Once Upon a Time in Italy


There’s a picture that hangs in my bedroom. It’s one of those photos which gets more detailed, more rich, the longer you look at it. At first, it’s simply a view of an alley between two buildings. They are stone, very rough and old. Some of their windows are bricked up, others covered with shutters. There are two heavy metal lanterns hung over the alleyway. The alley soon turns into stairs which carves between the buildings and down to a path, which extends through trees to more, smaller houses farther away, then to cypress trees, and then the picture fades into the greens and browns of the countryside, where a little ridge of bluish mountains just barely blocks the horizon. Your eyes double back to the beginning, and you pick out the little tray of blue paint in one doorway, the bright green of a fence, the flaming red of a bush and deeper orange of a roof. Soon your eyes are at the horizon again, at the wispy bluish ridge of hills, and finally up to the cloudy sky marbled with blue.

My cousin Ian took this photo and had it put on a canvas as a wedding present to me and Alex. He took it in Assisi, Italy, going on five years ago when I joined a group from Ian’s school on a two-week tour of Italy, Austria, and Germany. Assisi was the third day of our trip, and it was the first day I actually enjoyed.

When we flew into Rome two days after Christmas, I was already tired and jetlagged. I had never taken such a long flight before. We got to the Rome airport and had a few hours to kill before our bus picked us up, and I was starving so much I ate some really bad pasta. Truly, truly terrible. I thought, hey, it’s Rome; they can’t get pasta wrong, right? Wrong. My mom literally makes better pasta, and she’s not Italian at all. Maybe they should have American moms of Irish descent working at the Rome airport.

But I digress. That first night in Rome, I threw up about three times, and I went down to breakfast the next morning, gagged at the sight of a croissant, and told Ian I was going back to bed. He very sweetly delivered me some bread and jam before they all left on the day’s sightseeing, and gave me the phone number of the nearest pizza place in case I miraculously desired Italian food again. And then I was alone in a strange hotel, in a foreign city, with nothing to do because the internet wasn’t working and I only had one book.

So I cried for my Irish mom who made better pasta than the schmucks at the Rome airport.

At one point, the maid tried to come in to clean up the room, so I had to turn her away apologetically. Thankfully, “no” is no in Italian too. But I didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry,” because I’d prepared more for the German leg of the trip, so I just shrugged and looked as ill as possible. Then I spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating croissants and jam. At one point I went out on the balcony and took in the balmy, sunny weather of a December day in Rome. And something about that smell of warmth in the air made it a little better. Nice days smell very similar, no matter where you go in the world.

The next day, we packed up our bus and drove north. A long bus trip is probably the worst thing you can do after being sick off bad Italian airport pasta. I felt woozy and wobbly, and stared out the window as far to the horizon as I could. Ian kept me supplied with croissants and sour gummy candy. Soon the stucco and dirt of the city were swaddled by the blanket-like countryside, small and massive scraps of farmland stitched together with lines of cypress trees. We passed villas and cottages and forests and rivers, and it was everything you imagine when you read the storybooks.

At some point in the afternoon the land became more hilly. We went through a village which looked too fragile to let a big tour bus go through it, and we charged up a hill which was suddenly swarmed with more cars we’d seen all day, and we parked in a lot full of tourists. I wondered if they too had tried the bad airport pasta.

“We’re here! This is Assisi,” our guide said.

A parking lot full of tourists. This would be Assisi. I wanted to go back to the bus and sleep with my croissants. But true to my nature, I followed the rest of the group as we alighted a very modern-looking, a very long, staircase that led up the hill. Despite my wobbling knees and aching head and sloshing stomach, I followed the mob of fellow tourists. (Side note: I’ve read that based on my personality, I’m susceptible to cults. Who knew.) When we finally got to the top, there was nothing but a driveway leading further up the hill. Oh, lovely. My favorite thing is to document driveways around the world. This would be an excellent addition to my collection. But the mob pressed on, and up the driveway we went.

And suddenly, the driveway became cobblestone, and suddenly, it led through a tawny stone gate with opened doors. And as the mob of tourists floated through with cult-susceptible me in tow, it was like another world opened up on the hill, and it was bigger and more beautiful than it seemed it could be. Suddenly I was surrounded by stone houses and cobblestone streets and colorfully-painted doors and alleys pancaked on each other and stairs leading up to gardens or down to shadows. This was Assisi.

Hundreds of tourists were all packed into this little, ancient city, yet it seemed there was more than enough room for us all. The place was bigger on the inside. We were only there for an afternoon, but I don’t think we could’ve seen it all even if we spent our entire two weeks there. Despite the hubbub, the tourists and the Christmas lights and shops selling cheap mementos, I felt like I was back in time, or out of time, and it was a giddy feeling. My headache mellowed. My knees were stronger.

