Longing for light; longing to write

December in the Northern Hemisphere, although wonderfully familiar to me, has its drawbacks. You can imagine what I’m referring to, the weather has become cold and the cloud low. Even so, you’re unlikely to catch me admitting to it being “really cold” until the temperature drops to around 2C/28F. We Brits are nothing if not hardy; the gene pool has adapted to withstand our errant island climate.  Autumn crocuses

Just down the lane where I live, there grows a blanket of delicate Autumn crocuses. In November, each day I willed them to stay upright a little longer (not just because they are unusual and beautiful) I knew once they sagged back into the soil it would be a clear signal of Winter rushing in and daylight hours becoming shorter.

Are you affected by a lack of light where you’re living? Perhaps there are other climatic issues that require you to adapt? Looking out of my window, I feel a sense of time shifting. I see an old fashioned kind of English garden; ornamental shrubs of roses have all but closed down for Winter, I count seven pink optimistic blooms and beyond a pale hopeful light is fading against a bank of low anthracite cloud. By school pick up it will be dark…

Experiencing dusk by mid afternoon and darkness when you wake up does have an impact on mood. Many folk report suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. ‘SAD’ identifies a reaction or response of low mood and depression experienced by people who are otherwise unaffected throughout the rest of the year. According to Wikipedia the symptoms are recognised in America as effecting between 1.7% in Florida and 9.7% of people in New Hampshire. That’s a lot of folks. Lamps that simulate outside light can be purchased and do seem to help … but who wants to spend half of the year sitting in front of a lamp for goodness sake!

I don’t believe I am a sufferer of SAD, my problem is one of relativity; fortunate to have lived in other, blouse clingingly hot places, I notice the cold now I’m back and take seriously my scarf and gloves routine. Unfortunately, the lack of light is not something you can control. I remind myself that In Singapore (and Houston) it was not always pleasant – returning to a roasting hot car and grappling with a steering wheel too scalding to touch. But being close to the Equator meant regular, light/dark daily cycles of approximately twelve hours, all year round. And frankly, it’s wonderful; everyone knows what they are doing, their brains are not constantly trying to reorientate and calculate if its time to wake up yet. The children used to accept that when it went dark, it was time for bed; ‘mother’ nature was living up to her name.

Last time I repatriated back to the UK I anticipated I might notice less as time went on … and really it isn’t that cold, something I was reminded of when I read Aisha Ashraf’s recent blog (Expatlog) – Aisha lives in Canada, where it really does get cold – I have immense respect for people coping and in fact enjoying truly cold climates.

For me it helps to write about life’s little difficulties and share them here; ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’. Sometimes I’ve worried about sharing too much. Jo Parfitt’s monthly Inspirer (another heart felt blog and she’s been at it many years) entitled Is it Dangerous to Overshare? reminded me recently why I do.

Others may need to protect themselves and shy away at the thought of talking about anything personal with people they know, let alone share it on the internet with those they don’t. That is okay and its normal ‘Information is power’ after all. And in keeping negative experiences to ourselves we may hold them safe (I do that too sometimes) but what of the power of helping others by sharing?

Before the internet and the opportunity to instantly communicate with so many other human beings, many now commonplace sufferings went unshared and we missed the chance to support and help each other. What a waste, we thought we were the only one who checked the plugs five times before leaving the house or worried about our parents dying while we were living abroad …

I met Jo Parfitt because I was lonely having arrived in Houston and decided to attend the 2009 Families in Global Transition Conference ‘FIGT’. Having been encouraged by Jo from the time I met her to write from my challenging place of isolation, I was, later on able to explore the pros and cons of publishing my memoir with her. Truthfully, I would probably not have discussed with many people my episode of depression, had I not taken the risk and had the memoir published by Summertime Publishing. The point was to share the learning from my loss of identity and depression in a way that was accessible and enjoyable for readers. Ultimately, I longed to write and found it cathartic to do so.

