From Rural New York

Sandy Connors, USA

How good to be joining in again with a word or two from this winter wonderland the week before Christmas. It has been such a looked-forward-to pleasure each Sunday morning to keep up with everyone’s lives through the journal and through these long months of cautious living I continue to be amazed at the busy lives most people seem to have nonetheless while mine remains much the same, with very little going on in my own life here in this little house three hours north of New York City in a pretty rural area.  


Yesterday I woke to find two feet of beautiful white snow had fallen ~ a proper nor’easter! It took a good many hours for both my kind neighbor with plow and me with shovel and broom to uncover my car from the driveway which enabled me to drive to the post office in hope of finding some of the packages I had ordered on-line for Christmas gifts to send out to family and friends, only to find that our postmistress had not been able to get here and the post office with bundles of packages sitting in the vestibule, was closed ~ the first time in all the 25 years I have lived here that that has occurred. Parcels that had been ordered weeks and weeks ago still have not arrived because many of our postal workers are sick with Covid and unable to process the overwhelming numbers of items that people have had to buy online rather than go out Christmas shopping. It’s rather a mess but under the circumstances, understandable. 


Meanwhile, I have knitted up some lovely cabled fingerless mitts for a few of the men, baked cookies, done some decorating with foraged greens and a lovely bunch of old-fashioned variegated holly, while listening to a few very good books on Audible which I loved ~ ‘Hamnet’ and ‘House of Gold’ and, on the recommendation of Margaret, ‘Behind the Scenes’ by Kate Atkinson.  


The vaccine is beginning to be distributed here in the US and we are all so hopeful that it will stem the tide of this awful pandemic that has affected so many people throughout the world. But I still rather expect life to continue much the same for another year before we see real results.


Wishing everyone a Very Happy and Healthy Christmas and a better New Year to come! 


Snow falling, the house decorated with it’s Christmas Snow Fall, and some Holly


Mary’s Projects Mostly

Mary Hildyard, Totnes, Devon

Thursday was my mother’s birthday. Phyllis would have been 100 this year. On this birthday, as he has always done, my brother posted an email to his four sisters wishing mom a happy birthday. This lets us celebrate and remember together even though we are oceans apart. One of my sisters posted an additional email that brought memories flooding back.


My mother was very imaginative and creative. She was a great gardener and an excellent seamstress. We girls always went to Christmas parties in dresses she made for the four of us. When I was about 16 she made me a dark pink coat and pill box hat. I loved it and thought I looked like Jackie Kennedy. She taught me to sew. She made fabulous patchwork quilts. We each have a patchwork “cathedral window” to hang on a door at Christmas.


Phyllis was also quite eccentric. She didn’t generally like cooking but when the mood took her she would make dumplings or her own pasta - masses of it. We would arrive home from school to find the house festooned with fresh cut pasta strips. She made cinnamon rolls and she baked apple pies - sometimes a dozen pies all at once.


My mother was exasperating and entertaining in turns. My sister’s message made me wish for just such an epitaph.


She wrote:

Happy Birthday mom. You were unique... You created  beauty...

I loved your garden. I loved your quilts. I loved your laugh. I loved making you laugh.

Dad gave us stability. You gave us wacky. 

I am so grateful to have had you in my life.


Burlingham blog

Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK

As a young girl in the 1950s, we didn’t see most of our extended families over Christmas. Many lived too far away. Few people in my parent’s family could afford their own transport. Public transport was plentiful but journeys often took too long. Road networks were not conducive to speedy travel. The first motorway wasn’t constructed until 1958. Pre-Beeching, there was an extensive rail network. But, the biggest obstacle for many families, my father included, was the dearth of time off work over the festive season. Like many, my father had two days off work, Christmas Day and Boxing day. Statutory holidays were few and far between. Bank holidays had been introduced in nineteenth century but, by the 1950s, there were only four, all centred around religious events. Statutory provision for New Year’s Day did not come about until 1971. I can recall many a year slumped over my work-desk on New Year’s Day having imbibed far too much the night before. 


To get around not seeing relatives, people posted presents and cards. For me, one of the most exciting things about Christmas was the arrival of coaches, commissioned by the general post office, laden with parcels. All covered in brown paper and tied up with string. They filled every available space inside the coach from floor to ceiling. Oh, the anticipation of what might be inside. I am reminded of those coaches as I see lots of delivery vans in the streets. Drivers rummaging through the backs of the vehicles filled to the rooves with packages. To avoid going into shops, many people have ordered gifts online this year. Somehow, today’s vans don’t have quite the same thrill. Then again, I am no longer a young girl anticipating the arrival of Father Christmas.

