16 December 2012

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

I love that I can look at my blog stats and see that there are people who check in regularly even when I don't write for awhile. :) Love you guys!

So yes, I've been gone for a few weeks and the madness has finally lulled a bit. The Artisan Christmas Market went off with nary a hitch yesterday (raised over £480!), so I've finally had some time to recharge my batteries and catch you up on the holidays here. So, without further ado, here's a peek into the lead up to Christmas here in Belfast:

Christmas Dinners
I have been to several of these at this point. While there is variety in the setting or the people you're with, a few things stand out to me as constants: the menu and the crackers. At home, people might eat turkey or ham or goose or lamb or... whatever for their holiday meals. Here, you will most likely receive stuffing sandwiched between a slice of ham and a slice of turkey, brussels sprouts, carrots, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes and cranberry sauce. Sometimes cocktail sausages as well. Wrapped in bacon if you're lucky. Christmas pudding is always an option for dessert. I did find an entire tumblr dedicated to Christmas dinners in my search for a photo, but apparently people who post pictures of Christmas dinner on the internet haven't had the exact same meal I've been served 3 times (and offered the option of at least 4 others) in the past 2 weeks.

Close enough. Found on mychristmasdinner.tumblr.com
Notice at the top of the plate a Christmas Cracker. Everyone here is SHOCKED that I've never had one of these at Christmas (I did get one at NYE ~ 1995, though...). Inside will be a novelty toy, joke, and paper crown. You pull either side with a friend and the one who gets the bigger part wins its contents. I kind of rock at that part.

Sherrie rocks the moustache from her Christmas cracker
Paper crowns for everyone!

Christmas Jumpers
EVERYONE seems to think this is an American thing. I don't understand how this is possible since they are widely available in stores here and you have to scramble through Goodwill to find one at home, but still. I have been getting good use of mine this year. Also, I learned to call it a Christmas jumper rather than a tacky sweater... because many people do not consider these tacky and I may or may not have insulted someone with that statement (much like my aunt's festive vs. tacky debate last year). A small sampling of the opportunities I've had to wear this already (and it's only the 16th!):

Fortwilliam and Macrory staff dinner - How sweet,
Mark actually thinks his counts as a Christmas jumper...

The boys' Christmas jumper party

Christmas decorations
Belfast really does it up. The entire city centre is absolutely covered in twinkle lights. I haven't managed to get a good shot of the festivities, but Beth has:

Anna and I did manage to find some time to decorate our tree. I'll post more of our fab Christmas decor later...

I've had many people ask what I'll be doing for Christmas. I will stay here in Belfast. The YAVs have planned a Christmas movie night / sleepover this week, and we'll all have services at our own congregations in the days leading up to the 25th. On Christmas day I have been adopted by a family from church, so I'm looking forward to the craic that comes with a big family. Speaking of big family, there will obviously be skype involved as well... so don't worry, I'm being well looked after!

Until next time,

04 December 2012

I promise I'm still alive!

Hello everyone, just a heads up that it might be awhile til my next update. Christmas season has begun with a vengeance and I’ll be running around like mad for the next few weeks. Church life!

Some highlights:
  • Saturday was the church sale. I got a mug that says “We Love Grandma”. And yes, there is a picture of someone else’s family on it. Awesome. 
  • Last night was Fortwilliam and Macrory’s Carols for All service. It was a lovely service with a 30-piece band, choirs and readers from all over the community. 
  • This week at the Vine is our community Christmas dinner. This weekend is the staff Christmas party. Next week is our carol service... After programs end for the year, I’ll be working on putting together Christmas hampers for local families who need some help this holiday season. 
  • I am planning the first-annual Artisan Christmas Market on 15 December, which still requires loads of publicity and logistics. 

Add in other Christmas festivities and services, and I’m a busy lady for the rest of the month. There is also a very special Christmas present in the works for my Second Pres youth. Get ready!

25 November 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Participating in family holidays via Skype!
I had such a busy week, I've had to extend the holiday a bit longer to accommodate this post. I hope none of you will mind!

As I've mentioned in the past, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I always think it's important to take the time to be mindful of the many blessings in my life, and Thursday was no exception. In fact, I made a list before I even got out of bed. A few highlights:

Thankfulness list 2012
My family - always at the top of my list, because I love my family. Like an insane amount. Some might say this is because I live 4000+ miles away, but whatever. They have been so supportive of me on this journey, and I appreciate everything they've done - both to make it possible, and to shape me into the kind of person who would want to help people for a living. I've also learned that whether you're born, married or adopted (literally or figuratively), family is what (and who) you make it.

