The Hidden Driveway of Fort Tryon

I don’t quite know why, but it’s taken me years to finally write about Fort Tryon.

Every year, when I organize my “Walk the Island” event with friends, walking the length of Manhattan on July 4th, I always think, this would be the perfect time to write about living in NYC.

After all, I love to share the history and geology of the island I’ve grown to call home. I’m always talking up a storm on these walks, and I had a strong desire at one time to be a tour guide, here.

What usually happens, though, is that I get swept up in the event itself, bask in the experience of being in the moment… and then forget completely to sit down and share it with others. And that’s… rather selfish, maybe?

I’ve written more than once about the gem that is Inwood. You can see my first post about it, here…

But when people talk about spending the day in a park uptown, they don’t often go all the way to Inwood Hill Park (even though I obviously recommend it every now and then). Usually people are talking about a visit to Fort Tryon Park.

And what’s not to love? Located in Washington Heights, just south of Inwood and Inwood Hill Park, it features fabulous gardens, a giant terrace with a panoramic view of the Hudson, space to sunbathe and picnic, lovely bridges and stunning natural rock structures… and a medieval art museum that looks like a Romanesque monastery!

Before waxing on and on about the 20th century history of the area, it’s important to emphasize that this land originally belongs to the Lenape people. According to the Fort Tryon Trust, the local tribe referred to themselves as the Wiechquaesgeck, and called the area Chquaesgeck, before the Dutch arrived in the 1600s – they finally took control of the land in the 1700s (you can still visit the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum in Inwood as an example of life in that era – it was built in 1785!)

Additionally, Fort Tryon and the area around it played a major role in the American Revolutionary War (more on that, later!)

But did you also know, prior to it being a park, it used to be the site of a giant mansion… and that the driveway to that mansion still exists, if you know where to look for it?

Photos from a privately published book commissioned by C.K.G. Billings in 1910, via myinwood.net

The mansion belonged to one C.K.G. Billings, who was heir to the …, one of the wealthy elite from the Gilded Age. The mansion was built in 1907, though Billings soon tired of it (!!!) and sold the entire proprerty to John D. Rockefeller for $35,000 per acre. Rockefeller wanted to turn the property into a park, but did not want the house – and planned to demolish it! Though public outcry saved the structure, it went the way so many buildings did… and burned to the ground in the mid 1920s.

But Rockefeller then succeeded in his vision of creating a park on the property, hiring the Olmstead Brothers (of Central Park fame) to design it. The cloisters museum was added in the 1930s, housing medieval art donated by the Rockefeller estate. Over the years, throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, more additions and renovations have solidified the park as one of the most beautiful escapes in all of Manhattan.

But what about the Billings driveway?

From the Heather Gardens at the lower end of the park (just inside the Southern entrance, from the 190th street exit on the A train – take the elevator up) if you go due east, toward the Hudson River, and keep going down…

First, you’ll arrive on a small terrace with an absolutely stunning view of the George Washington Bridge. This was part of the driveway itself, as it snaked up toward the top of the hill. You can continue the slope to the right, and follow the curve around and below, or…

There is a staircase to the left, and at the bottom you’ll find yourself in a peculiar spot with an archway underneath the terrace, with places in the ceiling where chandeliers may have once gently swayed, and large stone structures that mark the entrance to what was once the large and elegant driveway to the main house.

Here’s a glance of the house with the driveway intact, for perspective.

Photo from Library of Congress, courtesy of Untapped Cities

The driveway was a very difficult part of the estate to construct, and was actually designed by a Japanese military engineer, General Nogi, and cost $250,000. It’s constructed from the same rock that was blasted out of the hill in which it is constructed!

All in all, Fort Tryon is full of marvel, and even an entire day might not give you enough time to explore every corner (I’ll have to explain a bit more of its American Revolution days in my next post!) If you’re ever in New York City, and fancy a getaway with astounding views of the Hudson, stunning flower gardens, a medieval art museum, and so much more… plan a trip to Fort Tryon Park!

April in NYC

Imagine a new rendition of an old classic:

April in New York, magnolias in blossom,
Picnics beneath flowering cherry trees,
...April in New York, who can I run to?
What have you done to my heart?

When my husband and I moved to New York City back in 2014, it was the middle of November. Looking back, I don’t think I’d ever visited Manhattan during the warm months of the year. I’d never experienced Spring or Summer in the Big Apple.

A good friend of mine who lived here at the time told us, “Just wait. In Spring, you’ll truly fall in love with the city.”

She wasn’t kidding. And she was 100% correct.

One of several saucer magnolias we walk by every morning on our daily walks in Morningside Park, in upper Manhattan

I’m sure I’ve pointed out in previous posts just how green the city is. We learned once during a presentation with NYC Cares that the amount of green space throughout the five boroughs was enough to fill the entire area of Manhattan at least twice over! And among all that green space are a lot of flowering plants and trees. And I do mean a lot.

Pictured, from top to bottom, left to right: dogwood, daffodil, weeping cherry (pink), cherry and tulip, weeping cherry (white), forsythia, magnolia, cherry, and a hill of tulips!

