Ad-venturing across the river – Carpe Sundiem

We settle too easily into habits and routine.  That is welcome in many ways, but sometimes I find myself a little frustrated that I don’t push the boundaries a little more and venture into new or different ground.

The weekend is the perfect time for this, but too often – and even with the five sticky plan to give me a shove – I find myself going to the same places, and doing the same things almost on default.  In Yangon, of course that always has an edge of the fascinating and unusual, but sometimes we crave a little bit more.

So a couple of weekends ago, two Yangon friends and I decided to be proactive, carpe the Sundiem and do something a little different. That involved getting up earlier than usual on a Sunday and heading into new territory – across the river!

I remember, not long after we had arrived in Yangon, our housemates had headed to catch this ferry across the river.  They had returned disappointed.  They needed a Travel Authorisation to head across the river to Dala and did not have one.  It was not difficult to obtain, but you did need to know where to go and how to get the TA.  They made a plan for another day.  Nowadays the TA requirement has been lifted for the past couple of years or so now. So we knew it would be much more straightforware. Our plan was to head to Dala and then pick up a taxi over to Twante, a town known especially for its pottery and generally explore some new territory.

The day started very gently with a rendez vous and breakfast at the new Rangoon Tea House, which I had not previously visited and a plush version of the Myanmar breakfast staple – Mohinga.  Yum!

mohingaMohinga is usually described as a rice noodle and fish soup dish, but it is so much more.  The soup is bursting with flavours of garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce and catfish and it is topped with crispy fried chick pea fritters, fresh coriander, onions, dried chilli and a squeeze of lemon. This is served usually in little mohinga stalls, as well as by mohinga sellers with all of the ingredients balanced on a cart or even a pole carried on his shoulders. On my way back from morning swims I pass many folks with a set of little plastic bags, full of the various mohinga components as well as a nearby mohinga shop, bustling with folks eating and chatting, perched on tiny plastic stools at low tables.

Mohinga on the move

Mohinga on the move

The tea shop on our lane

The tea shop on our lane

The Rangoon Tea House experience combines the flavours and essence of a tea house, with a well designed and stylish setting.

rangoon tea houseA great start to the day!  It was a short walk down to the jetty after breakfast, to the bustle of the ticket office for the Dala ferry.  We were directed away from the ticket window, into a small room where foreigners buy their tickets. We parted with our equivalent of 4 US Dollars in return for our tickets and settled to wait for the next boat, which was on its way over towards our side of the river.

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The ferry approaches

The ferry approaches

Regular river traffic

Regular river traffic

In no time, the ferry had docked and people were thronging onto dry land and the port area.  The “entry” gate opened and we joined men, women, children, bicycles, …piling onto the ferry, which was already milling with folks selling quail eggs, newspapers, water melon, plastic gadgets, cigarettes, betel and tobacco, nail clippers with valentine hearts on them and even bubble blowing water pistols.

Fellow passengers

Fellow passengers

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An assortment of goods

across the river 9across the river 11across the river 12The ferry crossing is less than ten minutes but it feels much longer because of the buzz of activity and action.  As soon as we emerge on the other side of the river, we are in a different kind of throng.  Saiqua (Myanmar pedal trishaws), taxis, bike hire and all manner of transfer options.

across the river 14We quickly negotiated an car to take us to Twante and into new space for the three of us.  We agreed a price and a rough schedule.  Drive to Twante, visit the temples, market area and pottery, and on the way back call into the scary sounding “snake temple”.  A great Sunday adventure!

First stop was the Shwe Sandaw pagoda – and a circumambulation in scorching sunshine and a bit of a slither (thanks to post chemo peripheral neuropathy numb toes) on a wet path, around the quiet temple.

across the river 16across the river 19across the river 18across the river 17across the river 15across the river 20across the river 21We then headed into the main town, for an explore.  No visit is complete without a wander around the market.

An apothecary stall at the market

An apothecary stall at the market

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Sachets of detergent alongside potatoes and chillies

Sachets of detergent alongside potatoes and chillies

Spicy yummy varieties of dried chillies

Spicy yummy varieties of dried chillies

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Flowers caught in the sunlight

Flowers caught in the sunlight

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Creativity - old tins refashioned into savings banks.  Even though we have no coins in use!

Creativity – old tins refashioned into savings banks. Even though we have no coins in use!

Even though it was only mid-February, it was hot.  The cool winter days do not last long, and even if it is fresh in the mornings, the days very quickly heat up and after our meander through the market, we were in great need of a refreshing cold drink and we stopped at a teashop for quick rehydration.

