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Bella Vacanza

My good friend, Todd Hansen, has graciously agreed to allow me to post his reflections and pictures from his recent trip to Italy! When I’m unable to get much beyond the confines of home, sharing armchair travel with friends is a breath of fresh air that satisfies the wanderlust — at least temporarily.  I hope you enjoy! And thanks again, Todd, for sharing your beautiful experience with others.

I have to tell you about a beautiful vacation to Italy that my girlfriend and I took this summer! It was way better than we anticipated and involved planes, trains, automobiles, and many boats.

We had a beautiful room on the island across from Venice (Giudecca) for 2 nights. Of course, this is where the boats come in: boat from airport to hotel, frequent shuttles to Venice, and a very nice gondola ride.

The view from the hotel at Giudecca. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

We both love the classic Italian preparation of Seabass (traditional Branzino) the whole fish, de-boned and looking at you, with lemon and herbs. So I ordered it 3 times on the trip! Each time was different, one being so lightly breaded, you could call it “dusted”. Each preparation was a savoury delight.

Then, a high speed train out of Venice to Rome was a great idea. There, we picked up a rental Fiat for our drive to Sorrento, 3 hours South. It was a wonderful drive that took us right around the base of Mt. Vesuvius. My driving skills were tested coming into the sloping cliffs of Sorrento on a busy weekend. I didn’t hit one scooter!

The Sorrento Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

I was treated to a perfect birthday dinner in Sorrento overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The next day we jumped on a large ferry to Capri for a daylong excursion of even narrower roads (with a great taxi driver), molta bella views of the Tyrrhenian, and a dip into the ancient waters.

Back at the Sorrento hotel lounge for a drink, we found ourselves devouring a complimentary plate of olives (one of many bar snacks). Seems they had a perfect blend of fennel seeds, peppers, and olive oil, one we would never be able to re-create on our own. And it gets better! The 30 year veteran bartender, Gemmaro, served me the best cocktail I’ve had in recent years: an Alexander — my first experience of the drink & also my girlfriend’s last name.

On our way out of Sorrento, we thought we would swing over to Positano for lunch. This is the famous Amalfi Coast where the homes and buildings are built on sloping, rocky hills right down to the water. It is a must see. And I recommend doing so from a nice little restaurant overlooking the coast with a plate of Pasta Carbonara in front of you — Scusi, more pepper please!

The Amalfi Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Next stop: Pompeii. Not an easy park to find, but once we did our luck improved greatly. After walking around a bit, we asked a worker for advice and he proceeded to give us a quick guided tour of the highlights that we would never have found on our own. We saw a beautiful fresco, an ancient grape crusher, and to my amazement – actual human remains from that fateful day in 79 AD.

Once we got back to Rome we were quite exhausted from the long, hot drive. But our hotel was another pleasant surprise, with a wonderful balcony for 2. So we relaxed with some local olives and wine. Now we had to try to give Rome it’s due respect in one day! We set out for the Colosseum early the next day and again we stumbled upon a group tour that worked out for the best. The 2 guides were very informative about the Colosseum and nearby ruins.

The Roman Colosseum. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Even though it was a national holiday, we thought we should go to The Vatican to push our good luck. Now, I’ve seen a lot of big Italian churches from my previous trip to Italy, but St. Peter’s Basilica is by far the biggest — OMG! Luckily, Lorna begged a scarf for her shoulders so that we could witness the magnificence of the Pope’s home turf.

After such a grand display, I needed a drink. So we hoofed it over to Trevi Fountain for a sip of water supplied by an ancient Roman Aqueduct (working almost continuously since 19 BC!) and some Italian Pinot Grigio. It was amazing to me how there are remnants of Roman Aqueduct all around the city. These are very old structures, proudly secure amongst buildings of steel and glass, quick moving autos, and time itself.

Todd and Lorna at Trevi Fountain, Rome. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

So you can see we did a lot in a short amount of time thanks to my girlfriend’s expert planning. We both agreed on the highlight of the trip: the food. It was all so flavourful and fresh, inventive and classic, and yet you knew you were eating healthier than home.

Want to sample Todd’s authentic Alexander cocktail? Here’s the quintessential Italian how-to.

This post is dedicated to my friend, Ruth Nina Walsh, who has a great love of travel and art and who has always wished to visit Italia. Buon Viaggio!

Take Back Your Time

The Head of Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones

“In terms of taking back our time, the first essential tool is saying no. No to our own greed and self-importance. No to the extra work we carry home. No to hearing without listening, looking without seeing; no, above all, to the insistent voice of advertising, which thrives on our restlessness and dissatisfaction, and does everything it can to exacerbate them. A Brobdingnagian NO to all those things makes space for an even more gigantic YES.

