February Focus: Felixstowe and Faltering Footsteps … and Paris

February evening in Felixstowe

February evening in Felixstowe

This year, the month of February falls between visits to our families in the USA (January) and Australia (March/April).

Felixstowe: Coming Home

February in Felixstowe

February in Felixstowe

We’ve been home in Felixstowe for less than three days, so still getting over jet lag and progressing through the coming-home checklist.

Our 2016 goal of pacing ourselves has become more important than ever, since Clive stoically has been hobbling around with a sprained ankle for several weeks.

Faltering Footsteps

The first sprain occurred last December. It seemed to heal, but after a long walk in early January, there was a relapse. Given the amount of walking one does when travelling, we debated whether Clive should make the trip to the U.S. He insisted he would be okay and he was indeed able to get around, albeit limping more often than not.

We spent a total of 14 nights away (including one in-flight), an intense trip in many ways but I’m thankful for the time with my son and belle-fille in Washington DC and my mother and family, including my son’s wonderful in-laws, in New Jersey.

Now that we’re home, Clive has seen the doctor and received treatment advice, including instructions to rest his ankle as much as possible.

Paris in Mind

In a couple weeks, I’ll be heading to Paris, for a private writing retreat during which time I plan to finish a challenging chapter of my Paris-based memoir. A week after that, Clive will join me and we’ll have a few ‘just us’ days there. I’m looking forward to the time in Paris the way I imagine a desert explorer looks forward to a long drink of water.

Then it will be time to prepare for Australia.

2 AA 2016 TRAVEL PLANS

March/April Down Under

Although departure isn’t until mid-March, we’ll be away for 31 nights (including three in-flight) and Clive has been busy organising many different dates, accommodations and travel arrangements to see his daughter and son and family. More on this trip when the time gets closer.

Focus on February

For now, I’m just trying to keep focus on February, to remain present and mindful as we catch up with appointments, friends and activities and enjoy Felixstowe’s special setting by the sea.

And I hope and pray Clive’s ankle will heal without further pain or intervention, so he can fully enjoy our upcoming travels.

Our tree by the sea the day we arrived home

Our tree by the sea the day we arrived home

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Alzheimer’s Descent: No Serenity Prayer Here

Today with my fresh-from-the-beauty-parlour Mom

Today with my fresh-from-the-beauty-parlour Mom

New Jersey, Thursday

My mom’s descent on the Alzheimer’s path continues.

I know how lucky I am that she’s content in her surroundings and receiving excellent care. Most of all, I’m blessed she’s still her wonderful self at heart, warm and loving to her family and the people around her.

As mentioned in Mom and the Memory Thief, I try to focus on the present moments with Mom and resist the (at times powerful) temptation to rant and rage in a futile waste of energy against the disease.

Mom is not yet living in a ‘memory unit’ but will soon need that 24/7 level of care and protection. She and her almost-94 year-old ‘boyfriend’ (as she calls him) can no longer help each other as much as they used to, because both are dealing with their own physical and mental limitations. They still have meals together and hold hands at the music programs.

As for me, I seem to have reached the point where I feel no amusement whatsoever at various Alzheimer’s ‘strange behaviour’ or ‘losing one’s mind’ stories and jokes. They’re funny, until it happens to your mom.

So many things we cannot change. I’ve lost people I love (not counting ‘normal’ old age) by automobile accident, cancer and now, at an increasing pace, to Alzheimer’s. The ‘Serenity Prayer’ counsels us to be accepting, but I’ve never ‘accepted’ these losses with anything remotely approaching serenity.

I do accept that everyone experiences loss, and pray that my mother will continue to feel happiness and contentment in her life.

Thank you for reading this post. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Love and the Pentagon and (maybe, probably) a Blizzard

Mr and Mrs almost four months now

Mr and Mrs almost four months now

These two people, my son and belle-fille (daughter-in-law), are the reason Clive and I are in Washington, DC.

In the first 24 hours of our arrival, our wonderful belle-fille has taken magnificent care of the in-laws when her husband was out of town on a business trip (he returned this evening). Last night, after a full work day and a pre-blizzard supermarket stop with a million other people, she picked us up at our hotel, drove us to their home and made dinner for us there, so we could catch up in a relaxing setting instead of a restaurant.

As we chatted away, with the news in the background, a reporter standing in the snow said, ‘It’s already started here in DC.’

