I Don’t Want A Big Birthday Party!

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How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? 

~ Satchel Paige

Even though she was born in America during The Great Depression, my stepmom Cullene seems almost ageless. She’s been that way to me for years and so much so that once she moved into her sixties, I never could remember exactly how old she was.  After asking her more times than I should, I finally just started doing the math myself and even now I still have trouble reconciling her actual age with her active life.

As you may have guessed, today is her birthday.

She doesn’t want a fuss and has countered each suggestion for something more noteworthy with the dexterity of an athlete and firmness of someone who will not be swayed from what she wants. We finally settled on a small family celebration with just a few of us gathered round to eat, sing, and celebrate what is certainly a special day for us even if she would rather not make a big deal of it.

My sister Jennie and I have not been very closed-mouthed about which birthday this is (think big one) and Cullene would likely be horrified to know how many strangers now know about her birthday.  I think we are just so impressed with the way she seems virtually unchanged by the passing years that we cannot help but brag on her.

She has been my guide in so many ways since she married my dad in 1972 and watching her carry on as she does makes me rethink what life can be like as I move through my fifties and plan for the future.

I have been in the Atlanta area for about the last month and I arranged the dates of my visit in part so I could be here to celebrate her birthday. Most of us would think of this one as a more significant birthday, the kind where a big party is almost expected, but respecting Cullene’s wishes, we will keep the gathering small.

I have written about the profound impact of her influence on my life in several earlier posts and you can read some of them here and here or even more if you put her name in the search column on the right.

Cullene has agreed to let me take a few photos, but she has never been a fan of having her picture made and from the look on her face in the photo above I think her lack of enthusiasm for the camera began at an early age.

Happy Birthday, Cullene!

Finally … I’m Going Home!

When I left England for America on April 22, I had no idea I would still be here in July. Much has happened that I did not feel free to share online at the time, but now that I have finally booked my return ticket, I will be back blogging regularly.

Henry David Thoreau said, ‘ We should come home from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day with new experience and character.’

It fits perfectly with what I’ve come to think of as my ‘lost and found’ summer experience and I hope you’ll come back to hear all about it.

Even though I won’t see my  ‘Dancing Ladies’ until early August, my final countdown has begun.

The Dancing Ladies On The Hilltop - Almost Home

I’ve imagined my airport reunion with John more times this summer than I can count and while his face looks very dear each time I think of him waiting just beyond the arrival checkpoint, it’s the memory of our last embrace that I cling to in my mind and how it will feel to finally be back in his arms again.

John Winchurch

Homemade Faggots Or Food For Thought

Of all the adjustments people ask me about in my relocation from US to the UK such driving on the left while sitting on the right side of the car or learning how to use different systems of measurement or money, the most interesting is the difference in what certain words mean here versus in America. Take faggot for example. Last night John had faggots from the special’s board at our local pub.

Being raised in country where faggot has a whole other meaning, I had to snap a couple of photos to use in discussion here later. This caused a bit of chatter at the table we were sharing with our friends, Jean, Robert, and Jeff. Robert had the faggots too and after seeing my interest in photographing both the menu board and John’s dinner we talked a bit about faggots and the meaning and use here in the UK.

After doing some research this morning, I found more than a few sites which talk at length about how the word faggot came to be used in America as a derisive word that is often thrown about to bully or dismiss someone of a different sexual orientation. While one might assume that Americans were wholly responsible the shift in perception, I discovered this morning that at certain points in time, Britons have themselves used it to describe more than meatballs and wood for a fire.

It seems that during its evolution down the ugly path it has been used to describe not only a homosexual male, but according to a post over at The Straight Dope, it has also been a way to label and dismiss women during certain periods in history, ” Nineteenth century Britons also heard “faggot” used in reference to an ill-tempered woman, i.e., a ball-buster, a battleaxe, a shrew. That meaning of the term continued into the early 20th century, and the usage was gradually applied to children as well as women.” How all of this evolved from what was originally used primarily to denote a bundle of sticks is discussed in detail here, and to a lesser degree here as well.