My other famil(ies) - my Second Pres family who show me such love and believe in me so much. My friends who rock my face off and I miss every day, my fellow YAVs both here and around the world who make me laugh when I'm having a hard day and get what it means to be spending Thanksgiving away from home. I wouldn't be here doing this work without your encouragement and support.

The opportunities I've been given to do God's work and explore His community - I love my job. My time as a YAV, and at the PC(USA) before that, has been really fulfilling. I'm not going to lie, I have days that are really challenging. But the people I've met along the way have made it worth it. The opportunities I get on a daily basis to make someone feel special or cared for - and having someone take a day out of their life to drive me up the coast, make a special Thanksgiving card because they know I'll miss my family, or even just remember my name make me feel accepted and appreciated. Even when they're mocking my accent.
Thanksgiving Tree at the Vine

For warm clothes, good food and clean water - I know I am really lucky. I have everything I need to live a happy, healthy life. I'm thankful for this.

For hot water - I have no idea why my just-awoken brain put this on the list, but I'll roll with it. Perhaps I was anticipating a shower, or appreciating my radiator and the hot-water bottle I sleep with. Maybe I just wanted a cuppa. I'm glad for it all the same.

For the beauty of God's earth - seriously, have you seen any of the photos I've posted in the last 3 months? This place is crazy-beautiful. It's not hard to be mindful of God's creation when you're surrounded by it!

There's more on my list, but I'll leave it at this. What are you thankful for this year?

19 November 2012

Northern Irish Hospitality

This weekend, I experienced the best of Northern Irish hospitality.

On Saturday I was treated to my first trip to the Giant's Causeway. Ann approached me at church last week and offered to take me out for the day with her husband, Roy. I gladly accepted!

My gracious hosts

That's Scotland in the distance!

Not only was the weather GORGEOUS (it only started raining when we were on our way home), but they then treated me to lunch at the Bushmills Inn, which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting the North Coast. Overall, the perfect day!

The next day I got a little more hospitality as I was invited to lunch by Sylvia and her husband, another Roy. We spent the afternoon together, talking and enjoying each other's company. This weekend made me glad for the opportunity to spend more time with people one-on-one. 

Oh yeah, and my schedule changed! I will now work on Tuesdays, freeing up my Saturday mornings for exciting day trips like this, and YAV-accompanied things like St. George's Market! I'm pretty psyched. It was starting to get a little lonely with no common free time.

Looking forward to:
  • Celebrating Thanksgiving with my Senior's Lunch group
  • ... and with the YAVs, at the Bakers' house (aka, Elaine cooks yummy food)!
  • My first Ulster Fry (again, to celebrate Thanksgiving)
  • Can you tell Thanksgiving is my favorite?
  • First BIG trip of the year: PARIS for New Years!

17 November 2012

Thank You Fund - Results!

Remember that Coca-Cola contest I asked you to vote for back in September?

We won €10,000 for our bike projects!

Thanks to Coke for believing in our vision, thanks to the staff members for making it happen, and thanks to all of you who voted for Fortwilliam and Macrory!

11 November 2012

A Lifetime of Change

I will interrupt this week's planned rehash of Belfast-ness for a moment to talk about the Young Adult Volunteer program. It's coming up on application season for 2013-14, which means it's been a year since I walked into the YAV office to let E. know my decision to apply for "a year of service for a lifetime of change".

What a whirlwind these past 365 days have been!

The decision to take a completely different path in my status quo was difficult for me, but definitely the best choice I've ever made. The PC(USA) has recently renewed its dedication to Young Adults by challenging the YAV program to triple its size and scope in the next five years. This means it's easier than ever to join this wacky YAV family, and to find a program that suits your passions. To do this, they have made a few changes to the program that I'm really excited to share:
  • Additional site placements in Boston, Peru, Philippines and South Korea. Work in each site generally focuses on the major issues in that city or country - like Northern Ireland's dedication to peacemaking and reconciliation, Boston's food justice program, root causes of poverty in Peru, education in South Korea, border policies in Tucson, urban ministry in Miami, Chicago, Hollywood and others.... a complete list of sites and their work can be found here
  • Lower funding requirements! This year I was blessed to have amazing support from family, friends and members of my congregation to raise the $8000 required for International service. Next year, funding requirements will be cut in HALF - meaning $4000 for an International site and just $3000 for a National site placement.
Becoming a part of this YAV family (which, if you'll notice, is the only way I refer to this group) has been incredible. When I walked into the placement event back in March, I felt for the first time that I had found "my people" - goofy and fun with a heart for the Lord.

