Between Saturn and an iceberg – there be dragon (fruit) and dreams

Many years ago, I returned from a visit to Poland, clutching a chubby china pot which closed with its own little lid. Painted on its exterior were some stars and a cat. It was too cute to resist and it did not trouble me that I did not understand the meaning of the words beside the artwork. Later, however, I learned that the words described the little pot as “a place to keep my dreams”. How perfect. I have been thinking of this little pot recently, when reflecting about my “wish bucket”, that imaginary receptacle where I keep my dreams and wishes. Maybe in my mind I see it as less of a bucket and more like that little pot, designed especially for me to keep those dreams in. A little like a glass storage jar, but without the airtight lid. No, I don’t want my dreams to be confined. They must be able to seep out, or fly into the air. Perhaps my dreams are being nurtured in a wide-necked glass jar, amongst a pot pourri of treasured thoughts and memories. Easily accessible and ready to be drawn out or added to.

Recently I wrote about some of the dreams and wishes in this wish jar, as think I will now call it. There are a number of weird and wonderful dreams in there, jostling against each other as time and circumstance gently shake the contents:

  • Meet a blogging friend in a new place (repeat as often as possible)
  • Buy a picture/piece of artwork at a gallery opening and watch them put the red sticker on it.
  • Book into the Oriental Bangkok for a weekend.  Or maybe a night.  Or maybe just have afternoon tea there given the price!
  • See a kangaroo in the wild.
  • Visit a country with the letter ‘Z’ in it.
  • See the Aurora Borealis (northern lights)
  • Get funky, colourful nail art on my finger and toenails just for fun, just for once.
  • See the rings on Saturn through an astronomy telescope
  • See some of my writing in print.  In a book, with real paper pages!
  • See an iceberg
  • See a starfish in the sea
  • Sail through the Norwegian Fiords

There are (and always will be) many dreams to realise, but one is shifting and moving to the surface, peeping over the glass rim, ready to be taken in my hands and released into the air. If you look carefully there is one dream which for me is a Particularly Big Dream. It is nestled just after my wish to see the rings on Saturn through a telescope and just before the desire to see an iceberg. That wish is to see some of my writing in print, in a real book with paper pages. This was clear also when I took up the baton in the recent Blog Tour and I wrote (at length) about my writing process.

Last year I saw a call for submissions for an Anthology, seeking narrative non-fiction and memoir from women writers who are, or have been expats in East Asia. How perfect was that? To cut a long story short, and one which the Editor tells here, my tale was selected for inclusion in the Anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. This is a collection of stories exploring the struggles and triumphs of expat life in East Asia by 26 female writers, edited by Shannon Young.  It will be available in paperback and e-book formats on 10 June 2014.You can follow the Facebook page here and read the Editor’s introduction to the book and contributors here.

Soon, I will be able to meet the other women writers through their stories and perhaps in person when the book is launched, as well as the Editor who I have worked with through the fine tuning process. Soon I will be able to pick up that book, leaf through its pages and read my own words. I can’t quite imagine how that will feel.

There will be many more details to share in the coming weeks, with reviews and the cover image, and perhaps my own experience of dragonfruit surprises!

Dragonfruit surprise!

Dragonfruit surprise!

And then I need to nurture the related dream, to produce a book which is all my own work. Something else which is being kept alive in the wish jar.

wishjar

How does one dress to be a writer, I wonder?

Anticipation

You know that sense of mounting excitement as the most important Festival of the year approaches – such as Christmas when I still lived in the UK, or Dassain in Nepal?  The sense of anticipation intensifies, shops get busier, preparations are increasingly visible and conversations are more and more dominated by plans and tasks for the coming festivities.

In this part of the world, many countries are celebrating Water Festivals and New Year.  As the weather becomes more hot and oppressive, the temperatures continue to rise and the air becomes heavy with the moisture of dreamed-for rains  and the exhaustion and tetchiness which the season nurtures.  The trees start to display their spectacular colours, with the purple jacaranda and bright yellow laburnum flowers already signalling the approaching change in seasons.

Jacaranda in the morning sunlight

Jacaranda in the morning sunlight

In Myanmar we celebrate Thingyan, the Water Festival from today, with four days of watery mayhem followed by the Myanmar New Year.

I love the air of anticipation as Thingyan approaches.  Everyone is challenging the unbearable heat and making their plans for the festival time.  Friends and colleagues have a spark in their eyes, as they pack up and head to their home communities or prepare for the festivities in Yangon.  This year in particular, there has been a proliferation of plastic blossom of the Padauk tree, which is the traditional symbol of Thingyan.  Little pots have been on sale at the traffic lights, sprigs adorning walls, windows and doors, all cars have a spray or two on the dashboard and even the shopping centre and airport have impressive displays!

Padauk displays abound

Padauk displays abound

A flowering of the Padauk on Tuesday sparked great excitement and I was gifted some sprigs on the way to work by a woman who runs a little, wooden betel stall at the end of my lane. 