At lunchtime our group broke off to find food, and Ian and I stepped into a little sandwich shop and got paninis with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. We ate outside in a courtyard where small, shiny Fiats and BMWs occasionally came through, honking at the droves of tourists. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the sky was marbled with blue, and little mists of rain mixed with the stone and made that peppery scent in your nose. I nervously bit into my sandwich, hyper aware of my sensitive stomach. But the first bite went well, and then the second, and soon I was really eating Italian food, good Italian food not from the Rome airport. I realized I did like Italy after all. Assisi saved Italy for me.

We spent the rest of the afternoon milling around. Ian and I took pictures of each other and of all the same sights. We snuck pictures inside the Basilica of Saint Francis. We both took the same shot of that alley with the lanterns. It was my favorite scrap of Assisi, and that’s a hard choice to make.

And so now, almost five years later, that shot is what hangs in my bedroom. I look at it every now and then, and I appreciate it, of course. But I very rarely really look at it, closely, until recently.

A lot of change is coming in the next few months. Some of it I know, and some I feel. Some, to be fair, is probably imagined. But I don’t deal with any change, real or imagined, very well. Even though I know life contains change, and I know we would all be miserable without it, and I know I’m excited overall, there’s still that nagging fear of unpleasantness and mess I must push through in order to reach some equilibrium again.

And then I look at the picture of my favorite alley in Assisi. I remember that tiring first morning at the airport in Rome, that awful first night throwing up in Rome, the awkward second day driving out a maid in Rome, and finally that glorious third day in Assisi. I remember all the nerves and stress and hunger and illness finally dissolving as the Tuscan countryside swaddled it up and gave me one of the best experiences of my life. And I realize that all change, no matter how unpleasant, is only the jet lag, the food poisoning, the tourist-infested parking lot, the driveway, the ancient gate to a beautiful experience. In the end, it’s that beauty I remember; it’s that favorite view I hang on the wall. The joy is what lasts and what matters.

Later that day, we had authentic Italian lasagna for dinner. My mom’s lasagna is way better.


Quintessential New Year’s Post

It’s inevitable. Any blog post I write will be the first of the new year, and so it must naturally be rife with sentiments like, “Oh my gosh! 2018? Already? New year new me! As the world turns, so we mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.”

There it is. Bask in it.

Like most people, I made some resolutions. They aren’t your stereotypical change-my-whole-nature-and-body-and-being-in-365-days resolutions; they’re more like tiny tweaks, little realignments for what I really want to be doing anyway. I’ve always liked having the new year to do this, cliche as it can get. Yes, time is relative, and no, we don’t need to depend on a calendar date to change. But something about the new year, a new calendar of blank, unfilled-up months, a fresh slate to draw upon, makes it fitting.

I am going to share my new year’s resolutions, and not just because all the kids are doing it. My reason is twofold: one, putting them out in public is an accountability builder, even if none of you email me and ask how I did (please don’t). Two, I have a hard time remembering what any life resolutions are at any given time, so I feel like putting them on a blog will give me, at the very least, a place to refer to.

Luckily, I made my resolutions simple. In the past I’ve made some grand aspirations. I will work out every day! I will eat only vegetables and ancient grains! I will suddenly change inherent qualities about myself and take up activities I previously had no interest in! I figured that the best strategy, this time, would be to start small, to do things I know I can and will do, and to build from there.

One, I’m going to do yoga every day in January. I follow a YouTuber yogi who does a yearly January challenge, and I’ve never faithfully followed it along. So I’m going to try it.

Two, for the month of January I’m not eating sugar and sweets. My husband has a problem with eating too many sweets, and I love him but it really has come to a point where public shame is the way to go (he gave his permission to be so shamed). I am a classic sympathy eater, so if he eats sweets, I eat sweets. And for thirty-one days, I put my foot down. (February will be a free for all.)

Three, in 2018 I’m going to take my vitamins. I don’t eat super well (see point two), but I’m not the most unhealthy person either (see husband comment). I try to eat mindfully and intuitively, but I know I still have a few gaps in my diet, because while I enjoy healthy eating, I also refuse to do any kind of “diet.” I will never go gluten-free, dairy-free, or heaven forbid, vegan. When I was a child, I was a sick child, I ate as a sick child, I had many food restrictions as a sick child. When I became a woman, I put away sick child food restrictions. For better or worse. All this to say, vitamins.

Four, I’m going to wear more blue. It’s my favorite color. It’s pretty. It makes me happy. And blue always matches other blue.

I have a few other floating resolutions, but these are the biggies. I have plans to update the list month-by-month, throwing out some ideas and incorporating others. I got a lot of candy for Christmas, and there’s no way I’m saving it all for months on end.

So far, in the cliche, quintessential way, I’m very hopeful for 2018. I’ve been working through a lot of life stuff lately. Some of these things I have power over, and others I have none. The latter group often seems larger than the former. But for the most part I am hopeful. Little glimmers of light shine through the cracks as the old year shatters to reveal the new, and I can mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.



