Focusing Our Attention on the Profound

(I’m reviewing articles I’ve written for my professional website, narrowing them down to some favorites. Here’s the first, which focuses on a life lesson I received from a respected teacher and try to pass along to some of my students who I think might appreciate it.)

I’ve often told my students an allegory that was told to me by one of my most important teachers when I was a young adult, the story of two people walking at dawn one morning, the rising sun at their backs. One paused and turned to look at the beautiful sunrise, awed by its beauty. Wanting to share it, he tapped the shoulder of his friend, who turned to look and was equally awed.

I invite my students to stop and consider this story, to contemplate it for its meaning or meanings. One comes from recognizing the important role we have to help those in our lives be aware of meaningful things.

Related to that, however, is the truth that try as we might, we can never MAKE another person be aware of something. We may WANT to share things with others, but they still have to turn, literally and/or metaphorically, to see them. THEY have to do the physical and mental work.

If my students get to that understanding, I’m pleased.

As I’ve gotten older, interestingly, I’ve found what has become an even bigger lesson for me from this story. It’s that we all are being tapped on our shoulders all the time. Every second of every day, we are being offered the opportunity to see meaningful things.

Many of us wonder who or what does what I’m calling this shoulder-tapping. Call it Source, or Light, or Intelligence, or God, or some other name. For my purposes, though, putting a name to what taps us is not the most important thing.

What’s important is to recognize that we are being tapped and to practice focusing our attention. In other words, I have the responsibility to do the physical and mental work, to turn and look, so to speak.

As I’ve gained experience doing this, I’ve learned that there is discipline involved in the practice. Undisciplined, my attention is drawn to all sorts of things — negative news stories, certain uses of social media, drama from the sports world — each of which distracts me from what is actually meaningful.

I sometimes even fool myself into believing the distracting things are important.

Disciplined, I learn to see the difference between the distracting and the divine, between the pointless and the profound. In time, I find that I’ve started to internally filter out the things that distract me, which better enables me to gently focus on the divine and the profound.

Like a sunrise.

France 2013 (From the Archives)

So as I mentioned in previous posts, toward the end of our sabbatical year, back in the early summer of 2011, Melinda and I began dreaming of the idea of returning to France, and specifically to Nantes, for the better part of a month each summer. We worked out the details at PSCS to make this happen and in 2012 we returned with Chloe and Ella, as summarized in my previous post.

In 2013, Melinda and I returned to Nantes without the girls. At age 20 and 16, they kinda liked the idea of having time by themselves in our Seattle house.

How odd…

While not having the girls with us provided a lot more flexibility, I’d hate to suggest that we didn’t miss them. To be honest, some nine years later, I don’t really remember missing them. I do remember posting on the blog little tests for them, cryptic photos of places in Nantes that I invited them to identify. So clearly, I was thinking about them…

The point that really felt different without the girls is when Melinda and I spent extended time in Paris, just the two of us. That was, indeed, a glorious time.

To gain easy access to all the posts from our 2013 trip, use the France 2013 tag or, even easier, click here.

Return to Nantes 2012 (From the Archives)

In my last post, I talked about how Melinda, Chloe, Ella, and I spent 13 months in France beginning in July of 2010. These 13 months got dubbed the “French Sabbatical” as Melinda and I were granted paid time off from our jobs during that time.

From our “bonus” night in Iceland after missing our connecting flight to Paris.
Not surprisingly, while we there we grew quite fond of living in France, especially living in the city of Nantes. I’m not quite sure how to describe this, but living as we did in Nantes, as well as traveling to various destinations in France and once to Italy, felt completely ours. It was different than anything done by other members of our family and carved out a super-special context in our lives that the four of us will forever share.

Melinda and I would go on regular walks while the girls were at school and it was on one of these walks that we talked about taking a month off from work each summer to return to Nantes.

We spent our first week in Pornichet where it was unfortunately quite rainy and cool.
We starting seeing this as a focal point for the next phase in our lives, one that would ultimately settle with us living in Nantes and Seattle for maybe 6 months each year. At first, though, because of work and other responsibilities, this would need to be a single month in the summer when school wasn’t in session.

