Monday, April 30, 2012

A Noble People Ignobly Held

I have been watching the author and journalist, Blaine Harden, talk about Escape from Camp 14,  one man's odyssey from North Korea to the West on  C-SPAN. This is one of the most horrifying, yet fascinating interviews I have ever heard. The book is about the escape of a 23 year old North Korean, named Shin, from the prison camp where he was born. The details of his life in that camp were chilling. He barely knew his parents, who were rewarded with being allowed to be together as prisoners in the camp and so he was born. The book is the story of his life in the camp and his eventual escape, which was quite horrifying and 'lucky' at the same time. Until a few months before his attempt, he learned about the outside world and what induced him to escape was hearing that in the world outside, in China, people could eat all the food that they wanted.

At the age of 13 he was viciously tortured by guards after had obeyed the rules and told them of the plans he had overheard his mother and brother make to escape. Later he was taken to watch them both executed. Execution was the only time people in the camp gathered in crowds, there were thousands of them. The camp was/is surrounded by barbed wire and electric voltage that is meant to kill you if you so much as touch it. He met a man, Park, who he was supposed to be spying on, who had seen the world and given him the word that there was another world and another way to live. Shin had no idea that the world was even round or that there was even a South Korea or a United States. But he was smart and he was cunning.

Two months after hearing about plentiful food on the outside he convinced his 'teacher' to try to escape with him. They ran to the fence and when the Park was trying to get through the wire  he inadvertently touched it and was killed. He fell on the wire and Shin crawled over his body to the outside world and freedom, managing to burn his legs badly as he went. He still had 300 miles before he could get to the Chinese borders, but that was the 'easy' part of the story.

It took the author many months before he was able to convince Shin, who by that time was in South Korea, to agree to tell the story. This is the first time that anyone is known to have successfully escaped from this prison camp and there were many groups that thought it was important that his story be told. Part of the agreement for telling his story is that he will receive 50% of the money the book makes. Shin, who is 29, the same age as my youngest son, has been taken in by another Korean family and is now living in the United States. He has learned not to be so wary of people as he was, but still has language limitations and is also working through emotional problems as a result of observing 'normal' family life in his new world. I plan to buy a copy of the book.

My dear daughter-in-law is South Korean. Her father escaped from the north and made a completely new life for himself in the South. She told me that when her father escaped he left behind a wife and several children. He would never know what happened to them or their children. But it is known that it was normal punishment for families of escapees to end up in this prison camp. It all makes me feel incredibly sad for this dark hole in the world and the people trapped inside.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Love among the Limits

I have been having a lovely visit with my Mom. She has in the last year become much more frail and this is sometimes difficult for me to observe and 'allow'. There is nothing that can be done to make her physically stronger. It has been many many years since she had any kind of physical exercise -- such as climbing stairs or walking down the street unaided. The reason for this is common to many people not only here in the U.S., but anywhere where the automobile has taken over our lives. Since I have  been here most of my exercise has been walking to and from the car. While it would be 'possible' to walk the mile or two to the grocery store, it would mean walking along a very busy highway that has no footpath. No thank you!

There is the difficulty of dealing with Mom's faltering short-term memory. The office here telephoned this morning to remind her that she needed to sign her new lease. I thought she had taken care of that a few days after I arrived. In fact, she had signed the wrong document and when I got back to her apartment I quickly found what they were looking for and she has signed it. That was about 90 minutes ago. Since then she has said to me, "I've signed that lease, haven't I?"

Until now she has taken care of her day to day expenses as well as paying her rent and signing her lease. But I realize that my siblings are going to have to be apprised of the situation and one of them, probably my brother, is going to have to take charge of over-seeing more of her finances.

Then there is the problem of her ankles -- especially her right ankle. For years and years she wouldn't 'bother' the doctor with it and now it's a mess and every morning at 5.30 or 6.00 an aid comes in and puts these pressure stockings on her, which are removed in the evening. She is supposed to keep her feet elevated as much as possible -- which she does -- when I remind her! And there are other issues. I dare not take her anywhere in the car where I do not have a 'pit' stop within a reasonable distance.

