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.

Three words to guide and inspire through 2017

This is my last day of retreat in the hills. Tomorrow morning will see me on the drive along a winding mountainside road before descending to the main road and then strangely ascending to the capital. From there, and after a little exploration, the long journey back to Africa will begin.

I am having some difficulty concentrating, as the cloud formations on the hillside are changing constantly, the little blue tanagers are flitting about in the avocado tree. Two exquisitely coloured humming birds continue to tantalise with their brief appearances, hovering for a few seconds, yet not long enough for me to be able to capture their bottle green plumage or quivering wings on my camera. (Fortunately, this excellent site has images which show how beautiful these little birds are).

hummingbird

Image credit – Ray Wilson Photography

I am compelled to pause and take in these sights and sounds while I can. Yet, resist and concentrate I must. There are three words in my mind and they are urging me to capture and share them. The three words of 2016 have served me well, “reorient, nurture and crystalize” but they are ready to step back. A three word mantra for 2017 has taken shape and is waiting to lead the way ahead.

The past year has seen enormous change for me individually, not to mention in the wider world. My three words are fiercely personal to me, and I trust them to help to move me forward.

My first word for 2017 is emerge. The past months have seen me living life very quietly and low key. There has been a stillness on this blog while I process and work through my way forward. This has been a time for nurturing and healing. I feel that the time is now right for life to be breathed into this quiet and for me to emerge and find my space again. I want to regain and rebuild my confidence in this new place. I want to seek out like minds and souls with whom I can grow. It feels as if the gecko has been in hiding under some rocks and it is in need of some sun and fresh air to breathe, just like this giant turtle which I saw the other day. (This photograph is one I took, part of a story waiting to be told in the coming days.)

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My second word relates to the new environment I find myself in. Africa! Now that I have been through this major reorientation, I have been working to settle and crystalize in the later part of 2016. Now it is time to explore. I have a new city to explore, and people to meet. A new country to find out about and many neighbouring countries to get to know. I wish to explore my new surroundings with curiosity and humility, and maintain that sense of wonder and respect. We learn something new every day, but must keep our eyes and minds open to be able to do so fully.

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A photo from my explorations in the past week

My third word is intend, and aims to keep me focused and ensure that I live intentionally. The health blips of 2016 need to taken seriously and I need to be vigilant and deliberate about my health and wellbeing. The new environment brings with it a new diet, and different surroundings and, more particularly, rather cold swimming pools! I need to ensure that I am proactive in keeping active and finding the happy place for my mind, soul and body. There is a great deal of discussion about mindfulness and I have found that this has been a practice which is of great benefit to me. I want to strengthen this in the coming year and beyond, and embed it into my routines. Intend also reminds me to value time and resources. These are finite. The five sticky plan (which I still use and love) is one technique which reminds me not to squander precious free time. Most of all, intend is an additional prompt to maintain integrity in everything I do.

 

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Cactus in the late afternoon sun

So, there is my 2017 three word mantra – “emerge, explore and intend”. May these words guide me well, and inspire me through the year in the face of challenges, opportunities, laughter and tears. Whatever is in my path will be faced, whether difficult or easy. What is changeable is how I navigate the way forward, and I trust in my mantra to enable me to embrace this with strength, courage and enthusiasm.

May 2017 be kind, inspiring and enabling to you all.

Where am I?

Where am I?

There continues to be silence in this space, and I am working to introduce some sounds and move towards more constant presence here. So here are a few words to break the silence. I am still around, still thinking and reflecting. Still kicking, still laughing and still crying. But not writing. Not writing nearly enough.

Usually I have three words to share at the start of the year, a practice which I discovered at the end of 2010 and which has worked incredibly well for me. However, these words are late in coming to you this year. To let you into a secret, they are a little late coming to me too. I have been offline a great deal in the past weeks and on the move too. Not enough time for reflection, but in a good way.

The three words will be ready soon, and once they are, they will be here. I am moving forward from my mantra of 2015 which reminded and pushed me to “breathe, stargaze and realise”. I leaned on an unexpected three words during personal challenges with “dignity, contemplate and beacon” which have been invaluable and for sure influenced my actions. My 2016 words are still morphing and whispering to me, the mantra still taking shape.

This year has been tough. I know I seem to say that each year, but I have crumbled more under unexpected challenges in recent months. So it is important to embrace unexpected gifts as well. Like this one……. A couple of weeks ago, while walking in the lanes in Yangon I happened to glance upwards. The dry season’s typical blue sky was interrupted by a random, feisty cloud.  It was clearly grumpy and dark but the sun was shining brightly behind it and casting clear rays from behind the cloud.

The silver lining and sunshine were clearly visible.

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This is such a powerful reminder that in the darkest of times there is indeed light and sunshine even if we cannot immediately see it.

Very soon my three word mantra will be ready to motivate and guide me forwards, seeking light and laughter, sunshine and smiles, happiness and healing for us all.

Realise – a review and a commitment

I have written in recent weeks, about my three words for the year. That has surprised me a little, as I usually revisit them later in the year to take the pulse on how they are working. But this year, there has been an unexpected nudge to check in early in the year.

Perhaps there is a greater need than ever for me to be guided by my words, and this is why prompts have come my way. And a lunar eclipse is a pretty impressive prompt!

It is especially timely for me to talk about my third word, realise. And I need to muster a little courage for this.

