Time Well Spent

The lack of activity on my blog is, I’m glad to say, primarily due to the fact that I’ve been writing. Yep, you read right, I’ve been boosting the word count and piling up the pages. And no, before you ask, my LPoW is not yet finished, but it is beginning to fill out pretty well. Even better, I’ve finally settled into my writing groove and am enjoying that liberating sense of timelessness that comes from losing yourself in something you love.

But you know what they say: all work and no play …

IMG_2696A fortnight ago, Mr D and I loaded up Happy with champagne, chocolate, walking shoes and my parents, and headed north in convoy with our friends F and L in their campervan, Sunny. Findhorn-bound, we stopped off half-way to picnic in the sunshine and kick start the holiday with leftover quiche and cold potatoes.

Two hours later, we tumbled out of our campers and set up home in an old fisherman’s cottage with a free-standing bath. We were joined by more friends the following night and, when Sunday dawned and promised to live up to its name with regards to the weather, we spilled out onto the beach.

Friends and food at the seaside: the very essence of bliss. There were games and laughter; a curious seal; ebullient dogs; bird-watching; paddling – swimming even! We took photographs (including a rare one of me with my best friend), traded stories, told jokes, and sat side-by-side watching the sea as it kept on coming. The world was huge, time limitless, and as the sun began to pack up for the day, we followed suit and headed back to the cottage, a weave of arms and rolled up trousers and sun hats and dogs.

IMG_2716The rest of the week was quieter: opera in Elgin town hall; pummelled by rain on Burghead promenade; Berghaus bargains in a Nairn charity shop; fresh vegetables bought from the side of a path through the Findhorn Foundation; huge plates of Buckie fish; and the impish greens of the Northern Lights.

On our penultimate day, B and G visited with strawberries and truffles and told us of Pluscarden Abbey, the place where B told me she had gone when I was in hospital, to ask the monks to include me in their prayers. We arranged to meet her there later, where we listened to the Gregorian chanting of the monks during Vespers, the last wisp of sunshine trickling through the stained glass, fragments of blue and pink and green scattered across their hooded heads.

A quiet calm accompanied us on the journey home in Happy.

The Magic of Moniack Mhor

I have a new love in my life: 15 miles from Inverness, more than a little easy on the eye, with a generous heart. Love at first sight.

View from my room

View from my room

For the last week, Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, has nurtured, inspired, cajoled and encouraged me, and eight other writers, to put some narrative backbone into our Works in Progress. Anything we could possibly want or need was anticipated and provided and if it wasn’t there already, all we had to do was ask and it appeared the following morning: Christmas every day (though I’m not sure it would stretch to a pony … mind you, neither did Santa in my experience). I even had my own white-washed garret, which, to my utter delight, turned out to be the one in the photograph from my last blog.

The writing workshops were a treat, led by two very different writers; Stephen May and Marilyn Bowering, who each brought their own interpretation on how to structure a novel and drive the narrative forward. The one-to-one tutorials were insightful, from small suggested changes, to seeds of ideas to make us question our direction in order to test the robustness of our approach.

My fellow writers spanned a wide range of both age and experience and shared a love of words in all their forms (including diversionary chatting when the written words were fighting shy). We ate lots – especially cake, and laughed plenty. There was morning yoga (an extra surprise provided by Stephen’s lovely wife), guided and free-range walking and an outdoor storytelling circle with expansive views to the surrounding mountains, the perfect place for contemplation.

Evening entertainment was provided by visiting authors Mikey Cuddihy, whose memoir, A Conversation About Happiness, was among the books I read in preparation for writing my own LPoW, and Moira Forsyth of Sandstone Press, who advised us on what to do and more crucially, what not to do, when sending your manuscript to a publisher. By the time Moira left, I think we all wished she or someone like her, could publish our novels.

Our tutors also gave readings from their Works in Progress and answered questions about their writing journey with honesty and humour.

Book at Moniack MhorFriday fizzled with nervous energy – it was the last night, and our turn to provide the entertainment, with readings of our own. To ease us in (and smooth our frayed edges), liberal drams of Glenmorangie malt whisky found their way into our hands and we were led outside to listen to Hamish, a young lone piper, before following him, crocodile-style, around the house and back inside for haggis, neeps and tatties. And if anyone noticed the tears in the eyes of me and A, at the sound of the pipes, it was just the wind, honest.

The readings took us from Canada to a whole other world; we were dragged to a mental health institution and driven to the doorstep of a posh house on Christmas Eve. We shouted rude words with our pals, cavorted with an over-excited fairy avatar, attended a spiritualist funeral and tripped out of a taxi on our way to a job interview. The variety and breadth of writing was exciting, each reader carrying us through to the end of their extract with skill and passion.

In the evening’s embers, Mr D arrived in Happy, and played his guitar. Those of us left, huddled around the wood-burning stove and sang along to Bob Dylan and Steve Harley.

I arrived home last night; my smile and hips (I didn’t starve) a little wider, my LPoW a few thousand words heavier, my head and heart crammed with memories.

