Islandmomma

Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


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Brexit, My Blog and Me: A New Journey Awaits

Me: The Sad Stuff

Almost a year after my father’s death,  I stand on a grassy knoll, to witness his ashes slide slowly into the ground, into the same spot where my mom’s remains were placed over 40 years ago. A fine mist of ash rises, and gently blends into the hazy daylight. The sod is returned. I lay a small posy of freesia on the spot, my mother’s favorite flower, the same flowers I’d left there a year ago.

In all these years I’d been unaware that there was a special place which marked where my mom’s final resting place. It was only my dad’s death which had brought it to light. At last, they are together again – not that I doubted that they had not been for the last year; not that I doubted that my mother had really ever left us, come to that.

A few months back, I’d had a clear picture in my head: the two of them standing somewhere in a garden or a wood, Trixy was bounding up to them. My dad is saying to my mom:

“And this is Trixy. I told you so much about her,” as Trix jumps up to greet him.

trix la palma

Trixy enjoying the sun at the last stop of our round-the-islands journey in La Palma. People ask me if I will finish off the trip, but I doubt it, without Trix it just wouldn’t be the same.

I’d lost her in May, oddly, on the anniversary of my mom’s death. It completed a trilogy I’d knew had begun when my aunt died. Dot, my dad, Trixy, at the ages they were, their deaths were inevitably going to come close together. That Fate threw in the knee problem, Trixy’s tumors, the septicemia, the cancer, a month of radiotherapy, and a frustrating battle with the inefficiency of hospital administration was, well, one of those things …… I don’t know about you, but it’s not the first time in my life I’ve wondered if the  Universe was testing me, seeing just how much I could take. Trixy’s death opened the flood gates, and allowed me to mourn it all. I felt as if the tears might never stop.

I wasn’t emotionally recovered by June 23rd.

Brexit

I’ve wondered over these last months what my dad would have made of Brexit, As a WW2 RAF officer he had worked and fought alongside people from all parts of the then Commonwealth, and he abhorred racism. He went out of his way to buy a copy of “The Big Issue” from a lady of Indian heritage, because he felt that others ignored her because of her appearance. His generation, more than any, had a right to talk about “the good old days,” not because of the war, but because integrity, tolerance and honesty were prized. I am gobsmacked that my own generation seems to have rejected all of that.

Brexit for me was the latest in a list of painful events. I took it personally, still do. It threw my world into further chaos. Uncertainty I do fine, so long as I have options. I haven’t known what my options are for over a year now, and I am very angry, still, at the ignorance and racism which brought this about. I am as European as I am English, and I am angry that I don’t have the control I had, or should have, and that’s just my selfish perspective. I think it is a huge tragedy for the UK.

Me: The Happy Stuff

Before Brexit, before Trixy died, things had been on the up. There is an end to a period like this, no matter how long it seems to drag on, but perhaps there is no clear moment when Fate swings in the other direction. I’ve long known that acceptance is key to surviving. Angsting and wailing are no use for anything. You need to go with the flow until it slows down a bit.

And so, in the weeks between the bad stuff, there had been gloriously happy times too. In Spring Guy and Rachael had become engaged, their happiness was infectious, and the negative energy began, perceptively, to shift.

Shortly after we returned from Florida the previous year, Rachael had lost her dad, another sadness on what had seemed like the downward spiral in which we were trapped. The upswing was intentional. It was Guy and Rachael telling Fate to “bring it on, we won’t give in to negativity.” The wedding, intended for this year, was brought forward by 12 months. It left me with very little time to concentrate on anything else, because they decided to celebrate their wedding in Tenerife.

My life became a round of florists and hairdressers, cake tasting and balloons, hurricane lamps and ribbons, and, of course, possible venues.

It all culminated on a perfectly balmy evening overlooking one of the prettiest beaches on the island, and one of the happiest, most emotional days of my life. I am acutely aware not only of Guy’s good fortune in meeting Rachael, but of my own. I have a dream of a daughter-in-law. My happiness level was at maximum.

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Just a few months before, as I drove, mechanically, to the hospital each day, I’d concentrated on the positive. In December I was due to turn 70, and it was looking very much as if 2017 was going to be “my” year. As it turned out, everything turned up roses in 2016.

