I am always taken by surprise when the first blossom of the year appears. It never seems to appear gradually.
A few weeks ago I noticed that Edinburgh castle was hiding, behind a screen of trees laden by swathes of thick, pink cherry blossom with occasional glimpses of the ramparts visible through the gaps.
My first spring, or pre-monsoon season, in Nepal was characterised by a similar experience. I was heading from the north of the city, towards the main street beside the Royal Palace when I realised that the wide street was lined by bright purple trees. Not the occasional violet coloured blooms, but trees that were completely and joyously purple.
I don’t think I had seen jacaranda before. For a few short weeks, the city was a riot of purple, gradually fading as the carpet of purple underneath thickened before slowly disappearing altogether. The following year, I was similarly taken by surprise by the stealthy takeover of the city by the purple blossom. Each year I forgot they were coming, and saw no sign until the trees laughed purple at me again.
A couple of weeks ago, while I was obsessing about the pink cherry blossom in Scotland and spending far too long capturing pictures of the pink trees and the pink blossom underfoot, I was transported to another life and another set of blossom. My friends and former colleagues in Myanmar were all posting pictures on social media of deep yellow blossom, the sense of celebration abundant in each message.
It is around this time of year that the traditional Padauk tree blossoms, and this is eagerly awaited. Traditionally, it flowers once the first drops of monsoon rains fall on the branches around the Thingyan Water Festival time. The first rains, the sight of deep yellow blossoming trees across the city and the heavy scent of the Padauk prompt smiles and celebrations on every face.
Blossoms are gathered and immediately seen in every woman and girls’ hair, and adorning the bicycle trishaws and dashboards of every single vehicle. Padauk is gathered and gifted prolifically and joyfully. But these blooms are transient, they stay on the branches for less than a day, and fall on the ground making a yellow carpet within hours of blossoming. It is always hard to imagine that those trees bulging with blossom would again be green within a few hours and the pavements underfoot would briefly be a carpet of yellow.
As I was reveling in the images of the freshly blossoming Padauk and the celebrations from afar, I realised that no matter how far I have travelled, and irrespective of how different the culture, climate and vegetation might be, there was a common thread.
No matter where I am, I am consistently and naïvely enthralled at the sight of trees blossoming. Cherry blossom in Edinburgh, jacaranda in Kathmandu and Kigali and Padauk in Yangon. My heart sings anew each time, no matter where I see the precious, prolific little flowers.
And that was when one morning, I recently peeled of the saying of the day from my little calendar of Eastern daily wisdom to read:
“Wherever I go, I meet myself”
And then it all made sense.
Wherever I go, I experience the place through my own eyes and heart. The colour of the blossom may be different but the reactions I experience are remarkably similar. I am meeting myself in places near and distant. I realise that my story and my stories are elements which come together to create the fabric of my self. Sharing my story and stories are a way of understanding and making sense of these fragments which come together to form me.
Creating my blog Feisty Blue Gecko: A Tail of The Unexpected was originally set out to tell one particular story. It was in Myanmar or Burma when I was three months into a new job and home, in a new country discovering and shaping that phase of life in a new and enigmatic setting that life took a turn for the unexpected. It was after work one evening in the shower that I felt a lump. And there at that moment, a line was drawn in the sand. My tale of tropical cancer had begun.
Diagnosis, surgery, treatment, sickness and baldness ensued rapidly. I knew that I needed a way of capturing what was happening, processing the maelstrom of thoughts and fears and preserving what I knew would be a period of rapid change.
It was also a way of communicating what was happening with folks back in Scotland and elsewhere who were anxious and concerned. I had already been keeping a blog of observations about life and work overseas, and the compulsion to document what was happening in this cancer experience became overpowering. And so my breast cancer blog was born.
This was my Xanax, my coping mechanism and my space to tell my story. While my diagnosis, treatment and follow up all took place on the other side of the world, this was my story, my experience and my emotions and the story took place where I was located, at any specific time.
As the years have passed, the blog has evolved and now I have returned to Scotland for my final years, I realise that I am many stories, all enmeshed together. I am overflowing with stories to tell before they fade.
I want to tell the tale of getting all dressed up in a flowing bluey green “mishinana” at 7 am on a Saturday morning in preparation to go to my first Rwandan wedding in Kigali; I want to tell the story of working in the tribal villages of India which had been ravaged by the tsunami, sitting with the children as they drew pictures which told their stories; I want to tell the tales of travelling to the most remote herding communities in Mongolia, in temperatures of -45C where we all had frozen eyelashes and the ability to articulate words on an inhaled breath. These tales sound exotic but in fact they are everyday stories, of weddings, resilience and survival, making a living and the rituals and traditions which surround them for people across the globe.
Now, I recognise that I have been gifted a perspective and way of understanding and sharing the stories which I have been gathering. As I settle back in Scotland for my final years, I have many words to gather to shape these stories.
About the Author
Philippa Ramsden blogs as Feisty Blue Gecko, the blog which came into being on her breast cancer diagnosis in 2009. She had recently moved to Myanmar and the blog took life as an essential way of telling her story from afar.
Philippa is an international development professional with an unusual career path. She graduated as a mature student from the University of Glasgow in French and Russian with a background in community development. She then worked in international development in Scotland prior to embarking on an overseas career in development and humanitarian work in the education sector.
Over the past 17 years she has lived and worked in Nepal, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Rwanda as an education specialist before returning to Scotland just over a year ago, where she is still looking for small everyday wonders. She tweets from time to time on @feistybluegecko.
