Drawing in, breathing out.

Time and tide wait for no (hu)man indeed.

We are now at the autumnal equinox and the daylight is shrinking on a daily basis. Every morning two minutes are shaved from the daylight as the sun rises later, and a further two or three minutes from the end of the day. I am no mathematician but can easily see that this steals over half an hour of daylight in a week. In contrast to the spring equinox when the sun rushes to stretch the day, we feel the retreat of summer as we need to switch on lights progressively earlier. More layers are needed and the scent in the air brings a chill with the certainty of autumn and winter not far beyond. The light is softer, and lower in the sky, and the flowers start to retreat and withdraw.

The wider world and my personal world have changed so much, and yet so little. Two and a half years have passed since I closed my door as Covid threatened to intrude. And while its threat has been reduced considerably, it still lingers. It even stepped over my own doorstep in the summer despite living a sheltered and cautious existence.

Guided as ever by my carefully selected three word mantra, I have made some big decisions. With the intention to unfurl, I have completely adjusted that work life balance by stepping aside from the regularity of work and seeking to forage more to provide for my essentials. The past years have shown that we can manage differently, and with health continuing to constrain I need to make the most of, nay savour, these Voldemort years. I am moulding days and weeks to allow for a balance which favours reading, writing, and spending time outdoors when the Scottish weather permits. And reflecting. I have a rich bank of memory and experience to enjoy. Can you live vicariously through the experiences of your younger self, I wonder.

The onset of autumn months and years is characterised by this milestone that is the equinox. And this falls on the first of my cancer landmark days. The day I discovered the lump back in 2009. So it feels as if there is a synchronicity in this shift in the seasons, the shortening of the days and the ever bittersweet anniversary of my introduction to a life refashioned by cancer.

By unfurling, slowing down and refocusing I am striving to take control of my own little world in this universe of unpredictability and turbulence. And while the sun rises later and sets earlier on its march towards the winter solstice, it continues to backlight the plants and trees as they continue in their seasonal cycle. It is up to me to remember to open my eyes and see those everyday wonders which thrive around me.

Welcoming 2022 with three little words

Welcome, 2022. Please be kind. Please bring health, happiness and strength across the world.

I do wonder, when we look back at the 2020s from a distance of a decade of more, whether we will be able to distinguish 2020 from 2021, and 2021 from 2022 or whether the years will all feel like a blur of covid years. I already find it difficult to work out which May or June, which lockdown, and which wave were which. Was it May this year or last that was so hot and sunny? Can it really be almost 2 years since I have been living life very differently. And the unspoken question – will life look any different this year?

Going into the new year after the wall-to-wall covid year, I am glad I have my three word mantra to distinguish the previous years. And I trust that this coming year will be characterised as much by the words which I have settled upon to guide me through whatever is thrown at us.

With the covid situation so protracted, I have found it a strange process this year to find that balance between aware of the unpredictability of times ahead, yet maintaining my focus on what is important and the priorities for the year. And the words which have come to me for 2022 are now ready to be shared. My three word mantra to guide and inspire me in the months ahead are:

Unfurl, forage and savour

Unfurl

As the Voldemort milestone retreats into the past (the number which cannot be said out loud, but in Scotland reaching this age gifts a bus pass), I am increasingly reminded that I do not want to spend my golden years working flat out. Moving to part time working has affirmed that, and whet my appetite for slowing down even more. My mother died on her 65th birthday and as I approach that age, I want to step off the speeding roundabout and enjoy the benefit of having worked for the past 40 years, rather than work up to my last email breath.

Finding a word which captured this sense of “slowing down” was more difficult than I expected. Decelerate is too mechanical, slow doesn’t capture enough of what I want to convey and searching through dictionaries I discovered that many of the synonyms for slowing down had negative connotations. Such as lag behind, delay, impede, stall, setback, restrain … Which was very revealing about the world we live in and the value placed on rushing and speeding through life and work. Have we learned nothing from the pandemic and shifted priorities? And that made me all the more determined to find a word which would place value on slowness. 

The other dimension of slowing down which I wanted to aim towards this coming year, is that of becoming unbusy, and releasing the tension of recent months. After so long being tightly coiled, and as physical strength and capacity gradually reduces, I want to unwind in order to be able to live at a slower pace. Which brings in the perfect word – unfurl. I want to release and untighten from the stress and pressures of recent times, and slowly open like the promise of a new leaf, slowly unfurling, feeling the breeze as it reaches out towards the sun and the coming season. If I can unfurl, and embrace the rhythms of nature, this will allow a gentler, unhurried pace of life.