During the months Austin had spent with me when the cancer was diagnosed, he’d promised me a very special 70th birthday present – a trekking holiday to Nepal in 2017. So you can guess how much I was looking forward to the new year!

As it turned out, that was also brought forward … to November of 2016 ……. so even before the wedding, I began another “get fit” plan. Once the wedding party left, it was time to get serious. I returned to the same regime I’d followed when I had septicemia, plus, I walked until I dropped at every single opportunity, whether it was along the coast, or up in the mountains. The latter was favorite to accustomise to the altitude.

Hiking releases endorphins for me like nothing else. I’d never hiked alone before, but now hadn’t much choice if I wanted to do as much as I should, and I found out that I relish it. Of course, I enjoy the company of friends, and sometimes organized walking, but there is something about being alone in the mountains which strikes a very fundamental chord, a closeness with Nature that’s rare when you’re with others. That said, I was lucky in my friendship with Pilar who did her very best to encourage and motivate me too!

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Still on a high from the wedding, I was happily munching my salads, when the universe lobbed another obstacle at me. With around six weeks to go before leaving for Nepal I woke one morning to see that the itching which had irritated me all night was due to a nasty rash forming around my waist. I knew what it was, and my doctor confirmed it – shingles. From friends who had suffered, I had gathered that the itching was unbearable. What I hadn’t realized was the sciatica which it provoked too. There was nothing more I could do, except take the antibiotics and continue the healthy eating. I certainly wasn’t up for walking much! In retrospect, I must have boosted my immune system pretty well, because I am told that my recovery was a quick one.

But that too passed. I upped the walking again as soon as I could, and stayed positive. I’m lucky that I was born this way. When something bad or dramatic is happening something inside my head kicks in and keeps me calm and positive, even when I’ve missed a lot of sleep.

And so my trip takes me first to Lancaster, and this grassy knoll. We’d hoped, the three of us, to be here together, but for many reasons that wasn’t going to happen soon, and I need some closure.

I turn to walk away, and head for London and then to Nepal.

me and oz nepal

My Blog

These last, few posts have been difficult to write. I am a fairly private person. But there has been a mental block which needed to be cleared, and perhaps this is the only way I could do that. As you can imagine, there were a lot more tears, gnashing of teeth, and cursing than I’ve admitted to here. This particular part of “my story” has already been weeks waiting for me to click “publish,” because once I’ve cleared that blockage I am committed to writing regularly again.

I stopped blogging, with a few impulsive exceptions, because I wanted to concentrate on family, getting well, and getting the most out of those good times. I’m ready to hit the keys again, but it will be slightly different, and I will update my “About” page to explain that.

I am pretty much saying “To heck” with social media. Of course, the world is in a sorrier state than it was when I was last blogging frequently, and it impacts all of us in some way or other. Social media can now be a pretty depressing place. I used to be able to ignore the racism and the hate, but now it seems to invade all our lives. We can ignore it, but it seems disloyal to those who can’t, especially those who can’t speak for themselves. Today I saw a post about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean on Instagram. My son, Austin, has been volunteering with them over the summer, so I perhaps know a little more about the heartbreak behind those photos than most people. I found myself finding the next post in my feed, from a blogger whom I like, to be trite in comparison, but it wasn’t. This is all a part of the world we inhabit, we should try to help those who cannot help themselves, who are victims of war, or racism, or sexism, or whatever else shallow people use to try to boost their own feeble egos. But we need to allow ourselves to enjoy and appreciate the overwhelming beauty of this planet and its people too.

That said, there is a lot of the trite and a lot of vanity on social media. I’m checking on my personal guidelines for both what I post and what I follow. I know that I am neither Paul Theroux or Steve McCurry, but I can strive to follow their example of excellence in writing and in photography. I can attempt to avoid the corny and the self promotion. That last is not easy, because we write and we take photographs for them to be seen. Balance in this, as in life in general, is a hard road to tread, but I can try.

To be the best we can be has always been a noble goal, but it’s more important now than ever in this age of stupidity and mediocrity. I know I’m leaving myself wide open in saying that. Hopefully, I can laugh at myself too. In my new-found enthusiasm for all things healthy I know that I’ve fallen well short of those standards on Instagram in recent weeks! I shudder when I think back to old posts on this blog, too. I have considered beginning anew, yet, aren’t we all the sum parts of what has brought us to this point in our journey? Maybe some of those posts are what I was, but am not any longer. In any event, expect more about food and health on here. Did I ever mention either in respect of my own life before, actually?

