Stepping gently into 2021 with three little words

As the sun rose on this first day of 2021, I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as 2020 moved into our past.  For sure this has been a year that none of us will forget and one that we will remember with a mix of emotions. A year which shocked us to the core, exposing the world’s vulnerabilities and inequalities while bringing countless examples of dedication, selflessness and incredible courage amidst the destruction of COVID-19

When I selected my three words a year ago, I had no inkling of what 2020 would bring and the very different lives we would be leading throughout the year. On Hogmanay last year, I landed in Edinburgh after a a few days visiting Prague, a dream which I had held for decades. I would bring in the New Year in my new home in Scotland. Little did I know that I would spend every single night in my new home since then, a whole uninterrupted year under the same roof.

In October I reflected on the words I selected a year ago, oblivious to what lay ahead. I was particularly taken to read my thoughts as the year started:

“We all have light in us that shines, and we all have the potential to make things glisten. This encourages me to be creative, solution focused and optimistic, and to keep my eyes open for those tiny, extraordinary moments we can miss when our minds and thoughts are dark”.

How important that was to be as we entered isolation and lockdown in March, and I focused in especially on new priorities, and taking delight in the new discoveries which the passing seasons gifted in my garden. The fact that the words proved to be so eerily apt, was an affirmation of this practice of choosing a three word mantra.

Selecting three words this year brings a new dimension, knowing that the months ahead will see continued challenge as the new strains of COVID-19 and winter fragility test us to the limits. It has been strange to choose my words with COVID-19 looming large, and I have been striving to see beyond the immediacy yet I find it impossible to ignore it. The bigger picture sees COVID-19 very much embedded in it.

I trust that my words will carry me through any eventuality, whilst acknowledging the significant one of COVID-19 underpins a great deal. As always, there has been a great deal of thought and deliberation over several weeks, with numerous variations being tried and tasted as this mantra has taken its final shape. And now, my three words are ready to share. The three words to guide and protect me through 2021 are:

Patience, calibration and stardust

Patience

My first word  is patience. This reminds me that a great deal is out of our hands, yet we have to take charge of how we handle what happens to us. Similar to that cancer diagnosis of 2009, when I quickly realised that while I could not control the diagnosis and its implications, there were many options open to me in how I responded. We need continued patience in these covid times as solutions and improvement take time to reach the wider community. We have been living in isolation and fear for months already, and we need to be patient as medical science brings solutions to the most vulnerable first and gradually reaches more widely.

While this is not purely about covid and is much more widely applicable, it is hard to see beyond this. Patience brings with it the suggestion of kindness and respect. We have been living in a protracted crisis and this has brought out the best and worst in us. This is challenging us in ways we could not have imagined and many of us are struggling. The magnitude of this pandemic means that it is hard to lean on others as we know they are also being tested to the limits of their resilience. So we need to be patient with each other, kind to each other and respectful. And in particular we need to be patient and kind to ourselves.

I am again reminded that as I face new and different challenges, I need to let go of that urge to have all the answers to hand. These months have tested my health and I need to be patient as answers and, hopefully, solutions are identified. I need to be guided by the natural world on my doorstep and learn how to be patient.

Calibration

My second word is calibration and is also brought to the surface by the covid context. Like many others I am highly appreciative that I have my own safe space, and I have been able to continue working. However, this new predominantly online world has brought a contradiction. Thanks to Zoom and other platforms, we have been able to carry on with most of our tasks and activities both professionally and personally. My book group and writing group soon moved online, and were critical to my mental well-being particularly during the early months of isolation. And indeed, there were added bonuses that were only possible online. Our book group were able to invite the writers and translators of some of the books we were reading – so much easier to ask an author to pop into a Zoom call for half an hour from several hundred miles away.

Gradually though, I have found that many hours online, initially in an unsuitable space (the kitchen) brought aches, pains and a weariness that saw a shift in balance. I am not alone in finding it hard to join an online group in the evening after a day of Zooming. I found myself increasingly Zoom-scunnered (not a word I want to take into 2021) and creative activities, especially writing, have suffered.

Calibration will remind me to keep a close eye on maintaining a healthy balance and fine-tuning regularly to ensure that the wires do not snap if they become too taut. I am eager to retain this renewed sense of what matters most and embrace those everyday, simple treasures. This year has shown us how fragile we are, as well as how strong we are.

Stardust

I have long found the expression “we are all made of stardust” to be intriguing and I have never really sought to properly understand it. I just hold on to that wonderful idea that we are all somehow magical and other-worldly. For some reason, I have kept returning to this word as I have been shaping my three word mantra. And that has entailed trying to find out what it actually means. Happily, Professor Google has enlightened me and explains the detail in this article, and notes in particular that:

“most of the material that we’re made of comes out of dying stars, or stars that died in explosions. And those stellar explosions continue. We have stuff in us as old as the universe, and then some stuff that landed here maybe only a hundred years ago. And all of that mixes in our bodies.”

