The Birthday Club Goes Botanic: Meijer Gardens

Grand Rapids is a truly great place to raise a family. It’s been a 3-time winner of “All-American City” by the National Civic League and has recently been rated in the top 10 cities for “America’s Safest Cities” in terms of insurance risks. But even with 1.3 million people in the metro area, I’d definitely label it as vanilla ice cream. It’s got all the right ingredients to be great, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it. (Of course, vanilla is Alan’s favorite, so—as he would say—who needs any more distinction than “just perfect”?) To me, the biggest exception is Meijer Gardens, which is probably the Midwest’s premier outdoor sculpture collection and they host the largest temporary butterfly exhibit in the U.S. during March and April, where some 6,000 butterflies “bloom” in their conservatory.And so, it made perfect sense that Cindi and I should surprise Susan with a trip to Meijer for our Birthday Club outing in her honor. (They wondered if I could say we went to Hawaii for the day using this picture. What do you think??)We started with a Mediterranean picnic under the pavilion near the entrance to the park,  and then we sat on a blanket for a couple of hours catching up on family news.In fact, we talked so long that we no longer had time to do everything, so we gave up walking through the sculpture park, looking at the new exhibit, or enjoying the children’s garden, and decided just to tour the conservatory and stroll around the lake.Cindi thought that no matter what else we did, we really needed to smell all the                  orchids and each choose which orchids we liked the best.                                                       There were so many                                                       from which to choose,                                   and most of them were delicately fragrant,                       but I knew right away which one I loved the best!       How about you? Which one do you think you’d choose as your favorite?     After wandering through the conservatory to soak in all the beauty and peace                                                      we took a walk outside                                    to soak in all the beauty and peace there too!          We’ve had a family membership to Meijer Gardens for many years,but for some reason, I never noticed before how many gorgeous irises they have!            Have you ever noticed how, when you love someone, suddenly everything reminds you of that person? I must be in love with Baby Iris!But, you may not want to spend all day looking at irises, especially since there            all sorts of wonderful flowers and sights along the nature trail.                  Susan reminded us: “Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses!”I live close to Meijer Gardens, and our woods are full of wild roses in bloom right now too. I often think that what God provides for us in nature is just as wonderful as what we work so hard to produce in our gardens, don’t you think?Well, the afternoon was over way too quickly, and we had to hurry for our last stop: ice cream for dessert! Susan said it was the perfect ending to her party. 🙂I hope you treasure your friends. My father’s marriage advice to Alan and me was this: “Go out together every week! Even if you don’t have a nickle to split an ice cream cone (and 40 years ago, you could almost do that), go for a walk around the block. Never stop having fun together.” Amen to that one! May we all enjoy our friends…today and every day!

“A man [or woman, or child]  who has friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).

