Reflections and glistenings

Each year since the start of 2010, I have found the practice of selecting a three-word mantra to be one which grounds and guides me through the coming year. This mantra accompanies me as the months pass, it reminds me of the priorities which I had seen as key for the year ahead and keeps me on track. As we now move well into the final quarter of this especially strange year, I am minded to reflect on my three words for 2020. Words which were chosen carefully, without any inkling of the times ahead. And words which now feel to be eerily apt.

I can still see the expression of disbelief when I described the world before the internet to my grandchildren a couple of years ago. Their faces displaying complete bewilderment. And as for myself, I too find it hard to remember having to search for information, in dictionaries and encyclopedias. Waiting for libraries to open for reference books, poetry quotes and other sources of facts and clarification. Back then, booking tickets and hotels on the phone or by post, and physically going into the bank on a regular basis were the way things were done. Now there has been this entity called the internet in most of our lives for less than half of my lifetime but it is hard to recall what it was really like before it became such an integral part of our lives. When we first got email addresses they looked odd in their lower case formats. Often we would have to share the internet connection and take it turns every day or so to access our emails. Then, when technology became more accessible, we had modems which connected us at home, through twanging phone lines which disconnected our phones while we spent short bursts of time online. How quickly we forget what it was really like.

When I think back to the start of 2020, I am not sure I had even heard of coronavirus. Those little snippets of news reporting that a new virus had appeared in Wuhan were yet to register in our consciousness. Far away, distant in miles, time zones and worlds. And although Asia was very familiar to me, this faraway illness and images of a deserted city seemed unreal and almost fictional. How quickly that was to change.

As the situation in Wuhan was intensifying, the three word mantra which I had chosen for 2020 had formed and was whispering in my ear. “Still, dwell and glisten”, it encouraged me.  When I went abruptly into isolation in mid-March, life did physically come to a standstill. While I was no longer venturing any further than the garden gate to put out the bin and had truly stilled, my mind had not. Anxiety dreams, shock at the impact of the pandemic and a major shift to a completely ‘work from home’ modality meant that my mind was in overdrive. Such an irony as the intent of the word “still” was to motivate me to pause, reflect and settle in my new space. While my mind has been more difficult to “still” I have found time and intent to meditate. and complemented this with a fascination in watching the garden grow around me. This has motivated me to pause and capture this in words and photographs. There is so much that I would have missed had I been living my pre-pandemic non-isolated life.

My second word was “dwell” and intended to remind and encourage me to make my little place a home, fixing the many tasks which need to be done and getting to know the community I had chosen. I had been working my way through those tasks, month by month, and hoping that many would be completed as the end of the year approached. I had become involved with the local writing group and other community organisations and with the lighter evenings arriving, I was looking forward to getting to know neighbours. Isolation intensified the focus of my second word. Being in total self-isolation meant that I was now dwelling completely in my new space, working from the kitchen table with my laptop at the wrong height and using a funky chair in bright and fun kitenge fabric from Rwanda. I was able to spend lunchtimes in the garden, and out of the corner of my eye I could see the hedge growing rapidly while on Zoom calls. And the more the situation continued and we normalised this strange new life, the more I was thankful that the timing of COVID-19’s arrival came after my move here. That I was able to dwell in a peaceful space, surrounded by reminders gathered on my path here. This word is central to my 2020 mantra, and central to maintaining a sense of being grounded through these months.

My third word is “glisten”. It arrived as a late surprise, when I was trying to decide between two other words with similar meanings (enlighten and illuminate). So often when I am selecting my three words, one comes along unexpectedly, and I wonder where it was hiding. Glisten was perfect as I started 2020. It was simple but extraordinary, and required an interaction and cooperation. As I revisit those words which I wrote as the sun was setting on 2019, in those long ago pre-COVID-19 days, I find them intensely resonant.