In the midst of the hiatus, I turned 70, but at times over the last couple of years I have felt healthier than I ever did. Sure I am not as agile or quick as I once was, but I see no reason to become a couch potato, sipping my gin ‘n’ tonic every night as I watch the sun go down on a world in which I am simply now an observer.

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Storms Within and Without: Stage 4 of My Personal Journey

Apt that in the English Lake District, home of the Romantic Poets, the skies are heavy,  Kendal’s  streets are grey, and our sombre mood, when we turn the key in my dad’s small bungalow a couple of hours later.

There is much to do, and I don’t know how much time I have before the hospital in Tenerife rings to say the tests are back, and they will begin radiotherapy.

There are people to ring, contracts to cancel, authorities to inform, lawyers to pay, newspapers to stop, banks to deal with, mail to redirect, and all the dozens of small, heartbreaking tasks a family death entails.

In the bottom of his wardrobe my father kept one of those steel home filing systems which were popular before computers. He frequently reminded me that when he went I would find all the documents I needed there. There aren’t that many. My father was a man of simplicity, and over recent years becoming even more so, giving a lot of his possessions to the charity shops which line Kendal’s main street. His intention was to lighten the load we now face.

On the top is a letter he had written in 2009. By then he was 86. I don’t think he thought that he would live as long as he did. The letter lists just about everything we need to deal with, including telephone numbers, right down to cancelling the service contract for his vacuum  cleaner.

In the next days I ring some of those numbers, only to find that the person has died in the meantime.

It’s his instructions for his funeral which puzzle me. No church, no priests. The emphasis is his. I fall asleep wondering how that is to be done.

The next day at the hospital we collect the death certificate. The cause of death is identified as cancer of the esophagus, undetected and not diagnosed until it took his life.

At the undertakers I convey his instructions; cremation, and what will happen with his ashes. We come to his instructions about his funeral, which will be in the small chapel at the crematorium, a place familiar to me. I explain his wishes, there are seconds of dead air, and then I hear myself saying that I will conduct the service myself.

If daddy had died before Dot I would not have heard that voice,  it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could do something like that. Dot’s parting gift. It’s a year and a half since I gave the eulogy and at her funeral. I know I can do this, and something inside of me knows this is how he would want it. My father’s imprint on this earth, so far as I know, was very light. There are still mysteries about his life. He was the most private person I have ever known, and this simple ceremony is what he wanted. The date is set for a week ahead.

We muddle through that week. It’s busy. At times it’s fraught or tense, or simply depressing. I am fortunate that I have something my sons cannot have, the strong sense of my mother’s presence. It’s almost forty years since she died, and three days before my father died would have been their 70th wedding anniversary. My sons never knew their grandmother, and in his own way, daddy tried to do double duty to make up for that.

So many things in this bungalow are memories of my mother that I feel as if I am losing her all over again.

The day comes. It is appropriately stormy and gloomy. It’s a small family gathering, very intimate. I am grateful for the support, for people travelling a long way in horrible weather to pay their last respects.

It’s done. I found a flight, although there is still no word from the hospital, so I cannot follow my father’s wishes about his ashes until a later date. I have chosen May 20th, the anniversary of my mother’s death to do it.

All that remains is for the furniture to be collected. After it’s gone, Austin and I clean up as best we can, and go to spend our last night in a local hotel. The rain has been unceasing and a bitter wind howls along the river outside. I wake up in the morning to find the waters worryingly close to my window, and the staff talk about evacuating. We load up Austin’s car with the mementos of their granddad which Austin and Guy wanted to keep, and he sets off for London. I call a cab and head to the station.

Even by Lake District standards, the short trip to Oxenholme Station is scary. We were, literally, soaked to the skin whilst loading the car, and the taxi driver, a regular, who I know to be very experienced, has doubts that we will make it. Roads are flooding everywhere.

Eventually, I catch a train, not the one booked, which is delayed by the weather. Austin is stopped by police on a flooded road, pleads to be allowed through, and makes it.

