We rolled out of bed and into the breakfast room (well, not really, but at the rate I'm telling this story, I figured I better speed things up) where we enjoyed two kinds of quiche - ham & cheese and vegetarian - also, fresh berries, which my husband had mixed with granola and yogurt. I normally don't eat until lunch, but I can't resist free food (well, included with our stay) and I needed to fuel up for our hike at Point Lobos, "the crown jewel" of the California State Parks, "the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world", just south of Carmel and north of Big Sur.
As we were driving along the coast, my husband (eagle eye), from behind the wheel, spotted a whale! He pulled over and we raced out on the rocks to see it. Sure enough, there was a sightseeing boat (definitely getting an eyeful) not far from where we could see the spouting blowhole and then a quick glimpse of it breaching. In all our years of coming to this area, we had never seen a whale, so this was quite a treat, even though (as usual) we had forgotten to bring binoculars.
A little farther on (keep in mind, the total distance from the hotel to our destination was only a few miles), he spotted the whale again! So once again, we pulled over, and ran to the beach (sandy this time, thankfully). It was Carmel River Beach and there were others there, but farther south, and none seemed to notice, despite us jumping up and down and pointing...so it felt like a special whale showing just for us. Thinking back on it, I am reminded of how it's like following Jesus. He shows up unexpectedly, but the more we seek him, the more He reveals himself to us. Meanwhile, we're beside ourselves trying to get others to discover and enjoy this wonderful treasure with us, but they are caught up in the cares of this world, and our enthusiasm comes across as lunacy to them.
A few minutes later, we entered Point Lobos (I almost said the wardrobe), parked at the farthest lot, and began our adventure on foot. As if the crystal blue water at China Cove wasn't enough beauty, we were treated the sight of harbor seals mothers and pups sunbathing and frolicking. We lingered there, gazing over the cliffs into the sheltered cove and out into the endless ocean. Continuing our hike, we found a set of stairs and climbed down to a gorgeous white beach, watching the waves and admiring the seascape.
Up at the top and out on the trail again, a man and his wife pointed out a sea otter to us and let us use their binoculars for a closer view. That brought back memories to an earlier anniversary, our first time at Point Lobos, when I had been pining to see a sea otter (my favorite ocean animal), and sure enough, God brought us several to enjoy (and again, my husband was the one to spot them first). As we walked on, we encountered a family from the Bay Area - it turned out that the man had just got a job in our county (in San Rafael, where I grew up, one town south of our town) and was about to start work. We encouraged them about the possibility of moving to Marin (from the east Bay) and all that it could offer their family.
We made our way back to the car (saying goodbye to the seals one last time) and tried to drive out to Cypress point, but there was no room in the lot, so we drove to Whaler's Cove (where we had seen the sea otters that other time), and hiked out there. We found seals again, but the dads this time - we could tell because each of the big lugs was on his own rock...except when one would go for a swim and another would steal his "recliner."
I had told my husband about reading 1 Peter, so we had decided to read it aloud to each other, which we did in a private little spot we found overlooking a secluded cove. We only got through the first chapter, but it was just right. Then my husband convinced me to steal away under the roped off area and climb down to look into the beautiful water in the cove, which we did for a few minutes, but I couldn't full enjoy it since I felt like an outlaw!
As we hiked back, we saw a group of Japanese tourists pointing out to sea - a whale sighting! We kept vigil, me with my camera/phone ready, but of course it didn't resurface, so we walked on, and then there it was again, with no one else to see it but us. This was the clearest view yet and I even got some semi-decent pictures, albeit from a distance. My husband was convinced it was the same whale all three times. I wasn't so sure, but either way, it was an amazing blessing for the first full morning of our trip to be graced with glimpses of such a magnificent creature, and that just we two would be privy to that unique beauty of God's creation.
That was our second divine appointment and in less than 12 hours. There would be two more to come that afternoon and evening, and another the following morning, which I hope I can relate in the fifth and (Lord willing) final post...but it might take sixth or seventh installment...
When I was a freshman at Westmont College (the only year I would spend there), second semester I found myself in the little white chapel next to the pond almost every night (even though it was quite a hike from my dorm), and at other times as well. I was homesick (okay, lovesick, too - pining for a good friend that I hoped would become more - he didn't), lonely, and grieving the absence of my roommate (and kindred spirit) who had left after our first semester (to be with the boyfriend she thought she would marry - she didn't).
