Death and Life, Earth and Heaven

My dear friend Rod has just lost his father in the way that all of us want to lose our fathers someday – after a long and fruitful life, amid the company of family and friends keeping watch over his bed, in a peaceful home, blanketed by prayers. His words are so full of holiness and wonder that you owe it to yourself to read them. But they got me thinking, as they often do.

We kept a vigil of our own just days ago, as my sister brought the next generation of our family into the world, and in reading about my friend's adieu journey, I’ve been struck by many similarities between the beginning and the end of earthly existence. Waiting for a loved one to be born is just as joyful, just as frightening, just as sacred as waiting for his death. Endless uncertainty, at the mercy of medical professionals who (for all their education and experience) have to admit in the end that they, too, are baffled by the amazing and absurd things our bodies can do. And then can't anymore.

Watching, wondering, trying to reconcile the flood of emotions with daily existence. This person is in such terrible pain, but I need a cup of coffee just to stay awake with him. Time becomes malleable, now compressed into a tumultuous blur of moments and now elongated so that every second is agony. You can’t truly empathize with the experience of your loved one in the hospital bed, and you wonder, guiltily: what is it really like for her? What would it be like for me? To give birth? To die?

I’ve always felt a connection with the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and not just because we share a name. From the other side, she looks back at the world, and is filled with true nostalgia – the pain of nostos, of returning home. It is excruciating:

Mr. Webb: Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?
Emily: I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. She breaks down sobbing. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking ... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. She asks abruptly, through her tears: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.
Emily: I'm ready to go back.

A sprinkling of salt on a chocolate pie, a spoonful of honey in a spicy vinaigrette: both are better with a swirled-in bit of their opposite to intensify and prolong their beauty. The line between joy and sorrow is such a fine one that neither can be experienced without a touch of the other. You greet the squalling child with a shout of exultation, but hovering behind your beaming eyes is the realization that she will know loneliness and want. She will live a life full of pain, but also full of Emily Gibbs’ ticking clocks and hot coffee and the lovely, terrible moonlight. And someday she will be right back on the edge, and her descendants will gather around her and weep, but in the distance they will feel a thrill of delight for her, on the verge of entering back into the eternal bliss to which we are all called by that still, small voice.

From death to life, from earth to heaven, this existence is a blessed mystery.

The Top of the Mountain

Numbers have never been very close to my heart, but during Great Lent I find it encouraging to track the days with the help of Fr. Thomas Hopko's 40 Maxims. Today is Day 10, which means we are already one-fourth of the way through the fast. While preparing some music for this weekend, I discovered something else: this is also the halfway point in the period of the Triodion, which begins several weeks before Great Lent itself and continues all the way to Pascha. So if this period of spiritual struggle were a mountain, I'd be standing on its peak this afternoon.

The rich irony, however, is that absolutely nothing about this afternoon feels like a peak. If anything, I feel like I'm at the bottom of a pit (something like this, actually.) Since the New Year I have heard more bad news than I know what to do with, and I'm talking really bad, heartbreakingly bad. My professional life is in shambles, too. I just learned that that word, "shambles," actually refers to a slaughterhouse -- so it's sadly appropriate. My curriculum is bleeding to death slowly on a floor of wintry weather: delayed openings, early closings, canceled events, and students who believe the entire world stops for a snow day, or should. Amid the abandoned plans and crises and unmade beds, literal and metaphoric, that clutter my path, I just can't seem to find that place of deep spirituality that Lent is supposed to usher in.

So I'm going to focus instead on the bright spots I've encountered in recent weeks. Things like this book that I read during a recent snow day and cannot stop mulling over, which taught me so much about the ways that sin and selfishness creep into our lives but left me with nothing but hope and inspiration to do better at rooting them out with God's help. Or this priest, who served the church so faithfully he was killed returning from Vespers last week: thousands of ordinary people, friends and strangers alike, have banded together to support his family, raising nearly half a million dollars and counting in the last two days. And above all, this Scripture, which our deacon quoted in a homily last Sunday in a foretaste of what we will encounter on Holy Saturday. Sometimes God delivers us from the furnace; sometimes He throws us in. Our job is to pray. Just pray. So I'm sticking to that. 30 days to go.

Forward, Onward, Upward

I didn't want to look back on this year. I'm not sure why. It was very difficult in a number of ways, most of which I can't talk about here (and even if I could, I wouldn't really want to.) But there have been more difficult years, and I have always been able to highlight the bright spots and gloss over the rough patches and sculpt the whole thing into a chatty, upbeat Christmas letter. This year, I just didn't want to, and I guess I'm at the point in my life at which I've realized I don't have to keep doing things I no longer enjoy.

