Wednesday, November 18, 2015

#JesusWasARefugee - An Appeal to Christians

I don’t write about politics often. Usually, when I want to talk about something controversial, I find a sounding board in my husband or on the Facebook pages of friends. But when I look at responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, I find that I can no longer be silent. While many people I know, both Christians and not, have stood in solidarity with the masses of men, women, and children fleeing terrorism and oppression, I am also seeing a very disturbing trend among a specific group of Christians. These are the very people who, when questioned, will tell you that they base their lives on the Bible, that if “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” By and large, these are the same people who, right now, are abandoning the foundation of their belief in order to justify the exclusion of refugees.

Many people have already spoken on this issue. They’ve pointed out the hypocrisy of banning all refugees because of a few potential criminals when we don’t ban all guns because of a few mass-murderers. They’ve pointed out that you are far more likely to be killed by a white, American male than you are by an Islamic radical. They’ve pointed out that many white Americans today are the descendants of refugees. They’ve pointed out the connection between this refugee crisis and that of the 1930s when Americans opposed welcoming the Jews into our country because it wasn’t our problem. Since that work is already done for me, I just want to focus on one thing: what the Bible says about refugees. Believe it or not, it says quite a bit.

To be clear, the reason I am focusing exclusively on a Biblical argument is that I am addressing a group of people who claim that in order to be Christians, we must believe everything the Bible says and live by it. This is what the Bible says.

The Israelites were refugees

When Jacob and his descendants first entered Egypt, they were escaping a severe famine in their native land. The Egyptians not only welcomed them in but, because of Joseph’s position as second-in-command to the Pharaoh, they gave the Hebrews the best land in the country to live on. (Genesis 46-47)

The Israelites’ status as former refugees was not lost on them. Throughout the Mosaic Law, God commands them to remember their history and to be hospitable to others for that very reason. The Law was especially insistent that the people of God care for the poor, the needy, for orphans, widows, and foreigners.

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

“When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God.’” (Leviticus 23:22)

“So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

“You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not detest an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:7)

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14)

“You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17)

God cares about refugees

Over and over, the prophets and the psalmists remind the people that God’s heart is for the oppressed. 

“The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed,
A stronghold in times of trouble" (Psalm 9:9).

“O Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble;
You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear
To vindicate the orphan and the oppressed,
So that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror" (Psalm 10:17-18).

"Let not the oppressed return dishonored; Let the afflicted and needy praise Your name" (Psalm 74:21).

"The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.” (Psalm 103:6).

"He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.The Lord sets prisoners free,the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous" (Psalm 146:7-8).

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6)

“if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:6-7)

Jesus was a refugee
Everyone familiar with the Christmas story knows that when Herod was looking for the young Jesus to kill him, his parents took him and fled to Egypt. (Matthew 2:13)

Jesus cares about the oppressed
Jesus announced his public ministry by reading in the synagogue a passage from Isaiah:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (Luke 4:18-19, taken from Isaiah 61:1-2).

On top of that, he spent the majority of his time with people who were on the fringes of society, people whom others looked at with mistrust or even disgust: corrupt government sell-outs (tax collectors), prostitutes, and general lowlifes (fishermen).

We are commanded to care for those in need

One of Jesus’ most famous parables is the story of the Good Samaritan. For those who aren’t familiar, the Samaritans were a group of part-Jewish, part-Palestinian people whom the Jews despised every bit as much as Donald Trump despises Muslims. Their religion was a hybrid of Judaism and paganism, and because of that, the Jews had nothing to do with them if they could help it. And yet Jesus tells a story of one of Those People helping out a Jew in need.

Let’s not forget that the priest and the Levite had good reasons to shun the bleeding, dying man on the side of the road. The Law actually forbade priests and Levites from touching anything that was unclean, and that included dead people. They were just following the rules, after all. They were just making sure they didn’t risk defiling themselves. They were just taking care of their own business. And yet Jesus doesn’t ask, “which of these people did the right thing according to the Law?” He asks, “which of these was a neighbor to the man who was attacked?” Answer: “The one who showed mercy toward him.” He ends the story by turning straight to the listener and saying, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37) In effect, Jesus is asking us, who will be a neighbor to the refugees?

