By Susan E. L. Lake ©2019

1. Norway is dark and cold in the winter. While summer months are “advertised” as the Land of the Midnight Sun, the winter months must declare Norway as the Land of No Sun. The two or three hours a day of “sun” are actually just a lightening of the sky. No sun is visible. And by midafternoon, it is pitch black dark. This makes daytime excursions quite interesting since it feels like 3:30 pm is the middle of the night and the body keeps saying “why aren’t you asleep?”.

2. Photographing in a land with no sun makes for an interesting low light challenge. My images are reflective of our experience, but they aren’t sharp. Often I’m shooting while moving (as in a bus) and the camera is hard pressed to manage an image under these circumstances. I came to expect and accept very “soft” photographs without the sharp edges that I might usually anticipate. As a result, the canvas I had printed as a reminder of our visit is not what I usually hang.

3. The northern lights (AKA aurora borealis) are generally visible well after 10 pm. That means after one is tucked away in bed, the announcement will come over the television that a sighting has been made. You learn to leave your toasty warm clothes sitting out ready for you to redress quickly as you attempt to catch the sight. You’d think if it’s midnight dark at 4 pm that the lights could cooperate by being visible during non-sleep hours. Nope.

4. We’ve all seen those extraordinary photographs of green and blue swaths of light across the sky. While someone far from ambient light perched on a lonely hilltop might see this, the human eye isn’t really good at it. Since the places most people go have lots of light, what you see is just a pale shadow of the expected glory – more like a light greenish vapor trail. I have to admit that if we hadn’t had folks to instruct us in what to look for I might not have seen it. Gene was better than I at spotting them and as a result he got the best images. What is most surprising is that the camera sees what you don’t. So while this image is full of color, this is NOT what our eyes saw until we looked at the photograph.

5. Taking photographs of the aurora borealis is a challenge. First it’s a low light environment, second the lights are moving, and third they are hard to see. Those folks who brought big cameras with tripods sometimes got nice shots, and I wished for a camera that would give me better control than my point and shoot. Ironically, there’s an app for the phone (called not surprisingly northern lights photo taker – 99¢) that is designed to help you use your camera phone to capture them. It turned out to be our best choice. You won’t get frameable prints from the images, but you at least can prove your bragging rights of having seen them.

6. One of the outcomes of the trip was that I learned so much about the movement and measurement of the lights. That alone was worth the trip. Once again, there’s a phone app (we bought My Aurora Forecast Pro for $1.99) that tracks the lights and notifies you when they are in your vicinity. It’s particularly nice because it also works on my Apple watch. It was fascinating to discover how the results of the magnetic storms that produce the lights move from one part of the world to another each day. I will need to spend some serious time learning more about this, but now I have great points of reference.

We learned to pay attention to the Kp index which measures the aurora strength. It goes from 0 to 9 (0 being very weak, 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras visible).

We learned to look at the aurora map to see where the green or orange swath was. That gave us a good idea of our chances. Of course, that map didn’t include barriers everyone faces such as ambient light, clouds, and a full moon. I’m still getting alerts on my phone telling me that a viewing is possible within the hour in Tromsø, Norway that I haven’t had the heart to turn off.

7. Would I do it again? Yes, but I wouldn’t go to Norway. I would instead schedule a late winter (February-March) trip to Fairbanks (perhaps going to Coldfoot) during a date when the moon is least full. I’d figure on a week’s stay and take my “big” camera and tripod. I still probably wouldn’t get extraordinary photographs, but I’d have a better chance than on a cruise ship which is moving. Until that happens, however, I CAN say I’ve seen the northern lights in the dead of winter in Norway. And it was a trip to remember.


Embracing Change

I’ve entered that stage of life where my body (and even my mind) don’t cooperate as well as it once did. I hear lots of folks utter the cliché “getting old isn’t for sissies.” And they are correct, of course, but no stage of life is “for sissies.” Remember being a teenager trying desperately to figure out life. Remember being a new mom with too little sleep and too many responsibilities. Remember being a new teacher who in the first year was going to make EVERY mistake one can make. This new stage of life is no different. The rules have changed and it’s a challenge every day to figure out how to deal with this uncooperative body.

Within the last six months I have had two major surgeries: one for a knee and most recently one for a new hip. The knee is better but not perfect. The hip is getting better but still needs lots of coddling. Tasks that I once did without even thinking such as laundry and making a bed are hard.

