sunrise, moonset

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I rushed outside for the sunrise
Winter coat thrown hastily over nightgown
Bare legs braving the frost
Misty fog of warm air rising from the river
Horizon slowly warming, blushing in pearly hues
Welcome to this new day.

I returned slowly, savoring the thought of piping hot coffee
That first cup always tastes the best
Pleasantly surprised by the harvest moon
Lingering as a bright ball of light
Slipping behind bare maple and birch, scruffy cedars and pine.

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Last night at dusk I startled a deer in the cornfield
He snorted and blew, fleeing over stubble
His white tail flying like a flag, he all but flew
Over corn stalks the combine left behind.

Oftentimes it seems life is like the deer
Gone in a flash. What was that? Was it really there?
Sunrise and moonset remind me to breathe
Just breathe.

You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath.
We are merely moving shadows,
   and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
   not knowing who will spend it.
And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
   My only hope is in you.

Psalm 39:5-7 New Living Translation (NLT)

 

~ René Morley

 

 

psalm 121 for children

The theme for children’s church this month is, “God is always watching over us.”  The preschool curriculum I purchased didn’t quite hit the target — even though most of our kids are ages 2 to 4 it needed a bit more weight.  So I created a very simple version of the psalm with motions to supplement the lesson. Week by week we act it out; I think they are getting it!

PSALM 121 for Children
 
My help comes from God! (Point and look upward)
He made the heavens and earth. (Arms extended upward, spin slowly in a circle)
He guards my steps. (Stomp-walk in place)
He never falls asleep. (Shake head and pointer finger as in “no, no”)
He protects me. (Cross arms over chest, move into crouch for next line)
He keeps me safe. 
He is with me wherever I go. (Arms extended upward, spin slowly in a circle)
God is always watching over me! (Hand over eyes)

I developed two additional crafts for this unit to reinforce the main point: God is always watching over us! The first was created with North Country landscape. I printed several photos on card stock. Children pasted lines of the psalm (numerically ordered) on top of the photo. The second was footprints which will be ready for Father’s Day. We traced in pencil then outlined with a sharpie. They applied paste and glitter. This week at home I’ll apply a cutout of the amplified version of Psalm 121:3, with a small spacer in between to layers to add dimension. Next week children will sign their names to the front.

Both were simple, low cost crafts to reinforce the central message, God is always watching over us. I hope these ideas are useful with your wee ones!

~ René Morley

 

santiago de cuba

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Sailing from Montego Bay, Jamaica, for Cuba, our first port of call was Santiago de Cuba (map), the provincial capital for a province by the same name. The city is second to Havana in size and stature. It is protected by a deep bay on the easternmost coast of Cuba. The Sierra Maestra range rising in the distance reminds us that this is a wild and untamed region. The province has sheltered rebels and revolutionaries throughout Cuban history. It is also the heart and soul of Cuban-African culture, originating many important traditions and rhythms.

The sun was only thinking about getting up for the day as we approached the shoreline. One loud warning blast from the captain, then another, was enough to shake my sleepies out as I peered over the edge of the bow directly below the bridge. Small fishing boats working close to shore seemed unconcerned by the behemoth bearing down.

We sailed slowly inland past the point, Castillo del Morro imposing even in the dim light of dawn. Several more fishermen were anchored along the increasingly narrow channel, tiny wooden boats dwarfed by our vessel. Conversations in Spanish carried clearly across still water; roosters crowed and a dog or two joined the chorus. A few locals emerged from humble homes clinging precariously to the hillside as we passed. A small, skinny boy in a bright red shirt played alone on an abandoned pier, hopping from one pillar to the next as I held my breath.

We disembarked to a modest port: a long walk across the blacktop to enter a simple, small metal customs building. There was no welcome wagon, i.e. no locals in song or dance as we often experience in port. Nonetheless, it was exciting to be on the ground in Cuba!

Three or four Cuban agents were waiting to examine our documents. They were friendly enough as we surrendered U.S. passport and Cuban visa. I don’t know if any spoke English but we managed okay. The agent stamped my visa in bright pink ink and retained half of it. Upon request, he also stamped my passport. This is a new day for U.S. citizens! Before restored diplomatic relationships under President Obama, most U.S. travelers would avoid a passport stamp. I was proud to do otherwise if also slightly nervous about the questions it might raise clearing U.S. customs and immigration on the return. (Irrational, I hope. I clear customs a lot.) There was one small walk-through scan and one small conveyer scan and not much fuss about either. Huh.

Most of the 200 or so U.S. travelers sailing on Celestyal Cruises were in organized groups traveling together. The Hubs and I were placed on the ‘independents’ bus with about 30 others like us. Normally we avoid bus tours when traveling but we understood the conditions of this program and determined not to complain. The tours were generally good; just a bit much crammed into the day and more quality time with our new best friends than we preferred. By the end of the trip we were ready to be done with the group and the bus — and the infamous national heroes!

