The Flower that Blooms in Adversity

I had predicted, before arriving, that I would hate Avenue Road in Toronto, just conceptually. I was correct, of course, because how are you meant to like a place with a name like that? Disgraceful.

But otherwise, I quite enjoyed my time in Toronto. Allow me to backtrack for a moment.

We finished parent conferences last Friday and, after a weekend of relaxing and hanging out, I headed south to Canada. The temperature was technically, though not noticably, warmer than Glen Arbor but I did note a distinct lack of snow on the ground–not just in the cities but in general, which was refreshing.

My first stop was in Waterloo, a bit outside Toronto, to visit a friend. We had some dinner, played some games, watched some Queer Eye. Very satisfying indeed. Having friends you see in person is pretty cool, I guess. (Plus also, the Airbnb in Waterloo had a cat and so that was a big positive).

The next morning, I drove onward to Toronto, approximately tied for most populous city that I have personally driven in. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. It does make me happy to drive a Prius but still sad that I have a car at all. It seemed much busier than any of the driving I’ve done in Chicago but I think I’ve just been miraculously blessed whenever I’ve driven there.

I spent most of the remainder of the day in the Royal Ontario Museum, which was delightful. Great collection of historical doodahs, dinosaur bones, and colorful crystals of various chemical makeups. I love a good geology exhibit. Ancient Egypt, of course, is always a joy to stroll through. Then I had dinner in a converted mansion, kind of a Sherlock Holmes/pub vibe which was neat.

Yesterday, I spent a great deal of time just wandering around. Saw some beautiful historical buildings around the University of Toronto, Ontario’s legislative building, some cool old churches, as one does. I also visited a public greenhouse and conservatory which was superb. I just hung out there for a while and read because it was warm and I was cold but it was also beautiful. Filled with gorgeous flowers heavily perfuming the air, a riot of color and scent and wonder. They were my first flowers of the season and so what if they were in a greenhouse.

I also saw the CN Tower but did not explore because why. And my third Great Lake, Ontario, which was great to see. Though the little islands right off the city kind of preclude good lake views, at least from what I saw along the waterfront. For lunch, I had a peameal bacon sandwich, and subsequently learned what peameal bacon is (I’m not telling, look it up yourself, apparently it’s a Toronto thing).

After a brief respite back at the Airbnb, I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario because they have free Wednesday nights! I got a discounted tickets to the special impressionist exhibition and had a good wander. I really appreciated their use of indigenous languages when taking about indigenous art and artists. I really enjoyed the Canadian artist Lawren Harris, just as an aside.

Tomorrow, it’s on to Ottawa, then Montreal, then Rochester, and back. I love this two week spring break: one week to go and do, and one week to stay and not do. It’s a great combination.

I have no big thoughts for you, other than that vacation is great and more vacation is even greater, this week. In particular, this vacation was really needed and so gratefully received.  I think my overall opinion, you know how I do, is that I wouldn’t live in Toronto. I mean, of the opportunity arose, I would be here in a heartbeat. But it doesn’t strike me as much as other places have. Perhaps another of my stops this week will. Perhaps not. The road, I am always hearing, goes ever on and on.

Snowdrifts and How Not to Be One

Here we are, the first full day of spring, following the equinox yesterday evening. Welcome, my friends. I am very much looking forward to the coming months. Though, even before those coming months, we have spring break beginning this weekend! And this school, being a fancy private sort of school, has two weeks off. Going to be great, can confirm. Even if it’s not great, it’ll be great.

The weather back home has had its moments of sun as well this week. The parentals sent this picture:

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Obviously, some furniture had to be moved in order to accommodate their needs for sun exposure. And sun napping, which I desperately wish I were able to participate in. I do so miss those kitties.

Don’t even get me started dreaming about reading in the sun. Oh Sun of Spring, warm us!