The most important thing for me to keep in mind that I am here to be with her and cater to her. So if plans go awry because we need to get back home that's O.K. We have been able to get out and about and we have had some very nice weather as well. We take what we can get and if she gets upset because she thinks she's let me down, it is easy to reassure her that my visit is all about her. In fact I have been able to do almost everything I'd hoped despite delays of a day or two.

Despite all her confusions and physical limitations, I am so fortunate to have a mother who is never quarrelsome, loves people, and adores her children. She still remembers most things and is happy where she is living and still wants to be fashionable and remembers to wear her 'lippy'! And on top of all that, her politics are just as left wing as mine!!! ;-)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Citizen Me: You Never Know

After we lost the house we had set our hearts on, it was difficult for me to find the heart to look for another place. I made it a point not to walk past the house -- especially on my way to pick up little Andrew from school. Occasionally I would glance through the papers to see if anything looked tempting and we did look at a  couple of places in the same neighbourhood. Nothing was quite right.

In the Spring of 1986 The Man put the house we owned in Norfolk on the market, but at that time the market was rather slow and the offers we had were derisive so they were turned down. At the same time I made myself walk down a street where I could see over the wall of the garden and the rear of the house that I had so wanted. Doing so pained me, but at the same time it was like a ghost had been lain to rest and I could get on with my life.

One day in September I met up with a woman, who like me, was going to school to pick up her little boy. She was terrible excited because she and her husband had just exchanged contracts on a house of their dreams. It was a house that they had hoped to buy and that had been sold out from under them and so they had found another. When the house was suddenly up for sale again, they were able to get it. I told her that I wish that would happen to me and told her the saga of our 'lost' house.

The very next day, I met up with her again and she said to me, "You know that house you told me about -- it's got a 'For Sale' sign up"! How amazing was that?

Sure enough, when I walked past the front of the house not twenty minutes later, there was indeed a 'For Sale' sign there for the world to see! When I called The Man with the news, he said "I think we are meant to have that house!"

The next day The Man knocked on the door, the owner remembered him, and the next day we went to view the place. They had done a lot of work on the house. First of all the problem of rot under the shower had been fixed. Upstairs there was now an en suite bathroom off the master bedroom and a new family bathroom. The upstairs had been carpeted and re-painted and what had been an elaborate bathroom downstairs had been made into a smaller shower room and utility room. In addition the back door was re-opened and the stairs leading down to the garden had been rebuilt.

The following day we made an offer and it was accepted. While the price had gone up, it was no more than the cost of the work they had put into it. When we got home from our offer being accepted, the dear ladies who were looking after our boys, told us we had had a phone call. We had had a new offer on our house in Norfolk -- and it was  one we were very happy to accept!

We moved into the house one week before Thanksgiving 1986 -- and what a celebration it was! We have lived there ever since.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Citizen Me: I Believe in Angels

When I think back to the disappointment at the 'perfect' house being sold out from under us, I realize that it was a kind of quiet shock. There was no use flailing about being upset -- it was a quiet pain that needed to wear itself out.

In the meantime, life went on. We looked through the papers from time to time, but nothing interested us. So we decided to expand our living quarters! When we first designed the flat we took out the staircase that connected the basement to the rest of the house. After careful consideration we decided to put a staircase from the bedroom in the basement to the large room above. This change meant that our original one-bedroom apartment became a very large 3 bedroom apartment. In addition we installed central heating throughout the entire flat. What had been our bedroom became a very large dining room and the dining area off the living room was an ideal study.

There were two 'interesting' moments in the expansion saga. Although The Man had considered building the staircase himself, I insisted he have the builder give us an estimate for doing the work for us. This was a smart move as I am sure The Man, as talented as he is, could have done it in the two or three days it took the builder and his men. However, putting a staircase in an old house can be problematic, as I was to discover. On the third day or so the men came in to finish off the work around the edges. That afternoon, a few hours after they left, I smelt the strong odour of gas! I realized it was getting stronger by the minute and with The Man in London rushed to the phone to call our builder.