Being made of stardust both reduces and elevates us. It reminds us that we are very much part of the natural order. This is an important equaliser as we are all composed of the same matter. Yet it also makes us feel special, each of us is a star in our own right.

We know that the stars become visible once the sky darkens and gazing into the night sky is hypnotizing. Covid may have brought a great deal of darkness, yet we do not have to look far to see a universe full of stars. As we move forward into 2021, stardust reminds me to see beyond the darkness and to delve deep to find that stardust that we are made from. It is in each of us. As we look up at the night sky, we are reminded that we are tiny and insignificant in the universe and that nature is incredibly powerful. My mantra will remind me that each of us is unique and extraordinary, yet ordinary. Consistently contradictory. And we dwell in a shared universe.

The promise of spring, a sign of hope in the snow

Now my three words are in place, and I am ready to move forward into 2021, with patience, calibration and stardust in and at my heart. May the year be kinder to us all.

Reflections and glistenings

Each year since the start of 2010, I have found the practice of selecting a three-word mantra to be one which grounds and guides me through the coming year. This mantra accompanies me as the months pass, it reminds me of the priorities which I had seen as key for the year ahead and keeps me on track. As we now move well into the final quarter of this especially strange year, I am minded to reflect on my three words for 2020. Words which were chosen carefully, without any inkling of the times ahead. And words which now feel to be eerily apt.

I can still see the expression of disbelief when I described the world before the internet to my grandchildren a couple of years ago. Their faces displaying complete bewilderment. And as for myself, I too find it hard to remember having to search for information, in dictionaries and encyclopedias. Waiting for libraries to open for reference books, poetry quotes and other sources of facts and clarification. Back then, booking tickets and hotels on the phone or by post, and physically going into the bank on a regular basis were the way things were done. Now there has been this entity called the internet in most of our lives for less than half of my lifetime but it is hard to recall what it was really like before it became such an integral part of our lives. When we first got email addresses they looked odd in their lower case formats. Often we would have to share the internet connection and take it turns every day or so to access our emails. Then, when technology became more accessible, we had modems which connected us at home, through twanging phone lines which disconnected our phones while we spent short bursts of time online. How quickly we forget what it was really like.

When I think back to the start of 2020, I am not sure I had even heard of coronavirus. Those little snippets of news reporting that a new virus had appeared in Wuhan were yet to register in our consciousness. Far away, distant in miles, time zones and worlds. And although Asia was very familiar to me, this faraway illness and images of a deserted city seemed unreal and almost fictional. How quickly that was to change.

As the situation in Wuhan was intensifying, the three word mantra which I had chosen for 2020 had formed and was whispering in my ear. “Still, dwell and glisten”, it encouraged me.  When I went abruptly into isolation in mid-March, life did physically come to a standstill. While I was no longer venturing any further than the garden gate to put out the bin and had truly stilled, my mind had not. Anxiety dreams, shock at the impact of the pandemic and a major shift to a completely ‘work from home’ modality meant that my mind was in overdrive. Such an irony as the intent of the word “still” was to motivate me to pause, reflect and settle in my new space. While my mind has been more difficult to “still” I have found time and intent to meditate. and complemented this with a fascination in watching the garden grow around me. This has motivated me to pause and capture this in words and photographs. There is so much that I would have missed had I been living my pre-pandemic non-isolated life.

My second word was “dwell” and intended to remind and encourage me to make my little place a home, fixing the many tasks which need to be done and getting to know the community I had chosen. I had been working my way through those tasks, month by month, and hoping that many would be completed as the end of the year approached. I had become involved with the local writing group and other community organisations and with the lighter evenings arriving, I was looking forward to getting to know neighbours. Isolation intensified the focus of my second word. Being in total self-isolation meant that I was now dwelling completely in my new space, working from the kitchen table with my laptop at the wrong height and using a funky chair in bright and fun kitenge fabric from Rwanda. I was able to spend lunchtimes in the garden, and out of the corner of my eye I could see the hedge growing rapidly while on Zoom calls. And the more the situation continued and we normalised this strange new life, the more I was thankful that the timing of COVID-19’s arrival came after my move here. That I was able to dwell in a peaceful space, surrounded by reminders gathered on my path here. This word is central to my 2020 mantra, and central to maintaining a sense of being grounded through these months.

My third word is “glisten”. It arrived as a late surprise, when I was trying to decide between two other words with similar meanings (enlighten and illuminate). So often when I am selecting my three words, one comes along unexpectedly, and I wonder where it was hiding. Glisten was perfect as I started 2020. It was simple but extraordinary, and required an interaction and cooperation. As I revisit those words which I wrote as the sun was setting on 2019, in those long ago pre-COVID-19 days, I find them intensely resonant.

We all have light in us that shines, and we all have the potential to make things glisten. This encourages me to be creative, solution focused and optimistic and to keep my eyes open for those tiny, extraordinary moments we can miss when our minds and thoughts are dark.