There remains some snow/slush/freezing temperatures in our forecast here in northwestern Michigan but, having officially started spring  yesterday, I feel confident that we are all on the up and up. Highs consistently topping 40°F. A great deal of melting has already occurred, revealing roadways and pathways and even some just plain ground. With the equinox solidly under our belt, true spring is only a matter of time. We’ve gotten some nice rain (you know I love a good rainy day) and some spectacularly comprehensive fog.

The thing is, there are still plenty of snowdrifts. Whether caused by ploughs or wind or who knows how else, the big piles of snow remain largely intact. Slightly smaller, from the sunny days we’ve had this week, but still pretty immobile. And they are dumb.

In the depths of winter, snowdrifts are still dumb, but they fit. Everything is snowy, some things are more snowy than others. It makes sense. It’s horrible when you’re walking along and suddenly the snow is two feet higher than the rest of the path but hey, che sera sera. The landscapes that they build make sense in a grand scheme. Some of these views of rolling farmland, antique farmhouses, barren trees all covered in a thick and glittering blanket of snow–it’s a strong yes from me.

But now we’re in spring. The ground is reemerging. Your snow is not wanted any longer. Get out. Go away. Get with the times.

If you’ll allow me a bit of personal unpacking for a moment. I’m a little contradictory on this front of change. I at once hate it and embrace it. If Facebook changes even one little thing, it’ll drive me up the wall. I wore essentially the same style shoe from maybe second grade until earlier this year. But I also didn’t really have any problem moving to a different continent twice, not knowing a single person.

Change as a concept aside, let’s talk about growth because this is definitely the season for it. I’m trying to be more conscious about how I want to be growing as a person. Not necessarily changing but taking who I am and refining and strengthening and committing. Most of the time, I’d rather just be an out-of-season snowdrift. But I’m working on it. And I’m telling you because working on yourself in secret makes it easy to just not.

I mostly eat decently, but I really want to commit to it. I’ve started exercising some but I really want to increase it. I’m trying to spend my time in more deliberate ways–not cutting down reading or Netflix or anything, but committing to a series, for example, and following through instead of just watching for a second when I’m bored. These are just a few examples of snowdrifts I’m trying to melt (I don’t care that I’m abusing that metaphor, it’s a metaphor and it can’t feel it).

All this to say: snow is beautiful, in its time, but when the air warms and the clouds part, let the sun shine in.

Kind

This week of vacation has been very pleasant for me. Mostly, I have done nothing, or nothing of note. I did take a quick trip to Cheboygan–or, let me rephrase, I drove three hours to Cheboygan, spent maybe forty-five minutes there, then drove three hours back through a bit of a snowstorm. Not much to see or do in Cheboygan, MI but I did get to look at Lake Huron which was the point.

Yesterday, had a lovely time seeing Ralph Breaks the Internet with friends, going to an Asian buffet (apparently the best in Traverse City, which is a tough time), and then eating the pumpkin pies I made and chatting the evening away. Very well enjoyed.

I don’t expect much in the way of happenings today, other than calling up relatives, as one does on Thanksgiving. I’m sure the video chat will be passed willy-nilly around and I won’t get dizzy at all. It’s cold outside (last night had a low of 14°F) and there’s plenty of snow on the ground so I’ll be tucked away inside all day and I’m perfectly content with that.

Anyway, a few quick thoughts on today that almost led me to title this post The Walk but I did not because while seeing another movie this week, this song was playing on repeat in my head and very nearly bringing me to tears.


The thing about me posting my blog on Thursdays is that I always post on Thanksgiving. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing. Trying to have good words for you on a holiday that I very much care about. Trying to think of things that feel as weighty as the premise of a holiday dedicated to giving thanks.

Words, however powerful, are only words. I do believe, strongly, in the strength of words. Actions, though, are the very substance of life. So on this day, and more frequently hereafter, may we not only give lip service to gratitude but may we allow our words of thanks to change us. May we not only say “Peace on earth” but also act as peacemakers. May we not only say “Love your neighbor” but also act in kindness to people different from ourselves. May we live out the things we say, and behave as though we believed in our own ideals.

