Naked Among Friends

The day of the trip was gorgeous, sunny and warm. I arrived at the shoreline nervous and hopeful, wanting to make a good impression. Sarah had invited me to the lake, and Sarah would understand how I felt. She was a female pastor, like I was. We both knew what a struggle it was to feel out of place in a profession that tends to be mostly male and mostly older. I didn’t get invited to golf games or men’s retreats, and so I wanted to make the most of this day–connecting with colleagues while inner tubing and water skiing.

16810235579_4f640d352a_oAfter setting up lawn chairs and drink coolers around a barbeque pit, Sarah asked if I’d like to try jet skiing. I’d never ridden a jet ski before, but watching people zipping around the lake inspired an unusual confidence to try something new.

I watched as Sarah took the jet ski out onto the lake, the handlebars parallel to the footstand as she floated on top of it. Then, as she picked up speed; she came up to her knees. Finally, after going even faster and taking the handlebars up to a perfect 90 degree angle against the footstand, she happily stood tall on the tiny machine cruising along the top of the water.

It looked easy, as hard things often do when done by an expert. When she handed the jet ski over to me, I made my first attempt, revving the engine too soon and losing control before I got the chance to raise to my knees. I tried again, same result. Over and over I held the handlebars, floating on the surface, coming close but always losing my grip and letting go before I could stand up.

Without fail, as soon as the the handlebars slipped out of my fingers, the jet ski would begin to circle, zipping around and around in the cool black water like an eager puppy hoping I would play its favorite game, waiting for me to regain control. Frustrated and embarrassed that everyone on the shore was watching me get schooled by this tiny plastic machine, I tried to keep smiling as I adjusted my swimsuit and climbed back on, sure that I had it in the bag this time, only to feel the jet ski power away from my tired hands again.

On my ninth attempt, I felt it. I was going to get up this time. I had the handles firmly gripped and as the motor began to pick up speed, I was ready. And then – whoosh – the force of the motor blew back into the water and took the bottom of my black tankini with it.

I was naked from the waist down.

I motored forward, trying to slow the machine as I bobbed behind it, holding the handlebars horizontal on the water. Each second put me farther away from my now missing bathing suit. Even if I could have stood up, I didn’t want to show off my exposed lower half to everyone enjoying their afternoon at the lake. As it was, the force of the motor was pushing that most buoyant body part to the surface, effectively mooning every passing boat.

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to cruise into the cove where our group was eating lunch. I thought if I explained the situation while staying a little way out from the shore, I could ask someone to throw me a towel and possibly save myself the humiliation of this new group of friends and fellow ministers seeing my backside.

I held steady in the water at the edge of the cove.

“You guys,” I yelled. “The jet ski blew off my bathing suit bottoms. Can someone throw me a towel?”

After a few moments of confused looks from the shore, I yelled again, hoping someone would take pity on me.

A guy in his lawn chair stood up and yelled back, “Um, we don’t know you.”

I looked again and realized that indeed, this was a different cove and a different group of people than I had come with. I waved and began to motor away, my rear end floating to the surface as the strangers on the shore began to cheer.

I found our friends two coves down. I tried yelling for help but before I could even begin my story, they applauded, laughing, and threw me a towel, telling me that they’d heard me yelling to the strangers down the lake.

The camaraderie the rest of that afternoon was rich, the ice having been clearly broken by my lake-wide display. Instead of being embarrassed or feeling alienated by my escapade, I felt the welcome and affection that comes with shared experience. I lost my bottoms and with them my nerves, finding instead a place among friends.

* * * * *

100_1050“Naked Among Friends” was written by Lindsey Smallwood (far left). Lindsey loves being near the water and usually manages to stay fully clothed. A former pastor and teacher, she now lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and two young sons where you’ll often find her chatting at the park, walking by the creek or writing on the couch. You can read more on her blog Songbird and a Nerd or find her on Facebook.

Pelican photo by Lars Plougmann


True love travels

My take on “true love” is this: You can’t be sure it’s true until you’ve traveled together.

When Jason and I were planning our honeymoon, months before we even got on the plane, I knew the two of us made a great match.

