Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sunburn in Wales? - now there's Fantasy

Ok, so I'm British and we like to talk about the weather. A lot. This week brought a unique weather phenomenon. Interested?
But being a writer, first let me set the scene.
For the last six years, I've been lucky enough to have the use my aunt's caravan set in a picturesque caravan park nestled between a stream and a pine forest. Can you tell how much I fell in love with this place?

It became a little piece of paradise for us: a perfect base to explore (with various partners in crime) the fantastic delights mid Wales offers; cool accommodation for a cheap family holiday; a bolt-hole for me to escape the responsibilities of job, family, life and last but not least, my very own writing cave.
Castel-Y-Bere
Cadair Idris

The enchanting countryside sports the captivating Castel-Y-Bere, a ruined castle where I stood above clouds (and Sasha, the family collie fell into the ancient well), the imposing Cadair Idris, conquered many times by all the family, and we only had to call out Mountain Rescue once when a heavy fog settled at the top, obscuring the correct path.

Carry on past Cadair and you drive so close to the edge of the fabulous Tal-y-llyn you can almost touch it. A few miles further will get you to the fabulous Dolgoch falls.Yep, there is a theme to all this: stream, lake, waterfall - Wales boast some of the most picturesque water features you can imagine. The plot thickens here when you hear my nickname for it: Wet, Windy Wales.

Last year, my uncle announced with regret he'd have to sell the van as they were no longer able to visit as often due to illness. He was secretly hoping I'd take the bait and of course I jumped at the chance to pay the rental for a year so we could have one last time visiting all our favourite places to say goodbye. Being in charge of it means a lot of responsibility in the cleaning, lawn-mowing, general maintenance areas, but it also means we can pop down at the drop of a hat, without needing to check no-one else has booked it. So,it's only the first week in May and already I've finished the third visit.

But something truly magical happened last week: for the first time in living memory (mine, at least), it was several degrees hotter in Wales than back in the midlands. Resulting in three things: the stuff of fantasy - sunburn (suncream in Wales? In May? As if!!!), the unprecedented happening of my hubby staying down there on his own when I had to come back for a wee decorating (remodelling) job, and most wonderful of all, said hubby agreeing that if it's possible, we should pay the rental for an additional year. Now that's what I call a result, boyo!

My magical walk alongside Tal-y-llyn




Monday, April 24, 2017

Confessions of a First Time Traveler

My husband and I had been married for almost fifteen years. Six children had somehow joined us. Our oldest was just shy of fourteen; our youngest, two. Doing the math explains why we’d had exactly zero child-free vacations since our honeymoon. It was time.

We debated Hawaii, the east coast, a hotel down the freeway. Anything. Whatever seemed feasible at any given moment as we pondered our anniversary. One question lingered: What would we do with our children? We looked each other in the eye.

Grandma.


Hidden behind the phone line, in another state, she may have had a panic attack at the thought of commandeering our crazy household, but grandmas are made of stern stuff. She was in.


Hubby and I checked prices. We checked dates. We checked our sanity. Everything checked out.

England and Scotland for two weeks was a super deal. Plus, I knew someone who lived there. Dates were set, plans created, a tour booked, and passports ordered. Mine arrived, including a mugshot-style image of someone who I hoped looked nothing remotely like me. 


We left behind two crying, sick kids with Grandma in front of the airport and the rest of the kids at school. I chewed my lip. I questioned our motives. I ate french-fries in the lobby.

When we landed, a friend and a gift bag of chocolate awaited us. My pal, writer Jacky Gray, had covered all bases. On the way to her father’s house, where we’d be staying for a couple of days, we stopped by Avebury, walked among the huge stones, and ate our first meal in an ancient English pub. We saw burial mounds and a gigantic white chalk horse carved into a hillside. We ended in Warwick, at her dad’s charming 1930s home, practically brand new compared to the 1600-1800 wattle and daub buildings down the street, or the castle around the corner, which was first established in the early 900s (nope, not missing a number in that date) by a warrior princess. We were treated to family meals, family members, and castle tours—including a dungeon, in which I was found guilty by a judge and mocked by the crowd as I stood trial in the docks.