We all jumped up to look out the window and see it for ourselves. Not long after that, Clive and I took a taxi back to the hotel.

Talk of the town: the weather forecast

After one inch of snow – thankfully no injuries

After one inch of snow – thankfully no injuries

We had a rather unsettling preview of what may lay ahead in the next few days. Our taxi slipped and slid its way up a not-very-steep hill, the driver begging us to stay in the car to help the weight in the back seat. An amazing number of drivers seemed to abandon their vehicles, leaving them ‘parked’ every which-way and then walking, or more accurately, sliding on foot to the nearby metro.

Back in the room, I succumbed to jet lag and was dozing off when Clive looked out the window and said a bus had just skidded horizontally across the road. No injuries, thank goodness.

By all accounts, Washington could see snowfall of two feet or more in the next couple days.

A Building with meaning: national and personal

Clive at the Pentagon metro station

Clive at the Pentagon metro station

Weather forecast notwithstanding, today was bright and sunny in the nation’s capital.

After a slow-paced morning (working on that travel pacing) going for a short walk and doing a few errands, we took the metro to meet our belle-fille at her (and my son’s former) place of work. This is a well-known building with five main sections around a central courtyard.

What a pleasure it was, after a long line and several security checkpoints, to walk into the large waiting area full of people and see the smiling young woman who is now part of our family waiting for us.

[Perhaps the smile was extra-beautiful because shortly before, her colleagues had surprised her with a cupcake celebration in honour of her birthday last weekend.]

We loved our personalised tour (no photos allowed), which included the ANZUS corridor, a series of murals and exhibits commemorating the USA, Australia and New Zealand alliance; a poignant POW/MIA corridor of remembrance for those who served and never returned home; a video exhibit of scenes from the Korean War; a multi-denominational chapel and Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial; the area where our belle-fille works and the sense of the building as a small city within itself, with over 26,000 (!) workers every day and as many or more shops and services as a good-sized town.

Best of all and most meaningful to me was seeing our belle-fille in the place where she spends her working days and where she and my son (who now works at other locations) had their first coffee date and fell in love. She pointed down to the interior food court and outside to benches dotting the courtyard and told us how they often met for lunch in warm weather. Clive suggested a plaque at the meeting point of their first coffee which I thought was a great idea. Thank you, dearest belle-fille for last night and today.

I’m so proud of these two for their dedication and commitment to their work, the juggling they’re doing with all their other activities and the excitement and anticipation they have for their shared future.

And I’m thankful for the time we have together this weekend – and kind of excited (if a bit nervous) about the probability of a blizzard and sharing it with them. They may not have a guest room but they’ve encouraged a sleepover(s) and it’s shaping up to be a memorable experience.

Wishing everyone a safe and enjoyable time in however much snow you may receive.

with my son and belle-fille in Washington DC

with my son and belle-fille in Washington DC

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from New Jersey.

Room for Writers at the Orwell Hotel, Felixstowe

Room for writers at the Orwell Hotel

Room for writers at the Orwell Hotel

Felixstowe is blessed with two writing groups, both of which I enjoy immensely. Both are friendly and welcoming, so if anyone nearby has the urge to write, feel free to come along to a meeting any time.

Today marked 2016’s first gathering of the Orwell Writers League, named after the hotel in which we meet. I arrived early, in case any members of the group preferred not to be photographed.

The Building

2 AA Orwell 1

Orwell Hotel on a cloudy afternoon, Felixstowe

This grand Victorian structure opened in 1898. It sits on a busy roundabout at the top of Felixstowe’s main shopping street, across from Great Eastern Square, the town’s original railway station (now small shops) and near today’s station.

Inside, you’re greeted with dark panelling, gold wallpaper, burgundy patterned carpets and soft lighting from chandeliers, sconces and lamps.

3 AA bar 1 coffee

Bar at the Orwell Hotel

The first thing we Orwell Writers do, on our way in, is order a coffee or tea at the bar. Just before the meeting begins, one or two staff members kindly deliver them all together.

Clive, my son and I have shared an English afternoon tea in the hotel lounge and attended Felixstowe Book Festival author talks in His Lordship’s Library and the Elizabeth Suite. We enjoyed a friend’s farewell dinner in the Buttery and danced the night away at a wedding reception in the ballroom. We haven’t had a drink in the bar lounge but it always looks inviting to me.