Even after writing most of An Inconvenient Posting the decision to publish was made more complicated because it didn’t just affect me, the ‘story’ reveals a family experience. As one well meaning husband recently quipped,

“I’d die of embarrassment if my wife wrote a book like that about us.”

“Just as well I’m not married to you then!” my reply.

I know the friend was speaking ‘his truth’ and didn’t mean to cause offence, none taken, although I encouraged him to read the book before he commented further… Thankfully my own husband felt we had little to conceal. He, at least, wasn’t ashamed of my struggle or my words.

As always, I would love to hear from you if you’ve time to put aside a few minutes from the mayhem of the festive season.

Lastly, an unashamed little plug: As its December and Summertime Publishing are offering a one month only kindle promotion on five of its most popular titles (including Inconvenient) I thought I’d share the link and some reviews on my blog and Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

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10 Survival Tips for Christmas

Tis the season to be jolly’ so the carol goes, but when Chico Marx said to Groucho, ‘There ain’t no Sanity Clause!’ he had a point.

While aiming to be bright and merry, I know Christmas can be stressful as we try to fit hoards of extra activities into our schedules and all around us there are reminders that the clock is ticking down to the day. Factor in long hours spent with family members and a huge dollop of over indulgence and I’m wondering if Santa got the best deal – popping in unseen when everyone is asleep. Enough of the bar humbug!

Tree with Christmas lightsWhether you will be ensconced with family or an expat making a Skype call home, I hope these practical tips and thoughts on resilience will help ease the path to a happy Christmas.

1. Think positive, but be realistic; how do you normally feel the day after Christmas? What words does it conjure up for you and what would you like to be different this year?

2. When you feel your inner eight year old (the badly behaved part) about to respond to something your sibling throws out there, it’s probably time to make your excuses and leave (or at least pay a visit to the smallest room in the house). There you can take a few slow, deep breaths and ask yourself if you really want to bite or let it go.

3. Close your eyes and imagine anyone who is annoying you wrapped in a ball of golden stringy light – preferably without a piece of the string around their neck – sound weird? Try it anyway or imagine your own positive image and aim to keep interactions authentic and respectful.

4. Family gatherings can be a breeding ground for attention and admiration seeking behaviours. Maintain distance from anyone who is really gunning to push your buttons, you could also change the subject by having a few positive things ready to say.

5. Drink a glass of water between alcoholic ones and eat light between the feasts (avoid sugar, fats and processed carbohydrates if you can, at those times).

6. Plan longer journeys and if you need to, check the weather forecast and traffic hotspots before setting off to avoid disappointment and stress.

7. Get out in the fresh air and take some of your favourite exercise (or if you don’t have one, choose the one you loath least) it will boost happy hormones into your system. A family walk together is a shared experience and might pass time in a positive way.

8. Enjoy the company of young children and their presents, if they become fractious give them a fair warning before disciplining them and make sure everyone gets enough sleep.

9. Spreading a little goodwill can make you feel nice; contact someone who you imagine would like to hear from you. Remember John Lennon said, ‘And so this is Christmas . . . what have you done?

10. Know that you deserve to enjoy the festive season, remember what you like about it and if it still proves challenging, take heart, it will soon be over.

nut_cracker

Forgive me one last quotation, ‘A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together,’ author Garrison Keillor.

So keep smiling and remember if you find yourself struggling at this time, you are not alone.

If you would like more help, here is a link to Mind’s 10 commandments of stress reduction at Christmas: http://www.mind.org.uk/blog/8084_10_ways_to_reduce_christmas_stress

If you have any comments or tips to add, please share them below.

The Magic of Christmas, it Comes and Goes… (Article for Among Worlds Magazine 2010)

My family’s early bird approach to Christmas day might explain why it is the earliest memory I have of being tired as a child. Struggling each Christmas to subdue my immense excitement and go to sleep, I would wake up soon after sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 am the following ‘day’.

In the nano second that I hovered between sleep and waking up, I knew, even before I opened my eyes that it was Christmas day at last. It was still dark and my face would be cold, the only part of me exposed above the blankets. It was the 1960’s and we had central heating, but not the kind that turned itself on in the morning. Living in County Durham, in the north of England it was essential to emerge from bed with socks, slippers and a fleecy dressing gown tied tightly at the waist.

