Half a World Away

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky

Goldfinches against a Cyan Sky


It’s a beautiful morning. Since the beginning of December I can only recall one other day without rain and that seems like a very distant memory. At work on Thursday we joked that the Mayans may have correctly predicted the end of the world – it’s simply coming along a bit later than expected. They were ancient people without atomic clocks so what’s an extra year or two on top of a few centuries?

Looking at the clear blue sky today is not the day it all ends and I’m happy that’s the case.

This time last year it was snowing. Clumps of pristine white snowflakes were swirling around me like the stuffing from expensive duck down pillows. January and February both saw fairly significant snowfall, at least by UK standards. Out here in the countryside the drifts were over six feet high and I walked the lane crunching my way through the freezing blanket to take photographs in a completely silent landscape. When snow muffles everything the silence takes over – no road noise, no rustling trees – and with silence comes stillness. The fields and hedgerows slip into a moment of frozen tranquillity.

Silent stillness always draws me out into the chilling air. Wrapped in a thick winter coat, huge scarf, fingerless gloves (so I could operate the camera) and my woollen cable-knit baker-boy cap I trudged down then up the lane, a walk that normally takes 10 minutes but needs at least 20 in heavy snow. The horses at Holly Farm had taken their leave and retreated into the stable but every tree and shrub along the way was alive with small birds foraging for food. When the snow comes the need to eat overcomes the need to fear humans, the birds will take seed at your feet if you’re still enough. After walking the lane I was cold and tired but a cup of hot chocolate soon addressed both.

How do I recall this scene so readily when it was a year ago? I’d just received my final round of Taxotere. I was hairless, as pale and translucent as an undernourished vampire and completely strung out on steroids. There are few things I detest and dexamethosone is one of them so if I never have it again that’ll be just fine with me. Looking back the whole scene – the snow, the chemo unit, the regular blood draws, the side-effects – it feels half a world away. It almost seems unreal and if it weren’t for the tale-tell signs all over my body (and embedded in my psyche) I could almost convince myself it was a very bad dream.


Today there’s no snow. The tall trees opposite the window are gently rippling so there’s a breeze. The sky is the most beautiful cyan blue and bright yellow winter sunlight, the kind that is brilliant but holds no blazing heat, is streaming into the room. Small birds are chattering outside the window and the cats who were exiled to the conservatory last year, are happily curled up by the fire for an after-breakfast siesta. Today is a very beautiful day and it seems that all is well in my wonderfully bizarre, confusing and ever-changing world.

Half a World Away

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.


The leaves on the trees are beginning to change colour, vivid yellows, chestnut-brown and scarlet are creeping across the landscape. Down at ground level flowers are being replaced by fungi and fallen acorns. Although autumn is arriving late this year due to our long, hot summer it is arriving none the less. Everything is covered in dew in the morning and last night saw the first hints of frost.

I like this time of year, the chill in the air, the velvet-black skies filled with stars so far away they might no longer exist. I like the cloudless cyan blue and hazy sunshine that greets me some days and the murky fog that clings and billows like an ethereal sail on others. Rain is not my favourite thing and we get a lot of it through autumn and winter but if there’s a decent thunderstorm or a hint of snow to come I like that too. Years of living in the countryside watching the seasons change and baring witness to the ebb and flow of life – plants, fungi, insects, birds, deer, people – has attuned my senses and instincts to nature’s patterns.

On these days when bright yet feeble sunshine casts shadows in my room and outside the window is a frenzy of activity accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong, (there are finches, scores of them, filling up on sunflower hearts), I find myself wondering how many more autumns I might see.  Two years ago that thought is unlikely to have entered my consciousness. Things are different now and time cannot be guaranteed.  I wonder if this is what octogenarians think about, silently knowing the days behind them outnumber the days ahead. Of course I’m not an octogenarian I’m barely half that age, so assuming there are plenty of days and many more autumns to come should be perfectly reasonable. Logic says in spite of everything I’ve escaped death at least once and in doing so should have improved prospects for the future quite considerably.  But nature is non-linear and unpredictable. Autumn doesn’t come at the same time each year and it never takes the same form. We can fool ourselves as much as we like but time was never guaranteed. Anyone who has lost a child and counted every missing birthday will know this all too well.

