Reflection on the Winter Solstice

In my last blog post, I mentioned one of the things I miss about America is the wide roads. Here I frequently find myself on narrow roads with little room for error on either side. One such road is on what Google Maps recommends as my shortest route home from work. Even though Manchester is a big city, this road is on the outskirts and looks like a winding country lane in the middle of nowhere. There are even cows in pastures in sight. And for a large stretch of the road, there are big trees lining both sides making it impossible to drive off the road without crashing into one.

Last winter I navigated around that road because I was afraid to travel it in the dark. Even though it added about 10-15 minutes to my journey home, I went a different way. Because every time I needed to pass a car coming the other direction, I nearly had a panic attack. The few times I did try going that way in the dark, I remember gripping the wheel and sweating the whole way. I was terrified. Hence I started going the long way home.

And then the days got longer until one day when it was no longer dark after work, I tried that route again. And even though the road was still narrow, in the light, it wasn’t as scary. And so I went that way. And I kept going that way even as the days have grown shorter. And now it is really dark again on my way home, but my panic is gone. I know that road now. Because I learned it in the light.

This week as I was driving home on that road, I realized this is as dark as it’s going to get. Tomorrow is the shortest day of the year, and I will be traveling the shortest route home! This got me thinking about the Winter Solstice and metaphors and realities of darkness. The contrast in the length of the days here has given me a new appreciation for the changing seasons. Not just appreciation, an understanding in my bones.

Last September I moved here to the latitude of 53.4808° N. And from the moment I arrived, the days started getting shorter. And by this time last year, (like now) there were only seven and half hours of daylight. And last year, I did find it all a bit oppressive. And cold. And endless. And the roads scary. And I forgot all my lessons about the solstice. I forgot that one day the days would get longer again. Mostly because in America, I hadn’t experienced such drastic differences in the length of the days. I knew intellectually there would be more light in summer, but I hadn’t yet physically experienced living here through the changing seasons.

Now I have. Now I know that in the summer here, the days are gloriously long. Now I know that on the Summer Solstice, there will be an extra nine and a half hours of sunlight. So I am more okay this year. I can wait out the darkness. And I know after tomorrow, we are already on our way to the long days. To the days where the sunlight motivates you to stay out late. So now I should rest. Recharge. That’s the gift of winter.

And reflecting on the physical realities of living through the dark times and light times, I am reminded of the strength of the metaphor too. That in times of darkness, we can rely on the changing seasons. This too shall pass. And if you practice the way enough times in the daylight, you can take the same route through the darkest of nights. For me, this means that when I am feeling good, I need to be my best self: eat right, exercise, be kind, be proactive, reflect and write, volunteer, reach out to people. All so those behaviors will be ingrained in me and sustained down dark lanes yet to come.

So to anyone out there who might need reminding… there is always light over the horizon. To everything there is season. May you make the most of the darkness and the light.

Poster Board Report: England

After living here for the past 15 months, I’m ready to present my initial findings. I’ve decided to start at the beginning. With the basics. Remember in elementary school when you had to make a presentation about another country? Or maybe, like me, you are a former Girl Scout with World Thinking Day experience? Following in those traditions, I will share today about the food, weather and language. And throw in a few fun facts for color.

First, my three favorite things about living in England:

  1. No mosquitos

  2. Magpies

  3. Spotting Weeping Angels

You might have thought my favorite thing about living here would have been being with my new husband. And that’s pretty nice, but honestly, no mosquitos is life changing. It means you can leave the windows open- with no screens! And outdoor activities and everyday leisure is unbelievably pleasant without those blood suckers. Here I am in the summer hiking near water with no bug bites in sight!

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The second delightfully surprising thing about life in England is the abundance of magpies. Which let’s be honest, I thought were a nursery rhyme make-believe creature. But they are real. And all over the place. And I still smile every time I spot one.

