Find what you love

And let it kill you….

This is a Charles Bukowski quote. I like it because it makes sense. Why would any of us want to be killed by something we don’t like?

I tried cancer or rather it tried me, I didn’t welcome it into my life. To date a combination of trusting instincts, taking action quickly and an oncoplastic surgeon and oncologist who both adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ approach helped ensure it had limited chances to move elsewhere. Places where it might later take the opportunity to curtail my life.

Though the treatments have been best in class I am not complacent. Suspicion is an inevitable trait when you inhabit a body that’s let you down. Striking a balance between healthy concern and paranoia is key. Anomalies, functional changes and aches and pains make me suspicious even though I know some of them predate cancer. There’s no way of knowing when the first cell went haywire and research suggests it takes 5 years for a tumour to become palpable. 5 years is quite a long time for unchecked cellular chaos to prevail.

Many cancer patients live with ongoing suspicion and significant worries about what the future might hold. I’m happy with healthy suspicion because deep down none of us really knows what lies ahead. Whether we’ve been touched by cancer or not, life is unpredictable and we could just as easily be killed in traffic accidents or freak storms. Finding something we love and letting that kill us sounds an altogether better option and even if it happens to be cancer in the end, time spent on the things we love is the most beautiful, exhilarating and fulfilling time available to any of us.

Making space for the things we love is almost like starting life anew, with a few more wrinkles and white hairs than the first time around in my case! This year for the first time in far too many years I’ve given time to the things I love, not just the things I’m obliged to do. There’s a sketch book full of drawings and paintings that I have no doubt at all will outlive me. Maybe one day they’ll be treasured by some future grandchildren 🙂 Creating something from pencil or paint and paper offers an opportunity to escape from everyday tasks into somewhere tranquil and serene. Isn’t that the way heaven is meant to be? If so then death through art sounds much more appealing than cancer!

Idle doodlings :-)

Art is my recharge mechanism especially during the long winter months when it’s too wet, cold or dark to get into the garden. When the seasons change being outside with nature is another love that seems altogether more appealing than some of the things that eat up my time.

Although we’re barely into Spring, there’s an old fashioned cottage garden that’s worth every ounce of effort that’s gone into it, a townhouse garden that seems to have relished all the thought underpinning its creation and a new season of vegetables, herbs and fruit beginning to sprout – peas, beans, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, chives, garlic, parsley, strawberries, loganberries, apples, green gages, rhubarb and plums to name a few. Buying organic produce is expensive, growing it is a worthwhile labour of love even if it is responsible for some of the suspicious aches and pains.

image

I have many other loves. The people who are dear to me, my darling cats who remained faithful even when I kept them away during chemo, music, travel, cooking, photography and walking.  From time to time I can even throw decorating, renovating and repairing things into the mix.

At least I know I’ll never die of boredom and I’m hopeful I won’t die of cancer though that one isn’t a given. With luck I’ll simply slip away under the cherry tree one sunny afternoon having completed my best sketch ever at an age where I can happily be called ancient and extraordinarily eccentric 🙂

Until then I’m going to do the things I love and encourage you all to do likewise.

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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.

At one with the universe

Although chemo isn’t over yet and I don’t want to say too much about the route to the summit in case this

Credit: Clive's Cats

Credit: Clive’s Cats

happens again, I’ve been trying to regain some sense of normality.

Living on a three-week calendar – week one chemo, week two side-effects, week three get ready to do it all again – is like being on a hamster wheel.  You run fast but get nowhere very quickly and somehow the scenery never seems to change. It’s a pattern that will probably be imprinted on my mind forever and I’ll be glad if I never have to follow it again.

My Doctor recently said I’ve done remarkably well; I haven’t been hospitalised through infections and in her words I “look pretty healthy considering all the drugs.”  Avoiding hospitalisation came with a price tag called avoiding other people, especially crowds and anyone with obvious ailments.  I’m happy in my own company and curious by nature so can always find something to occupy my mind but I’m not totally reclusive. I enjoy spending some time with others and have missed the richness of various social interactions. That said, at least I haven’t been scaring small children with my Nosferatu plus permanent nosebleed look!

