X marked the spot in the hall behind
the Burnett Arms, where our class danced
on Thursdays over crossed swords
to bagpipes skirling Ghillie Callum,
a seventy-eight on the Dansette.
The turntable turned, and so did we,
twenty kilts fanning out like accordions
swung up like tartan wings behind us
and our black laced pumps
pranced plump pas de basque
up and down, round and round,
Whirling high with bonny smiles
we had no thought of edges
sharp as Sheffield knives
under our feet.
Later I learned
that to touch
in flat, black shoes
and sky-blue suits
dispense clear liquids that drip, drip
from innocent plastic bags, incinerated after use.
Do not talk to me of battles.
Let me dance through the door with nothing
but numbness of neuropathy
in my toes,
Where did that blog go? Things have been looking a bit quiet on Harping On, as I’ve been busy with the OU’s new MA in Creative Writing. Writing about writing has therefore taken a back seat. Along with that has come a little bit of a desire to do less in the way of social media – it’s good to create a bit of space sometimes.
In the meantime, the German version of my story ‘Ships that Pass’ has been published in the anthology ‘Vierertreffen’, which means a Meeting of Four. I haven’t met the other three authors in real life, but perhaps I will some day. Two of us are from Scotland, two of us are from Ireland – hello to Brian McNeill, Rita Kelly and Micheál Ó Conghaile – and many thanks to Karin Braun and Gabriele Haefs for compiling this volume of four ‘long short stories’.
I’m half way through the first year of the MA course, where I’m studying Poetry as my primary genre and Fiction as my secondary. This is the opposite way round from what I originally intended – I just thought it would be more interesting to develop the poetry side, as I felt I had a lot to learn about doing it better. So far, the course material has been stimulating and people are contributing some interesting stuff in the online tutor group. I’ve been challenged, pushed in a few new directions and received some home truths about improving my focus. The downside is that it is all online – you don’t meet the tutor or participants, and there is an awful lot of screen work and clicking, which has given me some RSI problems … another reason for being a bit quiet on the blog.
In the pursuit of more poetry-sharing with real people in the real world, I’ll be co-leading a poetry workshop with local poet Geraldine Green on 25th February. This workshop is one in Geraldine’s ‘Write on the Farm’ series which I’ve been attending for a year or two. When someone discovered I had a harp they wanted me to bring it to the party, and this workshop is the result! We’ll be looking at the origins of the instrument, talking about lyric poetry and writing in response to harp music. Time in the outdoors is always a part of Geraldine’s workshop, as is some quiet writing time in the afternoon. It is already fully booked!
I’ve needed a summer break – a chance to reflect on the ups and down of the last year since my cancer diagnosis, and to consider new projects. I feel very well and apparently look great on my treatment, but I’m constantly monitored and checked, which inevitably makes me edgy. However, I’ve worked out the best way forward is to Keep Calm and Be Normal. Going out and doing stuff with others and having a project or two helps me forget for increasingly long periods what happened. Onwards!
Sometimes a special time comes along and all your interests and ideas converge, and this past weekend has been just like that. Geraldine Green, Writer in Residence at Brantwood, Coniston, who also runs writers’ workshops at a local Cumbrian farmhouse, says it is ‘full moon magic’. On the day after the full moon, the sun shone for us for the above the Lune valley, lighting up this year’s particularly prolific rowan berries and plump blackberries in the hedgerows.
Among other things, we wrote to prompts on memories and fruit using Marsha de la O’s ‘UnderThe Lemon Tree’. In the afternoon we wandered out with ‘The Earth is a Living thing’ by Lucille Clifton; the path took us on to the hills overlooking the Lune Valley to pause, contemplate and write.
There were more riches for me the following day at a Harps North West workshop. Over the past year our composer in residence, Karen Marshalsay, has been working with us on a suite of music specially written for Harps North West – all ability levels will be able to join in, and the idea is that the music will reflect who we are and the landscape in which we live. We have had two workshops in February and June where Karen has tried out her ideas for melodies and taught us some interesting techniques such as bee’s plaits, finger plaits, shoogly finger and gurgly two handed variations. We now have the finished piece.