As autumn progresses, and the northern winter approaches I feel the need to hold on to these words. The situation has been worsening over the past weeks and we know that this winter will have dark moments. More than ever, there is a need to look for glistenings of hope all around us, like raindrops gently held on the leaf of ladies’s mantle, and where we can, shine a little light to cause a glistening.

One hundred more days

A ladybird shelters on a raspberry leaf, before the rain comes.

Words have been hesitant on this space, for one hundred more days it seems. One hundred days passed by in June. Long, light, warm days where we could slowly connect in outside, safe spaces. The summer breezes softly shifted the raw edges of fear, placing anxiety a little to the side just slightly out of focus for many of us. And as midsummer has retreated slowly into the distance, somehow another hundred days have passed. Two hundred days since that Friday evening in mid March when I closed my door on the world I knew. Two hundred days in this new isolated living.

I am not quire sure where those days have gone. But in that time the fruits have grown, ripened and mostly been eaten, baked or frozen to bring reminders of sunshine in the coming winter months. The autumnal equinox slipped quietly past us last week and the light fades from the sky three minutes earlier each day. There is a chill in the air in the mornings, and the leaves on the trees are taking on warm colours as they ready to wither and drop.

We know that the coming northern winter will bring a darkness which is not just seen in the reduced daylight, but will be accompanied by a sense of nervousness and caution. As outside spaces become less welcoming and the prevalence of illness increases, our connection with others reduces. It is time to snuggle in and find ways of keeping our spirits warm.

As the days have marched on through this strange year, I have sought and found reassurance in the patterns of nature. The little cotton buds on the pear tree have formed into confident, blushing pears. Raspberries have generously formed week after week, finding their way into breakfasts, jams and the occasional glass of prosecco. More plums than I have ever seen, have formed from those tiny little promises and been transformed into pies and plum jam. The bees have continued their work untroubled by talk of the pandemic.

Being the first year in this new garden, there have been many surprises as blooms and colours have appeared. The greatest secret was held closely by the plum tree at the front. Those little plums were so slow to ripen, remaining hard to the touch so I brought a couple inside to see if they might ripen more quickly. A few days later, with no noticeable change, I bit into one. To discover that it was not a plum at all, but a mischievous tiny red apple in a very convincing disguise.

These little plums held a surprise for me
On close inspection – they are tiny, deep red apples.

Those patterns of nature continue, and the birds are the birds are gathering in preparation for their seasonal journey southwards. Lights are switched on a little earlier each day and soon it will be dark before the work day has finished.

We know that the days and weeks ahead will bring dark moments for many of us. Yet, we also know that the days will continue onwards. Every new sunrise and sunset, taking us towards a new season of regrowth and brighter, sunnier days. And as we move ever forwards, I am reminded that this too shall pass. We need to live in these days, not to wish them away, but to bring our own warmth and hope while we do wish for healthier, less precarious times.

The season transitions, leaves falling on the still green grass, as a bee gathers late season pollen.

One Hundred Days

Just a few days before the spring equinox and a couple of days shy of the Ides of March, I took this picture on the way home from work. The bare branches of the trees silhouetted against the deep blue evening in that half light after the sun has rested for the day, just as darkness begins to settle. A northern sky which held the promise of spring and lightening, lengthening days ahead, cloaked with the unseen threat of COVID-19.

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As I made my way homewards, I passed the shop, the houses and my neighbours, unknowingly, for what would be the last time in many days. Indeed, now one hundred days, and still counting.

This was the evening I took my regular journey home from work, knowing that the world was changing rapidly and drawing in around us. Not knowing that this would be the start of a strange and surreal period of lengthy isolation. That evening saw the long and emotional conversation with family which drew the inevitable conclusion that I would close my door on the outside world for the foreseeable future, if I wanted to stay safe from the hold which the virus was taking around us. That evening I captured this image of what I thought was an everyday moment, my last photo before everything changed.

I had been anticipating those longer evenings, and the days when I would arrive home from work in daylight. I had moved into my new home as autumn turned into winter, a few days after the autumnal equinox, as the days smartly shorten towards those long, dark days of Scottish winter. Six months later, I knew that I would soon be able to enjoy daylight time at home in the evening after the day at work.

But that certainty was lost in the new uncertainty that was isolation and lockdown.

It has been replaced with another certainty though, one which I hold on to tightly. While humankind has spun out of control in the most developed of contexts, nature has taken a firmer grip to remind us that we are guests on this earth. Around ten days into isolation, the weather brightened and I ventured out into my garden. My curiosity was piqued by a blaze of blue colour beneath a fruit tree. The beauty of newly moving into a home with a garden is that the coming year and seasons will bring surprises. Snowdrops and daffodils had welcomed me home as the year started, but hidden in weekday darkness I had missed much of their presence. This blueness was to be my first garden surprise, as the season continued to march forward, while humankind stood still, holding its breath and counting the R number.

