Rest, relaxation & 3 great reads

Last month I coped with my son leaving home by sending him off to uni with 3 important things (you can read that post here). I spent the first few days of his absence drifting sadly around the house. It was when I lit a candle in his bedroom I knew I had to get out and do something productive so I dashed to Asda to stock up on chocolate. When I arrived I reminded myself how well I was doing on my sugar free diet, how much better I felt and so instead of a bar of dairy milk I headed into the in-store travel agent and bought a holiday to Lanzarote instead (and it was fun explaining that impromptu purchase to my husband).

Days later myself, my youngest son and my husband were on a beach. It was an odd sensation, trying to relax. It was the first time, in a long time, I hadn’t had a looming deadline from my publisher. I deliberately hadn’t packed my laptop, instead I’d taken a stack of books and I intended to read *whispers* for pleasure.

Historically I used to read a couple of novels a week but in the last few years I’ve been so busy writing my own books there’s been little time for reading. On the occasions I’ve managed to snatch precious minutes from my day, I’ve ended up reading one of the huge pile of proofs in my study awaiting quotes which all tend to be psychological thrillers as that’s the genre I write in. On my break, I was determined to read something different, and I did.

The One With Hidden Depths – First on my list was Graham Norton’s cozy crime debut ‘Holding.’ I’ve long been a huge Graham Norton fan. I pre-ordered this the second it was announced but I’ve been putting off reading it because… if I’m honest, because I thought it might not be very good. Sorry Graham. 

I dove into the pages expecting them to be peppered with brash humour, outrageous jokes, which I wasn’t sure how would translate into a novel, but what I found was a gentle story set in rural Ireland, sensitively written by someone who knew his characters inside out. The gradual unfurling is slow but I like that in a story. There’s a depth to the characterisation you rarely find in debuts. So much so I googled whether Graham had a ghost writer, apparently he didn’t. There’s a vulnerability surrounding the small community featured in this story, that doesn’t come from the characters alone. I’ve since bought Graham’s second novel ‘A Keeper’ and I won’t leave it too long before I read it.

The Chilling One – Next up was ‘The Taking of Annie Thorne’ by C.J. Tudor. As a teenager I was a real horror buff and a big fan of Stephen King but as I’ve got older I’ve… I’ve grown into a bit of a wuss  I suppose and so I tend to shy away from the genre. That said when Steven King recommends a writer you sit up and listen and that, along with the fabulous cover, swayed me into putting on my big girl pants and diving in. Goodness. This book is creepy. Right from the start a sense of unease settled over me, despite my brilliant backdrop of blue skies and golden sands. This story is so atmospheric with a refreshingly unique voice. I do love it when I start off loathing a character but the writer gradually draws me in until I’m rooting for them. I’m glad I didn’t read this alone at night, but I’m so very glad I read it. 

The Weepy One – A writer friend of mine recommended ‘Bitter’ by Francesca Jakobi to me and told me I’d love it, and she was right. I find it utterly fascinating when a story is based on some semblance of truth and this one, based on Francesca’s grandmother, drew me in completely. It could have been hard to picture a time when divorce was scandalous and single parent families an oddity but thanks to the evocative writing I was right there with the beautifully crafted characters, living out their obsessions with them. This book is thoughtful, heartbreaking and utterly compelling. I am desperate to know what happened after the final pages. 

Aside from reading, it was a fabulous holiday which kicked off to a thrilling start when we popped into WH Smith’s at the airport and found ‘The Surrogate‘ on the shelves. Once we’d arrived, we hired a car but didn’t explore this gorgeous island nearly enough which is a good reason to return (although we did stumble across a fabulous bookshop who stocked ‘The Sister‘ – hurrah!) What we did do in-between reading was wade into the sea to feed the flurry of fish with cooked vegetables we saved from lunch.

We also went sea trekking for the first time. Walking around the ocean bed while hooked up to air was an odd but amazing experience and a privilege to be up close to so many sea creatures in their natural habitat. 

Evenings found us at a beach bar, sipping cocktails and watching the sun set.

