Monday, 25 February 2013

Blessing for the Here and Now

From the moment you are born
your death walks beside you
without showing its face.

When fear invades your life
or what you love is lost
you feel death's empty grasp.
The presence of your death
wakes you up
to scarce and fleeting time,
gathers you
to heed the nagging call.
After John O' Donohue (2007)

Friday, 15 February 2013


I'm not
Not under you
I don't
Don't need dis-
                                                   to be
I can
Can handle this

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Imbolc, Brigid and the Snake

We have been going through a series of calendrical turning points over the past week.

Today is the Lunar New Year. Time to say goodbye to the Year of the Dragon and welcome to the Year of the Snake. By birth, I am a dragon; but I'm not too sad to see the end of the past year as it has been a real tough one. This new year (4711 in the Chinese calendar) is that of the water snake. The snake is said to signify the qualities of intelligence, charm and introspection, alongside those of cunning, suspicion and self-control. Famous snakes include Bob Dylan, Virginia Woolf and Mao Zedong.

Actually I'm terrified of snakes. If I catch a glimpse of one on TV I begin to shudder and shake uncontrollably. Its their sinuous movement that gets to me. And if I was unfortunate enough to see one in real life, it would be far worse. I'm sure my reaction dates from childhood, when I was terrorised by two older lads. One of them grabbed my arms and the other dropped a snake down the back of my shirt. The snake writhed against my skin. I thrashed and shrieked. The lads laughed and trotted away. I ran home screaming. I was probably around 4 years old.

I later learnt that it was a slow-worm - a snakelike lizard. But every time that I see a snake (or any creature with their sinuous movement) I physically return to that childhood terror. I must admit I'm happy to be living on an island where, thanks to evolution or St Patrick, there are no snakes.

This past week has also seen the midpoint between the Winter and Spring solstices. This midpoint is a quarter day, there are four of these a year. In the ancient Celtic calendar this particular quarter day is called Imbolc. It signifies the end of Winter and beginning of Spring. Traditionally coinciding with the birth of the first lambs and the start of ploughing, Imbolc is essentially a festival of fertility.

Imbolc took place on 4th February. In early Mediaeval times this long-standing pagan festival began to be appropriated by the Christian church who initiated St Brigid's day (Ist Feb) and Candlemas (2nd Feb). These two festivals celebrate Christian events as well as the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring (the lighting of candles symbolising the strengthening sun).

St Brigid was an Irish nun who founded a monastery and was said to have performed miracles of healing. However, Brigid was also an ancient Irish goddess who mythologically was the patroness of smithing, poetry, crafts, medicine and the Spring. In early Mediaeval times the church fused St Brigid with the mythological Brigid, the saint taking on the functions and powers of the ancient goddess. St Brigid became typically portrayed with a cross woven from reeds and a lamp with a sacred flame.

I welcome Spring (my snowdrops are in flower and the daffodils are shooting up) and look forward to the Year of the Snake being one of increased fruitfulness for me (despite its unfortunate associations).

Friday, 1 February 2013


Exactly one year ago I wrote to friends explaining that I had just seen a consultant gastro surgeon who told me that I had a hole in my diaphragm which part of my stomach had gone through. This problem was a residue from the big operation I had in June 2011 (which saved my life). Then they had to cut open my sternum and my diaphragm to get at the heart and vena cava below. When they put me back together again it seems that some of the hundreds of internal stitches hadn’t held.

The bad news was that I needed another operation, using conventional surgery, to fix this hernia. In practice it would mean two and a half hours in theatre, one week in hospital and around three months physical recovery. The consultant also explained that there would be a one in four chance that this repair would not succeed.

My heart sank. I was still trying to get over the terrible ordeal of the 'big op' (my first ever hospitalisation). Having to go back in for more surgery just a few months later was a thing of enormous dread. I told him that I was still recovering (e.g. taking painkillers) and I wouldn't be able to to undertake this at present. The consultant seemed a little disappointed but agreed to defer the surgery in the short term and to review me in six months time. I left the consultation feeling like a condemned man.

At the next review (July 2012) I'd improved. I explained that I felt physically recovered from the 'big op' and my gastric symptoms were stable. But I also told him that the mental side of recovery felt much harder to deal with and seemed to be taking a lot longer. The upshot was that I still didn't feel ready to go back into hospital for further surgery. After some pensive moments, he agreed to defer again and to review me in another six months.

On Tuesday I went for that review with my consultant gastro surgeon. I'd spent a good while preparing myself. I decided to tell him that I was now ready to give myself up to the hospital and have the damned surgery.

He asked me how I was. I told him I felt pretty well and that my symptoms had remained stable. I could eat and drink what I wanted and I was able to do most of the activities I wanted, including some easy hill-walking. I also said I'd joined a choir and found that I could sing, although I didn’t seem to have the same length of breath as others.

He nodded and then smiled. The best course of action, he said, is to put the surgery on hold and to keep you under review. I perked up. As your situation has been stable for well over six months, he said, we'll bring you in and do the surgery when and if the hernia becomes a problem. How would I know that, I asked. Stomach cramps and persistent vomiting, he said. I nodded, thinking of my misspent youth, after many beers and a curry such symptoms were commonplace.

He told me that diaphragmatic hernias are a congenital condition that affects one in two thousand children. The diaphragm begins to form in the sixth week of pregnancy and can grow with a hole in it. When some children are born with this defect it can be very dangerous (depending on how the abdominal organ protrudes) and require immediate surgery, but others can have these hernias for many decades without any problems only realising that they have the condition when something happens in adulthood.

I don’t need to see you again for a year, he said. Call me and come in earlier if you get a problem, he said, but keep on going as you have been and I think you'll be fine. I grinned and shook his hand. A door had opened. I walked out of the hospital with a real spring in my step.