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I am still not quite sure what these little blue heralds of hope were, my first excited thought as I spotted them at a distance was that they might be bluebells. I have always wished for a garden with bluebells. As they took their shape, they continued to puzzle me and I still don’t know exactly what they were. Perhaps some unusual crocus or another early spring flower. But not bluebells. For bluebells were starting to sprout elsewhere in the garden fulfilling my bluebell dreams.

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Gradually as the days determinedly lengthened, the outline of spindly branches on the trees softened and little growths appeared. Tiny blossom buds were forming, in shades of white and pink .Little promises of hope and regeneration.

I have always dreamed of a blossoming tree in my own garden. My dreams were taking life in front of my eyes.

The labours of an elderly woman over many years in a garden have gifted to me, a season of colour, surprise and even flavour.

Have you ever wondered how blossoms transform into fruits? I have followed the journey of these miracles over the past weeks, fascinated. As the petals gradually fell, I could see tiny promises form in the stalks. Baby pears the size of cotton buds, a cheeky miniature apple the size of a marble,

Through May and into June, the fruits continue to develop and mature. The young, tiny pears are slowly growing, cherries begin to ripen, delicate plums and apples take shape. Gooseberries appear. Gooseberries. I had forgotten about gooseberries, once a staple Scottish summer fruit, now rarely seen as more exotic imports take over popularity. I seem to have the makings of an orchard. I didn’t know I dreamed of having fruit trees in my garden, but my happiness suggests that secretly I did.

The surprises keep catching me. unawares. Just the other day I spotted a glimpse of red through the green foliage. The green berries which had been forming on the raspberry bushes, have been ripening. Smatterings of red appeared as I approached the bushes. The raspberries are quietly and studiously sweetening and maturing.

This is Day One Hundred, the summer solstice, a solar eclipse far over the horizon in the southern sphere and the seasons moving steadily forward as the planet continues to journey around the sun.

This is a day I could not have imagined back in March when I headed home, pausing to take a photograph of a wintry branches silhouetted against a changing sky. While the everyday activities we took for granted are paused, what more powerful reminder that we are guests on a moving, breathing earth.

This morning, my one hundredth morning in isolation, I enjoyed a handful of those fresh raspberries with my breakfast. Yoghurt streaked vibrant red, carrying a taste of childhood summers. I relish the flavour as much as I embrace the promise of hope and recovery that those raspberries have brought to me.

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Opening Up

Every time I think that the wild welsh poppies in my garden have finished blooming, I spot another blaze of orange, and more little buds shyly opening up. Just a few more days of colour, these persistent little poppies tell me as they gradually fade, and their petals fall. And the cycle continues, as I spot another few buds, the orange crumpled colour pushing the bud open for tomorrow’s bloom

Opening up crop

All the while, discussions continue and changes are announced of a wider opening up. Doors are opening, faces peeping out and families making tentative plans to gather. At an appropriate distance, and in small numbers. The world which closed so abruptly more than two months ago is slowly starting to open up, gingerly and not so gingerly.

I have mixed feelings about the opening up of the world, and the easing of lockdown. I am not ready. And I feel embarrassed to admit it. When I went into isolation it was sudden, and complete. Not a soul has been in my home, and my face to face interactions with other humans have been few and on my turf quite literally. Food is delivered on my doorstep, with my door closed. Anything which has been touched by the hands of another is subjected to careful sanitising and its own period of isolation. Conversations over the fence rely on warmth of words to compensate for physical closeness. Closeness and warmth on screens and blinking phones have strengthened and sustained. I have become surprisingly present in this new reality. Throughout these past weeks, I have become less fearful as I have built this safety shield around me. I find that I am not ready to dismantle it and allow the danger which is still lurking in invisibility to contaminate my safe space.

I am not officially shielding. I did not receive a nine-page letter which advised me to stay at home for 12 weeks and avoid contact with others. However, the public health announcements which I now know by heart speak directly to me and those who have health issues. Issues which make us highly vulnerable and at risk of very severe illness if we were to become infected with the virus. My shielding might not have been official, but it has been faithful.

I know that I am not ready to open up until I know how the pandemic responds to this easing of lockdown. This doesn’t mean that I find isolation easy. It means that my fear of the virus is greater than my struggles with isolation. I do not want to take steps which could place me at risk. Even if that risk is very low, the effect of the virus is no less dangerous. That is my rationale and emotionale.

I know many others who feel differently, and who are anxious to start opening up their lives and making those baby steps towards that elusive new reality. It is heart-warming to see plans announced and pictures of small gatherings, tears and smiles. Photographs and videos on social media of this new found freedom sing with the happiness of opening up.

Others are making bolder, nay riskier, step. Steps which cause intakes of breath, tutterings and mutterings. Steps which strike fear into the hearts of the cautious souls who are afraid of what cannot be seen.