It was while gazing out to sea I had an idea for a romantic novel I felt ridiculously excited about but within 48 hours of being back in the UK I’d (fictionally) killed someone. I feel relaxed, refreshed and ready to put the finishing touches to my fifth psychological thriller, and as for writing romance? Maybe one day…

 

Letting go – when a child leaves for Uni – 3 important things I gave my son

 

I still remember it so clearly; the heady joy of discovering I was pregnant; the overwhelm of a love that was almost painful the first time I held my baby.  It seemed unfathomable back then to think of a time I’d be without my children.  First steps, first words. Sticky toddler kisses, teenage uncertainty as they tried to navigate their way in the world and then, later, it was me who was uncertain and afraid as I took my second child to university. The heartbreak as I drove away in a car that was too empty. Too quiet. Back to a house that looked exactly the same but felt somehow different.

I felt somehow different.

A mother bird with an almost empty nest.

It was difficult initially to sift through my feelings. What was real and what was imagined. What thoughts were coming from ego, of which there were many: –

  • Of course he’ll never be as comfortable anywhere else as he is at home.
  • Of course he won’t eat as well now I’m not cooking for him.
  • Of course he’ll never wear clean clothes again.

Except he will. He does. He can.

He’s resilient. Strong. Capable of creating his own home, operating a cooker, a washing machine. Underneath the tangle of irrational fears that I’d never see him again, that our relationship would be irrevocably altered, came a creeping sense of pride.

I’ve brought him up well. He’s smart, funny, resourceful and kind.

Last month I left him at university with three things.

A photo book of his childhood. The cover a reminder that wherever he goes, whatever he does, he has a family who will always have his back. Be there for anything he needs. Who would unquestionably bury a body for him.

 

A story about his hopes and dreams. It’s easy to get swept away. To forget who you are, what you want. What you can achieve if you try. A mother/son chat warning him of the pitfalls of too much partying and not enough work would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, I wrote a story about a boy and his journey through adulthood constructed almost entirely of lyrics and song titles from his favourite band, The Counting Crows. A reminder of what he could be.

 

The last thing I gave him was the wisdom that every student should know. It’s always salt, tequila, lemon. Don’t mess with the order. And always, ALWAYS, drink a pint of water before bed.

These were the things I left him with at university, but he left me with so much more. A heart full of love and a lifetime of memories along with an immense sense of gratitude that the world is wide open to him. The world is lucky to have him.

 

 

 

Images courtesy of Unsplash – Liv Bruce & Fidel Fernando.

Is a sugar free life sustainable with kids, career & a home to juggle? Let’s find out…

 

Avocado toast with egg and herbs on a rustic table

Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

A few weeks ago I blogged how lunch with one of my oldest friends, and long-term cake buddy, Kuldip, led to a complete overhaul in my health (you can read that post here). Admittedly, I stared longingly at the dessert menu as she shared her inspiring journey into her new life without sugar but her energy and enthusiasm was infectious and she persuaded me to give it a go. After a rough couple of weeks withdrawing, now I’m so grateful she did. There have been many frantic messages (from me) and many calming answers (from her) exchanged over the past few weeks and her straightforward, relatable approach to sugar free living as a working mum I thought worth sharing. Kuldip has now started her own fabulous blog, Life Without Sugar, and it’s a pleasure to chat to her today about the white stuff.

Kuldip, let’s go back a few weeks. What was the catalyst for such a dramatic dietary change?

I just felt rubbish all the time. When you are busy, working, have small kids and a house that’s a fixer-upper, it’s natural and forgivable to blame a general malaise on that, but I just knew that I was on the road to poor health and I that I had to change, but change what?

Exactly! I think sometimes the easier part is knowing we need to change and over the years we’ve tried pretty much everything between us haven’t we?

Yes! There are so many diet plans out there, and they will tell you what to do, and some will tell you what not to do, but none of them explains why? Like properly WHY. Without knowing that I failed at all of them because, it seemed that I depended on willpower alone.

But you’ve always been quite determined when you want to be. Do you feel your willpower is weak?

