Dragon Days, Dragon Years

Chinese New Year is approaching. We will move from the Year of the Goat to the Year of the Monkey on February 8.  Neither of these is the Year of the Dragon, to state the obvious. However, the dragon has had special meaning for me these past two years.

In 2014, a major life goal of mine was realised. This was to see my writing in a book with real pages, and became a reality with the publication of How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit. This is an anthology of writing in which I was a contributing writer. For me, 2014 felt to be my year of the Dragonfruit.

Dragonfruit cover and photo of Philippa Ramsden, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0).

Then, it so turned out that 2015 became my Year of the Snapdragon……

However, before I tell the story of the Snapdragon, I have to tell you about “Shut up and Write!”

I have mentioned Yangon Writing Group before. We are a small group of people with writing dreams and aspirations. Some of whom have a serious writing CV and publications to their name. Some like me whose dreams are significantly grander then the reality. It is a group where we push our creative boundaries, experiment, critique each others work and provide encouragement and motivation. It is a nurturing space and one where I for one, have learned and grown a great deal.

As the years have passed, our Writing Group has morphed to suit the needs of its members in a constantly moving community. But generally, we meet, we write, we critique each others work all in a very informal setting. Recently, we have refined our process somewhat, taking advantage of new voices and ideas.  We now have a more set structure on a monthly basis, rather than meeting to meeting. On a Saturday morning we will meet, alternating venues between downtown and middle-ish town to accommodate increasing traffic. Most weeks we will “Shut up and Write” and once a month we have a Feedback Session, where we share pieces (in advance) which we would like to have critiqued. This is turning out to be a good balance, where we can write in the company of others and where we can hear feedback on our writing.

So, three Saturday mornings out of four, we gather in a nice creative spot, chat for 10 minutes or so, catching up with news and ideas and then a timer is set for 45 minutes and we literally shut up and write. We have a breather after the 45 minutes order more coffee or stretch our legs, and then quieten down for another intense write. This can be repeated as often as we want, and generally most folk are there for two bursts of writing, and some stay on a good chunk of the day, filling up on coffee and snacks and taking advantage of a physical and temporal writing space.

While 45 minutes does not sound long, it can be quite incredible how much can be produced or achieved in such a short time. There is also no directive about what we focus on in that time. We have, between us, refined previous work, worked on brand new ideas, continued existing, longer writing projects and blogged. We have also used that time on occasions to put together submissions of our work for publication.

I have found that dedicated time has become important. When you make a concerted effort, even if it is only to head to a coffee shop, then you do ensure that you use that time productively.

I have been using this time in a variety of ways. The few blog posts which have appeared, have formed mostly during “Shut up and Write” time. I have gently re-opened the memoir and taken some time to start moving forward on the long path ahead with that work. And I have also prepared a couple of small submissions.

And finally, that is where the Snapdragon connection comes in.

I discovered Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing late last year. A journal which combines creativity and healing clearly would resonate with me. This is very clear in the Journal’s description and vision:

snapdragon

Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing
We could not think of a better name for this journal other than Snapdragon! At its deepest level, the Snapdragon flower essence helps the soul to distinguish its use of creative forces — especially those which radiate from the lower energy centers, and those which are used for spoken word. The Snapdragon flower is often used as a remedy to help persons — particularly those who experience extreme tension in the jaw and mouth — to re-direct their powerful metabolic energy into its rightful channels. By harmonizing the relationship between these energy centers, the soul evolves in its use of creative power. And so, with Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, our desire is to provide a platform for your self-expression and soul’s healing!Our Mission: To engage and support persons in the process of self-discovery, expression, and healing through creative engagement with the arts.
Our Vision: Individuals and communities having a safe space and a platform to create a portrait of their experiences and hopes so that they may find the peace and healing balm authentic sharing provides that we might grow in our respect, appreciation and love of ourselves and one another.

It was approaching the end of October when submissions would close for the December edition, and I was compelled to rework and submit some of the pieces which had been part of my own creative process.

This has become a longer story than anticipated, so I shall skip a little and take you to a day in November, when I opened an email from Snapdragon. The email brought a broad smile to my face as I learned that one of my poems would be included in the December issue “The Art of Creating”.

This is an online Journal so I do not have a paper copy, and it is subscription based so I cannot share the Journal itself, but details of the subscriptions are here and (remember I am Scottish, so you can trust me on this ;) ) are very affordable.

