Three little words, five years running

Rainy season is in full force in Borneo just now, so I was surprised to waken this morning to bright sunshine streaming in the window, New Year rays of sunshine. A sign of the coming year, perhaps. I cling to that hope.

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There is no set plan for the first day of 2014, but there are some things to be done.  A swim of course, and a wander through the rainforest to the beach, some gazing at the jungle covered, dramatic peaks surrounding us.  Iconic Borneo view.  And the three words to share.

One swim has been swum, as gentle, drizzley raindrops were falling and wispy clouds gathered on the nearby peaks. There is something refreshing and life giving about these rains, and swimming under raindrops is special. Until the rains become too heavy.  I was able to swim for nearly half an hour before a rumble of thunder and the rain in my eyes prompted me to leave the pool.

Which makes it time to share the words.  The words have been selected for a little while now, tested here and there, and now they just need to be wrapped in more words to give the background.

Just as 2009 was drawing to a close, with two rounds of surgery, and three cycles of chemo, oh  and a stage 3 cancer diagnosis in the last weeks of the year, I saw an unusual prompt or suggestion for the coming year. Instead of making a New Year’s resolution, this suggested selecting three words to guide and inspire for the coming year. The rest is history. I identified three words which spoke clearly to me of how I wanted 2010 to be shaped.  These were to stay closely with me over the following year and without doubt kept me focused on what I felt to be important. This resonated so soundly with me it has truly been a practice which has been alive and meaningful for me. This has become an integral part of my life, and yes I do know how trite that sounds!  I spend a good amount of time, thinking about the coming year and how I want to guide it as far as I can.  I play with different words, until the right mantra takes shape and I have my three words.

2010               Recovery        Discovery       Laughter

2011               Harmony        Vitality            Adventure

2012               Resilience       Escapade        Wonder

2013               Focus              Treasure        Design

I am astonished that as I have been crafting the mantra for the coming year, that this will be my fifth selection of words.  Five years! In October, I will reach the five year mark from diagnosis. In these years, I have lived and breathed the words which I have chosen. My words whisper to me as they guide and inspire me, and I look to them if I feel I am drifting or struggling.  I love my words.

Early this year, I also developed the five sticky plan which further embedded the three words in my life. This has been another practice which sounds a bit zany, but again it has been a mainstay for me and worked incredibly well with this year’s words.

The year has been a hard one in many ways.  The words have been a support and guide which have been needed.  I confess that I will be glad to say goodbye to 2013.

This has been a year which has brought intense times, and more than its fair share of loss and heartache. It has been a year where the side and after effects of cancer and its treatment have more than impinged on my life with pain and discomfort. It has been a year of professional and personal intensity in an exciting and demanding context and place in history. It has been an exhausting year and often hard to find that sweet spot where the balance in life is hiding.  There has been more than ever a need for inner and outer strength and the patience to navigate through the grieving process. I still find it hard to believe that my father is really no longer with us.  How can he be gone, when he was always there, all of my life up to this year? We knew his time was limited and precious, but that does not make his loss any less painful. There have been shocking losses too, people who have been taken this year, horribly before their time. How can my brother in law be gone, just days after we had been planning to meet up? How can a young man be taken long before his 30th birthday, leaving his family and friends utterly bereft, bewildered and shocked?  How can life be there one day, and not the next?

Yet amidst the shock and grief we have been living in 2013, there have of course been moments and times to treasure, achievements, times we are proud of, times when challenges bring a refreshed closeness with our loved ones.

So what role did my three words play in this memorable year?  How did they work?  Were they lost amid life’s intensity?

My first word for 2013 was focus. This was my rationale for the choice:

I am a bit of a butterfly and flit from task to task, from idea to new idea and am easily drawn away in unplanned directions. I remember thinking that I needed to focus, to see projects through after the novelty wears off and to set clear goals and objectives as well as commit to seeing a task through.  I particularly like the fact that focus exists as a verb as well as a noun and thus expresses deliberate action as well as something tangible to aim for.

This has been a really important guiding word for the year. It has indeed served to remind me that I must tackle those tasks which I love to put off, and to spend deliberate time working on planning and organising.  The five sticky plan with its weekend reminders to spend some time on “focus” has been a useful technique.  Sometimes I have spent time organising my immense photo library (not quite finished yet though…) and others I have put aside an hour or two to write to friends and family.

