A personal review of 2016 through the lens of the 3 word mantra

As I sit in these emerald hills, on retreat, I have much to occupy my mind and my body in the coming days. This is a time of replenishment, to build energy and health after a year of immense change. This is a time for reflection over the past months, and a time to focus on the coming year. It is a time to open my eyes to see what is new and extraordinary around me, and a time to close my eyes in rest and meditative thought. It is a time to pick up the pen and notebook and shake off months of silence. A time to pause and lift up my camera when I see a new type of bird or flower. These are days to walk in the hills, listen to the roar of the waterfall and marvel at the lava rocks. To sit in a hammock and doze. There is much to do on retreat.

This is a fitting time to look back over the year and where it has taken me, through the lens of my 2016 three word mantra “reorient, nurture and crystalize”. I have, in past years, reflected back on the mantra from which I am moving on, and shared the new set of three words at the same time. This year, I find that I am separating these and as the days of 2016 draw to a close I share a review of the words while still refining the words I will choose for 2017. They will be revealed when they are ready, as early into the new year as possible.

Reorient

At the end of 2015, I had already experienced a great shift but I knew that there would have to be even more significant change ahead. I knew that this was likely to involve a new job and possibly a relocation. Furthermore, I knew that I had to recalibrate my inner compass. This was apparent in the choice of my first word “reorient”. I had no idea of the massive changes ahead, ones which have been needed and exciting, but demanding physically, mentally and emotionally. I had no idea that as the mid point of the year approached, I would be leaving Myanmar, my home, my colleagues and friends and my familiar surroundings. It did not for a moment occur to me that I would also leave the continent which had been my home for the past 16 years. Leave Asia? Impossible! But that is what happened. In the early hours of a June morning, just before daylight, I was on my way to Yangon airport with too much luggage and a little dog, with a ticket to Africa in my hand, a yellow fever certificate, a thick folder full of canine export/import documentation and a contract for a new and inspiring position a day’s travel away. The transition has been rapid, with little time for adjustment or recuperation before launching into the new life where I have had so much to learn.

Reorientation has been such an apt word. I have truly been going through a process of reorientation mentally, physically and professionally. I had not realised how “Asia-centric” I had become. My compass has been firmly set in Asia. I know how far it is to Europe, to Australia and other parts of Asia. I know how much the time differences are, and I know how long it takes to get to these places. Living in Africa has shaken my compass. I cannot get my mind to understand that I am only one or two hours ahead of UK time now, depending on the time of year, yet the journey is so long. How can it be that the flight to Amsterdam takes seven or eight hours, yet I do not need to change my watch? This is reorientation I could not have imagined. It has been challenging, but revitalising to realise that such a shift is underway.

Nurture

My second word has been “nurture”. This has been important, because with such great change comes mental and physical exhaustion in a new and unfamiliar place. It is important to nurture the soul and find like minds, to nurture my professional and personal growth, and to nurture my health. I feel as if I have been transplanted, and need to be nurtured and looked after in order to thrive. This has been more difficult, and I have work still to do here. The journeys of the year have been demanding, and in a post cancer and “not getting any younger” life, there have been health blips. I also need to nurture my creative side, which has been neglected. In that, there could be a suggestion for the coming three word mantra.

Crystalize

The final word of 2016 has been “crystalize”, a beautiful word which mirrors “reorient”. After change and tumult, there needs to be a settling into the new. All aspects of my new life must take shape and crystalize into a firm shape so that I can truly settle. This has also complemented “thrive” in that it is important to be deliberate and intentional as I settle. I brought few, but a few possessions from my Asian, and especially Burmese life into Africa. Now I have a little creative writing corner in my African home which is distinctly Burmese in character.

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I am working on finding creative spaces, similar to the writing group, the book club, and photography group which were important aspects to my life in Myanmar. This process of crystallization will take time, but is underway.

This year has been one of journey. I have travelled a greater distance than ever before, in every sense. I have tales to tell of these journeys and stepping foot on new continents. But for now, through the lens of my three words, this is my personal review of 2016.

This has been a tumultuous year globally, and I cannot begin to relate this to the changes in my own world. While the year has been kinder to me than most of recent years, this has not been the case for many close to me, and certainly not a global trend. I am thankful for 2016, yet appreciate and understand that this is not the case more broadly. I wish for kindness and humility across the world in the coming year.

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As the sun sets on the outgoing year, let us all pledge to do what each of us can to make 2017 a good year.

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.

Seasonal reflections of Glasgow and Glaswegians

We are reminded that lie is fragile, precarious and precious especially in the past few days. I have lived in many places in my life, and the most years I have spent in one spot happens to be Glasgow.

