We’re Only Human

By Shannon Boatwright

Is it ok to sometimes be sad? Is it ok to just cry? Cry because your heart hurts and you need to release the emotions? Is it ok to be mad? Are you sometimes mad at the world and want to throw your own private hissy fit? Absolutely. YES. YES. And, scream it with me, YES!

It’s completely natural to have these moments. We are human after all.

Why am I sharing the above? Well, I tend to be what I call a “Positivity Promoter”. I’m all about positive thinking and positive thoughts leading to everything from success to healing, on all levels. I am a huge user and promoter of the power of imagination and when used in a positive way, I truly do believe that you can genuinely create positive things in your life – whether by simply generating creativity, or actually creating your own success and/or healing with the power of positive thinking and visualization.Its Ok

BUT, and yes, this is an BIG “but”,… sometimes it’s flat out necessary to feel the human emotion of sadness, hurt, anger…Like I said before, we are human after all. Anyone who attempts to be a force of positivity in every single moment, is, well, going to fail. And that’s actually not a bad thing. We need to have our moments of sadness. We need to have our moments of pain. We need to have our moments of anger. Do we want a lot of those moments? Absolutely NOT. But the reality is, it’s a natural part of life to experience pain, hurt, anger and loss. A harsh reality that so very many of us wish that we could change.

The reality also though, is that it’s those moments of sadness, hurt, and anger that help us cling to the positive; to grasp hold of faith, love, kindness, generosity, and goodness – that positive nature that gives us hope. We may not achieve understanding or acceptance, but we gain hope amongst the hurt. The positivity rejuvenates us, fills our hearts with what I’d like to think of as literal smiles… actual happiness.

We are all such unique, special, outstanding individuals. Personal happiness is defined differently within each of us. As well as sadness and hurt – we all experience these emotions in different ways, we handle them in different ways. As humans we are so incredibly beautiful in our own, precious individual ways on the outside physically. And on the inside, physically, we are the same, we have the same parts no matter what our exterior color, size, etc, etc, etc. BUT, we all feel differently, in outstanding, unique ways on the inside. There is no exact equation for how everyone experiences emotion and handles the stresses of life.

So, why is a “Positivity Promoter”, who typically tries to spread rays of sunshine and smiles to all those around her at all times, even daring to speak of recognizing the negative emotions of life? Well, I’ve always delved into the world of harsh emotions – I mean, it really is an inevitable part of human nature. Only those close to you typically will ever have an inkling that you are a real person living in this all too real and harsh world, a person that indeed faces negativity and actually experiences it too, sometimes on a daily level. Some of us are really good at hiding the unhappiness. Especially in today’s world in which people promote themselves on social media as having the perfect, photo-shopped lives. Most of us only post our beauty and happy moments. Naturally. And thankfully. We can only handle so much negativity. Think about how many times you see someone post on Facebook, “I can’t handle all the terrible negativity with people’s posts. I’m taking a hiatus from Facebook. See ya.” I personally see it A LOT. And, hey, I don’t blame them. The negativity and nonsense can get terribly overwhelming and next thing you know, you’re in an awful depression and the really bad stuff isn’t even directly affecting your life. It’s a crazy thing.

Honestly, I think as I’ve entered my 40s – note I said, “entered”! – my emotions have taken a turn for what I think I’ll call, the realistic. At this point in my lifetime, in my maturity, in my struggle/battle and constant adventure to create success, happiness and share my talents, I also feel more…on a real level. Let’s face it, the older you get, the more you experience reality – all the real and pure realities of this consistently challenging life. And most unfortunately, as us women get older, our hormones seem to take us on a tormenting roller coaster ride that feels like a joy ride one second and a death defying, catastrophic plane crash the next second. On any given day, I can be facing depression straight in its ugly face, all the while trying my very best to combat it at every turn, feeling beaten down by the world, it’s hardships, feeling ugly, chubby, not worthy, you name it…all the while, granted, I will do my absolute damnedest to hide it, to overcome it. I’m aware of it, I know better, I know my worth, I believe in myself, I know I can combat the negative emotions…, but daggomit it’s just hard sometimes. And sometimes you just need to be sad, you just need to cry, you just need to be angry. Then, the flip side, I can wake up the very next day and be thankfully full of strength and thankfulness. It’s a glorious thing to feel this way – to be truly full of positivity and feel it to your core, a gratefulness for the recognition of positivity despite all the negative nonsense that we could allow to overcome us.

