Scunnered

Sometimes we can take on a sense of weariness, of being jaded. Of tiredness. Sometimes it goes a bit deeper. World weary, downtrodden and bereft of that lust for life. Usually it is fleeting or at least transient.  Sometimes it takes a greater grip.  We have a great Scottish expression for that feeling – we say we are scunnered.

I have been scunnered this week.  Physical tiredness plays a part but only a small part. The rest is a great deal more profound.

Back in November last year my grandson, David had his head shaved to raise awareness and funds  for Gammadelta T-cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer. It was an enormously generous act and it was prompted to show support to a pupil at his school who had just been diagnosed.  Yes, a pupil at his school. Jak Trueman, a boy aged 15 years old. It was cruel enough that my grandchildren were confronted with cancer in their grandparent, but to be plunged into the harsh reality of cancer in a peer at such a tender age is truly cruel.

headshave for Jak

David – before and after his headshave

Jak’s story or journey has been well documented and shared since his diagnosis, thanks especially to a wide support network and of course social media.

jak trueman

Following chemotherapy, Jak was preparing for a stem cell transplant late in January when the preparatory bloodwork threw up some concerning results.  Subsequent scans showed that the disease had progressed into his organs and bones and it was clear that his time was limited when his family shared the devastating news on 24 January.

In the following days, there was a flurry of activity, realising many of Jak’s wishes and dreams but also using the gathering attention to raise awareness and funds.  I will not go into detail as that is well documented online in numerous places, including his Facebook page.

I woke in Yangon on Tuesday morning to a Facebook feed filled with news updates relating to Jak.  I didn’t need to open those links to know that this could only mean one thing, Jak had died only days after learning of the spread of the disease.

He leaves an incredible legacy for one so young, yet enormously mature and generous.  He  leaves a family, school and community, united in grief and coming to terms with the privilege and grief of knowing such an incredible young man.  At the same time, galvanised and inspired to fulfil a series of plans which he had been shaping in his final days. The fundraising towards research into Gammadelta T-cell lymphoma has had a major boost as has awareness into childhood and blood cancers.  He leaves a phenomenal legacy in his name and memory.  Jak, his family and supporters (Team Jak) developed the concept of “Jak’s Den” which will be a space incorporating a number of features:

  • Counselling/quiet rooms and fully qualified counsellors for siblings/ families and any other child/ teen requiring counselling
  • A LOUD room for anyone wanting to go in if they want to make some noise
  • A cafe for cancer sufferers and neutropenic folks who can’t eat out in public for fear of infection – this  will be sterile and all freshly cooked food as this was a huge loss for Jak he couldn’t get out or easily socialise
  • An outdoor area with space for sports and games
  • A music sensory area
  • halls for singing dance and drama, connected with Jaks’ family business, which will also provide a space for sports parties and indoor kids football.

This is personal.  Both of my grandchildren were in the school band with him, and in particular my grandson, David really looked up to him.  David was proud to shave his head and show support.  We know how important image is to young people and a head shave at that age is a big deal.

The morning after Jak’s death, pupils at school wore gold ties or hairbands to remember Jak. My daughter had a crack of dawn run to the shops to find a gold tie for David. An extraordinary movement has been kindled from the grief and loss of one of their friends.

Only one day later, we were reminded that World Cancer Day was again upon us. And that is when I realised just how scunnered I was with cancer.

inya lake sunsetAs the sun sets, so too does it rise.  I am fortunate in that whilst I have that all pervading feeling of being scunnered, I am confident that it will pass and that the new day will help to lift the spirits. I am even more fortunate that through my grandchildren I have a connection, albeit tenuous, with an extraordinary young person who shone a light into a very dark space and leaves pride and inspiration alongside grief.

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December already?

At this time of year, I am always caught by surprise by the sight of snowflakes falling across my home page.  I found this seasonal (well, northern hemisphere seasonal) function years ago, and switched on the “let it snow” feature.  Every December since then there have been snowflakes falling on tropical vegetation and other background images.