Fear versus faith

The primary reason many people don’t want to accept refugees is because of the terrorist attacks on Paris last week. One of the bombers had falsified records as a Syrian refugee (he was not actually a refugee; all the attackers have been identified as European nationals). Because background checks (one of the many steps in the vetting process) on incoming refugees rely on accessing Syrian records, which may be limited or nonexistent for many people, many people are concerned that there are terrorists disguised as refugees and that admitting refugees means admitting them. Again, other people have responded to that claim in other ways; I’m just focusing on what the Bible says.

The Bible is a story about God calling people into dangerous situations. Abraham had no idea where he was going when God called him to leave Sumer. Jacob had to face a brother who had formerly wanted to kill him. Joseph was beaten and left for dead before being sold into slavery and later thrown in prison. Moses had to ask the most powerful man on earth to free hundreds of thousands of slaves. David fought an 8-foot Amalekite with a slingshot. Every one of the prophets was murdered by the people they ministered to. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus was crucified.

If following God and doing the right thing is contingent upon our personal safety – if it becomes optional to obey God when there’s a slight chance that doing so might involve risk – then every one of those people was a fool, and every one of them died in vain. These are the heroes of our faith.

I've always been both inspired and terrified by the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, the three friends of Daniel who refused to follow Nebuchadnezzar's command because it violated their faith. The consequence of their action: they were thrown into an incinerator. Accepting refugees carries a small risk of accepting a few potential or current criminals. These three Hebrew youths were threatened with absolute certain death, and this was their response:

"[W]e do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18, emphasis mine)

We live in a scary world. We are not called to live lives as far removed from danger as possible. We are called to go where Jesus went – and Jesus went to the cross. All we have in return is the promise he gave to Joshua: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5)

Taking care of business

I've seen a few people point out the irony of welcoming refugees while we have so many homeless people, especially veterans, in our country. I agree that homelessness is a serious problem, which is why I support political candidates who want to extend veteran benefits, not slash them. However, the essence of this argument - that we can't help others until we first fix our own internal problems - is a distraction from the issue. And yes, the Bible has a few pertinent things to say about this as well.

One time a guy came up to Jesus and said, "Hey, I want to follow you, but first I have to go take care of some family business" (either his parents were dead and he was preparing for their funeral, or he was waiting until they died and were buried, however long that would be). Jesus replied with the famous line, "Let the dead bury their own dead." (Matthew 8:22) Basically, he was saying that the offer to follow Jesus was not going to be on the table forever, because Jesus was not going to be on earth forever. If you wait to follow him until all your ducks are in a row, you're never going to do it. 
Remember that Jesus also said, "you will always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11). By the time we eradicate homelessness, poverty, bigotry, discrimination, child labor, alternative energy, and any other problems (all serious, legitimate issues), this crisis will have passed us by and we will have missed the opportunity.

Faith and deeds

In my opinion, it all comes down to this: for those of us who claim to believe the Bible, who follow Jesus, do we really believe, or do we not? James has a very sharp warning for people who say they believe but do not put that faith into action:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:14-19)

James is saying that if our faith is not backed up by action - by obedience - we are in the same boat as demons. That is a bad thing.

We Christians talk big; we make grand statements about giving Jesus everything, about being led by the Spirit, about trusting God completely. Right now, we have an opportunity to make good on those statements. If we don’t, they are just empty words. If we don’t actually see the application of our faith into situations like this, I think we need to stop deluding ourselves by claiming to believe any of it.

You know how popular the song “Oceans” by Hillsong is? Remember the line, “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders . . .”? At some point, we need to ask ourselves (me too), do we really want that? Because that kind of faith compels us to act. And if we’re not going to act, we need to stop pretending to want that kind of faith. This is where it gets very real for me because when I think about it, there are so many things I could be doing to help people, that I don't do, or at least don't do often enough. It turns out that following Jesus is more than sharing an article on Facebook or writing a Scripture-heavy blog post. It's not a one-time thing; it's a continual challenge, and I am still struggling to respond to it.

So what can I do?

The Syrian refugee crisis is very much a political issue. President Obama has announced his intention to continue to welcome refugees, and a number of state governments have echoed this sentiment. However, a number of politicians – including current governors, presidential candidates, and more – object to this policy. What can you and I do?

We can be active in the political process. We can write letters to our governors, to our congressmen, encouraging them to extend aid to refugees who come to our states and towns. We can support candidates who are willing to help refugees, and we can encourage our friends and neighbors to do the same.