We all have light in us that shines, and we all have the potential to make things glisten. This encourages me to be creative, solution focused and optimistic and to keep my eyes open for those tiny, extraordinary moments we can miss when our minds and thoughts are dark.

As autumn progresses, and the northern winter approaches I feel the need to hold on to these words. The situation has been worsening over the past weeks and we know that this winter will have dark moments. More than ever, there is a need to look for glistenings of hope all around us, like raindrops gently held on the leaf of ladies’s mantle, and where we can, shine a little light to cause a glistening.

Opening Up

Every time I think that the wild welsh poppies in my garden have finished blooming, I spot another blaze of orange, and more little buds shyly opening up. Just a few more days of colour, these persistent little poppies tell me as they gradually fade, and their petals fall. And the cycle continues, as I spot another few buds, the orange crumpled colour pushing the bud open for tomorrow’s bloom

Opening up crop

All the while, discussions continue and changes are announced of a wider opening up. Doors are opening, faces peeping out and families making tentative plans to gather. At an appropriate distance, and in small numbers. The world which closed so abruptly more than two months ago is slowly starting to open up, gingerly and not so gingerly.

I have mixed feelings about the opening up of the world, and the easing of lockdown. I am not ready. And I feel embarrassed to admit it. When I went into isolation it was sudden, and complete. Not a soul has been in my home, and my face to face interactions with other humans have been few and on my turf quite literally. Food is delivered on my doorstep, with my door closed. Anything which has been touched by the hands of another is subjected to careful sanitising and its own period of isolation. Conversations over the fence rely on warmth of words to compensate for physical closeness. Closeness and warmth on screens and blinking phones have strengthened and sustained. I have become surprisingly present in this new reality. Throughout these past weeks, I have become less fearful as I have built this safety shield around me. I find that I am not ready to dismantle it and allow the danger which is still lurking in invisibility to contaminate my safe space.

I am not officially shielding. I did not receive a nine-page letter which advised me to stay at home for 12 weeks and avoid contact with others. However, the public health announcements which I now know by heart speak directly to me and those who have health issues. Issues which make us highly vulnerable and at risk of very severe illness if we were to become infected with the virus. My shielding might not have been official, but it has been faithful.

I know that I am not ready to open up until I know how the pandemic responds to this easing of lockdown. This doesn’t mean that I find isolation easy. It means that my fear of the virus is greater than my struggles with isolation. I do not want to take steps which could place me at risk. Even if that risk is very low, the effect of the virus is no less dangerous. That is my rationale and emotionale.

I know many others who feel differently, and who are anxious to start opening up their lives and making those baby steps towards that elusive new reality. It is heart-warming to see plans announced and pictures of small gatherings, tears and smiles. Photographs and videos on social media of this new found freedom sing with the happiness of opening up.

Others are making bolder, nay riskier, step. Steps which cause intakes of breath, tutterings and mutterings. Steps which strike fear into the hearts of the cautious souls who are afraid of what cannot be seen.

None of us can truly understand what it has been like for others as we have experienced isolation and lockdown. For most of us, it has been emotionally demanding, tears appearing unexpectedly and inappropriately. Reactions disproportionate to their cause. For many, a difficult domestic situation suddenly became a dangerous one in precarious situation. Reports of domestic violence increased drastically. None of knows what is happening behind the closed doors of others. And none of us knows, how each of us feels about the uncertainty of the future as the lockdown starts to ease.

And so, while I can, I would like to open up at the pace which works for me. I don’t want to burst into colour suddenly. I am happy to peep out through the opening bud and just see how the land lies.

Once I feel that the outside is a place I feel safe, I will push through and step back into the world. But until I reach that point of confidence, I will stay in my safe haven, watching with joy as those who do feel ready, are taking those steps.

Paralysis – reflection and reminiscence

I feel as if I have been here before.

Over 10 years ago, I heard words which were to rock my world. The landscape around me shifted seismically and everything I thought was certain, was no longer so. In a state of shock and disbelief, I embarked on a path step by step. Tiny step by tiny step. Mostly forwards but not always. A line in the sand had been drawn – when I heard the surgeon say “this is highly suspicious of cancer“.

