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!

eclipse 1

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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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.

lux 10

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.

Three little words, five years running

Rainy season is in full force in Borneo just now, so I was surprised to waken this morning to bright sunshine streaming in the window, New Year rays of sunshine. A sign of the coming year, perhaps. I cling to that hope.

borneo 3

There is no set plan for the first day of 2014, but there are some things to be done.  A swim of course, and a wander through the rainforest to the beach, some gazing at the jungle covered, dramatic peaks surrounding us.  Iconic Borneo view.  And the three words to share.

One swim has been swum, as gentle, drizzley raindrops were falling and wispy clouds gathered on the nearby peaks. There is something refreshing and life giving about these rains, and swimming under raindrops is special. Until the rains become too heavy.  I was able to swim for nearly half an hour before a rumble of thunder and the rain in my eyes prompted me to leave the pool.

Which makes it time to share the words.  The words have been selected for a little while now, tested here and there, and now they just need to be wrapped in more words to give the background.

Just as 2009 was drawing to a close, with two rounds of surgery, and three cycles of chemo, oh  and a stage 3 cancer diagnosis in the last weeks of the year, I saw an unusual prompt or suggestion for the coming year. Instead of making a New Year’s resolution, this suggested selecting three words to guide and inspire for the coming year. The rest is history. I identified three words which spoke clearly to me of how I wanted 2010 to be shaped.  These were to stay closely with me over the following year and without doubt kept me focused on what I felt to be important. This resonated so soundly with me it has truly been a practice which has been alive and meaningful for me. This has become an integral part of my life, and yes I do know how trite that sounds!  I spend a good amount of time, thinking about the coming year and how I want to guide it as far as I can.  I play with different words, until the right mantra takes shape and I have my three words.

2010               Recovery        Discovery       Laughter

2011               Harmony        Vitality            Adventure

2012               Resilience       Escapade        Wonder

2013               Focus              Treasure        Design

I am astonished that as I have been crafting the mantra for the coming year, that this will be my fifth selection of words.  Five years! In October, I will reach the five year mark from diagnosis. In these years, I have lived and breathed the words which I have chosen. My words whisper to me as they guide and inspire me, and I look to them if I feel I am drifting or struggling.  I love my words.

Early this year, I also developed the five sticky plan which further embedded the three words in my life. This has been another practice which sounds a bit zany, but again it has been a mainstay for me and worked incredibly well with this year’s words.

The year has been a hard one in many ways.  The words have been a support and guide which have been needed.  I confess that I will be glad to say goodbye to 2013.

This has been a year which has brought intense times, and more than its fair share of loss and heartache. It has been a year where the side and after effects of cancer and its treatment have more than impinged on my life with pain and discomfort. It has been a year of professional and personal intensity in an exciting and demanding context and place in history. It has been an exhausting year and often hard to find that sweet spot where the balance in life is hiding.  There has been more than ever a need for inner and outer strength and the patience to navigate through the grieving process. I still find it hard to believe that my father is really no longer with us.  How can he be gone, when he was always there, all of my life up to this year? We knew his time was limited and precious, but that does not make his loss any less painful. There have been shocking losses too, people who have been taken this year, horribly before their time. How can my brother in law be gone, just days after we had been planning to meet up? How can a young man be taken long before his 30th birthday, leaving his family and friends utterly bereft, bewildered and shocked?  How can life be there one day, and not the next?

Yet amidst the shock and grief we have been living in 2013, there have of course been moments and times to treasure, achievements, times we are proud of, times when challenges bring a refreshed closeness with our loved ones.

So what role did my three words play in this memorable year?  How did they work?  Were they lost amid life’s intensity?

My first word for 2013 was focus. This was my rationale for the choice:

I am a bit of a butterfly and flit from task to task, from idea to new idea and am easily drawn away in unplanned directions. I remember thinking that I needed to focus, to see projects through after the novelty wears off and to set clear goals and objectives as well as commit to seeing a task through.  I particularly like the fact that focus exists as a verb as well as a noun and thus expresses deliberate action as well as something tangible to aim for.

This has been a really important guiding word for the year. It has indeed served to remind me that I must tackle those tasks which I love to put off, and to spend deliberate time working on planning and organising.  The five sticky plan with its weekend reminders to spend some time on “focus” has been a useful technique.  Sometimes I have spent time organising my immense photo library (not quite finished yet though…) and others I have put aside an hour or two to write to friends and family.

When I revisited the words a few months ago, this is what I wrote then, and this most definitely still applies.