I have been writing this in my hideaway in the Laos hills, in the space where I found peace, inspiration and healing over the New Year. We have a week of leave over the Thingyan Water Festival and New Year, in Myannar, and I knew that I needed an escape from the intensity of recent weeks and months, and from the watery mayhem which takes over much of the region. As soon as the medical checks were over and Dr W2 and his flowery Songkran shirt had given me welcome news, I moved to firm up arrangements for a break I eagerly sought back in the hills near Luang Prabang.

LP April 1

The perfect creative space.

LP April 2

This is a very special space, not for everyone. If you are seeking entertainment and sophistication, gala dinners and spectacle then this is probably not for you. Entertainment is largely self made – there are treks to nearby villages, waterfalls and hillsides, a swimming pool and surroundings which draw serious numbers of butterflies which need to be watched as they go about their butterfly work. There are games such as scrabble, and puzzles. The food menu does not span a large number of pages, but the food is fresh, delicious and the vegetables grown in the organisc farm which is part of the project. Here there is no television, but there is a small library with books in a number of languages. Here there are no selfie sticks and gadgets are rare. People chat instead of gazing into smartphones while their thumbs do aerobics. In fact there is not even any wifi here so it is truly disconnected from the buzz of the outside and online world. And I find that enormously refreshing.

LP April 3

This is a truly tranquil space, and I occupy my time by walking, swimming (the temperatures are much warmer now and the water welcoming), photographing butterflies, reading and writing. I have especially been writing, and writing in such an inspiring place, where the distractions are mainly in the form of butterflies.

And that is where realise comes in. I have promised to myself that I will deliver on my main writing project by the end of the year. This is where I need courage because if I share here what my plan is, then I have an additional responsibility to make it real and deliver.

So here goes. Deep breath………

I have alluded in passing to my writing goal. Publication of Dragonfruit last year was a major life achievement for me, in having some of my writing appear in a proper book. This has pushed me to take this a stage further and produce a book with my name on the front and that is what I have been working on in the Laos hills, in tea shops in Yangon and green and inspiring spaces such as Bago.

Now I want to share a little more detail as the work takes shape.

There are two key aspects to this memoir. Firstly, insights and accounts of life and work in the 2009/10 Myanmar when none of us had any inkling of the changes ahead are told through my first year there and accounts of ways of life which have evaporated and disappeared. And of course, the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in this setting.

My aim is to produce a memoir of (a little over) my first year in Myanmar. It will span from June 2009 when we were waiting for our paperwork, through settling in Myanmar when things were very different, travelling extensively through the country in my first three months before being diagnosed with breast cancer. The work then charts the experience of single-breasted, bald, wheelchair-using, frequent flier commuting between Yangon and Bangkok for treatment, in an environment where I did not speak the language, and there were considerable practical, logistical and paperwork challenges. The memoir takes us through to November 2010 and my first visit to Bangkok following treatment which is not for medical reasons, as the world watches the Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi being released from house arrest following the first elections in two decades in Myanmar.

Back when I was diagnosed in October 2009, I don’t think that anyone had any idea of the changes ahead either personally or contextually. This is a combined account of a country facing unexpected and enormous change, and that of an individual woman facing an unexpected journey. In addition to sharing the detail of the disease and the treatment, this memoir will delve into the emotional and psychological facets of a cancer diagnosis and the unexpected elements – special friendships formed through a common cancer experience, the world of internet cancer and social media and its role in 21st century cancer yet in an environment which was closed and enigmatic to the outside world. A real example of tropical cancer, and in fact cancer in the unknown and mysterious Myanmar/Burma.

Living in Myanmar (Burma) and being treated in Bangkok provided a background ranging from the amusing – (such as trying to find a prosthesis when the market is focused on perky boobs which are perhaps more targeted for Thai Lady Boys, or a wig when the colour options are black or black making a chemo pale foreigner look like a Goth or aging rock star) – to the heart rending (being on the other side of the planet from family, the shock and disbelief upon hearing the cancer word), and to the bizarre (undergoing radiation therapy while Bangkok was on the international stage during the “Red Shirt” protests in May 2010) when Bangkok erupted in violence and flames which caused additional stress and uncertainty and added an unexpected perspective to those days.

I have a working title for the memoir, which needs a little refining before I can share, but here is a clue…

LP butterflies 1

The commitment I have made to myself to realise, is to produce a draft manuscript for the end of the year. To be a maor step forward in making this real. 

LP butterflies 2The Laos hills and their butterflies have provided a particularly inspirational space to take this forward considerably away from the distractions of the outside world.

2015 – a gentle start

This afternoon I have returned to beautiful Luang Prabang from the nearby hills, where I spent New Year – completely offline.

This is a gentle start, and reintroduction to life in the 21st century, while I try and hold on to the peace and rest I experienced in those beautiful hills.

LP Hillside 4

I have spent 9 days, reading, writing, walking and breathing. Tomorrow I travel to Bangkok and on Thursday the next round of checks and monitoring awaits.  But in the meantime, this is at the back of my mind.

In the coming hours, I will share my 2015 words.  They are ready, they are already working their magic, but the backstory needs a little polishing.

In the meantime, I would like to wish kindness, peace, laughter and music to all for 2015 and beyond.

Pondering

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

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

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

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

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

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My Kingfisher friend watching my daily swim

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

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