Empty sky

Peace in the neighbourhood has been shattered this past couple of weeks by the constant clanging and banging of bulldozers, ripping the heart out of a house two doors down.

Gloria, the previous owner, was the original owner of the property. I did not have that much to do with her over the 24 years we were neighbours-but-one. Early on I asked if I could have some of her plums; she readily agreed.   I duly returned a jar of fresh plum jam to her. Both our properties had ancient plum trees – remnants of when the area was orchards supplying fruit to Auckland.

More recently, she was wandering the street in her dressing gown, slightly unhinged from reality, and within weeks she was relocated to a local resthome for the short time she had left on this planet.

When I walked passed her front yard, I always coveted the yellow bearded iris – my favourite plant if not my favourite colour – but I did not know her well enough to ask.

A silky oak which has slowly withered and died over the years provided the local tui flock with a perch high above any trees close by. For 24 years those tuis, no doubt several generations of them, have been masters of the neighbourhood. They have a distinct, and discordant, chortle, that sounds as if it stops half way through the melody.

As the bulldozers moved in, and the ground shook underneath me, 2 doors down from the site, I just knew it was only a matter of time before the dead silky oak and the other trees were sacrificed to make way for what I assume will be intensified development. The quarter acre dream is dead in this street.

The bulldozers have done their work. Not before I nipped down the road at dusk one evening last week and pulled up the only remaining vegetation from what used to be a border of flowers along the drive. The yellow bearded iris, bravely standing tall among the dust, was rescued from imminent annihilation and sits in a bucket waiting to be planted outside, with it’s siblings of different colours. Also plucked from the jaws of death an orchid with long strings of gorgeous red flowers. I doubt the bulldozer driver even noticed.

Today, while the earth moving machinery goes on to it’s next job, the chainsaws fired up. I glanced at the trees, and just knew that by day’s end they would be gone, and so it is. The sky is bare to the west. The tuis have moved on.

I have been accused of being a bit enthusiastic with the saw and loppers. There is always a need for judicious pruning, in my opinion, unless you are revegetating a forest. Trees and shrubs grow to their own plan and not necessarily in a way the meets our desires as the co-inhabitants of the space. Fruit trees need to be maintained to ensure fruiting is healthy and reachable. Most hard wooded trees and shrubs are completely unharmed by careful pruning, while their aesthetic impact on a garden can be significantly improved. Get stuck in.

Tui-in-tree

Here he is, the former Lord of the Neighbourhood, blissfully unaware that within a few short days his tree will be gone. He will be gone.

In the interests of protecting the pastoral land surrounding us, I guess we must surrender to the intensification of housing in Auckland. I hope that whoever moves in next will plant trees and maybe the tuis will return.

I am harvesting peas from my former microgreen pea shoots that made it to the garden – so so nice to eat. Entire crop? Possibly 12 pods. Tomatoes are fully formed – I just hope they ripen before we exit for our summer break. If not I will lose the lot to insufficient water and fungus.   Leeks now seeding but looking lovely with their big purple pompom flower heads.   There are worse ways to note the passing of the seasons.

Holidays are imminent. Enjoy.

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The unexpected can be good or bad…

This week has seen the completion of a spot of interior decorating that had it’s genesis in some friends buying a new house a couple of years ago.  We went over to celebrate when they moved in, and immediately on entering the building one was greeted by a very unusual light fitting.

“Look at that!” I exclaimed delightedly.

The reply was swift and determined, “Hate it, taking it to the tip.”

“Noooo,” I cried, “I will buy it from you.”

“NO NO NO!” said the Quality Controller, “it’s awful.”

Discussion ensued, and when the fitting was taken down it was carefully packed into a box and delivered to me;  I safely stowed it in the wardrobe out of harms way.  There it sat for two years or so, until a chance conversation pointed me in the right direction to have it rewired (Chelsea Lighting, on the North Shore of Auckland – for anyone with a chandelier fetish that is the place to go..).  Having been checked and certified, it was put back into boxes and eventually returned, waiting for the next big step.

