Traditions Made Anew

Why hello there. Guess what? I’ve been back in England for half a year now. As Oscar Wilde quipped in An Ideal Husband,

“Oh, I love London society! It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what society should be.” 😉

I recently celebrated a birthday. Whether my increasing years lead me toward beautiful idiocy or brilliant lunacy is yet to be determined…

I find that birthdays are rather nostalgic times. On birthdays, we yearn for the simple things we enjoyed in childhood. For instance, a pizookie. Allow me to explain. A pizookie is a giant deep-dish chocolate chip cookie baked at a Californian restaurant called BJs. My childhood birthdays always included a trip to BJs for a birthday pizookie.

But when one moves to another country, one often finds that traditions become harder to uphold because fundamental components of them (such as pizookies) simply do not exist. What is one to do? As Tim Gunn from Project Runway oft professed, “Make it work.” In this case, Will and I found a recipe for a pizookie, and he baked a birthday pizookie for me at home.




Sometimes old traditions are best when made anew. To paraphrase Alexander Graham Bell, when one door–perhaps an old tradition–closes, if we spend so much time mourning the closed door, we may not notice the new door that has just opened.

My new door contained a homemade pizookie and a trip to one of my favorite places: the theatre.


Will and I saw Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I last saw Phantom of the Opera  when I was twelve years old at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre with Mom. It was sweet to reminisce and also introduce the show to Will.


Phantom of the Opera emphasises redemption. In response to the young lover’s plea to show compassion, the Phantom justifies his refusal with the snarl, “The world showed no compassion to me!”

It takes Christine’s kindness to redeem the Phantom from his misanthropic scorn and show him that compassion exists in the world.

She sings to him,

“Pitiful creature of darkness,

What kind of life have you known?

God gave me courage to show you,

You are not alone…”

Feeling valued, understood, and cared about can radically change a life. We should all be more aware of our impact on others, and the power we hold to redeem or condemn them.

On a final note, I will share a funny little tale with you. Whenever I start to feel like I belong in England, something tends to happen to make me feel like a foreigner in a strange land again. In this episode of “An American in London,” Janelle hunts for relish.

It all began when I decided to make In-In-Out style hamburgers last weekend. The secret sauce recipe calls for relish; hence, I set out to acquire some. I walked into Sainsbury’s (a large British market) and headed to the sauces aisle.


This claimed to be relish, but was certainly not relish.

The hunt continued…



These claimed to be pickles, but were certainly not pickles.

Back to the drawing board.


Aha! I discovered a source of error: the main ingredient for relish, pickles, are not called “pickles” in England. They are called “gherkins.” Perhaps this is what lead me astray. I began hunting for some kind of saucy gherkins.


And… I struck out. This was the only other container in the store labeled “gherkins.” Alas.

But I had one final hope. I walked resolutely to the “International Foods” section. You can tell a lot about a country by what food it deems worthy of the International Foods section.

British markets contain a decent selection of “Traditional Asian” foods.


They also contain a ridiculous amount of Indian food.


Miles upon miles of curry sauces. I have learned that Indian food is to Brits as Mexican food is to Americans. Brits tend to not fully understand Indian culture as Americans tend to not fully understand Mexican culture, but Brits adore Indian food as much as Americans adore Mexican food.

After weaving my way through aisle upon aisle of Indian food, I arrived at the “American Foods” section.


Or rather, shelf. Tiny end of aisle shelf. I’m glad Brits have distilled American taste down to junk food, beef jerky and Snapple…

Although I jest, I am grateful for the little American foods section and the red, white, and blue color scheme shelves. It functions as a fun little reminder of home and supplies me with one essential item for celebrating Thanksgiving in London: pumpkin pie puree.

I left Sainsbury’s that day without any relish, but I had the chance to relish both my past and present. Life in England is never going to be the same as life in America, so I shall adopt the best British traditions whilst holding on to my favorite American ones.

~Farewell, Janelle



All Booked

As C.S. Lewis once said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I wholeheartedly agree.


Books shall always be my first love. As a matter of fact, I have a Booket List–a list of books I desire to read before I die. Something that thrills me nearly as much as reading books is wandering through bookshops. Whenever I walk into one of those glorious labyrinths glittering with endless stories, I have the hardest time convincing myself to leave.

In my natural habitat–surrounded by books–in Trinity College Dublin

As evidence of my love affair with books, here is the transcript of a text conversation Will and I had a year ago:

Janelle: “I’m currently at a bookshop by myself. This is very dangerous. It means there’s no one to prevent me from staying here all day! Muahahahahahahaha. I just have to keep chanting, ‘I will not buy all the books, I will not buy all the books’ to myself.”

–Two hours later–

Janelle: “Update: In a miraculous feat of self-control, I purchased the gift I came for, then dragged my bibliophile self out of the bookshop.”

