caused a lapse in concentration, and my perfect record of driving a manual on the wrong side of the road was broken as we stalled out. I quickly re-composed myself and we proceeded to the main parking area.
One of the lessons I constantly re-learn is that the reality of a situation often falls short of expectations. Fortunately, this was not such an occasion. We were instructed to proceed to the “Hotel and Quayside” to pick up our room key. At first, we could only see the rear of various small structures, but that all changed once we cleared the archway that welcomed us into the Central Piazza. There it was, the main square from the show, in all its surreal, Mediterranean blue, yellow, and coral glory! Sir Clough William-Ellis successfully demonstrated with Portmeirion that an area could be developed while still maintaining its natural beauty.
Britt stayed behind at the hotel room while I struck out on my own. In my mind, she was a double agent, relaying my every move back to The Village’s Control Room while I did my best to test the boundaries of our prison. It was shortly after 4pm, by which time most of the tourist groups had left. This could not have been more ideal as it allowed me to re-create the opening scene of the series where a disoriented Number Six frantically sought to gain his bearings in a completely empty Village. I only covered a small fraction of the surrounding trails, but at no point was I attacked by a giant, white weather balloon or surveiled by stone statues and busts. No, Portmeirion did not have a sinister underbelly at all. What it had instead were beautifully placed plants, impeccably manicured lawns, and the most intricate cast iron fences. I would tender my resignation in a heartbeat if it meant I’d spend the rest of my life there!
Be seeing you! - Britt
Originally published on my old website in 2013 with any updates and reflections noted in dark blue.
April is our anniversary month, and in honor of four incredible years as husband and wife, I am bringing back some oldies but goodies. I'll be re-posting stories from our 2013 trip to Hong Kong, Macau, and Thailand and adding some 2018 updates and reflections. This trip was our first major international (sorry Canada!) trip together, and we've never been the same. I had so much fun scrolling through all our old photos. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do!
These posts have been a long time coming. Since we touched down in the dirty south, I have had one soul mission: graduate. And with days and days spent in my trusty red corner chair with my best cat Lion-o by my side, I have finally submitted the final draft of my thesis. I feel giddy, like the first day of summer or staying out until 5am and never feeling tired.
Now I finally have time to tell you, in my wonderfully side-tracking way, about our trip to Hong Kong, Macau, and Thailand.
March 16, 2013
One 2.5 hour flight to Toronto followed by a 15 hour flight to Hong Kong, I am already exhausted. In anticipation of this trip, I barely slept the previous two nights. (And in anticipation of missing the cats, I let them sleep all over me.) This is by far the longest flight I have ever done, and of course, I am stressed about not getting any sleep. To make things worse, there is a loud Cantonese-speaking (actually, everyone is Cantonese-speaking) man yapping away in the seat behind us, slipping occasionally into wild English to flirt with the flight attendants. He somehow manages to talk for six straight hours. In the late, dark hours before touchdown, there was no help for us. No sleep, no lumbar support, no edible food, and no escape. It was truly miserable. You can only watch so many Hollywood blockbusters and listen to so much relaxing Native American flute music before you crack. When the misty waters of the South China Sea finally appeared in our fishbowl window, there was no describing the relief. I can only say I hope to find better ways of coping with long haul flights in the future.
UPDATE: I talk about how miserable this flight was to this day, and I use it as a benchmark to compare all other flights I've taken. At one point, I was practically climbing up the wall of the plane trying to get comfortable when the flight attendants brought out a nice, piping hot cup o' noodles. Food texture and flavor on the plane ranges from dry sponge to gruel; these noodles tasted like divine intervention. I savored every last bite.
After procuring a sim card at the airport and racing through the International Finance Center (IFC), we finally found our way to the first apartment in Hong Kong. A clean, tiny one-floor walk-up in Sheung Wan with a smoggy view of Hong Kong's Kowloon district. The entry lead to an ancient lift and a subway-tiled stairwell that smelled like dried seafood and pork sausage. The water closet was so small that at night I would lean forward just a bit and smack my head against the opposite wall. The shower was not much bigger and also contained a small porcelain sink. We were finally here, in Hong Kong. We opened the windows and let the warm, humid air fill our lungs.