We can also be active in organizations that provide immediate relief to the Syrian refugees. I found a list hereHere is another list of smaller organizations, because sometimes the bigger organizations don’t actually do as much real good as they say they do. Do your own research and find one to support (I donated to MOAS because of this picture).

If you know there are refugees in your area, you can contribute to or volunteer with local organizations to help them. You can donate food and supplies. You can do something.
I want to finish with a story, which many people have already shared in relation to this situation.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’(Matthew 25:31-45)

Update: In my haste to post this entry as soon as possible, I left out some key passages. Fortunately, Relevant Magazine included several that I missed in their own post, "What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Day29: The Home Stretch

Today's Distance: about 650 miles
Total Distance: 9493 miles!
Today's Destination: Home

Well, we did it!  We made it home yesterday around 6 pm local time.  It was a long drive concluding a loooonnnnggg trip, but boy was it worth it!

Unlike the day before, we got a fairly early start on the day (checkign out at 9 am became early for us) and just drove.  Montana is, fortunately, more interesting than Wyoming, but it still took a few rounds of I-Spy and some crazy conversations to get us through.  Justin finally took a nap (he almost never sleeps in the car) and I got to listen to Carmina Burana, which kept me plenty awake while driving.  That and curving around mountains and counting how many times we crossed the Clark Ford (seven).

 I had expected I would be getting giddy once we reached Spokane, but it was actually Justin who got a little kooky.  I solaced myself with taking random pictures of the scenery.

We arrived home to find my mom and brother had left us some surprises:


We also arrived to non-functioning AC (it was turned off while we were gone). So I'm currently writing this while sitting in front of a box fan going full blast.

Today I added up all the receipts I had saved.  We estimated the trip would cost about $200/day, or roughly $600 total.  To my surprise, we were under budget!  The receipts clocked in a little under $4000, although I know it's really more than that because there are a few gas receipts we missed and we didn't get receipts for most of the tolls we paid.  But still, I figure that's pretty good for a road trip around the country!

Some fuel stats, if you're interested
Average MPG for the trip was 34.8 (including highways, cities, idling in traffic, etc.)
Cheapest gas: Hattiesburg, MS: $2.31/gal
Most expensive gas: El Cajon, CA: $4.29/gal!
Average gas price: $2.93 (average price per gallon, not average we spent)
Median gas price: $3.30

I learned some things about myself on this trip, although not necessarily what I expected to learn. I was hoping this trip would make me more spontaneous and less tightly wound, that it would give me a break from my daily stress and make me less frazzled when I came back.  I'm not really sure if I accomplished any of that, largely because the trip itself had many of its own problems and stresses to worry about!

I got very upset whenever plans fell through.  Justin told me it's okay for things not to work out, and I hope I learned to accept that because it's not like I really had a choice.  I also hope I learned to communicate better with Justin.  We had some ups and downs, but overall I feel like the trip really brought us closer together.

But the biggest lesson for me actually happened unexpectedly, and it was the result of my forgetting to pack extra contact lenses.  I've worn glasses since I was in the second grade, and I've always hated them.  I got contacts when I was 11, and since then I've felt very self-conscious whenever I wasn't wearing them.  I'm usually pretty self-conscious in general; I think about my clothes and how much makeup I have on (even though I don't wear a lot) and what picture I'm presenting to the people around me.  I have to say, there's nothing like a good, long road trip to shake up that mindset, and there's nothing like having your security blanket (my contacts) ripped away (literally, because one of them ripped two weeks in) to make yourself deal with your insecurities.

The first few days were tough.  I even wore my contacts a couple days while one of them was torn, even though they hurt, because I just didn't want to be out in my glasses.  I didn't want to feel ugly.  Finally, one day I told myself that feeling good was more important than looking good, and that's when I put my contacts back in their case for the rest of the trip.  It still wasn't easy.  I wondered what the people around me thought when they looked at me.  I'm pretty good at acting like I don't care what other people think of me, but deep down I really do.  The great thing about a road trip, though, is that nobody cares about you!  Most of the people you interact with are people you'll never see again, and when you're at the Grand Canyon or an art museum, you know that the people around you also are way too focused on the stuff right in front of them to even notice you.  That's a very liberating realization.  I hope I can carry it over into my daily life.

