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.

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Three words for 2018

Good evening” I nodded as I passed a well wrapped up couple walking their dog on the shorefront.

Evening,” they responded, kindly faces pinched in the chill wind.

I glanced at my watch a few steps onwards, and realised it was only a few minutes after 3 o’clock. In northern Scotland the days are short and in those twilight days between Christmas and New Year the sun nudges above the hills just for a short while before resting again below the horizon. It would soon be dark, another cosy night ahead.

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Such evenings are perfect to reflect back on the year. Long evenings to review what the year brought, as well as preparing for the New Year. This time last year, I was in Ecuador. To be precise, I had been in the Galapagos Islands on those very twixtmas days, absorbing the unique setting I was in and oblivious to the surprises which 2017 was to bring. I was crafting my 2017 words: “Emerge, explore and intend”. I was ready for what the year would bring.

Or so I thought.

My process of identifying my 3 words combines a foundation of “givens” for the year with the direction, strength and tools to absorb “unexpecteds”. The words were tested to their limit by the past year as the “givens” almost all disappeared.

As I stepped into 2017, I had been living in Africa just a few months and was settling in to this new and inspiring place. A whole new continent and world away from the Asia I had lived and worked in for the previous decade and a half. My 3 word mantra was in place to guide me move forward. Emerge, explore and intend. I was all set to build my confidence and establish my place in my new environment. I was eager to explore my new surroundings. And I set out to approach life intentionally. However, 2017 had a few surprises to put in my path. Serious ill health from early in the year, a long recovery time and a change in the world of work saw me return to Scotland in the middle of the year, ill prepared for the adjustment which repatriation and professional redirection requires. It is not yet timely to detail those changes as there is still work to do to find my feet in a world which has changed significantly since I left in 2000. Writing an article for CABLE, Scotland’s new online international affairs magazine about my return to Scotland, provided a useful opportunity for me to think more deeply on the scale and depth of this readjustment.

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This is a transition at all levels, professional, personal and physical. And a transition which was not planned or chosen, but necessitated by a set of external factors beyond my control. To move forward, I need 3 words which are strong and which will guide me to keep moving forward, ensuring I do not flag.

This is the first time in my life when I have not been working (or studying full time). I have been taken aback to realise that I feel stripped of my sense of purpose without the role which work provided. I am still the same person, with the same beliefs and values yet the vehicle to challenge inequity and inspire change was very much bound up in my professional role. This has led me to my first word – search. I need to search to find my place, to find a way to play my part in the world. I want to define and refine my sense of purpose. Searching is also a very practical need. I need to search to find where I can play a role in the Scottish workforce, in a country which has changed so much in the time I was away. I must search for a long term place to call “home”, as my circumstances now are very different. These are important individually, and almost overwhelming when put together. And there is no shortcut, searching and researching are processes in themselves and need time, energy and careful consideration.

And that leads me to my second word. After such change and turbulence, I yearn to “settle”. I have revelled in the variety of places I have lived, without doubt. I had no idea that I would spend so many years overseas and in so many different countries when I left Scotland 17 years ago. Yet, no matter how much I felt “at home” and enjoyed the homes I settled in, I always knew that no matter how long I would stay in a country, it would not be permanent and that leaves a psychological niggle deep down. After so many years of different, long term yet temporary homes, I am warmed by the prospect of a home where I can finally unpack all the elements of my life and truly settle. Indeed, I have experienced uncertainty and upheaval in all areas of my life these past months and I want to focus on seeing that all settle in 2018. These are also not quick or simple processes, but I would like to see at least clarity and stability. I want the dust to settle, and to see the way ahead in my longer term future.

My final word is one which leans on and follows on from the previous two. The various threads of my life are currently loose and straggled. These need to be sorted and brought to some kind of order. I want to begin to “weave” my new life from these various dimensions. Threads are thin, fragile and quick to be blown away when they are single, but when they are brought together, with ideas and direction, they can be woven into a fabric of meaning, strength and beauty. These strands woven together can form stability, clarity and can grow and evolve as time moves forward. Having so many loose strands may be daunting, but this is also liberating. I have enormous freedom to weave the life and future which is right for me. I am eager to for that to take shape and to see what the picture will look like.

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As we move through January, these northern days will slowly lengthen alongside the promise of spring and regrowth as nature’s cycles move forward. I have my first Scottish spring in almost 2 decades to look forward to. I welcome a reacquaintance with snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils, as the trees begin to bud and the evenings become lighter.

This is the nurturing backdrop for my 2018 mantra “Search, settle and weave”

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No Seven Year Itch

This is my 7th cancerversary. And I am beyond happy to be here to type those words.

