Monday, 22 April 2019

Finding God (part four): surfacing

I went to church this morning. I'm in south-west Florida for a long weekend that changed direction last minute (uninteresting story that I will not relate here), so I googled 'churches near me', found something near the hotel and off I popped. That's the fourth time I've been to church in the last twelve months. I forget how much I miss it until I'm back in the room, in a context that is so familiar and yet, these days, often feels strange. I realised I missed it so much that I started crying during the worship. Not sure what the people around me made of that, but hey, not unusual in church and also it was in one of those big auditoriums with the lights on stage making the rest of the room dark so I don't think people saw. I bailed two-thirds of the way through the sermon, as I couldn't quite handle the theatre-style - too much Anglican blood in my veins - but as I left I was conscious of the feeling that I'd just taken a huge, deep breath before heading back to my current church-less life.

This might seem strange if church isn't your thing, but in my life, I can't remember a time when I didn't go to church on a regular basis. Maybe not weekly, but certainly two or three times a month with a few, brief exceptions for things like backpacking or being hospitalised. To be fair, I went to boarding school for ten years and church was a thrice-weekly affair, plus I was an active member of my school's Christian Union so had a weekly meeting also, plus holiday camps, plus plus plus... Gap year and university holidays at Christ Church, Fulham; university churching at St. Aldate's with the dynamic Simon Ponsonby as our student pastor; nine years at Hope Chapel in Bristol with Annie and Silas Crawley, two of the most marvellous people I know; then, after a few mis-fires, the best part of my Jerusalem years at the Nazarene Church. In all of those places I found community and friends and faith. Church has always been a constant in my life.

Havana has plenty of Spanish-speaking churches though my Spanish is still pretty rudimentary, so I haven't tried them. As far as I'm aware, there's only one English-language church, which I attended a few times but which didn't really ring my bell. I know that church is a choice sometimes, not just a place to feel happy, but I couldn't quite make the choice to attend a place that didn't feel like home in the way the other churches did. So I basically haven't been attending church for three years and I only realise every now and again just how big a hole that is in my life. 

As I stood there, this morning, crying and reconnecting with faith in that formalised capacity, I was strongly reminded of my recent diving trip to Playa Giron. Forgive the slightly hammy analogy that is to follow. We'd done a reef dive (beautiful) and then drove off down a dusty road to a hole in the ground, which turned out to be the opening to a cenote, a flooded cave. After a precarious climb down a rusty ladder into the water (I refused to jump, I hate heights) we floated for a while as the instructor laid out the plan. We were going to descend slowly; we each had torches attached to our arms that would be on at all times; we would go through fresh water to salt (which messes with your vision, btw, something no one bothered to tell me before) and then once we were used to it just swim around until we were all ready to come back up, probably around a thirty minute dive. And then we sank.

It was like nothing I've ever done before and utterly amazing. As you descend, you go through a thermocline where the water temperature drops, causing the water to seem like wrinkled glass - something to do with the 'altered refractive index' (thank you Wikipedia) of light coming through the different water temperatures. The cave is about 46 metres deep - I went down to 26, if you're asking, I don't need to prove anything to anyone about deep dives - and the light from that small opening penetrates to the very bottom. Swim away from the light and you swim into complete darkness. At one point, we swam back towards the centre of the cave where we had descended and I turned my face up to the surface and the source of the light. You can see that in this photo, taken by my friend Jeremy when I wasn't paying attention otherwise I would have done some cheesy kind of thumbs-up.

We had to do a safety stop at five metres and just mooched, floating, staring up at the light. We weren't going up just yet, but I knew where the light was and how to get there. And then up we went again, hitting the surface where the light flooded the cave and our splashing made the resident bats chitter and I took a deep breath of the air up there. To be fair, we didn't then sink back down below, but can you see how this is a hammy analogy about light and dark and surfacing?