In Santiago de Cuba, our itinerary included a city tour with multiple points of interest: Castillo El Morro  (17th century fort, era of pirates and imperialism); Moncado Barracks  (site of Fidel’s failed July 26 Movement and origin of the Revolution), Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Center (traditional dance, religion and art), the Patio of the Artisans and Conga Gallery (contemporary Cuban art).

We drove past Revolution Square and I wondered if every Cuban city has one of these? By the time we got to San Juan Hill (site of the only land battle of the Spanish-American war and where Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders to victory), I was fried from the sun and information overload. It may not surprise you to learn that Cubans have another name for this conflict but I was puzzled by consistent qualifiers of Roosevelt’s supposed victory. Our final stop was for a taste of famed Santiago de Cuba rum while a band played and a cigar maker demonstrated his art. It was quite chaotic; I was glad to call it a day!

Throughout the day, as the bus made its way around the city, we caught glimpses of Cuban life. I don’t know what I expected but it seemed so very normal for a Saturday. We saw a few old cars and a few horses with carts — both, as we would learn, part of every day transportation across the country. We saw many humble homes and a few grand estates, the latter nationalized to become property of the people. When the Bacardi family fled they abandoned property but took their trademark so Bacardi rum can no longer be produced in Cuba. Their grand home is now an educational enrichment center, replete with small military craft for children to play on.

We saw families out and about everywhere we went. We drove past the Hatuey beer manufacturing plant, a busy bus and train station, and an old amusement park in poor repair. This was the first of several worn and tired outdoor recreational facilities we were to see in our travels. In each case, the local guide extolled the state for providing such wonders for the people.

We also noted a consistent police presence in uniformed officers at regular intervals. None were overtly militaristic or even slightly threatening. If they were carrying weapons, they were discrete. I must admit the nonchalant effect was a surprise!

How to sum up a day in Santiago de Cuba? The museum at Moncado Barracks was fascinating. The cultural center and traditional dance performance truly enlightening. The rum was tasty and very smooth! Glimpses of Cuban life were helpful to level set my assumptions about life in a communist country. But the very best moment of the day occurred early, at el Morro.

Sister sun was wide awake and beaming steadily as we walked the incline, crossed the moat, and entered the cool interior. In the midst of the tour of historical artifacts, an angelic sound rose from below, seeping through the cracks between the wide floor boards to fill the chambers above. We descended the stairs to discover a female quartet, a capella in the chapel. We listened awhile, mesmerized. Just as I began to examine their CD for sale, the Vocal Vidas broke into one of our favorite songs, a multilingual rendition of “Michelle, My Belle.” Sold!

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A few hours after we departed Santiago de Cuba, we sailed past Guantanemo Bay. It was cloudy, the view obscured. Both the U.S. presence on Cuban soil in Guantanemo and hardships imposed by the U.S. Embargo are significant sore spots for Cubans. Who can blame them?

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

crash course cuba

We returned from Cuba late on Friday night, satisfied, enriched and exhausted. In a word, I am grateful. I hardly know where to begin to relay our experiences. My head is still spinning! This was a trip unlike any other. Cuba tested my assumptions at every turn.

All I’ve known about Cuba was basic: a socialist state with an official party of communism. As an American growing up in 60s and 70s, continuing my education into the 90s, I learned the evils of communism and experienced the tensions of the Cold War. I couldn’t resist the allure of adventure and determined to visit as soon as it became feasible for U.S. citizens. Still, I had questions and concerns.

What freedoms do Cubans enjoy? (Familiar freedoms, it seems.) How are they restricted? (Hmm. In at least a few ways.) How does this all work? (It’s complicated.) Will I be safe? Will I feel comfortable? (Yes and mostly yes.) Does it matter that I don’t speak Spanish? (Not much.) Should I go now or wait awhile? (That depends.) I’ll get to this and more in subsequent posts, I promise.

Evidence of long history and rich culture abound in the beautifully blended Cuba. There you will find happy people, exquisite art, soulful music, delicious food, lovely language, graceful architecture, diverse customs and traditions. At first glance, especially in Havana, you will notice grand structures in poor repair, literally crumbling underfoot. Restoration efforts have been underway for some time but barely scratch the surface after decades of decay. The old city is particularly congested, infrastructure out of sync with modern tourism. Press on! Plan your itinerary to allow for deeper and broader experiences and you will not be disappointed.

Despite the odds or the obvious, resilient Cubans continue to assert that “the system works.” They extol heroes like José Marti, Che Guevera, Fidel and others. There are irrefutable pride points: low infant mortality, high life expectancy, low crime, free education, universal literacy, free medical services. Who can argue with this? Medical professionals are an export and health tourism is actually a thing here, so that tells you something. The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Cubans lack sufficient resources to maintain their homes, feed their families or enjoy many amenities and small niceties we take very much for granted — not to mention travel abroad. There is no way up or out for most.

