The one thing I loathe about Christmas has taught me this…

There are rolls of sparkly wrapping paper stacked in the corner of my bedroom, a bag of silver bows, shiny red tags. Today, the first of the gifts I ordered from Amazon arrived and I had a fleeting thought I should wrap up the presents as I buy them, before dismissing it instantly. It’s my least favourite job. There’s never enough room cramped around the table and my back screams with pain if I’m hunched on the floor. No matter how careful I am, I can never, ever, locate the end of the Sellotape and making anything beyond a square shape look enticing is far outside my very limited capabilities.

With a sinking feeling, I totted up the amount of presents I’ve yet to buy, calculating the amount I’ll have to wrap, until a slow and sickening dawning crept over me.

Yet again, there will be less under the tree than last year.

The children are older, two of them adults now, and the enormous pile of plastic, noisy, toys we used to accumulate are long gone. Instead, a sleek gift-wrapped gadget or two will replace all the smaller, cheaper presents, they’d shake and sniff, hazarding wild guesses before excitedly tearing off the paper to see if they were right.

It’s not only my growing family responsible for diminishing the pile of presents under our tree, there’s the inevitable, heart-wrenching loss we’ve experienced. One less person to buy for. One empty space at our dining table. One less cracker to pull. And suddenly having lots to wrap doesn’t feel like the worst thing, having nothing to wrap does.

Tonight I shall pour a glass of red wine before sliding off the plastic coating from my rolls of paper and think how grateful I am to still have people I love to buy gifts for, and the money to buy them, and you never know, my most loathed job, might just become my favourite.

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Tis the season to be… #Flashfiction

Image © Marie Gail Stratford

 

Ten. Nine.

I love Jen.

Eight. Seven.

We’ve been friends forever. First day at preschool. First love. First kiss. First loss.

Six. Five.

Now we’ve children of our own.

Four. Three.

But today there’s tension between us as we shuffle impatiently in the queue. She smiles, her teeth pointed and white. Nudges me with her sharp elbow.

‘Look.’ She nods behind me.

Stupidly I turn.

Two. One.

Too late, I miss the doors flinging open. Jen racing inside. Triumphant, she raises this Christmas’s must have toy over her head. I’m only seconds behind but the shelf is already empty.

I hate Jen.

 

I’ve really missed participating in Friday Fictioneers these past few weeks – it’s the first time in years I haven’t taken part but I’m (trying) to focus on nailing the first draft of my fourth psychological thriller which is due out next summer. I couldn’t resist joining in today though. I popped out on Monday for a pint of milk and came back with a Santa dog toy, a tub of Quality Street & a bottle of Bailey’s. The Christmas madness has started!

‘Tis the season’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge inspired by a photo prompt, hosted by Rochelle. Hop over to her blog to read the other entries or join in yourself.

 

Writing for Joy – How & Why I Keep a Gratitude Journal

 

“Give thanks for a little and you will find a lot” Hausa Proverb

Recently I put a post on social media commenting it had taken a long time to fill out my gratitude journal that day, I was feeling so thankful. I received quite a few messages asking how and why I journal gratitude. I wrote this piece about six years ago for a spiritual publication but it’s still relevant now. Gratitude journaling is always something I do every day so I thought I’d share this adapted post here.

In my early, dark days of first acquiring a disability, I didn’t feel I had an awful lot to be thankful for.

It was like I had spent my whole life getting to the point where I had a thriving holistic therapy practice I loved, an amazing social life with great friends, and my beautiful dog, who I would take on daily country walks.

Life was perfect. I had so much to be grateful for, but then it was suddenly snatched away. 

I was left with constant pain, immobility, and three children who I felt I was letting down as I wasn’t able to run around with them. So what did I have to be grateful for, right? The previous ten years had been the best I had ever experienced, and I was naturally appreciative of all I had. After my accident, appreciativeness soon turned to hurt, anger, self-pity, and eventually self-loathing.

I caused myself more pain by resisting the enforced lifestyle change and couldn’t see a purpose in anything. It was at this point I knew I had to make a change.

I’d heard of gratitude journaling and since I love writing, it seemed to be an obvious starting point.

That night I sat with my journal, intending to begin with three things I was grateful for that day. Just three. Piece of cake, right? After an hour, I gently closed the cover on the tear-stained, still blank first page and cried myself to sleep, mentally adding “failure at journaling” to all my other perceived shortcomings.