When I revisited the words a few months ago, this is what I wrote then, and this most definitely still applies.

I feel as if I have been floundering a bit, especially with my writing.  I also see the need to bring a bit more order into most areas of my life.  I am a bit of a butterfly – I flit about from one thing to another.  My attention is easily drawn by something new and interesting.  Ideas are not a problem.  Or perhaps they are.  I have so many that I tend to move onto an exciting new though as the inspiration strikes. I love ideas and where they take me.  I like far less the graft of shaping and working with them through to fruition.  And that is why I need to focus. I have a number of embryonic writing projects.  Some more embryonic than others, and I recognised to need to prioritise and organise these projects if I want to see anything realised!  Hence “focus”.  And not surprisingly this has been the hardest one to work on.  The five stickie plan really helps, as one or two of the five of each weekend’s stickies must relate to “focus”.  I have taken time to better organise my electronic filing and writing work, spent time sorting and binning papers and junk which I am incredibly skilled at amassing and I have taken time to plan and prioritise my main projects”.  A friend also introduced me to the Pomidoro time management tool and I find it works incredibly well for me both personally and professionally. I am much more focused when I know I have 25 minute chunks of time, and then 5 minutes to stand up, check email, make a cup of tea or even just to go to the window and look at the clouds!  Perhaps there has been progress then, I realise.

What I realise, is that focus is not something purely for 2013, but a practice which I need to incorporate systematically.  I must keep my eye on the future, and in the direction I want to travel, I must focus to get there. And I must often work on some tasks which I would rather put off till another day,

Treasure was a bittersweet word for 2013. I had wanted to convey a number of elements including the sense of holding things close and valuing them.  Seeing the special elements in the everyday, and appreciating what we have. It spoke of cherishing and nurturing to me, its essence of encouraging growth and creation through care. ts, as well as a beautiful sense of when caring for the most precious things to us, protecting and treasuring them.

I also love the fact that it is also a both a verb and a noun, and that symmetry really calls to me.  In its verbal form, it is very close to cherish, with the added sense that it is something very special. I love treasure as a noun too, because we are surrounded by treasure, in even the most ordinary, everyday entity.  I love to pick fallen frangipani blossom in the morning, and call it morning treasure.  It is so important to notice the simplest elements in our surroundings and value them.  As modern life becomes more sophisticated and complex, maintaining a sense of naivety and wonder is refreshing if not essential to our emotional wellbeing.  I also apply this concept to my physical wellbeing and know that I must continue to focus on health and activity.  My wonderful morning swim and cycle routine is a treasure indeed.

Treasure has been a massive word for me through 2013, but the most difficult to articulate. In one sense I have been guided by treasure to ensure that I take care of myself, that I care for my physical, emotional and creative sides and devote time and energy to this. Moreover, though treasure has been bittersweet. In March I spent the last week I ever would with my father and that time and those memories and the time we spent together as a family on his loss are beyond treasure.  I hold them close, remember and relive those times with a mix of sorrow, grief and gratitude.

My third word of 2014 was design. I selected it with its abundance of meanings which spoke to me.

It represents the importance of creativity in my life and serves to remind me to prioritise those creative activities which I so enjoy. I need to ensure that there is space for art, reading, writing and imagining, and that I must ensure balance in my life. Design also conveys a sense of deliberate action, as in the phrase “by design”.  This chimes with me so much.  No matter what challenges are thrown in my way, I must retain control and make wise decisions as I follow the path I choose.  I must ensure that I invest effort and due consideration and don’t just allow myself to be swept along.  Life is not about what happens to us, but how we deal with what happens to us, we must remember.

This year I have in some ways felt as if life is a return to High School with all its extra curricular activities – in a good way! I have Writing Group, Book Club and a Film Night most of which require preparation in either writing, reading or remembering to bring a snack or bottle of wine!  In January, a Photography Club started up and I didn’t hesitate to join. I discovered that I was the only photographer using a point-and-shoot which promptly broke irreparably in some sense of inferiority!  I have bought an entry level SLR camera which has led to me learning so much and taking some appallingly bad photographs (another sense of focus). Add that to the daily swim and cycle routine, and design has in all of its sense been prominent in 2013 and I continue to enjoy learning and experimenting, making the effort and continuing to push boundaries.