Will: “I love you so much.”

He thankfully fancies books just as much as I do 🙂


One of my life goals is to visit as many exquisite bookshops as possible ranging from near to far, small to large, new to old. If you would like to book a trip around the world of bookshops with me, read on.

Favourite Bookshops Around the World:

  1. El Ateneo Gran Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina


El Ateneo Gran Splendid was originally built as a theatre called Teatro Grand Splendid in 1919. The theatre had a seating capacity of 1,050 and staged a variety of performances, including appearances by the legendary tango artist Carlos Gardel. In 2000, it was converted into a bookshop through which a million people wander each year.

Including me! Back in 2015 🙂

What I appreciate most about El Ateneo Grand Splendid is its desire to honour its history. For instance, when the owners converted the theatre into a bookshop, they keep the theatre boxes intact as well as the ceiling, ornate carvings, and crimson stage curtains. Despite the changes, the building still retains the grandeur of its theatre past.


2. Shakespeare and Co., Paris, France


Named after a bookstore frequented by Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce during the 1920s, Shakespeare and Co. has become equally legendary. Opened in 1951 by the American George Whitman – and run by his daughter Sylvia since his death in 2011 – it became a gathering place for Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. From the start, Whitman allowed travelling artists and writers to lodge at the shop, which is also a lending library. The words of past authors and zeal of past journeyers haunt Shakespeare and Co.’s walls.

I first discovered Shakespeare and Co. when I was 17
When I returned years later, I recreated the first photograph I took in front of it 🙂


3. Hatchard’s, London, England


The oldest bookshop in the United Kingdom, Hatchard’s was founded in 1797 by John Hatchard. It was founded with a collection of merchandise bought from Simon Vandenbergh, a bookseller of the 18th century. It has a reputation for attracting high-profile authors and holds three Royal Warrants.

Royal Warrants are issued to companies who supply goods or services to the royal family. The royal warrant thus lends prestige to the supplier. 

I delight in Hatchard’s elegance and evident joy in books.


Hatchard’s places a signpost in each section to introduce the category of the kind of books one might find there.




4. The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, California


The Last Bookstore is California’s largest used and new bookshop, having opened in 2005 in a downtown loft. It has grown since then to 22,000 square feet, a softly lit labyrinthine collection of books and records, with space for literary, musical and theatrical events. The Last Bookstore encourages selling and trading of books as part of a mission to “keep the paper and ink book business alive.”


The bookstore’s downstairs is sufficiently stunning, but the best treasures are kept upstairs. Bibliophiles on the mezzanine level are greeted by hanging books, suspended in flight as they erupt from a bookcase. Further on, there are tunnels built from books, hidden side rooms with more than 100,000 used books for sale, and freestanding sculptures.




5. Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice, Italy

Liberua AcquaFBWC96

Translating as “high water bookshop,” Libreria Acqua Alta opened around the dawn of the millennium and has had to deal with flooding from the nearby Venetian canals ever since. The owner frequently moves his books from the floor to bathtubs and gondolas to protect them. During floods, people wade along the streets and buildings are boarded up, but the bookshop continues to thrive.


I left this one for last because I have not visited it yet and always like to have something to aspire to 🙂

After finishing a particularly good book when I was 12, I remarked: “It’s infuriating when books have the audacity to end!” Not much has changed a decade later. Books must end, as the sun must set. The glory of bookshops rests in the fact that they never fail to provide more books, more adventures, more insights, more joy.

~Farewell, Janelle



Bath Time

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

I begin today with the opening lines of Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar because, like Shakespeare, I have been inspired by the Romans. 

I recently visited the ancient Roman city of Bath in Somerset, England. The city became a Roman spa known by the Latin name Aquae Sulis in 60 AD when the Romans discovered hot springs and built baths and a temple in the valley of the River Avon.

Statues on the ledge of the baths depict famous Roman generals including Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, and Scipio Africanus

Excavation and historical preservation efforts have ensured that the Roman baths are remarkably well preserved, giving one amazing insight into how the Romans lived.

Hot spring water that the Romans channeled into the baths. The hot water in the spring naturally rises at a rate of 1,170,000 litres each day at 115 degrees F (46 degrees C) .
Excavated floor in the baths — the Romans used piled stones like these to create underground floor heating 
Original level of the baths — note how much lower this is than modern-day street level, demonstrated by the buildings in the background

Archaeological evidence shows that the site of the Roman bath’s main spring was dedicated as a shrine to the goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with Minerva.


When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD and discovered the natural hot spring– something they had never seen before–they were astonished and believed the spring must have originated from the gods. Hence, they attributed divine properties to both the water and the goddess of the temple.

