The Simplicity of the Happy Place

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

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

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

Gilbert writes:

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

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

She just did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

yangon lanes 3

yangon lanes 2
I find a happy place when I am in nature, when listening to frogs and geckos chirruping and chuckling, or watching birds flitting around the branches. I can watch the light and shadow play games as the sun filters through leaves and turn each leaf a slightly different shade of green. I can listen without tiring or becoming bored, to the sound of the monsoon rains pound down, to thunder shaking the walls and the crack of lightening nearby. There are many happy places, most of them not complicated nor hidden. Waiting patiently for us to see them.

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

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool

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

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

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

Lymphoedema? Seriously? Life following diagnosis is just not that simple……

Recently many changes in my life have been underway. One major change which has impacted significantly on me had been the closure of the place where I have been swimming in the mornings. I knew this would be tough, but it has had even more impact than I had expected.

The facility closed to members on July 1 but I was soon on home leave. Furthermore, rainy season always disrupts swimming plans. Every night my ear is always keenly listening for the sound of rain through the sound of the fan. If the rain is heavy, the swim is postponed. Sometimes a full week of postponed swims passes in rainy season.

yangon monsoon

 

Aung Min Gaung River 1Now that the rains are starting to abate, I should be able to swim more often. I need to make plans.

But the gap this year has been too long. Very few swims in too many weeks.

Over the past weeks, I have also been experience increasing pain in my left arm. Twang Arm. I mentioned this to my Doctor here in Yangon and he told me exactly what I did NOT want to hear. What I had not even told myself.

Just a few weeks before the 6th anniversary of my mastectomy and the grand removal of all lymph nodes in my left arm I  developed lymphoedema. These are not my arms, but a stock image of what it looks like.

lymphoedema

Seriously?  Yes, seriously. Sad Face. Angry Face.  ARE-YOU-KIDDING-ME? face.

I am pretty certain that there is a direct relationship between the lack of swimming and the intrusion of this unwelcome bonus condition.

So I am on a quest. As the rains abate, I am seeking out another option. You have to factor in a house move to my recent changes, so I am also testing out new geography and facilities.  I have already checked out one place and had a test swim. This is not quite so easy to get to, but it is a possibility. There are two great pools, a 30 metre and an 33 metre pool. I do not think there are any kingfishers and it is a great deal busier but that is life.

I have always been convinced that the almost daily swims from very soon after surgery, really played a part in keeping lymphoedema at bay. Now I am going to see if I can reverse this and at the very least prevent it from getting worse. It is mild at the moment, and I must stop it from getting worse. Oh and does anyone have any idea where and how I can get a lymphoedema sleeve in Yangon?

lymphoedema sleeveAs October advances with its array of messages around Breast Cancer, I want to add my own message, which is “it just isn’t that simple“. I am happy to be living with NED and want to stay that way, but life after diagnosis just is not that simple. Lympoedema is just one more bonus in the post diagnosis life, as I have discussed before. Thanks but no thanks cancer, indeed.  These bonuses include:

  • A digestive tract which remains sensitive following the ghastly gastric effects of chemo.
  • I have difficulties with memory too, my personal memory card is none too reliable and has particular dislike for. This is linked to  “chemobrain”- a level of cognitive impairment “thanks” to chemotherapy which is now more recognised and understood to be very real.
  • The pulmonary embolism which tried to get rid of me in 2012, and for which I still have to take blood thinners and undergo regular checks.
  • The failed thyroid, which again needs daily medication.
  • Peripheral neuropathy in toes and fingers. Not severe but enough to affect mobility and make me walk clumsily to make others notice. Enough to make me trip and fall too regularly.
  • Brittle and constantly breaking nails
  • Highly sensitive skin – which cannot tolerate sticking plaster or bandaids (depending on the part of the world you come from 😉 ), and which can sense the presence of a stray hair through several layers of clothing. This includes the extremely sensitive soles of my feet
  • Excruciating night time, and other time cramps.
  • Last and in no way least, is Twang Arm which remains seriously corded and which is now clearly laughing up its lymphoedema sleeve.

Again, I need to respond by stepping up my game and squaring up, no matter how exhausting this is.

I am not afraid to shout out that I HATE cancer, I HATE the way it continues to sneak in surprises and knock you when you are still getting getting back to your feet.

Life after a diagnosis of breast (or any cancer) just is not that simple.

On a bicycle built for three

After sharing the picture of the three people on a bicycle (the young woman, baby and man)  as part of the week celebrating the ordinary, I was spurred on to fulfil my own plan to get myself a bicycle.

Now there is another reason for this plan, and that is linked to a change in the place where I will be going for my morning swim as the dry season rolls in.  Instead of having a walk of less than 10 minutes, the new pool is just over 20 minutes walk away.  That would make a walk of 40 minutes just getting to and from the pool.  Added to that would be a 35 – 40 minute half mile swim, followed by the time needed for showering and changing.  I would need to get up around 5 am to be able to do that all before breakfast!  Or be very late to work every day. Neither option appealed particularly.  Hence the plan to acquire a bike!