A couple of days later I decided to try again. Determinedly opening up the book, I quickly wrote my children, my home, and food to eat. Feeling a smug sense of satisfaction, I replaced the pen lid. I was done, right? Objective achieved.

The next day I opened the book and froze. What could I write? The three things from the day before were all I could think of. I couldn’t repeat them, and yet nothing else came to mind.

I laid the incredibly crumpled but virtually blank book down again and rested my head against the window as I watched a robin tentatively sitting on the garden fence, anxiously watching all directions while trying to keep an eye on the birdseed my son had put on the feeding station before school.

For half an hour, this beautiful bird made several trips, came back with friends, and triumphantly cleared all that we had offered.

It dawned on me that while I had been watching, I hadn’t felt sorry for myself once. I had been mindful and in awe of nature and how beautiful it can be.

Excitedly, I reached for my book again. I ripped out the first page and discarded it. Yes, my children, home, and food were things to be grateful for, but I just wrote them for the sake of reaching my goal. I wasn’t really feeling anything at the time I wrote them, and I knew the exercise had been an empty one.

That little tiny bird, with its beautiful red breast had evoked a truly positive emotion, and from that I started to become more and more aware and recognise these precious moments as they occurred, which they generally do if you watch for them each day.

It hasn’t been easy. It is now ten years on, and journaling has become an important part of my life. It has really helped me change my mindset and move forward.

There is joy everywhere, but it can be overshadowed by pain if you allow it. 

When I have a bad day now, I read back over my journal and I remember that life has so much to offer. I still have a lot to be grateful for. Yes, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a life and I love it.

If you want to start a gratitude journal I recommend the following:

  1. Don’t just go through motions. Make a decision to be consciously more grateful.

Don’t reluctantly journal because you think you should. Feel what you write. Believe it.

  1. Don’t set yourself a minimum number of things to write per day.

In my experience, there are days I can’t fill a page, and that’s perfectly okay. On balance, there are days I can fill multiple pages. Don’t put yourself under pressure to stick to the same amount each day. Be flexible and don’t take the joy away by being too regimented.

  1. Don’t wait for the right time.

I try to integrate this into my bedtime routine, but if I have a joyful experience, I often write it down straight away. This reinforces the positivity felt and ensures I don’t forget anything.

  1. Elaborating on why you are grateful allows you to really explore your feelings.

If, like me, you intend on flicking back through your journal, make it clear why you are grateful for the items you add. For example: For the first entry, I put “my children.” On day two, I wrote, “my children for putting on a sock puppet show after school and making me laugh.” That triggers so many memories each time I read it and always makes me smile.

  1. Focus on people rather than things.

As much as I love my iPod, it can never give me the same warm, fuzzy, loved feeling my partner instils by making me a surprise breakfast in bed.

  1. Don’t rush; savour every word.

Don’t see this as another chore to get through. The fact that you can make a list of things that make you feel grateful should make you feel, umm, well, grateful!

  1. Include surprises.

Unexpected events often elicit a greater emotional response. They’re also wonderful to look back on when you feel that life is mundane and the same old routine all the time.

  1. Keep the negative out.

If you want to keep a diary to record how you feel, this can be constructive, but leave your gratitude journal as a purely positive only exercise.

  1. Mix it up. Don’t put same thing every day.

Expand your awareness. The more you do this, the more you’ll start to really appreciate what a gift life is. The world is beautiful. Learn to really experience it.

  1. Be creative.

Who says a gratitude journal has to be full of lists? Mine contains everything from concert tickets to photos and restaurant receipts. Have some fun with it.

  1. Give it a fair chance.

Some experts say it takes, on average, twenty-one days for a new habit to form. Don’t give up or dismiss it as not working before then. Commit to just three weeks and then see how you feel. What have you got to lose?

I would love to hear how you get on and if you’ve enjoyed this post you may like to read about why I believe in the Law of Attraction and keep a vision board here.

Reading these books taught me valuable lessons – #BookLoversDay

It’s Book Lovers Day! I’m always reading and there have been many, many books I’ve enjoyed but sometimes I’m lucky enough to take something from them that stays with me. These books have all taught me a valuable lesson and I’m grateful to have read them.