I wonder how much of our lives is predetermined. Destiny if you like that kind of thing. I’m not a geneticist but I know from my insatiable quest for information that genes and signalling pathways play a much greater role in health and longevity than many of us realise. Much like the processes of autumn, the microbiology of leaf fall and fairy rings, most of us don’t pay too much attention to happenings at a cellular level. We see the bigger picture, leaves change colour, nights draw in and winter comes.  I’d like to know how much of the path I tread is predetermined at a cellular level. My gut feel is that it’s quite a lot but I’m not sure if I want to know how many more autumns I have, at least not yet. At some point I will know because something, old age or old disease, will set the deadline for me.  Unless one of life’s non-linear and unpredictable mechanisms – meteor strike, plane crash, murder, gas explosion – intervenes in the meantime.

English: Fairy ring? A plentiful supply of fly...

English: Fairy ring? A plentiful supply of fly agaric fungi. Beautiful yet poisonous; this lot could do a lot of damage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Awareness of self, the fragility of life, the lack of control (you think you have some?) and the ultimate outcome might crush a tender spirit and drive it half insane. Perhaps that’s why, for the most part, we fill our heads with distractions. For tender spirits like me who are not easily distracted yet wish to remain mostly sane there is a balance to be struck between constant wondering and enjoying the moment. I know the pretty little robin singing outside the window in his rosy breasted splendour may not make it through this winter and if he does, the next will almost certainly be his last. Today though he is here, he is plump and well-preened and his song is heart-warmingly beautiful. Today we’re going to enjoy each other’s company – I feed him, he sings – then cross whatever winter throws at us when it’s upon us.




Nature or technology… or both

I’m staying in the Cornish fishing village of Portreath and as a nature lover its idyllic. The harbour and rocky outcrops surrounding the bay  provide a rich habitat for an array of marine and maritime flora and fauna.

The sea fascinates me. Ever changing, beautiful and deadly at time same time. Here the sea is very clear, a translucent turquoise-teal. When the tide goes out the harbour retains no water so remnants of what lies beneath are easily seen – crab claws, cockle shells and many types of seaweed all get left behind in the sandy inlet.  When the tide comes in it brings with it a multitude of life forms including swarms of moon jellyfish.  Today’s photos are all moon jellies. Like the sea, these primitive creatures fascinate me. They have no brain by our standards, no digestive tract, no circulatory system, no respiratory system and no real means of propulsion. They drift with the currents capturing fish eggs, shrimp and molluscs either via the mucus that covers the bell or by stinging with their short tentacles. Moon jellies are voracious predators that in turn play their own part in the food chain by becoming prey for leatherback turtles, sea birds and fish. They’re also eaten by us humans in some Asian countries although they should probably be classed as a drink rather than food since they are 95% water.

The last time I was in Portreath I was probably around six years old. I don’t remember seeing jellyfish but I do remember sand eels.  This time I’ve yet to find sand eels, probably because I’m less inclined to jump into the water. With age comes wisdom and although the air temperature is a toasty 26 degrees the water in the harbour will be much, much colder.  I did walk up and down the beach and dabbled my feet in the sea but as expected it was cold, too cold for me to entertain swimming. Along the tide-line against the harbour wall there are numerous sea anemones, mussels, limpets and periwinkles.  I hope to photograph those if I can scramble across to the rock pools later in the week. Anemones are so much prettier when they’re under water, once the tide goes out they look like blobs of reddish-brown gravy stuck to the rocks.

There is no mobile phone signal here which made me wonder whether I’d like a life completely free of technology and always-on connectivity.  It’s a strange thought for someone who has spent the last 15 years building, deploying and subsequently decommissioning technology of various types.  I’m very at ease with nature, the world of plants and creatures and I can happily occupy myself trying to identify or understand the non-human things surrounding me.  Coastal habitats are very different to the rural wilderness at home.

Thoughts of living technology-free soon gave way to more practical reasoning. I miss talking to my Dad every day and even SMS is impossible here;  there’s wireless broadband in the rental cottage so email and Skype are both possible but it’s not as good as a spontaneous hello from wherever I happen to be at the time.  I also wouldn’t want to be without my camera. I can always find things to photograph and the jellyfish were a surprise as well as a challenge for a novice like me.  It pays to have patience – for every decent image there are at least a couple resembling blurry modern art because the subject – in this case moon jellies – merged with the background. Photography is lazy art for me. Painting or drawing the jellyfish would require much more effort and there’s still a chance the result would end up a little abstract!