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Speaking of spotting, I said my third favorite thing about England is spotting Weeping Angels. That might have been a little too specific. I just mean, it is cool to be out and about and see things like weeping angels, crooked spires, remnants of castles, watermills that look like hobbit houses, and all kinds of interesting landscapes and beautiful architecture. Take a look at the gallery below, and see if you can spot the weeping angel I photographed from my car… (tap on the photos to scroll through)

Back to the report.

Food

So in every world culture day I’ve ever seen, there is always food. And if I’m honest, I never really understood how we were learning about someone’s culture by tasting their food. But now I get it. Because I’ve learned a lot about our American culture by experiencing (and thinking about) the differences in food here. I’m not sure what the taste of food tells you, but I can certainly now see how asking questions about the preparation and ingredients could teach one about culture. And what I’ve learned so far, is that in America, we value convenience and time. Sometimes to an absurd result. For example, shortly after moving here, the kids requested chicken nuggets for dinner. My English husband said he would make some. I asked how? He said he’d cut up chicken, coat the pieces in bread crumbs… and I was like, “but we don’t have any breadcrumbs.” And he said, “but we have bread.” And I said, “I don’t get it.” Truthfully until that day, it never occurred to me how Progresso made their breadcrumbs. Or how anyone would make some at home. 20 seconds later, my eyes were opened. And it’s not just bread crumbs (literally I now know to be ONLY the crumbs of bread easily whipped up) we needlessly sell in America, Kraft has no market here either. After looking for processed pre-grated cheese for days, my kids finally gave in and tried the freshly grated parmesan cheese. Again, I’m not sure now what is so time consuming about grating the cheese, that Americans sacrifice taste to have it pre-grated for us? But that’s a philosophical discussion for another day…

So the food here in England is pretty similar to America in many respects. Meat and potato countries that we are. The peas here might be mushy, and the bacon might be thick, but the biggest difference I’ve found is the way food is bought, kept, and prepared. Which is all to favor freshness. My fridge here is a 4th of the size of the one I had in America. Here we just shop frequently at stores within walking distance. And we make our bread crumbs from scratch.

Weather

No report about England would be complete without throwing in a nod to the weather. It is rainy as advertised, but not in an oppressive way. The rain is usually light and passes quickly. Comes back quickly too, but then it goes again. And it never brings tornadoes. At least not that I know of… hail on the other hand, that does happen. But in general, it is calm and rainy and then mild and sunny. All without mosquitos. I like the non-extrerme weather here. I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

Language

It pained me a little to type color and favorite earlier in this blog post instead of colour and favourite. Because the language and the spelling here are seeping into my core bit by bit. Recently I said something about the way the sat nav took me home, and my husband commented on how I was “going native.” I said, “what do you mean?” “Well you wouldn’t say sat nav.” I had to be reminded what I would have said. GPS.

There are some differences I still can’t take- football to me is the Steelers or OSU. I cannot call soccer football. During the World Cup and our office pool, my co-worker (or colleague for my English friends) said she was going to burn off a fingertip every time I said soccer instead of football. Not sure why she couldn’t just start with pinching… anyway. You can read some more vocabulary differences in my previous blog post. Or just wait for them to start bleeding through into my writing.

One of the hardest things to get used to was the greeting people use around here (which might be a Manchester thing for all I know) of “you okay?” Several times I was quite indignant with my yes, why would you ask that? Because for me, you only ask if someone is okay if you think they might not be. But here, it is a greeting like, “how are you?” and the answer should be as perfunctory as “I’m fine, thanks.” I’m still working on my response.

Another difference I’m struggling with is that it is somehow rude to address or refer to people who are in the room by pronouns instead of their name. This I learned at work. After several times being asked “who’s she, the cat’s mother?” I’m still shaking my head at that one. But mostly I’m glad that on most days, I am understood and I understand. Even if I would prefer my English mates to be a bit more direct. All except for my colleague who enforces the use of the word football, she’s plenty direct. And she has a name. Which I use when she’s in the room.

