Stargazing

I was on my home way last night from a regular supermarket trip, when I glanced out of the taxi window. My stomach turned over. There was a beautifully low lit half moon in the sky. Why did my stomach flip?  The previous evening when leaving the office, I had remarked to a colleague that the moon looked as if it was almost full. Yes, she replied, it would be full on April 4. eclipse 2The moon is important here, and we keep note of lunar phases.  Most festivals are based on the lunar calendar and we are in the final days of run up into the biggest festival here – Thingyan, famously known as the Water Festival. I was puzzling about the status of the moon and its relation to Thingyan when I saw the almost full moon on Friday and in my mind I thought meant that it would probably be New Moon for Myanmar New Year which falls immediately after Thingyan.

So I was more than a little freaked by the sight of a half moon last night. Firstly, I questioned whether the moon had indeed been almost full when I had remarked on it the previous evening. The conversation with my colleague was fresh and clear in my mind. I knew the moon had looked full.  Seeing something dramatically unexpected about the moon rocks our foundations and most basic beliefs and truths. My thoughts then moved to Murakami’s IQ84 where the parallel world had two moons. I did not want to take that train of thought any further and vowed to Google this weirdness as soon as I got home.

When I got out of the taxi, a couple of neighbours were lingering, chatting in the lane as happens most evenings. One pointed to the moon and showed me that he was taking a photograph on his phone. He knows that I am wont to take pictures of the moon and I thought he was suggesting I photograph it. I obligingly (I would have been doing this anyway) took out my camera and captured a few images, while staring at the moon and pondering the mystery of its sudden regression or progression to half moon status.  It was so clear in the sky and I could see the shadow of the other half of the moon quite clearly when realisation hit.  This was not a half moon shadow, because the moon had a “bite” out of it!  This was a lunar eclipse!

I watched as the shadow passed across the moon, the orange glow faded and the full moon I had sought appeared gradually again. I remember seeing pictures of the solar eclipse recently, and delighted for friends who had seen their first eclipse, posting their awe on Facebook.  This was not visible in South East Asia, but I admit to being secretly envious.  There was a total eclipse on my birthday in 2008 but I could hardly see it because of cloud cover as I waited patiently on the rooftop of the apartment block I lived in at the time in Colombo, Sri Lanka,, taking photographs of cloud and trying to convince myself that I could see a shadow. And apart from the tail end of a solar eclipse in Myanmar in 2010 which I could not really see properly I have never truly seen either a solar or lunar eclipse.

I was quite delighted to have seen my surprise lunar eclipse.  There had been no anticipation and with the lack of planning and expectation there could only be satisfaction. If we put this in perspective, this has more meaning than just a fifty-something woman seeing her first clear eclipse.  If you look at my wish bucket it is pretty clear that I have a fascination with the night sky.  I want to see the rings on Saturn, and I would dearly love to witness the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. I was fascinated by the night sky as a child and still love to gaze upwards in innocent wonder.  That is very clear too, in the second of my three words of the year too – breathe, stargaze and realise. How apt that just after writing about breathing a couple of weeks ago, and with a vague plan to write about stargazing next, that the planets should align to gift me a lunar eclipse!

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Watching the shadow slowly move to reveal the full moon again

As I approach my next round of medical checks with some questions which I expect to be explored, and as life continues to throw challenges in my direction this is a timely and keen reminder that I need to strive to stargaze and stretch my creativity. Life is less about what happens to us, but how we deal with what happens to us. I must remember to breathe, to stargaze and to realise.

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Breathing in Bago

My three words are with me all of the time. They guide me and moreso, remind me why they are chosen.  It is not always easy to follow them and that reminds me that this is the very reason I need them.

Breathe ………..

Stargaze ………….

Realise ……………    they remind me.

Life continues to be intense here, the pace rapid and pressure too high.  “Breathe“, my mantra whispers to me.  “I know“, I reply to myself.  “I know.  I’m trying“.

My weekends have glimpses of rest and escape from the frenzy, but recently I found the weekends were increasingly squeezed and the weeks stretching.  Breathing was an effort.

Respite eventually came the first weekend of March with two public holidays – one on a Monday, another the Wednesday.  It was easy to take a leave day for the Tuesday and plan an retreat and space to breathe.

Energy levels were low, time was fairly short and the nervous investment as well as financial for flights to be kept at a minimum.  I decided to head out of town to Bago, a city just over an hour north of Yangon, and one which for a number of reasons I had never properly visited.

Bago is rich in temples and history.  From 1369–1539 it served as capital of the Mon Hanthawaddy Kingdom, which covered all of what is now Lower Myanmar.

