US Trip

Sleepless in Seattle!

My family seemed to go into melt down the evening before I left – Thomas, who is 12, very hormonal and on the autistic spectrum ended up sobbing on and off for most of the evening. This had nothing to do with his mother abandoning him for 10 days and everything to do with the fact he had lost all his game history for ‘Angry Birds’ on the i-pad. For a non-geek like me, his real abject misery at the malfunction of an electronic game was hard to comprehend.

Alongside Thomas’ distress, Hannah was in drama queen mode at her mothers imminent departure and Dave was simply exhausted and depressed by life in general, and redundancy and wife’s abandonment specifically. Sammy, as usual, was in happy autistic oblivion. I couldn’t decide what to feel, and alternated between guilt at leaving them all and excitement at this chance to run away from it all.

Now I am here, leaving the chaos behind, it feels wonderful to inhabit some space that is just for me. Space that does not have to be shaped and adapted to the needs of my children. The journey was long, but easy. There were no children to be entertained, when the plane was delayed and our plans entirely changed, there were no autistic kids in total melt down to negotiate with. To be responsible for just me for a while is a great liberation – but when I see them on Skype I am glad it’s only 10 days.

We are staying with Ned and Jeanette who are part of the Church of the Apostles and offer hospitality in their home in a self contained room they call ‘The Hermitage’. We should have been arriving tonight (Saturday) but because of the delay in New York we ended up flying directly here and Ned, wonderfully, picked us up from the airport a day earlier than he (or we!) had expected.

After 24 hours of travel Emily (who is travelling with me) and I were exhausted – we also didn’t have our luggage. We had been given the option at New York of either going directly to Seattle with our bags following the next day or going to San Francisco with the very high probability that we would miss our connecting train to Seattle. In a slightly jet-lagged and giggly state in New York we each bought some ‘I love NY’ PJs and opted for the direct flight to Seattle.

I love New York PJs!

We both slept deeply and woke ridiculously early (5.30am!) By 8am we were starving so decided to head out and explore the Fremont district of Seattle where we were staying.

Sabbaticals are such hard work!

It is an arty area full of unusual sculptures; an enormous troll under the nearby bridge and a statue of Lenin brought back from one of the former Soviet Block countries were this mornings sightings!

Lenin in Seattle!

As the morning haze cleared we had spectacular views of the snow-caped mountains in the distance. We had breakfast in a bakery that prided it’s self on having vegan, gluten-free and organic cakes – it was like being back in Brighton! It was one of those great coffee houses with the most eclectic range of brews – Emily (rather foolishly) had a ‘matcha’ tea with soya milk which was a vibrant green colour and rates as the most disgusting drink I have ever tasted (photo below!) – the cakes were fantastic though!

Emily’s matcha tea!

Chatting to Ned and Jeanette when we got back I am beginning to have a sense that COTA (Church of the Apostles) is in a time of real change at the moment. Karen, who was their influential pastor for many years, has recently left and the question of structures, leadership etc becomes more pertinent. They have also started a fortnightly morning service aimed mostly at those with families and maybe the more mature members of the community.

We are going to meet more of the COTA community this evening as we are gate crashing a birthday party (please let my luggage have arrived so we have clean clothes!!!) Tomorrow we will be going to the afternoon service (wrong week for the morning one) and then joining people for the community meal that follows. At the moment I am just going to enjoy this beautiful roof terrace with a spectacular view of the city – boats, sea, buildings – and the sun is shinning!

Travelling light!

The strange thing about having lost our luggage (it is apparently due to arrive this afternoon) is that you realise how little you really need – my Net Book, some books, toothbrush and a clean pair of knickers! I packed so much and all I really want is my ‘Flip’ (so I can record some interviews) and some clean clothes. I could have easily packed all I needed in my hand luggage, instead I have a huge rucksack full of a whole range of outfits that will never now get worn!

Today it has rained all day and we have spent our time moving from diner to coffee shop with brief forays into the Sunday flea market where we bought an eclectic selection of presents for people at home. A 1950s doll in a bridal dress was my most eccentric purchase – but I think Hannah will love it!

At times I feel as if I am in my 20s again and off travelling the world with no ties – squeezed in a small double room with Emily and our random selection of things is reminiscent of youthful days when travelling light – both emotionally and physically – was what I did.

