Yashica FX-D | Fuji Superia 200
Yashica FX-D | Fuji Superia 200
Soon this will all be over. The frogs, the kingfisher, the heron, the brown trout and even the mink will return. Everything will circle back round to where it all began. The waters will retreat into their easy curves, the sound will become a gentle murmur again.
“In the end, it was always the river; everything returned to it” – Truman Capote
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
– Pema Chödrön
A few weeks ago I picked up a book for one euro called The Art of Doing Nothing. It was published 20 years ago, and with lovely photographs shot on film. Obviously the problem of hurtling about at breakneck speed towards ones’ goals aren’t just a Tenties issue.
Very timely as I end week 2 of a 6 week stint of daily radiotherapy.
I can’t say radiotherapy is fun. It’s a 4 hour round trip, really tiring and the time is dragging really slowly. As everyone knows, a watched kettle never boils, so I’m always looking for ways to help me bury the hatchet with Time and relieve the stress. I meditate; exchange stories with the people I meet; scrutinise the daily changes to the landscapes, weather and the sky on the journey, and take note of things I can use later in my sketchbook. And all the while I’m waiting for the taxi, physio, appointment or doctor I read or sketch, so all in all I’m having some reasonable success at ignoring the pesky kettle and just being in the moment. As my new book says:
“Waiting is not a prelude to the future. If anything, it is a prelude to the past.”
And at the very least I can say this about radiotherapy:
It’s not chemotherapy.
I’m getting stronger and brighter every day, I even have 5 o’clock shadow that’s becoming proper stubble on my scalp. Eyebrows are slowly coming back too, but they make me look like I’ve got husky dog DNA. My chemo port has been removed. Can I get a toot toot?! I have a whiff of a social life returning when I’m not too exhausted, and not being a consumer of or contributor to the noise on social media is really helping.
I still have plenty of crappy things going on in my body that will take a long time to improve, and have twice weekly physio to help repair the earlier muscle damage in my chest, upper back and tendons. While the being bent out of shape bit isn’t too great the massage afterwards is very much appreciated, thank you.
What with all that and remembering to do the resting, exercise and eating nutritious food bit in between, this cancer malarkey is a full time job.
I had a running list of Dos and Don’ts – how to act towards someone who is struggling through cancer – that I compiled and added to, generally whenever I’m feeling angry, tired, sad, alone and in a bad place. I was going to provide a public service and helpfully publish it on this here blog because apparently the two most googled cancer topics are 1. What do I say to someone with cancer? And 2. Why have people let me down me during my cancer? I’m not going to post and instead say this and be done with it.
Truth is always tops and besides, dishonesty is so transparent. Make sure they feel like they are a super important priority i.e. not ‘too busy’ for them, and they can be certain of your genuine love and support. Bam. Cancer is hard.
Gifts are also very, very good. Spoil ’em rotten 😉
One of the many kindnesses came from my dear friends Tilly and Will – the Twillys. They live in an idyllic place nearby called Capiès, where they also have gites. Imagine* a beautiful old stone house with views over vineyards and hills, little stone paths and steps weaving through gardens and corners of lavender, rambling roses, fragrant jasmine, tamarisk and fig trees. A pool, woods, and little hideaway nooks. Shady chairs by a chess table, benches piled with cushions, huge hammocks slung between trees. Heaven indeed.
My Mum and Dad have been fantastic while I’ve been ill**, despite being hundreds of miles away. We so desperately wanted to see each other – with no one copping for the shopping, cooking, cleaning, just some quiet, calm, happy time together. Ten weeks into chemo the Twillys welcomed us all with open arms to stay for a couple of nights. Dad is disabled and I was feeling rough, nauseous and exhausted, but they truly pulled out all the stops for us, taking such great care of us all so we could have the gift of precious time together. The storms and rain with only an odd glimpse of sun didn’t really matter. There was plenty of warmth; chats, laughter, hugs, rest, peace AND homemade pizzas from their astonishing pizza oven. They even made a vegan sweet potato and caramelised onion version. Nausea gone. Should be on prescription.
What do you mean did I remember to take a camera? Yes I forgot clean underwear, rainproof shoes and a jumper but never a camera!
Mamiya DSX | Fujifilm Superia 200@100
* Or instead of imagining it, go check out their website.
**2 days ago was my birthday and the day before 13 years since I came to live in France. I’m so grateful to be here to celebrate both of those events.
“Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colours”
– Pablo Neruda
I live by a river called Hers. And it is hers – hers but mine too – Mother Nature, The Muse and me. Anyway, the river is definitely feminine; open, vulnerable and sensual. She gives and supports life, yet can destroy it too; she is a strong, willful, unpredictable paradox. Both capable of killing and healing, and I am enchanted.
Every day, whatever the weather and however sick I feel, we walk Luna down to the river. Cancer is not taking that from me. Full disclosure: I’ve missed maybe 5 walks in the past 3 months. And every day is different in some way. Perhaps one day it is the fat, hairy bee struggling downstream. We scoop him out and put him on a warm stone to dry, the life slowly returning. There are frogs we have watched grow. From when they still had their little vestigial tails to now; their muscular black striped thighs propelling them through the water as they rush to get out of the dog’s way.
