Europe: Land of the Lucky Punch

Michelle and I were on a train on our way to Neuschwanstein Castle just outside Munich, Germany.  As the train car glided past fields and cows and mountains and our new friend and tour guide laughed at the photos on our cameras from the previous night’s “beer challenge,” I pulled out a bag of Dove dark chocolates and opened up a piece.  Inside, the foil wrapper read, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”

Neuschwanstein Castle

Me & Michelle at Neuschwanstein Castle

“It’s a sign!” Michelle and I squealed.  “Add it to the list!”

Even before we’d left on our European adventure, Michelle spotted a license plate on our way to O’Hare International Airport that read, “UK USA OK.”  From that moment on, we started keeping a list of signs.  Some were kind of dumb but funny, like the fact that Michelle’s sneeze in London sounded a lot like the word “tea” or that Justin Bieber had been in Cologne just the day before us (and our German friends would randomly break out into choruses of “baby, baby, baby oooooo”).

Lucky Punch List

Page one of lucky punches

But some were undeniable and gave us chills, like the message on the chocolate foil on the trip through the German countryside, or the numerous times we lucked out with the last room in a hostel (a private room for a dorm price) or the last two seats on a train (the seat numbers corresponding with our respective birth years).

When I had trouble at the UK border, a nice guy named Chance (yes, Chance!) helped me out.  When we were in Brussels, it turns out our German friends just happened to be in Cologne, less than two hours away by train.  We were able to see the first German Euro Cup soccer match in Germany (which they won!  Deutschland!), be in Barcelona for the Sant Joan Festival, and run into a good friend of Michelle’s from college in a Parisian Metro stop.

When we were sick, we were blessed with a private, air-conditioned room in Rome.  When our spirits were low, a group of Swiss guys sat next to us on the train and sang songs and played their ukulele.  And when we needed a little taste of home, our friend Stefan invited us to his village in Germany where he and his mom cooked for us and where we got to see some familiar faces.

I’m not saying all this to brag.  Okay, maybe a little bit of bragging…(we spent the Fourth of July in a $10 million penthouse apartment in Paris that overlooked the Eiffel Tower).  But the point I want to make is that we kept our arms open to new experiences.  I think because we kept our eyes peeled for signs, we found more things to interpret as such.  We ended up in cool situations we never could have planned otherwise.  And because we maintained a positive outlook, everyone was nice and every situation had a positive bent to it.

On the second day of our journey, in St. Pancras Station in London, we spotted a notecard tucked away in the shadows of a statue:

“Observation is about finding something interesting in ordinary places.  I’ve found that it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with how you see them.”  –E. Erwitt

St. Pancras Statue

The statue where we found the postcard. Can you spot it?

So whether you want to call them signs, as we did, or “God nods” as my mom calls them, or “lucky punches” like our German friends, I think they were a direct result of our searching them out.  We chose to see Europe as an endless opportunity of adventures filled with kind people, and it became just that for us.

It was fairly easy to do since each experience was brand new in a foreign country where everything was unfamiliar and each one of our senses were on high alert.  The challenge, now, is how to bring that attitude back to the U.S. where everything is routine for us.  How can we remain positive and open to new experiences when we’re back in the daily grind?  I haven’t quite figured that out.  Does anyone have any advice on that front?

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to go travel.  Keep your eyes open for a lucky punch or two, and I guarantee that if you’re actively looking for it, you’ll find it.


One Unholy Smear

Story Conference blog post attempt #2:

One of my favorite speakers from Story was Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are.  She’s a farmer’s wife, and was quick to tell us that she didn’t have any special insight into being a creative.  But after that, she wove a beautiful tale of vision, poetry, scars and beauty, slowing down and speaking a “language of amazement” to a culture of despair.

And she said something right at the beginning: “Creativity is being comfortable with not knowing what comes next.”

I’ve been so concerned with what to do next.  Practical questions: Grad school?  Job?  Where do I want to live?  Existential questions of who am I, and what do I want to become?  What do I want to be known for?  And how quickly and efficiently can I answer all of these questions?  It’s my crisis of being, and I’ve been frantic to try to figure it out.  It’s what this whole blog is about, for goodness sakes!

But through the course of her talk, she reminded us to be comfortable where we are, to focus on the small, overlooked moments.  And the way she cast this vision lulled me into a state of peaceful quietness, yet with an underlying thrum of excitement.

“Life is not an emergency,” she said.  “We take all the moments and blur them into one unholy smear.”

And I remembered my time in Oregon, in a cabin out of the mainstream and away from all things hectic.  Our lives have this crazy way of filling up with noise–TV season premieres, Twitter updates, text messages–that it’s so easy to forget to just sit still every once in a while.  To enjoy this gift of today.

And maybe it’s in this quiet enjoyment of the world that creative solutions arise to solve our frantic problems.

When was the last time you slowed down or slipped out of the mainstream?  Have you ever had a solution come to you in a time of extreme noise?  Extreme quiet?

Story-goers: What were some of your favorite quotes?

The Art of Living in the Moment

out our cabin window at sunrise

In the fall of 2008 I spent a semester studying at the Oregon Extension in Ashland, Oregon.  Eighteen strangers gathered there to live on a mountain and exist in community with one another.  I lived in a cabin with three other girls.  Needless to say, we didn’t remain strangers for very long.

The amazing thing about this semester is that we didn’t have internet, cell phones, or television for the entirety of the three months we spent there.  That may sound like torture to some, especially since technology dictates so much of our everyday lives as modern Americans.  It was, however, a beautiful experience that allowed us to be fully present in our relationships with each other and our experience together.  We spent most of the hours of the day reading and studying.  I learned how to camp and how to cook, and I rediscovered how much I absolutely love learning.  We invested so much into ourselves and each other without technology there to distract us.  We learned how to be, and it was holy.

me and my dear cabinmates

I feel like most people never understand what it is to be living in the moment except for a spark of perfection and joy and space here and there.  I was allowed the opportunity of creating a lifestyle, for three months, in which I got to be fully present in everything I did, every word I spoke, every moment I shared, every book I poured over.

Our professors spent a day right before we left talking about our reentry into the “real world.”  Many students, they told us, had an incredibly difficult time with their transition.  All the space to think and be is replaced by cell phones, by e-mail, by jobs.  All the genuine relationships are scattered around the country and replaced by a thousand surface conversations.  All the joy in learning is dampened by students who just want to make it to graduation and never look back.  All the interaction with nature is limited to avoiding the raccoon roadkill on my way to work–so sad, but far too true.


Needless to say, I have missed my time at the OE to an infinite degree.  I wish everyone could experience it, but I’m sure some people would go loco with nothing but time and silence.  My question tonight is how can I bring the art of “living in the moment” to the real world? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with since my return.  I just seem to be so busy all the time.  It’s rare when I have a moment to stop, to breathe, and to notice how lovely the sky is at twilight.

How do you create space in your life for quietness and reflection?  What type of OE moments have you experienced?