In my brief nature vs. technology moment I realised I’d also miss the Internet. For all its problems, the ability to search through whole libraries of information in matter of moments to find out about the life-cycle of the moon jelly, how much they sting and where they come from is something I wouldn’t choose to live without. Music, photography, mobile telephony and access to knowledge are all useful applications of technology in my day-to-day life along with automatic washing machines, electric lighting and heating. Television I could happily live without.

Being surrounded by nature is still my favourite way to pass time. Having the technology to photograph it, learn more about it and record the memories adds to the pleasure. At some point my brain might forget being here aged c. 6 years and I’m not sure we have any photographs from that occasion. Fortunately this time technology is here to lend a helping hand… Just in case my memory fails to serve me well in future.


One of the (many) surprising things about being a cancer patient is the lack emotional or psychological support that’s available to deal with the non-physical impacts of the disease and its treatment.  It may be this is just the case in my locality because my Healthcare Trust is over-budget and the Government refuses to offer an extended loan. I’d be interested to hear whether other people have a similar experience?   In this area it seems unless you’re on the verge of complete breakdown or pose a threat  you’re expected to take care of yourself.  I imagine this must be very difficult for people who are on their own or prevented from maintaining social contact due to treatment or it’s side-effects.

To aid with my self-managed physical and psychological rehabilitation process I’ve thrown myself into growing things.  I enjoy being outdoors creating aesthetically pleasing flower beds and patio containers, mainly because I’ve always loved nature. The greater variety of plants and flowers in the garden, the more wildlife comes to visit. Back in the early 1990’s I used to grow vegetables as well as flowers and I’ve decided to re-establish this practice in earnest now I have the opportunity to do it.

I’m tired of my post-chemo, herceptin-inflated body and I suspect its tired of me as well.  I want to disperse the gallons of extra fluid I’m retaining.  I also want to regain my physical strength and overall fitness levels both of which have been seriously depleted during the course of the last 9 months.  My target is to lose 3.5 stone taking me back to the weight I was as a teenager at which point I should be lean enough to enter the Bristol 10k next year.  According to popular weight loss calculators a steady 2lb per week will see me hit my target weight in 25 weeks time – 1st November.  The manual labour involved in gardening will help rebuild strength and tone, time on the cross-trainer and bike will help with stamina and cardio-vascular performance.  With luck this will take care of the physical side of things.

Psychologically being outside in the natural world is the most healing activity I can think of so a combination of gardening, walking, tai-chi and yoga will hopefully restore my somewhat frazzled nerves; the past year has been incredibly stressful. The present continues to be traumatic and since I don’t want to turn into an axe murderer to help secure support from my local Healthcare Trust I intend to create some mental down-time without the use of drugs or alcohol.

I planned on spending an hour in the garden today but didn’t bother checking my watch.  I spent six hours out there without a break.  In reality it was probably three hours work but the 2013 version of me operates at a much slower pace than the 2011 version. In particular I have to avoid standing up too fast from kneeling or bending as I also get faint far too easily these days and passing out when there’s no-one else around isn’t a good idea.

I was pleased with the results of my efforts.  Although it doesn’t look like much at the moment the flowers in the border will fill out over time to bring some colour and perfume throughout the summer.  There are snapdragons, hollyhocks, foxgloves, grannies bonnets, rock roses, aubretia, various kinds of daisy, violas, primulas, campanula and cornflowers.  On the organic homegrown vegetable front there are tomatoes (cherry, plum and beefsteak), onions, garlic, parsnips, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beans, peppers, rhubarb, lambs lettuce, rocket, thyme, rosemary and oregano.  I’ve also planted strawberries, blueberries and loganberries.

Although it’s officially Spring, we’re forecast to have some very bad weather tomorrow with heavy rain, temperatures down to 5 degrees C and a risk of snow! Fortunately the flowering plants have already been acclimatised and the vegetables are in the greenhouse so they stand a chance of growing into something tasty in a few months time.

Stuck in a moment

This song by U2 has been playing in my head for days now.