For instance, there was no argument about what should be our top priority in deciding which country to go to. Of course it would be cuisine.

After running a variety of potential honeymoon locations through the cuisine filter, we began discussing what we might want to do with our time besides cook and eat (and, um, sleep). Our second priority, we agreed, was being in a place where we could simultaneously relax and absorb culture. We wouldn’t have to leave a resort or cruise ship to go off in search of whatever it was that might make the place “ethnic” and unique. There wouldn’t be a checklist of “must-sees” to work through—no posing for pictures by each iconic sight to prove we had indeed been there. We wanted to simply be—to do everyday things we love to do at home, like read, sit outside at cafes and talk, cook together, take walks at sunset—but in a completely different place.

With healthy doses of self-control, that type of travel experience can be had just about anywhere, but we wanted to go someplace where we wouldn’t even feel lured into a trap of tourist rushing and doing, checking train schedules, packing our bags and moving from one hotel to another in an attempt to “see it all.” Our choice would completely eliminate the possibility of people later saying, “You went to [fill in the country] and you didn’t go see [fill in the artwork, cathedral, city, castle, etc.]???”

OiaviewClearly, that narrowed our list down to a very easy choice: to honeymoon on a small Greek island.

And on that small island, we chose a town high up on the cliffs—one without a port large enough to handle passing cruise ships, or roads wide enough for tourist buses.

And in that small town, we chose to stay in a small, kitchen-equipped apartment carved right into those cliffs (locally known as “cave houses”).

And there, in and around our small cave, overlooking the Caldera and the sea, we went about our everyday lives in a completely new way.

donkeysOia (pronounced ee-ah) on the island Santorini has the perfect mix of everything and nothing: winding, narrow lanes and walks with room only for pedestrians and the donkeys that transport loads too heavy for people; local craftspeople and shops, complete with the town’s collection of sweet stray dogs napping in the sun; markets selling local yogurt, figs, wine, honey, eggs, cheese, and olives; and views of the sea and sunsets that take your breath away.

What Oia doesn’t have was just as important to our experience there. It doesn’t have room for motor vehicles of any kind beyond the town perimeter—certainly not for any loud construction vehicles (which means there are no large hotels or multi-storied buildings). It didn’t (in 2007, at least) have wireless Internet (and the cell phones we had at the time were useless there). And it doesn’t have a list of must-see sights (unless you count the sun setting over the Caldera).

It was quiet. It was gorgeous. We could be at home there, yet it was very different from home.

kitchenetteIn the mornings we drank coffee and ate farm eggs, or yogurt and figs on our porch, still in our pajamas, idly talking about what we might want to do that day, if anything.

Later, we strolled through town, trying a local restaurant for lunch when our stomachs began to grumble, followed by, perhaps, a longer walk into the countryside, or time with books, coffee and sweets on the terrace. Often we napped in the cool, dimness of our honeymoon cave.

cookingdinnerThe only rule that seemed to guide us was more like an anti-rule: an unspoken agreement that we would make things up as we went along. Sometimes a trip to the market would inspire a dinner made in our kitchenette. Other times a restaurant we had discovered on a walk earlier that day would be tempting us by evening. Dinners were long and leisurely, and each day ended the same way: with the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.

We have since taken other trips together—including some less leisurely and more scripted than our trip to Santorini. But the ease by which we plan and embark on travels together has continued to be a hallmark of the compatibility in our marriage—one that not only allows us to bond and feel refreshed by our travel experiences, but also spills over into how we travel together through life.



Mi Tierra

After nearly 24 hours, we finally landed in Havana. It was May of 1998, the summer after I’d completed my sophomore year in college, when I accompanied my mother back to her homeland, an island she hadn’t seen since 1971 when she boarded a plane as part of the Freedom Flight program. Our multi-stop journey — Los Angeles to Houston to Cancun to Havana — was made with each of us wearing several layers of clothing, all of which we would leave behind. That’s what you did when you visited family in Cuba.