It has been fascinating to share in the creative process over a long period and to see that it is very much like writing a poem – the ideas and themes, the refrains, the motifs. And then there’s the putting away of a work and letting it bubble and marinate, the taking it out and reshaping until it finds its final form. Karen’s finished suite is entitled ‘The lay of the land’ and her opening section ‘Approaching Lune Gorge’ is about that landscape in which the poets walked on Saturday.
Karen said that getting to know the landscape over the year and in different seasons helped her round the finished piece.
The lay of the land for me is somewhat different from what it was a year ago. During the year of my illness and recovery, copies of ‘Shifting Sands’, my book of short stories, have sold well, and I’d like to thank everyone for all the positive comments I’ve received. I’m delighted to say you can now even buy it on the shops on CalMac Ferries, so check it out over a CalMac cooked breakfast the next time you are sailing to the Hebrides.
But now it’s time for a new challenge. I’ve been offered a place on the Open University’s new MA in Creative Writing, and I’m excited to be starting soon. Initially I thought I would major in fiction, but lately I’ve been pulled in more by poetry and its connection with music, and this past weekend has underlined that choosing poetry as my main genre will be my way forward. I have some new ideas, and among other things I will be doing a workshop with Geraldine in February on connections between harp and poetry.
Thanks go to Geraldine and all who contributed to the poetry day, particularly Jane Moss-Luffrum for letting me use her wonderful photographs on the blog. Thanks also go to Karen and all at Harps North West for all the fine music we make together.
I have awarded myself a medal! I just happened to have three kicking around the house, from when I did the ‘Race for Life’ in aid of Cancer Research UK in 2004, 2005 and 2007 in memory of my mother and a university friend who both died of cancer. So when I completed my sixth chemotherapy on 10th March there was a small reward ceremony to mark the end of this stage of treatment. Of course, I never imagined when I ran those 5 Km races that the funds raised would help to save my own life. Very appropriately, I finished my chemotherapy treatment in Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I encourage anyone who is not sure of the symptoms of this disease to check out the websites at either Target Ovarian Cancer or Ovacome.
As I’ve discovered, treatments have come a long way since my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. My initial horror at the thought of having to undergo chemotherapy for ovarian cancer was based on fear and ignorance; the reality is that my chemotherapy drugs zapped my disease effectively and, most surprisingly, allowed me to enjoy a reasonably good quality of life during treatment. There were other things that helped too, and I list them here in the hope of encouraging others who find themselves on the same path.
WALKING. Nothing has helped me more than daily exercise and nature. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t climbing the mountains I used to climb – in fact, I like the new walking routes which look very much like this:
CHOCOLATE: It deserves an entry of its own. Thank you to all who took note of its therapeutic effects and supplied me!
TALKING. I have kept on talking – to my family, my friends, my chemo nurses, the other patients. It’s been good to be open and to give and receive support. I feel truly blessed to have such a great social network – thank you!
LIVING AS NORMALLY AS POSSIBLE. Yes, there are times when you are tired and will have to cancel things. You have to listen to your body. But, for a lot of the time, just doing normal things and being treated as normal is the best way to get on with something as big and scary as this.
AVOIDING CANCER GOOGLING. A little goes a long way. Trust me, googling symptoms and survival rates will NOT make you feel better. Forums are good if you read good things; they are bad if you read bad things.
ACCEPTING AND ENJOYING COMPLIMENTS. Nod, smile and feel good when people compliment you on your new ‘hairstyle’, your slim figure and new clothes. Some compliments are quite unexpected – recent praise of my ‘excellent veins’ from a nurse made me feel good for the rest of the day.
MAKING AN EFFORT WITH YOUR APPEARANCE. Aim to try with your appearance and clothes even when you’re feeling a bit rough.
INDULGING IN THE OCCASIONAL REWARD CEREMONY. Celebrate each milestone, and yes, you can mix a little Prosecco with your chemo. I had a rule not to do alcohol in the week after treatment, but after that a little was ok.
So now the journey continues. It’s a bit like doing a course at the big University of Cancer. After a bit of post-chemo ‘scanxiety’ I was told that my response had been excellent, better than expected – 9/10! My cancer hated that stuff and went running. But there is a risk of recurrence. Continued work is needed to keep it at bay, so I will be having a little infusion of Avastin every 3 weeks until next January.
