Navigating new waters …

This space has been quiet for a long time. The longer there is silence, the more difficult it is to re-emerge into the daylight.

Silence is not usually golden here, and the past months have been enormously challenging. We live in a troubled world and one of uncertainty. This has affected me directly and my work in Africa came to an unexpected and early end. I will not pretend I was ready to wrap up nearly two decades of life and work overseas, but that is life.

To complicate and intensify an already difficult situation, I was also tussling with scary health issues. Happily, it is not all bad news and it appears that this has NOT been cancer related. I am in much better shape than I was in the earlier months of the year, but still striving to fully regain health and have greater clarity and management of the situation I now find myself in.

So I find myself in a very strange space and with very little remaining of the life I was so used to. I am in totally new waters, and I feel poorly equipped to move forward or even to know in which direction forward lies.

I will be honest. I usually thrive on change and new challenges. This time however, the changes have affected all areas of life, and been painfully deep. I crave stability and find that there is little to grasp onto, to enable me to clamber onto solid ground and work out my direction ahead. I know I will work it out, but I have had to dig deeper than ever before into reserves which feel exhausted.

While there are major life decisions to make, there are also implications on the essence of this blog. I am no longer a Scottish woman overseas. I am a Scottish woman in Scotland, cherishing and reflecting on the best part of two decades of life and work overseas. And still dealing with the aftermath and sides of breast cancer. Constants amidst the change.

I am floundering somewhat as I try to get used to life back in a Scotland which is enormously different to the one I left with a suitcase and rucksack, bound for Kathmandu 17 years ago. I guess I am now a “repat” and no longer an “expat”. I have a great deal to learn, re-learn and become familiar with. Such as Scottish wild flowers, covering the hedgerows and gardens where I have become used to frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Such as very different bird and critter noises. Seagulls instead of geckos and frogs. Such as, bewildering choices in the cavernous supermarkets. Exhilarating options for cultural and creative engagement. Understanding the words, but not not the essence of conversations on the train and in the street. Such different perspectives in the news and media. So many directions to look towards.

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Scottish wild flowers in a Glasgow garden

While I am firmly physically re-grounded in Scotland, my heart and soul are feeling scattered. I still have many tales to tell from my overseas times. One of my words for the year has been explore. While circumstances have not been conducive to great exploring, there have nonetheless been a number of gentle adventures and experiences. I plan to tell those stories and share the images in the coming weeks and months. Tales of Rwandan weddings, African sunsets and safaris, lakeside resting, and exotic Zanzibar to highlight but a few.

Telling these tales will support a gecko which is striving to swim, and not sink, in these new waters.

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Agama Lizard at Lake Kivu (Photograph © Feisty Blue Gecko)

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Revisioning

My hummingbird obsession is not news. However, it has recently taken a little bit of an unexpected turn. One which has led me to revise something which I thought was certain.

Outside our office, there are a number of trees where those beautiful little birds nest. I will always pause on my way in and out of the gate, to peer into the leaves and see what is happening in those nests. A couple of weeks ago, I was told that there were eggs in the nest and that the mother was keeping them warm. They would hatch in a few days, I was informed assuredly. Indeed, after a few days I saw eggshell on the ground and was told that I could very gently peep inside the leaves. Two wide open beaks stared back at me. Indeed, beaks can stare!

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Over the following days, I would very gently peek in through the gaps in the leaves, making sure that my human eyes did not distress the rapidly growing birds. In no time, I learned that the little birds were almost ready to fly. They would fly on the Monday, in fact.

When I arrived at work the following Monday, I could see that the nest was indeed empty. The little birds had flown.

But the tale has taken an unexpected twist. In those few days while watching from a safe distance, I learned something new. I had been visiting friends, and they had bright flowers on their porch. The little hummingbirds, perched and manoeuvred to draw in the nectar of the brightly coloured flowers. I was enthralled by those “hummingbirds”. My friend showed me photographs she had taken of the same little birds, which she called “sunbirds”. I knew they were hummingbirds. She was equally certain they were sunbirds. Of course, I was right. So was she! Stalemate!