Glasgow is city of extraordinary people.  A city of humour which makes my sides ache, quips and comments in the everyday chatter which are insightful and so often wickedly funny.  A city of rich diversity and resilience.  A city of culture and kultyer. A city of unique fabrications and real wits such as Rab C Nesbitt, Rikki Fulton and his Reverend I M Jolly, and Billy Connolly.

I heart Glasgow.

It is a cruel and random tragedy which strikes the city and its people days before Christmas, in the heart of the festivities. A city which is one of the most “alive” I have ever lived in.

Now the Christmas lights have been switched off and the flags flying at half mast.  Candles have replaced the lights and flowers cover the area which had been designated “Glasgow loves Christmas” with events, shopping and festive Fun in the heart of the city.  Now the people of Glasgow are holding each other close and digging deep into their resilience.

glasgowNo matter where we are in the world, whether or not we celebrate Christmas, we must remember to hold our loved ones close.

December already?

At this time of year, I am always caught by surprise by the sight of snowflakes falling across my home page.  I found this seasonal (well, northern hemisphere seasonal) function years ago, and switched on the “let it snow” feature.  Every December since then there have been snowflakes falling on tropical vegetation and other background images.

Once the snowflakes start falling across the screen, I am usually working my way through another annual process.  The three words.  Any “down” time, such as sitting in a taxi, waking in the middle of the night or other time where there is a space for reflection I am thinking of the past year and the coming year.  Have the words worked well this year?  How do I want to approach the coming year.  Which words will capture my aspirations and guide me as we move into the new year?

This 2014 has brought its challenges and intensity, some of which had been hinted at, some unexpected and some less welcome. As the year closes, I will have brought my reflections together and turned my focus to the coming year.  Already, the mantra is taking shape and words are dancing around.  I know, though, that the decision comes later, that the words form their own shape and settle together as the time to set the mantra approaches.

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Nearly twelve months ago I shared my 2014 words, and now already I am preparing for their successors.  And I find that this process is as relevant and meaningful for me as it was when I first chanced upon it in 2009. And for as long as it works, so shall I keep living with and through my three words.

Shadow, reflection and showers

I feel as if the dry season has stretched a little this year.  Weeks and months creep past, with hardly a drop of rain.  Showers which we can mark in the calendar.  Yes, that was the week it rained, we remember. A January rainstorm and an April downpour.  Aberrations, punctuating the increasingly stifling heat building around us. We start to dream of rain, to imagine we hear drops falling.  The wind rises, whispering promises of rain soon, soon.  My heart soared two weeks ago, on a stuffy Saturday afternoon when I heard that unmistakable sound of large, bulging raindrops falling outside. Raindrops I could count, and see their mark on the ground briefly before they were swallowed by the parched ground.  There is only one thing to be done on hearing this sound, and catching the scent of fresh rain in the air.  Before I know what has happened, I am in the garden, face upturned and arms outstretched, welcoming those first delicious rains onto my face, smiling and laughing like a child.  The shower might be brief but so refreshes the mind and body and sharpens the anticipation of the rains.

The rain came again on Tuesday, hidden while I was inside the airport building and unseen until boarding.  Such a sense of disappointment and being cheated, at not being able to watch or feel the rain as it swept in.  The rain on a runway is not the rain I had been dreaming of, nor the rain streaked horizontally across the cabin windows in the aircraft. Nor the dramatic rain storms underneath while we were kept on hold above our destination. It might have been “not quite the right kind of rain” but it was a renewed promise of monsoon.

It has rained every afternoon since then.  Bulky clouds with attitude gathering in the sky, thunder rumbling and cracking, spirited breezes materialising from nowhere and rains teeming down. Alongside a renewed energy and exuberance within each of us. The frogs are wakening and critters being washed from their hiding places. The landscape will quickly change.

And so too does my image for now.  Over this dry season, I have become increasingly fascinated with the play of light, of shadows and of reflection as I struggle to get to know my camera, and try to capture glimpses of magic I see around me.

I am also a little naughty with the concept of “selfie” photography and have my own version which protects my privacy yet places me in my environment.  The “Shadow Selfie” is what I call it.  Now that the rains are moving in I am sure there will be less shadow and I have therefore chosen an image which comes from this very special time when the season starts to turn, and the trees come to life with their array of colour.  I particularly love the jacaranda and could not resist a “shadow selfie” under a blossoming jacaranda tree as I paused on my cycle home from my early morning swim.

Shadow selfie and fallen Jacaranda blossom
Shadow selfie and fallen Jacaranda blossom

The jacaranda is already shedding its colours as the season changes.