It has been a year of growth; I thank God for that. I have learned a lot, sometimes at great cost. After my first wretched few days in a grad-level French language pedagogy course, I told a friend how strange it felt that none of these people really knew me as I am, or rather, as I like to think I am: Intelligent. Driven. In control. 

(My classic anxiety dream is not my teeth falling out or forgetting to wear pants or being chased through the woods: it's traveling with my cat. Sometimes I'm at school, or in church, or shopping. Once I was walking through Paris. The common thread is that I have my cat with me, and she's trying to get away, and I'm trying to contain her, and I almost always lose before I wake up in a cold sweat. That is literally my worst nightmare: losing control.)

But, at the same time, I told my friend, it was strangely freeing to be someone else for a change. The me who always knew the answer got to stay home with her feet up, while the other side of her -- the side who tried not to get called on, who enjoyed listening for listening's sake, who flushed with pride when she understood enough of the joke to laugh at it -- that me got to climb out of the cellar, squinting at the sudden brightness, and explore the world for herself.

So here I am looking back, after saying I didn't want to. What I really want to do is look forward. The Church Fathers reduce the spiritual life to three very simple maxims that sound suspiciously Zen, and I believe this is because Buddhism was, like Judaism and paganism, awaiting the fullness of spirituality that would only come with Christ. Still, there is much wisdom in the simplicity of their advice: don't resent; don't react; keep inner stillness. It is only when we are able to "lay aside all earthly cares," as we sing each week in the Liturgy, that we can hear Christ speaking to us. I'm chipping away at the crippling mountain of resentment I've allowed to rule my life, but at the same time, I'm trying not to focus on it, but instead to look over it -- to see the beauty and goodness all around me and to be inspired by it. 

For instance: last weekend I got to chant Matins with a friend who is talented, charismatic, thoughtful -- one of those people I just can't be around enough. Joy pours out of him. He invited me to sing with a smile and an open heart, even though I lack much of the experience and skills needed to keep up with the others; he drew me in toward the music even though I couldn't understand most of it; he cracked jokes that only I could hear to make me more comfortable; in short, he helped me feel like I belonged. That is something at which I am terrible. My extraordinarily high expectations keep me from making those kinds of adjustments and concessions, the kind that are necessary in order to show love truly and freely. But instead of looking inside, when I look outside -- at him, at the light of Christ shining through him -- I don't feel fear and disappointment, but hope and inspiration. I want to change, to grow, to become more than I have been thus far. 

I think that's a good way to end this year.

Sixteen to One

Twelve-hour days are really killer. I don't know how nurses do it. There's really only one a year for us: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when we teach five hours of classes and follow that with five hours of parent conferences. In the lull between the two, I squeezed in an impromptu gathering of my French Club officers to plan an upcoming outreach project, wrote the last of my college recommendation letters, and got to use the bathroom approximately three seconds before I exploded. 

The meetings fell into a comfortable rhythm after an hour or so, and there were lots and lots of moments worthy of the Secretary's Report. The first mother had made an appointment and come to school just to tell me how much her daughter appreciated my sympathy after she had become emotional in class over a sick family member. Others told me how much my students loved the class, loved me, even loved the tests I gave (I promise I would never make up something that absurd!) They had discovered an unknown passion for the French language or American literature. Some of them were hoping for higher grades next quarter, but they were inspired by the online resources I suggested for extra practice, impressed by the detailed syllabi I provided each quarter, supportive of my high standards and desire to challenge my students to take an active role in their own education. They thought I was doing a great job.

Buried among sixteen wholly productive exchanges, however, was one laced with frustration and negativity. Sixteen to one. In baseball that would be a massacre. In craps it could win you a small fortune. In the grand scheme of things, you can't please everyone, and because one student is just not up to par in one class, one family is clearly not pleased.

So why on earth was I so haunted by the one? When my principal came by to ask how everything had gone, I shared this with her -- and even though it was late, she sat down and commiserated, and reminded me that sometimes there's just nothing you can do. I remarked that because teachers (for the most part) care so deeply for our students and feel each failure and triumph so acutely, it's even more painful when parents imply that we haven't done enough to help their child succeed. It's hitting below the belt. It's kicking us when we're down. It's a guilt trip down a well-worn mental path. Because really, there's a grain of truth in what they're saying: we probably could have done something more, and if we'd thought it would end like this, we would have found a way to.

