Inspire. April.

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Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.

– NIDO QUBEIN

As I contemplated this month’s Inspire post I began with the discovery of this quotation, which led me to the three photos that appear below.

I think this quotation is perfect for this time of year, especially in this second year of pandemic as things are slowly returning to some semblance of normal. Some of us have been lost in a fog of uncertainty and some of us remain in that fog as we await our turns for vaccines, for the return of jobs, the new rules for openings, community gatherings as it becomes safer, and yet, we still wear masks (as we should), we still wash our hands frequently and use hand sanitizer (as we absolutely should), we continue to maintain our distance (as we should), and we’re in a space of feeling the year is passing us by (again).

We need to look at our present circumstances, and then start.

The Easter season is upon us, spring is springing up all around us, Ramadan begins this evening. It’s as if a new year is dawning, and there’s no reason not to treat this time as a new year, setting goals, making choices, smelling the flowers on a few new paths.

The photos below are three places I never expected to be. Having taken the photos is proof that I was actually in those places, but to me it still remains extraordinary that I was actually, physically there. Gazing at these three photos show me the magic that can happen and the magic that is inherently in a place.

The first photo is of Glenariff Falls in Northern Ireland. We found it quite by accident while looking for a place to eat – there is a restaurant behind where I was standing to take the photo. What was remarkable is that our cousins had given us directions to this very place, only we hadn’t realized it until after we’d eaten and went to look for the falls they’d recommended. These woods have a fairy feel and there are reminders of fairies throughout them including in the falls themselves. It was very peaceful and soothing just standing and watching the water fall from the top.

Northern Ireland.
(c)2017-2021

This second photo is just a road sign; however I was glad to get it when we couldn’t get to the town. We were running late to get to our hotel, still about an hour or more away, and it was raining, and at the beginning of a trip we always think there is more time to return than there really is. The sign depicts the longest town name, shortened for the sign as: Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll; also known as LlanfairPG, but known in its full glory as:

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrnwllllantysiliogogogoch.

Small town, long name.

Ynys Mon, North Wales.
(c)2017-2021

This last photo is of the Menai Suspension Bridge. We drove across it from the island of Angelsey (known as Ynys Mon in Welsh) to get to mainland Wales and on to our destination. When I traveled alone to Wales in 2009 this bridge was the source of my greatest anxiety. I had truly wanted to go to Angelsey; I had heard of its beauty and there was an ancient cairn that I wanted to visit, but I could not make myself drive over this bridge. I could see it from my hostel along the Menai Strait, and I thought about for the entire three days I stayed there. I’d walk out to the Promenade and stare at the water below the stone wall, and then stare down the strait at this bridge. Every time I thought I might I didn’t. I just couldn’t do it.

As with the ferry that got me to Wales in 2017, this bridge got me to the mainland where I could complete my pilgrimage. I wasn’t driving, but it was still a monumental achievement and it’s part of one of the places that I started.

This mid-April is another new starting point.

Menai Suspension Bridge, Ynys Mon to Bangor.
(c)2017-2021

It’s Only a Coincidence

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There are no such things as coincidences. I was reminded of that on Wednesday while on a Celtic Day of Reflection retreat. Carl Jung called these synchronicity. Some of us refer to fate and destiny. Whatever we call it, the world is interconnected in so many ways and those random occurrences float in and around us from who we sit next to in grade school to joining a book club, and including the world of the internet which has only brought us closer together, gathering with people who share the same hobbies, music, art, and so many other topics and then quietly moving beyond them.

In 1986, I was a college junior. I was dating a boy. Until I wasn’t.

Later that year, my friend who was student teaching in England invited me to join her there for winter break. Other than a lack of money there was no reason to say no. It wasn’t like I had a boyfriend. So I joined her. She made all the plans.

