Dear Mosquito

I am a mosquito magnet.

From my first week in Cambodia until the end, they were all over me. I used to joke that people around me didn’t need to worry about putting on mosquito repellant because the mosquitoes would feast on me first.

My bites would swell up so much that in my first month I was on anti-histamines to try to convince my body not to get so excited about them. People kept telling me that it would get better after 6 weeks. The mosquitoes would stop making a bee line for me. Nope. It took many years of constantly being bitten before my body decided that a small bump was a sufficient reaction. Then when I got dengue, I decided that I’d had enough of living with mosquitoes. But that is a story for another time.

Other mosquito poems have been published on this blog, testifying to my special relationship with them. Haha.

However, the time date on the holiday photos tell me that it was 18 months into my time in Cambodia, on holiday in Kep, that I started writing this – my original mosquito poem – and Mosquito, a haiku. I tested it out on the group at breakfast. They laughed a lot. We laughed a lot and then I slapped my arm because I’d just been bitten! I’ve tried finishing this poem a few times since but it just didn’t seem to work. This week, wanting to spend an evening, not marking student work, I finally got it out, pulled together the various versions, got some feedback on it from some of the members of the original audience. Et voilà.

Dear Mosquito

Dear Mosquito,
Regarding the note you left last night,
Notes, in fact.
Which I found
indelibly written in red.
Presumably to underline your point,
as a mark of your love.

Inflamed with lust,
Laced with a wee dram of poison,
As if to say, if I can’t have you
then no-one will.

It’s just that,
And, I don’t want to hurt your feelings,
I mean no disrespect.
But wouldn’t you agree that we appear to be quite unsuited to each other?
I don’t react well to you.
My defences go into overdrive.

Besides you’re not the first suitor
of your ilk, who has been pursuing me.

Let me explain.
Was it your great, great, great aunt
who chanced upon me?  Hmmmmmm…
Untouched, uninitiated in this
mating ritual.
A slap here, a sting there.

Did word somehow get out that I was
Prime and ready,
Sweet and easy pickings?

One after another,
persisting with their whining salutations
and affectionate greetings.
Arousing me after each visit.
You’d each leave.
Drunk on my blood.
I thought, this is my destiny.

We played tennis together.
It was electric.
You won, love/40.

I’ve clapped my hands for you.
Waited up in the wee hours of the morning to find you.
I’ve rubbed on lotions,
anointed myself with oil to
repel you.

Mosquito, explain.
What is it that you find so irresistible about me?
My bare skin?
My blood type?
My sweet scent?

Well, you leave me no choice
But to say that I have grown tired of your voice.
Wised up to your morning kisses.
The suffocating silences.
The nightly visitations.
Your methods of seduction
don’t beguile me any more.

Mosquito. 
No more.
I’m through.

Peace, a haiku, a run and a prayer during Covid-19 disruption

I joined a creatives group in the new year while I was in Aberdeen.  Caralyn, the same one who encouraged me to blog again, talked me into going along with her and frogmarched me to introduce me to the group leader.  This was very much necessary because the shy introvert in me was reluctant to make any new friends.

I should backtrack a wee bit to provide some context. My first month following my return from Cambodia was bewildering. I didn’t know what was going to happen next or where I was going to be, other than I was back living at my mum’s and it had been the right time to end my Cambodia life. I was exhausted from my life being flipped upside down. That October felt particularly cold and I kept looking aghast at people dressed in shorts when it was below 6 degrees celsius. As I pulled on my four layers and searched for some thermal clothing, I started to experience regular moments when I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly, and I’d be scared to fall asleep in case my body forgot how to breath while I slept. This is me, who has never suffered from anxiety.

My struggle with the cold.

