Unexpected Beauty

My amazing friend Robin, a foodie whose dinner invites you drop everything else to attend (p.s. she knows of my love of mangoes and often finds ways to include them in a dish or drink for me–have I mentioned that she’s amazing?) texted Friday late morning: “I have a crazy travel idea involving food and art. Call me.” I did. Immediately. She had mentioned three of my favorite things–travel, food, and art.

On the phone, she told me she craved beignets and would we like to join her and her husband for a day trip to New Orleans the following day to satisfy said craving?

Backstory: I had gone a little crazy Thursday night. I might have had a minor breakdown. There may have been tears involved. I may have been feeling inadequate. The house made Mt. Vesuvius look like an elementary school science experiment. My garden, as I mentioned, flopped. I was supposed to be Wonder Woman, wielding knitting needles, spatula, and writing notepad instead of whip. And I was failing. Having a baby means letting things drop (and obviously, not the baby). This week, I chose to use Keegan’s naps to work on a short story. Which meant the house fell into chaos. I want to make things lovely, I told my husband. I want to create an environment that fosters beauty for our family. If only I had a couple of days to set this house in order. If only I could catch up on all those little jobs I had created for myself: pureeing mangoes and sweet potatoes from our latest food co-op basket to freeze for Keegan, getting started on Christmas knitting, Keegan knitting, and, yes, those cute socks and wraps and sweaters for myself, working on the office, which looks like the home of a hoarder, cleaning our shower. Then all would be right with the world.

Naturally, I told Robin we were in.

Trombone Shorty's competition

I had never been to New Orleans, and now, with a five month old who hated flying and a to-do list that looked like it came from a Dr. Seuss book, seemed the prime time.

Our day started with aforementioned craved beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde. While we gorged on sugar and caffeine, some young jazz musicians trying out their chops serenaded us. Watch out, Trombone Shorty, these kids are coming for you!

Then we headed to a small arts festival where, yes, more jazz musicians provided a soundtrack while we meandered through the booths. After that, I tried out my first po’ boy at Mother’s.

But then came my soul food, that which nurtured my starving spirit. We strolled down Royal Street in the French Quarter. The architecture–cast iron fences draped in ivy and flowers, brightly colored shutters, locked gates hiding secret courtyard gardens–stimulated my imagination.

So camera in hand, husband, son, and friends by my side, we wandered down the street, in and out of art galleries, gulping the beauty of New Orleans at its best.



As our day finished, rain fell from the sky, a last offering of refreshment for the parched. We drove back to the airport and returned home, where dirty dishes, unfolded laundry, and stained carpet waited for me. No matter. My family found beauty on an unexpected trip.

Israel: Understanding the Setting of the Bible

Bible.org posted an article I wrote about Israel as setting based on my recent travels. You can read the article here.

Land of the Free and Home of the Brave

I’m speaking of New Jersey, of course, the land upon which God will model the new earth.

As much as I love this great state, I had second-guessed my decision to take my annual trip. With finances what they are (or aren’t, rather), did I need this research trip? I know the area, the mindsets, the lifestyles. I know how things work.

Going was the right decision. I had been afraid about writing my next novel for multiples reasons. Those fears haven’t left. But ideas begin to shout over the fears. Besides some logistics, as I walked the streets of the town, Sarah began to emerge. She told me about her childhood, where she went to school, and the beauties and pains of early marriage. She told me about the chemical spill across the street at the dry cleaners.

Now, I’m ready to tell her story.

I suppose this relates to the importance of setting. It’s more than the location of the story. Setting dictates the rhythms of life. It’s bound up with character. I needed to breathe Sarah’s atmosphere to know her.

And I might have snuck in some fun while there, too.

A Few of My Favorite Things (Set to Israeli Wedding Music)

The world-weary traveler (more like world cuisine-stuffed traveler) has returned home and is ready to offer up thoughts on Israel and New Jersey packed in brown paper packages tied up with string.*

I cried thrice in Israel.

