Three words for 2018

Good evening” I nodded as I passed a well wrapped up couple walking their dog on the shorefront.

Evening,” they responded, kindly faces pinched in the chill wind.

I glanced at my watch a few steps onwards, and realised it was only a few minutes after 3 o’clock. In northern Scotland the days are short and in those twilight days between Christmas and New Year the sun nudges above the hills just for a short while before resting again below the horizon. It would soon be dark, another cosy night ahead.

3ECCAC03-52EB-4724-9469-304C06C098B7

Such evenings are perfect to reflect back on the year. Long evenings to review what the year brought, as well as preparing for the New Year. This time last year, I was in Ecuador. To be precise, I had been in the Galapagos Islands on those very twixtmas days, absorbing the unique setting I was in and oblivious to the surprises which 2017 was to bring. I was crafting my 2017 words: “Emerge, explore and intend”. I was ready for what the year would bring.

Or so I thought.

My process of identifying my 3 words combines a foundation of “givens” for the year with the direction, strength and tools to absorb “unexpecteds”. The words were tested to their limit by the past year as the “givens” almost all disappeared.

As I stepped into 2017, I had been living in Africa just a few months and was settling in to this new and inspiring place. A whole new continent and world away from the Asia I had lived and worked in for the previous decade and a half. My 3 word mantra was in place to guide me move forward. Emerge, explore and intend. I was all set to build my confidence and establish my place in my new environment. I was eager to explore my new surroundings. And I set out to approach life intentionally. However, 2017 had a few surprises to put in my path. Serious ill health from early in the year, a long recovery time and a change in the world of work saw me return to Scotland in the middle of the year, ill prepared for the adjustment which repatriation and professional redirection requires. It is not yet timely to detail those changes as there is still work to do to find my feet in a world which has changed significantly since I left in 2000. Writing an article for CABLE, Scotland’s new online international affairs magazine about my return to Scotland, provided a useful opportunity for me to think more deeply on the scale and depth of this readjustment.

Ullapool 2

This is a transition at all levels, professional, personal and physical. And a transition which was not planned or chosen, but necessitated by a set of external factors beyond my control. To move forward, I need 3 words which are strong and which will guide me to keep moving forward, ensuring I do not flag.

This is the first time in my life when I have not been working (or studying full time). I have been taken aback to realise that I feel stripped of my sense of purpose without the role which work provided. I am still the same person, with the same beliefs and values yet the vehicle to challenge inequity and inspire change was very much bound up in my professional role. This has led me to my first word – search. I need to search to find my place, to find a way to play my part in the world. I want to define and refine my sense of purpose. Searching is also a very practical need. I need to search to find where I can play a role in the Scottish workforce, in a country which has changed so much in the time I was away. I must search for a long term place to call “home”, as my circumstances now are very different. These are important individually, and almost overwhelming when put together. And there is no shortcut, searching and researching are processes in themselves and need time, energy and careful consideration.

And that leads me to my second word. After such change and turbulence, I yearn to “settle”. I have revelled in the variety of places I have lived, without doubt. I had no idea that I would spend so many years overseas and in so many different countries when I left Scotland 17 years ago. Yet, no matter how much I felt “at home” and enjoyed the homes I settled in, I always knew that no matter how long I would stay in a country, it would not be permanent and that leaves a psychological niggle deep down. After so many years of different, long term yet temporary homes, I am warmed by the prospect of a home where I can finally unpack all the elements of my life and truly settle. Indeed, I have experienced uncertainty and upheaval in all areas of my life these past months and I want to focus on seeing that all settle in 2018. These are also not quick or simple processes, but I would like to see at least clarity and stability. I want the dust to settle, and to see the way ahead in my longer term future.

My final word is one which leans on and follows on from the previous two. The various threads of my life are currently loose and straggled. These need to be sorted and brought to some kind of order. I want to begin to “weave” my new life from these various dimensions. Threads are thin, fragile and quick to be blown away when they are single, but when they are brought together, with ideas and direction, they can be woven into a fabric of meaning, strength and beauty. These strands woven together can form stability, clarity and can grow and evolve as time moves forward. Having so many loose strands may be daunting, but this is also liberating. I have enormous freedom to weave the life and future which is right for me. I am eager to for that to take shape and to see what the picture will look like.

Inverness 1

As we move through January, these northern days will slowly lengthen alongside the promise of spring and regrowth as nature’s cycles move forward. I have my first Scottish spring in almost 2 decades to look forward to. I welcome a reacquaintance with snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils, as the trees begin to bud and the evenings become lighter.

This is the nurturing backdrop for my 2018 mantra “Search, settle and weave”

snowdrop-blossom-bloom-spring-flower.jpg

Advertisements

Change of Scene

The past weeks have seen me on a journey of the mind, body and spirit. One journey has been a physical one. I have long yearned to visit Ireland, and previous visits have been short and never far out of Dublin or Belfast. I have also long hankered after a writing retreat and kept returning to the details of a memoir retreat in rural, western Ireland. My return to Europe provided the time and space to take that opportunity. And so, at the start of September I travelled to Dublin on a one way ticket, clutching my notebooks and writing, a train ticket to Galway and a booking for Bed and Breakfast on the way. That journey deserves its own story, and space and will be told here very soon. My story today is one closer to home.