Another year, another writing dragon. A very happy gecko! I am especially delighted that my name features among the artists contributing to the Journal. One quite delighted gecko indeed!

But here’s the funny thing. The last Year of the Dragon (in Chinese astrology) was in 2012, ending in February 2013. The next Year of the Dragon is way ahead, starting in 2024. However, in Myanmar, it is  the day of the week in which a person is born that is fundamental to an individual and their actions. I am Saturday born. Each day of the week is associated with a particular animal and ruling planet.

Saturday born people are ruled by Saturn. And privileged to be mythical dragons.

Smile out Loud Saturday #SOLSaturday

I firmly believe that we are surrounded by wonder. As well as grand sights, renown sites and natural marvels, we are also surrounded by tiny details which can be missed if we blink, or are looking the other way. Or are scrolling down our phones.

Recently, I posted a photo of a sight which make me smile out loud, while I was sitting in Yangon’s traffic.

As the early days of 2016 settle under our feet, I thought it would be a feisty feature to add to this space – a “smile out loud Saturday” moment where these kind of images can be shared. The intent of this is purely and simply to prompt a smile out loud.

Here is my first #SOLSaturday post.

Sitting in traffic (too many hours are spent in Yangon in this way, these days), I noticed that a man had set up a stall at the roadside, next to a construction site (another frequent Yangon sight). He was selling fish, neatly arranged in plastic bags on an impromptu table. Fish as in goldfish, not fish for eating which would be a far more common sight. Or at least more expected goods for sale.

sol 5

A sight which made me smile out loud. A gentle smile of appreciation and respect.

sol 4

sol 1

Sometime back, late in 2012, Marie of Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer threw down a challenge for us to celebrate the ordinary in our everyday surroundings. The challenge involved us posting a single photograph which captured wonder in the “ordinary” details all around us. Many bloggeristas around the globe were inspired and motivated by this, and we shared all manner of moments. More than the week of pictures though, was the constant reminder for us to really look at what was around us and be reminded of the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Hence, my motivation to share smiles. A smile costs nothing, and is easy to share. Smiles are infectious. Smiles are a balance to some of the tough stuff in the world around us.

This is an encouragement to me to keep my eyes and heart open and see what is around me. And to share the prompt to smile out loud.

Smile Out Loud Saturday!

Settling into 2016 with a three word mantra

I slept nearly 12 hours on Friday night. And for the first morning in over three weeks I knew where I was when I awoke. I both love and hate that feeling when you are traveling and on first awaking you have absolutely no idea where you are, what day it is and what that very important thing is that you have to do.

I have been on a journey. Both physically and emotionally, and only Friday evening did I come to a halt. I realised that my journey has covered many miles. An astonishing 13,000 or more miles or over 20,000 kilometres by air and road, and including a wonderful 2,200 miles by train. There is another very long story in there, but that is not for now.

Although I returned to Myanmar earlier this week, I was travelling again within 48 hours of my arrival and was inordinately glad to return home and allow my mind and body to rest and recalibrate.

It is not coincidental that my three words for 2016 have not formed until the past few days. My being needs need to come to rest and be still for the words to settle. It is hard to reflect and explore the world of words when there is a great deal happening, people to spend time with and new experiences to embrace. So the words are late.

It turned out that 2015 was a complex and painful year. I leaned heavily on my words “Breathe, stargaze and realise” and brought in three more (to my surprise) to see me through the most difficult times – “Dignity, contemplation and beacon”. I cannot share any details of those times in the public domain, other people are affected and it is not appropriate or correct to speak out. The word “dignity” was critical in reminding me that the most appropriate action was to remain silent, and that has been unbelievably hard.

dignityAs usual, since adopting the practice of adopting the three word mantra in 2010, I started thinking of the approaching new year in the final weeks of 2015. My process is to reflect back on the previous year, look at my priorities and then look ahead at what I want to be the key focus of the coming year. The three words enable a balance across different areas of life, and usually pick up health, family, wellbeing, practical and professional direction areas and the creative side. A balanced mantra encourages a balanced approach in the year. I enjoy the process of crafting my mantra as satisfying as the final selection itself.

Finally, my words are in place – and the three word mantra for my 2016 are:

“Reorient, nurture and crystalize.”