A ‘normal’ existence where the words cancer, treatment, blood and tests don’t come up in everyday conversation has some appeal.  After 9 months on the fast-track programme for non-medical personnel to become genetics, surgery, oncology and haematology experts the weather, the economy and the potential psychological damage inflicted by too much daytime TV are more attractive topics.

So in my quest to rediscover a sense of normality I went walking with my son recently, squelched through lots of mud and startled a few pheasants hiding in the woods. I admired the tall pines, easily ten or twenty times my own height and wondered at the signs of life coming and going just as the seasons come and go. Dead tree stumps covered in brilliant green moss, leaves from deciduous trees blanketing snowdrop shoots and the remnants of wild clematis ‘Old Man’s Beard’ clinging amongst some very early immature catkins. I could have walked for hours but we went out late in the afternoon; being lost in the woods without a torch wasn’t a prospect I much fancied.

On the way back I captured a photo of the sun setting behind the trees. Looking at it now makes me feel at one with the universe.

Sapey Woods early January

It’s amazing how much good a walk in the countryside under a pink sunset through some tall trees and plenty of mud can do!

Local history

When I have time on my hands and I’m not researching cancer, coaching other people or recovering from chemo I explore local folklore and legends to gain more of a sense of the history and beliefs in the region I now inhabit.

We’re situated in a very rural area where many of the settlements date back to the Iron Age.  There are a few houses, some farms and two pubs.  We have no mains gas or drainage, no street lighting and no superfast broadband – fibre will never reach us.  In stormy weather we have no electricity or water and if it snows we are cut off from the rest of civilisation.   We have amazingly beautiful countryside, diverse wildlife, very funny local farmers (two pubs and nothing else for miles may well be responsible for the rampant joviality out here) and plenty of folklore.

There are many ancient stories some of which are more far-fetched than others and there are also a number of antediluvian rituals that continue to this day. These include orchard wassailing and the crowning of the mistletoe queen and holly prince which takes place in early December.  It’s an interesting part of the country and vastly different to the life I led for 30-odd years in major cities.

My nearest city is Worcester where there is evidence of a number of witch trials, torture and burnings.  But an even more bizarre tale concerns the original door to the cathedral. The story goes that during the 1000’s Danish vikings frequently invaded Britain and one such raid took place in Worcester.   The vikings were vicious pillagers and ransacked the town as well as the cathedral.  Anything of worth was stolen including chalices and decorative items belonging to the church.  Not content with this sizeable hoard, one greedy viking decided to steal the sanctus bell from the bell cot.  The sanctus bell was heavy and cumbersome and the viking became separated from the rest of his group.

Thinking the raid was over, the townsfolk came out from their hiding places and found the lone viking attempting to make off with this sacred artefact.  Angry at the desecration of the church, the thefts and the damage caused to their homes, the people of Worcester captured the viking and flayed him alive.  His skin was pinned to the door of the cathedral as a warning.  The original door has been conserved and testing revealed the skin pinned to it is human and dates from the correct period; some fragments are preserved in the cathedral crypt.

I like Worcester, it’s a small city with some very old buildings, unique shops and a fascinating past.  The residents no longer flay vikings and although theft happens, it isn’t rife.  Here’s a collage of the cathedral for you to enjoy, I haven’t included the skin!

Worcester cathedral

 

 

And the compass turns to nowhere you know well

Let your soul be your pilot, let your soul guide you, he’ll guide you well.

I’ve loved this Sting song for as long as I can remember. It’s on the 1996 album Mercury Falling. Another favourite from the album is titled ‘The Hounds of Winter’ and although I’m not superstitious, a black dog followed me during 1996.  Just as the old wives tales suggest the dog turned out to be a bad omen.