Time after time, my American brain had to verify what my eyes were taking in. “Is this all authentic? Is this really real?” I mean, Queen Elizabeth the First’s riding saddle. Right in front of me. Armor from the 1500s. Paintings, clothing, and furniture spanning ages. I was ready for a director to step out, yelling “CUT!” and for the people surrounding me to suddenly drop their accents and resume business as usual. It was perfect and wonderful and surreal. Hailing originally from California, USA, I suppose I’m jaded by movies and places like Disneyland, where everything is a replica, a fake, or a look-a-like. My mind? Officially blown.

We worked our way up around England, into Scotland, and back. Running, eating, and driving our way through ancient towns and cities. Coventry, London, Liverpool, Amesbury (Stonehenge), Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare and his family), Edinburgh, York, and more, oh my. Stopping at castles, cemeteries, and cathedrals. We ate English chips in paper cones, Welsh pasties in little bakeries, and scones and tea in a 1600s farmhouse, owned by Beatrix Potter in the 1800s—a home currently lived in by a family containing six children. The floor beneath my feet was the original slate. The beams overhead, the wooden panels on the walls, also original.

 Late at night, in our various hotel rooms, my husband and I would try to catch our children for FaceTime, or send a quick text to Grandma. Seeing and hearing the kids made me miss them even more. By the end of our time in the UK, I was ready for home. I needed a hug from pudgy two-year-old arms.

Despite the excitement of returning home, leaving the amazing country, people, and food was mournful. I had hundreds of pictures, but when would I ever be able to wander through history like that again? I’m afraid we’ve opened a bit of a Pandora’s box. Now that I’ve had a taste of leaving our borders, I want more. I want to see more sights, meet more people, and eat more incredible food. I want to experience history and culture in new ways.


But … I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to leave the kids behind again. Traveling is new and adventurous and full of wonder. Home is regular life, full of messy rooms and sweet faces. It’s sports and homework and after-school clubs. It’s cuddles and bedtime stories. The food is basic, the accommodations self-serve and from the current decade. Still, it grabs my heart and fills my soul. The world awaits, but I can be patient. For a little while. Maybe not another full fifteen years, though. Or even fifteen months. Or maybe, it’s just time to take another family trip.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Lost Art of Discussion

Is it just me, or do people seem less able to discuss opinions, nowadays, without losing their minds? I see examples of this trend on social media sites (Facebook feeds are teeming with it), media coverage of whatever protest is happening that day and, worst of all, face-to-face conversations amongst friends.

What happened to us? When did we become unwilling or unable to accept the idea that not everyone will agree with our every thought?


There has always been a small minority of highly opinionated people who, with the slightest provocation, will fly off the handle when confronted by a dissenting opinion. This is especially true with certain sensitive topics, like religion or politics. But those people weren’t the norm. They were the ones we avoided at social gatherings because they tended to suck the fun out of every room they entered.

Now, it seems like those people are everywhere, sucking the fun out of, well, EVERYTHING.


I have lots of opinions, most of which were formed by listening to other people. Many of my opinions have changed over the years when new information was presented that caused me to rethink my position. To be honest, there aren’t a lot of things that I believed in my 20s that I still believe in my 40s. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I was dumb as a post back then. Twenty years from now I’ll probably look back and feel the same way about my current level of intelligence.

Which brings me to my point. The smartest people I know are those who are open to hearing, and learning from, the opinions of others. They understand that there is always more to learn and that, should they spend their time fighting against opposing ideas, they’ll likely not learn it.

I wish I could say that I am one of those people but, sadly, I still sometimes fall into the oh-so-easy trap of defending my ideas without truly listening to another’s opinion. I’m working on that. I hope everyone is, because arguments breed anger and resentment, whereas discussions breed thought and progress.


Let's all try to rediscover the lost art of discussion. Who knows? Maybe we'll learn something.

Andrea

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Spring Cleaning

It finally happened. The rain stopped, the clouds cleared away, and the sun came out. Sun so bright that I felt a little like Gollum slithering at of my cave and wincing up at the shining light. 
But oh is it nice, to finally have some good weather. Don't believe what they tell you: Seattle isn't ALWAYS rainy. When the weather is nice, I challenge you to find a nicer place than the Pacific Northwest. Lately though? Well, lately the weather is the kind that makes you want to curl up under your blankets and never leave your bed again. And it's easy to stew and get lost in that feeling of "yeeeuck" when it's rainy, cold and gray. But if you've lived in PNW for long enough, you know that you just have to grit your teeth and march on, because the sun will come soon enough.