Once the snowflakes start falling across the screen, I am usually working my way through another annual process.  The three words.  Any “down” time, such as sitting in a taxi, waking in the middle of the night or other time where there is a space for reflection I am thinking of the past year and the coming year.  Have the words worked well this year?  How do I want to approach the coming year.  Which words will capture my aspirations and guide me as we move into the new year?

This 2014 has brought its challenges and intensity, some of which had been hinted at, some unexpected and some less welcome. As the year closes, I will have brought my reflections together and turned my focus to the coming year.  Already, the mantra is taking shape and words are dancing around.  I know, though, that the decision comes later, that the words form their own shape and settle together as the time to set the mantra approaches.

lux 10

Nearly twelve months ago I shared my 2014 words, and now already I am preparing for their successors.  And I find that this process is as relevant and meaningful for me as it was when I first chanced upon it in 2009. And for as long as it works, so shall I keep living with and through my three words.

Preview

I am sorry about the silence here – there has been a lot going on.  There is nothing worrisome (that I am aware of ) but rather a sustained push on all things gecko over the past weeks and months.

But I am catching up.  Slowly, but surely.  And so here is a preview…………

Inspiration

Inspiration

This is the kind of space which I have been yearning for. Set in a natural, quiet and inspiration setting.  Over the coming days there will be updates and more images than you would wish for. to make up for the silence over the past couple of weeks.

I promise 🙂

Breathless

I slipped out of the room, near the end of a discussion on writing inspiration, straining my ears as the voice of Louis de Bernieres faded gradually.   In no time I was on my way to Mandalay airport. I could scarcely breathe. My heart was fluttering and my pulse racing. And for once this was not a medical problem!

On my flight to Bangkok, I found myself in a strange middle space still airborne from the inspirational weekend, yet on the brink of an intense week of work and travel.  I closed my eyes, clasping the memories of the weekend, and those cherished moments, the very ones you keep safely in a little imaginary memory jar, in the mind’s eye.

ILF 2014 4

I was leaving Mandalay, where the Second Irrawaddy Literary Festival was coming to a close and I was fired with enthusiasm and inspiration strangely edged with disbelief.  Crammed into just over two days, I had gathered many magical conversations to be treasured and precious moments to immortalise, dialogues with like minds and unexpected connections in the organised sessions as well as impromptu exchanges.

Moments such as:

Joe Woods chatting with Polly Devlin

Joe Woods chatting with Polly Devlin

  • Chatting with Jung Chang, her beckoning me over to sit with her when she saw me sitting apart, her kindness and thoughtfulness warming me.
Sitting next to Jung Chang

Sitting next to Jung Chang

Jung Chang author of Wild Swans

Jung Chang author of Wild Swans

  • Discovering that not only am I sitting next to Jung Chang, I am also sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres!
Sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres in the audience

Sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres in the audience

  • Listening to Karen Connelly read her extract from The Lizard’s Cage and compelling me to read it as soon as I can.
  • Polly Devlin gifting me her memoir because I told her how much her session had moved me.
  • Hearing the wisdom of great and revered writers on writing.  “If you are “stuck” as Louis de Bernieres said, “just go shopping”, anything rather than sit there and look at a blank screen, or piece of paper.  Keep thinking, jot down ideas and use your dreams”.
  • Sitting at the table next to Thant Myint U, listening to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in conversation with Joan Bakewell (and avoiding being well baked in the room where it was held)
Audience with the Lady - watching from outside

Audience with the Lady – watching from outside

  • Saying “Good morning” to the Lady as she swept past after her talk.
The Lady sweeps past me in the hotel lobby

The Lady sweeps past me in the hotel lobby

  • Meeting a Yangon friend and learning that he is an acclaimed Irish Poet.
  • Pausing on the staircase to chat with Ko Ko Thett and share a love of poetry.
  • Spending time in the passageway for a conversation with Pascal Khoo Thwe and being able to tell him that his “From the Land of Green Ghosts” is one of the few books I have read twice.
  • Admiring the beautiful handwriting of Lous de Bernieres as he signed my copies of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and we chatted about education in Nepal following the conflict.
  • Being able to talk with Karen Connelly and sharing contact details in the hope that we can meet for coffee and writerly chat in Yangon.