We recently passed the year mark for the pandemic (and the “shelter-in-place” mandate of mid-March, 2020) and since that time last year, we’ve been taking a 3-mile walk every morning through at least two of the green spaces near our home, including Morningside Park, where most of the above pictures were taken. So, we’re now seeing our second Spring season on these walks, and every day, getting to see the flowers slowly opening, or fully blossoming, and the leaves following suit, is truly a meditative experience.

In fact, I wrote about meditating to the senses amidst all this Spring finery, not too long ago!

In addition to the gorgeous spaces we encounter daily, nearby, there are at least 4 distinct gardens throughout the five boroughs known as “botanical gardens,” (plus a “conservatory garden” in Central Park) that are dedicated to the beauty of nature and plants. And just last weekend, we got to visit the biggest one – the New York Botanical Garden.

And every so often the NYBG brings in an artist whose work is spread out not only inside the conservatories, but outside around the grounds as well, and this year, that artist is Yayoi Kusama.

My favorite image from our recent visit. This is Kusama’s “Dancing Pumpkin” (2020), just outside the Haupt Conservatory. Being an outdoor installation, it was accessible with the “Grounds Only” pass.

According to its site, the NYBG is the largest botanical garden in any U.S. city – over 250 acres – and it’s situated in Bronx Park, an idyllic spot chosen in the late 1800s by eminent botanists, Nathaniel Lord & Elizabeth Britton, after visiting the gardens of Kew, London. Now a National Historic Landmark, it boasts over 1 million plants, including an enormous Victorian-style glass conservatory, an award-winning rose garden, over 50 acres of forest, as well as areas dedicated to magnolias, cherry trees, daffodils, maples, conifers, herbs and other edible plants, and so much more. It also has a very robust education side, as well, including adult education classes, workshops for children, an edible academy, and even a professional school of horticulture!

Currently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, you must register tickets in advance, even for grounds-only access. The Kusama exhibits are extremely popular, so you’ll have to plan months in advance if you want to have access to the Conservatory or other indoor exhibits. But there’s plenty on the grounds to enjoy!

Kusama’s “I Want to Fly to the Universe” (2020) greets guests who arrive via the Main Entrance
Flowering “Weeping Cherries” grace the walk in front of the Haupt Conservatory. Who needs to go inside when so much beauty is just out front, with hundreds more acres to explore?
A walk along “Daffodil Hill,” where the Garden is planting 1,000,000 new daffodil bulbs in celebration of their 125th anniversary. And some of the existing plantings are from the 1920s!

Everywhere we turn, it seems, there are flowers, flowering trees, and plants just bursting with beautiful activity. Last weekend and this weekend a hidden garden on West 89th street, the Westside Community Garden, is hosting a Tulip Festival to celebrate its Spring blooms. Two blocks from where we live, on the campus of City College (past a striking magnolia), is a young peach tree that has just exploded with flowers. The 19th century catholic church down the block is flocked by Japanese Flowering Cherries, much like those lining the College Walk on Columbia University’s Morningside campus (see below). Tomorrow we plan to bike to Central Park and walk through the conservatory garden and hope to see the crabapples in bloom.

I hope you have time and the space to take in some of nature’s wonders, this season (and every season). May the blossoming of flowers and the growth of new life parallel the blossoming of new adventures and opportunities for you.

Japanese Flowering Cherry trees lining the College Walk of Columbia University’s Morningside Campus

And with that, here are even more pictures from our NYBG excursion. Most of them are from the perennial garden in front of the Conservatory, but you’ll notice the grove of magnolias from an area of the gardens dedicated to them (what you see is only a fraction!) and then another Kusama exhibit in the pond at the center of the Native Plant collection. Incidentally, the main photo of my blog is of the Native Plant collection, in the Fall! The Kusama piece, pictured here, is made up of dozens of free floating mirrored orbs that move with the water, bumping and squeaking against one another. It’s titled “Narcissus Garden,” and was first created and shown in 1966. I took a short video of the movement of the orbs, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out well!

Don’t forget to plan your own NYBG visit, here. And if you don’t live in the city and want to plan a future trip, here, consider visiting during the Spring season. You’ll fall even more in love with the city, if you do. My friend and I are in complete agreement about that.

Bloom in The Catskills: Take a Day (Or Week) Away from NYC

If you’re from New York City, or have lived here for any amount of time, you might be familiar with that mythical land known as The Hudson Valley.

A view of Bear Mountain from the edge of Cold Spring, NY

For those without cars (which was us for the first five and a half years of living here in Manhattan) this magical place was only a short train ride away, watching the Hudson River landscape roll by as the train traveled north and stopped at wonderful places like Tarrytown, Cold Spring, or Beacon. The perfect day trip escapes!

Once in Cold Spring or Beacon, you might discover portions of what is known as the Hudson Highlands – Breakneck Ridge and Mount Beacon, near Beacon, and Mt. Taurus or “Bull Hill” in Cold Spring (and check out all the ruins). Further east, these hills lead into what are known as the Taconic Mountains, stretching into Connecticut and up into the Berkshires.

But across the Hudson, these hills blend into the Catskill Mountains, technically not a series of mountains, but a mature dissected plateau that stretches from the Hudson River west to the Appalachian Mountains, blending into the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania and the Shawagunk Ridge, or Gunks, to the Southwest.

