Good morning from a wet Friday in England. We have ten days of stormy weather arriving today! Still, the rain keeps these islands green and lush.
What are your plans for the weekend?
Try my 10 point plan this weekend and let me know how you get on.
1) Chat with at least one person, in-person.
2) Make a kind gesture for at least one person.
3) Spend at least 15 minutes outside, each day.
4) Listen to something you like for 10 minutes; from silence to heavy metal! From birdsong to water flowing.
5) Assess one room in your home and identify one change you can make, to make life easier.
6) Eat something you really like the taste of.
7) Put something in your home that smells nice; from a bowl of zesty citrus fruit, to a nice coffee pot. From a baking bread or cake to a fine fragrance jostick.
8 ) Touch things in your home to feel connected and appreciative; from a fluffy blanket or throw, to a plant. From your pet to your favourite outfit.
9) Look around your home. Are you and the things you appreciate and value about your life/your world represented there? From pictures of landscapes, to photos of happy memories. From objects that speak of you and your interests, to books that represent your heart and mind. Are you there, in what you see in your home?
10) Do one thing new or different. Break your routine. Try a new shop. Buy a different brand. Drive or walk a different route. Message someone you’d like to know more. Have a new experience. Change your appearance.
Try these 10 points and see how much more content you feel, emotionally.
I am reflecting over my current writing projects. One of them is a project that is turning out to be as enjoyable as it is challenging. Initially, the idea was for me to write a small collection of poetry related to my relationship with Parkinson’s Disease. As I have been writing the poetry, what is emerging is an autobiographical work that reveals aspects of my life. Interestingly, it is my story but it is in relation to the interplay between simply being me and living with what I am certain has been a life long relationship with Parkinson’s.
I do not have a specific process. Certainly, it can be just hard enough to find time to indulge in writing; despite the fact that it is now a profession that I have trained for and qualified in. It is because it does seem, I suspect, to be an indulgence that it leaves me feeling somewhat guilty at taking time to sit at my desk and forsake the rest of life while I do so. This is why I most like writing at around 3am. The world around me is asleep and I am free to roam the reaches of my imagination and to be indulgent in ruminating over wording or phraseology.
Some of the poetry has almost just fallen out of me as I have sat at my desk to write. It has just been a very free form of self-expression. On other occasions, I will sit at my desk and spend a long time considering, exploring, forming and crafting a way in which to use words, rhythm and a variety of techniques to deliver something meaningful to any potential reader. I want the reader to have an experience, above all, but it is my hope that they may relate to or empathise with my work in some way personal to them. If they do not relate or empathise, then they may simply consider and learn. The outcome of my work will not be in my hands. That part will be the responsibility of the reader, of course.
In just a couple of months, I have already written around thirty poems that have quite a strong message or image to convey. What I find most extraordinary is how varied the completed pieces are. For this, I must thank my training. The broad range of methods for forming poetry have been incredibly important for me to learn. What I have also learnt, perhaps far more than any course might impart to me, is the nature of the thought processes that are involved in forming poetry. From the use of language and our relationship with our five senses, the spiritual, the ethereal, the experiential, the intellectual aspect and the artistry. Any combination of these elements can work in support of each other or, most interestingly, in conflict with each other.
Without design, a process for my writing of poetry is emerging. It seems to be that the element of self-expression tends to happen first. I put together some form of description of something experiential and then I create stanzas that reveal a story, of sorts; a depiction. This will then be left to rest for hours, days, weeks or even months and I will come back to it to edit it, when the piece seems new to me again. I edit. I re-edit and I may ask for the opinion of someone close to me, before making what is usually a final edit. With each edit, transformation takes place. What is often first expressed in urgency and in the simplest form can then be refined. Not always; for sometimes the unrefined, raw and stripped back form of wording offers an honesty or a visceral energy, for example, that can only come from those moments of newborn self-expression.
Other edits may, however, see me labouring over structure, imagery, symbolism, rhythm and wording to a point at which I know that I am crafting a work of art. Still conveying my message but seeking to do so in a way that may touch other aspects of the reader; provoking thought, feeling, emotion and reaction. This will be an experience that they encounter physiologically as well as psychologically and intellectually, hopefully. That said, any combination of these aspects, as well as none of them or alternatives, will also be my aim for the reader. The most important thing is that the reaction of the reader, to my work, is unique to them and that it is authentically theirs.
As you can see from the last few paragraphs, there are many purposes for writing poetry, many ways to seek to reach a reader or audience and there are many reasons to seek to want to write in the first place. There are many desired outcomes for why we writers want to publish our work. These factors are all important and they all vie for justification. Meanwhile, the writer must not lose what the work was really about to begin with. In this case, I must be mindful that I am writing poetry about my life and Parkinson’s Disease; how the two connect, inter-relate and are experienced.
On that note, I will simply ask you to watch this space. At some point this year, at least I think it will be this year, I will announce the publication of my book of poetry. I hope that you will find it to be of interest. That part, however, is not something I have a say in, for the experience will be yours.
It was May 1996. I was twenty-four going on twenty-five years of age. John Major was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and I felt like I had my whole life ahead of me. I had spent half of January and pretty much all of February in Australia. That was an epic experience and I assumed that I would come home and settle back down into a pretty uneventful year. How wrong I was!
I was at work one afternoon, I worked in electrical distribution back then. My phone rang and, when I answered it in my usual anticipation of some sort of appliance installation drama, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my dad’s voice. I was even more surprised when he asked me whether I would like to join him for just over two weeks in Mexico! Without any cautious consideration about work, I immediately agreed to go with him, within the following ten days. After all, life is short, right?