Not weak exactly. I already use willpower. Not to swear in the car when the kids are in there with me, not scream at frustrating emails at work, not to throw things out the window when they refuse to work properly etc. So, I know I have willpower. But why do I need willpower over food? It’s something that felt so odd to me. Then one day I got a look at myself in a full-length mirror, I hadn’t really looked at myself for nearly two years and I was shocked at how terrible I looked. I felt at the end of my tether, honestly at my wit’s end so when I came across an article about sugar, it all fell into place. The need for willpower is because sugar is addictive and sugar is in a tremendous amount of food that we consume, and we aren’t aware that it’s even there. So we try to abstain, and we fail.

What to do? Get rid of it.

Put like that it sounds so simple but I know from experience it isn’t. What were your first steps?

It usually takes me a while to prepare for a diet or plan, but this hit home straight away. Probably because it isn’t a diet or a plan, its simply saying, ‘Sugar doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t have it.’ I immediately researched books and experts and consumed their knowledge and then that was it, I couldn’t stop talking about it, as you well know.

Yes. I never did get my cake that day! My husband couldn’t believe it when I got home. What does your husband think about it all?

Thanks to my history of constantly pursuing the next thing, my husband assumed that I had started another fad diet and braced himself for what I would insist that we eat for our evening meals. He has been the subject of many a dietary change poor fella. But this one, this one has stuck. He was ok with my ridding the shelves of all things high sugar, but put his foot down over the balsamic vinegar, the Asian sauces, like hoisin, soy, and teriyaki and ketchup – which are positively loaded with sugar. But the rest is gone.

I got exactly the same reaction, for exactly the same reasons but Tim has seen all the positive effects on my health so far and is now trying it himself. 

It makes it easier having that support doesn’t it? Now that I have started the blog and am actively reading sugar-free cookbooks, he is taking me a bit more seriously. Before, you would see me with a cookbook if I were handing it to him so he could cook. He has reduced his sugar because there isn’t so much of it in the house anymore, but he still likes a pudding or a handful of biscuits through the day. Though the other day he did say that he might give it up too – I stopped myself from reeling off a load of facts that would make him instantly regret that he had said it and just nodded and said ‘it’s the easiest health choice you can make.’ He’s a pretty healthy eater, so I don’t worry about him too much anyway.

The men are probably the easiest to convince as we’re all getting older with the inevitable aches and pains. The kids though! Yours are so young so it must be easier they can’t source anything you don’t give them. Teenagers are a different matter…

Yes, my two begin so young definitely helps. I started talking to them about it, they have interpreted is as Mummy doesn’t like sugar. Outside and occasionally inside the home, I let them eat cakes because that’s the society we live in, and I don’t want to exclude my family from everyday situations as a result of what I am doing. It has made me want to cook! And find some sugar-free alternatives to those ‘treats.’

Haha – I’m saying nothing about your cooking… Back to the girls, I remember the primary school years so well, the endless birthday party invitations. How do you feel about the food they will likely be served?

I’ll let the girls eat whatever they want at birthday parties. When at parties, I find that they are starting to leave the birthday cake now, so I like to think their taste buds are changing.

My approach is to make the changes at home and hope that they use it as their blueprint for eating elsewhere. For their own birthday party, I requested a reduced sugar cake from the baker, and it went down a storm, nobody noticed. Their party bags didn’t have any sweets or chocolate in them, I just packed them out with little toys which I think are more fun anyway. We only served water – which young children will just accept, especially on a hot day. They had sandwiches and crisps, I obliged a few parents with jam fillings, and my girls had ham. It was pretty easy to party without sugar, and I don’t think anyone noticed the lack of it. It made me realise how much adults impose the idea of ‘children = sugary treats’ when actually, that really doesn’t have to be the case

They have never developed a taste for juices so prefer water and milk because that’s what we have given them at home. They love biscuits, and I’m okay with that as there are some low sugar biscuits about there – plain digestives and shortbread are usually pretty good (about 2.4g per biscuit), and if you make homemade with a sugar alternative, you’re laughing.

Absolutely. I’m baking more now than I was when I ate sugar because it’s so difficult to find treats off the shelf. Perfecting sugar free scones and jam brought tears to my eyes! It’s the one thing I knew I’d really miss. What have you missed the most?