I arrived on the last day of 1986, ringing in the New Year in London’s Trafalgar Square, and we were off. Wednesday’s Celtic retreat talked quite a bit about thin spaces and in a place as old as the island of Britain they are everywhere the eye can see, and more likely beyond the eye’s sight. You will instinctively know them if you’ve ever experienced them. Stonehenge is one of those places. From the first sight of the giant monoliths, I felt something. The past swirls around it and blends with the present, and in the cold dusk of January with my breath visible amongst the stones, it was almost as if I was in another time long, long ago but also right now. It was visceral, and it defies description. Indeed that is another story for another time.

From there our itinerary had us traveling west to Wales. All of it was wonderful. Adventurous, thrilling, exciting with newness around every corner. I took it all in, and enjoyed every moment in every space.

And soon we arrived in Wales. Up until that moment I thought of Wales as an extension of England – don’t tell that to the Welsh – the thought is an unforgivable sin. The sun was setting, we were walking, trying to arrive at the youth hostel before it got really dark. However, something changed. The air? The sky? The way my foot fell on the pavement? All of the above?

From the minute I set foot in Wales, I felt something beyond anything I’d ever experienced before, including that recent excursion at Stonehenge. I’ve always believed in the supernatural, the spiritual, I’ve seen ghosts and Wales was…I don’t know what Wales was, but it changed my life completely in those few moments.

The road between Pen-y-Pass and Llanberis, North Wales, 1987.
(c)1987-2021

It was piercing, this strong feeling that permeated every fiber of my being. I felt an ache, a calling to me as if I’d returned to a home I never knew. There was something special and the word special wasn’t enough to describe the wonder. In that moment, I became Welsh in my own way. Something mystical changed in me. Magical.

It set me on a path of a mental immersion into Wales, the Welsh people, the land, the culture, even the language. It was through the language many years later that I met a native speaker who helped me translate some fiction I was writing and through that friendship that he was able to guide me where to go when the sudden opportunity to travel appeared, and this was a key in one of those not-coincidences. He recommended Caernarfon and visiting its castle. This suggestion shaped my whole trip. I stayed at a hostel within the remaining walls of the walled town. Emerging out from under the stone arch onto the Promenade, sniffing the sea air of the Menai Strait, turning just a tiny bit left, and there, right there in front of me was the huge stone wall of one of the towers of the Castle. It was spectacular.

While Caernarfon Castle is in Wales, it is not a Welsh castle; it was not built by the medieval Welsh. A few days later, upon leaving Caernarfon I went to a truly Welsh castle, Dolwyddelan. While the castle wasn’t there at the time, this was the land where Llywelyn the Great was born and grew up in the 11th century. This was one of his many strongholds where he commanded most of Gwynedd, in the North of Wales. He built the castle in the 13th century and over the years it has been added to and restored until finally falling into disrepair.

The mist and the rain of that day only added to the mystery and the mystical. Everything is green and there are gatherings of sheep in every corner of every field or so it seems. Some were so close to the road that I thought the car would hit one or two and I honestly don’t know how they were missed. They were close enough to touch their wool from the window.

In the interim, between this solo adventure in 2009 and our family visit in 2017, I went through some emotional upheaval and through that (a much longer story than what will fit here) I joined the Catholic Church, going through the RCIA program and receiving all the sacraments of to become fully joined with the church. Like the 2009 trip to Wales, my path as a Catholic was filled with an open mind and no regrets; no second thoughts about my conversion. It is the only thing I’ve done in my life that did not foster second thoughts and questions of my conviction. That in itself was an important sign in support of my choice.

But the coincidences were not through with me yet.

While going through the RCIA process, I had need to choose a saint for confirmation. It became my predisposition to find a Welsh saint. There are not that many but I felt strongly about my Welsh connection. I had narrowed my decision down to three saints (one of whom was Welsh) and in choosing St. Elen, her patronage of travelers and introducing the monastic church to Wales were both high on my list to affirming that she was who I wanted the connection through my confirmation. There were two things that really sealed it for me. The first was something that should have stood out to me from the start and that is that Ellen is my mother’s middle name. How I didn’t see it from the beginning is beyond me. The second is how the saint is known in Wales: as St. Elen of Caernarfon.