It’s been a harder few weeks since my last chemo – I’ve taken longer to get over the tiredness this time. My eyebrows, which held on through five treatments, now need more artwork to make them look realistic, and even though I’m grateful for the help of Miss Wiggy I can’t wait to ditch her before the hot days of summer. The baldness thing gets you after a while, although it’s a small price to pay. Oh, and a bit of rethinking is required as I devise my ‘new normal’ – cutting out some of the things I used to do, concentrating on what’s important and learning to pace myself, enjoying the moment, looking at diet and lifestyle, booking myself on to a ‘Living well with cancer’ course with Penny Brohn UK. http://www.pennybrohn.org.uk/
The recovery jargon tells you to set some meaningful goals now, so I hope to play my harp in a concert in June, go to a wedding in Germany in August and … oh yes … I have 17 Wainwright tops in the Lake District still to climb. Onwards and upwards.
Some of you have asked if I’m writing about the cancer experience. And at this point I’d just like to thank everyone who has bought and read ‘Shifting Sands: Tales of Transience and Transformation’ and said good things about it. There are some lovely reviews on Amazon! Over the winter it’s been too difficult to write something new; my own story has been too big. I have stuff in my notebook, and I may write about cancer sometime, but now doesn’t seem the time; in a way I want to put it behind me. I’ve been working on some poetry prompts in a small online group run by Helena Sanderson who studied with me on the OU course, and this has kept my brain in gear through the months of treatment. Thank you, Helena! The prompts took me in lots of directions and have given me things to work on for the future. Only two were about the cancer experience, and I finish off with one here – it’s a ‘shape’ poem written for fun during one of my chemotherapy sessions.
From now on, expect my blog posts to less about cancer and more about life.
I have finally gone down the road of the smartphone. After years of thinking my 2006 Nokia was small, neat and just what I needed (all I do is text, isn’t it?), I finally decided a girl on chemotherapy deserves better. The tingling in my finger tips which is a side-effect of chemo made the tiny buttons hard to manage and I couldn’t read all the cheerful, quirky emoticons people were sending me. The final nudge came from a (younger) friend who looked at the Nokia and remarked that she never thought I’d have a phone like that. I explained that I used a tablet at home and didn’t want to be welded to a smartphone on the street like the rest of the population. But then I thought again, and decided it was treat time.
Three phone shops later I was well served in O2. They had seats, for example, and an assistant who didn’t look as if he was dressed like someone from the planet Zog. He didn’t talk from a pre-learned script, and explained the twenty or so different tarrifs without being in the least condescending. I came out with a sleek new phone and have now moved on from ‘Pay as you Go.’
So I took my smartphone along to my fourth chemotherapy session last Thursday and stayed in touch with the world as the smart drips went in that are giving me my life back. Back in October and November I couldn’t have contemplated going into a phone shop at all; I led a life on the sofa watching ‘Homes under the Hammer’ and surviving on small bowls of soup. Ovarian cancer bloats you, and you can’t eat much. The treatment changed all that. A week after my first chemotherapy, I went into a supermarket after a six week break and actually selected food I wanted to eat. By Christmas, the days of yogurt and retro Sixties jelly with mandarins were over, and I enjoyed a full Christmas dinner with a sneaky glass of wine. The beginnings of hair loss and attacks of tiredness were a small price to pay. By January I was going out to meet friends again, driving, extending the length of my daily walks and even, by the end of the month, going back to my Pilates class. I received compliments about my slim look and new ‘haircut’, which gave me my confidence back. And on 20th January Miss Wiggy and I climbed The Helm, a small hill near Kendal, and admired the snowy Lakeland Fells; I never thought I’d do that on chemotherapy, but that’s what smart drugs do for you.
In three months I have come from planning my funeral to planning my future. I have learned what all cancer patients learn – think smart. ‘Keep up your PMA,’ the nurse said. I wondered if this was some sort of blood count, but no – it’s Positive Mental Attitude. When I was diagnosed in October I could hardly walk into the hospital. I knew the news wasn’t going to be great, but nothing prepares you for hearing the word ‘cancer’ spoken out loud and applied to you, followed by intimations of a long haul ahead. ‘Can I get through this?’ I gabbled, my mouth dry as the Sahara Desert. ‘Yes,’ the consultant said. I realise now he couldn’t have said anything other than this; to sow the seeds of hope was perhaps the most important part of our interchange that day. All along the way it’s been more than the drugs that have helped; the chat and laughter with the chemo nurses do a lot of healing.