My dad worked in the film and television industry, primarily as a Stunt Choreographer and Stunt Man but he did some acting, too. This was his chance to enjoy a break in his filming schedule. He mentioned a place called Cancun. I’d never heard of it, but he said it would be a five-star hotel on a beautiful beach overlooking the stunning Gulf of Mexico. From my drab office in west London, paradise was calling. There was, however, one problem. How could I possibly ask my boss for a holiday at such short notice, when I’d already been granted, and had, a seven-week extended break in Australia?
I supervised not just an administrative team in the office, but a team of delivery drivers and installation engineers. There was surely no possibility that I would get this additional leave authorised. That’s when I knew that I would probably have to quit my job. I couldn’t see myself having another chance to travel to Central America and so there was no way that I was going to let any job stand in my way of seeing such an exotic part of the world. I felt guilty and nervous, but my mind was made up. I would ask and, if necessary, I would have to resign.
What followed was astounding. My boss agreed with my view that I could either “…quit my job and go on character building adventures…” or he could “…retain me and my proven skills and benefit from my ongoing personal development upon my return.” He was won round by my argument and he gave his consent for my leave.
I love airports. There is something about the noise, the atmosphere and the buzz that arises in me, from soaking up the spirit of adventure. There are the sounds of excited chatter, the announcements of flights departing and arriving, the excited gazes of those newly landed and the variety of languages you hear. There’s the range of people, the sight of planes taking off and landing, through the windows, and the joy of seeing people making sad goodbyes and joyful welcomes.
I am nervous about flying. I was less so, back in those days. I generally found flying boring and still do. The part I have always loved is the take off; the firing up of the engines as you buckle your seat belts, the manoeuvre of the plane onto the runway, the sounds of the engines getting louder and then the sudden jolt as the plane pushes off for a loud charge down the runway. Then comes the part I hate, the plane ascends into the air but, as it climbs, it dips, then it climbs, then it dips and this goes on until the desired altitude has been achieved. Every dip causes me to pray silently, in my head. Once at the desired altitude, I ridicule myself for being nervous. Once I have a gin and tonic in my hand, I relax. Well, I slightly relax.
Having flown to Sydney a few months before, I thought this journey of about fourteen hours would be simple. It would feel quick. I was wrong. The journey seemed to go on and on and on. My boredom was broken by the terrible news, on the radio, that ‘ValuJet Flight 592’ had crashed in the Florida Everglades. It was later rumoured that survivors had been attacked and killed by alligators in the swamps, but I am unsure if this was proven. How unlucky would you have to be to survive a plane crash, only to be eaten alive by an alligator? My heart went out to those poor people and their loved ones.
We finally arrived in Mexico. My dad and I both rather grumpy from tiredness. It had been a turbulent descent onto the airport runway. Eventually, the doors were opened and we clambered out of the claustrophobic plane. I noted to myself, with glee, that I was standing on the ground of a country I had never been to before. I always love that moment. I was exhausted and just wanted to get to the hotel.
The airport in Mexico reminded me of cheap local authority offices in the most run-down parts of London. It all looked rather shabby and in need of investment. There was no air conditioning in the intense heat, nowhere to sit and no refreshments to satisfy a now very dry mouth. I wasn’t impressed and I felt a little anxious about what to expect from this holiday. This is the moment when excitement and nervousness became confused. I decided to simply look around and soak up the experience.
There were a few ceiling fans, loose ceiling tiles that revealed very dodgy looking electric cables. The paintwork was peeling and dirty. The airport staff wore khaki uniforms and these were all soaked in vast sweat stains. The scent of stale sweat was everywhere. The check-in staff literally all smoked cigars and these were either hanging from their mouths or were sat in enormous glass ashtrays. The ashtrays were located on each desk, each piled high with the ash that had been flicked there with every passport check of the last week, it seemed. Despite the grubbiness of this scene, I rather enjoyed it. I loved the smell of cigars and I was amused by the apparent lack of any sense of fire risk. I imagined that perhaps I had landed in the 1940’s.
As we finally made our way out of the airport, we were met by a dozen or so sweaty and eager taxi drivers. Each promised us the most comfortable journey to our hotel, via the most scenic route available. One middle-aged taxi driver, sporting the same handlebar moustache as my dad, leapt forward and announced that he recognised my dad from a movie. He made such a fuss that he managed to shepherd us into his old, fading yellow Volkswagon Beetle. My dad was 6ft 3inches tall and I was 6ft 2. How we crammed ourselves and our luggage in I don’t know, but I am sure it must have looked ridiculously comical to anyone watching.
We arrived, a little while later, at our immaculate hotel. I have never seen so much marble in one place and the chandeliers were vast. This never appealed to me, but I appreciated the contrast to the dilapidated airport. My adventure in Mexico was just beginning. I had planned to leave my dad for a few days and go back packing, on my own, around the Yucatan Peninsular. I couldn’t wait for that part of my holiday; to experience the real Mexico. It would, indeed, turn out to be a truly eventful adventure; gunfights, bandits and ancient pyramids.
A Golden Friendship.
Cancun in 1996, by any stretch of imagination, was not Mexico. Cancun, in appearance, was the United States of America. Although the market has opened up a lot to the ‘average’ traveller, since my visit there in 1996, I am sure that Cancun is still very much the playground of the rich USA set. Certainly, I found that anything representing Mexico had been turned into some ‘Disney-fied’ version of Mexico aimed at tourists seeking a ‘theme park’ version of Mexican culture. I found this rather sad. Mexico has such a rich heritage and such a vibrant culture. Why would anyone not want to indulge in the authentic beauty?
