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.

borneo 3

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.

Borneo

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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Kaleidoscope view of a week celebrating the ordinary

At the start of Marie’s challenge, I realised that I was in danger of finding far too many images which I would be unable to resist sharing.  And that turned out to be absolutely the case.  Living and working in Myanmar means that I am surrounded by everyday, ordinary extraordinary sights, and the chance to share the celebration of these was a gift of a challenge.

I knew within the first day or so that I would struggle to select images, and had in my mind to have a follow up post with the images which did not make the final cut. And this is that post.  It is a bit of a mish mash but that really says it all.  I have a kaleidoscope impression of the images which struck me, and that will be reflected in this kaleidoscope post.  All the more so, because I have deliberately kept these in the order which they were taken, they are not in groups of “like” or similar photos.

As I got up for my dawn swim in day one of the challenge, slipped on my swimsuit and clothes to head out to the pool, something caught the corner of my eye even before I left the bathroom.  At the top of the window, hiding between the outside slats, was a little gecko.  Just one side was visible, and his front and rear legs on one side peeping out from the slats.  A clear omen for the week!  A gecko, pointing the way for a week of pictures.

You can just see him, peeking out near the top of the window..

The morning after taking the picture with the brush lying beside our front door, I saw this brush seller on our lane.  He also feather dusters made of chicken feathers.

And only a few yards further down is one of my favourite sights.  There are a number of mysterious, overgrown gardens, not currently inhabited.  I love to imagine what is behind the gate, and how exciting it would be to explore these “secret gardens” and find myself transported to the world of Frances Hodgson Burnett and childhood reading memories.

Later on, my eye is caught by the traditional dishes in a local restaurant, the food bursting with flavour and freshness.

As the week progressed, I was out of town one of the days and could not resist the beautiful everyday scenes all around me.  Such as the water buffalo grazing beside the paddy fields…

The picturesque waterways and traditional wooden boats.

And the simple sight of the curtain knotted, to allow the light in.

Locally produced vegetables drying in the sun.

The houses, built from timber, with raised walkways to allow for the rising waters.

Boys playing chinlon as the day closes.

A barefoot monk, standing under his maroon umbrella.

More traditional homes

A local stall.

Standing room only at a busy junction.

The ubiquqitous umbrella pot, with its ever changing assortment of umbrellas – essential in this climate!

These stands with drinking water are also available everywhere.  Another essential in this climate.

After the great interest in the humble tiffin box, I could not resist taking this photograph of these young women heading home with their tiffin pots.

And the following pics show the regular transportation.  There are many tiffin boxes here too, as passengers use one hand to hold on and the other to carry their lunch!

And towards the end of the week, another trader stops at this gate to sell bananas through the railings.

What an extraordinary week, and how wonderful is the ordinary.

Day 7 Saturday – celebrating the ordinary, every day

It was Saturday.  Saturday marked the final day of Marie’s challenge to celebrate the ordinary.  Saturday is also the day to see to those tasks which cannot be taken care of in the busy work week.

One of those tasks is to stock up on supermarket essentials.  The rains had abated somewhat, although the sky was still heavy, so I decided to walk there.  It is a pleasant walk, through the Golden Valley area.  I made sure I had my camera in my pocket but I had little idea of what to capture for the day’s challenge. I did know, however, that I would not be short of inspiration or material.

I had only been walking for a short time, when my eye caught a magical sight at the roadside.  A dawn downpour had left its mark in the leaves in the hedgerow.  Each leaf was shaped like a little vessel and contained a miniature pool of clear monsoon water.

The perfect image for celebrating the ordinary – what can be more ordinary than leaves and water?

I did feel somewhat self conscious, bent over and photographing what must have looked like nothing in particular to the occasional passers by.  Especially when I moved closer in, attempting to capture the glint of light in the captured drop.

Simple, ordinary, vital and worthy of celebration.

Post Script:

My attempts to post Saturday’s image were sabotaged by consistent internet evaporation, hence the delay in posting this.