We had a number of close calls with my Mother in ’96. Her fight with cancer was ongoing and the disease had changed from controlled to out of control very rapidly.   She was a woman of courage and great conviction so in spite of the traumas inflicted by her cancer treatment (there were many and they were all foul) she never once complained.  We all believed that she would turn things around, she was so unwavering and determined.  We, the other members of the family, pulled on our riot gear; we had to be tough too.  We weren’t prepared to let cancer loot from her so we stood poised against every onslaught.

I was working full-time in a responsible role, had been promoted that year and was leading a once in a lifetime project for the whole company.  My son was 3 years old, a bonny bundle of smiles, hugs and laughter.  I worked hard and relentlessly packed as much into every non-working minute as was humanly possible.  When I eventually went to bed at night I was always exhausted. I wanted to slip into dreams of butterflies and sand castles, leisurely walks and sunny skies.  Most of that year my dreams included the black dog.

I remember having nightmares as a young child, graphic, disturbing nightmares that threatened the lives of my entire family and made me physically sick. The ’96 black dog episode wasn’t a nightmare and the dog didn’t scare me.  It just padded silently and stealthily into all my dreams. It was a nondescript animal – a dog of no special type except it’s blackness and unlike friendly dogs it maintained a respectful distance throughout. In dreams it never approached me and I never moved towards it.  If I changed position in the dream or  passed through one dream into another the dog followed me along there too. Pad, pad, pad a few paces behind or off to the side, head lowered and eyes downcast. The dog rarely looked straight at me but when it did there was no malice,  it was just a cold, joyless dog devoid of compassion or emotion. Matt-black nothingness.

In December ’96 my Mother died. It was a deeply traumatic experience resulting from something akin to a comedy of errors without the comedy. We, the family, were overcome by the riot. Broken, beaten, bleeding.  Shortly afterwards I would walk from my house to my Father’s to offer respite and solace in my shattered childhood home. Looking back and in reality there was pitifully little I could offer.  For several weeks as I drifted my way back to my own house through winter’s mustiness I encountered the black dog.   In the lane that cut between houses to shorten my walk I met that dog nine times.  I wasn’t dreaming.

It was a mongrel, average build and jet black all over.  No collar, no distinguishing features. It appeared from nowhere and scared the bejesus out of me.  The dog followed me just like the dog I’d dreamt of all year. Along the path between the houses, pad, pad, pad always a few steps behind me or off to the side.  One time a passer-by even remarked ‘good dog’ as if the thing belonged to me.  I thought that if I dawdled in the lane the dog might come forward and attack me. I took to marching through the lane.  The dog seemed to appear from nowhere but it never once followed me onto the main road. I looked back after crossing the traffic; it would stand and stare. I kept walking and looked round from a position some way further down the road –  it was always gone. When December ’96 was over, I never saw or dreamt the black dog again.

My mood remained dark for a long time. I feigned orderly and adjusted, dusted myself off and carried on with everything. Pretend normal. But the compass had turned to nowhere I knew well. It took a good deal of time and I made many failed attempts but eventually my soul was my pilot. It guided the way out of the darkness. Nothing else could.

When you’re down and they’re counting
When your secrets all found out
When your troubles take to mounting
When the map you have leads you to doubt
When there’s no information
And the compass turns to nowhere that you know well

Let your soul be your pilot
Let your soul guide you
He’ll guide you well

When the doctors failed to heal you
When no medicine chest can make you well
When no counsel leads to comfort
When there are no more lies they can tell
No more useless information
And the compass spins
The compass spins between heaven and hell

Let your soul be your pilot
Let your soul guide you
He’ll guide you well

And your eyes turn towards the window pane
To the lights upon the hill
The distance seems so strange to you now
And the dark room seems so still

Let your pain be my sorrow
Let your tears be my tears too
Let your courage be my model
That the north you find will be true
When there’s no information
And the compass turns to nowhere that you know well

Let your soul be your pilot
Let your soul guide you
Let your soul guide you
Let your soul guide you upon your way…