I don’t think I miss anything you know. I thought I would miss ice cream but the need for it has gone. I did accept a Mr. Whippy ice-cream recently – my mother-in-law visited and bought us all one. It was delicious, but I had a headache for the rest of the afternoon, had a terrible night’s sleep and felt ill the next day! So not worth it! 

I felt like that the first time I drank wine after 2 weeks sugar free, I felt as though I’d been poisoned. I’m still having the odd glass though. How about chocolate – I know we’ve both eaten an obscene amount over the years.

I haven’t yet thought ‘ooh I could murder a Snickers’ which was a constant thought during any diets I’ve been on.

I’m eating 80% chocolate now and honestly don’t need more than a couple of squares. I think most of my snacking is emotionally based. I haven’t felt the need as I’ve felt full but I’m still making snacks for my husband and subsequently we’re trying lots of new good. Have you discovered anything new?

My new favourite snack, dessert, breakfast is Greek yoghurt, with a small handful of blueberries and strawberries, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Oh my, I just love it. If you said that I would treat that like I did ice-cream, cakes or my favourite sweets, then I would have told you to leave and not politely! It’s amazing. I found out that cinnamon helped with sugar cravings so started adding it in, but now I just love the taste.

I’m less reliant on them now, but Nairn cheese oatcakes were a godsend for snack attacks. I have fewer snack attacks now as I am full at most meals, but now use them in the girls’ lunch boxes instead of crisps or even as well as crisps, it’s all low sugar and will fill them up.

Chai tea – it’s comforting and although it has minimal sugar, is quite sweet and it has cinnamon in it!

 I’m going to try that with Greek yoghurt. I thought snacking would be my biggest challenge but that has proven to be eating out which we do quite regularly. How have you found it?

I thought eating out was going to be tough, but it hasn’t been that bad. Fish dishes are usually safe to go for; salads are surprisingly tricky because of the dressing, so I ask for it without or on the side. Steak and chips are excellent, particularly if you go for sweet potato chips. I had a lovely aubergine and chickpea burger the other day. I took half the bun off, as I couldn’t fit the thing into my mouth anyway! I figure that the remaining burger bun had at most 1g of added sugar, so let it slide. During withdrawal, I tried to keep down to 10g of all sugars, added or natural. I’m a bit more relaxed about tracking it now, because I have an idea of who much sugar is in things, plus if you keep to whole foods then you really don’t have to worry so much.

Dessert whilst eating out is still a challenge, just because I have had them my whole life – it’s been a habit for so long. I remember eating the main just to get to the dessert! So, I will either kill the urge and have a peppermint tea or go for the cheese board avoiding the pickles.

Oh after over 20 years on weight watchers I’m eating so much full fat cheese and loving it! Lastly, what has been the biggest challenge?

Firstly, withdrawal is not pretty. It’s different for all of us, but I used to binge on sweets daily, so I got hit quite hard when withdrawing. If I could, I would have taken a week off from life to get through it.

I don’t cook – I never enjoyed cooking. I felt nothing for it. I now have to cook and that started off as a challenge. In fact, it’s taking me until nearly day 60 of being sugar-free to purchase a sugar-free cookbook! Most of our evening meals were healthy anyway as I drew upon the many of the books that I have bought with all the diet plans that I’ve tried. Each of them has produced some favourites. But now the mission is to have the odd sweetened treat, but a healthier less harmful version. Watch this space.

BIG thanks to Kuldip for joining me today and for her encouragement. Please do check out and sign up to her blog here and follow her sugar free journey. 

 

 

Life with a Sprockerpoo – the first 12 months

A year and a half ago we lost our beloved cocker spaniel, Molly. Our house and hearts felt colder. Emptier. After much discussion we decided not to get another dog. The children were growing, one already left home, and suddenly the time when it would become just the two of us didn’t seem quite so distant. We’d travel. Have spontaneous weekends away. The tie of another dog would be too much. We were approaching the time we’d be able to focus solely on us. We absolutely didn’t want another dog.

Until one day we did.

It was my husband who tentatively brought it up as he sipped his tea. ‘Life just doesn’t feel the same without a dog,’ he began. ‘I think…’.

I’d googled puppies before he’d finished his sentence and by the time he’d drained his mug I’d arranged for us to see a litter. At 4 o’clock.