None of us can truly understand what it has been like for others as we have experienced isolation and lockdown. For most of us, it has been emotionally demanding, tears appearing unexpectedly and inappropriately. Reactions disproportionate to their cause. For many, a difficult domestic situation suddenly became a dangerous one in precarious situation. Reports of domestic violence increased drastically. None of knows what is happening behind the closed doors of others. And none of us knows, how each of us feels about the uncertainty of the future as the lockdown starts to ease.

And so, while I can, I would like to open up at the pace which works for me. I don’t want to burst into colour suddenly. I am happy to peep out through the opening bud and just see how the land lies.

Once I feel that the outside is a place I feel safe, I will push through and step back into the world. But until I reach that point of confidence, I will stay in my safe haven, watching with joy as those who do feel ready, are taking those steps.

Corona Times – learning a new language

Learn a new language while you are in lockdown, they said. Or how to play an instrument. Make the most of this gift of time. Learn some new skill. Bake sourdough or become a yogi. Read those books lying covered with dust on your shelves. Zoom your friends and family. Yes Zoom is a thing, and the world now functions on this new thing. Stay up till midnight for three nights running to try to secure a Tesco delivery slot. Weep each time you fail.

It seems I have been learning a new language. Some words I had not heard of ,or expressions made up from a string of known words forming to create a new expressions which have suddenly taken a very clear and specific meaning. Not a foreign language, the words are already familiar. The meaning, however, is not. This is the language of Corona, incomprehensible before spring 2020. Now it is the basis of most of our conversations.

covid wordcloud

I imagine parallel conversations pre and during the corona weeks. Pre Corona, I imagine to be something like this …

Pre Corona – Have you been furloughed?

Pre corona response – blank stare. Is this an agricultural expression? Do I look as if I have been furloughed? Am I covered in mud?

 

Pre Corona – Our aim is to flatten the curve.

Response – blank stare. What curve? Is there a bump in the road?

 

Pre Corona – Are you shielding?

Response – guilty expression. How do they know I am hiding an escaped bank robber under the stairs?

 

Pre Corona – You need to self isolate.

Response – confused expression. What have I done wrong? What on earth do you mean by that? Isolate myself?

 

Pre Corona – social distancing must be observed.

Response – utter bewilderment. How can distancing be social? Is it not anti-social? Have I said something offensive? What does it even mean?

 

It is fascinating that society morphs rapidly to adapt to the threat which the pandemic has thrown on to many of us. We have quickly become used to a life which finds us speaking to people on screens rather in person and where our homes become places where we cannot even invite a close friend in for tea. While it is strange, we have become oddly accustomed to very different conventions even if they don’t quite sit comfortably. The rapid shift in language is another sign of resilience and adaptation of humankind as our expressions and vocabulary are shaped for the current context. A context which is new, sudden and which turns many longstanding conventions on their heads. It is an example of how we adapt to cope with a new, urgent situation.

Only a few short weeks into Corona times, we no longer blink when informed that certain activities will be permitted as long as we maintain social distance. We don’t need to ask what that means, it is solidly in our mindset. Social distance – 2 metres, the size of a double bed, or two shopping trolleys end to end, or an adult kangaroo. We are thankful that the furlough scheme is extended and understand its importance in protecting employees and the economy while we fear the eventual cost to society. We no longer think of muddy fields.

I do wonder how our vocabulary and language will be changed by this sudden influx of new vocabulary and very specific expressions and usage. Language does evolve and develop naturally, as we see when we hear the announcement of the ‘new words’ of the year which are added to the dictionaries. I will be fascinated to see how this turn of events will be reflected in new turns of phrase in the longer term.

May flowers

In the meantime, don’t worry about learning a new skill. You have already learned a new language. Focus on staying safe and staying well. And remember to wash your hands.

Forty days and forty nights

Today marks my fortieth day in isolation. Last night, my fortieth night, a night which saw me visited by disturbing and unusually violent dreams. It is some time since dreams of conflict and air raids have come to me, but last night I lived through serial dreaming of life-threatening attacks, fleeing and sheer terror. I was transported back to my humanitarian work in conflicts in South Asia and the deep basic fear living in such violent times. My recent anxiety dreams were humorous little vignettes in comparison.

I find myself divided. I can rationalise this experience and how my mind is dealing with the scale and uncertainty of such an unprecedented situation. I know and understand that our mental wellbeing is being tested to the very ends of its capacity. I know I have techniques at my fingertips such as meditation, taking control of what I can, escapist reading and when all else fails, the most tasteless of TV viewing. But where the conscious mind strives to stay dominant, the sub conscious and emotional side rise up when least expected and before I know it, I find myself tearful and fearful. I know it is a natural response, I know it is valid. And I know it will pass. Sooner or not so sooner.

What I am struggling with, is how to balance the ability to understand and rationalise the psychological process that I am going through, in the company of very many, with this desertion of my resilience and how that actually makes me feel. I know how I should feel. Thankful, resilient, safe and reasonably well. And know how I do feel. Frightened, alone, distraught and tearful. I am not looking for advice or sympathy. I am purely looking for this to pass, and for this emotional fragility to be validated. It’s ok to not be ok.