Reorient

The first word came easily. The coming year has to focus on healing and finding my true north again. All that I had believed to be sure turned out to be fragile and turned to dust under my feet last year. The foundations crumbled under my feet and I found myself directionless. The greatest priority for the coming year is to “reorient” myself and move forward purposefully.

Reorient will be at the heart of much of next year. I need not only to re-think my future, but also to set steps in place to ensure that my physical and emotional compasses have been truly re-set.

Over the past months, I have feared that my inner compass had been smashed beyond repair. Gradually, though, I have come to realise that while the exterior casing had indeed been decimated, somehow deep inside the inner workings could be coaxed back into action. If the inner workings can be repaired and recalibrated minute part by minute part, the casing can surely be repaired. The key part of repairing my inner compass is to find my true north and ensure that my path ahead navigates in this direction and keeps me on the right path.

Change runs deep, and this inner reorientation accompanies physical transformation too. Already I have made changes in my living situation and been adjusting to new practical arrangements. I need to think very carefully about the longer term future. I have no idea where I will be this time next year, nor a clear sense of my direction. I need to place trust and energy into the process of reorientation.

Nurture

Alongside the need to reorient, is the importance of healing, replenishing and investing time and energy especially in my creative activities once more. Nurture is a word which suggests growth and nourishment through love and careful attention. My health is good right now, notwithstanding the weight of side and after effects, but I know that I need to pay attention to my wellbeing and focus on gaining strength. I especially need to devote time and energy to creativity and particularly writing. The blog has been very quiet, and my commitment and writing goals had to be put to the side while the bigger stuff was worked through. I want to get back on track, nurture my creativity and produce more writing. I still have the goal of completing the first draft of the memoir of my first year in Myanmar. I need to tend to these areas and see new life and regrowth appear.

secret garden

Crystalize

My third word was, as often happens, most elusive. I played with a number of words but none was “quite right”. I had a little imaginary pot with many words in it, such as “reach, deliver, embark, embrace, pause, revise, stretch” along with many others. I wanted to convey the idea of committing to the new path and orientation once I had clarity. And then, in Singapore airport of all places, my third word appeared. “Crystalize”. My perfect third word.

Crystalize has a number of meanings, including its scientific term which is the process of forming solid crystals from either a solution, melt or more rarely from a gas. It is also regularly used with the meaning of making something definite and clear. Crystalize is the right third word for many reasons. After reorientation and with nurturing it is important to achieve some stability and clarity. I do not yet know what that will look like but I do know that this will appear through this process of crystallization. From a situation of flux and change, stability will surely appear. Tiny crystals of hope, which will settle and grow into a formation and foundation for me to move forward.

Crystals are complex and beautiful. Crystals absorb and reflect light and colour. Crystals are one of nature’s brilliant treasures. Quite simply, crystals are exquisite. A future which forms through crystallization will surely be beautiful.

blue crystal

Now that my words are in place, I have a sense of both peace and purpose for the year ahead.

Where am I?

Where am I?

There continues to be silence in this space, and I am working to introduce some sounds and move towards more constant presence here. So here are a few words to break the silence. I am still around, still thinking and reflecting. Still kicking, still laughing and still crying. But not writing. Not writing nearly enough.

Usually I have three words to share at the start of the year, a practice which I discovered at the end of 2010 and which has worked incredibly well for me. However, these words are late in coming to you this year. To let you into a secret, they are a little late coming to me too. I have been offline a great deal in the past weeks and on the move too. Not enough time for reflection, but in a good way.

The three words will be ready soon, and once they are, they will be here. I am moving forward from my mantra of 2015 which reminded and pushed me to “breathe, stargaze and realise”. I leaned on an unexpected three words during personal challenges with “dignity, contemplate and beacon” which have been invaluable and for sure influenced my actions. My 2016 words are still morphing and whispering to me, the mantra still taking shape.

This year has been tough. I know I seem to say that each year, but I have crumbled more under unexpected challenges in recent months. So it is important to embrace unexpected gifts as well. Like this one……. A couple of weeks ago, while walking in the lanes in Yangon I happened to glance upwards. The dry season’s typical blue sky was interrupted by a random, feisty cloud.  It was clearly grumpy and dark but the sun was shining brightly behind it and casting clear rays from behind the cloud.

The silver lining and sunshine were clearly visible.

IMG_5494

This is such a powerful reminder that in the darkest of times there is indeed light and sunshine even if we cannot immediately see it.