 

And there it is. See, I fortunately have the ability to overcome the negative moments, for now at least. Others aren’t so capable. Their genetic make-up doesn’t allow them to reach for the positivity or come out of the negativity like a so called “normal” human being. I’m incredibly blessed that I do not have to rely on medicine to help level me out and allow me to think and rationalize clearly. I personally feel blessed to have the ability to recognize when I’m experiencing any negative emotions, I know I have the ability to pull myself out of it. I know the sadness, hurt and anger will pass. Some of those emotions are always there due to life experiences, but they help me to be stronger, help me to recognize the power of the positive in my life.

The following excerpt is from a piece Time Magazine posted. This article is what really got me thinking and helped me to gain an acceptance of the fact that it’s ok to experience ALL emotions and that I do not have to be positive all the time.

“Overemphasis on positive emotions denies the key role negative emotions play in our human experience. Negative emotions serve important functions in that they motivate us to take action or help us give up on goals that are no longer tenable. There is also evidence that experiencing a range of emotions, both positive and negative, has beneficial health consequences, including longer life.

Instead of empowering people to exercise what control they may have, we end up blaming them if they aren’t able to dig themselves out of a difficult situation, and this adds to their stress rather than lessening it. Perhaps most dangerous, by placing the onus on the individual to think positive thoughts to simply feel better about their situation, we neglect the importance of working to change the social or institutional causes of the stress which may perpetuate the systems of oppression, discrimination, or inequality that caused the epidemic of stress in the first place.

But we should not throw the positive emotion baby out with the positivity bathwater. There is, after all, mounting evidence that positive emotions are associated with a host of beneficial outcomes, including better health and longer life. In my research, our goal is to help people learn ways to experience more positive emotion on a daily basis even when life is stressful — not banishing negative experiences or emotions.

My lab is not the only one doing this kind of work. Dr. Jeff Huffman and his colleagues at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital are finding that a program that teaches cardiac in-patients skills for increasing positive emotion shows promise for improving not only well-being, but also physical activity, a key health behavior for people recovering from acute coronary events.

Moreover, making space for positive emotions alongside the negative supports more effective coping and may provide us with the capacity to take on the bigger structural issues that cause stress.”

(from Emotions Expert: It’s Impossible to be Constantly Positive. Try This Instead by Judith K. Moskowitz, June 5, 2018, http://time.com/5300649/positivity-professor/)

So is it ok to be sad sometimes and want to be ok with being sad and allowing yourself to cry? Absolutely. It’s a real part of surviving this life. Sometimes the hurt and anger help guide us to the answers or to the positive sides of life. It’s a very powerful, yin/yang kind of thing. One cannot, does not truly live this life without the other.

Light vs dark, human nature vs human events – Yin/Yang. It’s a fascinating concept.

I will continue to promote positivity, because I know and have experienced the beautiful side effects of thinking and believing in goodness and greatness. But, on the flip side, I will allow myself to feel…to feel sadness, to feel hurt, to feel anger. I will do my best to stay in control of those emotions and to always learn from them, gain strength from them and gain relief from the release that they can provide to my all too human body that feels all and at every turn attempts to survive.

Allow yourself to feel and learn from your feelings. You can grow strength, relief and understanding from the natural emotions that your body is meant to experience. All this being said, allow yourself to be human. It’s ok. It really is.