Finally I promised my principal I would let it go and rethink the situation in the morning, and we said goodbye, and on the way out she promised to say a prayer for me and for my student. I stacked up my papers and turned off the lights and bundled up against the cold and stepped outside into the night, twelve full hours after I'd stepped in.

On the way out in the darkness, the convent chapel was a beacon, flooded with light, and through the window I caught a glimpse of a lone figure in white, kneeling before the altar.

The next morning I received an email of apology. A promise to work harder on communication. A step toward a positive resolution. Why was I so shocked by this development? I'm not sure. There was no reason to be. Sixteen to one is pretty fabulous, but seventeen to nothing? That's nothing short of a miracle.

Good, Existential Spookiness

There is so much I want to say. So why don't I just say it? 

Time, thank God, is plentiful. There are plenty of days when I can sit, as now, listening to the rain fall, resting one elbow on a pillow and the other on a sleepy dog, and just reflect. But when I have those opportunities, more often than not, I consume the minutes one by one -- an article, a video, a recipe, or two of each in quick pell-mell succession -- constantly absorbing information without allowing it to sink in, let alone formulating a response. There is so much I would like to respond to. Things that provoke and incense me, that paint my hours and days with sunshine, that grip my heart with sadness and won't let go.

Right now, reflecting on all that the last few months have encompassed, I keep coming back to a truly life-changing moment, when I sat at the feet of this holy man as he "told me everything I ever did:" 

If you live only for the now, and temporary life that the world preaches today, how are you going to resolve the inner conflict in the very depth of your being? Because it’s wrong to run away from the mystery you can’t find. . . Sometimes you stay up at night and you wonder what that mystery means. Sometimes you look at your husband and say, “I love him, but I really don’t know him,” after 22 years of marriage. (And now I’m spooking you – in a good, existential, way.) And that’s because there’s something in you that wants to remain true to the mystery you haven’t found, about who you are. You have to remain true to that mysterious center of primary value, which, even though anyone else can’t see it, you know it. And without the Resurrection, you won’t find it. 

Take the time to listen to the whole talk, and you may have your own woman at the well moment. Maybe, like me, you'll even struggle with putting more words into the world, when there are so many to think about already.

Summer Begins

Oh, summer. How I have missed you.

Summer vacation for us is usually a whirlwind of travel and activity, but this year we're taking it easy: a fun little jaunt last week to say goodbye to some friends who are moving far away, and a French-language course in Montreal just before we return to school. Between that, six solid weeks of NO PLANS. 

This week I cooked up a storm -- cherry recipes at the forefront, as I had picked 15+ pounds of them last weekend, but I also made dinner every night. Vegan dinner from scratch. Uh-huh.

I took advantage of two cool mornings and spent many contented hours weeding, though there are plenty more where those came from.

When two friends called on different days, needing rides from the train, I was able to drop everything, share a meal and catch up with them.

Finally, as a summer gift to myself, I spent 99 cents on a New York Times subscription so I could enjoy reading at my leisure. And on the first day of enjoying it, I ran into what might be the best news story of all time:

It’s hard to talk about Yo. The app is so simple (it lets users send the word “Yo” to each other) that even to mock it feels like taking it too seriously — come on guys, it’s just Yo! Luckily, hackers have made things easier on all of us by making Yo do some new tricks.

Pre-hack, critics had to evaluate Yo on its merits, which was somewhat difficult, since it has so few of them (and so few demerits, for that matter). Nonetheless, some rose to the challenge. At Yahoo, Alyssa Bereznak said the app’s one message “might be succinct, but then so is throwing a brick through the window.” 

An app that exists solely so you can "Yo" your friends. Man, if only we could expand it to include other words as well . . . and pictograms . . . and photos . . . and maybe even a feature that would let one user talk to another user! That would really be something.

What a gift: time to enjoy life's exquisite ironies. I wish you the same!

 

The Animals That Serve Me

I would rather read a hundred pages than go for a walk, but I would rather go for a hundred walks before preparing for confession. Health of any kind depends on regular, beneficial habits that are difficult to form, because those habits involve tasks that are not, on the surface, enjoyable or easy. Go to yoga or watch a movie? Movie wins. Wash and chop vegetables or stop for French fries? Fries. Spend time in prayer or reorganize the linen closet? You can see where this is going.