Head of Minvera


The Romans wrote messages scratched onto metal to Minerva and tossed them into the baths. Known as “cursed tablets,” the messages were used by people to accuse others of wronging them; they sought justice by naming the suspect on a tablet to be read by the goddess.

Roman doctors prescribed “bathing in the hot waters” as a form of treatment for maladies like arthritis.

Separate from the main bath, this semi-circular bath was used by people visiting the baths for medicinal purposes. The special bench allowed the young, old, and sick to rest in the baths for hours at a time

The Romans also drank from the waters, believing them to have health benefits, such as curing illness and rejuvenating youth.

Drinking fountain


The Romans were not entirely erroneous. Spa water analyses have shown that the spring water contains a remarkable amount of minerals that sport health benefits.

Bath spa water contains 7x the amount of minerals than most water brands that market themselves as “mineral water”  

Will and I had the chance to taste the water for ourselves!

Verdict? Oddly warm, very minerally, but overall, not too bad 😉 

On our way out, we could not refrain from stopping for scones and crumpets at the magnificent 18th century Pump Room.

Regarded as the social heart of Bath for over two centuries, the Pump Room is a neo-classical salon with a drinking fountain for the spa water

As I sat listening to the live pianist, drinking my spa water and nibbling on a crumpet, I imagined myself in a Jane Austen novel waiting for a gentleman to ask for my dance card.


In my happy place


Speaking of Jane Austen, she is another one of Bath’s claims to fame. Jane Austen set two of her six published novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, in Bath and made the city her home from 1801 to 1806.

Pulteney Bridge, a famous site in Austen’s time and also featured in Les Miserables


In Northanger Abbey, Austen writes: ‘They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”

The Royal Crescent, built in 1775

Jane often walked along the Royal Crescent, a sweeping crescent of 30 Grade I Listed terrace houses and one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in England. Promenading along the Royal Crescent was a very fashionable thing to do in order to be seen by other members of high society.

I saw Will promenading, although he did not see me surreptitiously taking this photo… 🙂

We satiated our grumbling stomaches with a visit to Sally Lunn’s Bakery.


Sally Lunn’s Bakery is the oldest house in Bath (c. 1482) and serves the most famous local delicacy, the original ‘Sally Lunn’ Bun. According to legend, Sally Lunn, a French refugee, arrived in 1680 and established her bakery. Today Sally Lunn’s still serves a plethora of buns and allows guests to peek into Sally Lunn’s original kitchen.

Sally Lunn’s buns in the oven


A traditional ‘Sally Lunn’ bun

Will found that he did not fit particularly well into the house built over 500 years ago…

People were smaller back then

I, on the other hand, fit perfectly.

Not that I gloated or anything…

We rounded off our trip to Bath by climbing 212 stairs to the top of Bath Abbey.


Founded in the 7th century, Bath Abbey is one of the largest examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in England. The Perpendicular Gothic period is the third historical division of English Gothic architecture, and is so-called due to its emphasis on vertical lines.


The first King of all England, King Edgar, was crowned in Bath Abbey in 973. The service performed at Bath Abbey set the precedent for the coronation of all future Kings and Queens of England, including Queen Elizabeth II.

The most intriguing part of our abbey tour was learning about how the bells are rung and getting to stand in the rafters of the cathedral next to the bells (with our hands over our ears) as the bells rang.


The largest bell, the Tenor, weights over 1.5 tons and can be heard ringing throughout the entire city

And finally, we climbed on the rooftops of Bath Abbey…


This view was our reward:


Now that I am done telling you the tale of my adventure, I think it’s time for a bath…

~Farewell, Janelle



Hello from the Other Side

Why hello there, long time, no see, er, write… Anyway, since moving to England, I have had a myriad of adventures and a myriad of conundrums. Moving to a foreign country brings unexpected events on an almost daily basis.

For instance, take my battle with acquiring the packages I sent from the US to the UK. My packages got stuck in customs. Alas. In order to prevent them from languishing away in a warehouse somewhere on the coast of England, I called up UPS customer support. An automated British woman’s voice chirped at me: “Please say your package’s tracking number to proceed.” I said my tracking number.

“I’m sorry, I did not catch that. Please repeat your tracking number.” I tried again and received the same annoyingly sanguine response. I knew I articulated the numbers correctly, so I decided that perhaps the problem was my American accent. Hence, I took a deep breath, rallied my spirits, and enunciated my tracking number again, this time in my best British accent. “1-9-5-4-9-4-7-2-5-7-3.” I nervously held my breath.

“Tracking number accepted.” Success!! UPS finally took my tracking number! So there you have it: British UPS Customer Support does not speak American. Good thing I am learning British 😉


In other news, Mom came to visit 🙂 We had a marvellous time exploring Buckingham Palace’s state rooms, sampling fancy chocolates at Harrods (a ludicrously posh store), waltzing down Portobello Road, and simply spending time together.