 

Back to Basics

By Rachel Sircy

I’ve written many articles about cooking at home, but I’m going to write another one. Home cooking is an important topic for anyone wanting to go organic or gluten free on a budget. Actually, it’s an especially important topic for celiacs these days. According to a recent study that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dr. Jack Syage and his research team found that adult celiacs who were following a gluten free diet and still experiencing symptoms of celiac disease, had been exposed to 150mg to 400mg of gluten per day. Only 10mg per day is safe for a person with celiac disease, but of course 0mg is preferable!
The thing is, gluten is hidden in so many things, it’s easy to forget or get sloppy with our eating habits. Unfortunately, any sloppiness in our diet means that we are doing damage to our bodies. Gluten is hidden in so many sauces, food additives (who wants food additives anyway?), and it comes with so many sneaky names : dextrin, maltodextrin, Brewer’s yeast, malt, malt flavoring, etc., that I’m sure that I accidentally get some contamination without even knowing it. The other issue is that not everything that is labeled gluten free really is gluten free. It’s not good enough for a celiac to purchase something that says, “contains no gluten” or “no gluten ingredients used.” The ingredients of a product may be gluten free, but it also matters how the product was processed, how it was shipped and how it has been handled in the store.
Most of the gluten hidden in our diet is going to come from processed foods. If you’re new to celiac disease, or if you are still experiencing symptoms, follow this advice that a registered dietician gave me years ago when I was first diagnosed: Make simple meals. What does this mean? It means if you don’t know what else to cook, make a crockpot roast with potatoes and carrots. You need a meat, a vegetable or two and some source of starch. You don’t need to worry about purchasing processed foods. Trust me, after 10 years of gluten free living, finding out which processed foods are safe to eat – even when shopping in a health food store – still makes my head spin. So, the best thing that you can do is avoid them. Buy plain raw meats and cook them yourself. Buy plain raw vegetables and cook them yourself. Potatoes, rice and beans all work well as starches and if you purchase the beans and rice plain and dried, not only are they gluten free, but they are super cheap. This simpler way of eating (meat, veg and a natural starch) will save you SO MUCH MONEY if you are a celiac. Gluten free noodles, cake mixes, cookies, etc. are insanely expensive anyway. If you’re still sick after going gluten free or if you need to be gluten free and you’re on a tight budget, simple meal planning is the way to go.
Of course, you might be saying, that cooking every single day is exhausting and too time consuming. Here’s the thing, if you want to cook like you’re going to be the next Food Network Star, then yes, it will take you quite a bit of time. I know, because I’ve made the mistake of trying to cook that way when I worked full time. Cooking was a burden to me, then, not a joy. It’s become more fun the more I’ve had to do it. But people, we live in a world full of crockpots and my co-worker has recently been raving about how much she loves her new Insta-pot. It’s so easy to throw meat and vegetables into a crockpot and let it do all the hard work for you. We also live in a world full of microwaves. If you enjoy cooking but only have time on weekends, then cook your meals and freeze them to be reheated later. This is actually a really economical way to plan meals. The freezer is your friend. This is my freezer:
Pic 1
The individual containers in my fridge are full of soup that I made one day when I had the time. I let the soup cool slightly and then froze it in individual meal size containers. When I don’t know what to take to work for lunch, I’ve got these containers of soup that I can just grab and throw in my lunch bag. They reheat in about 3-6 minutes in the microwave (about the same time as a processed frozen meal). I also have freezer bags containing individual servings of cooked ground beef for tacos. My husband is the only one in our house who really likes it, so what we did on Saturday was to cook 2lbs of ground beef with a homemade taco seasoning and then he decided how much he would eat with a meal and he froze that amount (about 1 cup, I think) in each of these freezer bags.
Pic 2
Actually, if you’re wondering what might be a great simple meal that isn’t roast and potatoes, tacos are great. Many brands of soft corn taco shells are gluten free. I do recommend that you choose a brand that has an ingredient list that is short and that you can completely read (try to avoid anything with huge, difficult to read words which are probably chemicals and which may contain gluten). Many hard corn shells are gluten free as well, but be careful, these are usually more processed and therefore contain the potential for contamination. Most of the other ingredients for home-made tacos are naturally gluten free: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese (natural cheese, not processed! Processed cheese is likely to contain gluten), sour cream. Also, many brands of refried beans are gluten free. I go for the fat free beans, which keeps the ingredients list simple – usually just beans, water and salt. Make sure that you can read and understand all of the ingredients on the salsa that you choose, some have preservatives which may not be gluten free.
Below is the recipe for some home-made taco seasoning that is gluten free. It may seem like a long list, but it’s well worth making. I think it tastes better than a lot of packaged taco seasoning, and this recipe makes 6 tablespoons which will last a while since you only use 2 tablespoons per pound of ground beef. I also use 2TBS to season my home-made chili.
Taco Seasoning
Ingredients:
2 TBS Onion Powder
2 tsp Garlic Powder
1 TBS Salt
1 TBS Chili Powder
1 ½ tsp Crushed Dried Red Pepper Flakes
1 ½ tsp Ground Cumin
1 tsp Dried Oregano Leaves
1 ½ tsp Cornstarch
1 tsp Sugar