Tuesday's fresh padauk blossom

Tuesday’s fresh padauk blossom

 

thingyan 2

The streets are filled with vans and trucks, packed with speakers blaring out raucous music and and youngsters dancing happily.  The length of the main roads beside the Lakes are a scene of frantic activity as pandals or stages are being erected against the clock , workmen hammering the wooden planks together and smart young folks hand out flyers for their pandal, advertising best packages of music, entertainment, refreshments and most of all – the number of hoses and powerful water cannons (firehoses with enormous force!)

Thingyan advertising

Thingyan advertising

 

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Building the pandals

Building the pandals

IMG_3414

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As we packed up on Friday to leave for the Thingyan break, we were all doused, albeit gently, with sprigs of leaves and sandalwood water just to make sure we received Thingyan auspicious blessings, while other colleagues either sprinkled us with water from water bottles of were waiting outside with waterguns.  No one went home dry, nor was anyone drenched.  Unlike the days of the festival itself when you cannot avoid being soaked to the skin if you set foot out in the street!

Pre-Thingyan Sunset

Pre-Thingyan Sunset

Thingyan is a wonderful time of celebration and release and a very special experience.  However, this year I decided to slip out of the country on the eve of Thingyan, to find a space of tranquility and rest, and relative dryness while the festivities are at their peak!

A very happy Thingyan Water Festival to you all!

A simple, timely reminder

A simple, timely reminder

 

Picking heavy steps

towards the gate.

A soul bereft,

eyes blinking rapidly,

dragging threadbare scraps of sorrow.

A heart ambushed

by an unbidden, unexpected memory.

 

How can life

be there

one day,

and not the next?

 

A flutter of softened taffeta

a glimpse of black and yellow

distracts,

catches

the edge of my vision.

 

Flickering,

dusky velveteen wings

tipped with sunshine yellow.

 

A gathering of butterflies

dancing

dithering

flitting leaf to leaf,

amidst rainbow crystals,

glinting droplets,

called to this

butterfly gathering hibiscus bush.

 

Brushing the layers

of crushed cotton pink petals,

their delight

penetrates the moleskin cloak,

veiled around me

designed by grief

woven by mourning.

 

A gathering of butterflies.

Capering

amidst

frayed sunshine

remnants of gladness.

 

A simple

timely

reminder

 

 

Remembering my father, who died one year ago today.

 

A gathering of butterflies

A gathering of butterflies

Butterflies, blue geckos and a backstory all on a Blog Tour!

I am delighted to pick up this Blog Tour baton, and wallow in the luxury of gazing at my writing navel! My Yangon friend, fellow blogger, member of our cosy writing group and owner of 2 Large and Friendly Dogs,  Cliff Lonsdale introduced this idea to me recently, when he decided to pick up the challenge.  He threw the blog tour gauntlet at my feet and today it is my turn to pick up the baton and run a little with it.

It feels luxurious and a little wicked to sit back, and reflect on my writing! I use my writing as a reflective process or tool so I feel as I am opening up the workings of something I do not truly understand. A bit like physics, I know it is there and it guides me through the world but how does it work? Of that I am not sure, neither am I convinced that I am able to understand.

At this stage of so-called maturity, I realise that I am a butterfly in many areas of my life. I flit around, my attention snatched by an image or a random thought from nowhere, or something amusing which I just have to stop in mid-sentence to share. I find my thoughts in a very different place to where I started out from. I was in the middle of a serious conversation yesterday, when I spotted a motorbike go past the window of my Bangkok hotel. Standing behind the driver, as some kind of pillion passenger was a beefy little dog quite happily travelling along Sukhumvit amidst lines of traffic and fumes, somehow maintaining his balance. I had to break my sentence and share this moment or it would have been lost forever. I had darted away from one train of thought and conversation, and off instantly into another.

Backyard butterfly

Backyard butterfly

I am captivated by the simplest and seemingly everyday things in this life. I can spend long moments watching with fascination as a line of ants transports a crumb many times larger than each of them across the path, gazing at the monsoon rains pounding down and creating magical lakes on the grass and leaving little rainbow pools in the upturned leaves many hours later. I can sit at night and listen while the tokay gecko gives out his distinctive call and the frogs clamour to shout the loudest. I can spend a great deal of time, watching butterflies flit around the bushes in the garden, darting from leaf to leaf, from flower to flower and then onto another bush as something calls them onwards. My attention is caught by these prompts, and I find myself snatched into a different moment.

Maybe I was a butterfly in a previous life and I have kept my butterfly approach to my world. Maybe I will be a butterfly next time round? Maybe I am a butterfly now, in human guise? A butterfly that writes?

I have always wanted to write, especially a book with proper pages and a cover I cherish. I remember when I was a young child, I started my first attempt at a book. I must have been was inspired by the CS Lewis books about Narnia as I realised that the paragraphs I had created, revealed some considerable likeness to the Narnia tales, even down to the name of the imaginary land. What a good job I realised that at the tender age of 11. I kept this fantasy to myself  after that, clearly unable to produce anything resembling originality. Much later, I remember reading Francoise Sagan’s novel “Bonjour la tristesse”, and being stunned that the written word could have such an effect on my emotions. I wanted to be able to do that. I tried writing again a few years later, and on one occasion managed to put some words on paper. I must have produced a couple of paragraphs with a bland, insipid main character based on all sorts of idealistic and mildly feminist aspirations. Another non-starter.