UPDATE: I don't think I did a great job here of describing how completely lost we were for the first half hour we were in Hong Kong. I was weirdly calm...perhaps because once we got outside, I knew how to walk to the apartment. Britton lead us through this massive complex of stores, breezeways, elevators, and people, and somehow we ended up on the correct side of the building at street level with our Airbnb host waiting for us in her car. I asked Britton how he got us of out of there, and he said "I just looked for daylight."
Here's a view from our Airbnb window across the harbor into Kowloon.
Ever the adventurer, I decided that since it was only 3pm or so, we should take advantage of the sunlight and go see the Peak. I was of course, smelly and tired, but I did not want that to stop us from going out. The Peak or Victoria's Peak is a mountain that sits to the west of Hong Kong city and overlooks the downtown skyline. It is probably the number one tourist attraction and for good reason. With Britton and his Google Nexus navigating us along the shockingly steep and crowded streets of Hong Kong, we found our way to The Peak terminal only to find a 40-minute long queue. While waiting, our conversation got a little heated.
Britton: Hey, I heard there were some nature trails up there that are supposed to have some great views.
Me: Oh, yeah. I don't think I'm interested in doing any hiking. I just thought it would be nice to see the skyline to start off our trip.
Britton: Yeah, but I think we can get the best views from the nature trails.
Me: Nah, I'd rather not.
Britton: Well, I don't want to go up there and half-ass it, okay? Let's just do the trails.
Me: Well, I am tired. What do you expect?
And so on. Little did I know that Britton had been worried sick trying to get my engagement ring through security in several different countries and intended to propose to me up there, but it was truly not to be. Bless his heart. When we got to the front of the line, we discovered we did not have enough cash for the trip up and extremely frustrated, Britton gave up. In retrospect, if I knew that a proposal was on the line, I would have been a little more agreeable.
UPDATE: This has become one of our favorite stories to tell about our proposal. It just occurred to me that we have had this conversation a thousand times since this day. Britton approaching a problem with a mix of logic, enthusiasm, and a real sense of urgency guaranteed to stress me out. Myself approaching a problem with some fluctuating ratio of practicality and intuition guaranteed to drive Britton nuts. Both of us so stubbornly convinced our way is the right one. It warms my heart to think about all we've been through, and that we are still able to joke about and love the things (good or bad) that define us as individuals.
To cut our losses, we walked in the hot springtime air to Tsui Wah, a famous cha chaan teng or Hong Kong-style tea restaurant. It is the HK version of Denny's or maybe, Waffle House. It has a startlingly diverse menu, a fusion of Asian cuisine with western diner food. And of course, it has Britton's favorite HK style milk tea. A thick concoction of strong Ceylon tea, condensed milk, and evaporated milk which leaves your mouth warm and slightly oily. It is delicious, but very rich.
UPDATE: Hong Kong Milk Tea is LIFE. Britton's Recipe:
We shared a bowl of their signature fish ball and noodle soup. So comforting, like an Asian grandma's recipe. Britton went crazy for the Hainanese chicken rice and I had a soy sauce western dish of fried pork chop, tomato, and egg over rice. HK people love their tomato and egg. And they LOVE corn. God do they love some corn.
March 17, 2013
After waking up at 6:30 am from the crazy jet lag (12 hour time difference), we thought we would start our second day off right. Dim sim or yum cha at Maxim's City Hall. We walked through the park across from our apartment where elderly chinese men and women were out stretching, doing tai-chi, and walking vigorously in circles. There was an older lady practicing her own one-woman show with a boom box and a set of fans. (You go, girl.) It was refreshing to see the active pursuit of health and well-being, especially so early on a Sunday.
As we made our way to Central, we passed skyscrapers covered with bamboo scaffolding. I had no idea bamboo could be used to build structures that high. COOL.
We arrived early at Maxim's and were one of the first to be seated. Though there were plenty of English-speaking parties around us, it was very clear when the dim sum carts rolled up that this was a Cantonese-speaking establishment. (This was also the first of many experiences that lead me to conclude this: English is more of a figurehead language in Hong Kong. People may know some, but if you want to actually get some shit done, Cantonese is going to do the heavy-lifting.) We eked by with the English picture menu and once I tried to ask for the bathroom in Cantonese, but we made it work. The dim sum was delicious, right on par with the little I've had in Toronto.