My first tears occurred at the museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls (The Israel Museum in Jerusalem). Men belonging to a Jewish sect called the Essenes lived with their families in the first century B.C. around caves, which we call Qumran. The men would leave their families to enter into these caves and copy what we refer to as the Old Testament. These scrolls were discovered accidentally in 1947 by a shepherd and contain sections from every book of the Bible except Esther and Nehemiah, including the oldest copy of Isaiah (known as the Isaiah scroll), a scroll that is complete of the whole book.

Why would this excite me, you may ask.

Beside the fact that Israel brought out my inner nerd (yes, I know), seeing the different handwritings, some tall, others small and neat, still others slanted, reminded me that everyday men sat down and wrote out these stories, both these copies and the originals. They sat with ink and parchment to attest to God’s work in their lives. These particular copies have been preserved over centuries, a testimony to God’s preservation work of the Scriptures, not just in hard copy (such as these), but through the work of the Holy Spirit in the universal Church. Scriptures are alive and active. This work does not negate personality but draws on it, employs it, gives it meaning. God works primarily through humans, unique, beautiful, and weird.

The Caves at Qumran: where shepherds accidentally found the Dead Sea Scrolls

The second time I cried, our tour guide, Karl, had been telling us two stories of Holocaust survivors, one from Romania, one from Hungary. They were the stories of his parents. He told us these stories at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center, in the Garden of the Righteous, a garden that remembers the goyim, or Gentiles, who put their careers, lives, and families at risk to save Jews.

Yad Vashem is Hebrew for hand and name, which are two ways of remembering–the body and the name. The architecture of the place symbolizes the deterioration of the Jews as a people group before the Holocaust, the darkness of the Holocaust, the open light at the end, and the strength of the Jews now. My favorite story shows the hope and healing Yad Vashem offers. Yad Vashem keeps archives of the names and stories of those who suffered in concentration camps. One woman put her name into the system to find that it had already been entered. By her sister. From whom the woman had been separated since the Holocaust. Each had assumed the other had died. Turned out the sisters lived close to one another in Israel. They were reunited after fifty years.

Whether you visit Israel for its archaeology, as a pilgrim, or for its food, you must visit Yad Vashem. It is a center not for hate but for healing, to which its architecture attests. I’d recommend going without a tour guide and allowing yourself to take your own pace. (One of the journalist with whom I traveled wrote a piece about Yad Vashem, which I recommend. You can read it here.)

My third set of tears came at our goodbyes.

Nineteen writers traveled together for a week, spending almost every waking second together (except when we parted ways to update Facebook, where we often ran into each other), communing together at meals, dancing together, and sharing an experience that took us all by surprise. I did not expect to find friends in Israel. What can happen in a week? Even now, I can’t articulate what happened, but somewhere between the laughter, the awe, and yes, the sarcasm, on 4000-year-old remains, friendships emerged. I must have known them for decades, I think. If I believed in reincarnation, I would’ve argued we came from the same family a few centuries ago. I’ll offer the only explanation I have: God.

It hurts to be separate from them. In the new earth, I’ll search them out, and we’ll dance together again (perhaps on the Sea of Galilee sans boat).

Dancing on the Sea of Galilee: photo by Peter Fleck

*Fine print: You’ll find a more detailed article about the setting of Israel in the story of the Bible upcoming at Biblical Studies Foundation, aka bible.org.

Tips for a Trip to Israel

After returning from Israel (and having some sense of coherence return to my life–although not much), I thought I’d compile a list of tips for those of you out there desiring to make a trip to the Holy Lands. Or for those of you armchair travelers who prefer seeing the world through the travel channel. You still may need these tips before the Israel episode.