Next in the plan was to visit the pottery.  I had no real expectation of this, other than that Twante was home to production of local pottery ware.  The driver did not seem to clear about where to go, but after a few conversations at strategic points along the way, we drew up at a fairly large bamboo hut.  Outside were a number of pots.  A good sign.

The pottery factory

The pottery factory

We tentatively asked if we could enter, and were welcomed in with smiles. I rapidly realised that this was a true cottage industry.

The pottery wheel is kept in motion by one worker pushing the wheel with her right foot.  A small rope from the roof helps her to keep her equilibrium

The pottery wheel is kept in motion by one worker pushing the wheel with her right foot. A small rope from the roof helps her to keep her equilibrium

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The kiln

The kiln

across the river 38across the river 39across the river 40I bought a small vase, and the woman who seemed to be in charge grasped my hand.  Before I knew what was happening, she had added several more little dishes, usually used to place buttermilk wicks in the shrine rooms.  “A present“, she gesticulated. Humbling. A warm and genuine connection.

We left Twante for the drive back to Dala, via the renown “snake temple”.  Fortunately I had heard of this temple already.  I knew that there were pythons everywhere but that they were not venomous.  I did not, however, really know what to expect.

A pause before venturing across the bridge towards the snake temple

A pause before venturing across the bridge towards the snake temple

Did we really want to face these scary snakes?? Moreover, would I actually be able to venture into the temple alongside them?

across the river 42The pythons were indeed EVERYWHERE!  They did, however, look extremely sleepy. I still kept one foot at the door as I watched, terrified yet somewhat fascinated.  The more I looked, the more pythons appeared in front of me, like some kind of optical illusion.  Not only were they everywhere –  they were huge.

A knotted, very large python sleeping on the window

Knotted, very large pythons sleeping on the window

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Shh - behind you.....

Shh – behind you…..

across the river 46across the river 50across the river 43snake temple 2snake temple 1snake temple 6snake temple 5snake temple 4snake temple 3snake temple 1I was glad to head back, barefoot, to the car and the return drive to Dala.

In no time, we were heading back onto the ferry, through the gates which were about to close as we passed through. The buzz of the ferry itself was waiting for us as we sought out seats.

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snake temple 10snake temple 7snake temple 9We disembarked a few minutes later, tired, dusty and full of tales to tell of our venture across the river.

It really takes so little effort, more the nudge to make an earlier start and seek out new wonders which really are on our doorstep.

Flowers in the market caught by sunlight

Flowers in the market caught by sunlight

Promise

There is an unusual breeze in Yangon today.  The leaves are whispering, throwing decayed leaves, which had been sleeping undisturbed for months, down to the ground. There they gather in little bundles, stirring as each new gusts sweeps over them.  Little blossoms on the tree  promise mangoes in the coming weeks. New frangipani buds reach up towards the sun, gently watched over by sibling petals new to the world. The air feels heavier, as moisture gathers and the afternoon heat builds.

IMG_2028And we are reminded that time marches on. Seasons shift. Life goes on. And these little signs of promise are there to help us move forward too. Sometimes we need to search more than other times, but they are there.

Scunnered

Sometimes we can take on a sense of weariness, of being jaded. Of tiredness. Sometimes it goes a bit deeper. World weary, downtrodden and bereft of that lust for life. Usually it is fleeting or at least transient.  Sometimes it takes a greater grip.  We have a great Scottish expression for that feeling – we say we are scunnered.

I have been scunnered this week.  Physical tiredness plays a part but only a small part. The rest is a great deal more profound.

Back in November last year my grandson, David had his head shaved to raise awareness and funds  for Gammadelta T-cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer. It was an enormously generous act and it was prompted to show support to a pupil at his school who had just been diagnosed.  Yes, a pupil at his school. Jak Trueman, a boy aged 15 years old. It was cruel enough that my grandchildren were confronted with cancer in their grandparent, but to be plunged into the harsh reality of cancer in a peer at such a tender age is truly cruel.

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David – before and after his headshave

Jak’s story or journey has been well documented and shared since his diagnosis, thanks especially to a wide support network and of course social media.

jak trueman

Following chemotherapy, Jak was preparing for a stem cell transplant late in January when the preparatory bloodwork threw up some concerning results.  Subsequent scans showed that the disease had progressed into his organs and bones and it was clear that his time was limited when his family shared the devastating news on 24 January.

In the following days, there was a flurry of activity, realising many of Jak’s wishes and dreams but also using the gathering attention to raise awareness and funds.  I will not go into detail as that is well documented online in numerous places, including his Facebook page.