Harrods looking rather regal
It was delightful to check Portobello Road off my London Bucket List and who better to do it with than Mom? 🙂


We also explored The George Inn, the medieval pub I told you about previously. We enjoyed wandering through the pub’s little rooms, imagining ourselves sitting down to share a Sunday Roast dinner with Shakespeare or Dickens, two of the pub’s illustrious patrons.

Traditionally, travellers would stay overnight in the little rooms above the pub

One highlight of our adventures was taking a boat down the Thames River and witnessing the rare sight of Tower Bridge opening to allow a large sail boat to pass through!

Talk about a traffic stopper, literally

Will’s parents joined us in London for the weekend, and we indulged in each other’s company, visiting Greenwich Park and the Maritime Museum.

Greenwich Park

My inner theatre nerd gleefully rejoiced as we went to The Globe to see a production of Much Ado About Nothing.


We even had seats! If you recall, the last time I visited The Globe, I stood in the “Groundlings” section, which is fun until your legs start burning halfway through the play and you realise you still have another 1.5 hours of standing. Sitting is the way to go.

All in all, I am relishing life in England despite the minor setbacks that come with moving to a foreign land and trying to figure out its idiosyncrasies. I shall keep you updated 🙂 Now I’m off for a spot of tea and some readings for my masters. As the Brits would say, cheers!


Begin Again

In light of moving to England tomorrow, I have a confession to make: I am and always will be a Californian, but I am the worst Californian you will ever meet.

For instance, I don’t fancy the sun—after all, have you seen my skin? I don’t tan; I tomato. Additionally, I am not keen on beach days—a sacrilegious statement in most Californians’ eyes! I enjoy walking on the beach, but spending all day there lying out in the sun and returning home with sand in unmentionable places? No, thank you. Furthermore, I do not own a single pair of blue jeans—the quintessential wardrobe staple of any self-respecting laid back Californian. Lastly, I have vanquished the words “like,” “totally,” “rad,” “awesome,” and “cool” from my vocabulary. Based on this evidence, I must be the worst Californian alive.

A friend’s documentation of one of my most recent encounters with the sun aka the enemy

It’s a good thing I’m moving to London, a glorious place replete with rainy days and words like “splendid” and “brilliant” galore. It also doesn’t hurt that in England, for the first time I am not the palest person in the room 😉 Brits are clearly my people.


As a way of wrapping up my California “One Mores” list and looking forward to the adventures that await in England, this terrible Californian and soon-to-be Londoner thought she would share a few of her favorite lesser-known places in her hometown, Los Angeles, and a few of the places she intends to visit in London.

Los Angeles

  1. La Brea Tar Pits
The world’s only active, urban Ice Age fossil excavation site

2. The Getty Villa

Built on a cliff overlooking the sea in Malibu, the Getty Villa museum is dedicated to exploring the cultures and arts of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria

3. Du-par’s Restaurant and Bakery

Du-par’s has been serving the “best hotcakes in the US” since 1938. My great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and I have all relished their wonderful buttermilk pancakes



  1. Portobello Road Market
The world’s largest antiques market. I am going to take Mom here when she visits me soon 🙂


2. Churchill War Rooms

The secret underground bunker from which Winston Churchill ran his World War II command operations. The bunker has been transformed into a museum that tells the story of Churchill’s life and legacy

3. The George Inn

Built in the medieval period, The George Inn is the last original coaching inn in London. Its majestic past includes patrons such as Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare

When I ask people about sites in their hometowns, they often report that they have not been to any because they are “too touristy.” How tragically prideful it is to not visit intriguing places solely because one does not want to appear like a tourist.

I am a strong proponent of “being a tourist” in one’s own hometown, except I call the act by a different name. I call it living one’s life. Jackie Robinson once said, “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion, you’re wasting your life.”

I constantly remind myself  that someday isn’t a day of the week. If you do not do the things you always yearned to do and see the places you’ve wistfully imagined now, you may never.

I may be the worst Californian you will ever meet, but at least upon leaving California, I can say with assurance that I endeavored to do all California has to offer.

Wherever you live, I hope you do the same.

And now I am off to London for the myriad adventures that await. You are welcome to join me anytime 🙂

~Farewell, Janelle

One More

On this highway we call life, we have a limited time to drive. For some, the ride is smooth; for others, bumpy; for most of us, replete with twists and turns.

My highway currently leads to a bridge: a bridge that leads me across the Atlantic Ocean to England. Today marks forty-nine more days of California sunshine before I move to London.

