A grandmother, a rusty old key, a missing suitcase and the winding lanes and souqs of Marrakech

I am not quite sure what brought me to Marrakech. But somehow, there I was, two nights before Christmas, in a peaceful haven in the the midst of the old medina, sipping mint tea and lamenting the loss of my belongings.

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Escaping the dark and cold of the Scottish winter had been undeniably attractive. Over the previous weeks, I had been harbouring a nasty seasonal lurgey which was refusing to shift, and the thought of a day which provided a full three hours more of daylight than the short days and long nights of Scotland’s winter was irresistible. Add to that mix, a friend who owns a magical riad in the city and a short haul journey it seems that a decision was made without my even knowing it. Christmas in Marrakech. A healing, creative time of retreat and restoration. Indeed, impossible to resist.

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It was only that morning that I had closed the door behind me in Scotland a good three hours before sunrise to head to the airport. The snow capped high Atlas mountains were already turning a deep shade of pink from the sun low in the sky, when I landed much later that day in Morocco. I was eager for this break, and keen to become acquainted with Marrakech and settle in the Riad which would be my home for the coming days.

Immigration was smooth, and I waited patiently for my familiar suitcase at the carousel so that I could step into the Morrocan air and meet a new country. I became less patient as grandmother’s suitcase failed to appear. The minutes ticked past until eventually the carousel emptied. I was alone at the belt, and clearly would remain so as grandmother’s suitcase was nowhere to be seen. As I reported my missing belongings, I found it rather concerning that the baggage handlers were not able to clarify what had happened to the case and there was no indication in the system of where on earth, quite literally, it might be.

Reluctantly, with the “lost baggage” paperwork completed, I moved through into the arrivals halls and out to the night air and the transport to the riad. The Marrakech air was cool, but not cold and I looked out of the window as we drove through the streets, with curiosity for what the daylight sights would be like, while trying to stifle an underlying irritation and concern. My suitcase contained important and less important belongings – in addition to the usual clothes and toiletries I had Christmas gifts, some mince pies and items for my friend, cough and cold remedies for the lingering lurgey and a precious notebook amongst other random bits and pieces.

After a drive of around half an hour, latterly alongside the old wall of the medina, we turned into the medina itself and its narrow streets. It was only a few moments before the car stopped, and the driver opened my door. I stepped into the immediate bustle of the lanes of the old town, and my little backpack and heavy winter jacket were bundled into a handcart and the driver waved me off as the handcart and its owner trundled off into the lanes. I had to weave around people, past stalls and avoid donkeys as I tried to make sure that I kept sight of my handcart and remaining worldly goods as they continued through the lane towards a mystery destination. We soon turned into a quieter, small lane and round another couple of corners before stopping at a door, the handcart porter rattling on the door knocker. A few moments later, the door opened, my belongings handed to me and I was ushered into another world. I was immediately in the courtyard of an exquisite riad, which was welcoming me with twinkling lights, candles, large wooden doors, rose petals, the aroma of mint tea and exotic promise. I had arrived.

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My plan had been to spend a few days replenishing my health and then take a few ventures out of town – to the coast, the mountains to see more of the country as well as soak in the creative atmosphere of the riad and spend time writing and reflecting. But I found that when I arrived, I did not want to venture far. This was partly because I was more exhausted and weakened than I had realised and partly because the food was so fresh and delicious that it was easier to stay close to the riad. And on a practical level, it was also because I had to spend quite a bit of time trekking out to the airport to try and locate the suitcase, heading to the new town to buy some essentials as I had only the clothes I was standing in when I arrived and filling in forms and sending never ending messages about the lost case.

Once it became apparent that the case had no intention of coming to Marrakech and was intent on enjoying itself on its own private holiday, I found myself settling into a gentle routine. Sunrise was fairly late, which meant that breakfast also started gently. Outside my room, in the courtyard the birds would let me know when sunrise was on its way, and when I opened my tall wooden door a little tray of tea would be waiting for me.