Storm Desmond has arrived, and I feel like a rat leaving a sinking ship. It all seems apt.

Storm Desmond battered the British Isles (mainly Ireland, northern England and Scotland from 3rd to 8th December 2015, causing devastating flooding in Cumbria. I glimpsed just a little of the beginning of it from the train window that day.

 

 

 

 


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When That Other Shoe Drops: My Personal Journey Volume 3

I rarely panic, well, not when I’m on dry land anyway. I have been known to flail about a bit in the ocean.

“Don’t forget to take your phone, Daddy,” I blurt out, as he informs me that the ambulance is outside. (See previous 2 posts to see what brought us to this point)

My default reaction is exactly the same as it was when I received the phone call from the hospital in August. Sit down and figure out what to do. My sons to inform, flights to book. Be grateful that the radiotherapy hasn’t begun. Trixy to kennels. It’s weekend and low season so getting a flight won’t be a problem, but I need to book return, because there is a hospital appointment Wednesday to get the results of that test. I am grateful there is enough in my account to pay for this, there are times when there isn’t.

What if ?……. Don’t go there. Deal with that if it happens.

It’s appropriately wet and grey when we touch down in Manchester.

Guy has come up from London, and meets me at the station in Lancaster. It’s a long weekend. Beyond his age, there is a mystery as to what exactly ails my dad. We wait all weekend, hoping for a diagnosis. Rachael comes up from London. She’s the one who makes my dad smile. The 3 of us get soaked to the skin, walking to the nearest pub for food and a break from the sterility of the hospital. I explain to the nurse in charge that I have to get back to the Canary Islands on Tuesday, and why, and that my dad doesn’t know about my cancer. I hate that they might think I am leaving him when he is so ill and so old.

When I leave on Tuesday there is still no diagnosis. Austin is on his way. My return trip turns out to be a waste of money because the test results are delayed. On my way back from the hospital, I do something I haven’t done for years. I call into a church and light a candle.  I don’t practice any religion, but I do believe in prayer.

I am researching flights when Austin calls. His granddad is weakening, and I should get back asap. Frustrated with internet searches I go to the airport to ask. It’s the middle of the night, but they confirm there are no direct flights to Manchester for a couple of days. I book to London and a train to get me back to Lancaster.

An hour out of London, I get a message from Austin to say he will meet me in Preston, where I should be changing trains. This doesn’t make sense.

Here he is on the platform. He carries my bag to the car, slams the boot, and turns to tell me what I already know. There is no way that he would have left his granddad in the circumstances. In the rain, in the car park we hold each other. I don’t know who is comforting who.

Emigration comes at a price, and that is the guilt you feel for those you leave behind.

daddyThese were the last two photos I took of my dad. I was on my way back from Florida in May of 2015 and we went out for lunch in Kendal. My dad was slow to smile, but he actually looks very happy here.

 


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My Personal Journey: Part Deux

 

me sanibel

2015 began well, with frosty English mornings, and segued into a warm welcome home from Trixy, and those marvelous crystal clear days of a Canarian winter.

For a time, problems were forgotten, but little did I know that more were waiting in the wings, as I concentrated on finding what I had decided was to be a reasonably long term rental. My knee was mended, but Trixy’s traveling days were clearly over.

As I packed to leave the temporary apartment, I was also packing my bags for a new journey. I only had time to dump boxes in the new one before it was time to set off for a Florida road trip. Because of what happened next, I only ever managed to publish one post about that, but for me it was a huge one. Crossing something off your bucket list is a big thing, and there was lots of beach time too, as you can see above.

Life assumed a very pleasant pattern, wanderlust quenched for a while, some very happy memories of Florida, Trixy stabilized, happily pottering around the new apartment unpacking the stuff I hadn’t unpacked in the temporary one (reuniting with my books – yay!), some gentle walking to make sure the knee was up for more. Yes, life, I could say, was good, until the phone rang one day in early August.

“Linda, this is the hospital. We noticed something on the mammogram we did a couple of weeks ago, and we’d like you to come back for more tests.”