Fast Pass: New York, Hawaii, Washington, Disney, and Home

It seems I just can’t resist taking a few posts now and then in order to share the joys of our family. Over the weekend, little Giles Crispin Armstrong was bornto Carleen and Aaron. Praise the Lord for a safe birth and healthy new son! Carleen is exactly the same age I was when our fourth was born, but whereas we had three peas in a pod (boys) and then a girl…they have FOUR boys! Wow! (BTW, the hammock is a gift from the company Aaron worked for, although after 5 years he taken a new job with a company closer to home.)Carlie’s heroic and very loving parents have arrived to help out. Three cheers!!!Meanwhile, across the country and ocean in Hawaii, Judah Cerulean (alias “Judahblue,” as I like to call him) is doing just great!I don’t know if Alan and I will ever have 4 grandchildren in 4 months again, but it sure is fun! Here is Michael, our second-born, with Judah, his third-born!And, here is Michael’s  sweet wife, Grace, with their two little girls, enjoying Memorial Day in Kauai, Hawaii.So…2 boys and 2 girls! Here’s my third-born’s first born, little Amelie Louise.I just got to spend a little time with Jon while he was at a conference in Chicago (but that is a another story). It was so fun! Their family is doing just great.They’ve finished their teaching year and plan to spend some time in Germany with Gerlinde’s family this summer.Kathy and Carl came here for Memorial Day. Whew! At least we have one grand baby in-state to spoil!Carl’s now able to put 80 pounds of weight on his foot and hopes to be walking without a crutch this summer. (He’s using a crutch here, altho you can’t see it.)Iris is a little bundle of joy and energy who could star in Sleepless in Detroit.Between commuting Carl to work and physical therapy, and a baby who only likes to sleep “in arms” and preferably not much at all during the nights, Kathy is getting run ragged, but she’s really doing a great job. She has a tough row to hoe!Daniel and Brianna attended Ted’s (B’s brother) graduation from Ranger School (following graduation from West Point last spring.) Thank you, valiant soldiers! May you defend our country and people everywhere from oppression and evil!Afterwards, they took Brianna’s three youngest siblings with them to Florida for a camping trip to Fort Wilderness (carrying on our family tradition) and to visit some of Disney’s theme parks. Three cheers for older siblings!Stephen and Joel went to Hawaii to celebrate the end of school and help out with Mike and Grace’s kids, especially their new baby, Judah.Besides chasing the girls (which is always an adventure),they had lots of fun swimmingand fooling around with Michael, who’s always been a Peter Pan, can-do, let’s have funner fun!They went swimming almost every day after Mike got off work,and they learned to surf. (This is Joel coming in at sunset.)One morning they got up super early and climbed Cocoa Head (even Grace!) while their babysitter watched the kids.And, some days Stephen and Joel explored and hiked on their own.Joel’s had to return home for work,but Stephen stayed longer so he could work on his tan (well, maybe not)! 🙂So, that’s the latest on our kids and grand kids. I don’t know if you were wondering, but I’ve been just dying to tell you, so thanks for listening!

“And you shall rejoice in in all the good which the LORD your God has given to you and to your house” (Deuteronomy 26:11).

Carrigeen Castle: Prince or Prisoner?