Saturday was taken up with the usual tasks and bits and pieces, and disappeared rather rapidly.  On Sunday I was determined to get out and scope the bike shops, getting a sense of what might be available, price ranges and sizes.  Size is very important on account of my legs being a good bit shorter than the average adult legs! (In the gym, my feet can’t reach the pedals on one of the 3 exercise bikes, so that rather limits my choice if the wrong 2 are in use!)  I had my heart set on returning home by the end of the day, with a bike sticking out of the boot of the taxi!

Happily hubby J had been doing a good pre-scoping exercise and had a bike in mind, so our trip round the first shop was quick and confirmed the range of what was available.  Or not available in terms of my requirements!  So we headed out of town next, to the bigger bike shop which had basic, non fancy, non mountain, non geared-to-the-hilt bikes.  I neither wanted nor needed more than 2 or 3 gears.  I can’t use more than that and anyway, it gets too complicated!

It was a nice drive out of town towards a local market and temple area bustling with activity.  But to my utter disappointment I found that the bike shop was most decidedly closed.  And the bike hubby J had identified as “my ideal bike” was locked away safely inside.

There was another bike shop nearby and I did have a good scout around that, giving clear guidance to hubby in terms of my requirements.  It had to be small.  But with big wheels.  It had to have sit-up-and-beg handlebars.  A basket on the front was important, though that of course could be fitted later.  Blue would be good.  Of course!  And the minimum of gears.  And a happy sounding bell!

Now my heart was set on the bike, and there was no possibility of me getting back to the shop before Saturday, I conceded that hubby should undertake “operation bike procurement” at the soonest.  As in Monday morning.

So when I arrived home from work on Monday evening, this is what was waiting for me in the porch…………………….

……. my beautiful new, shiny “Feisty Blue Gecko” bike, with 3 gears, sit-up-and-beg handlebars, a seat so low my feet can touch the ground, a basket on the front, a space for passengers on the back.

And a very happy sounding bicycle bell!  🙂 🙂 🙂

Middle ground

I am in a pretty good place right now.  Apart from kicking myself that I didn’t start this sunrise swimming strategy months ago, that is.

I have now reached the end of the second week of this dawn swimming and cannot believe how good I feel, despite having fewer hours sleep every night.  I am astounded at how much difference there is between an evening swim and a morning one.

I feel as if I have more energy – take that, Tamoxifen!  I hadn’t realised just now tired and fuzzy I was feeling all of the time.  I am still on a bit of a low peep but definitely feeling less tired.  Twang Arm is taking a bashing and it feels as if it is losing its grip (every pun intended 😉 ) – it is less painful and I am able to swim quite a bit faster than before.  More than anything else though, it is a great psychological boost and I find my mood lighter and motivation stronger with this different daily regime.

The timing is good too.  We are in a particularly frenetic period at work and I am finding it hard to keep my promise to myself about maintaining a healthy work life balance and this start to the day helps enormously.

However, I have to remember that I am still in that recovery phase and my body still marked from the ravages of the triathlon hell of cancer treatment.  It is difficult to communicate that though.  In this strange post treatment life, I feel that the rest of the world expects there to be only two states which I can be in – either ill or completely well.  There doesn’t seem to be an in-between.  Yet the reality is that I am physically still very much at an in-between stage.  I am well.  I am pretty strong. But I am not quite fully well.  The punishing months of chemo, surgery and radiation have really taken their toll on me physically.  I still have some neuropathy (numbness) in my fingers although it is improving.  My toes are still uncomfortable, numb and feel stiff and too big for my feet!  I have a horrible kind of deformed toenail where one of my toenails fell off and another is still a gross black colour.  My fingernails keep splitting.  I feel generally sluggish and slightly lethargic, and my thinking also feels a bit slower.  I have the side effects of Tamoxifen to add to that – perhaps that is the main cause of the sloth-like state.  Perhaps I should have a label round my neck which says “handle with care”?

So I feel that I am very much in a kind of middle ground, albeit a good middle ground, which is heading in the right direction.  But a middle ground nonetheless.   I’ll keep you posted on how that ground shifts as I am sure it will continue to do so.

The morning owl

It is generally agreed that people are either a morning person or a night owl.

I have always loved mornings.  I love the way the sky turns from inky black to a deep translucent blue as the sun approaches the horizon.  I love the way that the sky takes on a purple hue and clouds turn pink as the sun rises.  I love the soft gentle light, casting long, optimistic rays of sunshine across the landscape.  I love being a witness to morning routines in the countries I have lived in over the past few years.

It is particularly special here.  There are long lines of monks in the mornings, collecting alms as the dawn breaks.  Birds sing loudly in the garden to announce the new day.  Children make their way to school with their green and white uniforms and adults head to their place of work with their aluminum stacking lunch boxes.

