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. 

From My Doorstep

The other evening I was readying to go to bed, when my eye caught sight of a deep orange colour low in the sky. Not long after the sun had set, the waxing moon was following in its own path towards moonset. The warm colours of the sun reflected ever more intensely as the moon sank in the sky. I was mesmerised and stood on my doorstep in the warm summer air. Of course my camera was not far away.

I am not sure how long I lingered there, taking time to breathe in the temperate air and watch the moon sink, trying to capture the magical colours. I have a bridge camera which provides a phenomenal zoom but without the confusion that my old SLR camera had and there are now many images on my own personal memory card as well as that of the camera.

In Scotland, summer days stretch and lengthen through to the summer solstice. When the days are at their longest, the light never truly fades and the sky is a translucent deep blue in the deep of the night. By 3 o’clock in the morning the sky is already preparing for the day and light long before the sun appears on the horizon. In the evening it sets around 10 o’clock but again the light lingers for a good while.

Already the days are shortening, and in a little over a month since the summer solstice, there is a full hour less of daylight. At this time of the year, the sun seems to speed up on its southerly journey and we reflect “ah, the nights are drawing in” as we acknowledge the distant but inevitable shorter days as the year moves towards the winter solstice.

Those days continue to pass, and although there is a lightness as the outside world changes, Covid is still very much in the air. And my calendar tells me that 500 days have now passed since that day in March 2020 when my own life changed. 500 days and when I wake tomorrow, 500 nights since I closed the door in the March chill of 2020. ~And while much has changed, much is still very much the same.

I am enormously thankful to have had both doses of the vaccine. I am basking in the long light and at the moment, warm, days of summer and I am luxuriating in fresh blueberries from the garden on my yoghurt in the morning. But I have still not been on a train or bus for any distance, and apart from an unexpected and stressful set of checks in the breast clinic in Edinburgh in January, I have not visited the city in those 500 days.

And nor do I foresee any great changes in my immediate plans. I am comfortable and settled in my space, but most of all, feel safe here. I would love to have people round and not be weather dependent, and I would love to plan a break. But the time is not right yet. I know that I am well protected, but I also know that I am not completely protected from Covid. And I do not want to be one of the statistics still featured on a daily basis if I can possibly avoid it. As I have done so for the past 500 days. But the more pressing reason for me is that I am acutely aware that every new infection is an opportunity for mutation of the virus as it strives to find ways to ensure its own survival. I do not want to give it any more chances, so I will continue to be very measured in how I live my life for the time being.

I find myself still in a strange place. Life goes on, the days pass, there are new developments in the behaviour and effects of the virus, scientific progress and society’s response. Yet, we are still adapting and reacting. Planning is fraught with risks and has to be packed with all manner of contingency.

Each of us is finding our feet in this shaky new ground, and this differs on our own situations, our thresholds of comfort and our own risk assessments. I know where my own boundaries lie and I know that they are cautious for the reasons I stated. Avoiding exposure to risk as far as possible for my own health as well as giving the virus as little opportunity as possible to mutate. I don’t impose my views and actions on others, and have truly valued the fact that my cautious take is respected where those differ.

As I stood on my doorstep the other night watching the moon set, I was reminded of my three words for 2021patience, calibration and stardust. How apt they have proven so far. In those moments, my mind was stilled by the sight of the moon. More agitated thoughts of the day faded into the background. I might not have ventured far from my doorstep in 500 days, but I am reminded that there is often a great deal to be experienced in and from that very place.

Stepping gently into 2021 with three little words

As the sun rose on this first day of 2021, I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as 2020 moved into our past.  For sure this has been a year that none of us will forget and one that we will remember with a mix of emotions. A year which shocked us to the core, exposing the world’s vulnerabilities and inequalities while bringing countless examples of dedication, selflessness and incredible courage amidst the destruction of COVID-19

When I selected my three words a year ago, I had no inkling of what 2020 would bring and the very different lives we would be leading throughout the year. On Hogmanay last year, I landed in Edinburgh after a a few days visiting Prague, a dream which I had held for decades. I would bring in the New Year in my new home in Scotland. Little did I know that I would spend every single night in my new home since then, a whole uninterrupted year under the same roof.

In October I reflected on the words I selected a year ago, oblivious to what lay ahead. I was particularly taken to read my thoughts as the year started:

“We all have light in us that shines, and we all have the potential to make things glisten. This encourages me to be creative, solution focused and optimistic, and to keep my eyes open for those tiny, extraordinary moments we can miss when our minds and thoughts are dark”.