Having a somewhat loose itinerary for the day and not wanting to be late for our dinner reservation, we took the MTR or subway (which was incredible - I may have Britton come on here and rant about its many successes) to Mong Kok in Kowloon. We walked around Fa Yuen St. Market, ogling adorable cell phone cases with bunnies and teddy bears...well, I was ogling them. We walked past countless shoes stores, cell phone purveyors, bubble tea shops, food vendors with steaming trays of cut up organ-meat, and finally, Etude House. Yes, the adorable Korean cosmetics store that I found online. Not only can you get lychee-scented hand cream, but it comes in a bottle shaped like cute green owl. Not only can you get Korea's famous BB cream, but it comes in a frilly gold and pink bottle fit for a princess such as myself.
UPDATE: I still remember coming out of the train station onto the street for the first time, and watching hundreds of people moving in all directions, cars honking, signage everywhere in vivid colors. One of the best parts of travel is that you can take your experiences back with you. In moments of reflection, let those memories flood your brain and bring back the same intense sensations - exhilaration, fear, wonder.
After a long day of shopping and wandering, we headed back to the apartment to get ready for our reservation at The Chairman, a tiny Cantonese fine-dining establishment. I had to make the reservation month in advance, but it was worth it. All dolled up, we hiked along back alleys to an unassuming store front. (At the end of the night, we found the waiter feeding scraps to a puppy outside.)
I didn't get many pictures of our dinner, as I wanted to enjoy every single bite as well as spend time with Britton. It was fantastic, but incredibly filling. Poached tomatoes with basil reduction, pork cakes with salted fish, silkie chicken soup, wild clams with chili jam, and smoked baby pigeon.
As the dinner wore on, I noticed Britton was acting particularly gentlemanly. He hadn't made a single vulgar or ridiculous comment in hours. He suggested we make our way to the waterfront after dinner to see Hong Kong at night, and then, I kid you not, actually excused himself from the table to go to the restroom. That is when I knew something was up. This is the man who describes, in anguishing detail, the trials and tribulations of his bowels to me every morning.
Knowing he already purchased an engagement ring (that is a whole other story), I had a feeling tonight was going to be the night. When Britton finally returned, we headed off to the MTR station, my heels clacking painfully against the pavement. Britton nervously dragged me through the underground tunnels to the Avenue of the Stars.
It was warm, and by the time we made it to street level, small beads of sweat dotted my forehead. Britton was gripping my hand, and I was overcome with anxiety. I had anticipated this moment for so long, and now it was actually going to happen. I was trying not to fall apart. As we approached the waterfront, we saw a couple just leaving a secluded spot. Actually, this very spot.
I was shaking. Britton told me the past four years had been the best in his life. He told me he flew me half way across the world to ask me one thing: Will you marry me?
Of course, I said, of course, I will marry you.
Britton later told me, "I once thought being in a relationship meant becoming someone that I'm not, but now I find that I can no longer be myself without you." How clearly those words sang to my heart. I have waited so long for an excuse to tell people how much I love this man. Britton is handsome, reliable, loyal, honest, intelligent, and generous. He goes out of his way every day to make me happy, whether it is telling me I'm beautiful for the millionth time or running through the pouring rain to make sure I don't get wet. He meets me halfway with every project, every idea, every hope and dream. He is cat mommy and cat daddy, fixer of broken plumbing and DVD drives, lover of sports fashion, devourer of Chinese food, tennis star, and secret shirtless dancer. He never need doubt that I love him. It is a love without end.
UPDATE: I am actively cringing! This is so sappy. Why did I think reading my old writing was a good idea? Can I take it back?
Though everything I wrote above is true, our relationship has also twisted and turned in unexpected directions. Whereas once I could not imagine life without him, now I often picture what life would look like were he not here. (I would be completely devastated.) The poet Charles Olson wrote, "I have had to learn the simplest things last. Which made for difficulties..." As time creeps by, I feel more acutely the uncertainty of married life and the reality that even if we spend another one hundred years together, we would still fight and make-up and laugh and cry and keep secrets and fear each others' judgement. I don't think people ever really learn how to work with each other in complete harmony, and happiness is never a guarantee no matter how much you're in love. It seems the longer I am married, the more I see I am making a choice every day to be a good friend and lover, to try to connect with Britton though sometimes I fail, to continue to hold onto the billions and billions of small moments we offer up to each other in place of a "perfect" union.