My private code for this is to refuse and choose.

We . . . can refuse to participate in the ‘mad race of time.’ We can choose to talk face to face with our friends instead of via email or on the telephone; we can play with our children, now, this very afternoon; we can go off for long walks across the hills. We can turn off the television once and for all. In short, we can rejoice in being one of the elite who actually does have the privilege of choice instead of complaining endlessly about our lack of time.

The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse

Of course it can feel difficult to drop out of the rat race: to stand at the side of the road while our friends and colleagues race on across the horizon. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. In Matisse’s painting, “The Red Studio,” the clock has no hands. We need to find a ‘red studio’ of our own, the studio of our own insistent heart, perhaps, in which to set up an easel or a writing desk, or pull a dreaming daybed towards a broad, wide-open window. It sounds so simple — almost too simple to be worth saying — but slowing down can be a tremendous source of joy.” (Excerpted from World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwan, pp.30-31)

What would you do if you had more time? Find one thing, and then find the time and make it happen.

Beauty Break: The Gift of “Kindness”

While I’ve been away, we experienced the illness and death of my father-in-law. In the midst of the pain and difficulties, I have been continually amazed at the kindness and generosity shown to our family, often coming from the most unlikely and unexpected places.

My friend, Kathryn, sent an excerpt from this poem to me at an opportune moment and I was so struck by the gift of it, I wanted to share it in its entirety here as well.

“Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the
Indian in a white poncho lies dead
by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night
with plans and the simple breath
that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Beauty Break: “The Parisian” at Tavern On 2

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” — Benjamin Franklin

The above quote appears on the menu at Tavern On 2, a lovely little gastropub in Long Beach we had the pleasure of visiting for breakfast with a friend one recent early Saturday morning. Franklin’s quote is a worthy motto for, on my visit, it was once more impressed upon me that beautiful wine (or beer) and delectable food are two gifts that truly make life worth living.

Tavern On 2 is a tiny place. It’s got a great cafe atmosphere, with a small patio for sidewalk dining (complete with cozy space heaters that make it possible to eat outside even in inclement beach weather, which we did). Great old red brick walls and high ceilings line the long narrow dining room. It definitely borrows from the classic European cafe ambience and style.

The menu is ecelctic with a decidedly French twist. There is no bar in this little place; however beer, wine, and champagne are served all day. My friend ordered a mimosa, which appeared as a mix of citrus juice in a little carafe and a split of champagne, enabling him to mix the cocktail to his liking. And I was inspired to forgo the (unfortunately) lackluster coffee for a full flute of Lambertini Spumanti, a sparkling rose that paired perfectly with my dish.

And that dish is really the subject of this post because it was a truly lovely beauty break breakfast. So, beginning from the bottom up: “The Parisian” is a thick slice of toasted brioche smothered in a homemade bechamel sauce that would make Julia Child proud — it was perfect and carried just the requisite hint of nutmeg and the right amount of salt to make it truly divine. Atop this bed of brioche were two slices of fried ham, a slice of gruyere, and more béchamel. These layers were repeated one more time and then finished with perfectly scrambled eggs and a fresh sprinkle of bright green parsley. The dish was truly inspired — simple ingredients, put together artfully to make the best of comfort food on a cold, cloudy morning. It was not only beautiful to look at, it tasted magnificent. The sparkling rose — which I would never have typically ordered for breakfast — and a small bottle of Acqua Panna just put the meal over the top for me. For a brief moment, I was transported out of LA to a sidewalk cafe in Paris…….dreamy and so relaxing.

If you’re a SoCal local or happen to be in the area, be sure and stop by Tavern On 2 for a sublime culinary beauty break!

Gifts of Grace, Hope, and Beauty in the New Year

The new year opens with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 8) and the bestowal of gifts from the three Magi to the Christ Child, which calls to mind not only the hope and promise in the gift of a new year, but reminds me that my life is meant to be a gift as well, both to God and to others. Sadly, I am apt to forget this.

I’m not much for making New Year’s resolutions. But I noticed, when examining and thinking back over 2011, that as the year progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to be mindful of beauty in my daily life. Juggling home, job, and volunteer work along with my writing became a whirling abyss of speed and busyness that threatened to overwhelm me. When my life feels like I’m “going down the rails on the crazy train,” beauty eludes me. Giving becomes taking and I know it’s time for a reboot.