I felt such an aching that I longed for God to soothe. I didn't want to be where I was, but I had to for a few more months, so I sought solace in that prayer chapel, a place free of distractions, quiet and peaceful, where I could be alone with my Creator and Savior. It had a prayer notebook where chapel comers could write to God, which is what I did. And I read what others wrote. In fact, I even made some friends that way, because we sometimes wrote encouraging responses, thus beginning a dialogue. But my main purpose for going to the prayer chapel was to seek God, to be consoled by his presence, and to hear him speak life to me through his Word.
I also liked the security in the ritual of "escaping" to this private place. I knew I could go there at any time and that I would be refreshed. That I had a secret space to pour out my heart and to come undone with no one but God watching, and holding me next to his heart, even if I couldn't always feel that with my emotions. I would come away with that peace that passes all understanding, which Jesus promised his followers. I might be romanticizing it a bit, but whatever happened during that season of my life, I always remember it as the time when I experienced the deepest intimacy with God.
When I left Westmont, I sorely missed that sacred place. The heartache of unrequited love (actually more of a crush but I still felt devastatingly disappointed), the confusion of navigating my educational and career path, and many more challenging circumstances made me pine this time not for a guy or even a friend, but for a special meeting place with God. Anytime I would go on a retreat, if there was a place of prayer - be it a chapel or garden - I would gravitate there. I even started a flickr group specifically for people to post pictures of such small sacred spaces. I made up my mind that one day when I was married and had my own home, my husband would build a prayer chapel in the backyard.
Fast forward twenty years from my twenty year-old self, and now this forty year-old has finally entered the promised land. It doesn't quite look the way I imagined. It's not even a building, but then again, I have no backyard to put one in. And no one built it for me - it started with a simple thought I had one day while freshening up in the bathroom (funny how my best ideas often originate there). Our closet is attached to the master bath, so I began thinking...wouldn't it be nice if instead of using this tiny room for clothing storage, I turned it into a little spa where I could give people facials? Then I remembered that I wasn't an aesthetician but a homeschooling mom who couldn't even wash her own face on a regular basis, let alone provide pampering to others.
Another idea emerged. It was true that if I moved the clothes out, the approximate four foot by (just under ) six foot closet could actually be converted to a room. And if not an actual spa, wouldn't it be nice to have a restful room, a sanctuary of sorts? Thus was began the project of repurposing our master bedroom closet into a prayer closet (alternate names: upper room, secret place, sabbath chamber, sacred space, rest spot, quiet nook, hidden sanctuary).
Once everything was cleared out (I moved our clothes into the kids' closets - we may eventually get a wardrobe, in which case this idea will have birthed two magical places!), it was just a question of what to put in it. When I thought about seating, I kept picturing a moon chair. That ended up being the one extravagance of our humble prayer closet, but it was totally worth the splurge, as it has turned out to be exactly the right chair - I feel hugged whenever I sit in it! After taking one child at a time into the prayer closet, I realized it was a space where two or less could gather, so I wanted comfy, inviting seating for a child as well. That turned out to be a makeshift "lounger" I created out of throw pillows and a comforter (our winter one right now). When I'm alone (which is most common), it serves as a foot rest.
I didn't want to clutter up the place with stuff, and it's tight quarters, so I decided on one small, narrow bookshelf we already had. The shelves are for the Bible, my journal, and books to aid in prayer and worship. I started with just the basics, so as not overcomplicate things, but gradually I will add others we have that are helpful for practicing liturgy, sabbath, and the contemplative life.
The top of the bookshelf is mainly for the oil lamp, which allows me to adjust the brightness, unlike the large overhead light. Its only drawbacks are a faint odor and that it gives off a fair amount of heat, especially with the door closed (I sometimes leave it ajar) and if I have it turned up, so I also bought an aromatherapy diffuser plug-in halogen nightlight that has a dimmer switch. I put a few drops of essential oil - usually lavender - in the glass dish and its fragrance fills the room. I also keep some strongly scented candles on the overhead shelf (where I store memorabilia - pictures, journals, etc.), so that the room always has a distinct, gently floral aroma. Sometimes when I come upstairs to go to the bathroom in the middle of our school day, I'll splash water on my face, a spritz of rosewater toner, and then open the prayer closet door, inhale the sweetness, reminding me that in a little while I'll be able to retreat here. Just a glimpse of the room and a breath of its scent is soothing and calming.