I woke in Yangon on Tuesday morning to a Facebook feed filled with news updates relating to Jak.  I didn’t need to open those links to know that this could only mean one thing, Jak had died only days after learning of the spread of the disease.

He leaves an incredible legacy for one so young, yet enormously mature and generous.  He  leaves a family, school and community, united in grief and coming to terms with the privilege and grief of knowing such an incredible young man.  At the same time, galvanised and inspired to fulfil a series of plans which he had been shaping in his final days. The fundraising towards research into Gammadelta T-cell lymphoma has had a major boost as has awareness into childhood and blood cancers.  He leaves a phenomenal legacy in his name and memory.  Jak, his family and supporters (Team Jak) developed the concept of “Jak’s Den” which will be a space incorporating a number of features:

  • Counselling/quiet rooms and fully qualified counsellors for siblings/ families and any other child/ teen requiring counselling
  • A LOUD room for anyone wanting to go in if they want to make some noise
  • A cafe for cancer sufferers and neutropenic folks who can’t eat out in public for fear of infection – this  will be sterile and all freshly cooked food as this was a huge loss for Jak he couldn’t get out or easily socialise
  • An outdoor area with space for sports and games
  • A music sensory area
  • halls for singing dance and drama, connected with Jaks’ family business, which will also provide a space for sports parties and indoor kids football.

This is personal.  Both of my grandchildren were in the school band with him, and in particular my grandson, David really looked up to him.  David was proud to shave his head and show support.  We know how important image is to young people and a head shave at that age is a big deal.

The morning after Jak’s death, pupils at school wore gold ties or hairbands to remember Jak. My daughter had a crack of dawn run to the shops to find a gold tie for David. An extraordinary movement has been kindled from the grief and loss of one of their friends.

Only one day later, we were reminded that World Cancer Day was again upon us. And that is when I realised just how scunnered I was with cancer.

inya lake sunsetAs the sun sets, so too does it rise.  I am fortunate in that whilst I have that all pervading feeling of being scunnered, I am confident that it will pass and that the new day will help to lift the spirits. I am even more fortunate that through my grandchildren I have a connection, albeit tenuous, with an extraordinary young person who shone a light into a very dark space and leaves pride and inspiration alongside grief.

Return to Luang Prabang

Descending in to Luang Prabang reminded me vividly of flights into and within Nepal. Dramatic hill ranges, covered in verdant foliage, wispy bands of mist, as far as the eye can see. Holding my breath, afraid to look, as the hills are near enough to touch, yet unable to take my eyes away from the compelling scene. These Asian hills are iconic. I first saw these in China, rumpled layers of green folding into each other, steeply reaching skywards.

LPQ2Such was the scene just before the first days of 2015, as our little plane navigated carefully through the hills down onto Luang Prabang’s runway, the sun nestling on the hilltops, as passengers spilled out of our delayed flight into the new terminal building and to the “visa on arrival” queue.

It had been 13 years since I last visited Luang Prabang, in fact since I first visited Luang Prabang if truth be told, back when I was living and working in Nepal in January 2002.

Funnily enough, I travelled from Myanmar via Bangkok last time too, though my transportation from Bangkok was considerably different, and that I realise is really why it has taken me 13 years to come back.

Back in 2002, I took the overnight train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong train station up to Nong Khai on the Thai Lao border. This was my first experience of overnight Thai trains and they certainly provided a high benchmark to reach. Perfectly safe for a lone woman traveller, with each set of seats transforming as evening fell, into a couchette type of bed.  Crisp white sheets were provided by the train crew and each “bed” was separated by a little blue curtain. With my small bag with passport, money and the usual valuables attached to my wrist and secured under my pillow I felt perfectly safe and was able to sleep soundly.

I woke a little before we drew slowly into Nong Khai in the early morning sunshine and followed the band of folks heading over the Friendship Bridge into Laos, getting our visas at the booth on the Thai side of the bridge and catching one of the tuk tuks into Vientiane.

I spent the day exploring Vientiane and that evening met up with folks from the Laos office of the organisation I was working for then, included in a supper they were having near my guest house. I had been planning to travel onwards and was glad to have the chance to ask them critical advice for the next part of my trip. I planned to head the following day to languid Luang Prabang, with its old world charm, a gem situated at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River in northern Laos. Surrounded by those dramatic green folding hills and renown for its gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas, and exquisite Gallic cuisine it has almost mythical status. Luang Prabang is a unique place where time seems to stand still.