My scan after three treatments showed an impressive response, so they are continuing with chemo rather than going down the surgery route originally planned; some cancer cells are in a tricky place, apparently, so they need to do more smart zapping, adding in another drug. This change of plan was a bit of a blip for me, but I was encouraged to look at the advantage of not having a major operation. When I feel down, I look at this card given to me by some dear friends.
I can think of no better advice. And there are positives. Recently a friend whose husband is being treated for a brain tumour wrote that they were so moved by the love they experienced – and through these weeks our lives have indeed been enriched by your visits, emails and messages, kind thoughts, prayers, gifts and offers of help. My husband Iain has been a star, caring for me, taking me to hospital appointments and making our kitchen the absolute ultimate in organised spick-and-span. I’ve spent more time with family and friends than ever before and have really been able to concentrate on what’s important to me.
And who knows, maybe some day there will be bigger things? My friends Hugh and Pauline Symonds have spent their retirement going on long cycle trips, most famously spending a year cycling from Sedbergh to Kazakhstan and returning in time for market day. Their lives were put on hold when Hugh was diagnosed with bladder cancer and had to spend a year going through treatment. But this January they set off to cycle from Cancun to Colorado. What an excellent example of PMA! You can read about it at http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/HandPinMexicoandUSA
One step at a time. I just have to remember I still get tired and need to put myself on charge every day too. Like the smartphone.
In January 2015 I could see the year stretching ahead of me. I thought of the trips we’d planned to France and the Scottish Islands and the Llangollen Canal, I thought of all my musical activities and my writing, and I wondered if I’d finally get my collection of short stories published. The good news about the stories is that I did get my act together, and that ‘Shifting Sands: Tales of Transience and Transformation’ is now available to order from http://lumphananpress.co.uk/product/shifting-sands/ And the ebook is available from Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shifting-Sands-Tales-Transience-Transformation-ebook/dp/B0187MJUL2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1449399217&sr=8-1&keywords=christine+cochrane+shifting+sands
And then something unexpected happened. Something that wasn’t good. Something that disrupted everything I took for granted. ‘You can’t have cancer!’ a friend said. ‘You’re too young, too healthy, too active!’ But I did. In October I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This is a cancer that can remain silent for a long time before the symptoms of bloating, tiredness and digestive problems make themselves felt. I urge any woman to make herself aware of the symptoms, because these are not symptoms that immediately make you think the cells in your ovary might be misbehaving. I thought that I couldn’t finish my meals because restaurants were serving bigger portions, and that I was slow going uphill just because I was a little bit older – but no, these are symptoms of the illness. You can read all about it on http://www.targetovariancancer.com
So I faced my three biggest fears – hospitals, cancer and chemotherapy. As with most things, the reality has not been as bad as the anticipation. I have a fantastic medical team supporting me and the care I have received in hospital has been first class. I’ve had some dark moments, but I’ve also learned the power of positive thinking, and sometimes the nurses have said just the right thing at the right time to keep me going. There’s been a bit of humour and a bit of banter, and it’s all helped. A week ago I had my first round of chemotherapy, and after a few days of tiredness and other symptoms I am finally feeling just a little bit better than I have done for the past two months. So the magic potions must be working. After three rounds I will be reviewed for surgery, which could take place at the end of January if all goes well. And after the surgery there will be three more rounds of chemotherapy.
I now feel surprisingly content, even with Storm Desmond rattling the windows and the rain hammering on the roof. I am ill, but I have had two months of cherishing my relationships with others, of enjoying people’s visits, emails and Facebook messages, of experiencing great kindness and many offers of help. I’d like to thank everyone who has been there for me through this difficult time, as well as all those of you who have supported me on the long journey to the publication of the book.
Poetry seems to be my thing this year. Short and snappy, it enables me to focus on one theme and get something written at one sitting. Then there is endless pleasure in returning, tweaking, playing with language, shaping and polishing. The process never ends. So when the sun shone and the opportunity arose to go to a poetry workshop with local poet Geraldine Green on Piel Island at Barrow-in-Furness, I took the opportunity.