For many years, the ideas and dreams continued to flourish but nothing actually moved forward, and I did little about it apart from keeping journals of time travelling and overseas.

Then something rather strange happened. I was on holiday in Thailand ten years ago, and decided to consult an astrologer as I was pretty curious. I veer between sceptical and believer and was probably not the most cooperative person to give a reading to. However, I was considerably surprised and impressed by the amount of information the astrologer gave. Some things would be a fairly safe guess, but he also said some things which were not really possible to guess which were very specific and interesting. After the consultation was finished he asked if there was anything specific I wanted to know, and I asked a couple of questions, but then he said “another thing – one day your name will be famous by writing”. I didn’t understand what he meant at first, and asked him to clarify. He said that one day I would write a book which would make name  well known.

Those words had a great effect on me. I picked up the dream again, and bought a laptop. I was living in Nepal at the time, and surrounded by inspiration. To my surprise, these words took the shape of poetry and by the time I left Nepal in 2005 I had a healthy little portfolio of poetry with me. The astrologer had re-ignited that light in me, and quite deliberately I wrote.

My next step forward, came in April 2007 when I closed my eyes, took a very deep breath and stepped into a space I had been longing to have the courage to move into. I started blogging. I was trembling as I went through the steps to start my relationship with “blogspot”, looking over the Andaman sea as the light faded, colour bled from the sky and a series of pinks, purples, indigo and shades of darker blue slowly disappeared under the cloak of the night sky. I knew I had to keep the momentum and get this new being online yet I did not have a name for the blog. I had no idea what to call this space where I would bare my writing soul. It must have taken a couple of hours to come with “Feisty Blue Gecko” but I knew it was me! Feisty is a label a few previous bosses have called me, and I like it! I like the thought of having spirit and principles as that is what the term says to me. If there is only one word permitted on my tombstone or obituary, then I would be happy to rest if that word were “feisty”. Blue is easy – the same Thai astrologer told me that my most auspicious colour was blue. This instantly resonated – I choose blues in all manner of ways, from fabrics, clothes, images, paint. I love blue and quite how the astrologer knew, is another mystery as I was wearing burning desert colours that day of vibrant orange and reds. And gecko was also an obvious one. Since a child I have had a fascination with lizards though in Scotland, you can imagine that I did not see so many. I remember catching one once, and making it a wonderful home in a wooden box, furbished with grasses, stones and a dish of water. I named him (I was only around 9 years old, remember) “Swift Stone” because of his rapid movement and camouflage. I never saw him again, and I am not convinced that he even made it into his carefully designed home. Moving to Asia meant a proliferation of lizards and geckos and I can never tire of them darting across the ceiling, chirruping and as a bonus, scoffing little beasties and bugs that might otherwise trouble me. So that is the “why” of the moniker Feisty Blue Gecko, and we have been a team now for approaching 7 years! Feisty Blue Gecko was the space where I shared observations and experiences through my time in India and Sri Lanka, focusing particularly on my own personal take on this and not in any way venturing into analysis or controversy. That was not my kind of space.

When I moved to Myanmar, blogspot was not accessible in those days, so there was a blogging silence for a while until I discovered that WordPress was, for some reason, open and doing business. I migrated over and set up a new space, although said very little. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, the context was very sensitive and so I was keen not to give any cause for concern so my posts were few and gentle. The second reason is that only weeks after arriving in Myanmar I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And that pushed me over into a very new world. I quickly knew that writing and specifically, blogging would be one of the ways I would work my way forward and this very space, blog space No 3 was set up for this very particular experience. This was my breast cancer blog, and I was in a new universe.

Initially I purged my head of the detail of treatments by writing it down. It was a way of keeping friends and family updated about what was happening, but I did not realise that it provided an insight to my thoughts and emotions and not just the bare facts. It was a way of recording what was happening as I knew that I would forget detail and how I felt. And it quickly became a way of communicating with others all around the globe, who were in a very similar situation to the one I had unexpectedly found myself in. There was a whole world of breast cancer bloggers out there!

It is now over four years since I set up that new space, and in that time both myself and the blog have evolved in ways I would not have imagined. Now my strapline really says it all. I see my blog very much as the Life and work of a Scottish woman in Asia – with the added complication of Breast Cancer thrown into the mix!

And one of the most important parts of that life is that writing plays a very serious part in it. Since arriving in Yangon, I have become part of a writing group here, which has provided a nurturing place for me to learn and enabling me to experiment and stretch my writing in ways I could never have imagined.

So this opportunity to step back and explore my writing self is very welcome, even if it might feel uncomfortably revealing.

Now that my I have limbered up a little, let’s have a look at those questions of the Blog Tour…..

1) What am I working on?