Even before this review, I knew that the words were doing their work. They will not be retiring as we move into 2014 as their essence will continue in the practices which have become integral in my daily life.

As the year end approaches, I have a flutter of excitement as I begin the process which will lead to the selection of three words for the coming year.  Firstly, I take time to think of the priorities which I want to focus on and the emphasis for the coming year.  For 2014, I want to build on the work of these previous years while moving forward deliberately. The past year has been a difficult one, and I know there will be particular challenges in 2014.  I cannot control many external factors but I can be deliberate in how I deal with these.

With this in mind, the words I have chosen for 2014 are:

Dedication, integrity and flair.

I LOVE them, as individual words, but also as my guiding mantra.

Dedication

This builds on focus. It encapsulates a sense of devoting both time and attention on those things which matter most. I need to dedicate time to being organised and taking care of even the tasks which I don’t enjoy as well as the ones I do. I need to take care of myself, physically and emotionally, I need to set aside time and attention for people and not be swept up in the pressing things which tend to swamp us. I need to be dedicated to taking those writing and creative projects forward.

Integrity

“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.

Flair

My third word is flair.  This combines my creative side with individuality. I love being a little different and seeing things in new ways.  At the photography club, we provide feedback on the images we share on a given theme, and one piece of feedback this year hit the spot and made  gave me a swell of pride.  The theme was “rainy season” and I had shared a photograph of a line of monks walking through a flooded street, seemingly oblivious to the rains and the water levels.  I was told that of the thousands of photographs of monks in their alm-gathering lines, and rains in Myanmar, my photograph was unique and an image which no one had seen before.  The photograph was not technically great, but the essence I had captured was one of uniqueness and that is what delighted me.  I like seeing things through new, fresh eyes and from angles which others do not see.  A touch of flair.  Something creative to aim for, letting inspiration take me on a journey.

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So these are my words for the coming year.  2014, I do not know what you have in store for us, but with my words – I am ready!

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Within. Without.

As I was walking down our lane the other evening, I spotted several fireflies darting about.  One of those little moments, when the ordinary is exquisite, I immediately stored the sight mentally, adding it to a little list I keep. This is the list of snippets and experiences I keep, to share with my father when I phone or see him. It must have been no more than a nanosecond before I of course remembered that I would no longer have the opportunity to share these little moments. I was almost physically winded by the thud of realisation.

I had thought when I returned to Yangon that perhaps grief might be a little kinder given that I am not surrounded by daily reminders of my father.  I am not living in the same physical space and  do not have those shared routines constantly prompting and reminding. Such naivety.  Of course I am surrounded by reminders.  Loss is not something external, it is within us.  Contained within our emotions and memories. Losing someone does not mean that the emotional ties are gone.  They are there forever.

Those reminders are everywhere.  Because they are within me not without.  When I received a Father’s Day marketing email from Pinterest yesterday, telling me that it is not too late and I “still have time to plan something for dad”, I found it hard to contain a mix of grief and anger.  I do not still have time.  It is too late. This is one of those gruelling hurdles, the first Father’s Day “without”.  Without my father.  I never will again have the opportunity to have that Father’s Day phone conversation, the line crackling across the distance, as I share those little snippets which I have saved up.  But I can’t fairly accuse Pinterest of being insensitive.  It is my association and emotions which prompt the reaction it does, rubbing invisible little sprinklings of salt into my too raw wounds.  It is within me, not without.

Nancy’s Point talks insightfully about loss, and shares important lessons, such as:

Grief’s intensity lessens, but the loss is for a lifetime.

Indeed.

monsoon droplets, captured like teardrops

Loss is something we experience from within.  Not without. 

Gradually adjusting to living without the person we have lost.

Living and dying across cultures

There’s one thing about cancer that is undeniable. And that is that it abruptly confronts you with your mortality. Which is interesting, because many cultures, have so many taboos around death. We don’t talk about it. We remain in denial, about our own deaths, and of those close to us. We use euphemisms when a person dies. We too often avoid the topic. We even hide it from our own minds.