It’s not every day that I get to spend a night in a castle. In fact, it’s only happened twice in my life: once at Manresa Castle in Port Townsend, Washington State, and then at Carrigeen Castle in Ireland last spring. It makes you feel just a bit like a prince or princess to stay at a castle, and so I thought it would be royal fun to share the experience with our sons…and now with you! There are a number of castles where you can spend the night in Ireland, but most of them were completely beyond our budget.  However, I did find one lovely old castle (featured in all the articles above) that has been turned into a first-rate B’n’B by the Butler family: Carriggeen Castle!Although there was a fortress on this hilltop since the 1500’s, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that an elaborate “bridewell” (jail) was built after more than twice the usual funds were raised by Richard Butler, Baron of Cahir, and the citizens of County Tipperary. Their “jail” was a beautiful, three-story castellated residence made from hand-cut limestone, complete with towers and turrets and battlements…a truly regal retreat for renegades!Although it did hold prisoners from 1816 to 1878, it was bought by the David Butler family in 1919. Fifty years later, when David’s son John married Peig, the newly weds renovated the fortress and opened it as a guest accommodation in the May of 1976…a truly regal retreat for ramblers!Thirty-five years later, Peig (standing at the head of our table) is still the very gracious hostess, and I’m sure she’d be happy to host you too!When we arrived, it was very late, dark, and raining hard. Imagine peering up at this imposing fortress through a shroud of mist with rumbles of  thunder and lightening threatening in the background. It looked more like a haunted mansion or the Dungeon of Despair.  To make matters wetter, it took us quite a while to figure out how to find the front door (which is on the opposite side of the castle from the parking area). (The atmosphere didn’t lend itself to photography that night, so, you’re seeing what it looked like the next morning. At the time, I felt more like Sherlock Holmes than a tourist…)Thankfully, Peig answered our ring and whisked us right inside! Whew. It was starting to feel more like a castle than a prison!      Still, it was quite a unique experience. The hallways were narrow and long.      There was a massive circular staircase leading up to the top of the tower.Each floor was uniquely decorated to give the feel of being in some remote time and place from ages past, but still there was the comforting familiarity of warmth, light, lace and flowers that are woven into the fabric of all times.    To get to our room we had to climb and climb and climb… round and round                                                    and round and round                                               until we made it to the top!        (Note the pillow on the ceiling and the reminder to keep your head.” 🙂 )We were escorted into #3…I double checked  to see that we couldn’t be locked in! Because—as you can see from Stephen and Joel’s room—the walls were incredibly thick, and I knew it would be hard to escape! The “tile” floor in the bathroom was made out of blocks of marble. No karate kid moves in this place!Ah, but if the architecture was a little intimidating, the hospitality was not (unless, of course, we were being poisoned…)  There were inviting rooms for reading and relaxing, so by the time we settled in, we decided that unless a vampire attacked during the night, we were safe.We made it through the night so comfortably that we all felt like princes rather than prisoners as we descended from the tower  the next morning.                The sun was shining brightly through the narrow windows! By the preparations going on in the dining room, we knew breakfast was going to be a royal treat! Besides, Peig had assured us that we’d have the full Irish!The most elegant B’n’B’s seem to provide two complete meals. The first round has carefully cooled toast (no kidding! they have specially designed toast-cooling racks), breads, pastries, cereals, marvelous jams, juices, tea, and coffees.And then, when you’re nicely full, they bring out a piping hot breakfast! Peig served this feast to our table and then chatted amiably with us for over an hour, delighting us with stories about her family, the castle, and Irish culture. Breakfast turned out to be a truly exceptional experience, and we understood why Peig has so many repeat visitors: she sincerely befriends her guests!By this time, we didn’t even need a taste-tester to make sure the food wasn’t poisoned! We knew that we were princes and not prisoners of the castle!I have since reflected on how our stay at the castle is like coming to God. We want to come, but often the circumstances of our arrival are very disquieting, and we wonder if perhaps God will punish us or take us prisoner. It’s hard to trust him at first. But, the truth is, God welcomes us in! Even though the way is long and narrow, and we have to climb and climb and go round and round, we eventually find a wonderful place of rest in a rock solid fortress! God takes our renegade hearts and transforms us from prisoners into princes…ramblers on the journey to heaven. Jesus explained in Luke 4:8, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”  And, we learn in Revelation 1:5-6, “Unto him [Jesus] who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and has made us kings and priests unto God, and his father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” We can all go from being prisoners to princes just by knocking on the door (even though it’s sometimes hard to find in the dark) and asking Christ to take us in! As we learn to trust him, he provides for us, and his Holy Spirit serves up lavish feasts that are even more satisfying than the full Irish!