This kind of sentiment is expressed well in the words of John F. Kennedy in his  Thanksgiving proclamation of 1963. I don’t really hold with the quasi-deification of the founding fathers, but I appreciate that it emphasizes the ideals toward which, in our best moments, we can strive.

Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers —  for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.

Decency of purpose. Why do we do what we do? Why are we who we are? I’m not sure, but I am thankful that each day is another chance to figure it out.

Reading and contemplating these sentiments, I am mindful of a line from 1 John: “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” In other words, may we not talk the talk but walk the walk.


Also this week, I went to see the movie Boy Erased. I have no eloquent words for it. It made me sad. It made me hurt. It was important.

It made me grateful for all I have, for the world that has changed around me, and for a knowledge of self and of God that leaves only room for love.

I am thankful that I am happy and whole. I am thankful that my God is kind. I am thankful that I am myself. In this time, I pray that you feel–beyond any doubt or fear or hurt or guilt–loved.

Ethical Quandary sans Quandary

Happy October, everyone. It’s no November but I guess it’s a decent month even so.

So this week is parent conferences, big thrills. The ones I’m involved with are tomorrow, we’ll see how that goes. But then it’s October Break! Because apparently that’s a thing here. A week off. I don’t feel like I’m really in need of a vacation and I suppose that’s a good thing, but I’m definitely not complaining. I have some plans but I’ll elaborate mostly after the fact next week. Should be nice.

And here’s an update on the princess, looking very regal with her arms crossed.

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Last week, I noted that I didn’t really have any musings for you and it looks like I’m making up for that by having some substantial space dedicated to it in this post. Prepare yourselves. Or don’t, you do you.

There’s a fabulous moment in the show Psych when the main character is naming the first books of the Bible. You know: Genesis, Exorcist, Leviathan, Doo… the Right Thing. It’s relevant, I promise.

When I studied abroad in Exeter, one of the classes I took was political philosophy. It remains the only philosophy class I’ve ever taken but it was super interesting. The format of the class was this: we examined one contemporary political philosopher (John Rawls) and responses to his major works. According to the professor (who was Scottish and had a lovely accent), the primary concern of political philosophy in the contemporary era was the question of justice. What is justice and how can it happen in the world.

To start with, we read a lot about how modern philosophers conceived of the creation of the state; its purposes and how those inform its operations. We talked about socialist critiques, libertarian theories, gender, multicultural lenses– all kinds of things.

One thing that I still remember pretty clearly was talking about this main libertarian guy. I won’t explain his who conception of the state and justice and all that, but basically it boiled down to a system that was very simple but absolutely impossible to bring into reality. And the professor asked us this: is his conception of justice wrong or just hard? It couldn’t happen in the world, problems with land ownership after colonialism and stuff like that. But the question still stands. Even if it’s impossible, it can still have merit.

So often and so easily, people and ideas are dismissed for being unrealistic. Certainly, there are good reasons for that sometimes. However, if ideas that weren’t readily applicable were never heard, there would only be the status quo forever. History is a varied fabric of the unthinkable coming to pass. Sometimes in terrible, unimagined darkness. Other times bringing fantastical, innovative light.

The sermon at church this past week was on ethics, how to think about them and how to live with them. In essence: it’s hard, but do good. It does not matter how many times we drive off the ethical road; the line it traces on the map does not change just because we are no longer following it. Some–many, even– ethical choices are hard. That’s why there’s a whole branch of academia devoted to thinking about it. The underlying motives, values, and beliefs don’t have to be.

It’s one thing to think ‘It’s hard to tell what the right thing is in this situation.’ It’s entirely different to think ‘I don’t care what the right thing is.’

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One element of the sermon’s description of ethics was thinking about how our actions benefit or harm those around us. Very utilitarian, though it was only one consideration among many. But I think we can agree that lust for personal power is generally unethical. Even when those people do good things. It’s like in The Good Place, it’s not enough to do good things, you should be doing them for good reasons. And apparently, we’ve abdicated our national social responsibility to hold people to that. Which is unfortunate.