My imminent departure from this country inspired me to ponder what my “one mores” are. By this, I mean what I desire to experience “one more” of before I go. Here is my list thus far:

  1. One more walk on the beach at sunset – not done yet



2. One more BJ’s pizookie (my favorite dessert–a giant chocolate chip cookie with ice cream on top) – check


3. One more show at the Hollywood Bowl with Mom – check

We saw Queen with Adam Lambert singing the part of Freddie Mercury

4. One more breakfast with Maynard at Cafe Nouveau – we are going next week 🙂

Our favorite French toast and a cameo by Maynard’s finger 🙂

5. One more sunburn – I am not actually trying to make this happen, but knowing my fair complexion, I think it is highly likely, so I figured I would add it

6. One more drive along the Pacific Coast Highway – not done yet


7. One more burger at In-N-Out – check

8. One more visit to my favorite bookstore in Los Angeles – not done yet

My grandmother, Janelle, used to take me here every Saturday when I was a kid. It was my happy place 🙂 Fun fact: the bookstore resides in a grand, old movie theatre. Finally books triumph over movies!

9. One more interesting class – check

I took a class at Cal State Channel Islands. Before becoming a university, the buildings were the site of Camarillo State Mental Hospital, which is the mental hospital the song “Hotel California” was based on.

That concludes my list thus far. Do you have any recommendations?

On a separate note, I thought I would share one of the most interesting concepts from my class on Conflict Management and Mediation.

The Quakers pioneered a method of conflict resolution known as the “Quaker Circle.” If a townsperson was struggling with a difficult decision or conflict, he could call for a Quaker Circle. This consisted of a group of helpful townspeople sitting around him and asking him questions about the conflict without offering advice or conferring judgment. The method’s elegant simplicity rested in the fact that rumination driven by people’s questions would lead the person to see his desires more clearly and come up with a solution.


The next time you or someone in your life feels troubled, try asking some classic Quaker questions to inspire thought:

-What do you really want?

-How would you like this experience to end? For you? For the other person?

-What is at stake for you?

-Will this still matter to you six months from now? A year? Ten years?

-What is the best option you have now to deal with this issue?

It is amazing how much introspection can reveal to us. That being said, I am off to think.

~Farewell, Janelle




The End of an Era

I attended my last undergraduate class. Fortunately, it was a sweet one: Shakespeare. I waited to take Shakespeare until my last semester of college because I thought it would be an apropos swan song. As my Shakespeare professor, a delightful old man, likes to quip, “Shakespeare and the Bible: what more do you need in life?” I concur.

Copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623

Of all the classes I have taken, three stand out: Abnormal Psychology, Culture and Psychopathology, and, yes, Shakespeare.

I got to touch Shakespeare’s First Folio!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Its worth? $20 million dollars.

In honor of my last undergraduate class, I will share with you an excerpt from an essay I wrote for my Shakespeare class.

“Love and Marriage Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage”

Shakespeare deviates from the conventions of comedies and creates more complex and ambiguous romantic comedies than Hollywood. Shakespeare seeks to tell a more truthful love story by including both the ups and downs of falling in love. He lauds and denounces love in the same voice, as demonstrated in As You Like It by Rosalind, who simultaneously extols love and acknowledges that love is a “madness” (3.2.391). She brings her beloved Orlando back down to reality by reminding him that “men have died from time to time [
] but not for love” (4.1.101-2).

Shakespeare endeavors to show that love is far more complex than Hollywood portrays it to be. Making two people into one is extremely difficult because people are separate individuals who change and do not always agree. Rosalind advises Orlando against making promises that he will not be able to keep. He may currently think he will be with her “forever and a day,” but “men are April when they woo, December when they wed,” and “Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives” (4.1.138-143). Shakespeare deviates from Hollywood’s romantic comedies by proclaiming the truth that marriage does not guarantee a happy ending. People change, and life after marriage requires compromise, hard work, and a deeper love capable of forgiving mistakes and flaws.

As well as revealing the complexity of love, Shakespeare’s comedies demonstrate that marriage has a dark side. In As You Like It, Rosalind tricks Phoebe into marrying Silvias, a man she does not love, in order to fulfill the convention of comedies ending in marriage. Forced to marry Silvias, Phoebe responds ambiguously, “I will not eat my words, now thou art mine” (5.4.148-9). These are not the typical words of a bride on her wedding day, which hints at a darker truth about marriage: it is not always good, and it is not always desired. Moreover, Jacques presents a cynical view on marriage, predicting that Touchstone and Audrey’s “wrangling” will only last for “two months” before their marriage crumbles (5.4.191-193). With these darker portrayals of marriage, Shakespeare reminds us that marriage is not a panacea for all ailments. Contrary to what Hollywood romantic comedies lead us to believe, Shakespeare shows that marriage is not always happy.