I packed a pretty light wardrobe, which meant rotating through the same 8 or 9 tops over and over for a month.  Again, it was something I started not to think about - especially whenever we hadn't done laundry in a while and my primary concern wasn't what was cute or what was my favorite, but what was clean.  I also wore less and less makeup as the trip progressed.  By the last day, I didn't wear any (of course, that was the day I ran into a former student of mine at a gas station, of all places!).

So here's the lesson I learned: my physical appearance had absolutely no effect on my enjoyment of the trip. Once I got sunglasses that could fit over my glasses, I could see just as well and drive just as, well, the way I normally do.  The Statue of Liberty doesn't look any different without contacts.  Niagara Falls is just as breathtaking with only tinted moisturizer and mascara (actually, I'd recommend not wearing any makeup if you're going to go close to the falls, because it will wash right into your eyes).  And the Midwest is just as flat and boring no matter what you're wearing, and if you're going to spend 9 hours in a car you're going to want to wear something comfortable.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing trip.  I'm glad we did it, and I'm glad we were with each other because I can't imagine going through that craziness with anyone else but Justin.  We hope to travel a lot more in the future - but from now on, we think two weeks is our limit!
I missed these sunsets

I'd like to thank everybody who prayed for us on our trip as well as anybody who actually read all these blog posts.  It's been an incredible journey and I'm glad to have "shared" it with you.

Day 28: Insanity Sets In

Today's Distance: about 373 miles
Total Distance: 8539 miles
Today's Destinations: Mt. Rushmore, SD; Billings, MT

Justin was feeling a little better today, so we headed out to Mt. Rushmore, which is not that far from Rapid City.  It's a nice drive, largely because you start to see evergreen trees when you get close.

I know understand why Justin thought Mt. Rushmore looks smaller than he imagined it.  You don't get really up close to it unless you go on this long walk thing.  The design of it seems almost intentionally deceptive to the eye.  It reminded me of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, which is actually the largest Christian basilica in the world, but it looks and feels small.  I remember the high-relief carvings of cherubs on the walls, which looked so tiny until you got right up next to them and saw they were over 6 feet tall.  Mt. Rushmore is like that.  I don't think you realize how big it is unless you look at photos of people building it.

After viewing the site, we tried to get an oil change at Walmart, but they couldn't do it because they were out of the right filter? or something.  This is the second time a Walmart has been unable to change my car's oil.  Fortunately we don't need an oil change until we get back home, so I think we'll just wait.  But because of that, we got a late start getting on the road - it was after 12:30 by the time we actually were on I-90 again.

The highway dips into Wyoming for about a hundred miles or so.  And as boring as we thought South Dakota was, northeastern Wyoming is absolutely barren.  I mean void of plants (except grass), animals, houses, or basically any signs of civilization.  When we reached a city I told Justin not to be deceived by the cars because they were probably driven by antelope.

We finished our latest Agatha Christie novel and didn't feel like starting another one, so we just talked.  But when you've been talking for 4 weeks and 9000 miles, conversations start to get a little loopy.  For example, I decided that in my reality, all the cows were buffalo and their names were all Wooly. That level of conversation for four hours.

I was really hoping we'd make it all the way to Bozeman tonight, but by the time we reached Billings we were just tired of being in the car.  So here we are, 650 miles from home.  We were originally going to go to Yellowstone, but we're in no state to even enjoy it right now, so it's going to have to wait for another trip (maybe later this summer?).  We just want to get home.  Tomorrow we're going to drive as far as we can and see if we can get all the way there.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Days 26-27: Go Home

Today's Distance: > 608 miles (9th) plus 574 miles (10th)
Total Distance: about 8166 miles
Today's Destinations:  Rochester, MN; Wall Drug, SD; Rapid City, SD

Well, yesterday started out rather disappointingly.  We had planned to visit my former ballet teacher in Indianapolis.  She was only free in the morning/early afternoon, but since we were only 3 1/2 hours away, we thought we'd be able to make it.  However, I thought (because Google told me) that Indiana was on Central Time so we'd gain an hour.  It's not.  Indiana is on Eastern Time - what the heck?!  So after texting back and forth a few times with her, we realized we couldn't feasibly meet and give her time to get back to work.  So that was pretty disappointing. :(

Anyway, so there was nothing to do to get back on the road, and we pushed a button on the GPS for the first time: "Go Home."