Barrow is one of these nearby places I rarely visit ; at the end of a peninsula on the road to nowhere except the sea, there isn’t often a reason. But the poetry workshop spurred me on, as did reading up about this unique island which has its own castle, king and knights as well as a pub that serves good chips. It guards the southern entrance to the channel between Walney Island and Barrow, the bulk of its castle visible for miles across the sands. You access the island by ferry from Roa Island, which is reached by causeway from the mainland. We arrived at low tide. They’ve just built a new pier, but unfortunately they didn’t build it long enough. This meant that our 10.30 departure didn’t leave till the waves started lapping the pier end at 11.15. However, this was no hardship as we just turned to the sun and took in the enticing views of our destination.
Once ashore we went camera-mad – the wild flowers, seaweed, ramparts, stones and views through arches were all too enticing.
Then Geraldine sent us off with notebooks, and a series of apposite prompts – walk, make notes, take it in with your sense, write something …. and return in an hour. I tried not to feel pressured. The prompt to include the line ‘they capture the island with the cameras’ leapt out at me. I circled the island and wrote. Once I got home the poem found its own shape, and here’s the result. It probably needs a bit more tweaking, but this is how it is today.
They grasp the island with their cameras,
teeter from the ferry, slipping on seaweed,
I click my rucksack closed, camera asleep inside,
take pictures with my notebook, turn to the
I circle the island, ramparts of wind-blown sand
now still, brown as art pastel paper awaiting
I turn to rocky shore, garlanded with sea campion,
white on white stone, feet crunching mussel shells,
The looping path sings with grasses, indigo speedwell,
a rare patch of bluebells, rough, windblown,
out of place.
My way encircles houses, heads for the keep where
ramparts stand red, enclosing lawns, and children play,
king of their castle.
And at the island’s centre the pond, mysterious,
dark as treacle, moat for an inner, secret island where
I grasp the island with my notebook, circle like a bird
on the May breeze, upload it to memory and
relive its song.
You can find out about Piel Island at http://www.pielisland.co.uk/ There is accommodation at the pub, and you can camp if you like that sort of thing.
The castle, as the photograph indicates, is open at ‘any reasonable time’.
As you might have noticed, I’ve been exploring poetry this month, doing the daily prompts for NaPoWriMo and posting my work online. I’d just like to say thanks to everyone who’s dropped by, read and commented – it’s been great to connect! My poems have taken me from South Georgia to North Uist. I’ve been inspired by famous paintings, social media, my hairdresser and my harp. And perhaps the most interesting aspect has been exploring various forms – I’ve dabbled in saphhics, an aubade, a palinode, a ‘fourteener’, a landay, a visual poem or calligram and abecedarian poetry, something which I’d never have done without these prompts. I’ve also taken a couple of my poems out to a local reading and had a favourable response – so, who knows, there may be more! I’m now going to have a holiday, but I’ll try to fit in the remaining poem prompts when time allows, even if it goes into May.
It’s been a quiet month on the blog, mainly because I’ve been out and about doing too many things! And this has all been very stimulating, as I’ve been travelling up and down the country. We’ve visited friends, walked woods with a hint of spring near Polesden Lacey, and tested the bubbly at a Surrey vineyard.
We’ve spotted crocuses and butterflies at the RHS at Wisley, been to a play in London, the National Gallery, and the site of Roman Silchester in Hampshire.
We’ve been to Chester and taken a photo of the solar eclipse from the platform of Warrington Bank Quay station. We’ve been on a train that terminated at Carlisle again (see February 2014), this time because of a broken down freight train at Lockerbie. However, the line was cleared quickly enough to allow our day trip to Glasgow to proceed, giving us a few enjoyable hours at Scotland Street Museum and the National Trust’s Tenement House and, I hope, some ideas for my writer’s notebook. And lovely as our country is in the early spring, we have noticed on our travels that motorways and railway lines seem to have become the country’s litter bins. How sad …
Back at home I’ve been singing, harp playing and writing and not really doing any of them well because I’ve spread myself too thinly. So the new rule for April is ‘one thing at a time’ and, as it happens to be National Poetry Writing Month, let’s have a go at this!
For the month of April expect to see responses to daily poetry prompts on my blog! I’ll try and keep up …