Brainstorming

Caleb and I spent his Spring Break in Costa Rica visiting my Uncle John, who is spending the semester teaching geology at a university in San Jose.  It was our first time in Central America, let alone Costa Rica, and we went into the trip with a plan to actively explore both San Jose and a few destinations outside the city, accessible by bus. 

San Jose
Caleb and my uncle, and a pretty street near UJ’s hose, in San Jose

Highlights of the week included a day-trip to Jaco, a beach town on the west coast of the country, a long weekend spent in La Fortuna, the small, gateway town to Arenal Volcano National Park, and an afternoon at Sibu, a chocolatoeria and cafe that uses organic Costa Rican cacao to craft the most divine chocolates and desserts.

Jaco

Jaco
Jaco — the beach town we visited on the west coast
Sibu Chocolateria
Enjoying our desserts at Sibu Chocolateria

Unexpected highlights of the week were the early morning and evening hours that we spent huddled around the kitchen table with Uncle John, talking about everything from memories of past trips together to updates on various family members to books and current events.  A good conversation never fails to leave me feeling nourished and invigorated, and we had some stellar talks with Uncle John.

During our many hours of conversation, Uncle John (my mom’s younger brother, a Ritter) made a comment that stood out to me about my Coda-family aunts and uncles, whom he has gotten to know through backpacking trips that include the two sides of my extended family.  He observed that a conversation with one of the Coda brothers is like a brainstorming session: a free-form and spontaneous discussion that (hopefully) leads to unexpected connections, new ideas, and creative solutions to problems.  Uncle John commented that he sometimes feels compelled to take notes during a conversation with my Uncle Tom, for example, because the movements of Uncle Tom’s mind lead to all sorts of new ideas. 


I nodded along in agreement with Uncle John as he made this observation; I’ve often been struck by how thought-provoking and fascinating conversations with Dad and his brothers are.  More than recalling a positive quality of my extended family, however, Uncle John’s comment reminded me of the importance of brainstorming, a term that I loved how he used to describe the high-energy dialogue with my Coda uncles.

Brainstorming is the sort of activity that I’ve done formally in school and work settings in the past, but haven’t necessarily given much thought to in my personal endeavors and more self-directed recent work.  Unlike my Coda uncles, brainstorming isn’t something that comes naturally to me; I’m much more inclined to follow a to-do list than to let my mind wander in uncharted direction.  Uncle John’s observation reminded me of the fruits of brainstorming and inspired me to prioritize making time for the activity.     

Reflecting on brainstorming led me to realize that brainstorming is part of (if not the primary) reason why I blog.  Because of my inclination to follow an ordered to-do list, I can’t count on brainstorming to happen naturally in conversations that I have with others and thought-processes that I go on alone.  I need to devote particular time to brainstorming — to thinking about one idea and letting it take me to new thoughts, considerations, places and ideas.  Writing  helps me to do this, and blogging forces me to write. 

When I write a post, I generally have three pages open on my computer: the document in which I’m writing the post, an internet browser where I fact check and utilize the dictionary, and a separate brainstorming document.  In the brainstorming document, I capture the new thoughts and fresh ideas spring from the idea that I’m writing about in my post; I’m then able to return to these ideas at a later time. This method of brainstorming has helped me tap into my creative side and has made it so that I’m never at a loss for an idea of what to write about.  It has also given me a place to note ideas that come to me at other moments in my life.  Possessing a brainstorming document is like having a camera on my phone; I’m always prepared and ready to capture what might otherwise be a passing thought.