All the more reason to preserve it just a little longer.

Pondering

This is a time of year for reflection.  As yet another year comes to an end we tend to find ourselves looking back over the past months.

Can it be almost a year ago I wrote a long trailing ponder prompted by my morning encounters with my kingfisher friend? And can it be a whole year since I was working through mazes of words as I moved towards my three words for 2013 – (focus, treasure and design)?  How did those words fit my year?  That is also the subject of great pondering.

It is indeed a whole since the three wordly ponderings. And I have again been pondering, reflecting on what has been a tough year, thinking of how I want to guide the coming year and playing with words which might be a fitting mantra for 2014.

A shape is forming.  There is one word at the core of my coming year which draws from some of this year’s challenges and which I want to be at the heart of my mantra.  There are two other words which feel right.  Let’s see if they feature in the final choice.

As always, a great deal of my pondering takes place in what we often call a “pond” during my morning swim.  Recently my kingfisher friend returned after a long rainy season absence and it feels to me as if we have spent companionable pondering time.  He watches patiently as I plough up and down the pool, and I watch him as he calls out and now and then swoops and plucks a wriggling worm from the grass. The perfect fodder for my friend’s breakfast and for my mind!

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My Kingfisher friend watching my daily swim

There are many things I love about this time of year.  The cooling weather, the sunshine and blue skies.  And the draw towards reflection.

Soon my “three word” pondering will work through its natural course, and soon I will have three wonderful new words to guide and inspire me, and to share with you.

Loy Krathong revisited – three years on….

As I headed to the airport yesterday afternoon, I passed an increasing number of roadside displays in preparation for Myanmar’s Full Moon Tazaungdaing festival celebrations, keenly aware that I would miss the festival. However, thanks to an article in the in-flight magazine, I was pleased to learn that the Thai Loy Krathong festival would be today.

I was pleased, but the realisation also hit me with a jolt.  I was instantly transported back three years to my first experience of Loy Krathong. In 2009, the Festival fell on November 3rd, one month and one day since life changed.  On that day, three years ago I had just had my first chemo, I had had two rounds of surgery and I was starting to lose my hair.

I wrote a short blog post, which makes emotional reading for me.

It is another day for quiet reflection and deep gratitude.

 

 

Cancer, internet and unexpected emotions

It’s been a rather odd past few days.  I am settling back into routine after my Chiang Mai adventure (and yes there are still more updates on that in the pipeline).  I am at that lovely place just after a fairly big check and therefore at my least anxious about my health.  However, I have been prompted to reflect (again) on how much our lives, and in particular our lives since cancer, are affected by the internet.

It is obvious that the internet and social networking can play a considerable role in the whole cancer experience.  It has played a huge part in my own experience, being fairly isolated and far from my roots and family. There is a wealth of information (and mis-information) available on the net ranging from Dr Google’s viral approach to providing information through to the focused and detailed information and discussions on Breast Cancer and other dedicated websites.  There is lively and passionate debate on issues connected with Breast Cancer, particularly around the Pink branding and lack of progress on cause, prevention and cure. This debate is clearly enriched through wider internet reach.  Naively I used to think I was an advocate for breast cancer until I began to engage with and follow the debates and discussions and now I realise that I am a junior when it comes to advocacy and understanding of the issues.  I also believe that in a sense, Cancer unites us, in providing a common enemy.  The internet enables us to garner that unity and use it constructively.  For me personally, social networking and this blog have played a massive role in my cancer experience and do so increasingly.

There’s nothing particularly new in any of that, so what has prompted my sudden standstill?  I’ll tell you what.  Relationships and emotional connection with people I have never met.  That is what has made me stop and think.  I have made “friends” with a number of people through the internet – particularly thanks to the blog and Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter.  Some of these friends I have come to know pretty well, even though we have never met either in person or spoken.  When one of my cyber friends was stolen by cancer last year, I found that it affected me enormously.  I did not even know her name, yet we had connected through our respective blogs and been quite close.  Her death was a great shock and I found that I was unprepared and ill equipped to handle it.

Last week I read the very powerful post by another blogging pal, the Carcinista,  where she shared and discussed her decision to stop treatment.  What an honest, emotional and inspirational post from an amazing woman.  The blogosphere, Facebookworld and twittersphere shared her post and we seemed to share a sense of admiration along with the deep sadness at the stage of her illness.  Yesterday, I came online to the news that she had died.  Another young, remarkable woman had been stolen by cancer from her family and friends.  It took me right back to the grief I had experienced last year, and from the prolific messages of condolence it was clear that I was far from alone.  Yet, again, this was someone I had never met, and in this instance we had hardly communicated directly.