In all the times I have ever called Eric, our builder, I have always had to leave a message and he would call back. This time he actually answered the phone -- never before and never since! Within 20 minutes his plumber was at the door. And I got a very very valuable lesson -- he taught me how to turn the gas off! The gas leak had been caused by one of the lads finishing up the wood work around the hole in the ceiling. He hd put a nail through a gas pipe hidden in the ceiling!

The plumber's lesson was to be very important. This same  plumber installed a new gas fire in our 'new' bedroom. At about 7.00 in the morning I was lying in bed about to get up to get the boys ready for school. Suddenly there was a loud bang and a huge plume of gas was shooting up into the room out of control! I tore out of bed, flew downstairs to the cupboard and turned off the gas I'd only just a few weeks before learned to do! The gas pipe to the heater had not been properly sealed...

Made me believe in angels, I can tell you! The year is 1986, a year of surprises!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Citizen Me: House Hunting

The renovation project was more or less complete by the end of 1984. Living there was always considered temporary and practical. There was a great deal of work that The Man wanted to do to the property and it was much easier to do this by living on site. However, it was not ideal for all of us and we often found ourselves checking out the property market in the hopes of finding something that would suit us and be within our budget.

I found a house that seemed to be ideal for us. It was in the next block and was described as a town centre detached Victorian house. The photograph looked promising. I walked passed the house on the way to pick up son Andrew from school and to me it looked perfect.  The Man and I talked it over and we made an appointment to view.

I fell in love with the house as soon as I walked in the door. In the kitchen was a bay window looking out over the garden the apple trees were in bloom and the original brick garden wall was still standing. I was enchanted!

The house had been divided into two apartments. Upstairs had been converted into a place for the owner's two aunts, but no one had lived there for some time. On the half-landing was the owner's art studio. But it would not be too difficult to return the house to its original state as a family home. The Man had a surveyor look the property over and the findings were problematic. There was rot in the beams under the shower room on the ground floor.

However, the problem was not so extensive that it was beyond acceptable. We made an offer and the sale was agreed. The following week I was to make my first trip to the States in 5 years. The Man explained that we would be away for 3 weeks to the vendor and he assured us that it was not a problem. I was able to take lots of photographs for the benefit of my family when I saw them. I will always remember the look on my sister's face when I showed her the pictures.  She said, "Oh, Sis, you really deserve this"! She and her husband had  visited us the previous Fall of 1984.

The day after our return to the UK, The Man went to see the owner to finalize the process.

When he returned home he was crestfallen... Imagine his surprise when he rang the doorbell and a complete stranger opened the door. He explained to The Man that he was the new owner! In the three weeks we had been away these people had bought the house and moved in! We were too shocked to even be upset! I still don't quite understand how the change-over was able to happen so fast. I suspect we may have been used to 'hedge their bets'. We had even informed the Estate Agents that we had made an offer and that it had been accepted, but we received not one word from them to indicate that the house had been sold or was even under offer.

It was going to take me a long time to get over my disappointment. But then life has a way of coming up trumps -- just when you least expect it!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Birthdays, Travels, Gagging

Happy Birthday, Mom!
Well, I've been here now for a few days and travel-wise I'm reasonably, but not completely jet-lag free!

First things first! Above is yesterday's Birthday Girl opening her cards. Our plans for a leisurely drive have been delayed as she was a tiny bit under the weather so we stayed close to home. Friday mornings the dining room here has pancakes on the breakfast menu and Mom has regular guests come to join her. So yesterday being her birthday the 'regulars' showed up and we had a bit of an occasion. Later in the day my brother joined us for dinner. Of course there were lots of phone calls from home and abroad and a lovely bunch of flowers, too.

My trip went as well as any can. Both flights lifted of the ground bang on time and both flights arrived early -- the first 30 minutes and the second 20 minutes before it was due. As I entered the baggage area not only my brother, but my luggage were waiting for me. So no complaints on the travel front -- so far...