This post was originally intended as a post about food and word use and the differences in people and countries, but another thought kept nudging me, tickling the edges of my concentration saying, ” Hey, why are you skirting around the really ugly stuff ? “

Which led me to something other than the neat wrap up I had intended. I wish I could forget how word use and name calling are linked to bullying by people with a need to wield power and control over others.

Most of us have experienced some form of it growing up or even as adults, but I can’t imagine a life tainted by some of the horrendous acts that I have read about over the last few days. Some of the blogs I read have offered points of view not really touched by the news media and there are a few I want to leave you with.

A little food for thought.

Anniegirl1138 sometimes shocks my toenails off with what she has to say, but she almost always leaves me with something to think about as is the case with her post today. It is well worth reading and I would suggest you watch the video if you have time, but be prepared.

Jennifer Petkov is You over at Anniegirl1138

Penelope Trunk wrote a very interesting post the other day which while dealing with what looks like a different subject matter is really more of the same with regard to bullying and ugly places some people go to when trying to dismiss someone’s value and credibility.

Generation Y in Politics: Krystal Ball’s Candidacy can be found at Penelope Trunk’s blog.

Jayne Martin usually focuses on the funny, but gets very serious with her post below.

How Many More Kids Have To Die ? which can be found over at injaynesword.

I will finish with a gentle and important message from Karen Walrond.

love thursday: on bullying, modeling behavior and making it stop which can be found over at her blog home, Chookooloonks.

Memorial Day – Because Sometimes We Forget

Captain Eleanor Grace Alexander died on November 30 1967 in a plane crash in Binh Dinh, South Vietnam. I did not know anything about her until I made a point to find out who she was and how she died after seeing her name at the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. Eleanor Grace Alexander was one of eight active duty women who died during that war. She was 27 and unmarried.

Born the same year as my mother she would have been 70 on September 18 had she survived. Having read first hand accounts from people who knew her and several who served with her including Rhona Marie Knox Prescott who wrote this moving letter which is part of the Veteran’s History Project in the Library of Congress, I am grateful there was a record so that some of my questions could be answered.

As an American child of the sixties, it was the Vietnam War that was the backdrop of my daily life with body counts and war updates delivered each night by men like Walter Cronkite of CBS news. Sadly we are still at war, still fighting, and still burying the dead. Although we do battle in different countries now, the result is the still the same for many and unless your life has been touched directly by loss it can be easy to forget why we recognize Memorial Day, why it’s more than a precursor to summer fun and pool side parties. I’m guilty of forgetting in the past, of treating the three-day weekend that leads into Memorial Day as a much needed respite from a too full life. What I hope to never forget is that I’ve had a chance to live the life I have thanks in part to men and women who died in wars long before I was born.

I plan to take a few minutes today to think about Eleanor Grace Alexander and my great uncle, Hugh Lee Stephens who died in WWII.

Is there someone today that you need to remember … I only ask because I know from experience that sometimes without meaning to, we forget.

Leaping Ginger Cat Takes Flight

Dexter, the leaping cat is a Ginger … well at least that’s what he would be called here in Britain. In America, we would likely refer to Dexter as an Orange Tabby. Living on my street, I’d call him just about the most playful cat I’ve ever met.

If he’s outside when I am walking past his house, what you see in these photographs gives you an idea of what’s bound to happen. He doesn’t seem to forget his playmates and once you’re his friend, he will come running up the street to see you if you call his name.

He has taken to stopping by the house now which is not something John encourages. It’s not that he dislikes Dexter or cats for that matter, but he enjoys watching the birds that come to snack on the bread crumbs he leaves on the bird table and Dexter’s tendency to leap out at the birds seems to put them off. My daughter Miranda took these photographs last Friday, two days before she flew home. We laughed and laughed as she tried to catch Dexter in mid leap.