Daughter-in-law, like the majority of educators, is exhausted. Every week colleagues are absent from work either because they have contracted the virus, or they have been in contact with someone with the virus, or they simply have nothing left to give. Timetables vary by the day, sometimes by the hour. Teachers say they cannot guarantee that the schedule they plan up to Sunday evening is the same one they will work on when they arrive at work on Monday morning. J is also responsible for students’ pastoral welfare and this has been an exceptionally challenging time. Many students continue to be badly affected by the continued changes in their lives since March. You cannot imagine how thrilled J is to learn, on the last day of term, that she will be working during the holidays to help set up a rapid test system in her school.  


So what does J and all the other staff at her school chose to do in their free time? Make a Christmas video for the students. It all has to be done covertly. All the staff, including all the non-teaching staff, have put together a festive video for the students. They have written music, sung songs, taken part in mini sketches, edited and generally made fun of themselves. The video will be presented to the students on the last day of term. Having sneaked a preview, I think they are really going to enjoy it.


Since R died last year, Christmases are difficult. R loved Christmas. He spent most of the time resembling a seven year old. It was a joy to be part of the excitement. So, for me, the festive season was always going to be a fraught time. My natural instinct is to surround myself with friends and family. But, some weeks ago, many of us read the runes and concluded that socialising over Christmas was positively the last thing we should do. We started planning much smaller Christmases. Even solo Christmases. Meanwhile the government vacillates. It sets some Christmas rules. Then, this week, it sets guidelines which contradict its rules. Unable to make a clear decision, our government decides the best course of action is to pass responsibility to the public. So, it urges people to exercise extreme caution. Neat.


Thin Air

John Mole, St Albans



If in the dumps

start climbing out of them


as it may prove less steep

than you feared.


If doors are closed

then join the queue


as they may open

sooner than you think.


If loneliness arrives

accept the silence


as its company

may be yours to keep.


If time hangs heavily

absorb its weight


as it may move on

when your spirits lift.


Strange times

Anna Stenborg, Uppsala, Sweden

This week was stressful. I have had responsibility for 3 intermediary care patients as well as part responsibility for 20-25 outsourced patients: medical patients placed in surgery wards, neurology wards and such. Due to covid-19 one of our two wards has been converted to a covid-19 ward and we staff it so it is not possible for us to care for all of the outsourced patients. Instead physicians on those other wards (very unwillingly) take care also of these medical patients and one of us is available for assistance. The only exception is the gynaecology ward: we have to be fully involved with medical patients there.


So I have had many phone calls all day long, and when I needed to see an outsourced patient, I had to go far on my kick bike in the long corridors to the far away parts of the hospital. Several really interesting patients though. For example, we had 30-year old man from South Korea on the ward who could not stand up due to leg weakness. Blood samples showed severely low potassium (1,6 mmol/L) which soon normalized with potassium supplementation. Investigation showed overproduction of thyroid hormone as the underlying cause of episodic hypokalemia and weakness. This type of hypokalemia induced weakness is rare and it is mostly patients of Asian origin who get this complication from the thyroid illness.


Thoughts from the Suffolk coast

Harris G, Suffolk

Nearly a week since the arrival of our new ‘bundle of joy’ - in the form of a rescue dog! We have named her Lucy and already she has captured our hearts. She has learned to “sit” and sometimes will “stay” and mostly responds when her name is called. She’s very thin and fleet on her feet and looks so long and leggy next to our Jack Russell (who has Queen Anne legs and barrel like body). She’s so full of life and fun and wants to play all the day. Then she sleeps - that beautiful sleep where everything seems at peace and safe and happy. I know it’s said that photos of other people’s pets are boring but I will attach a couple of photos - please forgive me for gloating.


Aside from this, not a lot to report. The weather is mild here right now so it is good for the daily exercise. We have avoided the TV news and newspapers but understand that Suffolk remains in tier two of Boris’ infection control ‘care plan’ - with tight restrictions on most social activities. How long we will stay in this tier - who knows? Will we all be forced to return to some type of lockdown in the new year - who knows? Perhaps we have seen the worst of it - or is there more to come? Who knows? 


Uncertainty. Living in a state of precarity. That is about the sum of it I guess. We continue. We hope. We busy ourselves. I’ve had a couple of short trips to the shops for food and once to a garden centre. These trips have become highlights in a now largely pedestrian existence. We await the effect/impact of the vaccines and continued reductions in social contact. Of course it’s wrong to think that we were in utopia before the virus but I miss freedom. The freedom not just to hug or shake hands with people but to sit and feel safe talking, to stand beside someone and say hello, to enter a shop without donning a mask and rubbing hand gel into my already overly sanitized hands.