This program has been in place for almost 20 years, which means they KNOW what they're doing. Discernment and placement events ensure that the best fit is attained for both the candidate and site, and I was completely prepared at orientation for the upcoming challenges of mission service. 

International Placement Event at LPTS - March 2012
Orientation at Stony Point - August 2012
Things you should know if you're considering the program:
  • Young Adult Volunteers are between the ages of 19-30. Sometimes you need to be 21 for specific / international sites, but they even accept second-career old fogeys like me.
  • The Louisville office is there to help you make the best decision for you, and to ensure you're in the right place. I had the benefit of proximity, but they were SO helpful when I started the discernment process.
  • You don't actually have to be a Presbyterian. You will be doing the work of the church, but the PC(USA) partners with other denominations to do their work around the world. Members of this year's YAV group alone come from the PC(USA), Methodist, Mennonite and Catholic churches. 
  • I'm sure it's obvious, but: I am always happy to answer questions about my journey. Feel free to email me any time!
Courtesy Jeff Moles (@jeffmoles)

10 November 2012

Foreign Politics

I know this may come as a surprise to you, but I have never liked to discuss politics. I have dear friends on both sides of the aisle, I know how I feel about key issues and I'm always willing to hear about others' opinions, but please just don't ask me about mine thankyouverymuch.

So then try to spend an important election cycle in a foreign country. Every week since I've arrived in Belfast, someone has asked me how I feel about the election, whether I'd voted or who I voted for. They all had an opinion, and they just didn't understand that I didn't want to talk about my choice. In the process, I learned so much about foreign perceptions of America and its politics. It encouraged me to stay involved in the election after my ballot was cast, mostly because these people don't even live in the US and they were completely absorbed in the process and its outcomes.

Election night in our living room:
well-stocked on caffeine and snacks!
On election night, Anna and the guys stayed up for the duration... well, at least until the election was pretty securely decided - which was almost 5 am our time. I woke up occasionally and hobbled* downstairs for updates, but was fine with sleeping rather than watching reporters speculate wildly about election results.

I don't know why I was surprised to go into work the next day and hear that many people I know in Belfast did the same thing: while people in America may be disenfranchised with voting, it's incredible to realize how important the US elections are to others. Everyone from young mothers in Mums and Tots to pensioners from my weekly lunch group were staying up all night to hear the results of a foreign election.

Living abroad definitely opens your eyes as you see your culture through a different lens. I think explaining the system to others has helped me to appreciate the democratic process more fully. Who knows? I might even have a political discussion with you someday....

*I have now had my first real experience with the NHS (National Health Service). Long story short: I am a klutz. I sliced my toe, and it was gross. A quick trip to the clinic and a round of antibiotics later, and I am limping along the road to recovery. But still a klutz.

08 November 2012

Peace and quiet (retreat days 3 and 4)

After the first two crazy-long posts about our retreat, I thought I'd give you a break and do a quick roundup of the rest of the retreat...

The 3rd day of the retreat was just a chill day at home. I napped while the others went into the city, but otherwise it was more of the glorious same: sit by fire, play cards, cook food, read and repeat. It was Halloween, though - and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I bummed around the house in the festive socks and earrings sent to me by my darling nieces. The boys conned us in to watching Cabin in the Woods that night by saying it was not really a scary movie. I beg to differ. Joss Whedon was the only reason I watched it at all, and the concept was interesting... but I maintain that with that much blood and jumpy-outy things, that's a scary movie.

Our last day of retreat began by packing up our little (big!) house and heading back to Murlough National Nature Reserve for the Bathgate group's Bible Study (we visited it for the first time during orientation), so it was nice to have a place feel familiar.

This time, the tide was high, and the sound of the waves beating the rocky shore made for a peaceful time of personal reflection. A nice end to our first retreat. 

And end it did. We arrived home to the realization that by turning off our boiler while we were gone, the gauge went crazy and we were now without hot water. Which heats our showers AND our radiators. So that was a fun re-entry to reality. Thank goodness for a quickly-responsive landlord!

07 November 2012

I lift my eyes up to the mountains (retreat day 2)

Oh look at that, brave souls! Checking out day 2 of our retreat after such a long post about day 1!

Our second day in Co. Down began at a monastery. Yes, cathedrals and monks aside: I promise we're still a part of the PC(USA)! Doug is good to remind us that sometimes, while working day-to-day in a congregation, it is helpful to experience other traditions to remind ourselves to take a break and experience the Divine amid our daily struggles.

