Thursday, 16 March 2017

Being a little bit fabulous

"A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she is in hot water."

I love this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. It encapsulates pretty much what I've been thinking about today: how you never know how you will respond to a cancer diagnosis until it happens to you.

I hadn't come across the tea bag quote before until I first opened Nicola Bourne's book 'The fabulous woman's guide through cancer'. What a coincidence that it leapt out at me again when revisiting the book this evening for this blog post.

When I was diagnosed, I was lucky to find I was made of stern stuff. Most commentators would say I was remarkably positive, and of course I was blessed to be supported by so many friends and family. When I look back at that time, I allow myself a moment of pride, because for some of it (not all, but some) I was actually a little bit fabulous.

But fabulous or otherwise, going through a cancer journey is no walk in the park. I drew inspiration and encouragement from the blog posts of people who were going through similar experiences. If it had been published at the time, I expect I would have gained much from reading the fabulous woman's guide.

The format is great for dipping into. Nicola describes her own experiences of cancer in themed chapters which are peppered with tips, wise words, and anecdotes, and feature contributions from a wide range of women who have their own experiences to share. The guide covers so many aspects of cancer it would be a long list to name them all, but it includes telling friends and family (and children), working life, treatment, the emotional roller coaster, nutrition and exercise, and making 'your soul smile'. My own very small contribution to the book is about travel during treatment. Yes, I was honoured to have been invited to write a few paragraphs.

The book has a compassionate tone. It reminds us that we need to be kind to ourselves, and to take each day as it comes. It acknowledges there will be bad days as well as encouraging us to make the most of better days. I like this tip: "Remember every mother, cancer or no cancer, has fabulous and not so fabulous moments, hours and days." Perhaps Nicola's next book should be a fabulous woman's guide through life in general!

Nicola is promoting 'The fabulous women's guide through cancer' with a virtual book tour at the moment, and I am more than happy to recommend it here in New Zealand (I'm pretty sure you can order it from pretty much anywhere!). If you'd like to find out more, please go to:

Monday, 26 December 2016

A different Christmas

It's been a weird time recently. Lovely in many ways, but rather odd.

Christmas in the summer shouldn't be a hard concept to grasp. It sounds fun. Let's head to the beach for a luxury picnic or barbecue! We'll bask in the sunshine without a care in the world!

When we knew we would be having our first Christmas in the southern hemisphere, I hadn't really appreciated how much Christmas isn't just about the day itself, or even the few days either side. It is seasonally ingrained, and the period of Advent reinforces the anticipation. 

It never 'felt' like Christmas this year. The lightness of the evenings means you don't have that childhood pleasure of seeing of the sparkly Christmas lights in windows and on high streets. There is greenery and colour all around in the natural world, why bother to bring evergreens into the house augmented by baubles for colour? We have hydrangeas from the garden above our fireplace this year. It is hard to get a cosy glow from candles and wood burners, if you've not had to wrap up against the elements and fight the winter chill. 

Some things about Christmases past are best avoided. I don't like the commercialisation of Christmas - who does? - with the constant bombardment of advertising, and by and large this year's change of scene means we have skipped much of that. Sure, there are Christmas adverts here too, but the whole thing seems less frenzied.

Also, adding to the sense of being a bit more laid back, we are early into a long summer holiday season. The schools broke up on 16 Dec and don't go back until the beginning of February. We had days at the beach before Christmas and have plenty more to look forward to afterwards - including an actual summer holiday away in January. 

That said, the weather is unpredictable. The winds could have been howling, and the rain could have been battering down. There was no knowing if winter coats may after all have been required. Just because you know someone hopping over waves in their best bikini somewhere in Australia doesn't mean it is baking everywhere south of the equator! Sunshine is not guaranteed! We were lucky - it was breezy but fair (about 19 degrees?) and the water was just warm enough for a dip.

