I have a dream …

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Romanian border, 2 am, awaiting passport checks

I have many dreams, I have to confess. Not a bucket list, but a wish bucket which I can dip into and draw out a wish. Not always something extravagant or sophisticated, but often something quite minuscule.

I have previously written about a cute little pot I bought while visiting Poland. It was a deep blue colour, about the size of a miniature scone and had stars and a cat painted on the side alongside some writing. I was not in the slightest troubled by the fact that I had no idea what the wise words said but later learned that they described the little pot as “a place to keep your dreams”. How very perfect. This little pot has travelled far, and suffered some breaks, but it is still mostly there and held together with glue. And happily the dreams do not slip through the gaps. They do form my metaphorical wish bucket.

My wish bucket contains a number of dreams, those which I still hold on to experiencing, and those which I treasure now as memories or precious items. And there is always space for more dreams …

Some of the dreams which have been realised from my wish bucket are:

  • Meet a blogging friend in a new place
  • Buy a picture/piece of artwork at a gallery opening and watch them put the red sticker on it.
  • See a kangaroo in the wild. I saw many during my visit to Australia over Christmas and New Year 2015/16.
  • Visit a country with the letter ‘Z’ in it. Tanzania, and its magical island of Zanzibar
  • Sail through the Norwegian Fiords
  • See some of my writing in print.  In a book, with real paper pages!
  • Get funky, colourful nail art on my finger and toenails just for fun, just for once.

There are still more dreams which I hold on to:

  • See the Aurora Borealis (northern lights)
  • See the rings on Saturn through an astronomy telescope
  • See an iceberg
  • Book into the Oriental Bangkok for a weekend.  Or maybe a night.  Or maybe just have afternoon tea there given the price! (So far I have managed an afternoon tea and a decadent dinner).
  • See a starfish in the sea

There are also dreams which I am wary to articulate. When I was diagnosed in October 2009, the very obvious wish was to hang around beyond the treatment and return to a reasonable level of health. Reaching the five year mark a few years ago was an emotional milestone, and one I marked with thankfulness.

Now, my diagnosis came at a time of a personal Milestone Birthday those years ago. It was my 50th birthday, and plans to do something memorable were thwarted by visa constraints. My milestone birthday dream had been to travel to Bhutan, and indeed that is still to be met. But as I reached those 50 years back in 2009, I had recently moved to Myanmar and our visa was still in process. We were not able to leave the country, and not even able to leave Yangon. I had a beautifully memorable evening, with friends and colleagues in a wonderful space in Yangon, but travel plans were put on hold. For a very long time, it turned out.

Ten years earlier than that, as the arithmetic demonstrates, I marked my 40th birthday. With a great deal of dream nurturing,  and then planning, my wish to travel on the Trans Siberian railway became a reality. I had the most amazing trip, across the Siberian taiga, alongside awe-inspiring Lake Baikal and through the Mongolian steppe before the train descended dramatically, as it snaked past the Great Wall of China into Beijing. That had been intended to cure me of my debilitating wanderlust. It was not exactly successful, as a few months later, I found myself at Edinburgh airport with a one way ticket to Kathmandu, and a three year contract to work in Nepal. The rest is history, and seventeen years later, I returned to Scotland (now two years ago) with the petulance of a spoiled child whose trip to the seaside had come to an end.

That trip for my 40th birthday, all those years ago remains ingrained in my memory. It was a truly pivotal, and I find that even though health and energy are not what they were, the dreams are just as vivid.

Why am I dreaming so much at the moment? There is a swirling of memories and moments in the atmosphere. I realise that I am on the brink of two important milestones. One is the Next Milestone Birthday – the Voldemort Birthday. The age which must-not-be-spoken-out-loud. This is the year I receive my free Bus Pass and can qualify for some senior citizen discounts. The other life marker 10 years later was equally memorable, but was not in the slightest planned or even anticipated. That was when I heard those life altering words “this is highly suspicious of cancer”.