Don’t get me wrong, Cancun seemed a fantastic resort if you want to enjoy beautiful, glossy hotels on the stunning Gulf of Mexico coastline. It’s just not the place to go if you want to be able to say “I’ve been to Mexico”, for it bears no resemblance to the real Mexico; a land of fascinating ancient and modern history, a people of the most kind and generous nature I think I have ever experienced in my worldwide travels, a landscape of such natural splendour and a society that still stands with one foot in the third world, while stepping boldly, into the first.
I had enjoyed a few days of rest soaking up the sun, good food and all of the comfort that a luxury hotel, made of dollars and marble, can offer. The rest and the luxury were restorative and I am truly grateful for the privilege that my dad’s career afforded us. It’s just that I am not a luxury hotel, sunbathing all day kind of guy. I like to make my own food, shop where local people shop, mix with real people, speak in the language of the country I’m visiting, experience the culture and learn from meeting random people from all walks of life. There’s nothing better than sharing stories of living life, around a fire, with home cooked food, honesty, tears and laughter.
Besides, my discomfort at being guest in this fine hotel was increasing. I had been fortunate to experience many fine hotels in my life. My dad’s work in the film industry had offered us many high-end indulgences. I had, however, worked in a fine hotel in the heart of London’s Seven Dials area, in Covent Garden. This was a six star ‘de-luxe’ hotel and was regularly home to Royalty; hosting various events and functions. Once you work in hotels, you feel a sense of ‘family’ with anyone else working in that field. That never leaves you. Having done the job, it felt uncomfortable to be served by others; particularly once I started speaking with the hotel staff in Mexico and discovered that their salary was shockingly just $12 per day!
One of the hotel staff I would regularly chat with was a man called Oro. He was in his forties and he told me he was married and had several children. He described how he and his wife had a home, some distance from Cancun, in a city called Valladolid. Oro described how he worked in Cancun during the ‘tourist season’, to make money to support his family. He explained how the very low wage was supplemented by taking tips. He showed interest in me, in England and the UK and we shared stories about working in hotels. Initially his interest was perfunctory and no doubt aimed at achieving tips but very soon we started to chat and seek each other out for talk of culture, politics and humanity. I told him of my plan to go back packing round the Yacatan Peninsular and how I wanted to visit the beautiful pyramid and ruins at Chichen Itza. Oro was so proud of his heritage.
Oro told me that his name means ‘Gold’. He described how he had been named that because, in the first moments of his birth, a small gold bracelet had fallen from where it hung on the wall to land on the floor beside where Oro’s mother lay as she gave birth. Oro revealed that the bracelet had belonged to his grandmother. Apparently, knowing she was soon to die, she had been desperate to see the arrival of her first grandson. Sadly, she had passed away before Oro’s birth and so missed his entry into the world. The family took the fallen bracelet as a sign that the grandmother had found a way to be present, in spirit. His Mother had reached out to pick up the gold bracelet at the moment of Oro’s birth. She named him Oro, in honour of the gold bracelet and his grandmother.
Oro, who I thought to be an urbane man, asked me more about my plans and he revealed to me that his house in Vallalolid would be en-route to Chichen Itza. He was going to have a couple of days off now that his shift was coming to an end. He would be heading home the next day but he invited me to visit with him and his wife, in Vallalolid. I was touched to be invited. What a privilege! I gratefully accepted.
Oro told me that he thought I was unlike most tourists. He said he found it so unusual that I actually spoke with hotel employees as equals. He stated that he was impressed that I was making effort to get by in using the Spanish language, that he found me to be very polite and kind. Oro, who was at the end of his working day, sat with me discreetly and I brought out a couple cigars, which we smoked as we continued to chat. It was dark, we were sat at a small wooden table with wooden chairs and the sound of waves breaking on the shore provided the sound-track to our cigar-fuelled chat about life, the universe and everything.
This was a connection between two people from such different worlds. There was an honesty between us and a sense of brotherhood. It felt great to just sit and talk openly and honestly with someone who, despite so many differences, just connected with me and understood something deeper. We talked for hours about our different life experiences.
The next day, I researched how I could get to Vallalolid. This would be my chance to see the real Mexico and I felt so honoured to have the wonderful offer of an evening at Oro’s house with him and his family. I would have to get up early to catch one of the plentiful tour coaches at the beach that were heading to mighty Chichen Itza. I would have to arrange to jump out en-route, to find Oro’s house in Vallalolid.
Oro had offered an apologetic description of a traditional stick-built house, with a relatively new breeze-block extension; which he had told me he had afforded by working at the hotel. He described that the house was on the outskirts of the city and that I should disembark from the tour coach some way short of Vallalolid and catch a small village truck that would bring me into to his village on the outskirts of the city. I felt clear, organised and ready. I was ready for adventure.
I said my farewell to my Dad; assuring him I’d get back to the hotel by no later than four days from then. He was cool about it. I was in my twenties and he had been adventurous in his life, so he was supportive of my desire to just ‘head out and see what happens’. This was before I ever had a mobile phone, so there was no safety net in terms of having communication available if something should go wrong. That was just the norm, back then. I kind of miss that, today.