Method:
Place all ingredients in a tightly sealed container and shake until well mixed.
Makes 6 TBS of seasoning. Use 2 TBS per 1Lb of ground beef for tacos. Use to taste to season chili.

Happy Eating.

 

Lady of leisure (or not)

By Jeanne Reynolds

Wow, what a great day I had today!

How often do you say that? Me, probably way less than I should. (Note to self: Pencil in “gratitude” for another blog topic.)

Here’s how it went:

I got up at 6 a.m. and ran a few miles to loosen up for a golf tournament. My playing companions – unknown to me until this morning – turned out to be extremely congenial and we cheered each other on through the round even though we’re also competitors. I played well enough to leave feeling good despite the (literally) 100-degree heat. On the way home it was still early enough to accomplish several errands (bank, gas, grocery store). I took a shower, did a load of laundry, checked work and home email and paid bills. Shortly I’ll be ensconced on the couch with a good book, a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers to relax before dinner, most of which the good folks at Publix have already cooked for me.IMG_3868

And I get to do it all again tomorrow.

That might not sound like paradise to you, but for a runner/golfer/ task-focused list maker/wine drinker/reader, it’s about as good as it gets. If this is what retirement will be like, I’m all in.

My past year of baby-stepping toward that promised land took a leap forward this month when I officially announced my plans to step down from my management role for a part-time job as a writer. 20 hours a week of (mostly) my choosing, a mix of in-the-office and at-home, doing the “fun” part of the job. And possibly most importantly, keeping the same health benefits. (Is that a sign of the times or what: “Will work for health care.” Another blog topic for another day.)

My “new life” starts in July, but I’m getting in some early practice by interspersing a few vacation days into my work week for golf (this week) and the beach (next week). And so far it’s exactly what I hoped it would be: a just-right blend of deadlines and downtime. Time really is the ultimate luxury.

I hear from friends who’ve trod this path before me that they’re so busy in retirement they don’t know how they ever had time to work. And to be clear, I’m only semi-retiring. Between those 20 hours and some freelance work, I’ll be spending plenty of time at the keyboard.

Still, I have to say taking this step is just a little bit scary. I think we’ve planned and saved carefully (with some excellent expert counsel) so we can afford it, but who knows what could be lurking around the corner? And I wonder if I’ll miss being in the middle of everything, in a role where people seek my help but not necessarily my opinion. Will I still count?

There’s only one way to find out.

A Wedding in a League of its Own

By Chaunte McClure

In ministry, I’ve had many firsts, but my experience earlier this month was out of the ballpark. I officiated my first wedding and it happened to take place at Spirit Communications Park, home of the Fireflies, a minor league baseball team in Columbia. It was nothing short of creative and fun.