Speaking of leaping, I did a little myself yesterday when I signed up for Kelly Rae Roberts e-course titled, FLYING LESSONS: TIPS + TRICKS TO HELP YOUR CREATIVE BUSINESS SOAR

It looks as if it’s going to be a good one and it’s filled with a talented mix of people. I know because I’ve been reading their introductions in the comment section and snooping through their websites to learn more about who they are and what they do creatively. I’ve pasted my own intro comment below if you’d care to read it. It came out quite naturally and seemed appropriate for a course titled Flying Lessons.

Elizabeth Harper said…

The best dreams are always the ones where I fly. Those of you who are night-flyers know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes my own technique varies when going airborne, but the one consistent thing that always happens in beginning of the ascent … is the leap.

The leap is required before I can feel the air under my body and take flight.

The leap is essential for flying.

This morning as I was reading a few of my favorite blogs while waiting for my coffee to brew, I clicked on Kelly’s post and noticed as I have for a while that she was talking about this e-course. I frequently make major moves on intuition and when I feel the nudge, I move so before I had my first sip of coffee or the sleep had been rubbed from my eyes, I had signed up.

The leap … remains essential.

As an American married to a Brit, it was just such a leap that lead me to find love and a new life on the Cornish coast of England.

A quick look at the comments tells me I am in the company of talented group of folks and I am so pleased to be here too.

My name is Elizabeth Harper and you can find me at http://giftsofthejourney.wordpress.com

If you feel like leaping, there’s still room in the five-week on-line course that begins May 30 … maybe I’ll see you there.

Image belongs to Kelly Rae Roberts

UPDATE : This just in … I got an email about an hour ago from my sister Margaret with a receipt for the Flying Lessons class. She was up late working on a website, read about it on my blog and decided to sign up too. This should come in handy for the creative project I mentioned here, (second item on the list) that we’re working on together.

These Are The Days

In the first few minutes of the day when my eyes are barely open and I am still shaking off the last bits of sleep, there’s an increasing sense of expectation as I pull myself back to a waking awareness that I can feel around the edges of my consciousness, a sort of shadowy sense memory that today is a special day and I think to myself, what’s happening today … because it feels like Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one and then I remember that someone very special is sleeping in the next room and I smile as I stretch and think about how excited I am to have another day with her.

Another beautiful blue sky day where we get to explore the world or at least our part of it and I have a chance to see her across the table from me sharing a meal and the kind of table talk you miss when you are separated by distance.

Later we’ll have moments lost in uncontrollable giggling as we look over our pictures of the day and laugh at the funny ways the wind can make our hair look when it catches it and whips it high above our heads where it is captured forever in photograph that neither of us will want to share.

She won’t because she thinks that it’s not her at her best and I won’t because the moment of laughter is so special that I will want hold on to it … keeping it private for just the two of us, a memory of the laughing sweet days we shared in Cornwall she when goes back to America .

I think to myself over morning coffee that these are the days, and how I remember hearing a song with the same title for the first time, in a car, at a traffic light, in 1992, when moments with my then four-year old daughter were everything I wanted to hold on to and remember. These are still the days …


Going Solo – Road Tripping In Southwest England

Yesterday was a day of exploration for me. Since moving to Cornwall I’ve not had the same need to be in the drivers seat as I previously did in the US. This change in position from driver to passenger and the ease at which I made the transition surprised me having been somewhat controlling when it came to driving in the past.

My previous career in pharmaceutical sales kept me on the road daily for years and I’ve driven back and forth across the US and as far north and south as you can go on several occasions with all manner of short trips in between. I drove for a couple of years on the German autobahn with no set speed limits in my late teens and early twenties while stationed there during my army tour of duty.

Having been to the UK three times before meeting my husband John, I had a rental car each time where I was the designated driver. While much of that driving was limited to the wide open spaces of the western part of  Scotland, I did make the trip twice from Isle of Skye to a London airport covering a distance of 650 miles, all while sitting on would normally be the passenger’s side of the car, while driving on what would be considered the wrong side of the road in America.

