Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Seven fat cooling towers

A misty dream world landscape is transmitted via electromagnetic radiation through the train's widescreen television screen windows, with brightness and contrast turned right down.

The sky is shrouded in grey. On the horizon a power station with seven fat cooling towers and one tall chimney pumps effluent to the heavens, plumes barely tangible against the background cloud. Moisture condenses from the air to directly coat each surface. Every shade of the green growing world is muted. Fields, bushes, hedgerows and trees cosy up to one another, fuzzily indistinct.

People and buildings appear reduced to model railway scales, as though rendered with incredible detail by some unseen and obsessive model maker. Lights start to appear in the tiny houses as twilight envelops this miniature world, hinting at the small lives within, and the sky morphs to reveal soft peach sunset shades.


I feel restless, frustrated, and cooped up.
Forced to periods of stillness, time skittering by, wasted.
I want to grind my teeth, shout, scream and stretch.
I yearn to bite, kick and punch the inanimate objects around me.
My body aches, creaks and twinges.
I feel an overwhelming desire to escape. But what from? And to where?
My mind races with a torrent of fragmentary thoughts.
I itch to be on with a million different projects.
The world is so slow, I wade through treacle.
Tension creases my forehead and pounds at my temples.
My stomach roils on the verge of indigestion.
My bowels clench threatening to humiliate me.
A bad taste lingers, mouth sour with too much saliva.
The jaw jangles at the junction with neck and ears.
Sounds are muffled, distant, ear canals clogged.
I am fettered, cleaved to a track.
I have no independence to veer left or right.
My choices are no choices at all.
Fate drags me relentlessly forward to my preordained terminus.

Forcing folks to fork out

I hate this business of waiting for trains at Kings Cross. I always end up with 30-45 minutes to kill - a necessary margin in case traffic problem delay the bus. Kings Cross is being renovated which means it is more of a hell hole than it ever was. Normally I wander over to St Pancras since the renovation is complete there, and it has a bunch of cafes and shops, as well as an M&S Simply Food.

The trend these days, I notice, is to only provide a handful of public seats in stations. There is copious seating attached to retail outlets, forcing folks to fork out for a drink or snack just for the luxury of having somewhere to sit. Once again commercial interests prevail over the welfare of the travelling public.

Public transport is such a series of trials and tribulations. No wonder the government struggles to encourage people out of their cars.

I had thought that train fares were regulated, but I recently discovered that only off-peak fares are covered by regulation. The train companies can charge what they like during peak hours, and they get to decide what constitutes 'peak hours' too. South West Trains recently expanded their definition of peak time, giving themselves free reign to increase fares for 114 trains a week.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Mr Kong

I've been to Oxford Street to get material and a pattern for my seamstress practice. Now I'm at my favourite restaurant in Chinatown - 'Mr Kong' on Lisle Street.

My soup arrives very quickly, and as usual I have to resist the urge to wolf it down. The moment my empty bowl hits the table it is whisked away. I just hope there is a decent gap before my main course arrives, as I'm in no hurry.

A number of years ago I was sent by my employer to Singapore to help on a project there. I was part of a team that had been assembled with colleagues from Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York. I loved everything about Singapore, though the Hong Kong guys moaned about the terrible service in restaurants. Too slow they said.

The whole team got together each lunchtime to try the various local restaurants. It was while I was there that my abilities with chopsticks went from pretty competent to expert, as the team worked hard to max out on the very generous expense limits we'd been given.

I sampled all the Chinese delicacies the Hong Kong contingent ordered. Bird's Nest soup, Shark Fin soup, Abalone and Fish Maw soup stand out in my memory, but each lunch was a 14 course banquet consisting of many things I couldn't name, while jokes and conversation flowed around me in Cantonese.

I noticed a number of my dining companions drummed the table with a finger whenever someone served them tea. Curious, I asked the significance and was told the custom dated back to when Emperor Qianlong would travel incognito with his servants.

Stopping at a restaurant on one occasion the tea pot was placed in front of the Emperor. Custom dictates that the person that the pot is placed before must serve his companions. The Emperor's servants could not take the pot to serve the Emperor without compromising his disguise, so they had to allow him to serve them. Unable to bow and acknowledge the honour he did them, the servants tapped two fingers on the table instead.

The tradition continues to this day, to thank the person serving the tea.

While I've been rambling on about my Southeast Asian adventures, I've been tucking into my main course - Crispy Shredded Pork with Garlic Sprouts. Absolutely delicious.

Sharon Stone moment

I had bizarre dreams last night, though not coherent enough to relate here. If dreams are the mind's way of working through problems then goodness knows what my subconscious is dealing with.