We didn’t tell the children as we didn’t want to get their hopes up but I desperately wanted a labradoodle and was already picking out names as we drove to the appointment.

The litter were adorable, as all litters are. I climbed into the pen and waited to see which puppy came to me. They all did. Delighted, I looked up at my husband but as I saw his face my heart sank.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.

‘The mother’s the size of an average sheep.’ He said. 

And she was. 

I’ve always loved big breeds but he didn’t. 

‘Some are small and some grow so tall.’ The breeder told us. ‘You can’t predict with a mixed breed but they’re likely to be huge. She doesn’t even fit in my car.’

And so the pattern was set. Endless weekends spent visiting puppies from boxers to cockerpoos and everything in-between. I fell in love with them all. My husband didn’t. And yet I didn’t feel the urge to fight to bring them home. They were all gorgeous, and fluffy and cute but none of them felt like mine.

Last June we had one more appointment booked. We almost didn’t go. We’d decided to wait until after the school holidays but we’d never met a Sprockerpoo before (Springer/Cocker/Poodle) and we were curious. After losing two pure-breds to genetic health conditions we didn’t know entirely what we were searching for, but it wasn’t a pedigree.

Instantly, we fell in love and the feeling was mutual. Granger padded over, scrambled onto my lap, licked my hand and fell asleep and I knew I’d found him. The puppy who was meant to be ours.

‘Let’s think about it overnight.’ My husband said. ‘We don’t want to make s snap decision’ but I knew from the longing looks he was giving Granger he felt the same way I did. It became apparent when 10 minutes into our journey home he pulled into a lay-by. ‘I’d be devastated if someone else came and took him.’

I didn’t reply. I was too busy calling the breeder and saying yes.

A year ago today we brought him home.

The house felt different once more. He wasn’t a replacement for Molly and personality wise they are world’s apart, but each day he makes us laugh. We quickly found out he loves the garden, most days he spends hours chasing leaves, watching grass blow in the wind and it’s really made us appreciate the small things.  How to find joy in the world around us. He loathes being alone, luckily my husband and I both work from home and my elder son works shifts so our house is never empty. He lies under my desk as I write my books, sometimes making me jump if he suddenly moves while I’m writing a scary scene and sometimes inspiring me. Branwell the dog, in my latest psychological thriller, The Date, is based on Granger.

If anyone goes out he seeks solace in their shoes, putting them in his basket until they return, not to chew, although initially there was a LOT of chewing, but for comfort. He’s gentle, placid, affectionate, adores racing around the park with other dogs but equally content curled up on the sofa. He doesn’t molt and doesn’t smell. Oh and he’s patient. So very patient, standing waiting his turn when the cat decides he wants to feast on dog food. 

He’s ours and I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t.

Parenting – Swapping Calpol for Vodka

 

It was my birthday over the weekend. I woke to a still house. Silent. First light filtered through a crack in the curtains and shone a spotlight on the empty space at the bottom of the bed where once small children would bounce, clutching handmade cards decorated with indistinguishable drawings.

“Wake up Mummy.”

My heart would be filled with love as I’d eat a breakfast they’d lovingly prepared – “of course smarties taste good with cornflakes”- before unwrapping gifts fashioned from empty yoghurt pots and cardboard toilet roll tubes.

Two of my three children have grown. One has already left home, another due to go to uni in September. 

As I lay there I felt such a fierce longing for simpler times. For sticky marmalade kisses and time that seemed to stretch endlessly. 

Where had their childhood gone?

The day was lovely. I had a fabulous lunch with my whole family and yet still I felt oddly unsettled.

Sometime. Somehow. There’s been a shift in the fabric of my relationship with my older kids and as I watched them leave after dessert, going back to the grown up part of their lives I was not included in, I was inexplicably scared it was all going to unravel. The invisible thread of love that binds me to them might stretch and stretch until one day… would it snap altogether?

And then I got a text – dinner, Mum?

Saturday found us crowded around a table sharing tapas, before heading to a bar and there was another shift in dynamics. A Saturday night drinking cocktails with the people I love most in the world. 