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LP blog 4LP blog 6LP blog 2I am a rather nervous bus traveller and did not relish the thought of ten hours of windiness, hairpin mountain roads and having to hold my breath too often, having left a similar scenario back in Nepal. Similarly, though, I was well used to mountain flights and knew that they too were precarious. So advice from my companions, long time Laos residents, was very welcome.

“Flying is the best way,” I was told. “If you fly into Luang Prabang, they only fly ATRs, so you’ll be fine. They fly Y7s and Y12s into the other small airports, and we are banned from travelling on them.”

I had no idea what an ATR or a Y any number was, but these guys clearly knew their stuff and their advice on the various types of aircraft was important.

“Yes, they don’t maintain the Y7s and Y12s. If they break down or develop a fault, they get repaired, but they are not maintained, so they are not considered safe to fly on” was the expansion.

Sounded wise to me. Armed with that information, I called into a ticketing agent beside the guest house the next morning, and booked a flight for that afternoon.

In my acquired wisdom, I checked with the agent “It’s an ATR?”

“Oh yes, Lao Aviation only fly ATRs into Luang Prabang”, she reassured me.

Happily I booked and paid for my ticket and returned to the guest house to pack my rucksack and prepare for my adventure to Luang Prabang. In a nice, safe, well maintained ATR. Whatever one of them was.

Just after lunchtime, I turned up at the airport, and checked in. All went smoothly and the check-in stewardess prepared my boarding pass.

“Oh, madam”, she looked up, “just one thing. Today this flight will be on the Y7. The ATR has a technical problem”.

My blood ran cold. This was my worst nightmare. I could not feign ignorance. Only the previous evening I had been very clearly told that the Ys were not safe. I knew, and everyone knew that I knew, that I would be flying against Embassy and organisational advice.

Tentatively I ventured, “but I have been advised not to fly in the Y7. I understand they are not maintained?”

“Yes, that’s right” she replied.

The knot in my stomach tightened. I had a choice to make. Fly in the Y7, which was surely destined to crash, and my family would be so cross with me as everyone knew I had been advised not to. Or don’t fly, stay in Vientiane. Or travel by nightmare ten hour hilly bus ride the following day.

“I am sorry,” I replied. “But I have been advised not to fly on the Y7. Please could you cancel my ticket and refund my payment?”

“Please wait ten minutes” she smiled at me.

Relieved instantly that I had made the right decision, I sat down with my disappointed backpack and prepared to wait, and possibly negotiate this refund. I was not in any rush.

So I was surprised when exactly ten minutes later, she was back with a clipboard. Quickest refund in history, I thought to myself.

“Madam” she smiled at me. “Now I can check you in. We have fixed the ATR!”

Suffice to say that I was convinced that flight would be my last and that I was forcing not just myself but a plane load of innocent others, onto an aircraft which only ten minutes before had been too broken to fly. My time was clearly up. We would all be going down together and it would be all my fault. For sure, my family would never speak to me again!

That flight, 13 years ago is one of those I recount as being one of the most frightening of my life. It was not rough, there was no turbulence and nothing at all untoward. It took off and landed without a hitch and whatever had been broken earlier had clearly not caused any further problems. But I was not to know that until we landed safely, and I spent the whole flight tense, gripping the arm rests and hearing every single engine noise and creak, expecting it to herald disaster. I had been convinced my time had come, but it had not. In no time I was on safe ground and ready for my Luang Prabang adventure, trying not to think of the return flight.  (Post Script: When I was “fact-checking” some of the details of this post, I discovered that 14 February 2002, only two weeks after my Laos flights, a Lao Aviation Y-12 crashed on the runway while taking off from Sam Neua Airport due to a wind gust; all 15 on board survived, but the aircraft was written off).

This flight 13 years later, into Luang Prabang was in fact much rougher in terms of turbulence. We seemed to encounter a few bumpy weather systems en route and it seemed to me that there were more cranks and clangs, and sideways and random shudderings than are usual on a flight, and certainly too many for my liking. But it too landed without incident into a very different Luang Prabang Airport, now considerably expanded in its status as an international airport.

LPQThe visa queue was long, but efficient and in no time I was through with my little travel bag looking for my tuk tuk driver, Mr Tupa to take me up to the getaway retreat in the hills. I could not see my name at all on the signs, but I did spot the logo of my place, with “Celita” underneath. I went up to the holder of the sign and said “Celita?   Philippa?” and was met with a smile of agreement. And you are Mr Tupa? I asked. YES! He beamed back at me!

A quick visit to the Ladies prior to the drive into the hills revealed something quite inexplicable. A number of young women with their suitcases open, pulling out different attire, leaning in their underwear against the cubicle doors and falling inside when they opened, giggling and regaining footing before throwing the travel clothes back into their backs, snapping them shut and returning to the arrivals area.