I remember in those early days following diagnosis, being astounded that the world continued as normal all around me. As I moved through the treatments and procedures my focus was on survival and on moving from one step to another. I became gradually used to the new landscape, and was able to continue to function.

However, I was aware that as I garnered my emotional, physical and psychological strength and resilience, I felt as if life was on pause. I was completely unable to think beyond the immediate, let alone plan. I counted time in increments through treatments, unable to consider making arrangements for what we all think of as social and personal activities. It was like a paralysis, I was cocooned, unable to move.

And the realisation has dawned on me that the emotional space I am in right now, as the pandemic is taking its hold, is uncannily like that space 10 years ago. This is day 22 of self isolation and shielding. I arrived home from work 22 days ago, having agreed that afternoon that I would work from home from then on to reduce risk while travelling to work on busy buses. I picked up a couple of items from the shop on my way home. Excellent stocking up – a jar of red pesto, a small packet of macaroni and some miso soups. I had no idea when I shut the front door, that I would not be leaving again for the foreseeable future. Family conversations that evening were frank and sobering. We talked through the risks that I faced. Age and underlying health conditions meant that I would not fare well if I contracted COVID-19. Additionally, as the pandemic took hold, the health service would be placed under extreme pressure to accommodate very ill patients. We realised at that point that I should immediately self isolate. And so, on Friday 13 March, I closed my doors to the outside world.

In many ways, life continues. The sun rises, it travels across the sky and taking a little longer each day, it sets again. I work from home, hold meetings and discussions online. Life has been transferred predominantly online. I have FaceTime, Zoom and Skype chats in the evening with friends, sometimes in small groups. Our Book Club and Writing Group now meet online. But even though life is continuing, it has been changed irrevocably. We don’t know when it will settle and resume and in particular, we don’t know what the new world will look like when it does settle. 

The aspect which is so difficult to comprehend, is the enormity of this. This is not a personal or localised crisis. This is a crisis for humanity across the globe. And if the most developed and sophisticated health and social support systems are buckling under the pressure, the challenges which the most vulnerable communities face is terrifying.

This is not an individual trauma, we are in a collective state of shock and I believe that we are just at the start.

So again, I find myself in this strange paralysis. This is not a pause where we can make the most of this new “free time”. I am finding that this is a time for adjustment to this new altered reality we find ourselves in. And I am finding that we are responding and reacting in different ways. This is bringing out the very best in many with heart wrenching accounts of kindness and selflessness, and sadly the worst in a small minority.

As I read more and more from fellow cancer veterans, that they are shaken by how much they are reminded of the times of shock when diagnosed, I have been reflecting back on my own diagnosis time. When I look back over my blog posts from those days, I could quite easily do a “find and replace” exercise, replacing “cancer” with COVID19. Back then, I would lurch from fear and anxiety to grim determination to beat this thing (as if I had any choice in the matter). But through it all, I was bathed in this numbing paralysis. And that is how I find these days, and weeks ahead. I can deal with the immediate. Working from my kitchen table, eating from the contents of my fridge and cupboards, household tasks, working out how to get an online shop, being humbled by the kindness of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours dropping off care and food packages, and even birthday cake on my doorstep. But I cannot shake off this sense of being on hold, paused as we are moved forwards through this evolving crisis.