Check out our route (we drove up to New Paltz from Manhattan) and this guide to the Northeast Appalachians (source unknown):

A couple weeks ago we decided to take a week off of work to venture north, barely two hours away from our home in the city, to nestle into an AirBnB near the Gunks and the Catskills. Base camp was a few miles west of Stone Ridge, NY – situated comfortably between two of our favorite Hudson Valley stops, Kingston and New Paltz!

(If you’re only interested in the shops and restaurants we visited on our trip… scroll all the way down and skip all the pictures!)

The areas west of the Hudson aren’t accessible by train or public transportation, so a car was essential. Here are some amazing things we learned and experienced!

On our first day of exploring, we decided to walk along the Ashokan Reservoir. This reservoir is the source of water from which we drink every single day, at home! It’s sent down to the city through an underground aqueduct, powered by gravity, and supplies the entire New York City area with water. Signs around the reservoir claim that the water so clean, naturally, that very little filtration and cleaning is needed before it reaches NYC!

And other signs point out that this area is a popular spot for bald eagles to nest. And not much longer after we read this, we actually watched a bald eagle leave a group of trees along the shore and fly out across the reservoir.

Easier to see in person, of course!

Our next adventure included a visit to the vibrant town of Woodstock (incidentally, not the site of the infamous Woodstock Festival of ’69, which happened about 50 miles away, but carrying a spiritual and “hippie” vibe all its own – though definitely related) and a hike up Overlook Mountain.

Check out the dates on these “signatures” in the rock!

Overlook Mountain comes complete with an abandoned hotel, the Overlook Mountain House (also, not Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel from The Shining – that honor belongs to the Stanley Hotel in Colorado… but I bet it’s still creepy at night!)

At the summit stands a fairly wobbly fire tower – which we only climbed halfway due to wind and sheer terror – from which we were able to get some incredible views (see if you can spot the abandoned hotel again in that last picture… and check out the frozen lake in the distance!). Amazing to still see so much snow and ice – and even having some trouble on the trails without microspikes or crampons. Meanwhile, the sun was so warm we had no need for our jackets!

One place I can heartily recommend for food if you visit the area is the Phoenicia Diner. I didn’t think to take pictures at the time, because we were so hungry and the food was so exceptional! We actually ate there for two of the three days we were out hiking, because we enjoyed it so much. Incredible food, and on a sunny day their outdoor dining area was the perfect spot to picnic, nestled between among the hills! (See below for full recommendations)

Our last adventure in the Catskills was a failed attempt to climb Slide Mountain – the tallest peak in the Catskills! Our guidebook did warn us about crossing a tributary after a big rainfall to reach the trail… and it had just rained the day before!

Sam contemplates how to cross the rapids… to no avail!

Needless to say, it didn’t take long to find another trail to explore. Just down the road was an incredibly popular hike up to a piece of Panther Mountain known as the “Giant Ledge.” While the trail up was mostly an icy stream, the final scrambling climb up steep rocky steps brought us to the a summit with rocky cliffs that granted us more spectacular views… and (oddly) cell service!

Our last evening we decided to dine in Kingston, where we don’t get to spend much evening time, since we’re usually there on a day trip, and have to get back to the dogs. We also gave ourselves time on the way back the next morning to go up and over the Hudson to walk around in Rhinebeck, which is another Hudson Valley town worth visiting (they’ve a wonderful bookstore – see below!)

Here are some of our recommendations from our trip – in a handy list!

West of the Hudson River

New Paltz

Water Street Market – Antique stores, good food, records, and more! LOTS of shops and food in a small space. Everything you need!

Barner Books & Inquiring Minds – lovely new-&-used bookstores, across the street from one another

Stoneridge

Hash – Incredible breakfast stop on the way up to Kingston from Accord. Absolutely worth the stop if you’re in the area. They make their own sausage!

Accord

Bluebird Wine & Spirits – Found some incredible sparkling apple wine to enjoy at our AirBnB (pictured above)

Woodstock

Candlestock – I was OBSESSED with this store and made us visit it again before heading home

Oriole-9 – Delightful American fare featuring organic produce from the owner’s own farm!

Phoenicia

Phoenicia Diner – they even have their own cookbook (also available on Amazon… even Target!)

Kingston

Stockade District – a wonderful historic area to walk around; a delightful small-town downtown feel!

Kingston Consignments – a two-level antique store packed to the brim. Lots of fun finds, and we ALWAYS spend time here, ever visit.

Hoffman’s House – Great historic home tavern experience; some of the building dates to the 1600s.

Front Street Tavern – Solid American tavern and bistro fare. They have rooftop seating!

Stella’s – Delicious authentic Italian. Huge portions!

Stockade Tavern – Almost completely hidden gem, with a speakeasy vibe; Incredible cocktails!

Half Moon Books – Another used bookstore with more books then it could possibly sell, but a WONDERFULLY large religion and spirituality room in the back.

Rhino Records – Come for the incredible record collection, stay for the hidden gems hidden in the used books!

Rough Draft – Bookstore AND bar? Who doesn’t want that? Write now (haha) you get to take your drinks to go, but it’s worth a browse before you grab a drink.