Mr Tupa led me over to his tuk tuk and off we went up into the hills, as the light rapidly faded from the sky, rattling over the dusty, bumpy track. Little lights of Luang Prabang town twinkling far below us, the waxing moon and emerging stars twinkling far above as we headed through the forests away from the 21st century and the last days of 2014. Already I was promising myself that I would not wait another 13 years until I returned to Luang Prabang.

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The Waiting Room

waiting roomI knew that the word “breathe” was an important one for me this year.  So important, that I do believe that the choice was not in fact mine, and more an insistence.

Nor did I realise that I have in fact been holding my breath for some time now.  For at least three months in fact, since the last round of Big Checks in October.

I have been on six monthly checks since reaching two years on from diagnosis apart from a glitch following the embolism, and more recently with my endocrinologist requesting 3 month reviews.  My last set of checks in October were difficult in that there were some question marks around the tumour markers in particular.  Dr W2 did not find them alarming enough to warrant immediate further investigation, but he felt that 6 months was too long to wait for the next review.  Hence I turned up at the hospital doors on Thursday, clutching my appointment slips, my best nervous smile and that familiar sense of letting go as yu are led through the coming hours of medical process. As always I had fasted overnight, and as always turned up first of all at Counter 2 to set things in motion.  And that is where I was met by surprise Number 1. Yes, I should have the blood draw first, but then was X Ray.  X Ray?  I had no idea that had been requested and when I expressed my surprise the nursing team showed me the slip and the tick against X Ray box.

Things happen so quickly and in no time the blood had been drawn and I had had my surprise chest X Ray, was dressed again and back at Counter 3,  It was not even 9 am! The team suggested that rather than waiting to see Dr A, the endocrinologist later in the morning, I should come back at 5 pm and see both Doctors. This was a real bonus as it meant I could return back to the hotel and have the breakfast which I usually miss due to the fasting and subsequent appointments.  It was surreal being back in the hotel, breakfasting with fellow guests yet feeling that I had somehow already spent the best part of a day at the hospital. The surgical tape and dressing on my arm were a clear sign though that I had not imagine this.

Then begins the Waiting Time.  I adamantly refuse to use this time well because I feel it tempts fate to do anything which resembles planning or makes any assumptions about the future.  The hair appointment is a classic example.  I will not even phone for an appointment to rid my hair of an encroaching silver topping until I have met with the Doctors.  No point in planning a hair cut if the hair were to go again.  Paranoid thoughts, I know, but having had to change plans so many times in the past due to unexpected tests and worries means that I have swung to the opposite end of the planning spectrum during the the time of the checks.  Not until I am at the pharmacy counter with a new bag of meds and an envelope with my results and appointment slips for months ahead, do I return to a planning frame of mind.

After breakfast I headed out to do a few errands, and then headed to a favourite waiting place, a peaceful tea room in a quiet corner of an otherwise manic shopping mall.  This place feels peaceful and although my mind is not, I take comfort in extended pots of tea and people watching.

Eventually, it is time to return to Counter 2 and the start of the nervous, serious waiting.  By this time, I know the score.  I have a number of conflicting scenarios in my head which range from “everything is fine, I am worrying about nothing” through to “I must savour this time, because it is all going to change again…”.

Soon I am called to see Dr A.  Smiles all round.  He is pleased with my bloodwork and examination.  Sugar is stable, so diabetes still held at bay, thyroid stable, kidney and liver functions all fine and the cholesterol has gone down a good chunk.  I had been really upset when the switch to Femara had been accompanied by rising cholesterol levels which diet and exercise did nothing to slow.  So he was very pleased and happy to extend the review time a little.  Though when he saw that Dr W, the surgeon will see me in April, he suggested that we align the checks to save the need for separate visits. Very encouraging indeed.

I left his consulting room with a smile, and returned to the Waiting Area. I realised that he had not given me the set of results as he usually does, and I had not been able to catch sight of the tumour markers. And those were the key results which were in the spotlight.  It was those results back in October which had concerned Dr W2.  And I know that it is not the number which is important, but the trend.  This set of results would show whether there was an upward trend or not, and if so how dramatic that might be.  I started on a new worry trail.  That Dr A had seen the markers and knew that there was no point in worrying me before I would discuss with Dr W2. When I have commented on tumour marker results in the past during Dr A;s appointment he will agree that the result is good or that needs some conversation with Dr W2 if raised.  The longer I waited, the more I found it difficult not to speculate on the number, again veering between willing it to be low and fearing it to be significantly raised.