On Sunday, I realised that I was still walking around on the lookout for images.  Which is not so different from my usual state, but definitely heightened.  This week I have captured a wide range of images in number as well as in how they represent celebration of the ordinary.  It is my intent to post the images which did not quite “make the cut” in a few day’s time with some reflections of the challenge.  In the meantime, here is Marie’s overview of the week in its wonder, synchronicity and inspiration.

Day 2 Celebrating the ordinary – Monday’s choice

This truly is an awesome challenge!  In so many ways

It is awesome because I am enjoying it so much.  It is awesome because it is so all encompassing.  My goodness, this is going to be a less than gentle re-introduction for Marie, I do believe!  Already I am losing track of all of the wonderful images, and the beautiful stories behind them.

It is also awesome because I get to share some of the innumerable everyday gems which I treasure, living and working here in Myanmar.

So this morning, I made sure that I had the camera with me when I got up at 5.30 am to get ready for my swim.  I love my walk to the place I swim, and I knew that there would be no shortage of ordinary wonders.  Little did I know that the snapping would start even before I was fully dressed!  That image is not the one I will share today though.  As expected, there were plenty of moments and impressions that took my interest.  By the time I had left home, walked to and from the pool and eventually arrived at work, there were a silly number of images to choose from.  i soon realised that I would indeed be struggling to select just one for the day. (I have a plan in mind for those photos which will not make the daily “cut”, but I will share that later).

I did finally manage to select just one – and this is what I have chosen for my Monday picture.

This was the scene at my front door as I left for the pool this morning.  One of the first tasks of the day here is the sweeping up of leaves, dust (in the dry season) and generally tidying up.  It is kind of ritual cleansing, so that the day starts fresh and clean.  The brushes used are traditional, and give a gentle “swish, swish” sound as the sweeping is done.  The brush was resting against one of the plants, mid way through its sweeping work.

A simple, ordinary, daily sight.  And one to celebrate.

Celebrating the ordinary – Sunday’s starter

As I posted yesterday, Marie of Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, is marking a return to blogging with the following challenge:

For one week, starting Sunday, I would love for you to join me………  it’s about celebrating the ordinary simple things we can sometimes take for granted each day.   So, will you join me in finding one thing each day to take a picture of to remind us of the simple ordinary pleasures in life? If you have a blog, then please post the picture and leave a link here.  And if you don’t have a blog, you can still join in on Facebook. Just upload your pic to the JBBC Facebook page where I will also be posting everyone’s pictures.  Looking forward to seeing your contributions!

Irresistible!  I was already in the midst of preparing a post, which would herald a new aspect to my own blog – I guess I could call it the Background Image Backstory?  So to start the week of celebration of the ordinary, I am using the image I was poised to share and describe, the image which was the first background image on my New Look Blog.

This is a photograph which I actually took during my Christmas break, in 2010 in Ngwe Saung, on the western coast of Myanmar.  I was fascinated by the patterns appearing on the sand, and ended up taking a number of photographs of the various designs and patterns.  This image is of a design left in the sand as the tide went out.  These incredible designs were everywhere, all I had to do was open my eyes and celebrate them in their extraordinary simple sophistication.

It may come as no surprise that I photographed very many of these various images, including the patterns left by burrowing tiny crabs and doodles by sand slugs.  There is a full album of these on my sister blog, where I post photographs of my life here, and another album of that Christmas break in black and white images.

As the week of this challenge progresses, I will be sharing images, new shots and some from my archive, to celebrate the ordinary.  The biggest challenge is only selecting one each day for only a week!

Images and synchronicity….

Amidst all this bloggerly pondering, overhauling and refreshing,  I had an idea yesterday.