What am I not working on? I am a butterfly in so many areas of my life, but none is more apparent than in my writing. I am surrounded by inspiration and ideas swamp my mind, so many fading from my memory before they have the chance to take shape and grow. I have notebooks with Morning Pages, a journal, an “ideas” jotter and even a ”things I must jot down right now as I will forget it for sure” cute little notebook. We have some writing group assignments, prompts and experiments. I love to write the occasional guest blog for others. I have been playing with flash fiction and love it! My greatest investment in terms of writing time would surely be devoted to the blog. I post most weeks, sometimes more if there is something especially stirring. And occasionally I skip a week if other responsibilities and commitments have to compete the blog loses out.

This year I made a “writing plan” and set out some concrete things I want to have in place, and some steps towards achieving these. The main “big” projects are:

A memoir. Original, huh? And a cancer memoir it is too. But, this is a kind of expat, tropical cancer memoir and I hope that will make it a little different.

A collection. I have a heap of bits and pieces which have taken shape as I have flitted around Asia. I have some poetry, some short stories and some snippets which I am working to shape. I see the result as some kind of collection which together will give a sense of how life in this part of the world for someone with blue eyes, living amongst mainly brown eyed people.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My work has aspects in common with many others. The subjects I write about, for example are not unique to me – breast cancer, living in Yangon, visiting interesting places and meeting cool folks. I do have a little bit of a “niche” however, in that expat breast cancer is more rare as a blog and writing topic. Rare but not desirable, I hasten to add!

However, the main distinguishing feature of my writing is that it comes out of my head, is formed by my own slant on the universe, and frequently is based on the tiniest of seemingly insignificant actions or observations, seen or experienced either only by me, or in my own peculiar way. Often those moments are the catalyst for a great deal more thought, and ideas come from somewhere I did not existed. The poetry I wrote in Nepal was not deep and elusive but very much a way of capturing often everyday details which otherwise would rapidly melt and disappear. This is an example – I was travelling in southern Nepal and spotted a boy with a bike trying to catch chickens……… this is how it developed.  (Babu is a term for son or boy, and amaa is Nepali for mother)

Babu and the chickens

Babu babu,

go for chickens,

we need chickens to celebrate

ten fat healthy chickens

take the bike

yes that one

it’s big

but you are big now

quickly quickly

go and get the chickens

nice lively clucking ones

 

Amaa amaa

I got the chickens

I took the bike

it was so big

I couldn’t reach the seat

I got to the shop

slipping my little short legs

through the bars

trying to pedal

 

I got the chickens

ten big clucking chickens

nice fat ones to celebrate

In each hand

I had five chickens

clutching their claws

and the handlebars

their heads swinging as I pedalled

beady eyes

peering upwards

at me.

And the big big bike

wobbling all over the road

all the time, I was

tightly clutching the chickens

 

But amaa I slipped

the bike fell over

I fell over

and the chickens jumped

out of my hands

in all directions.

I ran to gather up the chickens

squawking

clucking

wandering

in the road

everywhere

rickshaws rattling

bikes swerving

 

I got the chickens

but amaa

only seven chickens

and the bike is broken

I’m sorry amaa

please don’t cry amaa

we have to celebrate

****************

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write what I do for a number of reasons.

  • I write to capture an experience, or a tiny detail, or a particular moment which I want to remember.
  • I write to develop an idea, not sure where it might be going but allowing creativity and inspiration take me somewhere unexpected.
  • Often I write simply so that I don’t forget.
  • I write because I want to share things I see and experience, the tiny things which are so significant but so easily lost.
  • I write because I find it healing and cathartic. When something is troubling me, I find that writing with abandon, letting the worry or pain be drawn from my mind, exorcising that which is causing my anguish. I know that these words will stay on the written page, and that I will probably never look at them again, but they have been removed from the destructive process going on in my mind.
  • I particularly found that I have written my way through the trauma of diagnosis, the stresses of subsequent scares and more recently the raw grief of losing my father.
  • I write because I feel I have something different to say.
  • I write because I have some simply brilliant ideas, which no one has ever thought of and no one ever will ;)
  • And of course, I write because I want to be published…….. Well, don’t we all?

4) How does my writing process work?

We’re back to the butterfly. My writing process flits about in spare moments around full time work and other commitments and tends to vary depending on the genre.

However, broadly there tends to be a prompt first of all, that spark of an idea. I might see something which causes me to smile, to wrinkle my eyebrow in puzzlement or a random thought which appears and then takes a life of its own.

From the idea or prompt, I often write in my head. I work and rework phrases and take an idea on a journey, swept along on beautiful prose. I try and capture those wonderful rich words, and write them down but somehow they have too often disappeared and I struggle to retrieve them.

I find that many ideas and thoughts come while I am swimming. As I plough up and down the pool, head above the water in case I miss anything, I can form the most original ideas, and express them in artful sentences. But there is no pen to hand when in a swimming pool and as I climb out of the water, those precious creations drain away.

I do find though that my writing process varies according to the different pieces I write, along with the mood or tone of that writing. I reflect a great deal and will mull over whatever it is that is playing on my mind until the shape appears. By the time I set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the idea is already quite advanced. I especially love paper, I love the feel of a pen in my hand and as far as practical write in longhand.  Having said that, I am extremely thankful for the technology which saves us having to re-write or re-type as that makes life such a great deal easier. So when I write it up. I edit but do not tend to re-write significantly, more a touch of polish and tweaking.

