Friday, December 25, 2015

Rebooting Christmas

Well, how can I follow last weeks post?

I never imagined that it would have had such an impact on other people. So many people connected with what I said and sent messages to share their experiences with me, that I was overwhelmed with gratitude and humbled by the strength I saw in people battling through a variety of issues in their own lives.

For me, it was cathartic, as if I'd lanced a festering boil and suddenly the world came back into focus. I'd worried too long about the empty chairs around the table, chairs I'd nearly filled, chairs I never come close to filling, and chairs that had been vacated far too soon.

"That I live and you are gone
There's a grief that can't be spoken
There's a pain goes on and on
Phantom faces at the window
Phantom shadows on the floor
Empty chairs at empty tables..."

But I ignored the new faces at the table - I won't do that any more.

I stripped everything about Christmas away this year. I quit comparing myself to others. I stopped comparing this year with previous years from the long distant past. Instead of focusing on the decorations and the glitz of Christmas, I am concentrating on the people in my life and trying to open my heart, to let go of anger and envy, and enjoy the world and the people God has given me.

A Good Friend told me that one of the good thing about Christmas is that it gives us a chance to celebrate in the dark days of winter. Perhaps that's what Christmas truly is about - reaching for the light in the darkest of days.

Christmas, like life, is what you make it.

I promised myself, I will make it better.

I started by going to Mass last night, following the advice of the same Good Friend I mentioned earlier. It was nice and yes the carols brought a lump to my throat but the homily was brilliant and I came away with something Pope Francis had talked about recently that I thought was really beautiful and hopeful. The priest called us to join in the Revolution of Tenderness.

Where do I sign up?

Joy and peace to you all this Christmas.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Ba Humbug!

In six years of blogging, I've only written two posts about Christmas. One post from 2010 featured our outdoor crib, or creche as they call it in the US (which initially made me kind of nervous. It sounded like the kind of place where people would drop their kids off.) It had gotten damaged in storms in previous years, but last year was a catastrophe! The Holy Family just couldn't bounce back from that, and so we gave up.

It seems we're not the only ones to give up on the Holy Family. It says a lot about a society where Christians have decided to replace the image of the Holy Family on their Christmas cards with images of themselves. So it did make me happy to receive one card with the Baby Jesus on it. My aunts are pretty great about
A) sending me cards (especially when I've stopped sending them) and
B) sending me nativity scenes - my favorite Christmas image.

In my opinion, only Christians have the power to take Christ out of Christmas, and it happens in subtle ways. Presents become more important that prayers, and Santa has become the main man. For example, one of the main items on the news here last night reported on how a school trip to a coffee shop in San Jose to see Santa was cancelled because a person who was Non-Christian objected to the trip. What the heck is Santa doing hanging out in a coffee shop in San Jose anyways?

I urge you to read the news item yourselves, not least because I may misrepresent it because I'm self-admittedly bitter and twisted about Christmas, but I believe that it comes down to this:

1) How educational was the trip? Was it really a great learning experience? Perhaps - if those children don't often experience coffee-shop culture in San Jose!

2) If the mom who opposed it, did so because all religions were not included, then I disagree with her principle. Santa is NOT a religion! He may be derived from a Christian Saint - St. Nicholas, but more often he's a marketing tool for the retail trade (authors included!) If she's speaking culturally, she may have a point, but then wouldn't it be MORE important for her child to take part and learn about other cultures?

3) Is the parent who is staging a walk-out really a good example to her children in this season of goodwill? Is that what Jesus would have wanted?

4) What happened to "They will know we are Christians by our love"? Now it seems to be "They will know we are Christians by the amount of lights we have on our houses, the size of our Christmas trees, the amount of presents we exchange and how much food and drink we can consume."

For people who are not Christian, I don't blame them for not wanting to be wished a Happy Christmas - though I've never actually experienced a Non-Christian object to the well meaning wish. My Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan and atheist friends seem to be happy to receive my Happy Christmas greeting. It's the other Christians who seem to have issue with it!

For me, it sums up how ridiculous the whole Christmas/Holidays debacle now is - especially here in the USA.

The other Christmas blog I wrote was posted in 2011 - It's title was taken from a Gone With The Wind quote that I love - "The best days are when babies come."

I remember writing that with a heart full of hope that the following Christmas I'd be blogging about Santa coming to my baby.

But Santa didn't come, nor will he ever.

By the end of 2012, I'd learned two things.

I'd never have children and I'd never have the Christmas I'd always dreamed off.