Our taxi driver conversed in fluent English. “In Cuba, everything is the government.” All Cubans receive free health care, childcare, and education through to doctoral degrees, if they choose and prove capable. All receive a monthly ration book to obtain staples free of charge such as rice, beans, poultry, cooking oils, eggs, salt, sugar, and matches. Additional supplies may be age- or health-specific, like milk or fish. Supplies are scarce and frequent shopping required to keep the pantry stocked.

Most Cubans earn a meager monthly wage from the government, equivalent to ~$20 USD, regardless of occupation. Even combined, state resources fall far short for daily subsistence. Cubans supplement or find ways to game the system. Those few who work directly in tourism are most fortunate in that they may earn tips.

Despite his claim that ‘everything is the government’, our cabbie is part of a new and upwardly mobile class in Cuba. It’s a win-win, as taxis supplement a public transportation infrastructure under significant strain. It is only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private enterprise and it is still very limited. Startup requires some capital, often sourced by relatives abroad. It requires initiative and a will to cut across the grain of 60 years of socialist dogma, a belief that you can do better than the state to improve your future. It requires annual licensing fees and monthly income tax payments. Relatively few Cubans can clear these hurdles. Nonetheless, private enterprise appears to be critical for sustaining the state.

Private homeowners may provide accommodations in casa particulares. These are essential in Havana, where hotel capacity cannot meet demand and most facilities are outdated. Find private accommodations by word of mouth, by wandering and looking for distinct signage or, more recently, through Air BnB. We saw a few properties with Trip Advisor signage as well. Alternatively, sail with Celestyal Cruises, as we did. (More on this option later.)

Private homeowners may operate restaurants known as paladares, serving delicious local fare. Cuban food is disparaged due to lack of knowledge about the distinction between paladares and state-run restaurants. The latter are usually located in elegant properties nationalized after the revolution. They look nice but offer relatively poor quality food and service, albeit on the cheap. I cannot personally speak to the casa particulare experience but assure you the paladare will not disappoint!

We visited three cities on our one-week whirlwind circumnavigation: Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos. One of our favorite memories occurred mid-trip in Havana at la Moneda Cubana. We were enjoying a rare couple of hours away from the people-to-people program offered by Celestyal Cruises, the “authentic Cuban experience” that meets current U.S. government requirements.

We landed at this paladare on the advice of our tour guide and climbed two narrow flights to a third story patio overlooking the old city. We chatted with our waiter briefly, inquiring about his experiences with U.S. tourism, mentioning the reason for our trip. We were surprised when we finished our meal to be served a delectable caramel-coconut flan and Havana Club rum aged 7 years, completing our celebration with memorable flair. Absolutely perfect.

“Mon amour, mon amie,” he said. “I’d do it all over again,” she said.

This relatively simple meal was not a cheap by most standards, ringing in at $67 USD. Of course, U.S. dollars are not generally accepted so we paid 57 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) cash. Such is the nature of business in Cuba, particularly U.S. tourism. But that’s another story. I’ve much more to tell you …

Viva Cuba libre!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

countdown to cuba

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The Hubs and I are celebrating our 35th anniversary in November 2017. We make it a practice to celebrate The Big Ones all year long. I can’t even tell you how excited I am to start with a Cuba cruise in March!

Many people have asked: Why Cuba? Lots of reasons, actually. We’re always looking for new destinations in the Caribbean. This largest island has been tantalizingly close but yet too far until recently, when travel restrictions were lifted enough to become feasible for most U.S.travelers.

By all accounts, Cuba is an amazingly beautiful, warm, and friendly place. Everyone I know personally who has visited has loved their experience. I feel a strong urge to get there before large-scale American tourism gains a foot-hold on the island — or before US policies change and Cuba travel becomes more restrictive again. I especially wanted our spring anniversary trip to be an adventure and Cuba fits the bill!

An air of mystery and intrigue still surround this historically “off-limits” country. I remember well the Cold War era; the prospect of visiting a communist country fascinates me. Cuban people have suffered terribly under a long history of dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations and interventions, including our own. Tourist dollars are critical to an economy significantly impaired by the U.S. embargo. Most Cuban people are very poor and lack access to so many basics we take for granted, like over the counter medicine, vitamins,educational and art resources, or personal care products. This is an opportunity to give back as we stock supplies to distribute on our journey.