At such times, and in such times we are drawn to Professor Google. And my goodness, was I in for a surprise!

I have been completely wrong! In Ecuador, these little hovering birds were indeed hummingbirds and they have become iconic across the country. In Africa, however, despite the fact that they look remarkably similar, they are not hummingbirds. These little beauties are indeed sunbirds.

In appearance, they are incredibly alike.The males have metallic blue plumage which shimmers in the sun.

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In Ecuador and in Africa. They both hover.

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This little soul is hovering with all his might. So hard, that you can hardly see the blur that represents his little wings.

It seems that I am not the only one to become so confused between the hummingbird and the sunbird. From what I understand, the key difference (apart from the biological family differences) is that the hummingbird always hovers while it feeds. It can hover for a seeming eternity while drawing nectar fro the inside of a bloom. However the little sunbird, while it can and does hover, usually has to perch to gather its food.

However, that is what I truly learned from this. I was reminded that no matter how sure I think I am about something, I must be open to correction or rethinking. This is not about the sunbird. This is about how I view the world and my life. While I had been convinced that the birds I saw were hummingbirds, and my friend was equally certain that they were sunbirds, we both needed to be open.In my case, I also need to be corrected, because I was wrong!

The world around me is not as set and uncertain as I necessarily think. The universe is again shaking and shifting the ground underneath my feet. I need to revise and reset my vision of what I thought was my world. And that does not only apply to me. It is for each and every one of us. We just do not know what is certain and true.

Dreams etched in pages of ice, conversations captured in frozen crystals.

Like many others, I face my news feeds with a sense of foreboding and angst these days, so it is such a pleasure to read find a hidden gem of news such as the ice library of dreams on the shores of Lake Baikal.

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This delighted me with a variety of whispers from many places in my own library of memories.

I remember, late July in 1999, dithering at the shore, dipping my toes into the clear, icy waters of Lake Baikal near the village of Listvyanka in Siberia. I was determined to get into the water. Legend has it that Baikal’s water has special powers and I was not going to miss the opportunity to take advantage of these. Just in case. It is believed that if you dip your hands into the lake, you will be rewarded with an extra year of life. The bonus for slipping your feet into the water is an extra 2 years. If you swim in the lake, you gain an irresistible additional 25 years of life. The challenge comes from the fact that Lake Baikal is the largest body of fresh water in the world, it is the deepest lake on the planet and it contains one fifth of all fresh water in the world.

In winter it freezes over completely and even in the height of summer when the air was hot enough to burn my skin, the water remains shockingly cold. My toes curled around the pebbles, the skin already turning red with the cold. Slowly, I ventured in, inch after inch. When it was just deep enough, I lowered myself into the water, splashing briefly, a bear like roar involuntarily escaping from deep inside my lungs before I decided that my immersion qualified for the 25 year bonus. As I stepped back to the shore, dripping and shivering, I locked eyes with a puzzled brown cow before it veered away from the shore and the strange, drenched human.

The ice library on Lake Baikal speaks with a voice which is unusual in its simplicity and complexity. The library is carved from blocks of ice, designed to resemble open books. On each page, there is a wish or dream, sent from people all over the world. Some dreams are personal, some further reaching. All are etched into the ice, preserved until the warmer spring air comes. Then the dreams will slowly melt into the deep waters of the lake. An exquisitely modest concept, yet so powerful.

This is chiming with another page from my personal memory book. I remember arriving in Mongolia in November 2005. It was a warm autumn seemingly, at a gentle -20°C. Yes, that reads minus. I would need to prepare for winter which was approaching rapidly. I knew that the temperatures would settle around -35C in the afternoon sun, and sink to -45C at night. Knowing this is one thing, but these temperatures are unimaginable if you have never experienced them. They are also dangerously cold as described in an earlier post about the Mongolian cold and snow.

The air is so cold and arid that your breath freezes instantly in a cloud around you when you speak.

