Back in Time

This weekend the clocks went back, and we moved from Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time.

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This clock changing phenomenon happens twice a year in many parts of the world, but it doesn’t happen at all in many others. In fact, this is the first time in over a decade I have changed my clock whilst in the same country. No borders, no flights or travel to another time zone, but the time zone change comes to me in the middle of the night, and I wake up with a bonus hour.

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Clocks change between 1 am and 2 am

When I left Scotland in June 2000, we were in Summer Time which took us an hour closer to the places where I would subsequently live, without this clock changing twice a year. Only once in that 17 years did we have to change our clocks – and that was in Mongolia which was further north and therefore would benefit from this minor rearrangement of the daylight hours. Interestingly, though it did prompt some puzzled conversations in Ulaan Baatar amongst my South Asian friends who had come from lands where there was only an hour so difference between winter and summer months. It was only as the daylight hours started to stretch that the purpose of the clock changing became clearer. I realise that I have taken the rationale for Daylight Saving Time (DST) granted, and tried to explain to those nearer the equator that this is the practice of setting the clocks forward by an hour from standard time during the summer months, and back again in the autumn. This is in order to make better use of natural daylight and align it with the working, farming and school day.

My last year, in Rwanda, saw me living in a land of almost perfect equinox as Kigali nestles just south of the Equator. The daylight variation throughout the year was around 15 minutes and on a neat 6 am to 6 pm divide.

It is always lovely to return to Scotland in those midsummer days, when the light stretches throughout the late evening, and never quite disappears. The sky takes on a deep luminescent blue for the three hours of almost darkness. Of course, this means that in winter the opposite is the case, and the days are short, with full daylight coming through after the start of the working day and disappearing before home time. In those months, we feel that we live in darkness. My annual visits were almost always in summer, and it is a strange step back in time to see the days shorten. And we are only just stepping out of October, and much as I try and prepare myself for the short days I know that it will take some adjustment.

These short days can bring a soft winter light and a changing landscape with different colours and many more berries bushes that I remembered. These bushes and now bare trees are inhabited by birds which I can be reacquainted with as I walk along pathways, all wrapped up, listening out for their chirrups. I have already seen grebes, finches and even that symbol of the British winter – the red-breasted robin.

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This means that I need to keep my eyes and mind open and make the most of my step back in time.

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Change of Scene

The past weeks have seen me on a journey of the mind, body and spirit. One journey has been a physical one. I have long yearned to visit Ireland, and previous visits have been short and never far out of Dublin or Belfast. I have also long hankered after a writing retreat and kept returning to the details of a memoir retreat in rural, western Ireland. My return to Europe provided the time and space to take that opportunity. And so, at the start of September I travelled to Dublin on a one way ticket, clutching my notebooks and writing, a train ticket to Galway and a booking for Bed and Breakfast on the way. That journey deserves its own story, and space and will be told here very soon. My story today is one closer to home.

I returned from Ireland a few days ago, to a realisation. As I had travelled northwards through the counties of Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal I was taken aback at how quickly the trees were changing colour. Of course, I knew in my head that it has been many years since I have been in this part of the world as autumn takes hold, but I clearly had not absorbed this. Every corner we turned, brought a vision of yellowing and crimson leaves against evergreen and slower-to-turn green leaves. The colours continued to surprise me as I travelled Scotland-ward through Derry and Belfast and across the water to Cairnryan. The last time I experienced autumn was in 1999, and here we are 18 years later. And how I continue to be taken by surprise!

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The seasons in my years overseas have been centred around rains and the mirror dry seasons, pre-rains and cooler months. My returns to Scotland have generally been in the UK summer months, and so I have become conditioned to seeing green grass, leafy trees, heather and even bluebells while here. In Asia and Africa my only experience of a similar change of seasons was in Mongolia, where the flowers and leaves died in a matter of days as the temperatures plummeted with the first snows. This was the rapid transition into the long wintry period which would see -25C considered to be warm. Furthermore, the arid climate in Mongolia meant that the landscape was less forested and the steppe vast in its expanse of grassland. Not so many leaves to fall. While the season was called autumn, it was not visibly autumnal in my memory.

Now back in Scotland, as my being readjusts to the flora around me, I also realise that I need to become reacquainted with bird and animal life which was once very familiar. Gone are the sounds of sunbirds, mysterious singing warblers, chirruping geckoes and noisy frogs. Now I hear seagulls, starlings and other new sounds in the morning.