I do want to emphasise that it is not so much the isolation, and being on my own that is troubling me at the moment. Though I do not deny that it is odd and disconcerting not being able to go out at all and interact with people in so many walks of daily life. No, it is more that I have no idea when this will end, and what the broader future looks like. So much is impossible to predict while the pandemic is in these early days. Big questions trouble me. The economic shakeout, especially for someone of my age; the health scenario and the prospect of being unable to go about daily life again for some considerable time, especially for those with age and underlying health conditions, again, again like myself; the shock that this will place on society in broader terms as the fingers of this virus dig into already existing divides in our communities; the fact that this is the first truly global emergency I have ever seen, there is no ‘outside help’ to rescue us. We will not see a return to the way things were, but gradually life will settle into its new normality. I just cannot envisage what on earth that might look like and the changes that we will need to adapt to.

I strive to see past this, despite its enormity, and keep a focus on nature and growth around me. Some days it works better than others.

buzzy

Forty days and forty nights, this is not a long time but nor is it insignificant. I cannot think of another time of life when I have been totally isolated for more than a few days or a couple of weeks. And quite why this emotional heaviness has come at this time, is a mystery. All I do know, is that this is real and I find myself struggling. But I also have a conviction that this too shall pass, and for now it is ok not to be ok.

None of us is truly alone.

Grounded: Poetry for these times

Grounded.

A punishment. A compliment. An observation. An instruction.

A sign of our times.

 

You’re grounded!

You’ve been naughty!

You can’t go out, and see your friends,

no cinema,

or chatting at the corner

Until I say!

 

You’re grounded.

Setting stress to the side.

Breathing in.

Eyelids resting.

The mind’s eye,

unseeing the pain and torment.

 

You’re grounded.

So serene.

Centred.

Settled.

Calm.

How do you do it?

I guess you meditate?

 

You’re grounded.

Stay in, save lives!

For now.

For many days,

and weeks

to come.

 

You’re grounded.

A time to still the soul,

put anxiety to the side,

and try to listen,

watch,

breathe.

 

Do you hear the birds,

as they gather in the timbers?

The bees flitting from shrub to hedge,

checking freshly sprouting buds and blossoms?

Can I hear the breeze

whispering

in the overgrown undergrowth?

I can feel

the late spring sunshine

pushing aside

the winter chill,

trying to warm

my anxious soul.

 

Much is unknown.

New.

Fearful.

Sorrowful.

Tragic.

Unprecedented, all voices say.

Yet the days move along

unaware of mankind’s distress .

 

Still the soul.

Be grounded.

Each day

new buds unfurl,

newborn lambs emerge, surprised innocence in their wide eyes.

Each day

the sun climbs higher in the northern sky

towards summer

and beyond.

 

Towards the days of a new, renewed now.

 

blossom 1

Paralysis – reflection and reminiscence

I feel as if I have been here before.

Over 10 years ago, I heard words which were to rock my world. The landscape around me shifted seismically and everything I thought was certain, was no longer so. In a state of shock and disbelief, I embarked on a path step by step. Tiny step by tiny step. Mostly forwards but not always. A line in the sand had been drawn – when I heard the surgeon say “this is highly suspicious of cancer“.

I remember in those early days following diagnosis, being astounded that the world continued as normal all around me. As I moved through the treatments and procedures my focus was on survival and on moving from one step to another. I became gradually used to the new landscape, and was able to continue to function.

However, I was aware that as I garnered my emotional, physical and psychological strength and resilience, I felt as if life was on pause. I was completely unable to think beyond the immediate, let alone plan. I counted time in increments through treatments, unable to consider making arrangements for what we all think of as social and personal activities. It was like a paralysis, I was cocooned, unable to move.

And the realisation has dawned on me that the emotional space I am in right now, as the pandemic is taking its hold, is uncannily like that space 10 years ago. This is day 22 of self isolation and shielding. I arrived home from work 22 days ago, having agreed that afternoon that I would work from home from then on to reduce risk while travelling to work on busy buses. I picked up a couple of items from the shop on my way home. Excellent stocking up – a jar of red pesto, a small packet of macaroni and some miso soups. I had no idea when I shut the front door, that I would not be leaving again for the foreseeable future. Family conversations that evening were frank and sobering. We talked through the risks that I faced. Age and underlying health conditions meant that I would not fare well if I contracted COVID-19. Additionally, as the pandemic took hold, the health service would be placed under extreme pressure to accommodate very ill patients. We realised at that point that I should immediately self isolate. And so, on Friday 13 March, I closed my doors to the outside world.

In many ways, life continues. The sun rises, it travels across the sky and taking a little longer each day, it sets again. I work from home, hold meetings and discussions online. Life has been transferred predominantly online. I have FaceTime, Zoom and Skype chats in the evening with friends, sometimes in small groups. Our Book Club and Writing Group now meet online. But even though life is continuing, it has been changed irrevocably. We don’t know when it will settle and resume and in particular, we don’t know what the new world will look like when it does settle. 