It is important for me to remember not to make to many plans and not to make any plans that are definite. My mother tires quickly -- more quickly that she expects, especially when she is feeling well and fit. So the best thing I can do is 'live flexibly'! Today she is feeling 'itchy', meaning she wants to 'do' something! So in just over an  hour we will set off for the neighbouring New York state town of Millerton to meet our friend Sabine for lunch at Four Brothers. That chain of pizza restaurants has many happy memories for our family -- it was a favourite of both my grandmother and my father. One of my mother's favourite memories is many years ago in 1985 on my first visit to the States after 5 years in the UK and it's about The Man!

There we all were: my father, mother, grandmother, my brother and sister-in-law, my nephew,The Man, the two little boys aged two and four seated around a large table. Drinks were served -- soft drinks for the boys and glasses of red wine with a litre pitcher in the middle of the tale and a large pepperoni pizza had just been placed in the middle of the table. The little boys were trying to drink their drinks and The Man was admonishing them not to spill them and to be more careful than it seemed to him they were being. Suddenly he stood up and reached over to move the glass out of the way of their elbows and in so doing managed to himself knock over -- no, not the glass, no he managed to knock over the litre of red wine!

The rest of us dissolved into peals of laughter... The Man spluttered red-faced ...

So here I am -- the television commentary in the background has been largely political and left-leaning cause that's where my family is coming from. The topic on the airwaves for the moment is about women who stay at home to look after their kids and women who have kids and work. It's a result of a comment made by a left-leaning political commentator, Hilary Rosen who has caused a national kerfuffle in response to a Romney remark about what his wife had to say to him about women's concerns about the economy. As Astrid so appropriately said in a comment on a recent post: "Gag me with a spoon"!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mixed Bag

Finally! The packing is all but done. Tomorrow I'm flying to New England by way of Philadelphia! I always get myself into a kind of 'tizzy' -- worrying about the weather -- last year when I was Canaan, Connecticut was very cold. It would seem that this year it's about normal (whatever that is!). But I did see snow in the forecast for yesterday, so I'm taking my winter shoes. I've also packed a pair of sandals -- just in case! Anyway, I've more or less been driving myself crazy deciding what to take and not take.

At 11 a.m. sharp I logged on to the U.S. Air website and checked in and printed out my boarding passes. I also splurged and booked a 'choice' seat -- I really should try and discover why it is considered 'choice'. I have this great hope that it means I will have a bit more leg room. I've also decided to take my laptop, which is a bit heavy, but it is something to occupy my time when Mom is napping or watching 'her programs'. Her programs in particular are 'Jeopardy' and 'Wheel of Fortune'! I can not believe how long these shows have been on the air in America. With the same hosts. We are talking decades here...

The downside of going to America this year is that it's a Presidential election year. People outside of the United States can not appreciate how dreadful the onslaught is. The ad campaigns have already begun even before one of the candidates has been officially decided. The UK has a very good way of dealing with major elections. First of all no one can be quite sure when the next one will be -- though the present government has promised 5 years, which is the maximum period a government can sit. But what I like the most is the way Party Political Broadcasts work on television. Usually, it's at the evening news is cut short by 5 minutes. Maybe the next night it will be on behalf of another party.
While political advertising is banned, the Communications Act does require Channels 3, 4 and 5, and national analogue radio stations, to give airtime to political parties in the form of Party Political and Party Election Broadcasts. Under Ofcom rules, airtime is allocated to the major parties in each of the UK nations, and to other parties according to factors including how many seats they are contesting. The BBC carries PPBs and PEBs on a similar basis. Broadcasts are also awarded to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ organisations at the time of referendums.
And even if you turn the television off in the States, there is no respite. No siree Bob! As you try to prepare dinner and while you are trying to eat, the telephone starts to ring! And if you are silly enough to answer, it's not even a person on the other end of the line -- it's a recording and it's not a short recording either ... I was actually living in the States for the year 2008 -- it was horrendous. Oh, well, it's only April, I expect it will be bad, but not dire...