Life is a bit like that too. There can be some stretches of time where things just seem dull and gray. It takes all your energy to get through the day, and you just kind of keep your head down and move forward. Then, eventually, the sky clears and you get that moment where your eyes open and you really see for the first time in awhile.

It's easy to get caught in a rut, to follow the same old pattern and not really realize that it is time for things to change. I think it's so important to appreciate the life you have, but I think it is equally important to take a hard look at your life every once in awhile, and decide if there is something that needs to change. Some spring cleaning, if you will.

Although my recent eye opening made me realize that I needed to do some ACTUAL spring cleaning. How do things get so dirty? Am I a pig? Is that what it is? Sheesh. But as exhausting as a weekend full of cleaning and chores was (and as much as it made the inner child in me pout), it feels refreshing and energizing to look around and see what I've accomplished. 

Turns out, the house was the easy part. I'm still working on the life part. Any one out there in the process of looking for a new job? If you are, imagine me giving you a supportive hug right now. I'm right there with you. As comfortable as my job is now, and as much as I love my fellow employees, I finally decided that I need something more. More stability, more growth and the scary part ... more challenge. 
Unfortunately, this means writing is still on the back burner. That can be the hard part of this "adulting" business. I'm trying to remember that even if my dream isn't my main focus right now, that doesn't mean I'm failing at it. Sometimes you have to make sure you have the foundation in place before you can commit fully to your dreams. 

So if anyone right now is going through the same kind of transition period, love to you. It's tough and challenging, and change can be scary. But taking the time and energy to focus on cleaning up any clutter in your life is always worth it. So I'm grabbing my dust rag and vacuum, and I'll see you on the other side.
 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Brand New Pair of Eyes

If you only had five days to give a good friend who lives in a different country a taste of your life, what would you do?
My task was complicated by the fact she’d already booked a week-long tour to pick up a bunch of highlights of the UK. All places I would have chosen to take Hannah and her husband: Stonehenge, Stratford Upon Avon, Edinburgh, and London.

There was no question in my mind but that the first place would be Warwick castle. Being brought up with the trees in these majestic grounds overlooking our back garden, (with the occasional peacock flying over the walls), it was a natural choice. The fact my daughter works in the dungeons there, scaring people half to death, had nothing to do with it. And the chance to eat medieval fayre, and sleep in a knight's lodge in the castle grounds, could not be missed.

I am looking forward to showing off a couple of places very dear to me: Avebury henge (which is even bigger than Stonehenge and you can actually touch the stones), at least one of the white horses carved into the hillside around Avebury, hopefully with the opportunity to stand inside the oldest of them all, at Uffington. And if we have time, a short drive around Oxford; it's too cold to go punting on the Cherwell, but we may be able to pop into a college or two.

Another day spent in pursuit of history, checking out Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom, experiencing the Coventry blitz in an air-raid shelter, and seeing the one-time world's fastest car, although maybe not being able to touch it. So cool to have so many choices within a short drive of where I live, but is that really me?

I think the bit which might make the most impression on my guests is experiencing life in a British home, so I've spent several hours cleaning my house to make it presentable (this is NOT a normal feature of my life!). I hope they will appreciate the difference between our two cultures and living styles. An essential part of my day is a "plodge in the clarts" round our local daily dog-walking circuit. I figure we'll provide the wellies - they'll need them for the muddy fields.

I plan to round off the day with some home cooked, traditional English dishes. I'm thinking "Steak and Kidney Pie and Chips" (that's fries to some of you), "Bangers and Mash," but probably not "Spotted Dick," although there may well be custard involved.

More than anything, I'm hoping my American friends will get an idea of everything great about the country which used to be known as Great Britain.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Power of a Four-Letter Word



Love is a word thrown willy-nilly all over the place in the English language. We can apply it to our children, significant others, and friends and family, just as we can use it to express feelings about shoes, chocolate, giraffes, days off, crossword puzzles, or that awesome movie you can’t remember the title of. In fact, “love” is used so often, the word can lack a feeling of depth. And yet, love is the strongest, most complex and profound of human emotions.