Walls. Not the emotional kind. I'm talking white space. I knew I wanted imagery to evoke beauty and serenity in this special space, so I finally put to good use those old calendar pages I had saved - of Greece, the Mediterranean, whimsical garden scenes, waterfalls, Scriptures - and put them up, but not too too many, mind you. It's kind of funny because we've lived in our house seven years and I've still not hung our pictures on the walls!
Another thing about the lighting and the windowless space that occurred to me is that it's similar to what it would have been like it the catacombs, those underground passageways in Rome where the early church met in secret to worship (we were just studying that in our homeschool history). Ironic that their light shone brighter in those dark caves than out in the sun where the worship of of Christ was forbidden.
For the past year, my husband and I have been reading books about Sabbath keeping, and we've been trying to practice that in our family. Keeping the sabbath is a tangible way of seeking the rest and peace of God. By setting aside one day each week to cease from labor, consumerism, social media, etc., and to actively pursue the things of the spirit - in body, mind, and heart - it trains and empowers us to live that way in the midst of whatever pressures might surround us during the week.
I had the epiphany that this prayer closet symbolizes, and actually is a vehicle for that sabbath rest. It's a tangible expression of stopping and breathing and focusing on what really matters, and giving all my cares over to Jesus, and receiving his love, grace, truth, and whatever "word" he might speak to me for encouragement and growth.
A place. A day. These are actual solid tools, props if you will, to take all our good intentions and actually apply them. Illuminating the candles to start the sabbath. Lighting the oil lamp to begin a "quiet time." Saying blessings over the bread and the wine to remind ourselves of why we're at the Lord's Table and what we're entering into. Opening the Word to feast on God's goodness as I come to him alone, hungry and thirsty. These spaces, these ceremonies, these objects - they are examples of how our senses can be a gateway into what we cannot physically touch or taste or smell or hear or see. Liturgy - patterns that are repeated - engage all parts of who God made us. Through repetition, we go deeper and deeper into the knowledge of our Lord, becoming more intimate with him, just as our routines and traditions build closeness and strengthen the bonds in families - between husband and wife, between parents and children.
I'm only just beginning to use the prayer closet, and not nearly as often or as consistently as I want to, but already it has affected me deeply, and not just me. I have had very special times in it with each of my children. Quiet cuddling. Heart to heart talks. Prayerful problem solving. And each of them feels special when they get their alone time in it with me. Even just a few minutes, because usually that's all it is. Our middle child (age 8) set up her own prayer space underneath her desk! I nearly cried when she showed me. It brought home the truth that we lead by example more than words.
One last thing - for now - about this special space. I find that spending private time with God enhances the my experience of him in community. When I come to church on Sunday morning, the worship is that much sweeter when I have prepared my heart for it...or rather, God has. It also helps fill me with his grace and love, so that I have more of that to give to others. I'm not just in church desperate to be ministered to, but instead, I can minister from a full heart. Admittedly, I'm not totally there yet, but just like having a place for church helps motivate us to gather with the Body of Christ, so does the presence of a prayer closet invite me to come and meet with my Lord.
Frugality sometimes sparks my creativity. I've painted two pictures in the past seven months in an effort not to waste what the kids don't use. It's very therapeutic and I really should do it more. The second one (Sunset Tree), which I did last fall, was so thickly layered with paint that I ended up carving it with my fingernail. The first one (Spring Roses) has all my favorite colors (blue, green, pink, red = my cylon song). I gave it to my mom for Mother's Day.
Indian Valley Open Space Preserve in Novato. My husband brought his little Bible and read Psalm 1:1-6 to us. Nothing better than being with family while immersing the senses in God's creation and filling the heart and mind with his Word. It may be brief (especially with young children), but moments like these invigorate the spirit--and when accumulated over seasons of life--eternally impact the soul.
