December Writing Challenge: Year in Review

At the start of every month I ask my Facebook followers to suggest some writing prompts and challenges and then I post the one I chose at the end of the month. This time I picked ‘Best of the Year – the year in highlights’ from Beaton Mabaso. I also picked a prompt from author Paula Harmon which was about a diary – I started this as it inspired a short story but the story kept getting longer and I haven’t quite finished it yet! So I am going with this one, thank you Beaton!

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Like every year before it, 2022 has flown by. There is always that uncomfortable and resentful stumbling into January – the least favourite and most dreaded month. It feels like everything is grim and cold and miserable and it feels impossible that spring and summer will ever return to cheer us. Yet they always do. January gives way to February, and as we fall into March, we start looking ahead again. We look for the first signs of spring – bluebells and daffodils and birdsong. We start to smile again, we start to feel warmed and excited. And then summer comes and it feels like forever but it never lasts as long as we want it to. Autumn creeps in stealthily, the air in the mornings has a crispness to it, the leaves start to tumble. Before we know it we are back where we began – at the end of a year, looking a new one in the eye. Another year of life, another year closer to death.

To be honest, the year has gone so fast for me, I’m struggling to look back on it at all. It was a blur! It barely happened. I was spun around and I’m back here again. But then I remember little bits and pieces, small wins and victories, events and memories, and it all starts to seep back.

In the news of course, 2022 has little to smile about. Lockdowns are a thing of the past, yet covid continues to ravage us. As a family we have definitely had our least healthy year in a while, with my youngest son’s school being pummelled by viruses and illnesses. Currently, there is a lot of fear around the rise of scarlet fever and invasive strep A. Every time a child gets a sore throat, we panic. But, touch wood, we have so far avoided both. My son has had a lot of sick days in 2022 though, more than I am comfortable with and I hope that 2023 sees a healthier year for everyone.

The war in Ukraine is a continuing tragedy. Like any war, it all just seems so pointless. Time and time again, the men in suits send ordinary people out to fight and die, while they argue and see very little of the killing and dying themselves. The war had an impact on fuel prices and inflation has spiralled out of control. The cost of living crisis is the current crisis. Yes, it feels like every year gets its own crisis, its own heartbreaking and frustratingly avoidable emergency.

In the spring petrol stations in the UK ran dry as people panic bought fuel. I joined many a long and winding queue in the hope to fill up the car so I could get to work or get my son to school. We stopped using it as much as a result and my husband started cycling to work and back. The prices and supplies stabilised but it made me think hard about our dependence on fossil fuels and cars. It made me think hard about everything.

In the summer my second daughter sat her A-Levels and I could not be prouder of what she has achieved. She was deeply affected by the lockdowns and her mental health took a real battering. She battled through and in September we drove her to Devon to start her new life at University, studying marine biology and oceanography. She could not be happier. She is loving every second of it. Our first daughter started her second year of creative writing and film studies in Wales and we managed to catch up with her when we had a caravan holiday nearby at the end of August. That little simple holiday was a key happy memory for me. The weather was perfect, New Quay in Wales was just stunning and my husband, myself and our two boys whiled away laidback hours on the beach, building stone cairns with the smooth rocks, collecting smooth pieces of driftwood, having picnics, playing arcade games and eating out. Our caravan was really nice and it was a perfect little break away together.

As for the rest of summer, it was record breaking for all the wrong reasons. The UK saw temperatures soaring above 40 degrees for the first time and we sweltered in heat we are just not built for or used to. The other issue was lack of rain, with many counties declaring hosepipe bans as drought lingered. Again, I thought about what we are doing to our world and what it means for the future. It was tragic to watch the wildlife suffering. The trees started losing their leaves early and you couldn’t find greenery anywhere.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when cooler weather sailed in and for the most part, autumn was kind to us. It could have been equally brutal, sending endless rain and floods our way, but it wasn’t and it stayed mild well into November. During autumn, people were getting increasingly nervous and upset about the huge increases to their heating bills. There has been government support for those struggling the most but no long-term solution has been offered. I’d like to see massive investment in renewables to end our dependence on fossil fuels for good but I can’t see this current lot doing anything radical. Instead we have sticking plasters offered and millions of people afraid to switch their heating on.

And as if it somehow knew, the weather turned bitterly cold and winter arrived with a vengeance. With prices sky high and temperatures lower than they’ve been since 2012, people are stuck with impossible choices, often choosing between heating and eating, and again, I am reminded of our ridiculous dependence on the fossil fuels that are killing our planet.