This involved firstly sanding and oiling the window sills – a job for the Quality Controller – completed late last summer.  Leaving the daunting task of painting the walls of a full-height stairwell, some 5.5m high at the peak.  I have spent the two years since the light came into my possession pondering on how to do this.  The scaffold man said it would cost $600 and would need to go up and down in one day.  In the end, I bought a cheap extension ladder for $110.  Armed with a speed brush taped to the end of a plastic pipe which had, luckily, just the right bend in it (formerly part of a boat cover system), my job was to get up the ladder and paint.  The Quality controller’s job was to refill the brush and mop up the drips.

It was not without some tension, and harking back to health and safety matters, possibly a bit daft but I have had plenty of experience painting from ladders.  My neck is still a bit sore, but job done.  Just the one coat of paint;  same colour, speed brush makes it thick.  Enough is enough.

Last weekend, talking to a friend, she volunteered her electrician husband to assist with installation.  “I think the ladder will be long enough,” I texted when she confirmed he was on the way.  There is a joy in watching someone with the necessary expertise doing what they do.  From the ladder (suitably reinforced at the top to eliminate any chance of the ladder punching through the wall) screws in his mouth at the ready, having already worked out where the actual timber was, the light fitting in unassembled mode was put in place.  The decorative bits added carefully; bulbs in; bingo.

The Quality Controller is in for a big surprise – he doesn’t know it is there.

This relates to gardens in several ways:

  • firstly, think things through a bit before you start – know what the end game is, and think about all the steps you need to take to get there;
  • sometimes experts are best.  Could have got a painter in, but I deemed myself suitably experienced, despite the tricky access issue.  Definitely needed an electrician.  You might need a designer, or a builder, or a block layer.  Or you might want to do it yourself, but know what you really can do and what you really shouldn’t do;
  • allow friends to help if they offer – he turned down a bottle of wine and said “What is the world coming to if you can’t do a favour for your friends?”  Fair point, I think;
  • lighting is quite an important consideration in a garden;
  • the unexpected has value.  This light doesn’t “go” with the house.  To be honest I’m not sure exactly what sort of house it would go with, but there was something similar at the Grand Hotel in Torquay, England, on a slightly larger scale.  What it does, for me anyway, is turn a boring stairwell into a wonderland.  “Oh My God” is probably the only reaction I will get, but in a good way I hope, particularly at night.  If you have a favourite plant, ideally tell your designer at the start, but if you forget to say, or you see something you just must have in the garden, but it is not on the plan, so what?  Find a place – it will continue to delight you every time you see it;
  • “things” are meaningless.   While it is true that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” (Keats), a thing that links you to your friends and family is a true treasure.  This light will always belong to our friends with whom we have shared many happy times.  That plant someone gave you, or you asked for, is so much more important than what is currently “on trend” as it were.   Follow your heart.  Life is short.

I have been threatened with defamation action this week.  Wow.  That is a first.

This is what he said

“If you make another statement to anyone … which brings my honesty and/or integrity into question again I will not hesitate to sue you.  Also while I am in the topic and while I accept that you are probably incapable of change, the tone of some of your emails are unnecessarily condescending and sarcastic …. I do not expect to receive an apology from Ngaire because that would be to reasonable and decent..”

In typical bully fashion, the matters that I raised “for clarification” have not been answered…. but then he is a lawyer.

So it seems I can be called incapable of change, condescending, sarcastic, unreasonable, indecent… but I am not allowed to ask questions.  Somehow it feels like I am the one that has been defamed, but there you go.  Enough to make me take to cleaning the ceiling and kitchen cupboards, and weed the garden, so some good has come of it.

Unexpected, and not in a good way.

Delicate frosted glass leaves, even more fragile light shades, carefully assembled in situ, just in time for Christmas.  LED bulbs of course.

Reflection in the window doubles the impact at night. Also means you can’t see the not-quite-perfect paint job, but I’m not pushing my luck going back up the ladder.

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Health & Safety – it is all about YOU…

With much fanfare, new laws a few years ago ushered in a new era of health and safety awareness in NZ.  Ads on TV pleaded to allow all workers to return home safely after their day’s work.  There were dire predictions about the cost of it all;  farm workers received special treatment despite having one of the worst accident rates.  Weird assessments deemed things like doll making a particularly hazardous occupation (I’m making that up but it was something like that).

I am not really one for rules and regulations.  I had a bad experience a few years ago in an employment dispute – what might be expected of any thinking adult is no longer enough – we must have policies and procedures, written, signed off as read and understood, and adhered to.  Some would say, and I am probably one of them, that it is a bit over the top.