East of the Hudson

Rhinebeck – Lovely Main Street and home to oldest hotel in America (The Beekman Arms)

Beekman Arms Antique Market – Another spacious and roomy antique barn full of incredible finds. Saw a handmade china cabinet from the early 1800s, here!

Oblong Books – one of the bigger Hudson Valley bookstores selling new books, only; they also stock records, games, and more!

Pete’s Famous Diner – Fun diner with warm and friendly staff. Delicious breakfast, especially if you’re starting a long day of walking!

Beacon – One loooong main street, but fun places to shop and eat at both ends

Bank Square Coffee Shop – If you’re entering Beacon from the train, stop here for a cup of caffeine to accompany you on the long walk up Main Street!

Utensil – Even if I don’t need anything for the kitchen, I always seem to find something to buy here!

The Pandorica – Doctor Who themed Cafe, perfect for all companions

Glazed Over Donuts – Donuts made to order… try the maple icing and bacon topping! (Voted “Best Donuts in the Hudson Valley – 2020”!)

Melzingah Ale House – Our go-to spot when we come to Beacon, especially after a hike. Sit at the bar and chat with Lucas, and sample from their extensive beer menu; Something for all tastes!

Solstad House – Purchases of select benefit the home for senior dogs (the store owners are passionate about dog rescue). We stock up on soup bowl coozies and handmade face masks.

Cold SpringLots of lovely boutiques and antique stores!

Hudson Hill’s – Lovely brunch spot in Cold Spring with a delicious and robust menu

Split Rock Books – One of my favorite bookstores in the Valley. Well-stocked, with generous and helpful staff!

The Pig Hill Inn – Whenever we’ve stayed overnight in Cold Spring, we always stay here. Jacuzzi tubs in many of the rooms, and woodstoves for the colder nights.

Poor George – Super fun boutique store with hip clothing, accessories, and even some houseplants and gifts for those with green thumbs!

Moo Moo’s – LOTS of fresh, homemade flavors, and it’s right next to the Hudson. Grab a cone and walk along the water during the warmer days!

“A Change… would do you good”

Why does a “change of scenery” often do us good?

My husband rearranges the apartment furniture every six to nine months. Sometimes, in the past (pre-COVID), if he were working from home a particular day, when I wasn’t, or if I had a yoga class or teacher training one weekend, I might come home to a completely different living room or bedroom set-up. (I often joked that the only place we haven’t moved our bedroom is in the kitchen or the bathroom, and I’m waiting for the day I come home to one of those scenarios).

But why we often do that to our living spaces, or to our lives (our hair, our faces, etc)?

“I got restless”; “I got bored”;
“I got tired of seeing it the same way for so long”

That last one… that one hits home to me in many ways.

We recently sat down and watched a movie – typical comedy with a poignant message (no, it wasn’t on Hallmark) where one leading character is being told by their friends to “wake up,” start being honest with themselves and appreciate what they have, and we all see it coming… the tragedy that snaps them “back to reality.”

“Maybe that needed to happen”;
“I’ve learned not to take life for granted”;
“I’ll treasure what I have from now on”

Roll credits.

Sound familiar?

But as we were watching this play out, I realize that way too often a tragedy is what snaps us back to reality. We can be going along, living our lives, thinking we’re living to our fullest… then a family member dies. Or we lose a furry friend. Or we get sick, or an accident of some magnitude befalls us.

And we suddenly think “Oh, yeah. I need to pay more attention to what I have.”

I don’t want to harp on the old adage of “We never know what we had until we’ve lost it,” although I’m sure that’s mostly true.

I remember the next morning, on our daily walk, telling my husband that I want to make sure that we give our senior dogs more focused attention – I don’t want to feel, when they pass away, that I didn’t spend enough time with them, or took them for granted.

But it’s not all about tragedy. Because I wonder if that sense of wanting to “be aware” of what we have is why we sometimes make changes, too. We feel stuck, we can’t “see” where we are, or don’t feel present or awake in our own lives. So we change something.

Come to think of it, I was feeling stuck about our apartment recently, myself. Not the furniture, just the sense of having a home and making sure I appreciated it. The walls we painted, the beautiful 12-foot pre-war tin ceiling in our living room. And so, I was thinking the exact same way about our apartment lately, and we decided to decorate early for the holidays. And you know what? Suddenly our apartment feels new again. I feel like I can really pay better attention to it – and it feels refreshing!

I’m curious about how we can have that feeling, that alertness, that “being awake” to what we have feeling, without tragedy striking, or without having to make a massive overhaul of our lives – those can be necessary, but shouldn’t be the only way we feel alive!

I think this is what “mindfulness” is all about.

Being mindful is all about being as present as possible – being aware of what you are seeing, what you are hearing, what you are sensing – at all times. Feeling your feet on the ground beneath you. Your eyes as they take in this information (the weight of your glasses on the bridge of your nose and on your ears – if you wear them). The weight of your arms on your lap or on your desk or table – the feel of the mouse under your hand or fingers. The light overhead. The light outside the window. The tree you pass on your daily walk. The warmth of the sun. The warmth of your coffee.

What are you doing right now? How do you feel? Where do you feel expansion when you inhale? Where do you sense your exhale the most? The chest? The belly? The nostrils?