Bar lounge at Orwell Hotel (several customers not in photo)

Bar lounge at Orwell Hotel (several customers not in photo)

The room for the Orwell Writers, the Furneaux Suite, is on the first floor (U.S. second floor). There’s a lift, but most of us take the stairs. They only creak a little as you go up, adding to the ambiance.

Stairs at Orwell Hotel

Stairs at Orwell Hotel

Room for writers

‘Our’ room, pictured at the top of this post, has pink and cream striped walls, a very long and very well-polished table, burgundy armchairs and drapes, portraits nestled in arches and a deep pink ceiling.

After several decades in a large corporation, I feel at home around a conference table.

I love the character of the room and the characters in the room. We usually number 8-10 on a given day. Though we differ wildly as individuals, when we’re in this room we’re all writers. We share current projects, do specific exercises to develop our skills and, when requested, provide peer-to-peer feedback.

Perhaps in a future post I’ll write about the other local group, the long-running Felixstowe Scribblers. This evening group meets at the Library, by definition a wonderful writers’ venue. The room is plain, with fluorescent lighting, formica tables in a ‘U’ shape and orange plastic, stackable chairs. Though the setting is so different, the writerly camaraderie and support is the same.

Sometimes a room surprisingly takes your fancy. I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries, but not too much in Victorian rooms. This probably explains why I have such a soft spot for the Orwell Writers’ room.

Other end of the  conference table & room, Orwell Hotel

Other end of the conference table & room, Orwell Hotel

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Washington, DC.

2016 Travel Plans: Pacing Ourselves, or Trying To

AA 2016 TRAVEL PLANS
Clive sometimes says our travel is a well-worn roundabout: we go around and around and always get off at the same places.

I can’t disagree with this view; our 2016 travel plans, at least from January through July, involve five trips and all of the above destinations.

New Year Vows
Every new year, Clive and I vow to each other, ‘This year, we’ll pace our travel.’ We want firstly to spend time with our families – scattered as they are in the USA and Australia – and also to spend time in Paris, my particular passion, and to explore new parts of the UK and other possible destinations together.

Last year we visited York in England; we hope to see another new place somewhere in the UK this year.

Two years ago, in our 2013 Christmas letter, we rather reluctantly admitted we’re not quite as young as we used to be; we find jet lag and travel fatigue more intense as the years go by.

Trying New Approaches
While continuing to visit immediate families in both hemispheres, the first change we made, beginning in early 2014, was to bring our children to us when their and our schedules permit. We’ve been so fortunate to share great family times in Felixstowe and Suffolk, London, Paris (not to forget Paris Disney), Scotland, and last year at my son’s wedding in the U.S.

More recently, this past December, when I wanted to visit my mother in New Jersey but we’d already booked time in Paris, we booked a ‘trip within a trip’.

The Felixstowe to Paris, Paris to NJ and return for more time in Paris, then back home to Felixstowe worked well. This approach gives us two trips for one set of ‘leaving home’ packing and departure tasks. We plan to do it again this spring.

2016 Travel Goal
Our travel goal this year isn’t aimed at a specific location, but at how we travel and manage our trips.

Our goal for each trip (and for the year in general) is to pace ourselves, to maintain a level of mindfulness and awareness of each moment so we truly appreciate the time we have with each family member and with each other.

A related aspiration is to remember to centre. By this I mean that when I feel my mind and/or body becoming fragmented or exhausted, when I’m putting pressure on myself or pushing myself in too many different directions, I remember what I’ve learned about travel and pacing over the years.

For example, I often try to see too many people — because you can never see everyone you want to see when visiting a particular place. I’ve learned it’s best, for me anyway, to avoid planning a ‘quick coffee’ with a friend vs. deferring it to another trip when we can spend more meaningful time together. Quick visits when one is running from one meeting to another often result in frustration and/or exhaustion.

First Stop 2016: Washington DC
I can’t wait to see my son and belle-fille in Washington DC later this month (and you too, MGLH, if you’re reading this!). After that we’ll visit my mom in New Jersey, my primary focus when we’re there. Our travel roundabout will swing back to Felixstowe and Paris for a while, before taking us Down Under for a month. That’s enough for my brain to contemplate at the moment. Beyond that, we’ll return to the U.S. for my mother’s birthday in May and a family wedding in July.