As a self-employed landscape designer, my biggest danger is tripping over the cat as I get another cup of tea, waiting for the creative inspiration to strike.

While it is easy to slag off, I am reading a book which has reminded me that all was not as rosy as it is today.  ‘A History of Britain Book IV 1815 – Present Day’ clips along through the famous Corn Laws and reform necessitated by the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poor and working classes.  To quote:

“On no part of the community did the tyranny of mill life press harder than on the children.  Child labour was useful because it was cheap, and because children could be employed in the comparatively easy task of minding the machines…. Hard indeed was the lot of these wretched little ones.  Dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning, they had to work for 5 or 6am to 7 or 8pm with perhaps two half-hours off for meals.  They were subjected to cruel beatings, for the overseers resorted to violence not merely to get them to work but to keep them awake,”  (page 770).   It was not until 1819 that the Cotton Factories Regulation Act (applying only to cotton mills) fixed 12 working hours as the maximum for all children, and forbade the employment of children under 9.  Nine!!!!

The Factory Act of 1833 was the point where Government interference between masters and their employees became an established principle.  It was “the beginning of a vast code of laws which have been passed since then to protect the workers in the interest of the national welfare.”  (Page 807).  New Zealand was still a very very young country in 1833 – the Treaty between Maori and Queen Victoria was not signed until 1840.  We subsequently inherited our legal system from Westminster, and continue to fine tune it to our own needs.

I am reminded this week of health and safety because of an as-yet-to-be-clarified accident in Australia, which resulted in my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law’s body being returned in a coffin and her funeral is tomorrow.  Be interesting to find out at the appropriate time the exact nature of the accident.  My sympathy to her bereaved and no doubt shocked family.  I cannot help but wonder about the things that she has left behind that she was going to do.  Books to be returned to friends, cards to post, things ordered on Amazon yet to arrive, new summer clothes not yet worn – the stuff of daily life.   What would someone have to deal with should my own life be suddenly and unexpectedly terminated?  Must get on with the tidying up.

From the bus today I watched a Mum firstly adjust the pushchair so her child’s head was no longer in direct sun, then put some baby-sized sunglasses on the child.  And of course then take the photo on her cellphone.  But good for her – eyesight is precious.

It is time to cover up out in the garden.  Sunhat, sunglasses, suitably strong footwear.  My new favourite attire is old business shirts.  Perfect with light but long sleeves and a collar for the neck.  Get some from someone you know (in the interests of being gender and sexual orientation-neutral I cannot assume it is possible to “grab an old shirt from your husband”).  My must-have item is a good pair of gloves.  My number one tip – put on lashings of good hand cream before you put on the gloves.  I reckon it minimises the damage.

Meantime in my garden, the peas are surviving well, i.e. the eggshells in sufficient density really do deter slugs and snails, the leeks are going to seed but I will leave one or two as they are so attractive, and I have a whole brand new raised bed to play with.  Macrocarpa timber, so no poisonous timber treatment to leach into my carrots and tomatoes.  Came as a kitset in 4 pieces, complete with the necessary nails.  Easily assembled after the Quality Controller spent what felt like hours ensuring it was level (is it not going to settle??).  If you are interested in knowing where it came from, send me an email – there is a link on my website  www.alcheralandscape.com.

Ready to go. Axe for levelling, level for checking. No job too small for a spirit level, it seems.

The boatman at Givernay. What??? No lifejacket? Boots and wet weather gear? If that boat goes over he is a goner; would not stand up to NZ H&S scrutiny. Unless that famous pond is actually quite shallow? Regardless it is very beautiful.

 

 

 

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On cleaning up and making space to be creative

It is not called Spring cleaning for nothing.  Truly, it is the season of new growth – weeds and all – and tidying up.

I am trying to reduce the amount of stuff in our house.  He is doing heroic work selling surplus items on Trade Me.   Why someone in the South Island would buy a GLASS BOWL in the North Island is a mystery.  Sad the lovely English bloke who came to try it out did not get the piano accordion.  We are doing this not because it is fashionable to declutter, but because it is a necessity to make space and order.  What I did not anticipate is that stored away in those boxes, represented by mementoes of my life to date, was my hopes and dreams.