Forage

My second word is one which reflects an intentional approach to living, one where I consider carefully what I need, and one where I make the most of my surroundings in many senses. My second word is forage and it has meanings both very literal, and more figurative. Forage prompts me to look for wonders in front of me, under my feet and above my head. Forage  tells me that exploring is a wonderful way of living and reminds me of the times when I lived in places where the produce is seasonal and dependent on weather., and when I relied on using my creativity to use what was available, rather than what I thought I wanted. Forage reminds me that there is a great deal in my surroundings and I just need to open my eyes and my mind. Forage also reminds me not to be wasteful and to use and share what I have. 

In the less literal sense, forage reminds me to be observant and look out for those little treasures around me which hold so much potential to inspire creativity. And foraging is not limited to edibles, as I am surrounded by a lifetime of collectibles and memories which have stories to tell and seek a space to speak.

I look forward to discovering which paths foraging might take me on and what discoveries I might make.

Savour

My third word complements and travels comfortably alongside its two companions. As I unfurl and forage, I realise that I can enhance this if I make that effort to enjoy the slower pace and savour the simple things around me. To really savour flavours, sounds and sensations, it is important not to rush. Again, there are a wealth of interpretations from the very obvious senses of taste, and smell which we most immediately associate with savour, to the other senses. I can savour the music of birdsong by closing my eyes, and just listening. I can savour the sight of flowers welcoming bees as they go about their day’s work and I can savour memories which spring up unexpectedly by pausing and capturing them as they flitter by. 

The past years have especially shown us that life can change dramatically and drastically in a heartbeat. Covid and cancer have been clear examples. And that doesn’t diminish the challenges that come with an unwelcome development, which can be overwhelming and distressing. That is completely valid. But it does mean that we can accept what is, rather than what might be or should have been. And seek to focus on aspects around us that are there to savour.

And so my three word mantra for 2022 has taken shape. Savour reminds me to embrace what we too often consider small, ordinary and insignificant and this is so much more achievable when unfurled and living at a slower pace, and foraging with an inquisitive mind.

It is time to embrace 2022 with my three words as a constant, guiding companion. May 2022 be kindly, inspiring and healthy for us all.

Reflections of 2021 through a three word mantra

As the sun sets on 2021, I spend time reflecting on my three word mantra. I can always recognise the year from the three words I chose for that year, a practice which I stumbled upon a few hours before the New Year of 2010 began.

That very first three word mantrarecovery, discovery and laughter takes me back firmly to that year. The three words came so easily. It was December 2009 and I was in the thick of chemo and seeking to hold on to the prospect of healing. I recognised that leaning on innate curiosity and an overactive sense of humour would be key ways of dealing with the challenges of cancer treatment and the three words kept me focused on that mindset through 2010. When I read focus, treasure and design, I am taken immediately to 2013 on a wave of grief. Those words tell me that was the year I lost my father. Knowing at the start of 2013, that we would probably say goodbye before the year was out, very much shaped the choice of the words as well as providing strength and focus. The three words reorient, nurture and crystalize whisper “2016” in my ear, reminding me of a year that heralded enormous change. The year that saw me leaving the continent I had lived for over 15 years, the work I had loved and the country which had been home for 7 years.

And the words patience, calibration and stardust would set the tone for the year now closing, and keep my strength during what was to be a wall to wall year of Covid. That is evident in my words at this time one year ago when I wrote “Selecting three words this year brings a new dimension, knowing that the months ahead will see continued challenge as the new strains of COVID-19 and winter fragility test us to the limits. It has been strange to choose my words with COVID-19 looming large, and I have been striving to see beyond the immediacy, yet I find it impossible to ignore it… I trust that my words will carry me through any eventuality, whilst acknowledging the significant one of COVID-19 underpins a great deal.”

As we enter the final days of 2021, I have been reflecting on the year and my three words for some weeks now. This reflection is a sound basis which I find essential as I take the time and energy to consider which words will carry me forwards into 2022. The words for the coming year are shaping nicely, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on the year, and the three words that have depicted my 2021.