Wishing us all the perfect pace for activities in the new year, whatever and wherever they may be.
long way
Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Bonne Année at the Gate of the Year

Bonne Année small fold-out card from Paris

Bonne Année small fold-out card from Paris

I adore the French tradition of sending annual new year greeting cards – if physical cards are sent at all – in lieu of cards for specific religious holidays.

Happy New Year

It’s not that you don’t see Christmas cards for sale in Paris; there are many. But the majority say Bonne Année, or happy new year. This feels so much more inclusive to me — not to mention, from a practical standpoint, much simpler when one has friends of multiple faiths.

The Gate of the Year

Notwithstanding the secular nature of Bonne Année, we recently watched a BBC documentary about the Queen and learned of a beautiful poem, The Gate of the Year by Minnie Louise Haskins. This British poet and academic published her poem (she titled it ‘God Knows’) in 1908. It gained public attention when 13 year-old Princess Elizabeth – now Queen Elizabeth II – gave a copy to her father, King George VI, for his Christmas Day speech in 1939. The UK was at war with Nazi Germany and the future was uncertain.

The King, a shy man with a speech impediment (memorably documented in the 2011 movie ‘The King’s Speech’), said, ‘A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.’

Toward the end of his speech, the King offered ‘a message of encouragement in the lines which … I would like to say to you.’ He then quoted from Haskins’ poem:

‘I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.” ‘

You can find the full text of the poem here.

As the French say, avec meilleurs voeux pour la nouvelle année; with all best wishes for the new year.

Clive and I wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful 2016.

Bonne Année card from French friends

Bonne Année card from French friends

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

When Someone’s Presence Is the Best Present – Any Time of Year

with my son at Town Hall gardens, Felixstowe

with my son two days ago at Town Hall gardens, Felixstowe

My mom always said, ‘We’re close all year round,’ thereby giving me the gift of alleviating, though not eliminating, my swirling mix of guilt and sadness when we weren’t together at Christmas.

This year, we were blessed with a pre-Christmas visit from my son, the best gift I could have hoped for. In 2011, he joined us in the UK for Christmas; since then, he’s spent the holiday with the young woman who is now his wife, and her lovely family. One year, the two of them travelled to meet us in London on Boxing Day; two other times, we’ve spent Thanksgiving together in the USA.

My mother’s example taught me not to fuss too much about calendar dates. The older I get, the more I appreciate her wisdom. The older I get, the more I also appreciate my father’s flexibility (they divorced when I was young but I saw both parents Christmas Day) – his willingness to see us when we said we could see him, his unfailing ‘yes’ when I asked if he was available at a certain time, his ongoing presence in my life. My heart winces at what I’ve come to call ‘divorced parent leftovers’ – the time and attention given to so many parents (often dads) who, after divorce and when the children are grown, find themselves ending up with whatever time is left over, coming in second after the parent who was present for the day in, day out, year in, year out working and loving and endless tasks of child-raising.

It’s often said that expats have heightened awareness of separation, of having loved ones geographically dispersed all over the world. This is certainly a recurring theme of this blog. Today many families, expat or not, divorced or not, have members spread around the world – children marry and have children of their own, work opportunities take people to new places and families exert pressure and expectations on who will be with whom and when.

Sometimes it’s easier when families live far apart. Friends in Australia used to spend alternate Christmases with the wife’s family in California and the husband’s in Tasmania. If both families live close by, young families often spend Christmas Day at one in-laws’ in the morning and, after a drive of multiple hours, the afternoon or evening at the other in-laws’ – exhausting.

In the early years of my first marriage, after a year or two of trekking to and from New Jersey for Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas (not to forget an extended family party every Saturday after Thanksgiving), my late husband Gary put his foot down. We began balancing our time differently, mixing old and new and developing our own holiday traditions.

Since moving to the UK in early 2011, Clive and I have spent every Christmas Day in Felixstowe (except for one, an emergency trip to Australia). We’re thankful we’re able to see our families multiple times during the year. This year in England, we’ll have turkey for two for the first time, grateful for each other’s presence and raising a glass to loved ones in the USA and Australia, all of whom we’ll see in the first few months of 2016.

Happy Christmas to all who celebrate, to you and yours, wherever you — and they — may be.

Christmas Eve sunset 2015, Felixstowe

Christmas Eve sunset 2015, Felixstowe

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

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