But for me personally, 2023 has been kind. I’m now running seven children’s writing clubs and throughout this year nearly every one has been full with a waiting list. As a self-employed person, I am constantly nervous about whether people will sign up again, especially now times are getting so tough for so many. To get ahead of the game, I am planning on offering two new clubs in 2023 and I will also start offering workshops via Outschool. Financially, this has been a good year for us, which is weird, but we are both earning more and have two less children at home.

My writing went into some kind of crazed overdrive in 2023!! Sim and I finished and released the first two books in our Fortune’s Well trilogy and the third is due for release early 2023. I published The Old Friend – A Collection of Tales and Poems in April and I fnished the final drafts of all four books in The Day The Earth Turned series. 2023 will be all about me planning the best launch yet, getting amazing covers and releasing them one by one.

As well as working on those two series, I also wrote the first draft of At Night We Played In The Road – which is a spin-off book from The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. That led to me getting ideas about a crossover book, using characters from The Boy series, the Holds End series, The Mess of Me and Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature… Phew! Currently titled The Dark Finds You, once I had the plot outlined, I could not resist diving in and in about six weeks I had written this book too. It wrote itself, to be honest. The story connects Danny from The Boy series, Bill Robinson from Holds End trilogy, Leon from The Mess Of Me and Elliot from Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature in a plot about a missing boy. These books were already connected in small ways so it was very easy to pull the characters all together for this one plot. I loved it and cannot wait to work on the second draft. It will finish off and tie up that whole universe. Once I had written it, I then decided to go and finish the first draft of The Mess of Us, which is obviously the sequel to The Mess Of Me, as I had started it a few years back. That was a harder one to write but I got there! So, now I have the three final books in that universe written in first draft. I will be starting At Night We Played In The Road next, as in terms of the timeline, it’s the next one to finish and release. Then it will be The Mess Of Us and then The Dark Finds You. Plenty to keep me busy then!

But that wasn’t all. In February we had a ten day power cut thanks to storm Eunice and a three week WiFi cut! I couldn’t use my laptop so ended up writing something new in a notebook to keep me busy. Black Hare Valley was an idea already plotted out to some extent, complete with character bios and a detailed map, and this break from technology seemed like a good reason to play with it. I got totally addicted, filled five notebooks and during a three month period, wrote the whole thing. So, that will get worked on at some point too!

As you can see, a crazy year for output and productivity! Oh, I also started putting together a new short story/flash fiction/poetry collection because I’m always accumulating little bits and bobs.

I’m looking forward to 2023 on a personal level. I can’t wait to release more books, dive into second drafts, and maybe even start new books. It is what I love more than anything. I am looking forward to warmer weather, time outside and work on the vegetable plot. I am looking forward to another little family holiday and perhaps a festival or two. I am looking forward to running more writing clubs and seeing where it all goes.

But first, we have Christmas to enjoy! Our food is all bought, our decorations are up, presents are all wrapped, now we just need our eldest back from uni and we are all here and ready to have fun!

What was 2022 like for you? What were your highlights?

And In Your Place, An Empty Space… (another one flies the nest.)

Isn’t it weird and somewhat comforting how music fills our souls when emotions get the better of us? This time last year I could not get Slipping Through my Fingers by Abba out of my head after my firstborn child left home to start university in Wales. That song (and I am not an Abba fan!) has hit me hard so many times over the years of parenthood. It just nails it, doesn’t it? It rang in my head for weeks as I came home each day to the space she had left behind. I couldn’t even look at her bedroom for a while. I kept crying when I was alone. But it got easier.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Now, here I am again. Last Saturday we drove our second oldest child to university in Plymouth. This was in no way easier because we had already been through it once. Children are so different and because of that, you respond to them in different ways. This one hit equally as hard because this lovely young lady had endured a very tough two year period prior to finishing her A-Levels. At one point, I didn’t think she would get through college, let alone make it to university as she appeared so fragile, so young, so confused and afraid and emotional. Instead, we have stood back and watched in awe as she picked herself back up and battled through to come out the other side. In many ways, it made the moment, that last, tight hug, even more bitter sweet. I got emotional and so did she, and I told her that it wasn’t because I was worried about her coping, it was because I was just so very proud of her.