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Starting in January 2018, I transitioned to a plant-based diet, which emphasizes whole plant foods - fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and some oils - as a way to address my slightly elevated blood pressure and to get back to a healthy weight for me. Animal products are allowed in very limited amounts, so I have interpreted this as eating slightly more vegetarian while out of town and all vegan when we are here in Atlanta. I've gotten a lot of questions about this way of eating from my coworkers, my friends, and my family so I thought I would share a gallery of all the DELICIOUS and mostly healthy (burgers not so much) foods I've been eating both at home (including Easter Sunday) and in restaurants (including travel).
These last three months have been my trial-and-error period. My only goal was to re-learn to cook all the time without animal products. I plan on doing a 6-month update in the summer with some actual blood test results. For that reason, please don't take anything here as gospel other than you don't suffer in flavor or enjoyment of food by eliminating animals and their milks from your plate.
An unavoidable reality of every long-distance trip is you have to stroll down this shiny tiled path....
....before you can stroll down this one.
Though I have been in and out of airports more times than I could count, I still feel a sudden rush of anxiety whenever I walk through those massive sliding doors. It's normal to feel some level of fear before travel. After all, you are putting yourself into a situation without all the tools you want to navigate a new environment. (Keyword: want) Airports pose some unique challenges. As someone who is naturally attentive to the feelings of others, airports can be a minefield of stress and fatigue. It seems almost an inevitability that I will witness at least one full grown adult completely lose all sense of compassion and respect for other people while walking through our local airport. Rather than accept their lack of control and make measured, adjusted decisions to their changing circumstances, some men and women allow their emotions to burn through them, often causing strain on their minds and bodies and contributing to the suffering of others around them. It is frustrating but enlightening to witness a sudden flight cancellation. Those who understand the power of acceptance are on the phone with customer service right away getting their flights rescheduled. Those who react to the situation are (literally) running in circles, screaming at the poor airline staff members, and arguing with their own loved ones on a family vacation.
Don't be the screamers.
Whether you are just getting into meditation like myself or have had a consistent practice for years, the airport is the perfect place to explore mindfulness. In fact, I'd prefer if it was a prerequisite. You don't have to be a Buddhist to reap the benefits of Zen meditation, and I am certain there is a place for breathing and stillness in the chaos of air travel. Before I share some practical tips, let's acknowledge the most painful parts of flying.
There are many aspects of air travel that contribute to this high-stress environment. When I asked some friends and coworkers about their top three struggles with air travel, many of them mentioned problems like cancelled/delayed flights, outrageous change fees for rescheduling flights, expensive tickets, location of the airport in proximity to their home and lack of overhead luggage space. These are certainly some of the worst parts of air travel, but they are the result of corporate policies, the pressure to turn a profit, and the oligopoly of the airline industry. Though you could certainly write or tweet to an airline's customer service department or negotiate a waiver for certain fees over the phone, I would lump these issues into the "out of my control" category. Other issues mentioned included some airport-specific issues like chaotic and disorganized security checkpoints, pricey restaurants or shops, and a lack of ride-share transportation. My friends were 100% accurate that all these things 100% suck, but the good news is that most of them can be anticipated. The other good news is that what cannot be anticipated can be accepted as a part of the reality of air travel. Here are a few steps you can take to prepare yourself for a calm, mindful, and dare I say enjoyable trip to the airport:
Make space for the expected.
If you are anything like me, I am basically non-functional for the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes of every day. I grumble and glare at those who spring magically out of bed with a smile on their face and fully formed sentences on their lips. Throw in some jet lag and you've got yourself one grumpy lady. It's important to know what makes you feel your best and try to incorporate this into your travel plans. For instance, in 2017 we traveled from Atlanta to London with a 6AM departure. Jet lag is notoriously difficult going from west to east, so I made a plan for the 9 days before our trip. Since London is 4 hours ahead of Atlanta, I started moving my wake-up time and bed time 15 minutes earlier each day. My morning alarm went from 6:15 to 4:15AM. By the time we landed in London, my biological clock was only two hours off kilter instead of four, and I had little to no trouble with a full day of touring the next morning. If you do decide to make a schedule shift like this, make sure you are still getting an adequate amount of sleep each night.