Church Life: The “Body” of Christ

         This has been an especially happy week with my little church “family,”        so I thought I’d take a pause from travel tales to tell you “all about it!”     We have a great group of women who comes our for out ladies’ Bible study.We also have a fully staffed nursery and homeschooling classes for the kids, so it’s really a family affair. Here are three generations who are involved!We had our end-of-the-year brunch last Wednesday, so everybody who’s been involved in the various programs came. Here are my beloved pastor and his wife. If you live in GR and are interested, just ask them for details! (Just kidding. Ask me, and I’ll be glad to tell you times and places!)Our church isn’t a social club, it’s a place more like a retreat/ school/lighthouse/ hospital where we love and share and learn together. In the pictures you saw above, there’s a woman having chemo for cancer, a woman who’s husband left her (but they’ve been reunited, praise God!), two older women who were widowed this past year, two with twins, lots of young moms, expectant mothers, two whose husbands have cancer, and on and on!   Here are one of the sets of twins (and another set of 3 generations). Janey just had knee surgery, so I ran her over a plate of food after the brunch. I totally believe that old saying: company multiplies joys and divides sorrows!What else?  I went to sit with a girlfriend who’s husband was having the same type of surgery for prostate cancer that Alan had a couple of years ago.One day I took Carol out for lunch. She’s still recovering from leg surgery and the loss of her mother this past spring. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she and Paul were having a garage sale the next day, and soI popped over and got a wonderful assortment of scrap-booking supplies for my  daughter. Despite my protests, Carol would only take about 1/10th of what the supplies were worth…a bit of an inheritance passed down by grace to one of the younger women in our chapel “family” who’s taking up where Carol left off!      Saturday morning was our annual spring clean up to shiny up our chapel.We cleaned up everything inside and out. I was working on cleaning the pews, so I got to watch the worship team rehearsals. This week is Jim’s team. Alan led last week. It happened to be the day after his sister died, and we were both feeling very wobbly about being in front, but the energy and joy of everyone singing together really ministered to our hearts in a wonderfully uplifting way!Speaking of uplift, here’s a classic picture of one of my favorite gals, Mikki! She didn’t even realize that I was taking her picture. This is SO Mik! She is forever quietly behind the scenes making coffee, sending cards, helping out, caring for others, but in ways that don’t get recognized, like stunt doubles in the movies! She’s definitely one of my heroines!Here are two more heroes of the faith! Bob is single. Works doing editing by day, but instead of being out partying at night, he is busy investing in our chapel. He keeps our power points perfect and beautiful. Beside him is Doug, father or a large family who somehow manages to spend countless hours helping out with sound and all things related to carpentry, mechanics…you name it! How does he do it???After the music team finished, the junior high girls practiced for Sunday’s special music: signing for the song, “There is a Redeemer.” Two of these lovely young ladies are adopted: one from China and the other from Russia.Carrie (extreme left) is another tireless worker, not only in helping keep the chapel beautiful, but also in teaching the homeschoolers, skit ministry, and working with the youth. Kaley (extreme right) was a baby when I first saw her. I get so excited seeing the kids growing up and helping out with the younger ones!So, back outside! Here’s Dave, a busy accountant who also serves as our chapel’s accountant. He has a big family, but you can see that they’re learning to help too!       It’s not just the older folks, either! The teenagers are really helpful…and even the little ones are eager to do hard jobs! (The guy on the left is explaining that they don’t need the help of several older boys who’ve offered. The boy on the right was adopted from Guatemala, and since the family has adopted a little blind girl from South America! Talk about love and compassion!)One of the things I love about church family is that age and class differences all but disappear. Everybody works together for the love of Christ! Even a lawyer will stoop to paint…while doctors enjoy vacuuming inside and shoveling bark outside (missed the shot of Rex gardening…but there were SO many people working everywhere)!    So, that was Saturday. On Sunday we went to Carl and Kathy’s mega church.But, Monday night I was back at our chapel for Suzie’s baby shower.It’s going to be another 3-generation thing soon, and Suzie’s parents are absolute pillars in our church, so we all love all of them! There’s just something so special about seeing grandparents, parents, and children all running around in the same church family together! Makes me miss my kids all the more! (But, here’s something cute: Suzie’s little brother, Steve, is my youngest sons’ best friend. As none of my kids were home on Mother’s Day, Steve sat by me during the worship service. How do you like that for making me feel loved???)Well, that brings us to yesterday. That was May 22: Susan’s birthday, and so the Birthday Club celebrated with a trip to Meijer Garden…but I may have to make that a separate post, because Meijer Garden is soooo beautiful!Sorry for this atrociously long post. (Where’s my editor?) I think the point I’m trying to make is this: whether you go to a relatively small church like mine,or a mega church like my daughter’s…to be in community with other believers is a great thing! I hope you have a church “home” and a church “family,” but if you don’t…well, you’d be welcome at ours…or I’m sure there are folks in your community just wishing you’d join them! It’s well worth the effort. 🙂

