letting go, pressing on

IMG_91732018 dawned in classic North Country winter fashion: piercingly clear, blazingly bright, and intensely cold. Mid-morning mercury hovered at negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Yikes! Wind chill warnings persist through mid-day, projecting negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Dangerously cold!

I’m in no hurry to get out although I will, eventually. I’ll bundle up and brave a brief walk across snowplowed path to check in on three grands next door. But for now, I’m content to linger in leisurely warmth.

Of course, this induces some guilt. I’ve been thinking of the Hubs since my feet hit the floor. Not a lot of good that’s done him, eh? There’s nothing worse than extreme cold on a dairy farm. They’ve been at it for hours, long before dawn broke, another miserably cold day in an exhausting week of subzero temps. I can only hope a batch of French onion soup and crockpot of beef stew are some comfort.  Meanwhile, I’m thankful for a quiet morning on the first day of the new year.

Yesterday I attended a new church. Pastor Floyd urged us to take a lesson from ancient King David’s epic example of letting go. As at the story goes, David, God’s elect, layered sin upon sin, including failure in line of duty, adultery and lying. As a result, a good man was murdered, a marriage ruined, and an infant died. Can you imagine what Facebook or Twitter would make of his mess?
Continue reading letting go, pressing on

sunrise, moonset


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.


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


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!

Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 8.45.05 AM

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. It’s hard to argue with this logic. They claim medical professionals are an export and health tourism is a thing — yet it’s not clear the source of either, which raises some suspicion.

The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to deny that 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. “Black markets” are robust. 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


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.


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!



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