The sense of deja vu prompted me to re-read an old blog post where I had commented on the extent that my world and landscape had been so drastically altered. And this is what I wrote, over 10 years ago:

There are two things which shape the way I see this diagnosis.  Firstly is the fact that life is less about what happens to us, than how we deal with what happens to us.  I can’t change the diagnosis but I am in charge of how I handle what is coming.  So be prepared for inappropriate humour and oodles of feistiness.  The other thing is hard to describe.  Life changes with such a diagnosis, and you can’t go back to what it was before.  From the day I googled galore and realised that there was a real possibility that this was breast cancer, I realised also that there are many things I can no longer take for granted.  All plans change, in fact all plans are cancelled or put on hold.  It is a bit like the sun rising every morning – you know you can rely on it, you know it will come up and some days are sunnier than others and you can see it clearly, some days cloudier but it is light so you know that the sun did rise again.  But imagine if suddenly, one day the sun doesn’t rise.  Everything changes.  Everything fundamental you take for granted, suddenly shifts.  No daylight, no warmth, no growth and the colours all change.  But, after the shock and with human resilience, the will to survive, creativity and technology, ways are developed of dealing with it and life continues.  But it can never be the same, it can never go back to the way it was before.  All right, that is an extreme and dramatic analogy, but there is something about this diagnosis that feels similar to me.

December 2009

And  I realise that I don’t need to shake off this feeling of paralysis. I need to embrace this as my own way of coping through this. It won’t last for ever. This too shall pass. And life will gradually settle. The cancer experience means that I know that it won’t be the same, and it could be very different. And, as long as COVID19 does not take me, then life will gradually resume in its new formhope

And indeed, life does continue. New shoots, buds and flowers are appearing as spring moves forward towards summer. And the sun rises, it travels across the sky taking a little longer each day, and sets again, in preparation for the new day and days to come.

African sunset

Tomorrow

When I arrived back in Yangon in November 2010, following my diagnosis, surgery and the first two rounds of chemo, I remember sinking into the chair in our living room with a sense of exhaustion and relief. We had spent hardly any time in our new home before our sudden departure and did not know if we would be able to return. But return we did, almost 2 months later and to a very different Yangon. We had left while monsoon was drenching the earth and when we returned, the rains had evaporated, the earth was already dry and the sky clear blue. And our garden was glorious. The rains had nurtured the mature trees, the bamboo, the hibiscus and frangipani and we were surrounded by lush greens of every shade, punctuated by flashes of tropical colour. Our little home has large windows and the greenery outside brought a sense of calm and healing. I had not consciously craved such tranquillity until I found myself overwhelmed by the comfort it brought.

home sweet home 3For some reason, I was taken by a compulsion to plant a banana tree in our garden. I had long wanted to have a banana tree in my garden since living in Asia. That is something you don’t see in many Scottish gardens. I remember friends in Nepal planting a banana tree in their home in the southern plains and I was astounded at how quickly it grew, blossomed and then produced fruit. Now, returning to Yangon I felt an urgency in planting my own banana trees.

Happily, such things are easily done here and in no time there were a number of young banana trees in the garden, keeping the mango tree, the lime tree and the papaya tree company. They grew easily and I kept an eye on their progress as we moved through the gruelling triathlon of treatment, travelling back and forth between Yangon and Bangkok.

home sweet home 1

home sweet home 2

A few weeks ago, I saw a quote on social media which transported me instantly to the time and emotion of that need to plant the banana tree. I realised that there was something subtle and primal within that compulsion. While I was facing my mortality and the demons which accompany these thoughts, something within me was rising above that place. I was investing time and emotion in my own future, in the shape of a banana tree.

tomorrow More than ever I needed to believe in tomorrow.

And I still do. The cycle of growth, the seasons, the rising and the setting of the sun and the moon are things we take for granted but which are at the very essence of our existence. When I wanted to plant those banana trees, this was in the belief and desire of seeing them grow and flourish. That belief in tomorrow.

We still have our banana trees. They produced healthy red bananas the following year and the plants now tower above me. A tropical climate provides rapid results but the same would apply to any growth, whether flora of fauna, rooted in the principle of tomorrow.

Of course I still believe in tomorrow, though I no longer treat it with the same cavalier attitude.  None of us know how many tomorrows we have, and cancer pushes our belief in tomorrow in our face and laughs.  But we can smile back gently and plant our trees while we invest in the belief of all of our tomorrows.