Finally, The Man has earned himself at least 5 gold stars on my behalf! As you know, I've been writing a series of blogs of the events leading up to my decision to become a UK citizen. One of the stumbling blocks for me has been the 'qualifying time'. My research on the Home Office website showed that even though I had lived in the UK for most of the last 30 years, I did not meet the requirements regarding the last three years.

The first rule is that on the date that the Home Office receives my application I must have been in the UK on that date 3 years before. In addition, during that 3 year period I cannot have been out of the country for more than 270 days. In addition, during the year immediately preceding my application I must not have been out of the country more than 90 days. These requirements have been problematic for me because of being in France for the summer and trips to the United States to see my mother. I even wrote to the Home Office explaining my situation, but the letter I got back indicated that there were no exceptions.

The Man, however, was not satisfied with this. And without saying anything he went to the website and found 'Exceptions'! So it would seem that the fact that I 'have established my home, family and a substantial of my estate here' will allow a great enough relaxation of the qualifying period for me to be able to make my application probably in October! And go to  France for a longer than expected period this summer (the icing on the cake!)

More from Stateside!

Friday, April 06, 2012

Stabat Mater Dolorosa ...

For those who find yourself in a meditative mood this Good Friday, I would like to share with you the opening sequence of Rossini's Stabat Mater. It is one of my favourite pieces of music and I try to listen to it every Good Friday.

Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa,
Dum pendebat filius.  
 At the Cross her station weeping
 Stood the mournful Mother, weeping
 Close to her son at the last

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Sacred Space

With Easter nearly upon us, spiritual matters are on my mind more than usual. Easter is a time to re-evaluate my commitment to my faith and to reflect upon what I believe and so on. For me faith is the moral grounding that keeps me on the straight and narrow.

As part of my Lenten discipline (I use the word 'discipline' rather loosely) I attended two lectures (out of 5) on a couple of Wednesday evening evensong services. The topic of the first one I attended was 'We Love the Place O God: Sacred Space and Worship'. Which set me to thinking about places I have found to have the air of holiness about them; places where I would meditate or pray or do both.

Many people find special places in nature important for this kind of reflection rather than churches,which often are found my many to be cold and uninspiring.  For me, I often find that 'holy' places come unexpectedly -- it can be a cathedral or a seat beside a window in the shade of an oak tree. I have also been surprised by some of the places I might have expected to have a sense of holiness, but which in fact have left me cold...

The first place I felt a spiritual connection to was across the street from the house my parents bought in Connecticut in 1955, when I was 10. The land was and still is very wooded and belongs to the State. Our house was on a hill that lead up to Burr Pond State Park and across the street from our house was a waterfall, in fact two waterfalls, one above the other, which thundered down through the forest and could be heard from the house. The lower falls had been man made and could be very easily accessed from the road -- it was maybe 100 yards walk. I could sit on the edge of the waterfall where a pool formed just before the water fell and on the hottest summer days it would be cool under the trees that surrounded it. Whether I was troubled or happy that was the place I would head. In the picture on the left are the two little boys sitting on the very spot on the ledge of the lower falls to the left of them. Was I worried -- indeed! In the winter the pool and the waterfall would freeze and I sometimes skated there surrounded by snow and barren trees. As a young woman in the 60's I would spend hours there with my guitar contemplating how to save the world. It was for me a holy place.

The Lady Chapel of my church in Southport is another spiritual refuge for me. It is small and exquisitely built, with a vaulted ceiling and outside it is supported by flying butresses! Artistically it is a gem, but while artistry can add to the allure of a place, in my experience, it is not why a place has that special aura that leads to that special connection of all that is holy. All I know for sure is that for me this small chapel brings an inner peace and spiritual refreshment.

Other places that bring me this sense of renewal and peace include, Durham Cathedral, Clodock Church in the Parish of Hereford, the view across the gate of our house in France (below), the Oregon Coast, and Chartres Cathedral.

Do you have particular places that bring you a sense of renewal and inner peace?