The glorious weather yesterday had all the Ravens ruffling their summer plumage. The females sported rather incongruous choices for the office, summer dresses exposing a lot of arms, legs and cleavage. One female raised the temperature on the bus by gracing the males with a Sharon Stone moment as she extricated herself from her seat. At lunchtime Paternoster Square was awash with a sea of pale cotton as the males shed their jackets and ties.

Today the weather is 10°C cooler, and yesterday's flash of summer plumage has disappeared again as the Ravens revert to their dark solemn wear.

I'm hoping for a dull cool summer. The heat is not my friend, neither is the sun. I'm advised to keep my irradiated chest and neck sheltered from the UV, my arm too as sunburn is inadvisable with lymphedema.

To be honest that suits me fine as I've no desire to flash the rolls of flesh I'm currently swathed in. The heat does present an issue though as it is somewhat of a challenge to find long sleeved but cool clothing that fits over my swollen arm.

I'm tempted to go material shopping and run something up on the old sewing machine, but my abilities in that direction are very limited.

I suppose it couldn't hurt to have a play?

Monday, 24 May 2010

Meditative mantra

A serendipitous coincidence occurred in the two minutes I had to wait for the bus.

I wandered over to the shop front of a charity store as they keep their bric-a-brac in the window, and I'm always hopeful of spotting a nice vase. I've not yet struck lucky in charity shops as their usual fare is bland, twee, or both, whereas my tastes lean more towards the abstract in form and texture.

Anyway, what caught my eye was a boxed 'stepping stone' that had the word "calm" etched into the stone. This was the serendipitous coincidence. I had just been writing about my need to regain control, and there in the charity shop was my solution engraved in stone.


It was a timely reminder of one of the coping strategies that I've been neglecting recently. It's a cobbled together invention of mine which has got me through some tough times.

Meditative mantra

▪ Find a comfy position preferably in a quiet spot
▪ Relax your facial muscles
▪ Start a regular rhythm of breathing, deeper than normal, but not extreme
▪ You're looking for a number of single words that describe how you want to be
▪ I usually start with "calm"

On the in-breath decide on your first word
On the out-breath say the word in your head, and let your facial expression show it

On each subsequent in-breath think of your next word, and say it to yourself on the out-breath.

Don't be concerned if you can't think of your next word, simply repeat the last one, allowing yourself another in-breath to decide on your next word.

My choices typically include :

calm, strong, relaxed, positive, humorous, kind, forgiving, tolerant, happy, joyous, satisfied, accepting, optimistic, innovative, thoughtful, creative, observant, insightful, determined, independent, capable, reliable, healthy, well, complimentary, understanding, respectful, sensible, realistic, resourceful, persistent, resilient

As you can see, some of my choices reflect how I want to be towards other people, the rest are characteristics I want to reinforce in my approach towards my own challenges. It always seems quite difficult at the beginning, and I often repeat calm, strong and relaxed a few times before the other words start jostling for attention on my in-breaths.

The important thing is to totally focus on your chosen word during the out-breath, and as much as is possible let the word show in your face. If you're struggling to understand what I mean - think 'cute baby' - notice how your eyes and forehead relax and your mouth and cheeks get a little smiley. Ok, maybe that doesn't do it for you, but you get the point?

There is no set formula to my meditative technique. You can reinforce just a couple of words in a few moments, or spend a bit longer exhausting your mental thesaurus. It's up to you.

I particularly like that you don't have to 'clear your mind' - as if that is possible? The brain can't process negatives. Do not picture a pink elephant. See? It's just not possible. That's also the reason why the words are all aspirational in a positive way. Unworried and fearless aren't good because they reference the very thing you are trying to overcome. Confident and bold are much better choices. Restricting yourself to one word is also important - it forces you to keep it simple, and makes it easier to stay away from negatives. If you are frightened and you don't want to be - then it is better to use "courageous" than "not scared" where the brain dwells on scared rather too much.

It also doesn't require any complicated relaxation procedure where you work through the whole body relaxing every separate bit. I always fall asleep if I attempt that, which is nice, but...

So that is my 'meditative mantra' coping mechanism. Perhaps I should go back to the charity store when it is open and buy that stepping stone - lest we forget.


Quiesce my mind

I totally failed to 'keep it together' earlier. Very messy. Tears and snot. I'm disgusted with my inability to stay focussed and rational.

If I were still a child then mum would have sent me off to bed for being 'overtired.' I hated that back then. I always protested I wasn't sleepy at all. Now of course I realise what she meant. Being sleepy and being exhausted aren't the same at all.

