At the stroke of midnight, step forward a dark-haired man…

Just a few more hours and we’ll be saying goodbye to 2013 and welcoming in the New Year.  Happy New Year! to everyone who has already celebrated.

As with many notable days of the year the rites and traditions associated with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have become a little hazy over time.  In many of our towns and cities it’s another reason for people to party, become excessively drunk and get themselves in a pickle.  New Year’s Eve can be a lot of fun but it’s often a frustrating, horribly busy evening for the emergency services. Members of our family have worked in medicine and law enforcement for longer than I can remember so we have plenty of stories from the darker side of too much alcohol, drugs or both, including some tragedies.

Here’s hoping this year sees plenty of merriment without mishaps for all those who are celebrating.

We don’t live in a town or city and New Year is a less raucous affair which, I must admit, suits me fine because I’m not much of a party animal.  Out here people from the farms and hamlets go to the local pub, socialise, celebrate and generally enjoy each others company. In some areas superstitions about the casting out of evil spirits are maintained on New Year’s Eve followed by the blessing of homes and farms on New Year’s Day.

Another tradition involves opening the back door on the strike of midnight to let the old year out, then asking the first dark-haired man carrying bread, salt, coal and greenery to come through the front door.  By doing so it is said that everyone in the house will have enough food, money and warmth coupled with a long and healthy life. Welcoming a dark-haired stranger into our homes while we’re all a bit the worse for wear probably isn’t a very sensible idea so lining up a suitably equipped friend, relative or significant other might be more appropriate!

2013 has been another long year and one I won’t be sorry to say goodbye to, that’s assuming I stay awake long enough to see the New Year in!  However you are celebrating, have a safe, happy and healthy 2014 🙂

English: Father Time and Baby New Year from Fr...

English: Father Time and Baby New Year from Frolic & Fun, 1897 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Art and Soul

Pencil drawing, c.  T Willis

Pencil drawing, c. T Willis

Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one” – Stella Adler

Stately oaks and wizened apple trees lay deracinated all along my journey home, their roots exposed to the elements in a parody of their branches. Gales have battered the country on and off for several weeks now yet winter has barely started; I expect to see further casualties before the spring returns. Disturbed sleep is a facet of these regular overnight maelstroms. I’m a light sleeper and the merest rustle snaps me back to wakefulness even if it’s the middle of the night. I lay listening to the world outside, the howls and gusts, the creaking and clattering.  Eventually I snuggle into the duvet and drift back to sleep, the fidgety twist-and-turn kind of semi-slumber that’s marginally more refreshing than staying awake all night.

Then, when it’s time to get up, the strangest thing happens. A word hangs motionless in my mind. Run. It’s been there every morning for the past few weeks. There is nothing else, no lingering fragment of dream or nightmare, no imagery to suggest what I might run, why I might run, whether I’m running towards or away from something (or someone).  It’s as perplexing as it is unusual.

Conscience might be nudging me to get up, get going and get out there. I ran in the days before knees and flexibility stopped being part of the same sentence. Common sense tells me it isn’t a burning desire to haul myself along in thigh-deep mud while the heavens throw rain and hailstones at me though! A certain je ne sais quoi suggests there are no demons, zombies or fiends under the bed and the monster that entered my life and invaded my body without an invitation has, as far as everyone knows, been cast out. Nothing to run from there, outside or in. I very much hope it stays that way.

I sat with the thought. No speculating or postulating, no searching for meaning hidden or otherwise. Eventually it occurred to me that run is what I’ve been doing for months on end now, trying to deal with a whole host of events, situations and experiences that would weigh heavy on any soul. Last week offered the first opportunity in a long while to stop running, spend time with family (without doing three other things at once) and finally file some of the less enjoyable experiences under F for Finished. When my head isn’t cluttered by an unresolved to-do list with more decimal places than Pi, blithe spirit takes the opportunity to resurface. She’s a bit moth-eaten and at times unpredictable, but unlike the trees she hasn’t been completely uprooted by various storms.  Given the chance she’s resourceful and quite creative; the drawing in this post is one of her recent dallyings with pencil and paper. We’re fond of one another but circumstance has kept us apart. Today we agreed to help life refrain from crushing so we can once again be fully acquainted.