What color are your walls? Your floor? Are you sitting comfortably? If not, where do you feel discomfort? What are you doing today to interact with your home, or to move your body?

Sometimes change is the easiest way to recognize what we’ve had all along. Sometimes it’s negative change… sometimes it’s not. But maybe we can work toward keeping ourselves awake to what we have, and to the present moment, more often. Maybe then, we won’t carry so many regrets with us if tragedy ever does strike.

Where is Mannahatta?

Where did Manhattan island get its name? 

(Psst… scroll down for a virtual tour of Manhattan in the year 1609!)

Before we can start our “walk,” I want to introduce you to Mannahatta.

Back in 2014, when my husband and I still lived in Oklahoma City, I was lucky enough to direct a new play during the Native American Playwright Festival, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta. (It has since been produced all over the country!)

Here’s a beautiful description of the play from the Public Theatre, which produced the play in NYC for the first time in 2014 (the page appears to be gone, but the quote was borrowed from Tanis Parenteau’s blog post relating her experience in the production, playing the double role of Jane Snake and Le-Le-Wa-You):

“A gripping journey from the fur trade of the 1600s to the stock trade of today, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s MANAHATTA tells the story of Jane Snake, a brilliant young Native American woman with a Stanford MBA. Jane reconnects with her ancestral homeland, known as Manahatta, when she moves from her home with the Delaware Nation in Anadarko, Oklahoma to New York for a job at a major investment bank just before the financial crisis of 2008. Jane’s struggle to reconcile her new life with the expectations and traditions of the family she left behind is powerfully interwoven with the heartbreaking history of how the Lenape were forced from their land. Both old and new Manahatta converge in a brutal lesson about the dangers of living in a society where there’s no such thing as enough. Written in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s MANAHATTA is a stunning new play about the discovery that the only thing you can truly own is who you are and where you come from.”

The word “Mannahatta” comes from the Lenni Lenape, or “The People,” that lived here well before the Dutch colonizers arrived in the 1600s. Mannahatta means

“Island of Many Hills”

While much of lower Manhattan seems very flat, where the further you go uptown, the hillier it gets! (Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of dynamite shaped the terrain of New York City into what we see today).

The Spring I directed Nagle’s play, Sam and I visited NYC, in part to plan our future move, that year, and in part to research much of the play’s historical representation of those first encounters, and what the island was like, then.

For instance, did you know Pearl Street in the Financial District was so named because of the pearls that the Dutch found on the path that lined the Southeastern shore of the island – leftover from the oysters that were harvested there?

Or that Broadway, one of the only main streets in Manhattan that runs “crooked,” follows The Broad Way, an old trading path that the Lenape used?

Or that Wall Street is named for the Wall that was built by the Dutch settlers, in part to keep Native people out of New Amsterdam?

(And I bet you can guess what used to be where Canal Street is, now!)

All in all, New York City looked much, much different in the past, before Henry Hudson first arrived, and there is one incredible source I’ve turned to again and again – and still do, just to marvel at what New York City once was.

The Welikia Project!

Cover of Mannahatta book, by Dr. Eric Sanderson

Created in part by the author of an incredible book, Mannahatta by Dr. Eric Sanderson, the Welikia Project has painstakingly researched what each area in Manhattan might very well have looked like in 1609, and created digital representations! Have a look! If you know someone or something’s address, type it in and find out what it looked like.

Having established the big picture of the island – and my fascination with it – I’d like to start our “walk” (via my blog!) where Sam and I spent most of our time exploring, back in 2014. It’s where we always begin our annual island walks, and it boasts the most “untouched” area of the entire island…

Check back soon for our first stop, here on my blog…

Inwood Hill Park!

(cover photo courtesy of Welikia Project)

Walk the length of Manhattan… from home!

Every 4th of July, for the past 5 years, my husband and I would take ourselves (and any friends who wanted to join) on the 13 mile trek along the length of Manhattan.

Why?

Honestly, I’ve no idea. The first year we did it, we were a bit boozed up from some Bloody Marys at Harlem Tavern, decided to walk over to Riverside Park and down along the Hudson… and then just kept going!

This year, we had planned to be away for the 4th for the first time (though we doubt that’s even an option… thanks, Covid-19), and were sad that we weren’t going to be able to take anyone on the walk with us.

But then I realized… why not take everybody with us?

One of my favorite parts of the walk is taking in new sights, researching historic areas and buildings, and sharing my passion for the city with others. These are all things I can do from home – and you can join me!

Are you ready to get started and see parts of NYC you might have never seen, or get to see?

A museum built like a medieval monastery?
The oldest wooden homes still standing in Manhattan?
The 6th largest cathedral in the world?
The largest mausoleum in the United States?
(And that’s all still North of Central Park!)

I’ll be sure to add in places in each area that could provide you with one full day’s experience, should you get a chance to visit after the shutdown is lifted (or if you live nearby and have a face mask)!

So, yes, I expect this to be quite a long series – and I may sprinkle in some other “stuff” just to break it up… but we’ve got plenty of time right??? (… thanks, Covid-19!)

So, stay tuned!!

A New Year’s Meditation

Happy New Year!

Today marks not only the first day of 2019, the birth of a new year, but the rebirth of countless people around the world who strive to keep “New Year’s Resolutions.”