A separate aspect of my former life was studying business, and a few weeks ago I booked to attend a workshop at the University of Auckland, called a Master Class for MBA’s – Creative Leadership.  My eye is always drawn to the word ‘creative’ since exploring and indeed running workshops myself on how to encourage creativity in children.  As I suspected would happen, the business world is waking up to the fact that what is required is people who can think and then do, rather than just do.

The facilitator of the workshop was Gillian Ferrabee, a Canadian with a background in performance, a stint at Cirque Du Soleil and now running workshops on creative leadership.  She is a delight; fiercely intelligent, funny, energetic.

In a nutshell, her message:  we are all creative; there are stages to the creative process starting with a bright idea through to delivery; our behaviour and energy changes depending on which stage of the creative process we are at (some like to generate ideas, some like to make them into reality); we all have a ‘play’ personality which should also be taken into account when doing pretty much anything in life, but particularly if we are working with others in a team (paraphrasing Stuart Brown, book called Play).

It felt odd being back at the Business School and I did not openly volunteer that I have moved on from MBA to Landscape Design.  They were all so earnest.

Why does this matter?  Well, sometimes what you need is a nudge along – a few starting ideas, a few questions about what it is you want.  Sometimes it is nice to work with others, and sometimes we need to think alone.

Start by making space, then fill it with all your crazy ideas and see what happens.  True in the garden, true in L.I.F.E.  I can’t help you much with the big issues;  too busy working on my own and hoping that creating order in the things we live with will make space for the actual lives we live.

If ideas for your garden remain confused and tangled, give me a call, I can help you turn those wild ideas into your new landscape.  Actually that is why my company is called Alchera – it is the Aborigine name for the spirit that bought the dreamworld into reality.

Le Lecture by E. Manet – in the Musee D’Orsay, Paris. I just love the look on her face. This is not a creative process, clearly.

 

 

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More on peas

I relented the other day and spent about $20 on some seeds and a plastic tray to grow micro greens.

Those delicate little shoots are one of the ‘super foods’ jam packed full of the nutrients they think they will need to grow into an adult plant.  Nipped in the shoot as it were, those same nutrients are good for us too.

The instructions are simple enough, but it was a bit like getting a new puppy.  Provision had to be made for the care of the micro greens while I nipped away to Gisborne for a weekend –  “Leave me a note.” he said.

Over Labour weekend they had to come with us, not least because according to the plan, some would be of edible size within the 7 – 14 day growing time.  By then they were past the “spray 3 times a day and cover with tin foil” so they were transported inside a baking dish to ensure the water didn’t go all through the car.  What with having to get groceries for the weekend and catch the cat, I must say planning for the micro greens did seem a step too far.

The first cutting did take place right on schedule.  Sprinkled over the top of a salad,  I can’t say I could even taste them.   Given the number of packets of bought sprouts that have ended up in the compost that might be a good thing.  I don’t understand why sprouts that are supposed to be good for you have to taste so much like grass cuttings.  Might be something to do with the time of the supply chain I suspect, but with micro greens you only harvest them when you want them – brilliant.

There have now been several harvests, and I am almost ready to start the next lot.

I have learnt that it is probably a good idea to stick to one type of seed in each ‘zone’ of the tray, rather than a random sprinkle.  They will  germinate at the same time, making it easier to harvest them.  I think next time I will get one half of the tray underway and a week later start the other half so that I have a more continuous supply.

Adding liquid seaweed food worked a treat.  I am a huge fan of Ocean Organics products – you can buy on line http://www.oceanorganics.co.nz or drive to Paeroa and visit the shop (Warning: you will buy not only seaweed food for the soil but fantastic seaweed or lavender soap and other nice things.  They do coffee in Paeroa, and, come to think of it, it is one of provincial towns that do a nice line in hanging baskets).

This morning I looked at the cropped stalks and decided it is time to chuck them out and start again, but I just could not resist pulling out one of the peas to see what happened.  Turns out you get some very nice pea seedlings with excellent root systems ready to plant in the garden.

I am looking forward to home grown peas for Christmas, perhaps.  If I keep feeding them with seaweed I am fairly confident it is possible.