Exhausted, we stood before an inspector who began to pick apart our luggage, item by item, all of which Mom had carefully selected and weighed, because the rule was if you were over the weight allotment, they would require some kind of remittance. Knowing this, Mom slipped our inspector a twenty dollar bill, and just like that, we were allowed to move forward.

Just on the other side of the makeshift cordoned off area for those waiting, was our family—the real people whose names and faces I’d only known through photographs and stories that occasionally worked themselves from my mother’s memory. After a round of hearty hugs, Mom and I were ushered into a relic of a car and off to her cousin’s apartment. With the windows down (the AC had long since stopped working), we drove through the damp Caribbean air under a silken evening sky. I found it hard to believe we were actually here; we were in Cuba, finally. It wasn’t a mythical land about which was sung to me through lyrics from my mother’s albums. This place was in fact real. I let my head lean against the doorframe and listened to the salty waves crashing against the stone walls along the famous stretch of Malecon that held up this crumbling city.

We spent two weeks in Cuba, visiting with family and taking in as much as we could. I got to see the elementary school Mom attended, and the apartment where she had lived with her own mother. Everywhere we went we were treated like royalty—brought to tables bowing under the weight of feasts prepared. Someone had gotten wind that I loved mangoes, so at every stop there was always plenty of fresh mango, the flesh of the bright orange fruit so sweet that it could have only ripened under an island sun. We walked through abandoned sugar factories, gnawing on the raw cane. There were trips to swimming pools, and dinner dances at rooftop bars. Music and laughter was never far from our ears and lips, and someone was always telling me a story of when my mother was a little girl. This woman I had only ever known as my mother, a figure I often worked hard to steer against as a teenager, took on a new light. She had a history that was all her own, one apart from mine. For the first time I saw her as an individual.

My favorite memory rests with the particular leg of the trip that took us to Camaguey, the town from which Mom came. We were sitting in the backyard of someone’s house, most of the women busying themselves with putting the meal together, while the men were planted in a circle, passing around the two bottles of rum we had purchased with our American dollars at the local store. There was the sound of glass clinking as someone poured himself another swig, callused farm-worked hands rubbing scruffy cheeks, and laughter. There was so much laughter. At some point someone arrived with an accordion, and the group broke into a spontaneous rendition of Guantanamera. I know the lyrics because I grew up with them, Mom singing the song at parties, or turning up the stereo if the track came through the speakers. I knew Guantanamera, and I felt part of these people, this island, this place. I sang with them, our arms interlocking with one another, feet tapping in rhythm, the accordion scissoring its soulful notes through the heavy afternoon air.

The toothy smiles, the plumes of dust kicked up by our dancing heels in the backyard of our cousin’s house, the smell of stewing goat meat on the open fire in a makeshift shack of a kitchen. That scene has been stitched into my history and I often wonder what will happen to our connection with Cuba when my mother is gone. She is the last true link to the island, and all the history that lies with those people, the ones with whom we danced and sang.

DSC01229My own daughter, Lucille, was born in October of 2013. Weeks into her new life, my rawness into Motherhood, I discovered that if I wore her strapped to my chest and played music, her screams would calm as she became lulled by the rhythm of my dancing body. Often, the music I played  was Cuban. I recently posted a picture of my daughter wearing a woven fedora. The caption read, Ella no nacio en Cuba, pero la isla vive en su corazon. Translation: She wasn’t born in Cuba, but the island lives in her heart. It’s in her smile — the one I gave her —the food I make, the music we listen to, and the intangible way my mother has taught me to live life. And now this breathes in Lucy, stitched in the fabric of her flesh, in all the ways that can be seen and unseen.

We are always there.

*    *    *    *    *

3_9_14 (25 of 27)“Mi Tierra” was written by Ilene Marshall. Ilene resides in Pittsburgh, PA, with her husband and daughter. When she’s not documenting her life through photography, she attempts to capture some of it in writing. She has been a teacher for 11 years, but finds that often times, the biggest lessons aren’t found in books. Ilene blogs atThese Marmalade Skies,” and her photography can be seen at Ilene Marshall Photography.

Moments from The Open Road

“Mind if I add deer meat to the burger?”

