2016…56 Years Old

Soon after completing our “Lower 48” trip, a friend called and excitedly told me that she and another friend had a solution to our “Alaska Problem.” Gregg and I had barely unpacked the car so visiting #50 was not on our radar. Yet, they did have a point; visiting Alaska would be the crowning glory on our aspiration to visit every state.  

Our friends’ solution to our “problem” was an Inside Passageway Alaskan cruise. Several couples planned to go in August 2016, would we like to join them? We didn’t consider ourselves “cruise people” but agreed that we would love to see Alaska by ship. Why, yes! We will join you! And so, the planning began!

Gregg and I had been following Rick Steves’ packing suggestions, experiencing that when it comes to luggage, indeed, “less is more.” With the challenging goal of packing light for heat, snow, rain, and formal nights, we carefully planned our clothing to be worn in layers.

Purchasing good quality, breathable, waterproof jackets was well worth the investment. Keeping the wind out, we stayed warm with the lightweight jacket covering a layer of shirts and sweatshirt. Our experience with water-resistant pants revealed that the terms “waterproof” and “water-resistant” are not interchangeable terms. Oops! Duly noted.

We flew into Anchorage a few days before our cruise. The first morning, we experienced local culture by participating in a 5K with Tim, Kim, and Brandi along the Tony Knowles Coastal Path. Our next few days were rather wet, but we loved every minute of it.

The rain (and some sleet) did not deter us from hiking and climbing to the top of Flat Top Mountain (altitude 3,500 ft.) where we celebrated that hard accomplishment. Nor did it deter us from riding bikes on the Coastal Path, where we came upon a momma moose and her calf. Awesome and scary!

We had a delightful visit with my second cousin and his daughter. And another day, we went south with the Johnsons and Gonzales to tour a wildlife conservatory and see glaciers.

I will be honest; until this trip, I did not believe that the earth was being adversely affected by changing temperatures. I assumed that the Climate Change argument was political propaganda with a hidden agenda.

Seeing glaciers with my own eyes, or lack thereof, gave me a different perspective.  Exit Glacier’s endpoint is denoted by yearly markers, making the distance and pace of recession clear – jaw drop and heavy heart. A 6-week time lapse video posted by the National Park Service shows how much the glacier changed beginning the week following our visit.

The day we arrived at the port was rainy, so we boarded the ship right away. Since we were new at cruising, we played the scavenger game to get acquainted with the ship layout and possibly win prizes. I did end up winning a week access to the spa’s thermal room. It would have been more enjoyable to sit in the sauna with a friend, so I didn’t go often.

The first two full days of our 7-day cruise were scenic cruising: viewing glaciers and God’s beautiful creation. Standing on the deck, feeling tiny as I looked up at the massive mountains, mesmerized by the breathtaking view, Brandi suggested the two of us sing “How Great Thou Art.” It was such an impactful worship experience. Since that time, I find my soul singing out in “awesome wonder,” whenever I notice God’s “power throughout the universe displayed.”

The couples in our party chose a variety of ways to spend their time. We would re-connect at dinner, sharing the stories of the day. Brandi encouraged us to stop and reflect by naming our “Top 5” of each day. Singing How Great Thou Art while looking at glaciers is on my Top 5 list for the whole trip.

Continuing that Trip Top 5 list, I enjoyed:

  • Afternoon high tea in the dining room – tea, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, and scones with clotted cream and jam were served by white-gloved staff. Gregg and I went each day we were on the ship at teatime. One afternoon, our companions joined us. I loved sharing the experience with them!
  • In Skagway, taking a vintage train to the White Pass Summit on the Canadian border. The 1898 railway tracks follow the narrow Klondike Trail used during the goldrush. At the top, we changed transportation to bikes and rode down the mountain, joined by Brandi and Christian.
  • The Easter Totem Pole outside a church in Ketchikan explained Jesus and the resurrection with culturally relevant symbols.
  • The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in Vancouver, Canada, was the cherry on top of a great trip. We spent the day with Johnsons and Gonzales, exploring footbridges suspended high in the colossal trees. The Cap was unquestionably a highlight of our trip.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Hearing and seeing glaciers calving,
  • The blue color in the glaciers and icebergs,
  • Watching for wildlife and catching the quick sight of whales breaching,
  • Salmon jumping upstream and bears trying to catch them,
  • Realizing that the Japanese Americans sent to internment camps affected everyone (The Empty Chair memorial in Juneau),
  • Tasting new fruits with Brandi, and
  • Experiencing “the world, God’s hand has made.”