That's what I thought of this morning, as I stood crying during worship. I try to listen to worship music in the mornings; I try to read my bible as often as I can (thank goodness for the Bible In One Year app); and I try to make sure I talk to God every day, even if it feels sometimes like I'm just talking underwater and I can't hear an answer. Coming into church this morning was like coming up to the surface, when I hadn't even realised just how far from the light I've been. I will never give up my faith; as I've said before, it's the thread that binds my life together. But whilst I strongly believe that living in Havana was and is the right choice for me - it's been amazing in so many ways - being without church is hard as f*ck. Diving in the dark, getting the occasional glance up to the light at the surface. Trusting that the light is still there even when you can't see it. If my last blog on this subject was about how faith is not a straight line, I guess this one is about how a life of faith has times when you are far below the surface and only occasionally rise up into the light. It's the moments when you surface that refresh the soul. I'm grateful for that moment this morning, and looking forward to the next one, whenever it may come. Happy Easter, my lovelies. Christ is risen!

And to end, a photo of Bandit sleeping. Wouldn't it be great to be this chilled all the time?

Monday, 30 April 2018

On the scars we wear

I recently read a book by Chris Cleave, called Little Bee, about a Nigerian refugee coming to the UK and there was one particular passage in the book that struck me:

"On the girl's brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too; and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."

And this got me to thinking about my own scars and my recent experiences with my most significant scar. If you have even a glancing acquaintance with my life, you'll know that I fall over a lot and often have bruises on my body that I can't explain. I'm currently toting a massive one on my hip from clanking a bag containing a five-kilo can of chickpeas against it, plus a smaller one on my arm that for the life of me I could not tell you how it got there. I also have a collection of scars which tell little stories.

  • On my left arm: a scar from my BCG injection, like most of my year at school who trooped into the hall to have them done in the spring of 1993. There was a sense of horror lurking under this (extremely important) procedure, as rumour had it that the unlucky ones would have nasty allergic reactions to the injection and end up with pussy, gunky sores. I think secretly we were all rather hoping there would be someone with that experience that we could ogle with disgust, but from memory, and rather prosaically, everyone healed up just fine, with only a small scar to show that we were now TB-immune.
  • On my left wrist: two small white scars from where I had multiple IVs following different operations.
  • A recent one, on the bottom of my right leg, from where I walked into the sharp corner of a large, heavy plant pot trying to put it in the appropriate place on my balcony.
  • A very old one on my left knee, from falling over in the playground aged 7 and then picking the scab repeatedly so that thirty years later it still shows.
  • A long, narrow one on my left calf from a school trip to Eilat, right on the bone, where I wiped out on a windsurfer in the Red Sea and didn't even notice the blood gushing down my leg until a student paddled over in a canoe and asked if I was OK. No one thought to yell at me to come back to land, despite the fact that there are sharks in the Red Sea and you could see the blood from the shore, I later discovered.
  • On my right thigh, a thin line from a cut obtained crawling through a barbed wire fence in Hammanskraal, South Africa, for no good reason other than the path chosen was the quickest way to the shop to buy chocolate.
  • A thick white line starting at the top of my right ear and winding the whole way around, from operation number four, aged 14, on my facial growth. Proper plastic surgery where the procedure was like a face-life: pull the skin up and over, extract, put back down. It's hidden by my hair so I tend to forget about it.
And of course the big one, the diagonal scar on my face from the last surgery on my growth, aged 26,  off work for the better part of three months following a burst artery in my cheek and several subsequent recurrences, complications and infections. The doctors actually drew the line on my face down the crease of my smile line and it would have been barely noticeable but for the fact that the complications meant they had to stick a drain in the bottom inch of the incision. I have a foggy memory of having the incision exposed while the dressing was changed the next day, sitting in a hospital chair with the drainage tube leaking blood and goodness knows what other fluid onto the lovely white dressing gown my mum had brought me from home, and the sweet young surgeon who was on the team rather helplessly dabbing at it with a tissue while he tried to talk to me about how I was feeling.

Despite the trauma of that whole episode, for the most part the scar has faded away rather well and is noticed by very few people. So why is this particularly on my mind at the moment? Well, since the suspected dengue fever attack last December, my immune system has taken a bit of a battering and I have had repeated, prolonged problems with what is left of the growth just above my mouth and along the scar. And it has been, I will not lie, shit. My growth is a combination of abnormal lymph and blood vessel tissue which is capable of a whole range of weird things. The swelling began in December and then late in January, the bleeding began: the blood vessels kept breaking and not resolving, to the point where the pad of tissue would swell up like a balloon, burst and fill my mouth with blood, then start swelling again. This was not very pleasant and occasionally excruciatingly painful; I had one day in particular when it was very bad and when I went into our leadership team meeting my boss asked me if I wouldn't be better off at home. I replied in a tetchy manner that I was fine, and then was a complete cow to everyone and ended up getting sent home anyway. Excellent adulting on my part.

