Being Present: Stay in Touch

Years ago, when I was writing part of the eulogy for my father-in-law’s funeral service, I asked for each of the five grandsons to share a special memory of their ‘PaPa’.  My younger son, Ross told me that his Papa was a really good listener. His example to support this was that when he told his grandfather about a trip to the store to buy a baseball, his PaPa took the ball Ross had purchased and held it, moving it around in his hands and examining the surface. Ross believed his PaPa wanted to understand what his grandson valued by taking it in and experiencing it in the only way he could. Since PaPa was bedridden, he was not able to go outside and throw the ball with his grandson, but he could give his undivided attention by listening and touching the baseball.


While it was a simple example from an eighth-grade boy, it impressed me that by that act my son made the judgement that his PaPa was a really good listener. He was totally absorbed in what my son was telling him with his ears and his hands. I’ve thought of how many times I’ve looked at something without taking the time and effort to engage it with my hands, my sense of touch to experience something more fully.

Now I watch my six-month old grandson as he discovers the world. He’s not content to just look at things; he fully engages by touching each thing multiple times, trying to figure out what it is. When he touches the metal tile on the wall, he fans his fingers back and forth across the surface, examining the raised areas, learning by experience that it feels different from the wooden handrail by the stairs. And on flat surfaces like the table, he slaps his hands down hard, perhaps liking the sound, feeling the power of his own force.


I copy him and close my eyes and touch the same surfaces, wondering what it feels like when you’re at the beginning of life. By the time you’re sixty-three, you know the uses for the objects, how they’re constructed, and have childhood memories associated with each: sliding down the wood bannister of our farmhouse, the coolness of the surface of our Formica kitchen table, opening the tin vents on the side of our tobacco barn and being stung by wasps.

Last year when I traveled to Iona, Scotland, I wanted to totally engage my senses. I touched things in my path to increase my memory of that pilgrimage. I rubbed my hand across the ancient carvings in the oldest tall cross at Iona Abbey, MacLean’s Cross. Now, when I close my eyes and think of being there, I remember the rough texture and feel that ever-present breeze on my face.


When we hiked into the hills near the Abbey, I picked a piece of heather, and felt the scratchiness of the plant while enjoying the visual beauty of the small bloom. I made sure to put my hands in the cold water of Iona Sound, feeling the sugar-soft sand and searching for a special rock to take home.

Now that winter is approaching, I think of how important the texture of fabric is to feeling warm when the temperatures drops. I look forward to wearing my corduroy coat and remembering how much I liked that fabric as a child. I think of the ways the touch of fabric brings comfort, like the fleece throws that volunteers have made for Mama and others at Parkview, and prayer shawls knitted for survivors going through cancer treatment. Those warm coverlets of care have a way of making you feel grounded.

I think of how my grandson is re-teaching his ‘Grammy’ the importance of touch for engaging more fully with the world. It’s not enough to look at something and keep going. Now I need to slow down, be in the moment, and ‘Stay in Touch’ with what is around me to be fully engaged in life.


How About You?

How can you slow down and be present through the use of touch?

What objects have you rediscovered by taking the time to fully engage with them?





You Are Enough

That Saturday morning a year ago, I stood waiting for the ferry that would take me across the sound to the island of Iona for my week’s stay at the Abbey. I’d dreamed of going to Scotland to that historic pilgrimage site and it was becoming a reality. When the ferry workers were preparing for our group of passengers, a wave of anxiety hit me, and the critical voice of doubt said, “Who are you to be going to Iona?”

Won’t the other participants be more worldly, more theologically trained, veterans of international pilgrimages? Won’t you sound less educated, less cultured, less sophisticated with yout Southern, small-town roots?

The ferry workers motioned for us to cross over the ramp and I took a deep breath and stepped forward. As I did, the still small voice of God came to me and said, “You are my child. That is enough.” I felt a bit of relief and assured that I was following where God had led me.


Iona Abbey Cloisters

That afternoon, we gathered in the Refectory– the group dining hall and met for the first time over tea and oat cakes. We learned about our housekeeping responsibilities, meal duties, and our dorm assignment. I shared a room with women from England, Canada, and Minnesota. We ranged in age from late twenties to late sixties and enjoyed conversations about what we were seeking that week.

When we met for our first session in the large group, there were a number who were pastors and seminary trained. But more of the group were folks like me; seekers wanting to be in fellowship with an international community of faith, all of us focusing on the Pilgrimage of Life, our theme for the week.