So in 2012 we put the plan into action. Our good friends in Nantes, the Boudeaus (who were responsible for us choosing Nantes in the first place) and the Bertails (who lived around the corner from us during the sabbatical and had become among our closest friends), were only too pleased to help us. And it was Christine Bertail who found a place for the four of us to live for the month of July, 2012. A colleague of hers and his family would be in Spain that month so it worked out for us to rent his house.

This is more like it. Summer in Nantes!
As I had done during the sabbatical year, I decided I would post to my blog on a daily basis while we were there. Truth be told, I had kept doing this once we had returned to Seattle in August, 2011. All of these posts can be found here by using the “Monthly Archive” pull-down menu below and selecting one of the months. Still, the idea of returning to France in 2012 and not posting daily seemed sacrilegious in some way.

So here was are in 2022, nearly ten years after our “Return to Nantes.” It’s hard to believe that much time has flown by. Because of the pandemic and other reasons, it’s been five years since we’ve been back but we do have plans to go this summer! And, yes, we did return in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. I’ll be focusing on each of those trips in future “From the Archives” posts.

For now, I invite you to explore our trip in 2012 using the “France 2012” tag.

French Sabbatical (From the Archives)

From our first visit to Paris in October, 2010.
One of the highlights of my life, of Melinda’s and my marriage, and in our role as parents of Chloe & Ella was the 13 months we spent in France from July 2010 through July 2011. We were granted a sabbatical from our jobs at Puget Sound Community School (PSCS), both as a tribute to the work we had done to get the school going and keep it running since its humble beginnings in 1994 AND to provide the school community an opportunity to know it could exist without its founders being present (ie: the infamous “Pie Truck Scenario” – perhaps I’ll explain that in a future post).

The concept of the sabbatical being a real thing began while Melinda and I were on spring break in 2008. The concept of living in France with our children began as a pipe dream we’d tell each other before we even had children. That this could become a reality is a tribute to a lot of people, most significantly the PSCS board and staff at the time. I can vividly recall the months leading up to our departure like they were last month, not twelve years ago.

Our first family photo taken on July 6, 2010 in our adopted hometown of Nantes.
Officially, the sabbatical began with the school’s 2010-11 fiscal year, meaning on July 1, 2010. But we didn’t leave for France until July 4th so we had a few days in Seattle on our own. Because we were renting our house (note, this link takes you a site we created in 2012 to promote the idea of swapping houses with someone for a month that summer) to another family for the year and they moved in on July 1, we were staying at a friend’s. The day of the 1st, Chloe was out with some friends on one of her many goodbye tours and Melinda & Ella were doing some last-minute shopping. I was alone in an unfamiliar house with my laptop for company.

I had recently been reading how a person had documented his life for a full year by posting a daily photograph and some quick comments on a website. The idea appealed to me so that afternoon, alone in the house, I investigated how to do something like it. I knew a tiny bit about WordPress since one of the PSCS teaching staff members had taught the rest of us how to use it to post our class offerings to the students. On a whim, I created a WordPress blog, calling it “frenchsabbatical.”

Outside the Castle of Nantes (Château des ducs de Bretagne)
I had promised myself and told others that I wasn’t going to over-commit myself to projects while on sabbatical. I wanted some practice of living more spontaneously, freed from the daily requirements of being a school director. Indeed, Melinda and I would have parenting obligations but beyond that, I wanted a sense of freedom. That the PSCS board had agreed to supply Melinda and me with a monthly stipend helped tremendously with this.

Little did I know that the whim of starting my “frenchsabbatical” blog would propel not just me but many others on a daily adventure, one I never regretted for a minute. Beginning on the 1st of July from the home of our friends, I posted every day until our return (truth be told, I kept posting every day after that for another year or so, all of which you can find here). Conversations emerged, first just among Melinda, Chloe, Ella & me – “You could put that on the blog.” And, “Don’t you dare write about that.” To, “I get to approve any photos you use of me.”

The blog features a lot of silly posts, like my fascination with the sexiness of French fire hydrants.
As the months went by, our French friends got in the act. My dear friend Laurent made sure I had a way to post when his family took ours to their cabin in the French Alps that didn’t have an Internet connection. I also learned that part of his morning ritual while we were there was to read what I posted the night before.

Around the corner from our house in Nantes we met the Bertail family, people who have become among our closest friends in the world. There are so many stories to tell about them, from Christine, the mom, twice stopping by to introduce herself to us only find Chloe and Ella at home, to how they helped me celebrate my 48th birthday in style.