Two things really helped. Firstly, I got help. I engaged a coach to help me go through this transition. Someone I didn’t know who had gone through major changes moving from one country to another. She gave me a structure to the transition. When things got hard in month 3, she reassured me that months 3 and 4 normally held the most tension as friends asked what you had decided to do, when you had decided nothing because those decisions still felt overwhelming, like the circumstances were too fluid to make any concrete decisions. Secondly, a friend reassured me that my panic was a common reaction to major disruptive changes. He agreed with my recognition that this season was a ‘winter’, so to take it easy, do very little “productively”, to remember to take deep breaths and do a little exercise. It helped to normalise my situation and after that first month, I could breathe a little easier.

By January, I was quite happily in the rhythms of my ‘splendid isolation’ or ‘my winter’ in the North East of Scotland. The name inspired by Britain’s 19th century foreign policy of splendid isolation and all the Brexit chatter. After the turbulence of the last few years, the peace and stillness was exactly what I needed. In all honesty this is what I had nicknamed this season of my life weeks before self-isolating and social distancing were to become a thing. The flip side of my choices was that I had reverted to being a shy turtle. Eyes peering out over my scarf and hat. Checking out who the safe people were to talk to before deciding that I’d rather be talking to trees.

Some of the trees I would talk to

I was also intimidated by the thought that this creatives group would be made up of all art school/’I studied design/drama/writing at university’ type people.  However, in actual fact, yes some of the group are like that but the group is made up of a variety of people with different craft/art/food/creative writing/photography/design interests and passions.  I surprised myself by enjoying their company and the discussions. The following weeks, I went back and started making new friends.

When I moved to another city for a new job three weeks ago, I didn’t expect to be able to continue to be part of them. However, because of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, we moved to meeting online.  Each week we focus on something different.  This week, the focus was on peace.

I found myself meditating on this song by Mosaic MSC every time I went outside for my daily walk/run.  It begins, peace, bring it all to peace.  Apt, right?  I would pray for family, friends and people I knew who were ill or in the vulnerable group, or in difficult/stressful/anxious situations to know God’s peace.  An hour before we were due to meet online, I suddenly worried that my meditative peace prayers wouldn’t count as a creative output.  Thus, I quickly cobbled together this haiku on peace as my contribution instead.

Peace

Piece by piece, step by
Step. What was overwhelming
Becomes breathable

It began as a thought, ‘what if I did a play on words with peace/piece’.  (There are a couple of quilters in my creatives group.) For me, it evokes memories of marathon training, running up hills, the times I began a couch to 5k programme after time out because of injury. Then there is the sleepless 48 hours when I had a dengue fever rash that covered my entire body and as I cried alone in pain and frustration I kept reminding myself that this too will pass.

I had to learn a lot about pain, rest, asking for help, sabbaticals and self-care during my Cambodia years but especially so in the last two years. One picture that has really comforted me this year has been of God’s hands holding me in this dark vacuum as I feel like I’m falling. He has got me. You might not be religious, but I’m sharing that picture in case it offers you some comfort.

One more thing. When all the things that you rely on to keep you happy are stripped away, if you can, do one thing each day FOR YOU that you enjoy, whether it’s quilting, DIY, reading a book, burning onions, binge-watching a TV series, talking to the guinea pigs.  That’s self-care.  Do the things you have to do too.  And remember.  This too will pass.

I still burn onions

Many, many years ago, before I moved out to Cambodia, when cooking was a still a delight, I half-jokingly set myself a target.  When I could master not burning onions and garlic whilst cooking, I would apply for the TV show Masterchef.

Well, I still burn onions.  A couple of weeks ago, I cooked Bon Appetit’s mushroom carbonara for my mum.  It was my third time making this recipe.  When I asked her what she thought of it, she, ever truthful, asked me, “Was it burnt?”  I related this story to some friends last night and they were taken aback.  “How can you still be burning onions?”  And not only them.  My Cambodian friends couldn’t understand how I could cook onions and garlic to an acrid black.  To them it was elementary: it’s about heat control.  Clearly I’m still a novice at it.  In my 6 years in Cambodia, I may have learned how to pound Cambodian curry pastes, bake the softest Texan cinnamon rolls, work with pastry at 32°c but I still burn onions.

When I recently moved back to the UK from Cambodia, there was only one thing really that I wanted to do.  That was to learn how to cook again.