Funny – Humans have been making resolutions in some form or another for at least 4,000 years, writes one contributor to the History channel.

Back then, the Babylonians (whose year began in what we’d consider mid-March, when crops were planted) made promises to the gods, expecting good fortune if their promises were kept throughout the year.

The Romans adopted this idea, as well, and the very month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god who faces both into the past and into the future, perhaps symbolizing both the reflection on the past year and the hope and promise of what the next year might bring.

Janus, god of beginnings and passages

The 1700s found Christianity adopting the practice of keeping night vigils of prayer and reflection, lasting all night into the morning on New Year’s Day – A practice that is still found in many communities, today.

We’re hardwired, it seems, to see beginnings of any kind – such as the start of a new calendar year – with mixtures of awe, hope, apprehension, and reflection. And, though now a secular tradition, we still strive to make promises to ourselves. Only about 8% of people keep their resolutions, apparently, but it’s striking that after all this time, we’re still making them, even if we know many will fall by the wayside.

The marked passage of time must affect us on a deep level, to spark the desire to make such promises.

This brings me to a poem by a favorite poet of mine, Billy Collins. In his brilliant way, he captures the universal with the mundane, and questions this new year’s day, and what it means to us all.

Is it a second birthday? Is it a day to dread, or to look forward to?

To me, it’s a time I know I can meditate on and re-dedicate myself to living wildly, blooming where I’m planted, showing gratitude and love to the Universe and to those around me, and keeping fresh and new the love I share with my husband.

What about you?

May you have the happiest of years, starting today. Happy New Year!

New Year’s Day by Billy Collins
Everyone has two birthdays
according to the English essayist Charles Lamb,
the day you were born and New Year’s Day—

a droll observation to mull over
as I wait for the tea water to boil in a kitchen
that is being transformed by the morning light
into one of those brilliant rooms of Matisse.

“No one ever regarded the First of January
with indifference,” writes Lamb,
for unlike Groundhog Day or the feast of the Annunciation,

New Year’s marks nothing but the pure passage of time,
I realized, as I lowered a tin diving bell
of tea leaves into a little ocean of roiling water.

I like to regard my own birthday
as the joyous anniversary of my existence,
probably because I was, and remain
to this day in late December, an only child.

And as an only child—
a tea-sipping, toast-nibbling only child
in a bright, colorful room—
I would welcome an extra birthday,
one more opportunity to stop what we are doing
for a moment and celebrate my presence here on earth.

And would it not also be a small consolation
to us all for having to face a death-day, too,
an X drawn through a number
in a square on some kitchen calendar of the future,

the day when each of us is thrown off the train of time
by a burly, heartless conductor
as it roars through the months and years,

party hats, candles, confetti, and horoscopes
billowing up in the turbulent storm of its wake.

from the book, “Ballistics,” © Random House 2008

3 – 2 – 1 … Write!

I learned a new word a couple months ago.

Agnosiophobia

Heard of it? I hadn’t.

Agnosiophobia is the fear of not knowing.

To me, this means not knowing enough – not knowing the best way to proceed – not knowing how to do things correctly, so that you don’t look or sound or seem like a complete fool.

It might also be the reason I obsessively learned German before visiting Austria for the first time (a little bit different than learning Gaelic for fun before visiting Ireland, ha ha…). I just did not want to look foolish or be caught like a deer in headlights simply because I didn’t know what to do or what to say.

If you don’t know enough German, here’s a word that encapsulates what I’m talking about:

Entschuldigung (ent-shul-di-gung)

What does it mean?

Literally, it’s closest to saying “Excuse me,” or “Sorry.”

Of course, I found I didn’t need to excuse myself as much as I had expected I would – partly because more people at least understand English than expected (though it’s best not to have the highest of expectations in this regard), and partly because, well, things are always so much easier than expected when you’re in the thick of it… and if they’re not easy, then you at least know that those excruciating bits have an ending point, and you always end up learning something to make your next experience less awful.

Like two nights ago when a cashier’s register broke down and she couldn’t see how much I owed her, and I didn’t know how to tell her the numbers, in German, to help her. So I went back to the apartment where we’re staying and memorized the patterns of German numbers… my husband caught me counting feverishly to one hundred under my breath before getting out of bed the next morning.

😅

… Did I mention the fear of not knowing?

Honestly, the fear of not knowing is the reason it took so long for me to finally write another blog entry, earlier today. I was afraid of not knowing how to start again. Afraid of not knowing what to write about. Surely I’d look foolish if I simply picked up where I left off, right?

But I’ve learned a few things since I last wrote here. Things that helped me shut that voice up – the one that tells me not to bother, since I’m so afraid.

Firstly, the following quote from Carrie Fisher comes to mind:

Be afraid. But “do it anyway.”

But… there is more to it, right? I mean, those of us who battle depression or anxiety know that it isn’t just as simple as “do it anyway.” And I know Carrie Fisher would probably agree, that this little soundbyte isn’t enough to jump start our minds when they’re frozen in fear.

Enter Mel Robbins:

Knowing what to do will never be enough.

It’s not as simple as “Just do it.” If it were that simple, we would all have everything we want. There’s something really foundational that has to happen before we can take action, and that is that we must learn to conquer our own feelings.