Sitting out on the porch overlooking the large garden and the stunning Appalachian Mountains, I didn’t mind at all. I rocked back and forth absorbing the beauty of the life my friends had created. Their 7-year old entertained me with a story about a box car race which she had recently won. A large piece of metal sculpture fashioned by the artistic hands of her dad was just on the edge of my vision.  The clouds and the mountains and the storm and the trees created a ever-changing, ever-the-same view.

From the mushrooms they planted in a stack of wood to the tractor seat that served as the swing set, I soaked in their life. We chatted with joy about the little one who was growing, still hidden in mommy’s tummy, and looked with reverence at the small momentos that give witness to the little ones they had lost along the way.

After dinner, we pulled the bed out of the sleeper sofa and knelt by the edge of their children’s bunkbed to say prayers. The cool mountain air coming in the window and the house creaking with quiet noises, I settled in to the peace of their small mountain home. In the morning, the sound of bread-making roused me from restful sleep.

A loving whisper gently filled the silence, “It’s time to get ready for school, sweetheart.”

I folded two dollar bills and slipped them into the tip can. “Can you do Danny’s Song?,” I asked. Just in case, I sang my favorite line at full voice, “Even though we ain’t got money…” He had a startled look for a moment, probably not a typical request.

“Yah.  Absolutely.” He fiddled with a gadget, something that provided the words and the chords.

I had spent the afternoon rambling through Savannah, exploring and snapping photos of interesting patterns and angles. Where the strap met my sweaty skin, my sandals had  rubbed large raw spots across the top of my feet. Every step was painful.

Hot, sweaty, and footsore, I became attuned to the couples. They were everywhere. I slipped into a mini-funk, a grumpster state. Sitting on a bench, I fiddled with my phone, not ready to go back to my hotel room but unable to keep walking. Nobody answered.

Casually dressed and with tousled hair, he was singing and playing guitar at the bar & grill on the corner of the square. It was the perfect blend of country and folk and soulful melodies. I sat and listened for over an hour, my heart slowly lulled into a happier state. Eventually, I mustered the courage to go and sit at a table. And with dinner ordered and a beer drank, I mustered the courage to make a song request.

You bring a tear of joy to my eye and tell me everything is gonna be alright.

When he sang the chorus, big, inexplicable tears rolled down my check.  They were the tears of a beautiful moment, part of which I had created and part of which I had been given.  Tears of gratitude and heartache, of goodness and beauty.

My heart, long asleep, stirred.

Although suffering the effects of a rotten cold, my joyful friend greeted the day with her typical morning vibrance, “DisneyWorld, here we come!”

I drug myself out of morning fog and with the enthusiasm that I could muster in the morning, replied, “Whoo-hoo!”

As I thought about completion of graduate school, I had gotten it my head that I wanted to see the Magic Kingdom on my way home. Florida is not really on the way to Arizona but I didn’t care. When we realized that she would be in Florida for a graduation, it sealed the deal. By temperament, she’s a planner and so, we made plans months in advance. I messed it up and arrived a day early. Whoops.

It could have been weird. I was on the pull-out couch in a large hotel room with my long-time friend and her newly-wed husband. But, it wasn’t. I was tempted to be weirded out by the the lack of weirdness but instead, accepted it in gratitude. As the two had become one at the altar, I had gained a new friend.

We arrived at the theme park, googling “How to Use a Fast Pass” as we made our way to the entrance. With cold symptoms at their peak, we knew we only had a few hours before exhaustion won out. We tapped into the efficiency skills at hand and came up with a plan. In between the plan, we had spontaneous moments, ducking into the less thrilling attractions which were flooded with childhood memories and children.

It was an easy day. A day of innocent entertainment, deep friendships, and celebration of happy things. A day where goodness triumphed.

My melancholic soul was light-hearted and unafraid.

I’m not sure the attraction of a rambling solo road trip but it definitely calls to me. Whenever I can, I choose the smaller scenic roads, marked by a dotted line on the old-school atlas lodged between the seats of my car. I would rather go slow and be bathed in nature–the Shenandoah Valley, the Ozarks, the open sky of my beloved Southwest.  Or, go out of my way to have a quick visit with a friend.