So I put off making my list, again and again, until I had to be at church in an hour. I sat down on the couch with paper and a pencil, recited the customary prayers, and settled into thoughtful silence. In less than five minutes I was in tears.

She appeared at the edge of the room when she heard the first sob. Ears pricked, gait cautious, she approached. Strange noises normally meant anger, and anger meant a scolding and maybe a swat, but curiosity and apprehension were too potent a combination to overcome. She took a few steps forward, eyes fixed on me, and paused to sniff the literal and metaphoric air.

I looked up at her eyes, which seemed to hold so much understanding. I knew -- knew she was only taking cues from me, the dominant animal in the room. But those warm amber pools seemed to bore right through me, and, coupled with the furrowed brow above them, they simulated such sympathy that I cried even harder. There was something deeply satisfying about the empty house, the lack of inquisitive glances and pitying pats on the back, the freedom to let my mascara melt onto my cheeks with no one to see it.

She continued her journey toward the stairs, but paused about three steps up, still watching me, ears flattened slightly now. I realized she would not leave the room without some form of reassurance.

"It's all right." I spoke to myself as much as to her. Neither of us responded. I repeated my words: "It's all right. I'm okay." This time, in answer, the slightest of swishes in her lowered tail. My words had not convinced either of us. I kept crying, and she stayed put. Finally, I patted the couch next to me; she skittered down the stairs, sprang up, curled herself up against me with such force I knew my feet would be asleep soon.

But I didn't move her, and it occurred to me as my breathing began to even out: this is why people love dogs.

True Love and the Tides

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity -- in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.

--Anne Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

I'm not sure how I made it through a decade of marriage without these words. But I'm grateful to have them now.

What Abraham Meant

And besides all this –

Besides wars and floods,

Besides illness and death,

Besides storms and earthquakes,

Besides random and orchestrated violence,

Besides the sinister, rippling presence of evil,

 

Between us and you –

Between east and west,

Between young and old,

Between shunned and shunning,

Between fruitful and barren,

Between colored and colorless,

 

A great chasm has been fixed.

In the passive voice:

We don't know who fixed it,

or why,

or how.

Just that it’s been fixed.

 

In order that those who would pass –

Would transcend difference,

Would accept a new perspective,

Would warm stone and soften iron,

Would build ladders and weave bridges,

Would step outside of their other-ness,

 

From here to you –

From then to now,

From imprisoned to free,

From stuck to inspired,

From rocky to smooth,

From one to two to ten,

 

May not be able –

Able to embrace,

Able to understand,

Able to smile bravely,

Able to foster renewal,

Able to see through the fog,

 

And none may cross –

None of the lonely,

None of the trapped,

None of the repentant,

None of the ordinary,

None of the suffering,

 

From there to us.

2013 in Review

Greetings, everyone! What a year it has been. Our Christmas postcards (mailed today) invite you to read more about our travels on this site, so that means I need to post something more exhaustive than the snippets I've been throwing out every few weeks. This has not been a good year for blogging. But traveling, yes: six countries, dozens of cities and hundreds of photos. Let me explain -- no, there is too much -- let me sum up:

Early in the spring, we spent a day in New Orleans before driving out to St. Francisville for a weekend of fun with our dear friends Rod and Julie, their endlessly entertaining children and their picturesque backdrop of a town:

 Yes, it's actually that beautiful there. Don't you read Rod's blog?!

Yes, it's actually that beautiful there. Don't you read Rod's blog?!

Back home, we planted our annual garden that would later be the victim of our annual neglect. Hey, we were busy. My parents, on the other hand, were far more industrious and took locavorism one step further with the acquisition of eight hens. They started out teeny-tiny, like this,

 Rob named her McNugget. The others have more dignified appellations.

Rob named her McNugget. The others have more dignified appellations.

And grew to healthy hen sizes by summer's end, when they were filling several cartons of eggs a week.

 Not pictured: the hilarious noises chickens make when you get close enough for a photo.

Not pictured: the hilarious noises chickens make when you get close enough for a photo.

We enjoyed two snowstorms, both on feasts of the Theotokos. Here's Annunciation Day's haul, which gave us a nice long weekend in March.

 Poor birdies.

Poor birdies.

One of the most rewarding things in our lives is our participation in the community of Holy Cross parish, where Rob helps with the gardens, I lead the chanters and we have many wonderful friends. I've also continued to perform with Boston Byzantine Choir this year, including a concert in Montreal in April, where we saw the stunning Notre Dame cathedral and an equally stunning variety pack of weather (rain, snow, hail, wind and sunshine in under 48 hours!) 