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We’re sailing with a small cruise company on a small, old ship with a checkered past (recently refurbished, thankfully!) reminiscent of our first big adventure abroad together in 1992. The entire itinerary is authentic Cuban, a program carefully aligned with U.S. government requirements for cultural exchange. This is not the typical tourist junket (forbidden for US citizens) yet suits me perfectly and the Hubs is game. The educational program on board — think Cuban cooking classes, mixology, dancing lessons, cigar history — and cultural tours on shore plus Cuban visa and other documentation included in the base price makes for very easy trip planning. I am comforted by the option to sleep on ship (as opposed to casa particulares) and thrilled to experience so much of this very large island within a short time.

At the time of booking, there were no direct flights to Havana from the U.S. Fortunately, Celestyal Cruises offers a convenient option to board in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We set sail on a Friday for Santiago de Cuba. After a day at sea, we’ll dock in Havana for an overnight stay to extend our time in the capitol city. We’ll complete our circumnavigation with another day at sea and visit to Cienfuegos before returning to Jamaica. That’s the plan, anyway. I’ll keep you posted on our adventure!

~ René Morley

P.S. The original itinerary included a stop at  Punta  Frances National Park on the south coast of the La Isla de la Juventud, now replaced by a day at sea. <sigh> The “Isle of Youth” was a very nice thought…

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

journey to bethlehem

We’ve had so much fun with children’s church this fall! The first quarter is drawing to a close with a Journey to Bethlehem. The curriculum was a free download, which is always appreciated. Unfortunately, it wasn’t age-appropriate for our mostly preschool-aged group. So we borrowed weekly themes and customized lessons and crafts for wee ones to follow the star and learn the story of the first Christmas.

Our journey is based on the Christmas story as told in Luke 2:1-20. In week 1, we explore the journey Joseph took in trusting God, a leap of faith that changed the world as he led his new wife to fulfill 500 years of prophecy in Bethlehem. In week 2, we drop in on the lowly shepherds, the first people to learn and act upon the good news of great joy available to everyone. In week 3, we consider the long and expensive journey of the magi, they who were wise in watching the signs and following the star that led them to worship the Christ child. In week 4, we learn about the long journey the baby Jesus took to Bethlehem, giving up heaven to become the ultimate Christmas gift.

The children are learning cute hand motions to familiar carols like Away in the Manger, Drummer Boy, and Silent Night. The favorite, by far, is newcomer, “Oh, What a Special Night.”  You can’t help but sing and move along! I invite you to share the wonder and joy of Christmas with the little ones you love through these fun activities.

TOP LEFT of CENTER and FAR RIGHT: Joseph and family of popsicle sticks and cloth (week 1) TOP FAR LEFT and RIGHT of CENTER: Baby Jesus in popsicle stick and paper manger  (week 4) CENTER: Soft sheep reminder of the shepherds (week 2) BOTTOM  Sparkly clay star; we used this recipe (week 3) Please use comments for craft assembly questions.

As always, Carolyn Arends inspires my advent preparation. Come and See, is a joyous accompaniment to our journey! I guarantee if you like that you won’t want to miss Story of StoriesLong Way to Go, and It Was a Holy Night. Listen in and be inspired by those and many other original, thought-provoking lyrics by launching her delightful Christmas Jukebox. Do you lack Christmas Spirit? Get it here!

 

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Bonus! A sweet reminder of the first Christmas with M&M candies. I wish I knew who to give credit for this clever poem. Please clue me in if you know the original author!

 

Happy happy and merry, merry! May your Christmas be especially blessed.

~ René Morley

art of neighborliness

We had a guest pastor in church this Sunday. I’d heard of the Reverend Juanita once and I liked what I heard. “She is a spitfire!” Pastor P commented. Sounds like my kind of girl! I was looking forward to hearing from her heart. Indeed, I knew from first glance of her awesome shoes — 4-inch heels in a jazzy pattern of gold, green, and blue — that she had something to teach me. Rev. Juanita inspires confidence in every step.

Rev. Juanita’s subject was the art of neighborliness. My thoughts turned immediately to  my mom; who, as I’ve mentioned, was an excellent teacher in this regard. Mom made it her practice to show neighborly love. Throughout my childhood it seemed she was always pedaling off with a gift of home made bread or cookies for a neighbor. But this week I was fascinated to hear from the pulpit: what does it mean for a congregation to practice the art of neighborliness?

Rev. Juanita’s message was terrific, rich with media and personal stories I can’t replicate. She imparted a history lesson of the 1938 reunion at Gettysburg, where veterans of the Blue and the Gray met again and embraced in brotherly love and amazing display of neighborliness. The essence of her message is one that settled in my heart long ago — I just didn’t know it by that name. The art of neighborliness is essential to building the kingdom of God.

As a Christian, neighborliness is putting people before ideology. It is throwing wide our doors and our arms to embrace and serve the other. It is loving and not judging. It is being the hands and feet of Jesus every day in the community. It is maintaining a focus on the Church rather than our church. Rev. Juanita reminded us that the kingdom of God (i.e. “Big C ” Church) is mentioned 121 times in the new testament, compared to less than a handful mentions of the church (i.e. “little c” church).