Clearly, some changes need to be made in 2012 and I’ve come up with a list that I’m hoping will help me regain my balance and make beauty more prominent.

1. Take Along My Trusty Blanket

I need to acknowledge when things are spiraling out of control inside me and put myself on a time out in a soft, safe place — preferably with my trusty purple blanket. There’s a very good reason why little ones have their blankets, thumbs, and binkies along for the daily ride. I would do well to learn from their example. Paying attention to the inner signs that signal the need for a time out will help me to avoid  becoming a destroyer of the beauty around me.

2. Plan for Extraordinary Family Time

This means two things especially: travel and music.

For Christmas I gave my husband this great book of themed California itineraries. Being that the three of us love the open road and have an eccentric streak that would lead to the moon and back again, I’m thinking this is the year we plan for manageable travel. Maybe we will each pick a trip from the book and try to do one every few months. They’re simply awesome and have adventure written all over them. Two of my personal favorites: the Alice Waters’ Culinary Tour and By the Book: Literary California. Of course, pondering A Burrito Odyssey has many possibilities, as well.

And about that music. . . . well, for Christmas, Santa brought a record player. We have inherited the record collections of both sets of parents, plus some from the grandparents, and we still have all of our own, from our childhood through the 80s. Some of our favorites are old radio theater recordings of The Shadow and Suspense, which Skippy has never heard but which we used to amuse ourselves with long ago when we lived in San Francisco and had an old turntable. Let’s just say we have a lot of records and, until Christmas morning, no way to enjoy them. This is the year of the record player! Skippy is enthralled and says over and over “Records are just so amazing.” Every kid should be so lucky.

3. Make Time to Experience the Arts

I find beauty and joy in experiencing the arts.  Unless I plan I am not exposed to nearly enough of it. The arts help me to keep life in perspective and to remember and enjoy the many ways human beings have been blessed with the gifts to create beauty in the world. This year, I plan to nurture this love by attending plays and concerts, planning museum outings, sitting in at literary salons, and watching art films. It may be in the company of a like-minded friend, relative, or my husband, but I plan to make time for these experiences even if it means going alone.

4. Nurture the Artist Within

“Do something creative every day.” That is the motto of my favorite stationary store where I purchase many supplies. I find I am more attentive to the beauty in daily life if I nurture my own artistic gifts and talents. While the list of things I need to do every day as a wife, mother, and teacher is literally endless, nurturing my own creative life is just as important as any of those things. And I find I am a happier wife, mother, and teacher if I don’t neglect those gifts. I will make time this year to write every day, cook interesting and healthy meals, and plan for and work in my garden — all essential things that feed my heart and soul, but which often go neglected in the mad rush to get other things done.

5. Curl Up More Often With Good Books

Reading relaxes me and feeds my mind and my soul. Other moms ask me how I have the time to read. I always wonder how can I NOT read? It’s easy to feel guilty for taking time out to read, but this isn’t a luxury. It’s a sanity preserver that helps me to maintain my equilibrium. Most often, my personal reading is done in bed and is the very last thing I do for the day. Some people nap; I read. This year, I also want to make it a priority to spend time each day reading aloud to Skippy. When we don’t make this a priority, days and weeks can go by before we get back to our read-aloud. It’s time we both treasure and too soon it will be gone.

6. Appreciate and Learn From the Gifts of Others

My friend, Christina, had the inspired idea for her New Year’s resolution of reflecting on the people closest to her and asking herself what qualities in those people she would like to try to learn from or emulate — this struck me as genius. Everyone has gifts and brings something unique and beautiful to the table. No one currently in my life is there by accident, but for a very particular reason. This year, I’d like to follow Christina’s example and ask myself: what particular gifts and qualities is God trying to share with me through the people whom He has placed on my path? And along those same lines, what is it that I am supposed to be sharing with them?

7. Cook My Way Through France

Many people I know have hobbies or other creative pursuits. Cooking is mine. I love to cook, eat, and feed people. I read a cookbook like any other regular book and I especially appreciate literary cookbooks. For my birthday, my husband gave me two: Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan and The Way To Cook, by Julia Child (both culinary heroines and beloved writer friends). I find that cooking is a good time for me to slow down and reflect, to be mindful of the foods I am using and where they came from, to be amazed at simple tools, to revel in scents and textures and the nearly miraculous transformations that happen when ingredients are brought together just so.  France and especially Paris have been beckoning to my heart with increasingly intensity over the last few months. So I’ve decided to give in to the inspiration, embrace my inner Collette, and embark upon an armchair cook’s tour!