 

The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

At primary school I devoured books at such an alarming rate, I was given permission to take more than the allocated one book per child home each week. Long after I should have been asleep I was reading Enid Blyton books by torchlight under my covers, and The Famous Five was my favourite series. It was these books that ignited my interest in mysteries. Who was the baddie? Why did they do it? Would the gang figure it out in time? Always, one of them would be in peril towards the end and my heart would pound and I couldn’t rest until good triumphed over evil. These books taught me that I wanted to be a writer although at that young age I didn’t just want to be a writer. I wanted to be Enid Blyton.

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart

This was my favourite read of 2016. The story of Alex and Jody who have lost the ability to communicate with each other is beautifully written. Alex’s attempts to forge a relationship with his autistic son, Sam are genuinely moving. Alex finds Sam playing Minecraft and realises the structure and format of the game bring a confidence to Sam he hasn’t seen before,  Alex too becomes engrossed in the game and his confidence as a father blossoms. I loved this story so much I felt lost when I’d finished it. As well as educating me that games such as Minecraft have a purpose in todays’ society (I’m a mum of three boys) it also made me question the sort of writer I want to be and the genre I want to write in. I’ve written three psychological thrillers now and although I’ve plans for a few more yet, it’s commercial family dramas I am always drawn to as a reader and this book inspired me to want to experiment with different styles and structures of novels.

 

Charlie Brown by Charles M. Shulz

I adore all things Snoopy but Charlie Brown is a bit of a hero of mine and the Peanuts books are still something I dip into today. Charlie Brown never gave up. Despite the gazillion times Lucy pulled the football away when he went to kick it, he never lost the hope that this time it might be different. This time he might be successful. If I have a down day and am not feeling as positive as usual I flick through a Peanuts book and take heart from Charlie Brown’s determination to never stop trying.

 

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Absolutely my favourite read of 2015. A gorgeously written book of Maud, who finds a note in her pocket – Elizabeth is missing – and her endeavours to track down her best friend. Sadly dementia has touched my family and the glimpse Elizabeth gives into the mind of a dementia sufferer through Maud, and the impact on her family and carers is insightful and sensitively handled. I found this book more educational than a lot of the nonfiction material I had read. Story wise, love and thought is poured into every beautifully constructed sentence. I was lucky enough to hear the author, Emma talk at Foyles and to learn she spent five years crafting this exceptional debut really brought home to me that there is no standard time it should take to write a novel. It’s hard sometimes not to compare yourself to other writers who seem to effortlessly produce a new book every few months (although rationally I know books are NEVER effortlessly produced). This taught me that some books just can’t be rushed and need to be rewritten many times throughout the editing process and boy was it worth the wait.

 

every dayEvery Day is Wonderful by Fredric Fewings

This beautiful children’s pocketbook was bought for me by my grandparents when I was at primary school, and it is one of my most treasured possessions. I was always a very thoughtful child and this book, stuffed full of inspirational snippets and gorgeously illustrated, invited me to actively seek the good and positive in each and every day.

‘So look for Beauty everywhere,

And practice Goodness, too,

For wonders have their origins,

In the heart of you!’

 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Still at primary school, still reading Enid Blyton over and over I found a worn copy of Little Women in our garage and although I thought it looked a little boring, I had nothing else to read on that day and decided to give it a go. Jo March became my heroine. I rooted for all the sisters, cried buckets when Beth died and felt emotionally drained when I’d finished it. Books up until that point had been full of excitement and adventure. All boarding schools, mysteries and magic trees.

Little Women made me feel something different. Really feel. And that was the moment I started to work my way through the classics wondering who wrote these stories? How did they become writers? It seemed so far out of reach but the spark was there for me, which smoldered away for the next thirty-five years, and I vowed that if I ever wrote a book it would be an emotionally moving one but still retain the mystery element I’d first fallen in love with. My debut, The Sister, was that book.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I used to read anything and everything I could get my hands on but a few years ago, without knowing, I became stuck in a genre rut. Always heading to the same section of the library and the bookshop.  A friend recommended this story to me and told me it was a young adult novel and I told her I would read it but I secretly didn’t think I would. Frustrated she lent me her copy and said I had to read it straight away and so I sat down, and didn’t move again until I’d finished and I’ve read it many times since. A big lesson for me on book snobbery and I’ll never fall into the genre trap again.

 

I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I’d become familiar with Maya Angelou and her background as a civil rights activist and was interested to read more about this woman who had empowered so many. At that point to me there was a clear divide between fiction and non-fiction styles of writing, so although I expected to be educated I didn’t expect to be enthralled by her style of writing. Early on there’s a sentence which reads: ‘If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.’ I remember stopping and rereading that sentence over and over, thinking about the power of language and that was the first time I ever realised what was meant by ‘voice.’

