This blog, in the words of Sam Cooke, it’s been a long time coming. Thing is, I wanted to get away from just writing about cancer and its aftermath. I got bored of it, and anyway, eight months on from the end of treatment, life is moving on. I have been crafting this piece for quite some time. But having returned from my first holiday in two years, I’m ready to get it finished and out there. The only thing that’s slowing me down is the ‘o’ on my keyboard. It works sporadically. Consequently, and with n warning frm one sentence, or even one word to the next, sentences look like this one. My short-term solution is to copy and paste my ‘o’s’ in. Clearly not ideal. I won’t be winning any prizes for ingenuity. But according to those random online sites, created to distract you when you’re trying to work, it’s not the oedrr of the ltteres taht mrttaes, as lnog as the fsirt and lsat ltteer are in the rhgit pcale. The rset can be a tatol mses or mssinig an ‘o’ and you’ll stlil be albe to raed it jsut fnie. There’s even a site that will scramble your coherent sentences for you so you can amuse yourself by testing your cognitive ability. I reckon if you can read my scrambled words without too much difficulty, a few absent ‘o’s’ here and there probably won’t detract radically from the flow if I give up on the cmd+C & cmd+V. (Get me with my shortcuts!)
Back from my holiday – Italy – I’m refreshed and rejuvenated. Hadn’t ‘done’ Europe for quite a few years having been based in the Middle East. It was lovely. Did the usual things: ate too much, sightsaw, climbed the odd mountain, read chicklit by the pool. May have bought a dress or two. I appreciated every single minute of it in a way I hadn’t before. A few reflective moments occurred when pondering over my experience of the last year, but on the whole there wasn’t too much dwelling on the sucky stuff, and a lot of enjoying la Bella Italia with my family.
Home five days, and I’ve made light work of some tedious chore lists. Nothing to write a blog about, except for the fact that I probably wouldn’t have managed them a month or so back. It’s taken a bit of time for my cognitive ability to resume its fabulous pre-cancer efficiency, (over and above being able to understand scrambled words). However, slowly, slowly, I seem to be able to do stuff again with relative ease. And by stuff I mean multi-tasking, taking responsibility, and juggling everyday demands without feeling overwhelmed.
Re-discovering my identity and feeling normal have been my two biggest challenges over the last year. Beating cancer wasn’t; that was in the hands of the experts. I just put my trust in them and did as I was told. Getting life back on track afterwards has been the toughie. It took a stretch of convalescence, procrastination and considerable anxting, before something happened to change my thought processes. That something was a light bulb moment.
I can count on one hand, with two fingers left over, the number of light bulb moments I’ve probably had. So when this one happened, it pulled me up short and was all the more startling, because it was so essential, so simple, so blindingly obvious.
For the record, I fluctuate erratically between contentedly drifting, writing, getting fit, socialising and living life as a well person again (admittedly in a different country to where I was living life as a well person Before Cancer [BC]), and, stressing about the absence of a job, an inability to get my act together, a lack of routine, and becoming lazy. So, some days – tiptop in their loveliness; others – less so.
The blueprint for my life BC does not exist in England. It got left behind in the Middle East. I am therefore working on creating a new one. It could be that everyone who comes through cancer feels a bit rootless, a bit at sea, regardless of whether they’ve had to repatriate or not. But adding repatriation into the mix seems to spice it up a bit. Always up for a challenge, I am embracing this period of transition, this voyage of (self) discovery. As a lover of travel and adventure it couldn’t be more perfect, were it not for the fact that some of my discoveries are just a bit samey. As in: coming-through-cancer-treatment-takes-a-bit-longer-to-adjust-to-than-anticipated sort of samey. But, on balance, the whole re-finding myself thing is going swimmingly.
Along the way I have detoured off the ‘I am better’ path. You do, when side effects of things you now take distract you. Prevention is better than cure, of course, but visiting a different medical expert to resolve each side effect was threatening to become farcical. And, in danger of becoming a professional patient, I have taken the decision to stop over-thinking and get on with living.
