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)

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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.

Overhaul

Perhaps it is because I have just returned from the scary pulmonary embolic experience and want to refresh my take on things.  Perhaps it is because it is that time of year when you want to clear out old stuff and bring in new.  Perhaps it is because I feel as if I am moving into a new kind of phase, and need to clarify my mind and direction.   Perhaps it is a bit of all of these.

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear.  I very much feel the need for an overhaul.  And more than the physical overhaul I have just been through.

As a start, I have been playing with the “look” of the blog.  I have had a hankering to do this for a while but was afraid (being a very non techy soul) of ruining my widgets.  There is nothing worse than ruined widgets in this day and age!  I was particularly afraid of losing my world visitor widget which continues to give me inordinate levels of pleasure when I see a new flag or a new dot on the globe.  That would effectively wipe the gecko’s passport clean, which would be devastating.  The blog has reached more countries even than Hillary Clinton’ in her record breaking period in office. ” Since becoming secretary of state in 2009, Ms. Clinton has ….. travelled to 102 countries ………. according to the State Department.”  And  in a shorter time span, given that the blog has been visited in a mind-boggling 148 countries since it was installed in April 2010!  So losing my widgets would be nothing short of disastrous when choosing a new “look” for the blog.  The tinkering may continue a bit as connectivity is slow which means that it is time consuming making visual changes.

In parallel with the visual side of the blog, a great deal of thinking has also been going on.  As well as a fair amount of reading of fellow blogs and reflection.  The thinking has yet to be transformed properly into cohesive thoughts and then words on the page.  But it is in process and will appear here very shortly, as long as my non expert finnicking does not result in a disappearance of all things gecko into the cyberspace without trace!

It seems I am not alone in overhauling thoughts on the meaning of life and blogging…..

Rose coloured spectacles? Or the Breast Cancer Lens?

“Do you think of Breast Cancer every day?” was the question posed recently on a BC friend’s blog.

It was a very thought provoking question, and timely as it came at the start of my landmark days, the prominence in my mind as I approached my Cancerversary, and of course the prominence of pinkness of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

My instant reaction was that it is not whether I think of breast cancer every day, but rather how often I think of breast cancer in a day.  I have no idea, but I know it is at the forefront of my mind probably too much.

It is a bit of a puzzle to work out what is a healthy level of reflection, and what amounts to unhealthy obsessing.  Of course, I believe that my own ramblings and rumination are healthy but I can also see that it is not a good thing to allow the cancer beast to dominate my mind quite so much.

I think that the reality is that it is not so much that I think specifically of Breast Cancer frequently.  It is moreover that I now see everything through a kind of Breast Cancer lens.  Along the lines of “same, same but different”, I am living in a different reality, (often termed the “new normal”) and everything looks different through this lens.  It affects everything you plan and try to do and means that much has to be modified.  As many of these changes become more a part of life, the act of modifying becomes more automatic but the changes are there and things are different.

For some things the lens is very obvious.  For example, I can’t think of the coming weeks without feeling the fear of the Big Check and having the inability of making any firm plans beyond that.  For other things, I do not specifically realise I am seeing things through the lens but it affects what I do, such as what I wear, making an extra effort to swim or join the Pilates class even when I am tired, choosing what I eat, adding a squeeze of lemon to almost every glass of water I drink and even arranging the pillows as I climb into bed.

In some ways, the lens is a good thing – perhaps a bit like a metaphorical medical kick in the backside!  It reminds me of the importance of lifestyle choices and the impact each one has.  It spurs action instead of inertia.  Sometimes it is a block, and prevents me from making decisions or plans.  It has an advocacy refractor and I find myself lobbying other women to make sure they screen and self examine.  And sometimes the lens has a very emotional character of sadness and nostalgia, when I think back on how life has changed, how much I took for granted and how much has changed for ever.

One thing is sure about this lens.  It is always there.  Once placed over my vision, it will never and can never be removed, even if I do not always sense its presence.  I need to try and use it to my advantage as far as possible and reduce its ability to distort my view and cause anxiety, disruption and regret.

I am sure I will continue to think regularly of Breast Cancer.  It is too significant to be able to imagine a time when it fades from deliberate thought.  I hope, though, that in time I will think less frequently of the immediate disease and focus more on a helpful and healthy use of the Breast Cancer lens.