The art of neighborliness is exactly what Jesus was talking about in Luke 10. It is not complicated although it can be very difficult. Those who are generous in spirit are well equipped for this work. Not too long ago I shared my perspective on this basic truth.

The foundation of Christian faith is as simple as it is solid. There are a handful of basic tenets and nothing much to argue about. Jesus is God’s son, resurrected. God provided a way because He loves us. He wants to be in relationship with us. In accepting Him, we are adopted into his family. He sent his Holy Spirit to guide us until His return.

Beyond that, it doesn’t much matter. 

Although God provides the way, modern-day Pharisees continue to throw up gates, personally standing guard. But to what end? Christian faith isn’t a checklist of do’s and don’ts in order to be admitted. It’s about love. Seriously, it’s that simple.

‘LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, ALL YOUR SOUL, ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND ALL YOUR MIND.’ AND ‘LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’

That’s it, Jesus said. “Do this and you shall live!” And this is brilliant. Because when I do this — and when I trust that you will, too — everything else takes care of itself. 

[excerpted from March 2013 post, 40-watt Jesus]

Rev. Juanita’s secret to building a thriving local church in a small, remote community is embedded in her great love for God and consideration for the other. “I don’t need to tell them all that’s wrong with their lives; they know most of it anyway.” This is grace and a wonderful example of God’s graceful nature. She alluded to needs in the community that run deep, some of which may be generational or systemic. Neediness of this nature often overwhelms me.  Then she spoke of partnering — I love that term — with God, with church members, with others in the community to meet these needs. These are acts of mercy, just as God is merciful. In practicing the art of neighborliness, she and her church congregation are building the Church, investing in the kingdom of God.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” 

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!” 

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  

[And here’s what Jesus had to say about that…]

Who is my neighbor? Who is yours?

~ René Morley

straw bale garden

IMG_4754Last weekend I stumbled on an article in the The Virginia-Pilot, “Greener Living: Norfolk gardener sold on straw bale veggies.” Straw bale — what?  Turns out there’s a whole movement around a form of container gardening that uses pre-conditioned straw bales!

I read just enough on the Straw Bale Garden website to convince me to buy the book. (Of course, it’s even cheaper on Amazon.) The founder, Joel Karsten, tells a compelling story. The science behind it seems sound, the benefits real and significant, and the investment to get started quite low. It does require some advance preparation, a couple of weeks to properly condition the bales. Joel has been working at this for twenty years, so there is a lot of detail packed into the book.

The proclaimed benefits of straw bale gardening seem too good to be true. It works beautifully for most vegetables, including root vegetables — which are hard to grow in our clay-heavy soil. It works great for tomatoes and vine vegetables, herbs, even cut flowers and especially annual bulbs. It works with either seedlings or seeds and provides a boost to the growing season — another No Co benefit. It’s less work and — get this — no weeds! Furthermore, a straw bale garden will grow, quite literally, anywhere. The mere presence of soil is irrelevant. The method has been proven all over the world.

Given the state of our lawn, formerly known as hayfield, and the work ahead of us this spring as we settle into our new digs and begin landscaping, I know that we’re not up for a “real” garden. I think a few straw bales are worth a try! Not convinced? Listen in on the first 12 minutes as Joel does his thing …

Here is another fella’ using straw bales as a container. This is a pretty good example of what not to do — according to the SBG method. He also can’t seem to remember he’s working with a bale of STRAW not hay! But I couldn’t resist sharing “Daddy Pete’s” perspective. ;=) Joel’s SBG book seems essential for getting started on the right foot.

Stay tuned for our No Co straw bale story … assuming the Hubs climbs on the straw bale bandwagon. Are you in? Ready, set, garden!

~ René Morley

first impression

Preparing to transition my home office to a new and smaller space, I’ve recently purchased a few pieces of equipment. This morning I was notified one piece had shipped. It was a pleasant surprise to find this email in my InBox, signed by the company co-owner.

Your (product description) has just completed the white glove packaging ceremony. Our 12 person inspection team gave their final approval, and our in house Tibetan monk blessed eternal happiness to its owner as we all waved goodbye to the mailman speedily bringing it to your doorstep.

Countless people have been involved in the design, sourcing the raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, marketing, and support of this product. If it doesn’t live up to your highest hopes let us know, and once we stop crying, we will make sure you are 100% satisfied. 

The message is the perfect blend of humor and humility and made a great first impression. What a brilliant tactic! In one swoop, the company infused good will into our new business relationship and elevated a mundane transaction to memorable. I couldn’t help but smile. I’m primed to love this product and this company, monk or no monk.