After a month of not sleeping through the night, I began taking diazepam for the first time in my life and despite trying to explain to everyone I work with that there's nothing that can be done to stop the swelling, I ended up at a Cuban hospital trying to talk to a maxillofacial specialist here, who like most doctors in most places was unable to help me - there's really is nothing that can be done - but who was fascinated by my case and who asked lots of questions (for the purposes of research) about the connection between the bleeding and my monthly menstrual cycle. Yes, that's a thing. The bleedings stage lasted about a month, during which time I toted an ice-pack around school and town in a desperate (and pointless) attempt to slow the bleeding down. When the bleeding finally stopped, the lymph tissue started its own little party, swelling up and going down every few days, and here I am, at the end of April, only now finally seeing the swelling reduced and my face slowly going back to whatever constitutes normal. 

I think the whole process has been harder because it's been so noticeable. The great thing about the results of that last surgery was not being asked by people what was wrong with my face, which was a fairly regular occurrence for most of life up to the mid-2000s and has become a distant memory since. The horrid thing about the recent incident of swelling was the number of people that noticed that something was not quite right. Chief among these were the Primary school students, who have absolutely no filter and who said, quite cheerfully, 'What's wrong with your face, Ms Anna?' As if I wasn't self-conscious enough with a gobstopper-sized lump in my mouth, it then began a period of bruising that lasted about six weeks, during which time the scar became quite pronounced. Like so:

The bruising brought back a significantly more vivid memory of being out and about for the first time following that surgery (and the burst artery and the bruising and the hamster-face swelling) with my mother in our local supermarket. When we got to the check-out, the woman ringing up our purchases looked at my face with horror and my mother, dear lady that she is, said that she shouldn't worry, I'd been beaten up by my pimp but I was fine now...

Anyway, you may be looking at the photo and thinking that I'm blowing this out of proportion, but to me the swelling and bruising felt huge and ugly and hideous, and I have been deeply conscious of it. I think perhaps it has been harder because I've had almost ten years of very little commentary or interest whether from teenagers (who are deeply nosey by nature) or from men I have dated or from the multitude of new people that continuously pass through an expatriate life. This episode has felt like going back to square one, as I have spent the last four months trying to explain a rare congenital condition, describing its history and thus reconnecting with long-forgotten emotions and thought-patterns relating to self-esteem and what makes someone beautiful. Can you be beautiful with bleeding and bruising and a big lump in your face? My swelling goes away, eventually; what if you live with disfigurement all the time? How do you manage society's expectations of what makes someone beautiful (and therefore worthwhile) whilst fighting to preserve your own sense of worth and self-esteem? I have blogged on this subject before and it may well be a theme that I revisit time and time again.

I suppose my conclusion from all this rather self-involved rambling is that we notice and worry about our scars much more than others do, when actually we should be proud of them because they show that we survived, we made it through. I love that Little Bee says a scar is never ugly, that we shouldn't give in to the scar-makers who want us to feel ugly. A scar shows that the tissue knitted back together and what had been ripped apart has now healed. A scar shows that we're still alive. A scar reminds us of the troubles we have faced and the challenges we have overcome. If we forget our scars, we are in danger of forgetting about the lessons we have learned and the battles we have fought. My scar reminds me that I have seen through society's lie that what is on the outside is more important as what is on the inside; I have learned that kindness and humour and humility and generosity of spirit are the things that matter in a person. So, let us all agree that a scar is never ugly.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Mosquitoes 1, Brunners 0

Life in the tropics has brought a whole new range of experiences, joys, unpleasantnesses, moments of laughter and moments of misery.  New experiences: dancing salsa in the pouring rain when a thunderstorm broke on a night out; watching tiny, jewel-bright green hummingbirds flit around my friend's balcony; swimming in balmy, clear, turquoise seas. Things that bring me joy: not wearing a jumper for months on end; storm clouds that pile up in towers and make for the most marvellous sunrises; flame-trees and jasmine and bougainvillea and strange red cactus-like flowers; avocados the size of rugby balls in season for six months. Unpleasantnesses: months and days that are so humid you feel like you're walking in soup every time you step out of somewhere air-conditioned (which in Cuba is many places, as a/c is by no means a given); the heels of my shoes going mouldy because of the dampness in the air; the smell of rotting rubbish amplified by heat and humidity; and masses, masses of mosquitoes. 

