* Hoorah for wonderful friends and relaxing holidays. I spent a gorgeous week in south Wales with my best friend, her lovely husband, and their fabulous and adorable children (ages 10, 8 & 6). It was so much fun - the weather was beautiful and we did loads of walking, playing games, watching movies, drinking beer, eating ice cream and laughing! I always have Christmas breakfast with them, and because I'm going to be away this year we decided to do an early Christmas, so before the kids got up on our first morning there, we decorated the dining room and put out stockings for everyone. They were SO excited! (Once they'd established they were still going to get the real Christmas at the proper time!). We had a full Christmas dinner, wore our onesies for half of the day, and it was splendid. I am so amazingly grateful for the families who let me be a part of their lives. I love just hanging out with them, being part of the kids' lives as they grow up, joining in the day to day chaos of family life. It's a massive blessing to me.
* Silent retreats are AMAZING! I decided a while ago to do my first silent retreat during this sabbatical. I'd heard lots of good things about St. Beuno's - http://www.beunos.com/ - so I booked on a retreat there. I thought about the 8 day retreat but in the end opted for what they call the 'midweek' retreat - which is really only 3 full days. It was fantastic! It helped that the weather was great, so I could go for lots of lovely long walks, and enjoy the beautiful scenery in autumn. The whole thing was set up and run brilliantly, so that the silence was made easy, rather than awkward. Each day I met with my retreat director for half an hour, which enabled me to process my thoughts and what God was saying. Worshipping in a completely different style from what I'm used to meant that I couldn't just 'go through the motions', but rather had to simply allow myself to enter in to it. (It was also a helpful reminder of how 'alien' church must seem to those who aren't familiar with it, as I tried to work out the ins and outs of the Mass!). It was absolutely glorious to have that time and space to just BE, and to really be able to listen to God without feeling like 1000 other thoughts were crowding in. I am massively extrovert, and wasn't sure whether my head would explore part way through Day 2 (most of my friends fell about laughing when I told them I was planning this) - but I loved it, I would recommend it, and I will definitely be doing it again.
* Preparing to go abroad for 11 weeks is stressful! The last time I did anything like this was my gap year, when I went overseas for 7 months - but I was young then!!! This time I cheerfully booked the flights, then got caught up in the busyness of day to day life, and suddenly found myself going "AAAARGH - HOW LONG?!" Packing for that length of time is a challenge, especially as I'll be in climates between 5 and 25 degrees! For someone who is as fond of shoes as I am, that aspect alone of the packing has been tricky. At the moment I think I have it down to 4 pairs, which I am rather proud of - but the suitcase isn't yet locked, so anything could happen...
* Having time to sleep, and pray, and sit, and read, and think, and journal, and listen, is really rather wonderful. Clearly in an ideal world one would have time for all of those things on a daily basis! But you know what it's like - life gets in the way sometimes! I hope and pray that one of the things this sabbatical will do is to realign things in me in some way - I don't just want to enjoy these 4 months of getting enough sleep and reading lots of books and always finding time to be still, and then afterwards hurtle straight back into crazy-busy-ville. No, I want to find within these 4 months a pattern and a rhythm of life which I'll then maintain once I get back into work. Even for a serious activist like me, prayer and time with God has to be at the heart of it all - or nothing else will work!
I do realise that I'm extremely blessed and fortunate to have this time available to me - and I apologise if you're reading this thinking "I could definitely flipping use 4 months off!" It's not *just* a great big holiday, I promise! Among other things, I very much hope to write half of a book! (My friend Joanna will be writing the other half!). And I hope to learn a lot from hanging out with amazing Christians and churches in the US, especially about the ways in which they're seeking to minister to those within their communities struggling with debt, addiction, poverty and injustice.
I'll try to blog more regularly once I'm in the next phase of sabbatical - I'm looking forward to all that God has in store...!
Here are a few photos which sum up the time so far...