Patience

When we stepped into 2021, I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as the door was closed on 2020. The first Covid vaccines had been administered and there was a sense of optimism that 2021 would be see us moving out of the pandemic. Things would surely be different. My first word, patience, however, was a lesson drawn from the previous months. I knew that so much was out of my hands and that I had to put faith in the system and trust that things would work out. I knew that I just needed to be patient and focus on what was in my control, continuing to be cautious. The winter was tough, the long dark days were exactly that and the weather was not as kind as it had been the previous spring with frosts and snows continuing well into April. By the time the longer, lighter days appeared and the chills disappeared I had had my first vaccine, with our iconic NHS Scotland blue envelopes dropping through letterboxes and inducing unexpected emotions.

The Blue Envelope

But alongside the medical advances, and being in a very privileged situation here (vaccine inequity is a major issue, which merits its own discussion) there have been the inevitable mutations and variants of the virus which continue to create a dance with science. A dance of advances, side steps and retreats and the music keeps on playing. With each new chapter in the pandemic story, I have found the reminder to be patient has been essential. Of course there are days when I am sad and frustrated, but I know that I need to continue to just be patient and trust that life will become less and less dominated by Covid as we continue to move forwards. 

Calibration

I continue to live a very quiet, low key life and recent health challenges reinforce my own personal choice to minimise risk and exposure. I have not taken a bus further than a few miles away and mainly because of the commuting distance I have continued to work from home. I am to be enormously thankful that technology enables me to do this, but in contradiction, I have found it incredibly difficult to maintain a wise work-life balance. An important change, as been to move to working part time in the middle of the year, in order to calibrate that delicate balance. I now have two additional non working days. This has shifted the balance of my working week and now I have more free days per week than working days. Those working days seem to have stretched a little, but I know that they are followed by a very healthy break each week.

Another aspect of calibration has been possible by playing with space rather than time. My workspace has always been temporary, in between the spare bed and a blank wall, oblivious to the changing light and colours of the outside world. So the opportunity to shift things around during a recent family visit was embraced and things I had been unable to move were rapidly relocated. My desk now faces out of the window, and rather than missing nature in front of me, I find myself often distracted by the arrival of blue tits, robins and sparrows on the plum tree outside.

New view from my desk

The sense of calibration is something I am keen to take with me into the coming year and beyond.

Stardust

I have held on to the notion of stardust as we have moved through 2021, it has reminded me of the importance of seeing the light and wonder in the ordinary. Stardust sounds magical, yet we are told that “everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today”.

I have found the reminder that we are both reduced and elevated by the notion of being made of stardust to be paradoxically comforting and exhilarating. A reminder that we are tiny and insignificant in the planet, let alone the universe. And a reminder to look beyond the darkness and find the stardust that is within us, and in the universe.

My words have again served me well, and as with previous years, I take their essence forward with me alongside the lessons they have brought. And they pave the way for three new words to take me into the coming year, as they wait patiently to be revealed in the first hours of 2022. 

From My Doorstep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping gently into 2021 with three little words

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

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

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

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

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

Selecting three words this year brings a new dimension, knowing that the months ahead will see continued challenge as the new strains of COVID-19 and winter fragility test us to the limits. It has been strange to choose my words with COVID-19 looming large, and I have been striving to see beyond the immediacy yet I find it impossible to ignore it. The bigger picture sees COVID-19 very much embedded in it.

I trust that my words will carry me through any eventuality, whilst acknowledging the significant one of COVID-19 underpins a great deal. As always, there has been a great deal of thought and deliberation over several weeks, with numerous variations being tried and tasted as this mantra has taken its final shape. And now, my three words are ready to share. The three words to guide and protect me through 2021 are:

Patience, calibration and stardust

Patience

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

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

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

Calibration

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

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

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

Stardust

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections and glistenings

Each year since the start of 2010, I have found the practice of selecting a three-word mantra to be one which grounds and guides me through the coming year. This mantra accompanies me as the months pass, it reminds me of the priorities which I had seen as key for the year ahead and keeps me on track. As we now move well into the final quarter of this especially strange year, I am minded to reflect on my three words for 2020. Words which were chosen carefully, without any inkling of the times ahead. And words which now feel to be eerily apt.

I can still see the expression of disbelief when I described the world before the internet to my grandchildren a couple of years ago. Their faces displaying complete bewilderment. And as for myself, I too find it hard to remember having to search for information, in dictionaries and encyclopedias. Waiting for libraries to open for reference books, poetry quotes and other sources of facts and clarification. Back then, booking tickets and hotels on the phone or by post, and physically going into the bank on a regular basis were the way things were done. Now there has been this entity called the internet in most of our lives for less than half of my lifetime but it is hard to recall what it was really like before it became such an integral part of our lives. When we first got email addresses they looked odd in their lower case formats. Often we would have to share the internet connection and take it turns every day or so to access our emails. Then, when technology became more accessible, we had modems which connected us at home, through twanging phone lines which disconnected our phones while we spent short bursts of time online. How quickly we forget what it was really like.