Truly, “my God, how great Thou art!”

Brandi, Kristin, and Kim. This was Brandi’s very first 5K ever! She has since done innumerable more as well as half marathons and marathons! You go, girlfriend!
Kristin and Gregg with cousins Hope, and Scott Walker
3,500 feet above sea level it was raining, sleeting, and very windy. The last portion was over rocks and boulders, not on a marked trail. It was HARD and WE DID IT! Although, it appears that everyone in our excursion group has begun their descent already. I’m thankful for Gregg’s great sense of direction!
Exit Glacier behind us
Our ship has come in!
Skagway to White Pass Summit
Gregg, Kristin, Christian, Brandi – riding back down to Skagway.
The Empty Chair in Juneau. Many beloved Japanese-American classmates were suddenly missing from school. The graduating high school class left an empty chair for their valedictorian.
The Easter Totem Pole outside a Methodist Church in Ketchikan. It fascinated me how it was creatively and culturally relevant because they had no context for things like a cock crowing since didn’t have roosters, nor bread, since grain doesn’t grow in the rain forest.
My Love took me to high tea each time we were onboard at teatime!
Gregg & Kristin Friend, Kim & Tim Johnson, Jeff & Margie Hesser, Joyce & Tim Whitley (the trip organizer), Brandi & Christian Gonzales.
Foggy first day of glacier cruising. The next day was clear and beautiful!
The long Capilano Suspension Bridge.
I can’t wrap my brain around the fact that Brandi can’t begin to wrap her hands around this ginormous tree.
We are way above the ground and the trees are still higher!

2015…55 Years Old

Gregg and I love to travel. Our bucket list included exploring the USA together. Our beautiful country is huge, so we assumed we would need to visit it in small segments. An idea never jelled and overseas destinations were always beckoning…until…

Gregg came across an article, “How to Really Drive Across the U.S. Hitting Major Landmarks.”

Wait! What? Our imaginations began to whirl and soon we were choreographing a visit to all lower 48 states in one summer. There were some specific sights we wanted to see as well as run 3 miles in each state and visit family and friends. Dividing the trip into two legs made sense – the states north and west of Florida, and the states north and east of Pennsylvania.

Memories of birthing this trip make me excited all over again.

The western circuit took six weeks to travel 9,300 miles. (see map below) We traveled Fridays through Mondays. Monday night, we would settle in somewhere so Gregg could work Tuesday through Thursday. After work on those days, we could visit the local area. By Friday morning, we’d begin four more days of travel.

Our hearts were refreshed as we reconnected with dear family and friends. We saw the town where I was born, my mother’s college, homes where my father and his extended family lived, and graves where relatives are resting.

Gregg was thrilled to run on “Pre’s Trail” in Eugene, Oregon.

We ate huckleberry ice cream every chance we got and tried new foods including poutine, lobster rolls, and Culver’s ice cream custard and cheese curds.

We saw snow, drove through deserts, legally drove 80 mph on South Dakota roads, and was astonished by the number of farms in our country … God bless the farmers!

Our favorite memories include hiking with Aunt Evelyn and Misty in South Lake Tahoe, a redwood forest where we felt like hobbits below the towering trees, the hot springs and geysers at Yellowstone National Park, and quaint Santa Fe, New Mexico with its chilis and Kakawa liquid chocolate.

Nature is our “God language;” being in nature helps us connect with God. Traveling through America by car is a nature-lover’s dream. Each day the scenery and topography changed. The incredibly beautiful and diverse views were breathtaking.

Words from “This Land is Your Land,” “America the Beautiful,” and “God Bless America” were common thoughts – from the mountains to the prairies, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream Waters, the endless highways, the golden valleys, the wheatfields waving, from sea to shining sea … God bless America, my home sweet home.

We ended this trip in Jacksonville, Florida and soon headed to Pennsylvania for the summer. Hunter went with us for the first two weeks and he loved being in the mountains. He flew home from BWI airport, so we took a quick ride through Washington, D.C.

