SIZE MATTERS: THE BENEFITS OF BEING SMALL

Our Milky Way

Our Milky Way

A real dark night sky is a tonic for the soul. That’s why in the weeks following a diagnosis that I was growing cancerous tumours, feeling overwhelmed with it all, like an Indiana Jones-sized rolling rock of grief and fear was heading my way,  I stepped outside onto the front porch. Luckily, the sky was clear and when I looked up I heard the Milky Way calling out to me for falling into. I was bewitched by the white splashes along it’s twining body. I felt into the space within these mind-blowing cosmic stains, appearing so because they indicate numbers of stars so dense I cannot fathom the universe except in the most basic of ways. I wanted nothing more than to dive on in and  swim far enough through the sparkling infinity, so that I would be sure to reach the farthest place, the point of pregnant expansion from which I would retract like a catapult in reverse straight back to the core – the spot where I stood. I would fly back to the womb of my own rebirth. For a blessed moment, I confronted my own mortality and was not afraid to do so. I stood in a black hole filled with peace. Loved, loving. Happy. I felt for a fraction of a moment the freedom of understanding my own insignificance. And then it was gone.

Living is hard. Really hard.  I do want to mention here that I am not claiming hardships that compare with the lives of those born into poverty. Those who are more likely to experience physical suffering, discrimination, disenfranchisement, injustice and displacement. That’s hard living. Then there’s the rest of us, more or less enjoying lands of milk and honey those in poverty dream about. The poverty stricken must think us delirious with happiness. Yet we find a Milky Way of reasons not to be. Our ‘hard’ living is generally a result of a lack of appreciation for the things and opportunities we do have and an unfortunate craving for what we don’t. We can’t handle the excess all around as it wreaks havoc within us anymore than those in poverty can manifest what they need from without to sustain them within. What is within us is mirrored by what is outside.  A perfect imbalance. It’s all hard, but different.

Sitting in our ‘first world’ lives we believe our lives to be BIG. The dramas and dreams which emanate from our egos are so large and loud. There is logic in that. The will to live is pretty much hardwired – all things are driven by the blueprint for survival, growth and reproduction. But with the expectation – or at the very least, hope – of great things from our experience of life comes wave upon wave of dissatisfaction and disappointment as we judge at  every moment every detail of our progression in the cause of survival, growth and reproduction. Those whose suffering is starvation, sickness and early death – every day, without reprieve, do they have the luxury of thoughts other than those concerned with survival?  When I learned of my sickness, my tumultuous thought processes screamed to a halt. The myriad of  inner voices grew quiet – desire, envy and dissatisfaction stopped lending their unhelpful demands and judgements and I heard my still, small voice.  It spoke to me of the basics. What did I need to survive? It helped me make decisions about my treatment, it helped me speak to my children, mother, brothers, friends. It helped me look at what dying might be like. I discovered that I love myself and I love living – especially when death threatens – but also that it’s ok when my time is up. That moment on my front porch has led me through dark times.

And so I share that moment with you because it was possibly one of the best moments of my life – like falling in love and seeing my babies for the first time. Because it reminded me that what I think doesn’t really matter but is everything and all I have. It also reminds me that even in my darkest times, my life is privileged. To have such a positive vision of my difficult experience is something I feel very fortunate to have. I have stopped and thought for about 30 seconds for beautiful experiences of this world that I treasure. I realise I could fill a universe with them.

Swimming among innumerable stars to the ends of the universe and back showed me the blessing of being small. Infinitesimally small. Insignificant and hidden. It was a moment of true freedom.

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS FOR MY MUM

Cuckoo (Common Formerly European) Onekind

Cuckoo (Common Formerly European) Onekind

Day  9 post 1st stage reconstructive surgery. Mum flew in from the UK two nights ago on flight SQ281 to stay for a month. I pride myself on keeping the house not too shabbily, but she hadn’t been here 12 hours and she was already getting stuck in, half way down a toilet, giving it ‘a really good clean’. She turns 81 in 5 and a half weeks and is darting round my house cleaning, fetching, carrying, while I sit like a Cuckoo in her nest, squawking for service.

Fact: Cuckoos stroke of genius is that they lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. ‘Studies were made of 90 Great Reed Warbler nests in central Hungary. Of the nests targeted by cuckoos, 64% contained one cuckoo egg, 23% had two, 10% had three and 3% had four Common Cuckoo eggs. 66% accepted the egg(s); 12% ejected them; 20% abandoned the nests entirely; 2% buried the eggs. 28% of the cuckoo eggs were described as “almost perfect” in their mimesis of the host eggs, and the warblers rejected “poorly mimetic” cuckoo eggs more often.’ Thanks Wikepedia.