But of course what has made this Christmas a tough one despite this seaside fun, is the huge distance between us and loved ones. For me, Christmas is about family. I was blessed with many happy Christmases throughout my childhood, which included catching up with grandparents and extended family too. Until this year, this pattern was replicated for our own family - we'd be with one set of grandparents on Christmas day itself, and meet up with the others shortly before or after. Dates would be juggled and motorways tackled to fit in siblings and, with luck, some close friends too. 

Once again, I let myself down with the lack of Christmas cards sent. Good intentions thwarted... well, I have excuses lined up but do you really need to hear them? It is now several years since I have achieved what I aspire to in this regard.

But, please don't think that a lack of Christmas greeting, a lack of card doesn't mean that I haven't been thinking about you. Also, I am so very grateful for everyone who has taken the time to send a message or card. Thank you. 

Next year will be easier I think. This year was so different, it was hard to think how to make it special while being true to both ourselves and our new environment. Now we see we have enjoyed new things that could happily become annual traditions: pavlova with seasonal berries for dessert, Christmas swimming, FaceTime our Christmas morning while it is still Christmas Eve in the UK, and then again in the evening. I would be very happy for my Boxing Day morning walk to be a regular event. 

Also, we count our blessings. We are in a beautiful, friendly country. We are not mourning loved ones, we are just missing them. The global political situation aside, there is much to look forward to in the coming year.

This morning I was reminded (thank you Facebook) that four years ago, I blogged about belated festive greetings. So here it is again! Wishing you a very happy rest of 2016. May your 2017 be filled with love, laughter, hope, kindness and friendship.  xxxx


Friday, 16 September 2016

More kindness in the world please!

What on earth is going on in the UK?

Why is corporate greed winning over common decency?

Do those in positions of responsibility and influence not care about the human race and the planet we inhabit?

Of course the answer is that a huge number of people with responsibility and influence do care. They care very passionately, but it is hard to see any of this being translated into good decision-making at government level. The government, I would argue, does not care.

I don't think the British people will look back on this moment of history with pride: failing to help children from war-torn countries, privatising the NHS, allowing (if not positively encouraging) the sale of weapons to oppressive regimes, demolishing the welfare state, undermining democratic processes in elections... the depressing list goes on.

It is strange witnessing this from the other side of the world. Some problems are world-wide of course. Britain has done a few things that should be held up as exemplars, it's worth remembering that it's not all bad. Charging for plastic bags was a great step in the right direction for minimising their use, for example. I was surprised that re-using bags doesn't seem as commonplace here in NZ. (Plastics depress me. I still have far too much plastic in my life. I don't dedicate my life to avoiding them, but my awareness of their environmental impact makes me feel a mixture of guilt, impotency and frustration.)

As a migrant to NZ I have been aware of how different my experience is from that of an asylum seeker. With a visa in place I was welcomed at the airport. I can apply for jobs. We have unquestioned access to education and health care services. I have the language to ask everything I need to know.

The move was expensive but we were able to bring our possessions with us, and familiar things around us has helped us settle. I smile to see our books on the shelves, the blanket box which once belonged to grandparents, the Supermum mug the girls' gave me a few years ago. So many small things which turn the house into a home. It is hard to imagine what it must be like to leave home with nothing but fear, a phone, some money, a favourite photo or two.

I hope that my experiences here will make me more welcoming to strangers. I have appreciated the kindnesses we were offered on arrival, and the emphasis on inclusive community in general.

In terms of what is happening in Britain and what the future may hold, I was heartened to read some of the recent resources shared by Young Quakers. I knew that they had published their 'Living our beliefs' book, but this week was the first time I properly dipped into it. I really liked it, and hope it will be a positive influence for all ages. Thank you to the team who worked on it.

I love that they have created a resource that quotes Mahatma Gandhi alongside David Mitchell (Ghostwritten), established Quaker writings, and even Elvis!

You can find out more here:

All we can really do in response to the rot is to continue to breathe life into our beliefs. I suspect I am have said similar in previous posts, but it is how I feel and is worth repeating. We need to lead by example showing love and respect, supporting things that are good in the world, avoiding inadvertent support for things that harm. We can start small if it is too overwhelming to start big. A small act of kindness can make someone's day.