And so I began to hate Christmas...

I hate getting the cards with other people's children on them, reminding me of my repeated failure to have my own. (So forgive me if my comments above have offended you - now hopefully you have a better understanding of where I'm coming from.)

I hate the tree with presents under it for grown-ups, presents we neither wanted nor needed.

I hate buying presents in a society that has an excess of everything, in stark contrast to a world were the majority suffer from not having enough.

I hate unwrapping presents and contributing to waste and landfill.

I hate pretending to be happy at parties.

I hate those "What are you doing for Christmas conversations?" that feel like an admission of more failure as a woman, because I didn't want to spend the whole damn day cooking.

I hate going to Mass because the carols make me cry. (Even though I really love them.)

I hate missing my family back home, but feel they are better off without me dragging them down with my gloom. (Even though my sister is wonderful and really understands me.)

I hate missing my Dad and knowing I'll never laugh with him again.

I hate Santa Claus and his fat jolly ho-fucking-hos!

I hate myself for my whole gratitude fail. My life is great, when I'm not wallowing in self pity.

I hate the look on my Husbands face, because he knows I'm sad, and he feels like he can't make me happy.

But he does make me happy...

In this whole cauldron of hate, he is my flotation device, the person that stops me from giving up and allowing myself to sink into it. He is the person who understands how painful and empty Christmas is for me, and who doesn't judge me for it.

I wrestled with the decision to write this soul-baring post, mostly because discussing infertility is so taboo. To not have children raises so many questions from those who have. I do feel sorry for the mother who inadvertently asks me "How many kids do you have?"

The only reason I don't discuss my infertility more openly is because the world doesn't want to know. I've seen women flinch when I have brought it up (I rarely bring it up with men at all). I've actually  heard women gasp (in a "Did she just say that?" sense) when I've talked openly about it. I think it's because they believe it is inappropriate for me to mention that I wanted children I could never have - how dare I bring the conversation down to such a sad level.

Yet, I've sat through many conversations where the opening sentence has been, "If you had children, you'd know...." and bitten my tongue and swallowed back words that I still don't know if I should be writing...even on my own blog, on a subject of my choosing...

Which was?

Oh, yes, Christmas... Wow! Two taboos at once - dissing Christmas and discussing infertility - I really am the Grinch.

This year I'm not putting up decorations or a tree. Our lemon tree looks beautiful at the moment - the lemons look like baubles. So I'm making do with that.

I love the symbolism - life giving you lemons!

Before I sign off, I'd just like to say this Christmas think about the people who don't have it all -

the people who, for whatever reason, don't have their family around the tree on Christmas Day,

the people who feel as if Christmas opens a hole in their heart so big it swallows you up and spits you out

the people who have no homes

the people who have no love

the people who will cry this year

the people who mourn their loved ones

the people at the bottom of a bottle and their loved ones who watch and grieve for them

the people who may know this is their last Christmas (as I write this I remember being with my Daddy facing that realization on 25 December 2007)

the people who have lost hope

the people suffering war

the people who hate (even if only for a little while, as in my case)
Because when we hate, we lose ourselves, and that might be what hurts me most at Christmas.

So I won't wish you a Merry Christmas... I'll wish you hope and happiness for everyday of the year because life is a struggle for everyone at sometime. We just don't always see the hurts of another person. Most days of the year, I try to acknowledge that I'm happy with my life - but today - with Christmas just around the corner, well ... ya know...

Byddi Lee

Friday, December 11, 2015

Oh So Heavenly

The problem with a mini break is the "mini" part! It's been hard to get back to writing this week.
I was lucky enough to take advantage of the early snow in the Sierras this week and had two days skiing in Heavenly Resort at South Lake Tahoe. We got a great deal at the Marriott Grand residence, where they treat you like royalty! We drove up to the front door and gave them our car keys. They unpacked the car and brought our luggage to our room, sent our skis to the gondola for us to pick up the next morning and parked the car for us. We didn't see it again until we checked out 3 days later!
We stayed in a teeny tiny palace - the studio suit was just so cute. It had a better equiped kitchen than I have at home, to the extent that I decided to cook on vacation. My friends know that I hate to cook while on holidays, but this little kitchen was so adorable...
The room was two doors up from a lift which opened in to its own foyer, right across from the gondola! So easy. The complex was huge, so I did have a tendency to get lost, but if I found my way to the gondola, I knew I was near my room. I begged My Husband to let me live there forever, but he said someone had to do the gardening back in San Jose!