The way home for us from Toledo is to drive on I-90 for about 2000 miles.  It is a long, straight road.  Two things, however, broke up the monotony, and not in a good way.  I would like to talk about them briefly:

1) Tolls.  In New York, you have to pay a toll every time you get off the interstate.  In Indiana and Illinois you pay a toll every 10-20 miles.  It's ridiculous.  I assume the tolls go to pay for the upkeep up the highways.  Are the highways in any better condition than anybody else's?  No!  They are just as crappy as Mississippi's (which are free).  In fact, I have yet to drive through a state whose highways are equal to, let alone better than, Washington's.  Our gas prices may be egregious, but we actually do see our tax dollars at work.

2) Construction.  You know that joke everybody in every state (except Washington) says, "in _____ there are only two seasons: winter and construction"?  In Ohio, it's true.  And I thought it must be worse in Ohio than in any other state, but guess what?  Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota - I'm beginning to feel like the entire Interstate 90 is under construction! Could we maybe finish one or two sections before one-laning it through an entire state?

So on Thursday, we ended up driving through our record number of states(5): Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota!  It was pretty impressive, but that's because we were in Western Ohio and made it to Eastern Minnesota, and we kind of curved upward halfway through Illinois (thank God, I was beginning to hate that state) into Wisconsin, and then cut over again into Minnesota.

As far as geography goes, Western Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois all look pretty much the same.  It's a lot of yellow and a lot of corn fields, mostly.  Wisconsin and Minnesota are a bit prettier - more trees, hills, and green - but still corn.

Today we drove from Eastern Minnesota all the way through South Dakota, stopping in Rapid City.  The first time Justin drove through South Dakota, he said afterward that it "ate his soul."  It's not ugly, per se, but it is pretty monotonous.  I'm pretty sure, though, that the reason Justin hated the state so much was because he drove through it after going through Missouri and Iowa. Enough said?

Even so, we were glad to have Agatha Christie to keep us company as we drove through the very flat, monochromatic blandness that is South Dakota.  All the way until we reached the famous city of Wall, or more specifically, the famous shopping district of Wall Drug.

80 years ago, Wall Drug Store was just a drug store that offered free ice water.  It still has that today, but it's now a mall-sized block of shops and restaurants all owned by Wall Drug.  It is a total tourist trap.  You should definitely go if you're ever in the area.  It's quite the experience!

Strangely, as soon as we entered South Dakota, Justin started sneezing.  As we progressed through the state, he continued to sneeze intermittently, until when we finally reached Wall Drug he was feeling a little sick.  We checked online for hotels in town but found they were all booked, so we drove to our original destination of Rapid City, which is just 50 miles farther (also very close to Mt. Rushmore).

 After about 250-300 miles of flat, boring land, you enter the Badlands.  I'm not sure where they got that name because this is the most beautiful countryside, especially in late afternoon because the sun makes the colors so vivid when they contrast with the shadows.  It's really, really pretty.

All in all, we're making pretty good time, although it is a lot of hours in the car.  We're looking forward to being home!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Days 24-25: Niagara

Today's Distance: 406 miles (7th) + 463 miles (8th)
Total Distance: about 6984 miles (by the end of the 8th)
Today's Destinations: Niagara Falls (American side)

Okay, so I've lapsed on updates.  It's been a busy few days.  This update is going to cover the 7th-8th only, even though today is actually the 9th (I'll probably do that one tomorrow morning).

After the stress of being on the east coast and in the big city, not to mention living out of suitcases for over three weeks, Justin and I feel ready to go home.  We decided to pamper ourselves when we got to Niagara Falls.  So we splurged a bit and checked in at Trip Advisor's #1 hotel in the area, the historic Red Coach Inn.

  It's the kind of place where your room has a name instead of a number (ours was Dorset) and real keys that you better not lose or they'll charge you $50.

But they STILL had a continental breakfast, which is to say, you can go into their restaurant the next morning and select a breakfast dish, side, and beverage from their full menu for free (well, plus tip).  I had pancakes with fruit and whipped cream, with a side of sausages. It was way too much food.

I'm getting ahead of myself.  The night we got there, we walked around a bit - there are a lot of souvenir shops and things in the area - and then headed to the falls.  Our hotel was across the street from the rapids leading to the American Falls.  You can literally see the rapids from the front door and if you look a little farther you can see the mist from the falls.  It's pretty weird to see this cloud of water vapor rising up randomly behind buildings and trees, but that's what it looks like from downtown.  If you want to stay even closer to the falls, though, try the Comfort Inn.  The entrance to the park is directly across the street from them.  It's Right There.