The Young Quakers'  'Living our beliefs' contains a great reminder of the words of Gandhi:


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Birdsong and feathered friends

When we arrived in New Zealand I thought all of the wildlife would be different, so I was somewhat surprised to be greeted by the sight of blackbirds and sparrows in the garden. Of course I now realise that the early European settlers brought many bird species with them, keen to be surrounded by some familiar feathered friends in their strange new world.

However, it didn't take long to discover that these introduced domestic birds share their habitat with their native cousins. The tui (Maori name: tūī  - pronounced "too-ee") are regular visitors to our patch, and their distinctive call reminds you that you are a long way from home. 

At first glance, the tui looks black with a white ruff at the throat, but catch it in the right light, and its coat is irridescent with dark green, blue and purple hues. Apparently they have a double voice box which enables them to create a range of sounds, and they mimic the call of other birds as well as throwing in their own chattering.

I recorded this example on one of our first walks from home with the girls. It doesn't really do justice to the concerto of song we enjoyed, but it does give you an idea of how different this is from a starling (another familiar garden visitor) or a blackbird.


Less vocal, but also easy to identify, are the fantails. I've only seen them in our own small garden a couple of times, but occasionally they can be seen around the neighbourhood - I think it may depend which bushes and trees are in flower at the time. No prize for guessing why they are called fantails. 

Of the introduced birds, I am very happy to see a couple of thrush which seem to be thriving in their new home. I don't know whether it is the species, or a phase of evolution, but the markings of their speckled breasts seem to be especially pronounced.

Many of the other wonderful native and endemic birds we've seen have been at the local nature reserve - the fabulous Zealandia. I've posted pics of some of these already from the school trip I went on with Susannah, but here is a photo of the kaka (kākā). We are probably fortunate that this is not a regular visitor to our garden as it is a noisy beast.

Just for completeness perhaps I should also mention seabirds. The gulls look like the gulls of pretty much any coastline I've visited. Also by the shore we've spotted gannets, a lone kingfisher, cormorants and shag. The latter come in different forms, including the New Zealand pied shag with its white breast. There are many nesting at Zealandia. 

I perhaps come across as an avid bird watcher with this list of sightings, but I'm not really. I am just enjoying the novelty of the natural world around me. Although Wellington is a city, I am very grateful that birdsong is prominent in its soundscape. The twittering makes me smile, and as for hearing the vocal gymnastics of the tui, that smile often turns into a grin. While I may start to get used to it, I don't expect to ever tire of hearing it.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Letting kids be kids

We've been here for a little over two months, and the girls have now had several weeks going to the local school.

The school is much bigger than they were used to back in Stony Stratford - nearly 800 pupils from age 5 to 13. This could have made it daunting, but actually it really hasn't taken long for the girls to settle.

There are some things we are sad to miss from the old school (particularly for Pippa: the school residential trip and the year six end of year performance) but on the other hand what a relief to be away from the pressure of the year 6 tests.

The positives of the new school have far outweighed the negatives and it is refreshing to be in a school which is value-led but in a much more multi-cultural environment, without the expectation that everyone will be a Christian unless they expressly indicate they are something else.