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Soon afterwards, I would venture to the rooftop, where the sun would now be warming the terrace and encouraging the bougainvillea to bloom and where my breakfast was being prepared. This was a leisurely process, for me at least as I would feast on finely chopped seasonal fruits – strawberries, apricots, raspberries, figs, oranges and walnuts nestling on fresh yogurt. This would be followed by a Moroccan treat of a lightly spiced tomato, pepper and egg tajine (shakh-shukh), chopped avocado, omelette, or other delight. This whole process should not be rushed and could last until lunchtime as I read, reflected, chatted with and watched the bird families and slipped between shaded and sunny spots sporting a practical straw hat to protect my head and face from the sun.

At some point in the afternoon, I would prepare myself to head out to the souqs and the outside. This world outside of the riad was in complete contrast to the tranquillity of the riad. I soon learned my way through the little lanes to the main souqs, only a few minutes away.

But once I reached the maze of the covered souqs, the landscape would shift and change. Left would become right, straight would become windy and twisted and I would find myself in a completely different place to where I thought I was or planned to be. Lane after lane of little shops selling pointed baboush slippers, lanterns and candle holders, exotic fabrics, nomadic and traditional jewellery, metal signs with your profession painted onto them, carpets and more carpets, spices, tortoises, Manchester United football tops, leather goods and all manner of imaginable wares each in its own little Ali Baba’s cave with a smiling, welcoming merchant.

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When I would eventually emerge onto a wider lane, it was never where I intended to appear or thought I was, and the mystery of where I wanted to head to would appear, requiring to be solved.

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It was in one of these magical little lanes on Christmas Day that I happened upon a tiny shop with a jumble of objects under a glass topped shelf. I spotted a rusty old key and asked the shopkeeper if I could look at it. As he reached into the case, through a little curtain, he drew out a few old keys and invited me to rummage and look for more. There were all manner of random objects, including keys and I scrambled around to see what I could find. I ended up with a selection of very rusty old keys, and began haggling with the owner without looking too keen to own what was essentially a worthless piece of metal. We finally agreed on a price for one of the old keys, and I had my Christmas present to myself. This key was symbolic, and had been an image which I was drawn to a couple of months earlier while on the mindfulness and writing retreat. That key embodies a great deal – hope and promise of a future, unlocking thoughts of optimism and hope, releasing those negative thoughts and feelings which I have found difficult to shed and locking them in the past in order to move forward. The shopkeeper hid any puzzlement he might have had about my interest in such a strange object, but given he had them in his tiny shop there must have been some idea that one day an eccentric grandmother would come along and be taken with his keys.

As the days passed, the daily routine established itself comfortably and I felt my strength return. The lurgey was finally easing, without doubt thanks to the rest, warmth, healing environment and wholesome fresh food.

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As we crossed from the old year into the new, I realised that I would soon need to gather my strange assortment of new belongings, buy a little bag for them, and prepare to return to Scotland. The break had been incredibly gentle, and provided a chance to truly disengage with the stresses and intensity of the previous months, although it would have been nice not to have been caught up in the worry about grandmother’s suitcase and its wellbeing.

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My return to Scotland saw me in a far healthier state, both physically and emotionally and when I close my eyes I can imagine myself back in the riad, sipping tea and reading, or wandering through the souqs in the lengthening shadows of the later afternoon.

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And I remember how, no matter how many times I became lost, and wandered through these lanes seeking to find my way again, I would pass many familiar shops. The merchants would call out to me, remembering my meanderings of another afternoon and try to tempt me to buy their lamps, their spices or pottery. However, I never did happen upon the little shop with the keys again. I still have the key though, so I know it did exist. At least it did on the very day that I was seeking a sign of hope and optimism.

Settling into 2016 with a three word mantra

I slept nearly 12 hours on Friday night. And for the first morning in over three weeks I knew where I was when I awoke. I both love and hate that feeling when you are traveling and on first awaking you have absolutely no idea where you are, what day it is and what that very important thing is that you have to do.

I have been on a journey. Both physically and emotionally, and only Friday evening did I come to a halt. I realised that my journey has covered many miles. An astonishing 13,000 or more miles or over 20,000 kilometres by air and road, and including a wonderful 2,200 miles by train. There is another very long story in there, but that is not for now.

Although I returned to Myanmar earlier this week, I was travelling again within 48 hours of my arrival and was inordinately glad to return home and allow my mind and body to rest and recalibrate.

It is not coincidental that my three words for 2016 have not formed until the past few days. My being needs need to come to rest and be still for the words to settle. It is hard to reflect and explore the world of words when there is a great deal happening, people to spend time with and new experiences to embrace. So the words are late.