We were extremely lucky with the weather. Squeezing in between two big weather events meant we had snow to ski on but not drive in.

One of the things I love most about Heavenly is skiing with a view of Lake Tahoe on one side and a view of the desert landscape of Nevada on the other. 

Since it was so early in the season a lot of the runs were closed. The board at the bottom of the lift told this story.
But at the top of the Gondola, the board told us the only thing open on the California side was where we already were.
As a result, we got to see more of the Nevada side. It was possible to ski to the California side, but the return was closed, so we'd have been stuck there. Skiing the Nevada side was no hardship!
It's been nearly two years since we'd skied. I worried that I might have gotten rusty. It was the first time I'd ever used Strava while skiing. It entertained me to see how careful we were on day 1, yet by the end of day 2 we were back to blasting down the slopes over and over again getting faster each time. We literally doubled our distance the second day. We were like big kids, grinning from ear to ear and just having such fun - snow and gradient can do that!

One last observation... the lockers at the top of the gondola.
You can have with a "large" locker or a "jumbo" locker. What's wrong with saying a "big" one and a "small" one? Is "small" so negative a term in marketing that it is being abolished - even in Starbucks you can't get a "small" coffee. You have to ask for a "tall" coffee. I only remember that because it rhymes with small!

Yet the difference in size between these lockers was negligible - I mean if this is large...
are these fractionally bigger ones really jumbo? I couldn't tell the difference...
I suppose medium and small just wouldn't be worth the effort. So nice to know that locker sizes go up to the word equivalent of 11. Marketing - the lies we live by!

Byddi Lee

Friday, December 4, 2015

Moments in a Winter Garden

Warning this post starts off all sweetness and light but has a dark conclusion - read to the end to discover why... or if you have a weak stomach stop at the triple asterisk...

Finally the temperatures have dropped and the rain has arrived here.
I took a short video clip of the rain to capture the movement. It looked like sparkles falling from the sky as the sun was trying to shine at the same time. What has happened to me? What have I become? The California drought has changed me from being someone who hated the rain, to the person who now videos it. It just goes to show, you really need to be careful what you wish for.

Now I've successfully uploaded one video,  I may continue to explore this medium in future posts.

It's hard to beat a nice photo though.The leaves have turned a beautiful array of gold through copper.
The amazing Bird-of-Paradise are out in full bloom. I love how the color orange brightens up the winter garden, repeated throughout the garden with more Bird-of-Paradise and oranges in the back ground.
 I've had the first oranges of the season - so good!
The lemons are maturing too.
Non-natives, like this lavender, are often confused and put out new buds alongside blooming flowers and seed-heads.
In the native garden, the California Fushia brings a welcome splash of scarlet.
Newly germinated seedlings promise a blaze of orange poppies come the springtime.
On the non-native side, daisies have self-seeded and germinated where I cleared the dead ones out from last year. Such tiny delicate little dicotyledons - it's a wonder that they even survive.
Even though I'm not actually planting vegetables this winter, the onions have taken matters into their own hands. Can you see the little black seed-coat hanging on before the stem straightens and shrugs it off?
The daffodils are up, signalling the end of winter even before I feel like it has fully begun. Oh, the joys of a California garden.
But California gardens come with some downsides too...


I had a spectacular Stephen King moment. I was clearing out old zucchini leaves. They were grey and brittle skeletons, nothing like the lush green plant that had fed us all summer. The whole plant came away in a scratchy crackle with one snip at the stem. The root would compost in place over winter. Underneath where the leaves had lain, I saw a tailless lizard with vivid blue specks up either side of his body. It's late for these guys to be out, and so cold I wondered if he'd move at all. I wasn't surprised that he lay there motionless looking up at me. Was he dead? I wondered...

I picked him up gently in my gloved hands. His body, just a few inches long, seemed rigid and quite light. Maybe he was dead. Yes, he should be - he had an arm missing. I set him down.

Then I saw him move. A ripple in his neck and another one under his skin. He was breathing. I peered closer. A little "head" popped out of a hole right where his ear should be (if lizards have ears in the same place as humans!) Another blunt white nub popped out of the hole made by his missing forearm. He was full of wriggling maggots, all trying to escape the home they had made in his body now that some giant monster (me!) had disturbed him.

I watched in horrified fascination as one by one, a half dozen of them squirmed their way to freedom and sought refuge under the nearby stones. I decided not to take a picture - there are some things you just shouldn't share visually.

California gardens - it's all fun and games until somebody gets their ear poked out!