I opted to stay out of town, in a tranquil haven with understated style and views across the plains. A small swimming pool and surrounds of trees, crowded with busy birds provided what I craved. The space to breathe, and gradually unwind.  I could feel tense muscles starting to relax and my thoughts begin to slow as I focused more on my surroundings and less on the mental baggage I was attempting to shed.

For two whole days I focused on breathing. I read. I swam. I wrote. I pondered.  I watched the colours of the sky change and the birds chit chat as they flitted from branch to branch and tree to tree.

Breathing

Breathing

As the hours of the third day moved forwards, I decided to venture into Bago City itself.  You can’t visit Bago and not soak in the atmosphere of the temples. The heat was already gone from the afternoon sun and soft golden rays reaching lazily across the landscape.  The perfect time to visit temples.

Impressive Shwe Maw Daw Temple is reminiscent of Shwe Dagon in Yangon.

Shwe Maw Daw Temple in the late afternoon sun

Shwe Maw Daw Temple in the late afternoon sun

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A visit to the  famous python, said to be 123 years old and revered as a nat reincarnation is important.  Money is given and prayers chanted.  Happily the python seemed to bee sleepy, even if watching carefully.

he famous python, said to be 123 years old and revered as a nat reincarnation. Happily sleepy

he famous python, said to be 123 years old and revered as a nat reincarnation. Happily sleepy

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A visit to Hintha Gon Temple was perfectly time as the sun was now orange, and throwing deep, soft beams into the corners of the temple and creating a glow in the sky.

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Steps into HIntha Gon Temple

Steps into HIntha Gon Temple

Looking over to Shwe Maw Daw as the light fades

Looking over to Shwe Maw Daw as the light fades

The view over to Shwe Maw Daw was breathtaking from Hintha Gon and I spent as long as I could, breathing and watching.

Shwe Maw Daw from Hintha Gon at sunset

Shwe Maw Daw from Hintha Gon at sunset

 

Sun streaming in HIntha Gon temple

Sun streaming in HIntha Gon temple

Setting sun through wooden carving - HIntha Gon

Setting sun through wooden carving – HIntha Gon

 

Sun setting through the wooden carving at Hintha Gon

Sun setting through the wooden carving at Hintha Gon

The light was slowly bleeding from the sky as I called in at the reclining Buddha before retuning to Bago under a night sky.

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The following afternoon, after another evening of pondering and breathing, it was time to return to Yangon. I was refreshed and revitalised and more than ever bow to the importance of breathing.

I learned that B is for breathe. B is for Bago.

breathing in bago

Thank you, Bago, and for providing this space to breathe.

Moving into 2015 with three words to guide and inspire

Written 1st January 2015

As the New Year of 2015 dawns I find myself in one very special place on the planet. A space in the remote hills of Laos, amidst unspoilt, undeveloped nature with only the sound of water falling and birds singing..A serene and tranquil space for a mind wishing to step aside from the bustle and noise of the 21st Century. For this is also a space without internet connectivity. This means that you will only read this several days into 2015, when I return to the world of instant communication.

LP hillside 6The first day of the year has dawned unexpectedly bright. The past couple of days have seen cloud and a heavy, cold mist bathing the hills. This first day of 2015 sees no cloud in the sky, a whispering breeze nudging leaves and branches. Butterflies are flitting from bush to bush in a silence so deep you can almost hear their wings fluttering. In the distance, a cockerel is wishing a Happy New Year to any soul who may be listening.

This is the right time for me to set out the three words I have chosen to guide and inspire me throughout 2015.

This is a process I have been following now since the close of 2009. At that time I was truly in the thick of treatment with two rounds of surgery, three cycles of chemo and that life-changing stage 3 cancer diagnosis only just behind me. As Facebook feeds were filling with New Year’s Resolutions, I spotted something different. This suggested selecting three words to shape and guide the year ahead. This resonated powerfully with me and I had no trouble choosing three words for 2010. These words stayed with me throughout the year and as that year came to a close, I found myself reflecting and thinking of the year ahead and how I wanted to shape that. It is no secret that this has become a practice which has been truly alive and meaningful for me, not just at the start of the year, but throughout every month, week and even day of the year. They keep me on track and motivated and the practice of choosing the words itself is one which helps me to focus on the way ahead.

Before I share my words for the coming year, I want to spend a little time reflecting back on 2014 and how the mantra has served me.

My first word for 2014 has been dedication. This has had a variety of meanings for me. I selected it to build on the previous year’s choice of “focus” which had been particularly useful for me. Dedication pushed me to ensure that I devoted attention to those matters which are important and which often I do not enjoy, or put off, as well as the ones I do. This also relates to the importance of taking care of myself, physically and emotionally and to set aside time and attention for people and activities which are important and not necessarily those which are the most demanding. This was also a prompt to give time to those mundane but necessary tasks and chores but also those creative and wellbeing activities which can be swept aside if we squander our time.