Wow. This really hits the nail on the head, right? Mel Robbins created the 5 Second Rule for this exact reason – pushing yourself to do something, with a simple action that can actually make it possible.

When you feel yourself hesitate before doing something that you know you should do, count 5-4-3-2-1-GO and move towards action.

There is a wealth of information about this rule, which you can find here, but suffice to say this really, truly works! It’s all about acting on the few seconds before an idea turns into inaction, and the physical actual countdown kicks your mind and body into gear!

Today, I left my journal behind before a 2 and a half hour train ride. I thought, “Well, now I can’t write. Sad face.” But then, I remembered my blog, and my fear of picking it back up… and that fear reminded me of Carrie Fisher’s words, and thanks to Mel Robbins, I knew what to do.

And I’ve applied it to my German-speaking experiences, too, here in Austria. I might not know what to say, or whether or not they speak English, but I just take a deep breath and…

5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – GO!

Where I Am: (Somewhere between Vienna and New Year’s)

I started this blog last year, around Thanksgiving, I believe, with the notion that Thanksgiving Day should truly be the day to start “New Year’s Resolutions,” starting from a spirit of gratitude and thanks.

One of my favorite voices, when it comes to giving and receiving gratitude, is Louise Hay:

“The Universe always gives us what we believe we deserve.

For quite a while now, I’ve been accepting every compliment and every present with: ‘I accept with joy and pleasure and gratitude.’ I’ve learned that the Universe loves this expression, and I constantly get the most wonderful presents!

Let’s affirm: I am a willing receiver of all the good the Universe wants to bring me.

Louise Hay

But, clearly, my Thanksgiving/New Year resolution of keeping a blog didn’t quite realize itself in 2018. Life happens, and one thing I’ve learned from yoga (and years of pushing through self-doubt and regret) is that you can only ever meet yourself where you are, and you shouldn’t spend time wallowing in regret, or the “should’ve-could’ve-would’ves.” So, here I am, a year later, with at least the uncanny ability to look back on the year, take stock, and push forward.

So… Why start again, now?

Honestly, it’s frightening. I’m actually terrified of writing a blog. Of writing, in general. Of doing things and following through, in general. Of… well, I’m sure you get the picture, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

But… today, I’m on a train. To Salzburg. Yes, that Salzburg. From Vienna (yes, that Vienna). Myself, my husband, and my sister are finishing off a whirlwind 2 week Holiday adventure that began in Ireland – our 4th annual trek to the Emerald Isle – and finished in the land of Schnapps and Wiener Schnitzel, the Sacher Torte, and Mozartkugeln (oh, that’s a real thing, and they’re delicious).

Schlöss Schönbrunn with Christmas Market

Vienna’s City Hall at Night, as viewed from the Rathausplatz

Today is our last day overseas before returning to New York tomorrow, so we opted for a day trip to the City of Mozart.

And, this morning, I almost brought my journal along… but then… I didn’t. “Oh, I won’t need this in Salzburg. We’ll be too busy sightseeing.”

Cue the 2 hour and 22 minute train ride.

Whoops.

But then I heard a voice in my head. I always hear them, but one spoke louder, this time, than the others. The One that says, “don’t think. Just do.”

Don’t Think. Just Do.

And I decided that I didn’t have to wait for the perfect, well-written, well-thought-out post to develop in my head before I wrote something here. I didn’t have to plan some sort of come-back post encapsulating the year, or even go back and add entries for moments this past year, retroactively dating them to make my blog appear “lived in.”

I can meet myself where I am.

And where I am is on a train, to Salzburg, itching to write.

A Wilder London, Day 1

“What will this day be like?
I wonder…
What could that building be?”

Okay, so that’s not quite how the song goes in Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music, but walking along the Thames River (which isn’t far from our AirBnB stay), wrapped up in a quiet morning fog… and with so many beautiful buildings and fascinating architecture, the day held so much potential and wonder! And, of course, we had confidence!

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Lorenzo Quinn’s “Love” in the Riverside Walk Gardens near Vauxhall Bridge

Our morning of show tune references actually began with a chorus of “Dite Moi” from South Pacific (another R & H!), after seeing the all-too-familiar Pret a Manger chain restaurant as we crossed the Vauxhall bridge into Pimlico (and pestering my sister for the proper French pronunciation — it’s “pret-a-mahn-zhay”).

We walked along the Thames (“not Th-ames?” my sister asks, prompting a reflection on British pronunciation — it’s pronounced “Tems”), until we reached Westminster, stopping to admire the architecture of the Houses of Parliament and the Abbey. Lots of construction is going on around the clock tower, which houses Big Ben, and was almost completely shrouded in scaffolding. Apparently, this year began Big Ben’s 4 years of silence during renovation.

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Westminster in the Morning (Dec 17, 2017)

Sam and I took us on the walk we remembered from our trip here two years ago, passing the WWII memorials, the Whitehall Palace/Banqueting House, and Downing Street (no PM spottings, either visit), until wandering the streets around Trifalgar Square and St. Martin’s-on-the-green, settling for breakfast at Caffé Concerto, a chain where we’d eaten on our last visit, in a spot around the corner from Picadilly Circus. For those you fellow tourists, I just listed off a bunch of London highlights. We ate “full English breakfasts” (I’ve wondered if the Full English Breakfast was just a tourist-y thing, but it apparently has a longstanding tradition). We talked about our day and what we planned to do, and the only plans we had aside from eating, was to take an early tea at the Orangery at Kensington Palace.