Unsurprisingly for the tropics, mosquitoes are a problem in Cuba, though it has to be said that the Cuban authorities are also pretty damn good at public health and have a policy of fumigating heavily when it's mosquito breeding season. As zika spreads throughout Latin America it's actually pretty rare on the island, though there are outbreaks reported from time to time. Significantly more common is dengue fever, a virus that leads to some fairly dramatic fever-like symptoms lasting between three days and two weeks, and which can be very dangerous if you develop the hemorrhagic version. It's transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito with its distinctive stripes and white legs. And as luck would have it, that's one of the mosquitoes I killed in my office this week... 

Followers of this blog (bless you! still here?) may recall that my office at the International School of Havana is basically a mosquito breeding ground, for reasons that we've still not managed to establish. None of my mosquito-repelling measures seemed to be effective: the clever whizzy mosquito-trap, all the way from America, is catching some of the flying death-carriers but also seems to be catching baby geckoes, which I find both distressing and gross; the rose-scented mosquito repellant just makes the mosquitoes move location for five minutes; and all the Off spray in the world does not stop them biting me several times a day. I have an electric tennis racquet-mosquito death-dealer, which makes a satisfying bang-crack when I actually manage to zap one of the damn things and which can apparently be heard through the paper-thin wall that separates my office from Michael's - Georgie told me they were in a meeting when they heard a loud crack and me proclaiming loudly, with great satisfaction, "Ha! That's the fifth today!" Apparently Michael turned to Georgie, rolled his eyes and said "All. The. Time."

The conclusion to all this chatter about mosquitoes is that the bastards finally won. Not three days after saying to Dolly (our marvellous Services Manager, baffled by all the mosquitoes in my office) "Honestly Dolly, it's a miracle I haven't got dengue yet", I woke up to discover a bright red rash on my chest, which over the next twenty-four hours spread slowly over the rest of my body. I called Berrin & Georgie, who confirmed that yes, that probably was dengue, that I was to stay in bed, drink tons of fluids, take nothing other than paracetemol and call them if I started passing black stools (ew!) or having trouble breathing (eek!) as I was probably developing the bad kind of dengue. Apart from being depressed that the only treatment for dengue is paracetamol, I braced myself for a week of deeply unpleasant symptoms.

Astonishingly, despite the dengue rash I appear to have suffered from what can only be described as 'dengue-lite' - I didn't have the blinding headache or joint pain that most sufferers report having, but I did have feverish spikes over the past three days and the rash not only covered my entire body but was unbelievably and at points excruciatingly itchy. I felt like a bit of a fraud, to be honest, waiting for the headache and 'bone-breaking' joint-ache to kick on and doubting whether I did in fact have dengue at all until the marvellous Daivy, my housekeeper and mama Cubana, walked in and said "Oh, dengue!" 

I've spent the past three days cooped up at home in self-imposed quarantine (as I don't want to risk being bitten and having some evil little mosquito spread the dengue even further) and spreading aloe sap on my body in vast quantities in a desperate attempt to soothe the itching. The cats are confused as to why I've been at home for so long, and I'm getting cabin fever - though at least I'm not getting serious dengue fever. Incidentally, I have also learned that you absolutely, definitely, positively should no way never shave your legs when you have a dengue rash; it seemed like a good idea at the time but led to almost an hour of extreme stingy pain that I never want to experience again. Actually, having managed to get away with dengue-lite, I never want to experience dengue in its full-fat version either. If only we can get the damn mosquitoes out of my office.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Year One in Havana: I survived!