When I think back to the start of 2020, I am not sure I had even heard of coronavirus. Those little snippets of news reporting that a new virus had appeared in Wuhan were yet to register in our consciousness. Far away, distant in miles, time zones and worlds. And although Asia was very familiar to me, this faraway illness and images of a deserted city seemed unreal and almost fictional. How quickly that was to change.

As the situation in Wuhan was intensifying, the three word mantra which I had chosen for 2020 had formed and was whispering in my ear. “Still, dwell and glisten”, it encouraged me.  When I went abruptly into isolation in mid-March, life did physically come to a standstill. While I was no longer venturing any further than the garden gate to put out the bin and had truly stilled, my mind had not. Anxiety dreams, shock at the impact of the pandemic and a major shift to a completely ‘work from home’ modality meant that my mind was in overdrive. Such an irony as the intent of the word “still” was to motivate me to pause, reflect and settle in my new space. While my mind has been more difficult to “still” I have found time and intent to meditate. and complemented this with a fascination in watching the garden grow around me. This has motivated me to pause and capture this in words and photographs. There is so much that I would have missed had I been living my pre-pandemic non-isolated life.

My second word was “dwell” and intended to remind and encourage me to make my little place a home, fixing the many tasks which need to be done and getting to know the community I had chosen. I had been working my way through those tasks, month by month, and hoping that many would be completed as the end of the year approached. I had become involved with the local writing group and other community organisations and with the lighter evenings arriving, I was looking forward to getting to know neighbours. Isolation intensified the focus of my second word. Being in total self-isolation meant that I was now dwelling completely in my new space, working from the kitchen table with my laptop at the wrong height and using a funky chair in bright and fun kitenge fabric from Rwanda. I was able to spend lunchtimes in the garden, and out of the corner of my eye I could see the hedge growing rapidly while on Zoom calls. And the more the situation continued and we normalised this strange new life, the more I was thankful that the timing of COVID-19’s arrival came after my move here. That I was able to dwell in a peaceful space, surrounded by reminders gathered on my path here. This word is central to my 2020 mantra, and central to maintaining a sense of being grounded through these months.

My third word is “glisten”. It arrived as a late surprise, when I was trying to decide between two other words with similar meanings (enlighten and illuminate). So often when I am selecting my three words, one comes along unexpectedly, and I wonder where it was hiding. Glisten was perfect as I started 2020. It was simple but extraordinary, and required an interaction and cooperation. As I revisit those words which I wrote as the sun was setting on 2019, in those long ago pre-COVID-19 days, I find them intensely resonant.

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

As autumn progresses, and the northern winter approaches I feel the need to hold on to these words. The situation has been worsening over the past weeks and we know that this winter will have dark moments. More than ever, there is a need to look for glistenings of hope all around us, like raindrops gently held on the leaf of ladies’s mantle, and where we can, shine a little light to cause a glistening.

Envisioning 2020 with a three word mantra

tapestry3

It was ten years ago, on New Year’s Eve in Bangkok that I first spotted that Tweet about three words which revolutionised my approach to the coming year from then onwards. It is no secret that this resonated immediately with me and three words formed with incredible clarity and haste. I am still quietly astounded how this practice has embedded itself firmly as I now embark on this process for the eleventh year running.

I am always astounded by how well my words serve their purpose, guiding, reminding and encouraging me through the year. This year has been no different and my mantra of “script, nestle and nourish” have been by my side through another year of transition. I have been reluctant to lay them gently to the side this year though. The transition has been far slower than I could ever have imagined, and I could quite comfortably take these words with me through another year and I did consider this. However, the prospect of this emotional and psychological review and cleanse is valuable and I again have found the process of identifying my priorities and the right three words one of enormous benefit. So, I will keep my 2019 words tucked away, behind my new words, reminding me that none of my words are ever discarded. In fact I believe that they build on each other, and I now have a wonderful foundation of words and mantras that remind me how greatly I have travelled since December 2009 and how much there is to be thankful for.