I am a terrible patient. I don’t like being dependent, which is a combination of control freakery and genuine concern for my carer and I hate following instructions which involve telling me I can’t do things. I’m not supposed to lift anything heavier than a full mug or drive and this renders me helpless, useless and stir crazy! My bigger half is having to cope with a woman rapidly declining into the thing she’s not supposed to become for another 30 years – and his M-I-L is here. For a month.

It’s not until you can’t exercise your ways that you realise how much set in them you have become. As a child I remember watching mum bake, iron and sew. I can remember her operating an ancient washing machine that had an accompanying wringer. She once lost the tiny diamond from her engagement ring into the swirling vortex of water and clothes, only to find it sitting on one of the 2cm slats of the drain at the bottom after it was emptied.  She would come home from shift work as a midwife, change into short shorts and gumboots and gallop off on her fabulous legs to the kitchen garden behind the stone wall. I learnt to bake by inhaling the studied concentration on her face while she measured, sieved, mixed or, kneaded – whether what was in the bowl became coffee and walnut cake or wholemeal bread, I got the techniques down pat. I know that many of my ways about the kitchen have the flavour of my mum about them.

And not just the kitchen. Sometimes I catch myself having a ‘Diana moment’ and, depending on the nature of the moment and whether it has been witnessed by the other one who knows, I will shriek or laugh. But over the next 3 and a half weeks I will have many Diana moments – firsthand, no mirror. She hasn’t been to stay for 8 years since I had 2 boy babies at the same time. She woke 3 time a night with me for 21 nights to help with feeding. She made 210 cups of tea and buttered 240 pieces of toast. She has spent 1000’s of dollars on me. We live 18325.35kms apart and let’s be honest, it’s possible that you can count the days we will spend in each others company on the toes and fingers of my 5 sons. That is a difficult thought to entertain. So I will stuff back the graceless teenager trying to take over my behaviour and be grateful for my mum. I will let her do her thing and accept the benefit which I would be so foolish to squander.

Thank you, mum for your crazy decision, made within 18 hours after talking to me when I came out of hospital. Thank you for spending 926 of your precious British Pensioner Pounds on Flight SQ281 and defying gravity to be here.

You have never ejected or abandoned me and you haven’t had to bury me yet.  I know I am not a bad egg and that you are 1 impressive old bird.

COMING SOON – THE RACK IS BACK

LETTING GO

LETTING GO -photo by Helen Coetzee

It’s a cliché, but I HAD A DREAM last night. Actually, it was in the 10 or so minutes between waking and rising this morning. I am blogging my way through my experience of breast cancer. Well I only discovered blogging this year and so will have to go all retro on the early stuff. Yes, it’s therapy for me of course but I also want to reach out to other people going through this because talking through all the stages really does help.

Here’s my dream.

There is a meeting. A long, long table with chairs around, blinds at the windows of an ordinary office meeting room. We file in, about 30 of us. The Oncologist enters the room but doesn’t seem to settle on a place at the table. None of us do. 

Immediately, we are relocated  to the inner city, in the way that dreams can shift seamlessly and with ease. Hundreds of us now, we all sit on stone steps that bank up the steep hill with blackened old buildings at the top and sides. It is pleasantly urban. I feel like I am at a university lecture. Huge sycamore trees with contrasting light bark have lost most of their leaves which now lie on the steps providing bolts of welcome colour. They seem to be on our side. It is damp but not cold. 

The Oncologist is talking. I feel like a child though he is younger than me. He becomes quite impassioned, excited by the power he holds over us and our massive presence. There is a sense among the mass that we are not all the same, though we have been summoned here as if we were. We are CANCER and The Oncologist is THE CURE. We are to report our list of treatments and we are to receive the next stage. As he asks for submissions of experience from the massed crowd, our difference becomes clear. Hands rise into the damp air and each voice claims a treatment, brave people conquering fear and confusion, clinging to their faith. They are the anointed, they have walked through the fire of retributive justice, thrown everything in the arsenal of toxic war waged upon the alien cancer cells that rose up to destroy them.

And The Oncologist salutes them. He is rallying the mass, justifying their suffering, telling them that in following orders they have dealt the blow they crave. He fires up, raises his fist in the air and is shouting about reaching every single last corner of the empires that are our flesh, every cellular outpost – “And I will seek and destroy every last trace of cancer….”