It was interesting to hear the forty-one participants share with cultural perspecitives and accents from Latvia, Germay, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, and the U.S. I’d wondered what it would be like to be part of that community. It felt like going on a church retreat with people whom you didn’t know before gathering, but yet you knew because you all shared a spiritual connection.


The Sanctuary of the Abbey where we had worship on Sunday and each evening

I never felt the need for an escape route that week. We were allowed time on our own in the afternoons to explore the island. I chose to be by myself because the demands of the group interaction, while stimulating, were also draining. Some of the more extroverted folks would go out in groups, but there was no pressure to do anything other than what felt right for you.

One of my concerns had been how I would fit in. I had set an intention, like I’ve done on other pilgrimages, to be present, to absorb all that was going on around me. I knew Iona was a rich place and I wanted every benefit. One of the things we did as a group was to take a day walking the island and visiting the historic spots. At each place we stopped, our leader did a reading and then there was time for meditation. The most meaningful one for me was stopping at the shoreline of the bay and throwing in a rock that represented something we wanted to leave behind.


St. Columba’s Bay

I tossed in a big rock that represented my pride, my fear of trying new things because I could make errors and look foolish. Flinging that rock out into the water, I vowed to just follow God’s lead and let go of my self-consciousness. Releasing that burden allowed me to relax and be myself during the week at Iona.

I did fit in, because I, like the other participants, was enough, and felt at home in that body of believers.

Toward the end of that walk across the island, we hiked to the highest point where we could see the sound and the Atlantic sides. In the sweeping view of that remote island, I felt my breath catch as I realized God had opened up my life, the wider space that had been provided through my pilgrimage to Iona.


That Friday morning when our week together ended, a group of us walked to the ferry dock in the dark, with rain blowing sideways. We held our arms out to the sides to keep our balance while we made our way across the slippery landing. I remembered my fear when I’d boarded the ferry the previous Saturday, the doubt that attacked me.

Yes, I am enough, I thought, and made my way onto the ferry. And I am grateful for all the  richness of this past week with my new friends of faith from around the world.


How about you?

Do you have times when you feel that you’re not enough?

How do you handle those feelings?

How do you move beyond that voice of doubt?



Gather Yourself: Lessons in Scotland

After all the dreaming, planning, and praying, I’m now at the threshold of Iona,” I wrote in my journal a year ago as I looked across the white-capped-waters of the sound toward the stone buildings of the Abbey. I’d made it to the village of Fionnphort in the Inner Hebrides, where I’d booked a room for two nights at the Seaview Bed and Breakfast, to rest and prepare for my week living at Iona Abbey. It was my solo journey, my yearly spiritual pilgrimage, but this time, it was to a historic pilgrimage site, my first trip to Scotland.


Seaview Bed and Breakfast, Mull, Scotland

I was glad that after my arrival on Thursday afternoon, I would have until Saturday at 3:00 before I would join the forty others from around the world for our week together. We would live in that faith-seeking community and explore The Pilgrimage of Life– our theme for the week with our leader, Alistair McIntosh, a native of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Any doubt about whether I’d selected the best lodging was immediately dismissed when I met John and Jane Noddings, the owners and hosts at the B & B. John, who referred to himself as the ‘chatty’ one, showed me around and introduced me to Jane, who was in the kitchen cooking dinner.


John, the ‘chatty’ one

That first night, I was so tired and her meal of lamb and potatoes nourished me and warmed the chill that had stayed with me since the ferry. John, who’d formerly been a fisherman, gave me helpful information to make my stay easier– like how the strong currents could shut down the ferry to Iona that was just a ten-minute trip across the sound.


It was as delicious as it looks!

That first meal, I had the dining room to myself as the other guests had not arrived. How I savored those bites, looking out across the water, watching the vanishing light over Iona. I wasn’t able to post my pictures last year because I had so many problems getting wifi in that remote area. But I’ll make up for it now and share them with you.


It was nice to sit in the quiet. I’d just come from Edinburgh where my husband and I had finished our trip together that had included Paris, London, and a day trip into the Scottish Highlands. Seaview B & B provided me a place to restore my energy before becoming part of a group for a week. It would give me time to gather myself, to pull in before I spread out– experiencing the dynamic growth of living and learning from a new community.

Looking back, that was a perfect plan.

How many other times in my life should I have recognized the need to fuel up, to allow for an intentional transition in order to be ready for what was ahead?

My usual practice was to keep going and not slow down. But having that time to see the threshold, that place of crossing from what is known to the unknown–like what has been experienced by pilgrims over the ages, helped me to mentally, physically, and emotionally prepare for that week that was life-changing.