Making space for the expected means anticipating the challenges of air travel and taking some practical steps to ease or eliminate suffering.
Make space for the unexpected.
Now it’s time to focus on the parts of air travel that we cannot control. This is easily the most challenging step though it requires the least amount of physical preparation. In Zen Buddhism, suffering (read as: anxiety over getting stuck in a long line, frustration over having your flight cancelled, anger at a rude customer service agent) originates from the desire for pleasant experiences and the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations like fear. In this case, we may desire to be treated respectfully, to not go hungry, to maintain the comfort that comes with knowing what will happen next, but our internal or emotional reactions to these scenarios will not alter the reality of them in any way. An airport is in constant flux. In fact, it’s the perfect example of impermanence. Departure boards flash new times or cancellations based on seemingly unrelated things – a thunderstorm in Los Angeles, an overbooked flight from San Juan, a power outage in Detroit. In these situations, often the most helpful thing we can do is just to recognize the world as it is (the restaurant with the veggie burger is closed) rather than spend time longing for things to be different (the restaurant with veggie burger is still closed and I am so upset I don’t notice my favorite frozen yogurt shop next door.)
Making space for the unexpected means acknowledging when a travel situation is out of your control and taking the mental and emotional steps necessary to accept it.
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In November 2017, I got the chance to take a solo trip to New York City and explore some areas where tourists fear to tread. Though that may seem overdramatic, it is a real phenomenon. In preparation for this trip, I read too many posts about people my age instagramming and yelping their way across lower Manhattan as if it were an Olympic qualifier. Solo travel days like this one are the perfect remedy for the check-list mentality many are guilty of adopting on vacations, myself included.
I am about to take you deep into the wilderness of Harlem, Upper Manhattan, and Washington Heights for an Alexander Hamilton-themed day of history, food, and navigational mishaps. If you are not already a Hamilton the musical fanatic, I would recommended at least listening to the life-changing, mind-blowing soundtrack. For the history buffs, I can also recommend working your way through Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow which is stuffed to the brim with historical tidbits, excerpts from letters, and slightly cheeky commentary.
Finally, if you are like, "Britt, I don't believe in your mad vacation planning skills, and I am too lazy to plan my own Hamilton-themed NYCstravaganza" then let me at least refer you to Jimmy Napoli, a tour guide that has been doing Hamilton way before immigrants were cool (jk). He comes highly recommended by the docent at one of the sites I will be discussing in this post.
I started my day off at Park Ave North Inn in Harlem, a clean and bare-bones hotel/hostel, which is basically all I could afford if I wanted to stay in central Manhattan. Using the CitiMapper app, I found a bus headed for the Hamilton Grange National Historic site. I arrived at 9am to snag a free ticket for the park ranger-led tour of the building, and then scooted over to Manhattanville Coffee to grab a some coffee ($2.50).
Though it was cold and windy, I was enchanted by the old winding stone steps in the nearby St. Nicholas Park. I took my coffee and one decadent gluten free scone to dine al fresco.
At 10AM, the tour of Hamilton Grange began. The mansion was Alexander Hamilton's refuge from the scandal and personal tragedies that shadowed his final years. It has actually been relocated twice, and if you are not quite sure what "relocating" a mansion looks like, it's complicated. They have a cool video on the process included in the tour. At the gift shop, they have a book cataloguing every piece of furniture in the home (I was curious about the chair in A. Ham's study below) and you can also get information on all the other National parks in NYC.
Leaving Hamilton Grange, I headed to the closest M3 bus stop in hopes of getting to my next point of interest, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, without freezing to death a la The Day After Tomorrow. Waiting for what seemed like an eternity, a man looking at his phone next to me threw his hands up in the air and informed me angrily that the next M3 would not be arriving for another 30 minutes. In a fit of shared frustration, I too threw my hands up in the air, fingers flicking like a cat's tail, and made a face of fatalistic disgust. Our eyes met briefly in mutual knowledge of the incompetencies of the NYC transit system, and then we both trudged out into the wind in opposite directions.
