Iceland Whales

So the next day in Iceland (June 13) we tossed around the idea of going to the hot springs, which everyone says one _must_ do, but the brochures looked very romantic and we weren't sure how the kids would like it. I said, "Too bad Zane has a cold. We could go whale watching." Zane looked up and said, "Let's do that!" So a quick call and drive downtown and we were on the boat. (This building on the bay looked like fish scales.)

I did have a minor panic attack when Kelly was parking the car while we were waiting to board the boat. What if he doesn't show up? I thought. But he did.

Zane parked himself at the prow of the boat and stayed there the whole trip. He got soaked, but clearly enjoyed it.

Here's a view to the north from the bay.

We had huge luck. We saw Minka whales, which the tour boat expected, but we also saw a humpback. The tour guides were thrilled because they are out of season. They (the tour guides) chattered at us over the loudspeaker for a few hours as we rushed from one side of the boat to the other to see the whales. My photos are a little disappointing, but the memories are good. It was a gorgeous afternoon.

And my boys were happy. 

Skogra Geyser, Not Geysir Geyser

We drove for hours to find Skogra. We followed our GPS to a spot in the middle of a resort area, and then asked for directions again. An impossibly beautiful blonde woman told us we were about ten miles away and explained where we were going. It was then we realized that, while we were trying to avoid "Geysir" on the map, that is where we were supposed to go. Geysir and Skogra geysers were about 100 feet apart, something the article Kelly read earlier didn't mention.

We found Skogra (passed a volcano, too; woke Theo up to see that). It is a satisfying geyser - it goes off every few minutes, smells like sulphur, and you can get up close.

Here is what it looks like the moment before it blasts. I love the colors of the water in this.

Theo consistently lists this geyser as his most favorite thing of the whole trip.

Iceland Landscapes

It isn't a journey unless you get dislocated somehow. Flying all night, or flying and skipping a night, is dislocating. I told Theo the last time I stayed up all night was when he was born. I remember the sunrise that morning, too - dawn chasing over Lake Superior around 5:30 in the morning. This time I watched the sunrise on the north side of the IcelandAir plane somewhere over Greeland. The amazing part was, it was never night. Our plane flew almost exactly on the line between night and day. To the north was day, and the south was night. And then the sun rose, brilliant.

So we landed at Keflavik (the airport isn't really in Reykjavik, but is about thirty miles away.) We got picked up, got our rental car, and headed toward Reykjavik. I didn't know exactly where we were staying - meaning I didn't have it marked on a map and we couldn't figure out the phone numbering on our iPhones - but when we passed the Smariland Mall I knew we were close by. We stopped at a gas station, found someone who could speak a tiny bit of English, and found our rooms. We stayed at the Peace House. We had a couple of bedrooms and use of a house shared by a bunch of other people. It was all outfitted by Ikea. It took Theo awhile to sort out the toilets - I do not think we saw one single toilet that flushes like American ones. It was about 50 degrees outside so the windows were all open and it never got dark. Ever.

We napped a bit, found an outrageously expensive Pizza Hut to eat at, and then set out to try to find the Skogra Geyser. This was the first of our wandering around lost adventures. Kelly knew we should find Skogra and not Geysir Geyser, since Geysir quit working years ago. We headed out with a map and a vague idea. Theo immediately passed out but the rest of us got to see the amazing countryside. Here is a view from the west of Lake Pingvallavatn.

Here is the National Park Center we stopped at. Well, there was a building, but I was struck by the sight of a phone booth and picnic table in front of that vista. You can drive for miles and not see any sign of human life - not even telephone wires. Well, the highway. We stopped to ask for directions. We were told about a completely different place than we were looking for (that happened more than once on this trip...), a ruins or something instead of a geyser, so we got back in the car and headed east anyway.

This doesn't really capture it. The immensity of everything we looked at was stunning. I'd like to go back to Iceland. I'll get a better map next time.

The Epic Vacation Review: Part 1

On June 11 Kelly, Zane, Theo and I left for what Theo has called our "Epic Vacation." Our trip was one portion of the Lilly Grant for Clergy Renewal that my congregation and I received. We spent three and a half weeks together traveling throughout Europe and then I spent ten days on my own in Scotland. 