 I don't think I've ever paid money to enter a church before, but this was worth it!

I don't think I've ever paid money to enter a church before, but this was worth it!

A couple of weeks later, we celebrated the Resurrection in our own parish, far more humble but just as lovely to us. Here we are gathered outside the doors, where we sing the first joyful "Christ is Risen!" of the year.

 Who is the King of Glory?

Who is the King of Glory?

Despite the fact that we both grew up in Baltimore, neither of us had ever been to Pimlico Racetrack until this spring, when we enjoyed watching and placing bets on several minor races. Rob was the big winner, pocketing $12.50.

 Off to the races . . . 

Off to the races . . . 

And, a big fan of classic rock, he knows when every concert is happening, so we attend more than I'd like to admit. Here's the Rolling Stones show in Philadelphia, to which he took his father as a birthday present.

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Our first big trip of the summer was to Colorado, where Rob had an architecture convention to attend. Afterwards, we spent some long-awaited time with our adopted family, the O'dells, who took us on a grand tour of their home state. Here we are in Estes Park, shivering in the sunshine:

 Mountains, Gandalf!

Mountains, Gandalf!

We drove southwest through some incredible mountain passes, winding up in Durango, where we took a day trip to Mesa Verde National Park to see cliff dwellings that were over a thousand years old.

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Then, on what became the highlight of our trip, we boarded an old-fashioned narrow-gauge train that took us over rivers, through woods and to the tiny mining town of Silverton. We had coal dust in our hair and wind burns on our faces, but it was the most fun I've had in a long time!

 I think we can, I think we can . . .

I think we can, I think we can . . .

We were home for just a week when I had to dash off to the Sacred Music Institute at Antiochian Village, where I gave a few classes, including this talk about the experience of Orthodox Holy Week. Meanwhile, Rob was off to Paris, leading another study tour of chateaus and museums with a group of young architectural hopefuls.

 Fountains at Chateau Sceaux

Fountains at Chateau Sceaux

This was a very different trip in a number of ways: I missed the first few days because of my conference, but met up in time to help the group navigate out of the city to half a dozen different chateaux of the Loire Valley. Unfortunately, I also picked up a nasty bug somewhere in our travels, but I rested when I could and still managed to have a good time in and out of the city. One highlight was the discovery of the Promenade Plantee, an abandoned rail line that's been repurposed as an elevated greenway.

 Viaduc des Arts, Paris

Viaduc des Arts, Paris

And when we got home, I finally finished my Paris Top 10 series, so you can read lots more there about what we've seen and done on our various trips there. But we didn't stay home for long -- just a few days, in fact, before flying the opposite direction to visit my grandmother on the West Coast, along with my family. Though we have visited this part of the country many times, we enjoyed several new experiences, including the canals at Venice Beach (freakish bodybuilders not pictured:)

 California Dreamin'

California Dreamin'

And we carefully staged this photo in the Joshua Tree park, which may be the peak of this year's accomplishments.

 Bonus points if you can name the first three tracks in order!

Bonus points if you can name the first three tracks in order!

Once home, we took a vacation from our vacations for a couple of weeks. We celebrated ten years of marriage in late August, but an overnight trip downtown was the furthest we wanted to go for awhile. These house numbers were Rob's gift (look, you try finding an interesting present made from iron!)

 This bush is way out of control, but it makes a nice accent.

This bush is way out of control, but it makes a nice accent.

In September our parish celebrated twenty years of worshipping, serving and witnessing together. It was a glorious weekend, during which we sang more than we had thought possible: here we are during Vigil, which lasted nearly three hours. You can also see some of the incredible iconography that's been finished over the last year, as well as the iconographer's son, the sweetest little altar-boy-in-training I've ever seen. Less than a month after this photo was taken, two of our chanters left to join monasteries, so it's a bittersweet memory. Glory to God for all of our time together and the music of our voices and hearts.

 Go team!

Go team!

In everyday life, we both continue to enjoy the fruits of my labor at Yelp, an online ratings service where I am an Elite member and occasionally get perks like this one, a catered reception at the Museum of Science & Industry overlooking the Baltimore Harbor. 