Caernarfon.

That place I’d never heard of before my friend suggested it seemingly out of the blue.

It only cemented my choice.

I tried to do research about St. Elen, but sadly there is very little. She is often conflated with St. Helena of Constantinople, mainly because of their similar names and their sons’ similar names, Cystennin and Constantine the Great. In this research I discovered a holy well named for St. Elen and was shocked and astounded to find out that its location was in Dolwyddelan, just down the road, walking distance from Dolwyddelan Castle where I’d actually been five years before.

When we made our family trip to Northern Ireland in 2017 I decided that we would add in a pilgrimage for me to visit St. Elen’s holy well in Dolwyddelan.

Holy Well of St. Elen of Caernarfon, Dolwyddelan, North Wales, 2017.
(c)2017-2021

It had come full circle. Arriving for the first time in Wales in 1987 at Betws-y-Coed by train and taking the pilgrimage to St. Elen’s Holy Well in Dolwyddelan in 2017, thirty years in between and a mere six miles apart reveals that coincidences do not exist, but providence does.

Travel in the Time of COVID

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Traveling during the covid epidemic offers several differing perspectives and our family seems to have lived through all of them. Should we go? Should we stay home? Stay local? Visit another state? For the better part of last year, we planned our August vacation to Canada. It became apparent that would not be an option. The Canadian border closed in the spring and remains closed.

We couldn’t help but notice that the rest of the country was not exactly cooperating in “flattening the curve”. It didn’t take long to make the decision to remain in New York State. We live here and we felt safe with the covid policies that the state has put into place.

Now that Thanksgiving is upon us, and Christmas not far off, if you are traveling, I hope you will benefit from our experience.

If you’ve decided to stay home, these will hopefully help you the next time you venture out.

Vacationing on COVID-time is *different*.

First, have a plan, have a second plan, and be flexible in all things. We decided on a location we’d only visited for a couple hours last year – Niagara Falls, located in western New York. We would spend one week; it would be an adventure. Customarily, we would change hotels mid-week. We did not. This was a direct result of covid.

We did many things outside: Niagara Falls State Park and the Falls, Broderick Park at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo. Though I prefer indoor dining, we ate outside at restaurants, coffee shops, and ice cream shops. We also visited three monuments that we may not have seen if I wasn’t looking for outdoor things to do.

Masks. You need more than one mask. Ideally, you should have one cloth mask for each day or at least two: one to wear, one to wash (and hang to dry).

Hand Sanitizer. Though you’ll find more hand sanitizer than you can ever imagine everywhere, a travel bottle of hand sanitizer is a must.

Hotels. I was very happy with our hotel. The prices did not seem to be any higher than a regular end of summer week. However, several amenities were not available or drastically changed. The pool and fitness center were closed, but vending machines and ice machines were available. I think they suspended the airport shuttle. We were required to wear masks in the public areas, hallways, elevators, and walking through the lobby. There were hand sanitizer stands next to every elevator on all the floors to use prior to pressing the elevator buttons.

The included free breakfast was a menu to choose items from, and then bring to your room, microwave, and eat there. It usually included a muffin, a fruit, water, milk, or juice, breakfast sandwich, yogurt, and other related items. There was no housekeeping unless you requested it. We did not. We chose to ask for necessary items at the front desk. These included new towels, shampoo, cups, toilet paper. They were extraordinarily nice and very accommodating. Considering the circumstances, I thought they did an excellent job.

Attractions. Many places were closed. Those that were open had restrictions. Masks required, hand sanitizer stations, 25%-50% capacity, 6ft. distancing between groups. Some displays – where placing your face close was necessary in order to see the item – were temporarily out of order. At interactive displays, we were provided with a sanitized mini stylus to use instead of our fingers. We returned them for cleaning when we were finished with the tour.