I would wait in my little mustard bedroom (a strangely fashionable colour at the time) imagining the scene downstairs; three piles of presents in front of the brick fire place in the living room; one for myself and one each for my older brothers. I willed my brothers to wake up so I could follow them down and begin unwrapping my gifts. I never really believed that Santa Claus had brought them – even though we had a chimney big enough to accommodate him. My brothers were keen to confirm what I suspected; that “Mum and Dad have done it all”.

I didn’t have to wait very long on those Christmas mornings; padding around the house in the small hours like cat burglars, one of us would plug in the tree lights while we surveyed the equidistant piles of presents. Crossed legged and quietly ecstatic in the half light, with pine tree smell enveloping us, I would carefully go through my pile and place each present in what I felt might be an order of priority (a technique I’d learnt to prolong the anticipation and fun I think).

Later on in my childhood I would be amazed to learn that some families opened their presents after breakfast, lunch-time or even later in the day – after the Queen’s 3 pm speech. I was in awe of the restraint this must have required and also a little sorry for those friends! In our house we would save the chocolates until after breakfast, but the board games, Jackie Annual, Etch-a-Sketch, poster paints and dolly’s paraphernalia had all become completely familiar to me by the time our parents got up. I liked it that way, after all, I’d already waited a year for that most sacred day to be counted off the Reader’s Digest calendar, why wait any longer.

My early Christmases were some of the most special – a common phenomenon, I imagine? After a relocation to the south of England when I was nearly eight, the festivities lost some of their intensity, that moment of innocence had passed. Much later, when I had my own young children I experienced again the special pleasure of Christmas, reliving some of my own family’s traditions and combining them with my husband’s; he cooks scrambled egg and smoked salmon for breakfast (not a particularly Welsh tradition, a place where simple food is valued and unnecessary mixtures scorned!).

With motherhood there also came the responsibility of making it all happen and a little cynicism around whether the massive input was worth the output. In Britain, like most westernised countries, our monstrously early build up seems to begin just after ‘summer’ subsides with Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for around a third of the year.

We are currently living in Houston – I suspect if it wasn’t for the hysteria around Halloween there would be nothing to stem the flow of Christmas crapola filling our trolleys even earlier. That said, on our first overseas posting to Singapore, I was surprised to find that the commercial build-up really did contribute to the overall experience of Christmas; a maddening discovery. Being a shining example of a culturally and religiously mixed society, demand for Yule tide goods was diluted in Singapore. As my first Christmas in Singapore came close, I felt quite panicked at the lack of festive items (no crackers) it was late November by the time stocks of Christmas goodies arrived. Presumably my over reaction to this was rooted in an unquestioning desire to yet again provide a near perfect crimble for my family.

That first Christmas was memorable for all the wrong reasons; we had recently arrived from the UK, naive about culture shock and without extended family around us, it was tough trying to cope with the other missing elements as well; the familiar TV specials, fresh Brussels sprouts, After Eight chocolate mints, going to church in mittens and a brisk walk before it went dark at 4:00 pm – I could go on.

By our second Christmas in South East Asia not only had I put into perspective what we didn’t have; we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us and by a further stroke of good luck some old friends who had moved nearby. The wine flowed, the roast potatoes were cooked to crispy perfection and although the day was still strange by comparison, I made it through with dry eyes. What mattered was that we were sharing the experience again. And a turkey dinner eaten in the sapping equatorial heat, worked off in the condominium pool would certainly be something to remember, not something to forget!

On reflection it seems to matter more who we are close to rather than where we are on Christmas day. This year I will strive once again to focus on the fundamentals – remembering why we celebrate Christmas and enjoying and being thankful for the giving and receiving.

You can read more of my adventures in ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ published by Summertime Publishing.

Do you have any festive traditions, quirky or otherwise, you’d like to share? Click on ‘Leave a reply’ below.