Hey ho! We keep going. Our preparations for a minimal Christmas have included buying a pot grown tree which we will plant in the garden in the new year. We won’t decorate it for a while yet so it stays outside to give it a better chance of survival when we do plant it. We have had quite a few Christmas cards and most are accompanied by a letter. Always interesting to read other people’s news and views about what is happening in the world. A couple we know are expecting to become grandparents before the new year. They are already saying how they feel cheated of the “usual trappings” of grandparenthood.


I’m being called away now. Well, not called. A long slender paw is tapping my knee. Come play ball. Let’s go outside. Let’s go for a run! I’ll leave on that note but until next time, take care and stay well and safe x


PS have been reading the Louis MacNeice poem ‘Prayer Before Birth’ so I’ll copy just a few lines...


I am not yet born; O hear me.

Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the

club-footed ghoul come near me.


I am not yet born, console me.

I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,

with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,

on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 


I am not yet born; O fill me

With strength against those who would freeze my

humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,

would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with

one face, a thing, and against all those

who would dissipate my entirety, would

blow me like thistledown hither and

thither or hither and thither

like water held in the

hands would spill me.


Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.

Otherwise kill me.



View from the Top of the Hill

Linzy Lyne, Pateley Bridge

Our packs of Christmas cards arrived last Saturday and were all written and posted by Tuesday, which is something of a record. I actually wrote longer messages than usual, perhaps that's down to being starved of conversation all year. Hopefully as they were posted three days before the last posting date they may arrive in time. New Year's resolution? Buy cards in November. One delivery of presents is outstanding, three gifts from the Robert Fuller Gallery in Thixendale. Lovers of art and wildlife should have a look at his work if you haven't seen it before. (robertefuller.com). A Fed Ex van arrived in the dark the other night, having followed his sat nav up a track which leads to the moors. Luckily he found somewhere to turn round as the track ends in a bog over the hill. He couldn't phone for directions as Amazon had inexplicably changed the number on my order to our old number, now out of service. I was relieved to see him as he brought my daughter's present which had travelled from China in less time than some mail from Yorkshire!


My book customers have been contacting me wanting to know why their books haven't arrived after two weeks. Two arrived the day after they enquired about them but one is still on its way. I can only make reassuring noises and cross my fingers, the tracking services are hopeless. I have spent many fruitless hours on the Hermes tracking page talking to a machine called Holly (unfortunately also my daughter's name) who can only tell you what you have already read on the tracking. I ended up calling her (it) a robot. Accurate but perhaps unfair. They shouldn't give them names, some people might be fooled into thinking they're talking to a real person.


The chicken netting has gone up around the barn, so hopefully the hens are now safe from bird flu. One of them has thanked us by suddenly producing an egg a day for three days after a long break.


Still no result in the Brexit talks and there's a new deadline for this Sunday. Michel Barnier says there are only a few hours left. I think they are arguing about how long they will retain the existing fishing agreements. I finally got round to reading up on the regulations on the government website and found I need an export code to send goods to Europe. Guess what, the simple two minute process didn't work and we've had to open a ticket on the website! Not so simple after all. Meanwhile poor M. Macron has gone down with the virus, having recently hugged half the leaders in Europe. He was described on the news as “tactile”. Oh dear. Anyway, he's apparently still “running the country” so that's all right. It may have passed you by that the first current world leader to die after testing positive for the virus was Ambrose Dlamini, the Prime Minister of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), who died earlier this week.


In the news today I saw that 1,000 vehicles have been stuck for two days in a 10 mile traffic jam in heavy snow in Japan. They are being dug out one at a time and the occupants provided with food and blankets. Also heavy snow on the East Coast in the USA. Here it's just rain and more rain, so there will be floods in Wales, where they have another lockdown to look forward to from Boxing Day. What a year. A little item has appeared on the BBC, “Quiz for 2020, question one, Can you even remember January”? Good question, no I can't.


The government have managed to bring in another last minute disruption to schools. Having just threatened some in Greenwich with prosecution if they closed early for Christmas to keep pupils safe, they are now ordering secondary schools to open in the New Year on a staggered basis to allow for mass testing. So the poor teachers and heads are going to have to spend their holiday organizing online learning and testing. They must be longing for “normal” carol concerts and nativities.


Message for Marli Rose and Franklin, have a lovely birthday Marli Rose and I hope Christmas will be wonderful for you both. I wish your Granny Aye and Pappa every blessing for their health and happiness. I know you will miss seeing one another but let's hope you will get together again soon.


Wishing all here peace and joy for Christmas and an abundance of health and happiness in 2021.


Greetings from the far south

Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa

The schools closed on 11 December and we picked up Gracey and Masana’s reports and instructions and bumf — ads about online learning — to do with next year. They’ve both got through to their next grades, something that was not a foregone conclusion. 