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The Mongolians say that the words you utter are captured in tiny ice crystals, and preserved in the air until the warmer air comes and they thaw. This was such a beautiful image, that it inspired the first poem which I have ever had published. This was called “December Conversations” and appeared in the summer edition of Ulaanbaatar City Guide of 2006, and I share an extract here.

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December Conversations

So cold the river is fully frozen,

unable to thaw for many months

not until the summer sun

is strong enough to permeate each icy layer.

So cold my eyelashes trap

tiny invisible particles

fusing, bonding lash to lash

a mesh barrier filtering my vision.

So cold that every breath and word

tumbles in clouds out of our mouths

instantly freezing in formations of frosted

whispers, words and conversations.

Our every word is preserved

suspended in the air

in frozen animation

through all the winter months.

A mother soothes her crying child

her loving words softly resting

in the air between her lips

and her son’s smarting bright red cheeks.

The two young lovers hugging as they walk

whisper messages of eternal love and endless devotion ……..

All throughout the winter months

the city air is crammed and filled

with captured, suspended conversations

secrets, disagreements and private messages…

The city smiles knowingly

as it releases its melted secrets

into the streets

unnoticed.

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In Africa the skies are not cold, there is no ice or frost on the grass. Yet the thought of a library of ice, and of words preserved in frozen crystals have embedded firmly in my spirit for the day. I have sent my own dream in the hope that it might be etched on the walls of the ice library, and eventually join the waters of Lake Baikal.

Our words are powerful and precious, let us use them with care, consideration and tenderness.

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The Day after Yesterday

While I was on my travels, I became enthralled by a pair of hummingbirds that lived around the eco lodge. Elusive little creatures, I would wait silently, watching for them to appear. And eventually they would flit into the foliage in front of me, sometimes hovering for a nano second before darting off; other times lingering for a long tender moment, beak drawing out the sweetness from a favourite flower while suspended in the air, little wings fluttering. Just long enough to capture the magic in my memory.

There are hummingbirds at work in the green spaces around me in Africa. Distant cousins of the hummingbirds across the seas, with different colouring and beaks which are less long. Similarly their visits are fleeting but memorable, as they seek out their sustenance and go about their daily hummingbird work.

I find myself comforted by the presence of the hummingbirds. Grounded. Reminded that we live in a precious world. I can trust those little hummingbirds in their authenticity and integrity.

A couple of years ago, one of my three words was “integrity”. In fact it was my core word for that year, deliberately placed at the centre of my three word mantra. The words which I wrote about my choice of “integrity” in January 2014 continue to ring true.

“Do the right thing when no one is looking” is a (para) phrase which I read somewhere and I quietly lean on. I have seen it attributed as a definition of integrity but to me it means more than that. It speaks of quietly doing the right thing, without calling attention to what you are doing, so for the “right” reasons. It conveys the importance of being true to yourself and your values no matter how invisible or inconsequential that act may seem.  We live in challenging times, where priorities and demands conflict and by selecting integrity, I am setting out the importance of ensuring that in everything I do, I must remain true and loyal to my values and principles.  Integrity is the middle word for a reason.  It must be at the core of everything I do. No matter what challenges come my way, I must be proactive and faithful to what is right.  This will be tough for me. I know that the path of least resistance is one which I favour.  I don’t like confrontation or conflict, and yet sometimes it is necessary to face up to difficult times and not allow wrong things to happen, by doing nothing.  Integrity is like a beam of light which I must focus on and work towards.

I feel that if ever there is a word which we all need today, it is integrity. Do the right thing. Even, nay especially, if no one is looking. In our private and personal lives we have that constant responsibility to act with utter integrity. In our professional capacities, we must remain authentic and true to our values. As social beings, we must remain respectful, do what is right for each other and stand up for those whose voices are not heard or are misheard.

Today, as I watch out for the hummingbirds, Annie Lennox playing in the background, I am in a reflective mood. This is a day to challenge my own integrity and find the right, true path for me to act and live in these times.