Volcan Arenal
Volcan Arenal

Hostel Arenal
The courtyard of the fabulous hostel we found in La Fortuna

Hostel Arenal

Hostel Arenal

Hostel Arenal

Vacation Recipe

Thanks to the generosity of my parents, grandparents, and now in-laws, I’ve taken many — and all kinds of — vacations over the course of my life.  I grew up taking three primary forms of vacation: extended family gatherings (whether that be flying out to California to spend a week with my grandparents, a family reunion with my mom’s ten siblings and a whole slew of cousins, or spending a week with one of my aunts), site-seeing focused and educational road trips, and outdoor activities (camping/hiking/canoeing adventures).  My in-laws added variety to the mix with their traditional family vacations falling more in the categories of beach weeks and Disney trips. 

hike
A hiking trip this past summer with extended family

I will gladly take just about any free outing, and I’ve enjoyed each of these vacations in their own right.  But the thing is, these aren’t necessarily the kinds of vacations I would choose to go on if I were paying for them myself.   I say this not to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, but rather, to reflect on just what it is that I would delineate “the dream vacation.”  It’s worth considering, because as I get older, I’ll be planning and funding more and more of my own adventures. Why not know what will leave me feeling most satisfied?

Right before Thanksgiving, Caleb and I spent the better part of a week in San Antonio, Texas.  The American Academy of Religion (AAR)’s annual conference brought us there, and Caleb spent at least part of each day at AAR related activities, but I was free to spend my time however I liked.  San Antonio wasn’t my favorite city and I probably won’t go back there, but the vacation was ideal in than I spent my time more or less exactly as I would like to on a vacation.  Looking back on my week in San Antonio, and considering the other vacations I’ve taken over the course of my lifetime, I’ve concocted a recipe for the perfect vacation…or at least, my version of it!

Dream Vacation Recipe

The Basic Outline

25% Active experience of the vacation locale: Learning about the place or local culture via museums, tours, other cultural activities (even just going to Mass in the city’s Cathedral).  I feel as if I most experience a place when I learn about it. 

15% Passive experience of the place of vacation, whether that means taking a walk, eating local food, or people watching from a park bench. 

15% Personal time.  This is a four hour window to spend on my favorite activities, like reading and writing.  Unrelated to the particulars of a vacation location, these activities deserve dedicated vacation time because they are the things that I choose to do when time allows, but that I don’t necessarily get to spend significant amounts of time on in my everyday life.  If you aren’t going to spend vacation time — time meant to maximize pleasure — on favorite activities, when will you?

10% Social.  This is either time devoted to the people with whom I’m traveling — just sitting with them in the vacation house living room, or taking a walk together, or lingering over coffee — or time spent visiting local friends.  Obviously, socializing can also occur during the other portions of a vacation, but time dedicated particularly to nurturing relationships feels very important.

35% Rest.  That’s about’s 8.5 hours of non-planned and completely free time, most of which I imagine will be spent on night-time rest.  I don’t want to return from a vacation feeling utterly exhausted, so adequate sleep is a must.

^^ Active Experience of the Vacation Locale in San Antonio.  We toured the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.  I LOVE the National Park Service and so appreciate the amazing job they do in educating and delighting tourists with their educational programming and affordable (free!) presentation of historical sites and information.

Other necessary ingredients

Exercise.  I always feel best if part of each vacation day includes some sort of movement, like walking, hiking or cycling. 

Good food.  I’m a foodie and I love trying local restaurants and flavors, but I’m also happy to eat delicious home cooked meals, particularly when a vacation involves a rental house.  I’m not a snob here: when I say good food, I include hotel breakfasts and hot dog stands.  One of my favorite ways to eat on a vacation is  by having brunch or lunch out, and then a light dinner, or just snack or dessert in the evening.   

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The Riverwalk, a popular tourist activity in San Antonio. Meets several of my “criteria”: passive enjoyment of a place, exercise and social (walk and talk!)
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A fantastic Ansel Adams exhibition at the Briscoe Western Art Museum
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The San Fernando Cathedral, where Caleb and I went to a bilingual Sunday Mass, a spiritual and cultural experience!