It turned out that 2015 was a complex and painful year. I leaned heavily on my words “Breathe, stargaze and realise” and brought in three more (to my surprise) to see me through the most difficult times – “Dignity, contemplation and beacon”. I cannot share any details of those times in the public domain, other people are affected and it is not appropriate or correct to speak out. The word “dignity” was critical in reminding me that the most appropriate action was to remain silent, and that has been unbelievably hard.

dignityAs usual, since adopting the practice of adopting the three word mantra in 2010, I started thinking of the approaching new year in the final weeks of 2015. My process is to reflect back on the previous year, look at my priorities and then look ahead at what I want to be the key focus of the coming year. The three words enable a balance across different areas of life, and usually pick up health, family, wellbeing, practical and professional direction areas and the creative side. A balanced mantra encourages a balanced approach in the year. I enjoy the process of crafting my mantra as satisfying as the final selection itself.

Finally, my words are in place – and the three word mantra for my 2016 are:

“Reorient, nurture and crystalize.”

Reorient

The first word came easily. The coming year has to focus on healing and finding my true north again. All that I had believed to be sure turned out to be fragile and turned to dust under my feet last year. The foundations crumbled under my feet and I found myself directionless. The greatest priority for the coming year is to “reorient” myself and move forward purposefully.

Reorient will be at the heart of much of next year. I need not only to re-think my future, but also to set steps in place to ensure that my physical and emotional compasses have been truly re-set.

Over the past months, I have feared that my inner compass had been smashed beyond repair. Gradually, though, I have come to realise that while the exterior casing had indeed been decimated, somehow deep inside the inner workings could be coaxed back into action. If the inner workings can be repaired and recalibrated minute part by minute part, the casing can surely be repaired. The key part of repairing my inner compass is to find my true north and ensure that my path ahead navigates in this direction and keeps me on the right path.

Change runs deep, and this inner reorientation accompanies physical transformation too. Already I have made changes in my living situation and been adjusting to new practical arrangements. I need to think very carefully about the longer term future. I have no idea where I will be this time next year, nor a clear sense of my direction. I need to place trust and energy into the process of reorientation.

Nurture

Alongside the need to reorient, is the importance of healing, replenishing and investing time and energy especially in my creative activities once more. Nurture is a word which suggests growth and nourishment through love and careful attention. My health is good right now, notwithstanding the weight of side and after effects, but I know that I need to pay attention to my wellbeing and focus on gaining strength. I especially need to devote time and energy to creativity and particularly writing. The blog has been very quiet, and my commitment and writing goals had to be put to the side while the bigger stuff was worked through. I want to get back on track, nurture my creativity and produce more writing. I still have the goal of completing the first draft of the memoir of my first year in Myanmar. I need to tend to these areas and see new life and regrowth appear.

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Crystalize

My third word was, as often happens, most elusive. I played with a number of words but none was “quite right”. I had a little imaginary pot with many words in it, such as “reach, deliver, embark, embrace, pause, revise, stretch” along with many others. I wanted to convey the idea of committing to the new path and orientation once I had clarity. And then, in Singapore airport of all places, my third word appeared. “Crystalize”. My perfect third word.

Crystalize has a number of meanings, including its scientific term which is the process of forming solid crystals from either a solution, melt or more rarely from a gas. It is also regularly used with the meaning of making something definite and clear. Crystalize is the right third word for many reasons. After reorientation and with nurturing it is important to achieve some stability and clarity. I do not yet know what that will look like but I do know that this will appear through this process of crystallization. From a situation of flux and change, stability will surely appear. Tiny crystals of hope, which will settle and grow into a formation and foundation for me to move forward.

Crystals are complex and beautiful. Crystals absorb and reflect light and colour. Crystals are one of nature’s brilliant treasures. Quite simply, crystals are exquisite. A future which forms through crystallization will surely be beautiful.

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Now that my words are in place, I have a sense of both peace and purpose for the year ahead.

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.

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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.

A simple, timely reminder

A simple, timely reminder

 

Picking heavy steps

towards the gate.

A soul bereft,

eyes blinking rapidly,

dragging threadbare scraps of sorrow.