  1. Travel with cynical writers. I worried the trip would be made up of constant emotional breakdowns and holy moments. Israel’s a great place for them. But as Keith, one of my fellow travelers, said, "All of creation is holy lands" (or something to that effect). We’re no closer to God because we traveled to Israel. What a trip to Israel does is give a framework, a set, for you theater lovers, for understanding the Bible. Instead of emotional breakdowns, I had ah-ha moments. As I’ve listened to the Bible the past couple mornings, I’ve been able to better picture the stories, to enter into them. They’re human, earthy, real, and at times, smelly (the stories, not the writers, although . . . ). Traveling with cynical writers not only keeps the trip entertaining (which it was), but keeps it down to earth.
  2. Hire a tour guide with degrees in botany, history, and archeology. It makes for a well-rounded education. One minute he rubs medicinal geranium, the next, he explains the excavations of King David’s palace. You may also be treated to traditional Jewish songs.
  3. Also make sure he’s loaded with humor and patience. Especially patience.
  4. Learn shorthand. It’s impossible to jot down all the new information otherwise.
  5. Take a washcloth. Little did I know that most hotels, even the high-class ones, don’t provide washcloths. Using the corner of a hand towel is cumbersome. Especially when you accidentally slap yourself with it, forgetting how long and wet it is.
  6. Make sure your camera doesn’t have hidden folders hogging all the memory space.
  7. Don’t publish random thoughts on your blog at night after long, grueling days. You have no capacity for decent editing at that time.
  8. Take sleeping pills. No matter how tired you are, you most likely won’t sleep through the night. On the plus side, you’ll enjoy plenty of sunrises.
  9. Pack Band-Aids. You will get blisters on your feet.
  10. Don’t shave before swimming in the Dead Sea. Don’t pick at your cuticles while in the Dead Sea.
  11. Don’t fill up on the first course at dinner. The waitress has plenty more to bring.
  12. Recalibrate your understanding of old and new. Anything under 2000 years old–new. Even after seeing 4000-year-old excavations, I felt that remnants from Jesus’ time were new.
  13. Take The Holy Lands: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Only read the brief historical outline before coming. Each night, read the sections on the next day’s sites. This book gave me categories so I could retain much of what I saw and heard while at the sites themselves. It kept me from getting lost.
  14. Speaking of, if you get lost (not that I’m speaking from experience, eh-hem), no worries! Almost everyone speaks English. I’d recommend doing so with another good-hearted scarf-lover, though. If you feel like getting behind the group, that is.

So there you have it. Heather’s travel tips.  

Dancing on the Sea of Galilee

Jesus said we’d do greater things than he. He walked on water. Today, we danced on it.
This morning, our group went out on the Sea of Galilee in a replica of a first-century boat. A couple in our group used this opportunity to renew our wedding vows.
Which evolved into traditional Jewish wedding music.
Which evolved (devolved, perhaps) into ABBA. And Cotton-Eyed Joe. And Israeli techno music.
And we danced.
Someone noted today that the trip isn’t as spiritual as she expected. But here’s how I see it: the people of the Bible may have lived in a different culture, but they were human with human emotions and motivations. They sang and danced and farmed and cried and married and ate and died. They may have even had sex. Visiting Israel makes this more real to me. It’s an earthy, human place with earthy, human history.
Oh, also today, I snuck wine into one of the churches. Illegally. How did the guide know to ask me to be the one to do that?

Raw Thoughts #1

We missed out on Cana. Drove through, but didn’t get to stop at the church that’s built over the traditional site of the wedding. Too bad. I was looking forward to a good glass of wine.

In Caesarea, there are ruins underwater from this pier Herod built (it was destroyed by tsunami) as well as wrecks from ships. I asked if it’s open to the public for diving. It is. Someday I’d like to return and see the ruins down there.

I ran out of room on the camera within an hour. So I went back and deleted some of the pics I took, switched it to snapshot, and took much fewer pictures than I would’ve liked (especially at Meggido, aka Armageddon). When I downloaded them tonight, I discovered this “trash” folder with 400 pics. Nice. So I got rid of them, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll have lots of space.

Speaking of Armaggedon, I didn’t start any wars, you’ll be glad to know. All is still safe.