Weekend Pith: Don’t Forget to Dance


The Russian and I are going to a wedding this weekend.

And not to brag or anything, but we’re pretty good at wedding dancing.

Wedding dancing requires that perfect combination of class and awkwardness, which we can easily achieve if we dress nicely and then proceed to act, well, as we normally do. Wedding dancing requires the ability to pseudo-waltz, swing, and twirl while still taking part in original moves like my signature, the Flappy Bird, and his, the Gravedigger. Of course, we must also be proficient in old favorites such as the Chicken Dance, Electric Slide, and all variations of Don’t Stop Believin’.

Last year at a wedding someone asked us if we took lessons.

“Oh bless your heart, how sweet of you,” I more or less said.

While I like to think we are good, and there is something about dressing up and dancing while music plays and the stars come out, weddings are fun because they’re like a concentrated reminder of something we do every day.

We dance.

Not literally, which explains our lack of technical finesse. We dance daily by living, by taking joy, by being awkward, by having fun. And there’s not a doubt in my mind that I was sent the husband I have because he reminds me to have fun. I need to remember it’s okay, necessary even. I need to notice every little moment of magic, when silent music plays and invisible stars come out.

I need to remember to remind myself.

Don’t forget to dance. 


Weekend Pith: Life Rules

One of the newer features of my repainted blog is the little page at the top of the screen, which I call “My Life Rules.” It has pithy little one-liners that describe or sum up life, or at least the kind of person I want to be.

This idea was inspired by a book my best friend gifted to me, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. The book is full of practical ways to simply be happier, but it goes deeper than that. Happiness occurs when we have meaningful relationships, discipline, and joy in day to day life, and there are simple, down-to-earth steps to make that happen. It was the practicality of it that really spoke to me; we often talk about being happier or having more joy, but these are usually abstract concepts we don’t back up with a plan. You can’t arrive at a goal without a plan.


Rubin starts the book by listing what she calls her “rules of adulthood.” They are little principles she’s found to be true in her life, and so they help her remain true to herself while becoming better. And in the end, that’s what the point of her book is: we must always be working towards better versions of ourselves, and that in turn will give us greater satisfaction in life.
This inspired me to look for my own “rules of adulthood,” the little principles I live by even when I don’t realize it. Every so often they cross my mind, and now I catch them and tag them before letting them fly away again. In this way I become a lot more mindful and aware of the unwritten rules we all govern ourselves by, and as a bonus they sound pretty cool in a blog post.

Here’s a little look at some of my life rules. The list is ongoing, and I’m adding to it daily. 


It’s not a contest.

We get pretty competitive with the other people in our lives. Someone else’s successes, joys, and blessings become like vinegar in our mouths. I’ve noticed myself often envying friends my age as their lives start to become more settled, more sure, with stable careers and permanent homes and (even more permanent) children. It’s often hard to be okay with the fact that my life is rather tumultuous right now, and that’s okay. It’s not a contest.

Choose to be friends.

I’ve always had this fatalistic view of friendship, where I just hope someone likes me enough to stick around. I’ve had some friendships, ones I really liked, dissolve, leaving me to want to dissolve along with them. Then I had a realization: I can be friends with anyone I damn well please. Sometimes relationships do run their natural course, but sometimes you get to just decide: you’re one of my peeps now. Let’s be friends. Always. M’kay?

Always be more loving than you feel.

This one is so hard. I once had a boss tell me that one of my strengths was my ability to leave my life at home and focus on the task at hand, to keep my emotions under wraps and set aside a bad day without letting my frustrations shine forth.

To which I looked at her and said “Really?”

I don’t know what she saw in me, but I’m terrible at concealing my emotions. If I’m upset, I will cry. If I’m angry, I won’t look you in the eye (this could also happen if I’m especially shy, so don’t panic). If I’m happy, I can’t wipe the silly grin off my face.

So this is why, when I’m not feeling very loving, I… won’t be very loving. 

This quality is especially unfortunate in married life, when acting exactly how you feel all the time doesn’t help anybody. Especially if you’re an emotional person who could feel ten different things in the space of an hour. It’s confusing for a spouse to keep up with. 

(Not that I’m speaking from first-hand experience, or anything…)

I’ve often found a tense situation to be greatly improved by just acting even a little more loving than I feel. Because it makes him feel better, and soon I feel better too. Love is like gravy on a Thanksgiving plate. It gets in and around everything and makes it taste better. Just as we can never have too much gravy, we should never be sparing with love. Even if we’re not always feeling it. Because the monumentous effort it may take to be loving returns even more monumentous results. You literally cannot lose by showing love, just as you cannot lose by passing the gravy. 

(You’re welcome for the gravy analogy.)