A heart ambushed

by an unbidden, unexpected memory.

 

How can life

be there

one day,

and not the next?

 

A flutter of softened taffeta

a glimpse of black and yellow

distracts,

catches

the edge of my vision.

 

Flickering,

dusky velveteen wings

tipped with sunshine yellow.

 

A gathering of butterflies

dancing

dithering

flitting leaf to leaf,

amidst rainbow crystals,

glinting droplets,

called to this

butterfly gathering hibiscus bush.

 

Brushing the layers

of crushed cotton pink petals,

their delight

penetrates the moleskin cloak,

veiled around me

designed by grief

woven by mourning.

 

A gathering of butterflies.

Capering

amidst

frayed sunshine

remnants of gladness.

 

A simple

timely

reminder

 

 

Remembering my father, who died one year ago today.

 

A gathering of butterflies

A gathering of butterflies

A silly cut finger and fast growing cells

The most inane and banal of incidents can set off a trail into unexpected territory both familiar and unfamiliar…….

Just over a week ago, hubby came home with a gift he had received.  A proper Swiss Army Knife.  Those ones with all the gadgets and tools all artfully contained in the body of the knife.

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These are fascinating little things, and I could not resist having a look and exploring what tricks it would contain.  I gently pulled out a little penknife blade, taking care with my crumbly finger nails which have no capacity to grip. I teased out the little scissors and looked around for some paper to test them on.  Then I pulled out another mystery implement, wondering what it would be. Snap! The small blade which it belonged to flicked open and caught my finger tip, slicing a neat but deep cut into the finger. There is an instant of regret at such a careless action which is rapidly taken over by the need to act.  Thanks to warfarin, this small but deep cut was producing rather a lot of the red stuff and I needed to stanch the flow as quickly as possible.  With my arm elevated and the wound held firm, I finally managed to stem the bleeding and carefully cleaned the damage.

I was very quick to blame cancer for the greatest part of this unfortunate incident.  Residual peripheral neuropathy, thanks to chemotherapy (Taxotere) has brought me numbness in my fingers and toes numb toes.  Numb fingertips cause clumsiness.  It is not a very good idea to explore a Swiss Army Knife with numb fingertips, especially with added crumbly fingernails. Adding warfarin and its blood-thinning qualities adds a frisson of excitement to the mix. That is also directly attributable to cancer and its treatment.  And if I really want to push it,  I can also blame the lack of wisdom in meddling with the knife on the cognitive afters of chemo.

It never fails to amaze me, how much a tiny nick somewhere like the top of the index finger can impact on so many every day actions.  Getting dressed, eating, typing and holding a pen all became awkward and uncomfortable with the damaged finger.

The following day, I struggled through (happily it was a Friday) and was glad to get to the weekend.  I was especially worried that the cut might get infected in this climate, and that it would not heal given its depth.

So I was very surprised that on the Sunday, I noticed that the cut was healing particularly well and cleanly.  By the Monday you could hardly see the cut at all and now there is just a trail of dry skin which marks the scar.

And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?  Fast healing, clean barely visible scar?  All good.  So why did my head turn this into something worrying?  Why did I find it so hard not to associate the rapidity of healing cells with the rapidity of multiplying sinister cells.  How does a good fast growing cell differ from a bad fast growing cell?

It shows how vulnerable we are to those paranoiac thoughts, to those trains of thought that are barely logical or sensible yet take over a rational mind. A mind which is especially fragile in the run up to the next round of regular but scary scans and checks.

This is the story of a tiny cut finger.  This is also the tale of a tiny scared soul, about to pack the fatigued travel bag, braced for whatever is ahead and barely able to contain the fear and anxiety.  The afters and sides of cancer and its treatments indeed continue to wreak havoc on the body way beyond diagnosis.

Yet that is not a fraction of the sabotage it introduces into a sensitive and frightened mind.

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Waves

It’s a strange thing, grief.  We think of it as a process which moves in a linear way.  We think we are making progress forwards.  And then there is a moment, a memory, a scent, or piece of music.  Even the sight of a familiar food, and we are again ambushed by a wave of grief, washing over us.

Today, by some unseen alignment, two different posts arrived in my feed, both about grief and loss.  And at a time when there are seasonal prompts and reminders of my own grief. The birthday my father would have celebrated earlier this month.  The season reminding me that this time last year I made the sudden decision to return to Scotland to spend final days with my father.