When I was a teenager I worked at a small drugstore with a regional chain. I learned quickly and early that “the customer is always right.” There were no exceptions. Every complaint or concern was addressed with this mindset. That was smart business, most especially when every transaction was face-to-face with a member of the local community.

In the intervening decades of faceless online merchandising, it seems the customer-always-right premise is negotiable and relationship often neglected. This morning’s email was a reminder that a customer orientation still works wonders. It’s also a great reminder of the importance of a first impression: we only make one. Smart people won’t underestimate how much they matter!

~ René Morley

sweet suite

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Last fall we accomplished a project that has been on my priority list for years: master bed and bath renovation. Our inspiration was a resort on Isla de Vieques off the shore of Puerto Rico. We visited this tiny  island in 2007 on our 25th wedding anniversary.

The privately owned resort is now a rather more expensive W Retreat & Spa. It was of a gracious Spanish style, wide porches open to sea breezes and a private beach inviting relaxation. The bed/bath suite was an open floor plan with great views from every corner of the room. Except, of course, for the toilet, which was discretely concealed. Our Vieques adventures? Well, that’s another story or two. (Traveler beware of Tim & co.’s bioluminescent bay night kayak tour!) But we came home with great memories, tons of photos, and a dream.

Since then, I’ve been collecting ideas from travels across the country and across the Atlantic. A few years ago, I developed an idea book on Houzz — a tremendous resource for interior design. We started to think seriously about timing. Ah, but progress can be slow. There were three weddings in three years. Then the beautiful grandbabies began to arrive. Lots to keep us busy and tie up resources.

Finally, finally! This fall all of the stars aligned for a master suite redesign. We agreed on the open floor plan (i.e. the Hubs came around) and that it should be as accommodating as possible for potential mobility challenges in the future. We wanted to retain the cherry woodwork and corner cabinet. We wanted it to feel generous and be comfortable, a great place to hang out. We had to work with the original footprint, which was a challenge. It was fairly narrow, especially at the top of the “L”.  We were also restrained by incredibly thick basement walls (c. 1825) inhibiting new plumbing. However, we were able to remove one interior wall completely and shorten another. We replaced two windows with shorter versions to accommodate the new layout.

“Before” Layout: A typical old farmhouse, smallish connecting rooms, narrow doorway to bathroom. Walk through bedroom to enter dressing room to enter bathroom. Bathroom difficult for visitors to access; 2nd floor or basement alternatives. No patio access from space.

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“After” Layout:  One interior entrance/door within suite. Access to outside patio and view of waterfall and fireplace via sliding glass doors. Reclaimed space under stairwell for a closet freed up space for soft seating. Powder room with sliding pocket door is discreet and easily accessed by visitors.

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The end result is exactly what we hoped for and yet somehow more than we expected. The color scheme is cool gray, mineral blue and deep spruce warmed by the cherry furniture and floors. A medallion motif carries across the space. Comfy faux wicker patio furniture provides a pop of goldenrod in soft seating. I especially love the effect of crystal chandeliers throughout (and the Hubs doesn’t seem to mind). I also love the rain shower-waterfall combination installation. I hadn’t realized how much I missed having a shower! This tub is smaller than the one we removed but of much improved design, perfect for soaking.

A big shout-out to our friend and neighbor, Ed, who did most of the work. We really appreciate the local tile and glass installations and custom cabinetry as well. Well done!

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~ Rene Morley

christmas spirit

FullSizeRenderWithout doubt, Christmas music claims top honors in my collection. I collect it like some people collect fine wine, always looking for a fresh take on an old story and ever so grateful when I find it. I have Christmas playlists parsing out all kinds of pop, country, traditional, instrumental, and — my all-time favorite — originals.

It’s sadly ironic that one of our most important holidays can also be one of the loneliest, so overhyped and overproduced. We hope for a classic Christmas, enveloped in the glow of candlelight, surrounded by loving family, enjoying a festive meal and protection of a warm of hearth. We imagine a big pile of presents under the tree — debt free, please. We long to embrace those who’ve left aching holes in our hearts, return them to our perfect Christmas scene. Ah, if only Hollywood made Christmas to order.

But when we think about it, if we think about it, the birth of baby Jesus was anything but a Hallmark moment. It must have been lonely, a young woman delivering her firstborn without the benefit of family or even a midwife alongside. She labored alone, in a foreign town. She gave birth in a dirty and smelly stable. She and her husband were poor newlyweds, soon to become refugees. There wasn’t much to recommend Christmas that first Christmas.

Except, of course, the exceeding joy and gladness expressed from the highest of heavenlies in the good news of the birth of God’s son. Well, yes, there is that! It is just so easy to lose sight of it.

So it’s understandable if your Christmas spirit needs a lift. If you’re feeling lonely or alone, sad or sorrowful … or a bit frazzled, eager to refocus … or wondering, like Cindy Lou, if it’s all become a bit superfluous, then I hope you’ll listen in, my friend.