I have traveled overseas twice before: when I was 21 I went to Israel for a month long archaeology dig (with three days in Switzerland on the way home) and then of course there was the month in Bogota to adopt Zane twelve years ago. I have never organized my own trip before, and have never traveled to a country that wasn't under a serious military presence (curled barbed wire and rifles were regular sights in Israel and Colombia.) So I knew this trip would be different.

It was also a new experience to travel without a set purpose. I wasn't taking a class; we weren't adding a new member to the family. Zane asked a few times, "Why are we doing this?" I said, "Because this is what families do. They go off, throw themselves in a strange circumstance, and see what happens." (And because Lilly gave us this great gift.) We did have a bucket list we were working with; each of us had something we wanted to see or do. But mostly it was time together and an opportunity to see places that interested us.

I suppose the trip did have an underlying purpose: it was the archetypal journey experience. Leave home, encounter difficulty, find renewed strength and purpose, discover riches, return home. I can see that now, at the end.

I posted some reflections and photos en route, but was limited in my expression. I was using an app that basically meant I had to text to write to the blog (which might be fine if I was a teenager but I'm still middle-aged), and my photo editing tools were stinted. Now, home with all my gear and some time to think about it all, I'll go through it more thoroughly.

So here we are, first meal of the journey, at the MSP airport, and a shot of the plane we flew.


Iona Photos

Oh, just a few more. From Iona Abbey.

Edinburgh and Glasgow

A few more photos before I get home. Once I have my editing gear there should be lots more.

The Olympic Rings just below the Edinburgh Castle, a fitting quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins outside the Scottish Parliament (a gorgeous, well situated building), one of the many bagpipers on the corners of Edinburgh, the Glasgow Cathedral, and St. Mungo's Well in the lower church under the Cathedral.

By the numbers

Five weeks of traveling abroad. Ten days alone. Thousands of photos taken. Six countries. Twelve hotels. Four castles. Nine worship services. Five cathedrals. Five bland meals at Harvester, eight fish and chips, about a hundred cups of tea. Two exquisite risottos. No haggis. Nine train rides. Four airports. Four ferry rides. Two puffins. One cave. Two islands. Two stone circles. One queen. One pair of jeans. Thirty-four hours until I am home.


Newer World

I guess I am getting tired of old rocks and buildings. I went to the Edinburgh Castle yesterday (right in the middle of the city) and, besides the stunning views of Edinburgh, did not find it that exciting. I went to the Scottish National Portrait Museum and was disappointed that most of the modern photographs were on storage. I went to the National Gallery and, except for Titian, headed right for Van Gogh and Monet, the most modern thing they had. (I recently read Christopher Moore's newest book, Sacre Bleu, set in Montmartre with those painters.)

Today I hiked down to just below Arthur's Seat to the gorgeous new Scottish Parliament building. It was hosting the World Press photo exhibit for 2011. It was stunning.

I am ready to go home where the world is newer. Perhaps I am just ready to go home.


Fingal's Cave and Staffa Island

I took the Staffa boat trip from Iona today. It turned out to be a gorgeous afternoon and a very successful trip. I am not feeling too eloquent, I am so delighted. Puffins! Dolphins! Fingal's Cave!

I will say I can understand why one would imagine a giant in the cave. It sounds like there is a giant groaning in the back. It was calm today so we did not quite hear the musical sound that inspired Mendelssohn.


St Columba's Bay Again

Another try, with a filter this time. And a Psalm 23 moment. However, while I was ruminating on it I lost my way again. That "leading me in right paths" did not work too well.

Thin Places

People call Iona a "thin place," meaning that the veil between this world and the next is thinner here, or that the holy is more accessible here. It means God is easier to find here.

I don't know what to think about that.

It is a wonderful place, beautiful, stark, steeped in history, with centuries of a Christian presence. But has God put a veil between Godself and us, and scraped it thin in some spots?

This doesn't make sense to me because my most holy moment, the most incredible spiritual experience I ever had, was in a basement hotel breakout room during a debate on church politics. Not a holy space by any description. Yet what I experienced then was a clear understanding that God is everywhere, in everything, and it is only our eyes that are veiled.

"Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?" Psalm 139:7

So I wonder if this is a thin place, where God has shaved off the distance between us, or if this a place where we can more easily encounter God. Does the landscape - an island separate from the rest of the world, bare of anything except scraggy bush and bare rock - somehow open us? Does the wind howling past our ears sound like a call to prayer?