As for Moniack Mhor, I can’t recommend it enough. Don’t take my word for it though, visit and experience it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.

For those that experienced the week with me and all at Moniack Mhor: thank you, it was made extra special by your support, laughter and generosity of spirit. Until the next time.

Skye Unplugged

Happy on the roadSince getting married last November, Mr D and I have been trying to go on honeymoon. Our first attempt to spend time with friends in southern France was thwarted by a hospital stay. Several months of biopsies and adjustments to medication and then: all clear, we were good to go. We sent Happy for a wee check-up, booked campsites, contacted friends and family along the way, and tried to contain our excitement.

The plan:

  • Night or two wild-camping in the Dark Skies National Park
  • Two nights at the Lakes
  • A night in Forest of Dean
  • Five nights exploring Cornwall
  • Two nights in Nottingham (with my sister’s family and birthday cake)
  • Home

The reality:

  • Overnight in A&E
  • Four nights in Glasgow (courtesy of NHS)
  • One biopsy
  • One cardioversion (to shock my heart back into rhythm)
  • Three ultrasounds
  • An injection of adrenaline into my neck
  • Home

Not really a honeymoon. Not a honeymoon at all!

The good news; turns out the issue wasn’t as dramatic as it appeared and so Operation Honeymoon turned covert. Stealth-like we packed our bags and loaded Happy. Whistling. Nonchalant. A trickle of activity with regular tea breaks. The H-word unuttered. Nothing to see here.

In a hyphened hippy guise of maxi-dress, cargo-shorts, straw-hats and sun-glasses, we slipped into Happy and wafted out of Stirling in a cloud of patchouli and insect repellent and headed in the direction of T in the Park. So far, so fooled.

We meandered past the festival exit, and with fifteen miles behind us, we looked at each other:

Happy Honeymoon, I said.

Five blissful nights, unplugged and off the grid.

We shared powdered crappuccino with Jack the Munro Hunter (he’s bagging them all for charity) in a layby at Loch Laggan; stopped off a Spean Bridge for fish suppers and the craic with my oldest friend; and survived the hair-raising hair-pin bends through low-cloud to Applecross to wake up to  a serene sea and air corpulent with mountain dew.

Next: over the sea to Skye.

I’ve visited the island many times and it never fails to leave me breathless. It’s in the way it holds itself, aloof from the mainland, swathed in low clouds that, upon parting, reveal mountains of charcoal and sunset, serrating the edges of the slate-grey sky. On a clear day, off its north-western coast, suggestions of other islands smudge the horizon. The rest is green. Every shade. More than fifty. Much more. Expansive. Rippling. Green.

We crossed the bridge, pulled over and gorged on the fresh air. Huge, greedy lungfuls.

Neist PointOur stay was whistle-stop short: two nights, three days. We met up with family – the other newly-wed Mr & Mrs D – to the north of the island and together we braved midgies to spot fairies in the pools at the foot of the Black Cuillin, slithered over rocks at Waternish beach, filled our bellies with food fresh and delicious and lost ourselves in a bottle of local Taliskar whisky.

Before leaving, Mr D and I grabbed home-made carrot cake and apple turnovers from Skye’s oldest bakery in Dunvegan and wound our way north west to Neist Point and the lighthouse casting its shadow across the waters to the Outer Hebrides. Spellbound we edged down the steep path to the cliff-top: Minke whales hugged the shoreline and seabirds gabbled nautical gossip across rocks migrated from Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway.

On our way back through Glendale we imagined a different life of calm and writing and art, of sea-fresh fish and baking and sand between our toes. One day. Maybe one day.

We drove home through blackening clouds and arrived in a torrent. A renewed acquaintance with technology brought exciting news (but I’ll leave that for my next blog).

Happy Honeymoon, Mr D said.

The Way We Look

This morning I looked in the mirror and searched for me. I knew I was there but I couldn’t quite make me out. Over the last three days, my face has morphed Kafka-esque into that of a hardened- drinking, outdoor-weathered, apoplectic beetroot. It wasn’t unexpected.

I’m back in hospital, being pumped full of high dose steroids to counteract an episode of rejection picked up in a routine biopsy at the beginning of the week. It’s not uncommon, they tell me, for this to happen in the first year post-transplant. Add to that the fact that they’ve recently changed me onto a new anti-rejection medication and there’s even less of a surprise. But still it needs to be treated. And now, in steroid overload, body bloated, I wait and trust in those that know best; until the next biopsy at the beginning of the week.

The way we look

The last time I didn’t recognise myself was a fortnight ago. I stepped out of a bedroom into a full-length reflection and all I saw was happy. A smile devoured most of my face and dimples swallowed up the remainder. My boots were high, my dress long and jewels lit up my marginally-less-mussed-up-than-usual, hair. A gaggle of girls, glasses of fizz, a rainbow of nails and autumn sunshine crowded into the farmhouse sitting room. Outside, bagpipes summoned people to the barn. The room emptied of all but a few and my dad, smile rivalling my own, hesitated on the threshold, unsure whether to cross over into the smog of perfume and hairspray and girlie indulgence.