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

Muckross Estate: The Jewel of Killarney

The Muckross House is a 65-room Victorian mansion that was built in 1843 by the Scottish architect, William Burn, for Henry and Mary Herbert.Unlike the magnificent castles, which changed ownership through  bloodshed, estates were built and bartered by private monies, and in the early 19oo’s Muckross was bought by a wealthy Californian as a wedding gift for his daughter.I have to confess, I felt a slight twinge of envy when I heard about having a dad wealthy enough to give such a gift!  (Isn’t it amazing how alluring riches can be?)However, in 1932 the estate was given as a gift back to Ireland by the family after the dear woman died (now, none of us envy an early death, do we?), and it was largely through this donation that Killarney National Park was founded.We arrived too late to tour the home (which I’d love to do “next” time), and there’s an abbey within a five-minute walk that we couldn’t find 😦 but we weren’t too late to meander through their unbelievably beautiful grounds.They are world famous for their incredible rhododendrons and azaleas,but that’s just the beginning! I can’t begin to describe the beautyand varietyand textureof the estate!There are rock gardens with delicate flowers growing in the cracks.There are lush, open pasturesand cloistered retreats.The gardens are full of exotic plants from around the world, some tropicaland  some bizarre…but all totally amazingand captivating!There seemed to be no end to the possibilities for which way to turn,and endless, intriguing byways!It would be very easy to lose a child if you weren’t careful.Or, in our case…DAD!Has anybody seen Dad?You know, I haven’t seen him in a long time!I haven’t got a clue where he went!Maybe he just wanted to be alone for awhile…Ya, but maybe he’s lost! We’d better go look for him.Oh, here he is! Down by the lake. Whew. (Actually, he was quite happy to have been exploring on his own for an hour, but he wasn’t quite so thrilled when he got separated from us in London…an adventure that comes much later…)Well, we’d better get moving. It’s getting late,and, even though we don’t live in a mansion, we’re going to stay in a castle (the one above). But that’s a story for the next time.“Labor not to be rich: cease from your own wisdom. Will you set your eyes on that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven” (Proverbs 23:4-5).

Iris Buds and Blooms

It’s hard to believe that it was wasn’t even a year agothat I took Kathy out for lunchand she confided to me that they were expecting!It seemed like a long wait before the babywas ready to burst into bloom,and now our little Iris is already almost two months old!Alan and I were definitely in need of a baby fix, so we decided to drive over Sunday and spend the day with them. We attended their church, where Carl works as a graphic designer and videographer (yes, even with his broken leg).The church is bigger than the the Soo, the town where Alan and I lived as kids, and the Sunday school wing really feels like Disney to me. You have to be approved by the friendly attendants to even get back to the classrooms. I felt like I was getting free tickets to a Disney ride (and I’m guessing the kids do too).The nursery for the 6-week to 6-month-old babies is immaculate and well attended. They have registration clips, numbers, and stickers like airlines use on luggage. Super high security, but I actually think that’s great with thousands of kids running around. Lost your I.D. and sticker? Then you can’t have your baby back! Oh, and they give you one of those handy vibrating devices like restaurants use: it lights up if Baby really needs you for some reason during the service!If for any reason you get insecure and want to take a peek at how Baby’s doing…well they have a monitor to let you see exactly what’s going on inside. Talk about a dreamy situation for feeling good about leaving your baby!So, we were totally able to relax and enjoy the worship and excellent message, and then we took the kids out to lunch while Iris obliged us by snoozing.After we got home, and Iris had her own munchy lunch and we enjoyed a nap…it was time to play!Kathy and Carl are very kind to let Alan and me take turns holding her!And, Iris is very willing to let us hold her!Alan loves to hold babies on his knee like this, and Iris is up to the challenge!I love to hold her too, but when it’s not my turn…I love taking pictures of her!Aren’t babies just the cutest?? Of course, I think Iris’ parents are really cute, too, since they’re my babies! Well, except maybe for Carl’s foot, but it’s coming. He is starting to be able to put up to 80 pounds of pressure on it and hopefully will be walking this summer!Kathy and Carl love the fact that there are huge clumps of Irises blooming in their front yard. They got the right house…and the right baby! 🙂When we got back to our houseall my irises are starting to bloom too,and I thought, Alan and I have the right house too! We call it “Tanglewood Cottage,” and it’s really very cozy, even if our babies are all grown up!“Okay, Grandma, you’re boring us now!”“So…ta ta! See you later!”