So yeah, back to the monks. They welcomed us for a question-and-answer session before their daily Eucharist service. This was definitely my first conversation with a monk, and Brother Thierry was very kind and patient with all of my questions. We learned about their daily life, the Call that brought them from France to Northern Ireland, and the long journey from arriving in the country in 1998 to opening their monastery in 2004.

That square of buildings in the middle is the monastery
And then there was the service. Oh my goodness, the chanting. It was phenomenal. I just closed my eyes and soaked it all in.

BONUS! in searching their website for photos (since I didn't take any), I just found a webcam. These are some awesome monks. Check back at one of their times of prayer!

That afternoon was slated for the infamous YAV hike. Apparently some of the others had heard stories of grueling treks and lost volunteers in prior years, so I went into this experience with a full water bottle, lots of layers and my brand-new hiking shoes (I learned after our Cave Hill excursion that I liked hiking, but my existing shoes were not appropriate for the task).

We climbed to the famous Mourne Wall, and the view on the other side was beautiful. It is no surprise that this view inspired C.S. Lewis to write the Chronicles of Narnia!

After all the hype, no one was lost and the trail wasn't that steep... but OH, WAS IT MUDDY. After the initial shock of dirtying my pretty new shoes wore off, I marched into puddles with abandon. Which came back to bite me when I accidentally stepped into a "puddle" that swallowed me up to my hip - oops! It was pretty hilarious, and I thank God for waterproof trousers and Gore-Tex boots!

For the Love of Saint Patrick (retreat day 1)

So, I'm a little behind on posting ... it's been a busy 10-ish days!

When I left you last, I was preparing to spend 4 days on retreat with my fellow YAVs. We had a great time! We began by heading from Belfast to Armagh, which is the seat for both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. Both denominations have Cathedrals, both named St. Patrick's, in the city. Fun fact: this gives Armagh the honor of being the only city in the world with two cathedrals of the same name!

St. Patrick's Cathedral
(Church of Ireland)
Our first stop was St. Patrick's (Church of Ireland). We were welcomed by Rev. Grace Clunie from the Centre for Celtic Spirituality (an ecumenical mission project of the church), who gave us a tour of the Cathedral. We learned about the history of Armagh, as well as the church site - the hill where this church is located has been a holy site for over 1500 years. Originally a site for pre-christian tribal worship, St. Patrick founded his first stone church in Ireland here in 445.

Grace also taught us about Celtic spirituality, which draws its inspiration from the early prayers of the Celtic world. I could paraphrase the brochure, but since this is already looking like a post of epic length (even after breaking the retreat into several posts), I will direct those interested in learning more directly to the site for the Centre for Celtic Spirituality.

Stained glass featuring
Ferdomnach of Armagh
with Sts Brendan, Brigid,
Patrick and Columba 
After the tour, we spent some time in the practice of Celtic prayer, which focused on awareness of the sacred presence in this place. It was a great way to begin a retreat, especially one that would take place in such beautiful surroundings as the Mourne Mountains. We were even able to share the YAV tradition of Psalm 139.

I will include a few excerpts of our worship below:

Affirmation of Faith
I believe, O God, that you are the eternal Creator of life.
I believe, O Christ, that you are the eternal source of love.
I believe, O Holy Spirit, that your presence fills the universe.
I believe, O Holy Trinity, that you created my soul and formed all my days. Amen.
St. Patrick's (Catholic)

Final Prayers

Circle us Lord, keep light and love within, keep danger without. 
Circle us Lord, keep childlike trust within, keep fear without. 
Circle us Lord, keep health and peace within, keep dis-ease without. 
Deep peace of the quiet earth. Deep peace of the flowing air. 
Deep peace of the ocean's depth, deep peace of the God of peace. Amen.

After sharing a meal (and some great discussion) with Grace, we headed to ... St. Patrick's (Catholic).

We didn't get a formal tour here, so it was more of a self-guided affair. We spent our time here just soaking in the intricate mosaic work and gorgeous stained glass. There is something about a Catholic church that hits all your senses, and just walking through in silence was a profound experience.

This building was not as old as the Anglican cathedral, but also claims a link to Saint Patrick. The story of St. Patrick and the fawn ends at this spot, known as Tealach na Licci (Sandy Hill), which is considered a prophetic reference by the Saint to the second cathedral built in his name. I was glad for the opportunity to explore both of these historic cathedrals during our visit.