While I was away…

My writing habits have been random approaching completely erratic over the last few months of 2013, so much so that my friend Diane at Dglassme’s blog noticed I hadn’t been around much lately.

Image credit: “safe” – © 2007 Paul Keller – made available under Attribution 2.0 Generic

I started a new job 80 miles from home and although I wasn’t travelling every day I was soon spending very long days at work. It was all a little surreal and in truth paradoxical because I do my homework as far as new jobs are concerned and normally have a very good idea of what I’m letting myself in for.  There’s no point being sentient if we don’t learn from experience! Working in Information Technology within non-technology organisations is challenging for three very common reasons:

  • IT is often seen as a cost and not appreciated for its intrinsic value in all we do. From on-line applications to processing invoices, air conditioning to making phone calls, there’s no technology-free zone these days. Under-investing causes the same kind of pain as failing to go to the dentist. Teeth rotten beyond minor fillings need root canals, crowns or implants and if you’ve ever had a tooth in that condition you’ll know it’s excruciating in every sense of the word, including the time and expense of repairs!
  • IT people (and I’m one of them) sometimes find it difficult to explain the complexities of designing, building, testing, deploying and maintaining systems (that work) to non-IT people. Assumptions are made, pressure is applied, short-cuts are taken and before you can say Bolognese there’s a pile of very over-cooked spaghetti that no-one (even the IT people) can easily unravel. Everyone knows it doesn’t look or taste good but some poor person still has to consume it.
  • There’s a lot of snake oil. Some vendors will sell non-IT management whatever it is they want to hear, even if that happens to be unavailable until software version 99.9 (and they’re supplying v2.0). Another jolly wheeze is forgetting the complexities (and cost) of integration, data migration, security and business continuity, all of which deserve at least a nanosecond of thought when attempting to deal with the aforementioned over-cooked spaghetti.

As an IT person who has been in the industry a while, come across all the above on more than one occasion and then been gifted the opportunity to sort it out (have you ever tried untangling over-cooked spaghetti and reforming it into a non-toxic gourmet meal that looks and tastes good?!) I ask questions about the environment I’m coming in to. I try to assess how much bad pasta needs to be consumed, who is consuming it and how sick it’s making them.  I evaluate how much time, effort and elbow-grease I need to devote because I want to improve things without becoming another casualty of discombobulated pasta! This time I didn’t expect a spaghetti mountain of Mount Etna-esque proportions. I believed I’d find something more like Capri – composed of a mixture of old and new, perhaps rocky in places but generally solid, well maintained and inhabited by people who were happy in their daily lives.

The battered old safe in the photo is a good metaphor for the last three months of 2013. I’ve been locked inside it, banging my head against it and trying to work out how to fix it.  It didn’t take long to establish exactly how it came to be on its way to hell in a hand-basket and a very dear friend of mine recently joked that his experience elsewhere isn’t dissimilar.  What we both know (and resign ourselves to) is that it takes longer (and costs more) to refurbish and re-install than it does to let things slip into a state of disrepair.

No matter how much you dislike the dentist, regular check-ups really are in your own interest.

Recently I broke out of the safe and despite the dereliction I’m encouraged. Signs of life remain. Those green things aren’t more mouldy spaghetti, they’re seeds and they’re growing in spite of a very barren landscape. Nature always finds a way to rebuild and restore given the right conditions. Fortunately I’m good with seeds; I plant them, tend to their needs and they grow.  Rarely do I find myself surrounded by weeds because nurturing the seedlings helps them all become tall poppies. There is no sight more beautiful than a field of resplendent poppies and it certainly beats a Gordian knot of over-cooked pasta!