If there’s something I have learned these past years about cancerversaries, it is this. They are pretty much all the same but they are all different too. Each year, similar emotions are stirred. The memory of those words “highly suspicious of cancer” never fades, nor does the memory of feeling petrified. Petrified in its most pure sense, being frozen by fear, immobile, terrified and numb. The feeling of loss, that comes when faced with mortality. The knowledge that things can never return to they way they were before diagnosis. Yet, in seeming contradiction, I have found each cancerversary different. Some I have marked in quiet reflection and thankfulness. Some more analytical than others, and some more intense than others. None, not one has been celebratory. October is brimming with memories and landmark days as well as being compounded with the irony of Breast Cancer Awareness Month so I am surrounded by reminders both in my own head as well as all around me.

October also marks the time of the Big Check. Usually I roll up at Counter No 2 of my familiar Bangkok hospital, am greeted like a long lost friend and find myself on a conveyor belt of blood draws, scans, x-ray, mammo and vitals before seeing my dream team who unravel the mysteries held in the various tests. That’s usually when the tears start, while sitting waiting to wrap up the final paperwork and leave the hospital. An overwhelmingly emotional mix of relief, grief, release of tension as I find myself connected, sometimes a little less directly than others, with NED, No Evidence of Disease.

This year is very different. There is no seven year itch which leads to a rupture in the long relationship with my wonderful team in Bangkok. The reality is that I am no longer an hour’s flight from this team which has looked after me so well for so many years. I am now on Africa soil and would need to find a new dream team in the region. I had considered returning for one final Big Check in October but the unexpected health hiccup in August meant that was unrealistic and a long haul trip unwise. However, the extra time in the UK meant that was able to hurriedly arrange a check up. This was far less detailed than the Bangkok checks, protocols being very different and incorporated mammogram and bloodwork. And no tumour markers. We know these are controversial, and not considered reliable. I know that, yet the yearly or twice yearly marker check is one I cling to as I find reassurance in stable results. It has been strange starting my story at the beginning with new specialists and support teams. It was unsettling not to have a physical examination. I almost feel that I need to go through the intensity of so many tests to be able to breathe when I come out the other side, always knowing that breathing is a luxury and not guaranteed. This year, my bloodwork was fine. Kidney and liver functions and the other key bloodwork all normal. Slightly anaemic, unsurprisingly given the bleed just beforehand. And the mammo was also unremarkable. All reassuring and welcome news delivered over the phone just a few hours before I boarded my flight to return to Africa. I had half guessed this though. The mammo had been carried out a few days earlier, and the oncologist had my phone number and knew I was leaving the country. I knew that if there was something worrisome, then I would have received a call much earlier. Though my heart did stop when her PA called me with the opening words “unfortunately…” This was not related to the tests, thank goodness, but to difficulty in getting me a replenishment of Femara before I departed! So there was no moment when I was shooed out of Dr W’s door to be banished until the next round of checks. No release of  tension, nor tears. Perhaps the seven year point coincides with this new landscape and brings a new perspective even to the Big Checks.

So with the Big Check behind me, friendship maintained with NED, how do I mark this seven year cancerversary? I always have something to say, being a “remember-the-date” kind of girl and October 2 with its cancerversary status is one firmly etched in my mind. This morning Facebook welcome me with a swathe of reminders about the previous posts I have written on this day over the past years. Last year my Big Checks fell on the same day and date as the diagnosis six years previously and I focused on the similarities and differences of those appointments.  The previous year marked five years after diagnosis, a time scale which is widely held to be a magical milestone but which is far more complex. At four years, I was in a contemplative mood with few words but a great deal of thinking and remembering, noting that this was “a day of recognition, quiet reflection and gratitude for a a present which is precious and fragile“. On the third cancerversary I wrote about the line in the sand which you cross when you hear the cancer words. That line which marks the time before and the time after. At the two year point, I dwelt on what I had lost and what I had gained, much of it intangible and psychological. All of it real and intense.

But the very first cancerversary is one which retains its own particular character. That one year mark was an important one, especially given that I did not think I would see Christmas beyond diagnosis, let alone a whole year. Life had changed beyond recognition and I wanted to tell cancer a few things. So I wrote a letter to cancer. I re-read it this morning and realise that in fact, much of this sentiment holds true years later, so I have decided to share the letter again.

October 2 2010

Dear Cancer

It is a year since you came into my life and it’s about time I told you what I really think.

You were uninvited.  And unwanted.  And unexpected.  You have changed my life beyond belief and it really will never be the same again.

I had no choice about your unwelcome arrival, you didn’t give me any chance to opt in our out.  You were just there.

The first time I realised you might be there I remember a terrible fear. It was late September and I remember thinking that I would not see that Christmas.  The thought of you kept me awake at night, my mind veering between hope that there was another medical reason for your symptoms, and sheer terror that indeed you were the cause.  I admit I had never really thought that you would try and invade my life, after all you have not troubled our family before and I naively thought that you preferred certain genetic and family traits.  So when I was told that you were there I was shocked and surprised.  And terrified.

You are such a destructive force and that meant I had to endure destructive treatments.   For my survival I was trapped in an overwhelming battle between massively destructive powers. I had to lose parts of myself to cut you out of my body. My body hosted a long and violent battle between you and the toxic chemotherapy and the rays of radiotherapy as they sought out any trace you might have hidden as a seed for the future.  I know that I was left sick, exhausted and very weak but that was worth every ounce of suffering to know I tried everything in the hands of the powerful team I have to banish you.