I write recent but I moved back mid October and now its mid March, so it’s been 5 months.  Still, it feels recent to me.  Committing to living back in the UK again has been hard.  It’s not because I don’t like being in the UK: I’ve written about how I welcomed its bracing winds when I’ve escaped hot season in Cambodia and how I missed my family.  Rather, it’s because I thoroughly loved living my life in ‘the Penh’, as we, expats, affectionately nicknamed Phnom Penh.  I miss my friends, my apartment, my teaching job, my baking business, my running group, my CrossFit gym…  Notice how I preface them all with ‘my’.  I owned it.  They were pieces of a bigger jigsaw that was ME in Cambodia.  Now in the midst of transition, walking on this unsteady bridge of one life left and the other yet to start, I miss the security of it.  However, I’ve gone off on a tangent and I won’t write about why I left just yet.  I’d rather share with you the reason why I’m back blogging again.

So back to burning onions and the only thing I really wanted to do when I came back was to learn to cook again.  A friend of mine, Caralyn, suggested that I start writing on my blog again.  I had been rewatching BBC’s Sherlock and in that first episode, John Watson is encouraged by his therapist to write a blog.  She promises that it will help.  I read elsewhere that it can indeed help for reflecting and thinking about what happened, and what lies ahead.  So the plan is that I’ll tell you about bits of life and recipes that I didn’t have time to share with you when I lived in Cambodia.  Because, as it turns out, teaching full-time, volunteering at a local Cambodian church and running a little baking business on the side clocks a lot of hours!  As I do so, I’m hoping that this exercise in remembering will help me to record snapshots of life in Cambodia, but also the transition to being back in the UK.   Besides, I know I enjoy this kind of writing – posts about food and poetry about everyday life, like mosquitoes!

Evidence of my burnt mushroom carbonara dinner offering

The second time I made the mushroom carbonara, I scrambled the eggs. I didn’t burn the mushrooms but I forgot to add the onions.

 

The Mosquito Bites

The Mosquito Bites 

If you join the dots,

There’s an equilateral triangle mapped out on my chest.

My skin, a canvas to the mosquitoes,

Like the night sky, and they are gods.

 

You made me think

that I had measles or shingles, all for a moment.

Then I found the final

Dot.  The Southern Cross.  On my chin.

An Evening Walk in Phsar Doeum Thkov

a view from the frangipani flowers on my street
a view from the frangipani flowers on my street

I’ve joined this writing group and the first assignment was to write a poem in iambic pentameter (penta, means 5.  iambs, that’s a unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, think daDUM.  So iambic pentameter is 5 sets of iambs).  They gave us some lines to start us off.  I found the exercise much trickier than I thought it would be.  In the end, I wrote something but it felt like it was fitting a square peg in a round hole.

So, I’ve unpegged it.  And let the lines run free.  I think they feel better for it.  I’ve tried to keep the ending in iambic pentameter.  A bit of discipline never went amiss.

It’s a bit dark… but it was sort of inspired by the upcoming 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.

*Phsar Doeum Thkov is the neighbourhood where I live in Phnom Penh.

An evening walk in Phsar Doeum Thkov*

These streets have no name.  They’re just numbers on a map.

Street five hundred is mine.

 

I walk them as sun sets.

Five-0-two is next.

Dogs shake off hot sun,

stretch and yap at my feet.

I don’t like it.

 

5-0-4 is cheerfully lined with white, pink and yellow

frangipani trees. I’d linger but,

for the dogs. Besides, I’m meant to be doing exercise.

There, a huge white house stands behind

iron gates. Next door, a wooden shack.

Do the neighbours talk to one another?

 

These nameless streets hold innumerable,

unsaid, unspoken, memories. Walls, Stones,

dare I ask, what happened? Who fell? When? Who

cowered? Cried? Wept? Died? How? Bludgeoned? Shot? Who

survived? What? And can they grieve now? Or do

unspeakable acts of terror haunt them?

As sun sets? As the dark draws in. I wonder.