A few things about the school that make it different from the middle school they were used to:
  • no uniform. Comfort is generally the key. Leggings, T-shirt, a warm layer and trainers is the usual look. The kids don't change for PE so when cross country is on the cards, a change of clothes in case of mud is suggested.
  • composite classes. This means each class spans two year groups - Susannah is in year 3 in a class that spans years 3 and 4 (the equivalent of English years 2 and 3 - she's gone from one of the youngest in the year group to one of the oldest); Pippa's in year 7 in a year 7/8 class. This means the age range per class is greater of course but it seems to work well, and it means you will get some new classmates every year.
  • less homework. So far Pippa's homework has seemed to consist of a weekly maths sheet, and Susannah's a reading log and a handful of spelling words that are comfortably within her grasp. We probably should be doing a bit more times tables practice at home, but there really isn't any pressure from school about this. It is a welcome change for all of us. Pippa's year 6 homework was onerous earlier this year and if it hadn't been started before the weekend you could kiss most of Sunday afternoon/evening good bye.
  • Maori. Actually they are learning far less Maori language than I had expected, but there are a few regular phases and common words in use. In their classes, the girls are learning Kapa haka - traditional performing arts (singing, but also some dancing). The national anthem is sung at assembly - first in Maori, then in English. Assembly happens twice per term.
  • choices and opportunity. This becomes more obvious in the senior classes, and Pippa has enjoyed being to make choices in her learning - which reading group to join based on the book being studied, and a choice of language for example. She chose Mandarin!
  • playgrounds. The school has fantastic outdoor space - not much greenery but adventure playground equipment and sports pitches. The headmaster believes kids need space to kick a ball around and this happens in separate areas to where people are climbing monkey bars or even trees. The outdoor space is also used during the school day when teachers decide it would be a good idea for the kids to be reading in fresh air for a change, or need a break in the middle of a lesson that's used a lot of concentration. The playgrounds can be visited out of school hours and we've been a couple of times during the school holidays in preference to the local park because there is more to climb on.
  • school dinners. This is a negative rather than a plus. Local takeaways provide the lunches on a given day, so unless you want a Subway one day, pizza the next, or sushi on Friday then it's packed lunches all the way.
  • stationery. Families provide school exercise books, pens, pencils according to lists provided by the school. This means there is quite a cost involved at the beginning of term. What you save in uniform costs, you spend on books.
  • the school year. This is probably obvious, but worth mentioning for completeness. The schools operate a four term system. The long holiday runs from Christmas through January to the beginning of Feb. The terms are about ten or eleven weeks long, with a two week break before the next begins. As I write we are mid-way through the two week holiday between terms 3 and 4.
Pippa is in an innovative teaching block - a novelty for the school as well as for her - and she really likes the atmosphere this creates. It is more like a common room with sofas and comfy chairs, and only a few desks. They use IT a lot, for example writing their own blogs, and doing project work together.

So, all in all it's a big thumbs up for the school in New Zealand. I like it because it is more relaxed and they are learning interesting things. I also see it as a big plus that Pippa is not having to go to secondary school this year. She can enjoy being in primary school for that bit longer, and doesn't have to suddenly grow up as they tend to when making the transition to secondary.

The girls like it because of the playgrounds and because they are having fun while they learn. They are allowed to be kids.

If you'd like to see more about the school, the website is:

Here are a few photos from Susannah's school trip to the nearby nature reserve Zealandia. I went as a parent helper.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

We are still people who care

There is an enormous amount of grief, disbelief and anger, and in some quarters jubilation, about recent historic events in the UK.

Having declared myself in the 'Remain' camp in advance of the referendum, it will not come as a surprise that I was greatly saddened by the result. However, I find I am more bewildered than angry.

First of all, I'm rubbish at being angry - I'm all tears in no time. I struggle to know where to direct the anger. Possibly this comes hand in hand with being empathetic: I don't like anger being directed at me, so don't want to direct that on someone else which means it inevitably becomes an internal mess. I do know people who voted leave and they are not suddenly my enemy. I care about them too. That's not to say I never get angry - a handful of people make my blood boil, Nigel Farage being one of them - but I still finding it hugely unsettling to get into that destructive frame of mind. I am more of a quiet moper in these situations than a shouty, sweary person.

Secondly, although the Brexit campaign 'won', in truth I don't really think it would ever be a winning situation for either side. More than 15 million people voted to stay in the EU. That is a huge number of people. The remain campaign wasn't entirely unsuccessful - it just wasn't successful enough. People on both sides of the debate became impassioned by what they believe in. That said, it was awful to see how negative the campaigning was, and although a lot of argument was about what people believe in - it was also about what people fear. Shame on those that exploited the fear element to persuade people to their view. The referendum has divided the population of the UK very nearly 50-50. There would have been work to do, to heal the division, whichever side came out in front.