I thought this was the New York-est interaction I would ever have, but I was wrong.
Forty minutes later, I arrived on foot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest home in New York. Having walked up one long continuous hill - they call it "Heights" for a reason - I really took my time touring the museum ($10 self-guided). I chatted up the docent who had met Lin Manuel-Miranda (the creator of Hamilton the musical) and his parents personally. Lin wrote portions of the script in Aaron Burr's bedroom upstairs. There was also a Charles Addams exhibit which could have been it's own museum. There were so many hilarious cartoons of the Addams Family. I had no idea he was such a talented and creative artist.
Around 1pm, I headed over to Elsa La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights for some Dominican-style fried pork and tostones. I got a pound (what the hell was I thinking???) of fried pork belly and a side order of tostones. I have since eliminated meat from my diet and wish I could show you some vegetarian options, but if I'm being honest, this was a delicious and filling lunch in a busy working class neighborhood. The window was the perfect spot to people watch and think about what A. Ham would write about the state of modern New York.
In the afternoon, I made my way over to The Cloisters (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) for a non-Hamilton side quest. Though it's technically free, a donation is requested. I paid $10 for my ticket and moved with mild boredom through each room until I found the outside herb garden. Too be frank medieval art, especially religious medieval art, is not my thing, but I could spend hours walking through a garden. This one had an assortment of special herbs used for food, medicine, poison, and magic in the medieval period, and I took home a paper list of all the herbs growing there. The MET occasionally posts about these gardens on their blog.
From the front entrance of The Cloisters, it's a short walk to the trails running the length of Fort Tryton Park. This park was an outpost significant to the Battle of Fort Washington during the Revolutionary War, but it's most notable in my opinion for being designed by the Olmsted Brothers who also redesigned and expanded Piedmont Park in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Because of its revolutionary history, I am including it in my Hamilton day, but it's a beautiful walk along the river that could be added to any trip to Upper Manhattan. (See my map below for more ideas.)
At the southern tip of Fort Tryton Park, I got lost trying to find my way to the closest A train station. There was a rickety looking service elevator that should have taken me to street level, but a not-so-helpful fellow tourist informed me it was not working. This lead me to a set of stairs that appeared to lead down to the street where I encountered two completely plastered grown men rolling around on the stone steps in front of me.
"Are you a hooker?!" They yelled, "Are you Russian?!"
"No, I am not a hooker or Russian," I said "but I am trying to get down to the train station. Do you know how to get there?"
And with the topic changed, they instantly both sat up, politely told me that the elevator was in fact working and that all I had to do was go down to the first floor and make a right. I thanked them, they told me to have a great evening, and all was right in the world.
This is the New York-est interaction I have ever had. You see, being the wife of a former New Yorker, I have had lots of opportunity to observe New Yorkers in the wild. They are hard on the outside, but soft on the inside. Finally, if there is one topic that consistently leads to a deep and passionate conversation between New Yorkers, it's the best way to get from point A to point B. Whether it's a Google maps route or your personal spiritual journey, New Yorkers are going to have an opinion on it.
I hope you enjoyed my Hamilton-themed day in New York City! Did I miss something? Did I get New Yorkers wrong? Is there something in my teeth? Let me know in the comments, and make some plans for solo travel today!
Arriving in Bath, it was rainy and warm. Orderly parcels of pallid grey Georgian buildings spread out before us. The city was surrounded by verdant green hills speckled with leafy trees and pastures, and I could not help thinking about how I'd rather be up there on the hills, admiring the twinkling street lamps from afar. We marched our way up the uneven stone sidewalks to the YMCA hostel tucked away in a cozy courtyard which also happened to be a local hangout for the working class set. The room was sparse but not unwelcoming, and though the bathrooms down the hall reeked of body odor and some foreign disinfectant, all was as advertised.