I never manage to read or distract myself in the Waiting Room.  I sit quietly, watching, waiting and worrying. Soon I heard Dr W2 arrive, his voice reaching his room before he did. The waiting cranks up a gear.

And then I am called to his consulting room and we exchange Happy New Year wishes.  He never beats about the bush and told me that everything was fine, bloods good and the surprise X Ray fine.  And the tumour markers?  I venture.  “33” was his answer.  And that was a good answer indeed. Still above the reference range (which is up to 22.  22 “whats” I have no idea, but up to 22 of them is “normal”.)  When switching to Femara my results jumped from around 20 to 32m which prompted the bone and CT scans and Great Angst.  They have since hovered between 30 and 32 until the checks in October which showed another jump to 37.  Not a huge jump, but again it is the trend which is important. A drop to 33 was good. Dr W2 was happy.  He asked usual questions about bone pain, and continues to keep an eye on bones.  And then he suggested that he review again at the same time as Dr W and then if all is good return to 6 monthly checks.  And that was the BEST piece of information possible, all things considered. Perfect.

I left his room beaming, really relieved and realised that it has in fact been a long time since all of the Doctors have been happy and that things are properly back on track.  As I slowly breathed out I realised that I have been holding my breath for a very long time. I had been particularly despondent at the last set of checks with their “five year” status holding such significance, and with me taking a step backwards it felt.  At last now, I feel I am moving forward.

As always, even with the best of news, I am never of a mind to celebrate or leap around “high fiving”.  Rather I find myself subdued and reflective.  And emotional.  By the time I was in the taxi back to the hotel, I was struggling to hold back those tears, trying to quietly blub.  But that is not easy – I am not good at silent sobbing, and found myself trying to swallow back the strange noises and not give the taxi driver cause for alert!  It was fortunate that the Bangkok traffic was typically busy and provided ample time for composure before I arrived back at the hotel, Relieved, depleted and quietly thankful.

I know that the Waiting Room in April will again be tense, and that there are no guarantees that the good results this time will automatically follow through.  But I do know that I feel lighter than I have for a very long time.  And that is something to hold tight and savour as I continue to breathe deeply and thankfully.

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Moving into 2015 with three words to guide and inspire

Written 1st January 2015

As the New Year of 2015 dawns I find myself in one very special place on the planet. A space in the remote hills of Laos, amidst unspoilt, undeveloped nature with only the sound of water falling and birds singing..A serene and tranquil space for a mind wishing to step aside from the bustle and noise of the 21st Century. For this is also a space without internet connectivity. This means that you will only read this several days into 2015, when I return to the world of instant communication.

LP hillside 6The first day of the year has dawned unexpectedly bright. The past couple of days have seen cloud and a heavy, cold mist bathing the hills. This first day of 2015 sees no cloud in the sky, a whispering breeze nudging leaves and branches. Butterflies are flitting from bush to bush in a silence so deep you can almost hear their wings fluttering. In the distance, a cockerel is wishing a Happy New Year to any soul who may be listening.

This is the right time for me to set out the three words I have chosen to guide and inspire me throughout 2015.

This is a process I have been following now since the close of 2009. At that time I was truly in the thick of treatment with two rounds of surgery, three cycles of chemo and that life-changing stage 3 cancer diagnosis only just behind me. As Facebook feeds were filling with New Year’s Resolutions, I spotted something different. This suggested selecting three words to shape and guide the year ahead. This resonated powerfully with me and I had no trouble choosing three words for 2010. These words stayed with me throughout the year and as that year came to a close, I found myself reflecting and thinking of the year ahead and how I wanted to shape that. It is no secret that this has become a practice which has been truly alive and meaningful for me, not just at the start of the year, but throughout every month, week and even day of the year. They keep me on track and motivated and the practice of choosing the words itself is one which helps me to focus on the way ahead.

Before I share my words for the coming year, I want to spend a little time reflecting back on 2014 and how the mantra has served me.

My first word for 2014 has been dedication. This has had a variety of meanings for me. I selected it to build on the previous year’s choice of “focus” which had been particularly useful for me. Dedication pushed me to ensure that I devoted attention to those matters which are important and which often I do not enjoy, or put off, as well as the ones I do. This also relates to the importance of taking care of myself, physically and emotionally and to set aside time and attention for people and activities which are important and not necessarily those which are the most demanding. This was also a prompt to give time to those mundane but necessary tasks and chores but also those creative and wellbeing activities which can be swept aside if we squander our time.