When looking at my recipe, I realize that some vacations are simply not reconcilable with the proportions that I’ve prescribed.  For an example, hiking in the Sierras for a week will not include 4 hours spent daily on writing or cultural activities.  That’s okay.  I have full confidence in my ability to enjoy a vacation that doesn’t fit the recipe prescribed, and I have experience to confirm this (heck, some of my happiest memories are from outdoor adventure weeks, and I’m sure that I will continue to prioritize bi-annual hikes, as well as weeks spent in Disney World with my in-laws).  The point of analyzing my imaginary perfect vacation proportions isn’t to determine whether or not to partake in a vacation (relationships matter more to me than having my exact vacation preferences met), but have a sense of what most satisfies me for my own planning purposes, as well as to set reasonable expectations when entering non-chosen family vacations.

As always, self-knowledge is key and thoughtfulness when attending to life and its happenings is never wasted.

Labor Day Musings

It’s Labor Day, marking the end of summer and the beginning of fall, as far as I’m concerned.  And also as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the perfect weekend for this transition.  Saturday was warm and sunny, and Caleb and I spent the day in Keene, New Hampshire, soaking in one last summer day trip.  We toured the Horatio Colony Museum (a fantastic tour! Engaging, informative, private, and free!), had a delicious patio lunch at Stage, walked through the town’s weekly Farmers’ Market,  happened upon a special weekend art fair, went to Mass at the local Catholic church, and meandered through Keene State College (a beautiful campus, and, interestingly, one of the few liberal arts state schools).  Today, on the other hand, has felt perfectly autumnal — cool, windy and grey — and I’ve spent the day inside drinking coffee, writing, reading, and organizing my life (cleaning out my desk and catching up on e-mails, mostly; it’s amazing how much inner order can come from having order in these two realms).

I love it when time and circumstances line up in this way, creating a special kind of space for transition and for paying attention to time (the passing of it and the looking towards it).  It helps me to give thanks for the past, honor the present, and look forward to the future, and to overall cherish the sacredness of life.

Reflecting on the past and setting intentions for the future help me to cherish the sacredness of life, as well.  And so now, to reflect on my summer and the goals that I set for it…

Honoring Summer

  • Take a day trip to a new location each week that doesn’t involve some other sort of travel
    • There were many trips, day and otherwise, this summer.  In a whirlwind of the first weekend of June, we went to Port Clinton, OH to see Aunt Barb, to Cleveland for a dear college friend’s wedding, and to Columbus for our precious niece’s Baptism.  Later in June we spent a glorious week in Kiawah with Caleb’s family (but first, a weekend in Charleston) and a special long weekend in Shady Grove for my sister’s pre-wedding festivities.  We went to Bristol, Little Compton, Concord and Keene, and spent several individual days or parts of days in Boston seeing friends (and we hosted several different friends in Providence).  And we spent a stellar seven days hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, with our very best of friends (cousins and siblings).  We packed the summer with activity.hike
  • Eat/drink on the deck/patio of a new (to us) restaurant each non-travelling week
    • There was no shortage of good food this summer.  Enough said.  
  • Talk to an old friend on the phone/facetime/skype every week
    • Several weeks ago, I modified this goal to say that if, in the last three weeks of summer, I caught up with five old friends, I would call the goal complete.  And that I did!  
  • Write one blog post each week
    • I skimped on this goal these past few weeks, but feel satisfied with the time I spent writing for other, non-blog endeavors, so no hard feelings on this one.
  • Complete a few projects that have been on my list for ages:
    • Create a photo wall to display recently taken pictures
      • Yes!Magnet wall
    • Complete a writing project
      • Written!  Submitted!  Accepted???  I hope!  But, as I know all too well, I can’t control outcomes, only inputs.  So, I’ve done what I can and am letting go of the rest.
    • Buy and fill in a birthday calendar
      • Yes!
    • Hang artwork that has accumulated
      • Yes!Gallery Wall
    • Learn how to use Caleb’s camera
      • Yes!  …with lots of practice needed, of course.  And what better time and place for practice than in a New England autumn?!