Songs often come to me when there’s a lot on my mind.    It’s funny that our brains can drag things out from the depths of our memories at times when the messages within them might have special meaning. It’s especially funny how my little brain still manages to process melodies and the accompanying lyrics from a multitude of songs when many of my cognitive functions have been hammered into non-existence over the past 9 months all courtesy of you know what.

The sun is attempting to make an appearance today and in spite of my malfunctioning joints I’m going out into the garden to plant some flowers.  I love flowers especially old-fashioned varieties like forget-me-nots, red-hot pokers, bluebells, grannies bonnets and foxgloves.

In a few weeks the flowers will hopefully attract butterflies and bees so there’ll be plenty of colour, life and beauty in my garden following a long, cold and particularly gloomy winter.

I’ll be singing along with U2 while I’m out there messing about in the mud for a few hours.  If you’d like to sing along with me here are the lyrics…


I’m not afraid of anything in this world
There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard
I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company

I never thought you were a fool
But darling, look at you
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
These tears are going nowhere, baby

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better now you’re stuck in a moment
And you can’t get out of it

I will not forsake, the colours that you bring
But the nights you filled with fireworks
They left you with nothing
I am still enchanted by the light you brought to me
I still listen through your ears, and through your eyes I can see

And you are such a fool
To worry like you do
I know it’s tough, and you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need now… my oh my

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Oh love look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it

I was unconscious, half asleep
The water is warm till you discover how deep…
I wasn’t jumping… for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better now
You’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if our way should falter
Along the stony pass

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along the stony pass
It’s just a moment
This time will pass


Be here for the next world


“We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.” Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I was turned away from the concept of God at a very young age.  An off-hand remark from a member of the church community left me feeling Heaven held no place for me.  The comment was “Animals cannot enter Heaven because they have no souls.”  I was five or six years old and animals were my friends. Whether it was the hawk-moth caterpillar in the garden, the stickleback in the river or my silver tabby kittens, every animal was important to me. In my mind they all deserved a place in Heaven just as much as I did.  If they didn’t go to Heaven, were they automatically consigned to Hell because they were soulless? I didn’t think so.  I wasn’t willing to be parted from my friends so wherever they were going, I was going too even if that meant God wouldn’t be with me.

As I grew up my relationship with nature deepened but my relationship with the church was never rekindled.  I’m neither a staunch atheist or a devout worshipper and I don’t mind if others hold different beliefs to my own. We’re all free to choose what we believe in and there are plenty of things science cannot adequately explain.  For me this gap in plausible explanations creates space for something else, something intangible and more profound.  Faith, curiosity, wonder – it could be all or any of those.

I doubt I am alone in having met someone, a stranger, and yet felt as though I’ve known them for a very long time, longer than was physically possible. Or happened across someone who could almost be a long-lost twin.  These experiences happen, sometimes more than once and there is no simple explanation for them.   It seems it’s more than having a lot in common, similar tastes or shared experiences and there are no logical explanations for these events.  In the absence of rational descriptions, perhaps it’s possible that the most basic explanation is true – we knew these people before, somewhere else in time and space. It’s not a chance meeting, it’s just that we can’t remember much about the previous occasions because our memories don’t have that kind of capacity.  Although this might sound far-fetched consider that not so long ago cell phones, video-conferencing and tricorders were firmly in the sci-fi domain of Star Trek.  Consider also that some people who undergo transplant surgery report experiencing memories that are not their own, recollections from their organ donors life.  This is another phenomenon we are yet to fully understand and possibly never will.

I’m not sure I’ll ever believe in God in the everyday sense but I’m equally unsure that when our corporeal bodies give up, everything else disappears with them.  Maybe it does? Perhaps reincarnation is firmly in the Star Trek domain – who knows?   Either way, I’m sure Richard Bach is right. We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Our children are the next world. If we learn nothing from those who went before us and pass no new knowledge to our children then sure enough the next world will be the same. It will have the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.  Our world is still struggling with war, inequality, fear and hatred just as it was in my grandfather’s time, my great grandfather’s time and my great-great grandfather’s time. What have we learnt?

I’m fairly certain that when its my turn to move on I’ll go to wherever my animal friends are; I’ll be there with the caterpillars, sticklebacks and cats. Until then I very much hope  I’ll take on board some lessons and have the good sense to share them with my son.   If I can be here for the next world there’s a chance his children and grandchildren may finally cast off the limitations and lead weights that constrain the world today.