To my right just below where I am sitting, a swathe of the mass begin to boil and move, dissatisfied. Murmurs become a chant and in turn the people rise to their feet. Moving down the grey stone steps as one they turn their heads away and leave the assembly. They are singing, low and simple, “We don’t know you anymore,” over and over.

Then a voice pipes up. Her mouth isn’t working properly, the left side appears to be anesthetized and flaps stupidly, spoiling a crisp delivery. But she is straining to be heard, and winning nevertheless. The Oncologist is rising to a frenzy in the face of the dissenting party but her words are challenging his in mid-air, gaining momentum. Other people to the left and to the right, above and below, begin to pop up, arms raised freely. Mouth gaping to the left and chest hurting with the effort, she bellows –

She bellows in her heart.  She wants to take The Oncologist by the hand and ask him not to be disapproving, not to doubt her, not to be worried for her. She needs to find her own way of dealing with this most personal of diseases. She grew it, she owns it, she will transform it. Don’t try to frighten me with your statistics. You don’t tell me of those who follow your orders  and still don’t ‘beat’ this thing. So work with me. Let me be free. You want to be free.

It is only a little voice, trembling on the air.”You are trying to give us a guarantee that is not yours to give! You cannot say we will never have cancer again. You don’t know, YOU JUST DON’T KNOW.” And you don’t know me anyway.

I wake, my mouth flapping and my chest hurting. It’s 5 days since I had stage one of reconstructive surgery. I went under feeling incredibly fit and well. My chest wound had healed so well and I had strength once more. I have navigated difficult decisions and arrived at a place of confidence as great as anybody can really have It was harder to get up on the table this time than it was last. It was elective surgery. So why put myself through it?

At first, I didn’t think I would ever go for it. I said stuff like, “They’ll only be speed bumps, they won’t be real.” I was in mourning. We women can’t help but have such a complicated relationship with our bodies. We ask so much of them. Our ladyhumps particularly. Ask any mum who has breastfed and you will get that dismissive ‘Well, they’re never gonna be the same again are they?’ No, they are not! But to lose them completely……that was something different again. And then when I could see the years still to come unfolding before me, it started to seem like a long time to do the penance of the staunch. I don’t want to hold on to the anger and the shock anymore. Despite reassurances  that I was no less of a woman, there was still the private moment I step into a bath, the secret throwing away of the naughty nighties, the sudden disappearance of the thrill of a hotel night.

This is difficult to admit but let’s get real. I think we are adult enough don’t you? So I’m taking a cue from  those women brave enough to chase their fantasies and take what’s available – breast cancer or not. It’s going to take a couple of months to achieve a result initially, then a year or so before completion. And when it’s done I shall be wearing a super-sexy-cool t-shirt which you will be able to purchase from my website, in aid of breast cancer awareness. It will say –

THE RACK IS BACK

CULTURAL EATING DISORDER

ImageNew Zealanders LOVE their potluck dinners. When I first came here 16 years ago, I was puzzled and disturbed in equal measure by this cultural staple. Of course I get it. I get it’s No.8 wire thinking, it’s hangi wannabe-ness, it’s diehard democracy and the fact that it gets the women’s vote. But it still drives me a little bit crazy.  For anybody not born into this great tradition, here is my attempt to clear up the conundrums, relieve the doubt and of course, take the piss like any civilized society does of it’s most embedded rituals.

Potluck Dinner v Bring a Plate

I quickly worked out that a Potluck Dinner is the slightly more formal and substantial version of ‘Bring a Plate’, which may be the instruction with an invitation to a shared lunch or morning tea. Anytime before the ‘I don’t have to pretend I don’t want a drink’ hour. That will vary.  Baby showers, work leaving-do’s-at-work, small charitable fundraisers, school fundraisers, and local community events of all persuasions can be accompanied by the instruction to ‘bring a plate’. This means covering a plate or platter with anything from cheese and biscuits to homebaked muffins or cakes and everything inbetween. Size is up to you – just how generous do you need to appear? Save your good serving plate and platter for the occasions when you won’t lose it if you leave it. Otherwise, plastic if you aren’t the colour of Kermit, or edible potato starch if you are. Tongs are the Kiwi serving implement of choice. Even for soup.

There are stories of expats like myself arriving for such an occasion literally with nothing more than an empty plate and a bottle of wine. Fears for crockery supply shortages duly allayed, the culprit will proceed to drink themselves into a stupour, not wanting to eat the feast to which they have made no contribution.