And did I say, the car has a manual transmission as many do here and because I sit on the right side to drive, I have to shift with my left hand. It’s not as hard as I thought it might be, but you can see why I was content to enjoy the ride with John behind the wheel.

So you have to wonder with all of that driving experience, why make such a big to-do about yesterday’s excursion. My solo road trip was important because it was the first time since moving here that I drove alone and for such a long way. I’ve done a few trips alone of five miles or less and I know that thirty miles isn’t really that far, but this trip had me pointed in an unfamiliar direction as I made my way to a village in Devon to meet up with a new friend.

Armella, is an American who lives in St Louis with her British husband. Over the last few years she has done an amazing renovation on a property that she and her husband inherited from family. After finding me through an Expat Blog site, she sent an email a few months ago and yesterday, I fastened my seatbelt and went for a little ride … alone.

It was actually pretty easy once I got underway. I did make a wrong turn at one point, but followed my intuition until I found my way to the pretty little village where Armella and I met for lunch at the White Hart Inn and Pub. I also had a chance to see the work she’s had done on the property during a tour of the rental house before her new tenant moves in a few days.

I didn’t take any photographs of the rental property as there was scaffolding blocking much of it with work being done to an outside wall, but I do have one or two of Cardinal Kiss Cottage named for a love of the St Louis Cardinals, and the three x’s on the outside wall that offer additional wall support. After one of her renovation folks referred to the x’s as kisses, she decided kiss should be part of the new name.

Armella will be back and forth from the US to the UK for a while as she isn’t quite ready to retire to Devon yet, but after spending only a short while with her I could tell it’s only a matter of time before she’ll be one of my more permanent neighbors.

Cardinal Kiss Cottage (See the Church to the right)

Notice the river that runs past the cottage, you’d never guess that CKC was an abattoir before it became a holiday home for Armella and her husband.

The upstairs window in the bedroom.

The amazing view from the window above.

St Bridget’s Church Bridestowe

Estrogen Overload

For part of last week and much of this one, my husband John found himself surrounded by a houseful of feminine energy. Did he shirk from it … not at all. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever seen him look as content as he did over the last week with both of his daughters and his granddaughter here for the Easter holiday. I snapped this photo quickly from a distance peeking over a bed of flowers while trying to hide behind the tree to the left. I wanted to catch the interaction without being observed, but John caught sight of me just as I clicked the shutter. I am not sure what was happening here, but I think John looks pleasantly overwhelmed by whatever the conversation was at the time.

This was the first time since our wedding that we were all together again and it was good to see them interacting without the stress of our wedding and first time meetings. While I had met his older daughter prior to the wedding, I did not have an opportunity to meet his younger daughter and granddaughter until a few days before.

I really enjoyed the chance to spend more time with them and to ask questions about their childhood to see what they remembered about their dad and the memories they shared growing up. It was interesting to be reminded how different a shared memory can be based on the individual experience.

Speaking of shared experience, our first visitor from America is coming over early next month … can you guess who it might be? Need a hint to narrow the field … our American visitor shares something in common with me besides estrogen.

Choosing Civility

Choosing Civility – If only wishing could make it so.

I wanted to say how much I appreciated the civil and compassionate comments exchanged here over the last few days on the subject of the recent health care reform vote in America. Looking at my stats from Monday, about 350 or so people stopped by to read, Life After Cancer – Now. Of those 350 people, 24 left a comment and several sent me private emails.

Reading them, I saw people with similar feelings and in some cases, similar experiences with the American health care system and insurance companies. While we did not all share the same opinions, the civil exchange of ideas helped buffer some of the animosity I keep seeing on American news.

While there is no way the American people will agree on every issue regarding health care reform, choosing civility when dealing with the difficult decisions ahead will go a long way in accomplishing something positive with lasting results. Sarah Fain had this to say over at her place on Monday. It’s short and sweet and links to a great article at the New York Times that outlines what this new law will mean to consumers..

If you have not had a chance to read through the comments from my post on Monday, I encourage you take a minute to see what others are saying. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts in the way you have around such an explosive topic.