I feel as if I have been floundering a bit, especially with my writing.  I also see the need to bring a bit more order into most areas of my life.  I am a bit of a butterfly – I flit about from one thing to another.  My attention is easily drawn by something new and interesting.  Ideas are not a problem.  Or perhaps they are.  I have so many that I tend to move onto an exciting new though as the inspiration strikes. I love ideas and where they take me.  I like far less the graft of shaping and working with them through to fruition.  And that is why I need to focus. I have a number of embryonic writing projects.  Some more embryonic than others, and I recognised to need to prioritise and organise these projects if I want to see anything realised!  Hence “focus”.  And not surprisingly this has been the hardest one to work on.  The five stickie plan really helps, as one or two of the five of each weekend’s stickies must relate to “focus”.  I have taken time to better organise my electronic filing and writing work, spent time sorting and binning papers and junk which I am incredibly skilled at amassing and I have taken time to plan and prioritise my main projects”.  A friend also introduced me to the Pomidoro time management tool and I find it works incredibly well for me both personally and professionally. I am much more focused when I know I have 25 minute chunks of time, and then 5 minutes to stand up, check email, make a cup of tea or even just to go to the window and look at the clouds!  Perhaps there has been progress then, I realise.

What I realise, is that focus is not something purely for 2013, but a practice which I need to incorporate systematically.  I must keep my eye on the future, and in the direction I want to travel, I must focus to get there. And I must often work on some tasks which I would rather put off till another day,

Treasure was a bittersweet word for 2013. I had wanted to convey a number of elements including the sense of holding things close and valuing them.  Seeing the special elements in the everyday, and appreciating what we have. It spoke of cherishing and nurturing to me, its essence of encouraging growth and creation through care. ts, as well as a beautiful sense of when caring for the most precious things to us, protecting and treasuring them.

I also love the fact that it is also a both a verb and a noun, and that symmetry really calls to me.  In its verbal form, it is very close to cherish, with the added sense that it is something very special. I love treasure as a noun too, because we are surrounded by treasure, in even the most ordinary, everyday entity.  I love to pick fallen frangipani blossom in the morning, and call it morning treasure.  It is so important to notice the simplest elements in our surroundings and value them.  As modern life becomes more sophisticated and complex, maintaining a sense of naivety and wonder is refreshing if not essential to our emotional wellbeing.  I also apply this concept to my physical wellbeing and know that I must continue to focus on health and activity.  My wonderful morning swim and cycle routine is a treasure indeed.

Treasure has been a massive word for me through 2013, but the most difficult to articulate. In one sense I have been guided by treasure to ensure that I take care of myself, that I care for my physical, emotional and creative sides and devote time and energy to this. Moreover, though treasure has been bittersweet. In March I spent the last week I ever would with my father and that time and those memories and the time we spent together as a family on his loss are beyond treasure.  I hold them close, remember and relive those times with a mix of sorrow, grief and gratitude.

My third word of 2014 was design. I selected it with its abundance of meanings which spoke to me.

It represents the importance of creativity in my life and serves to remind me to prioritise those creative activities which I so enjoy. I need to ensure that there is space for art, reading, writing and imagining, and that I must ensure balance in my life. Design also conveys a sense of deliberate action, as in the phrase “by design”.  This chimes with me so much.  No matter what challenges are thrown in my way, I must retain control and make wise decisions as I follow the path I choose.  I must ensure that I invest effort and due consideration and don’t just allow myself to be swept along.  Life is not about what happens to us, but how we deal with what happens to us, we must remember.

This year I have in some ways felt as if life is a return to High School with all its extra curricular activities – in a good way! I have Writing Group, Book Club and a Film Night most of which require preparation in either writing, reading or remembering to bring a snack or bottle of wine!  In January, a Photography Club started up and I didn’t hesitate to join. I discovered that I was the only photographer using a point-and-shoot which promptly broke irreparably in some sense of inferiority!  I have bought an entry level SLR camera which has led to me learning so much and taking some appallingly bad photographs (another sense of focus). Add that to the daily swim and cycle routine, and design has in all of its sense been prominent in 2013 and I continue to enjoy learning and experimenting, making the effort and continuing to push boundaries.

Even before this review, I knew that the words were doing their work. They will not be retiring as we move into 2014 as their essence will continue in the practices which have become integral in my daily life.

As the year end approaches, I have a flutter of excitement as I begin the process which will lead to the selection of three words for the coming year.  Firstly, I take time to think of the priorities which I want to focus on and the emphasis for the coming year.  For 2014, I want to build on the work of these previous years while moving forward deliberately. The past year has been a difficult one, and I know there will be particular challenges in 2014.  I cannot control many external factors but I can be deliberate in how I deal with these.

With this in mind, the words I have chosen for 2014 are:

Dedication, integrity and flair.

I LOVE them, as individual words, but also as my guiding mantra.

Dedication

This builds on focus. It encapsulates a sense of devoting both time and attention on those things which matter most. I need to dedicate time to being organised and taking care of even the tasks which I don’t enjoy as well as the ones I do. I need to take care of myself, physically and emotionally, I need to set aside time and attention for people and not be swept up in the pressing things which tend to swamp us. I need to be dedicated to taking those writing and creative projects forward.