I returned from Ireland a few days ago, to a realisation. As I had travelled northwards through the counties of Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal I was taken aback at how quickly the trees were changing colour. Of course, I knew in my head that it has been many years since I have been in this part of the world as autumn takes hold, but I clearly had not absorbed this. Every corner we turned, brought a vision of yellowing and crimson leaves against evergreen and slower-to-turn green leaves. The colours continued to surprise me as I travelled Scotland-ward through Derry and Belfast and across the water to Cairnryan. The last time I experienced autumn was in 1999, and here we are 18 years later. And how I continue to be taken by surprise!

autumn 5

IMG_5889

IMG_5882

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_5883

The seasons in my years overseas have been centred around rains and the mirror dry seasons, pre-rains and cooler months. My returns to Scotland have generally been in the UK summer months, and so I have become conditioned to seeing green grass, leafy trees, heather and even bluebells while here. In Asia and Africa my only experience of a similar change of seasons was in Mongolia, where the flowers and leaves died in a matter of days as the temperatures plummeted with the first snows. This was the rapid transition into the long wintry period which would see -25C considered to be warm. Furthermore, the arid climate in Mongolia meant that the landscape was less forested and the steppe vast in its expanse of grassland. Not so many leaves to fall. While the season was called autumn, it was not visibly autumnal in my memory.

Now back in Scotland, as my being readjusts to the flora around me, I also realise that I need to become reacquainted with bird and animal life which was once very familiar. Gone are the sounds of sunbirds, mysterious singing warblers, chirruping geckoes and noisy frogs. Now I hear seagulls, starlings and other new sounds in the morning.

As I was walking through a nearby woodland park the other day, my friend pointed out a few of the Scottish birds around us. She is a bird and nature lover and able to identify the sounds and sights around easily. A little robin hid just from view on a tree above, his tutting call the only giveaway to his presence. My friend then spotted a pair of little grebes, the smallest diving grebe I learned. They seemed to be a couple, the male with his russet neck and the female in her more muted blackish grey plumage. From what I could see, he would dive while she bobbed on the surface. When he surfaced, often a little distance from where he had disappeared, they would speed towards each other and he would gently feed her, before diving once more.

autumn 1

autumn 2

We continued to walk around the small loch, observing and trying not to intrude on life going on all around us as I learned and relearned about my Scottish surroundings.

No matter what the setting is, in which part of the world and whatever the climate might be I am humbly reminded of one important message. It is so important to pause, and to take in what is happening around us. We might think we have become used to our surroundings, but we can always look with new eyes, and listen with newly tuned ears. It is not physically what we see and hear, but how we look, listen and interpret what is around us that brings appreciation.

I must keep reminding myself of this as this period of adjustment leads to gradual settling.

autumn 3

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.

glasgow uni flowers 1

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.

Kivu Agama Lizard

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

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.

Always on my mind

This blog started life very much as a breast cancer blog, in its own discrete space.  Gradually it has morphed into a “life and work in Asia with the cancer thing thrown in” blog with more talk about life and moments here than previously.  I realise that the past few posts have in fact contained “no talk about cancer” since the last round of checks in late March.  And that has to be a good thing.  It shows that cancer has a space in my life (unwanted obviously) but that it is not “my life”.  Life on the blog has been about Water Festival, changing seasons and the very exciting Dragonfruit news. But that does not mean that cancer is not in my mind and recently I read an article which really resonated.

The writer articulates how she thinks of cancer every day, more than three years since diagnosis. It is a wonderfully balanced article and sets out the ways in which cancer filters through, and not necessarily in a “gloom and doom” way. And that is why it resonated so clearly with me. If we think about cancer, it is not necessarily about fear but it is also about change, adjustment and loss. But there is a perception that to think of cancer frequently is unhealthy and negative and I realise that it is important to emphasise that is not necessarily so.

Similarly to the writer, I am reminded of cancer as soon as I wake. Firstly I lean over to take my synthetic thyroid before I get up to go and put on my swimsuit, stuffing my prosthesis in the left side. That’s my routine. I am not filled with fear or grief, but it is a nuisance and uncomfortable. How can I not be reminded of cancer? Even the act of swimming and cycling in the morning is motivated by the knowledge that I improve my odds with regular exercise. So before I start my day, there are Big Cancer Reminders right in front of my nose.

Cancer is somewhere in my mind when I make plans, particularly holidays or visits. I find it extremely difficult to commit to anything around the time of the six monthly checks and once I pass those milestones, my diary and planner suddenly spring to life. I was diagnosed in 2009 and dates far into the future felt beyond my own lifetime. I didn’t even realise that I thought to myself “well, I probably won’t be here to see that” when the announcement came that Rio would host the 2016 Olympics. But I did, with a pang of something akin to mild regret. By some cruel quirk of fate, that announcement was made the very day I met my surgeon for the first time and he told me that the masses were highly suspicious of cancer. Now as time moves on, even the Tokyo 2020 Olympics do not feel quite so unreachable.  Yet still I take nothing for granted. There are a lot of milestones on the cancer side of things, never mind other ways that I can be felled.