Micro greens are one solution to the lack of space for vege gardening in the city.  They provide the joy of watching something grow literally right before your eyes.  You get to eat healthy stuff that you have grown yourself.   If you are lucky enough to have space for a planter or a full blown garden, you can plant out the peas, (and I suppose other things but they are very small), wait patiently while your baby plants turn into adults and bear fruit as it were, then tuck in.

Try it.

This lucky micro green gets a shot at growing full-size. The white in the background is crushed egg shell. In dense enough concentration I have discovered it does deter the slugs and snails. If my peas are all gone tomorrow morning I will be wrong. But the plants are a free bonus from the micro green tray so I will have more in a fortnight’s time.

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Flowers are making a come back

It is Spring and so, I must acknowledge, flowering time.  Blossom everywhere, roses already in warmer places.  Even my broccoli plants have burst into flower.

In garden design world, flowers have become the poor relation.  Flowers are not, generally, the so-much-desired ‘low maintenance’.  Flowers, at their best, require time and attention, care, love even.  Who cannot enjoy an evening stroll casually dead-heading the roses?  Perhaps a glass of NZ’s best pinot gris in one hand, secateurs in the other?  Dusk, when the scent of flowers is at it’s strongest.

Flowers hold memories for us.  Every time I smell the fragrance of sweet peas I am taken back in my home town, where our neighbour grew magnificent sweet peas on a frame attached to our shared boundary.  We were on the north side, so probably got more than our share of flowers.  I deeply regret being unable to grow the lily-of-the-valley that roamed freely at the base of the sweet pea frame, interspersed with violets.  So ‘old-fashioned’, but also so reliable and actually now I think about it relatively low maintenance.

Flowers are necessary for bees.  Bees are necessary for life, they tell us, and are under threat.  At the moment citrus trees all over Auckland are a-buzz with bees; like me attracted by that unmistakable scent.  I have loved it ever since I was old enough to mow the lawns, necessitating ducking under the orange trees in our back yard.  At this time of year, dodging the bees as well as the low branches of the trees.  A small sprig off the lemon tree is all that is necessary to bring that fragrance inside for a day or two.  A sacrifice of the future lemons but I think it is worth it.  There seems to be plenty coming on this year.

In our new high-density supercity model, I wonder where the bees will feed?  A 200sqm section does not allow for much in the way of garden – highrise apartments even less so.  What was a given in my childhood is more and more a relic of days gone by.  Gardens to play in, to keep your stuff in, to grow food in, along with the flowers and insects c0-habiting with us.

I have just returned from a quick trip to Europe, and my observation is that flowers are making a comeback.  Flowers that imply constant attention, flowers that provide food for bees and other insects.  Flowers that soften the city into a liveable habitat suitable for people.  Both the French and the English do it well, with hanging baskets and gardens at the base of street trees.  Far too showy for us in Auckland – we are much more constrained, but I think quite popular in the provinces of NZ.

A friend was proudly showing me her new garden over the weekend, and declared “We’ve gone native,” which they have.  I thought fleetingly that it is a shame she sees it as either/or.  There are no rules that say you can’t have native and exotic together.  It was very orderly (a limited range of native, and in rows)  and when the rengarenga lillies flower they will look great.   They are perhaps the most desirable of our native plants for flowers, however usually requiring large doses of snail pellets to keep them looking good.  I myself love the flax flowers that are just starting to open, and the tui that cannot resist their nectar.

Pure native is great if you are revegetating bush.

But flowers will gladden your heart.

This is my 99th blog post.  I am aiming to be a bit more focused on landscape design, gardening and related topics.  Hard to resist just a quick ‘yahoo’ we have a new Government.  Very good news for the conservation of our environment, and numerous other things that have struggled to survive in our neoliberal economy.

The English have lived in terrace houses for hundreds of years. Hanging baskets adorn a row of old houses in Bovey Tracey, Devon, home town of the Wallen’s that emigrated to NZ

This flower-tower is stunning, but then it would be – it is outside Windsor, just below the castle. Taller than your average lady-gardener – perhaps the help take care of it?

 

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Dear Julia (Louis-Dreyfus)

Dear Julia

One year ago today I was walking in the boots that you are currently wearing.

What can I say to you, and all the other women diagnosed with breast cancer today, as I look back on the past year?

Well, first of all, tough luck. 1 in 8 women in America, 1 in 10 in New Zealand last I heard. Far too many, but still you have to be pretty unlucky really to be that 1.