The willow is hanging a little lower every time. Now the outermost leaves are dipped in and get tossed by the babbling water. Crayfish claws, mink dens and poo, signs of the non-natives intruders. Gigantic brown trout flipping sideways and catching the light on their silvery bellies. Teeny tiny tiddlers expertly navigating the current. Water boatmen walking on the surface, the shadows of their feet creating huge black circles and the birds darting to pick them off. The myriad tones of grey and blue pebbles and stones, the burnt sienna of the brick and tiles worn away smooth, and oddments of glass and pottery. The light glistens as the sun hits the surface, bursting thousands of sprinkles of stardust and writhing radiant lines that can’t stop dancing.
If I’m feeling brave I’ll kick off my shoes and wade out across the stones. The water is icy cold, numbing at first until the feeling returns to my toes. I’ll pretend I’m a naiad, listen to the birdsong and the breeze, the chatter of the river as she tumbles over stone, my daughters and Luna. All us girls together. And I breathe it all in, deeply. I hate the internet overuse of the word ‘sacred’ and I can’t be doing with all that woo-woo crap, but I’m not immune and I imagine my feet are absorbing all this cleansing, oxygen-rich lifeblood that pumps throughout Earth’s lymphatic system, nourishing her. It has permeated my body, flowing through my own lymphatic system, cells, veins and arteries, cleansing me from all the disease, pain and tension.
Washing away when I don’t feel strong at all but feeling if I admit to being weak or afraid I will let everyone down; the loathing I feel sometimes towards my body and the guilt I feel for the treatment it’s getting when I tried to hard to take care of it; the things that stop me sleeping, the searching for answers or worst of all when I blame myself. The heavy sadness and the sometimes uncompassionate parts of me, all washed away. And as the river flows it all away from me it becomes more and more dilute until it disappears completely and no longer exists in this world. All that’s left is grace and faith.
I found a stone, a rich blue-grey dome with a jumble of white veins running amok across the surface. As they spill over the edges they just disappear into nothing. I bloody love that stone.
There has been a unsurprising shift inside me, and all I want is to live my life in a small and simple way. My river is helping me by doing her part and showing up for me. She and I started a little project together. I didn’t know when I started it would be A Thing, so what started out as a daily practice to keep me grounded to something I love during the brutality of my chemotherapy has grown. I began to work small and simple in a pocket moleskine, and the first sketch was of the river’s stones.
After a while I set myself some boundaries: the river, prussian blue watercolour and the mini moleskine. Also allowed are white, a smidge of burnt sienna and a day off if I feel too sick. Having constraints has been so inspiring and these sketches continue to grow, becoming a metaphor for my physical fight and also my emotions. As the days go by the wee paintings are becoming more abstracted and more almost biological, molecular looking. Perhaps because words like mitochondria and leucocytes, creatinine and monclonal antibodies are buzzing around me daily. Her waters are teeming with the beauty and hope I need and she shares them with me generously.
The world is blue at it’s edges and in it’s depths. This blue is the light that gets lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colourless, shallow water appears to be the colour of whatever lies beneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of the land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue of the farthest reaches of the places you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty in the world, so much of which is in the colour blue.
– A Field Guide To Getting Lost. Rebecca Solnit
I mentioned before that I started the new year by staying high up in the Pyrenees. It seemed like a perfect way to start the year – I love the mountains. The clean air, the jagged landscape, the peace and tranquility; evoking feelings that make me come over all Julie Andrews. Just picture me now, running across a meadow, then spinning around and singing “The hills are alive, with the sound of music!” You’ve got it.
I was staying in a house in the Pyrénées-Orientales. A 16th century stone barn high atop a rocky hill, and the facing hill is in Spain. This place is roughly 150kms south-east of where I live. As I look out across ravens are circling and cawing and oh my, I can see horses on the hill. Oh yes, I’m going to love it here.
That first night I looked up at the sky. No light pollution here, just a endless deep blue-black sky studded with abundant twinkling stars. We came to work, I was to finish my website (ha!) and my friend was to do some writing plus some computer housekeeping, but in the end neither of us got much ‘work’ done as we had planned. We did however, take some great walks, eat good food, drink a lot of wine and talk endlessly. I also had the opportunity to use up the colour film in my camera left over from Christmas. Sadly the camera came with a random light leak, but whatever.
The Pyrenees are known for their changeability and so the brilliant sunshine suddenly became grey and cold galeforce winds that I battled and failed to take good photographs with my pinhole camera.
But it soon turned around and the bright sun and dusting of frost returned next day and with it, fire and ice. A frozen solid swimming pool and these sunsets…
On our last morning I got up early, made the fire and some tea and let Cass the dog out. I drink my tea watching a yellow shaft of light on the Spanish mountain opposite get broader, melting the glistening frost and waking the ravens who start their ritual calling, circling, weaving and diving. The sky is clear and I watch the trace of a jetstream, wondering what those up there in the metal box see looking down on the Pyrenees landscape.
I take Cass up the footpath winding up through the hills towards the border. The track passes under a barrier where France ends and opens up into No Man’s Land. Beyond it the dust track becomes tarmac and Spain starts. Here in the wide open space stands the ‘Temple of Peace’, a monument dedicated to the thousands of exiles who crossed the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War.
How everything in this world is so cyclical.
France, then Spain
Nikon FE | Fujifilm 800
*This post is very timely as my lovely next door neighbour M. Cathala passed away in the small hours of this morning. I will miss him terribly.
Praktica PM3 | Kodak PX125