I found dedication a challenge in that I struggled to stay true to the notion of dedicating time and attention where I aimed to. I knew that there were challenges in the year, and this is linked to the middle word, integrity, and I found it extremely difficult to maintain a balance especially. The five sticky plan, as quirky as it sounds, certainly helped to ensure that I did focus over the weekends, but more and more I have found myself squeezing out elements related to my creativity and wellbeing, and have fallen behind in personal emails and connection with friends and family. However, this does not tell me that I have failed. That is where I find that the words have a beauty and a value which I have not seen in a “resolution”. There is in fact, no such thing as fail. It means that as I reflect and review the year’s words, this helps to refine and sharpen how I need to focus and concentrate for the coming year.

My second word of the year, my core word has been integrity. I knew that this would be critical. I knew that there were challenges ahead and that I needed this guide to ensure that I approached these in a way which did not compromise my principles, yet which I would be sure to make decisions and act in the right way. Indeed many of those challenges did materialise, and I did find them demanding, draining and often upsetting. Many though, did not transform. Other unexpected ones of course did appear too. I found myself placing the “integrity lens” in front of me more and more as the year progressed. In major decisions and actions, just taking time to pause and think whether I was acting with integrity was enough to confirm or rethink what I planned to do. Increasingly, though I found that I was applying the integrity lens to so much more, the most everyday of tasks. I found myself pausing for the most tiny of actions, like taking a moment to pick up litter which I saw dropped in front of me for example, to seek out the jasmine seller instead of scurrying inside the building if I did not have the right change handy, to make an extra effort and send an email which I knew would be welcomed. I cannot pretend though that this always comes easily. I know that I operate most comfortably with the path of least resistance and distinctly dislike and avoid conflict and argument. So this has often pushed me into uncomfortable terrain, but I have found that rationalising this an ensuring that it is the true and right thing to do, that it is consistent with my true principles and values, then I have found that this gives strength to do so.

Using the integrity lens is something which will stay with me. ”Is this the right thing to do?” “What is the right thing to do?” these are questions which frame so many of my decisions now that it has become a reflex.

My third word of 2014 has been flair. My creative and writing year has been a landmark one in many senses with the most significant event being the publication of the Dragonfruit Anthology. This has been a huge milestone for me, seeing my name in print, in proper pages on real paper and even available on Amazon! Of course, my name is on the back of the book as I am but one contributor amongst 26 women writers. But this is a major step forward in my writing self, a Biggie on the Writing CV. More than this though, is what I have learned through the process. My short piece was selected from a number of submissions and then we went through a process of editing, contracting, selection of title and cover art and then the subsequent promotion and reviews. I learned a great deal from my writing being edited by a Real Editor, seeing my work from a reader’s perspective and understanding a great deal of the publishing process. As well as how much I was sheltered from the hard work which accompanies this. Reading reviews of the anthology has also taught me a great deal and has helped me refine and re-think my current writing projects.

Perhaps I have not been able to devote as much time as I would have liked to the flair side of my life. I know that this has been compromised by the demands of living and working in such an intense environment of change. But still, I feel that I have made major steps forward. Working on Dragonfruit has helped me to refocus on my main writing work, the memoir. In addition to this, I have started working closely with two others from our writing group and set up a “writing buddy” system. We are all working on very similar projects, and in addition to sharing our work as it evolves in the writing group, we are working closely together to provide peer support and critique on our very specific topics. This has given me an enormous boost and has helped me to completely review and refine the nature of the memoir. That I will talk about in more detail in the coming days or weeks, but for now I feel that flair has been a very welcome guide for the creative side of my year.

With these reflections, it is now time to look ahead and share my chosen words for 2015.

This year I have been surprised by the process of selection of the words.

Indeed, I believe that at least one of the words has not been selected by me, but rather the word has continuously spoken to me, whispering in my ear consistently and over several weeks. Instead of me deliberately selecting this word, I feel as if this word has persuaded me of its importance. I am convinced.

I very much see the need to be more deliberate and intentional. I need to prioritise balance and well-being and not allow myself to be sucked in and swallowed up by matters which are pressing and urgent but not the most important necessarily. I need to take time to breathe. My first word, and the thought foremost in my mind as I move into 2015 is breathe. I need to savour the “now”, to pause and breathe in a way I have forgotten to. I have been drawn to practices of meditation and mindfulness in the past and I am keen to drawn on these now. Breathe is also a reminder to look after my health and wellbeing. My daily cycle and swim do far more than provide an hour of exercise. During the swim in particular, I find myself breathing, and reflecting. So many problems have been solved, ideas have come into being and been nurtured, challenges have been faced and tears have been shed. I must take time to breathe, regenerate and heal this year.