At the end of July, we set off for ten days to visit the remaining 48 states. Gregg’s niece, Rachel, joined us. It was fun exploring and having adventures with her. Our first stop was New York City where we saw Phantom of the Opera.

I fell in love with Portland, Maine with its lighthouses, huge rocks by the ocean, poutine, and a wonderful company that employs refugees. Burlington, Vermont and surrounding area was another gem.

Rachel had never been to Canada, so we took a daytrip to Montreal. The botanical gardens are lovely and relaxing. The next day we passed Niagara Falls and drove through Canada to Detroit. We enjoyed relaxing at Belle Isle Park before heading to our Pennsylvania home through Ohio.

I am so appreciative to be an American. And I’m in awe of God’s ingenuity as he created this continent. Simply AMAZING!

Sydney Wilkerson’s high school graduation day with Mardi, Reagan, Jessica, and Kelly.
Hunter with us in PA
First portion of our summer trip.
Yellowstone National Park
At the foot of giant redwoods in Jedediah State Park.
The Pacific Ocean water is COLD!
Zion National Park
Kakawa liquid chocolate in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
My Aunt Evelyn and Misty in South Lake Tahoe, California
Huckleberry Ice Cream!
Route we took with Rachel.
New York City!
Portland (Maine) Head Light lighthouse
Rachel trying a local specialty, Lobster Roll
Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan

2014…54 Years Old

“This Old House” kept us busy in 2014 with sweaty DIY projects. Gregg “found more treasures” amongst the disintegrated attic insulation, made a screen door for the mudroom, and made new doors for the good shed. I laboriously turned the Mystery Room into a livable space after Window World uncovered the window hidden by siding. They also replaced other old wood-framed windows.

We spent time with family, ran races, ate fresh corn, went to the Buckwheat Cake Festival, traveled to see nieces play sports, vacationed in Lancaster with friends, retired from teaching English, and, among other things, I had an emergency appendectomy.

An item on Gregg’s bucket list had been to ride a bike from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail trail goes from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD and connects with the C&O Canal Towpath which goes to D.C. In case you are wondering, that is around 335 miles, rising 1,600 feet then descending 2,390 feet.

As we basked in the glow of our fun Holland bike trip, we decided that we could recreate that trip and accomplish a bucket list goal at the same time. If we could ride 50-60 miles a day, we could do the trip in six days, then take the train back to Pittsburgh after a rest day in D.C.

We decided to go in October when the heat and bugs wouldn’t be an issue. In the months prior, rooms were reserved at five bed and breakfasts and a hotel, paniers were purchased for the bikes, and excitement was mounting as details were worked out.

Our bikes needed new seats, so we went to a local bike shop in Florida. The salesperson “informed” us that we didn’t have the right type of bikes to make that trip. We assumed that we were hearing a typical “you need a better bike” sales pitch and ignored that red flag. Even though we didn’t have much “seat time” to prepare, our bikes were already in Pennsylvania, we hoped our running would offset that minor detail.

Driving to Pittsburgh in the wee hours of the morning, we began our ride by 7:00 a.m. at Point State Park. It was cold, drizzly, and there was a strong headwind. To put it bluntly, it was a hard, brutal ride, and I had more than one meltdown on the first day. We were not in Kansas, I mean, Holland anymore, Toto.

Our heavy bikes and the weight in our pannier bags, coupled with my low amount of running since my appendectomy six weeks prior, combined to form a perfect storm. That first night, Gregg laid in bed trying to figure out how to get us out of this situation. The bed and breakfast reservations were use-or-lose-your-money.

Fall days were short. My riding pace was so slow that we were in danger of losing daylight before arriving at our destination each night. Not to mention that Gregg was having trouble staying balanced on his bike at that crawling pace.

The next day, we decided to continue, using a different plan of attack. We stopped each hour on the hour to recharge with snacks and hugs. I drafted Gregg, which prevented me from seeing the view, but the pull helped me go faster. We paid attention to sounds around us, I had a “song of the day” in my head, and we prayed for friends in hard life-situations.  