Before I describe the idea, let’s rewind to the overhaul, and particularly to the image at the background of the new look blog.  It took me a great deal of identifying, selecting, experimenting and painfully slow uploading of images to serve as the background image.  The one I finally selected, I was very happy with, even if you could only see the edges.  Oh, but choosing only one was so hard, and when I look at many other blogs around me, with such a variety of beautiful images, I felt sad that I could not put all of my favourite images as the background.  And then I stopped.  Why can’t I?  A slide show would take up too much memory and be painful for slow-downloading environments which are more the norm than not in this part of the world.  But what I could do would be to develop a regular kind of “feature”  where I could change the background picture, and at the same time display the image (in full since only the edges which are shown as background image), and links to any posts which relate and more images of the same kind.  Now wouldn’t that be a fine way of expanding the content of the blog in a way which truly reflects its purpose of telling the story of  the “Life and work of a Scottish woman in Asia – with the added complication of Breast Cancer thrown into the mix!”?  Well, let’s give it a try and see…..

So I have changed the background image 🙂  The new image I have chosen is from my visit to Timor Leste in February which I wrote about here along with a selection of photographs of the visit.  And I propose to change the background image, regularly (depending on connectivity) along with a post with the picture itself and giving a bit of the story behind it.

My next step was then to share and describe the first image which I had selected.  That plan changed. It was late in our day, Friday, when I read Marie’s challenge in her return to the blogosphere.  Her challenge is simple and beautiful.  We are challenged to open our eyes and appreciate our surroundings, and share the images from those wonderful everyday little things.

And that is where the synchronicity comes in.  Not just in relation to the images themselves, but the very image which I had painstakingly selected for the first background of the revamped blog look is one of my favourites for the very reason that it is a simple picture of an everyday wonder.  Marie challenges us to share our images on Sunday (tomorrow) so this post is to give the backstory and pave the way for the image which (coincidentally I had already uploaded for this post) for me truly represents a celebration of the ordinary.

And that will appear here tomorrow, with a link back to Marie’s challenge post.

In trust we blog

When I first entered this strange new place known as “life after hearing the you have cancer words”, I realise that I had expectations of how life would be playing out from then on.  I vaguely expected that I would go through the treatment, share the emotional turmoil with family, friends and colleagues and then resume some kind of life as it had been “before”.  Needless to say, it hasn’t quite turned out like that.  The basics were there, but life changed beyond recognition.  And life has never been the same since, for better and for not so better.

There has been one dimension of the cancer experience which has been totally unexpected.  And that dimension is the rich, supportive environment I stumbled upon online, particularly through blogging.  I could never have imagined the number of people I have connected with, and particularly the depth of many of those friendships. Now, this is not something new to my posts.  I have previously (and often) discussed how emotionally involved I have become with friends I have connected with online. I have described how taken aback at the level of distress when one of our number is taken. The raw grief of loss, and the unexpected tears on learning that someone you have never “met” has been taken simply crashes through the boundaries we are accustomed to. I have previously, and more than once talked about how much that has surprised me.  I have been moved beyond any imaginable expectations when one of my online friends was dealing with the toughest of times.  So this is not a new topic in my mind, but I continue to be astounded at the warmth and genuine friendship which has developed with friends online and value this more than I can express in words.  Utterly heart-warming.

In the past few weeks, however, I have been nudged to revisit some of these thoughts. I was shocked when reading a post from Nancy where she shared her shock when she learned that another blogger had taken her posts and copied them almost word for word.  This made me reflect on how much we expose ourselves online and lay ourselves open emotionally.  Just because what we write is completely genuine, we take it that all other similar blogs are similarly true.  We generally accept what we read by fellow bloggers and bloggesses at face value in such areas as cancer blogging.  Yet the internet is an unpoliced medium and as far as I am aware, there are no checks to ensure that what is written is true if that is what is implied or stated.

And then, this week I was I was catching up on Chez’s blog when I was stopped in my tracks wen I read her post about “Annie”.  Chez and Anne had connected online, guest posted on each other’s blogs and after some time “Annie” abruptly broke contact.   Given her secondary diagnosis, Chez feared the worst and thanks to social media and perseverance was able to get in touch with one of her friends.  She was shocked beyond belief to discover that “Annie” had in fact fabricated her diagnosis and whole blog.