Byddi Lee

Friday, November 27, 2015

March to November Short Story Sequel to be released for Christmas

It's Thanksgiving weekend and in keeping with that I'd like to thank all of my readers for their great support of March to November. So many people have contacted me to tell me they loved the book and want a sequel, that it's been hard to ignore.

In fact, so hard to ignore, that I wrote a short story-length sequel called Then Came Christmas, and I'm releasing it for FREE on my website.

Then Came Christmas begins on December 20th, just over six weeks from where the book ends and shows how Tracey and the gang face Christmas in the aftermath of March to November. Each day, I'll put up the story as it unfolds. It ends on Christmas Day. 

You can follow it each day, or if you like, you can wait until Christmas Day and read the story in it's entirety.

Please think of it as my Christmas gift to you, the reader. Please share it with your friends too and post the link on your social media. It would be great of you can help me spread the word.

SPOILER ALERT - It does give away the ending of March to November, but can be a "stand alone" story as well.

It's a good time to get a copy of March to November for your friends for Christmas so that they can join in the short story release too.

This weekend Amazon are doing a discount of 30% on print books. March to November  is also on sale on Kindle for $0.99 until the end of the month too.

So let the countdown to Then Came Christmas begin!

And thanks again.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Time traveling as well as actually traveling - Arctic Trip 2007

After I'd posted the picture of the polar bear sign a few weeks back in Animal Road Signs Snap, a few people were asking me to write more about the Arctic Trip so here it is.

The photo's were taken in Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard Archipelago, north of Norway and 660 nautical miles (758 miles) from the North Pole.

This trip took place in July 2007. Some things may have changed, but I'll include links to websites which look pretty up-to-date to me.

When we first looked at doing this 10-day trip, it was  so expensive we nearly considered not doing it at all. But we wanted to see polar bears, and since we were planning to move to California the following summer, we wanted to stay in Europe. At first we'd looked at a tour from, but there were two things we didn't like - 1) the cost and 2) the itinerary was back to front for us. It began with a cruise and ended with a camping trip.

We wanted to get the camping out of the way first. I wanted the experiences that portion of the trip offered, the glacier hiking, and the kayaking, but I didn't relish lying awake in the freezing cold for two nights and then being wrecked for the rest of the trip. We'd camped in Donegal that Easter and it had been pretty Baltic! How much worse would the North Pole be? (And, yes, I know we weren't actually at the North Pole but close enough for me.)

Then we took note of the tour companies Explorer were using and decided to approach them ourselves, camping first, ending with the cruise. It became much more affordable. Saying that, it was, and still is, the most expensive vacation we've ever been on, if you consider cost per per day. Worth every penny though - the memories are still so vivid and so unique.

We booked the cheapest combination of flights to get there. It took nearly 24 hours to fly from Belfast (where we lived at the time) to Manchester to Oslo to Tromso to Longyearbyen,  one of four settlements on the island. We could have flown to New Zealand in the same time.

You couldn't tell it was 3 am when we landed at the airport in Longyearbyen since the sun was still high in the sky.
Spitsbergen at 3am
What was the interior designer thinking when he installed orange curtains in the budget hostel we stayed in that first night? Seriously - sunlight, all night, through these! Good job we'd to get up for an 8am start, so we'd only to stay in that crazy bright room for a few hours. If you go, take eye masks!
There are no roads out of Longyearbyen - the roads just vanish at the edge of town.  To get to the other settlement you go by sea or skidoo in the winter.
Surprisingly the camping was really comfortable. We went with a company called Svalbard Wildlife Services on a three day wilderness camp. They were amazing the guide was brilliant - friendly, knowledgeable and an amazing cook. Our group was small too, just me, My Husband and two others, nice women from Switzerland.

It's the most remote place I've ever been to, I think.
We lucked out with the weather. It stayed in the low to mid sixties and because it didn't get dark at night it didn't cool down much either. We had good sleeping bags and down jackets. Being cold was never an fact it had been colder to camp in Ireland in April!
We had an armed guide at all times. I hoped we didn't see a polar bear while camping as the guide would need to shoot it. The campsite was surrounded by tripwires that would ignite flares, as much to wake up the guide with his guns as to scare of the bears. You don't mess with polar bears.
You had to use this gate to enter and leave the campsite so you didn't trigger the flares. I worried that if you were going off to have a pee during the night you might trip over the wire, but it didn't get dark so it wasn't an issue. You still needed to bring a buddy in case a polar bear did catch you with your pants down! 