There is an exception.  I rarely edit a rant! Rants do not happen often but they have their own identity. For example, last year on the eve of my major annual medical checks, I saw a horribly offensive and ineffective “campaign” supposedly in the interests of breast cancer awareness. In around fifteen minutes I had spat out my argument and clicked “publish”. That was particularly frightening the post took hold and was in no time doing its own world tour!

Some of my work is quite factual and aims to be informative, for example sharing aspects of life here in Myanmar that would be very different to other contexts. That writing process includes more research than other pieces of work.

The one grain through all of my writing is the hunger I have to move my reader, to touch emotions through my words to prompt a smile or a sigh. I play with words in my mind, turning them over to find the one which is just right, and conveys just what I want to.

And my final word on this should really be a caveat. I think long, and I write long. What started out as a short post has turned into a long one as I have flitted through these questions, just like the little orange butterflies which must be sleeping by now. Oh, I wonder – where do butterflies sleep …………..

This blog tour is ready to leave Yangon.  I am passing the baton to two bloggers who I have met online, but never in real life. However, in addition to be amazing women and talented writers, I consider them to be my friends.

I am handing the baton to Canada – to Catherine:

Catherine Brunelle is a Canadian writer and author of The Adventures of Claire Never-Ending. Born in Canada, she met the love of her life in France, studied creative writing in England, swam Lake Balaton in Hungary, and currently calls Ottawa her home. Happily married, she is busy typing on her laptop while attempting to carpe that diem with her best friend and husband, Zsolt.

Check Catherine’s blog here

us

And to Marie, an Irishwoman currently living in Australia.

Marie Ennis-O’Connor is a PR consultant and blogger with a passionate interest in healthcare social media. A nine-year breast cancer survivor, she is a board member of Europa Donna Ireland –  The Irish Breast Cancer Campaign, a patient advocacy group that  is one of 46 EUROPA DONNA member countries across Europe. Marie’s interest in the impact of breast cancer on younger women led to her editing a patient information booklet, Younger Women,Breast Cancer and Fertility which is distributed widely in breast cancer centres throughout Ireland. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to survivor on her blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.  Marie blog awards

Great!  We’re connecting North America, Asia, Europe and Australia in one sweep!  And I am very much looking forward to reading their posts next Monday.

Costly and subdued.

The promised update.

The latest round of checks is behind me and I am breathing out.  That means one thing – that the important tests were mostly fine, and that I can breathe out slowly again.

I have been surrounded by support and care, and cannot express how much I value that.  There is never a time with these checks that you can truly put it all behind you and consider it “done”.  But it is good for now and I am just that little bit closer to NED (the precious No Evidence of Disease) than I felt last time.

My two cancer Docs, Dr W and Dr W2 were both happy and thorough.  My tumour markers remain elevated but stable.  As in almost exactly the same now over the past 18 months, and in fact since the rise which prompted the scary scans in October 2012. So this meant no bone scan this time.  Which was very welcome news! It does mean that there will be a number of scans and extras in the upcoming Annual Big Checks in October. But that is ok, because for now I can breathe out.

My aspiration is for Dr W2 to call me “boring” and I have still to attain those dizzy heights.  Last time he saw me I was “complicated” which is much better than “interesting” but still not boring.  This time I am in a better place in the scale – “expensive”! He asked me if I need more meds, and I said that I did.  I said that I could get some myself, but he expressed concern that they might not be good quality or genuine and I agree that it is better that he prescribes these.  However, that comes at a cost! Confidence that the meds are genuine means that they are also expensive.  And as time wears on, I gather more meds instead of shedding any.  Added to that, I am fighting off a couple of infections at the moment and needed to add an antibiotic to the mix.

medsDr W2 also said that I seemed to be one of a small number of long-standing patients.  I was surprised and he told me that many stop consulting him after their acute treatment, and many return back to their original countries.  So I have some kind of loyalty pass which is rather comforting.  Dr W similarly spoke very warmly with me, offered support to the Yangon Breast Cancer Friendship Group which we are establishing and was generally very encouraging.

It was not all so warm and cosy though.  My endocrinologist was less happy with my bloodwork.  My previously wondrous cholestrol levels have been steadily rising as are my sugar levels.  I am working hard to keep diabetes (which has been in my mother’s side of the family for generations) at bay and it seems that this is not going to last much longer if the trends continue.  I find this so frustrating when I exercise so consistently and eat very carefully.  I showed him my exercise log (ok, it’s a rather obsessive log of how far I swim daily, how far I cycle and how long I exercise for – I find it really motivating).  I find that I exercise between 180 and 250 minutes a week on average. He told me not to blame myself as if there is a strong genetic predisposition then I cannot halt that.  However, I also consulted with a nutritionist to see if there is something I am missing or not doing properly.  With her, I worked through a typical day and exactly what I eat.  She looked up at me and noted that my diet is more healthy than hers!  She suggested a few adjustments – such as reducing my fruit intake and adding some protein to my evening meal.  So I will give that a try.  She also noted that the lack of thyroid function is significant in metabolism and weight issues, even taking the synthetic thyroid which also made me feel better.  But then she suggested I am for a 3 kg loss for my next appointment.  Which totally deflated me.  I feel that aiming for a specific weight goal just does not work.  I struggle and work so hard not to gain, I feel an automatic failure if I cannot lose kilos.  I prefer to ensure that what I do is right and if that leads to weight loss then that is great, but what matters is to eat carefully and exercise.