What if this place seems thin because people have been uttering prayers here for so long, struggling to build community throughout history, singing songs here for centuries. It is hard to imagine in the United States, worshiping in a space that has been church for over a thousand years. Maybe the prayers and songs add up somehow, and linger, and the love expressed and shared here creeps into the very rocks in the walls.

When I sat in worship in Salisbury Cathedral, nearly 800 years old, I was moved to tears. And this morning, singing Be Thou My Vision in the abbey, my favorite hymn came to life in a new way. The work for worship, justice, prayer, and love is palpable here. Is it because people have been doing this work for generations in this one beloved spot? Or because God makes it easier in this one place?

The distance is not so much between God and us as between us and God. If this is true, then a place is holy, or thin, to us when it helps us move towards God. And if generations of love, song, and prayer seep into the very being of a place, what does that mean for our younger churches in America?

"If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast." Psalm 139:9-10

Sometimes it is good to take the wings of morning to test the edge of God's presence. That has been a gift for me this summer. I literally rode the wings of a plane to the edge of morning a month ago on my flight to Iceland. But I expect to find God right back at home, as well. If not, it will be my eyes that have failed, not God's veil that shut me out.


Getting to Iona

I am a nervous traveler. I check and double check everything and imagine creative things to worry about. Still, I have missed a few important details on this trip, which has not made me more relaxed. So I was frustrated trying to figure out exactly how I was going to get to Iona, especially since my family was going home. I had to figure this part out myself. When I asked people they were all a bit dismissive, like it was no big deal. Websites and guidebooks list phone numbers and the steps -- train, ferry, coach, ferry -- but I still had many unanswerable questions. What time must I take the train from Queen Street in Glasgow? how do I find the ferry? How much is it, and what if I do not have a reservation? Where will I eat lunch? How will I find the bus station? Do I need a reservation? I know I need to pay in cash; how much? What if I don't have enough cash for the return trip, since theere are no paypoints on Iona? How do I find the ferry to Iona? How do I know what time to take each step? But I set out Thursday morning on the 8:21 train from Glasgow Queen street to Oban. From there the journey completely unfolded, as if just by getting on the train at 8:21 in Glasgow there could be no other destination than Iona. After leaving the train I followed the crowd to the ferry, which is right there. The nice young woman behind the counter sold me all the ferry tickets I would need for the whole journey. I rode the ferry -- even found some cheese and crackers, and it was a stunning day -- and then disembarked to a row of Bowman's coaches. One said Fiohnnport, and I put my luggage underneath and paid Collin 12 pounds for a two way ticket, open ended (like every ticket I have. I could stay for weeks as far as the transportation people are concerned.) He dropped us all off at the ferry for Iona which seemed to be waiting for us. I asked him what time I needed to start my return journey, because obviously that is the key -- start right and it unfolds from there. I will mention that the bus ride is stunningly beautiful and utterly terrifying. Each road is barely one lane with a bump out every few hundred feet. So every few minutes the bus came to a complete stop while a car, truck, or another bus inched alongside. So inbetween my silent oohs and ahhs I swore and screamed (silently still) all the way across Mull and chanted to myself, "No way would I drive here." Now that I am here I sort of get why no one lays out the details. It is part of the process of trust, and of this particular journey. On the train I kept saying to myself, "Can you just trust that this is where you need to be and it will be fine?" Iona feels like the end of the world, and you can't get there quickly. The pace, the smell, the sound, the feel of it is so different than in cities. It will be a shock to return. It is probably good it will take seven hours, something like being reborn from the silent care of the womb to the noise and shock of the world. At least now I trust that, once I start, I will find my way.


St Columba's Bay

You rock collectors would just go nuts here.


Independence Day and the Queen

I wanted to see St Mungo's museum of religious history today so I headed down to Cathedral street this morning. Streets were closed off, and yellow jacketed police were everywhere. I asked one what was up and he said "Queen is coming!"

I decided not to join the crowd downtown and continued toward the museum where I found a smaller crowd outside the Cathedral. I asked another policeman what was up and he said "Queen!"

So I climbed onto a monument and waited 20 minutes with my camera. After a procession of well dressed clergy she came out in a very pink suit and hat. She got in her waiting car, waved, and was driven away.

St Mungo's was closed but I didn't care. I did find an authentic blue police box on the corner.

Sunday we accidentally saw the Olympic torch. Serendipity on our little wander through Europe. I got a few decent shots which will be posted later.