The couple, both softball coaches at South Carolina State University, had an “A League of Their Own” themed wedding. No fairytale princess gown, no tailored tuxedos, and no formal bridesmaid dresses.Reese Wedding Party

The bride, Cheretta, wore a custom dress made from white and red baseball jersey fabric Reese Vowswhile the groom, Calvin, dressed in the same colors, wore slacks, a blazer, and a baseball cap. They both wore red Chuck Taylors. The bridesmaids were decked in softball themed dress uniforms and white Converses and the groomsmen stood tall in white slacks, blue button-up shirts, white slacks and blue Converses.

The couple stood above the dugout and vowed to love, honor and cherish one another until death as family and friends sat in the stands and witnessed the Reese’s Field of Dreams.

The game wasn’t over after the wedding because the Reese’s came to play all day, even at the reception. With baseball instrumentals and theme music playing, the announcer introduced the bridal party and the new Mr. and Mrs. The couple ditched the traditional first dance for a first pitch and guests could nibble on peanuts until dinner was served.

baseballThe menu? Items you’d find at a concession stand as an option and food you’d find at your family’s cookout as another option. Oh, this event was a homerun. Every detail was well thought out and executed.

It made for a unique opportunity and certainly a memorable moment for my first time as a wedding officiant.

May the Reeses never strike out and pitch countless innings of love, honor, and respect in their marriage.

 

Music, The Virtual Time Machine

By Shannon Boatwright

“The music that touches you in your youth is magnified as you get older. Each record can be a virtual time machine – all you need is to hear a second or two and you go back to that place and time when you first heard it.  It’s a brilliant feeling when music touches you so profoundly and stays with you through time.”

  • Rob Halford

Music, for me, is an incredible source of inspiration on so many levels. Rob Halford is considered a Metal God. His voice is out of this world – his vocal abilities and range have put him on the top of the lists as one of the best voices of rock.  After reading up on him, what I really like most about him is his passion for music and his recognition of its ability to truly transport people.  One of my favorite drummers, Brad Wilk, posted this quote by Rob on his Instagram. It really caught my eye because I truly cannot imagine life without music. Music is what helps to fuel my world, keep me motivated, keep me inspired.  All types of music have this lovely ability to take you away, envelop you in its graces and flood you with memories, visions and dreams.Music, The Virtual Time Machine

When I hear certain music, I am most definitely transported to another time. Sometimes instantly. For example, if I hear “Coming to America” by Neil Diamond, I am instantly transported to my living room back in my elementary and middle school days when my mother would blast his music while we cleaned house. She would have it playing loud and proud and I secretively loved it, especially this song. I can see the room, I can smell the fragrances of our home, I can see my Mom singing along and getting taken away by the passion of the song. Growing up with a professional pianist mother who loves music immensely and music is literally her life, well, you get influenced! It’s inevitable. Whether it was classical music, Neil Diamond, Abba, Julio Iglesias, gospel music, classic rock or Yanni – music has always filled the homes that I grew up in.

Music was and is a source of therapy, a source of freedom, a source of great escape. And goodness knows, when I hear certain songs, I am totally transported back in time!  I can hear a song from the movie Annie and instantly be transported to the early 1980s when I would act out the entire movie in my living room for my family. I can hear the song “Dumb Dog” from when Annie is singing to the dog Sandy and instantly feel myself back in my childhood backyard where I used to sing the song to my own dog as I wandered around my yard pretending I was on the streets of New York. I can even smell the pine trees!  When I hear the Guns-n-Roses’ song, “November Rain” I am totally taken back to 1992 when my best friend Tammy and I went to the Metallica/Guns-n-Roses concert at Williams Brice Stadium and thought we were the coolest chicks ever.  Or, “Crockadile Rock” by Elton John, which takes me right to my varsity cheerleading auditions in which I overcame insecurities and went for it, having a blast with the choreography, making the varsity team.  I think of my team and Coach Elliott every time I hear that song and I can literally feel the school carpet under my sneakers as I rehearsed and auditioned.