As I hope you can see, there are many things I do love about my new homeland. But since I started this piece with my favourite things, I thought I’d end with some things I miss about life in America. Not counting people or specific places. Which I miss terribly. If you know me in real life, and we used to hang out, work, play, worship, or study together somewhere, I likely miss you and that place a great deal. But setting all that aside, what do I miss generically about life in America? Well truthfully after giving it a great deal of thought, here are the three things I miss most about life in America.

  1. Wide roads

  2. Ample parking

  3. Stop Signs (or rather 4 way stops as opposed to roundabouts. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck on one. Think Chevy Chase, “look kids big ben” That phrase is like a code for us. Just yesterday when I successfully navigated myself to the third exit of a large roundabout on one try, my teenager said with sincerity, “Great job mom, we didn’t even see Big Ben!” I’m learning. And I’m okay.)

In Memory of Libby Lucas (1934-2018)

I wrote this piece to be read at my grandmother's funeral today in Ohio. These are my specific memories of a very special person, but I hope maybe something in it will speak to you too, whoever your grandparents are or were... 

Whether through nature or nurture, so much of who I am came from my Grandma Libby. I am so sorry to not be present for her today in body. I hope you all know I am present in spirit. And I want to thank all of you who took care of Grandma these last years of her life. Thank you for being there for her. You are all loved and appreciated. 

My recollections of Grandma Libby- 

When I was around 20 I got my hair cut really short. My grandma Libby told me, “that is the ugliest haircut I’ve ever seen, and if anyone tells you different, they are lying to make you feel better.” I’m smiling even as I type this remembering that day. And so many others where my grandmother would just bluntly tell things as she saw them. There was little pretense. Just a genuine, honest assessment. My grandmother lived and spoke her truth. Always. To everyone. 

So to honor her, I would like to share some truths about her. She was a different kind of Grandmother from the tv grandma. She didn’t bake, or even cook. She never made dresses or even sewed on buttons. But she was the very best kind of grandmother- she was the kind of Grandmother who showed up. She was always present in our lives. At every important event, at every celebration, at every concert and sports game. And on lots of days in between. She took us on trips and played games with us. We knew we mattered to her. We knew she would do anything for us. Even tell us the truth about unflattering hair cuts when no one else would. 

Grandma liked bingo and slot machines and Bob Evans. And she never carried a purse. Just walked around with what she needed in her pockets. Which wasn’t very much. Again, there was little pretense or pomp. She just got on with things. And while she didn’t need a lot of stuff, she loved gathering experiences. Going places, seeing things. And really enjoying them. When we would travel through the mountains, she would pull over at every lookout point to see the view. No matter how close together they were or how many others we had stopped at. Sometimes this was frustrating. As teenagers, we just wanted to get on with the trip. But Grandma taught us that stopping to look at the view was the trip. Life is not a destination… 

Grandma would also embarrass us sometimes with her propensity for talking to everyone. I mean everyone. I don’t think I ever saw her walk past someone and not speak to them. And I don’t think I ever had a meal with her in a restaurant where she did not give an honest assessment of the food or the service. If you asked my grandma her opinion, you would get it. And sometimes even if you didn’t ask! Nothing about Grandma was fake.

She did not sit on the sidelines of life. She participated fully. She volunteered with the Union. She took care of her neighbors. She spent time on the things she thought mattered. And she lived her truth. Even when it was difficult. And she loved us. And she loved my mom and my stepfather. Even though Grandma Libby was my dad’s mom. I was so young when my parents divorced that I have no real memories of them together, but I have tons and tons of memories of my mom and Grandma Libby together- I will be forever grateful for the relationship my paternal grandmother had with my mom. Their relationship helped define family for me. Which is so much bigger than blood. 

Grandma Libby was honest and blunt, but always kind and open. She made people feel comfortable and welcome at the party. She simply walked around with what she needed in her pockets, gathering experiences, looking at the view and talking to everyone. She didn’t pretend to be anything other than what she was and she didn’t hide what she thought. And I want to be just like her when I grow up. 

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Dear Meghan... (Open after the honeymoon!)