We left Armagh and headed to our rented house in Mayobridge, Co. Down. We took a moment for excitement over the presence of the elusive BATHTUB, and rooms were quickly assigned. We went for a walk before dinner, where a few of us realized our true potential as sheep-whisperers. I know you were worried that I might not get this on film, but never fear:

I know, you're impressed. 

We spent the rest of the evening in front of the fire, reading and playing card games. It was pretty much how we spent all free moments of the week (that we weren't sleeping), and pretty much exactly what I needed.

Anna and I were in charge of that night's Bible Study, so I leave you with this:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; Yours are the only hands with which he can do his work, Yours are the only feet with which he can go about the world, Yours are the only eyes through which his compassion can shine forth on a troubled world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
-Teresa of Avila

28 October 2012

All that... and a bag of chips!

Doug is taking the YAVs to the Mourne Mountains this week for our first retreat! Since we'll be away for Halloween, we used T.J.'s birthday as an excuse to dress up!

Anna as Henri, the French Existentialist Cat
Teej with the E. Belfast girls (we missed you, Courtney!)
From this picture, everyone looks surprisingly uncostumed.
T.J.'s friends from Woodvale.
Also known as Best Costumes meet Worst.
Yes, it's his birthday and I called his costume the worst.

I do not know what I would do without
a working single mummy and static cling in my life...
These boys are ridiculous.
All that and a bag of chips!

23 October 2012

Two months in...

I can't quite believe it, but as of this morning, I have been in Belfast for two months! I've done a lot since arriving...

  • Proved to myself that I could move to a foreign country
  • Dipped my toes in the Irish Sea
  • Mastered public transportation
  • Made countless new friends and acquaintances
  • Voted by absentee ballot
  • Explored a new city and began to learn about its historical impact
  • Hosted my first guests
  • Successfully planned (and executed) various lesson plans
  • Climbed Cave Hill
  • Tried all sorts of disgusting-sounding potato chip flavors
  • Taken time each day to notice and appreciate my surroundings
  • Kissed a fish
  • Become proficient at picking out American accents in the vicinity
  • Learned how to lock my front door!
  • Rid our apartment of mice (I hope)
  • Discovered a deep love of Tunnock's Tea Cakes
  • Learned to understand (most) local accents and expressions
Of course, it's not all sunshine all the time... I still have challenges and frustrations as I adapt to this new culture. I will say that besides the obvious people, the things I miss most are the clothes dryer and my Grasshoppers CSA subscription. I also miss my car, especially when walking home after buying groceries!

I have a few longer blog posts I'm still formulating in my head, but I wanted to check in and let you know I'm still alive and well! 

Until next time, 

13 October 2012

A break from the busyness

Double rainbow - what does it mean?!
Today was good.

David agreed to take me on the Cave Hill hike I missed a few weeks ago, and the weather was perfect for the trek. Apparently my daily walk to work hasn't been quite as taxing as I'd hoped, because I found myself to be quite out of breath on the way up! While my body is exhausted and empty this evening, my spirit is full. Today was just what I needed.

For those who don't know, Cave Hill is a prominent feature visible from most of Belfast. The outcropping of rock resembles the profile of Napoleon, tri-corner hat and all, and is said to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. It is just about 2 miles from our house, but this was the first time I'd made the trip.

It was so refreshing to be out in nature. The scenery is gorgeous, and reminded me what is so special about the place that I now call home. I've been so bogged down in bus schedules, difficult interactions with young people at work, rainy days and late nights in the office, that I forget to take a look at the wider picture and appreciate what is around me. I didn't get any photos of the more foresty bits of the trail, but just picture Fern Gully meets Never Never Land. The wind rustling in the leaves reminded me to breathe for the first time in weeks.

About halfway up. We're going to the very top!


My mind wandered most of the way up the trail. Every challenge I encountered became a symbol of things I've been struggling with for the past few weeks: the feeling of helplessness as I couldn't find my footing in the slick mud, my initial unwillingness to get my hands dirty. The difficulty I find in admitting my weaknesses and reaching out for (or accepting) a friend's hand to pull me up. Thankfully, David was a patient guide, letting me stop often to catch my breath (under the guise of taking a photo) and take my own sweet time getting up the path.  

Surprise rain storm!
I may have labeled today's post under "small victories" - but I think overall, reaching the summit was much more than that for me today. The gift I have been given, allowing me to spend this year in a place that feels so close to the divine, should not be forgotten. I need to take more time to enjoy the journey!
View from the top

I've sung in mountain cathedrals, with steeples rising high. With altars made of evergreens and windows made of sky...