We meandered through Picadilly Circus, and tried shopping at a mass souvenir shop – we didn’t stay long, as I think Sam and I have become extra self-conscious about appearing like tourists we see in NYC!

We wandered down to the Mall, in St. James’ Park, which leads to Buckingham Palace. Walking down the steps beneath the monument to the Duke of York, I was struck that this is the very spot Sam and I had discovered two years before, where I had actually sat while having my picture taken while on a field trip to London when I was in high school! It’s a shame I can’t find that original picture.

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The tragedy that struck London during WWII was great. Many memorials are set up around the city (Dec 17, 2017)

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The Monument to the Duke of York, off the Mall approaching Buckingham Palace (Dec 17, 2017)

Let it be known, that it is cold in London. It was hovering just a bit above freezing, and so we were stopping to get our hands on hot cups of tea every chance we got just to keep our hands warm while we walked. Walking through a park with a nice hot cuppa is also just a wonderful experience, in and of itself!

(Note to self: Always wear hat and gloves. Always wear hat and gloves. Hat and gloves. Hat and gloves)

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The London Eye from St. James Park (Dec 17, 2017)

After dodging kamikaze pigeons (honestly, we all noticed, they were the fattest pigeons we’d ever seen!), we made our way back to the Mall and approached Buckingham Palace, just in time for the changing of the guard – it was quite crowded!

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Making way for The Changing of the Guard (Dec 17, 2017)

My sister later informed us why the guards were now dressed in grey, as opposed to the more commonly seen red tunics.

We ended up walking up through the Wellington Arch, into Hyde Park, where London’s “Winter Wonderland” is taking place – but honestly, it looks more like a state fair, and less appealing than we had imagined, so I think we’ll end up skipping it on our stay, here (and the lines to get in were astronomical!).

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The Wellington Arch. Also known as a gathering place for tourists armed with cameras (Dec 17, 2017)

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A single rose holds on in the rose garden of Hyde Park (Dec 17, 2017)

But we did see the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, which we hadn’t seen before. A quiet spot, just off the water, the artist writes that the course of the water running in the circular fountain is supposed to be emblematic of Princess Diana’s life. Regardless of its symbolism, its quiet surroundings and serene beauty offered the perfect setting for quiet contemplation to the sound of bubbling brooks.

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A portion of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain (Dec 17, 2017)

Passing under a bridge, we arrived in Kensington Gardens, and made our way up to the Palace – no, we didn’t run into any of the royal family! But, it was starting to rain, so we hurried up to the Palace and set out immediately for the nearby Orangery, for our early tea (an hour and a half earlier than we’d planned, but I suspect we were walking faster due to the cold!)

We chose a “Royal Afternoon Tea” for £38.50/person, which included a personal pot of tea (we each tried something different), two towers of food with three pieces of everything (4 or 5 finger sandwiches, 2 kinds of scone, w/ clotted cream and jam), and a smaller assortment of sweets. It was impossible to get to the sweets, as we got so full with everything else! To top it off, we each received a glass of merlot rosé spumante!

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I felt so hyped up already on the several cups of tea today, I felt positively jittery, and kept giggling.

It was just fun – Just to sit and take in the moment – just knowing where we were and what we were allowing ourselves to do, the way we all kept laughing at the slightest provocation, high on caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and the dizzying experience of sitting down and enjoying a piece of the city that we had planned to accomplish!

After tea, I kept saying, “but seriously… what do we do next?” as we hadn’t really planned out the rest of our day. We did spend some time in the shop in Kensington Palace (my sister bought a commemorative Princess Di plate), and then walked into the Kensington neighborhood and spent way too much time at a bookstore! Or, rather, we spent the perfect amount of time at a bookstore!

I bought two books, Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets, an absolutely riveting account of the Plantagenet line of Kings, from William the Conqueror to Richard II, and Trevor Royle’s Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, that involves the events surrounding Oliver Cromwell… to whom I hate to admit that I am very distantly related. Yikes.

We stopped at a grocery on the way back to our AirBnB stay to get some light nibbles for the evening, so that we could retire early and dine “in,” and just relax after our first day. Getting used to jet lag is pretty intense, and they say it takes a day for every time zone you passed through, just to get on an even keel. So, we’ll all be okay by the end of the week?

For now, I’ll bring this entry – and this day – to a close. Sam is working on his needlepoint, and my sister is looking up information on the Palace and the changing of the guard (see her comment above on the grey dress of the guards). It’s nice to just be here, and relax.

Relaxing “at home” is, I feel, just as important as going out and experience some of the nightlife – and sometimes even more important. We often say “We need to spend ALL day and ALL night out and get the most out of this or that place,” forgetting that to get the most of our somewhere, we need to make sure we’re getting the most out of ourselves. How much to we enjoy whirlwind vacations, when we don’t give ourselves time to breathe and just be?

A wonderful, quiet end to the day, looking forward to the next.

Cheers!

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