Truly beautiful.

So I find it really unfair and cannot understand why I find it such a struggle to drag myself out of bed to enjoy mornings!  I go to sleep early, but still cannot part company with my comfortable bed in the morning and put off getting up until I absolutely have to.  I’m fine once I am up, but the act of opening my eyes, and actually getting out of bed, rather than pressing the snooze button on the alarm, usually defeats me until the last moment.

I wonder if the after effects of the heavy treatment contribute to this.  I understand that it takes about a year, or at least as long as the treatment lasted, to re-build properly after the cancer triathlon.  I have to remember that it is just under 6 months since I finished my triathlon so I guess that I should not be too hard on myself.  Perhaps I should consider it a special skill that I am able to sleep for 10 hours or more some nights?  I should also factor in the time that Tamoxifen keeps me awake in the night time hours, but I don’t think they add up to so many hours now.

Well, last night i went to bed with a resolution that I would not only get up early, but that I would head to the pool before breakfast!  The reason for this?  Firstly I enjoy my swim so much and Monday evening is Pilates evening.  Therefore I felt it would be a nice way to be able to factor in a swim without having to wait until Tuesday.  Secondly, Twang Arm has mounted a bit of an offensive over the past couple of weeks.  I am not sure how or why, but it has been a bit more painful and stiff and I know that swimming is helping.  Thirdly, at my Annual Check Dr W2 took great delight in telling me I had gained a kilo in weight despite my insistence at this being impossible due to my evening schedule of swimming or Pilates.  So all in all, it seemed that the time is right to crank up the exercise machine, enter a stand off with Twang Arm – and head to the pool for a pre-breakfast swim.

So this morning, after a particularly sleepless night (no idea why) I forced myself out of bed when the alarm peeped at 6 am.  The sky was a delicious pink and orange as I put on my swimsuit and the morning air misty and cool as we headed out to the pool.  I was in the pool, alongside 2 serious swimmers doing serious lengths at 6.26 am!  In the East, the sun sat heavy, large and red on the horizon as I started my gentle swim up and down the pool.  Within a few minutes the other two swimmers had completed their lengths and I was on my own, with the company of birds, little frogs, crickets and palm trees as the sun climbed in the sky, getting briighter as it rose.

I had a glorious 30 minutes swimming 30 peaceful and healing lengths and was out of the pool, showered and back home having breakfast at the time I am usually serially pressing the snooze button on the alarm.

So it was a bit of an effort but well worth it.  Let’s see if a couple of morning swims a week, in addition to the evening ones start to break Twang Arm’s spirit and help to stop the kilo gain.  And I guess all in all, it was not bad for a morning owl!!

Post Radiation Review and Homeward Bound

Well we arrived back safely in Bangkok, no somersaults or acrobatics in Dubai Airport this time which is a bonus.  Jet lag is not too bad, although it was strange being woken in the middle of the night by hubby J chomping crisps.  Being hungry at weird times is the worst part of jet lag I think.

The first thing to do win Bangkok was to christen my new special post surgery swimsuit, one of my UK shopping acquisitions.  I have missed swimming terribly and Twang Arm is harbouring a sense of its superiority which is about to come to an end.  It was wonderful to be back in the pool, although my swim was a gentle introduction so that I can gradually sneak up on Twang Arm and before it realises, it will be vastly weakened!  Well, Twang Arm has been mean to me so it is time for revenge!

Yesterday saw my Post Radiation Review appointment with Dr C.  It is such a good feeling, having a hospital appointment in the knowledge that there are no scary procedures likely.  I was still a bit nervous as you never know for sure that needles won’t suddenly appear.  The usual checks were fine and after only a short wait, I was called to see Dr C.  He examined me and was pleased with the new skin coming through as the old, charred skin peels off.  He said that I might experience an odd sensation of……, and then found the word he was looking for – lightning!!  I know the post surgery nerve damage gave me very odd sensations in the first few months after surgery, but that has faded and so far I have not felt any lightning across my scar.  That would be a real touch of the Harry Potters if I had a Voldemort scar!

Dr C was pleased with my recovery from the radiation and the remainder of our consultation focused on fixing a date for the next review appointment in 5/6 months time.

With this appointment over, I am now FREE for nearly 2 months until I see Drs W and W2 for my 3 monthly check.  I cannot tell you what a wonderful feeling it is not to be planning my life around the next horrible treatment.  I just need to keep my fear of recurrence or spread under control and wallow in this a bit.

Our turnaround in Bangkok should be quite quick now and we hope to travel back to Yangon tomorrow.  It will be such a treat and novelty to unpack, knowing that the cases can stay in the cupboard and gather dust for a while.

The next benchmark will be a quiet return to the office on Friday, which will be 10 months to the day since I was last at my desk.  I wonder if it is still there and if much has changed!  I know I have.