Due to reduced capacity requirements, several locations issued timed tickets. This combined with lower capacities meant that every day about mid-afternoon tours were sold out for the day, so this required going early, getting your ticket for later in the day and then coming back. Some places preferred that you buy tickets online and show the attendant the ticket on your phone.
Many places used directional arrows on the floor directing so people weren’t intersecting with each other. Many places would not accept cash. The Niagara Falls (NF) State Park as well as the NF Visitor Center only accepted credit/debit cards.

Contact Tracing. Many hotels, attractions, and restaurants asked for our name and phone number for contact tracing.

Restaurants. We felt comfortable at each location we ate at. One place, the Hard Rock Cafe, took our temperature. Due to lower capacity, we were required to wait…outside. If we got up to use the restroom, masks needed to be worn. Some restaurants had no menus and a QR code on the table allowed for viewing the online menu on our phones.

Shopping. Only some places offered samples, like chocolate or ice cream. Fitting rooms were closed as were some public bathrooms. A few places did not take cash.

One of the good things that I noticed was that as crowded as it was, it wasn’t that crowded. There was room to stand and move around on the Maid of the Mist boat ride, which is typically wall-to-wall people.

Because the Underground Railroad Heritage Center limited two at a time in the small gift shop, I was able to have a somewhat lengthy and very educational conversation with the attendant while I waited my turn.

People were both wary and friendly at once. There may have been a glare when you got too close to someone but it turned into a smile and a laugh as we both said “oops, sorry.” It was a delicate dance.

I didn’t know how much we needed to be out of our house. Overall, even with the changes and the restrictions, we still had a great vacation, and it was nice being out and about and almost-kind-of “normal”. Niagara Falls is one of those places that never gets old; we’re thinking about returning next year, although a trip across the border would also be welcomed.

Supernatural Lists: Geography

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The Winchester Brothers travel back and forth across the country in Baby, their 1967 Chevy Impala. I never much paid attention to some of the place names until in one episode Dean mentioned that he was going to Buffalo, New York because his Dad’s old storage locker was broken into. He was in Queens, New York, and said he’d be there in two hours.

I stared at my screen.

I’ve lived in New York my whole life, including spending my elementary years in Queens, and I’ve been to Buffalo. It is not a two hour drive, I don’t care how fast you’re going.

It’s almost 400 miles! That’s six hours and fifteen minutes IF, and that’s a big if, you’re going the speed limit, don’t stop off in any small towns where the speed limit is lowered drastically, don’t need to get gas, and there is no traffic.

Oh, and four hundred miles in a 1967 Chevy? You will definitely need to get gas. At least twice!

Here is a list of fifteen places the Winchesters visited during the series. I’ve included the episode when they first went there. Some places like Kansas, South Dakota, and Fall River, Massachusetts they’ve been to multiple times over the years.

Note: The notation: 1.1 is Season 1, Episode 1.

  1. Lawrence, Kansas [Pilot, 1.1]
  2. Lebanon, Kansas [As Time Goes By, 8.12]
  3. Buffalo, New York [Bad Day at Black Rock, 3.3]
  4. Lily Dale, New York [The Mentalists, 7.7]
  5. Ankeny, Iowa [Hook Man, 1.7]
  6. Sioux Falls, South Dakota [Devil’s Trap, 1.22] *
  7. Las Vegas, Nevada [Season Seven, Time for a Wedding!, 7.8]
  8. Vancouver, BC, Canada [The French Mistake, 6.15]
  9. Grants Pass, Oregon [Mommy Dearest, 6.19]
  10. Hollywood, California [Hollywood Babylon, 2.18]
  11. Cicero, Indiana [The Kids Are Alright [3/2]
  12. Sturbridge, Massachusetts [Malleus Maleficarum, 3.9]
  13. Monument, Colorado [Jus in Bello, 3.12]
  14. Fall River, Massachusetts [Mamma Mia, 12.2] *
  15. Windom, Minnesota [Jump the Shark, 4.19] *

* A couple of fun things:

Sioux Falls, South Dakota is where Bobby Singer lives. It’s like a home base for the Winchesters. The sheriff is Jody Mills, who becomes a close friend of Bobby and the boys.