 

The Stand by Stephen King

As a teenager I was a real horror fan. The scarier the better. I’d read a fair few Stephen King books before stumbling across the massive publication that is The Stand and I curled up in my chair and waited to feel the creeping sense of unease I usually felt with his novels. What I didn’t expected was to be so moved I cried many times during this story and to this day it is still one of my favourites. This book taught me you can’t always pigeon hole a story. When I started writing psychological thrillers I wanted that emotional punch. I wanted to make readers cry. All three of my books feature an emotional thread alongside the tension and fear and I love picking bits out of different genres and blending them together.

 

Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside by Judy Carne

Judy Carne was the star of the 60’s American TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in and the wife of Burt Reynolds. She was also my mum’s cousin. When Judy returned to our home town in Northamptonshire from Hollywood regaling us with tales of the rich and famous I was enthralled by the glitz and glamour of her life.

Reading her biography however, painted a very different picture. She had a real struggle and a phenomenal journey  to achieve what she achieved through real hardship. I’d always thought my town was ordinary and by default I was never destined to be anything other than the secretary I was when I left school. Judy inspired me to never lose sight of my dreams or give up and made me realise that ordinary people can live extraordinary lives if they only believe they can.

 

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson

At one time I had bookshelves full of self-help titles. Newly disabled, and at a real low, I was constantly searching for the one thing that could make a difference. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff was that book. Broken down into ultra short chapters, it’s easy to dip in and out of and to implicate into everyday life. Formerly a teacher of Mindfulness, this book was one I would often recommend to my coaching clients.

 

Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters

When I began writing The Sister I heard about the WoMentoring Project, founded by Kerry Hudson, offering mentors to upcoming female talent. On the list of mentors was Louise Walters and I’d just finished her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and was captivated by her voice and beautiful story. It took ages, and a fair few glasses of wine before I felt brave enough to apply to the project and I was thrilled when Louise became my mentor.

I wrote the first ten thousand words of my novel and Louise replied, in a very gentle way, that although my style of writing was lovely the story didn’t flow like a novel at all.  I deleted the words but before starting again I wanted to reread a book I’d loved, but with a critical eye. A writer’s eye. To try to learn where I went wrong. Louise’s book was the obvious choice and I reread making careful notes. How did characters develop? How does her story arc work? It was a pleasure to reread her gorgeous story, her writing is exceptional, and I learned such a lot about how to structure a novel.

 

The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell (To be released November 2017)

My list wouldn’t be complete with what has been my favourite read of 2017 so far. This beautifully constructed debut tells the story of two sisters, Filipino maids Dolly and Tala. It’s set in Singapore and is based, in part, on Fiona’s experience of living there. I was horrified at the treatment maids receive often at the hands of British ex-pats and I couldn’t believe this was set in modern day. This story could have been depressing but Fiona has sensitively weaved through humour and some really heartwarming moments. As a teacher of mindfulness for years I would make sure I regularly carried out random acts of kindness. Since I’ve been so busy writing this had lapsed a little. Reading how such small things made an enormous difference to the life of these maids inspired me to restart paying it forward wherever I can. Be kind where possible. It’s always possible.

A writer, a mum & the end of an era. What now?

 

Nineteen years.

That’s how long I’ve been doing the primary school run for.

Nineteen years ago my eldest son was in his first year of ‘little’ school and now my youngest son is finishing his final year. A full circle.

Nineteen years of spelling test practice, egg and spoon races, school discos, times tables pinned to the fridge, Christmas concerts with homemade costumes. Nineteen years of knowing all the kids in the school, calling the teachers by their first names, school trips, fun facts and endless questions about stuff they’ve learned over dinner. (Yesterday Finley watched a birth video and that was enough to put everyone off their lasagne).

It’s been an emotional week for me. The end of an era. Primary has been part of my life for almost half of my life and I’ve been building up to today’s leaving assembly with a mixture of denial and apprehension thinking ‘what now?’ My children are growing up, forging their place in the world and admittedly I’ve worried whether that place will still have room for me.

I’ve watched Finley’s two brothers transition into adulthood with a sense of amazement and awe. Knowing I’ve raised such well-rounded young men is a constant source of pride and wonder and I know it’s Finley’s time to gain some independence. Dip his toe into the world. It’s been hard not to feel anxious about him making this leap to ‘big’ school, unfairly assuming he must feel the same sense of creeping dread I do.