Its true I'm not sleeping so well, and I'm exhausted by the demands on my body and mind while in London. Getting around and dealing with the crowds are so much more exhausting than I remembered. The heat is an added burden.

I'm sure I missed a monthly cycle. For weeks I've been feeling a bit choked and unbalanced. This is usually a PMT symptom that I'd only have for a day or two at the most. My body is clearly making up with a vengeance for the lost cycle.

How much of my imbalance is hormones, versus depression, versus exhaustion? I just can't tell. Meanwhile I'm falling apart at the seams and I just can't quiesce my mind.

So many thoughts sloshing around that they're spilling out in a polluting wave whenever I open my mouth, dumping inappropriately on people around me.

I have to get control.

I have to keep calm.

I have to carry on.

Twisted side

The train gets busy at Peterborough as per usual. A business type in a pinstripe suit sits next to me, and starts to read "Complete Triathlon!" My iPod comes out when he starts chewing gum noisily. His jaws work away, mouth open. "Schmack, schmack, schemack." Yeuck. Is this some new endurance training regimen?

♪♫♪ "She always had this twisted side to her." ♫♪♫

As soon as the music fills my ears, I become aware that someone is wearing a sickly sweet coconut scent. Perhaps the chewing noises would be preferable?

Showering, ironing, coffee, packing

It was touch and go this morning as to whether I would be well enough to make the trip to London. I was awake at 3:40am with painful cramps. I got up when my alarm sounded, took some painkillers and embarked on my usual preparations: showering, ironing, coffee, packing. At 5am I was curled in a ball on my bed seriously doubting I'd manage the two and a half hour train journey let alone the day ahead.

I bit my lip, girded my loins, and I'm here on the train now. Coping. Just.

My own advice to myself and others: "Don't struggle on if you're not well. Take the time off. Get well."

The only thing stopping me taking my own advice? The cost of train tickets to London. Missing my train would have cost me the £41 fare, as my tickets aren't flexible. Purchasing another ticket to travel tomorrow would have cost me anywhere in the region of £80-110. I can only get reasonably discounted fares if I'm booking at least a month in the future.

There is another small matter. I'm not entitled to paid sick leave until I've been back for 28 weeks. Seems mad given that I've been off with a serious illness. Making the judgement that I was fit enough to return meant also betting that nothing else would lay me low. I had to be robust enough to fight off colds, stomach upsets, etc.

So here I am.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

It will be the end of me, and I of it

I feel so tired, and quite low. I find myself reluctant to blog, so this morning I'm forcing myself to it, as one would a chore. There is a danger with depressive moods - one often quits the very things that are subtly therapeutic over the long run. "Waste of time", "pathetic", "stupid" these things become in the midst of a low point. "What's the point?" applies to everything.

Why am I low?

▪ Neighbour issues - plans for an intrusive extension has been approved, and the neighbour informs me that a fence between our land isn't the legal boundary and that a twenty meter by one meter strip of land on my side of the fence is his

▪ I'm hugely tired by the travel and full work days in London. Rather than my stamina building to match the demand I instead become more wearied with each week that passes

▪ It is becoming apparent that I'm expected to join a rota to provide 24/7 support

▪ A free-martin future looms

All these sit atop the burden of metastatic cancer and lymphedema that near overwhelm me on their own.

This is the black hole I have to neutralise with the joys I scratch out of my surroundings and activities. The dawn light saturating the world, the green growing world, the birds fleeting by, the satisfaction of a DIY job completed, watching my garden bloom, having a laugh with a friend or co-worker.

I work hard at this, aiming for a swan like appearance of serenity, but below the surface I paddle furiously to keep pace against the relentless tide.

All the while the black hole glooms ominous, hungrily sucking up all I throw at it, growing irresistibly larger. It will be the end of me, and I of it, for once it eats me and I pass from the world, it too will cease.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Gone soggy

I woke from such an intriguing dream yesterday, which I tried desperately to cling on to thinking it would make the basis for a decent book. The train journey from Leeds flew as I attempted to turn it into words. When halfway to London I reached to take the first sip of the coffee I'd bought back at Leeds the lid exploded off because the cardboard had gone soggy.

Let that be a lesson to you children: ignore coffee at your peril

This morning I stopped at Star-schmucks. Yeah, yeah, I know. I was mobbed by a really persistent pigeon after my frankly lousy muffin. Giving up my attempts to shoo it off the table I sacrificed half the muffin to it, hoping it would take it a long time to gobble it down. Stoopid. All its chums turned up and they polished it off before I'd even managed a slurp of my latte. To add insult to injury the monstrous pigeon came right back to hassle for more.