I made it - I survived the first year in Havana. That may seem like hyperbole but living here is not a piece of cake, despite the many wonderful features of life in Cuba. The first year in any new location is always a challenge and that's before you take into consideration the new job, the frustrations of the expat existence, the greater distance in this posting that has made communication with my loved ones much harder, and the mosquitoes. Added to this slightly negative outlook is the fact that I, along with about another ten staff members, caught a nasty stomach bug that was going around about three weeks before the end of term, making the end of the school year even more challenging and depleting the reserves of resilience and patience that are required for staying sane as the humidity rises. I was sick for the better part of a month, which was super for my waistline (I dropped a dress size) but horrendous for my morale, especially getting to the end of a very busy and extremely challenging year. By the time I got on the flight home (which made me sick again) all I wanted was to lie on the sofa at mum and dad's, eating real yogurt, listening to the cricket and reading the newspaper. 

I made it back to Hope Chapel my first Sunday back in the UK, where a friend asked me how the year had been. To my response of "hmmm... challenging", he told me that he was looking forward to the summer when my answer to that question was "fantastic". The last three months of the school year were undoubtedly very difficult, a mix of the challenge of living in Cuba and the professional frustrations and challenges of adapting to a new job (and in the context of a school, the new job adapting to you). Moving into a new job is demanding whatever the context and beyond the basic fact that living in Havana makes extra demands on one's reserves of patience and humour. I came in as section Principal at the same time as a new Director took over at the school, which inevitably meant that there was a lot of change that the staff needed to manage and adapt to, as well as a lot of blundering about on my part trying to get to know the school's culture and community.
Another thing to get used to: flooding on the street outside the school following heavy rain.
Moving into a new job as Section Head is of course a two-way process and it's as much about the staff getting to know you as it is you getting to know them. One challenge has been to have one's sense of humour understood so that one doesn't cause offence; the first time I cracked a gag in a staff meeting, only two staff (both expats) got it and everyone else looked at me slightly puzzled; the first time I cracked a gag in an assembly it was the British kids in the group that got it and everyone else just rolled their eyes. Another challenge has been people getting used to your expectations about, say, what information you want to receive (there was some I was getting that I really didn't care about, whereas things that to me were extremely important were left out of the conversation), how you want to receive it, and most importantly what is/isn't reasonable to expect in terms of, say, workload or job descriptions. For example, I stopped eating lunch regularly when I became a head of school, most often eating it on my way down a corridor or at my desk (if at all); I brought this habit with me and have had to remember that lunch time is a precious break for teachers, and do my best not to drag people out of their lunch into impromptu meetings. I have stuffed up a lot in terms of communicating with the staff - either too much of the wrong stuff or not enough of the right stuff - and as my character is (I'm told) hugely different from the last Section Head they have had to adjust to someone who has a completely different leadership style. It was a shock for all concerned and since it is the curse of school leaders (or indeed all leaders) that no one tells you how well you're doing, they just point out all the stuff you do wrong, I got to the end of the year feeling like I had spent more time screwing up than getting anything right.

I've just come back from a week long course with something called the Principals' Training Center, an organisation for international schools, on 'Leadership and Team Dynamics'. The course was phenomenal and has helped me to understand my own leadership style much better, as well as realise that I didn't screw up as much as I thought. It has left me hopeful for and excited about the coming year, which is a massive step forward from where I was a month ago. It reminded me that there is a lot I really like about my new school: the staff are hugely willing, enthusiastic about what they do, keen to develop as professionals and totally committed to the students. I absolutely LOVE our leadership team, which consists of Michael (our Director), myself, Georgie (Lower School Principal) and Berrin (Curriculum Coordinator) and which is (in my humble opinion) a terrific example of a really high-functioning team: a deep layer of trust, a willingness to be vulnerable and to admit mistakes, a profound respect for each other and a lot of laughter and jokes. They have been a refuge in times of crisis - I have cried in front of all of them at different points - and a huge support throughout the year, as well as hugely experienced professionals from whom I have learned so much. I am hugely grateful for them, as indeed I am for my Phase Coordinators who have helped me through many difficult moments and guided my steps in this first year at ISH with their institutional knowledge and wicked senses of humour. No man (or woman) is an island and I am particularly poor at functioning in isolation, so to have such talented educators and caring people working alongside me is a massive relief. So, as I say, I am now looking forward to Year Two at ISH and excited about all that I will learn and experience.