At the top of my playlist is a new release from a favorite artist, “Story of Stories” (Carolyn Arends, 2014). You’ll enjoy lots of fresh lyrics and melodies on her new album: Story of Stories, and an earlier album, Christmas: An Irrational Season (2004). The second is equally as good as the first, which set the gold standard in Christmas originals. If you like insightful lyrics, earthy acoustics and upbeat melodies, Carolyn Arends is singing your tune.

There’s no one who sings Christmas more directly into my heart. You can listen in on her website; some are also on YouTube: It was a Holy Night, Long Way to GoVacancy (2014); My First Christmas, The Lord’s Servant (2004).

I play Carolyn often but there are others in my originals mix you might enjoy. With apologies for the unavoidably cheesy videos or annoying ads … ;=) I hope you give yourself the gift of a few quiet moments to capture some fresh Christmas spirit.

The spirit of Christmas is as fresh as North Country balsam laden with new fallen snow. I hope you experience it this Christmas.

~ Rene Morley

Bonus! Sharing out our favorite Christmas cartoon: The Small One. That’s 25 minutes of Christmas-like-a-kid in technacolor, circa 1960-something. :=)

hack the cabinet

Have you ever purchased something for a specific purpose that soon becomes obsolete? Me, too. I bought a cherry entertainment cabinet just a couple years before we converted to wide screen. I don’t know why I didn’t see that coming.

Initially, we constrained ourselves to a new unit sized to fit in the old cabinet. We quickly realized our mistake, squinting from the back of the room. Sub par! Eventually, the Hubs insisted on el grande wall-mounted flat screen. Then our good ol’ fashioned TV cabinet became almost useless. Huh.

What a waste! So I began using it almost immediately for other things. As you might imagine, it wasn’t long before it was holding a hodgepodge collection of media, gadgets, cables, and cast-offs. What a mess.

Last fall, inspiration struck: this classy cabinet was perfect for a hidden home office. My end goal was to make good use of every inch of the cabinet, get rid of ugly filing cabinets — stuffed to the rims — plus the pile of files accumulating near by. Finally, inspired by Ikea Hackers, I had a plan!

First, I counted and measured shelving. The good news is these old style cabinets are deep! Then I struck out on a bargain treasure hunt. I was looking for home office storage supplies I could live with a long time. They had to mix well with the few odds and ends I already owned.

At TJ Maxx, I purchased four small gray covered storage boxes in varying depths. I also purchased three sectioned organizers in classy French motif. On a whim, I snagged an open box that matched.

At Office Max, I purchased six self-assemble cardboard filing boxes; five standard size and one for legal-size paperwork. They snap together along the edges and seem pretty sturdy. I also picked up some Manila folders and hanging file folders.

I filled the small storage boxes with common supplies such as business envelopes and stamps, banking materials, small craft tools and such. The sectioned organizers worked great for all of the stuff that usually fills the junk drawer: scissors, tape, rulers, highlighters, erasers, staples, and various doo-dads. The open box was perfect for greeting cards and thank you notes.

Into one filing box fit reams of computer paper, notebook paper, photo paper, and card stock. In another, boxes of stationary and Christmas cards were tucked away. There was room enough for my paper shredder and pencil sharpener, using the handy dandy electrical connection built into the cabinet. That was the easy part.

Several months later, I had enough courage to tackle the hard part…

.. which brings us to July Fourth weekend, 2014. It took me most of three full days to process all the paperwork accumulated through neglect. So many records saved over the years have no value but each had to be reexamined. Thirty-three years of marriage (27 years in this house) raising three children through childhood to college, several major surgeries and a few minor along with a life threatening illness or two… sigh. You get the picture. Most of those records passed through my fingertips this weekend.

It might have been the most boring Independence Day holiday weekend, ever. My back ached and ached. My head spun. The only thing saving my sanity was the movie queue. It seemed like acres of paper and it probably was.

In the end, what filtered out of all of that fit easily in the four empty filing boxes. The result is a refreshingly clean and organized cabinet fulfilling its potential once again. Oh, and two empty filing cabinets in need of a new home. Plus a massive pile of paper to recycle. I have to admit to a sense of pride in finally wrestling this beastie into submission.

I made a few discoveries as well, saving some important tidbits from obscurity and identifying others that deserve no less than a toasty hot hot hot! fire pit. I will surely enjoy watching those burn while sipping on a generous pour of red. Fortnately, I know just the bottle for the occasion!

~ René Morley

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living in the light

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I’m finally back on track with my trail-walking regimen. It is always a double-dip of joy to walk in early spring in the North Country. It feels so good to be moving, truly moving, sloughing off winter. Just about every creature under the North Country sun seems to agree.

