A Visit to Ali’s Cave

The other day I rummaged around in the drawer of my nightstand to find my glasses repair kit. Success! There it was with its neon yellow price sticker proclaiming it had cost me £1.99. Printed on the price sticker is also the name of the shop in which I bought the kit: Ali’s Cave. In Edinburgh.

I had been walking down the sidewalk near our lodgings (eight nights in Edinburgh in 2017!), took off my glasses to wipe them (no doubt because of mist or drizzle or rain), and found the right side piece (correctly called the “temple”) came off in my hands.

This is exactly what you DON’T want to have happen when you’ve been away from home for only a week and you have more than three months to go!

I made my way to Boots (a super-drugstore, “Boots runs” take the place of Target runs when I’m in the UK) to see if they sold such a thing as an eye glass repair kit. They  surprisingly did not. Boots hardly ever lets me down. But the helpful clerk suggested a store a couple of blocks away called Ali’s Cave. “They have EVERYTHING!”she added.

As soon as I entered Ali’s Cave, I knew she was right. The store reminded me so much of a store where I lived in New Jersey – Grand Variety. And it was. Ali’s Cave refers, I guess to the cave of treasure in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” I also think the proprietor was named Ali. Ali was very helpful and showed me past aisles of pillows, duvets, birthday cards, helpful gadgets seen only on TV, tasteful gifts for your elderly aunt, tools, computer accessories, right to the teeny glasses repair kit!

Ali’s Cave truly held treasure for me! What would I have done without being able to repair my glasses so quickly and easily? Scotland doesn’t have eyeglass stores every few blocks like many commercial areas in the US. Also, this annoying feature of my brand new glasses has been an ongoing problem so I have become quite adept at turning the itsy bitsy screw that connects the temple to the eyepiece.


I am currently reading “Transit” by Rachel Cusk. This quote caught my attention: “…these trips away from home sometimes proved to be staging posts, even if she didn’t see it at the time. They gave her a distance on her own life: it became something she could see, instead of being immersed in it as she usually was…” As I look at my life with some distance that travel has given me, I realize how important a community is. I am more aware and more appreciative of all the people who make up my community – the checkers and baggers at the grocery, the workers at Target who do try to help me find something, the neighbor who has a helpful suggestion, the librarians at our public library. Every day people, sharing my neighborhood – all of us trying to help each other get through life.

Right now, someone in the Lauriston Gardens neighborhood of Edinburgh is entering Ali’s Cave, being helped, finding what he or she needs, smiling, heading out….All over the world, small acts of kindness and help.



Going Out Your Door

“‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door….You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” 

[Frodo quoting Bilbo Baggins to Sam] Book 1, chapter 3, The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien 

Walking along Hadrian’s Wall

A year ago yesterday, on Sunday, August 20, 2017, we left for Edinburgh, our first stop on our 16 week tour of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and France. We went out the door, stepped into the Road, and were swept off to adventure after adventure.

My stated intent last year was to approach the trip as a pilgrimage. Reading my journal from the days just before leaving and a few days after we arrived, my concerns were very prosaic – terrible accommodations, aching feet, worries about terror attacks. I wonder if pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales complained about their accomodations….

Some goals of pilgrimage are renewal, wisdom, change of heart. I begin this blog again wanting to reflect on how I been changed because of the pilgrimage on which we embarked a year ago. How have I been renewed? What wisdom have I gained?

As I look around the room where I write, I am surrounded by tokens of our travels: tapestry pillows from Bayeux and the Fitzwilliam Museum, an icon from Taize, a reproduction roof boss from Winchester Cathedral (that dates from our first trip in 1991!), a bowl of Portmeirion china also dating from that 1991 trip, tea towels galore – the list goes on and on. More than souvenirs, these items remind me of world history, not just personal history. My world is enlarged as I think of wandering through vast cathedrals, sitting in silence in Taize worship, or interacting with shopkeepers in a distant land.

In 1991, we left our home with a baby in arms, two little boys, ages 6 and 8, and 23 students to travel on “England Term.” Honestly, I was dreading it. Now five trips later, I sit here plotting how to do more such travel, engage in more such pilgrimages.

There’s still more than a little of Bilbo Baggins in me when I think of adventures. I quote his words to Gandalf: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” I have been late for dinner overseas more often than I can count! But now days my heart is more with Eowyn in her reply to Aragon. He asks her what she fears. Here is her reply: “‘A cage,’ she said, ‘To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire’” (from Return of the King).

Come along with me on a journey of reflection as I remember each week this fall the adventures, and pilgrimages, of the past years. “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.” (Burnt Norton from Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot).