After dinner those evenings at Fionnphort, I walked around the village.  How peaceful it was in the quiet of that small community on the western shores of Scotland.



On the banks of Fionnphort


View of ferry dock at Fionnphort

On my ferry ride from Oban to Craignure, where I then boarded a bus like the red one in the photo, I decided to make my first video while on a solo journey. But when the time came to post it, I chickened out, always a bit self-conscious about being filmed, about the sound of my own voice. Well, it’s time to let go of that.

While the day was sunny, I was not use to the dampness and wind, that I would learn was ever-present on the coast of Scotland. By the end of my ferry ride, I was chilly in spite of my layers of clothing. Seeing this video, lets me relive that Thursday afternoon last September.


As I anticipated joining the group on that Saturday, several questions pressed in on me. I wrote them in my journal:  “What will it be like to live in a community for a week? How will I fit in? How will I manage without an ‘escape route’ like I have with my trips in the States?”

I waited and prayed on the banks of Fionnphort and asked God to bless me and the people in my path in the week ahead.

Next time, I’ll tell you how God answered my prayer, how He Heard My Voice.


How about You?

What times in your life have you been at the threshold of a life-changing event?

Were you able to take the time to Gather Yourself, to pull in and fuel up, allowing for an intentional transition so you would be ready to receive the benefits of what was ahead?

Posts from the trip before I arrived at Iona

Scotland Calling

Paris Can’t Wait

Tea at Two



On Pilgrimage with Harold Fry

One morning when I walked in my neighborhood, I made a serendipitous discovery; a Little Free Library had just been installed.  Inside the birdhouse for books, I spotted a title that caught my eye—The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  Months later when our Edinburgh-bound train passed Berwick-upon-Tweed, I remembered how it had been the right book at the right time.

In the novel by Rachel Joyce, Harold receives a letter from a coworker from twenty years prior, Queenie Hennessy who’s in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England.  The letter and a chance encounter that follows, serve as catalysts for Harold to get up from his retirement recliner and set out on a quest.  He decides he’s going to walk the 600 miles from his home in southern England to see Queenie in the northeastern corner.  He tells her to hold on, don’t die, he’s on the way.


On Harold’s journey, he learns from the people in his path.  He reviews his life and works through losses and regrets.  The letter triggered him to take action and do something he’d never done before.

While the book is a novel, I saw many things that rang true of going on a pilgrimage—whether to a faraway place or within your community.

Receiving the letter was the event that started a reaction in Harold.  He stepped forward and moved beyond his complacency.  When he’s suddenly invigorated by his mission he leaves everything behind.  The catalysts for me to step out of my complacency were being diagnosed with cancer and being fired from a job. I wanted to live with more intention, seeking what my heart desired instead of waiting for things to magically happen.

Along the way, Harold learns to pay attention to the small things, to be present and see for the first time.  He wasn’t able to see what was in front of him at his home until he took off on the journey.  I’ve found that going away by myself, forces me to take notice—as a means of safety as well as to savor my new experiences.

When Harold arrives at the hospice, finally reaching Queenie, things aren’t as he expected.  In the process of taking the journey, he’d changed internally and externally, and returned home to a different place.  While the pilgrimage didn’t lead to what he’d hoped, he received benefits that he hadn’t anticipated.  I’ve found that with most of my journeys —that while my strong imagination makes me think I have a good idea what I’ll encounter, it’s always different.  There are new “ah-has” that I never would have thought I’d receive on the trip.


Train station in London

When my husband and I rode the train from London to Edinburgh, we passed Berwick-upon-Tweed.   I imagined Harold walking through the English countryside to arrive at that place.   Part of me wanted to get off the train and search for Queenie’s hospice.  Through the window, I got a glimpse of the waters of the North Sea and remembered that Harold struggled at the waterfront before going to see Queenie.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was the right book at the right time, reinforcing in fiction what I’ve found to be true.  Pilgrimage changes your life.  I was glad I could join Harold on his walk across England and anticipate what he’d find while I wondered what I would discover on my journey.


What about you?

Have you experienced a serendipitous discovery in a familiar place?

How did that treasure impact your life?

How have your eyes been opened from that experience?

Southern Drawl

I’ve encountered reactions to my Southern accent on my journeys outside the Southeast.  But I didn’t expect to when I traveled to Iona.  In an international place, I assume there’ll be many accents so that none will stand out.  That’s what I’d experienced on my trips to New York City –so many foreign tongues that mine was just one more.  That wasn’t the case at Iona.