How important that was to be as we entered isolation and lockdown in March, and I focused in especially on new priorities, and taking delight in the new discoveries which the passing seasons gifted in my garden. The fact that the words proved to be so eerily apt, was an affirmation of this practice of choosing a three word mantra.

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. The bigger picture sees COVID-19 very much embedded in 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 always, there has been a great deal of thought and deliberation over several weeks, with numerous variations being tried and tasted as this mantra has taken its final shape. And now, my three words are ready to share. The three words to guide and protect me through 2021 are:

Patience, calibration and stardust

Patience

My first word  is patience. This reminds me that a great deal is out of our hands, yet we have to take charge of how we handle what happens to us. Similar to that cancer diagnosis of 2009, when I quickly realised that while I could not control the diagnosis and its implications, there were many options open to me in how I responded. We need continued patience in these covid times as solutions and improvement take time to reach the wider community. We have been living in isolation and fear for months already, and we need to be patient as medical science brings solutions to the most vulnerable first and gradually reaches more widely.

While this is not purely about covid and is much more widely applicable, it is hard to see beyond this. Patience brings with it the suggestion of kindness and respect. We have been living in a protracted crisis and this has brought out the best and worst in us. This is challenging us in ways we could not have imagined and many of us are struggling. The magnitude of this pandemic means that it is hard to lean on others as we know they are also being tested to the limits of their resilience. So we need to be patient with each other, kind to each other and respectful. And in particular we need to be patient and kind to ourselves.

I am again reminded that as I face new and different challenges, I need to let go of that urge to have all the answers to hand. These months have tested my health and I need to be patient as answers and, hopefully, solutions are identified. I need to be guided by the natural world on my doorstep and learn how to be patient.

Calibration

My second word is calibration and is also brought to the surface by the covid context. Like many others I am highly appreciative that I have my own safe space, and I have been able to continue working. However, this new predominantly online world has brought a contradiction. Thanks to Zoom and other platforms, we have been able to carry on with most of our tasks and activities both professionally and personally. My book group and writing group soon moved online, and were critical to my mental well-being particularly during the early months of isolation. And indeed, there were added bonuses that were only possible online. Our book group were able to invite the writers and translators of some of the books we were reading – so much easier to ask an author to pop into a Zoom call for half an hour from several hundred miles away.

Gradually though, I have found that many hours online, initially in an unsuitable space (the kitchen) brought aches, pains and a weariness that saw a shift in balance. I am not alone in finding it hard to join an online group in the evening after a day of Zooming. I found myself increasingly Zoom-scunnered (not a word I want to take into 2021) and creative activities, especially writing, have suffered.

Calibration will remind me to keep a close eye on maintaining a healthy balance and fine-tuning regularly to ensure that the wires do not snap if they become too taut. I am eager to retain this renewed sense of what matters most and embrace those everyday, simple treasures. This year has shown us how fragile we are, as well as how strong we are.

Stardust

I have long found the expression “we are all made of stardust” to be intriguing and I have never really sought to properly understand it. I just hold on to that wonderful idea that we are all somehow magical and other-worldly. For some reason, I have kept returning to this word as I have been shaping my three word mantra. And that has entailed trying to find out what it actually means. Happily, Professor Google has enlightened me and explains the detail in this article, and notes in particular that:

“most of the material that we’re made of comes out of dying stars, or stars that died in explosions. And those stellar explosions continue. We have stuff in us as old as the universe, and then some stuff that landed here maybe only a hundred years ago. And all of that mixes in our bodies.”

Being made of stardust both reduces and elevates us. It reminds us that we are very much part of the natural order. This is an important equaliser as we are all composed of the same matter. Yet it also makes us feel special, each of us is a star in our own right.

We know that the stars become visible once the sky darkens and gazing into the night sky is hypnotizing. Covid may have brought a great deal of darkness, yet we do not have to look far to see a universe full of stars. As we move forward into 2021, stardust reminds me to see beyond the darkness and to delve deep to find that stardust that we are made from. It is in each of us. As we look up at the night sky, we are reminded that we are tiny and insignificant in the universe and that nature is incredibly powerful. My mantra will remind me that each of us is unique and extraordinary, yet ordinary. Consistently contradictory. And we dwell in a shared universe.

The promise of spring, a sign of hope in the snow

Now my three words are in place, and I am ready to move forward into 2021, with patience, calibration and stardust in and at my heart. May the year be kinder to us all.