The Rules – Bring a Plate

There are no rules. EXCEPT

  1. It will be duly noted if you merely buy cheese slices and crackers at the dairy on the way – because you couldn’t be arsed to put any effort in.
  2. Packets of chips and dips are regarded as above, or that you have no culinary skills but perversely will be gratefully tolerated because everybody loves chips and dips. Especially if children are present.
  3. Nut and/or bhuja mixes are more suited to an adult-only gathering where those stressing about hip and gut expansion can tell themselves it’s the healthy alternative to 2.
  4. Muffins, while a national obsession, are VERY hard to get right and unless straight out of the oven will probably be stodgy and quite compromised in the flavour department. Nothing says Edmonds Cookbook (a Kiwi religious publication) like the taste of baking powder in whatever flavour muffin you were aiming for.
  5. Bought muffins look super and provide that cakey lovliness better than homemade.
  6. Ditto cakes EXCEPT bought cakes or cakes out a packet which NEVER live up to their temptress allure.
  7. Bought chocolate dips provided with strawberries should disappear off the plate and be secretly stashed away for when the host is re-decorating and it’s time to strip the paint.
  8. Celery/carrot/cucumber/capsicum cut into strips for dipping – what were you thinking? Never able to satisfy enough dip on one strip for their needs, guests will run the risk of a substantial let-down or be forced to commit the unsanitary crime of double dipping, thus contaminating accompanying dip with their saliva. Therefore – at FAMILY ONLY – or swingers – parties.
  9. Lollies provided by childfree attendees at a gathering of big and smalls. We hate you.

The Rules – Potluck Dinner

  1. If your inner voice is screaming ‘What is a potluck dinner?’ – ask. You will avoid the above scenario.
  2. If your inner voice is asking ‘entrée, mains or dessert?’ – ask. Or if, like me, you see an opportunity to be lazy, take pre-dinner nibbles. (See 2 & 3 in ‘The Rules – Bring a Plate’)
  3. Don’t go to any effort in the display department, chances are your dish will be superfluous and left on the bench in the corner above the dog’s bowl. In sniffing distance of the dog.
  4. Unless you have a signature smash hit,an offering of the main kiwi foodgroup – meat – doesn’t mean stressing about how to cook it. A contribution for charring on the barbie is fine.
  5. The other kiwi foodgroup – carbs – can include an homage to the glory of comfort food. Potatoes, diced and fried, kumara of all colours, tossed with vermicelli, pasta AND noodles, baked under a coating of béchamel sauce with extra cheese will rock out of it’s pot. Sprinkle with sesame/sunflower/pumpkin seeds and it will be included in the health food section of the table.
  6. If you’re instructed, or you’ve opted for dessert, whipped cream made exotic with marshmallows, M&M’s and grapes is easy and a surefire success. As is the one with melted Mars Bars, bananas, extra caramel sauce and, um, whipped cream.
  7. If hosting, consider whether you have included a fully trained current holder of a first aid certificate on your guest list. If a guest, bring one with you incase this has been overlooked.
  8. The potluck dinner suits bulimics down to the ground upon which they chunder.

Above all, remember that flouting of any or all of the rules at either of these occasions will be made possible with the addition of alcohol. However, whether it’s a 6-pack of boutique beers, a couple of bottles of organic red – or even a cask of cardonnay and a tray of Lion Red – it is NEVER ok to take your un-imbibed contribution home, as used to be the case with the terribly tight middle class dinner party tradition of the Home Counties.  So to be sure, drink it all yourself. It is the Kiwi way. As you leave, kiss the hosts, (once, not on both cheeks, this is not meterosexual Europe), pat the children on the head and cuddle the dog…..no cuddle the children, pat the hosts, kiss the dog…..no, oh I don’t know. Maybe that marshmallow, Mars Bar dessert needs a glug of the brandy I saw by the stove…….

I will providing a searing review of the said TT middle class DPT of the Home Counties in my next blog. One to watch.

SELFIE AWARENESS AND BREAST CANCER

Photo on 24-03-14 at 9.03 AMSelfies. We love them. The latest trend is for no make-up selfies to raise money for breast cancer awareness. Good cause. Follow up with regular checks and if you have any concerns, or are eligible for the free mammograms, go have one. Don’t drink too much alcohol, don’t eat too much sugar, eat whole foods, exercise enough blah blah PRAY THAT YOUR GENES ARE GOOD ONES……

First, thanks to my beautiful sweet friends who have done their own selfies. You haven’t tried to hide a thing. It shouldn’t be such a big deal should it, but I know that we don’t like going out without any enhancement. Jeez, if I don’t draw in some eyebrows these days, people think I’m sick again. Truly! And to my lovely friend whose mother died from the disease, I adore how you always add in there somewhere – FUCK CANCER! Don’t get too cross though, those cortisol levels need to stay low.