We enjoyed dinners at night, staying in bed and breakfasts, and talking to the proprietors. The last six miles of the trail, we began to do a “Survivor” show-type memory tribute to each day. It took much longer than a mile to review a day, so we later reminisced, this time recording our conversations. It was a special way to connect and remember the week.

This trip ranks as one of my least favorite vacations. It was a totally different experience from our Holland bike trip, yet WE DID IT! We worked together and accomplished a huge, difficult, long goal. I love doing life with this man whether it be fun, romantic, mundane, challenging, or hard.

Reagan’s soccer game in Huntsville. Sydney, Gladys, Reagan, Dad, Jessica, Bryn, Gregg, Kristin
Julie, on the California University of Pennsylvania track team, qualified to run the Steeplechase at College Nationals! And she placed!
Precious co-teacher and precious students! I still keep in touch with the lady next to me. I love her!
Attic “treasures”
Mystery room, before. (notice the cool old linoleum on the floor!)
Mystery Room After a summer of removing layers of antique wallpaper, patching holes in the plaster walls, mudding the walls to texture them, and several coats of paint.
Back of my sweatshirt
Point State Park In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 4, 2014, beginning our 335 mile ride to Washington, D.C.
We’ve been on this section of the path a number of times, it is not far from our PA house.
“It’s all downhill from here!”
We passed a few before we realized that there were NO towns on the towpath. It was this or go thirsty. We agreed with the sign, it was holy water – a God-send!
Most of the C&O Canal Towpath looked like 2 ruts in the road, often soft and muddy, which made the riding slower.
Locks were along the path.
The End – CELEBRATION!

2013…53 Years Old – Part 2

In the last post, I shared three Friend Family Qualities. Let me add to that list.

Fourth, we enjoy traveling. Fifth, we are foodies and are obsessed with ice cream. Sixth, our souls are nourished when we are interacting with nature. Seventh, we enjoy reading, together as well as individually.

The Sisterchicks series by Robin Jones Gunn is on my all-time favorite list. In 2009, I read Sisterchicks in Wooden Shoes, about two friends who spent a week touring the Netherlands. I was smitten and Holland became my “ultimate vacation destination” dream.

My dream came true for our 25th wedding anniversary trip. Most of my life, I’ve been hesitant to allow my hopes to raise for fear that reality won’t measure up. Yet, five years of dreaming and re-reading the book had set the bar high.  I’m delighted to report that this trip was far better than I had ever dreamed it could be!

Our trip bucket list included seeing tulip fields, biking, seeing windmills, and experiencing the water – the sea, the canals, the dikes, the dunes. Tulips bloom in the spring, so we risked cold weather and booked a Boat-Bike trip in April. I was so excited!

My friend, Lisa, gave me a bon voyage gift of a journal and watercolor paints, encouraging me to take time to paint. Never had I considered painting yet decided to take her challenge, assuring myself that it was for my eyes only. It was so rewarding! This was the birthplace of my recent artwork. Thank you, Lisa!

Arriving in Amsterdam three days before our cruise, we determined to savor the experiences rather than go at The Amazing Race pace. Seeing Royal Flora Holland, the world’s largest flower auction, was the perfect place to begin.

As soon as we entered, the smell of flowers greeted my nose. Imagine two football fields under one roof, packed with beautiful plants and fresh cut flowers, sold and restocked daily. We stood on the skywalk, mesmerized. Each cart of flowers was driven past the auction floor then taken to the buyer’s holding area to be flown to their destination such as Costco in Florida.

The following day we explored Harlem and visited “The Hiding Place,” where Corrie ten Boom’s family had lived. Her book, describing their resistance against the Germans, came to life in this narrow home located above their watch store. Standing in the cramped, dark, secret hiding place gave me a glimpse into the terror that the Jewish refugees must have felt.

Exploring by train, we came across a flower parade. Think: the Rose Bowl Parade but with tulips and other flowers. Amazing!

The unseasonably cold spring had delayed the tulips, which was a God-gift for me. Why, you ask? Well, daffodils, my favorite flower, bloom before the tulips! My heart burst with joy at the “hosts of golden daffodils.” Thankfully, we saw hosts of blooming tulips after our cruise.

Our trip kept getting better and better. Upon boarding the small yet comfortable barge, we were assigned our cabin and bikes. Each evening after dinner, the tour host reviewed the following day’s bike route. He could be reached by cell phone if needed, allowing us to ride at our own pace. If the boat was to be moved during the day, we would rendezvous at the new location.