Her moving into halls could not have gone smoother. The university deserves a lot of credit for how welcoming it was, and how well organised. Street signs helped us find where to park and there we were greeted by an army of student ambassadors. One helped our daughter get her key and showed her to her room, while another helped us load her belongings onto a wagon. Brilliant! Then when she returned, we followed her to the room and two students helped carry her things up the stairs to her new home.

The flat was lovely. Warm, and welcoming, clean, fresh carpets, everything very spacious and light. She started grinning when she saw her room, which although a standard university hall room, it was just lovely and felt very homely. Almost instantly, she was greeted by one of her new flatmates who made her feel really welcome and showed her the kitchen. She then met another friendly housemate who just happens to be on her course. My husband and I thought it was probably time to go. We didn’t want to linger and get in the way of her making new friends. So, we had the hug. Tears flowed. We smiled, we laughed, we said goodbye and then we left her and walked back to the car and drove home without her.

I can’t tell you how weird that feels; driving away from your child and leaving them to start the next chapter of their life. We were fine until we turned the corner into our lane and saw our house. Then we both welled up. She wasn’t going to be there. Our little girl, always tiny, even now, she wouldn’t be there. I almost didn’t want to go inside.

Since then, we have had had numerous messages about how much she is enjoying herself. She seems to have settled in really well, made friends quickly and is really excited to start her marine biology degree. Of course, I’ve been worrying about what she’s eating and whether she will be all right using the washing machine, but mostly, I just miss her.

She has left a hole behind. A space in our house. Her bedroom, usually full of music and teenage giggles and conversations with friends late at night, is silent. Inactive. She is a real hugger and I miss that more than anything. And I’ve had The World Has Turned And Left Me Here by Weezer in my head since Saturday. That’s obviously the song I’m going to associate with this moment! Because that’s sort of how it feels, when they pack up and go. Like the world has shifted, moved them on, taken them away from you and as a parent, you’re left at home, still doing the same things, the same chores, work, and the rest of it, but with this empty space lingering around you.

The house seems so quiet now that two of them have gone. My shopping bill has halved. There are only four toothbrushes in the bathroom, instead of six. At one point I used to do a load of washing every day, now it’s two or three times a week. I feel a little lost without them and a little scared by how quickly my babies turned into grown women starting their own lives. My girls were born nineteen months apart so in my early twenties, my days were a whirlwind of constant nappy changes, feeds, naps, playgroups and tantrums, but oh, how I loved it. My proudest moments were pushing my double buggy around town with my beautiful little girls sat inside.

But life goes on, despite how left behind you sometimes feel. I still have my boys at home, I’m still needed by them and the girls moving out makes me appreciate even more how fast life goes, how we should hang tightly to every precious moment and soak it up the best we can.

And I suppose the feeling I am left with the most is pride. The girls still have to finish their degrees, start employment, find homes to rent or buy, and so much more, but they’ve both taken that first step into independent adulthood and I couldn’t be prouder. And I suppose it’s okay to stand back and bask in a little bit of genuine pride. I did my job. I’ll always be their mum and I will always be there for them, but now, most of it anyway, is up to them.

One Toothbrush – A Tale of Days Gone By

At my mother’s house, there is just one toothbrush in the bathroom. And I think about that a lot.

I noticed it a few months ago and it hit me hard. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s become a sort of marker in my mind of life, death, time and family. I realised that one toothbrush is my future.

My mother brought up four children, five if you count the one that wasn’t even hers. At one time she would have brushed her teeth at the end of the day, weary, perhaps frazzled, and there would have been seven brushes in the pot. Then six. Then five when my oldest sister left home. Then four when my father left. Then three, two and then finally, one day, (surely a day that was hugely significant and heartrending for her, but didn’t seem to register at all in my mind…) there was one.

And one day, this will happen to me. Assuming I outlive my husband, after all my children have grown up and left home, it will be just me. Where once there were six toothbrushes, there will only be one. Mine.

And now I think about this every time I brush my teeth and look at their brushes, one less already since my eldest left home for University. One less again when my next daughter leaves in September… One by one, they will all fly the nest and one day, it will be just me.

I think about how that will feel…

Sometimes when I’m really tired, when the demands have come thick and fast, when I crave just a few peaceful minutes to myself to pull myself back together, I look forward to being alone. I’m quite a solitary person and I don’t mind my own company at all. As the years go by I find myself becoming even more introverted, and even less likely to socialise or mingle with crowds. I imagine what it will be like to wake up to a quiet, still house. To go to sleep at the end of the day alone. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me at all. Other times, it fills me with shock and dread. Shock because it slams home how short and fleeting this one life really is, and dread because I sometimes feel motherhood has defined me, so who will I be when they have all gone?