Apartment-versary

Apartment

A year ago today, Caleb and I packed the last of our boxes, watched as movers emptied our Somerville apartment, dropped our keys in the landlady’s mail box, and followed the moving truck to our new apartment in Providence.  We carried boxes up to our third floor “Victorian Treehouse” (our tree-line view inspired this nickname), debated the ideal placement of our bed, and mourned our beloved hand-me-down red couch as we realized that it wouldn’t fit through our narrow doorway.  At the end of the day, exhausted, we ate Indian food at a now-favorite local whole-in-the-wall gem.   

While my predominant thought at the moment is how glad I am that we’re spending the day in a coffee shop writing instead of bleeding money, sweat and tears in the moving process, I’m also feeling reflective as I consider the year that we have had in Providence.  Anniversaries, like holidays, endings, and beginnings, are a good opportunity to look back on the past, feel appreciation for the present and look towards the future.  And I think that this act of looking back, examining the lowlights and the highlights, can help me to soak in the beauty of the present and move forward with energy, joy, and grit. 

Historic Homes Providence
Photo credit: America Pink

Hard stuff about my first year in Providence

  • I was homesick for Boston for much of the year, and if I am being completely honest, much as I have come to love Providence, there are things that I still miss so, so much about my old city.  I miss the MBTA.  I miss the vibrancy of my old Church.  I just miss the specifics of Boston: the old brownstones of Commonwealth Ave and the lively activity of Harvard Square and the rarified air of the Boston Public Library and narrow little streets of Beacon Hill. 
  • It was crazy hard to make friends, and so I felt lonely for a lot of the year.  I’ve made some friends and am building relationships, but I still don’t feel at my old-social-level.
  • Working at a job that requires a significant commute and a significant amount of evening and weekend hours is less than ideal.  It presented a stumbling block socially. 

Highlights of my year in Providence

  • There is good, good food in this city.  We could go to a new restaurant every week and still have more to explore.  There is great coffee shop culture, and a huge variety of food, and lots of places with amazing ambiance as well as eats. 
  • Being able to live in a place where we can afford a beautiful apartment is a gift.  I love our sunny kitchen, and our spacious dining area, and our cozy living room.  I love our gallery wall and my yellow desk and our little parking spot and our wood-paneled stair case.
  • I’ve found special, life-giving communities in my new city.  The two that come to mind are the Chaplaincy Center, though which I’ve gotten the opportunity to work in a variety of clinical settings and meed a wide range of people whose work and ways of being I admire, and the Providence Atheneum, that gorgeous little library that also serves as a magnet for smart, witty and creative people. 
  • Having a car (which we likely would never have in Boston) enabled Caleb and I to explore the New England area more, which brought us a lot of fun this year.  Favorite trips included Portland, the Cape, Newport and Bristol. 
  • I love living in a walkable city. Even though Caleb and I have a car, we more or less only use it when taking trips, or when I commute to work.  This feels like a priority for me in terms of places that I live. 
  • This city is clean and has beautiful architecture and landscaping.  I really value being in an aesthetically pleasing environment. 

Lessons that I’ve learned/Themes of the year

  • There’s no way out but through: moving is hard, making friends is hard, starting from scratch in terms of networking is hard.  It will always be hard before it becomes easy.
  • Things take time: building a sense of community, making friends, and finding special places.
  • Distance relationships with people I love are worth spending time and money on nurturing.  Having a car made driving to visit my family and friends in PA possible, and so I found myself going often.  The time and energy are worth it.  The same goes for friendships in Boston.  It’s worth spending money on a commuter rail ticket to meet a friend for coffee; it’s worth driving in to the city to meet with my old book club.
  • “Going for it” with persistency is hard, but worth it.  I have a hard time pushing myself to put myself out there.  It feels scary and exhausting.  But that’s the only way to meet new people, get integrated in a community and take on new roles.