2010                Recovery, discovery and laughter

2011                Harmony, vitality and adventure

2012                Resilience, escapade and wonder

2013                Focus, treasure and design

2014                Dedication, integrity and flair

2015                Breathe, stargaze and realise

2016                Reorient, nurture and crystalize

2017                Emerge, explore and intend

2018                Search, settle and weave

2019                Script, nestle and nourish

These words tell the story of my life over the past decade. In particular a decade since my cancer diagnosis, but so much more than that. I can recognise each year and with it, the feelings and emotions of those times as much as the significant events in each mantra.

Before I introduce the mantra for 2020, the new year and indeed the new decade, I like to reflect briefly on those words which have accompanied me through 2019, “script, nestle and nourish“.

Script

Writing continues to play a key part in my lift. I have found a wonderful writing tribe in Edinburgh, and although I do not spend nearly as much time as I would like writing, this hour weekly provides so much more than a space to shut up and write. It provides friendship, like minds, new faces and encouragement. I still have my writing project alive, but needing an infusion of deliberate effort to move it forward and, dare I hope, complete it. I have set the path for the coming year by reconnecting with my writing mentor in a commitment to dedicating time and energy to this. Having my own space finally, and establishing a creative place in that is part of that commitment and motivation.

Script was also about being intentional in shaping my life. It meant putting effort into the things I wanted to change, and writing my own story. And that is also apparent in the other two words.

Nestle

This has been the central word to the year, appropriately in the heart of my 2019 mantra. The transition from overseas life to finding a forever home has been complex and my eagerness to finally settle in a space that I intend to stay in the very long term has taken long to realise. I finally found myself able to start searching properly in the spring of this year. This was both exciting and daunting. I knew in my heart what I was looking for – a quaint little cottage-type home, close to the city, easy to commute, in a nice neighbourhood with character and some history and tradition. Some green space and a place for a bird table and feeders. When I was looking for a place to call home in Rwanda, I put my thoughts together, and apart from a dearth of jacaranda and challenges in getting frangipani to thrive in Scotland the rest is incredibly apt.

My wishes were clear, and the search started in earnest. With it came the abrupt realisation that there was an incompatibility with many of these requirements within the means I had available. My search was wide, and weekends and some weekday evenings I would be on a bus, exploring new communities and potential homes. And there were very few which came anywhere near what I was looking for. The process was draining, but invaluable. I learned what was available and what were the key priorities for me. I knew which areas I needed to compromise. I came close to thinking about putting in an offer, but something always stopped me. I was not ready to commit, just in case the perfect home was round the corner. None of the 29 places I viewed were quite right and not how they were portrayed in the advertising. Camera angles are very deceiving and can make tiny rooms look cavernous. I had entered the year eager to settle, and now midsummer was approaching with no sign of my forever home. In early June, I arranged a viewing at another property, a quirky wee place, which looked really promising, and spotted that there was an open viewing at another place, a dear looking little cottage, nearby just beforehand so thought I would pop in there too while I was near. And it quite took me by surprise. It ticked many of the boxes that I knew were important to me, but I had to look beyond the fact that it needed a great deal of work to make it home. but I knew that the other option was more promising, so I headed to view it with high expectations. And it was also suitable, but I felt a sense of very slight, almost intangible, disappointment. It also needed work but had incredible character.

I decided that I would put in an offer. And with some deliberation and to-ing an fro-ing I decided to put in an offer on the other place too. The closing dates were adjacent, and I was almost frightened that my offer on the first would be accepted, as I realised, almost despite myself, that I seemed to be setting my heart on the little cottage. I was not disappointed that my offer for the quirky place was miles short of the one accepted. Now I had to go through the same process 24 hours later, but with a very different frame of mind. To cut a long story short, the process was not clear cut, but in the end on a midsummer’s day, that truly was the longest in many ways, my offer was successful. I was delighted. I knew I had found my home. I also knew I could not move into it until some essential work was done, but I was very much closer to nestling.

A month later, I had my keys just before I set off on my Voldemort trip, with the knowledge that I was returning to Scotland by train to the prospect of my own home and under my own terms, unlike my abrupt return two years earlier. This gentle train journey homewards was truly a “homecoming”. And a few days after the autumnal equinox, with the critical elements of the essential work completed. I was finally able to move in, unpack and begin to truly nestle.

Nourish

Now, the emphasis on nestling has probably indicated that while nourish has been an important guide, it has had to fit in alongside, “nestle”. Rushing around, getting ready to search, undertaking an extensive process of viewing and then readying my home to live in has nudged my focus on “nourish” slightly to the side. Not quite neglected, but it is not to be forgotten as I move forward to 2020.