The stretches of open road and the moments in between teach me. Home. Beauty. Lightness. On the road, there is just enough going on that you can be in your head without focusing on being in your head.  You can look back on moments and see their depth. That’s a sweet spot for me.

Days ago, my road trip ended as I drove up the dirt driveway of my childhood place–the home that my father built around us as we grew. Now, in the rhythm of regular life, I am trying to build new habits, to remember new ways. I have returned home

…at least until another road opens up in front of me.11078154_10153371527107943_3090907364091819517_n

In Defense of Wanderlust

Standing at the peak, the wind whipping my hair across my cheeks, I close my eyes and tilt my face to the sun. I stretch out my arms and turn up my palms and breathe. I open my eyes and try to absorb the techni-colored panorama of jagged, white mountain peaks, emerald pastures and shimmering diamond lakes reflecting back the exact impossible blue of the New Zealand sky and I think, Heaven looks like this.

I sit on the back of a scooter, hands gripping the waist of the twelve-year-old boy who is my driver as we zip down the jungle roads to a breakfast of green leaf pancakes with palm sugar. We dodge a rooster strutting cockily across the road and I can’t stop smiling from ear to ear because heaven feels like the wind blowing past my face as we bump over potholes, winding our way through the Balinese jungle.

In Canterbury Cathedral I kneel, dappled by colored light from the stained glass windows and thinking about Augustine and about Thomas Becket, crouching on these very stones, heart pounding as he waits, pleading with God to spare his life. I inhale and imagine Becket in heaven, smelling the aroma of this same sweet incense in the throne room of the Most High God.

On a mountain in Peru a whole village of Quechuan people, dressed in layers of wool in all the colors of the rainbow, sing a song about their beloved mountain, Huascaran. They sing in high-pitched nasal tones a song that sounds like some combination of zydeco and a tribal wail. The sound is harsh and grating to my ears and yet I can’t help thinking that this is what heaven sounds like – a great cacophony of sound.

In an old Communist youth camp beside the mighty Volga River hours north of Moscow, I tuck a room full of 9-year-old orphan boys into bed. I hug Dema’s freckly face to my chest and kiss the top of his head and think, The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. “Spokie-Nokie,” I say, and turn out the light.

* * * * *

Once, a few years into our marriage, my husband and I had an argument about travel. We had hoped to take a trip, but car problems and taxes and medical bills had strained our very limited resources. It seemed like a trip was out of the question and I was profoundly disappointed. At some point during the conversation Jonathan said to me, “I know you’re disappointed, but there will be other opportunities in the future. I don’t understand why you are so incredibly upset.”

And I said (as dramatically as it sounds), “Because this is the purpose of my life!”

And he said, “You can’t be serious. You basically just told me your life’s purpose is to take vacations.”

What I couldn’t articulate in that moment was that traveling is a deeply spiritual experience for me. Traveling moves me to worship in a way that nothing else does.

What does it mean that the mountains melt like wax in the presence of the Lord until you’ve stood at the top of a great and glorious mountain?

What does it mean that all of man’s accomplishments are like filthy rags beside God’s splendor until you’ve seen the Sistine Chapel or stood on the Great Wall of China?

Why does it matter that God is a father to the fatherless if you’ve never known the orphan?

How can you understand what it means that God holds the whole world in the span of his hand if you’ve never been outside your hometown?

What does it mean that heaven is filled with people from every tribe and tongue and nation if you’ve only known people from your own?

“The whole earth is filled with His glory,” cry the angels. I want my life to be about seeing and spreading that glory, even to the ends of the Earth.


* * * * *

Bio PictureAuthor Bio: “In Defense of Wanderlust” was written by Lily Ellyn Dunn. Lily was born and raised in South Louisiana, went to college in Illinois, started working in North Carolina, and currently lives with her husband in South Korea where she is a teacher by day, a writer by night, and an ice cream connoisseur all the time. Lily blogs about life, faith, and everyday grace at Find her on Twitter @lilyellyn

New Zealand photo credit to Jonathan Dunn