Similarly to my experience of the Literary Festival last year, I found the authors and speakers incredibly approachable and unassuming. I still struggle a little to believe that I was able to talk with and listen to such esteemed figures. This year the Festival had been itself the subject of some discussions and changes but I remained largely oblivious to that as I was swept along by the tide of creativity.

Sitting listening to Polly Devlin in the company of Louis de Bernieres and Jung Chang

Sitting listening to Polly Devlin in the company of Louis de Bernieres and Jung Chang

I am now back in Yangon, my case is unpacked and a number of new books are trying to find a space to squeeze in to the bookcase. Ideas are flowing and a breeze of new energy is breathing fresh life into my writing projects.

All over the place

I am not sure where to start with this.  I am all over the place, and I have been all over the place.  And tomorrow I am going more all over the place.

My physical and mental beings are in limbo and transit all at once.  My mind feels as if it is the spin cycle of a washing machine.  Everything churning and spinning with no time to stop and reflect. No moment or opening to move forward.

I have just returned from a very short, intense and emotional visit to Scotland, with highs and lows.  Precious time with family, especially my father who continues to display incredible strength despite his frailty and years.  The sudden, cruel loss of my brother in law, stolen by a hiding cancer, believed to have been eradicated by the best of treatment completed only a few weeks ago. A long haul flight nursing a dramatically coloured and swollen leg, damaged thanks to pavement aerobics caused by an unfortunate combination of numb and clumsy Taxotere toes and a sneaky paving stone peeking up over its allocated territory. The rare gathering of close family over steaming mugs of tea and coffee and delicious comfort food. Hushed conversations. Rushed purchases. Heavy skies. Welcome laughter. Heart-wrenching smiles patchworked over wounds.

And as an unseasonal challenge Scotland organised blankets of snow over brave crocuses and daffodils as a  picturesque backdrop.

My return travel deposited me back in hot and sultry Yangon some 28 hours or so after I had left family in Scotland before sunrise in sub zero temperatures and into a sky full of snow waiting to fall.

Now, only a few days later, I am still not quite able to rest.  My half unpacked bag is now being re-packed ready for the short flight to Bangkok.  And the main reason for this unrest is the prospect of yet more checks. More blood draws from an arm so bruised I cannot see my own vein, scans to seek out anything which might be hiding and the usual investigation into anything which might hint at something sinister. I am exhausted with it all, yet I know it is what I need.  I know that without these checks, my mind darts into those dark, frightening places.  My Doctors and I are on the same page.  By the end of the week, I hope that I will be n the other side of this heaviness and limbo and able to move on in whatever direction that might be.  I know that my physical and emotional fatigue is colouring my spirit and mood.  I understand it. It just is what it is.

In all this turmoil and shift, this feels like the right time to change my background image.  While everything is so thrown up in the air, taking its own time for the different elements to drift back down and settle.

The sun sets on another workingn day at Yangon Central Railway station

This image speaks to me right now.  The sun is setting on a heavy day’s work in Yangon outside the Central Railway Station.  This woman is carrying her burden on her head, keeping her hands free and her posture proud. Her silhouette speaks of determination and strength, as it absorbs the soft rays of the sinking sun.

And of inspiration and clear direction.               In direct contrast to being all over the place.

To seek out wonders….

 “Travel writers seek out wonders. That’s our job. It always has been — and always will be.”