Going nude is quite liberating isn’t it? Models schmodels, the faces I like the best are the real ones, nervously smiling or showing the discomfort – no eyebrow or lash tinting, just you. Some of the faces have a quiet pride, ‘this is who I really am and it feels good’. Make-up does a lot more than paint our features doesn’t it? It’s as if we can paint ourselves into a personality, or a position in life, status, success, happiness! Yeah, it didn’t quite work out like that for me either. Amongst ourselves, though, it works – one of my friends is ROCKING a shade of red lipstick that I have been looking for all my life. I love it on her face! Well her lips anyway. And I think we all know that most men don’t care either way. Shall we be honest and say there’s other things they hope we won’t give up. Ever.

So I thought I’d share my own make-up free selfie. Of the thing in question.  If you all think your faces are scary without make-up, think again.

And look after beautiful selves. x

WHO AM I TO JUDGE?

ImageSo, two and a half years without breasts and I’m ready to concede that I might have another decade or three claiming a place on this rather overloaded planet and thinking that’s a long time to be without the orbs of feminity. Too bad that my hair won’t grow back like it used to be and I have opted for the punk staccato meant for the woman of my age who has either given up or wants to roar -visually. Or just be cooler – literally. I need something to make me feel gracious again.

Everyone jokes about what happens to our milkbags after they have done service. A man once wrote that women over 50  ‘do that terrible thing (sic) and cut their hair short’. Well fuck off dude, what do you know? Take you nazi follicularism (er….) and fuck off. Hope you go bald – that ‘terrible’ affliction of men over 50 and often much younger. And man-boobs can droop too.

Anyway, I meant to control my tongue and my hot temper for this blog and muse on the subject of women judging women. Last week, I had my appointment with the plastic surgeon who will, if I am brave enough, cut open my well-healed scar all over again and place small plastic bags where my breasts used to be.  For the next 2 months after that, I will visit the nurse who will use a magnetically attracted syringe to find the hole through which to pump a little more saline solution each time, to stretch my skin. I don’t have enough body fat to use my own tissue, which is the only time I will be disappointed about that fact. Then, when the optimum size is reached, I will have silicon implants. Followed 3 months later by reconstructed nipples. Then have them tattooed.

I force myself to write this. I am embarrassed, disgusted, intrigued, excited, terrified, anxious. Desperate to be ‘normal’ again.

While I was waiting to go in, a girl of maybe 18-20 appeared with her mother. She got up on the scales that stand at the side of the waiting room. I look up, distracted and do a double take as I notice her shorts, which barely skim her buttocks. Honestly, my knickers were larger than those shorts. She sits down and loudly proclaims her weight. Her mother reaches out and tucks a strand of blonded hair behind her daughter’s ear and murmers encouragingly. I wonder why they are here?

I have my face time with the lovely man who radiates clarity and makes me feel very confident. I cry a little when he shows me faceless pictures of his work on a woman of my body type. I can’t believe it looks so good! I tell him I didn’t want to be a bride of Frankenstein.  OMG, I’m on the waiting list. 3-6 months and I could get a call anytime telling me they have a space next week. And I don’t have to pay a cent. I am so lucky.

As I am getting weighed (out the back) and blood pressured, the young girl and her mother enter the same room I have just left. Whoa! Either she or her mother have been unfortunate to have had breast cancer – or the young girl wants implants. To make her perfectly healthy breasts as large as her shorts are short? The thought appalls me, embarrasses me, disgusts me etc. etc. I remember how proud I was back in the day when I had a fair pair of homegrown tits, all my own work.

But how many women haven’t fantasized about fuller, rejuvenated boobs? Age and service history doesn’t really have anything to do with it anymore. I believe there are girls out there who haven’t even developed yet, who have the promise of breast enhancements when they are legally old enough! I marvel at their confidence, at their determination, at the fact they don’t care whether they look as good as they can naturally or not. I feel like a macramé making garlic stinky 70’s hippy feminist. Who gives a shit if your body is au naturale or hand crafted these days? Did anyone ever care much?

Well I’m now straddling the two camps. Allowed as I am now to take the plastic option, I can embark on something I ‘knew’ I would never do. And yet I will always mourn the loss of what nature gave me. You just never know do you, the decisions you may be asked to make? You never know until it is happening to you.  Who the fuck am I to judge Ms Shorts? Go for your life.