Today, I sat in the school hall that always smells of rubber and disinfectant for the last time. Cramped on one of the uncomfortable orange plastic chairs which are too big for kids and too small for adults, trying desperately to keep my emotions inside.

The children were called to the front one by one and presented with a book. Behind them a screen showed their image with two speech bubbles, one saying what they wanted to be when they grow up; the other saying who has most inspired them in the world. Finley’s photo flashed up and I leaned forward, straining to read the words that had come from his heart. “When I grow up I want to be an author of fictional stories.” The walls of my throat constricted as I swallowed hard. The next speech bubble stated “I am most inspired by my mum who is a brilliant bestselling author.” And this was my undoing. Tears streamed unchecked down my cheeks as I fumbled for tissues in my bag.

With a rush of relief I realised that Finley is excited for the future and it was only then I could look at today as a beginning rather than an end. Secure in the knowledge that whatever the next stage brings we will face it, as we always do. As a family. With love.

NHS Cuts, Disability Benefits & Me

 

A drastic change in my health around ten years ago sent me spiralling along a path of limited mobility and chronic pain. Raw and reeling, my mental health plummeted and subsequently I plunged into clinical depression. It was a dark time which left me feeling unable to care for myself, or my three children.

My local hospital didn’t know how best to help me and so came a frustrating and emotionally draining year of researching treatments that might help me (I found one) and then trying to get my local authority to fund it as it was outside of my local town (eventually they did).

For around the past eight years, every now and then,  I’ve undergone this quick, simple but life-changing procedure and I am so thankful for the NHS for the time and care I have been privileged enough to receive so far. Alongside this I have paid for my own physio (I didn’t get long on the NHS lists) and I’ve done everything I can possibly do to take responsibility for, and improve my health. Today, I can potter around the house, drive, nip into shops, go for short walks, my pain levels have drastically reduced and my quality of life has greatly improved. I feel like a real hands-on mum again. I no longer need to take daily medication which had been causing me horrendous side effects. Although I still use crutches sometimes and my wheelchair for days out, when I think back to ten years ago when I was unable to stand unaided or get myself in and out of the bath, my life is unrecognisable. For that I am very grateful.

Returning to the hospital last Thursday I was shocked and dismayed to be told, through no fault of the team, that due to NHS funding cuts the hospital would no longer be offering this treatment.

This post isn’t a self-pitying one – government cuts have affected most of us in one shape or form- but rather a way to unpick the tangle of emotions I am feeling right now.

Today, thanks to the improvements to my health I can work full-time. I don’t claim disability benefits, there isn’t enough to go around and there are people worse off than me, that I know. I am in the fortunate position where I work from home, make my own hours. I can change positions if my pain gets overwhelming, I can go for a lie-down when I’m feeling exhausted, I can even skip the odd day and stay in bed during bad flare ups. This I could not do in an office but I worry now, that without this relatively simple treatment, my mobility will likely decline again, my pain increase, my mental health suffer and the thought of losing my financial independence if I am no longer capable of working is a frightening thought indeed.

Slashing funding and impacting upon people’s health will surely cost more in long run; potentially driving people out of work, onto benefits, increasing the need for medication, pain killers, anti-depressants, the already flooded waiting lists for counselling will creak under the strain, and then of course there is the need to treat the often horrific side-effects these drugs can cause.

And this is what I am struggling to make sense of. The logic behind it all.

I really don’t know what the answer is. I don’t feel I am more entitled than anyone else. All I do know is at the moment, my world, the world, seems a scary and uncertain place.

Flash Fiction – Buttercups

Image courtesy of Jennifer Pendergast

 

You loved playing dress up, twirling in my far-too-large wedding dress until your heel caught in the lace and you tumbled onto the dried grass.

‘Mummy.’ Your lip trembled and I plucked a buttercup, shining gold in the sun, telling you it was a magic flower. All was well in your small world once more.

I blink. Somehow time has slipped passed. Weeks, months, years.

You rush towards me. This time it’s a gown and mortar board that swamps your still-small frame.

‘Mum!’ You’re nervous. I push a buttercup into your hand.

‘Collect your degree, darling.’

Your world is larger now, but I’m still here. Always.

 

‘Buttercups’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge inspired by a photo prompt. Hosted by Rochelle