From the opening sentence I was on the edge of my seat, listening attentively, taking notes and nodding like the classroom swot.  Rory MacLean’s words were resounding in my head. Indeed we do seek out wonders, in so many ways.  I know I am not exactly a (budding) travel writer, being based in overseas countries rather than journeying as such.  However, much of my experience is very similar, observing, smiling and reflecting on the little and not so little details of what is new and different around me.  The tiny details which you almost miss, as much as the grand, well-known wonders.  Although I have been in Asia for over a decade, I still have that sense of novelty and delight in my surroundings and the innumerable wonders which are there if only you open your eyes and mind.

This was my first session at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival.  The event which had been unthinkable until a few months previously, and the three days which had been fiercely protected in my diary, only to be sabotaged by a nasty stomach bug. I was still feeling somewhat delicate on the second day of the Festival, having missed the full first day due to the wicked bug.  Gingerly, I joined the audience late in the morning to listen to three writers  Rory Maclean, Caroline Courtauld and Monisha Rajesh talk about Travel Writing.  And I was hooked from those opening words, listening to these authors talk about their work and their differing approaches to seeking out wonders to share in their writing.Rory MacLean, Monisha Rajesh and Caroline Courtauld

They shared insights, anecdotes and techniques and I scribbled furiously.  The future of travel writing was explored, given that the physical journeys have pretty much been travelled. How can a travel writer then focus on new wonders? The writers talked about the importance of reflection in travel writing, in describing an experience using all the senses and not only visual and the facts.  There is no wonder in recording basic facts.  Do photographs make us lazy? The beauty of travel writing is in enabling the reader to re-live the wonder which enthrals the writer.

I was able to speak briefly with the writers after the session, which added to the inspirational mood and set me up beautifully for the remainder of the day.  I was already forgetting that I missed the first day completely!

From the time I first saw the information about the Festival, I was blown away by the calibre and number of the writers who would be there.  I was particularly excited about a session on narrative fiction with a writer I had not known about – Akash Kapur along with two names very prominent on my bookcase.  Thant Myint U and Pascal Khoo Thwe, both are authors I worship.  One of the first books I read after being posted here in Myanmar was The Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe and I have read this once more since then, as well as gifting the book to several friends.

Land of Green Ghosts

It provides a wonderful insight into Myanmar traditional and rural life, and is an utterly engaging and compelling memoir of a young man from a very remote part of Myanmar.  Pascal Khoo Thwe now lives in the UK and in fact has only visited Yangon three times in his life!  He shared beautiful insights and details, and one which stayed with me was his account of arriving in the UK.  He told us that he arrived in London after a long flight from Bangkok and was most disoriented.  The plane landed in thick grey cloud, and after he was met he was taken onwards on the London Underground.  He told us that at the forefront of his mind, was the voice of one of his grandmothers.  She maintained that on death, we move on from this world to a place where the sun is unseen and people live underground! You can see why I love his book so much.

PascalKhooThwe

As this session was coming to an end, people were getting up and leaving early.  We knew why.  The next session, due to start as that one came to a close was an audience with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and there was a palpable sense of anticipation.  My friend and I did not leave the session until it was completely over, we were enjoying every last word, and also did not like to give a message that this session was in any way less engaging.

Of course, we had planned to listen to her talk though, and we trotted on over to the room where it was to take place. And we were not alone.  There were hordes of people and we soon discovered that the room was full and the doors shut.  However, the word on the lips of everyone in the crowd was that she would address everyone on the Terrace after her audience.  The Terrace is lovely, but hot, and exposed to the scorching afternoon sun.  When you add that to the fact that I would not see anything thanks to my short stature, and that the crowd was growing by the minute, my friend and I decided to step away and head for a cup of tea in the cool and shade.

IMG_1442

Afternoon tea with a colonial feelOur tea arrived, and I glanced up to see some new activity a few feet away.  A group of photographers and TV cameramen were tripping over themselves and each other as they scurried backwards in our direction.  While the crowds were outside or in the main lecture hall, we were in the tea room and suddenly, the Lady was walking right past us! Sometimes things are just meant to happen.