In the early afternoon, we made our way through the mist to the Roman Baths museum. Included in the ticket was a handy audio tour that offered an educational track, a track by author Bill Bryson, and a special track for kids. The museum was incredible with an in-depth focus on Roman religion, culture, and engineering. In the interior rooms, holographic men and women chatted, bathed, and dressed. To walk in and stumble upon these figures going about their lives was exhilarating, like looking into a crystal ball. The musty smell of old things, the sulphurous steam filling the air, and the stony darkness enveloping you. For a moment, history was before you like book opened by the wind. Public baths were an important part of Roman daily life, and to discover this pagan temple surrounding a hot spring must have felt serendipitous to the homesick Roman conquerors. I also found it interesting to see Roman syncretism first hand. They welcomed and absorbed the local Celtic goddess of the hot spring, Sulis, comparing her to their own Minerva.
At the end of the tour, we got to try the mineral-rich spring water, famed for curing all sorts of ailments and other vexing conditions. Unfortunately, it could not cure Britton of his flair for the dramatic.
The next day found us in a small bus with wide sightseeing windows. A persistent drizzle filtered our view across fields so singularly beautiful, I felt I was dreaming. In fact, the gentle sway of the bus, the calm monologue of our tour guide, and some unaddressed jet leg were rocking me to sleep. I bit my lip hard, not wanting to miss a second. Our first stop was Stonehenge, the great henge of stone! I have to admit this was one of Britton's leaning tower of Pisa adventures. I didn't really want to go, but once I was there - Wow! Sometimes you can see a really old thing and know it is old without feeling its age. These stones, even from many yards away, radiated primordial energy. The tallest thing across the Salisbury plain, they dominated your view like a skyscraper with all the force of time.
Our next stop was the Avebury Stone circle, and it took me completely unawares. At first the village of Avebury looked like any little village we'd seen along the road: clean and tidy with a pub, a bakery, a gift shop, and a small chapel. As we began to walk around, I noticed people, mostly women, sitting quietly at the base of the stones. Their eyes were open and alert, as if they were listening. Low and behold, when I get back and do some research, I discover the stones have a sound. They have a voice. Does it sound like the high-pitched fizz when you put your ear to freshly poured glass of red wine? Is it a guttural rumble rising up from the flinty earth? I don't know - I wish I had stopped to find out.
A brawny old woman in a green velvet robe sat at the base of a stone with a tall wooden staff. Feeling increasingly wrapped up in the mystery of the place, I couldn't help myself. I had to speak with her. "Are you a practicing pagan?" I asked, not really knowing what that meant. She identified herself as a shaman, talked about her bet with a friend and physics professor working at CERN about the nature of the universe, and invited me to experience the stones for myself. Holding my hand on her wooden staff, she told me to move my mind from one plane to another - down, up, the past, the present - and with each turn of her staff, I felt a change in the frequency of the vibration of the wood as it connected to the earth. Britton looked on curiously. How could I really explain this to him? It was the strangest sensation, and as much as I love to have evidence for things, I've got none for the way Avebury felt and for the vertigo I felt when I finally left to continue our tour.
Our tour took us through The Cotswolds, an area of enormous wealth for centuries powered by sheep's wool. The growing desire for rare fabrics from India combined with the invention of the cotton gin in the U.S. in the 1790's spelled the end of big wool for The Cotswolds. Bankrupted, they could no longer make repairs or updates to their lovely villages and manses. Sitting unloved and untended for many years, they are now an "AONB". It takes a British mind to create an acronym for the phrase "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", but it was without a doubt, outstandingly beautiful.
Stay tuned for my next post in the United Kingdom series where we visit The Village from England's 1960's sci-fi classic, The Prisoner!
The sensation of being in London is a sensation that is altogether too familiar. It's not the fleeting clarity of deja vu - no, nothing that exciting. It's a domestic sort of feeling this southern girl has developed for big, lived-in cities thanks to her New Yorker husband. The violent lurch of a subterranean train, the sudden waft of urine or trash, a bird waddling drunkenly down a brick-lined alley. For me, these little moments too easily fade into the wrap-around background of city life, leaving me to wait for a celluloid savior, that unexpected moment that knocks me out of my stupor.
When we arrived at Heathrow after a surprisingly pleasant (and practically free thanks to credit card points) daytime flight from Newark, we were floored by the line at border control. The line looped around forever. We were forced to wade through an undulating sea of Turks and Canadians for two hours, looking in turns longingly and angrily at the U.K. citizens in their bloody expedited kiosks. It did not comfort us that in two weeks we would be those assholes waltzing back into the U.S. nbd. (Hot tip from a friend who lives in London: you can pay for expedited entry if you fly into Gatwick for just 10£.)