 Baltimore Harbor at Sunset

Baltimore Harbor at Sunset

He took a well-deserved break this semester, earning a sabbatical to research and teach at Morgan State University, where they're looking to develop a mobile app for site analysis. He also spent plenty of time with his two furry daughters, as well as with his new business venture, Appitecture, where he posts frequently. They are launching an extensive website on New Year's Day, so stay tuned for more interesting photos in his upcoming "Places and Perspectives" blog.

Rob's more relaxed schedule this fall brought us yet more opportunities to travel, including a quick trip to New York, where I had a writing seminar to attend and he enjoyed photographing the beautiful fall colors.

 Reflecting Pool, Bard College

Reflecting Pool, Bard College

We visited some friends in the city on the way home. They were wonderful hosts and we had a great time eating and catching up with them. As a bonus, their apartment is walking distance from the Cloisters, my favorite Manhattan museum. It's nestled in Fort Tryon Park where, it would seem, the spirit of Terrence Malick is lurking:

 Merveille de l'automne, Fort Tryon Park

Merveille de l'automne, Fort Tryon Park

And just when it looked like the year was winding down, we took our most ambitious and exotic trip to date. For two weeks in November and December, we traveled with our best friends through Turkey, Georgia and Armenia on a pilgrimage to visit holy sites in a part of the world that has known Christianity from its earliest days.

 Constantinople. Not Istanbul.

Constantinople. Not Istanbul.

Our time in Istanbul was basically a series of mini-catastrophes, but once we landed in Georgia, we felt truly welcomed and at home, thanks to the bend-over-backwards hospitality of our lovely friends David and Margo and their intrepid son Dietrich. For ten days they drove, fed, translated and guided us through some of the most incredible sights and stories we'd ever experienced. Having only returned a couple of weeks ago, I need more time to process everything before I can really write about it, but here are some snippets from the trip.

Much of Georgia's spiritual history is connected with Nino, a Cappadocian nun who evangelized the country in the fourth century. We visited several sites connected with her, including the monastery where she is buried. On the grounds there is a sacred spring that appeared, miraculously, when the nuns needed water (and then, just as miraculously, disappeared and reappeared in a hidden spot when the convent was under persecution by an invading army.)

 Path at Bodbe Monastery

Path at Bodbe Monastery

It was nearly freezing the day we visited, but we went for a dip in the chilly water and prayed -- quickly! -- for a blessing before toweling off in the little stone house and putting all of our layers back on. When the boys were in the water, we heard Matt's voice through the tiny window: "Well, Rob, what do you think of this Orthodox thing now?"

 Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi

Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi

Probably what we all thought, which was: the culture there is so steeped in faith, it is truly a marvel. It has endured centuries of persecution, first by the pagan Persians, then by the Muslims and most recently at the hands of the Communists. Its churches and monasteries have been burned, demolished, and demoted to hospitals and museums, but in the short period since its independence, the nation has already begun to transform itself.

 Alaverdi Monastery

Alaverdi Monastery

As if that weren't enough of a trip, we also took a couple of days to drive south to Armenia, the land of my ancestors on my father's father's side. There we found another nation that has endured cruel and horrendous persecution, bordering on complete extermination, but that has emerged with a plucky and inspiring resolve to rebuild and transcend its own grief.

 View from the Cascade Monument, Yerevan

View from the Cascade Monument, Yerevan

From high in the capital of Yerevan, you can see the outline of Mount Ararat, the national symbol of the country where Noah landed thousands of years ago. (Their patriarchate in Etchmiadzin contains a staggering number of relics, including wood from the ark -- given to a monk by a pitying angel after the poor man had tried and failed three times to climb the mountain in search of the holy site.) It's also a good spot for a photo, if you can get one without too much windblown hair:

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On our way out of the city, we received the gift of an early-morning snowstorm, meaning that by the time we reached the monastery on the banks of Lake Sevan, the roads were clear but the landscape was still a series of pristine, white undulations. In the chapel they were celebrating Divine Liturgy, and outside the world was holding its own celebration: "All the earth is Thy promised bride awaiting her spotless husband!"

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The entire trip felt like one enormous gasp, and in the weeks since returning home we have been slowly exhaling, hoping that the exhaustion will wear off but leave the spirituality behind. Please know that we did remember you, our family and friends, in prayer in those holy places, just as we do here in the quiet and comfort of our home. 

 Tissue Paper = Cat Velcro.

Tissue Paper = Cat Velcro.

Snuggled up with a cat. As we are happiest.

We miss you, we love you and we hope to see you very soon!

Rob and Emily