Bikes are the major form of transportation in Holland, making it an easy, convenient, and safe way to travel. We would bike for a few hours, then stop at a sidewalk café for coffee or their Dutch hot chocolate, ride further and stop for lunch, then continue on to meet the boat.

Each day was different and full of new experiences. We ate fries with mayo, warm Stroopwaffles, Dutch hot chocolate, ice cream, cheese at a farm in Gouda, and we tried pickled herring sandwich (see scrunchy face below.) We put our feet in the frigid North Sea, watched a craftsman create wooden shoes, visited the famous Delft pottery factory, saw windmills, visited outdoor markets, wandered around a Queen’s Day carnival, and made new friends with the only couple on the boat who were younger than us.

After our cruise, we visited the national flower garden, the Keukenhoff. I assumed that a tulip was a tulip, only varying in color. I was mistaken. The varieties seemed endless and the intricacy of God’s creation was fascinating. Leaving the gardens, we missed traveling by bike so much that we scrapped the idea of using the public bus system and rented bikes for the remainder of our vacation.

As we prepared to leave the Netherlands, their beloved Queen turned the throne over to her son. She felt the country would be better served with a more contemporary leadership. Joining the celebration, we left for home wearing their national color, orange.

As I look at the photos, I’m ready to go again!

Our Boat-Bike Tours barge-home away from home. Holds under 80 people including staff.
Returning to the boat after a fun day of biking.
The beauty and fragrance of the tulip fields never got old!
“The Hiding Place” was used to hide Jews for four years. When Corrie ten Boom, her father, and sister were arrested by Nazi’s, six people hid in this small space for two days until they were rescued by others in the resistance movement. Corrie’s father and sister died in prison camps. Corrie was accidentally released from Ravensbruck soon before all women in her age group were executed.
One of many bike parking lots we saw.
Flower auction
Auction area for buyers. They use the Dutch Auction method, the price starts high and slides down.
Awesome filigreed tulip at the Keukenhof
When in Holland, try the pickled herring sandwich at the Keukenhof. We got that off our bucket list.
Cheese farm tour in Gouda.
Journaling supplies. THANKS, LISA D!
Rain and cold could not dampen my spirits! We were having a blast!!
Sandwich made at breakfast bar. They also provided fruit and water. We supplemented with hot Dutch cocoa, cappuccino, and stroopwaffle.
Stroopwaffle vender at a farmer’s market. They are made with two very thin waffles held together by caramel, served warm. Delicious!

2013…53 Years Old – Part 1

Going through all my photos for 2013, it is hard to believe we could pack so much into one year! Along with our usual activities like running in races, teaching English to refugees, visiting family, and traveling to watch Julie run, we had two additional major events. I will divide those into separate posts.

If you have not been around us for long, you may not be familiar with Friend Family Qualities. First, we hate to make decisions. Second, we are cautious when it comes to spending large amounts of money. Third, we don’t care to do home DIY projects.

So, when Gregg’s brother, Doug, asked if we wanted to buy a 113-year-old house in their hometown, you would think we’d just say, “um…no.” Instead, Doug gathered all the details, sent us tons of pictures, and in his wise, calm manner, talked us through making a decision.

Gregg has long dreamed of owning a house in his hometown, a small borough in the mountains of south west Pennsylvania. Sadly, once we were in a financial position to consider a second home, real estate prices had shot up, killing the dream. Yet, this house was affordable, and there was money set aside for such a time as this. We began getting excited about the possibility of going home more often and for longer periods of time.

The pièce de resistance was when we saw the kitchen window view. There are beautiful fields and mountains behind the house which captured our hearts immediately. I still find it hard to believe, we bought a house, sight unseen. Never would we have predicted doing something so “rash.”

At the end of March, we eagerly traveled 13 hours to see whether we had purchased a jewel or a disaster. Seeing beyond the cobwebs thick enough to rival Disney’s Haunted Mansion and other work that would need to be done, it was a perfect mountain home for us.

We hadn’t been in the house for more than 10 minutes when Doug and I had to know, were there hardwood floors under the carpet? YES! I was beside myself with excitement. Gregg, not so much, knowing that refinishing floors would be a lot of hard DIY work. Either way, the old, rippled carpet had to go ASAP.