Beware of fads.

This is one you see a lot on the internet. Everyone look over here! This person did that! Everyone talk about this! It’s trending now! Everyone buy this! It’s in style!

This might be my hipster streak showing, and as I type this I realize being hipster is somewhat of a fad as well. Dammit. At any rate, I try to be aware of what new thing I genuinely love or appreciate and what is just a fad. Sometimes our brains ping pong from one thing to another, and we lose our mental autonomy. We lose the energy to recognize what to purge from our lives and what we’d really like to keep. We become dependent on fads for mental stimulation. And it leaves us even more exhausted, more cluttered. It’s a terrible cycle, and not worth it.

Sometimes, however, the fad of the day is fun, and sometimes you like it. And that’s when you should ask your doctor if this fad is right for you.


So there’s a little look at my life rules. Hopefully they inspire you to recognize your own unwritten life principles. I’ve found writing a few down where I’ll see them daily, or making a note on my phone, helps me revisit and recommit whenever I forget. It’s way to be more mindful and evermore myself.

What unwritten rules will you write down?


New Year’s Writelutions

I’ve always been idealistic when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. As a young teen my diaries were filled with ideas on how to better improve myself. These grandiose plans were soon followed by a painful sense of guilt as the year wore on, because I could never seem to reach my own expectations. By the time Auld Lang Syne rolled around again, I was still behind in the goals I wanted to reach, the parts of myself I desperately needed to change.

By this logic, I should have never changed as a person at all. But I did, because unbeknownst to me, One who knew better was washing out other imperfections, chiseling other corners, and polishing other facets.

It’s taken me a long time to trust Him for that.

Guilt is a horrible motivator. Because of guilt I’ve done good deeds without love, I’ve followed the rules without conviction, and I’ve accommodated others without generosity. Guilt does not make me a better writer, a better Christian, a better person. It makes me desperately try to prove that I can swim on my own until I drown myself.

Guilt is a lot of who I am, for different reasons. Guilt plugs the holes in my bones. Removing it bit by bit will leave me a little fragile, for a time, until the empty spaces are filled with something stronger.

I read a post about resolutions this week, and the writer Lily Dunn offered a unique look at them. She writes that instead of a list of goals to accomplish for the new year, she tries to encapsulate all of her goals in one word, and to go after that concept throughout the year. It sounds complicated, but instead it’s incredibly simple. You choose a word to describe what you’d like to emerge more as by the end of the year. For her, 2016 will be about “mindfulness”.

I love this idea, because it leaves guilt out of the equation. It simply asks you to improve. It echoes the homeschooler’s mantra: “did you make progress?”

So this year, my one-word resolution is “joy”. More specifically, to “take joy”. God never promises us happiness, but He does promise, and even commands, joy. In the past few months I’ve been astounded in the ways, both enormous and minuscule, that He keeps that promise and provides for that command.

So although as a writer, I am setting practical (and probably futile) goals for the year, I am ultimately making three soft, gentle resolutions to grow in joy:

Engage with the community both online and in person,

Write from the heart whether it’s pretty or not, and

To Take Joy in every moment as the ultimate story unfolds.

Prayerfully as I grow in joy, the other imperfections, corners, and facets will be more easily taken care of.

I’ll leave that to the One who knows what He’s doing.


take a look at Lily Dunn’s beautiful post and tell me your resolutions (whether its one word or more) below! I wish a blessed and joyful new year – minus 11 days – for you all.




Spring Has Sprung, and So Do I.

It’s a warm sunny day here in Western PA, and I am sitting at the coffee shop with a glass of Mango Ceylon ice tea.


Two of my sisters and I went out for Korean food. I’ve hadn’t had it before, but let me tell you: Korean barbecue is the bestest.


That green stuff is spinach, sautéed with sesame oil and spices. It definitely makes spinach more palatable. The thing I hate most is soggy, moldy-tasting spinach. >_<


Spring has sprung! Tiny green buds are popping from tree branches, waking up and stretching out in the warm sun. Every year I know it will happen, and yet every year I am enchanted and filled with delight from my head to my toes. I dance around stupidly and sing songs from The Sound of Music with gusto. I bounce around like, well, a spring (see what I did there?).


Why is that? We all are refreshed one way or another by spring. There is something about the warm rich smell of dirt that makes our hearts skip a beat. Somehow, by the smells and the light and the textures and colors and tastes and sounds, we are filled with ridiculous, familiar hope.


I like to think that that feeling of utter joy was meant to be there all the time. God intended for us to always be delighting in His creation, be it through nature or through each other. But when sin entered the world, so did violence and ugliness and lost innocence. Now the pockets of joy we find are hard to come by, hard even to afford.


But at springtime, we feel that joy again. And it is so familiar, and so natural, that we all long for a time when we can be free to feel it without guilt, pain, or heaviness.

Someday we will.