Life may have taken on a gentler pace, than BC in the Middle East, but let no-one say it’s less exciting. For the purposes of research, and convalescence, but mainly research, I spent the first five months of this year reading Livingetc. I learnt an abundance of interesting things. My house, for example, is not going to look like the houses owned by the ridiculously beautiful, bohemian and accomplished people featured in a magazine that promulgates envy and dismay rather than inspiration and joy. Ever. And, grey is the couleur du jour. I’ve studied and I have absorbed, I have plunged my heart and soul deep into my new raison d’être, I pepper my sentences with French phrases, because I can, and miraculously, along the way, my house has assumed a Scandi-vibe all its own. Brilliant White in some places, Mineral Haze II in others, my kitchen walls in particular, make my heart sing, so lovely are they in their greyness. White wooden blinds replace the previous owner’s old-lady’s-underwear curtains. Woodwork is clean and crisp. My house nods to the I’m-so-achingly-cool-I-spend-my-life-barefoot-playing-a-guitar-while-running-an-immensely-successful-agency-of-some-description brigade. With a transformation as pleasing as this, I wonder whether five months analysing Vogue might effect a similarly happy transformation on the house’s inhabitants.
The thing is though, just going back to the house makeover for a moment, in lifestyle magazines, people have unreal amounts of space and expensive solutions for domestic debris. They do not, for example, have hundreds and hundreds of books and one bookcase less than before they moved. They do not scratch their heads at the conundrum of less space, more books. Placing books on shelves is, for barefoot, beautiful people a pleasing challenge, a rewarding task. Do they colour-coordinate or go for alphabetical order? That is the extent of their worries. For one with so much time on my hands, I should have been grateful for this diversion. Strangely I was not. That small frisson of joy I experienced as I crammed the last book on the shelf, vertically, horizontally, I’d given up caring, dissipated as I turned and discovered another fifty, or so, books piled up in a corner of the room that had, shockingly, evaded the Livingetc makeover. Massive sense of humour failure. MAS-SIVE. What’s the bloody point of starting a mindlessly boring job if you can’t actually finish it and move on? So, my study: not quite as Livingetc. as I’d have liked after all. Fifty books sit on the floor, in front of the shelves-with-no-more-space, and no particular place to go.
I find if I don’t go into that room, the problem disappears. In fact, I’ve moved my workspace to a very small room with just my desk in. So there it is, a solution of sorts. And what with the rest of the house channelling its inner my-ancestors-were-Vikings chi, before I turn to Vogue for family-makeover solutions, I’m turning my attention to the transformation of me.
Currently in my chrysalis-stage, think of me, if you will, as a pre-metamorphosed butterfly. Post-treatment, one’s body requires a little work. I’m in the development phase. I joined a gym. Mundane, it’s true, but in the early months of recuperation it offered me a whole new challenge, and helped me fill my mornings, in my new normal existence. Not the whole morning, I hasten to add. That would have been dire. The first hour. My little slogan – ‘Get it out the way. Reclaim your day.’ – hinted at my zest for my new pastime. With some nice new turquoise and black, state of the art, keep-me-dry clobber (which supposed I might work hard enough to break a sweat), and blue trainers, I looked fit. As in 20-years-younger-she’d-be-peng fit. Not fanatical-gym-bunny-triathlon-before-breakfast fit. I had, in fact, the stamina of a pea. I could use, adeptly, three machines. I spent fifteen minutes on each. Plugged into Made In Chelsea, (state of the art, my local gym), whilst I was moonwalking nowhere, sugared the exercise pill. And in the process I made the innovative discovery that cardiovascular exercise banished the moody blues. One small step for man, a giant leap for me.
Once I’d regained my stamina and could be sure that I wouldn’t pass out in an exercise class, I stopped the gym and took up group exercise again. Pilates is my favourite, but I’m psyching myself up for Core Blimey. (Brutal workout for the tum in case the name’s not self-evident.)