Breaking out of the safe reminded me that I have many gardens to attend and neglecting them, whether intentional or not, leads to dereliction.  Dereliction – of gardens, people, past-times or well-being – is something that weighs heavy on my soul. I’m at home with chaos, have built a career from resolving it, but I choose not to live with it 24 hours per day any more.  Sitting here in the winter sunlight I am reminded that balance in all my various commitments matters to me.  The derelict safe is in balance with its derelict environment but dereliction isn’t welcome in my life, now or in future. I and my various gardens are beginning to flourish so sad as it may be, I cannot let the demands of one previously neglected environment overshadow the needs of all the others.  I hope to untangle the spaghetti (for everyone’s sake) and I’d love to grow a new field of gloriously tall poppies but it has to happen alongside and not at the expense of the many other gardens I enjoy.

Tall Poppy

Weekly Photo Challenge: Joy

london may13 2013-05-25 011

Glancing at this photo you might wonder how it can possibly conjure a sense of joy. There are flames, black smoke and some heavy-duty ironmongery.  There’s also something that looks rather ominous in the middle together with a shot of someone with a cymbal in front of his face. Look more closely at the bottom right corner and you’ll see those things sticking up are people’s arms. The arms are in the air because everyone is waving, singing, dancing and having a whale of a time watching Muse at the Emirates stadium in London. The guy with the cymbal is Muse drummer Dominic Howard.

Normally I might choose a nature photo or a holiday scene to symbolise joy but there are a number of very special things about the picture I’ve included here. The Muse show was one of only two at the Emirates and the tickets were part of my son’s surprise birthday present which included spending four days in London.  It was an action-packed four days which included a river cruise to Greenwich, seeing a musical in the West End, watching the England football team play the Republic of Ireland at Wembley, wandering around Chinatown, watching the entertainers in Covent Garden and a trip to Abbey Road. Muse were the icing on the cake and we spent a balmy May evening singing, dancing and generally having fun which was a vast improvement on the previous summer. It was good to know I wasn’t too old or too post-chemo bald (!) to be a concert companion. Although our blood relationship is mother-son, its brilliant that we are such good friends and have been for the last 20 years – love and friendship are the true meaning of joy 🙂

The most precious gift

New memories were made on Christmas Day, positive ones that will stand us in good stead for the future. Appreciation written in a card for unfaltering support during a troublesome year. A warm thank you for dinner, including the carrots (!) and a life-long agreement that we’re never too old to hang up a stocking in the hope we’ve behaved well enough to avoid finding coal or sprouts at the bottom. Personally I like sprouts but my son doesn’t.

image Some everyday, non-Christmassy things were noticed and appreciated too. “Mom, your nails are back and your hair isn’t white. It’s still ginger and it’s grown… and you’re doing great.” There’s nothing special about hair or nails until you see your Mom without them. Then you find your teenage years – time that’s supposed to be carefree – erased by the concepts of critical illness and death. Cancer is such a thief. We’ve spent a lot of time together in recent months but yesterday brought a new dawn for my son. It was almost as if a thunder-cloud had lifted from his shoulders and sunlight was streaming into his world once more. Mom isn’t covered in bruises, stalled between life and death or endangered by other people’s germs. Mom’s just Mom again and that’s the best gift my son received this Christmas. It’s the best thing I could’ve wished for too.

Of course the future will be different because everything changed. We’ve no idea what that might mean and it doesn’t matter because the future was never guaranteed. (We just kid ourselves into thinking we have some control over it). Whatever it is, worry won’t cause it to better or worse. The present, well that’s another story. It’s easier to make the most of today when it isn’t clouded by maybes, or promises based on frail assumptions of plenty more tomorrows to make good the pledges.

The new memories are very ordinary yet extraordinarily special. Sharing Christmas dinner together, listening to carols, watching movies and finding neither sprouts nor coal in the stocking. Laughing that socks are a good present when the washing machine seems intent on eating them throughout the year. We were all pleased with our gifts, made the most of the chance to relax and enjoyed the food and drink. More than any time previously we found that one day of happy, uninterrupted time together was the most precious gift of all and for that we were enormously grateful.

Yuletide Gratitude & Thankfulness

It’s the season of goodwill and all around me friends and family are scurrying to get ready for Christmas.  Although a number of us hold no strong religious convictions we preserve many of the customs handed down from generation to generation. As well as giving gifts we decorate our homes with fir trees, holly, ivy and mistletoe, a practice that pre-dates Christianity.