And at the end of her address on the Terrace (which we could hear, but could not see) she walked back past us.  This time the camera scaffolding was not there, just a few people and by pure luck I caught the moment where a young girl briefly grasped her hand.

Luck and the Lady

So unexpected, and very special.

She was due to speak again later, after the Orwell Lecture which I also attended.  The final session was a panel discussing “Desert Island Literature”.  The writers on the panel was a treasure trove of writers – it was truly astonishing to see William Dalrymple, Jung Chang, Vikram Seth and Aung San Suu Kyi and Fergal Keane (moderating) sitting together. I was completely star struck. Each with such an impressive presence. Jung Chang, whose “Wild Swans” is another book I have read twice (a rare phenomenon) and Vikram Seth whose epic “A Suitable Boy” also sits in a prominent place on my bookshelf. How a man with such a slight and small physical stature can produce works of the enormity of “A Suitable Boy” was an irreverent thought which made me chuckle!   Tiny man – HUGE book 😉 Enormous personality and charisma.

William Dalrymple, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Fergal Keane, Vikram Seth and Jung Chang

The panel discussion was fascinating and moving, and provided insights into the lives of these iconic people. I held on to every word, still scribbling into my little notebook, so that I would not forget little snippets of treasure.

I had been surprised and delighted to be invited to the Gala Dinner that evening, so rushed home to change and returned in time to mingle and chat with writers, friends and literary aficionados.  Surreal and wonderful.

Sunday was just as inspiring.  I chatted with writers, listened to powerful and emotional readings, had copies of my books signed and was humbled by the modest and supportive words from these well known authors.  I bought more books.  Because you can never have too many, and because I had become acquainted with new writers and wanted to read (and own) their works.  The day melted, and as the sun sank over Inya Lake, there were many exhausted and contented smiles.

Listening to poetry at Irradaddy LIterary Festival,  as the sun setts on Inya Lake

Listening to poetry at Irradaddy LIterary Festival, as the sun sets on Inya Lake

By the end of Sunday, I had forgotten that I had been so ill and missed the whole of the first day, because there had been so many special and memorable moments.

Another incredible and inspiring event had taken place, and I had been fortunate enough to be at the heart of it.

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And inspired to continue in my quest to seek out wonders.

Embracing and nurturing 2013 with a three word mantra

Whispers of cloud, streaked pink and gleaming are scattered across Yangon’s sky as the sun creeps over the horizon carrying promise and hope of a new day, of the first day of 2013.  The shrinking flames of the candle flicker at the shrine beside the tree where the Nat spirits live. It is the right time to share the three words which I have selected to encourage and guide me for the coming year …………

Yangon winter sunrise

This is now the fourth year which I have used the “three word” exercise instead of resolutions, to inspire the coming year and to use as a motivation for change.  In fact, I really did not make resolutions before then.  They did not hold much meaning for me.  Of course, there were things I wanted to do or change, but I did not necessarily find that the New Year was timely, or adequate, for that.

When I first saw the three word exercise, in the final hours of 2009, it instantly resonated with me.  The timing was exquisite, coming after my diagnosis and in the midst of chemo.  The words tumbled into my mind easily, singing encouragement and hope.  They formed a mantra which truly enabled me to think forward, and explore what my priorities should be for the coming year as I moved through treatment and into a new unknown.  It was motivational, affirming and inspiring.

And doing this exercise as the year closes has continued to be so. I feel that the three words chart my hopes and priorities for the year, and give me something to focus on. They whisper to me as I continue through the years, and I cherish them. I can tell so much about those years from these words:

2010               Recovery, discovery and laughter

2011               Harmony, vitality and adventure

2012               Resilience, escapade and wonder

It is fascinating to look back and see, through these words, where I was emotionally and physically this time last year.  And to reflect back on how apt they might have been for 2012.

In terms of resilience, oh my goodness that has been apt.  It has been a reminder throughout the year to really focus on emotional and physical wellbeing in order to have reserves to draw on when needed.  And how they have been needed. Serious health issues for me and close family members have led me to sink time and again into the bank of resilience and, I hope, have to a certain extent lessened the struggle.