On our first night together, we mingled over cups of tea and oatcakes.  I felt a nudge to talk with a man from Holland who was maybe ten years younger than me.  Once we started talking, he stopped and said, “Your voice, the way you talk, it’s so weird!”

I couldn’t help my knee-jerk reaction, my face responding to his comment, my first time hearing my voice labeled weird.

“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he said, concerned that he’d offended me.  “It’s just I’ve never heard someone like you before.  Where are you from?”

“North Carolina — in the States.  I’m from the South.  That’s the region where my weird voice is from.”

north-carolina-890632_1280He chuckled then continued telling me about his life for almost an hour.  More conversation followed at points during the week—when we shared our meal duties on the Seal team and walked alongside each other on our island pilgrimage.  That man from Holland wasn’t the only one to react to my accent.  There was the man from Australia.

He was older, attending with his wife as a fiftieth wedding anniversary present.  After several days at Iona, with more conversations in small groups, he talked as easily as his wife.  He made a comment about me being from the South and attempted to imitate me, with what came out as a cowgirl, Wild West type accent.

Really, an Aussie thinking he doesn’t have an accent, I thought.  I laughed at his attempt to sound like me, and let go of my typical embarrassed, pride-hurt response.  I’d decided to just be myself and accept whatever happened at Iona.  That included my ego about being good enough, sophisticated enough, educated enough.  The father-like Aussie was teasing me and by the end of the week, I gave it back.


Our meeting room

On Wednesday evening by the fire, we shared songs, stories, and other talents.  I read one of my personal essays about taking Mama to eat with her brother.  It’s a bittersweet story, filled with pathos about the changes in Mama from dementia, and joy at the richness of being with family.  After my reading, several people told me how my story had touched their hearts.  One woman, from Oxford, England said that what made the difference was my voice, me reading the story.  The next day, she told me she’d been thinking about places where it might be published and then added, “You should read it on the radio.”

My voice, my Southern accent on the radio, recommended by a woman from Oxford.  My, oh My!

That afternoon, when I went to the nearby hotel to use the Wifi, I ran into the Aussie man and his wife.  He told me he was unclear about the location of my story.  He said he knew it was in the South, and did a bit of a Connie impersonation.  I would miss him when we parted the next day.  I couldn’t resist a comeback. 

After I answered his question with a quick North Carolina geography lesson, I said, “You know, I would have liked to talk with you more this week.  But I just couldn’t understand your accent!”

He and his wife laughed.  I would remember their warm smiles and the weird way they talked, those Aussies in Iona.


What about you?

In what area of your life do you feel vulnerable?

How are you able to let go of that in order to be open to the experience of that moment?

How would it change your life if you let go of that vulnerability and accepted your whole self?





Packing Grandma for Pilgrimage

When I was a girl, my only grandparent was Ola Gilchrist Smith who was my mother’s mother.  She lived on a farm about twenty miles from my house and was a pillar of her small church– Cedar Rock Presbyterian in Harnett County, North Carolina.  There are lots of Presbyterian churches in that area where Highland Scots settled after they entered the state via the Cape Fear River in the mid-seventeen-hundreds.

We spent many Sunday afternoons with Grandma.  Her home was simple with a combination family room-dining room that was furnished with rockers and hardback chairs.  The room was decorated with family pictures, bric-a-brac, and a map of The Holy Land pinned to the wall  She often read her Bible and taught Sunday School Classes and Bible studies.  Grandma was a natural teacher.

When we visited, she sat in her rocker and looked like an old Granny, not like the grandmothers of today.  She was always glad to see you and conversations with her never felt superficial.  Grandma liked to pose a question and let you sit with it.  She’d say, “Now, Connie, what do you think . . . and then ask about a situation, a portion of scripture, or whatever she deemed important at that moment.


There was one question I remember asking her.

“Grandma, if you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

She didn’t take long to respond.

“I’d go to The Holy Land,” she said, “so I could walk in the steps of Jesus.”

I don’t know if Grandma thought of that as going on pilgrimage.  She never took that trip to The Holy Land, but years later, my mother did.  I wonder if Mama thought about Grandma’s desire to go and if Mama felt she was going there for her mother, too?