But I don’t travel lightly any more – I carry my family with me in a real, deep gut way. Sometimes it is tempting to think how wonderful it would be to walk away from all the complications of family life; the demands, the compromises. But they make me who I am, they are part of the me who is stepping out and inhabiting this different space for a while and as they wave and smile at me on Skype I know I would never want to travel light again.

Cathedral Compline

Our last few days in Seattle were great and my reflections on COTA will be up on the blog in a day or so. Our luggage finally arrived and I had, as expected, brought far too many clothes.

Pike Market, Seattle

We had a day in Seattle where we wandered around Pike Market buying gifts for home (3 giant sized ‘Gummy Bears’ for my children, and a ‘grow your own Jesus’ for Dean).

Seattle sky-line

We wandered along the waterfront as the sun came out and the clouds lifted to reveal the spectacular snow-caped mountains in the distance. The Olympic Sculpture park was full of quirky and fun installations; a metal tree, a giant stone eye. And once again much time was spent in coffee shops chatting and watching the world go by.

Emily in a coffee shop!

On Sunday evening, after the service at COTA, Ned kindly took us to St. Marks Cathedral in the centre of Seattle for late night (9.30pm) Compline. The Cathedral is a large modern building – a concrete square is how Ned described it! Inside it was lit with low lighting and beautiful colourful drapes hung, as if from a maypole, across the central nave filling the vast and empty space above.

Seattle Cathedral

But what was remarkable about the evening was not the building but the 100s of young people who were in the Cathedral, at least 300 by the end of the service. They had come with their blankets and pillows and were sat at the front around the altar, some lying behind, many at the side of the Cathedral and then some, like us, in the pews. The atmosphere was quiet but expectant. From the side, a robed, and somewhat elderly, choir processed in. They made their way to the back of the Cathedral and from the back, unaccompanied, sang the most beautiful (and very traditional) Compline. The congregation listened intently as their voices echoed wonderfully around the building. While there was little obvious involvement, beyond the the whole congregation standing as the creed was said, but it was in no sense a concert. There was a prayerful sense of participation throughout that reminded me of the atmosphere in Taize.

On our way!

Emily and I have both experienced the joys of long train journeys in India – the slow progress of the train, the crowded berths, the delicious trays of food ordered at one station and delivered at another, the sellers at the station crying their wares through the train. But our journey from Seattle to San Francisco by sleeper train was train travel in a whole different league, and I loved it!

Welcomed by our own stewardess with a complimentary (small!) bottle of champagne. We had our own small room with endless free coffee and comfy chairs that would later transform into immaculate beds. Reservations in the dinning car for lunch and dinner, a lounge car with wi-fi and cheese and wine tasting if we wished.

Travelling in style!

But what I loved the most (which is what I loved on those ‘oh so different’ long distance Indian trains) was the sense of simply being, with no expectations or demands, combined with the endlessly changing countryside.

We started along the coast with sea and boats and children playing on the shore, then through the classic American towns with the train horn hooting. As dusk came we wound up into the mountains, snow appeared in patches, rushing streams broke through and the snow dusted fir trees made us feel as if we had arrived in Narnia. It was magical! To both simply be and to journey at the same time – that is the best thing about train travel!

San Francsico days!

The sun shone for us on our tourist days in Berkeley and San Francisco. We wandered around the green and spacious campus at Berkeley with it’s abundance of trees and tame red squirrels – I am afraid Keele just didn’t quite match up!

Berkeley Red Squirrel

I caught up with my nephew and enjoyed numerous cups of coffees. We took the BART (very comfy underground) into San Francisco proper and turned into true tourists – Emily wandering happily while I was obsessively map reading.

Ruth & Joe

We spent the day enjoying different forms of transport; a 1950s cable car (but not the tourist one) that took us up to St Mary’s Cathedral, a modern Catholic Cathedral with impressive light architecture that rather than having the usual phallic steeple was rather feminine in look (or is that just me and Emily!?)

St Mary's Cathedral

We then crammed into the proper tourist cable car and happily jolted down the steep hill to the sea along with an assortment of other tourists.
Emily and Cable Car!

At Fisherman’s Wharf I persuaded Emily to join me on a small boat ride out to the Golden Gate Bridge and round Alcatraz – my favourite part of the day, and probably Emily’s least!

Emily at sea!