8. Practice Mindfulness Throughout the Day

If I do not make an effort to find beauty, it will elude me. Everything is a grace and everything is bestowed by God for my benefit. I will find beauty in the ordinary circumstances of my daily life to the extent that I am willing to put in the effort to look for it. Brother Lawrence was a simple Carmelite monk who taught the practice of the presence of God in daily life. He writes: “The most excellent method of going to God is that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing people but purely for the love of God. We ought not to grow tired of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”  While it is extremely difficult for me to do, I find I need to redirect my attitude and efforts towards their proper end. God Himself is the author of Beauty and every good thing. It is this mindfulness that will allow me to perceive beauty in everyday events and to receive the gift of beauty He wants to give to me, as well as enabling me to hopefully share that same gift with others. But I cannot give what I do not possess.  It is my hope that taking the time this year to nurture the different things I have listed here will help me to make my life more of a gift to those around me and to the One to whom it belongs. 

Do you have plans or resolutions for the new year? Please feel free to share them here!

Wishing all my regular readers and new visitors a healthy, peaceful, and blessed 2012.

St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila)

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Teresa of Jesus, also known as St. Teresa of Avila. She has long been a favorite of mine and is the namesake of my dearest sister, St. Therese of Lisieux. They share a refreshing sense of humor, down-to-earth practicality, and great confidence in God and love for Jesus, all of which I need to deepen in my own life. And apart from that, St. Teresa is the patroness of headache sufferers, which I experience chronically.

In case you don’t know much about this beautiful sister in faith, Benjamin Mann wrote this well-researched and lively article in recognition of her feast for the National Catholic Register. Its definitely worth the few minutes it will take to read and you might just find a new friend in heaven to walk the journey with you in the process.

Words to live by………….

Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end. . . Hope, O my soul, hope. You can know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes away quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain and turns a very short time into a long one. — St. Teresa of Avila

Sons and Mothers

Truly sons are a gift from the Lord,/ a blessing, the fruit of the womb.” Psalm 127:3

Today my only son is 10 years old. When I told an old friend yesterday that today was my son’s 10th birthday, his response was, “How traumatic!” He is the father of a two-year-old boy, so I guess 10 is a long way off, perhaps unimaginable to him. But he’s right: it is traumatic in some ways. Skippy is in an interesting place, standing with one foot in childhood and the other in boyhood.  It’s a twilight time for me as a mom. Things are changing, rapidly.

I love the fact that in many ways he is still “little,” happy, innocent, and free to do things that soon he will no longer want to do. On a recent family outing to a lovely park which had a babbling brook running through it, Skippy invited us to play “Pooh sticks” on the shady wooden bridge crossing the brook. He was very excited and said he’d show us how to play, that it was easy. And it was. (In case you’ve never experienced the rare pleasure of Pooh sticks on a shady bridge overlooking a gentle brook in the cool breeze with ducks standing by, here’s how Skippy explained it: You each choose a stick. Walk up to stand in the center of the bridge, looking over one side. On the count of “three” everyone drop their sticks into the water, then quick dash across to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick floats by first.) Such a simple game, such fun to play together. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing was seeing him so excited because he finally had the chance to play “real Pooh sticks,” something that until that moment, he’d only read about in A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s books about a silly old bear in the 100 Acre Wood…..I share this because it was a reminder to me that there will not be many more of these simple, innocent moments of childhood. It was a reminder to be grateful, and to be very present and aware of these moments, before they are gone for good.

God is merciful to me, because as he enters his 10th year of life, Skippy is still in love with Winnie-the-Pooh, talks regularly with his stuffed animal “friends,” wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and holds my hand wherever we go. He’ll still spend an ocassional afternoon watching Max and Ruby with me, sits enthralled while I read aloud to him, and enjoys looking at his picture books, even though he has “outgrown them”.  God knows, I want with all my heart to hang on to these moments with him — I’m absolutely not ready to let go of snuggling, not yet! He is my only living child — this is it for me, or at least it looks that way. I don’t have any more coming up behind him to fill in the gap of things he will soon be leaving behind.

But I know this is not fair to the boy he is becoming. I know I have to let him go. Already he is taller, his feet are bigger. His face is narrower, older, having lost the roundness that little children possess. The same with his fingers — not pudgy and cute any more, but longer, stronger. He’s more interested in Super Hero comics, likes to spend more time alone in his room, and is generally more mature in social interactions. He is so competent and can do many things for himself — he makes simple meals and tells me more and more often, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can handle it.” He still needs me, but in a very different way. And as much as it is difficult for me to let him go, I can also appreciate and admire how he is growing and the kind of person he is becoming. I can enjoy this in-between time of his childhood, with all of its different phases and accomplishments, like I have enjoyed all the others so far. But though I know this, it seems to me that a door is closing, a phase of the journey of motherhood is slowly coming to an end, and a new phase is beginning.