Very soon my three word mantra will be ready to motivate and guide me forwards, seeking light and laughter, sunshine and smiles, happiness and healing for us all.

Morning Walks

This is a beautiful time of year – the start of the dry season, relatively cooler and drier air and disappearance of the thick clouds. Mostly. This year the rains have been teasing us with frequent reappearances, and some very heavy rainstorms. Every time we think we have seen the last of the rains, we are surprised by another downpour. Now we have had a few days with blue skies and slightly cooling mornings and evenings for a little longer. We quietly whisper to ourselves that the rains have now finally departed. The mornings are cool and dry. Perfect for early morning walking.

I have frequently said that I am not a natural “morning person” in that I always want to turn over and have a while longer in the comfort of my bed. But I know that once, I am up and especially once I am out of the door, then I have a sense of something akin to pride and appreciation that I have made the effort.

This is also a special time of year in that it is in between the full moon festivals of Thadingyut and Tazaungmon in Myanmar, which I wrote about last year here:

Throughout the wettest days of the monsoon, between the July and the October full moons of Waso and Thadingyut , there is a period which is often called  “Buddhist Lent” in Myanmar. During this period, it is usual not to begin new ventures – not to start a new job or move house and not to get married. At the Thadingyut Full Moon (usually in October) there is a great sense of festivity and the city is bathed in lights and candles. The temples are packed and shops full of gift packs of monk robes and appropriate gifts.  The night sky is punctuated with lanterns floating upwards.

During the daytime, the streets are nowadays a-buzz with post election smiles and purple-inked fingers, with the trucks with money frames and thumping music, daily bustle and most folks holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun.

Yangon days

However, the early mornings are completely different in nature. The streets and lanes are misty, there are few cars but more than a few people with early morning purposes. Before the sun rises too high in the sky, the air is cool and the light is mellow. It is a very special time. I have been able to re-establish an early morning routine which replaces swimming for now, with a morning walk.

imageDuring my walk the other morning, I passed a group of young nuns, collecting alms as usual on certain days of the lunar month. In their pink robes, lit gently by the soft sunlight and with shy smiles we each walked on towards the coming day.

imageI hardly noticed the man on the bike, until I was alongside him. I did smile to myself when I spotted his wallet sticking out of the back of his lyongyi, reminding me of how many things have not changed here. It is not so easy to hold on to your wallet if it is on display in most other places.

So what did surprise me, was  seeing the reason that he had paused on his bike. He had a smartphone pressed to his ear and was in deep conversation. And that is something which is very different. When I arrived in Myanmar in 2009, mobile phones were few and far between, incredibly expensive ($1500 when I arrived) and not easy to obtain. I had no mobile phone for my first 3 years in country. We used to write phone numbers in little notebooks and use landlines. Now almost everyone (in urban areas at least) has a smartphone.

imageSo this image captures much of what I love here. My morning walk would have been very similar 6 years ago. However, while we are indeed surrounded by change, there is much which beautifully preserved.

Sometimes the richest of experiences are simple,  free and quite literally on our doorstep.

Skygazing

I never tire of gazing upwards. Every sight is different. Stars may be set in well known families and formations, documented on parchment,  yet each viewing of the night sky is different. Clouds and moodily lit skies tell new stories with each breath of air.

The skies remind me that despite our belief otherwise, individually we are tiny and insignificant. Despite what we are doing to the planet as a race, we are almost non existent in the face of the elements.

Recently I was returning from Bangkok from my last round of medical checks, and as always opted to sit in a aisle seat. Those monsoon flights may be short but the rain and attitude-filled skies can be alarming to fly through. Better not to look at those clouds too closely as we fly through them.

My late afternoon flight was approaching Yangon, and I could see that the the cabin was taking on a golden hue.  Appropriate for arrival in the Golden Land.  I glanced across the empty seat beside me past my fellow passenger at the window seat and was immediately captivated by the skyscape outside. There were layers of cloud, and the setting sun reflecting on the waters far below of the Gulf of Martaban, the northern part of the Andaman Sea.

Automatically, my hand was reaching into my bag for my camera to capture the magic in front of my eyes.

Whereupon I came face to face, quite literally, with a bit of a challenge. In the form of the passenger across the empty seat, who was comfortably eating her spicy Thai in flight meal in her window seat. It is impossible to be unobtrusive in these situations, but I did try, leaning over and angling the camera so that I did not capture her shoulders and noodles. She also looked up and snapped some pictures on her phone.