Ironically, Drs W and W2 (my oncologist and surgeon) were happy to recall me in my usual six months, but the endocrinologist wants to see me again in three months.  Sigh.  A step backwards, it feels.

The ray of sunshine in this though, came from Dr W.  He knows me well and asked me if I still swim and cycle and I confirmed that I do and that this season is perfect for the morning routine.  I told him that there were concerns about my cholestrol and weight and he instantly said that this is well known of Femara.  Which was enormously reassuring and validating, and is very much what I suspected as these issues emerged from the very first checks following the switch from Tamoxifen. And as another friend said “cholestrol is better than cancer” and for sure, it is!  It is not great but the Femara is there to keep the bigger demon at bay.

As I move forward then, I juggle the bonus combo of a genetic propensity to diabetes and high cholesterol, lack of thyroid function and the side effect tactics of Femara. None of which I can do anything about, except continue as I am.

Water music

So here I am, again on the other side of a round of checks.  Again slowly breathing out.  And again subdued. I might not be “boring” but I am expensive so that must make me rather classy – right?

And whatever else I am, I am beyond thankful.

 

A silly cut finger and fast growing cells

The most inane and banal of incidents can set off a trail into unexpected territory both familiar and unfamiliar…….

Just over a week ago, hubby came home with a gift he had received.  A proper Swiss Army Knife.  Those ones with all the gadgets and tools all artfully contained in the body of the knife.

swiss army knife

These are fascinating little things, and I could not resist having a look and exploring what tricks it would contain.  I gently pulled out a little penknife blade, taking care with my crumbly finger nails which have no capacity to grip. I teased out the little scissors and looked around for some paper to test them on.  Then I pulled out another mystery implement, wondering what it would be. Snap! The small blade which it belonged to flicked open and caught my finger tip, slicing a neat but deep cut into the finger. There is an instant of regret at such a careless action which is rapidly taken over by the need to act.  Thanks to warfarin, this small but deep cut was producing rather a lot of the red stuff and I needed to stanch the flow as quickly as possible.  With my arm elevated and the wound held firm, I finally managed to stem the bleeding and carefully cleaned the damage.

I was very quick to blame cancer for the greatest part of this unfortunate incident.  Residual peripheral neuropathy, thanks to chemotherapy (Taxotere) has brought me numbness in my fingers and toes numb toes.  Numb fingertips cause clumsiness.  It is not a very good idea to explore a Swiss Army Knife with numb fingertips, especially with added crumbly fingernails. Adding warfarin and its blood-thinning qualities adds a frisson of excitement to the mix. That is also directly attributable to cancer and its treatment.  And if I really want to push it,  I can also blame the lack of wisdom in meddling with the knife on the cognitive afters of chemo.

It never fails to amaze me, how much a tiny nick somewhere like the top of the index finger can impact on so many every day actions.  Getting dressed, eating, typing and holding a pen all became awkward and uncomfortable with the damaged finger.

The following day, I struggled through (happily it was a Friday) and was glad to get to the weekend.  I was especially worried that the cut might get infected in this climate, and that it would not heal given its depth.

So I was very surprised that on the Sunday, I noticed that the cut was healing particularly well and cleanly.  By the Monday you could hardly see the cut at all and now there is just a trail of dry skin which marks the scar.

And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?  Fast healing, clean barely visible scar?  All good.  So why did my head turn this into something worrying?  Why did I find it so hard not to associate the rapidity of healing cells with the rapidity of multiplying sinister cells.  How does a good fast growing cell differ from a bad fast growing cell?

It shows how vulnerable we are to those paranoiac thoughts, to those trains of thought that are barely logical or sensible yet take over a rational mind. A mind which is especially fragile in the run up to the next round of regular but scary scans and checks.

This is the story of a tiny cut finger.  This is also the tale of a tiny scared soul, about to pack the fatigued travel bag, braced for whatever is ahead and barely able to contain the fear and anxiety.  The afters and sides of cancer and its treatments indeed continue to wreak havoc on the body way beyond diagnosis.

Yet that is not a fraction of the sabotage it introduces into a sensitive and frightened mind.

shadow selfie blog

A shift in the seasons

The season is shifting. The daytime warmth is now an uncomfortable, sticky heat and we start to yearn for the rains.  The cool mornings have started to warm a little, but not as much as the seasonal usual.  And not enough to nurture the budding mangoes.  I fear a poor mango season is ahead.