The ancient Celts cut mistletoe and placed sprigs above their doorways offering protection from bad weather and evil spirits. The mistletoe festival and crowning a mistletoe queen still takes place in my local village.  The ancients believed mistletoe was sacred and used it as a cure for many illnesses (please don’t eat it, it’s poisonous). To them it represented peace, friendship and fertility. Bringing greenery into the home at Yuletide also served as a reminder that once the winter solstice had passed the sun would return and crops would grow.

To live in a fertile land where food is plentiful is a blessing but I haven’t lost sight that I am fortunate to be able to feed my family. Although we live in a modern society there are many here who are hungry, cannot afford both food and accommodation, or whose families rely on food banks to ensure they can eat one meal per day.  As well as hungry people there are hungry animals, abandoned or neglected due to circumstance or spitefulness.  Eating is something many of us take for granted. When you’ve been hungry and had no money for food you realise being able to buy produce is something to be thankful for.

My country is largely peaceful and for that I am grateful too. There are incidents, more violence and intolerance than I would want, but most of us feel safe in our homes and out on the streets. The various Governments of my country engage in warfare from time to time though this is rarely done with the support of all citizens. The sanctity of life is important, yet perhaps we only realise how important when looking death straight in the face? Once you understand that time and old age are not givens as I and anyone affected by a critical illness soon learns, your perspective changes. Life is not something to be wasted over power struggles, land disputes or disparate beliefs.  I am grateful for every second of my life, the ups and downs, the quiet solitude, the time with family and friends. Much has changed in the past 2 years and there is no doubt life is harder, more uncertain and sometimes frustrating. Yet I am not regularly faced with procedures I have no choice in, made sick as part of the process of getting better or mentally confined in the land of the lab rat. I am thankful that those days are gone, that I am largely intact and still have hold of a reasonable chunk of physical and cognitive ability

I am grateful for those who are dear to me, whether nearby or far away, for the friends I’ve known since school and my virtual friends who have offered so much support. I am thankful that my son is showing signs of improvement and the depths of his depression are not as all-consuming as they were in summer.  I am glad we trust each other enough to talk about the problems and seek help. My Dad is simply amazing and if people were paid based on the goodness in their hearts he would be the best paid man on the planet. I am glad we are so close and have the ability to find strength in adversity.

I am thankful to prepare for another Christmas, to decorate the tree, wrap gifts and listen to cheesey songs. I’m grateful to have time with my family, drink tea and eat toast in a warm house surrounded by cats while a storm is raging outside. I’m thankful for the chance to experience 2014, wake each day and watch the seasons change. I am grateful for my humanity and my commitment to improve things for those around me in any way I can. We may walk this path only once so I’m going to make the most of each minute. I hope like me, you’ll find a way to celebrate the good things in your lives and give thanks for the time you have.

Monthly Peace Challenge – Party On Garth!

This is the final B4Peace challenge of 2013 and before getting in the party spirit I want to reflect on why Bloggers for Peace captured my heart so easily. I want to live a peaceful life, one where compassion, understanding and acceptance prevail. But I’d like more than that. I’d like amity, kindness and tolerance for all humanity.  It may be a big ask but we’re in the 21st Century, allegedly ‘civilised,’ so we ought to be able to achieve it. Recent re-runs of Star Trek (I’m a geeky sci-fi type) drew my attention to an ongoing unpleasant truth about humankind. Whilst some of us are kind many are not. 200,000 years worth of evolution has yet to abate all our more primitive, combative and intolerant behaviours. We still abuse, torture and kill a variety of other animals as well as members of our own species. That’s not a great advertisement for humanity.  An alien visiting today would find we haven’t improved much since the 1960’s when Star Trek’s aliens thought humans were too aggressive and dispassionate to play any role in the wider universe.

