Eleven months of living differently

As I write this the snow still lies fairly deep outside, especially on the northern side of my home where the low winter sun does not yet reach ground level. The snow drops are struggling to push their way up through the snow and show their faces before the next snows fall. The winter has been a tough one with more snow than usual and the shadows cast by COVID-19 often feeling dark.

Today marks exactly 11 months, that is 337 whole days since I closed the door to keep Covid out and entered this new and different world. As we move through February, I feel the days gradually stretching and welcome those promises of spring in the garden just like I did 11 months ago. While we are still under lockdown, there are changes. The vaccine rollout and hopefully my own appointment perhaps only a few weeks away now? New and improved treatments making Covid a little less feared. Relative longevity of the virus and illness brings greater research and analysis which means we understand more. While I might not be sure when I can venture further, it feels within touching distance, very unlike the start of this pandemic.

Yesterday, the eve of this 11 month anniversary was a day like most others. So I was surprised when there was a knock at the door. It was the Postie with an intriguing package marked ‘fragile’. I was puzzled as I had not ordered anything and I had no idea what it was. I wondered if I might have ordered myself a treat and forgotten? This happens occasionally with books, but not with other items.

I ripped it open, bursting with curiosity and not a lot of the patience which I am meant to be practising this year. Then I noticed a tiny misspelling of my name on the box. I might be forgetful, but I do know how to spell my own name so this was a helpful clue that this was not from myself!

Inside the package I discovered a classy gift box containing some Very Posh and Luxurious Scented Candles. Someone who knows me well had sent this. I hunted in the package and the gift box itself but there was no clue of who had organised this. There was, however, a card from the company they came from with website details and a Glasgow number. I knew that it was highly unlikely that the company would tell me who had ordered the good, but unable to think of any other option I dialled the number. The call was answered by a dad rescuing the receiver from his daughter, and so I asked if I had reached the right number and that was the candle company. It was indeed, a blend of home schooling and running a company in Covid times. I explained that I had received a gift, was rather embarrassed that I didn’t know who it was from and wondered if they could tell me. Not expecting for a minute that they could.

“Was it a gift box”? he asked. I confirmed that it was.

“Aw right, that was ‘R’ ” he told me. My son. (Or at least his initial, just to protect anonymity 😉 )

It turns out that the owner of the company is a pal of my son and he runs this business along with his wife. They are a small local business and like so many have adapted to creative and flexible ways of operating.  Together with my son they had brought a ray of sunshine to my day, the eve of the eleven months of isolation. An act of kindness and thoughtfulness reaching more than one.

This was intended as a reminder that brighter days are indeed ahead and that although we might be in the same place, we are in a very different place too. I have so much to be thankful for.

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.

One Hundred Days

Just a few days before the spring equinox and a couple of days shy of the Ides of March, I took this picture on the way home from work. The bare branches of the trees silhouetted against the deep blue evening in that half light after the sun has rested for the day, just as darkness begins to settle. A northern sky which held the promise of spring and lightening, lengthening days ahead, cloaked with the unseen threat of COVID-19.

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As I made my way homewards, I passed the shop, the houses and my neighbours, unknowingly, for what would be the last time in many days. Indeed, now one hundred days, and still counting.

This was the evening I took my regular journey home from work, knowing that the world was changing rapidly and drawing in around us. Not knowing that this would be the start of a strange and surreal period of lengthy isolation. That evening saw the long and emotional conversation with family which drew the inevitable conclusion that I would close my door on the outside world for the foreseeable future, if I wanted to stay safe from the hold which the virus was taking around us. That evening I captured this image of what I thought was an everyday moment, my last photo before everything changed.

I had been anticipating those longer evenings, and the days when I would arrive home from work in daylight. I had moved into my new home as autumn turned into winter, a few days after the autumnal equinox, as the days smartly shorten towards those long, dark days of Scottish winter. Six months later, I knew that I would soon be able to enjoy daylight time at home in the evening after the day at work.

But that certainty was lost in the new uncertainty that was isolation and lockdown.

It has been replaced with another certainty though, one which I hold on to tightly. While humankind has spun out of control in the most developed of contexts, nature has taken a firmer grip to remind us that we are guests on this earth. Around ten days into isolation, the weather brightened and I ventured out into my garden. My curiosity was piqued by a blaze of blue colour beneath a fruit tree. The beauty of newly moving into a home with a garden is that the coming year and seasons will bring surprises. Snowdrops and daffodils had welcomed me home as the year started, but hidden in weekday darkness I had missed much of their presence. This blueness was to be my first garden surprise, as the season continued to march forward, while humankind stood still, holding its breath and counting the R number.