One thought that has stuck in my head for the last year is why? Why is there what amounts to an epidemic of breast cancer among the Western World’s women. Cos when you start looking, it is a Western disease for the most part. Or more particularly the steady increase in occurrence rates is higher in our culture than in others. Take Japan, for example. Much lower rate of breast cancer among Japanese women. Why? One reasonably logical explanation is the higher intake of iodine in their diet. Could it really be that simple? Maybe, for some cases. NZ soil is known to be deficient in iodine and selenium.

Let me linger on this particular path for a moment longer – iodine (& selenium) is vital for the thyroid gland to function, and the thyroid gland controls all the other glands that run our bodies. Thyroid glands don’t like fluoride, chloride, bromide – stuff that is in our food and our water – it bungs them up. Iodine cleans them out.   Women in their late 40’s start having massive hormonal changes in their bodies, and if your thyroid gland is not keeping things in order, you will be over run with estrogen…. this is a very bad thing. I am paraphrasing here, but I wish someone had told me all this 6 years ago when I first had an abnormal mammogram. Of course no drug company is going to invest in research into iodine – there is no profit to be made there. Luckily there is a charity in America that is doing the research, and you can buy your own iodine supply on-line to support them. For anyone who has had ‘lumpy’ breasts or an abnormal mammogram, can I politely suggest you check it out for yourself.  www.breastcancerchoices.com If may just save you having to deal with cancer. At the very least it won’t do you any harm. And if you are recently diagnosed, never too late to start.

Another thing – alcohol. Sorry Julia, and everyone else, but please, please, stop drinking alcohol. My simplistic understanding of the situation is that our liver cannot process alcohol and estrogen at the same time. So, menopausal and therefore hormonally out-of-control women, just stop it. I can tell you what happens. Firstly you lose a bit of weight even trying, lets face it that is not what is at the top of your mind right now, but you also lose your taste for it. I have sipped red wine (the oncologist I was seeing is not convinced about alcohol and said it would be OK…) and it tasted dreadful. Champagne – how I would love to drink a glass of champagne. But here’s the thing – when the stakes are high enough it is surprising what you will forego. It isn’t exactly fun being the sober one at the party, but it is more fun than not being at the party. Is it worth drinking alcohol? I think not.

Back to those dark days of diagnosis; my advice – take a deep breath and a few days. You had cancer the day before you knew it, maybe years before you knew it. Taking a few days to absorb your new situation won’t make any difference. What matters now is getting yourself prepared for what lies ahead.

I know some people have absolute trust in the medical profession, and are more than happy to place themselves 100% at their mercy as it were, to do the best they can for them. Doctors will do that, according to the latest information and protocols and whatever else. Without doubt, they do their best.

My hesitation is that they cannot know you as well as you know yourself.

I went to the first surgeon’s appointment armed with a piece of paper and at the very top in big letters it said “I want a complete mastectomy. I have no interest in saving my breast”. Why? Well, because of my age, and because for me, I wanted the least surgery, the least invasive treatment, for the maximum benefit. In NZ most, if not all, women who have a partial mastectomy also have radiation treatment. If you have a complete mastectomy you may not need radiation. So the surgeon talked about something else I had never heard of but he meant a partial mastectomy. He made a very convincing argument to save most of my breast. God alone knows why he thought he needed to do that. Because of that, I was lined up for a hook wire (another invasive and expensive procedure so they can find the tumour on the day) and an MRI scan.  I called him the next day and said I wanted a full mastectomy, which he said was my decision.  He told me just before the operation that I was right – put it down to women’s intuition.   No hook wire, no guaranteed radiation (I didn’t need it in the end). I knew that. I JUST KNEW. Trust yourself. Listen, think, but also find out what you need to know and go to the appointments informed and with a list of questions.

I spoke to women who had survived breast cancer. The ones who retained control over their lives were in much better shape. One poor soul was really scared about not seeing the oncologist any more, after 10 years. What ought to have been a moment of great celebration, was in fact a source of deep fear. She had followed the advice given to the letter, ended up having several operations that have left her with two partial breasts of uneven size and a reliance on anti-depressants. We are not all the same. I wished at times that I was one of the trusting souls of this world, but I am glad now that my life remains in my hands. More on that later.