I wanted to finish with some questions, as I am often wont to do here. Struggling to think of them, since I’m pretty medium at ethics. Do you think about ‘right’ when you make important decisions? When you make decisions that don’t seem that important? What’s the difference between nice and good? What role do you play in preserving harmful status quo by the operation of your ethics or lack thereof?

The world is a complicated place for ethical thinkers. As The Good Place amusingly depicts, constantly worrying about the morality of everyday choices will make you a nervous, incoherent wreck. I know I want to be more deliberate about thinking through the implications of my decisions–not just their consequences but their meaning, if that makes sense. But I’m also lazy and don’t want to go insane.

Hmm. Work in progress.

The Last Frontier

 

So on Monday afternoon, I got on a plane to Anchorage, Alaska because I was blessed with means and opportunity. I’ll be here until Saturday evening, just seeing some things worth seeing and trying out the whole Alaska thing. I’ll give you a quick rundown on what I’ve done so far and then leave you with a few thoughts.

Before we get to the Alaska stuff, though, the plane ride itself. Because I’d never had occasion to fly over the Olympic Mountains before and they were positively breathtaking. Turn, coming down over Alaska, more breath was taken as we descended over glaciers and water and sub-arctic forests.

On Tuesday morning, my friend (we planned this to together not quite spontaneously but still only a but ago) and I got caught in the rain walking to breakfast. We knew rain was in the forecast but were inexplicably confident it wouldn’t start until after we returned. Alas. Breakfast was wet. Then we rented a car and set out.

Driving along the Seward Highway, the rain continued pretty heavily and most of the landscape was fairly deeply obscured. Our first destination was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and as we approached, the weather started to clear up a bit.

The Center itself involved walking a little long among the various enclosures. Unlike a zoo, which is totally uncomfortable, the animals mostly are there for two reasons: they were wounded and unable to survive in the wild (like the bald eagle who had one entire wing amputated when they found him) or they are part of a conservation/reintroduction program. The major highlight was, of course, seeing my beloved mush oxen which remain and forever will remain my favorite animal.

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After stopping for lunch and a bit of shopping, we decided to continue on to Whittier. I really want to tell you the whole story of Whittier, Alaska, but I don’t think I’d be able to do it justice in this space. Suffice to say that the majority of the population of about 200 lives in a single building built for the army during the Cold War. The other building from that era is in ruins and is very creepy. Also, to get to Whittier, you must pass through a very long, one-lane tunnel which changes directions every half hour. It is quite an interesting place. That is all I can say about it.

Yesterday, we spent the morning exploring Anchorage a bit, the downtown if I may call it that. Some nice little shops, tasty food, lovely views. Then we headed up into the mountains (still within the city limits) for a hike that turned out to be much more of a hike than we anticipated. Tabletop Mountain starts fairly steeply but reasonably, but the last portion of the trail is truly just rock climbing and we weren’t about that life. The best part of the trail was that there was never not an excellent view.

 

Overlooking the city, the expanse of tidal flats, snowy mountains in the distance. No picture does it justice, alas.

Today holds a trip to Denali, the highest peak on the continent.

I’m not sure how I feel about Alaska, the so-called last frontier (we all know space is the final frontier so…). Obviously, it’s incredibly beautiful, beyond description or photography. But it’s also in perpetual danger because humans are trash, even when they live in such a place. In some ways, the state is politically progressive and in others very regressive. It’s plagued by social ills to a degree beyond most other states but it also fosters its people in unique ways. I honestly don’t know that much about it but it’s a weird place.

As always, I’ve contemplated if I would live here and it’s hard to say. For one thing, snow. For another, it’s been sixty and rainy pretty much this whole week, which doesn’t bode well for summers generally. And the politics. All that balanced with the Beauty of Nature and a kind of isolation, even in Anchorage, that I find appealing.