At that point, the Harris Hawks arrived. The handlers launched one my way to scare off the flying rat. Sadly the fear factor was short lived. It wasn't long before it was back again, this time fancying a bit of croissant from the chap at the next table.

Then seagulls arrived creating a racket and dive-bombing the square, presumably protecting their nests. The hawks hunkered down on their perches looking intimidated. Emboldened the pigeons flew in formation across the square taunting the hawks. Lurking at the corners of the square magpies used the distraction to hop between vantage points, I suspect unguarded gull's eggs were on their breakfast menu.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The odd sock that disappears

I'm on the train to London, sunshine and blue skies on the right, but to the left rain laden clouds threaten. The train cleaves down the middle. It would be a powerful metaphor for my path through life.

The train travels through diverse landscapes: suburbia, city centres, industriana, villages, farmland. It is always the villages nestled in the countryside that inspire a longing. Life would be good living there I imagine. The picture perfect setting would engender a similarly tranquil mental landscape where I could be at peace.

It is a common enough urge I suppose - to move away and leave troubles behind. Of course the one thing we take with us where ever we go is ourselves, and it is naïve to suppose that we can leave all our baggage behind.

I guess I have the full matching six piece set of Louis Vuitton luggage by now. For all my journeys I've never yet had any go missing in transit. Some of the contents have shrunk in the wash, and of course there is always the odd sock that disappears. I've come close to my weight limit more than once but have always scraped through. What would it be like to be free of it all and travel light?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Coping toolset

I feel like I've discovered happiness since beginning this blog, and the process of writing it is therapeutic in some indefinably ephemeral way.

Sarah, a psychologist, talked to me about the power of narratives. People with cancer often have a restitution narrative when their disease is diagnosed, which is well understood by their friends and family. After diagnosis follows treatment - surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, recovery and return to normal life. This is relatively easy for people to deal with and be supportive.

When the disease is less predictable and tractable, the victories are tempered by setbacks, then the narrative becomes more reactive - a chaos narrative. This is more difficult for people to deal with. If they ask how you are they may hear bad news - how can they respond to this without resorting to meaningless platitudes?

It deters people from engaging, and from the cancer patient's perspective it is upsetting to be endlessly the bearer of bad news.

My own narrative is chaotic, and I deal with it by quickly deflecting conversation away from the subject of my health. It leaves a lot of thoughts isolated in my head where they fester.

I believe this blog is causing me to transition towards a quest narrative, where illness leads to insight. I hadn’t anticipated this, but looking back over my posts I do see a bunch labelled “insight”, and the upswing in my mood and outlook is tangible.

I've seen a number of counsellors over the last ten years, when faced with cancer, death and abandonment. I've yet to encounter the magic bullet I’m seeking which would leave me mentally sorted, but each person has contributed something to my coping toolset, although perhaps not something they thought particularly significant.

Sarah's nugget was introducing me to the concept of a narrative, though I suspect the main thrust of her efforts were to persuade me to be more forgiving of my own emotional state. "That's understandable" was her frequent mantra.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

I just don't have the time

I've made it to Cafe Nero for my morning coffee without enduring agony, despite the usual sardine situation on the train which was further compounded by cancellations and emergency engineering works. I was wearing a pair of Crocs this morning hoping they would prove more comfortable than the black flat lace-up 6x wide comfy shoes I wear in the office. They have proven themselves and will now form part of my usual commuting attire. The burgundy Crocs make quite a sartorial statement, contrasting as they do with my otherwise formal attire.

The subject of personality tests came up at work yesterday, and I got to see the Barnum Effect in action as Adam put our characters in the spotlight with a test based on our artistic representations of a scene containing all the following elements: house; road; tree; snake; lake; sun; snake. From this rather hilarious conclusions emerged as to our ego, relationship with each parent, friends, and sex drive. Tish had us deciding which animal best represented each person. The animal analogy was supposed to help us understand how we perceived the person, and facilitate feedback. For instance a colleague who is steady, methodical, uncomplaining, takes on a ton of work and steadily gets it done - a shire horse.

The latter technique reminded me of a track from the Bestiary by Flanders & Swann, and in particular the song about the Bradypus. This has been my personal anthem for a while:

♪♫♪ "A Bradypus or sloth am I.
I live a life of ease.
Contented not to do or die,
But idle, as I please.
I have three toes on either foot,
Or half a doz' on both.
With leaves and fruit and shoots to eat,
How sweet to be a sloth!