I found dedication a challenge in that I struggled to stay true to the notion of dedicating time and attention where I aimed to. I knew that there were challenges in the year, and this is linked to the middle word, integrity, and I found it extremely difficult to maintain a balance especially. The five sticky plan, as quirky as it sounds, certainly helped to ensure that I did focus over the weekends, but more and more I have found myself squeezing out elements related to my creativity and wellbeing, and have fallen behind in personal emails and connection with friends and family. However, this does not tell me that I have failed. That is where I find that the words have a beauty and a value which I have not seen in a “resolution”. There is in fact, no such thing as fail. It means that as I reflect and review the year’s words, this helps to refine and sharpen how I need to focus and concentrate for the coming year.

My second word of the year, my core word has been integrity. I knew that this would be critical. I knew that there were challenges ahead and that I needed this guide to ensure that I approached these in a way which did not compromise my principles, yet which I would be sure to make decisions and act in the right way. Indeed many of those challenges did materialise, and I did find them demanding, draining and often upsetting. Many though, did not transform. Other unexpected ones of course did appear too. I found myself placing the “integrity lens” in front of me more and more as the year progressed. In major decisions and actions, just taking time to pause and think whether I was acting with integrity was enough to confirm or rethink what I planned to do. Increasingly, though I found that I was applying the integrity lens to so much more, the most everyday of tasks. I found myself pausing for the most tiny of actions, like taking a moment to pick up litter which I saw dropped in front of me for example, to seek out the jasmine seller instead of scurrying inside the building if I did not have the right change handy, to make an extra effort and send an email which I knew would be welcomed. I cannot pretend though that this always comes easily. I know that I operate most comfortably with the path of least resistance and distinctly dislike and avoid conflict and argument. So this has often pushed me into uncomfortable terrain, but I have found that rationalising this an ensuring that it is the true and right thing to do, that it is consistent with my true principles and values, then I have found that this gives strength to do so.

Using the integrity lens is something which will stay with me. ”Is this the right thing to do?” “What is the right thing to do?” these are questions which frame so many of my decisions now that it has become a reflex.

My third word of 2014 has been flair. My creative and writing year has been a landmark one in many senses with the most significant event being the publication of the Dragonfruit Anthology. This has been a huge milestone for me, seeing my name in print, in proper pages on real paper and even available on Amazon! Of course, my name is on the back of the book as I am but one contributor amongst 26 women writers. But this is a major step forward in my writing self, a Biggie on the Writing CV. More than this though, is what I have learned through the process. My short piece was selected from a number of submissions and then we went through a process of editing, contracting, selection of title and cover art and then the subsequent promotion and reviews. I learned a great deal from my writing being edited by a Real Editor, seeing my work from a reader’s perspective and understanding a great deal of the publishing process. As well as how much I was sheltered from the hard work which accompanies this. Reading reviews of the anthology has also taught me a great deal and has helped me refine and re-think my current writing projects.

Perhaps I have not been able to devote as much time as I would have liked to the flair side of my life. I know that this has been compromised by the demands of living and working in such an intense environment of change. But still, I feel that I have made major steps forward. Working on Dragonfruit has helped me to refocus on my main writing work, the memoir. In addition to this, I have started working closely with two others from our writing group and set up a “writing buddy” system. We are all working on very similar projects, and in addition to sharing our work as it evolves in the writing group, we are working closely together to provide peer support and critique on our very specific topics. This has given me an enormous boost and has helped me to completely review and refine the nature of the memoir. That I will talk about in more detail in the coming days or weeks, but for now I feel that flair has been a very welcome guide for the creative side of my year.

With these reflections, it is now time to look ahead and share my chosen words for 2015.

This year I have been surprised by the process of selection of the words.

Indeed, I believe that at least one of the words has not been selected by me, but rather the word has continuously spoken to me, whispering in my ear consistently and over several weeks. Instead of me deliberately selecting this word, I feel as if this word has persuaded me of its importance. I am convinced.

I very much see the need to be more deliberate and intentional. I need to prioritise balance and well-being and not allow myself to be sucked in and swallowed up by matters which are pressing and urgent but not the most important necessarily. I need to take time to breathe. My first word, and the thought foremost in my mind as I move into 2015 is breathe. I need to savour the “now”, to pause and breathe in a way I have forgotten to. I have been drawn to practices of meditation and mindfulness in the past and I am keen to drawn on these now. Breathe is also a reminder to look after my health and wellbeing. My daily cycle and swim do far more than provide an hour of exercise. During the swim in particular, I find myself breathing, and reflecting. So many problems have been solved, ideas have come into being and been nurtured, challenges have been faced and tears have been shed. I must take time to breathe, regenerate and heal this year.