Then, of course, there were our friends and family members back in Seattle who used the blog to keep in touch with us. As a writer, I often would picture a member of our family as the audience to what I was writing. Michele, my mother-in-law, my brothers, or one of our nieces were common “targets.” Certainly, my mother was always in mind (she’d regularly send me edits – catching my typos with her usual flair).

To this day, I pay WordPress a fee each year to keep ads from the site and to maintain its unique domain name, meaning you can find it in its entirety at https://frenchsabbatical.com. Two years ago as a holiday present, one of the best I’ve ever received, Chloe & Ella had the blog posts made into a two-volume hardback book set that will forever hold a place of prominence in Melinda’s and my home.

I took up running while in France. Here I am crossing the turf track at the Nantes racetrack to get to the inner trotter track where I regularly ran after dropping off Ella at school.
Last week, in order to have all of my personal blog posts in one spot, I copied the content to this site, my ongoing personal blog. So if you’re interested in seeing what we were doing on a given day, you can do so right here. In fact, in the footer you’ll see a pull-down menu on the left for a monthly archive. Choose a month from the sabbatical year, July 2010 – July 2011, and enjoy some reading.

You can also use the “French Sabbatical” tag (you’ll see the posts in reverse order) or simply start with the first post I wrote on July 1, 2010 and go to the next and then the next…

Some nights when I’m feeling especially nostalgic, I’ll pick a month and do some reading, remembering what an amazing year we had.

Spring Break Happy Hour (From the Archives)

Andy & Melinda on Day Two. No, they hadn't had too much to drink. They just were overwhelmed by how bright the flash was!
Andy & Melinda on Day Two. No, they hadn’t had too much to drink. They just were overwhelmed by how bright the flash was!
Back in the day, as administrators/co-founders of PSCS, Melinda and I tried to do something special when spring break rolled around each year.

This included a couple of trips to Mexico, memorable trips to La Jolla and Palm Springs, staying with family outside of San Francisco, and a trip to Portland. In fact, it was in Mexico in 2008 that we first conceived of what became our family’s 2010-11 sabbatical to France, and it was during spring break in San Francisco in 2010 that we got our French visas.

In 2014, to save money for a future trip, we stayed home, a staycation! For fun, we chose a different restaurant in Seattle each day and experienced that restaurant’s happy hour. For fun, I recorded each day’s outing as a way to make it even more special, much as I’ve recorded each day we’ve spent in France since the year of the sabbatical.

To read the happy hour posts in order, start here. Then click on the next post in the lower right. Or click on each one in order below:

Day One – The Walrus & the Carpenter
Day Two – Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Bar
Day Three – The Whale Wins
Day Four – Bitterroot
Day Five – Bastille

Day Five – Bastille

Bastille menu in Melinda's hands
Bastille menu in Melinda’s hands
If on Monday Melinda and I could have planned the perfect climatic happy hour for today, it would have included three specific elements: Chloe, Ella, a French restaurant.
The girls!
The girls!

When Chloe arrived home from college early in the afternoon, we got element #1. When Ella agreed to join us, we got element #2. And once Melinda suggested Bastille in Ballard, we had element #3.

So the fact that Chloe could actually have a happy hour cocktail with her parents and sister was secondary to the fact that the four of us were sitting together in a French restaurant pretending we were in France, both from a past and a future standpoint. Same with the cocktails and the food, even the moules avec pommes frites. Ella even had a croque monsieur and pronounced it better than the one (she only had one?) in France.

It was all about the company.

Day Four – Bitterroot

Melinda at the Bitterroot
Melinda at the Bitterroot
So, you know, part of the idea of this staycation was to save money, right? But going to restaurants every day kind of adds up money-wise. Especially when you order a couple of dozen oysters, like we did on Monday. So a focus for today’s happy hour excursion was to keep the costs down.
Bitterroot Happy Hour Menu
Bitterroot Happy Hour Menu

We pulled this off in fine fashion, to the tune of $23 including tax and tip, at Bitterroot in Ballard. Two cocktails and two happy hour food items!

Part of the fun of Bitterroot is its cowboy feel. There’s a chain link fence above the tables, a drink called a Montana Manhattan, and super-good BBQ.