Life After Cancer – Now

When I was 31, I went to a dermatologist for a reason I can’t remember now and during course of my visit, she took a close look at the moles that dotted my physical landscape. There was one in particular that looked a bit iffy to her and she said that it might be problematic in the future. Her suggesting to remove it to avoid an issue later was re-adjusted after discovering the limitations of my insurance coverage.

With a husband in a Ph.D program, we were lucky to have any coverage, even the bare bones policy he was able to get through the University. It did not cover mole removal that ” might ” be a problem in the future and as I was working a job that provided no health insurance and frankly not enough money to spare for the out of pocket costs involved in the procedure, I walked out of her office thinking I would just keep an eye on it.

Even though I was concerned, the pressures of a husband in graduate school, the needs of a young child, and the struggle involved in trying to pay for what was a very lean living, I looked at the mole a time or two and then forgot about the spot I had been warned to watch. Had it been in a more obvious place like my face, it would have been easier to see the future before it happened.

By 33, I was divorced and struggling to build a career in pharmaceutical sales while juggling parenting roles and the early beginnings of a social life as a single woman again. I was also unknowingly on the edge of something bigger than I had ever faced. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I felt a strange compulsion to check the mole I had not thought about for months. I was rushing around trying to get ready for the evening ahead and the next day with all of the places my daughter and I would need on be Christmas Day when I suddenly felt compelled to stop and look at the spot on my back.

After twisting myself into a position I where could see the shaded place on my shoulder in the bedroom mirror, I found that I needed more light to see it properly and went into the only bathroom in the house to try to get a clearer look. Standing on the toilet, I twisted myself once again so that I might see my reflection in the mirror of the old medicine chest on the wall.

I knew in the moment I saw it that I was looking at cancer. That’s a melanoma, I said to myself and wondered who I might call. No one was taking new patients that day and I could not be seen by a physician until a week into the new year. The doctor who saw me would not commit to a cancer diagnosis and seemed to take it off just to give me some peace of mind almost going so far as to suggest it was probably nothing.

I was standing in a phone booth in south Georgia a few days later when I got news. Having called the office to find out the results of the biopsy, the receptionist unknowingly gave me the results when she said, ” We don’t know yet, they’re checking it for levels.” I knew enough even then to know that if they were checking it for levels then it was not going to be good  In 1994, I had no cell phone or internet access and I even though I had known intuitively what I was seeing on the day I found it, her words scared me so I could not think clearly beyond asking the woman on the phone to please have the doctor call me as soon as possible. I was barely in my car before my pager went off and when I called the office, my doctor said, ” I don’t usually do this over the phone, but it is malignant and we should know what level we are looking at within about 24 hours.” I kept it together while we scheduled a office visit to discuss the results and she finished by saying we would talk when I came in about what our next steps would be.

All work for me stopped at that point even though I tried to go on with my next sales call. I left the office before seeing the doctor unable to stay focused on whatever drug I was there to discuss. During the two hour drive back to Marietta where I lived with my daughter, I worried the whole way about questions with no answers and stopped at the first library I came across on my way home. For the next hour or so I skimmed over the pages in the stack of books I had pulled  from the shelves trying to absorb as much information about melanoma as my distracted brain could take in. It wasn’t long before I began to consider that my  future might now be defined by terms like, ” five-year survival rates.”

My daughter was barely six and I was painfully aware while reading that there was a chance that I might not live long enough for her to remember me or to know how much I loved her. I carried those thoughts along the information from my visit to the library with me for the next day or so, stressed as you might expect until I met with my doctor who said something I remember now as, ” It is the best it can be, a Clark’s Level I.”

I had read enough to have a decent idea of what that meant, but even after she took more tissue from my back and the margins came back clear, I still lived in the shadow of a diagnosis that could have killed me if I had I not felt compelled to check the mole that day.