Fall River is also where the Lizzie Borden House and Museum is, and Sam and Dean go there in a later episode.

Windom is where Sam and Dean meet their up until then unknown half-brother, Adam Milligan.

Which was your favorite place that the Winchesters traveled to?

Inspire. October.

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New Experiences from Summer. (c)2020

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt

“Try new things and discover yourself every single day.”

– Bhavya Choudhary

“TSN”

(Try Something New) – My Husband

For the past two years, my husband has been offering this mantra: TSN, which stands for Try something new. He tries to try something new at least once a month.

I do like to try things, but I try them hesitantly.

I am inherently extraordinarily polite. If I am at someone else’s house and they offer me something that I’ve never had before or am even lukewarm on, I will take it, eat it, and thank them for it.

When we go out to dinner, I prefer tried and true food for the most part, but when I’m on vacation, I will beeline for the local specialty as well as trying new things.

Examples of this are poutine in Canada, tea in the UK, a proper British breakfast in Wales and England, Welsh cakes in Wales, chicken wings in Buffalo, cheesecake in NYC, pretzels and chocolate in Pennsylvania, lobster in Maine, crab cakes in Maryland, beignets and gumbo in New Orleans. Anywhere you go will have a specialty food to try.

On our recent visit to Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and Plattsburgh, New York, we tried many things that were new to us, but were common to the North Country and Western New York.

In the above photo, you will see:

  • Pizza Logs (from Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY)
  • The Mighty Taco, chicken quesadilla
  • Chicken Caprese Mac & Cheese (from Our House Bistro, Plattsburgh, NY)
  • Amazing orange peeler for 69¢ (at Vidler’s 5 & 10 in Aurora, NY). I’d never seen this before and it worked like a dream. If I had known how well it worked, I would have bought a dozen and given them out for Christmas!
  • Sponge Candy (from Platter’s Chocolate in Niagara Falls, NY)

This pandemic has given us many things that are new, not all of them exciting and wonderful, but we’ve hopefully taken them in stride, and will try to move forward embracing the new, the different, the exciting, and even the challenging.

Thoughts On An Overcast Day

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I keep a planner. The monthly part of the calendar is my personal calendar of appointments and scheduling, birthdays and anniversaries to be remembered, and the weekly pages are where I plan my writing for Griffins and Ginger Snaps. This year, writing has been a struggle.

I have been more or less reliable in the publishing of posts, but these last few weeks have certainly been more difficult. There was so much going on in August and when I looked back on it, it seemed that they were all mental worries.

Not that they were all in my head, but it wasn’t that my feelings of busyness was having a lot of appointments or places to go, but it was all mental gymnastics – getting dinner planned, communicating with the school for my kids’ return, planning our vacation while simultaneously planning on not going, keeping up on election news, and so many other things. It’s been rough, and I know I’m not alone in this.

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“Friday” Food. August.

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It seemed as though all we ate were chicken wings, mac & cheese, soft pretzels, ice cream, and donuts! Everything was amazing! I’ll have several posts in future days with information if you travel to the western New York area. Some things can even be ordered through the mail!