It’s a different stage of parenting, swapping Calpol for vodka. Baby rice for bar snacks, and it wasn’t better, or worse. Just different. And I realised as we hugged at the end of the evening and went our separate ways that the invisible thread is strong enough to span years and miles and oceans and it will always, always remain unbreakable. 

My heart will forever be filled with love.

“Introverts can’t succeed.” (Says who?)

Last night, we had the first parent’s evening at my son’s new secondary school. My son is hardworking, conscientious and worries needlessly about getting into trouble. As with his primary, I was expecting glowing reports praising good grades and excellent behaviour.

I was right. To an extent.

The first teacher we saw reaffirmed how bright he was. How he’s working at a higher level. How well mannered and good natured he is. Kind to his fellow classmates and always considerate of others.

So far so good.

‘But.’ His teacher frowned, and sadly shook his head. ‘There is a big problem.’

My son’s eyes met mine and I saw panic slide across his face.

‘What’s the problem?’ I asked.

A lengthy sigh. ‘He’s quiet.’

‘And?’

‘That’s an issue.’

‘That’s his nature.’

‘We have some big personalities and frankly some disruptive students. He needs to speak up and make himself heard.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you never get anywhere in life being an introvert, do you? If you want to succeed you have to learn to shout loudly.’

Umm. I’m an introvert and seem to have done quite well thank you, as has his father.

This set the pattern for the rest of the evening. Out of 11 teachers, 5 told him he had to be louder. More confident. Be something that he isn’t, because of course when you’re shy and insular someone telling you to be loud and confident is exactly what you (don’t) need.

Outside, in the car, I told my rather forlorn twelve year old that I was immensely proud of him. He has been predicted A’ grades in almost every subject and his behaviour is exemplary. But more important than all of that, I told him that I loved him completely exactly the way he is and that he should never, ever feel that being quiet and introverted is a character flaw. Indeed if he follows his dream career path of becoming an author being insular will serve him well. After all, who’s ever heard of an extroverted writer?

My school visit – Lessons from Jack Black

There’s a fabulous scene in School of Rock where Jack Black, masquerading as a teacher, gets asked about his methods. Straight-faced he quotes ‘The Greatest Love of All’ lyrics, written by Linda Creed & recorded by Whitney Houston ‘I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.’ Anyone who has seen the movie will know Jack’s reasons for teaching are intrinsically selfish at first but ultimately he inspires the kids with his passion for music.

Encouraging creativity in schools is so important. Sometimes I feel it can get a little lost amongst the league tables, the desire for academic excellence, the immense pressure on both teachers and children to produce results that exceed target levels. The younger generation, teenagers in particular, often get a bad press. My sons and their friends are polite, friendly, with a passion for politics and the environment that would put many adults to shame.

School visits are something I am doing more and more of. Not for marketing, my psychological thrillers are entirely unsuitable for children and I never take any to sell, or sign, but to share my experience of life inside and outside of education. I still remember that moment nearly thirty years ago when I sat in front of the careers advisor, palms prickling with nerves, stomach churning as I said out loud the thing I had never dared say before. ‘I want to be a writer.’ I still feel the crushing disappointment when she dismissed my dream with words that hit like bullets. ‘That’s not a career. You can’t earn a living from it. Go and work in an office.’ I often wonder if my school had focused a little more on creativity how different my career path might have been. How, if an author had visited and said ‘Yes, you absolutely can make a living writing. I’m doing it,’ whether I wouldn’t have given up quite so easily.

The last thing I want to do is make it seem is that the children’s dream careers are easily achievable but I want to impart that with hard work, determination and positivity there is nothing you can’t at least try to do and to encourage them to never lose that passion for the things we love, because as adults we often do. The things we enjoyed when we were young, cast as frivolous and time wasting, buried under a mountainous pile of routine, bills and domestic drudgery.

Write, paint, draw, sing, mould with clay. Never lose sight of who you are or what you love. The average life span is 4,000 weeks. Make the most of your precious time.

If just one child during tough times, remembers my visit, recalling how once a disabled mother, with limited education, came to their school and said ‘Yes, you can. Don’t give up,’ they might end up paying it forward one day. Encouragement, kindness and love are free to give and easily shared.

 

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.

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.