I’m learning so much. And I’m making connections in a new way. With some things, we don’t really see anything (we drove by Mt. Carmel, where Elijah and the prophets of Baal had it out, and the area where Saul died or the Mount of Transfiguration–all smashed close together!), but knowing that this is really the place where it happened makes it more real. I expected everything to be big. The world of the Bible seems this larger-than-life place. But it’s small. Everything happened so close together. And Meggido (or Armeggedon), the high place that became the city to have, had 25 civilizations burned and rebuilt, saw more battles than a divorce lawyer (no wonder it became the symbol for the place of the war to end all wars!) was a small hill overlooking the fertile Valley of Jezreel.

History is boiling, our tour guide says. It’s tangible here. David’s palace was discovered six months ago. But more than that, it reaches into today here. An archeaologist named Jones (the real Indiana Jones, our tour guide jokes, though his first name is Wendell) searches for the Ark of the Covenant. When he finds it, the Jews will be able to rebuilt their Temple (more on this later), and all hell will break lose, they suspect. Mixed in with this are stories like the city named after the man who brought Louis Pasteur’s system to the States and saved hundreds of lives (he also pawned jewelry to support the orphans of the Titanic) and heroes and survivors of the Holocaust. All of these things matter. From Elijah to Maccabees to Nathan Strauss–they all make up the stories and identities of the Jews.

Building things here must be a nightmare–they’ve had to move roads, prisons, and all sorts of things when they discover something new (rather, something old) underneath. Voila! New excavation site.

It’s hard to grasp how old everything is. They tear down places as old as our country without thought–a building only 250 years old is considered new.

I must go to dinner now. We’re going to do what our tour guide is calling a Jewish communion. If I understand correctly, he means part of the typical Sabbath celebration, although I can’t be sure. In the meantime, a couple of pictures:

Mosaic floor from a 1st century Roman bath house in Caesarea

Meggido: Some of the layers from the 25 civilizations here. The round circle is a Canaanite altar.

Let Me in the Sound

Last night, I attended the latest U2 concert. Attended is the wrong word. Participated in fits better. A U2 concert is more than a group of talented men standing on a stage singing. It is about how they invite the audience to participate in something greater than themselves–in the music and in the work of bringing blessing to a hurting world.

Chris, two friends, and I were on the floor. And though my feet and knees punish me today for that decision, I’m glad we did that. We were closer to the stage than I expected we would be, and it disallowed any opportunity to sit and let the moment pass by.

An interesting observation, though: So many people around us were more intent on getting pics and capturing bits with their cell phones than participating in the moment. I’ll have to think more about this later.

I want to give you a thoughtful review, but I leave for Israel tomorrow, and my brain is too jumbled to process things like the two lines from A Mighty Fortress Is Our God I’m sure I heard The Edge quote somewhere in one of the songs (I can’t even remember which one) or how they led into Where the Streets With No Name with Amazing Grace or how Bono invited us to pray with him at the Moment of Surrender as he knelt on stage not noticing the passers-by. U2 offered praise in Magnificent, and they remind us that the blessings are not just for those who kneel (which went along nicely with the retreat I taught this past weekend–we are God’s instruments of blessing to the world).

They skipped many songs from the new album, but I expected this. In this album, I felt, the band played with sounds in a studio-experimental way. Songs like Fez: Being Born (my favorite off the album) aren’t concert friendly. Still, I would’ve liked to have heard White As Snow or Cedars of Lebanon. So they had time to sing numerous old favorites. My one real disappointment was that they didn’t sing Pride. Why, this is the song that they sang to my husband and me in my dream a year ago! How dare they skip out on it here!

But I have no more time for reflection. I have to pack! Capernaum, here I come!

New Jersey in 1000 Words or Less

I’m back. Visiting your roots, your childhood and your parents’ childhoods, refreshes the soul.
Since this was a research trip for me (and it worked–it answered a lot of questions about my current WIP and got some ideas germinating for two more), I took pictures. Tons of pictures (if a picture is worth a 1000 words, how many words does that make–and, more importantly, Misfits, does that count toward my daily word count?).
Here are a few (I’ll try to keep it down):

Since I told you about Eastern State Penitentiary: here’s what would greet you at the entrance, although from pics I saw of the original, he was added later.