On my way to work the other morning, I stopped near the traffic lights as usual to buy strings of threaded jasmine blossom.  The regular seller handed me my strings, and as I moved forward I lifted them to my face without thinking, breathing in the sweet scent. He ran back towards me, proffering a small blossom of the newly flowering tree, known as the university blossoms, the Myanmar word sounding to me like “gangkaw”. “It smells good” he told me in Myanmar, and gave me the stem to take with me before disappearing into the traffic again to sell his flowers.  These moments warm my soul, and brighten my outlook.  Especially when my personal outlook is clouded by the next rounds of scans and checks, which will be upon me before the month is out. I try and put these thoughts to the side, hiding them in the heady, heavy sweetness of the flowers watching over me.

yangon gangkohThe sight of the flower on my desk throughout the day brought many remarks and smiles. I learned that there are many of these blossoms on trees flowering at the university. The flower is associated with students, learning, summer, graduation and the forthcoming Thingyan Water Festival. As the season shifts, there are signs all around. The first glimpses of jacaranda, plastic padauk flowers for sale and the proliferation of the Gangkaw flowers with their sweet, heavy scent.

The shadow of the Gangaw flower falling on the girl's face

The shadow of the Gangaw flower falling on the girl’s face

It is hard to imagine that on this day a year ago, I arrived in Scotland and was greeted by perishing temperatures and snow. But as the season shifts here, those signs are visible across the globe too.  The stretching of the daylight hours in Scotland, and the appearance of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all heralding the coming spring.

Therefore, I have chosen to change my background image, to one of the Island of Lismore, Scotland which was actually taken a a few years ago when I spent a number of weeks there in my father’s home early that year.

Lismore, Scotland as spring approaches

Lismore, Scotland as spring approaches

No matter where we are on the planet, time moves forward and we should choose carefully those precious images and memories which we want to take with us.

A peek into my wish bucket

I have been nursing some unexpected foot pain the past few days and with great reluctance have skipped my early morning cycle and swim to ensure that whatever had caused the pain would be not be aggravated.  So I woke slowly on Friday morning, as the sun slowly seeped in through the bedroom window. I reached over for my iPod and had a quick check to see how the world had been faring overnight while I was resting.  I was immediately struck by two posts, from family in the far north east of Scotland, both of whom were in awe of a magical and spectacular display of the northern lights, (Aurora Borealis) or the “heavenly dancers” immortalised in song.

While I had been sleeping, many parts of the UK had been privy to an unusually stunning performance, and with the benefits of modern technology a number of awe-inspiring images were being beamed across the cybersphere. Despite growing up in rural Perthshire in Scotland, I have no recollection of seeing the northern lights and have maintained a fascination and wish to see them.  So much so, that they have featured in my “wish bucket”.

Northern Lights - one of many images on Twitter

Northern Lights – Gullane in Scotland – one of many images on Twitter

My wish bucket is something I have created in the past few years, to capture those little and not so little wishes and dreams.  It is not a  bucket list, as there is not a pressure to tick these off before I kick it!  Nor is it a wish list which I similarly have to work through.  Rather it is an imaginary receptacle into which I carefully put those dreams and desires to turn into reality when the time and opportunity allows it. I particularly like the fact that I can take these delights from the bucket as often as I like.

Now is then, a very apt time to revisit what is in my wish bucket and perhaps spur me into action. These are the treasures in my wish bucket:

  • Meet a blogging friend in a new place (repeat as often as possible)
  • Buy a picture/piece of artwork at a gallery opening and watch them put the red sticker on it.
  • Book into the Oriental Bangkok for a weekend.  Or maybe a night.  Or maybe just have afternoon tea there given the price!
  • See a kangaroo in the wild.
  • Visit a country with the letter ‘Z’ in it.
  • See the Aurora Borealis (northern lights)
  • Get funky, colourful nail art on my finger and toenails just for fun, just for once.
  • See the rings on Saturn through an astronomy telescope
  • See some of my writing in print.  In a book, with real paper pages!
  • See an iceberg
  • See a starfish in the sea
  • Sail through the Norwegian Fiords

The first wish I plucked out of the bucket was the toenail art wish.  I put this off for a silly length of time before I decided to get some nail art on my toenails.  And when I did, I just loved it! I showed my toes off to anyone I met and delighted in the delicate design which was not only exquisite in my eyes, but also highly affordable at around $8! This was something I could take from the wish bucket time and time again.  And I do!  Happily the novelty has worn off to the extent that I no longer take photos of every single design I have had, though there are more photos than is sensible!

I have also realised a long held dream to buy a piece of artwork at an exhibition and am delighted with my acquisition.  Living here with a vibrant and emerging art scene has really made that possible, and I was delighted to watch the red sticker being put on my new piece of multi-media artwork, an innovative mix of photography, paint and collage.

The red sticker on my new piece of art

The red sticker on my new piece of art

I have spent time on the Oslo Fiord, although I still want to travel along the remoter western fiords in Norway, so that is another wish which I can take out of the wish bucket more than once. I have also managed to meet up with two blogging friends, Terri of A Fresh Chapter (in Hong Kong as she transited from Vietnam to India) and Audrey in Edinburgh and wish to meet many blogging friends who I have connected with on this very warm online breast cancer blogging community.

There are still many dreams in my wish bucket, and some easier to realise then others.  The northern lights remain there and it would be wonderful one day to see them.  I am delighted that so many in the UK were able to witness their magic and share their pictures though.  One day perhaps……….