Just over a couple of weeks ago, late in July I a glance at the date showed that it was exactly 20 years since I embarked on that railway trip from Europe to Asia. I realised that 20 years ago to the day, I had been in Russia, watching the kilometre markers pass, one by one, telling me exactly how many kilometres I had travelled from Moscow. Every marker I passed told me that I was a kilometre further east than I had ever been before. I remember looking at the map unfolded constantly beside me, and marvelling that immediately due south, if many miles, from that point of the journey lay India! India. I could see it clearly on the map, but my mind was utterly incapable of absorbing that fact.

Twenty years later, I have found that as I was approaching this Voldemort birthday, I was increasingly compelled to embark on another journey. A gentler journey than that odyssey across Siberia and exploring Asia. A journey which I had long yearned to do, one which whispered temptations in my ear. One which I have not been able to resist.

So, I have just returned to Scotland from what has been almost a mirror image of the Siberian journey. Just a few weeks ago, one Thursday afternoon late in July, in less than five hours, I flew from Edinburgh to Istanbul, that mystical city where Europe meets Asia on the banks of the Bosphorus. I spent a few days exploring this new city, embracing Asia briefly with promises of a return. Then, inspired by the tales and legend of the Orient Express, I embarked on a journey which traced its route back to London (and on to Edinburgh) on the “other Orient Express”, as Paul Theroux calls it, by train all the way. Keeping true to the spirit of the journey, I stayed in the hotel originally built for passengers disembarking from the original Orient Express. This is where Agatha Christie reputedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411, where I had panoramic views across the Golden Horn, of the Blue Mosque and where I was captivated by the melodic prayer calls and Turkish delight coloured sunsets.

Now safely back in Edinburgh, having travelled on six trains, through ten countries, spending 92 train hours and covering over 2500 miles, I have treasured memories and many photographs of this journey which helped me to step into this new decade. And stories to tell …

Here is the opportunity to relive the past weeks, as I begin to put this whole experience into words, to share.

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Season’s Greetings

It can be very confusing listening to a Scottish person speaking.  We use many words and expressions in their own unique way and often these are not abundantly clear.  For example, we go to the shop or supermarket for our messages.  Does that sound strange?  Well, it is not strange to us at all.  It simply means shopping, particularly our grocery or food shopping.  Another word we use a lot is “piece” and you would often hear talk of a cheese piece, a piece and jam (jeely piece) or be asked “what’s in your pieces today?”  To us, a piece means sandwich,. So we also have piece-boxes which are used for packed lunches.  Not quite like the tiffin pot which holds hot food and meals, the piece box holds sandwiches and maybe an apple!

One deliciously expressive word we use a fair bit is “greet”.  It has nothing to do with the broader English language definition of “to salute or welcome in a friendly and respectful way with speech or writing, as upon meeting or in opening a letter”  Oh no – we use it rather it as a colloquial term for crying or weeping and it also has the sense of complaining or grumbling.  It is not a flattering term.  Greeting is not the word we would use for a dignified, composed weep.   And it is none too sympathetic or generous.  The image conjured up of someone greeting is of a contorted face, scarlet and probably snottery, and a significant noise volume attached to it.  To have a greeting face is not something to aspire to at all, with its associations of crabbitness and grump.  (Crabbit being another wonderful expression in Scottish slang for grumpy or miserable).  For example, this description from the Scots Language Centre quotes the use of “greeting face” which is most definitely not a compliment.

So that is the greeting.  But what is the season?  Well, for me it is the season of memories, milestones, landmark days and anniversaries.  We are also on the threshold of Breast Cancer Awareness Month which in itself creates a considerable stooshie around the globe. (A stooshie being another wonderful Scots word for a commotion, rumpus, or row, or a state of excitement or anxiety; a tizzy).  And there is one serious stooshie on the horizon across the blogosphere and breast cancer world.  Thoughts on that stooshie are for another day, today my thoughts relate to that season as it relates to my own experience.