Perhaps the answer to the uncertainty of marriage is “If.” Shakespeare extols “If” as mankind’s “peacemaker,” proclaiming that there is “much virtue in If” (5.4.102-3). Marriage can fail, ending in despair, if husband and wife do not give each other abundant love, kindness, and forgiveness. On the other hand, marriage can lead to immense happiness if husband and wife promise to love one another for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. Shakespeare sticks with tradition by ending his comedy with marriage, but deviates from tradition by showing that marriage does not always end in happiness. Marriage can result in happiness if husband and wife acknowledge love’s complexity and choose to show each other lifelong loving grace.

Photograph from my recent trip to Holland with Will

As a future wife, I will remember Shakespeare’s reflections on love and marriage. After all: “Shakespeare and the Bible: what more do you need in life?”


Unlikely Teachers

‘Tis my birthday. On birthdays, I tend to think about the scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in which Harry draws a birthday cake with the words “Happy Birthday, Harry” in the dirt. When his uncle’s watch strikes midnight, he blows out his drawing’s “candles” and wistfully remarks, “Make a wish, Harry.”


Perhaps I think about this scene because I, too, like to talk to myself, or perhaps because I, too, have grown into the habit of welcoming each new year of my life in contemplative solitude. The result of this year’s birthday rumination follows:

In life, one can find teachers in all places if one is humble and willing to be taught. Over the last year, I have found teachers in remarkable places.

In 2016, I began volunteering at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a federal psychiatric hospital that houses criminally convicted mentally ill individuals, such as John Hinckley. I have a predilection for D-Ward because it houses long-term patients, allowing me to form meaningful relationships as patients recognize me and count on me to return each week. When I first entered D-Ward, I did not know what to expect. Of all things, I did not expect to be thoroughly schooled in the card game Spades by the end of my first shift. Spades is one of the patients’ favorite activities. In many ways, it is a type of therapy because it involves mental acuity, strategic planning, and teamwork. Over the last seven months, a group of psychiatric patients, most of whom have been living in D-Ward for ten or more years, have taught me how to play Spades. Warning: if you ever challenge me to a game of Spades, I will likely clobber you. Why? Because I learned how to play Spades from the best Spades players in the world. Learning to play cards is a simple, yet powerful thing. The act of teaching confers vast cognitive benefits, providing a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Nowadays, when I sit across from “Bill,” my long-term Spades teacher and rival, I actually have a shot at winning. Last Friday, I beat him for the first time, and when I did, he smiled.


If you think finding a teacher in a psychiatric ward is outlandish, just wait.

In 2015, I taught a creative writing class to a group of inmates at Arlington Prison. I will share with you the reflection I wrote after coming home from my first night at prison:

“I taught my first creative writing class at the prison tonight. I was a bit apprehensive on the bus ride there. The hardest part of entering a prison is the unfamiliar ‘woosh’ of the prison doors slamming shut and locking once you are on the inside. At that point, there’s no going back and you could meet an inmate anywhere. Hallway, elevator, corridor. All I carried with me was my Arlington prison ID, pencils, and a piece of paper. I was the only woman in a prison full of men. A row of inmates passed by on the other side of the steel bars. I felt their eyes on my back as I walked away. I clutched my ID tightly and held it up so that the ubiquitous cameras could identify me. The guard wasn’t at his post, so we needed to go down to central command and request a new guard. My more experienced male partner asked me, “Can you do it?” so I went down to central command by myself.

Fumbling with my access card, I opened the heavy steel door and walked out of the room, entering the prison population. Alone. I called the elevator and swiped my access card to go down seven floors. Central command agreed to send the guard up, so I returned to floor seven of the prison with my list of students. I gave the guard my roll call so he could retrieve the inmates from their cells. I sat in the classroom, arranged the desks in a circle, and waited for my students, my inmates, to be released. The first one entered the room. I rose, introduced myself, and he shook my hand. I just broke my first prison rule. We are not supposed to have any physical contact with prisoners. Tattoos, shaved heads, silver teeth, dreadlocks, and navy blue jump suits entered my tiny classroom and took their seats. My last student, a man without legs, entered. ‘Let’s begin.’

After introductions, I began by reading the poem ‘Where I’m From’ and asked the men to write their own poems based on where they are from. Twelve men came to my class, and their poems shocked me. I will never forget one in particular. The man wrote about his home built on broken promises and the fleeting desire for holy matrimony as an anecdote to his wretched childhood. It was beautiful. He seemed to be a religious man. I hope to see faith infuse more of his poems. The class went remarkably well. I had been told that the inmates are often resistant and uncooperative. Thankfully, mine were not like that at all by the end of the lesson. I asked the inmates what they hoped to get out of the class. They responded with alacrity and seemed to genuinely want to be there. I felt gratified tonight, like I am exactly where God wants me to be. I can do a lot of good in this prison.”