So we entered the park and walked around, following the rapids, and then boom! It's right there.  The river bed gives way and the water plunges nearly 200 feet to the rocks below, sending up enormous clouds of mist.  We couldn't look away for a while, it was just too beautiful.

But eventually we did look away, because we wanted to find out where to get tickets for the Maid of the Mist boat tour, which we knew we wanted to take the following morning.  We walked through the gift shop and I found the Most Beautiful Souvenir Christmas Ornament Ever (picture to come eventually) and a bell.  We also located the ticket booths on the other side of said gift shop.

Back to the hotel, which has everything your heart could desire - except a microwave.  We had brought leftover food from multiple previous meals, but couldn't find the plastic forks we'd accumulated, so dinner was, well, interesting.  Fortunately, the fridge was already stocked with complimentary cheese and crackers (also champagne, which we don't like, although sometimes I wish I did).

The bed. was. amazing.  We probably could have slept in all day.  But we knew we had to get up because we were meeting yet another friend for lunch and that required a bit of a drive, leaving us with only the morning for whatever else we wanted to see of Niagara Falls.  After the aforementioned breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and were presented with chocolate chip cookies! and we walked to the falls.

The Maid of the Mist is a 20-minute boat ride that takes you pretty much as far as you can safely go in a boat close to Horseshoe Falls (Canadian side, but the entrance is on the American side).  This is not by any means the only thing you can do in Niagara Falls, but I didn't want to walk along the bottom to Cave of the Winds, and we didn't have current passports to do the Journey Behind the Falls (someday I hope!).  If you do pretty much any of these things, you get a souvenir plastic poncho in a signature color (blue for Maid of the Mist, red for whatever the Canadian equivalent of that is, and yellow if you go behind the falls).  These ponchos are pretty much completely ineffective at keeping you dry, because the wind whips them around and they ride up to your stomach.  But if you cinch the hood part at least your hair won't get wet, I guess.  We managed to stay pretty dry on the boat (we remained on the lower deck because it's way less crowded).


Everybody says the Canadian side of the falls offers the best view.  This is false.  The boat tours offer the best view, hands down.  I can't describe how it felt to be down there, but I became absolutely giddy.  It was all I could do to keep from jumping up and down (but if I had I might have dropped my phone, and I was really nervous I was going to drop it overboard already).  It was glorious.


And then the boat turned around, and we returned to the dock.  We waved at the other boats on the water and finally disembarked.

From there, we had a busy day of driving.  We backtracked a little to meet our friend (best man at our wedding) for lunch because it was the only time we could arrange to see him.  We haven't seen him since our wedding, so it was worth it to drive the extra few hours.

Then we headed to Ohio to see some more friends, whom we haven't seen in about 7 years.  The last time I saw them, I got to meet these cute 9-year-old twins they were hoping to adopt.  Those 9-year-olds have turned into their beautiful almost-sixteen-year-old daughters who are healthy and happy and loved.  Guys, adoption is probably the most beautiful thing in the world.  It's not for everyone, I know, and it's a lot of work (which doesn't end when the adoption is finalized), but seeing families like this one, I just think it's so worth it.  Justin had never met the girls before, and he had fun joking around with them.  We were both delighted to discover they are Dr. Who fans so we had plenty to talk about. ;)

And that's all for now.  I'll update you on today's adventures tomorrow morning.  Oh, but one thing to leave you with: it's true what they say about Ohio and there being two seasons, one of which is construction.  It was like the entire STATE was being rebuilt from what we saw.  Ridiculous.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Day 23: Ground Zero

Today's Distance: 0 miles (in our car anyway)
Total Distance: same as yesterday
Today's Destinations: WTC and 9/11 Memorial

We didn't do a whole lot in the city yesterday, but we did have a lot of City Experience.  First of all, we took the (right) subway the wrong way and got slightly lost, but we just ended up going to the World Trade Center a little sooner than we had originally planned, which was good, since it got humid really fast and we probably wouldn't have felt up to it later.

Our second city experience is that NYC's metro cards kind of suck.  We had a lot of trouble with them (DC's are way easier to use, if more expensive).