We were also curious to see “the mystery room” upstairs which had been overlooked during the buying process. It is eleven feet long by seven feet wide and the window had been covered by siding. In 1900, residents of this home use an outhouse. When upgrading to indoor plumbing, a large bedroom gave up most of its floorspace for the new bathroom.

Speaking of which, on Sunday, we returned from church to find the upstairs bathroom had flooded the kitchen below. Welcome to ‘This Old House’ and the beginning of many DIY projects, many of which we accomplished in the first year.

We sanded and refinished the dining and living room floors, which delight my heart every time I see them. Niece, Emilee, and I tore out a shower in the mud room to make room for a washer and dryer.

I helped Gregg and Doug mix, pour, and smooth concrete between the road and sidewalk. This was helpful when the grass driveway was muddy or icy. Note to self: this is a job worth paying someone else to do.

Gregg found trash and treasures in the attic, basement, and two sheds, places this Florida girl avoided whenever possible. After we cut down bushes, I learned to identify and avoid poison ivy. Gregg boarded over the old well, caulked around the windows to keep out the frigid winter air, and I worked to make the house cozy.

We had fun, too. I became “the orphanage mom” to neighborhood children who played on our front porch. Gregg and I enjoyed a firepit we built, saw deer at dusk, ate lots of fresh-picked corn, ran on the GAP (Great Allegheny Passage rail trail), celebrated Julie’s high school graduation, saw Emilee run middle school cross country, and saw Julie run in her first college cross country meet.

Emilee and I made sock monkeys and tried to raise tadpoles. It was fun and fascinating to see their legs come out. I learned the hard way that at some point in becoming frogs, they need a place to get air in order to survive.

Our mountain home is a place where we receive a breath of fresh air. It helps us to survive.

It was so fun to run through Auburn! Kristin ran the 10K and Gregg ran the half marathon.
Gasparilla in Tampa
Liz Hurley Breast Cancer race in Huntsville. Mardi, Sydney, Jessica, Kristin, and Gregg
Kristin and Brittany’s ESL class. Precious women!
First visit to This Old House on Brown Hill. I called the shed on the far left our “Scary Shed.” Lots of spiders, cobwebs, and snake skins.
A late March snow to welcome us to our new home!
The living room – we purchased some of the furniture with the house.
Unfinished floors in our dining room. The different colors are curious, showing where linoleum had been and also where there had been a wood stove (the chimney has been covered with paneling – there is an electrical outlet at the base.)
A lot of hard, messy work…and sooo worth it!!
I am smitten with these floors!
Concrete is HARD work, too!

2012…52 Years Old

January began with a goodbye and a hello. Mom’s Toyota Corolla had served us well for seven years, and it was time to say goodbye. A red Ford Edge took its place in the garage and we’re still loving it.  Oh, the memories we’ve made in that car! But I’ll save those stories for another post.

Gregg and I continued volunteering at the ILC, teaching English to refugees. And in the summer, we returned to Hungary for our third English Camp, staying an additional ten days to tour Eastern Europe.

Budapest is a beautiful city and we enjoyed going into Buda and Pest to sight-see. And, there are reminders all around that Hungary has a dark history. It was sobering to see the memorial of shoes, representing those who were told to remove their shoes (to be salvaged later) before being shot.

Gregg and I had never visited Prague, so we headed off by train to spend a few days in the Czech Republic. Midway, we got stopped in Bratislava, Slovakia, to visit friends from Dallas Seminary days, Tracy and Brenda. It was fun to have a short tour of Bratislava, visit their home, and eat lunch with their family.

Continuing our train trip, we arrived in Prague for a few days of sight-seeing. Prague is a historic, architecturally diverse, romantic city. It was hard to grasp that the Medieval portion of the city was founded in the 9th century.  If the buildings and streets could reveal all that they have seen in over 1000 years, oh, the stories they could tell. Grievously, memorials reminded us that Prague’s history includes horror stories.

Prague is a musical city so “when in Prague, go to a concert.”  We found a small venue featuring a string quartet playing Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. It was magical and a perfect Prague experience.