Solid human waste was an interesting problem. It had to be taken off the site with you, so you pooped in a bag, tied a knot in it and kept the bags a a bucket until it was time to take the ship back. 

Our campsite was at the base of a glacier and we went glacier hiking on it with crampons. I was nervous about falling down the crevasses. We were all roped together, but I was the smallest one in the group and where the others just stepped across I had to take a run and jump!
The ice formations were amazing.

I had the chance to geek out on the amazing rock collection in the terminal moraine deposited by the Glacier - Sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic all in one spot. I wish I'd studied geology ...
And check out erosion in action - the rock has fractures along seams where water seeped in then froze and expanded.
There was something to amaze me around every corner. Herds of Svalbard Reindeer, sort, stocky little chappies, their rotund bodies adapted to conserve heat.

The Arctic cousin of the Irish bog cotton, fluffier to insulate the precious seeds better.
The next day we went kayaking.
We were lucky to catch this glacier calving on camera, and luckier still not to be too close to it!

The scenery was truly spectacular.
 Even though we didn't have the fancy camera we have now, it was impossible to take a bad photo.
This ringed seal seemed to be quite happy to pose for us. I suppose he was just glad we weren't polar bears!
Camping done, we transferred back to Lonyearbyen and stayed the night in a nice hotel before setting off for our cruise with Spitsbergen Travel. The ship was small. It had been a research vessel but we did have a cabin with a window...
...that had a metal hatch to close over it - great at keeping out the light and we had our first dark night since arriving there. Though the engine room must have been right in our closet (I joke - we didn't have a closet - two bunks and shower room!)

We cruised north out of Longyearbyen and stopped at Russian mining settlement. It was pretty bleak.
But someone seemed to be happy about finding coal!
It was nice to see that technology was making some inroads to these remote spots
Maybe you had to call to be let in the door, because that handle look pretty secure!

If you ignored the frigid temperatures, sometimes the colors along the coastal waters looked quite inviting.
 We set ashore each day for guided hikes and nature walks, most times using these wee boats.
 From the shore the scenery dwarfed the ship we though of as home.
The captain promised us lots of wildlife viewing, and we began to think the animals were on the payroll.

There were three languages used on board, Norwegian naturally, German and English. If the crew spotted some wildlife, they would announce the best place to go on the ship to view it. There were about 150 passengers all hustling for the best photo spot. Invariably animals would pop up when we'd be in the dining room (maybe because we spent so much time in the dining room!) and there'd be a stampede (of humans not animals!) for the doors

Sometimes the announcement would begin in English, "Ladies and Gentlemen, a polar bear has been spotted off the starboard side." etc. (or maybe it was Klingons?)  People who understood English, (and knew where starboard was) would head off. Then the language would change and others would move too. We soon figured out, no matter what language they started with, just follow someone who looked like they understood.Waiting for your own language would mean missing the front row!
 Right in the middle is a polar bear eating a seal - I kid you not...

 Blurry - sorry - how I wished we'd our Nikkon D5000 in those days!
The icebergs were such strange colors - Had the captain ever heard of the Titanic I wondered?
We drank champagne was we crossed the 80°N parallel (not sure why, but I wasn't going to question anyone giving me free Champagne - especially in a place where a coffee cost $20!) We came upon Moffen Island and saw the Walruses, animals I half suspected were not real, seeming more like mythical creatures and ranked a rather ugly, cumbersome version of the unicorn. But there they were...sorry again about the picture quality.

This was our turn around point.

Each night we'd have to tear ourselves away from the scenery, staying up into the wee hours of the morning, our brains unwilling to accept that fact, seeing sunlight as we did. These pictures were taken between 3 and 4 am...
 And this picture reminded me of the island described in C.S Lewis' Narian Tale , The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - the one the made everyone really gloomy...
We had just headed down to the rattle and hum of our cabin when there was another animal announcement at 4am - polar bears again!
This mother was suckling her baby. And how cute is this pose!

 This is a whale - I promise!
We stopped at the research station. It claims to have the most northern post office in the world...I wonder if this is where Santa posts his letters! I just had to send a post card to my Mum.

 Some insane people were having a swim...totally not tempted!
 Even if it looked as beautiful as this.

Spitsbergen was a magical place. I'm glad we figured out a way to make it work. I'd always wanted to see polars bears in the wild and it was definitely one huge series of ticks off the bucket list.

 Byddi Lee

 P.S. Some of these scenery shots look amazing if you click on them and view then full screen - go on - I dare you :-)