We had the privilege of picnicking on the beach with some friends who have totally got a handle on the staycation concept. They usually travel every summer, but with times being tough they decided to create a tropical destination right at home. All they did was buy a bunch of sand and plunk it in in their backyard, which is already surrounded by water (a swimming pool and a creek).Al fresco dining with sand between our toes, and all we had to do was drive seven minutes. We could actually enjoy this glorious noshing platter because the children busied themselves with buckets and shovels, popping in and out for crackers, leaving us to savor the salami, brie, and artichokes (three of my favorites).I've known these friends a long time but this is the first time we've shared a meal as families, so I had forgotten about our mutual appreciation for fine food. This feast for the fingers (click photo for details) was the perfect preamble to a light supper of sun-dried tomato pasta and a green salad.Our view from "the beach" as the sun began to set (yes, those are wine grapes, and to the left there's a chicken coop -- on our next visit we hope to sample the wine and eggs).This was our first time taking a trip with friends, so it was really nice not to have to go anywhere :)
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My interpretation of simple pleasures can be summed up in a provencal tablecloth: olives, grapes (wine), and lavender. And by inference, cheese. During college, I went abroad, and my forays into the French countryside brought to life the delicious sensations I had had imagined while reading Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. One thing I didn't get to experience, though, was drifting through a field of lavender. When the children are grown, and we can somehow afford to travel, I want to take my husband, who has never left USA soil, back to the special spots I found in Europe, and to discover new places, including a field of lavender.In the meantime, I keep finding creative little ways to fill my senses (both smell and taste) with my favorite aromatic herb. Here are some of my favorite lavender hacks, recipes, links and more:Mini FacialI do this at night before I crawl into bed with a good book. If I've worn make-up (usually I haven't), I wash my face first.1. Take a baby washcloth (because it's gentle on the skin) and run it under very hot water.2. Squeeze it out and put one drop of high quality lavender essential oil on it. Optionally, add a few drops of rose oil (I like the fragrance combination). Scrunch up the washcloth to distribute the oils.3. Rinse it again in hot water and squeeze it out.4. Lay it over your face and breathe deeply. Do this for about 5-10 seconds or until the washcloth cools down.5. Repeat steps 3 & 4 until the scent evaporates or you've had enough. I usually do it about 5-7 times (approx. 3 minutes).6. Splash cold water on your face to close your pores, and then towel dry gentle.RefresherFill a pump type spray bottle with 8 oz distilled water and add 10 drops of lavender essential oil. I do half lavender, half rose oil, since those are my favorite scents, and because lavender calms, while rose energizes (I'm a wannabe aromatherapist). People with oily skin can do half water, half witch hazel. Store it at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Mist your face for a relaxing invigorating pick-me-up or spray into the air as a room freshener. This might work as a linen spray also.Scented Dryer SheetPut a few drops of lavender essential oil onto a wet washcloth, scrunch it up to distribute the oil, and throw it in the dryer with your clothes.Lavender Garlic Bread (Lavender Butter)I just tried this the other night and it was lovely. I didn't pulverize the buds and I sprinkled the bread with all the ingredients instead of mixing it all in the butter. The entire website is a great resource for lavender lovers.Blueberry Lavender Mojito (using Lavender Simple Syrup)We actually made ours w/o mint (taste preference), doubled the lime juice (the simple syrup is quite sweet), left out the seltzer (we were out), and used ice cubes instead of crushed.Cuppa LavenderThough I'm somewhat hesitant to cook with lavender (aside from the aforementioned moorish bread and this lavender cream cheese I have to try), it seems perfectly suited to being sipped. When the weather gets cooler, I'll shift from mixing lavender accented cocktails to making hot drinks, like lavender Earl Grey tea and even lavender coffee.Culinary and Bath/Body Lavender Products from Matanzas Creek Winery (MCW)I recently treated myself to the the lavender tea (mixture of black tea, jasmine and lavender) and lavender fragrance pot (grapeseed oil infused with MCW estate lavender--see first photo--lavender essential oil, beeswax, and Vitamin E), both of which did not disappoint. Sonoma Lavender Hand CreamI put this on last thing at night and my dry tired hands thank me as we slip into fields of lavender dreams.This post was budding in the back of my mind, but the most recent recipe on Bitten blog, Pasta with Shredded Vegetables and Lavender, made it blossom. I may attempt this, minus the zucchini, since I'm not a fan (unless it's breaded, fried, and dipped in ranch).