Philadelphia City Hall: you can’t really see much of the tower on the right side, but on the top stands William Penn (guess what: Pennsylvania was not named after him but after his father ’cause a good Quaker would never name anything after himself).
Elfreth Alley: oldest houses in the States still lived in. The road is teeny tiny.

A building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood, one of the two towns in NJ where I grew up.

The church I grew up in.

You know I had to put a pic of the shore. My mom and I stayed in Ocean City for two days. These morning clouds worked their way inland giving us Irving Berlin blue skies and the perfect temperature in the afternoon.

Christ Church cemetery (partially dedicated to Angie): where Ben Franklin and four other signers of the good ole Declaration that started it all are buried (as well as some other interesting folk)

Why We Should Move to New Jersey

I’m still in Jersey and am putting a PowerPoint presentation together to convince my hubby that we should move to NJ. So here we go. (Man, do I love this place.)

Hoagies (warning—there will be a lot of food on this list; my mom and I planned our trip more around food than even family): don’t even think about calling them subs.
Philly cheesesteaks
Panzzerottis (told there’d be food): not anything close to calzones, fyi
Trees—this includes the different types, the number of them, and the beautiful colors in the fall. We’re here right at the beginning of the change. Almost overnight. Of course, my family laughs at our oohs and ahhs over such meager colors. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wait ’til mid-October.
History—you go into Philly and it’s first this and first that. First, first, first. First capital, first printing press, first president of the U.S., first prison in the States (first penitentiary in the world—the thing looks like a castle, which is on purpose, of course, to scare the new immigrants who would’ve associated the castle with a harsh authoritative hand; inspired by Quakers, the designers wanted to create a place once inside that would inspire penitence and a changed life). You can’t walk two steps without being immersed into history like the signing of the Declaration and Campbell’s soup and Ben Franklin (who apparently did everything except invent Campbell’s soup). And the architecture–some European, some colonial, some modern. When I get back, I’ll take the time to put some pics up. Then there’s my personal history and my family history. It’s all here.
Location, location, location—hop on a train and 10 min. later you’re in Philadelphia. Two hours from NYC, three from DC. An hour from the shore (a great shore at that) and three from the mountains (think skiing, Chris).
The tomatoes and corn and blueberries and peaches and apples. NJ is called the Garden State for a reason. You can’t get veggies bursting with flavor like this in Texas.
Italian country—I love my Italian food. You can’t get Italian food like this in Dallas. (Interestingly enough, I used to think I’d miss Mexican food if—no, when—I move back home, but with Mexican migrant workers now putting down roots, Mexican—true Mexican, which I prefer to Tex-Mex—restaurants pop up everywhere, along with every type of Asian and Middle Eastern.)
Four seasons. They have all of them up here.
The artsy section of Philly with galleries and shops and all that fun stuff.
And I haven’t even been to the shore yet–we go tomorrow.

Added to the list after posting but before visiting the shore:
Water ice–similar to snow cones only if you consider a fine snow powder the same as ice cubes.
Variety in the style of houses–so many types as opposed to the DFW 2 types.
Cheaper gas. Seriously.
Cheaper tolls. (And don’t even try and bring up that housing is oh-so-much-more expensive in Jersey. Dallas is almost caught up in prices. I checked. Love you, dear.)
Barber shops with the real twisting barber shop red and white thingies.
Traditional small shops–I only saw one Wal-Mart.
Wawa’s coffee. So good. Jam-packed in the mornings. If you say it’s like 7-11, I’ll punch you in the nose. Very few Starbucks here.

I’m sure I’ll think of more.

Things I love but can’t put on my husband’s list:

Watching the Eagles game with other Eagles fans. Hard to come by in Dallas.
Actually, that’s it. If he would listen to me, I think he would find that he would love NJ (ahem).

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