The point which I come back to again and again in this is the extent to which we trust.  Nancy trusted her readers yet one chose to lift her words, and use them as her own.  Chez trusted that “Annie” was being honest.  Yet we find that this virtual layer of our friendships has the potential to be deceptive.

Essentially, we are trusting strangers, unknown entities, and opening our hearts and minds.  We share our fears, our hopes and intricate details of what we go through in the cancer experience.  Some of this is highly personal, but the supportive environment and strength of friendship reassures us and we feel able to trust.  And then our world is rocked when something we trusted and believed turns out to be smoke and mirrors.  That reflection in the mirror is of the complicated and inter-connected online lives and relationships we develop.  And how much trust we place on the basis of the information in front of us, often because we share so much of our own personal self online.  Something like this knocks that trust.

However, this has to be put in balance with the depth and number of genuine friendships and individuals in our online community.  A good number of bloggers have posted accounts of real-life 3D meet-ups.  The variety of social media we use also means that we have a kind of triangulation which must make it more difficult, but in no way impossible, to be duplicitous.  Perhaps we have a sense of additional false security because we are after all living with our breast cancer diagnoses. But many of the signals that protect us in the “real” world are not there in the virtual world.  We are far more vulnerable and exposed than we realise, and perhaps the very depth of genuine friendship we find online further lulls us into that sense of security.

The whole issue of trust was one which was very much on my mind a few weeks ago when I was making plans to met Terri in “real life”, my first chance to meet another breast cancer bloggess.  I remember thinking that on the rational side, travelling to another city half a day away in another country, was somewhat risky.  Was I being naïve in trusting that Terri was who she said she was?  We had only known each other online.  We read on and commented on each other’s blogs, had connected on Facebook, had emailed a number of times and I felt a true connection and shared values.  But we had not actually spoken.  I remember thinking quite clearly that in terms of a methodically calculated risk analysis, this would have to be considered rash and high risk.

However, although these “rational” questions went through my mind as I booked time off work and tickets, I did not seriously for a moment believe that Terri would be anyone other than who I had met online.  I was sure she would be exactly who she said she was online.  And of course she was!

After reading Chez’s revelation, it did make me stop and reflect on how trusting I am about what I read and how I connect online.  I without doubt take what my blogging friends write at face value and would not think to doubt that some blogs could be invention.  And how should I apply that to my own blog?  Let’s be honest here – my own tales must seem rather far fetched and I do not readily share personal information to corroborate my experience.  I think I have only ever posted one photo of myself and my name appears only in comments.  How credible is my blog?  A Scottish woman, living and working in one of the most enigmatic countries in the world, diagnosed with breast cancer, treated in Thailand, experiencing so much in all corners of Asia……..  Is this for real? If I were reading this myself, would I believe it?  I am not sure that I would!  But here I am, on a sticky pre-monsoonal Saturday morning in Yangon tapping away my thoughts while the fan is whirring overhead, a cheeky mynah bird calling out in a tree in the garden and a street hawker calling out “brooms for sale” as he passes by our hedge, along our lane. Yep, I am real– (pinches self) though in my PJs but don’t tell 😉

I find that when it comes to online trust, it is similar to online loss.  These new dimensions to relationships and interactions do not have rules or protocols.  We do not have the signs and signals we are used to which enable us to process and evaluate online dynamics. And in many cases we find we are not equipped to deal with the depth of emotion we experience in something which may have been experienced entirely in the virtual world.  Witness the incredible #bcsm discussions as one demonstration of online support and emotional connection in its discussions and debates. It is a new and strange territory, and one in which we find a wealth of unexpected characteristics.

The online world may be a fertile environment for duplicity without consequence.  More than ever we need to be aware of that while developing friendships and connections in the blogosphere. In this complex issue of trust in this new and evolving space, on one hand I know I should be wise in developing friendships.  However, I would rather risk and trust than not.  Otherwise I could well miss out on the wonderful connections and friendships that have been brought to me purely thanks to the online world. And I can’t imagine  a world without you!