It felt liberating to leave the confines of my ‘marble palace’; to leave Cancun with just a back pack and head off. I had a pocket of cash; US Dollars seemed to be the currency to use. I had no idea where I would sleep that night but that was part of the excitement. I didn’t want to just assume that I could stay with Oro and his family overnight and I had been too (English) polite to ask. I soon found a large tour coach at the beachside and waited for a while in a queue, in the soaring heat.
That is when I met Olive and Blossom; two fifty-something African American women who, as they told me, were best friends holidaying together. They were from Chicago and I immediately fell as in love with their accent as they had fallen in love with mine. We clambered onto the coach and set off towards the mighty Chichen Itza. The driver, who reeked of stale garlic, mumbled from under his peaked cap and through his significant moustache, that he knew where I wanted to get out and that he would signal me when it was time for me to disembark.
I was mesmerized by the vast stretches of the road; really just a very wide dirt track, which were of the most vivid deep orange coloured soil. It looked like Martian soil, I imagined. The vast number of miles of jungle and forest stretched out in all directions, at times. I’m not sure I had ever felt so remote from civilization, but in a good way. The small windows of the coach were open and the noise of the wildlife in the jungle could actually be heard over the noise of the coach and passengers. It was the most vibrant, alive sound I have ever heard.
I enjoyed chatting with my two new friends from Chicago but little did I know that the conversation I was having with Blossom and Olive would soon be interrupted by gunfire…
Gunfire in the Jungle.
Olive and Blossom were two very characterful women. They explained to me that they had been life-long friends. They had never married and had lived together as companions since they were in their twenties. My instincts (gaydar!) suggested that these two striking and confident women, with neatly trimmed and greying hair, were probably partners but frankly that didn’t matter. I understood the context of the era and how coming-out was still a very risky thing to do. If they were a couple, then they were a wonderful couple. If not, then they were simply wonderful friends. To me, they were just wonderful, whatever.
They told me they had grown up in a rough part of Chicago. Olive’s father had been a pianist in a jazz bar for many years before his death and her mother had been a seamstress. Blossom’s father had been a taxi driver for his entire life, in Chicago, and her mother had worked in a variety of roles including cleaner, waitress and singer in the jazz circuit. Olive and Blossom’s parents had met through Olive’s father and Blossom’s mother being in the same jazz band together. The two families had then become life-long friends. Olive and Blossom had decided to spend their fifties, and onwards, dedicated to travelling the world and so here they were chatting with a twenty-something guy from London in a coach in Mexico! As ever, our dear Queen Elizabeth was a source of conversation and fascination to them. I started to wonder whether all people from outside Europe think that all British people actually know the Queen, personally? We don’t, by the way.
We continued to chat about our different home lands and lives until we were interrupted by a sudden flurry of what was immediately evident as gunfire. I felt my heart pounding, as I acknowledged to myself what the sound was. Our driver swerved hard and then put his foot down hard to speed us up. Some of the passengers gasped and squealed, as the coach lurched around. The coach shook hard as we made a dash across increasingly bumpy dirt roads. We had left the main road we were on and our driver started yelling out that we were under fire from bandits! I couldn’t make out most of what he was saying in incredibly fast Spanish, but other travellers near me translated and it was clear we were being targeted by a small truck with gun wielding bandits, aiming to stop our coach. I could hear the sound of fellow travellers escalating their gasps into screams as we continued our efforts to escape.
Everyone bowed down low in their uncomfortably hard seats to avoid bullets but I decided to stand up to see what we were facing. A little way behind was a small open-backed truck. It was orange, red and white and clearly rusty. It was kicking up dust, coloured much like the truck and sometimes came too close to our coach, that it would be lost in the cloud of dust our own vehicle was making. There were two guys in the cab of the truck and two guys in the back of the truck. They stood, holding on tightly, with large guns held by straps over their shoulders. They were visible over the top of the small truck cab. They were smoking. I don’t know why, but I noticed that and thought it looked so surreal.
As one of the men in the truck reached for his gun again, I ducked down for cover, though I knew they were targeting the body of the coach, rather than the passengers. I recognised this was likely to be an opportunistic highway robbery scenario, rather than anything worse. This could still have been tricky, but I didn’t feel that these guys were behaving like hostage takers or terrorists. I am not one for panicking. I knew that would be a mistake.
Without warning, our driver swung the coach round into almost a complete u-turn and he hit the accelerator hard. There was a scream from the front of the coach as I suspect passengers there could see us narrowly missing our assailants. There were clouds of dust everywhere, inside and out. Passengers, on this coach journey into chaos, were coughing as the dust filled their airways. Within minutes, the coach stopped and the driver opened the door by his side and yelled at us all to get out, run and take cover. For a split second, I wondered what to do. This felt risky. Almost on auto-pilot, I found myself hurrying out of the coach and jumping down onto the dusty earth and I turned to help Olive and Blossom down. There were many clumps of trees, rocks and shrubs and so I indicated to Olive and Blossom to follow me and we ran to a nearby copse among the beautiful, large plants and bulky rocks.
It was difficult to see exactly where my fellow passengers all ran to, but it seemed like quite a few minutes before the bandits arrived. I looked between the trees and rocks to see what was happening. The bandits drove their truck, at high speed, around our coach a few times, firing bullets into the air and at the coach, shouting obscenities about the USA as they carved out an increasing depth of tyre tracks amidst billowing clouds of dust. I made out the sound of traditional Mexican music coming from their radio and then, without explanation, they turned and left. One of the men threw a bottle at the coach as they departed and I watched it shatter into hundreds of tiny pieces as it bounced from the bullet-holed coach, onto a jagged rock in the orange dirt.