You could say it was the call I’d been dreading since my mom died from breast cancer 40 years before. Maybe that’s why I felt no panic, or maybe, you know, that’s just the way I am. I did sit for about an hour or so and decide what to do. This call was by no means conclusive, but chances were that what they had spotted was cancer. I decided that it was best to tell no-one until it was confirmed. What on earth was the point in worrying family and friends without cause? I went into my default mode when faced with a problem. This is a problem, so what am I going to do about it?

Logic said if it was cancer it was early stage, because I’d never missed a mammogram. Ironically, the previous year, I had stepped off the ferry from La Palma and gone straight to my mail box, where I’d found notification of my annual appointment that very day. I’d gone straight to the hospital from the post office. I cannot help but wonder at the mysterious intuition I had felt that had brought me back to Tenerife on that particular date…..

That summer was marked by hospital visits, pokings, a biopsy and finally confirmation that it was a small, cancerous tumor. This was the point at which I had to tell my sons of course, but there was no question that I was going to burden my 93 year old father with this information, since I’d seen him in May en route home from Florida, that didn’t seem like an enormous problem. My greatest fear was that he might become ill during my treatment……

Remember what I said in my last post? I hate fuss. I hate being ill. I hate to appear to solicit sympathy. Besides, there were folk far, far worse off than I. I followed a fellow travel blogger who had been diagnosed just weeks earlier, and her cancer was much more advanced than mine, yet she wrote about it with humour and style, making my story far less important. I was offered a one-off copy-writing job, something I hadn’t really done before. There was a lot to learn. It stretched my mind, and left me little time for angsting.

My sons were amazing in their support. Flowers and regular encouraging calls and messages came from Guy and Rachael, and Austin took compassionate leave from his job at sea. Thus he was able to be with me when I woke from the operation to remove the tumour in early September. This was all I needed. Within 48 hours I was stopping on my way home to shop in Decathalon for new bras….something I hadn’t given thought to! My boob was still there, but a tad on the sore side.

I was one of the lucky ones. It was confirmed to be early stage, and no chemo was necessary. Here is where I cannot stress enough, girls …..GET REGULAR CHECK UPS! DO THE SELF EXAMINATIONS! and, guys, that goes for you vis a vis prostate cancer!! If you are not persuaded by the horrible stories of people who haven’t, then be persuaded by how easy my op was, honestly, I’ve had dental work which was more painful.

Like ripples in a pond, I widened the circle of people I told, save my father. I’d even spoken to him from my hospital bed without giving him a clue …. thank the lord for mobile phones! I was still concerned, because although chemotherapy had been ruled out, radiotherapy was on the cards, and once started that had to be continuous for four or five weeks.

What happened next was another of those “someone is watching over me” events. A visit to the oncologist, and she mentions that there is a new test available to determine how aggressive the cancer was.

Would I like to have it done?

Of course I would, why would I not?

The test meant sending the tumour off abroad somewheres for testing, as it isn’t done on the island, but I still had a big enough window to do the radiotherapy. So off went my cancer on its travels.

I think I hate telephones, well, phone calls at least. What with all our electronic communication these days, it means that phone calls are reserved for the serious stuff.

So I jumped when my phone rang one morning in mid-November. When I recognised the voice, even before he said much, my heart sank. It was my father. We spoke every other day, and always in the evening. My father was a man of habit.

Calmly he explained that he wasn’t feeling “too well,” and he’d called an ambulance.

 

 


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A Personal Journey and The Lessons Learned: 2014

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The longer you dawdle over something, the harder it is to pick up the pieces again, and that’s the way it has gone with this blog post. I began to write it soon after the last one, which is now all of 9 months ago …… and counting. One day, I will write about procrastination……..

Procrastination is one excuse. Another is that much of what I feel the need to say goes against the way I am. I hate fuss. I am independent. I hate being ill. I hate to appear to be looking for sympathy, approval or compliments. So I deleted it for being too maudlin; another time I savaged it for sounding as if I made mountains out of mole hills; and another because it seemed to disrespect the way others feel about a similar experience…..yet, I feel that I have something to say, and what I want to say comes from life lessons learned over the last two or three years.