I could fill page after page of the songs that create a time machine for me that transports me back to glorious moments and memories in which I can still remember the setting perfectly, recreating the moment in such a way that I feel I could close my eyes and still feel, see, and touch everything around me from that special moment in time.  It’s a brilliant thing indeed to be touched so profoundly!  My wish is that my mind and heart are able to always hold onto to this sensory ability that music brings out in me. Here’s to hoping my virtual time machine never breaks down! I hope and pray that music will always have this magical ability to transport me, allowing memories to flood my senses.

Where does your virtual time machine take you? What songs transport you to fabulous moments and special memories?  Pay attention and take note of these priceless songs and allow them to take you back, so that they can stay with you throughout your lifetime!

Reading for Your Life

By Rachel Sircy

Well, this post will be interesting, I hope. It’s a combination of two posts: the first part touches on the physical ailments caused by chronic stress and the second part is a summer reading list. Sounds pretty far out, eh? The part about stress was my idea and my husband (who, as I’ve mentioned before, is an English teacher) recommended that I do a post offering a summer reading list. As it turns out, reading can alleviate the physical effects of stress according to a 2009 study done by the University of Sussex, so the two subjects would seem to fit together nicely.

Firstly, stress. According to the American Institute of Stress (yes, oddly enough there is such an institution) between 75 and 90% of all visits to American healthcare providers are the results of stress related disorders. Chronic stress (that is the persistent feeling that you cannot cope with all of the demands on your time and energy) can lead to increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections, ulcers, heart attacks, depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders (remember if you have celiac disease, this is an autoimmune disorder!), ulcerative colitis, etc. And stress will worsen the symptoms and damage to your body from any other illness (whether acute, like a cold or chronic like diabetes). You can read more about the effects of stress at the American Institute of Stress’s website: https://www.stress.org/stress-effects/.

So, the major point here is that we want to avoid stress as much as possible. According to Dr. Mimi Guarneri of The Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, deep breathing is the best way to stop an acute stress response in its tracks. She recommends breathing in for a count of 5 seconds and out for a count of 5 seconds. These deep breaths will force your heartrate to slow and will cause many of the other automatic stress responses in the body to stop suddenly. Reading, too, can counteract the immediate physiological effects of stress according to that study I mentioned above conducted by the University of Sussex. According to their study, people who were exposed to rigorous physical activity to increase their muscle tension and heartrate experienced a 68% decrease in heartrate and muscle tension (these are two of the main physical effects that a person who is stressed will experience) after just 6 minutes of reading. Other relaxing activities such as taking a walk and listening to music did not produce the same kind of dramatic decrease in stress levels.

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See the article: http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/4245076.Reading_can_help_reduce_stress__according_to_University_of_Sussex_research/

Dr. Guarneri believes that spiritual health is crucial to both physical and mental health, and I completely agree with her. I can’t think of a better way to cut back on our chronic stress levels than to connect ourselves with Truth and know that all of our efforts really do count for something. I have shared my Christianity in the past and written blog posts about how both our body and soul are connected in God’s eyes. God sees us as whole people who need to care for both our spiritual and physical selves. So, my summer reading list is going to be a very short list of 3 books that I have felt both entertaining and spiritually challenging and/or uplifting. Keep in mind that these books may not be lining the bookshelves of Lifeway, but they have managed to engage me and challenge me spiritually.

  1. The Lord of the Rings Series: I think we all know that these are great fantasy adventures and that they are also inspiring stories. Despite not having any direct religious references, Tolkein’s deep Christian faith shines through every part of these novels.
  2. The Screwtape Letters: This imaginative novel written in a series of letters from an older, wiser demon to a younger, inexperienced demon on how to tempt a human soul is a great read. It is also a challenge for any Christian as C.S. Lewis picks apart “acceptable” sins that Christians sometimes wink at such as gluttony and selfishness.
  3. Girl Meets God: This memoir by Duke Divinity professor and Episcopal priest, Lauren Winner, is one of the best spiritual memoirs on the market today, in my opinion. It’s the story of Winner’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity, told with a deep love for both faiths and with a great deal of personal honesty. If you prefer non-fiction to fiction, I would recommend this book.