Looking back at my time teaching at Arlington Prison, I think I learned far more from my students than they learned from me. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire talks about a new model of teaching in which “the teacher is no longer merely the one who teaches, but who is himself taught in dialogue with the student, who in turn while being taught also teaches.” Freire goes on to explain that through mutual dialogue, the student and teacher become “jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.” In prison, I may have taught my students the difference between simile and metaphor, but they taught me how to write with honesty. Who do you think received the more valuable lesson?

As I enter the next year of my life, I look forward to meeting my next teachers. I have no idea who they shall be, but no matter their identities, I shall delight in learning all I can from them. And hopefully I will be able to give them back something in return.

~Make a wish, Janelle


Ringing in a New Year

Have you heard the rancorous outcry that 2016 was a terrible year? 2016 certainly saw a plethora of change: Brexit marked the beginning of the disintegration of the EU, Syrian refugees were both welcomed and denied, the Summer Olympics shed light on Brazil’s good side and dark side, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the US elected Donald Trump as President. This world we call home changed significantly this year, and change can be hard to accept.

I empathize with the lamentations of those who suffered in 2016, but I must also acknowledge that change can be a source of good. For instance, unemployment reached the lowest rate since the recession in 2016, the giant panda was classified as no longer endangered, and Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar!

Personally, I have experienced the fruits of change this year. Fifty years from now, when I reflect on my life, I think I will always remember 2016 as my most transformative year. Why, you ask. Well, 2016 marked the year that I relinquished the reigns of my life completely over to God.


People are like blocks of marble: they possess immense potential for beauty, but they require the masterful hand of a sculptor for that beauty to be revealed. What does the sculptor do? He chips away at the marble. The chipping is not easy. It hurts. God chipped away at my pride in order to reveal my beauty. It was not until I had completely submitted to God that my marble visage was able to glean and dimple in the sunlight.


When one humbles oneself and allows God to change one’s life, one may find that one suddenly begins dancing through life instead of merely existing.


I used to be terrified of change. Now I am thankful for it. God uses change to bring about good. If you would like an example of God’s faithfulness, let my life be a testimony. I went from dedicating my entire life to the pursuit of a career that did not fulfill me to allowing myself to have a work-life balance for the first time in years, pursuing a vocation that stimulates my mind and allows me to help people in need, and allowing myself the freedom to fall in love with the most wonderful man I have ever known.


I even get to marry him! May the “YES!” I exclaimed on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral go down in history as the wisest decision I have ever made.

As 2016 progressed, I often ruminated on the following two thoughts as a kind of roadmap for how I wanted to live my life.

First, the people most worth impressing are your five-year old self and your eighty-five year old self.

And second, I desire to live my life such that when I stand before God after I die, I can say, “God, I used everything you gave me. I have nothing left.”


Cheers to 2016!

Thank you for reading my musings this year. I shall continue writing this blog as an attempt to stay in touch with you, especially due to the fact that as of August 2017, I shall be an ocean away (I am moving to join Will in London).

2017 beckons, so I shall leave you with one last thought. It is the first Bible verse I memorized when I became a Christian at age 16. “Trust in the Lord your God and lean not upon thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6


By the dawn’s early light: An Englishman in California

Dear readers, I have a special treat for you. My wonderful Will came to visit me in California for two weeks. Here are his reflections from the British perspective on our two nations divided by a common language. Without further adieu, I give you Will:



What to say about America? Only that it’s incredible, addictive, thought provoking, undeniably beautiful and utterly bonkers.

Oscar Wilde claimed it to be the only land to have traversed from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between. More favourably, Stephen Fry judged it to be simultaneously preposterous, laughable, oppressive, charming, ridiculous, expensive, overpopulated and wonderful, describing its people as “slightly too perfect.”


Make no mistake, the USA is a very different place to Europe. Europe’s culture is founded on our history, built up steadily over thousands of years. There is no beginning, no start date. We have no founding fathers and our nations were not conceived in anything, least of all in liberty.

It can be hard therefore for a European to understand how a country can have a culture without a history, or at least without a long one. Hence the negative stereotype caricatured by Wilde. If nations were people then the US would currently be going through young adolescence, enthusiastically reveling in newfound power and optimism, yet lacking calming experience. Although as most European countries are in the midst of their midlife crisis, this is arguably an enviable position to be in.


What I discovered was how right Margaret Thatcher was when she said that while “Europe was created by history, America was created by philosophy”. Americans enjoy a culture no less rich than Paris, Rome or Vienna yet at the same time fundamentally different. It is built on values, founded on ideas and fuelled by dreams.