Our third city experience is that if you look like a tourist, you will be attacked by people selling stuff.  And if you're a nice person like Justin and you actually listen to the people selling stuff, they will keep hounding you to buy stuff from them and you just have to keep walking (I learned this lesson myself in the mall years ago, so now I don't make eye contact with vendors).

Our fourth city experience is that we're pretty sure our server at lunch was way slower with our table because we were obvious tourists.  The cheesecake was good though.

And our fifth city experience was going to a laundromat.  Tips if you have to do this: 1) take an ice-cold waterbottle, and 2) take a book.  The magazine selection leaves a lot to be desired (although thanks to EW's recommendation I'm now watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Shmidt on Netflix).

Back to the street vendors.  Fortunately, there seems to be a "You Shall Not Pass" line at the WTC beyond which the vendors don't go.  The site is still under construction, but a few of the buildings are complete, and you can visit the 9/11 memorial where ground zero is.

The former Twin Towers have been turned into fountains.  Around their perimeters are the names of the people who perished in the terrorist attack 14 years ago.  I started to cry as I looked at it, which is something I've never done at a war memorial or a cemetery or anything like that.  The senselessness of their deaths struck me.  Most of the time when we memorialize the deaths of a lot of people, it's because they died fighting for something, or trying to save someone, or they did something really awesome and memorable.  All these people did to die was show up to work that day.

Chaim Potok's The Chosen deals with this problem, the problem of the senselessness of suffering, whether it's a fly caught in a spiderweb or a little boy going blind or the slaughter of 6 million Jews. When bad things happen, we all tend to ask "why?" We look for a reason, for meaning.  The protagonist's father says that it's up to us to create meaning, to make something good come out of something bad.  I feel like that's what the 9/11 memorial does.  It took something senseless and tragic and utterly evil and made something beautiful out of it.  The names of the victims surrounding the place of their deaths reminded me that these were real people with real lives, and even though they've now been reduced to just names - a few letters carved into metal - their memory is something that can never be taken away from those who knew and loved them.  And as long as that site stands, their memory can't be taken away from the rest of us either.  They remain, in a sense, as a tribute to humankind's ability to rise from the ashes and continue on - wounded, but still going.


Anyway, if you go to New York, do see the memorial.  It's worth it.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Days 21-22: NYC, and Homesickness Sets In

Yesterday's Distance: about 350 miles
Total Distance: about 6115 miles
Yesterday and Today's Destinations: New Jersey; New York, NY - Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yesterday morning was rough.  Fatigue and homesickness had set in, Justin wasn't feeling well, and a near incident in the parking garage put me into some kind of emotional/anxiety episode.  Between everything that happened, we realized we missed home, and started considering cutting out a few stops along the way.  I said we should wait to decide anything for certain, so we're still kind of in limbo.  But at any rate, we skipped our Pennsylvania stops, and as much as I regret not seeing the Liberty Bell and the Gettysburg memorial, I can only imagine what kind of crowds they would have on the 4th of July.  Instead we enjoyed a nice, peaceful drive through Maryland and Pennsylvania, the latter of which is quite picturesque in places.

We're staying with a friend who lives near New York.  We all went to college together, and she along with her husband (who we also went to school with) now dance, choreograph, and teach in the city. He's off in Canada at a dance intensive, but she's in town, and since today was Sunday, she was free to play tour guide.

Justin, who has already been to New York once, wasn't up to walking around today (we still have tomorrow), so my friend and I toured the city by ourselves.  It was a lot of fun!  And a LOT of walking.

I think what made me the most homesick was the fact that it was the 4th of July, which is always a family day for us.  My mom grills burgers and hot dogs, and at night we go just out to the front yard where we have a perfect view of the fireworks.  I missed that.  We did get a view of some city fireworks though - and a better view of some private fireworks that I'm not sure are legal (I know they aren't in Moses Lake, although people always set them off there too).

I'm tired again today, but it's a good tired.  I think tomorrow Justin and I will take a more leisurely walk through Central Park and if we can, visit Ground Zero.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Day 20: Capital City Adventure

Today's Distance: 196 miles
Total Distance: about 5765 miles
Today's Destinations: Washington, D.C. - National Gallery of Art, Museum of Natural History

We find ourselves today, quite by accident, staying at the Embassy Suites just outside Washington, D.C.  Here's how it happened.