There are, of course, plenty of good reads out there, just waiting for you to put your hands on them. Frankly, I was pretty self-conscious about putting together a reading list. I’m not as avid a reader as I should be, and I’m definitely no critic, so I kept my book reviews to a minimum. I hope that this little list will be helpful for anyone looking to lower their stress level by escaping into the world of a good book!

Happy Reading!

Mama Mia!

By Jeanne Reynolds

Abba fans, sit back down — this isn’t about their song or the movie (and now a sequel) by the same name. But it does sum up my recent trip to Italy.

You know what it’s like when you look forward to something so much for so long, it can’t possibly live up to your expectations?

This trip was nothing like that. It. Was. Amazing.Tuscan countryside

What did I like best: the scenery, the art and architecture, the mind-warping antiquity, the food, the wine?

Yes.

A quick overview of our itinerary: Direct flight from Charlotte to Rome, 3 nights there including a private day-long tour with a guide, drive to Tuscany for 4 nights in Siena, drive to Sorrento for 2 nights there, and finally back to Rome for our flight back the next day.

We didn’t come close to seeing it all, but we saw a lot: the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, catacombs. And that was just in Rome. In and around Siena we climbed winding staircases up towers (400 steps in one case), marveled at museums full of priceless treasures, visited towering cathedrals and walked ancient medieval streets. Near Sorrento, we traveled up and down an impossibly narrow cliffside road with hair-raising turns, and then in a chairlift to the top of the Isle of Capri (yes, while wearing capri pants!). On the way back to Rome we visited Pompeii near the foot of Mt. Vesuvius and were overcome with wonder and sadness at a lost civilization.

Ignoring well-meaning advice from family members, we didn’t even consider a prepackaged, city-a-day group bus tour. That kind of trip has some advantages, but it wasn’t the experience I craved for my Italian adventure. Instead we stayed in very small bed-and-breakfasts I found online (I highly recommend Booking.com) and found our own way around using maps, GPS, phone apps and helpful locals. A couple of our accommodations were wonderful, one was mostly convenient, but all were clean, affordable and safe.

When we wanted to eat — and did we ever! — we asked our B&B hosts for First pizzarecommendations or just walked until something looked good. The results ranged from good to extraordinary, usually accompanied by the local house wine (or vino della casa, as we like to say). We tried wood-fired pizza with a thin, crisp crust, fried artichokes, Tuscan-style steak with rosemary and olive oil, grilled squid, crusty bread and of course, pasta. It’s hard to describe what was so wonderful about it, but fresh, local ingredients using old family recipes and al fresco dining are hard to beat. And the gelato … one of us had it every day (sometimes twice). It’s that good. And no, sadly no, nothing in the grocery store freezer case can possibly replicate it.

And guess what? Neither of us gained an ounce. Because first, the meals impress with flavor rather than size, and second, we walked an average of 5 miles a day, up and down hills and stairs. (Remember that tower? 400 steps up means 400 down, too.)

Of course, wonderful doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. Trying to figure out when we could park where in Siena without a ticket or a tow was challenging, and let’s just say Americans have a different standard when it comes to public bathroom facilities. And despite the GPS, maps and road signs, we frequently got turned around trying to find our destinations.

So, now that I’m a wily veteran of la dolce vita (that’s a joke, of course — we could go to Italy every year for the next decade and not experience all its wonders), here’s some advice:

Go.

Yep, that’s it. I was going to include a 7-point list of tips about protecting your passport and cash from pickpockets, how to tell if the gelato is homemade and which shop in Anacapri is best for handmade Italian leather shoes (surprisingly affordable, by the way). But there are dozens of guidebooks that can tell you that and a whole lot more.

And really, this isn’t about Italy. It’s about finding a way to visit the places and do the things you dream of. Life is too short not to.

That’s the advice I hope I remember myself.