Twice in the past weeks, and again now for longer, I have stepped out of the 21st Century and the dependence we seem to be developing on connectivity in particular. Something which I am increasingly finding to be rather a double edged sword. I love what connectivity has brought to me, particularly living so far from friends and family in Scotland and in connecting me with others in a similar situation. I love being able to track down answers when a puzzle catches me, or share my latest photos, speak with family and friends around the globe. But at the same time, I find myself losing and squandering time. The same connectivity brings so much also takes away. As a butterfly I am too easily distracted and can surface from a path I have been drawn down to find that too much time has passed. It is time to pause, disengage with the fast life which we now live, and breathe, refocus on what matters.

The second word has been a little elusive. I have been looking for something to emphasise the creative side and continue to push myself. I toyed with various words – imagine, muse, ponder…… Dream was one word which especially resonated, one which made me look beyond and push myself. I also liked stretch which conveyed my desire to push beyond boundaries and my usual comfort zones, to experiment a little. And then I stumbled upon stargaze. This has a variety of nuances which all capture what I want to convey. When I was little I was fascinated by the night sky following a visit to London Planetarium. Suddenly the sky had taken on a whole life. I had charts of the constellations in my bedroom, and used to gaze upwards at night time when the sky was clear. I lived in a remote part of Scotland when I was young and there was absolutely no light pollution at all. On a clear night Orion and his belt and the Great Bear, or Ursa Major as I consistently called it, were clearly visible. While I was in Mongolia, one of my most vivid memories is that of gazing at the night sky out in the countryside where there was the greatest expanse of land and sky imaginable. The climate is so dry and arid, and the country mostly at altitude so that this all combines to provide a sky bursting with life at night. The sky is almost milky and crowded with an unbelievable amount of stars. I have never seen anything like it anywhere else. This nightsky fascination is also evident in my wish bucket, you will see that I maintain a longing to see Saturn and its rings through a telescope.

So stargaze is a good choice for me, in its mix of meanings – literal as well as figurative. It speaks to me of imagining, of going beyond, of limitless opportunities and scope. It provides a limitless landscape for creativity and musing. It speaks of shining through darkness. It reminds me not to be constrained by practicalities and things which can be overcome.

How apt that I spent the passage from 2014 to 2015 under the stars, quietly reflective and appreciative of the peaceful space I have been in.

As the mantra for 2015 takes shape, there is one dimension which is also important to me. This builds on focus from 2013 and dedication from 2014. I wasn’t to take this a stage further now and ensure that I produce results and tangible outcomes. Like a book. With my name on the front cover. Or at the very least, a manuscript.

In one of my previous jobs I had the opportunity to do a Belbin assessment. This is a tool which identifies your predominant traits an provides labels for them. The types are plant, resource investigator, coordinator, shaper, monitor  evaluator, teamworker, implementer and completer/finisher. I was predominantly a plant, and very happy to be so. A plant is creative, unorthodox and a generator of ideas- an original thinker. I love the idea of being a plant. I also found that my lowest feature is that of being a completer/finisher. That did not come as a surprise, but rather a realisation and confirmation. I am that butterfly, caught by new ideas and inspiration and although I love a perfect and finished product I am the world’s worst at doing this myself. I am useless at seeing something through because I get bored with it and am drawn to new and exciting projects, leaving them strewn around me as I bound off towards ideas anew.

This year I want to realise many of these projects and see them through. I want to make it happen and actually finish many of the half baked pieces of work I have. I want to see dreams turn to reality by applying myself more and making that conscious effort.

Realise also has a variety of meanings, which resonate. The importance of being aware and understanding is a priority and links nicely to breathe. It pushes me to think things through and understand the whole process of my undertakings. It encourages me to commit to the wholeness of projects, not only my writing goals, but particularly related to those goals. This year I want to deliver.

So my mantra is complete for 2015 and although I cannot share these until I return to that 21st century connectivity which I have stepped away from, I am grasping them eagerly as I move forward, whispering them to myself in reassurance in motivation.

Breathe, stargaze and realise.

Since I started this in 2009, every year my words have served me well and many stay with me. I can remember each word and each three word mantra, and the year to which it relates. As in previous years, my 2014 words have provided a guide and inspiration and kept me on the path I want to tread. I find that my 2015 words additionally have a logical flow to them, they set out a direction. First of all I must remember to pause and breathe. I can look upwards and allow my mind to move beyond boundaries.  Then I have to aim to realise…..

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Yes, indeed. Breathe, stargaze, realise……….. Good morning and welcome, 2015.