In addition, I am rarely happy with what I write, and yet it’s an addiction, with all that implies. During a difficult period in my life, some years ago I came across Martha Beck’s “Finding Your Own North Star.”  Beck was a high achieving academic with a busy life when she gave birth to her son, who had Down’s Syndrome. Struggling to make a deadline, as she coped with the demands of an already full life and the new challenges. She decided to take just 15 minutes a day to write, which was all she could spare at first. Needless to say, it was written. That lesson struck a deep chord with me. Paso a paso, as the Spanish say. Just put one foot in front of the other.

I haven’t explored the world as much as I would have liked over the past 3 years, but I have been on a profound personal journey. I learned a lot from it, and that’s what I think is worth sharing. Maybe it’s been a struggle because I was trying to spew it all out at once, so I am going to break it down. So here’s chunk one:

2014 was dominated by three events, but I didn’t realize that they were stages on a journey which was to last longer. I touched on them in a previous post, but they took on more significance as time passed.

The First Event

In May of 2014 my Aunty Dot died, peacefully, at 92 years. For some reason I still don’t understand, I heard myself offering to give the eulogy; me, who never raised my hand in class, who dried up doing a couple of tv interviews a while back, and who once refused to go to receive an award in case I had to say something . As we followed the coffin into the tiny chapel, the lump in my throat tightened, and tears I couldn’t shed scalded my eyes, but here was the minister saying that, “Now Dot’s niece would like to say a few words.” I wobbled to the front of the chapel, pushed my broken reading glasses into place, and launched.

Emigration comes at a price, and that is the guilt you feel for those you leave behind. I poured all of that into the words I mumbled. Glancing round as I walked back to my seat, I realized that I was the only person there who remembered a younger Dot, the young mother, the dreamer, the one who jollied everyone at time of family crisis, the encourager of dreams and my personal cheerleader. That was the portrait I had tried to paint, and it was bitter sweet to be told I succeeded. Apparently my struggle with the broken specs caused suppressed smiles too – I told them they should have laughed – she would have loved that.

Dot had always encouraged my imaginings and understood my need to write, and here I had instant feedback that what I had written had done the job I hoped it would. Despite the sad occasion, that day I found whatever it is inside of me that I needed to stand up and speak in public. It gave me a type of confidence I’d never had before. That might have been Aunty Dot’s parting gift to me, and some months later it was to stand me in good stead.

The Second Event

Sometimes we have instinctive feelings, that embarrass us, and we make up logical reasons to defend our resulting actions. We shouldn’t, we should trust our gut, and that is what I now take away from the decision to return to Tenerife.

Coming back to El Médano in July of 2014 was like that. I couldn’t settle on the island of La Palma, and my decision was guided purely by instinct. Instincts which were so spot on I shiver trying to understand. Some would not be obvious for some months.

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The Third Event

After the stress of Aunty Dot’s death, returning to Tenerife at the most stupid time of year, getting my stuff out of storage, Trixy having five tumors removed from various parts of her body, and the struggle to sort out my knee problem, I was looking forward to Christmas in England with my sons and my father, the first time the four of us had spent Christmas together in quite a while. But 2014 had a final punch in store. A silly slip in a bathroom, and a burst cyst, lead to septicemia, and a trip to the ER, followed by a warning that I might not make it to UK for those Christmas festivities, in fact, I should just be thankful that I made it.

That news became a turning point. I determined to do everything I could to make sure that I could go. I began to eat as ridiculously healthily as I knew how, and to exercise more to boost my recovery. By the time I stepped onto the plane 3 weeks later, I was maybe as fit as I had ever been, and I felt it. Christmas was memorable and full of love, and within months I was going to be incredibly grateful for those warm memories.

I can’t say that I stayed 100% that healthy, but I learned a lot about health. I’ve been a yo-yo dieter kind of person all my life, but this was not about losing weight, but about being fit to be able to do what I wanted to do……have a family Christmas. Focusing on that made it easy. Focusing is not easy in these modern times. We have a trillion distractions every day, but with focus, mindfulness if you like, we can move mountains. I will leave you with a quotation from Pearl S Buck, which has long been a favourite of mine, and I find to be invariably true:

“Once the what is decided, the how always follows. We must not make the how an excuse for not facing and accepting the what.”