As the day dawns on the new decade, what kind of 2020 do I envision? The past weeks have seen me pondering, contemplating the year ahead and how I want to shape it. As in recent years, I have travelled in different directions, playing with different ideas and words, reflecting on the aspects of the coming year which I want to focus on and I now have the words I feel will guide me forward. And the words which have emerged are:

Still, dwell and glisten

Still

My first word is “still”. Not the adjective but that beautiful verb which means to calm or become quiet. I feel the need to still my soul, my body and my mind. Much of 2019 as spent running around. A great deal of this was readying for the search for my home, those long weeks looking and covering a great deal of ground physically and emotionally, preparing to move and then starting to settle. My mind and body have not stopped. It is still to still, to allow myself to breathe again. It is time to quell my anxieties and focus on mindful and meaningful days. There is plenty to fill my time, I just don’t need to be constantly “on the go” to do so. Amidst this stillness, I believe I will be able to keep sight of what is important. The terrible pun would be to say this would be my 2020 vision.

Dwell

My second word is “dwell”. This feels the perfect way to guide how I settle in my new home and community with the definition “to become familiar with a place and feel happy and confident in it”.

Gradually I am shaping this as my home, while I trust, retaining respect and appreciation in the history of the home I have moved into. I am settling into a space which has an evident and warm history. While there is a natural pressure to quickly have all work finished and sit back, I am also happy with the gradual process that is necessitated. This gives me time to learn how I will settle into my new dwelling, bringing my eclectic collection of Asian, African and Scottish belongings and styles into this existing history. In particular, the well cared for garden contains so much history and life – plum, pear and apple trees, many flowers I do not know the name of, wild raspberries and gooseberries. A wise friend countered the main advice I had heard and counselled me “take time and sit in your garden, let it speak to you before you make any changes. It will tell you what to do”. Those words resonated powerfully. I am sure I will make some changes, but probably minor and these must be in keeping with the character of what is already in place. I can dwell in this space by being true to the garden and to myself. And wider afield, I am eager to make connections in this community. There is a book group, a writing group, a photography club and even links through a twinning arrangement. I look forward to dwelling in my community.

Glisten

My third word is “glisten”. It took me by surprise a little, as I had almost settled on either enlighten or illuminate when thinking of the wish to spend more time and energy shining a light on my creative pursuits. It was also articulating some of the wider context we find ourselves. In many ways these are times of polarity and negativity around us and it is important to have the courage to shine light in dark spaces. But then glisten arrived unexpectedly, and was perfect. It is more subtle, natural and everyday. It has the meaning of “shining with reflected light” and has an element of the ordinary and extraordinary about it. Most importantly, to me it emphasises cooperation and a relationship as two elements are needed (light and moisture) to make something glisten. Two simple, everyday elements that we overlook and take for granted, but which create something eye-catching and of wonder. How often are we taken aback by the twinkle of the sun on a frosty edged puddle, or the light captured in a raindrop? It is also about our attitude and approach. We all have light in us that shines, and we all have the potential to make things glisten. This encourages me to be creative, solution focused and optimistic and to keep my eyes open for those tiny, extraordinary moments we can miss when our minds and thoughts are dark.

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Even in these short Scottish, winter days there are many opportunities for us to see that which glistens around us, and for us to be our own tiny light.

As the daylight starts to fade on this first day of the decade, I am ready to open up and gently place my three words for the year into the wide open world.

Still, dwell and glisten

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Happy New Year and may 2020 bring you everything you dream for.

Unlocking the door into 2019 with a three word mantra

As I look into my well-thumbed notebook where I have kept a note of the sets of 3-word mantras over the years, I realise that this is the tenth time that I am embarking on this exercise. It is a bit of a puzzle since it is only nine years since my diagnosis but that is the mystery of numbers and one which I will not pretend to understand.

This past year has been one of continued transition, with major tasks to work on to help me to settle. It has involved a great deal of searching and energy, guided by my mantra of Search, settle and weave. The searching has seen me find a renewed purpose, closely connected to my overseas work and an area which inspires and motivates me. I feel connected again. I am considerably more settled. Thus there has been considerable progress and the various threads of my life are slowly weaving together. A picture is gradually emerging even if the tapestry is still to reveal its full picture.

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And as the year comes to an end, and I attempt to rest and heal after many weeks of intensity and poor health, my mind has been quietly working away to clarify the best words to guide my path ahead.