As I was walking through a nearby woodland park the other day, my friend pointed out a few of the Scottish birds around us. She is a bird and nature lover and able to identify the sounds and sights around easily. A little robin hid just from view on a tree above, his tutting call the only giveaway to his presence. My friend then spotted a pair of little grebes, the smallest diving grebe I learned. They seemed to be a couple, the male with his russet neck and the female in her more muted blackish grey plumage. From what I could see, he would dive while she bobbed on the surface. When he surfaced, often a little distance from where he had disappeared, they would speed towards each other and he would gently feed her, before diving once more.

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We continued to walk around the small loch, observing and trying not to intrude on life going on all around us as I learned and relearned about my Scottish surroundings.

No matter what the setting is, in which part of the world and whatever the climate might be I am humbly reminded of one important message. It is so important to pause, and to take in what is happening around us. We might think we have become used to our surroundings, but we can always look with new eyes, and listen with newly tuned ears. It is not physically what we see and hear, but how we look, listen and interpret what is around us that brings appreciation.

I must keep reminding myself of this as this period of adjustment leads to gradual settling.

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Retreat

If there is something I have learned over the past years, it is this. I thrive in retreat. I embrace being in nature and far from crowds, madding or otherwise. I don’t need entertainment or sophisticated surroundings. I can sit and listen to the river flowing, the breeze in the trees and the sounds of critters and birds about their daily work. I have learned that this is important for my wellbeing and in fact is the most effective way to replenish energy and refresh my body and soul.

This year has been intense. Globally, we have seen and felt shockwaves we could never have believed, and we have heard the anguish of those affected by hate and conflict. The year has been one of enormous change for me personally, and one which has been healthy in many ways but its intensity has left me drained and spent. I need to face the coming year with energy and renewed enthusiasm. And for that I have again retreated, and ventured far to do so.

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This means that the silence of the past weeks on this space is being gently lifted as I put together reflections and share with you some details of this retreat. I am working on the three words for the coming year and catching up with the past months. The Feisty Blue Gecko has been but resting and is ready to emerge refreshed.

To set the tone and provide a taste of what is to come, I share now a picture of my new neighbour, a sweet little blueish bird the likes of which I have never seen before, who was busy eyeing up this avocado while managing to pose for me.

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My eyes are open, my ears are listening and my mind is letting go of the intensity of the past months. Let the revitalisation begin.

Blowing away the cobwebs

While Yangon continues to bake, I am finally able to post this, written during my offline Thingyan break in the Luang Prabang hills,10 April 2016

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I don’t think I have ever flown quite so close to the hills as we did on the descent into Luang Prabang yesterday afternoon. Even in the many flights I took while in the five and a half years I lived and worked in Nepal, I believe. As we flew northerly across the Thai border into Lao airspace, we passed through thick air which buffeted the little plane alarmingly. As we approached Luang Prabang, we descended below the tops of the hills, so near I could make out the individual trees quite easily. So close that I found it easier to look away than to admire the stunning landscape we were flying through. In no time the river appeared below us and it was reassuring to see that we were in the valley and not headed towards a hillside.

I was leaving Yangon and Myanmar’s Thingyan Water Festival, and Thailand’s Songkran far behind to escape once more into the Laos hills where their Pi Mai water festival would be carrying on in full swing all around but not in the little haven I was headed for.

I finally packed up from work on Thursday evening, heading home carrying a plastic bag with dripping wet clothes, the ones I had worn to work that morning. The clothes which were unhesitatingly drenched by laughing colleagues in the Water Festival celebrations which had been planned. Not an indoor celebration with music and gentle but increasing sprinkling with water as there had been in previous years. The general exuberance which has been in the air since November, and particularly since the new government took over power on 1 April has only grown. This year’s water festivals are sure to see only increased celebrations. This year the party was held outside, so there was no need to be sparing with the drenchings of fellow colleagues. Within minutes of my appearance, I had had water poured over me from all directions and before I knew it, I was joining in with the laughter and water throwing. I still had work to finish and at that point in time, I knew that the only thing I could possibly do was to cross that bridge when I came to it, with all of its water puns intended. My boss and I had headed out to join the fun briefly and returned laughing and dripping, standing in the scorching sun a few minutes to try and take away the worst of the excess water. I remembered my “emergency lyongyi” which I kept in my desk, especially from the days when the taxis almost always had wet seats in rainy season and a change of clothes was needed on arrival at work after a taxi ride. I also had a t-shirt, and so was at least able to change a dry top layer, even if other layers were wetter than soggy.