The lockdown learning they’d endured since March had not always gone smoothly. I’d often had my hands full with my freelance work and had not kept them up to date with the assignments the school had whatsapped every few weeks. Masana (7) tended to manage better, was able to concentrate. Gracey (12) had a tougher time, not that she really seemed to mind. She just didn’t want to do anything except watch tiktok, and drifted around in a world of her own.


But the end of the school year and start of the “holiday” have not come with any sense of winding down. At first it felt as if it would. In November, the spread of corona infections seemed to be declining, and people were looking forward to the summer break, Christmas and saying goodbye to all that to 2020. 


But that’s not how things are panning out. The spread of infections has increased massively, at first in a few hotspots but now in many parts of the country. A few weeks ago there were reports of about 2,000 new cases a day. There are now about 10,000. New lockdown measures have been introduced. People are being urged to stay at home, avoid family gatherings, stay away from mass events. Booze sales are being restricted. Holiday venues, parks, swimming pools and beaches are closed. No summer fun.


So we’re stuck at home and that sense of leisurely winding down has been put on hold. The “second wave”, which has been blighting Europe and elsewhere for longer, has properly arrived here in the far south - due, it seems, to everyone giving up on all the safety precautions urged on us during the “first wave”.


Schools were meant to return at the end of January, according to the schedule drawn up a few months ago. But I wonder if that will happen. If things get a lot worse, it’s likely the school calendar will be redone and our kids will be stuck at home for longer. We’re not going to get any of the vaccines that are now being rolled out in some countries widely available in SA until well into the second half of 2021. So we just have to sit tight.


That said, the kids, and their older sister, Leago, who visits us from time to time and is with us now say this has been the best year ever. They say they don’t ever want to go back to school. They love being at home, having me wait on them, hardly having to do any demanding school work. When I moan that I just wish they could get back to normal school life, I get a chorus of nooooooooos.


I complain, but we’ve had some great times together this year. We’ve been far luckier than so many families here and abroad. With our noses pressed up against the windowpanes we look out at a world seemingly falling apart. Some of that has rubbed off on our lives indoors, but we’ve really had nothing to complain about.


The other thing that’s been great about this year is to be able to write for this lovely journal, to be, even obliquely, in touch with Peter, my English teacher of long ago, and Margaret - all thanks to Kate.


Staying home

Nicky, Vermont, USA

Yesterday, finally, it snowed.  About five inches. The 10x magnifying glass I’d bought with a light in it came in handy. My project? To identify snowflakes. I knew, everyone knows, probably, that snowflakes are distinct from each other, but what I didn’t know is that one can identify snowflakes and their shapes tell stories about where they come from, the temperatures in the clouds, the moisture, all kinds of information, not to mention beauty. So I was outside in the quite cold weather, minus 17 give or take Centigrade, catching snowflakes on a piece of black paper then peering closely at them through my magnifying glass. They were like elongated diamonds… I don’t know the official word for them because my Guidebook To Snowflakes hasn’t arrived yet… but they were tiny and distinct, indicating, guess what, cold dry weather. It was thrilling though.


Then I walked the dog down the driveway, slogging through the snow thinking about pretending it was sand and I was at the beach, but that was heavy going, both the the fantasy and the walking, so I decided not to walk him far. Just far enough. We headed through some woods following the trail of the dreaded (but long returned to their cozy house) neighbours’ dogs, and walked a loop long enough to make me contemplate how out of shape I am, and then headed home. But there are the bottom of our driveway was Lloyd in his truck with the plow on front, so the dog and I walked quite a bit further waiting for Lloyd to sort out the driveway. Lots of snow and exercise. And it all felt good.


The virus case load seems to be going down in our county which was a very worrying hot spot for a few weeks, and also holding steady in the state. It seems most people listened and did not travel and visit family for Thanksgiving and so we aren’t having a post Thanksgiving surge and I feel slightly more comfortable going to the grocery store.   But the country as a whole is a disaster. I am so thankful that enough people came to there senses that Trump will no longer be in power, not that I have any illusions that he will actually go away.  


I do wonder about Boris Johnson’s idea that he will suspend social distancing over Christmas. It seems like a precise formula for increasing the cases of the virus. Perhaps he knows something that the doctors and researchers don’t know.   

In the meantime our friend Sam who designed and built our house and moved our caravan and is one of our most favorite people in the world injured his shoulder a few years ago so had to take several months off work. With all that free time he wrote a fantastic detective novel, The Inland Sea (by Sam Clark) (shameless plug here) set on Lake Champlain in Vermont. (He’s an enthusiastic boater.). Anyway, yesterday he was interviewed on the television for about five minutes, the major news story after the snow. We watched and called him to congratulate him. He’s usually diffident but he wasn’t shy at all on the screen. Today I pick up four copies to mail to friends I think will enjoy it. 

That’s it for this week. I thought I didn’t have anything to say but…