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1

Michael Skellig and the Skellig “Experience”

Our son, Michael Armstrong, traveled with his wife and two toddling daughters to Ireland the spring before we did. Of the Skellig Islands, and particularly “Michael Skellig,” the largest of the islands, Michael wrote: “This is the coolest things we saw, hands down, but people die climbing up, so be careful!”                                         He sent me a picture to illustrate…Michael Skellig, about eight miles off the coast, is a  UNESCO World Heritage Site. It towers some 714 feet above the vast Atlantic and stands like a sentinel at the furthest point west of Ireland (and all of continental Europe, I believe).In the 6th century, Christian monks built a very spartan monastery near the top of this great rocky island. They practiced their religion and rescued shipwrecked sailors for the next 600 hundred years until the monastery moved inland because of repeated Viking raids and other hardships.Michael Skellig can only be reached by boat, and they only go on clear days when the waters aren’t too rough, since there’s no port on the island and rocks are always slippery when wet. If you want to go, you have to purchase tickets from one of the fishermen who go out (either from Valentia Island or Portmagee). The boat will also take you on a slow trip by to gaze at the huge gannet colony (20-30,000 birds and the second largest in the world) on Little Skellig Island. The trip takes all day and is expensive; you will need reservations far in advance…and then be prepared to do something else if the weather is inclement on the day you hope to go!At any rate, Michael had been so impressed by the climb and view that we made all the arrangements and got up early so we could be on the dock at 9:30 am.Alas, by the time we crossed from the mainland to Valentia Island and got ready to board, it was raining and windy, so the trip was cancelled. 😦 (I should probably tell you that Alan was greatly relieved, because he gets seasick and wasn’t at all sure if he wanted to climb up hundreds of steps with no guardrails and disturbed balance. The rain may have be a God-send.) 🙂Instead we spent a snug morning at the “Skellig Experience” on Valentia Island, watching a lovely video presentation and studying the many displays. I’m sure this is not to be compared to “the real thing,” but it was certainly better than missing out completely, and Alan was an especially happy, non-seasick camper!Since we couldn’t go, I asked Michael if I could share a few of his pictures with you, which he kindly provided. I suppose  you might ask if it was really wise for my kids to climb up the hundreds of steep steps carrying babes in arms…I’m not recommending it…I’m just reporting their experience! They never let the kids down at all except at the top in a small, enclosed space. Mike and Grace are the definition of “intrepid.” They did it. They loved it. They’ve shared with us.If you’re healthy and hale, it’s definitely one of the pinnacle experiences that make it into a person’s lifetime hall of fame for almost surreal beauty.As for our family, we enjoyed what we could and then headed back to Portmagee and checked out all the colorful buildings and boats in this picturesque village.We also noted—with great pleasure—where the tour buses were parked…They were just leaving “The Moorings”…so we just decided to pop in for a look!We had a superb fish fry for lunch, and then after a last wistful glance at the remote and unattainable mountain monastery, we spent the rest of our day gadding about the Ring of Kerry, having a perfectly splendid afternoon.After touring the southern end of the peninsula, we made our way inland, upto Killarney National Park through Moll’s Gap, with its restful views of  the mountains known as Macgillycuddy’s Reeks.  Killarney was Ireland’s first national park and has been designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The parkhas over 25,000 acres of native forest, mountains, wetlands, waterfalls, and lakes                                          and is a nature lover’s paradise.