It seems that the internet brings us a whole added dimension which I feel is outside my familiarity zone and for which I am not equipped.  That is the emotional attachment to online friends.  How can such strong emotions come from connections which are in one sense actually quite impersonal?  It really strikes me as powerful that I shed tears for someone yet I do not know their name.  I must stress that this is not in the way that a film or death of a famous person can prompt tears and grief, but a deep and real sense of personal loss.   I also wonder how it feels for the family and loved ones who receive outpourings and numerous messages of condolence from way outside the traditional sphere.

While I will never be glad that I was one of those who was dealt the cancer card, I am thankful that I was diagnosed at a time when the internet has brought this added facet to the experience.  And if I do not feel prepared to deal with the added emotional dimension, then I need to do something about that.  I reckon that acknowledgement and reflection of this is a good first step.  It might be a new and strange experience bringing unexpected emotions, but I am truly glad to embrace it.

I am really not sure if it is appropriate or not to dedicate a blog post.  In case it is,  I would like to dedicate this post to the special people I have connected with “thanks” to cancer and thanks to the internet, in particular those who have been taken by cancer.

Rose coloured spectacles? Or the Breast Cancer Lens?

“Do you think of Breast Cancer every day?” was the question posed recently on a BC friend’s blog.

It was a very thought provoking question, and timely as it came at the start of my landmark days, the prominence in my mind as I approached my Cancerversary, and of course the prominence of pinkness of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

My instant reaction was that it is not whether I think of breast cancer every day, but rather how often I think of breast cancer in a day.  I have no idea, but I know it is at the forefront of my mind probably too much.

It is a bit of a puzzle to work out what is a healthy level of reflection, and what amounts to unhealthy obsessing.  Of course, I believe that my own ramblings and rumination are healthy but I can also see that it is not a good thing to allow the cancer beast to dominate my mind quite so much.

I think that the reality is that it is not so much that I think specifically of Breast Cancer frequently.  It is moreover that I now see everything through a kind of Breast Cancer lens.  Along the lines of “same, same but different”, I am living in a different reality, (often termed the “new normal”) and everything looks different through this lens.  It affects everything you plan and try to do and means that much has to be modified.  As many of these changes become more a part of life, the act of modifying becomes more automatic but the changes are there and things are different.

For some things the lens is very obvious.  For example, I can’t think of the coming weeks without feeling the fear of the Big Check and having the inability of making any firm plans beyond that.  For other things, I do not specifically realise I am seeing things through the lens but it affects what I do, such as what I wear, making an extra effort to swim or join the Pilates class even when I am tired, choosing what I eat, adding a squeeze of lemon to almost every glass of water I drink and even arranging the pillows as I climb into bed.

In some ways, the lens is a good thing – perhaps a bit like a metaphorical medical kick in the backside!  It reminds me of the importance of lifestyle choices and the impact each one has.  It spurs action instead of inertia.  Sometimes it is a block, and prevents me from making decisions or plans.  It has an advocacy refractor and I find myself lobbying other women to make sure they screen and self examine.  And sometimes the lens has a very emotional character of sadness and nostalgia, when I think back on how life has changed, how much I took for granted and how much has changed for ever.

One thing is sure about this lens.  It is always there.  Once placed over my vision, it will never and can never be removed, even if I do not always sense its presence.  I need to try and use it to my advantage as far as possible and reduce its ability to distort my view and cause anxiety, disruption and regret.

I am sure I will continue to think regularly of Breast Cancer.  It is too significant to be able to imagine a time when it fades from deliberate thought.  I hope, though, that in time I will think less frequently of the immediate disease and focus more on a helpful and healthy use of the Breast Cancer lens.

As good a day as any for reflection

Sunday was a strange day with strange emotions.  It was my birthday, and brought with it a host of mixed feelings.

At any age, it is of course something to celebrate, but as the years advance it is also an important time to reflect.  This year more than ever.

My birthday last year was one of those big milestone ones and I found the lump a few weeks later.  I can’t help but connect the two events in my mind.  It is odd to think that so much has happened in the past year, and that I was blissfully unaware of the cancer present and growing when I was marking that milestone birthday last year.     

Looking back over the past year, particularly, is impossible without becoming emotional.  And the nature of cancer means that looking to the future is equally fraught with emotion through the uncertainty which a cancer diagnosis brings.

So the way I approached this birthday, was in keeping with the way I try to approach my relationship with the cancer beast.  By small actions which I have in my control, and which make me feel good.  So I rounded off the day in the pool, swimming one length for each of my years, which took me to a smidgen over a kilometre.  That can’t be bad for a girl who has been through the Triathlon from hell!