They were gone. The cloud of dust rose into the air, behind their speeding truck, almost like a trail of smoke from a fire was heading away from us. An occasional gunfire into the air could be heard, as they drove away; the sound of the music of a Mexican Fiesta celebration gradually diminishing with them. After what seemed like many minutes, the weary and very hot group of travellers that we were, made careful and cautious steps out from our hiding places and back towards our coach; the driver yelling again as we went.
Fortunately, the driver deemed the coach tyres to be in good order and he stood by the coach door to welcome us back and assist everyone back on board. He was an overweight, sweaty man and he was very stale smelling. As soon as we were all seated, having cleared as much dust and glass from our seats as we could, we set off and a spontaneous applause filled the bus and echoed its way through the surrounding terrain.
I leant across the aisle to make sure Olive and Blossom were okay but, before I had chance, they both reached out a hand to me. I held onto both of their hands and gave them a squeeze. We looked at each other, Blossom shook her head, with a few tears rolling down her face and Olive said “Thank you Lord”, as she looked up as if through and beyond the roof of the coach.
We continued our journey, increasingly passing more traditional stick houses; suggesting that we were getting closer to Valladolid. I knew that it would soon be time for me to disembark and say my farewells. As we drove back towards the road that we should have been on; heading towards the city of Valladolid, I felt a very long way from home. I smiled. I had wanted an adventure and I chuckled to myself about the drama we had just been through.
It was time for me to depart from the coach and say my farewells to Olive and Blossom. They said that they would be visiting the mighty pyramid at Chichen Itza the next day and that we may well bump into each other again and I hoped that we would meet again, for these two formidable, funny women who, by this point were squeezing my hands again, had really been a joy to travel with. In these days before social networks and the wide use of the internet, I was used to a world in which you met people and then you said goodbye, potentially forever; with the hope that paths would cross at some future point.
I stepped out of the battle-scarred coach, waving to the many faces with whom I had shared the adventure of being shot at by bandits and set off to await the village transport to Oro’s house. I stood under an enormous tree with the whitest bark; the local landmark used as a bus stop. I was thankful for the cooling shade. As my coach departed, leaving a trail of vivid orange dust in its wake, I was met by a small truck. It was not unlike the truck used by the bandits. I thanked the driver, paid him and climbed into the open back of this truck. The sides of the back of the truck were not much more than old planks of wood nailed to posts with gaps between, through which a mixture of warm air and dust permeated.
I soon found myself with other travellers; mostly young women dressed in the whitest of robes that were emblazoned with a circle of multi-coloured stripes around the neck opening of their tops, who carried woven baskets full of vegetables. The material of their robes and the intricate stitching of these coloured bands around the neck opening of their tops were an astonishing sight of Mexican culture and impressive craftsmanship.
The driver dropped me literally outside Oro’s home; a dwelling of two parts. On one side a traditional stick house with thatched roof and to the right, a new breeze block extension. The perimeter was a three foot stick fence and just in the background were a chicken house and pig house. The animals roamed free within the entire boundary of Oro’s land. I was greeted by Oro and his lovely wife who burst out of the traditional stick-built side of their home with what must have been seven or eight children who were all cheering and smiling as I arrived. Even the chickens and pigs and a delightfully scruffy dog rushed up to meet me. I felt so welcome.
In honour of the privacy that I came to understand and respect, in Mexican people, I will not write about my afternoon, evening and overnight stay with Oro and his family; apart from to state that I have never known, in people who were almost strangers to me, such beautiful humanity, grace and kindness. Oro touched my heart and I carry that memory of him, and his family, with me always.
Those Moments When.
The following morning, having made my tearful goodbyes, I eventually found my way back to the bus stop and picked up the next coach ride to Chichen Itza. I had to stop and just think about how touched I was by my friendship with Oro. Saying goodbye was hard to comprehend after sharing so much. I had my moment of thought and acknowledgement and then the realisation that I would soon be seeing Chichen Itza, hit me. The excitement I felt at the idea of seeing an ancient pyramid in the beautiful Mexican jungle was building in me. It was the stuff of dreams.
In the coach, I sat alongside a young woman from the USA. Her name was Jill. She was about my age and she told me that she lived in Colorado but had decided to spend twelve months travelling the world. This seemed like a wonderful ambition, until Jill told me that she was dying. She had recently been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma and had been told she would live for no more than one or two years. I was utterly stunned. Hodgkins Lymphoma is a vicious cancer that develops in the Lymphatic system and spreads with aggression.
Jill was this vibrant young woman with a beautiful head of long brown hair and eyes that sparkled whenever she spoke of home. She was just in her early twenties, with a beautiful smile, a polite and incredibly friendly disposition and a lust for life. This was her way of taking in a lifetime of travel experience; cramming it all in while she could. Her adventure, as she prepared herself for her impending departure from life. She captivated everyone with her kindness and humour.
For me, having already experienced the pain of losing many loved ones to cancer, I felt the familiar pain of helplessness and sadness well up within me as I thought about how cruel and unfair this was. I thought, too, of Jill’s family and loved ones who, on the brink of losing her, had given their blessing to this time away that she needed. Time without her, when such time would have been so precious to them. Jill encapsulated youthful wonder. She also demonstrated a maturity and wisdom that only comes from the reflections of an end of life. I had seen this before and I recognised it in Jill. Her travels would be her pilgrimage. I will always treasure meeting Jill and often think of her, to this day.