This brings us to the door of the Muckross House and Gardens. We had not planned to see this estate, but because we couldn’t go to Michael Skellig, we had time to enjoy their vast gardens, but that will be the subject of my next travel post (although, it may take a few days, because I’m traveling to my daughter’s next). At any rate, a little ditty from my childhood kept coming to my mind during this trip as our plans would often end up being altered from my original vision. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in A Child’s Garden of Verses: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the  things which God has prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

The Ring of Kerry: Sheer Pleasure!

The 110-mile Ring of Kerry, which encircles the Iveragh Peninsula, is considered by most to be Ireland’s premier scenic drive, and so—of course—we had to see it!This required making a hard decision, though, because my tongue was hanging out in longing to visit Dingle Peninsula (just one peninsula north), to walk along Inch Strand, see the dune fields and mudflats of Cromane Bay, and enjoy a hike among the sausage-shaped boulders on the beach at Minard in Kilmurry Bay. If I go back to Ireland, Dingle will definitely be on my “to see” list! As it was, I was only able to gaze lustfully across the waters for a few moments. (Note: Don’t lust. It’s bad for us and a waste of time. As my dad used to quote, “You pays your nickle, and you makes your choice.”)Once decided, don’t waste time on “what might have been.” Move on, enjoying every moment of what is. Or, as my pastor says, “Wherever you are, be all there!”“They say” you can drive the Ring of Kerry in 4 hours (makes sense: that’s only 27 mph), but don’t you believe them! Here are some of the things that I hope will slow you down:

*Becoming breathless over all the panoramic vistas (and taking pictures, too) 🙂 *Hiking along one of the pristine beaches*Meandering through quaint little coastal villages*Revitalizing yourselves with some delicious local cuisine (talk about fresh fish!)*Pausing to notice some of the unique sites in the fishing villages*Praying and praising God*Meditating on the mystical Skellig Islands and the monks who lived there. (Actually, my next post will feature the “Skellig Experience”—wonderful story!)*Breathing in the sea air while you explore some unexpected ruin*Driving carefully enough to avoid getting in an accident*Getting lost and finding some wondrous site like an ancient seaside cemetery*Fixing scenes in your mind and counting the sheep for future reference when you can’t sleep at night (best if done while meditating on Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures…”“He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: “for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.”“You prepare a table before me”“in the presence of my enemies” (or, as in this case, beloved family).“You anoint my head with oil” (I think in modern language, that means something like: God crowns us with many blessings—)“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”“and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.

Bunratty Folk Park: A Nostalgic Stroll Through 19th-Century Ireland

Right next to Bunratty Castle is Ireland’s version of Greenfield Village (U.S.A.).The Folk Park is an absolutely charming re-creation of village life from over a hundred years ago, complete with thatched-roof cottagessurrounded by beautiful English country gardens.Oops! Maybe not. Until I went to Ireland, that’s what we used to call such wonderful gardens filled with colorful blooms. Now I’ll call them “Irish gardens.”On the main street, there is an old-fashioned school housethat reminded Alan of the tiny 2-room school he attended 50 years ago in Dafter.There are elegant homes filled with fine displays of chinaand lovely iron beds with bedspreads that looked…just like the one I used to have on my bed when I was little (also 50 years ago 🙂 ).There is a lovely white-washed cottage covered with twining wisteria,but all homes—grand and humble—were heated by dirty, smoky, peat fires.There is an old general store (for buying in your imagination only),but there is also a lovely gift shop full of all things Irish! (And yes, my fashion-conscious son, who is working at Land’s End until grad school starts in the fall, sometimes wears his hat to work!)Last, but more likely “best” rather than “least” (at least if you’re traveling with men like mine), there’s a working bakery where they give out free treats!All this would have been more than enough, but wait! If you walk down the path,like in The Cat in the Hat, you will find more!So much more!There are graceful red deer,a curious (ungainly but kinda cute anyway) donkey,and friendly Irish wolf hounds, which are renowned as the tallest breed of dogs in the world! Males are up to 3 feet plus at the shoulder and famed for tracking down and killing wolves, but they are notably affectionate with humans!The Cat in the Hat is back! There’s still more, so much more! There’s a barnyard with billy goatsand chickens run loose everywhere (reminds me of my son’s neighborhood in Hawaii, where I spent two weeks this past April tending my newest grand son)!There’s an emerald green pasture dotted with spring lambs and sheep,and a great display of farm tools from years gone by, especially fascinating to Alan, who grew up in the country. (What? You aren’t laughing, are you? Didn’t you know that country kids sometimes make the best doctors?)There’s an elegant Georgian-style home where sweet curators share stories.Or, if you prefer, you can drink in the ambiance in reflective solitude.But wait! There’s yet another gorgeous Irish country garden lush with playfulBachelor’s buttons dancing in the breeze to attract the attention of the beautiful but bashful blue columbines clustered together…giggling nearby,all under the chaperoning gaze of the aged, buxom wisterias resting by the wall.Ah, but let there be no worry of wayward thoughts! Come into the sanctuaryand rest awhile, knowing that He who created all, loves all, and calls us to abide in Him: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can you, except you abide in me.” “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever.” (John 15:4; John 14:16)