The aspect which is so difficult to comprehend, is the enormity of this. This is not a personal or localised crisis. This is a crisis for humanity across the globe. And if the most developed and sophisticated health and social support systems are buckling under the pressure, the challenges which the most vulnerable communities face is terrifying.

This is not an individual trauma, we are in a collective state of shock and I believe that we are just at the start.

So again, I find myself in this strange paralysis. This is not a pause where we can make the most of this new “free time”. I am finding that this is a time for adjustment to this new altered reality we find ourselves in. And I am finding that we are responding and reacting in different ways. This is bringing out the very best in many with heart wrenching accounts of kindness and selflessness, and sadly the worst in a small minority.

As I read more and more from fellow cancer veterans, that they are shaken by how much they are reminded of the times of shock when diagnosed, I have been reflecting back on my own diagnosis time. When I look back over my blog posts from those days, I could quite easily do a “find and replace” exercise, replacing “cancer” with COVID19. Back then, I would lurch from fear and anxiety to grim determination to beat this thing (as if I had any choice in the matter). But through it all, I was bathed in this numbing paralysis. And that is how I find these days, and weeks ahead. I can deal with the immediate. Working from my kitchen table, eating from the contents of my fridge and cupboards, household tasks, working out how to get an online shop, being humbled by the kindness of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours dropping off care and food packages, and even birthday cake on my doorstep. But I cannot shake off this sense of being on hold, paused as we are moved forwards through this evolving crisis.

The sense of deja vu prompted me to re-read an old blog post where I had commented on the extent that my world and landscape had been so drastically altered. And this is what I wrote, over 10 years ago:

There are two things which shape the way I see this diagnosis.  Firstly is the fact that life is less about what happens to us, than how we deal with what happens to us.  I can’t change the diagnosis but I am in charge of how I handle what is coming.  So be prepared for inappropriate humour and oodles of feistiness.  The other thing is hard to describe.  Life changes with such a diagnosis, and you can’t go back to what it was before.  From the day I googled galore and realised that there was a real possibility that this was breast cancer, I realised also that there are many things I can no longer take for granted.  All plans change, in fact all plans are cancelled or put on hold.  It is a bit like the sun rising every morning – you know you can rely on it, you know it will come up and some days are sunnier than others and you can see it clearly, some days cloudier but it is light so you know that the sun did rise again.  But imagine if suddenly, one day the sun doesn’t rise.  Everything changes.  Everything fundamental you take for granted, suddenly shifts.  No daylight, no warmth, no growth and the colours all change.  But, after the shock and with human resilience, the will to survive, creativity and technology, ways are developed of dealing with it and life continues.  But it can never be the same, it can never go back to the way it was before.  All right, that is an extreme and dramatic analogy, but there is something about this diagnosis that feels similar to me.

December 2009

And  I realise that I don’t need to shake off this feeling of paralysis. I need to embrace this as my own way of coping through this. It won’t last for ever. This too shall pass. And life will gradually settle. The cancer experience means that I know that it won’t be the same, and it could be very different. And, as long as COVID19 does not take me, then life will gradually resume in its new formhope

And indeed, life does continue. New shoots, buds and flowers are appearing as spring moves forward towards summer. And the sun rises, it travels across the sky taking a little longer each day, and sets again, in preparation for the new day and days to come.

African sunset

An epiphany

IMG_2644Those days of the Big Checks in Bangkok are in the past in many ways. Many years were punctuated by three monthly check ups, and then six monthly with more thorough checks annually. These were a Big Deal in my post diagnosis life. I was fortunate to have such thorough follow up from the end of the heavy treatment in mid 2010 until I left Asia in mid 2016. Another world, another lifetime, it often seems. Now checking is different in frequency and nature. The past is indeed a different country.

Every year in October, in addition to the three month or six monthly checks, I would turn up at the hospital for what Dr W fondly called the “Big Check”. He had explained to me at diagnosis, that once the active treatment was completed I would be called back for checks every three months for the first two years, and every six months after that until I reached the five year point. Then I would graduate on to annual checks. The three and six monthly checks would be lighter, but at the one year point I would additionally have a mammogram, ultrasound and any other checks indicated.

Those checks were a mixed blessing. I approached each round of checks with trepidation, and the annual Big Check with nothing short of dread and fear. I knew that I was incredibly fortunate to have a variety of bloodwork, physical examinations, mammogram and ultrasound and if indicated, further scans such as CT. I knew that if there were any nasty activities underway and any signs of progression or recurrence, there was a very high chance that these would be spotted during the Big Checks. And of course, that was my greatest fear. That there was some nasty malignant beavering away of cell multiplication out of view. Yet, alongside that Big Fear, there was the attraction of knowing that if the checks all came back without any worrisome results, then in all likelihood I was in very good health and the designation of NED (No Evidence of Disease). And NED is exactly in whose company I wanted to be.  If I passed through these major checks with no worrying results, then I would be rewarded with enormous relief and reassurance.  l could then breathe out and get on with some serious living until the next round. My first followup checks were in early July of 2010, thus by by strange coincidence my first Big Check took place in October 2010. Exactly a year from diagnosis. And also the start of the visible Breast Cancer Awareness month which was even present in Bangkok.