I am glad I also selected escapade.  This has been a reminder to carpe that diem, and do things in the here and now.  My pulmonary embolism in July, and the fright in October, with the bone scan and raised tumour markers reaffirmed how important it is to do the things I want to and not have regrets.  These do not need to be Big Things, although trips to Hong Kong, Timor Leste, Indonesia, Cambodia and Norway are pretty big in the scheme of escapades!   Just as valid have been those spontaneous and smaller escapades, such as cycling off down unknown paths with my fantabulous bike, or taking the circular railway around Yangon on Christmas Day.

And as for wonder, this lives in my very soul.  I am curious by nature, and my mind wanders off on trails of thought unbidden, leading me to fascinating destinations and passing through unexpected places.  Watching a kingfisher at the poolside took me on an incredible journey of wonder in every sense.  I know I need to hold on to that awe and appreciation in what is around me.  I know that a healthy curiosity is critical to my psychological and emotional wellbeing.  That is the way I rock and roll!

Truly, these words have both guided me, serving as a reminder of priorities and also served to preserve the essence of what turned out to be a tough year for me.

So as the year has drawn to a close, I have been wallowing in word choice again.  Last year I was awash with words and found it quite difficult to choose.   The process took me many days.  This year the words came to me with little searching.  I selected three words almost immediately and although I have tweaked and refined as I have taken time to deliberate and really live with those words, two out of the three are my original choice, and the one changed is very close to my original selection.  And those words for 2013 are:

Focus, treasure and design

Focus

Last year I spent a great deal of time selecting the right three words for the year – “resilience, escapade and wonder”. And of course, just a few days into the New Year, I was already wondering if I had made the right 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.  It will remind me that I must focus on my health, on ensuring a balance between work and leisure even in such an exciting, changing and increasingly demanding environment. Ensuring focus will also help to bring clarity, in the literal as well as the figurative sense.  Yes, focus is an important word to set the tone for my year.

Treasure

The second word has been a bit slippery!  My earlier choices included nurture, nourish, cherish and embrace.  With embrace, I wanted to capture that sense of not just accepting whatever comes my way, but moreover to grasp it fully and transform it into something positive and to my advantage.  In my mind is the shadow of my January checks and the checking of the tumour markers.  Whatever the tests and the future holds, I must own it.  I must accept and take control of all that I can. Embrace had appealed in that it conveys a sense of acceptance with the added element of taking control.  I had also been taken by nurture, with its essence of encouraging growth and creation through care.  If I had to select just one word for the world, then it would be nurture.  We need to nurture all around us, our children, our partners, parents and family, our colleagues, friends and acquaintances.  We need to praise and encourage. Then I settled on “cherish” which is a beautiful, rich word. I felt that it conveyed all of the previous aspects, as well as a beautiful sense of when caring for the most precious things to us, protecting and treasuring them.  And that is when “treasure” came rushing in from the wings and swept over cherish gently setting it to the side.  Treasure has been my final selection because it has a wider range of meanings, which include cherish.  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.  As modern life becomes more sophisticated and complex, maintaining a sense of naivety and wonder is refreshing if not essential to our emotional well being.  I also apply this concept to my physical well-being and know that I must continue to focus on health and activity.  My wonderful morning swim and cycle routine is a treasure indeed.

It is so important to notice the simplest elements in our surroundings and value them.  We really are surrounded by treasures.

monsoon drops captured in leaves

Design

My third word is design.  Again it is a noun and a verb, and again it has a variety of meanings which speak to me for the coming year.  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, and we must remember that.

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So these are my three beautiful words, my mantra for 2013 and my guiding star.  The past year has been tough in so many ways, and I hope for a year which is kinder.  I know that the dark shadow of the oncology review is in the first days of 2013. I move towards that, holding tightly onto these words, trusting that no matter what this brings I will be guided through it.