 

 


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To Blog or Not to Blog, That is the Question

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A year and three months since my last post. “Have I lost interest in blogging?”  The answer is no, or not exactly. The question has been, “What sort of blog do I want to be running?” That, plus some health issues which had me yoyo-ing between anger, frustration and lethargy, and family problems, have occupied me, and now it’s autumn, and the world is beginning to look a little different on several, different counts.

Autumn always makes me perk up. Perhaps it’s the back-to-school vibe (though goodness knows I hated school enough, so why would that be?); perhaps it’s the relative quiet which returns to this small, seaside town in which I am living; or perhaps because it usually heralds a trip to “foreign.” I’d like to be able to say that the dazzling hedonism of sunny days sapped my mojo, but that wouldn’t be true, not this year, nor last. Searing desert winds, calima, and more crowds than ever marked the last two summer seasons, and I muddled through it, cursing that I couldn’t honor my vow to never spend another summer here. A certain amount of sulking on that score took place.

If you’re bothering to read this, you deserve an explanation, but I’m not ready to go there yet, so let me just say that circumstances conspired to make me rethink a lot of “stuff,” and let’s get back to the subject of blogging.

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Top of My Bucket List

It’s early morning; the water is a mirror, the air is fresh; but underwater it’s murky, nothing but churned up sediment. The only thing in my line of vision is my son’s heels. I want to keep my head down, not keep checking how far we are from the boat, so I follow those. I am vaguely aware, from time to time, of the other people in the water, but never more than a glimpse of a flipper.

More murkiness. It goes on. Part of me wants to give up (I realize later that everyone except us had called it a day), but a much bigger part wants to go on ….. and on. I sense that we are heading back to the boat, and I know that this isn’t our private trip, but we go slow.

Then, without warning, something brushes against my leg, and glancing down I meet the enquiring gaze of a young manatee. I stifle the urge to cry out, and I freeze, spread eagled on the surface. We have been instructed not to make noise, not to startle these docile creatures, and although if approached we might touch them, instinct says not to. He swims under my belly, as if enjoying the contact, and over to my son. He seems to nuzzled up to him, and then retreats to the shadow below which is his mother. Fleetingly, charmingly, I have just lived out a dream.

Picture Guy took of a manatee futher down the river

Picture Guy took of a manatee further down the river

My dearest wish for this road trip to Central and South Florida I’m on is to see manatees close up, in their own environment, possibly to swim with them. And that just happened in a magical kind of way…..they came to us. They seemed to want the contact.

Clambering aboard the boat, I want to cry. The others  had watched the magic; had, actually, been able to spot the mother and baby before we did, and had been trying to signal us. I am overwhelmed. When we stop a little way further down the river, where another manatee has been spotted by another boat, I can’t go in the water. I don’t want to spoil the magic of that very personal encounter by sharing it with 15 or 16 other people. Some of whom are careless of our very strict instructions not to touch, disturb or follow the manatees. I need to breathe … slowly, listen to the birds, watch the mangroves and the ripples on the water.

This is my happy face! It isn't every day you get to cross something off your bucket list.

This is my happy face! It isn’t every day you get to cross something off your bucket list.

This is the best we could do! We were so taken by surprise and in the moment, and of course with poor visibility. There is a short video, which I can't upload, but truly it isn't a whole lot better. Most of the memories are lodged in my brain - and soul!

This is the best we could do! We were so taken by surprise and in the moment, and of course with poor visibility. There is a short video, which I can’t upload, but truly it isn’t a whole lot better. Most of the memories are lodged in my brain – and soul!

We are in Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast, probably the most famous manatee spotting site in the state, and the only place where you are legally able to swim with them, or drift, as the advice says,  under these controlled conditions. The river is fed by 30 natural springs, which feed warm water into the system, which is what brings manatees here in winter. It’s May, so not prime sighting season.

Crystal River sign

cystal river

These are gentle, almost surreal creatures, and seem to be their own worst enemies. Although, we are told, there are times when they can move with some speed, for the most part they seem simply suspended in the water, or slowly moving with stately grace, nosing up to breathe every five minutes or so, making them sitting ducks for boat propellers despite both Federal and State protection. From time to time there are attempts by speed merchant Sunday boaters to have them taken off the Endangered Species Act, so they become a political pawn too.