Those first checks set me on a path of appointments, blood taking and other checks regularly until I left Yangon in June 2016 to my new life in Rwanda, saying goodbye fondly to Drs W and W2, and the teams which had looked after me. We had been a team for 7 years and had been through a lot of hiccups and nastier moments together.

As well as the checks, my ongoing followup consisted of taking Tamoxifen once the active treatment was completed in the May of 2010. This was not a pleasant experience with its many side effects including the very nasty one which tried to do away with me altogether – the pulmonary embolism which appeared in July 2012. When I was first prescribed Tamoxifen, research and trials indicated that the prognosis was best when patients took the drug for 5 years. The prospect of 5 years on a medication with such heavy side effects is daunting. When the embolism happened I was taken off Tamoxifen immediately. And prescribed Femara/Letrozole. This is an aromatase inhibitor and works in a different way to Tamoxifen which is a selective estrogen-receptor modulator (the wiki link is need to explain that as I am not able to do so!) Femara is more usually prescribed for women who are post menopausal. It has just as many side effects, equally heavy and unpleasant such as joint pain, weight gain, fatigue, dizziness, increased cholesterol just to name a few and I was both thankful and frustrated about these “extras“.

As I was approaching four years of taking the hormone therapy Tamoxifen and then Femara, and almost able to touch the five year point when I would be able to stop, new research findings were hitting the breast cancer headlines. What an ironic blow to learn that women who took the medications for ten years had better outcomes than those who did not, or who took them for five years. I knew what was ahead before the next round of checks. And sure enough. Dr W2 recommended that I keep on taking the Femara. For an additional five years. Five. Whole. Years. That felt like for ever! Or until mid 2020 …

Leaving Asia and the attention of Drs W and W2 with the reassurance of the Big Checks, was a massive step out of a comfort zone which I loved to hate, and really valued. Moving to Rwanda, meant that I had an annual mammogram in Scotland around the time of the checks in 2016 and my unexpected return to Scotland in 2017 meant a very different approach to cancer follow up, particularly as I approached the ten year point from diagnosis. This involves an annual mammo and a letter to let me know if there is any need for follow up, and a separate check up with the breast nurse. No single day to focus on both with dread, and knowing that clarity would be provided. No bloodwork and tumour markers with my record and trends. Instead, lighter checks over several days or weeks. A very different experience, particularly psychologically.

This year, I had to juggle the dates around as my nurse appointment was scheduled earlier than the mammo so results would not have been available at the consultation. So with some phone conversations, and a house move all underway, it was agreed that I would have the mammo and then see the consultant prior to moving to a new area. This took place, ten years to the day from my formal diagnosis and surgery by some very bizarre coincidence. These checks are not nearly as stressful as the Big Checks in Bangkok because they do not include bloodwork so I have no idea if tumour markers are within the trend that was clear throughout the regular testing in Asia. Occasional testing of markers is not useful, so I did not miss the results, just the ongoing knowledge that these were stable. The significantly lessened stress of these checks is balanced by the limited reassurance. A little sigh of relief, but the underlying nagging uncertainty of NED status.

So after a very short wait, the  consultant invited me into his consulting room, and noted that I had had much of my treatment overseas, asking me if it had been Paris or Singapore? I began to explain …

The mammo result was unremarkable, happily and we talked through my general health and the worries that I always harbour. Then we talked about the Femara. I was fully expecting there to be some new research which indicated that results for women who took the medication for 15 years had better outcomes … and prepared for that news. To my surprise, he said that the latest research and analysis shows that there is no marked benefit in staying on Femara beyond 10 years. He also said that there was a kind of a ‘hangover’ of the medication as the benefits stay in the system for some time after it is stopped. This was the precursor to him advising me that I could stop taking Femara. After TEN YEARS. He asked how many tablets I had left before I would need a new prescription. I had around 3 months, and that would take me through to early January. “Then, I suggest, that you continue to take these until they are finished. And then stop. There is no benefit in getting a new prescription, you can stop when they run out”.

And  just like that, I was given permission and the advice to move forward by a giant step.

I have been taking this feeling of lethargy, joint pain, and general effort needed for everything I do for granted for so many years, I did not actually believe the day would come when I would no longer be taking this heavy, albeit probably life preserving medication.

And so around 20 days ago, on Twelfth Night, 6 January,  I had my own personal epiphany. The realisation that this ten year phase had come to a close. As I prepared to go to bed, I took my glass of water and the last Femara in the packet. Hopefully, my last ever Femara. The end of an era indeed.

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I am looking forward to seeing if there is any change in how I feel. Let’s see. One thing is for sure – I am bound to tell you.