Along the way, I’ve had to use an “assistive device” (don’t you love euphemisms). Some refuse to call these canes and instead talk about their walking sticks. No matter what you call them, they are essential to me to move about the outside world with all its steps and stairs. I originally bought the most serviceable one I could find hoping I could just pretend it didn’t exist. It did its task, but was basically boring if not ugly.

Over the last few months, though, I’ve had lots of time to think about the changes in my world. Originally, I railed at my “infirmities” angry at what I could no longer do easily. But one day I stopped and thought back to the other moments of change in my life. I thought about the demands on me when I moved to a town far from family to live with a husband who traveled most of the time which meant I had to be the “grown up” managing finances and disasters. I thought about the freedom I gave up when my first child was born and I could no longer do as I pleased. I remembered the burden of settling my father’s estate which took months and hours of time writing letters, making phone calls, and trying to understand legal documents. Each of these events moved me from one world into another. I sometimes found myself wishing for my easier earlier life, but most of the time I accepted this new world as a good place to be.

With these thoughts in mind, I considered this world to which I have now moved. While I have physical limitations, I now also have amazing freedom. I go where I wish when I wish. I eat what I want when I want it. I sleep when I need to rarely setting an alarm. I can read far into the night or all afternoon. I can talk for as long as I want to friends far and near. I can wear what I want which can include not getting dressed until noon. There were many times in my previous life stages where I would have considered this scenario the nearest thing to perfect.

As a result, I decided to embrace this new stage with all its good points and bad. One step in the embracing process was the decision to look for the prettiest cane I could find and buy it. After all, it’s an accessory not just an aid. I wouldn’t carry an ugly purse or wear an ugly jacket. Why would I want this part of my wardrobe to be any less? The one I found matches my car and makes its own statement. It folds up with a Velcro strap when I need it out of the way (just as a good purse can be unobtrusive when necessary). And it’s red. I carry it proudly using it as I need not trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. And just as one gets comments on earrings or cute sandals, I get compliments on my cane along with the “where did you get it?” question.

Will there be other changes along the way that will be frustrating? Sure. But I’m working as hard as I can to treat each of these changes as just the flip side of a truly wonderful world. It’s a tradeoff no different than the one I made when I gave up freedoms to become a mother or when I took on responsibilities as I entered adulthood. I embraced each of those new worlds. I will embrace this one as well.


I always grew up thinking of myself as English. Not surprising with a name like Lancaster. I even did a project on the War of the Roses because of my “connection” to this name in history. My “English” father didn’t discourage this belief in our heritage and there was no talk in my family about my mother’s contribution to my genetic makeup. Since her mother (my maternal grandmother) had disappeared when she was very small and her father was in places like Pakistan and Libya during my growing up years, I never heard anything from them about this side of the family.

Becoming a committed genealogist (that’s one who should be committed to some kind of treatment center) meant that I learned quickly that that invisible side of my makeup was 75% German. My maternal grandfather was the product of German immigrants and my maternal grandmother was German and Irish.

So what difference does all this make? Well, I’ve been thinking back over my life and have come to realize how often Germans seem to be a part of my life.

In college, I elected to take German because I’d had too much Spanish in high school (the rule was I’d have to take second year as a college freshperson, and even after many years of Spanish, I knew I’d be in big trouble). As a result I took two years of “scientific” German because I started out as a biology major (another story). One had to have a B in the last semester of the two required years to use it as a language for graduate school. Guess what? I had three B’s and a C so in graduate school I took another semester of “reading” German. What this means is that even after all these years I still have a huge German dictionary in my library, but no Spanish one.

After my children were of school age, I returned to teaching at a rural school outside of Lubbock. Lubbock doesn’t strike one as the German capital of Texas and it isn’t. But Slaton IS the German capital of West Texas. There’s a large contingent of German families who immigrated to the area. As a result I taught kids with names like Heinrich and such. There was even a huge German sausage festival every fall.

Recently, we moved near Houston picking our new home almost at random based upon its proximity to our children/grandchildren as well as its size and amenities. Not once did I think about the makeup of the families in this area. Guess what! Yep, there are German names on every street and in every organization. And these German “immigrants” are serious about their heritage. There is even a German Texas Heritage Society as well as a Maifest celebration every May. At the monthly genealogy meetings, I listen to folks talk about their visits to Germany as they retrace their roots.

I’m beginning to think life is trying to send me a message. Perhaps those Germans in my family tree need more attention and a visit to Germany should be in order. All I know is that I find myself craving potato pancakes, German sausage, and sauerkraut. And Brenham doesn’t have a single German restaurant.

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