Two things I found most helpful in all the web searching – http://www.cancer.net  provides information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology – and a publication called ‘Questions to ask the Doctor’. Useful to read through it to see what lies ahead, and the issues that you need to know about. Another publication called ‘Your Guide to the Breast Cancer Pathology Report’ from www.breastcancer.org comes complete with a list of definitions and space to fill in your own information.

Seems to me there is a strong bias towards ‘saving your breast’. For young women, I get that. For everyone else, seriously, once you have your clothes on, no one will know what your breasts are. Implants? A piece of your stomach or back muscle appropriated into breast-reconstruction duty? A pair of socks stuck into a bra? Does it matter? At the time I met the surgeon I was absolutely sure I was not having reconstruction. My partner asked me if I would be more confident having a reconstruction. Seriously? What comes out of my mouth has nothing to do with what is or isn’t supported by underwear. Around that time there was a news item about a young Syrian girl who had borne the brunt of the mad war raging in Syria. She had lost not just an arm but also her whole shoulder joint. Plastic surgery belongs to those people, not the vanity of middle-aged women.   The ‘save-your-breast’ emphasis should be balanced with a discussion about who you are and how you see yourself, both mentally and physically. If you really feel the need to be defined by having two breasts, I feel a bit sad for you actually, but help is at hand. Just be aware that your new appendage will never ever feel or act the same as a breast.

Surgery is OK – I just took panadol every 4 hours for a few days.  Seems is not that much nerve tissue around breasts, so it is surprisingly low-pain.  Mind you I was lucky, no lymph nodes taken out.   Get surgery as soon as possible. Most surgeons work in both the public and private system. The difference is timing. For me, 2 weeks after diagnosis the offending material and the breast it had grown in was removed. Gone. Done. I was very happy about that.

Be aware that despite what they say on the day, the pathology results may take longer.   Use the time to get your head around the next lot of decisions. Chemo? Radiation? I see in today’s paper they are trialling doing chemo first. Doesn’t make any difference to survival rates apparently, but it makes sense in some ways to shrink the tumour first. My new ‘bosum buddy’ had her treatment that way around.

Post-surgery it all becomes statistics. If this, then that. If that, then this and this. I believe you must make informed choices. I went for the chemo. It made sense to me that there was a chance some cancer cells had escaped – especially as there was a 10 day delay between the biopsy and the surgery – something I would have questioned if I had known at the time. My then oncologist filled out a prescription for a bucket load of drugs to counter the effects of chemo. I didn’t take most of them. What I did, around surgery and when possible, was get moving. Out in the fresh air. Made meditation a priority for the day not something to do when I remembered.   And I found a nutritionist who plied me with another bucket load of supplements to help my body deal with chemo. I believe that between these things (exercise, supplements and meditation), it worked for me. Chemo was not easy, but it wasn’t devastating either.

The other thing I did, really early on, was decide the chemo was stardust (yes, I know) come to take away the cancer. Sounds mad. My sister scoffed. However my cancer looked like a comet to me – a big blob with lots of little blobs out behind. In my head, when the chemo was being pumped into my hand, I imagined that it was stardust come to collect a lost comet and take it back to the skies. I welcomed it, I chanted all this in my head when I was out walking. I think it helped. At no point did I see chemo as poison come to take me to the brink of death.

Without sounding too dramatic, that stuff is seriously bad for you. I was really surprised when the lovely nurse swopped the empty chemo bag for saline and said “we have to start getting this out of you. You have to drink A LOT over the next 3 days to flush it out.” I expected to be rolling around on the floor making sure it was getting to my extremities. Nup.

What else do I think looking back on the last year?

I had plenty of support and help from friends and family. When I got home from surgery (one night in hospital) it looked like someone had died. Flowers everywhere. They do die. At some point you realise that regardless of how much you are loved and supported, you have to deal with this on your own, in your own way. There will be tears, of course. I had to all but physically stop myself thinking about leaving my children behind (they are all grown up but still). That was the most upsetting thing for me. I am not worried about my life, but the thought of missing out on theirs made me too sad to stay in that thought. We are all dying, every day. The thing with cancer is there is no real end. Not for me, anyway. Maybe in 10 years, or maybe in 15 years, I can relax. Or like Olivia Newton-John, in 25 years, there will be a recurrence. I don’t think about that. I told my sisters that if I check out of this life early I will leave them to the incontinence, deafness, resthome living. What I allude to is the need to live now, not in the future. We should all do that, within reason. Bit of a challenge to decide exactly what you do want to spend your life, long or short, doing, and who with. Most people don’t get that opportunity so grab it.