Do butterflies get wet in the rain? My “other life”

It was Saturday morning and I was sitting listening to the monsoonal rains pounding the garden, the earth welcoming this drenching.

This was the time I had set aside to think about Marie’s suggestion in her blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer that we describe our non Breast Cancer “other” life.  I find that I protect areas of my “other life” when blogging, in particularly in relation to my family and work, and try and maintain their privacy.  So I was struggling a bit to decide what was appropriate to share.

Instead of focusing on the task in hand, I found that my mind was wandering and my attention being drawn to a little black and orange butterfly outside in the bushes beside the mango tree.  He was flittering around, doing his butterfly work and seemingly oblivious to the rain.  The rain was not as heavy as it had been earlier, so perhaps he had come out of a sheltered spot.  My mind was off on a completely different trail.  I just could not help wondering – does this little butterfly not get wet?  I know his life span is short, is it further threatened by such torrential rain?  I learned very young that butterflies are very fragile and that even a touch could destroy their wings and kill the butterfly.  So where does he hide when the rains at are their heaviest, when it is too wet for most beings?  Does he have a rest from his tasks and wait for the rains to ease?  Or is he destroyed, defenceless and exposed to the elements?

I found myself unable to contain my curiosity about the butterfly and the rain, and finally conceded, keying in my question and sending it to the Natural Science cousin of Dr Google.  I was relieved to learn that butterflies are pretty wise little beings and they take refuge under leaves, in hedges or in other sheltered spots and protect themselves from the damaging rain.  Kind of obvious really.  But that was just the start of a path of discovery of all sorts of interesting things about butterflies.  It really made me smile to learn that female butterflies have a really neat little manoeuvre if they want to avoid unwanted male attention.  They just fold their wings flat, and they become invisible!  Don’t you just love it when you find out something new like that, when you are not even looking?

And that’s when I realised that I had not been avoiding my reflection on my other life.  I had been living it, allowing my curiosity to pursue a puzzle and my imagination to take off unhindered.  In my “other life”, I am always unbearably reminding family, friends and colleagues that “you learn something new every day”.  It is something I find particularly pertinent in my professional role as in education programming. As an adviser, I am anxious not to appear condescending, or “know it all” as I guide and support programming.  If I can demonstrate that I learn something new every day, then it reinforces the importance of learning and being open to new knowledge throughout our lives as well as ensuring that we all have that same chance to do so.  Learning is not discriminatory if we can be open to it.

When I think of my “other life” I recognise that it is a composite of many “lives” and I know that these have all played a role in the building the present day “other life”.  Even so, often I find it hard to believe that I am in this place, in such a fascinating environment and professionally enriching space.  I met up with a friend several months ago, as we just happened to be passing through Bangkok airport at the same time.  I was travelling from Colombo to Yangon and she was heading from Delhi to Hanoi.  Two Glasgow girls!!  Incredibly we not only transited through the same city on the same day, but we did so in the same short 2 hour window.  We had a crazy, 15 minute, standing in the transit passageways, squealy excited rendez-vous before rushing off to catch our respective onward flights.  Being Scots, and from a similar background we both giggled like schoolgirls as we marvelled at where we were.  Neither of us could have imagined living such a seemingly exotic, and definitely exciting life.  Neither of us came from the conventional routes into this, and hard work had been the main route to where we were, as well as having the mettle to grasp exciting opportunities even though they appeared daunting.  Most striking though, was the fact that back then, I could never have dreamed that I would be living this life now.  I always had a fantasy of living overseas, but with home responsibilities, a lack of what I believed was relevant skills and experience, and no obvious opportunities, it was a distant and unlikely dream.

So how on earth did it actually become a reality?