Additionally, there were occasions during my work history that I had to provide my own health coverage as my employer didn’t offer it or I was between positions. My premiums would start out high, but manageable and I would pay everything out of pocket while maintaining a painfully high deductible. Like many in the same position, I thought if I avoided making claims, my premiums might stay reasonable, but they still increased by obscene amounts every year.

Even while I was working for a major pharmaceutical company that had over 100,000 employees all with one particular insurance company, there was still no way that I could intimidate them into behaving with integrity. On one occasion, I tried to do battle the health insurance company to pay for an office visit that clearly fell with the parameters of coverage. They kept denying they had received the claims even though the office had filed it three times and I had filed the same information twice. Multiple phone calls later, including a conference call between the insurance company representative and someone from the doctor’s staff and myself, we both confronted the insurance employe, but got no results. In the end, the office then threatened to send my account to collections which forced me to have to pay the whole bill myself. I was never reimbursed for the office visit and their reason for not paying was that they maintained they had never received a claim. After wasting hours of my time, I gave up, which I ‘m sure is just what the insurance company hoped I would do.

Health insurance companies have held the American people hostage for far too long. Canceling the coverage of people who have struggled to pay crippling premiums for catastrophic coverage only to be told when they receive something like a cancer diagnosis, that they are not covered based on whatever obtuse bit of fabricated nonsense the insurer can cite. By the time the policy holder fights for what they paid for all those years, they’ve either lost everything they own or have died.

I myself was always afraid to admit to my doctor during visits that I’d had cancer. My oncology visits were paid for out of pocket so the paper trail for me was limited. After 10 years of being cancer free, some physicians assured me that I would not lose coverage and encouraged me to be open about it. There were times when I had to tell my doctors, but begged them not to include it in my medical records because I was afraid of being denied future coverage or having my premiums be raised so high that I could not afford healthcare insurance at all. Even without knowing my cancer history, during one of the last times I provided my own coverage, my rates increased so quickly after the first year that I was forced to raise my deductible to $5,000 in order to pay the premiums.

I don’t know what the future will hold with passage of health care reform, but I do know that is an embarrassment to me that so many Americans have responded in such vitriolic ways in the days leading up to the vote. I can only imagine what people will be saying later today as America wakes up. While it may not be a perfect solution, it will make it possible for hard working people to have access to health care coverage with stricter controls on the corrupt power that has been wielded too long by health insurance companies.

Taking the paragraph below from the British Times Online which is not noted for its liberal attitude, you can see how their observations confirm what many have experienced in the US.

” It will also outlaw the worst abuses for which the US health insurance industry has become notorious, including dropping coverage when patients become ill and discriminating against those with pre-existing medical conditions.”

Currently, I live in the UK with my British husband and have coverage under the NHS. So for the first time in my adult life since leaving the Army, I don’t have to worry about my own healthcare coverage. I do still have family in the US and I worry about them a great deal.

I have heard the comments of Americans who have been saying that they don’t want a medical system like the one in place in the UK. They cite negative conditions and situations that I have not experienced here. Quite the contrary, my every experience with the NHS, both personally and by observation involving the care given to family and neighbors has remarkable.

A few months ago during a visit home to America, I tried to share these truths with someone I had been friends with for 31 years. I told him in detail about my own experience with the NHS and what I had witnessed with others here. He argued with me each step of the way, going so far as to say, ” I know that’s what you believe happened, ” while refusing to acknowledge that there might be some benefit to having a similar healthcare model.

He couldn’t tell me what was in the healthcare reform proposal having not read it. All of his energy came from listening to the interpretations of talk radio hosts intent on keeping their listeners passions stirred up over a topic that most seemed disinterested in reading about themselves. His comment this morning on his Facebook page was just as I expected,

” Welcome to the new U.S.S.R.-United States Socialist Republic. “

I am actually surprised to see something so mild after the things he has said in the past.

I understand that many in America will not be happy this morning, but for me this is what life after cancer looks like now that one fear has been removed. Access to healthcare should be for all Americans and thanks to efforts of people who do more than shout about freedom, it now will be.