In the final hours of 2019, I put my current words gently in their place in my notebook, alongside their predecessors. As I look at each set, I can identify each year clearly through each mantra,

The year I discovered this practice was Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) of 2009. Looking back, “recovery, discovery and laughter” firmly tells me “yes, that was 2010.” That was the year I moved through the months of chemotherapy, radiation and follow up with those guiding words and their reminder that a sense of humour is an extremely useful tool during times of challenge. “Harmony, vitality and adventure” and my quest to gain strength, confidence and healthy and balanced life very accurately tells me that was my 2011, and the mantra “focus, treasure and design” tells me immediately that I approached 2013 knowing that the year would be a tough one as my father’s health failed. Indeed, that year as we said goodbye to him was indeed one with cherished moments and heartache to hold on to. The last three years have been characterised by enormous change and upheaval in every area of my life – professionally and personally. “Reorient, nurture and crystalize” tells me of the guide I had set out for moving on from so many years in Asia and says “2016”. Just as clearly, my mantra for the past year “search, settle and weave” whispers “ah, that was 2018,” to me. When I first saw the prompt in the final hours of 2009 that shaped my first 3-word mantra, I had no idea that this would become such an important part of my emotional and spiritual essence.

I always approach the final weeks of the year with a touch of trepidation, unsure as to whether I will find the right words for the coming year. Each year, I reflect, think ahead, look at the areas I want and need to shape most and somehow the words come. I seem to be more finely tuned to the meanings of words at this time, often picking up on a word I read or hear as it is spoken, and draw it into my evolving thoughts. This year has been no different. In my notebook, I have ideas, priorities and thoughts, jotted down, linked together and explored.

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And from this jumble of letters and scribbles, incredibly the 3-word mantra for the year ahead has emerged.

As I sit on a warm rooftop terrace, on a sunny New Year’s day far from Edinburgh, it is time to put my new mantra into the world, and set out my intentions for 2019:

“Script, nestle and nourish”.

These are the words which will inspire, motivate and guide me through the coming year.

Script

Script is an important word with several meanings for me. I love different scripts, and in Mongolia was especially fascinated by the sweeping, curved pen strokes which would start from the top of the page and work downwards.

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I was able to read modern Mongolian as Cyrillic is now used, with a couple of extra letters, my days studying Russian at university providing me with the key to at least sound out the Mongolian words, but with little or no comprehension of their meaning. In fact, in all of the Asian countries I lived and worked in, there were different scripts (Devanagiri in Nepal, Tamil in the part of India where I worked, Singhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka and the beautiful circles of Burmese script in Myanmar.

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I am fascinated by the relationship between these configurations, their pronunciation and their meanings. I would need to live for many centuries to begin to unravel some of these amazing puzzles.

Script also obviously relates to the practice of writing, and is important to me because it has been a neglected area of my life for too long as I have been working through practical tasks. This will remind me to set aside time and energy for writing, and to be courageous and regain confidence. I need to follow through the various writing goals I have set before they wither. I will find a creative space which will remind and encourage me to write.

There is another, important meaning to this word though. I am conscious that over the past months and more, I have been reacting to events which have happened. My work finishing earlier than planned, a return to Scotland which was abrupt in the grand scheme of things, and health glitches – these are all things which need to be dealt with. Of course I cannot change what happens, but I can take control of how I deal with it. I want to script my own story, to manage the various practical tasks in a constructive and appropriate way so that the tapestry is one which I believe in and own.

Nestle

This is taking forward the idea of settling from 2018. After so many years on the move, and with life plans changing, a priority is to find a place where I can nestle down and be cosy, where I can unpack my weird and wonderful bits and pieces from my life in so many corners of the globe. I want to find a little space where I can plant some seeds and watch them sprout, and where I can put a little bird feeder for the Scottish birds I am getting to know again. Where I can make tea and build a hearth to welcome family and friends. Where I can “coorie down”, – a wonderful Scottish expression for tucking yourself in, making yourself cosy and protecting yourself from the cold and outside troubles. It is linked in my mind to nesting which is also an important part of what I am eager to do. The long term fallout of cancer and divorce play mayhem with previosuly established long-term plans and bring a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. Nestling seems to be the perfect way to create a sense of belonging.

Nourish

My third word for 2019 is “nourish”. This is also a word which encapsulates many meanings. The most obvious relates to a nourishing approach to maintaining and rebuilding health. I miss the seasonal and fresh foods of recent years, with local markets and variety. This winter and a persistent bout of seasonal ill health remind me of the importance of eating nourishing foods and natural resilience. I am also reminded to nourish the soul as I have access now to sources of reading, writing and inspiration on my doorstep. In Yangon, I had developed over the seven years, a lively creative life with a writing group, book club, photography club and regular film nights. Focusing on this area will strengthen my sense of belonging and connectedness as well as nourishing the creative self. This will help me to nestle as I also nourish those little birds, and seeds to establish a peaceful and inspiring space around me.