Living in the Extremes: Of London and Retreat Centers

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Why, sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.” Samuel Johnson

Tired of “full English breakfast” in the morning, but not of London, I sought refuge in the nearby Caffe Nero across Russell Square. As I sat near the door with my apricot croissant and american, I could hear the family in the corner next to me speaking German. At the next table were two elegantly dressed women who I initially thought were Italian – no, after one of them spent most of her time on the phone, I could swear she was speaking Hebrew.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, a multitude of languages, every form of fashion, people from every tribe and nation rush along the streets here in London: people who stop to take photos of gray squirrels because they think they are exotic, people who seem just as strange and exotic to me.

London IS endlessly diverting. I find always one more street, even in this neighborhood that I think I know so well, that I’ve never been down. Yesterday’s walk took me to Tavistock Gardens, a square I’ve hurried by many times on the way to the British Library or Euston Station. Inside the square I find a monument to conscientious objectors in the world wars, a statue of Mahatma Ghandi, several trees dedicated to certain people, a memorial statue of Virginia Woolf who lived in a house facing this square.
Who knew that all this was in the square I’ve so often passed by?

On this trip we try to balance the busyness and entertainment of London and other cities with longer stays at retreat and conference centers. These places are often located far away from any town or village, in quiet, peaceful settings with public footpaths leading across the fields or into the forest, with nooks and crannies within the buildings where one can hole up quietly with a good book. Sometimes there are rooms dedicated as chapels or places of prayer. Stays in these places become mini-retreats.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls..” I have had the privilege over the past few months to experience a balance of community and solitude. Traveling with 18 students, visiting major cities in the U.K., Ireland and France provides lots of community — and busyness and entertainment! We’ve gone to theaters and concerts together, as well as worship. But staying in quiet places also gave me the gift of long walks, quiet reflection and beautiful spaces.

As we leave London tomorrow, I am grateful for the gift of this great city, as well as for the quiet beauty of retreats in the country. It’s been a wonderful balance!






“Church Going”

When we visited St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, the priest mentioned that Norwich had more medieval churches than it needed: “Feel free to take one home with you, if you like” was his humorous comment.

Although we are 12 miles from Norwich, this small area called Ditchingham also abounds in medieval churches. Within easy walking distance is the church of All Hallows’ Convent, St. Mary’s Ditchingham, and the church I walked to today, St. Michael’s of Broome.

I saw St. Michael’s peering over the horizon the other day when I walked down a very narrow lane (turns out it’s called “Rectory Road” but there’s no street sign). I decided if there were a day with more than one hour of sunshine before showers, I would walk all the way to the church. Today was the day.

Walking down lanes that are barely big enough for farm equipment is a bit unnerving. I’ve gotten better at jumping into the narrow verges, trying to avoid nettles, when cars or delivery vans (bringing someone an Amazon package no doubt) pass by!

I came to an even more narrow gravel lane that stated it was only for vehicles going to the church. I figured I qualified so I continued towards the church, now in plain view.

St. Michael’s Church, Broome, parish of Ditchingham

When I got up to the church, a sign plainly stated that the church was open today. There was no one in sight for miles in this open farmland.

I found the south door (always go in the south door…) and lifted the rusty latch to the porch. Crossing the enclosed porch, I managed to turn the knob, probably at least 500 years old, to the nave itself. As I pushed open the door, I held my breath as to what I would find — pigeons roosting? A homeless person camping out? Vermin scuttling across the floor?


But no, I found a little church, very much cared for, with all the signs of life that every church has: notices of baptisms, marriages, deaths, pleas to give money to keep up the church, and updates from the overseas missionary they support. I prayed in the quiet. As I was leaving, I saw a guestbook. Others had been in the church two days ago, visiting some of the recent graves outside and praying. I signed the guestbook, thanking them for keeping the church open.

Many would call Britain today “post-Christian.” Indeed, one of Britain’s most famous contemporary poets, Philip Larkin, wrote about stopping in one of these small, rural churches, “Church Going.” The poem is sad, cynical and yet ends by calling the church “a serious house on serious earth” and a place “which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in.” Compare this to T.S. Eliot’s homage to the church at Little Gidding: “…You are not here to verify, /Instruct yourself, or inform curiousity /Or carry report. You are here to kneel /Where prayer has been valid….”

Great Britain is dotted with churches like these which witness to God’s continuing love and faithfulness and the faithful remnant who kneel, pray and care for these old, old buildings.

“Only Connect”

“Only Connect” is the name of a notoriously difficult quiz show aired on BBC. Contestants have to find connections between all kinds of seemingly random people, events or pictures. I feel really dumb when I watch it. But the title got me thinking about how we connect to places and people.

This is our fifth England Term. I have spent more than 15 months, scattered over 26 years, traveling through the United Kingdom. Traveling so often to many of the same places creates a different dynamic than being a tourist passing through for the first time.

But yet I never really belong either. I don’t have a home or a job in these places. I’m just a’passin’ through.