However, when you step over the line in the sand when we learn we have cancer, or if someone close to us is diagnosed, that taboo seems to melt away. Being part of a close cancerhood which includes too many with metastatic cancer, means that the subject of death is always there.

I learned a great deal about death and grieving when my father in law died nine years ago in north eastern India where my husband’s family is from. The family belongs to the “Tamang” ethnic Himalayan hill people and are very devout Buddhists. As a foreigner (and new daughter in law) in such an intense situation there was the potential for a very difficult time. I had no understanding of the rituals, or what would happen and my own cultural block prevented me from asking. This was eased enormously for me, when one of my husband’s aunts took me to one side and passed me “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” and pointed me to the chapters on ritual and belief around death.

As well as being enormously helpful and enabling me to understand and engage as appropriate in the rituals, I learned a great deal from that book as well as from being with the family throughout these rituals. I recount this from my memory of that time and what I have retained from the explanations from family and the book which accompanied me throughout. This is my own understanding and I trust that it is accurate, and am happy to be corrected if I err at all.

I am a complete novice in the teachings of Buddhism, so please be gentle with me if I either over-simplify or misconstrue. It is well known that Buddhism is based on the principle of reincarnation. This is where the way we have acted in this life influences and shapes where we head in the next one. As such the process of death is one of the soul passing to the next life and very important. It is critical that the process is carried out properly.

I felt humbled and privileged to be part of this when my father in law died. I found this process enormously respectful and helpful in that it guides the bereaved through a process where they focus on the transition of their loved on in stages and helped me to understand how differently we deal with death in different contexts.

The time of death is believed to be very traumatic for the soul of the one who has died and there is a transition stage known as “bardo” which the soul passes through. It is very important that Buddhist monks guide the departing soul through this process, with rituals known as the “phowa”. This is intended to help the soul understand that they have died and to support them to gradually come to terms with this. Over these early hours and first days following death there is chanting to comfort the soul, and the family say kind things about their lost one, leaving out their favourite foods and drinks to make sure they feel loved and not distressed. The funeral takes place very soon after death, at a place and time identified by the monks.

The 49 days following death are very important in the Buddhist rituals and beliefs, representing seven periods of seven days each. At each seven day point, rituals will be held in the home, Buddhist monks chanting and carrying out the appropriate “puja” to support the soul on their journey towards their next incarnation or next life. At the third seven day period, that is on the 21st day, an important “puja” is held. At this point the soul moves from the stage where they are newly passed, to that where they are preparing for their next incarnation. While in the first 21 days, the soul is believed to be nearby and moving through this “adjustment” phase, after that it is believed that on one of the next seven day points, the soul will pass to the next life, therefore either at the 28th, 35th or the 42nd day.

When the 49th day comes, it is known that the soul has moved on and there is a major day of rituals and puja, with family and friends coming from far and wide to pay respects and to grieve. It is a painful and highly emotional day, for it is on the 49th day, the family and close ones know that their loved one has moved on and they grieve their loss.

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Today marks the 49th day since my father’s death.

Post Script

Strangely I dreamed of my father last night, after I had written this.  Strangely, because this is unusual.  I do not dream often of my father, I never have.  I think of him frequently but rarely dream.  Last night, in my dream, he came to visit us in our home.  He was looking so well, was dressed in his usual everyday “countryside smart but casual” clothes and standing in the garden near our door.  I was pleased to see him standing and walking unaided, and out and about as he had been so frail when I last saw him. Memory was clearly blurring with reality.

He didn’t come into the house, but we stood outside and chatted.  Small talk.  Chit chat.  Nothing of substance, but pleasant and lighthearted.

Writing this post and thoughts of the 49 days perhaps prompted my subconscious to form this dream. Or perhaps not?

Journey

Last August I wrote about celebrating the ordinary. This is particularly pertinent and poignant right now as I have returned to Scotland, for the reasons alluded to in that post.IMG_4153

In this intense and difficult time of grief and loss words are few for the moment, but to repeat what I said at that time:

“But times are changing, my future visits to the island unsure and my long breaks there unlikely in the same way. I will have to rely on memories and the many photographs……..

Celebrate the ordinary today, because tomorrow may be different.”

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And indeed it is.

 

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