We can change this. If more of us say no to violence, oppression and ignorance we will have a kinder, more supportive and understanding society. We can change this if we want it badly enough and accept 200,000 years of fighting isn’t something to be proud of. We can change this if we educate our children to love themselves and one another, irrespective of differences whatever they happen to be. If  we don’t stand up for peace, compassion, tolerance and understanding who else will?

OK, so now it’s time to party. This party can be a rave or casual dinner party, a picnic or a peace-walk, celebrate in whatever way suits you best because everyone is invited and we’re going there virtually.

Our location is an arboretum, to remind us we are just one of many species on this planet with a right to live life fully, compassionately and peaceably. The words of the great peace-makers of our world whisper from the branches of every tree and if you listen you’ll hear songs like Imagine, Get Together, Peace Train and Love is All Around. You’ll also hear laughter, lots of laughter, because people from all walks of life are celebrating.

We’ve given peace a chance and it’s paying off, travelling around the world faster than stories about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.  All the dollars we used to spend on war (or protecting against war) have been redirected to humanitarian causes. So we’re closer to ending poverty, curing cancer, dementia and other degenerative illnesses, and we’re about to solve the problem of homelessness for all those sleeping without shelter this winter. We’ve made more progress than at any time in our history because we stood up for peace. Join the party, make it happen  🙂





B4Peace ~ Love Thy Enemy



A belated post for November’s Bloggers for Peace Challenge, courtesy of Kozo 🙂  Go check out the other posts, ’tis the season of Peace and Goodwill.

A strange kind of home

I returned to the Millbrook Suite this week. It sounds almost glamorous and the uninitiated might believe it’s an opulent spa hotel somewhere balmy, exclusive and ridiculously overpriced. It’s true Millbrook welcomes an exclusive clientele and some eye-wateringly expensive activities occur there. There are few places in the world where one treatment costs between £2000 and £30,000 plus specialist staff and equipment (equally essential).

For all the things Milbrook Suite is – friendly, supportive, exclusive – it isn’t a haunt for celebrity-style pampering, the kind I’m told you find at luxury beach resorts. The staff provide an exemplary service and the treatments come in costly courses of between 6 and 12 sessions, that’s where comparisons with swanky hotels end. Fortunately service is included and visitors don’t pay, at least not directly, which is good because most of us couldn’t afford it… But what price do you put on the countless lives passing through Milbrook on their way to treating or managing cancer?

I’m one of them and on the treatment front so far so good, the £150,000+ looks like money well spent. Dr C is happy with progress, all is as it should be except joint issues that continue to perplex us both. More drugs or further investigations were briefly mentioned however I can’t recall a case of someone dying from joint pain. I told Dr C I’ll put up with it, unless he knows otherwise. He scratched his head turning his hair into a small replica of the Sagrada Familia then laughed and said he wasn’t aware that happened terribly often. So we’re avoiding further medical interventions to counteract the side effects of previous medical interventions. In my view there are always consequences.

There were 7 more lives in the waiting room this week. Some are getting better, some are forced to increase their efforts to overthrow the murderous stalker within. Millbrook Suite might be considered depressing because everyone attends knowing they have no real choice. Do nothing isn’t an option yet for some the medical staff reach a point where treatment stops working and they can offer nothing more. A man from my chemo days had lung mets confirmed; we talked about it while waiting to see Dr C. He laughed and said at least he’ll get some value from all the tax he’s paid – he thinks five years is achievable (they give him 12 months). I agreed and secretly asked whatever higher authority might be listening to please give him at least five more years because in the grand scheme of things it isn’t so much to ask. This is the reality of Millbrook. Complete strangers are thrown together and forced to confront mortality whilst accepting their bodies are no longer a safe place to reside. They laugh in the darkest moments. I’ve never quite belonged anywhere because my experience of life has been far from straightforward. It made me an anomaly and awkward or pitying questions always came up – in short, how do I cope with so few happily ever afters? I gave up asking why (the deaths and disappointments kept happening) a long time ago because there’s no other way to survive and remain sane. I find I fit in a little better at Millbrook where none of the lives are straightforward. It’s a strange place to call home and definitely wouldn’t have been my first choice but at least I’m not a curiosity there!