I fell in love with one 23 years ago in the Living Seas in Disney’s Epcot Resort. I’d never even heard of them, and I realize now that I wasn’t unusual. This hulk with an improbable  figure was hanging around a tank nibbling lettuce, think a kind of benign Jabba the Hutt, with soulful eyes and a whiskery snout instead of the grotesque face, and a swish of a tail – think mermaids. In fact, rumor has it that the mermaid legends rose from those tails, mistaken by sailors from the First World as being some enchanted human, condemned to life in the ocean, whose purpose was to lure others to their death on rocky coastlines.

Since, especially in the winter months, they hug the coastlines, seeking the warmth of estuaries, it’s easy to see how ignorant men could have made that mistake. These are West Indian manatees and their patch is centered around the Florida shoreline, although they range further away during summer along both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic coast. They are found in Central America and even parts of South America too, but less frequently, and have cousins in the West African manatees around Senegal and Gambia, the Amazon manatees and the dugongs of Asia.

Perhaps it was the languid, laid back posture, but I was hooked at first sight. So before we went to the coast to see them “in the wild” we stopped in the Living Seas for nostalgia’s sake. There are two manatees there now, with shocking. boat propeller injuries, one is missing most of its tail. Obviously, not candidates to return to the wild, so here they float, educating us about their kind, proof of how careless of the natural world man can be.

We’d had a close encounter one evening a few days earlier, leaving Captiva Island further down the coast on a “sunset cruise,” the captain had spotted a “footprint” on the surface of the water as we left the marina, but it hadn’t come up again for air in the time it took us to pass. I’d been surprised there by the speeds of some boats around us, but our crew had told us they weren’t exceeding speed limits, although there had been numerous signs around the marina warning that it was a “manatee zone.”

3 sisters spring sign

heron crystal river

Our trip this day doesn’t include any more manatee sightings, but does include a third stop, down the river inland, to Three Sisters Spring, the most famous of those which feed into the river. It’s another bit of magic, even though we see no more manatees. Swimming from the boat we enter through the neck of an inlet, which opens out into a watery glade. Taking my head out of the water, I see a circle of mangroves around the pool we’ve entered. They filter the sunshine, and reflections of the ripples on the water dance across their foliage. It could be a scene from “Avatar,” and the word enchanted crosses my mind. My world melds to a shimmer of pastel blues and greens.

Guy and me at 3 Sisters Spring

Guy and me at 3 Sisters Spring

Rachael and me approaching 3 Sisters Spring

Rachael and me approaching 3 Sisters Spring

Below, colorful fish weave among those famous mangrove roots. In the center of the pool, a fallen tree rises from a crater, and those shafts of sunlight filter down, sparkling on the white sand bottom. I feel as if I’m drifting through a beautiful dream. It utterly makes up for no more manatees this day.

Rachael 3 Sisters

Rachael 3 Sisters

Rachael 3 Sisters

Rachael 3 Sisters

As I stood at the top of the boat’s steps, clutching my wee Lumix camera I made an unusual decision for me. I slipped it back into my bag. It was a wise decision, as it turned out. I wouldn’t have used it. I wanted to savor any moments I got with a manatee, and I did! Sometimes it is best to leave the camera behind – that said, I am happy that my son, Guy, took his, so I have backups for my memories. This is the first time I’ve ever published a post entirely with pictures which are not mine…..and happy to do so – Thank you, Guy and Rachael!

Whispering a silent goodbye to the manatees

Whispering a silent goodbye to the manatees

We went on this excursion with Crystal Lodge Dive Center. I didn’t ask for any discounts, and didn’t even tell them I was going to write a blog post until the following day, when I went to confirm their website URL, so when I say I highly recommend them, you know I’ve not been coerced into saying this in any way! We were road tripping south and central Florida and stayed at the Best Western, in Crystal River, and they are based just behind the motel. Our guide, and grandson of the owner, Dakota, was very professional, ensuring that we fully understood the rules about swimming with manatees. – He also told me that the best time to eat lobster in the Keys is July/August (which I must remember) so if you ever read this, Dakota – have a great summer down there! 

dive boat

I’ve begun this road trip story almost at the end, because this was the highlight for me, this was at the very top of my bucket list, but there were other, wonderful moments, and more posts to come very soon. Sometimes you need to get off island for a while…..even if it’s to other islands – more next time 🙂