Wherever I Go, I Meet Myself

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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.

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You’re Just My Type: Hikers Compose Love Notes To The Grand Canyon

“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?

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In three days, Shalla says, hikers left 76 messages, which became the Towers & Type Project.

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“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.

Why Sharing Your Illness Story Online Might Be a Good Idea

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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.

The Story of St Brigid’s Day

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Today, 1st February is St Brigid’s Day in Ireland. If St Patrick is our national saint, then Brigid is Ireland’s patroness. Girls were traditionally named Mary or Brigid in days gone by in Ireland and as my own mother was called Brigid, I always felt an affinity to her story.

As a child, I always loved the ancient story of St. Brigid, who I viewed as a beautiful Celtic goddess.  Her father, Dubhthach, was a pagan chieftain of Leinster and her mother, Broicsech, was a Christian. It was thought that Brigid’s mother was born in Portugal but was kidnapped by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave, just like St. Patrick was. Brigid’s father named her after one of the most powerful goddesses of the pagan religion – the goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge.

Back in my school days we made the traditional  St Brigid’s crosses in class and I would take mine home from school to present to my own Brigid, my Mum.  The story behind St Brigid’s cross is that during one of her travels, St Brigid went to visit a dying pagan chief. As she sat near his bed, she picked up some rushes on the floor and began weaving a cross. When he asked her what she was doing, she told him about the meaning of the cross and this led to his conversion to Christianity.

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His Holiness the Dalai Lama being presented with a St. Brigid Cross on visit to Kildare, Ireland in 2011.

Making a St. Brigid’s cross is one of the traditional rituals in Ireland to celebrate the beginning of early spring. The crosses are made of rushes that are pulled rather than cut. They are hung by the door and in the rafters to protect the house from fire and evil. According to tradition a new cross is made each St Brigid’s Day, and the old one is burned to keep fire from the house.

Expanding Horizons #MIRoadScholars

Our dear friend and Global Village Storyteller, Dr Brian Stork, shared the story with us of his involvement in the Michigan Road Scholars program.  This unique program is a week-long opportunity for a diverse group of faculty to spend time away from their respective campuses and take a deep dive into communities around the State of Michigan.

You can read the full story here and learn more about the journey via Twitter @MichRoadScholar, Facebook, and Instagram.

Seven Layers Deeper

A poet meets a local farmer in an art gallery in the west of Ireland. Once a year, the farmer, who lives on the shores of Loch Corrib, visits the gallery.  The gallery owner introduces the two men.  The poet points out the intricacies and hidden symbolism of the paintings as the farmer listens intently. When the poet finishes, the farmer thanks him and tells him he has a wonderful eye, which is a special gift. In return, the farmer shares a story of his own special gift – Teannalach.

“I live beside the lake and you always hear the ripple of the waters and the sound of wind on the water; everyone hears that. However, on certain summer days when the lake is absolutely still and everything is silent, I can hear how the elements and the surface of the lake make a magic music together.”

A few days later, the farmer’s neighbour comes into the gallery. The owner, recalling the conversation between the poet and the farmer, asks the neighbour what he knows about Teannalach.  “Oh yes,” he says “They have that word up there. I’ve never seen it written down, so it’s hard to say what it means. I suppose it means awareness, but in truth it is about seven layers deeper.”

In the story, the gift of Teannalach, is a gift nurtured through daily practice. It’s rare, and also recognized and revered by others. The story, says, O’Donohue, “underlines the hiddenness of beauty, a beauty that dwells between the worlds which cannot be reached with known language or bare senses. It only reveals itself when the mind’s attention is radical and the imagination is finely tuned.”

 

Story adapted from John O’Donohue’s book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.

A Story For Nollaig na mBan

Nollaig na mBan is an old Irish custom, which goes back to the days when large families were the norm and men were not expected to help out with the women’s chores in the house. Tradition had it that each year, after the hard work of the Christmas festivities, their men folk would give women a break  from the housework on January 6th.

Mainly a rural tradition, women would go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Although Nollaig na mBan is slowly dying out in many parts of Ireland, overtaken by Mother’s Day; in some parts of Ireland, the tradition is still strong.

Here’s a most wonderfully nostalgic story of Women’s Christmas from the Wise Web Woman blog – perhaps it will bring back memories for some of you of days long passed into the mists of time.

The day of the Women’s Christmas women were supposed to take it completely easy after all the hustle, bustle and hard work of the prior months, with the men now taking care of them and cooking and cleaning all day. I can assure you that this never happened in my house as, like many men of his era, my father didn’t know one end of a broom from the other and boiling a kettle was the peak of his culinary skill.