We fear the future, but we still don't actually know what the reality will be. We mustn't become impotent and unable to be part of shaping a future that we believe is right, even if the foundations we would have chosen are no longer available. When there is change there is also opportunity.

The worst thing in my opinion is the hatred that has been unleashed. It is sickening to the core to hear of individuals being attacked for the way they look or dress - an assumption that they should be sent home when the UK is the only home they have ever known. And I am horrified that as a nation we don't seem to have more respect for people who have come to the UK with the best of intentions - to work hard, to contribute, to make a better world for their families and for us all. Horrified that we don't have more hospitality to offer those who arrive traumatised and in desperation, who have struggled to escape their homeland because it has been ripped apart by war and they are seeking refuge only to find there is none.

The vote was one monumental day in our history. It was one choice we had to make that had such enormous repercussions. But every day we have choices to make and we need to keep working towards a better world.

In New Zealand there is an emphasis on building resilience - in buildings and communities. Neighbourly-ness is encouraged, with an awareness that if the big one strikes [earthquake] a thriving community will cope better and recover more quickly.

In the UK, communities now need to rebuild, and as individuals we need to model the behaviour we want to see: treating friends and strangers with an open mind and an open heart. We all have a different story to tell. Our voting preferences are one part of us, our ethnic background another. But we are all people facing ups and downs in our lives - some on a harder path than others. We need to stand up to aggression, so that violence and hatred don't become normalised. We need to challenge inequalities in society, for this is another source of division. We need to be gentle with each other and gentle to ourselves. At the end of the day we are all people, and generally we are all still people who care.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Finding our feet and homesickness

We've been here for about four weeks now. We've been busy trying to set down some roots to make us feel more at home.

In the first week we joined the library, enrolled the girls at school and made enquiries about gymnastics. Since then they've managed a play date each and we've met up with the very small number of people we knew here before we came. I've been to the Quaker meeting and we're sussing out dance classes for both the girls and me.

With the girls out at school I have kept up with the work I've been doing for the UK-based College of Mental Health Pharmacy.

Weekends have been busy with plenty of exploring, highlights being finding great walks to do from home, visiting the marine education centre at Island Bay, seeing seals close by in the seal colony, a wonderful day at Makara beach only 20 minutes from home, and enjoying the Sunday market at the Harbourside.

A full happy time and there are lots of photos of us smiling.

But, of course, it is not as simple as that.

The girls are terribly homesick at the moment. They are missing friends and family: school friends, Holiday School friends, cousins, grandparents... walking down the street and seeing familiar, friendly faces. They are missing their usual home comforts (the house here is very sparse with the majority of our belongings still on their way in a shipping container). They are missing their usual activities and routines. It is hard to see them so sad.

So, it is each day as it comes. We are loving the beauty of the place, the outdoor opportunities, and the variety of the city. When we are absorbed in an outing or activity as a family we are genuinely enjoying ourselves, but there are plenty of times at home when we are having to administer tissues, cuddles and soothing words.

We've been calling this our New Zealand adventure - and I guess having an adventure means being ready to take the rough with the smooth. It will take time, but I am sure we will gradually find our feet and the homesickness will hit less frequently and with less intensity. In the meantime we'll continue to make connections and make the most of what life has to offer here.

Here are some photos of what we've been up to in the first month.

A view from Wright's Hill Reserve - a walk from home

Wright's Hill Reserve look out point

Wright's Hill Reserve look out point

Trying out the outdoor gym equipment at nearby Karori Park

Hands on tank at the Marine Education Centre

View from the Skyline Walkway - a walk from home
T-shirt weather in winter! - Makara Beach
Susannah's seal picture

Cafe at Makara Beach
View from cliffs by Makara Beach