Bunratty: Ireland’s Most Authentic Medieval Castle

I beg to differ with anybody who says Bunratty Castle is overrated. I think it’s been underrated by several of the popular guidebooks and would prefer a day strolling through the castle and folk park here any day to trying to hang upside down so I could kiss the Blarney Stone. I mean, really…think about it…Of course, by the time we arrived, Alan could only think of one thing: “I hope they have a tea room with good food and a good view!” Ah…we were in luck! 🙂We got to sit at the best table in the house and enjoyed steaming pots of tea with egg salad sandwiches and carrot cake. If you know Alan, you know this was a big hit! (And, he deserved lots of good food and appreciation, because he did 100% of the driving—a very difficult job with his crazy wife planning the itinerary!)With proper sustenance and renewed courage, we were ready to storm the castle.Bunratty (“at the bottom of the river”) has a long history, dating back to 970 when Vikings first erected dwellings here along an estuary of the Shannon River. The present castle was completed in 1425 AD by the MacNamara family, although—like all good castles—it was fought over and passed from man to man and clan to clan, with the most powerful clan in the area, the O’Briens holding it until 1646 when the last O’Brien (christened “Brian O’Brien”) left for England.The present castle was bought by the 7th Viscount Gort in 1954 and has been wonderfully restored to give an authentic representation of a medieval fortress fully furnished and decorated with over 450 treasures from the 15-16th centuries. They also let you roam at will and take pictures, which is a real bonus!Bunratty has become famous for their (also authentic) medieval banquets featuring foods from that era, period costumes, and musical entertainment. If you want to attend a banquet, book reservations months in advance and be prepared to pay as much as you would for a day at Disney.

To conquer the castle, first you have gain access via the drawbridge, which we accomplished under cover of day.Having defeated all foes on the ground level, we charged up the stairs.After several terrific skirmishes, we were able to take the turretsand banished all our enemies to the dungeon.Once we were able to ascertain that all evil doers were captured or had fled,we were able to take a break and assess the situation.We were definitely famished, and so we raided the pantry first.We’d never tried cooking in a tortoise shell before, but it seemed to work.The dining room was more than adequate…even for someone with an appetite as immense as Stephen’s!Then, we were ready for a nap. The straw-stuffed mattresses in the servants’ quarters weren’t very soft, and the dead fox motif didn’t appeal,so we tried out all the rooms until—like Goldilocks—we found some comfy beds.Alan and I really loved the hand-carved wardrobe in the room we chose,and their library was incredibly ornate. It even had stained glass windows!Speaking of windows, did you know that medieval castles were really dark? Alan had so much trouble trying to read that we decided to give the castle back. After all was said and done, we all agreed that we’re really glad to be living in the light ages instead of the dark ages! 🙂

“Giving thanks unto the Father…who has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.”

Colossians 1:12-14