I guess I will find out, just like my mother did.

That single toothbrush caught me off guard. Made me see my mother in a new light. I had never stopped, not once, to think about how she must have felt as we one by one drifted away. I had never, until that moment, stopped to wonder if she ever feels lonely, living alone. Waking up alone, going to bed alone. I felt a surge of guilt and then a surge of fear. That solitary toothbrush stood for so much. A life lived in love, giving more than taking, nurturing, protecting, feeding and clothing and then at the end of it all, sitting alone in a small house, with one of everything.

I wonder how often she looks around and thinks there used to be lots of pairs of shoes in the hall, lots of coats on the hook, lots of mugs in the cupboard, lots of voices and songs and footsteps and calls in the night. I wonder if she wakes up in the morning and thinks, what shall I do today? Who needs me? Is it liberating or lonely? Or both?

I will one day find out.

I have loved being a mother. But I have also understood that a big part of being a mother is learning to let go, almost as soon as you hold them for the first time. They grow so fast and growing is always a form of leaving. They start to crawl, then walk, then run. One day they pull their hand out of yours in case their friends see. One day they tell you not to kiss them in public anymore. One day they ask if they can go out on their bike without you. One day they leave home and you have no idea where they are or what they are doing most of the time, and you have to live with it. Because they have to do it.

At the moment, my eldest is almost twenty and living in another country. I miss her but I want her to do exactly what she is doing. My second eldest will be leaving soon too. My household will shrink again. My eldest son will be going into his final year of school next month and will be making decisions about what he wants to do with his life next. He doesn’t need me for much these days, but I am very lucky that he does still want me. My littlest baby is no longer a baby, no longer so little. He grows taller every time he walks in the room. He has started to strive for independence lately; taking showers by himself instead of me running him a bath, riding his bike down the lane alone, rushing ahead of me to prove he can do things. It’s even harder letting go of the littlest one, but let go I must.

And what I must also do is prepare myself for the time when they have all gone. When I wake up to a quiet, still house just as my mother does. When I go to bed alone and hear no voices or footsteps in the night. For a time when I barely have to run the washing machine. For a time when I only buy the food that I like. For a time when I no longer walk around the house picking up stray shoes, bags, books and toys. For a time when I don’t find random piles of stones and sticks in strange places. For a time when at the end of the day, there is just one toothbrush and me.

I hope the way I feel is pride tinged with sadness, a dose of nostalgia mixed with relief that my time is my own. Imagine how much more writing I will get done! I hope this is how my mother feels at the end of the day when she reaches for that solitary toothbrush. I hope she feels a surge of pride for bringing us into the world and then sending us on our way, fully equipped. I hope she knows it was a job well done, despite the hard times and tough times. I think that I should tell her how hard that one toothbrush hit me, how much it made me think of the speedy retreat of days gone by.

Come Back To What You Know

I’m feeling nostalgic.

I don’t look back on the past with rose-tinted spectacles. I think every decade in human history has been seeped in tragedy, usually man-made, of some kind. But there is something in me at the moment constantly yearning for simpler times.

I wouldn’t do away with the internet or mobile phones, but only for one reason. I’d never sell a single book without either of them!

But I find myself tiring of it all. I suppose everything becomes tiring after a while. Everything loses its shine. Sometimes though, we go back around again, we go full circle and return to things we once turned our backs on.

For me lately, this has been bringing some unexpected comfort in an increasingly fraught, depressing and uncertain world. I’ll just talk about a couple today; things I have returned to and how they are helping me navigate these seemingly endless difficult times.

Walking

I’ve always liked walking. I feel I have some sort of affinity with it, like it is something I am supposed to do. I like how it is so solitary and gives me time to think. So many stories and ideas came from walking when I was a teenager. I thought nothing of walking an hour or more to get to a friend’s house and I hated buses. I would always rather keep walking. I used to run too, mostly in my late teens and my twenties when I got rather caught up in trying to control my figure. But these days, 44 year old me is a bit kinder to myself (most of the time anyway,) and I worry about falling over or hurting my back or my knees. So I think my running days might be over but my walking days have begun again in earnest. I now walk to save money on petrol and I feel good about this. It’s good for my wallet, my body and the planet. I also sort out all my plot holes and writing struggles when I am walking.