I heard a reporter say recently that he was looking forward to the graciousness Meghan Markle would bring to the royal family. He said Americans use and understand the word "gracious" more than the English do. I don't know if that is true, but as an American living in England, I am enjoying the positive press an American is getting. Walking my dog on the day of the Royal Wedding, I passed a house with a photo of Harry and Meghan hanging outside. Next to Meghan was a small American flag. Proudly displayed on my neighbors' fence. 

So I would like to say thank you to Meghan Markle for representing. And I would graciously like to offer some words of advice and encouragement to the new wife of an Englishman:

Dear Meghan, 

I came to live in this beautiful country under similar circumstances to your own. Perhaps with a little less pomp and press, but the basic story is the same. Just instead of a prince, I married a professor. It's been nearly 9 months since my arrival as a new bride in a foreign land. There are a lot of things I am still getting used to here. I still find it awe inspiring when I hear the age of some of the everyday buildings I am surrounded by. Just last week I was at a work meeting in a coffee shop across the street from a Church built in the 1300s! Before 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, people were worshipping in a building that I can just casually walk into after my coffee! I can't even imagine the awe-inspiring buildings you will be able to walk into with your royal credentials! Although our lives may be really different in grandeur and scope, I thought I'd share a few observations from my own transatlantic transplant you might find helpful. 

There will be a lot of small changes to get used to in the vocabulary of everyday life. Words that didn't come up in the courtship period will start popping up all over the place. Like they call all vacuum cleaners "hoovers" and outside trash cans "wheelie bins" and spell car tire with a "y"- tyre. Shortly after I arrived my husband asked if I'd gotten a rubber for my pre-teen's pencil bag. I thought, "wow. I knew it was more secular and progressive here, but I'm surprised they need condoms for school." Of course he meant an eraser... 

And I'm not sure what the household chores will look like when married to a prince, but sometimes here I feel a little like I'm living in the Little House on the Prairie. It's a different pace of life with a smaller environmental footprint. I'm still getting used to seeing laundry hanging out on a line in my backyard. 

Ron Weasley the rabbit enjoying our "garden" last fall.

Ron Weasley the rabbit enjoying our "garden" last fall.

Which btw I should call a back garden. A yard is paved. A garden is the green behind your house. And you might grow vegetables in an allotment. Or the palace might have a vegetable patch they'll allow you to use on the grounds. But anyway. 

In the beginning all these small differences might start to add up to make you feel a little alien. When you have to learn 5 new things just to go the grocery store by yourself, you might start to feel overwhelmed. Or you might have servants to go shopping for you... I'm not sure how it works when you're royalty. But for me, I did find myself starting to feel frustrated with the sheer amount of small things I didn't know. Things that I might have found interesting or endearing as a tourist, made me feel foreign and incompetent as a new resident. I can't tell you how many times I've thought, "it never would have occurred to me to..." For example, I tried for days to figure out how to lock our back door before I asked my husband. You lift the handle up. Ah. It never would have occurred to me to lift the handle up! 

These might seem like small things to point out just after you've made such a large move. And they are. But these small things can contribute to real culture shock. And so when the honeymoon finishes, and your life begins here in earnest, and it sinks in that you've left your community, your career, and even your country- remember that you are not foreign to yourself. Everything around you will be slightly different, which might leave you feeling disorientated. Like you don't know who you are. In those moments, try to remember that you are the same person you were before- you just need to find a way to manifest that self in your new surroundings. 

Shortly after we moved here, my pre-teen with the rubber in her pencil case started to mourn the loss of her identity at her old school. She said everyone knew her at the old school, and here she felt like play dough that had been smushed back into the can. She'd lost her shape. Her sentiment was both heartbreaking and familiar to me. Because I knew how she felt. And hearing her put into words how I was feeling, helped me. 

Recently I had a 90 day review at work. My boss wrote under my strengths, "A genuinely strong desire to see others succeed before herself." And I started to cry. Right in the middle of the review. Because I hadn't been sure how people were seeing me here really. What shape I was presenting. When I read those words, I knew that somehow I had been displaying what was important to me all along. I might have been smushed into a slightly different shape, but I am still made of the same stuff. 