The world is such a cheerful place
When viewed from upside down,
It makes a rise of every fall,
A smile of every frown.
I watch the fleeting flutter by
Of butterfly or moth,
And think of all the things I’d try
If I were not a sloth.

I could climb the very highest Himalayas,
Be among the greatest ever tennis players,
Win at chess, or marry a princess, or
Study hard and be an eminent professor.
I could be a millionaire,
Play the clarinet, travel everywhere,
Learn to cook, catch a crook
Win a war then write a book about it;
I could paint a Mona Lisa.
I could be another Caesar,
Compose an oratorio that was sublime.
The door's not shut on my genius,
But I just don't have the time.

For days and days among the trees,
I sleep and dream and doze,
Just gently swaying in the breeze,
Suspended by my toes.
While eager beavers overhead
Rush through the undergrowth,
I watch the clouds beneath my feet.
How sweet to be a sloth!"

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

True consciousness

With the general election just days away there were plenty of entertaining conversations at work today: the merits of each party; the prospect of a hung parliament; first past the post versus proportional representation; tactical voting versus ideological.

People seem quite animated, with little animosity on display. I'd really like to be involved in the democratic process on the night, sorting and counting votes. It is too late now to sign up, but perhaps if I'm in a position to do so next time I'll get the chance.

I'm at the Real Greek since the evening is fine enough to sit out.

A solitary devotee of Krishna has just gone by, castanets on the go, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, undeterred by the absence of others of his clade. I had always assumed Hare Krishna was a person they venerated (as in Buddha, Mohammed, or Christ), but having consulted Wikipedia (accepting the one true encyclopaedia, forsaking all others.) I now realise the mantra refers to the god-head, Krishna from whom all avatars are sprung. The vibrations from the sounds of his names when repeated in the mantra bring one towards the true consciousness of the god-head. I wonder how that feels.

♪♫♪ "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare"

Laying down reserves

What a rush it was this morning to be ready in time to catch the 6:05am train to London. Next week I'll have to set my alarm earlier.

We're at Newark now and the train is gradually getting busier. The clickety clack of the business types on their laptops is positively deafening, but at least it is too early for them to be engaged in their other dastardly commute activity - conference calls.

The amazing warm morning light sets the spring greens of the English countryside glowing.

Fields of rape are afire in the sunlight, intersected by electricity pylons, chain gangs marching across the rolling landscape, dwarfing trees and houses.

The moon rides high, a translucent jellyfish swimming through the blue sky, with contrail tentacles, dragging earthly oceans along in sympathy.

Mankind's endeavours, all straight lines and right angles, push aside and corral nature to do battle with entropy.

The overhead lines that feed the train dip and swoop between their supports. My eyes are drawn to their hypnotic arcs, then captured away by the black grooves of a newly furrowed field. What music would a cosmic needle play on those tracks?

What wonderful whimsies, the world viewed from the train window: a dozen swans sitting in a green field; boats moored along the canal; ancient furrows rippling the land; ephemeral swards of silver birch; forests of roofs and chimneys.

Every colour intense, distinct, vibrant, glowing. Shadows long and deep.

As the sun rises higher the effect will fade, the world return to normal. My soul feeds deep on these rare fruits, laying down reserves to withstand the aridness of London.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Brazen displays

I return to work tomorrow after a week off. I haven’t been anywhere but I have had the best vacation. Mainly I’ve been doing green fingered stuff.

I bought some tiny little succulent plants, but drew a blank finding pots for them. I was stumped for a while, but then remembered I had some old china packed away which had been passed down to me. Now some of those plain old tea-cups are making quite dainty plant pots.

As I may have mentioned, I have a sizeable area of decking. Gradually I’ve been filling it up with flower pots, but I had in mind that I’d like to have flower baskets hanging from the balustrade. Well of course it turned out that nothing entirely suitable existed unless I wanted to fix brackets to window baskets. Then I stumbled across a product called Flower Pouches, which are bags that you can plant with flowers and hang from fence posts & walls. Inspired, I bought some tarpaulin and got the sewing machine out. I hereby trademark the result “Flower Panniers”. I’m hoping the plants will survive, thrive, and bloom. If they do I’ll be sure to post another photo.

The rest of my gardening endeavours have been weeding, pruning, and general tidy up work. The cherry and apple trees have both come into full bloom during the course of the week. Quite spectacular.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a mite bit peculiar, but this next will probably cause more than a few raised eyebrows. Last year my eye was occasionally caught by the brazen displays of some of our nation’s plants. Perhaps my world view is a little upside down, certainly when the tree kingdom is viewed that way the result is quite startling. The first lewd snapshot was taken in Ireland last year, the second is my own hussy of an apple tree.