Work has certainly dominated my thoughts and feelings for much of the year. I have blogged already about the ways in which life in Cuba has required adaptation and will continue to do so, I'm sure. However, it is of course more than the challenges of the job and in particular some highlights of living in Havana thus far would include:
  • learning salsa and having some thoroughly marvellous evenings out shaking my (extremely white) tail-feather. I am, technically, pretty good but I do not have, and indeed may never have, the salsa bum and hips wiggle. I look in awe at those women who do and know that for now I am unable to break out of my British reservedness, not least because I just feel a bit stupid trying to do those moves. Jenny from school, who salsas like a queen, says you have to put on your 'asshole face' in order to get over that feeling of being stupid. Maybe I will achieve this in the coming year. We'll see.
  • music, music everywhere - from live salsa to fabulous classical music to local Cuban stuff that I can't quite categorise. I'm a particular fan of Ray Fernandez, a local musician from Alamar in Havana, whose lyrics I cannot yet understand but am told are marvellous, and who has a trumpeter in his ensemble who is something else altogether. I took my parents to see him play, which made Dad very happy.
  • speaking of my dad, a marvellous visit from my parents in April. The weather was sadly a bit cloudy and not the best that Cuba has to offer, but it was brilliant nonetheless to show them round Havana, to introduce them to my friends and to have them see what life is like for me out there. I sent them off bird-watching for four days, managed to get them into a piano/cello recital at an ambassador's house, dragged them round Old Havana and got Dad a salsa lesson (Mum refused to participate).
  • an equally marvellous visit from Tamar in February. I dragged her out dancing, we went to the beach A LOT, went on a road trip to Trinidad, spent a day in Vinales and squeezed as much fun as we could out of the time we had together. I have missed Israel so much this year that at times it has almost hurt, and most of all I have missed Tamar, so to have her with me for ten days was magic.
    At the beach with T-Bear
    Classic car posing in Old Havana
  • lazy days at the beach; lazy evenings exploring Old Havana's growing restaurant scene; lazy sunsets swimming in the pool on the roof of my building with Georgie and Berrin (who I haven't really left alone since they took me in for three weeks in the great air-conditioning fail of August 2016). Life in Havana moves at a slower pace than I am used to and I am adjusting - slowly, of course. 
It would be remiss of me to write a post reviewing the year without at least a brief mention of the fact that I am now a pet owner, a leap for which I'm not entirely sure I was emotionally ready but which I was essentially talked into by Georgie. She's been trying to get me to adopt some small creature since we found a kitten in the street in Old Havana last August and cooed over it like broody hens; getting me to adopt two of the kittens that the 'building cat' in another friend's building had had in the hedge was the realisation of that dream. After a month of naming suggestions I settled on Smoky (the girl) and the Bandit (the boy), though I do tend to refer to them as 'little girl kitten' and 'little boy kitten'. The little girl kitten is a bit of a prima donna whose favourite food is anything that she can eat from my hand (an indulgence which I have tried to stop since I realised how bloody ridiculous it was that I was hand-feeding mince to my kitten) and the little boy kitten is a right little bruiser. They are undoubtedly a brilliant addition to my life, even if Georgie continues to refer to them as my 'crazy cat lady starter kit'.

It is disconcerting that they love the laundry basket so much. 
I've been on holiday for three weeks now and am finally back to whatever constitutes normal. This is a huge relief. I'm off to France for a few days with the family, followed by a trip back to Israel which I am doing mostly to tie up some loose admin ends and which I confess I'm a little nervous about - will going back just make the fact that I left harder to handle? Or will it reaffirm that I made the right decision to leave when I did? I hope it's the latter and, if nothing else, cannot wait to end some good food, go to my favourite places and, most importantly, see the people I love. It's then a flying weekend in the UK, a week in the States and back to work in the second week of August. Now that I'm rested, vaguely refreshed, in relatively good health and able to take advantage of a nearby Waitrose my spirits have lifted and I am able to see the positive side (as per the list above) of living in Cuba. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and once that I intend to exploit to the full in the coming year. I'm hoping that next year's 'end of year review' will be titled Year Two: it all came together. Hasta luego, mi amors.