I left Yangon early the following morning, Friday 8 April, knowing that the airport would be busy but not expecting the crowds that were there already. I can usually pass through Yangon’s check-in and immigration and be heading for a cup of tea in around 20 minutes. The line at even the priority check in lane was longer than I had ever seen there and it took around 45 minutes to get through. The scene at immigration was no less crowded and another half an hour was spent there. Arrival in Bangkok was no less busy – I march in autopilot towards immigration there clutching a very precious pass for the priority lane (oh thank you, Bangkok Airways for recognising the many flights I take with you) and came nose to nose with an official holding a sign which read “Immigration full” and directing passengers to the other immigration section. I waved my pass hopefully, and in response he waved me off in another direction. Immigration was indeed completely full.

My afternoon in Bangkok was spent catching up with a number of tasks personal and professional to take care of before I headed quite literally to the hills and offline for over a week. Offline completely, no internet and no phone signal. That is a rare and precious thing in today’s world. And not fully understood. So I have prepped my email address to send out a message saying that I really truly will not see this, and a message on social media to the same effect. I have left the phone number of the lodge with my immediate family, along with the email of the owner. Just in case. Just how we used to do long ago before we had connectivity on multiple devices in the most obscure of locations.

As I boarded my flight in Bangkok the next morning, I turned off my phone and said goodbye to the outside world for over a week. Ready to greet the simplicity and complexity of nature where I can recharge my depleted energy stores, and allow my creativity to be inspired. Time to blow away the cobwebs and refresh my physical and emotional being.

Pi Mai has not yet started in Laos officially, but all the way up into the hills there were groups of children at the roadside in the villages, with buckets and basins to throw at passing travellers.

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The air of Luang Prabang was as hot and oppressive as that in Yangon and although it cleared somewhat higher in the hills, it was still incredibly hot and heavy. I had slept badly yet again the previous night in anticipation of a very early start and was particularly tired. After settling in I succumbed to the call of the chance to lie down, read and nap. I cannot have nodded off for long, but I was woken by an awareness that the light had changed and taken on a more deep, mellow hue. And then I heard a wonderful, unexpected and sweet sound. Raindrops. Really? If it was raining, there was one thing I had to do immediately. I dragged myself up, pulled out my swimsuit and within five minutes was in the pool. The raindrops had already receded but the air was different, less tired and with a hint of promise.

The pool water was cooler than I remembered from last time, but within moments my surprised skin had recovered and I could luxuriate in the coolness, even though the sun was higher in the sky that it is usually when I swim. Wispy, moody clouds attempting to mask it from time to time and throwing slanted rays of light across the skies. When I climbed out of the pool an hour later, I was convinced it must be early evening and was surprised that the afternoon was still fairly young.

It was barely 6 in the evening when I decided that my hunger could no longer be quelled and I settled to listen to the evening critters sing, and to watch the light change and fade on the little balcony outside the dining area. As I wandered down the path from my room, I passed a strangely shaped spider above my head, working on his cobweb. I paused to watch him for a few moments watching him, thinking to take his picture at some point so I could remember that I had seen such a strange little spaceship-shaped being. There was plenty of time. I have days ahead so no rush to do this when my stomach was reminding it had been many hours since I had eaten.

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While I was eating my meal, I could hear distant rumbles. Perhaps a storm was forming and teasing a neighbouring hillside? As darkness fell, the occasional distant shaft of light would seem to appear, but not for long enough to confirm a storm. Until gradually, the light show increased, and the thunder drew closer. A dramatic performance developed as the lightning threw its beams from different parts of the sky, communicating some message or argument and lighting up the hidden valleys and layers of hillside unseen in the light of day, silhouetting individual trees in shades of silver and sepia. The gentle breeze gathered speed and energy as it too joined the performance and promised more action. And then we heard that noise again. A few large raindrops, gathering speed until we felt the skies finally release some of that moisture it had been cradling and nurturing for weeks. The lights went out, and I could feel the valley smile as nature reminded us who is in charge and holds the real power. I don’t know how long I sat in my own silence, mesmerised by the storm, captivated at the component parts playing out their roles with passion and energy.

No wonder my flight had been so bumpy when the air had been so charged with energy.

Gradually the storm moved towards the next valley and I picked up my sodden shoes and walked up to my room. It was barely after 8 pm and I wanted to sleep. I read for a few minutes before sleep took over with a dream filled sleep.

I woke after around 12 hours after I had drifted off, with no need for middle of the night meditations to distract an overactive mind as I regularly do. I looked out of my window, to a day of promise and tranquility. I could hear the birds and crickets tempting me to rouse myself properly. I caught sight of the pool, its waters still and the sun low enough to throw a little shade.

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As I stepped towards the pool down the path, I glanced upwards at the place where the strangely shaped spider had been busy the evening before. He was gone. There was just one fine strand of fresh filament strung across the space between the branches. The little spider’s intricate web was no longer there, and nor was he.

While just a few branches away, I almost missed a massive, flamboyant spider whose web had survived the storm. Larger than a human head, he sat silently on his web, suspended from a nearby branch. I scurried onward, towards my swim under the watchful eye of one of the biggest spiders I have seen in my life.

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Oh, I had indeed come to the right place for the cobwebs to be blown away and the mind and body to be refreshed.

The Simplicity of the Happy Place

I have recently been reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray Love fame). This was a clear example of my regular spontaneous purchasing tendency on Kindle. While I could never live without real books, I do love the fact that with a Kindle the whole world becomes a book shop. I take continuous delight in being able to buy books while lying in bed or even sitting stuck in traffic. And no one knows. A real guilty pleasure. Somehow, I found myself clicking “buy” yet again one evening, encouraged to explore the connection between creativity and fear, in some deep rooted way seeking to address anxiety which takes a greater place than it should in my emotional life.

I am still reading Big Magic, dipping in and out and finding that some of the ideas and stories in the book take me on a journey. I was particularly struck by the discussion about finding one’s perfect creative space, or as I interpreted it “the happy place” where you feel your shoulders relax, an gentle smile creep onto your lips and a feeling of genuine happiness.

The particular story which connected so strongly came in a section talking about “creative living” and Gilbert’s exploration of what that means. She emphasises that this does not mean an exclusive commitment to an art, especially professionally. If you do not “make it” as a full time, financially sustained painter, or poet, or actor then that does not mean you do not or can not live creatively. She describes creative living, as “living a life which is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear”. That took a moment to crystalize, but it drew me right in. Yes, I want to be driven by curiosity. I need to shaft away from fear and anxiety being the pull. I then went on to read the example she provided. I mostly paraphrase from the book now.  Gilbert talks about a friend who took up figure skating when she reached forty years old. In fact, she was not a complete beginner as she had competed in figure skating when she was much younger, and while she had always loved it, she was not quite in the “champion” league and winning trophies. So she stopped skating. What was the point? When she reached forty, she found herself feeling listless, restless, drab and heavy and started soul searching.

Gilbert writes:

She asked herself when was the last time she’d felt truly light, joyous, and – yes- creative in her own skin. To her shock, she realized that it had been decades since she’d felt that way. In fact, the last time she’d experienced such feelings had been as a teenager, back when she was still figure skating. She was appalled to discover that she had denied herself this life-affirming pursuit for so long, and she was curious to see if she still loved it.

So she followed her curiosity, she bought a pair of skates, found a rink, hired a coach. She ignored the voice within her that told her she was being self-indulgent and preposterous to do this crazy thing. She tamped down her feelings of extreme self consciousness at being the only middle-aged woman on the ice, with all those tiny, feathery nine-year old girls.

She just did it.

And so this 40 year old woman changed her routine and her life, getting up three mornings a week before dawn and skating before she went to work. She found that she loved it just as much as she always had, but without the pressure of competition. “Skating made her feel alive and ageless”. Gilbert goes on to stress that her friend did not give up her job, there was no fairy tale story of becoming a star and winning medals. But this was revolutionary in her life. She still skates three times weekly because, as Gilbert puts it ”skating is still the best way for her to unfold a certain beauty and transcendence within her life that she cannot seem to access in any other manner”. And that is what she calls creative living.

Recently my daughter told me that her steam cleaner had broken. It seemed to me that she was disproportionately upset about this and while I did try to conceal my puzzlement at her distress, it still must have come across.

“It’s my happy place” she told me, just before Christmas.

With the steam cleaner she could lose herself in a world where she found that satisfaction and creativity. By methodically working away at stubborn stains, and restoring carpets, upholstery and possibly even the cats, to a pristine condition, she found herself in that zone of creativity and lightness.

And then I got it. Then I understood. This was her own, deeply satisfying space. The failure of the steam cleaner was far more than a mechanical breakdown. It closed the door on her access to peace, achievement and guaranteed happiness at a time when buying a replacement was just not an option. She was quite delighted when the New Year sales turned up a far superior model of steam cleaner. Some kind of Rolls-Royce-Jimmy-Choo-steam-cleaner-machine well beyond my comprehension, and at half the price of the original. Paradise truly re-found.

I am fortunate as I know that I have more than one happy place. Mornings are a happy place, if that makes sense. Despite the struggle in getting out of bed early in the morning, I know that as soon as step out into the lanes, that I am in an inspiring and happy space. I used to love cycling through the lanes, silently witnessing everyday rituals at the nat tree, stopping to pick up fallen frangipani blossom to take home, smiling at those two elderly gents out walking with their helper supporting them by the elbow, spotting the dogs stretching through their partner yoga routines as they lazily came to life on the dusty roadside. It is a consistently happy place, which only fades as the day becomes busier and cars and general busyness start to take over the tone of the day. When my back issues stopped me cycling through the lanes, I found the same lightness and sense of true emotional wellbeing early in the mornings, walking and wandering those same lanes at a different pace.

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I find a happy place when I am in nature, when listening to frogs and geckos chirruping and chuckling, or watching birds flitting around the branches. I can watch the light and shadow play games as the sun filters through leaves and turn each leaf a slightly different shade of green. I can listen without tiring or becoming bored, to the sound of the monsoon rains pound down, to thunder shaking the walls and the crack of lightening nearby. There are many happy places, most of them not complicated nor hidden. Waiting patiently for us to see them.

LP April 1It is no secret that my “go to” happy place is my swimming space. It is physically refreshing, but far more than just exercise. As soon as I get into the water and settle into a gentle rhythm, I feel that lightness and true happiness and am always glad that I have taken just that little extra effort to make time to swim.

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When the pool I have been using for many years closed its doors last year, I knew it would be tough. I looked at many options and tried out a number of different places and types of swimming facility. None quite worked. Even the main outdoor pools only a couple of kilometres away and probably within a walkable distance had some disadvantages. Then just a few weeks ago,  a friend asked me if I had tried the little pool at a small guest house nearby. I had seen signs for the place, but never visited it, and it did not occur to me that it might have a swimming pool. So eventually, I called by and asked if their pool was open to non residents, and how much it would cost. Expecting confusion and no such system, I was delighted to be told that the guest house does indeed allow non residents to use it, and at a reasonable cost. The pool is small, but set in a beautiful tropical garden and immediately felt right. A few days later, I called back ready to try it out and as soon as I got into the water and pushed away from the side into my swimming rhythm, I knew that this was my happy place. This was the perfect swimming spot and finally I had found that lightness and release that the happy place brings.

home sweet home 3As we are surrounded by stresses of 21st century living and its high expectations and sophistication, it is so important to hold on to what really brings satisfaction and happiness. It is essential to recognise what that is for each one of us. What it is that brings our happiness, and intentionally seek it out.

And so often it is right in front of us, if we only open our eyes and souls.

Escapism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jungle walk from room to brekkie

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

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

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool

The sounds of a soul, gently healing

The sounds of a soul, gently healing

Grumbles of distant rain clouds echoing from the hills

The ticky tacky steps of a spider, scurrying across the dust.

Gleeful, haunting melodies of mynahs calling across the jungle canopy

Gurgles of a chubby rain drop slithering onto a welcoming pebble

The whisper of a lazy breeze stirring shy bamboo stems

 

The barely audible gasp of a frangipani blossom as it lands on the surface of water

The sigh of a leaf riding on the breeze, pausing, twisting, as it glides to the ground, guided by invisible fingers

The catch of air in a butterflys wings, as it alights on a leaf

The almost perceptible murmur of a hibiscus flower, rearranging its petals, as it turns to reach towards the sun.

 

The scream of a single, sweet teardrop, escaping, unsolicited.

 

 

Stop.

 

Still your breath.

 

Still your very being.

 

For these are the gentle sounds,

of a soul

quietly healing.

 

Frangipani blossom, drifting, casting its shadow on the tiles of the pool.

Frangipani blossom, drifting, casting its shadow on the tiles of the pool.