There is another very special wish which I am hoping to see realised in the coming weeks but I do not want to speak of that until those plans are firmer.  In the meantime, I hold on tightly to the happiness which my wishes have gifted me and look forward to sharing more in good time.

northernlights metrouk

Waves

It’s a strange thing, grief.  We think of it as a process which moves in a linear way.  We think we are making progress forwards.  And then there is a moment, a memory, a scent, or piece of music.  Even the sight of a familiar food, and we are again ambushed by a wave of grief, washing over us.

Today, by some unseen alignment, two different posts arrived in my feed, both about grief and loss.  And at a time when there are seasonal prompts and reminders of my own grief. The birthday my father would have celebrated earlier this month.  The season reminding me that this time last year I made the sudden decision to return to Scotland to spend final days with my father.

Marie writes in her post, Still alive in a wound still fresh, about those unexpected moments when we see or read something which speaks to us with a strength which takes our breath away.  The other post I read today, beautifully titled Live forever, provides a privileged insight into the influences and memories of a mother and grandfather:

Two people who live forever in my heart had birthdays last week, my Grandfather and my Mother. Both were very dear to me during the time we shared and both continue to play a role in my life. They’re in my thoughts, my memories, my sense of who I am and how I want to lead my life

This resonates too with my own processing and coming to terms with that strangeness of grief.  I wrote last year that grief is within us, not without.  And that means that the love and memory for those we have lost lives on within us, along with the values and influences which shape and guide us.

Signs of spring - Lismore

Signs of spring – Lismore

The wound is indeed still fresh, our hearts still grieve.  Yet there is a gold nugget of life, that which lives on within us and which we must hold on to and cherish.

Breathless

I slipped out of the room, near the end of a discussion on writing inspiration, straining my ears as the voice of Louis de Bernieres faded gradually.   In no time I was on my way to Mandalay airport. I could scarcely breathe. My heart was fluttering and my pulse racing. And for once this was not a medical problem!

On my flight to Bangkok, I found myself in a strange middle space still airborne from the inspirational weekend, yet on the brink of an intense week of work and travel.  I closed my eyes, clasping the memories of the weekend, and those cherished moments, the very ones you keep safely in a little imaginary memory jar, in the mind’s eye.

ILF 2014 4

I was leaving Mandalay, where the Second Irrawaddy Literary Festival was coming to a close and I was fired with enthusiasm and inspiration strangely edged with disbelief.  Crammed into just over two days, I had gathered many magical conversations to be treasured and precious moments to immortalise, dialogues with like minds and unexpected connections in the organised sessions as well as impromptu exchanges.

Moments such as:

Joe Woods chatting with Polly Devlin

Joe Woods chatting with Polly Devlin

  • Chatting with Jung Chang, her beckoning me over to sit with her when she saw me sitting apart, her kindness and thoughtfulness warming me.
Sitting next to Jung Chang

Sitting next to Jung Chang

Jung Chang author of Wild Swans

Jung Chang author of Wild Swans

  • Discovering that not only am I sitting next to Jung Chang, I am also sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres!
Sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres in the audience

Sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres in the audience

  • Listening to Karen Connelly read her extract from The Lizard’s Cage and compelling me to read it as soon as I can.
  • Polly Devlin gifting me her memoir because I told her how much her session had moved me.
  • Hearing the wisdom of great and revered writers on writing.  “If you are “stuck” as Louis de Bernieres said, “just go shopping”, anything rather than sit there and look at a blank screen, or piece of paper.  Keep thinking, jot down ideas and use your dreams”.
  • Sitting at the table next to Thant Myint U, listening to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in conversation with Joan Bakewell (and avoiding being well baked in the room where it was held)
Audience with the Lady - watching from outside

Audience with the Lady – watching from outside

  • Saying “Good morning” to the Lady as she swept past after her talk.
The Lady sweeps past me in the hotel lobby

The Lady sweeps past me in the hotel lobby

  • Meeting a Yangon friend and learning that he is an acclaimed Irish Poet.
  • Pausing on the staircase to chat with Ko Ko Thett and share a love of poetry.
  • Spending time in the passageway for a conversation with Pascal Khoo Thwe and being able to tell him that his “From the Land of Green Ghosts” is one of the few books I have read twice.
  • Admiring the beautiful handwriting of Lous de Bernieres as he signed my copies of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and we chatted about education in Nepal following the conflict.
  • Being able to talk with Karen Connelly and sharing contact details in the hope that we can meet for coffee and writerly chat in Yangon.

Similarly to my experience of the Literary Festival last year, I found the authors and speakers incredibly approachable and unassuming. I still struggle a little to believe that I was able to talk with and listen to such esteemed figures. This year the Festival had been itself the subject of some discussions and changes but I remained largely oblivious to that as I was swept along by the tide of creativity.

Sitting listening to Polly Devlin in the company of Louis de Bernieres and Jung Chang

Sitting listening to Polly Devlin in the company of Louis de Bernieres and Jung Chang

I am now back in Yangon, my case is unpacked and a number of new books are trying to find a space to squeeze in to the bookcase. Ideas are flowing and a breeze of new energy is breathing fresh life into my writing projects.