Twice in the past weeks, and again now for longer, I have stepped out of the 21st Century and the dependence we seem to be developing on connectivity in particular. Something which I am increasingly finding to be rather a double edged sword. I love what connectivity has brought to me, particularly living so far from friends and family in Scotland and in connecting me with others in a similar situation. I love being able to track down answers when a puzzle catches me, or share my latest photos, speak with family and friends around the globe. But at the same time, I find myself losing and squandering time. The same connectivity brings so much also takes away. As a butterfly I am too easily distracted and can surface from a path I have been drawn down to find that too much time has passed. It is time to pause, disengage with the fast life which we now live, and breathe, refocus on what matters.

The second word has been a little elusive. I have been looking for something to emphasise the creative side and continue to push myself. I toyed with various words – imagine, muse, ponder…… Dream was one word which especially resonated, one which made me look beyond and push myself. I also liked stretch which conveyed my desire to push beyond boundaries and my usual comfort zones, to experiment a little. And then I stumbled upon stargaze. This has a variety of nuances which all capture what I want to convey. When I was little I was fascinated by the night sky following a visit to London Planetarium. Suddenly the sky had taken on a whole life. I had charts of the constellations in my bedroom, and used to gaze upwards at night time when the sky was clear. I lived in a remote part of Scotland when I was young and there was absolutely no light pollution at all. On a clear night Orion and his belt and the Great Bear, or Ursa Major as I consistently called it, were clearly visible. While I was in Mongolia, one of my most vivid memories is that of gazing at the night sky out in the countryside where there was the greatest expanse of land and sky imaginable. The climate is so dry and arid, and the country mostly at altitude so that this all combines to provide a sky bursting with life at night. The sky is almost milky and crowded with an unbelievable amount of starts. I have never seen anything like it anywhere else. This nightsky fascination is also evident in my wish bucket, you will see that I maintain a longing to see Saturn and its rings through a telescope.

So stargaze is a good choice for me, in its mix of meanings – literal as well as figurative. It speaks to me of imagining, of going beyond, of limitless opportunities and scope. It provides a limitless landscape for creativity and musing. It speaks of shining through darkness. It reminds me not to be constrained by practicalities and things which can be overcome.

How apt that I spent the passage from 2014 to 2015 under the stars, quietly reflective and appreciative of the peaceful space I have been in.

As the mantra for 2015 takes shape, there is one dimension which is also important to me. This builds on focus from 2013 and dedication from 2014. I wasn’t to take this a stage further now and ensure that I produce results and tangible outcomes. Like a book. With my name on the front cover. Or at the very least, a manuscript.

In one of my previous jobs I had the opportunity to do a Belbin assessment. This is a tool which identifies your predominant traits an provides labels for them. The types are plant, resource investigator, coordinator, shaper, monitor  evaluator, teamworker, implementer and completer/finisher. I was predominantly a plant, and very happy to be so. A plant is creative, unorthodox and a generator of ideas- an original thinker. I love the idea of being a plant. I also found that my lowest feature is that of being a completer/finisher. That did not come as a surprise, but rather a realisation and confirmation. I am that butterfly, caught by new ideas and inspiration and although I love a perfect and finished product I am the world’s worst at doing this myself. I am useless at seeing something through because I get bored with it and am drawn to new and exciting projects, leaving them strewn around me as I bound off towards ideas anew.

This year I want to realise many of these projects and see them through. I want to make it happen and actually finish many of the half baked pieces of work I have. I want to see dreams turn to reality by applying myself more and making that conscious effort.

Realise also has a variety of meanings, which resonate. The importance of being aware and understanding is a priority and links nicely to breathe. It pushes me to think things through and understand the whole process of my undertakings. It encourages me to commit to the wholeness of projects, not only my writing goals, but particularly related to those goals. This year I want to deliver.

So my mantra is complete for 2015 and although I cannot share these until I return to that 21st century connectivity which I have stepped away from, I am grasping them eagerly as I move forward, whispering them to myself in reassurance in motivation.

Breathe, stargaze and realise.

Since I started this in 2009, every year my words have served me well and many stay with me. I can remember each word and each three word mantra, and the year to which it relates. As in previous years, my 2014 words have provided a guide and inspiration and kept me on the path I want to tread. I find that my 2015 words additionally have a logical flow to them, they set out a direction. First of all I must remember to pause and breathe. I can look upwards and allow my mind to move beyond boundaries.  Then I have to aim to realise…..

LP Hillside 4

Yes, indeed. Breathe, stargaze, realise……….. Good morning and welcome, 2015.