Today marks the start of this season.  For it was 23 September 2009 when I discovered the lump and life as I knew it took a turn for the very different.  The landmark days come hurtling at me after that, with October 2 marking The Day I Found Out, my Cancerversary.  That was the day I heard those life-changing, burned-onto-my-memory words “this is highly suspicious of cancer”. On October 5 I had my surgery, lost my left breast along with its tumours, a heap of lymph nodes and their nasty cells and gained Twang Arm.  Although I spent most of the day unconscious, it is certainly a day I will never forget!  On 21 October my portacath was implanted in time for the first chemo on 23 October.  Exactly a month after the day I found the lump.

So it is a season for greeting, remembering, reflecting and to a certain extent, re-living those traumatic days of October 2009.  Add to that the annual Big Check with the attendant scans, examinations and appointments and you have a very sensitive season indeed.

So please excuse me if I get a bit prickly this season…

It’s that time of year again…. Landmark Days and Extreme October approaching rapidly

I have a chill in my stomach as I see the date on the calender.  We are rapidly approaching a time of year when I am dragged kicking and screaming headlong into a face-off with my encounter with breast cancer.

Firstly, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which has turned into a Pinktoberfest of every imaginable product marketed with pink ribbons and pink anything in many parts of the world.

Secondly, it is a period loaded with my own Landmark Days, that is, anniversaries of  significant cancer “milestones”.   The first one is rapidly speeding towards me and is now less than 2 weeks away.  That is September 23, the day I discovered “the lump” and the day that it all started.  Being diagnosed at the beginning of October is a cruel move and means that awareness stares me in the face even more than usual.  And just to add an extra bonus frisson, I will have my Big Annual Check in the middle of October.  The stomach churning game of “Hunt the danger signal” Just in case there was any in danger of breast cancer slipping my mind.

Last October my head was very firmly in the “I-can’t-believe-that it-is-already-a-year-since-this-nightmare-started-while-I-can’t-believe-it’s-only-a-year” space. It had been impossible to imagine the one year point back at diagnosis time.  The one year milestone was a time of intense and mixed emotions.  Now, 12 months, 4 NEDs, innumerable needle sticks, 360 odd Tamoxifen, at least a dozen passionate encounters with Capt Paranoia and 3 memorable adventures I find myself in a somewhat different place.

Throughout this year, as I have parted company with the phase of treatments and appointments you live your life around, I have been able to see things from a slightly more objective perspective.  I have also learned an incredible heap of things, some of which have shocked me and spurred me into shouting out.  And as I am in a different space, I have a strong feeling that the Pinktober month is also taking on a different shade.  It’s more like an “Extreme October”. There is a significant disconnect between the marketing Pink-everything in sight October extreme and the debate (or lack of it) around the need to progress in understanding breast cancer, especially metastatic and widely held beliefs such as the one that early detection guarantees cure.  I find there is another extreme between the excess of marketing in many countries and the total lack in others.  Last year I did not spot one single item of pink merchandise here, and in Thailand I saw evidence of the Awareness month in the hospital but not in the shops.

Last October my posts were mostly reflective and highly subjective.  I marked my Cancerversay by writing a letter to Cancer which probed the thorny personal relationship I had developed with cancer.  My Big Check came at the end of the month and I moved out of the month embracing a new phase.  I think this October will be different.  For one thing, I have learned a great deal from blogging peers about the limitations, shall we call them, of the pink campaigns.  I am far more tuned in to the debate and am learning uncomfortable truths.  The blogs I am reading and the friendships I am making are bringing me into a movement of questioning and challenging which I suspect will become even more vocal as the month wears on.  I have been intrigued to hear that there have been some “overtures” made to some of my snarky, smart blogging buddies to write guest posts on commercial sites.  I sense a counter pink movement this Extreme October.

In terms of Feisty Blue Gecko, I am forming a plan for how I will approach Extreme October posts, bearing in mind how much I love my spot on the fence.  I have a particular plan forming for 13 October which has been designated Metastatic Breast Cancer Day.  (Yep, one day – what a contradiction in itself).

I am intrigued to see how this Extreme October takes shape.