When we arrived at our Airbnb, it was weird and wonderful. We were greeted by the owner who runs a motorcycle repair shop downstairs. He was cheerfully glum, just the sort of Londoner I envisioned, with a magnificent red mustache and neat, well-tailored work trousers. He walked us through a graveyard of tires and past a decrepit screen door behind which I recognized several oily steel bowls and the long-handled spoons used to protect its user from the breath of the wok. The smell of rancid oil filled the air as I dodged random pools of god knows what. Up some steps, and then some more, to a bright and modern flat split between 4 floors, each separated by a narrow sets of stairs that were more like glorified ladders. On the tippy top was a small rooftop patio with a view of hundreds of dusty little chimneys and the glowing London Eye. It was awesome.
We spent our first day there seeing the usual sites - visiting Westminster Abbey, seeing the Churchill War Museums, strolling through lush manicured parks, peeking at Buckhingham Palace, and popping into the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. Though the Churchill War rooms were incredible, this was not a favorite day for me. To give you an idea of where my priorities lie, the highlight was actually dinner at Nopi, owned by chef Yotam Ottolenghi. We decided to forgo our reservation and sat at the bar (because people who sit at the bar for dinner are the best kind of people). I love vegetables in almost every form (looking at you turnips, get your shit together), and Nopi did not disappoint - roasted aubergine, pistachio, mushrooms, preserved lemon, cardamom, ginger - so many flavors I love working together.
On our second day, we booked a Beatles walking tour with London Walks as a special treat for Britton. In addition to seeing an enormous variety of locations significant to Beatles history, it was also a good way for us to gain some spacial understanding of popular London neighborhoods that benefited us the rest of the trip. In retrospect, I would have scheduled a tour like this for our very first day. Britton is particularly proud of his zebra crosswalk photo (the one on the cover of Abbey Road) just outside Abbey Road Studios. With just a slight nod at me to start snapping away, he leaped out into the busy street, managed to get into the crosswalk all alone, strike a pose, and quickly exit without getting honked at or mowed over by a black cab. From personal experience, I can tell you Britton's "strike a pose" skills are extraordinary, but that day, he was at the top of his game. Michael Jordan in Game 6 of the '98 NBA Finals kind of game.
On our final day in London, we got up early to be one the first in line for the Tower of London. Our first stop was the crown jewels (notoriously long lines in the afternoon) followed by a meander through the white tower and the first couple stops of the beefeater tour. Being a perpetual tourist myself, it was fascinating to learn about the history of the Tower as a tourist destination and how tourism shaped the way certain items were displayed. In many instances, museum "curators" just made shit up to please the masses. For instance, the Line of Kings was one historically inaccurate exhibit of life-size painted wooden horses and royal suites of armor first displayed in the late 17th century. In the seventeenth-freaking-century, y'all! People have been gawking at this stuff for 350 years! They were just rolling around in heavy petticoats and thinking "Behold at how fusty this stuffeth is - thanketh god f'r advancements in philosophy, technology, and medicine so we has't not to kicketh the bucket liketh these po'r slobss". AND here I am with my bra digging into my shoulder thinking THE EXACT SAME THING. More or less.
As we headed to the sunlit Paddington Station on our way to Bath, we stopped by the Churchill Arms for lunch with one of Britton's Dad's long time friends. She is a beautiful woman with bright eyes and an easy, unself-conscious manner with an appreciation for good ambience and the color black. We heaped steaming piles of jasmine rice and thai curry on our plates and admired the serpentine mass of flowering vines and ferns covering the ceiling of their dining room. We chatted about family and life in the city. I drank a beer that tasted like honey. The longer we sat in that incredible place, the longer I felt myself succumbing to that wonderful sensation of being exactly where you're supposed to be. I imagined myself spending the rest of my life in that room, in that chair, with green tendrils slowly wrapping about me like a gown or funeral shroud. The sun spinning across the horizon yet the world below unchanging in every aspect. Then the moment was gone as quickly as it came, as faulted as memory.
Since the post breezed over quite a few of the places we toured in London, I've included the map below with all the spots we visited during our first week in the United Kingdom. Cheers.