Chemo – 4 doses – each day crossed off on a chart – is a test of character. I stupidly missed a mammogram two years ago because I thought it was silly to have one before summer, much better to get cancer in the winter, if you have to. Then I got busy and didn’t have it at all. Actually getting cancer in summer is OK because on the nights when you can’t sleep it is warm, and you can get up and sit wrapped in a blanket and look at the stars. You can go for a swim and feel weightless and carefree just for a while. It is holiday time so everyone is happy. I really noticed the change of seasons, partly because I had time to.

I did not predict a falling out with the oncologist over longer term hormonal treatment. He is a very well-regarded professional who takes great comfort in statistics. “If you take these pills, you will reduce the likelihood of a recurrence by (another) 5%”. Post surgery and chemo, I sit at about 85%. Hormonal treatment would, statistically at least, take me to 90% chance of not dying of breast cancer. Except my life would be living hell. Imagine living every day with the full on symptoms of menopause. Hot flushes, insomnia, mood swings, osteoporosis – and those are the COMMON side effects. We had a rather heated debate. He is single, no wife, no children. No working knowledge of menopause. No first hand experience. He admitted 30% of his patients stop taking it. Because they would rather risk dying of cancer than living a nightmare.

Guess what? There are alternatives. I will admit they are not yet proven in clinical trials. Why is that? Cynically I think the drug companies are raking it in. Let us not forget for one moment they are driven by profit. Not some higher calling to cure cancer. Unless there is money to be made. I believe alternatives matter, and will in the long run be the answer.   I told my man I expect in 5 years time he will be apologising to me. That was before he fired me as a patient. Do your research. Check out what is available in your country. In NZ we do not have any oncologists prepared to look beyond what scientific medicine offers. Shame on them. Even my ex-oncologist conceded that meditation helps. He would not go much further than that. The information is out there – I implore you to look. Take charge of your own well-being.

My take is that most adult cancer is a failure of our bodies to deal with a dis-ease – physical or mental.   Take the best of modern treatment – surgery, chemo, radiation if it has spread – to get rid of the cancer, then take charge of your body and your life to create an environment that is not hospitable to cancer. No alcohol, sugar, dairy, red meat, refined wheat. Get stuck into quality vegetables, nuts, seeds, filtered water. Laugh a lot. Love a lot. Love yourself a lot. Get fit. Lose weight (I am 10kg lighter than what I thought was my ‘goal’ weight; who knew?).

I found my ‘tribe’ at a centre for anyone with a life threatening disease. Weekly art group mornings, attending counselling, attending a group preparing for the transition back to a new normal after the treatment is over. Massages, facials, reiki therapy. Bliss. Seek out what you need. There is great comfort in being with other women who are in the same predicament. For a start you can laugh about wigs and scarfs. Can’t forget the woman who was sitting alone that we invited to sit with us who whipped up her top to show us her new boobs. They were great, I must say.

Today is the anniversary of my diagnosis. October the 17th will be anniversary of my surgery, November 22nd the anniversary of my first chemo and February the 14th the anniversary of the official end of chemo. I have been pondering on whether the period between diagnosis and ‘cure’ or say, surgery, could be a sort of Lent or Ramadan – an annual time of denial of pleasurable things in order to reflect on life and living. Tempting to treat it like that but there isn’t much left to give up, frankly!

I have been feeling surprisingly emotional today. Perhaps because at the time you just have to deal with waves of information and appointments and fear and shock and you don’t really stop and think too much.   Looking back over what I hope is the worst thing to ever happen to me makes me wonder what I am going to do. I have decided this week I am withdrawing from a business proposal because it is time I stopped doing things just because I can and I should start doing things because I want to.

Julia, and all you others, I wish you all the best for a happy ending to your dance with cancer.  I hope that in a year’s time you will be laughing and smiling and your hair will be back although still short. The worst of your active treatment will be behind you. You will be fit and well, confident, loved and loving.  Totally alive.

Bless.

Stonehenge on a stormy afternoon. Life is for living, stones are for the dead (they think).

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