Our time in Prague came to an end too soon but our vacation was far from over. After returning to Budapest, we left by car with Cathy and Geraldine, and headed to Krakow, Poland. We enjoyed good food and seeing the sights, yet a dark nightmare cloud seemed to hang in the air. It was hard to fathom the horrors that had happened in this city.

We stayed in a small apartment in the Jewish Quarter. As I laid in bed, I wondered what had happened in that apartment, what could the walls tell us if they had a voice. My heart grieved for those who had called this home before being suddenly evicted and sent to the ghetto with only what they could carry.

Gregg and I went for a run, which is a good way to explore a city. We found Schindler’s factory. We also saw Jewish Ghetto Memorial Chairs which represented the only piece of furniture many of the families were able to take with them upon eviction.

The following day was even heavier and more sobering as we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau.

God, forgive us! The hate, misuse of power, and evil that was done there. Oh, God, protect me, protect us from having our reasoning twisted, becoming deceived, and drawn into evil, harming people – people You created and You love. Forgive me for pointing critical fingers, assuming I could never do something like that to others. But by the grace of God, go I.

We had a quiet dinner and went to bed early, pondering and processing the horrors revealed before our eyes.

On our way back to Budapest, we stopped and toured a 700 year old salt mine.  As is typical of mines, it goes deep underground. The miners excavated salt and also carved out chambers, halls, chapels, statues, and other creative and exquisite pieces of art. It was a fascinating tour.

This had been a unique vacation – educational, eye opening, and incongruous. Diametrically opposed, joy and sorrow tried to coexist. Reminders of heinous history next to beautiful nature and architecture. We enjoyed music, sights, food, and friends while being aware that, in that very spot, freedom and life had been stolen from innocent people. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…”

English Camp – Kristin’s team
English Camp – Gregg’s team
“To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944-45.” Budapest, Hungary
Budapest at night – Cathy, Kristin, Erika, Anita
The Lesan Family in Bratislava, Slovakia
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague, Czech Republic
Krakow, Poland – Jewish Ghetto Chair Memorial
Outside of Krakow, Poland – Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps
Our Great Aunt Lillian turned 90! Celebrating at Olive Garden in Orange City, Florida
“My girls” home from college – Amandalee, Paige, Abigail, Hannah, Christine, Jenni, Nicole, Kristin
Surprise 50th birthday party for Bryn – Alyssa, Bryn, Kristin at the Aitkens’ home
Christmas 2012 in Jacksonville. Stephanie with Winnie, Timothy, Alyssa with Lily, Josh, Kristin, Gregg, Reagan, Bryn, Brad, Sydney, Kelly, Mardi, Jessica, Matthew, Dad Abell, Gladys Abell, Jonathan.

2011…51 Years Old

When you live in a city for ten years, you hear the names of many churches. Since we had been involved in volunteering at our church, we rarely visited other churches. So, we decided that we would take this opportunity to visit a variety of churches, whether we thought we’d attend long-term or not.

Some Sundays I was out of my comfort zone. Yet, those experiences helped me to be curious about perspectives different than mine. I was also reminded how it feels to not know a soul. Note to self: Remember that feeling when we are settled into a church.

My world view continued to grow through interactions with the international women in my ESL class. A 4-month intensive course called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement also stretched my thinking. Reflecting back is a timely reminder that life is full of nuance and I want to practice listening to glimpse the view that the other person sees.

Journey Church was one church we had heard about. The reputation of their generosity prompted us to visit them first. This small body of co-strugglers in life and faith immediately felt like a great fit for us. Yet, we were still grieving a huge goodbye and wanted to give our hearts space before a new hello.

Journey Church stayed at the top of our list as we visited at least 30 churches. In March 2011, we wearied of always being new, not knowing anyone, and not making lasting connections. Journey Church, which is now called Emmaus Church of Jacksonville, was where we chose to call “home.” They have been a huge blessing.

On another topic, 2011 was filled with running. We watched Gregg’s niece, Julie, place in the high school state cross country meet in Hershey, PA. Julie organized a 5K in Markleysburg, PA, where we were volunteers. We both ran Jacksonville’s Gate River Run 15K, Huntsville’s Liz Hurley Breast Cancer 5K, and finished the year with the Space Coast Half Marathon in Cocoa, FL.