On the way out my best-friend L stopped me: ‘You look great, and just the right amount sexy. Take time to breathe, remember the day, it’ll be over before you know it. Don’t miss it.’ We followed her out, across to the barn, a purple streak in glitter sandals: my nephew with his painted nails (the girls loved helping him with that); my gorgeous niece and soon-to-be step-daughter, all clunky books and sassy cute; me and my dad. One of my closest friends piped my progress, another tried to take photos before bursting into tears. I hardly noticed the rain.

For a moment, as I rounded the top of the barn, I couldn’t see him. Amongst the crowd I spotted others – my oldest friend looking exactly as she had when we met in high school but with (slightly) more glitter; another ready to clack together her Dorothy heels. And then he was there, Mr D – be-kilted in crazy spray-painted leaves, looking at me in a way I’ve never managed to look at myself. We disappeared inside our smiles.

That’s the look I remembered this morning, in front of the mirror in the hospital bathroom. And in a moment of magic, the beetroot disappeared and I realised I was there all along.

Hope Over Fear (part II)

My last post related to the recent Independence referendum in Scotland and my belief in hope over fear. Today the subject matter may be different but the sentiment stays the same. This time it’s personal.

As many of you know, the last couple of years have been challenging for me on the health-front. A hereditary heart condition deteriorated rapidly and last autumn, I was in the end stages of heart failure. I’d felt my body getting sicker. I knew I was ill and deep down, I knew I was dying but hope presided over fear, and for a while I convinced myself that the pacemaker, the internal defibrillator and the medication would somehow, despite evidence to the contrary, if not make me better, at least keep me alive. I realised this was improbable around this time last year, when I collapsed in the car-park of our local hospital. From that moment fate gathered me in its arms, whisked me through A&E and up on to the cardiac ward, where my feet barely touched the ground before I was transported to the Golden Jubilee Hospital in Glasgow. Two weeks later I was hooked to a drip, drained of fluid and in danger of disappearing in a room of washed-out pastel and exclamation marks.

For forty eight hours Mr D and I were suspended between hope and fear; hope that my condition could be stabilised enough for me to be added to the urgent transplant list, fear that I had passed the point where I would be considered well enough to survive the operation. In those two days we held hands and hoped. We had a brief discussion about what would happen if I didn’t make it, followed by a longer discussion on what our future would look like when I got out: dreams, aspirations, hopes. We sat side-by-side and looked death in the eye and together stared it down. I went from being terrified at the thought of a transplant to wanting, more than anything, for that to be possible. And then it was: I was on the list and I ricocheted between hope and fear, hope and fear.

images (2)I was still high risk and there were a lot of unknowns. Would they find a donor in time? Would it be a good match? Would I get through the operation unscathed? Would I get through at all? How would I feel when the time came? If the time came?

Friends, family and people I’d never met prayed, meditated; sent reiki, positive energy, hugs. Visitors were limited but those that could came and those that couldn’t phoned, texted and sent emails. One friend said she would give me her heart if she could, another sent me a penguin a day to make me smile, another exchanged texts late at night about his impending fatherhood, yet another emailed about her daughter’s wish for snow for her birthday. My parents worked a tag team with Mr D, covering when he had to go home to wash clothes, move house, see his daughter. There were beautiful books of poetry and French literature delivered, luscious hand cream (a real treat to combat my hardened skin, dry with the after effects of surgical cleansing gel). Cards filled with kind words appeared alongside pictures ablaze with stick people in garish colours to stick on my notice board. More hope, more positive energy, more beauty than I had ever known.

On Christmas Eve, Mr D sat in his festive jumper featuring a penguin in a Santa hat; we drank fizzy elderflower and rose juice. The lights on the tree donated to me by a member of staff, flashed on and off – hope, fear, hope, fear, hope, hope, hope. A parcel arrived with my favourite chocolate; a present of love and understanding from a new friend who knew what it was like to shuffle in my slippers. And I cried.

Several hours later, alone in my bed, groggy from sleeping pills, a nurse stroked my arm and whispered that there’d been the offer of a heart. A family grieving on one of the most memorable of dates, still brave enough to honour the final request of their loved one. The most amazing gift I’ve ever received and one for which I’ve been thankful every day since.

Day-by-day, week-by-week and month after month, I’ve achieved things I thought were no longer an option for me. I’ve walked up stairs, ridden a bike, climbed hills (little ones but still…), caught up with those who loved and supported me, spent weekends away in Happy (our campervan). Each time I do something new I find myself laughing with delight; my face aches from smiling. I’m grateful every day for all the people who helped me through this – Mr D, the surgical and hospital team, my family and friends, strangers, someone else’s family and a person I’ll never meet. The triumph of hope over fear.

For information on how to become a donor and stories on the difference organ donation has made to the lives of others visit: Organ Donation Scotland; Organ Donation UK; British Heart Foundation.