My favorite time to walk is early morning, when the forest is most alive. Every day there are new friends along the path. Runny babbits scamper alongside for a panicked moment or two before ducking into the undergrowth, safely obscured. Red squirrels and cousins gray run up one tree and down another. Chipmunks skitter back and forth underfoot, busy, busy, busy! Occasionally, I cross paths with whitetail deer on their way from the stream.

Songbirds abound early in the morning: jays, finches, wrens, robins and sparrows, sometimes a cardinal, last week an oriole, tweeting loud and proud, seeking a mate. They are easiest to observe now, hardwoods barely beginning to leaf out. Last week I observed a most charming courting ritual as mister skip-hopped his way to a new missus. Ready the nest!

Day by day, new wildflowers emerge in early spring sunlight. Pearly white bloodroot are among the first, blossoms closed in coolness, relaxing open in the sun. Buttery yellow trout lilies are not far behind, foliage dappled like the forest itself. Soon clusters of violets appear on spindly short stems. Then ferns unfurl like flags of the forest. The display underfoot is rivaled only by the occasional burst of pale pink and white blooms in the canopy above, foreshadowing fruits of the summer.

The past couple of weeks I have been paying special attention to the sunlight. It’s chilly yet; unseasonably so. Yet where spring’s rays rest awhile, the forest is verdant and richly varied. Stems, leaves, buds, blossoms, and seeds create a miniature Eden for furry and feathered friends. Living in the light yields abundant life indeed.

My spirit lifts by the sight of swaths of sunlight illuminating the forest. Light is a familiar meditation theme; scripture tells us that God is the Father of light. His word lights our path — every encounter somehow illuminating. Jesus said he is the light of the world. In all of this, there is the overriding assurance that God is and owns the light; darkness has no purview in his kingdom.

I love Michael Card’s sentiment, “Even the darkness is light to Him / the night is as light as the day.” What a powerful image — so brilliantly bright as to see through darkness as if it does not exist. It is completely dispelled! Indeed, as surely as dawn pushes back the darkness of each new day, the Father of Light can be or do no less.

It is a privilege to work and play in this life-giving light. Every once in awhile, I’m reminded to cease scurrying around like a chipmunk long enough to say, thank you.

~ René Morley

Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures. (James 1:17)

God is light. There is no darkness in Him… If we live in the light as He is in the light, we share what we have in God with each other. (1 John 1:5-7)

Jesus once again addressed them: “I am the world’s Light. No one who follows me stumbles around in the darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in.” (John 8:12)

hope dawns

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A bright band of warm hope
Spreads across my horizon
A reflection of your glory
Shining in dawn of new day

All else seems hard and cold
Winter debris lingering
Fields and forest cloaked
In dark and dingy gray

Then a ruffle of feathers
Bare branches swaying
Birdsong rising
In happy, hopeful chorus

Swooping the fence line
Skimming the cornfield
Winging the hedgerow
Floating the riverbank

In trills and tweets
I hear echoes of the ages
Hope sailing high, yet
Love singing strong

Peace be with you.
Do not be afraid.
He is not here.
He is risen!

Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.

I’ll be with you …
day after day after day,
right up to the end of the age.

Hope dawns.

René Morley

Matthew 28; Luke 24; Mark 16 ; John 20

spring therapy

The past few weeks have been a slog, waiting for spring to spring. It was either stay busy or lose my mind. So I have been knitting and crafting in my spare time. Although I always end up spending more time or money than I intended, good therapy is seldom fast or cheap, eh?

20140419-204043.jpgOne of my favorite quick projects is Babies in Bloom knit hats by Jennifer Dickerson. These knit up in a couple hours or so, even for a slowpoke like me. Sadie wears them beautifully in sage green and coral-pink with big rosettes that offset her sweet smile. My more recent innovation is to work them up in gray or blue and add bright felt buttons for the charming little lads in my life. It is a stretchy, lightweight hat suitable for spring or fall. Inexpensive to make from leftover yarn, easy and fun!

20140419-195634.jpgThis weekend I started a new project: loveys. These small square blankets are perfect for wee ones. The idea is for mama to keep it close for awhile to absorb her scent, which helps a newborn feel more secure. But toddlers and small children love loveys, too. They are so easy to take everywhere!

I couldn’t decide between two patterns online — satiny luxe or with tactile ribbon tags — so I merged them into a version uniquely my own. My first rendition has soft pink trim on a sweet owl print flannel backed by cream colored minky. It’s a gift for grandgirl-on-the-way, due late July. Her mama will tuck it away until the big day.

My sewing skills are a bit rusty but I love the finished product. The satin trim is luxuriously wide; the fabrics are feather soft. After just a few weeks, she’ll be fascinated by the differently textured ribbons. I have a bunch more loveys cut out and ready to sew … when I get back from Arizona. Because every baby needs one. Or at least, this GiGi thinks so!

~ René Morley