 

Either way, it calls for further study and I would very much like to come back and explore more. I require more data points. Come to Alaska (just don’t be trash about it).

Terra Cognita

Friends, it’s been an incredible week and I feel like I’m not going to be able to adequately describe it for you. But this would be a lousy blog indeed if I didn’t at least try.

On Saturday, I departed Seoul and headed out, after a short layover in Kuala Lumpur, to Sydney. I arrived in the evening and it had been raining all day. I was staying with a friend I met in the REC course in Ireland who lives in the city, and she picked me up. Straight away, she took me to the so-called Mrs. MacQuarie’s Chair (named after the wife of the first governor of New South Wales) for my first iconic view of Australia–a red-illuminated Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.

The rain continued pretty heavily through the night, so the next morning I decided to check off a few indoor activities. My friend lives quite in the center of the city, so it was a quick walk to the Australian Museum first thing. There were a number of beautiful and interesting artifacts, mostly from Australia and Oceania but also around the world. I learned some about Australian history, especially Aboriginal culture and modern treatment. There were also lots of animals, dinosaur bones, and a super cool mineral collection.

By the time I emerged, the rain had mostly cleared, so I took the opportunity to walk through Hyde Park and see all that’s there, including several neat statues (importantly one of Captain Cook) and a gorgeous fountain. Next, it was on to the State Library for a quick look at what I heard was a stellar reading room–it did not disappoint! Importantly, there was a monument outside to Matthew Flinders, an explorer, and beside it was a monument to his cat, Trim: “the most affectionate of friends, faithful of servants, and best of creatures.”

Then it was down the road to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. There was a special exhibition on featuring The Lady and the Unicorn, which I wanted to see. The gallery itself is in a wonderful building, as it ought to be, and the collection of Australian and international art was superb. The exhibit was super interesting, on a collection of medieval tapestries that are pretty mysterious but likely represent allegories of the six medieval senses (the sixth being that of the heart or reason).

Just cross the street from the gallery and you’ll be at the Botanical Gardens. Most of my Australian friends highly recommended it and, I’ll tell you now, I spent quite a bit of my limited time there. They were absolutely stunning. The trees, the flowers, the birds, the sun, the water. It was all pretty incredible. Pictures won’t do it, or the view, justice so you’ll just have to trust me unless you can see it for yourself.

After the gardens, it was back into the city a bit, around Cockle Bay and Darling Harbour and up an old quarry to see Anzac Bridge. I feel like I’ve written quite a bit and that was just day one but I’m not sorry and I’ll keep going.

Tuesday morning, I started relatively early to walk around a different part of town and over to Barangaroo Reserve, a lovely and relatively recently done bit of nature (not that Sydney is lacking nature). I walked around the water and across the Harbour Bridge for some more excellent views of the Opera House. Then I took the ferry (I love ferries) to Manly (supposedly so named for the very masculine aboriginals seen there by Europeans entering the harbor) for an afternoon at the beach (parenthesis parenthesis parenthesis). Manly is a wonderful and cute beachy town and I didn’t even get that sunburned!

I called it a day fairly early because that night I was due at the opera!! I had never been and I figured a world-famous landmark would be an appropriate place to see my first. It was Carmen and it was incredible though I had forgotten, spoiler alert, that Don José kills her! A terrific day and night.

On Wednesday, I met with another friend and we drove out to the Blue Mountains to see the Three Sisters. A stunning view over the valley and forest. Absolutely gorgeous countryside. We had planned on doing some more exploring but were running short on time so we just had lunch in a cute/wacky little café in Katoomba and then drove back. I left my friend in Newtown and walked back through a fun area filled with little shops and cafés and all sorts of neat places.

That night for dinner, the friend I stayed with took me to a pie place (the savory kind) apparently legendary among sailors. It’s right on the water near the naval base. So we had pies with mash and mushy peas before heading into the gardens for a deeply beautiful sunset over the city.