So I treasure those connections we do make. When we stay again at the same guest houses we did in 2015 (and sometimes in 2009 or 2000), we love to talk over with our hosts what has changed since we were last together. In Lindisfarne, in Stratford, in Sligo, in Salisbury, we begin to get to know our hosts’ personalities and even families. We connect.

One of the guides we’ve connected with over the years — George who takes us out to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree in County Sligo, Ireland

One constant for us is our London hotel, owned by Mrs. Marazzi and family. When we first arrived at the hotel she owned in 1991, right off Russell Square, we had two little boys, ages 6 and 8, in tow and a baby in arms! She still remembers our children and asks about them. Her hotel is now in a slightly different location but still off of Russell Square. And our connection still remains. This year she was thrilled to see the photos of our grandchildren!

Last week when I was doing laundry in London at my local laundromat (see post “Of London and Laundry”) I had a chat with a woman about politics — and how it is always easier to look at another nation’s problems more dispassionately than at your own nation’s. The next day I was walking near High Holborn Street, doing a few errands, when I heard someone call after me. I was a bit afraid to turn around but there was the woman from the laundry! She just wanted to greet me, having recognized me as she was also out shopping. We talked just a bit but I left feeling something different — as if I had actually connected with someone in the great city of London!

We meet so many people who guide us, help us, serve us, host us, and drive us. Some we don’t remember and some stay in our memory forever. Perhaps part of being on pilgrimage is bringing home this same desire to connect — only connect — with those we can easily pass by every day.


Even More Monks and Hermits!

Today is All Saints’ Day — the day set aside in the Christian calendar to honor all those who loved and followed Jesus during their earthly life. This trip, this pilgrimage, has increased my gratitude for those who have faithfully gone before me.

I write this from Cappadocia, Turkey, the home of the Church Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa (Basil’s brother), and Gregory of Nazianus. These three holy men lived devout lives and helped define some of the most important doctrines of the Christian Church — how we understand the mystery of Jesus being both fully God and fully human.

Dan and I have been touring the amazing churches carved into caves here. Inside the churches are the remains of brightly colored frescoes, painted mainly in the 10th and 11th centuries. Almost every church we have visited (they are now museums) have the three Cappadocian Fathers depicted near Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist in the apse, where the altar stood. The photo below is of the other end of the church, where you enter, as most of the apses were too dark for photos.


View of the western entrance of one of the cave churches

Here in Cappadocia, as early as the 4th century, monks came to find solitude and refuge in this rugged landscape of cliffs and caves. They often lived as hermits. As time went by, monasteries were developed which attracted many visitors. All this was happening in Turkey at around the same time as the Celtic monasteries in Ireland and England. Even though separated by thousands of miles, these saints were influenced by the same Spirit and writings.


This trip has helped deepen my grasp of “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3.18). These words were written to a community of Christians here in Turkey by the Apostle Paul . On this All Saints’ Day may we all have a sharper vision of what it will be like to worship with that great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, language, and time, gathered around the throne and the Lamb (Revelation 7.9).


A Discursive Post on Parisian Sewers

Warning: This blog contains a 4-letter word beginning with P.

Sometimes when we’re faced with a panorama of a large city, perhaps on a bridge or at a high lookout, my husband will turn to me with wonder, “What does this city do with all these people’s poop?!”

Admit it – you’ve wondered that yourself….

We got a small glimpse into what Paris does with all the poop when we visited the Museum of the Sewers a few days ago.

Right near the Pont De L’Alma, a bridge over the Seine, is a small kiosk marked “Musee des Egouts de Paris.” We showed them our museum passes and proceeded down a winding flight of stairs at the side of the kiosk. Now we were actually under the street, beneath the Branly Quai and the Place de la Resistance, in the romantic sewers of Paris where the Phantom of the Opera took refuge and Jean Valjean carries Marius to safety (in Les Miserables).


In the dark underground, exhibits explained the history of the sewers. Of course, it all started with the Romans (see my post from 2015, “A Discursive Post on British Plumbing”). In medieval times, a channel was made for sewage down the center of the street. After a few bouts of plague, these channels were dug deeper and covered. Progress was now unstoppable until we reach the 21st century.

We walked along on grids of a catwalk with the water of the storm sewers rushing beneath our feet while we read the information. Above our heads, large black pipes dripped occasionally, smelling like they were the sanitary sewers. We took a few twists and turns, looking into  a smaller channel off to our left (entrance forbidden), when Dan spied them: “Rats. Those are rats. And not the Disney animatronic kind.”

Indeed. The little guys looked right at us (we were the visitors after all), switched their long tails and scuttled away from us down their tunnel.

This post follows my theme of water. Emerging again into the sunlight, I longed for the murky springs of Bath, England, or the holy wells of St. Winifried. No rats in sight there.

Since our foray into the sewers, I’ve been drinking only bottled water. Although I’m sure the stuff out of the taps here in Paris is just fine….