We passed through the bustling and cheerful city of Valladolid. If I had stayed with my coach the day before, I would have been able to stop and enjoy this lively, pretty city but then I would not have had the very special time with Oro and his family. I was happy with my choice. I told myself that I would try to catch a ride back to Cancun that would stop at Valladolid, so that I might explore.
Over the remaining journey to Chichen Itza, Jill and I chatted about our different childhoods and the cities we had grown up in; my London and her Denver. We talked about family, our school lives and before we knew it, we had arrived at Chichen Itza. At this moment I suddenly felt sad that my dad was not sharing this experience with me. I knew he was happily enjoying his rest at the beach.
We emerged from the coach. The terrain was much more neatly controlled. The dirt roads were broader and were well maintained. Rocks, painted white, lined the verges everywhere. As we approached the ancient ruined city, each side of the road was lined by tall trees and jungle foliage. Women at stalls, all wearing the traditional white robes with the same multi-coloured stitching that lined the neck openings of their tops, sold a variety of beautifully hand-crafted items from wallets, to clothes, musical instruments and all manner of objects to decorate one’s home with. Of particular beauty were the immense hand-crafted rugs. I bought myself a small hand carved wooden smoking pipe and a couple of woven wrist bands. The rest of my loose change went to the many children that swamped each tourist with gleeful smiles and open hands.
Once these children received a few cents each, they would politely step away and pull out of their pockets little white bags containing fiery hot chillies, which they munched with the same enthusiasm a little child in England has when given a small bag of penny sweets by a loving Grandparent. I chuckled at the idea of English children being given a bag of these, knowing their reaction would be one of disgust and splattering coughs.
Jill, myself and the other travelers stepped forward into a world one would usually only dream of. A world of the ancients, of mystery and of wonder. I could have been a million miles from home. I have never felt so far away from London, despite having been to Australia just months before. This was unlike anything I could have imagined feeling. I stood and stared at the majestic ancient pyramid, which seemed to be a staircase to the heavens, and I wondered about what the people back home in England might be doing, while I stood in this astounding place.
I felt truly blessed to be so fortunate as to have an experience like this. In that moment, I felt connected to the ancient past, to the awesome present and to my home in London. All seemed inter-connected. I savoured those moments of feeling spiritual.
I spent hours exploring so many fascinating and historic ruins. I did get to bump into Olive and Blossom while I was there. I was so pleased about that. We had time for a quick catch up and they gave me that final squeeze of my hands as we said goodbye. As sad as that moment was, there remained that sense of wondering at whether we would ever again meet. They would soon return to their beloved Chicago. Remember, these were the days before everyone had mobile phones and social media. You simply had amazing encounters with people and then left them behind, ever hopeful of fate bringing you together again at some point, yet somehow peacefully accepting that this would be unlikely.
Saying goodbye to Jill was all the more difficult. This truly was a definite goodbye. The finality of that moment was hard to bear and so, to me, she will ever be alive and smiling in wonder at the great pyramid of Chichen Itza.
Likewise, I like to think that Oro will ever continue, like me, to look at the stars and wonder at the impossible magic of the universe and smile at our friendship.
I’m sitting at my desk and contemplating social media and how it fits into my writing career. I have been doing research on how best to build the best online structures into place to support my writing career. With my initial focus on social media, I have made a number of changes to my existing social media presence. This was quite a lengthy admin process and so plenty of cups of coffee were consumed, in the making! Have you found yourself doing the same social media exercise?
I had an existing professional Facebook page but this was about my writing career and my career as a psychotherapist, combined. That had built up a following of around 300 people, which was pretty pleasing. Research suggested, however, that my page would not flourish as a venue for those interested in me as a writer, as long as the page remained ‘watered down’ by the message of my other career; psychotherapy.
I created a new professional Facebook page, dedicated solely to my writing career. I took the uncomfortable step of closing down my former page with its 300 followers. I posted a notice, inviting those page followers to come and join me at my new page. Many of them did, which was lovely.
I am pleased to say that there are already almost 90 followers to my new professional Facebook page. One of the things I enjoy about it, is the level of engagement that comes from those who follow my page. It is so nice to see people taking an interest in writing, in books and all things literary. That is what I had hoped for.
I want people to fall in love with reading all over again. I want people to enjoy books and e-books and to explore their imaginations. I hope that many will also go on to be inspired to write, whether purely for their own enjoyment or with a view to sharing their writing with others. To see people visit my page and not only message me, but that they are now chatting with fellow page followers on the various posts that I make is a complete joy. I truly aim, over time, for the page to become a resource for them. I hope it will become a meeting place where people share with each other, while having a cuppa and a break in their day, their love of the written word.
My next task was to apply my research to my Twitter page. Again, my Twitter page was a blend of my two professional worlds; writing and psychotherapy. This had become too unfocused and, although I had built a decent sized following of 1200 followers, it was time to make changes.
Again, I decided to simply start a new page. I deleted my former Twitter page and I created a new Twitter page (find me on Twitter: @DeanParsonsUK) focused solely upon my writing career. This was only yesterday but I’m pleased to have already achieved around 40 followers in little more than twenty-four hours. What is particularly notable, already, is that among these new followers are fellow writers. I am already learning so much from them and many have made contact with me and offered me helpful tips and lovely feedback. I hope that both fellow writers and readers will join me at my new Twitter page.