When I travel, I typically try to find the things that really annoy me so that I can get a balanced assessment of the place and think about whether or not I could live there. For Sydney, definitely the number one struggle would be the heat (it wasn’t even that hot for my time but I was Hot). But I think, after weighing as much information as I could, I would totally be willing to live in Sydney. So get me a job there or an Australian husband (because that’s a thing there now, yay) so I can get a visa ASAP.

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I’ve been blessed in my life to have a number of dreams come true, and the upcoming couple of weeks are going to be another one. Though in different ways and for different reasons than Croatia, I’ve long hoped to visit New Zealand and that’s where I arrived this afternoon. I’m very, very pleased to be joined by my sister and her boyfriend and we’ve quite an exciting itinerary planned. Stay tuned for adventures that will, in all probability, be beyond my description of them.

 

Long in City Pent

I kid you not, our guide on Jeju was a Russian from Vladivostok. His name was Viktor, which was also my name in Russian class. Obviously, I’ve gotten way ahead of myself but I had to tell you about him straight away since I was literally taking about Vladivostok in last week’s post. Anyway. Allow me to backtrack a sec for you.

This week I have some family visiting: my younger brother, step-mom, and her mom who is Korean but has been living in the US basically since the Korean War. So we’ve done a bunch of touristy things (including a number of things I’ve been meaning to do but had been to lazy to do alone). It’s been great so far.

We started on Monday with a pretty full schedule of running around Seoul and seeing as much as we could. We visited Gyeongbokgung Palace (the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty), a number of mountains around Seoul, Namdaemun market (where I had actually been before), and a variety of little sights around the city. Lots of driving. Like I said, very full.

Now they had booked an actual tour deal, but it was just us. This meant basically that we had most of our time fairly scheduled, but that we got a cool, personal guide. It is very different from how I usually travel–I also usually travel alone–but it was great. Our guide in Seoul is rad and it’s nice to have someone who knows where they’re going and can take you there witout much ado.

On Tuesday, we flew out to Jeju Island, which some have called the Hawai’i of Korea. It was absolutely lovely. As I’ve stated, our guide on the island was actually Russian, do that was neat. But mostly, Jeju is just wonderful. We visited natural wonders: waterfall, lava tube, cliffs, crater, beach ect. We also saw a wonderful temple (all the way from the 1980s!), historical governor’s palace thing, a stone park with lots of cool rocks and stuff, and a traditional folk village. We had some tangerines, for which the island is famous, and some fried chicken, for which it is not. I got sunburned (thankfully not too badly) and we climbed a mountain in torrential rain and strong wind.

Nothing we did was actually super impressive or absolutely amazing (not to disparage it at all) but the thing I loved most was just being out of Seoul. It was astounding how much I reveled in being surrounded by green. I guess not astounding because of course, but still. Sea breeze. Trees that are actually true green. Everything so, so lush. Driving along country roads with the windows down.

Everything was made of black volcanic rock. There were some columns that looked like a baby Giant’s Causeway, some cliffs that reminded me of Carrick-a-Rede. There was a crater on the coast that, from a distance, looked like Howth, even with the little low-lying isthmus connecting it to the main island. So basically I was in a hot, Korean Ireland.

I truly had a wonderful time there, in all the different weather. It really felt like a vacation. But I’ve just flown back from Jeju tonight, a couple hours ago, and I’m sort of pooped. So I’ll write more next week, I promise, and maybe include a few pictures. Tomorrow we’re going to the DMZ and I probably won’t say much about that, but we have a few more things to see on Saturday, and my brother and grandmother are leaving on Sunday and my step-mom is leaving on Wednesday.

Anyway. I know I talk a lot about city/nature but golly. I really needed this green. If you have green around you, please appreciate it on my behalf. I won’t be leaving Seoul (at least not for more than a day or two) until March. So read some Keats (that’d be the title) and nature as much as you can.