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As I gently place my 3-word mantra into the big wide world, I reflect especially on a weekend in early October. I was fortunate to be able to join like and inspiring minds on a mindfulness and writing retreat, run by friend and fellow blogess Audrey and poet and writer Helen. We were welcomed to the perfect space, tranquil and surrounded by a lifetime of gathered treasures and mementos, trees changing and shedding their leaves and a busy woodpecker. Far distant from the chaos of the outside world, set right in the outdoors. At the start of the retreat, we were asked to select a picture from a number of available images. I was immediately drawn to a key, which spoke to me of a childhood fascination of old keys as well as the notion of unlocking doors to the future. As the weekend drew to an end, we all made a pledge for the future. My own pledge featured an old rusty key and a box, to lay to rest my anxieties and harboured tenderness from the unexpected transition and encourage me to move forward in a positive space.

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As I move forward, I know that I have many untold stories which I am eager to script. Stories of the singing fishermen of Lake Kivu, of trailing my little travel bag around the Galapagos and of humming birds under the shadow of Mount Tunguruhua with its rumbling Strombolian promises of fire, tales of Rwandan weddings, African sunsets and safaris and many other adventures.

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And perhaps first, will be the tale of a little Scottish grandmother, trailing around the souqs of Marrakesh, haggling over the purchase of a rusty old key with absolutely no practical use, yet with enormous personal significance and optimism…

Tip Toe Tapestry

Many weeks have passed since the chattering pebbles of Findhorn beach whispered on these pages. Months have slipped by, and have seen the short wintry days gradually stretch into one of the hottest summers Scotland has known under long, light days. Time keeps its steady march forward and another autumnal equinox has passed. The days smartly shorten as the pace towards winter gathers speed, hewing daylight minutes daily until those times when the working day starts and finishes in darkness, and we see little of our neighbours.

And still the pages have been empty, my writing soul not yet ready to pick up the pen.

The longer the silence continues, the more deafening it becomes. Venturing back onto this space means I must tread softly and gently, testing the firmness of the ground as I timidly move forward.

At the start of the year, I set out my three word mantra. Search. Settle. Weave. And over the past months I have been pushing forward with a long search. I have been nurturing my soul and seeking to encourage the growth of roots ready to settle, slowly drawing out the threads to weave the tapestry of what is my new and different life.

Tapestry – The Tree of Life

As the year began, I knew that I had a long and deep search ahead. I had been looking for meaningful work, but not quite sure in which direction I was headed. My age definitely counted against me, and experience which seemed not to match needs back in my home country made it difficult to find clarity around a professional role. Oh, and the winter which swept through with a rare ferocity which kept us in a grip of unusual cold and deep snow over a number of weeks making it hard to move forward. A meeting of like minds and a timely opening brought some interesting tasks my way and the opening of a meaningful role which I have been delighted to take up. Slowly my search for purpose has found a path and direction. With this stability, I am extending my search for a place to call “home”. These things take time, and energy which I need to muster as the threads of this part of the woven picture emerges. I look towards the end of the year with hope and optimism that I will have a clearer sense of where this search might lead me. Thus, when I look back to my first post of the year, I am encouraged to see that my searching has brought me a renewed sense of purpose, greater clarity and stability.

I have been longing to settle. The past three years have seen such enormous change in every area of my life and now gradually I feel that the turbulence is calming. Search and settle are intertwined and almost interdependent. Settling relies to an extent on the searching leading to finding. But not entirely. Stability through work, as well as processing the various painful elements of being lone again and moving towards a more healing place, combine to lead to a more settled state. Settle is a comforting, healing goal to aim towards. I am gradually settling and the threads of this part of life are also beginning to form an image.

My third word brings the other two words together figuratively as well as literally. They provide the necessary foundations for the third word – weave. Those threads of my life which were loose, cut or unravelled are all becoming apparent. I feel now as if the weaving has begun, the different strands are emerging, growing and moving into place ready to weave a picture which has strength, stability, clarity and which can shape into an image of beauty and inspiration.

I am ready to move gingerly forward, tip-toeing softly as the tapestry of my future begins to form. There are many images in that tapestry to define as that process of weaving begins to move forwards.

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.