While this has taken me through a horrible journey, when I have had numerous side effects, lost my hair, caught pneumonia, lost much of the use of my left arm and generally felt very ill, it has brought me some special things too.  The relationships with those near and dear have grown and strengthened and we have cherished time which we might otherwise have squandered.  While it was my body which you invaded, you touched the lives of many beside me with your heavy dark hand.  I have had to face up to some horrible and unpleasant procedures and been able to find a strength and resilience that I had no idea I possessed.  I have connected with many other women all around the world whose lives you have also invaded and we have shared the most private of details from the terrifying through to the hilarious.  We have laughed at your expense, even though we acknowledge that you have had possibly the bigger laugh.  Time will tell if you have the last one.  While I value and treasure these factors which I found through you, don’t get any ideas that this might endear me to you.  No, I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO LIKE YOU!  I get your point and I will continue to do everything possible to keep you as far from me as possible.

I am still frightened of you because you are such a destructive and determined force. You are also horribly sneaky and I know how powerful you are.  I know that I have always to be vigilant because I don’t know when or where or how you might try another attack on me.

I resent you because I am no longer able to think of the future without worrying about you coming back.  I resent you because I now live my life through what I call the “cancer lens”.  Even if I don’t need to take you into account in what I do, you have changed the way I see everything. You could say that instead of seeing life through rose tinted spectacles, I see through pink breast cancer spectacles.  I might not particularly like it, but I recognise, accept and live with it.

So I will be keeping a very keen eye open for any attempts you make to sneak back into my life.  And trust me, if you do try any comeback, you will be treated to exactly the same welcome.

Yours candidly

One Feisty Blue Gecko

This makes me think of the French expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” which translates along the lines of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Indeed they do. The landscape is new yet somewhat familiar in certain elements. The perspex plates which cause both physical and emotional discomfort in mammogram machines, the needles and skilled fingers which try to find blood in reticent veins and the anxious waiting all easily cross continents. Yet, the team now looking after me, and the systems and procedures are very new as is the African soil, the flowers and the birdsong.

Indeed in these times, there is always something to take us back to that which truly counts. The dry season which was underway when I arrived in Africa has given way to a short rainy season. It is less humid, and far less warm than Yangon but the thunderstorms which light up the skies are reassuringly constant in their dramatic nature. The lightning reveals the silhouettes of a thousand hills and causes electricity lines to blow. In the fresh post rain air this morning, I spotted on the rain-sodden grass an unexpected splash of colour. There in the middle of the grass was a brand new flower. As if placed there for this day of note.

A perfect, timely reminder to cherish the past and embrace the new.

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First impressions. Some answers, and yet more questions

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Red dusty earth and rolling green hills. Hills as far as the eye can see. This is a land of a thousand hills.

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A wind ensemble of hitherto unheard birdsong, late afternoon and early morning pan pipe solos and daytime flute melodies. Twittering, tweeting colourful little birds chattering through the afternoon. Tiny chirruping birds, unrelated to the Yangon kingfisher, but sharing the same dress sense and fondness for a shiny blue jacket. Birds dressed for dinner with coat and tails, and a pair of birds with peaked caps airing their private words from the bushes.Sweeping, swooping birds of prey silently keeping a watch from above.

Up hills, down hills all around the city. Hill starts. Hill stops. Hill start ups again.

New flowers, and familiar flowers. Many mornings, different surprise flowers appearing. Occasional sprigs of jacaranda, nasturtiums, sleeping cream-petalled hibiscus and wide awake, boldly smiling pink hibiscus. Geraniums, bougainvillea in red, rusty orange,white and bright purple colours. Miniature flowers with unexpected dandelion clock transformations. Creeping lilac and yellow flowers which open just for one day.

Motorbikes! Everywhere motorbikes. Up and down hills, zigging and zagging through the streets.

Maize and more maize. Baskets of maize on the heads of women. Some baskets of yams or sweet potatoes. Milk urns on the backs of motorbikes.

Nokia phones for radio, music and chit chat.

Teeny tiny butterflies, so petite I cannot see their colour, nor even know for sure that they are indeed butterflies. Super sized ants working in solitude.

Snuggling, sleepy babies hiding from sun and dust under a floating cotton cape, secure on their mothers’ backs.

A three quarter waning moon alongside three bright stars in a night sky that dawns in minutes.

Surrounded by wide, welcoming smiles.

Forty days and forty one nights under an African sky.

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On the move again

Packing, sorting, binning, reminiscing, unpacking, retrieving, remembering.  And re-packing with a view to eventually being able to close the lid on my suitcase but not the substance of the past weeks, the elements of which are strewn in all directions.

Walking near Morar

 

And preparing to leave Scotland, family and a whole Great Chapter and returning to pick up the pieces of everyday life again in Yangon.