I realise that I have had a relatively unorthodox life and career path even when I was Scotland-based.  I went to university when I was 30, as a mature student with demanding domestic responsibilities.  I studied modern languages because that meant that my family and I would have the chance to spend time abroad.  We lived in France for a year, and spent a term in Belarus a few months after its independence as what was the Soviet Union was collapsing.  Not the best setting to improve my Russian language (in a revival of Belarusian) but a fascinating experience.  Those university years were tough, especially financially, but we undoubtedly gained much from it.  After graduating, I took up an interesting position in international affairs and programming in local government.  A great mix of the previous community development experience I had before university, and my love of language and international work.  I loved bringing an international dimension into lives of people who otherwise would not have that experience, including artists with disabilities and school pupils from difficult backgrounds.

Family responsibilities changed as we approached the new millennium, and after my Trans
Siberian Train adventure
I spotted my “dream job” advertised in the newspaper.  An international agency was looking to hire overseas, field staff to manage the development programmes.  Incredibly and fortunately, my unorthodox mix of experience and skills seemed to provide what was needed and I was offered a position in the Nepal programme.

I had only been to Asia once when I stepped off the plane in Kathmandu in July 2000 to take up that new job.  I had no idea what to expect.  The work was new, the country was new, the organisation was new, the language was unknown to me.  It was simultaneously terrifying and utterly thrilling.  I knew that I was taking a risk, and that it might not work out.  I also knew though, that if I did not at least give it a try I would have massive regret for the rest of my life that I had lost such an opportunity.

The fact that I am still in Asia, 11 years later, and still enthusing about this life, speaks for itself.

The thing I love about my work, throughout the 5 ½ years in Nepal as well as the following contracts in Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka and now Myanmar, is that there is a wonderful mix of practical grassroots work with strategic level work.  I love spending time in communities in remote parts of the country, listening and learning about the challenges in these areas, and developing an understanding of the context.  This gives me the background I need to be able to work at a strategic level, to support work towards ensuring that all children have a chance to have a quality education.  I enjoy working with colleagues to feed into the bigger picture and ensure that our work is grounded and appropriate.  I love the fact that one day I might be in meetings with the UN or diplomatic level colleagues, and another I can be in a very remote village, accessible only by bullock cart, talking with parents about their children’s care and development.  I still find it hard to believe where I am.  There is not a day goes by that I am not humbled and thankful.

The cancer encounter happened after 9 years in Asia, and thankful as I am that I am currently in NED’s company and have been mostly able to pick up the pieces, I would be naive and wrong to assume that nothing has changed. If I have a recurrence, it is highly likely that I would have to give extremely careful thought to whether or not I could continue life and work overseas for financial as well as practical reasons.  All the more reason to value what I have. 

I am not going to dwell on that right now.  That cancer diagnosis is a fact, and it is why the biggest areas of my life found themselves relegated for a bit.  Now I trust that it is just one more component of what all goes together to make up My Life.

Snapshots of other lives

While the more detailed story of “My Other Life”  is taking shape, I was inspired by posts by Marie and  Brenda which  picked out a number of wonderful facts and snippets about fellow breast cancer blogging buddies.  I thought it would be fun to put together some random snippets about the other me, just to add to the mix.

A snapshot of the “other” me

  • I can’t live without music.
  • I am scared of heights
  • I love puzzling over word games and unravelling tangled string
  • I am so short sighted I can hardly see my own feet
  • I have my nose pierced
  • I can’t drive!
  • I can’t live without books
  • I am better at eating than cooking
  • I am fascinated by lizards and geckos
  • I love dancing, especially Bollywood and Bhangra
  • I cannot understand trigonometry or why it might be useful. (And I failed maths and physics at school)
  • I harbour unrealistic aspirations to be a photographer, painter and writer
  • I have an unwarranted dislike of celery and guava.
  • I have the most incredibly vivid dreams

As you can imagine, there is plenty more where that came from, but these are just a few random snippets about what makes up the “other me”.

It is just wonderful learning about each other and keeping cancer out of the limelight for once.