Any new life change can be hard. A new home, a new marriage, a new job. When you have all that at once and add a new country, it can be really disorientating. That's not to downplay for a minute all the wonderful things and the new opportunities and the happiness of our love stories. But I want you to know if you start to lose yourself a bit, I've been there too. And it does get better. Writing this blog today in fact is a step for me in finding my voice again. Opening back up my play dough can. Reminding me that I have always formed my best shapes through sharing with others. That's who I am.

So I wish you all the best this beautiful life can offer. And if you'd like to form an American expat wives club, I will graciously offer to host. 

Warmly, 

Angel 

 

 

 

 

Must be an American

Sitting in JFK a few hours from boarding a plane to move to England. The last few days as I've packed up all my belongings, I couldn't stop a flood of emotions and thoughts about my American identity and who I'll be (and how I'll be seen) when I'm no longer living in America.

I visited England for the first time in December of 1992. I have a vivid memory of attending a holiday service in a beautiful old church in Cambridge. A woman was walking around near the worship area with a video camera. (In 1992 those were bulky and conspicuous) A lady sitting in front of me said in a disdainful tone, “she must be an American.” I immediately slid down in the pew, lowered my head and made sure to not speak so my accent wouldn't betray me. 

I’m not sure what message was delivered from the pulpit that day. But the message my 18-year-old self received then was that being an American was something to be embarrassed about…that my people were unrefined and out of place in such a dignified setting. Who knows if the woman in the church with the camera was American. And certainly that judge-y woman was not the best representative of the English... But I did carry that insecurity about how people (especially maybe educated, fancy people) see Americans. 

Fast forward 25 years, and I now find myself moving to England and married to a British citizen. The same one I visited 25 years ago. But that’s a different story. This is the story of me leaving my homeland. And my feelings about it. 

I know sometimes Americans are a seen as a joke. I remember backpacking through Europe and meeting Americans who had put Canadian Flags on their bags so people would like them more... And truthfully, I’m not always proud of American policies and practices. And some of our history is indefensible. Sadly, I’m certain future politicians will make mistakes as well. But my story is distinctly an American one. Good, bad and ugly. I am who I am today because of my American upbringing and lifestyle. 

I am the granddaughter of Appalachian people from West Virginia and Kentucky who moved to Ohio for industrial jobs. My grandparents married in their teens. As a child, I watched my paternal grandfather struggle with his own racism when my father married an African-American woman. I watched my maternal grandmother dance to Rocky Top on top of the bar in the bowling alley lounge. I grew up in a rental community in Ohio’s most dangerous city. I played t-ball. I went to vacation bible school and church camp every summer. I was a girl scout. As a teen, my social life revolved around Youth Group and Marching Band. I took family vacations in cars to the Smokey Mountains and DisneyWorld. 

I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My dad retired from the Air Force. My first husband was a Marine. I taught high school near Yorktown, Virginia. I taught English to international students in LA. I opened my own business in Alabama. I was a PTA President and a Business Coach of the Year. I shuttled kids to play dates and after school activities. I started a somewhat self indulgent blog… 

I love country music. And Bon Jovi and Madonna. My favorite holidays are the 4th of July and Halloween. I believe you can make your dreams come true. I was taught to stand up for what you believe in and to fight injustice anywhere. And like my American idol, Dolly Parton, I know it’s okay to have a big, flashy personality if you have a big heart and generous spirit to go with it. 

So after reflection, my 43-year-old self has internalized a new message. I'm not leaving my identity behind at all. I'm taking my Appalachian ancestors and their dreams with me. I'm representing my people and forging a new future for myself. I'm engaging with the world the way I was brought up to- with curiosity and hope. And if I overhear someone in a my new hometown of Manchester referring to me with a, “she must be an American”, I am going to hold my head up high and say proudly, “she is…” 

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