Within a few moments, the scene had changed. The light had altered, the reflection dimmed and the other-wordly scene outside taken on a much more familiar look. By happy coincidence, and the good nature of my fellow passenger, however, I had been able to capture and preserve the sight.

aviation sunset oct 2015

It has been a while since I have changed my background image here, and photograph of that moment provides just the right opportunity to change that right now, and share that moment right now.

In these days when we stare into our phones and devices oblivious to our surroundings, there is a stronger reminder than ever to pause, look upwards and drink in the free, ever changing moving pictures in the skies above us.

Lymphoedema? Seriously? Life following diagnosis is just not that simple……

Recently many changes in my life have been underway. One major change which has impacted significantly on me had been the closure of the place where I have been swimming in the mornings. I knew this would be tough, but it has had even more impact than I had expected.

The facility closed to members on July 1 but I was soon on home leave. Furthermore, rainy season always disrupts swimming plans. Every night my ear is always keenly listening for the sound of rain through the sound of the fan. If the rain is heavy, the swim is postponed. Sometimes a full week of postponed swims passes in rainy season.

yangon monsoon

 

Aung Min Gaung River 1Now that the rains are starting to abate, I should be able to swim more often. I need to make plans.

But the gap this year has been too long. Very few swims in too many weeks.

Over the past weeks, I have also been experience increasing pain in my left arm. Twang Arm. I mentioned this to my Doctor here in Yangon and he told me exactly what I did NOT want to hear. What I had not even told myself.

Just a few weeks before the 6th anniversary of my mastectomy and the grand removal of all lymph nodes in my left arm I  developed lymphoedema. These are not my arms, but a stock image of what it looks like.

lymphoedema

Seriously?  Yes, seriously. Sad Face. Angry Face.  ARE-YOU-KIDDING-ME? face.

I am pretty certain that there is a direct relationship between the lack of swimming and the intrusion of this unwelcome bonus condition.

So I am on a quest. As the rains abate, I am seeking out another option. You have to factor in a house move to my recent changes, so I am also testing out new geography and facilities.  I have already checked out one place and had a test swim. This is not quite so easy to get to, but it is a possibility. There are two great pools, a 30 metre and an 33 metre pool. I do not think there are any kingfishers and it is a great deal busier but that is life.

I have always been convinced that the almost daily swims from very soon after surgery, really played a part in keeping lymphoedema at bay. Now I am going to see if I can reverse this and at the very least prevent it from getting worse. It is mild at the moment, and I must stop it from getting worse. Oh and does anyone have any idea where and how I can get a lymphoedema sleeve in Yangon?

lymphoedema sleeveAs October advances with its array of messages around Breast Cancer, I want to add my own message, which is “it just isn’t that simple“. I am happy to be living with NED and want to stay that way, but life after diagnosis just is not that simple. Lympoedema is just one more bonus in the post diagnosis life, as I have discussed before. Thanks but no thanks cancer, indeed.  These bonuses include:

  • A digestive tract which remains sensitive following the ghastly gastric effects of chemo.
  • I have difficulties with memory too, my personal memory card is none too reliable and has particular dislike for. This is linked to  “chemobrain”- a level of cognitive impairment “thanks” to chemotherapy which is now more recognised and understood to be very real.
  • The pulmonary embolism which tried to get rid of me in 2012, and for which I still have to take blood thinners and undergo regular checks.
  • The failed thyroid, which again needs daily medication.
  • Peripheral neuropathy in toes and fingers. Not severe but enough to affect mobility and make me walk clumsily to make others notice. Enough to make me trip and fall too regularly.
  • Brittle and constantly breaking nails
  • Highly sensitive skin – which cannot tolerate sticking plaster or bandaids (depending on the part of the world you come from ;) ), and which can sense the presence of a stray hair through several layers of clothing. This includes the extremely sensitive soles of my feet
  • Excruciating night time, and other time cramps.
  • Last and in no way least, is Twang Arm which remains seriously corded and which is now clearly laughing up its lymphoedema sleeve.

Again, I need to respond by stepping up my game and squaring up, no matter how exhausting this is.

I am not afraid to shout out that I HATE cancer, I HATE the way it continues to sneak in surprises and knock you when you are still getting getting back to your feet.

Life after a diagnosis of breast (or any cancer) just is not that simple.