Listed in clockwise order:

  1. Roast beef and gravy on a weck roll. (Say Cheese! The Comic Book Cafe.)
  2. Pizza Logs. (Anchor Bar – the home of the original Buffalo Wings.)
  3. The Mighty Taco quesadilla with sour cream.
  4. Niagara water.
  5. Char-BQ chicken wings. (Duff’s Wings)
  6. Bavarian Pretzel with mustard and cheese. (NY Beer Project)
  7. Manhattan Mac & Cheese with garlic bread (NY Beer Project)
  8. Small (really! small!) Birthday Bash Ice Cream. (De-Dee’s Dairy)
  9. Angel cream donut (like Boston Creme with vanilla cream inside). (Paula’s Donuts.)
Some of the regional and delicious foods we had while on vacation last week in Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and its environs, NY. (c)2020

Inspire. August.

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August’s inspiration posts were delayed by the entire month, but I am determined that this post tonight at the latest. It is the last day of August and there is still inspiration to be had.

August began with my being sick, some days quite ill, and I went to the Department of Health to take a covid test, which fortunately came back negative.

We’re still receiving updates from my children’s school and they are almost ready to return; one virtually and one in an in-person hybrid model.

We also were able to take a much needed family vacation, which we understand is a privilege in these uncertain times. I credit that to many things, not the least of which is the seriousness that New York State took in combatting the coronavirus. We remained in New York, and that gave us the ability to travel and to do so without a fourteen day quarantine anywhere else we may have gone. It wasn’t our original plan, but we were all together and we had a great week.

I mention this because the one thing I want to share with you for the August inspire post is a museum that we visited that I would encourage everyone to visit. I will write more about it in later days, but here is a small glimpse:

The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is located at 825 West Depot Avenue West in Niagara Falls, New York. It has only been open for about two years, and was reopened on July 18th after Covid closures.

It is very reasonably priced: $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors (62+), $6 for children 6-12, and Free for children 5 and under.

There is limited parking shared with the Amtrak station and it is on the Discover Niagara Shuttle, a free service in the city of Niagara Falls that operates May through October. They’ve recently reopened after Covid closures.

The Heritage Center is a beautiful balance of the heartbreak of slavery and escape from bondage and the people who helped them flee. It is at once inspiring and emotional. In one instant, a story caused me to weep while others made me feel joy at their new lives in Canada.

It is a small venue, but well worth the time. I would return again to enjoy the few things that were not available due to covid restrictions.

Inside the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. (c)2020
We are *this* close to freedom.
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. (c)2020

Labyrinths Heal; The Rain Reflects

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Early on in the pandemic, when we’d just begun the lockdown with work places shutting down, restaurants closed, and schools closing, we were only just getting used to having the kids at home, shopping once a week, avoiding people as much as possible, including even our son who lived on his own, plus being in a constant low level state of anxiety, keeping ongoing lists in my head, living, breathing, reading, and writing everything I could about coronavirus 20/7 with four hours leftover for sleep. Often, I couldn’t get through that minimum of four hours. I tried watching the White House’s coronavirus briefings; I thought they would be useful and informative. I thought they would quell my anxiety of those early days of unknown. My priest called them “dark days of confusion,” and they truly were. We’re still in them sometimes now. Those briefings didn’t help; they left me with higher levels of anxiety.

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World Otter Day

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Today Wednesday is was World Otter Day. Everyday should be World Otter Day!

Apparently, I had the wrong date in my planner and this makes me sad. My kids, my son especially have had an obsession with otters for several years now. There is a beaver near where we live, and for the longest time, my son called him an otter. When we explained that it was a beaver, he continued to call it an otter….or a skinny beaver. We see him throughout the spring, summer, and part of fall.

When my daughter and I went to Florida a couple of years ago for my aunt’s 95th birthday celebration we went to Flamingo Gardens where we saw real, live otters. We were so excited. They were enthralling.

Two years later, this past February, right before the pandemic, my son was able to go their with my husband and see the same otters. He was thrilled.

I thought I would share this video that I took in 2017, and I also wanted to encourage everyone to check out the work of the International Otter Survival World Fund (IOSF) and donate if you can.

Video of Otters at Flamingo Gardens, 2017. (c)2017-2020