On my ninth birthday, Grandma gave me my first diary.  How I treasured that little book with a lock.  I began my practice of journaling, going between printing and my first awkward attempts at cursive.  I felt like Grandma validated my thoughts and my writing in choosing that gift.


the treasured gift from Grandma

In thinking about what I need to pack for my upcoming pilgrimage to Iona, I look again to Christine Valters Paintner’s words in The Soul of a Pilgrim.  She speaks of Jesus going into the desert on a pilgrimage where wild beasts and angels are with him.  Paintner calls on her ancestors to assist her on pilgrimages, as saints who travel beside her offering wisdom.  When I think of Grandma accompanying me on the journey, I think of how she planted the seed of interest to go to Scotland by telling me of our Scotch ancestry.  I’ve discovered that her maiden name, Gilchrist, means “servant of Christ” in Gaelic– which she truly was.

My Info sheet for the Abbey states I should bring a Torch as there are no street lights on Iona and I’ll need it for leaving the dormitory at night.  At first, I had the image of fire from a tiki torch and then it came to me, “Oh, they mean a flashlight.”  I put one on my stack of things to pack and decided that a lighted candle will be the third item for my altar.

Grandma lived by Psalm 119:105 (KJV), “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  The candle will be a reminder of the light Grandma provided and how that path is leading me to Iona.



What about you?

Is there an ancestor you carry with you on your pilgrimage?  What wisdom do they provide along the way?

How has their life helped prepare you for the journey?

How will you pay tribute to them when you reach your destination?

Pilgrimage: Invitation to the Unknown

Pilgrimage is an invitation to the unknown.  This year on my solo journey to Iona, Scotland, I’ll be going to an ancient pilgrimage site.  I’ve reserved my week at the Abbey where I’ll live in an international community of staff and guests.  My information sheet gives me some idea of what it’ll be like; it’s not a retreat with lecturers, or a week of serious-minded conferences with endless discussions (thank goodness!), not a center with meals provided by invisible hands.  We’ll all help in the chores of chopping vegetables, cleaning toilets, washing up and setting tables (sounds like home!).

There’ll be discussions around our theme for the week, “The Pilgrimage of Life.”  These will be led by Alistair McIntosh from Glasgow, originally from the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Services will be held in the Abbey church throughout the week and sometimes guests are invited to take part in preparing and leading services.  There are evening social events as a time of enjoyment and to use whatever talents guests have—and evidently everybody has some talent (hope this won’t be embarrassing!).

Every Tuesday there’s an organized pilgrimage of a seven-mile all day hike around the island (proper walking boots with good ankle support, and waterproofs, are essential!)

All Photos - 1 of 1

Wonder what I’ll discover that week, I think to myself, after reading the information sheet, my first glimpse into being one of the guests.

I know that like previous pilgrimages, it will be a physical journey to a new place, and more importantly, an internal journey to what’s inside of me.  This year, I’ll take my first solo journey outside of North America.  Along with the other guests and staff, I’ll be in a covenant to live together as a community.  My previous journeys have prepared me for Iona.

Living in a community is about sacrificing for the good of the whole.  I’ve stayed in hostels where we shared food, helped each other find needed gear, and gave fellow travelers advice to smooth the journey.  We do that in our home communities—without taking a trip away, by working together in soup kitchens, letting go of petty complaints to make a more peaceful environment, and overlooking differences in political opinions in order to honor our relationships.


Staying in hostels has helped prepare me for Iona.

We can travel to a community that’s foreign to us— by going to another country or by crossing the divide of our city, getting to know those we’ve been separated from by race, affluence, and opportunity.  Either way, God can work in our lives to give us awareness of what that physical place is like, whether it’s the capricious weather changes of the Hebrides, or seeing our city from a different vantage point.

To prepare my heart for this pilgrimage, I’ll use Christine Valters Paintner’s suggestion in The Soul of a Pilgrim and create a space in my home as a retreat area– a special place of prayer.  This space will be dedicated to the journey ahead.  We can all do this, whether it’s for the journey into each day or for a pilgrimage to a faraway place.  She suggests placing a meaningful symbol or two on the altar of the retreat area.

On my altar, I’ll place a copper Celtic cross that I purchased at the gift store of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.  It reminds me of my first pilgrimage and how I felt grounded in God’s presence at that time of upheaval in my life.  I remember lighting candles and saying prayers for my future in the quiet space of that magnificient chapel.  Now, sixteen years later and preparing for my fourteenth journey, I’ll pray for Iona.  How will I experience God’s call in that unfamiliar Celtic community founded by an Irish monk?  I’ll see as I take each step along this pilgrim path.


How about you?

Are you being called to a pilgrimage in your community or in a faraway place?

How can you create a retreat space where you can prepare for that journey?

What meaningful symbols will you place on your altar?