Take the 4th of July as a case in point. As a European I took this to be a commemoration of a historic event, much like how in England we celebrate the capture of Guy Fawkes on the 5th of November. It seemed ridiculous then that a whole nation would celebrate independence from the British, given that the overwhelming majority of the country never was a part of the British empire, with many of today’s states having been part of other European empires, and indeed remaining part of these empires long after the thirteen colonies formed the USA. Never mind the fact that most Americans’ ancestors were still in the Old World at the time anyway.

What this is then is a celebration not of history but of identity, of being American and everything which goes along with that. There is no equivalent of this in the UK. Each constituent nation has a saint’s day, St. George for England, St. Andrew for Scotland, St. David for Wales and St. Patrick for Northern Ireland. Yet there is no unifying British day, and our union is undoubtedly weaker because of it.


My earliest introduction to America was Disney’s take on Pocahontas when I was about five years old. Appropriate, given that Janelle’s introduction to London was Disney’s version of Mary Poppins. From the outset I was captivated by the vast mystery of this New World, its majestic wilderness and unending possibilities. What then for my own adventure to this strange land?


American customer service is an experience. Generally in England I will be helpfully told where to go, and then left to manage at my own pace. Perfection. Never before have I met someone who was so excited to tell me where to put my hand luggage. The enthusiasm is contagious though and before long I was thoroughly enjoying being whisked across the Atlantic, an experience made even better having been semi-upgraded to the front row of economy. Helpful when you’re 6ft.

As the coast of North America came into view, I was introduced to another American institution, portion sizes. “Would you like a snack sir?” said the flight attendant. “What’s this?” I thought, “I’ve already had my snack. They brought ice cream around not one hour ago.” Regardless, I was handed a box which clearly said “snack” on the top. Upon opening it I discovered a sandwich, side salad, biscuits, chocolate, crisps, crackers, dried fruit, and some weird yellow plastic claiming to be cheese. It was what could only be described as a second lunch. Thinking I’d misread, I checked the label again. Yep, definitely a snack.

Many hours later, Janelle and I were at last reunited in LA, having had only a slight incident at immigration in New York, when I was asked if I was aware of what happened the last time an Englishman tried to bring tea into this country.

Los Angeles is unlike anywhere I have ever been. In much the same way that Egypt was built along the Nile, LA is a land constructed along the freeway. The car made the city what it is and it has radically left its mark on the city’s culture.


A big highlight was the chance to go watch the Dodgers play baseball. Not knowing much about the game, I was surprised by how unlike cricket it turned out to be. Once you get a feel for the strategy you can see very easily how people can get so obsessed with its intricacy.


What makes American sports such an event for a European though is all the ancillary entertainment which goes along with it. Surely the game itself should be the primary driver of excitement? Interrupting the play so that the stadium could hold quiz games and prize draws as a way of motivating the crowd was rather odd. And being told when to sing? It felt like I’d stumbled into a madhouse. Nonetheless, a unique and thoroughly charming experience which I’ll always remember.

In contrast to the otherworldliness of LA, Santa Barbara felt almost European. The genuinely historic buildings, an authentic high street and a normal amount of traffic, made one feel like one was walking along the Mediterranean. The fact that all the signs were in Spanish only heightened the illusion. San Francisco too felt very European. Strolling along the promenade one almost felt like one was in Weston, Portsmouth or a slightly tidied up Brighton. By contrast, our epic road trip to get there showcased the vast emptiness of America in a way which has no European comparison.

Heading back south, we stopped by Sacramento to visit my old youth pastor, who moved to America a decade ago. It was a joy to meet with Marc and to catch up after so many years. Without a doubt he was one of the biggest influences on my life growing up, teaching me to know God at the time when my parents’ faith became my own. We also got to visit Old Town, which basically looks like it wandered right out of a Wild West film set. There was a uniquely American feel to the place, and I look forward to exploring it more next time.




Back in LA, and with only a few days left, there was just enough time for a spot of surfing. Completely new to the sport, and having been assured by my travel insurers that I was covered for “everything from a broken wrist to being eaten by a shark”, I was keen to give it a go. Catching a wave it turns out is very easy. Standing up? Not so much. Perhaps more practice is needed.


What then of America? I don’t imagine I’ll ever fully understand why the game itself is not enough to entertain the crowd, the endless distance between places is still a little overwhelming, and I definitely ate far too much of the food. But never mind all that. Americans are the nicest and in many ways the most generous people you will ever meet. They are intensely patriotic and have a great deal to be patriotic about.


You can’t visit America without bringing something back, in my case, 2 kg in weight and an immense respect for the way ideas and values can shape culture. I already have a deep fondness for the place; a seed which I’m convinced will only grow. Thank you to Charlie and Rosemary for their hospitality. You are welcome in London any time!