Gregg decided to run a marathon to commemorate his 50th birthday. That’s 26 miles! Marathon training is brutal with months of paying attention to food, hydration, sleep, and taking many early-morning long runs. On his birthday in March, he successfully ran his first marathon, running from our house to downtown Jacksonville and back.

The May Pittsburgh Marathon was Gregg’s goal and “official marathon.” 26 miles of hills and bridges in Pittsburgh was exponentially more difficult than running in flat Florida. His tenacity carried him through, and he finished! I am so proud of him! He earned that medal and checked “marathon” off his bucket list. (And, no, marathon was never on my bucket list, thank you very much.)

We traveled a good bit throughout this year.

On a long weekend in Washington, D.C., we walked miles to explore many “new to us” memorials. We had impactful experiences at the 9-11 Memorial at the Pentagon, the Air Force Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. I love that city! “Patriotism swells in the heart of the American!”

In the summer, we returned to English Camp in Hungary, staying a bit longer to do some sight-seeing in and around Budapest. Again, I loved making special connections with several Hungarian women. Okay, I confess, I also love eating Hungarian foods!

My oldest nephew, Jonathan, was at Auburn University so we met family there for a football game in the fall. Auburn won, so we experienced the “rolling of Toomer’s Corner” celebration. Sadly, the iconic oak trees had been poisoned earlier in the year and did not survive to the next football season. Yes, I shed tears for those beautiful, majestic, old trees.

Mrs. Sandy’s ESL class with helpers, Brittany and Kristin
50th Birthday marathon finish!
Gregg’s family surprised him by coming down to celebrate along with my family. Melting Pot! Yum!
THIS SMILE!! What a huge accomplishment!
Gregg announcing as Julie hands out awards after her Run For Your Life race.
We ran for Sweet Momma/Me-Mom. Sydney, Mardi, Kristin, and Gregg
Space Coast Half Marathon in Cocoa, Florida, where I grew up. LOVE the Space Shuttle medals. This was all about the experience and swag for me!
Nari and I LOVE Hungarian fruit soup! Yes, it is a cold soup, no, I didn’t think I’d like it the first time it was offered, and YES! It is delicious!
4 Auburn grads – Dad, Kristin, Mardi and Kelly. 3 future alumni – Sydney has graduated, Jessica is a junior, and Reagan will attend in the fall. We’re an Auburn Family!
Mardi, Bryn, Great-Aunt Lillian, and Kristin at Bryn and Brad’s lake house at Thanksgiving.

2010 – Part 4…50 Years Old

When a death is imminent, there is tension in the waiting. Once death comes, the fight for life is over.

After my mother died, the feeling of relief caught me off guard. I anticipated wailing. Instead, a weight felt lifted.

Similarly, after our decision to leave our church, I felt relief along with the disappointment, sadness, anger, disbelief, and grief.

As with Mom’s death, I fought numbness, a familiar way for me to deal with painful emotions. Ambivalence twirls my brain and invites me to second guess decisions.  

Another common feeling after a death is denial, this felt like a bad dream. If we could just wake up. The “writing on the wall” yet sudden finality was reminiscent of our leaving full-time ministry. One day we were there, the next day we were not.

Gregg was an unwavering, grounding, protective, and comforting presence as we, together, felt our way along this dark pathway. His actions spoke life and healing into my hurting yet newly awakening heart. I finally heard, received, and still savor the message Gregg had been communicating our whole marriage, “Kristin is worth fighting for.” His affirmations remain a cherished gift.

Though grieving, we put one foot in front of the other. We had been here for ten years, the longest I have ever lived in one house. Yet, here we were, looking for a church for the first time since moving to Jacksonville.

It was not a question of whether we would go to a church, but at which church. We had deep conversations, discussing qualities that seemed most important to us, knowing that no church is perfect. Attributes we chose to pay attention to included the congregational size, style of worship music, the teaching, and availability of small home groups.

Being new is often awkward and lonely, a reminder that we no longer belonged. Yet, we were not in a hurry to choose another church body. We gave our torn hearts time and space to mend.

Annual Thanksgiving family reunion in Pennsylvania
Abell Christmas silly picture in Jacksonville. Great Aunt Lillian celebrated with us this year!