Love brings hope, salvation, and healing. Love looks deep, asks hard questions, and faces opposition. Love is a call to arms, giving voice to what we stand for; it is a whisper from the shadows reminding us to persevere; it is an echo from the past, so the future can travel a better course.

Why is love all of these things? Because it is backed by empathy, compassion, and humanity. It allows for imperfections and do-overs. People make mistakes; love offers the chance of
redemption.

We can see it in action every day. The small interactions of a parent and child, the look that passes between soulmates, the courtesy shown to a stranger. But it is more, as well: Voices that blend together, demanding freedom and rights for all. Standing for those who cannot stand on their own. Recognizing that what affects someone else actually affects us all, because we are all here together on this planet.

Valentine's Day is family celebration in our home. The children (along with Mom and Dad) slip handmade
cards under each other's breakfast plates, notes saying why they love each other or what they enjoy about someone. We are lucky enough to have a Valentine fairy who spreads magic with surprise treats and small gifts at all of our place settings. It's not a day reserved just for me and my husband. These children stem from our love; they are an embodiment of it. I look at our family unit and imagine it as a link to the larger world. If our kids can grow up knowing that love is important, and that sharing it with others is empowering, then they can be part of the positive outreach of the future-- the adults who are willing to lend a hand, take a chance, and give of themselves.

On this day of love—one that tends to focus on the sweetheart aspect of love, the Hallmark version of the 4-letter word—aim deeper and wider. Recognize the strength and power within you, the ability to give to others this awesome gift, this ultimate weapon, that can unite us all.

Friday, January 20, 2017

All We Are Saying ...

Montreal. 1969. A lifetime ago, or yesterday, depending on your point of view. John Lennon had just married Yoko Ono, and for their honeymoon they invited the press to hang out by their bedside while they sang about peace. Not my idea of a romantic honeymoon, but hey, I’m not burdened by the responsibility of being famous during a time of war. Of having to decide whether or not to use my influence to fight for what I believe in. It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. On my way up or down the stairs to the basement, I find myself pausing to look at the two pictures that hang on the landing, reflecting on this moment in the history of the world—and this moment in the history of my family.





The man holding the camera is my great uncle, George Cree. For decades he was a photographer for the Montreal Gazette, and his lens captured many significant moments in Canadian history: Famous faces, royal visits, all kinds of political strife and upheaval—and the time a musician and his new bride laid in bed to promote peace. My Uncle Geordie went into that room in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel to cover John and Yoko’s Bed-In. He came out with photographs that would be a highlight of his career, and a pen drawing casually scribbled by Lennon and handed to my uncle, almost as an afterthought. I doubt he had any idea how much that little drawing would mean to my uncle. To my whole family.




Give Peace a Chance.

For many this sentiment is a quaint, impossible dream … a naiveté. For others it’s a reason to go on when the darkness closes in. For me it’s a wish—blind or otherwise—that my children will live in a world where equality and kindness prevail. It’s a prayer that my daughter will never be discriminated against for her gender, that my son will feel safe wearing a Kippah upon his head. That I will one day not feel a thrill of fear by this kind of public admission of my family’s Judaism. That my children will live to raise the next generation, so that they may raise the next, and the next, and so on ad infinitum.

I often pause on the landing that leads down to my basement to spend a moment with my uncle, who was hilarious and gentle and kind. He is the first person I notice in that photo, not the man with the guitar. More and more I think about the things my uncle saw with his eyes and through his lens. I think about how he dropped out of school during The Depression, how he was a tail gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, how he was a witness to history, both the good and the bad.

History. It’s not long before my gaze travels to the man with the guitar. He used his voice to mobilize those who were sleeping, because he believed that peace was more than an abstract concept or a pie-in-the-sky wish. And it occurs to me that, like everything in life, there is no way to make your wishes a reality unless you’re willing to mobilize. My voice doesn’t need to reach millions to make a valuable contribution. If it reaches just one, it can make a difference. And so I pause on the landing to ponder. What will my contribution be?

And yours?

S.M. Freedman