We held on tight as the spray from the waves covered us in a salty film, the Golden Gate Bridge was impressively silhouetted against the soft blue of the late afternoon sky and now and then a seal would pop up to say hello.

The Golden Gate Bridge

The generosity of strangers, distant relatives and friends of friends has been the hallmark of this trip. There has been the practical generosity; lifts from stations, maps for sight seeing, comfy beds and clean towels. My ex-sister in-law (who I hadn’t seen in at least 15 years) meeting us early in the morning at Emeryville station, taking us for breakfast and then on a breathtaking drive up through Berkeley to where we were staying. Tracey and Jim, friends of friends who opened their beautiful home to us and took us out to a Jazzy Cajun restaurant. Breakfast on their balcony looking out to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco below was magical.

But there has also been the generosity of time and self-giving. I had e-mailed strangers asking to meet and talk to them about their Church, their community, their way of life and they responded by sharing with me in conversations and hospitality. I have enjoyed the tourist bits on this trip, but what I have really enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) is meeting people who are inspiring, generous and challenging, and seeking in their place to discover what it means to follow Jesus.

Staying with the Hobbits!

It is Sabbath morning at Church of the Sojourners; the sun is shining, coffee is brewing and the house is peaceful and calm. How different from Sabbath mornings at Keele marked by frenetic activity both at home and at Chapel. (I suspect the houses with children are somewhat less quiet!)

Sunday mornings until 11am at the Sojourners are Sabbath times when everyone is encouraged to take time to be quiet, to reflect, to read, to prayer (and currently in my case write!) The worship gathering isn’t until 4.30pm, interesting to be with another, very different community, that worships in the afternoon and not the morning.

Before we arrived on Friday afternoon to stay with the Church of the Sojourners we met for lunch with Mark Scandrette, a writer, a speaker, and founder of Reimagine, a new exciting movement/emerging church based (but spreading) in San Francisco. He had suggested a quirky Latino place with fantastic food where we sat for a good hour talking, listening and being inspired by someone who had a real passion for making the way of Jesus real and transforming for people’s lives. More on that meeting on another page.

When Mark heard we were going to stay with the Sojourners he laughed and said they were great friends of his but that he liked to call them the Hobbits! Gentle people who liked best to stay in their ‘shire’ (the four community houses). Over these last few days I can see how well the name fits, remembering also that in ‘Lord of the Rings’ it is, in the end, Hobbits who are the true heroes exhibiting the greatest bravery and commitment to each other. There is much to write about the Sojourners, and most I will save for a separate page.

We are at the end of our trip, this time away, and I have such a mixture of feelings. I am so looking forward to being with my community, my family again, the people who I have committed to. But equally this has been a space to rediscover me again, a me that can get lost in what at times can be the relentlessness of parenting and the all consuming nature of ministry.

Yesterday we went to the Museum of Modern Art to a fantastic exhibition from the beginning of the 20th century. There were paintings by Picasso, Renior, Mattise, Cenzane and many I did not know. It was like drinking deeply from a long cool drink after being thirsty for a long time. Afterwards we found our way to a rooftop bar and looked out over the city and talked, and laughed and reflected on what this time away has meant to us both.

Last night out!

One of the threads of thought weaving through this trip has been the way that God calls different people to different things and that discernment is crucial (although learning contentment in that calling is maybe even more important!) Tim, who welcomed us to Sojourners, said they were the ‘stay at home mums’ of the Christian community. There to nurture, to care, but frequently undervalued compared to the ‘out-there’ groups. Mark spoke of Reimagines role in being with people who have lost all faith in the Church but who are still interested in Jesus. We are called to different ministries, to different people and communities.

I would like to be the pioneer, the visionary, the innovator – but maybe I undervalue the equal calling to the care and nurture of those around me. The Sojourners emphasis the value of long term commitment to a community of people and to a place, that is deeply challenging to our constantly mobile society. But I equally wonder about the times and seasons in our lives which can lead us to be called to different places and people and the way that new, less nurtured gifts can grow and develop and sometimes need new space to flourish.

I go home tomorrow feeling full; full of new ideas for worship, for community, for what it means to follow the way of Jesus today. Full of generous hospitality (and the half stone in weight that accepting that hospitality has involved!) Full of experiences that make me feel alive, of new sights and sounds and people. And full of love and longing for my ‘tribe’ at home who remain at the heart of my calling.


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