I recently dabbled with an Instagram page. Sure enough, I developed a good following numbering in the hundreds in almost no time at all, but the level of engagement was very different. I also found the format, and the way that Instagram is used, to be somehow uncomfortable. So much of what I saw on there was either about the huge egos of people or, conversely, the almost crippling insecurities of others. Body dysmorphia and the expression of all things depressive were all too present on Instagram. I may revisit Instagram in the future, but for now it didn’t seem the right sort of platform.
I am happy that I have achieved the social media platforms that best suit my needs; Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and here on WordPress. The task in hand, when I put down my coffee cup, is to now build on what I have created and to learn more about who my audience is on each of these sites.
There are so many writers online offering advice about how to build a social media following. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to build a following just for the sake of increasing numbers. For me, it is about getting people to think, to critically analyse and to debate. If people explore, consider and process, then there is development, insight and connection. That is how we break down barriers, share and learn from each other.
I arrived with a good twenty minutes to spare. It had started to rain, as I drove into the tiny double-level car park. I found a little bit of chaos going on. The car park was full, with no sign warning drivers that there were no available spaces. Cars were still driving in. Some drivers had clearly just double parked but this blocked the exit and the turning space for everyone else, causing a queue. Fortunately, within several minutes I was able to reverse out and park elsewhere.
I telephoned through to the reception team and asked them to come out to the car park and help the people who had got themselves caught up. The reception team are lovely and always helpful. The woman I spoke with offered to come outside, immediately, to sort it all out. By this point, I had just ten minutes to get inside and into the meeting that I’d been invited to. I didn’t want to be late. I made my way in.
Contrary to what the comical antics of the car park suggest, my Doctor’s surgery is a very well run practice. On the ground floor, the pharmacy team are always friendly and helpful and, upstairs, the reception team and medical staff are professional, kind and welcoming. I was quickly met by Steph, the meeting co-ordinator, who asked me if I needed anything and arranged for a drink to be ready for me in the meeting room. I was told that I would then need to await to be called to the meeting room, by a Dr. James.
Within just a few minutes, a middle aged chap with tousled grey hair, a beard and a bow tie walked into the seating area and introduced himself as Dr. James. He made good eye contact and he was friendly and courteous. We made our way across the waiting room. I had asked Steph to let Dr. James know that I would need to avoid the stairs. I don’t always find stairs quite so easy, these days. We walked to the lift and headed down to the meeting room.
From the moment we met, Dr. James asked how I was, whether I needed anything and then briefed me on some of the outcomes he wanted to aim for, from my attendance at the meeting. He described to me that I would be meeting with eight Junior Doctors in their third year of training. We briefly chatted about my prior experience of attending a meeting like this and, when asked about my working life, we briefly touched upon my fairly recent career in the NHS as a Specialist Services Team Leader, my prior role as a Commissioning Manager of health services and my current self-employed role as a Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor.
The reason that I was attending the meeting was not about these roles, but my professional experience offers me helpful insight into the world of NHS treatment provision. The Junior Doctors training schedule, on this day, focused on the subject of Parkinson’s Disease.
I was invited to attend as a patient with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease (YOPD). I am one of approximately 6,500 people in the UK who are diagnosed with YOPD. We few are a smaller number of the less than 130,000 people who are diagnosed in the UK with Parkinson’s Disease, in total. This was an opportunity for Junior Doctors to learn about my experience, the symptoms and the progression of Parkinson’s, through talking with me.
Dr. James offered me a choice of chairs and showed kind consideration for my comfort, which was a nice touch. Having already asked me how I would like to be addressed, to which I replied that first name terms would be fine, I was introduced to the Junior Doctors. They were all welcoming and smiley; except for one who could barely keep his eyes open even at this introductory point!
I chuckled to myself as I wondered if he’d been up all night living the student life; burning the candle at both ends, so to speak. At least I didn’t have to worry whether I was the cause for his evidently heavy eyelids!
So began the meeting. One of the Junior Doctors sat with me at the head of the room, while the others formed a horse-shoe-like audience. He was going to interview me and, while doing so, he would be taking a case history and also trying to glean my personal experience of being a person with Parkinson’s. It was a well constructed process and, while feeling some anxiety at being in the spotlight and at having to reveal such a personal story, I generally felt at ease with this talented group of Junior Doctors.
The young man who led on asking me questions, whose name I cannot recall, asked incredibly pertinent questions, showed a very human approach while doing so, was able to use humour well, gave me good space to speak and to describe. Above all, he showed great empathy and insight into the moments when I struggled; for this is where he gave me space and time. He made good use of paraphrasing and clarifying techniques and he was sensitive in how he asked his questions. He made a clear point of offering validation and he made a point of evidencing empathy, through the statements that he made around what I disclosed. I felt heard, listened to, understood and, if I was a patient of his, I am sure that I would feel confident about being in his care, for all of the reasons stated here. I was impressed.
Likewise, apart from the very amusing young chap who really could have done with some cocktail sticks to hold his eyelids open, all of the Junior Doctors who went on to ask me questions at the end of the main exercise, did so with similar skill and tact. In fact, for me the humanity of any medical professional is as important as their medical knowledge. It was a relief to see the future generation of Doctors showing such humanity in their approach, alongside their obvious clinical skills.
Throughout the meeting, I wanted to do well for other people with Parkinson’s. I wanted to convey something of not just aspects of what it is like to have this experience of living with a disease, but to describe something of my own thoughts and feelings that I have experienced throughout my journey from pre-diagnosis through to diagnosis and receiving medical treatment. I wanted to convey aspects of life that are affected or impacted by having Parkinson’s, before and since diagnosis. I knew, from our pre-meeting briefing, that Dr. James was particularly interested in this being part of the process, too, which was reassuring.