Our cocktails
Our cocktails
We ordered the BBQ Nachos and some cornbread. Melinda had the Montana Manhattan and I had the Creamed Old Fashioned. We looked at the regular menu, too, and saw they have a macaroni & cheese that sounds pretty good. We’re pretty sure Ella could get into that.

In other words, we plan to go back.

Day Three – The Whale Wins

Happy Hour Menu
Happy Hour Menu
The Whale Wins occupies a soft spot in Melinda’s and my hearts. It was where we had our last dinner with Christine & Bérnard in Seattle last summer before they went back home to Nantes. It was stunning on many levels, from how good the food was, to how good the company was, to how connected to France the owner of the restaurant is. So much so, in fact, that the restaurant carries Bérnard’s cousin’s wine.
Blue Cheese Pantry
Blue Cheese Pantry

Melinda and I haven’t been back since then, that is until today as part of our Spring Break Happy Hour tour. Of course we went back this week! We had to go back. It was time we went back. So we went back. We took lots of photos.

Sardines Toast
Sardines Toast

The Whale Wins has what may be my favorite cocktail. It contains calvados, a brandy from Normandy that Bérnard made sure I sampled when we stayed with his parents in Normandy three years ago. So I made sure to have that cocktail, Melinda had one of her own, and we ordered some happy hour munchies that filled us up.

Day Two – Frank’s Oyster House

Frank's Oyster House at 10:30pm
Frank’s Oyster House at 10:30pm
This is my story and I’m sticking with it.

Ella had a 4:15 dental appointment, prime happy hour time. And since either Melinda or I needed to be present to cover the co-payment, we thought we’d just find a suitable restaurant with a decent happy hour in the neighborhood of her dentist. While Ella was having her teeth cleaned, we’d get happy hour snacks and a drink. Simple, right?

Our attempt at a selfie. It was so dark inside, the flash caused us to close our eyes...
Our attempt at a selfie. It was so dark inside, the flash caused us to close our eyes…

No such luck.

We went into one restaurant and nothing but fried food choices didn’t appeal. To make matters worse, our nearly 70 degree weather and sunshine of yesterday was long gone. It was 20 degrees cooler and raining at 4:15 today. What happened to our spring break? It felt and looked like fall…

So, anyway, instead of an afternoon happy hour we ran some errands and decided to go to the LATE happy hour at Frank’s, our favorite Ravenna haunt.

Frank's Happy Hour tacos
Frank’s Happy Hour tacos
In fact, it’s 11:30 as I write this, just 30 minutes past the 10-11pm late happy hour. We split a dozen oysters, each had a cocktail, and Melinda ordered happy hour pork tacos. It was all delicious, just like the company. But it was cold and dark and damp.

What I have to show for it is this story and these photos.

Oh, for those of you keeping score at home, we rented “Gravity” from Redbox as one of our afternoon errands. So in the last two days we’ve watched “American Hustle” and “Gravity.” We’re making our Oscar rounds, or so it seems…

Day One – The Walrus & the Carpenter

oystersLet me just say that Melinda and I like oysters. I mean we really like oysters. So this morning I conducted a little Internet search and came up with this result for 8 Seattle-based oyster bars. Number 8 on the list is a place called The Walrus & the Carpenter, a restaurant Melinda has long wanted to visit. And with half price oysters from 4-5pm, away we went!cabbage salad

We ordered two dozen oysters, a king’s amount, a dozen for each of us, 4 of each of the 6 varieties they had. We ordered two glasses of Muscadet, a white wine from the Loire Valley in France, not far from Nantes, the city in which we lived for 13 months with our daughters in 2010/11. While waiting for the oysters, we sipped our wine and ate one of the best salads I’ve ever tasted, a grapefruit salad with fresh crab…

We also came up with the idea of visiting 5 restaurant happy hours in Seattle, one each day this week. This will make our spring break special and unique. It didn’t hurt that today in Seattle it was nearly 70 degrees.melinda

The oysters were incredible, all 24 of them. We topped them off by sharing a cocktail called “I’m Your Huckleberry” that has huckleberry juice and a French liqueur called Avèze (gin and lime juice, too) that we had never heard of. Melinda referred to it as her “medicine,” so taken by it was she. On our way to a nearby Redbox site to pick up “American Hustle,” our entertainment for the night, we picked up a bottle of Avèze and are right now watching the movie and sipping an Avèze cocktail.

That’s spring break, day one.