Yesterday has already gone, retreating slowly and steadily further into the past. The day after yesterday is today. Today is the day we are in, for each one of us to play our part to shape the day after today. Tomorrow. And all of our tomorrows.

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Three words to guide and inspire through 2017

This is my last day of retreat in the hills. Tomorrow morning will see me on the drive along a winding mountainside road before descending to the main road and then strangely ascending to the capital. From there, and after a little exploration, the long journey back to Africa will begin.

I am having some difficulty concentrating, as the cloud formations on the hillside are changing constantly, the little blue tanagers are flitting about in the avocado tree. Two exquisitely coloured humming birds continue to tantalise with their brief appearances, hovering for a few seconds, yet not long enough for me to be able to capture their bottle green plumage or quivering wings on my camera. (Fortunately, this excellent site has images which show how beautiful these little birds are).

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Image credit – Ray Wilson Photography

I am compelled to pause and take in these sights and sounds while I can. Yet, resist and concentrate I must. There are three words in my mind and they are urging me to capture and share them. The three words of 2016 have served me well, “reorient, nurture and crystalize” but they are ready to step back. A three word mantra for 2017 has taken shape and is waiting to lead the way ahead.

The past year has seen enormous change for me individually, not to mention in the wider world. My three words are fiercely personal to me, and I trust them to help to move me forward.

My first word for 2017 is emerge. The past months have seen me living life very quietly and low key. There has been a stillness on this blog while I process and work through my way forward. This has been a time for nurturing and healing. I feel that the time is now right for life to be breathed into this quiet and for me to emerge and find my space again. I want to regain and rebuild my confidence in this new place. I want to seek out like minds and souls with whom I can grow. It feels as if the gecko has been in hiding under some rocks and it is in need of some sun and fresh air to breathe, just like this giant turtle which I saw the other day. (This photograph is one I took, part of a story waiting to be told in the coming days.)

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My second word relates to the new environment I find myself in. Africa! Now that I have been through this major reorientation, I have been working to settle and crystalize in the later part of 2016. Now it is time to explore. I have a new city to explore, and people to meet. A new country to find out about and many neighbouring countries to get to know. I wish to explore my new surroundings with curiosity and humility, and maintain that sense of wonder and respect. We learn something new every day, but must keep our eyes and minds open to be able to do so fully.

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A photo from my explorations in the past week

My third word is intend, and aims to keep me focused and ensure that I live intentionally. The health blips of 2016 need to taken seriously and I need to be vigilant and deliberate about my health and wellbeing. The new environment brings with it a new diet, and different surroundings and, more particularly, rather cold swimming pools! I need to ensure that I am proactive in keeping active and finding the happy place for my mind, soul and body. There is a great deal of discussion about mindfulness and I have found that this has been a practice which is of great benefit to me. I want to strengthen this in the coming year and beyond, and embed it into my routines. Intend also reminds me to value time and resources. These are finite. The five sticky plan (which I still use and love) is one technique which reminds me not to squander precious free time. Most of all, intend is an additional prompt to maintain integrity in everything I do.

 

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Cactus in the late afternoon sun

So, there is my 2017 three word mantra – “emerge, explore and intend”. May these words guide me well, and inspire me through the year in the face of challenges, opportunities, laughter and tears. Whatever is in my path will be faced, whether difficult or easy. What is changeable is how I navigate the way forward, and I trust in my mantra to enable me to embrace this with strength, courage and enthusiasm.

May 2017 be kind, inspiring and enabling to you all.

A personal review of 2016 through the lens of the 3 word mantra

As I sit in these emerald hills, on retreat, I have much to occupy my mind and my body in the coming days. This is a time of replenishment, to build energy and health after a year of immense change. This is a time for reflection over the past months, and a time to focus on the coming year. It is a time to open my eyes to see what is new and extraordinary around me, and a time to close my eyes in rest and meditative thought. It is a time to pick up the pen and notebook and shake off months of silence. A time to pause and lift up my camera when I see a new type of bird or flower. These are days to walk in the hills, listen to the roar of the waterfall and marvel at the lava rocks. To sit in a hammock and doze. There is much to do on retreat.