Letter writing

During the lockdowns of the pandemic my eldest sister who lives in a very rural location a few hours away from us, started writing letters and cards to my youngest son. He loved this and wrote back every time and they have kept this up ever since. A few months back I decided to join in, so now me and my sister converse through letters. Of course, we text, phone and Whatsapp each other too! But there is something so calm and patient about writing a letter, posting it and waiting for one to fly back to you. Whenever I receive one, I wait for a special moment to read it. I need peace, quiet, a comfy spot and a cup of tea. I have also started writing letters to two friends. It’s not something you do instantly. It’s something you wait until you have time for. And then you go back over everything that has happened since you last wrote and make sure you also address and respond to all their news. This all takes time and that’s what is so nice about it. Knowing that someone took time over doing something for you, knowing the extra effort that went into it – it really is lovely and I feel like people talk differently in letters too. It’s interesting.

Wearing a watch

I got my first mobile phone when I was 19. I think that must have been the last time I wore a watch. I can remember that last watch too because I had it all through my teens and I really loved it. It was a chunky silver Timex and rather than a strap and a buckle to fasten, it was attached to a stretchy silver bracelet. Weird, I know, but it made taking it on and off easier! Gradually it started falling apart and I really missed it. I think I kept the clock head for a while somewhere. After that, phones took over and recently I realised that whenever I need to check the time, I check my phone. I think we all do. But carrying a phone everywhere is getting annoying. They’re not just phones anymore, are they? They’re mini computers we lug around with us, which means we have the entire world in our pocket weighing us down. It’s annoying, especially in the summer when you are less likely to have good pockets! I also thought about all the post-apocalyptic TV I watch and books I read. In that eventuality, phones become useless but watches return. My husband bought me a lovely watch for my birthday and I’m in love with it. I absolutely adore it. I don’t have to take my phone everywhere anymore and I am prepared for the end of the world. Win, win!

Childlike curiosity

There are so many things I don’t know about. I am 44 years old and I still can’t identify that many birds, trees, or plants for example and I know barely anything about the Universe or space… As adults I think we stop being curious. We stop asking questions. I am sure you have all experienced the incessant questioning from a young child who wants to know why, why, why…. I am trying to get back to that. If I don’t know what something is, I am trying to find out. Mostly nature based things! For example, I have a plant identifying app that has helped me learn the names of a lot more plants and trees lately. And I just got this cool app that records and identifies birdsong for you! It’s really addictive.

Collecting stones

Walk around my house and I can guarantee you will find a pile of stones in every room thanks to my youngest son. Like most young children he still has the habit of picking up natural objects that look or feel nice. Sticks and stones mostly. There are sticks everywhere too, though of course really they are guns of various sorts. But stones… I looked the other day and found a pile on the kitchen window sill mixed in with fossils. Another pile on the table. A few more on the side. Some on the stairs. A few in the lounge on the coffee table. A whole gang of them in his room which seem to have been decorated with various spots which apparently mean different things. This stone obsession reminded me that when I was his age I had a whole shoe box of them under my bed. I wasn’t as good as he is at finding cool ones though! He really does have an eye for it. The other day I emptied his school bag and found a whole pile of smooth brown pebbles at the bottom. They were all almost identical in size and colour. Today he brought home a big stone which had been sheared in half at some point, so we could see inside it. My son is right about stones. They are fascinating – apparently pebbles on a beach can be as old as 4 billion years! It’s not like we often get the chance to hold something so ancient in our hands… They can be beautiful, colourful, smooth, jagged, tiny, large. I recently found one with a sad face but then I lost it again, which was sad. Anyway, thanks to my son, my love of collecting random stones just to hold them for a bit has been well and truly rekindled.

Longhand writing

If you follow my social media writing updates, you will know that I often write in longhand. This is also something I have returned to. As a kid I wrote in notebooks of all sizes and shapes. I wrote on anything I could. I was very excited when I got my first electric typewriter! Years later, and it’s all laptops and Word and Google Docs and so on. I still use these things, but I love starting a story off in a notebook. It means I can carry it about with me, write in it at weird times, like when cooking dinner or waiting in the car. Sometimes I end up writing the whole thing in a notebook, just like Black Hare Valley I blogged about last week. Sometimes I’ll get so far then start typing it up. Short stories and poems nearly always start their lives in notebooks these days. There is something about holding a pen in my hand, scratching words out on paper that returns me to me, that makes me feel more connected to it.

What about you? Are there any ‘old-school’ things you have returned to? Or any you never gave up in the first place? I’d love to know so feel free to leave a comment!