Skippy’s birth was both joy-filled and frightening. It was an event marked by loss, as though God were preparing me for something that back then I was not yet ready to understand. I still don’t understand it, but every year his birthday continues to be a strange emotional mixture of sadness and joy for me. He was born 6 weeks early and though there were no life-threatening complications, he spent his first week in the NICU. I left the hospital, a new mom, a first time mom, without my child and came home to an empty nursery. The elation of motherhood was tempered by this emotional trauma. Seven days later, on the day we were to bring him home for the first time, we were awakened by a telephone call telling us about the terrorist attacks on the East coast. It was 9/11. Grief-stricken for the people killed by this horrific event and their families, afraid and uncertain about what was going on, we soon learned that we were unable to get to our child — the freeway to the hospital 30 minutes from our home was shut down for hours because it passed by a major airport. Suddenly, we were united with others affected by this horrific event. We were helpless, powerless, and scared. The months after his birth and homecoming were extremely difficult. I felt guilty being happy when other had been so devastated. And I kept wondering what kind of world were we bringing this child in to? It is an understatement to say that everything surrounding the birth of my son was a challenge to a barely awakening faith.

As Skippy has grown, those early events surrounding his birth have made my heart wiser and more knowing. The losses I continue to experience as a mother are no less painful, but they are perhaps less surprising. I love being a mother, I love the gift of my child. But it would be a lie to say that this gift is not also full of heartbreak, sorrow, and loss for the things that are passing away. It is the gift of beauty, with thorns. I believe that the is an especially unique truth for the mothers of sons. While a daughter may remain close and perhaps become a “friend” in adulthood, a son is continually growing up and away from his mother.

My friend, Cathy, just recently saw her only son head off to college in Florida. He is now an entire continent away. When she asked me to pray for her son and their family, she said, “When times get frustrating with Skippy, imagine him leaving the state permanently and it might make the present frustration seem a bit smaller.” Cathy’s words hit home. In the day-to-day routine with all its attendant frustrations, I seldom think about the big picture. It is so easy to get caught up in the struggle of the moment, to get irritated by the little things. I do not often imagine my son grown, leaving. I do not often imagine never snuggling him, never holding his hand again…..I do not imagine him leaving for good. Cathy said that her son’s leaving, even though it was expected, even though she knew it would be hard, “felt like a death in the family” and gave her that feeling that life is fragile, and moments with our children precious. She said that,” Seeing his room filled with furniture and yet so empty is a strange experience.  It is also a time of looking back at all I didn’t do and that which I did — it is hard knowing I don’t have any do-overs, something else to remember when times are trying.” This is something I struggle with a lot — the feeling that I get one shot at this. Not in a way where I feel like everything depends on me; more like I have to be vigilant and do my very best the first time because, really, it’s the only time. Cathy’s experience, though I am 8-10 years from going through the same thing, still echoes the smaller, different losses I am experiencing now. We are like bookends, she and I, on two sides of a very similar experience.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-07930-CW, copyright Radiant Light, 2011

I find, as both I and my son get older, I am growing closer and closer to Blessed Mother.  She knows exactly everything I have gone through, what I am going through now, and how it will be later. She went through it all with her own Son. Her Son’s birth was also surrounded by trauma and uncertainty. She also experienced continually the “loss” of her child as He grew, pondering things in her heart, until one day He finally left. She understands from her own experience both the unique joy and sorrow of being the mother of a son. I find it is easier to bear the bittersweet experience of these emotions and the journey with her at my side, to talk to and to share with, to ask for her help and intercession both for Skippy and for me. And I can entrust her more and more with my own son’s care and safekeeping. She can be with him always, even and especially when I can’t. She can obtain for him the graces he needs to fulfill whatever mission God has planned for his life. She can help to repair my mistakes and to fill in the many gaps I leave. And she can keep our hearts united no matter how far away he goes. 

It is no coincidence that this month of September is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and the faithful are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Here’s to the next 10 years of my life with Skippy. What a blessing and a privilege to be his mother. May God give me the grace to be more acutely present, to both the beauty and the thorns, of every passing moment of the remainder of his childhood and to enjoy it to the fullest.