Integrity

“Do the right thing when no one is looking” is a (para) phrase which I read somewhere and I quietly lean on. I have seen it attributed as a definition of integrity but to me it means more than that. It speaks of quietly doing the right thing, without calling attention to what you are doing, so for the “right” reasons. It conveys the importance of being true to yourself and your values no matter how invisible or inconsequential that act may seem.  We live in challenging times, where priorities and demands conflict and by selecting integrity, I am setting out the importance of ensuring that in everything I do, I must remain true and loyal to my values and principles.  Integrity is the middle word for a reason.  It must be at the core of everything I do. No matter what challenges come my way, I must be proactive and faithful to what is right.  This will be tough for me. I know that the path of least resistance is one which I favour.  I don’t like confrontation or conflict, and yet sometimes it is necessary to face up to difficult times and not allow wrong things to happen, by doing nothing.  Integrity is like a beam of light which I must focus on and work towards.

Flair

My third word is flair.  This combines my creative side with individuality. I love being a little different and seeing things in new ways.  At the photography club, we provide feedback on the images we share on a given theme, and one piece of feedback this year hit the spot and made  gave me a swell of pride.  The theme was “rainy season” and I had shared a photograph of a line of monks walking through a flooded street, seemingly oblivious to the rains and the water levels.  I was told that of the thousands of photographs of monks in their alm-gathering lines, and rains in Myanmar, my photograph was unique and an image which no one had seen before.  The photograph was not technically great, but the essence I had captured was one of uniqueness and that is what delighted me.  I like seeing things through new, fresh eyes and from angles which others do not see.  A touch of flair.  Something creative to aim for, letting inspiration take me on a journey.

Borneo

So these are my words for the coming year.  2014, I do not know what you have in store for us, but with my words – I am ready!

Shaping 2012 with three little words

This year it has actually been really hard to settle on my three words to guide and inspire me in the coming year.  To be fair, I knew it would be difficult because I have liked my previous choices so much.  Not only have they been the right words for me, they have been the right words for me in that particular year.  When I first saw the idea of selecting three words at the end of 2009, it spoke so clearly to me and the three words came almost instantly.  2010 was indeed a year of recovery, discovery and laughter as I moved through the months of heavy treatment, back to Scotland to see family and friends after so long, returning to work and finally growing those characteristic grey chemo curls as I moved towards the end of the year.

Last year’s words clearly represented a shift in where I was with “harmony, vitality and adventure”.  Harmony in terms balance in my life, professionally, personally, emotionally and physically as well as harmonious musically.  Vitality encouraged me and spurred me on to build on my daily swimming and be even more active, taking up the gym and becoming fitter than I probably have been in decades.  And adventure – well, this has been a favourite and I hav embarked on a number of adventures throughout the year, which have grown in their adventurousness as the year progressed!

So I started thinking about the words for 2012 over a month ago, looking forward to the process of selecting the words as much as I look forward to a new series of the Amazing Race!  As the time approached I would start thinking of the overall areas I want to focus on and pick up on words as I heard them, read them or even as they came to mind as I was ploughing up and down the swimming pool.

I was however, right in my guess that this year’s choice would be much more difficult though.  How could I settle on words which I liked as much and which were as meaningful as the previous years’ words?  How could I pick only three words when there were just so many to choose from?  I veered from extravagant words through to simple words, playing with each in how they balanced each other as well as how they sounded together.  It is interesting too, that the mood of the words changed somewhat as I worked through the recent thorax and Twang Arm pain and associated fears, and that is reflected in my ultimate choice. Finally, after a great deal of polishing, reflection and dictionary searching I have my three words to share:

Resilience, escapade and wonder

Resilience comes first.  This is one which I have leaned increasingly towards as the challenges of the past weeks played out, and the pain I experienced.  It expresses the priority I aim to place on building my strength both physically and mentally so that I am in a better place to deal with whatever might come my way. The past weeks showed me that despite my pretty good health, both the cancer itself, and its treatment (combination of chemo, the radical surgery, radiation and the calcium-stripping Tamoxifen bonus side effect) have led to a fragility which I have to recognise and respect.  So I intend to continue to build my strength physically, with my precious swimming, and the less popular but equally important regular gym visits and other healthy pursuits.  Mentally and emotionally I will continue to prioritise my creative time and take control of what is in my hands.  This year has seen me join a creative writing group and latterly a Book Club which have been lovely ways of connecting with likeminded souls here, as well as an inspiring way to spend free time.  These are ways of building my strength and capacity to make me more able to “bounce back” following whatever unexpecteds and unwelcomes head my way.