My chief concern with visiting DC was figuring out where to park to take the Metro.  As a small-town girl, this was a little overwhelming because there was so many options and we have no idea what stations are near parking.  So we picked one that seemed good and not out of the way, drove there, and then started looking for parking.  We pulled into the first parking garage that was open, then saw that it was the parking garage of a hotel. Figuring we would be killing two birds with one stone, we went inside to make a reservation.

Despite the rather impressive interior, it's just a 3-star hotel, and the price, although the most we've paid for a hotel so far, was not much more than any other hotel we've gotten.  And it's a two-room suite.  Oh, and three stars means still a continental breakfast!

So after that we went to catch the metro to the Smithsonian.  Again, as small-town folks, we had some trouble here.  A security guard actually helped us get our tickets.

You can't get the full "DC experience," or even the whole Smithsonian experience, in a day.  This is why schools take trips here during spring break, because the National Mall has plenty of material to cover a very full week.  We knew that going in so we decided to pick only the museums we really wanted to see: the National Gallery of Art (my preference) and the Museum of Natural History (Justin's).  I also wanted to see the American History Museum, because I'm a US History teacher after all, and I was told it was really cool.

There is just so much to see in the National Gallery of Art.  We only went into the West building, but that's the one that had my favorites: Raphael, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Rubens, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Degas, Rodin, Picasso, and Van Gogh.  Plus so, so, so much more!  I tried to speed through the galleries because there was so much more to see than we had time for.  I did catch the end of a guided tour though.


After that, we trudged (because our feet hurt) to the Museum of Natural History.  I had spent about 20 minutes in there during our DC trip of 2007 because we didn't realize we were close to closing time by the time we got there.  This time we spent more time in there, looking through most of the exhibits: the ocean, mammals, origin of man, bones, mummies, and of course, dinosaurs!  Oh and also the Hope Diamond.  It was so cool just to walk through everything.  If we had way more time I would have loved to read a lot more of the information, because that's kind of what I do, but just looking and taking everything in was super rewarding.  At the end, we went through a butterfly garden.  You do have to pay to do this ($6 for adults), but it's worth it.  You get to spend 15 minutes in the garden (they ticket it so it doesn't get too crowded because it's not that big, at least if you've ever been in a butterfly house).  But there were so many butterflies!  Sometimes they will land on you and you are just supposed to wait for them to fly away or ask an employee to brush them off with a paintbrush.  Justin had one on his shorts for about 5 minutes.


We grabbed some dinner after that, but knowing that we still had to walk back to the metro, we decided to forego the American History Museum - on this trip anyway.  Hey, we need a reason to come back, right?

So it turns out we are really glad we found a hotel before we went to the city, and really glad they let us check in early.  All we had to do was ride the metro back, cross the street, and hit the hay.

We did some other stuff today too.  Honestly, the best thing that happened today was that we had a good "family talk" before we left Justin's mom's this morning.  Hugs and tears and all that.

Oh, and apparently my car picked up somebody else's TV signal somehow because when we got into the car and turned it on, we could hear QVC.  The radio was off.  The Bluetooth was off.  We tried playing a CD, turning the volume all the way down, etc., and it didn't get any quieter.  It was the most absurd thing.  Just thought I'd mention it in case anyone else has ever experienced something like that.

We saw several street musicians in DC and gave money to a few.  I wish the city could actually employ them.  I hope they get by.  On that same note, there are a lot of homeless people in DC.   I know there are a lot of conflicting ideas about whether it's a good idea to give money to them, and I get all that.  I don't always give money to people, but sometimes it just seems like the right thing to do.  We passed a man whose sign said he was an Iraq veteran and recently became homeless.  I know this is a huge problem for returning veterans.  We gave him some money (wish it had been more), and Justin shook his hand and thanked him for his service to our country.  We walked away and I just felt so depressed - we were in our nation's capital city, and there are people here who have literally risked their lives to defend this city and every other in the country, and the people who make laws less than a mile away are not taking care of the people who make their cushy lives possible.We should support our soldiers - not just when they're overseas but also when they come home.

I hate to end on a down note, but I think it's worth thinking about, especially this weekend.  There is a lot to celebrate this Independence Day, but there is a lot of work to do too.  Remember the people who can't afford to cook out and launch their own illegal fireworks while you're celebrating.  Think about the ways we can make America the nation it aspires to be.