It was Saturday morning and I was sitting listening to the monsoonal rains pounding the garden, the earth welcoming this drenching.
This was the time I had set aside to think about Marie’s suggestion in her blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer that we describe our non Breast Cancer “other” life. I find that I protect areas of my “other life” when blogging, in particularly in relation to my family and work, and try and maintain their privacy. So I was struggling a bit to decide what was appropriate to share.
Instead of focusing on the task in hand, I found that my mind was wandering and my attention being drawn to a little black and orange butterfly outside in the bushes beside the mango tree. He was flittering around, doing his butterfly work and seemingly oblivious to the rain. The rain was not as heavy as it had been earlier, so perhaps he had come out of a sheltered spot. My mind was off on a completely different trail. I just could not help wondering – does this little butterfly not get wet? I know his life span is short, is it further threatened by such torrential rain? I learned very young that butterflies are very fragile and that even a touch could destroy their wings and kill the butterfly. So where does he hide when the rains at are their heaviest, when it is too wet for most beings? Does he have a rest from his tasks and wait for the rains to ease? Or is he destroyed, defenceless and exposed to the elements?
I found myself unable to contain my curiosity about the butterfly and the rain, and finally conceded, keying in my question and sending it to the Natural Science cousin of Dr Google. I was relieved to learn that butterflies are pretty wise little beings and they take refuge under leaves, in hedges or in other sheltered spots and protect themselves from the damaging rain. Kind of obvious really. But that was just the start of a path of discovery of all sorts of interesting things about butterflies. It really made me smile to learn that female butterflies have a really neat little manoeuvre if they want to avoid unwanted male attention. They just fold their wings flat, and they become invisible! Don’t you just love it when you find out something new like that, when you are not even looking?
And that’s when I realised that I had not been avoiding my reflection on my other life. I had been living it, allowing my curiosity to pursue a puzzle and my imagination to take off unhindered. In my “other life”, I am always unbearably reminding family, friends and colleagues that “you learn something new every day”. It is something I find particularly pertinent in my professional role as in education programming. As an adviser, I am anxious not to appear condescending, or “know it all” as I guide and support programming. If I can demonstrate that I learn something new every day, then it reinforces the importance of learning and being open to new knowledge throughout our lives as well as ensuring that we all have that same chance to do so. Learning is not discriminatory if we can be open to it.
When I think of my “other life” I recognise that it is a composite of many “lives” and I know that these have all played a role in the building the present day “other life”. Even so, often I find it hard to believe that I am in this place, in such a fascinating environment and professionally enriching space. I met up with a friend several months ago, as we just happened to be passing through Bangkok airport at the same time. I was travelling from Colombo to Yangon and she was heading from Delhi to Hanoi. Two Glasgow girls!! Incredibly we not only transited through the same city on the same day, but we did so in the same short 2 hour window. We had a crazy, 15 minute, standing in the transit passageways, squealy excited rendez-vous before rushing off to catch our respective onward flights. Being Scots, and from a similar background we both giggled like schoolgirls as we marvelled at where we were. Neither of us could have imagined living such a seemingly exotic, and definitely exciting life. Neither of us came from the conventional routes into this, and hard work had been the main route to where we were, as well as having the mettle to grasp exciting opportunities even though they appeared daunting. Most striking though, was the fact that back then, I could never have dreamed that I would be living this life now. I always had a fantasy of living overseas, but with home responsibilities, a lack of what I believed was relevant skills and experience, and no obvious opportunities, it was a distant and unlikely dream.
So how on earth did it actually become a reality?
I realise that I have had a relatively unorthodox life and career path even when I was Scotland-based. I went to university when I was 30, as a mature student with demanding domestic responsibilities. I studied modern languages because that meant that my family and I would have the chance to spend time abroad. We lived in France for a year, and spent a term in Belarus a few months after its independence as what was the Soviet Union was collapsing. Not the best setting to improve my Russian language (in a revival of Belarusian) but a fascinating experience. Those university years were tough, especially financially, but we undoubtedly gained much from it. After graduating, I took up an interesting position in international affairs and programming in local government. A great mix of the previous community development experience I had before university, and my love of language and international work. I loved bringing an international dimension into lives of people who otherwise would not have that experience, including artists with disabilities and school pupils from difficult backgrounds.
Family responsibilities changed as we approached the new millennium, and after my Trans
Siberian Train adventure I spotted my “dream job” advertised in the newspaper. An international agency was looking to hire overseas, field staff to manage the development programmes. Incredibly and fortunately, my unorthodox mix of experience and skills seemed to provide what was needed and I was offered a position in the Nepal programme.
I had only been to Asia once when I stepped off the plane in Kathmandu in July 2000 to take up that new job. I had no idea what to expect. The work was new, the country was new, the organisation was new, the language was unknown to me. It was simultaneously terrifying and utterly thrilling. I knew that I was taking a risk, and that it might not work out. I also knew though, that if I did not at least give it a try I would have massive regret for the rest of my life that I had lost such an opportunity.
The fact that I am still in Asia, 11 years later, and still enthusing about this life, speaks for itself.
The thing I love about my work, throughout the 5 ½ years in Nepal as well as the following contracts in Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka and now Myanmar, is that there is a wonderful mix of practical grassroots work with strategic level work. I love spending time in communities in remote parts of the country, listening and learning about the challenges in these areas, and developing an understanding of the context. This gives me the background I need to be able to work at a strategic level, to support work towards ensuring that all children have a chance to have a quality education. I enjoy working with colleagues to feed into the bigger picture and ensure that our work is grounded and appropriate. I love the fact that one day I might be in meetings with the UN or diplomatic level colleagues, and another I can be in a very remote village, accessible only by bullock cart, talking with parents about their children’s care and development. I still find it hard to believe where I am. There is not a day goes by that I am not humbled and thankful.
The cancer encounter happened after 9 years in Asia, and thankful as I am that I am currently in NED’s company and have been mostly able to pick up the pieces, I would be naive and wrong to assume that nothing has changed. If I have a recurrence, it is highly likely that I would have to give extremely careful thought to whether or not I could continue life and work overseas for financial as well as practical reasons. All the more reason to value what I have.
I am not going to dwell on that right now. That cancer diagnosis is a fact, and it is why the biggest areas of my life found themselves relegated for a bit. Now I trust that it is just one more component of what all goes together to make up My Life.