From my perspective, most of the time was taken up with exploring the early stages of the disease. I felt that the greatest value in what I had to offer would come from the present day experience. Perhaps that is just because mine has been a disease progression of over twenty years whereas most people are diagnosed within a few years of presenting to their Doctor. There is a great deal more that I would like to have described about treatment since diagnosis and more about what it is like to live as a person with Parkinson’s following diagnosis and the commencement of treatment.
It could also be useful to consider the NICE guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of Parkinson’s, from the experiential perspective of the patient. This is certainly something that I would like to feedback into should the opportunity present.
I think, also, that much more could have been explored around the impact and needs of family and close associated others who are also affected by the illness of their loved one. In fairness to Dr. James, to achieve this we would be looking at two or three training sessions for the young Doctors. This was not the occasion for that and I cannot fault the way that this particular session was constructed or delivered.
At the end of the meeting, everyone was very kind to offer me thanks for attending and participating. Dr. James went as far to say that he had learnt some things that would actually alter how he practiced in future and that was incredibly humbling and something that meant a great deal to me. I was quite tired by the end of the meeting, but enthused. I’d had to apologise for my speaking ability starting to decline toward the end of the session. With Parkinson’s, you can find that speech can stutter or slur, which is rather frustrating and sometimes a little embarrassing.
Dr. James took the time to show me out of the surgery and we chatted as we made our way. I have offered to attend further training days, if needed. I was given a feedback form, to offer the surgery some feedback about my experience of the event. It occurred to me that I should perhaps also seek feedback as to what they gained from my participation on the day. I will include a feedback form to be sent to Dr. James, when I offer my feedback to the surgery. After all, I too can learn from what they found helpful and less helpful from what I offered them.
My final word, in this post, is to recommend that anyone that has a chronic health problem, illness or disease would be helping others who share that condition, as well as the medical professionals who are learning to treat us, by offering to go and contribute to training events like this, in your own area. It feels good to know that you can do something good for your community, out of something as bad as chronic illness.
Today, I’ve been reflecting on Social Media and how it fits into my life. Social networks aren’t for everyone but, it would seem, they are certainly for the younger generations. So, what of those who are of my generation? I’m in my late forties. My generation were the first teens, back in the 1980’s, to routinely have computers and video games at home.
We were the first twenty-somethings, back in the 90’s, to have the internet and mobile phones as part of daily life. We were the first young adults to have social media in our lives through computer screen and mobile phone technology. I believe that we are the last generation to remember a time before all of these devices.
My childhood was at a time when, in the 1970’s, making a phone call involved walking to the local telephone box with a handful of change. A time when only one or two families in the street had a telephone in their house, a car in their drive/street and when a video cassette recorder was a rare thing to have by their television. A time when we would record music from the radio, onto a cassette-tape by pressing ‘record and play’ buttons at precisely the same time while remaining utterly silent so that we didn’t record our breathing as well! A time when having a microwave oven was just a scary idea! This was a time when I used to communicate with my family in Australia by letter; with gaps of weeks between each correspondence!
Look at me now! The list of devices and gadgets in my life is something that once seemed like a science-fiction fantasy that could only be realised in tv shows like Star Trek! I can facilitate pretty much every aspect of my life simply by tapping a keyboard and staring at a screen! I truly never dreamed that so much would be so possible within my lifetime and I’m still only in my forties.
This brings me back to the subject of Social Media. Today, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter and WordPress! I also have my own web site. Navigating social media can be tricky. I’ve had times where I’ve just felt so uncomfortable with it that I’ve left social media for stints of time. That said, I always returned, for social media is such an integral part of my life now; not least of all because my business and volunteering worlds are so very tied up within it.
Recently, I have been revising how I use social media. Given that I am on several social media sites, I started to find that so much replication happens between each of them. I started to reflect on the purpose of each of the social media sites I use. To clarify, what I mean is that I started to consider what the purpose of each social media site was, for me. This is because I realised that I wanted each site to serve a different function. I wanted them to have a clear distinction between each other and for them to be of use.
I also wanted to make my personal Facebook page more private. My view is that I would hope that people would rather meet with me in-person, than simply visit my Facebook page and feel that they have connected with me.
For those who get to know me through social media and for those who know me but who have come to stay in touch with me purely in the virtual world, I decided to create a public Facebook page. Anyone who wishes to connect with me, but who does not necessarily have much to do with me in my personal daily life, in-person, can stay in touch with me through this new public profile page on Facebook.
That really is much more about my own discomfort with being able to see the photos of the daily lives of people who I do know and care for, but who I don’t really see very much of in reality. Somehow it feels intrusive to see what is happening in their homes, their cars, their workplaces and even on their dinner plates! Yes, I’m chuckling but it is true. Why see all of this when we may go a whole year, or more, without meeting up or phoning each other. The art of doing relationships in-person seems to be evaporating.
I also wanted to created the public ‘window’ into my life as a place in which I could share my career as a writer and my interest in the literary world. I hope that people will enjoy my new page. It is intended to be interactive and, already, I’m delighted to say that many people are posting their comments and participating. It is like a small community is starting to grow.
So, here is where to connect with me on social media:
My public Facebook page:
What is your experience of social media? Do you have specific uses for it? If anything in this article resonates with you, please do leave a comment below to share your own experience.