The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 3: Five Stages of Emotion (and our first selfie)

Our first selfie, 2016

Our first selfie, 2016

Yesterday Clive and I composed a draft of our annual Christmas letter, known on this blog as the dreaded Christmas letter.

Previously, I’ve shared my thoughts about this exercise in The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 1 BC (Before Clive) and The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 2 AC (After Clive): Separated by a Common Language or Maybe Just a Comma.

The process demands a review of the past year and a reckoning with what happened, what we did and didn’t do, how we handled certain events and what we hope for looking ahead.

This year I observe five stages:

  1. Gratitude – for blessings of family, friends and activities we’re able to enjoy.
  2. Guilt – for living far from loved ones, especially my 92 year-old mum because she’s unable to travel to us.
  3. Frustration – that I went off the rails with my weekly blog posts at the end of May and am not making fast enough progress on my Paris memoir.
  4. Self-criticism – who besides us cares about this letter anyway? Everyone has positives and negatives in their lives. That said, we’ve always tried to keep our tone and content positive.
  5. Acceptance growing to satisfaction – send the darn thing anyway. Not all our friends are on Facebook and some tell us they enjoy our letter. As time goes by, the letters becomes valuable to us as a body of words and images that render and reveal and help us remember the stories of our lives.

Despite my stated goal at the end of 2014 to learn how to take a couples’ selfie, we have not exactly mastered this skill. However we did attempt one selfie in 2016. In the interest of honesty and openness I have shared it above, but to me it is prima facie evidence that we have a long way to go to take a proper selfie. Clive says latent skill is evident because we got the Eiffel Tower between our heads.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and joyful holiday season with whatever cards, letters and/or photo traditions you may or may not choose.

Cheers and thanks for reading.

Nine Goals for May

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Part of the plan: Paris is always a good idea

  1. Spend time with my son and belle-fille in New Jersey.
  2. Spend time with my mom in NJ and help her celebrate her 92nd birthday.
  3. Find time to connect with friends in the U.S., if not on our short visit in May, then on our next trip in July.
  4. Resume work on my Paris memoir. Try to complete the next chapter but don’t overly stress as long as good progress is made. Write in Paris before going to New Jersey.
  5. Enjoy being out and about in Paris when we return there from New Jersey.
  6. Keep up with friends, activities and appointments in Felixstowe before we depart.
  7. Remind myself we knew the first 6-7 months of this year would involve a great deal of travel, mostly to see family. Try to be mindful of the need to pace ourselves along the way.
  8. Get over lingering jet lag and weariness I’m still feeling from a month Down Under.
  9. Be grateful we’re able to, as per our motto, ‘Travel while we can.’
Clive calls it our travel roundabout

Clive calls it our travel roundabout

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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.

Clive’s Birthday: A Few Remarks about My Husband

The birthday guy

The birthday guy

I nicknamed Clive ‘Mr Original’ in the early days of our relationship.

My husband is truly a unique individual: a guru of pop music – and BBC Radio 2 Popmaster, I might add – a DIY expert, a computer wizard, a savvy traveller, a generous and supportive father and grandfather, and the best friend I could ever ask for.

Summer afternoon in Paris

Summer afternoon in Paris

Most of all, Clive is a sensitive, caring individual. When we met in Sydney, Australia, he told me he was originally from a place in England called Felixstowe. His life story hasn’t always been a happy one; like many people in the world, he has experienced his share of life-changing losses and challenges.

But, unlike many people in the world, Clive always focused on the positive. He got up every day and made the most of his situation and opportunities. And he still does that, every day – just gets on with life and all it has to offer. He has incredible strength of spirit and the most amazing positive attitude of anyone I’ve ever known.

Clive and his grandchildren on the beach in Felixstowe

Clive and his grandchildren on the beach in Felixstowe

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would one day live and write blog posts from the British coastal town where Clive grew up.

Several of Clive’s lifelong friends joined us for his birthday celebration earlier this week. Ray – growing up as cousins in the extended family and time spent playing at the Clarendon Hotel; Maddy, whose priceless friendship and aerogrammes to Australia helped sustain Clive in the teenage years following his mother and stepfather’s relocation Down Under; David, a friendship formed in the church youth fellowship – not to forget these two winning trophies as part of their team coming first in the popular Felixstowe Bible Quiz.

Felixstowe Bible Quiz winning team: Clive second from right, David far right

Felixstowe Bible Quiz winning team: Clive second from right, David far right

[Digression: for those unfamiliar with this precious piece of history, The Children’s Newspaper of 28 February 1959 reported,

Every week Sunday-school classes at Felixstowe (Suffolk) prepare for the Annual Bible Quiz. This event attracts over 1000 people to watch teams from all over the town competing for the coveted St. George’s Challenge Cup. Now the idea has spread via the columns of a local newspaper, sent out by a reader to a relative in Canada, and children of Orillia, Ontario, are following their example.’

You can read more about this quiz team and another of life’s full-circle moments in A Sydney-Felixstowe-Darien Circle.]

In more recent years, friends old and new have included us in their own special events and days of celebration. This week we were so happy fifteen of them could help Clive celebrate his birthday. No matter where you call home, friends and family make all the difference.

Happy birthday to my wonderful Mr Original and many more.

Travels together - at Seven Mile Beach, south of Sydney, Australia

Travels together – at Seven Mile Beach, south of Sydney, Australia

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