This is a fitting time to look back over the year and where it has taken me, through the lens of my 2016 three word mantra “reorient, nurture and crystalize”. I have, in past years, reflected back on the mantra from which I am moving on, and shared the new set of three words at the same time. This year, I find that I am separating these and as the days of 2016 draw to a close I share a review of the words while still refining the words I will choose for 2017. They will be revealed when they are ready, as early into the new year as possible.

Reorient

At the end of 2015, I had already experienced a great shift but I knew that there would have to be even more significant change ahead. I knew that this was likely to involve a new job and possibly a relocation. Furthermore, I knew that I had to recalibrate my inner compass. This was apparent in the choice of my first word “reorient”. I had no idea of the massive changes ahead, ones which have been needed and exciting, but demanding physically, mentally and emotionally. I had no idea that as the mid point of the year approached, I would be leaving Myanmar, my home, my colleagues and friends and my familiar surroundings. It did not for a moment occur to me that I would also leave the continent which had been my home for the past 16 years. Leave Asia? Impossible! But that is what happened. In the early hours of a June morning, just before daylight, I was on my way to Yangon airport with too much luggage and a little dog, with a ticket to Africa in my hand, a yellow fever certificate, a thick folder full of canine export/import documentation and a contract for a new and inspiring position a day’s travel away. The transition has been rapid, with little time for adjustment or recuperation before launching into the new life where I have had so much to learn.

Reorientation has been such an apt word. I have truly been going through a process of reorientation mentally, physically and professionally. I had not realised how “Asia-centric” I had become. My compass has been firmly set in Asia. I know how far it is to Europe, to Australia and other parts of Asia. I know how much the time differences are, and I know how long it takes to get to these places. Living in Africa has shaken my compass. I cannot get my mind to understand that I am only one or two hours ahead of UK time now, depending on the time of year, yet the journey is so long. How can it be that the flight to Amsterdam takes seven or eight hours, yet I do not need to change my watch? This is reorientation I could not have imagined. It has been challenging, but revitalising to realise that such a shift is underway.

Nurture

My second word has been “nurture”. This has been important, because with such great change comes mental and physical exhaustion in a new and unfamiliar place. It is important to nurture the soul and find like minds, to nurture my professional and personal growth, and to nurture my health. I feel as if I have been transplanted, and need to be nurtured and looked after in order to thrive. This has been more difficult, and I have work still to do here. The journeys of the year have been demanding, and in a post cancer and “not getting any younger” life, there have been health blips. I also need to nurture my creative side, which has been neglected. In that, there could be a suggestion for the coming three word mantra.

Crystalize

The final word of 2016 has been “crystalize”, a beautiful word which mirrors “reorient”. After change and tumult, there needs to be a settling into the new. All aspects of my new life must take shape and crystalize into a firm shape so that I can truly settle. This has also complemented “thrive” in that it is important to be deliberate and intentional as I settle. I brought few, but a few possessions from my Asian, and especially Burmese life into Africa. Now I have a little creative writing corner in my African home which is distinctly Burmese in character.

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I am working on finding creative spaces, similar to the writing group, the book club, and photography group which were important aspects to my life in Myanmar. This process of crystallization will take time, but is underway.

This year has been one of journey. I have travelled a greater distance than ever before, in every sense. I have tales to tell of these journeys and stepping foot on new continents. But for now, through the lens of my three words, this is my personal review of 2016.

This has been a tumultuous year globally, and I cannot begin to relate this to the changes in my own world. While the year has been kinder to me than most of recent years, this has not been the case for many close to me, and certainly not a global trend. I am thankful for 2016, yet appreciate and understand that this is not the case more broadly. I wish for kindness and humility across the world in the coming year.

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As the sun sets on the outgoing year, let us all pledge to do what each of us can to make 2017 a good year.