However, my mother was the eldest female of her family so consequently her sisters, sisters-in-law, aunts and mother came around on that day and a smaller, daintier version of the Christmas meal was served. On the menu were: a bird (usually a fine roast chicken), a smaller lighter plum pudding and a lovely cake, usually dressed up in the fanciest of pink wrappers with silver sprinkles everywhere on the pink and white icing. The most delicate of my mother’s tea sets was brought out, my own favourite, the lavender and pale green set. I would love to hold one of these little saucers up to the light and put my hand behind it, as it was so fragile you would see all your fingers through it.

Gifts were exchanged, usually the most feminine of presents, perfume or talc, bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream were lined up on the sideboard and the fun would begin. I was encouraged by the grandmothers and great-aunts to always give my mother a little gift on that day for the woman that she was and I did, from a very early age. I would buy something small in Woolworth’s on Patrick Street, a little comb or my personal favourite, those fiercely aromatic bath cubes, which were a whole three pence each. I would wrap it up in layers and layers of newspaper and it was always exclaimed over with the phrase, “Well now, I can hardly wait to use this”!

The coal fire would be stacked up high and already lit in the front room before anyone arrived, with Bord na Mona briquettes piled on the fender around it, and any male showing his face would be banished to some other spot in the house.

I remember the women gabbing all day and in the heel of the evening getting into the stories and songs of which I never, ever tired. My female cousins and I would sense the privilege of being included in all of this, there was a respect in us and never did we exemplify more the ideal of children being seen and not heard than on that day. Unasked, we poured the drinks and ran outside to boil another kettle to make a fresh pot or brought in the sandwiches and the fairy cakes and the chocolates and exotic biscuits in the later part of the day.

I remember the hoots of laughter as my aunts dipped their ladyfinger biscuits into their sherries, letting us have a small sample of the incredible taste. This was the one day in the year that I could get a sense of how the older women in my family were when they were young girls themselves. Full of fun and music and stories. I learned about their old boyfriends and who courted them, how one of my uncles had dated all four sisters before settling on my aunt. How wild he was and how she tamed him.

I’d learn of the sad miscarriages and the stillbirths, the neighbours who went peculiar from the change or the drink, the priests who got spoiled in Africa and became pagan; or who had the failing, the old great grandaunt who took on fierce odd after her son married. I didn’t know what a lot of it meant then but I stored it all away to ponder on in later years.

They would dredge up old musical numbers from their single days and sing a few bars while one or two got up and showed off their dancing legs. Sweet Afton cigarettes were lit and my grandmother would puff on her dudeen and we all could hardly see each other for the clouds of smoke.

Stories were told and they would get caught up on all the doings they might have missed in their conversations all year, obscure marriages and births, sometimes in Australia or other far flung and exotic outposts of the Irish Diaspora. But most of all I remember the peals of laughter which resounded throughout the house all day and evening.

A moment would come in the midst of all the hilarity when the time for a spot of prayer came. Out of the big black handbags that never left their sides would come the rosaries. These would be threaded through their fingers and all the heads would bow in unison. I never knew the prayer and haven’t heard it since but it was to St Brigid, the women’s saint of Ireland, and it involved her taking all the troubles of the year before and parking them somewhere in heaven and thus they were never to be seen again. This was followed by a minute of silence (while St Brigid did what she was asked, I have no doubt), then a fervent “Thanks be to God and all His saints” and a reverent kiss on the cross of the various rosaries which were all tucked away carefully into the handbags again. Then the glasses of sherry or the cups of tea were refilled and the whooping and carrying on would begin afresh, the bothers and griefs of the past year now permanently banished and forever.

Image: rjnagle via Flickr

What I Learned From Nelson Mandela #MandelaDay

DE_uzuXW0AAjenj.jpgThe soundtrack to my teenage years in the mid-eighties was filled with The Specials Nelson Mandela protest song; in school I spoke as captain of our debating team about the evils of apartheid in South Africa, and I witnessed the strike by 12 workers at Dunnes Stores in Dublin who protested for two and a half years, for the right not to handle goods from Apartheid South Africa. The dispute started when Mary Manning, a 21-year-old cashier, courageously refused to handle fruit from apartheid-era South Africa. Mary and her colleagues became a household name in South Africa and Mandela said that their stand helped keep him going during his imprisonment.   Many years later when on honeymoon to South Africa, I had the opportunity to visit Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life in exile.

Nelson Mandela became for me and will remain the most iconic figure in my life time. In the eloquent words of Barack Obama he was a “man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.” The impressions made on us when we are young have such profound and lasting effects that it feels when something connected to that time is lost years later, that we also lose something of our youth. But it can also be an opportunity to reconnect with our youthful idealism. I am reminded of this again today, International Nelson Mandela Day, reading his quotes:

There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living ~ Nelson Mandela 

It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that determines the significance of the life we lead. ~ Nelson Mandela

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.~Nelson Mandela

Our world is a poorer place for Nelson Mandela’s passing, but a far richer and better place thanks to his life –  a reminder to us that we are capable of so much more in our lives and no longer settle for playing it otherwise.