The dictionary definition of resilience is 1) the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress and 2) an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.  There is also a very interesting discussion on psychological resilience on Wikipedia which tells us that “Resilience has been shown to be more than just the capacity of individuals to cope well under adversity. Resilience is better understood as the opportunity and capacity of individuals to navigate their way to psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that may sustain their well-being, and their opportunity and capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways”.  How apt.

My second word is escapade.  I toyed with coining my own noun “escapaderie” to describe the broad concept of being involved in escapades but decided that was just a bit too inane!  An important word for in 2011 has been adventure.  I have referred repeatedly to adventures, made field trips and short breaks into adventures and plotted adventures.  These have all represented a shift in strength, confidence and independence.  Two years ago I was unable to walk unaided through Bangkok Airport.  Two days ago I returned from a fairly physically demanding trip to a remote part of the country, involving local flights, side car/trishaw transfers, exploring by cycle, pony and on foot and long boat trips which I had to board by slithery narrow planks!

It was a my Mrauk U adventure and pushed me further than I could have imagined possible at the beginning of even this year.  My 2011 adventures have included remote field trips to North Shan and the Ayerawaddy Delta, a trip to Chiang Mai by overnight train and my somewhat extravagant birthday trip to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

In choosing “escapade” I wanted to maintain that sense of making the most of experiences, reaching out for the new and continuing to push myself.  For me though, escapade also has a touch of naughtiness about it which appeals to the rebel in me!  This is confirmed by the definition I found of escapade – “a usually adventurous action that runs counter to approved or conventional conduct”.  What appeals additionally to me is that an escapade (in my world) can be as small as an almost imperceptible gesture through to a grand action which attracts attention.  I can apply escapade to so many actions, even to the way my friend and I behave in the oncology waiting room together, being naughty cancer rebels and giggling about the grief we are going to give our doctors in the form of never ending questions!

And my third word, wonder, came to me in the swimming pool as I was ploughing northwards and southwards, waiting for the sun to rise.  Again this has a variety of meanings.  As a verb it encapsulates the action of questioning and enquiring, descriptive of my inquisitive soul as well as critical to my work.  And there is never a shortage of things to wonder about!  As a noun, it is that almost innocent sense of being in awe of things from the most simple through to the truly breath taking and grand.  Throughout 2012 this will remind me to retain that sense of appreciation in what is around me as well as honing my natural curiosity.

As in the two previous years, I am ridiculously pleased with my words.  They fill me with optimism for the coming year and the sense that I can take control of what is in my own hands.  And that is another reminder that much as we cannot change many things which happen to us, particularly in the land post cancer diagnosis, there are many ways to shape our life and experience which are in our hands.  Only we can grasp those ourselves and we have the capacity to interpret what is around us accordingly.

And that is why I have chosen the image below.  A doorway into an unknown place, dark and frightening.  It is also an image which gives me goosebumps of exhilaration as it reminds me of the emotions and new found confidence I felt when exploring the ancient and mysterious temples of Angkor earlier this year.

I wish you a 2012 which is as kind as it can be, and for continued strength and resilience from within each of us as well as from each other.

Three words to guide and inspire as we move into 2011

Last year I was prompted to select 3 words to guide and inspire me throughout the year.  The 3 words recovery, discovery and laughter came easily to me and they stayed with me as a mantra. I have found the task more difficult this year, perhaps because I really like last year’s words.  However, things must move forward and I very much trust that the coming year will be different from the outgoing one.

So in that spirit, after night time and daytime deliberations, I feel that I have settled on my new guide for 2011.

Harmony, vitality and adventure.

Harmony is the main essence of how I want to see the year.  It represents the need to maintain a balance in life, especially between work, health and leisure.  It shows the importance I hold in keeping a space for creativity in my life.  It also shows my dislike of conflict and wish for peace, in my life and in the wider world.  It also has the dimension of being in harmony with my body.  Much as I wish for NED I know that there are no guarantees.  So no matter what the year throws at me, I intend to be at one with how I handle it physically.  And in a very different vein, harmony in the musical sense shows my love of music and its importance in my life.

Vitality covers my wish to feel the full benefit of feeling well, and enjoying life to the full.  In a wider sense, I feel it can also cover a broader approach to life, embracing and each new day and new challenges.

I decided to pick adventure as my third word, as it also has a range of meanings which I feel will guide and inspire in the coming year.  It shows that I want to push myself and reach for new experiences.  If we look at its origins – (I knew learning Latin all those years ago would have a use) the word is made up of the verb to go, or move.  The prefix “ad” brings the notion of forward to the motion.  So adventure also represents moving forward.  I most definitely intend to keep moving forward, no matter what the year throws at me.

My wish for 2011 is that the year is kind and brings health, happiness and harmony in every sense to us all.

Happy New Year!