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I am still not quite sure what these little blue heralds of hope were, my first excited thought as I spotted them at a distance was that they might be bluebells. I have always wished for a garden with bluebells. As they took their shape, they continued to puzzle me and I still don’t know exactly what they were. Perhaps some unusual crocus or another early spring flower. But not bluebells. For bluebells were starting to sprout elsewhere in the garden fulfilling my bluebell dreams.

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Gradually as the days determinedly lengthened, the outline of spindly branches on the trees softened and little growths appeared. Tiny blossom buds were forming, in shades of white and pink .Little promises of hope and regeneration.

I have always dreamed of a blossoming tree in my own garden. My dreams were taking life in front of my eyes.

The labours of an elderly woman over many years in a garden have gifted to me, a season of colour, surprise and even flavour.

Have you ever wondered how blossoms transform into fruits? I have followed the journey of these miracles over the past weeks, fascinated. As the petals gradually fell, I could see tiny promises form in the stalks. Baby pears the size of cotton buds, a cheeky miniature apple the size of a marble,

Through May and into June, the fruits continue to develop and mature. The young, tiny pears are slowly growing, cherries begin to ripen, delicate plums and apples take shape. Gooseberries appear. Gooseberries. I had forgotten about gooseberries, once a staple Scottish summer fruit, now rarely seen as more exotic imports take over popularity. I seem to have the makings of an orchard. I didn’t know I dreamed of having fruit trees in my garden, but my happiness suggests that secretly I did.

The surprises keep catching me. unawares. Just the other day I spotted a glimpse of red through the green foliage. The green berries which had been forming on the raspberry bushes, have been ripening. Smatterings of red appeared as I approached the bushes. The raspberries are quietly and studiously sweetening and maturing.

This is Day One Hundred, the summer solstice, a solar eclipse far over the horizon in the southern sphere and the seasons moving steadily forward as the planet continues to journey around the sun.

This is a day I could not have imagined back in March when I headed home, pausing to take a photograph of a wintry branches silhouetted against a changing sky. While the everyday activities we took for granted are paused, what more powerful reminder that we are guests on a moving, breathing earth.

This morning, my one hundredth morning in isolation, I enjoyed a handful of those fresh raspberries with my breakfast. Yoghurt streaked vibrant red, carrying a taste of childhood summers. I relish the flavour as much as I embrace the promise of hope and recovery that those raspberries have brought to me.

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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.

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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.

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Moving on

It is over a week now since the Big Check and for the first time in what feels like forever, I feel I am finally moving forward.

I have found myself using corny expressions to describe how it feels, and corny they might be but they also feel highly accurate.  I really do feel as if a curtain has been lifted and I am able to see much more clearly ahead of me.

I didn’t realise just how much things felt as they were “on hold” and how much I was pinning on the Big Check.  I have been reluctant to make any plans, and even things like colouring the new hair has been avoided in case there was anything which meant more chemo and losing it all again.  No point in colouring it and then it all falling out.  Similarly there was no point in booking a break and then finding I had to cancel because I needed treatment again.  I even felt hesitant about getting a prosthesis which was more of a match – in case I would lose its match!  I know this all sounds extreme, but that is an illustration of the games that your mind starts to play once you have heard the cancer word.

But now I have had the Big Check, suddenly I feel as if I can finally look ahead and move forward.

Earlier I described life following a Breast Cancer diagnosis as a bit like having a lens through which I now see everything.  That is still the case, but since the Big Check I find that the lens has been adjusted quite dramatically, and my vision is clearer and sharper.  Just like getting new glasses in fact!

The result of this is that I very much hope that life will feel less dominated by cancer.  The fear of course will not disappear, and I know that nothing is guaranteed.  But for now, I can move forward with new priorities.

I hope that this might be reflected in the blog too.  Cancer is still a big deal, and will continue to provide the “inspiration” as well as information and news, for much of its content.  However, I think it will be balanced by more news and insights of life of the Feisty Blue Gecko, and might be a little more like the original blog.

So in that spirit, I am happy to update that we in fact rushed back from the big check in Bangkok last weekend.  And the reason for that was to attend a wedding here.  What better way to focus on the future than by sharing the marriage of a lovely young couple and being part of the celebration of their future life together and indeed the future.

And now I am preparing for a return to Bangkok next week.  For the first time in well over a year this will be my first trip to Bangkok which is not for medical reasons.  Visits to Thailand used to represent a break from the intensity of work wherever I was based at the time, as well as an opportunity to stock up on essentials not available there and of course yummy Thai food!  I really thought that my treatment time and the frequent visits to Bangkok would actually change the way I felt about visiting the city and somehow “spoil” it for me.  Well, I am amazed and delighted to say that I am ridiculously excited about my forthcoming visit to Bangkok (for work reasons) – and I have to say that this has quite taken me by surprise!

That must be a clear signal that I am really moving on.