“I was seventeen years old when I acquired this typewriter from the Iowa City Goodwill store,” so begins Elyssa Shalla’s story.
“Its mustard accents, the crisp reflexes of its keys, and its sturdy traveling case were worth the five dollar price tag. Neglected in my parents’ basement, I rediscovered it a decade later, stashed it in the trunk of my car and drove it west to Grand Canyon National Park.”
What happened next was something quite wonderful.
Shalla, a National Park Ranger, used the typewriter to create a pop-up storytelling project for visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park.
As she explains: “In the final 48 hours of 2017 a new ribbon was installed and it was carried in the pannier of a mule named Cookie from Indian Garden to the edge of the Tonto platform in the Grand Canyon.”
For three days at the end of 2017 and early 2018, hikers encountered the typewriter after a 6-mile hike down to a scenic overlook, along with this note.
Dear Hiker, welcome to Plateau Point. You’ve hiked a long ways. Please take a seat in the chair and relax. Look around. Take it all in. What does this moment mean to you?
In three days, Shalla says, hikers left 76 messages, which became the Towers & Type Project.
“We need to provide more opportunities to give people the chance to stop and think and feel at the same time and then give them a platform to share their experiences,” says Shalla. “That’s one of the greatest things we could do in our national parks.”
And, of course, that’s true of everywhere.
Do you ever wonder why so many people share their illness stories online via personal blogs, various websites and social media platforms?
Do you ever ask yourself, who in their right mind would share so many personal details of their life on the internet, for crying out loud?
Yeah, me too.
And yet, like so many others, I do exactly that.
My cancer story began with my mother’s cancer diagnosis in 2004. Despite the fact she was diagnosed with an early-stage, low-grade, hormone-positive breast cancer (supposedly, the good kind), it went on to metastasize in 2007. Roughly six months later, she was dead.
Sandwiched in there, we learned she carried the BRCA2 gene mutation. That was in 2006. My family history is complicated. Whose isn’t, I suppose.
While still grieving and still contemplating genetic testing to see if I, too, carried the same BRCA2 mutation, along came my breast cancer diagnosis. I guess you could say, I contemplated a bit too long. I tested positive for the mutation too, btw.
Six months after my diagnosis, I started my blog, Nancy’s Point. Originally, I had intended to blog about grief and cancer from a daughter’s perspective.
Suddenly, I had a new cancer story to share about as well – mine.
From day one, I knew Nancy’s Point would be a blog about cancer and loss. It had to be. For a lot of reasons, the two are nearly one in the same.
I chose and still choose to tell unvarnished truths about cancer and loss, well, my truths anyway. And believe it or not, I have only scratched the surface.
So, why do so many bloggers (and others) share their illness stories online, and why do I share mine?
It’s all about connections. Humans like feeling connected to others going through similar circumstances. We seek out those connections in Cancer Land; too, and when we find them, we latch on to each other and hold on for dear life. Literally.
Following a traumatic event, there’s a desire to do something with the experience. To give back. To give the experience at least some kind of purpose.
Some feel inspired to create whether it be writing a blog or a book, designing jewelry, painting, taking up photography or whatever the case might be. Whether you are the creator, reader, listener or observer, there is nothing like the healing power of art.
Some are driven to change the status quo by turning into fierce advocates traveling the country, or even the world, working tirelessly to make things better and hopefully a little easier for others walking in, or who will someday be walking in, the ill-fitting shoes of cancer, or whatever the illness might be. Advocacy, too, most often begins with sharing stories.
Others need a place to “put” their cancer (or other illness) experience. Writing a blog, commenting on blogs or sharing on social media about your experience offers exactly that – a concrete place to put it.
Besides, everyone needs to vent now and then, right?
And for some, including me, it’s a combination of all the above.
But why am I still sharing my story and the stories of others?
That one’s a bit harder to answer, and after eight years, I sometimes wonder why myself.
I am still at it as much for myself as for my readers
There are many reasons why I keep doing what I do, I suppose. Some reasons, I can put into words and others I cannot.
Most simply put and for now anyway, I can’t imagine not continuing.
Sharing your illness story online makes you more vulnerable, and yes, there is potential risk involved. It’s the internet, after all; so, you need to set boundaries and think things through before sharing such personal matters.
But the rewards you will likely discover along the way outweigh the risk, at least, this has been the case for me.
It’s empowering to share our stories, possibly more than any of us might realize when we do.
The empowerment comes from each person’s process of sharing her/his unique story. But it also comes from the validation so generously offered by those who listen and bear witness to those stories.
Through sharing, we are all stronger.
What better reason to share could there be than that?
About the Author
Nancy Stordahl is the blogger behind Nancy’s Point and author of three books: Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy, Cancer Was Not a Gift: A memoir about cancer as I know it and Facing Your Mastectomy & Making Reconstruction Decisions. Learn more about them here.
To celebrate the beginning of the new year, I wanted to share with you 20 inspiring quotes to get the year started in the best way possible.
Wishing you a story-filled New Year!
“We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—‘yes, that is the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”
When you regain a sense of your life as a journey of discovery, you return to rhythm with yourself. When you take the time to travel with reverence, a richer life unfolds before you. Moments of beauty begin to braid your days. When your mind becomes more acquainted with reverence, the light, grace and elegance of beauty find you more frequently. When the destination becomes gracious, the journey
becomes an adventure of beauty.
– John O’Donohue