Marie writes in her post, Still alive in a wound still fresh, about those unexpected moments when we see or read something which speaks to us with a strength which takes our breath away.  The other post I read today, beautifully titled Live forever, provides a privileged insight into the influences and memories of a mother and grandfather:

Two people who live forever in my heart had birthdays last week, my Grandfather and my Mother. Both were very dear to me during the time we shared and both continue to play a role in my life. They’re in my thoughts, my memories, my sense of who I am and how I want to lead my life

This resonates too with my own processing and coming to terms with that strangeness of grief.  I wrote last year that grief is within us, not without.  And that means that the love and memory for those we have lost lives on within us, along with the values and influences which shape and guide us.

Signs of spring - Lismore

Signs of spring – Lismore

The wound is indeed still fresh, our hearts still grieve.  Yet there is a gold nugget of life, that which lives on within us and which we must hold on to and cherish.

Escapism

Frangipani blossom, just landedI knew that this break needed to be a healing and restful one, so with that in mind, stocked up on electronic reading.  Keeps the luggage light and the mind very light too. With this in mind, I loaded up my Kindle with some “light” reading. I am not a reading snob, but my choices for holiday reading might veer towards the “trashy” side.  Nothing like a bit of escape reading when you when you really mean and need  to have a break.

I have mentioned before that I am more of a paper person than electronic in many senses.  I love funky little notebooks, the smell of a new book, the feel of good old-fashioned writing paper (gosh I had so many kinds back in the day), all manner of pens and pencils and the luxury of an old hardback book. I have little libraries of books all over the place.  Many in the loft back in Scotland, a hoard in India and a large overflowing book case with many more stashed all over our home in Yangon.

Wherever I go, I have to have books with me.  And an extra emergency stock, just in case I have a book emergency.  You never know when these things might happen, and must be prepared.

So Kindles are, in theory, a great thing.  I never cease to be amazed at how many books the thing can carry.  And it does not weigh any more and takes up just the same amount of space. Some kind of electronic black magic, I guess.  The best thing about the Kindle however, is that it hides just how many books I have bought, and how “light” some of them might be.  I also particularly love being able to buy books while lounging at home.  More magic.  But I still love real books.  And for Book Club and books I love and cherish, I always have to have a real copy and not an electronic version.  For one thing, the Kindle looks weird with stickies to mark a page, and bookmarks fall out 😉

So here I am, in the jungle, with a great stock of electronic reading and what do you know?  I am still ploughing through book number one.  After more than a week?  This is almost unheard of! I go through at least one book most weeks, when I am working full time and devour book after book at times of leisure.  It is true that this particular “light” book I am working my way through slowly is not a completely engaging read.  I guess it does not help that I have just finished reading “On Writing” by Stephen King so I am picking up on all sorts of distracting flaws in the writing of my holiday read.  As if I have a right to critique – it is always easier to criticise than to create, after all)

No, that is not the main reason for this slow down.  I realise that it is all about escape.  Usually one reason for, or certainly effect of, reading is to escape.  To disengage from the everyday.  To visit different places and experience new things.  As well as following a story, in most cases.

However, I find that the Kindle keeps nodding off, as it realises no virtual pages have been turned. My attention has been taken by a sound from the jungle undergrowth, a different birdsong, the crashing of branches telling that something is on the move nearby, perhaps the langur monkeys or maybe those cheeky wild boars foraging. A leaf tumbling from the tree catches my eye as it is held on some wisp of air and dances to the ground.  Little birds playing above the pool, dipping in as they buzz past again and again.  I am surrounded by such exquisite micro events in a jungle which is teeming with life and activity.  How could I possibly miss any of this by disappearing into a book? SighI am living my own escape at the moment.  It does not mean that I love reading or books any the less, but just that I realise that I have come to this place and must cherish these moments.  I must soak in every tiny detail and hold it tight. I  need to be in the here and now to get the most from this.

Jungle walk from room to brekkie

Jungle walk to breakfastThe books will wait.  I can read these words any time. (Thank heavens Kindles do not go off or perish!)

For now though, my mind will remain focused, yet distracted, here and now in this perfect escape.

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool