Expect the Unexpected

When I first moved to Asia, I quickly became fascinated by the paddy fields. Terraces of glorious, shining green stretching as far as the eye could see. As the paddy started to ripen, the edgy bright green would start to deepen to a dusky yellow and laborious transplanting and thinning would make way for harvesting. But what particularly fascinated me, I am embarrassed to say, was that I could not fathom out how these fields of green could transform into the grains of rice on the shelves of shops and supermarkets. It was to take me more than one season of observation, understanding the threshing, asking questions and gathering little shoots of paddy to watch in my own home before I could unravel and understand the journey from field to rice sack and the transformation that took place. I am thankful that this was before Google was there to give me a quick answer!

While this fascination took place half a world away, it is one of those everyday wonders which happens under our noses. I have the same wonder now back in Scotland, and even in my fifth blossom season since returning I am still unravelling the mystery and magic of the everyday fruit blossom which surrounds us.

And who doesn’t love blossom? It is a sheer delight to look at, transforming the streets in shades of pinks and whites around us for a fleeting season with its exuberance and joy. But it goes so much deeper. In each tiny blossom there contains magic, hope and promise all in one. Each flower holds within it the potential to form a perfect apple, cherry, pear, plum, gooseberry, blueberry … But how many of us pause and watch as those exquisite little flowers turn into a completely different being? My curiosity has been similar to that of the rice journey, but at this stage in life, how have I missed the detail of the journey of our fruits? Each year since my return to Scotland, I have delved a little deeper and each year learned a little more.

Having discovered a blueberry bush last year, and enjoyed its produce on a daily basis while it was fruiting, I have been curious to see how these perfect berries take shape. This year the blueberry was one of the first to show little shoots of life when the wind and snow was discouraging signs of spring. And it has led the way in encouraging the rest of the blossoms with its exotic pink clusters of blueberry promises.

As the blossoms unfurl, mature and then gradually fall, I have taken the time to witness the particular path each is taking as its own fruit is nurtured. And it is such an intricate and purposeful path. I find it both comforting to see the power and precision of nature alongside shame that humankind is inflicting damage and destruction in the pursuit of power and greed.

Apple blossom, pinker than previous years

I choose to focus my attention on the promise of hope in the form of these little blossoms and the magic they contain. As the days march forwards through spring, and these northern days lengthen, I am bearing witness to surprises as the blossoms transform and tell their stories.

Against a steely grey sky, the plum blossoms have fallen, making starry silhouettes which are busy shaping into tiny plums.

Plum stalks

The petals are falling from the pear tree, and revealing work already underway as the stalks form into little cotton buds in the shape of minute pears. Little future pears.

The pear blossom

The elongated blueberry blossom is losing its red colour and forming into a spherical, blushing pink mystery which will be my breakfast staple in a few weeks time.

The beginnings of a blueberry

But perhaps one of the greatest surprises has been the humble gooseberry. A traditional fruit which transports me back to my childhood with memories of gooseberry jam, crumble and fool. And one which has been overshadowed by the availability of more varieties of fruits from further afield. So I was quite astounded to follow the journey of the humble gooseberry as it formed the most sophisticated lantern of blossom with great enthusiasm. These images are taken very close up and mask the fact that these little blossoms are half the size of my pinkie nail.

Gooseberry blossom, a sophisticated secret

And it is providing the most astonishing transformation that I have witnessed so far. The intricate and little known gooseberry blossom transforms into the tiniest, hairiest, most perfect shy gooseberry taking me back to my childhood.

And from the tiny intricate blossom, the first signs of a perfectly formed, miniature gooseberry

Thank goodness I have decided to slow down and unfurl, otherwise I might never have discovered these unexpected happenings right under my nose.

No matter where we are in the world, there are mysteries and surprises all around us. It is up to us to choose what we use our eyes and minds for.

Reflections of 2021 through a three word mantra

As the sun sets on 2021, I spend time reflecting on my three word mantra. I can always recognise the year from the three words I chose for that year, a practice which I stumbled upon a few hours before the New Year of 2010 began.

That very first three word mantrarecovery, discovery and laughter takes me back firmly to that year. The three words came so easily. It was December 2009 and I was in the thick of chemo and seeking to hold on to the prospect of healing. I recognised that leaning on innate curiosity and an overactive sense of humour would be key ways of dealing with the challenges of cancer treatment and the three words kept me focused on that mindset through 2010. When I read focus, treasure and design, I am taken immediately to 2013 on a wave of grief. Those words tell me that was the year I lost my father. Knowing at the start of 2013, that we would probably say goodbye before the year was out, very much shaped the choice of the words as well as providing strength and focus. The three words reorient, nurture and crystalize whisper “2016” in my ear, reminding me of a year that heralded enormous change. The year that saw me leaving the continent I had lived for over 15 years, the work I had loved and the country which had been home for 7 years.

And the words patience, calibration and stardust would set the tone for the year now closing, and keep my strength during what was to be a wall to wall year of Covid. That is evident in my words at this time one year ago when I wrote “Selecting three words this year brings a new dimension, knowing that the months ahead will see continued challenge as the new strains of COVID-19 and winter fragility test us to the limits. It has been strange to choose my words with COVID-19 looming large, and I have been striving to see beyond the immediacy, yet I find it impossible to ignore it… I trust that my words will carry me through any eventuality, whilst acknowledging the significant one of COVID-19 underpins a great deal.”

As we enter the final days of 2021, I have been reflecting on the year and my three words for some weeks now. This reflection is a sound basis which I find essential as I take the time and energy to consider which words will carry me forwards into 2022. The words for the coming year are shaping nicely, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on the year, and the three words that have depicted my 2021.

Patience

When we stepped into 2021, I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as the door was closed on 2020. The first Covid vaccines had been administered and there was a sense of optimism that 2021 would be see us moving out of the pandemic. Things would surely be different. My first word, patience, however, was a lesson drawn from the previous months. I knew that so much was out of my hands and that I had to put faith in the system and trust that things would work out. I knew that I just needed to be patient and focus on what was in my control, continuing to be cautious. The winter was tough, the long dark days were exactly that and the weather was not as kind as it had been the previous spring with frosts and snows continuing well into April. By the time the longer, lighter days appeared and the chills disappeared I had had my first vaccine, with our iconic NHS Scotland blue envelopes dropping through letterboxes and inducing unexpected emotions.

The Blue Envelope

But alongside the medical advances, and being in a very privileged situation here (vaccine inequity is a major issue, which merits its own discussion) there have been the inevitable mutations and variants of the virus which continue to create a dance with science. A dance of advances, side steps and retreats and the music keeps on playing. With each new chapter in the pandemic story, I have found the reminder to be patient has been essential. Of course there are days when I am sad and frustrated, but I know that I need to continue to just be patient and trust that life will become less and less dominated by Covid as we continue to move forwards. 

Calibration

I continue to live a very quiet, low key life and recent health challenges reinforce my own personal choice to minimise risk and exposure. I have not taken a bus further than a few miles away and mainly because of the commuting distance I have continued to work from home. I am to be enormously thankful that technology enables me to do this, but in contradiction, I have found it incredibly difficult to maintain a wise work-life balance. An important change, as been to move to working part time in the middle of the year, in order to calibrate that delicate balance. I now have two additional non working days. This has shifted the balance of my working week and now I have more free days per week than working days. Those working days seem to have stretched a little, but I know that they are followed by a very healthy break each week.

Another aspect of calibration has been possible by playing with space rather than time. My workspace has always been temporary, in between the spare bed and a blank wall, oblivious to the changing light and colours of the outside world. So the opportunity to shift things around during a recent family visit was embraced and things I had been unable to move were rapidly relocated. My desk now faces out of the window, and rather than missing nature in front of me, I find myself often distracted by the arrival of blue tits, robins and sparrows on the plum tree outside.

New view from my desk

The sense of calibration is something I am keen to take with me into the coming year and beyond.

Stardust

I have held on to the notion of stardust as we have moved through 2021, it has reminded me of the importance of seeing the light and wonder in the ordinary. Stardust sounds magical, yet we are told that “everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today”.

I have found the reminder that we are both reduced and elevated by the notion of being made of stardust to be paradoxically comforting and exhilarating. A reminder that we are tiny and insignificant in the planet, let alone the universe. And a reminder to look beyond the darkness and find the stardust that is within us, and in the universe.

My words have again served me well, and as with previous years, I take their essence forward with me alongside the lessons they have brought. And they pave the way for three new words to take me into the coming year, as they wait patiently to be revealed in the first hours of 2022. 

Slightly Ajar

A year ago today, on 13 March, my world shifted abruptly. I arrived home from work and after emotional phone calls with close ones it was clear that I should close my door on the outside world. For many weeks I spoke with people almost exclusively on a screen with occasional conversations with real people through a closed window as they shivered outside after dropping off essentials on my doorstep. Often without being asked.

Today marks a full year now of living in this limbo of self isolation. Even when the situation was much improved in the summer, I remained very cautious and during the year have only been twice inside a café and once inside a carefully spaced restaurant. Thank goodness for those warm, light days and friendly visitors who were not offended that they were not allowed over the threshold except for a hasty visit to the bathroom accompanied by disinfectant wipes.

Then on 23 February I received my blue envelope. My Blue Letter Day. My blue envelope contained that distinctive sign of promise and hope – my first COVID-19 Vaccine appointment. It is hard to describe the emotion when that envelope appears on the doormat, to the postie’s footsteps retreating down the path. An involuntary sob, ripping open the envelope and relief that the appointment is only a week away and at a centre within walking distance. Slight concern that there is a diary clash but not impossible to work around with the cooperation of others. And then it is in the diary. A week of low level anxiety at tales of cancelled appointments due to supply delays and then finally the day of the vaccine itself. Wednesday 3 March. A very smooth and personal process and in no time I am on the other side of a very significant point in the year’s milestones. I have had my first dose of vaccine and am leaving the building breathing already slightly easier, tears rolling down my face. And the promise of the second dose within 12 weeks. I step out into the world through the exit only for those who have been vaccinated, already changed from the person who entered the building.

This is the most significant step for me and many others in moving forward. And while I am incredibly thankful, I know that I am among the very fortunate and wish nothing less for everyone else across the world.

And my gratitude and privilege brings with it internal conflict. I question that sense of entitlement that I realise I have quietly developed over the decades. There is so much I have become used to, and feel some form of entitlement to. Travel, holidays and short breaks, the ability to meet up with friends a bus or train journey away, being able simply to sit in a café, drinking tea and taking in the surroundings. This has been a year of contemplation and acceptance of very changed expectations. And a sad frustration at how COVID-19 has further deepened gaping inequities.  

We have indeed come far over the year, but we continue to live under considerable restriction. We have been under continued lockdown since the end of the year. And although the statistics of people newly diagnosed are vastly reduced from the dark winter wave of the virus, we still have far to go. It will be some time before many of the daily activities we once took for granted will again be possible. It will be some time before I can come cautiously out of self isolation and I realise that I will always be on guard and ready to close my door again.

A full year on, yet my door is still not open and I am still self isolating. However, that door is no longer bolted shut and the windows tightly closed. As we approach the vernal equinox and the day that the clocks move forward to summer time, my door is now slightly ajar. Gradually I will be to open it further and gently step back into the world and feel the breeze on my face. Not the same world, and not the same me. But through the door nonetheless.

Corona Times – learning a new language

Learn a new language while you are in lockdown, they said. Or how to play an instrument. Make the most of this gift of time. Learn some new skill. Bake sourdough or become a yogi. Read those books lying covered with dust on your shelves. Zoom your friends and family. Yes Zoom is a thing, and the world now functions on this new thing. Stay up till midnight for three nights running to try to secure a Tesco delivery slot. Weep each time you fail.

It seems I have been learning a new language. Some words I had not heard of ,or expressions made up from a string of known words forming to create a new expressions which have suddenly taken a very clear and specific meaning. Not a foreign language, the words are already familiar. The meaning, however, is not. This is the language of Corona, incomprehensible before spring 2020. Now it is the basis of most of our conversations.

covid wordcloud

I imagine parallel conversations pre and during the corona weeks. Pre Corona, I imagine to be something like this …

Pre Corona – Have you been furloughed?

Pre corona response – blank stare. Is this an agricultural expression? Do I look as if I have been furloughed? Am I covered in mud?

 

Pre Corona – Our aim is to flatten the curve.

Response – blank stare. What curve? Is there a bump in the road?

 

Pre Corona – Are you shielding?

Response – guilty expression. How do they know I am hiding an escaped bank robber under the stairs?

 

Pre Corona – You need to self isolate.

Response – confused expression. What have I done wrong? What on earth do you mean by that? Isolate myself?

 

Pre Corona – social distancing must be observed.

Response – utter bewilderment. How can distancing be social? Is it not anti-social? Have I said something offensive? What does it even mean?

 

It is fascinating that society morphs rapidly to adapt to the threat which the pandemic has thrown on to many of us. We have quickly become used to a life which finds us speaking to people on screens rather in person and where our homes become places where we cannot even invite a close friend in for tea. While it is strange, we have become oddly accustomed to very different conventions even if they don’t quite sit comfortably. The rapid shift in language is another sign of resilience and adaptation of humankind as our expressions and vocabulary are shaped for the current context. A context which is new, sudden and which turns many longstanding conventions on their heads. It is an example of how we adapt to cope with a new, urgent situation.

Only a few short weeks into Corona times, we no longer blink when informed that certain activities will be permitted as long as we maintain social distance. We don’t need to ask what that means, it is solidly in our mindset. Social distance – 2 metres, the size of a double bed, or two shopping trolleys end to end, or an adult kangaroo. We are thankful that the furlough scheme is extended and understand its importance in protecting employees and the economy while we fear the eventual cost to society. We no longer think of muddy fields.

I do wonder how our vocabulary and language will be changed by this sudden influx of new vocabulary and very specific expressions and usage. Language does evolve and develop naturally, as we see when we hear the announcement of the ‘new words’ of the year which are added to the dictionaries. I will be fascinated to see how this turn of events will be reflected in new turns of phrase in the longer term.

May flowers

In the meantime, don’t worry about learning a new skill. You have already learned a new language. Focus on staying safe and staying well. And remember to wash your hands.

Gecko by Gaslight

It might be Bus Pass Year, but I am not that old. Not really. Not in today’s terms. However, a passing reference in my last post about the lunar eclipse prompted surprise from a reader, that there was no electricity supply to the house I was brought up in. The reader herself was a school friend and therefore she was familiar with both the location and the era. And her surprise in turn opened a whole area of memories of my own, of times not so long ago in a place not far away, but incredibly distant and hazy.

This was not a century ago. This was only the 70s, the time of David Bowie, Slade and the distant strains of the pirate Radio stations – Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg – beaming out the latest chart hits on tiny, tinny transistor radios. The time of bell bottom trousers, platform shoes and flowery patches on our jeans. A wonderful time to be a teenager.

My childhood and teenage home was in idyllic setting, nestling on the shores of a Perthshire loch, two miles from the nearest village where the primary school, three hotels, a garage and the sole shop were located. The main road ran outside the front door, the village two miles to the north and the town with the secondary school seven miles to the south. In front of the house sat the loch, with a forested mountain behind the dark waters and another tree lined hill behind the house.

The bus route and main road with the twice daily buses passed right outside our door, but the electricity line did not. At the northern mouth of the loch the electricity cables veered off on the other side of the loch, only to re-join the main road at the southern end of the loch, just as the first cottages of the approaching town appeared. We were on the ‘inhabited’ side of the loch – we had two neighbours to the south as the road wound its way to the town. But the electricity supply had been laid on the uninhabited side of the loch. There was a dirt road alongside the electricity poles and the stone track which had once held the Callander and Oban Railway Line. The line had opened in 1870 and ran between Callander and Glen Ogle/Killin closing in 1965 – a couple of years before we moved into that house.

80A54E20-C5D6-4EBB-B0A2-ECECF0276577

Old postcard of Strathyre Station

The house had no access to electricity, but it was “piped” for gas and for the first few years that we lived there, the house was solely powered by gas.

There was a gaslight in every room, suspended from the ceiling. A fragile mantle set in a plaster frame would be placed into the setting housed within a bell shaped glass. This glass was like a shade, and served to shelter the delicate flame from any breeze as this would make the light flutter. Within the glass bulb, the protected lit mantle would glow brightly, lighting the whole room, until weeks of daily use would render it too fragile to continue and a new mantle would be placed in its socket.

Lighting these mantles required enormous care. We would use a long match, or more frequently a wood shaving spill. We would have to hold the flame close enough for the gas to ignite, but not so close that it poked into the mantle and damaged it, causing the bright light to dim and the wrath of my parents at wasting a precious mantle. It was equally important to ensure that the spill was not too far from the mantle, or the smell of gas would quickly fill the room. This was an exact science that I seemingly became expert in during those years.

One mystery to me was our fridge. We had a calor gas fridge. Initially that made no sense to me at all. How could gas, which created warmth, go on to produce a chill? I never did totally understand the precise science behind it but had a simplified explanation that the ignited gas caused a chemical reaction, which eventually produced a finely regulated coolness which kept the fridge interior at the right temperature. (If you are interested in some of the science it is explained on how stuff works.

After a number of years fiddling around with mantles, and candlelight if the gas supply ran out unexpectedly, and with no prospect of mains electricity in the near or distant future my father decided to install electricity into the house. The only way to do this involved procuring a generator. As an engineer, there began a long research and discussion phase which brought us to the point of deciding to move forward with this plan. Next came a similarly long, and meticulous process of wiring the house. In fact, this was made easier by using the lines of the existing gas piping to install electrical wiring.

I was intrigued by the thought of a generator and surprised to see when it arrived, that it was rather a small beast. It would be housed in an old out building beside the house and this also involved a period of setting up a suitable home for this wonder. It sat on a kind of platform in the middle of the concrete floor.

I could not imagine how this unassuming machine could possibly conjure up enough electricity to light and power the house. But eventually, everything was in place, and the first light was switched on to great excitement and celebration. And it did manage to produce an electricity supply, but it had its limitations and quirks. The generator would be silent until it was woken by switching on one of the electrical switches. When it was running it would hum away in the distance, like a car idling on the roadside. Which is not surprising really, because the generator was just that. A small engine, We became used to the noise quickly.

When the last light was switched off at night, the generator would slow down and be silent in a few minutes. Switching on a light would start up the generator, so there were certain unwritten rules. No turning on lights for night time trips to the bathroom. A flick of the light switch would start up the generator engine, sending thundering reverberations into the silence of the night. The fluorescent light in the bathroom was not “heavy” enough to fire the generator up properly though, and it would struggle to gather a steady speed, sounding like a car revving and then slowing. Only a regular light bulb would start the thrum of the engine in a nice orderly manner. Similarly, a kettle required too much energy and would upset the generator by demanding too much power as it started. We continued to use the gas fridge because an electric fridge with its thermostat and need to switch on and off to maintain the right temperature would mean the generator being woken up at all times of the day and night and that was not acceptable. To this day I have a keen, and accurate sense, of the amount of power which the various appliances use which is rather useful.

It was also important not to allow the generator to run out of fuel as that meant that the fuel tank would have to be drained and that was a Big Job which could only be carried out by my father. That meant regular trips to the outhouse to check on the level of fuel, and alerting my father to a need to refill in plenty of time. If he was out, then we would be very cautious with our electricity consumption if the level dropped to near the minimum level.

Coincidentally, in addition to the lack of electricity, there was also no television signal at the lochside so my childhood and teenage years were devoid of TV. It was many years later that I realised that I grew up without many of those cultural references, or conversation topics which TV provided.

The house is still there today, with a few more neighbours than there were all those years ago. I visited the village a few years ago and was able to stop off briefly at the house and chat with the new owners. I believe that there is now mains electricity but I didn’t think to ask.

The setting is just as idyllic as my childhood memories suggest with pine forests, the hills and the loch on the doorstep. But I do wonder if the walls remember the days of gaslight and generator with the same fondness as I do.

frangipani candle

A super blood wolf moon passes silently over still waters

At the start of the year I came across a fascinating little calendar, made up of snippets of Eastern wisdom wisdom and spirituality. One leaf of paper for each day of the year, each one with its own insight or wisdom for the day. As I peel off a new one at the start of the day, I take a few moments to reflect upon the words there. I pause and let the saying sink into my thoughts and promise myself I will remember it. Of course, I never do. The words are soon forgotten, shredded by my feeble short term memory. Until, that is, one saying comes along which resonates so powerfully that it takes a hold and whispers in my ear at moments when it brings meaning.

moon saying

It is so true that we wait for important things to happen to us – the perfect job, a relationship, even a lottery win. We focus on looking out for the thing we seek rather than making sure that we are in the right place to embrace what we are looking for. Or sometimes we are looking so hard, it passes us by without us even realising it. But we are like stars or planets, and alignment has to be right for both elements. If we want to be in the right space to engage with what we are seeking, we must be ready. We must focus on digging that pond, because otherwise the moon will pass overhead repeatedly and the pond contains no water. We will see no reflection or evidence of the moon. If we forget about the moon, and make sure the pond is ready, then the moon will come on its own. We have to be ready, and we have to be patient.

I have long been enthralled by the stars, the planets and the infinite cosmos. A young child, I remember hiding under the bedclothes one night almost fifty years ago now, with a torch, a notebook and listening intently to the radio. I noted down each magical detail and update, including those words which would forever capture the moment which made history “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Even at my young age, I knew that this was momentous.

We had no television in the remote part of Scotland where I was brought up, there was no signal or reception. More significantly, we had no electricity as the power line had been laid along the other side of the loch, where the old railway had run. We relied on our old battery powered radio, for news and information, and I grew up on a diet of the Archers, Desert Island Discs, Just a Minute with its rule of talking on a topic without hesitation, repetition or deviation”. The voices of Roy Plomley, Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo and many other household names were as familiar as family. Thus, on that memorable night, while it felt as if the rest of the world was watching the moon landing live on TV as it was beamed around the world, I could only imagine what it looked like as I strained to listen through the crackling and hissing to each incredible development. A little research this evening thanks to Professor Google advises me that, surprisingly, these events took place late in the evening US time, and in the middle of the night in the UK. I remember the thrill of knowing that this was a truly historical moment, and this added to the knowledge that I would be in huge trouble if my parents had any idea that I was wide awake under the bedcovers in my bedroom. Somehow, my misdemeanour was either not properly noticed or there was a recognition that my witnessing the first steps on the moon was not in fact a serious transgression. I kept that notebook with all of my scribbles, largely illegible, for many years.

Just a couple of years earlier I had visited the Planetarium in London. This was an important moment in my childhood as it brought the night skies to life in a way that sparked a fierce interest in the planets. I stared at the dome of the Planetarium during the whole performance as wonder after wonder was revealed. I was intrigued by the spectacle, unclear as to whether this was the actual sky or some impossibly sophisticated sleight of theatre which brought the skies to life. It was largely immaterial as it turned out. The main result was that I came out of the Planetarium impatient to explore the night sky for myself, an interest which I was to maitain. One major advantage of living in a remote rural location during my childhood, was the lack of light pollution right outside our door. On a clear night I would gaze upwards identifying Orion’s Belt, the North Star and waiting patiently for shooting stars. I always yearned to have a proper telescope so that I could see the stars and planets more clearly, but that dream has not yet come true.

It was many years later, almost three decades to the day after the lunar landing, that I was travelling by train from Moscow to Beijing to mark my own journey of forty years around the earth. We stopped in Mongolia for a few days and spent time out of the city in a national park, sleeping in a traditional ger. One night I had to get up to for a bathroom visit. The wash facilities were a short walk from the steps of the ger, in the dark, out in the massive expanse of the steppe. I opened the door and stepped nervously outside, ready to navigate my way slowly with a small pen torch. To my astonishment, I could see clearly across the landscape, the sweeping hills silhouetted against a sky opaque not with clouds, but with stars. The torch shone needlessly towards my feet. The arid climate of Mongolia and its label of land of eternal blue sky means that the night sky there is very special. The sky was overflowing with stars, the Milky Way distinct as it trailed lazily across the sky. Those stars were fascinating in their variety, some were little silver pinpoints, others were chubbier and of a more yellowish colour. Some clustered in families and others seemed to be jostling to join in an infinite number of groups and gatherings. That image stays with me to this day, and although I have since occasionally witnessed night skies of almost equal spectacle, that night was spellbinding.

Despite this fascination in the skies it was only four years ago that I saw my first eclipse. I had tried on various occasions to witness one, but been sabotaged scuppered by either cloud cover or timezones. Even a promising total solar eclipse scheduled for my birthday the year I lived in Sri Lanka failed to produce any sight of the magic, as unseasonal thick cloud hid the sun hiding behind our shadow. I hadn’t realised that an eclipse was happening as I was on my home from work in Yangon, in 2015 when I was spooked by what looked like a new moon only a day after an almost full moon. That was my first proper eclipse and I watched it until the light brought the moon back to its proper waxing status.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a great deal more anticipation about the bizarrely named “super blood wolf moon” which would be totally eclipsed, AND visible in Scotland. My expectations were not high. The totality would last for some time, but with Scottish weather and no idea where in the sky the moon might be and whether I would have the wherewithal to remember to open my shutters and eyes in the middle of the night, I did not expect to see much more than everyone else’s photos in the morning. I was however, impressed by the number of friends announcing on social media that they were wishing for clear skies and setting their alarm clocks for the wee small hours. I decided to just wait and see. I would undoubtedly be up a couple of times for my regular night time backroom visits, so would just see what time those happened and whether the sky might be clear or not.

As it turned out, my first awakening was just before 3 am and my reliable friend “timeanddate.com” informed me that this just happened to be at the start of the penumbral eclipse. This is when Earth’s penumbra starts touching the Moon’s face. penumbra. All that was visible was a glowing full moon, in a clear sky. I sensed a promise of a sighting of this rare lunar eclipse.

lunar eclipse 1

It was over an hour later when I woke again, and roused myself enough to head again to the window. The promise held good, and I was treated to a clear view of our terrestrial shadow creeping across the surface of the moon.

lunar eclipse 2

lunar eclipse 3

I gradually removed myself from the window, shivering in the cold and snuggled again to doze a little while. This eclipse was making the most of the clear sky and its performance would last. Even totality would last for an hour. I must have had some kind of lunar sleeping sense programmed as the next time I roused from my light sleep it was ten minutes into totality. The shutters were open, the bright glow of the full moon had dimmed and there was that supernatural deep red light. The super blood wolf moon was hanging in the distance, a rich, warm red colour. In the January cold it resisted the advances of my camera even through the open window and this was the typical of the images I captured.

lunar eclipse 4

However, my memory has much clearer images, consistent with the numerous far better photographs online such as this one  on Wiki Blogs

Blood-Moon-wikiblog

Photo credit – WikiBlog

As the clock moved slowly towards 6 am, the red colour had darkened and a tiny sliver of light appeared at the very edge of the moon as totality slipped away. My camera was more comfortable with this and the following images captured the transition from full eclipse to the full moon.

lunar eclipse 5

lunar eclipse 6

lunar eclipse 7

I returned to my bed as the light spilled in through the open shutters, my heart warmed with gratitude that the skies were so clear, and that my sleep patterns had allowed such a perfect viewing of the path of the eclipse. I was less thankful when the alarm’s shrill call woke me soon after as the working day was not prepared to wait until I was better rested.

I have now seen two lunar eclipses, and each time been enthralled. Apart from being completely in awe of the amazing calculations that are done to work out when these celestial events happen – and get it right, I feel such a sense of my own, and indeed mankind’s insignificance.

And moreover, I am keenly aware that throughout this fascination in astronomy from an early age, I have waited until these relatively advanced years to be able to watch this marvel. It seems that many years have been spent digging that pond, and now I am able to enjoy the moments when the moon indeed comes along by itself and shines brightly on those still waters.

A grandmother, a rusty old key, a missing suitcase and the winding lanes and souqs of Marrakech

I am not quite sure what brought me to Marrakech. But somehow, there I was, two nights before Christmas, in a peaceful haven in the the midst of the old medina, sipping mint tea and lamenting the loss of my belongings.

8f3cac44-2076-4d62-92f2-cddad5599372

Escaping the dark and cold of the Scottish winter had been undeniably attractive. Over the previous weeks, I had been harbouring a nasty seasonal lurgey which was refusing to shift, and the thought of a day which provided a full three hours more of daylight than the short days and long nights of Scotland’s winter was irresistible. Add to that mix, a friend who owns a magical riad in the city and a short haul journey it seems that a decision was made without my even knowing it. Christmas in Marrakech. A healing, creative time of retreat and restoration. Indeed, impossible to resist.

2afd4936-5bdf-4f23-810c-8d9644491640

It was only that morning that I had closed the door behind me in Scotland a good three hours before sunrise to head to the airport. The snow capped high Atlas mountains were already turning a deep shade of pink from the sun low in the sky, when I landed much later that day in Morocco. I was eager for this break, and keen to become acquainted with Marrakech and settle in the Riad which would be my home for the coming days.

Immigration was smooth, and I waited patiently for my familiar suitcase at the carousel so that I could step into the Morrocan air and meet a new country. I became less patient as grandmother’s suitcase failed to appear. The minutes ticked past until eventually the carousel emptied. I was alone at the belt, and clearly would remain so as grandmother’s suitcase was nowhere to be seen. As I reported my missing belongings, I found it rather concerning that the baggage handlers were not able to clarify what had happened to the case and there was no indication in the system of where on earth, quite literally, it might be.

Reluctantly, with the “lost baggage” paperwork completed, I moved through into the arrivals halls and out to the night air and the transport to the riad. The Marrakech air was cool, but not cold and I looked out of the window as we drove through the streets, with curiosity for what the daylight sights would be like, while trying to stifle an underlying irritation and concern. My suitcase contained important and less important belongings – in addition to the usual clothes and toiletries I had Christmas gifts, some mince pies and items for my friend, cough and cold remedies for the lingering lurgey and a precious notebook amongst other random bits and pieces.

After a drive of around half an hour, latterly alongside the old wall of the medina, we turned into the medina itself and its narrow streets. It was only a few moments before the car stopped, and the driver opened my door. I stepped into the immediate bustle of the lanes of the old town, and my little backpack and heavy winter jacket were bundled into a handcart and the driver waved me off as the handcart and its owner trundled off into the lanes. I had to weave around people, past stalls and avoid donkeys as I tried to make sure that I kept sight of my handcart and remaining worldly goods as they continued through the lane towards a mystery destination. We soon turned into a quieter, small lane and round another couple of corners before stopping at a door, the handcart porter rattling on the door knocker. A few moments later, the door opened, my belongings handed to me and I was ushered into another world. I was immediately in the courtyard of an exquisite riad, which was welcoming me with twinkling lights, candles, large wooden doors, rose petals, the aroma of mint tea and exotic promise. I had arrived.

971bab7e-28ca-44d3-ad24-08a56755668d.jpeg

My plan had been to spend a few days replenishing my health and then take a few ventures out of town – to the coast, the mountains to see more of the country as well as soak in the creative atmosphere of the riad and spend time writing and reflecting. But I found that when I arrived, I did not want to venture far. This was partly because I was more exhausted and weakened than I had realised and partly because the food was so fresh and delicious that it was easier to stay close to the riad. And on a practical level, it was also because I had to spend quite a bit of time trekking out to the airport to try and locate the suitcase, heading to the new town to buy some essentials as I had only the clothes I was standing in when I arrived and filling in forms and sending never ending messages about the lost case.

Once it became apparent that the case had no intention of coming to Marrakech and was intent on enjoying itself on its own private holiday, I found myself settling into a gentle routine. Sunrise was fairly late, which meant that breakfast also started gently. Outside my room, in the courtyard the birds would let me know when sunrise was on its way, and when I opened my tall wooden door a little tray of tea would be waiting for me.

2f272e63-3d89-4db6-8c54-af374c22e7b7

 

b9e56b98-b4f9-4438-b806-b1551a416e50

Soon afterwards, I would venture to the rooftop, where the sun would now be warming the terrace and encouraging the bougainvillea to bloom and where my breakfast was being prepared. This was a leisurely process, for me at least as I would feast on finely chopped seasonal fruits – strawberries, apricots, raspberries, figs, oranges and walnuts nestling on fresh yogurt. This would be followed by a Moroccan treat of a lightly spiced tomato, pepper and egg tajine (shakh-shukh), chopped avocado, omelette, or other delight. This whole process should not be rushed and could last until lunchtime as I read, reflected, chatted with and watched the bird families and slipped between shaded and sunny spots sporting a practical straw hat to protect my head and face from the sun.

At some point in the afternoon, I would prepare myself to head out to the souqs and the outside. This world outside of the riad was in complete contrast to the tranquillity of the riad. I soon learned my way through the little lanes to the main souqs, only a few minutes away.

But once I reached the maze of the covered souqs, the landscape would shift and change. Left would become right, straight would become windy and twisted and I would find myself in a completely different place to where I thought I was or planned to be. Lane after lane of little shops selling pointed baboush slippers, lanterns and candle holders, exotic fabrics, nomadic and traditional jewellery, metal signs with your profession painted onto them, carpets and more carpets, spices, tortoises, Manchester United football tops, leather goods and all manner of imaginable wares each in its own little Ali Baba’s cave with a smiling, welcoming merchant.

8329665b-50de-4af2-b0c3-2762fb93ceea

When I would eventually emerge onto a wider lane, it was never where I intended to appear or thought I was, and the mystery of where I wanted to head to would appear, requiring to be solved.

970312D7-9E55-464C-80B0-D0088546AE80

It was in one of these magical little lanes on Christmas Day that I happened upon a tiny shop with a jumble of objects under a glass topped shelf. I spotted a rusty old key and asked the shopkeeper if I could look at it. As he reached into the case, through a little curtain, he drew out a few old keys and invited me to rummage and look for more. There were all manner of random objects, including keys and I scrambled around to see what I could find. I ended up with a selection of very rusty old keys, and began haggling with the owner without looking too keen to own what was essentially a worthless piece of metal. We finally agreed on a price for one of the old keys, and I had my Christmas present to myself. This key was symbolic, and had been an image which I was drawn to a couple of months earlier while on the mindfulness and writing retreat. That key embodies a great deal – hope and promise of a future, unlocking thoughts of optimism and hope, releasing those negative thoughts and feelings which I have found difficult to shed and locking them in the past in order to move forward. The shopkeeper hid any puzzlement he might have had about my interest in such a strange object, but given he had them in his tiny shop there must have been some idea that one day an eccentric grandmother would come along and be taken with his keys.

As the days passed, the daily routine established itself comfortably and I felt my strength return. The lurgey was finally easing, without doubt thanks to the rest, warmth, healing environment and wholesome fresh food.

c36b0140-8c63-4eba-a010-577bafaaeb2a

23a16337-1df9-4d3e-8043-0f2f3710cd3d

As we crossed from the old year into the new, I realised that I would soon need to gather my strange assortment of new belongings, buy a little bag for them, and prepare to return to Scotland. The break had been incredibly gentle, and provided a chance to truly disengage with the stresses and intensity of the previous months, although it would have been nice not to have been caught up in the worry about grandmother’s suitcase and its wellbeing.

8df4b718-d74b-493a-9813-641b97297de1

My return to Scotland saw me in a far healthier state, both physically and emotionally and when I close my eyes I can imagine myself back in the riad, sipping tea and reading, or wandering through the souqs in the lengthening shadows of the later afternoon.

50127084-9533-46D5-85B6-D8F43503B2A1

And I remember how, no matter how many times I became lost, and wandered through these lanes seeking to find my way again, I would pass many familiar shops. The merchants would call out to me, remembering my meanderings of another afternoon and try to tempt me to buy their lamps, their spices or pottery. However, I never did happen upon the little shop with the keys again. I still have the key though, so I know it did exist. At least it did on the very day that I was seeking a sign of hope and optimism.

How does one dress for a Dragonfruit Reunion?

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating. And that’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew here. We all know that dragonfruit hold a special place in my creative heart, but there was a striking coincidence in the sight of the fruit in front of me. And therein lies the whole reason behind my choice to come here for this retreat. A dragonfruit reunion and retreat.

Something unexpected, and very special came from the publication of the Dragonfruit Anthology in 2014. Not only was this the first time I had my writing published in a proper book, but furthermore the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, and the connection with the Editor and other contributing writers provided a real sense of team and shared achievement.

dragonfruit-front-cover.jpg

dragonfruit arrival 2

We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our Editor towards the result of producing a collection of our stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in a country where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. Our nationalities, situations and stories varied enormously, but we were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates. It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead up to the publication.

Just after we received our writer’s copies of the anthology, I received an email from one of the other writers. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. And indeed, I had read her tale of hurtling through the streets of Hanoi in the throes of labor on the back of a motorbike towards the hospital, and the (safe) arrival of her daughter. She had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon! “Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day” she emailed. And indeed we did. Yet, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would probably not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club. A wonderful connection, thanks to our Dragonfruit Anthology.

Fast forward by two years, to May this year. As it turned out we were both preparing to leave Myanmar as changes approached. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America. For Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure as she told me about it.

“You should come to the lodge,” she said to me. “It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come”.

What a fascinating thought, but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is not close. It is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning, that  this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than 5 continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than 2 continents in any year in the past). How many grandmothers are able to do that? What a temptation…

image

So here I am, in a beautiful lodge, nestling in the hills of Ecuador, sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

image

I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing 2016 to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

If it had not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I simply would not be here now in this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but  I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are  to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, dragonfruit!

image

El Niño and the Gecko

Yes, it has been quiet.But the gecko is still here and life trundling along.

We are hearing a lot about El Nino this year. And we are most certainly feeling its effects. The heat. Oppressive and relentless. In contradiction, a massive hailstorm further north with hailstones the size of golf balls. Tropical hailstones? The talk of the town, as you can imagine. Drought and drinking water shortages. Frequent power outages. When the power is on, it is weak and unstable as it struggles to deal with the needs of the city. The fridge stops working and the food grows a small garden overnight. The fan turns slowly, when it turns. And the internet? At home it just does not have the energy to maintain  a link to the masterweb in the cybersphere.

image

So I have been quiet on here. But there are tales to tell, and updates to bring. I have recently returned from that wonderful place in the Laos hills, where I escaped from the Water Festivals and rested, swam, wrote, watched the butterflies and listened to the crickets and beetles singing and calling in the trees.

Today I have escaped to another favourite space, where there is internet which seems to be a little stronger than mine. A special place for more than that reason. When I called here the other day to meet my visiting friend, she was enormously excited to show me what was waiting on the tree for my arrival.

image

One very lively and feisty blue gecko. A wonderful reminder and prompt to seek out moments to share those tales and updates.

Morning Walks

This is a beautiful time of year – the start of the dry season, relatively cooler and drier air and disappearance of the thick clouds. Mostly. This year the rains have been teasing us with frequent reappearances, and some very heavy rainstorms. Every time we think we have seen the last of the rains, we are surprised by another downpour. Now we have had a few days with blue skies and slightly cooling mornings and evenings for a little longer. We quietly whisper to ourselves that the rains have now finally departed. The mornings are cool and dry. Perfect for early morning walking.

I have frequently said that I am not a natural “morning person” in that I always want to turn over and have a while longer in the comfort of my bed. But I know that once, I am up and especially once I am out of the door, then I have a sense of something akin to pride and appreciation that I have made the effort.

This is also a special time of year in that it is in between the full moon festivals of Thadingyut and Tazaungmon in Myanmar, which I wrote about last year here:

Throughout the wettest days of the monsoon, between the July and the October full moons of Waso and Thadingyut , there is a period which is often called  “Buddhist Lent” in Myanmar. During this period, it is usual not to begin new ventures – not to start a new job or move house and not to get married. At the Thadingyut Full Moon (usually in October) there is a great sense of festivity and the city is bathed in lights and candles. The temples are packed and shops full of gift packs of monk robes and appropriate gifts.  The night sky is punctuated with lanterns floating upwards.

During the daytime, the streets are nowadays a-buzz with post election smiles and purple-inked fingers, with the trucks with money frames and thumping music, daily bustle and most folks holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun.

Yangon days

However, the early mornings are completely different in nature. The streets and lanes are misty, there are few cars but more than a few people with early morning purposes. Before the sun rises too high in the sky, the air is cool and the light is mellow. It is a very special time. I have been able to re-establish an early morning routine which replaces swimming for now, with a morning walk.

imageDuring my walk the other morning, I passed a group of young nuns, collecting alms as usual on certain days of the lunar month. In their pink robes, lit gently by the soft sunlight and with shy smiles we each walked on towards the coming day.

imageI hardly noticed the man on the bike, until I was alongside him. I did smile to myself when I spotted his wallet sticking out of the back of his lyongyi, reminding me of how many things have not changed here. It is not so easy to hold on to your wallet if it is on display in most other places.

So what did surprise me, was  seeing the reason that he had paused on his bike. He had a smartphone pressed to his ear and was in deep conversation. And that is something which is very different. When I arrived in Myanmar in 2009, mobile phones were few and far between, incredibly expensive ($1500 when I arrived) and not easy to obtain. I had no mobile phone for my first 3 years in country. We used to write phone numbers in little notebooks and use landlines. Now almost everyone (in urban areas at least) has a smartphone.

imageSo this image captures much of what I love here. My morning walk would have been very similar 6 years ago. However, while we are indeed surrounded by change, there is much which beautifully preserved.

Sometimes the richest of experiences are simple,  free and quite literally on our doorstep.