Keeping on top of the important stuff – interior design, fashion, cognitive impairment issues, obtaining the body of a goddess – my new favourite panacea is mindfulness. It’s ever so versatile, covers a multitude of frustrations and works whatever I’m wearing. A few weeks ago, after the requisite hour in the supermarket doing the weekly shop, the woman in front of me in the queue at the checkout caused a tailback when she forgot her pin number. Not a problem for me of course! I cleared my mind of abusive thoughts and happiness flooded through me; I now had time to tear across fourteen aisles to fetch forgotten milk. Unclenching my teeth, I reflected, mindfully that it matters not a jot if I’m not currently mentally fulfilled, if stacking bookshelves is my new time waster, and I’ve made domestic chores an art form; the thing to remember is that I’m discovering a semi-comatose pace of life that will hold me in good stead for when I’m old and senile.
If I’m honest, achieving perfection is harder than I thought, and mindfulness and endorphins don’t always cut the mustard. Sometimes, I find, only a hissy fit will do. Less worthy than a bit of ‘being in the moment’, it on occasions does the trick. So, there I was, one mindfulness-is-bollocks evening, knickers twisted, ‘Woe is me, my life will never be Voguetastic or Livingetcesque,’ spewing forth, when out of the blue, my brain went PING!
‘Just. Shut. Up!’ it snapped. ‘Shut up, untwist your big girl’s panties, deep breath and listen: there is one thing, and one thing only you have to do. Not hunting for a job, nor proving you are Wonder Woman, nor filling each day with meaningful activity. No. No. And no. After last year’s inconvenience, wake up and smell the Flat White. Your task, your only task, is to feel happy.’
In the words of a birthday card I bought recently: ‘Tickle my bum and call me Donald!’ Ta Daa! Light bulb moment extraordinaire. Or maybe not so extraordinaire. Pharrell Williams beat me to it. He is the man when it comes to all things happy. He must be, he’s been singing about it a lot this summer. His words have been my inspiration:
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
And so on… It’s good.
It’s not only good, it’s true. That line about ‘hot air’… And, ‘a room without a roof’ – this is my song. Because I do feel like a room without a roof, *clap*, (in the same way that I might feel like a glass of Prosecco, or getting a manicure). With a roofless room, I could have taller bookshelves, *clap*, which would mean books off floor, *clap*, and faffy job done, *cheer*. So Pharrell, I guess you have it all sewn up when it comes to being happy, and I still have a way to go.
But that’s all fine, because I have time on my hands and I’ve been using it to get on with the editing of my novel. I wasn’t feeling happy with it before I went on holiday. At least I was with 90% of it, but there was a chapter, one measly chapter, that was giving me grief. It involved sex. Writing about it. This is another area I have painstakingly, but not unpleasantly researched, along with grey walls and tranquillity of the mind. What I learnt was that it’s got to be graphic but not cringeworthy. The hero has to make us girls wish we were the heroine. He has to be rugged but flawed, witty but intense. It’s all about suggestion and tension. Will they? Won’t they? Build the build up, underplay the act. And there have to be endless obstacles before they actually do it. Did my research take me to infinity and beyond? Let’s just say I finally got that chapter written. I didn’t have to read it anymore and I could get on with the rest of the book. I’m racing through the editing now, with the goal of having it ready for my beta readers by the end of this month. Like the reshaping-my-life project, the book has taken time, but I’m satisfied that it’s almost at a point where I want others to read and criticise it.
I’ve come to the conclusion that mindfulness works sometimes better than others – a bit like the ‘o’ on my keyboard, which, for the record, didn’t play up during the last few paragraphs and now is (cmd+C, cmd+V). My medical appointments are fewer and further between, but little ‘o’, be warned, you’re seeing the man from Mr Computer tomorrow, first thing. I have the germ of a new idea for my next book buzzing around in my head, and am being disciplined in collating a file of information but not acting on it before I’ve completed the current one. And, I’m starting, slowly, to apply for jobs.
Re-finding one’s identity, or even reinventing it, is a challenging thing. But an exciting one too. After all, how often do we have the opportunity, time and space to do it? So on the days I’m feeling a bit defeated, I take heart from the words of the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”