I am reminded of cancer as I walk gingerly, picking my way carefully with toes awkward due to residual neuropathy. Perhaps it is not cancer as such on my mind, but there is a firm link to chemo after effects and everyday mobility.

I am reminded of cancer as I prepare my weekly cocktail of medications, counting the days and making sure that the alternate doses of warfarin, 5 mg one day, 6 mg the next, are correctly calculated, looking at those innocent little Femara pills, which are so costly and which cause so many unpleasant side effects. It’s not being negative. It just is what it is.

I am even reminded of cancer when I reach into the kitchen cupboard for a tea cup and have to use my right arm because Twang Arm can only get there if I am on my tiptoes.

In fact I cannot count all of the reminders, and I do not need to. It is clear that the invasive nature of surgery, effects of treatment past and present, never mind the risk of recurrence, all contribute to visible and less visible reminders. The critical thing is to manage these and adjust. And for it to be understood that I am not being negative or tempting fate. My thoughts are valid and my fears, when they come, are valid too. And sometimes I am just really grumpy that I have to wear a prosthesis at all, fed up that it irritates my skin in a way that a natural breast never does and I just want to toss the wretched thing into the bin. Or I am frustrated that I always have to wear a high neck camisole vest to hide the scars. Everywhere I turn, it is staring me in the face.

Yes, the reminders are many and varied and essentially constant. How can cancer not be on my mind daily? But that does not mean I cannot and do not dream of being an old woman who wears purple! I have every intention of being that woman!

yangon rainy season 2

Poetry Friday – “What if I were to tell you……”

What if I were to tell you……

What if I were to tell you, how scared I get.

What if I were to tell you, I think about it every day. At least once.  Though most days, so many times I lose count.

What if I were to tell you, it doesn’t get better.  Not really.  Just different.

What if I were to tell you, it makes me feel a hate so strong it stirs fear in my soul. Fear of my own hatred.

What if I were to tell you, I will never be the same again. I know.

What if I were to tell you, I wake in the night, wet tears reminding me. When I thought I had forgotten.

What if I were to tell you, that every twinge, every hint of pain brings a sweeping new dread.

What if I were to tell you, that hearing it is my fault ignites a fire of anger in my gut.

What if I were to tell you, it is just not as simple as “moving on”.

What if I were to tell you, that long after all around me have forgotten, it is my first waking thought.


What if I were to tell you, that once you hear that word, the mirror shatters.  The life you knew evaporates.  Replaced by a parallel, silent, world.  One built on assumptions.


What if I were to tell you.  And you were to hear me.

And understand.

Balinese lily illuminated by candle light

©  PCR 9 January 2013

Images and synchronicity….

Amidst all this bloggerly pondering, overhauling and refreshing,  I had an idea yesterday.

Before I describe the idea, let’s rewind to the overhaul, and particularly to the image at the background of the new look blog.  It took me a great deal of identifying, selecting, experimenting and painfully slow uploading of images to serve as the background image.  The one I finally selected, I was very happy with, even if you could only see the edges.  Oh, but choosing only one was so hard, and when I look at many other blogs around me, with such a variety of beautiful images, I felt sad that I could not put all of my favourite images as the background.  And then I stopped.  Why can’t I?  A slide show would take up too much memory and be painful for slow-downloading environments which are more the norm than not in this part of the world.  But what I could do would be to develop a regular kind of “feature”  where I could change the background picture, and at the same time display the image (in full since only the edges which are shown as background image), and links to any posts which relate and more images of the same kind.  Now wouldn’t that be a fine way of expanding the content of the blog in a way which truly reflects its purpose of telling the story of  the “Life and work of a Scottish woman in Asia – with the added complication of Breast Cancer thrown into the mix!”?  Well, let’s give it a try and see…..

So I have changed the background image 🙂  The new image I have chosen is from my visit to Timor Leste in February which I wrote about here along with a selection of photographs of the visit.  And I propose to change the background image, regularly (depending on connectivity) along with a post with the picture itself and giving a bit of the story behind it.

My next step was then to share and describe the first image which I had selected.  That plan changed. It was late in our day, Friday, when I read Marie’s challenge in her return to the blogosphere.  Her challenge is simple and beautiful.  We are challenged to open our eyes and appreciate our surroundings, and share the images from those wonderful everyday little things.

And that is where the synchronicity comes in.  Not just in relation to the images themselves, but the very image which I had painstakingly selected for the first background of the revamped blog look is one of my favourites for the very reason that it is a simple picture of an everyday wonder.  Marie challenges us to share our images on Sunday (tomorrow) so this post is to give the backstory and pave the way for the image which (coincidentally I had already uploaded for this post) for me truly represents a celebration of the ordinary.

And that will appear here tomorrow, with a link back to Marie’s challenge post.