Writing, Running, Habit and Obsession

I was once a fat kid obsessed with writing. Back then, real life was just about tolerable if I had my imaginary one to escape to. For I had discovered a magical and powerful thing. Writing could do anything. Writing could take me anywhere. And I was in control. I could have whatever fun I wanted; invent new friends adventures, create whole worlds if I wanted to. If I look back now I can see that need for control was a big factor. A shy fat kid in the middle of a dysfunctional family does not have much control, if any. A shy fat kid at school has even less. But in writing? The shy fat kid can do whatever the hell she wants, because she owns this! It’s liberating, I can tell you. And for many, many years after that, writing was my addiction and my obsession.

I’d endure school and then run home after, up to my room to write. I’d carry notebooks everywhere so that given the chance I could vanish into another world and write. I’d write past my bedtime and first thing in the morning.

Writing was all I ever wanted to do and anything else was just an annoyance and a distraction. Including exercise. I hated PE as a kid. I was chubby and awkward and shy and despised having people watch me fail at something. At least with other subjects at school you can thrive or fail in private, but PE is kind of cruel because your failures are obvious for all to see.

Chubby kids who like reading and writing and being alone shun exercise for obvious reasons and in return what happens? Yep, they get chubbier. Which makes them even less likely to exercise in front of anyone and even more likely to hide in their room with a notebook and pen for as long as they can get away with. What you have is a vicious circle that as a child, you have no idea how to break out from.

And self-loathing builds and builds. I’m not sure what finally made me embrace exercise. With no money, I was limited for choice, so running seemed the best option. I’d always hated running! Though to be honest, it was more the thought of anyone seeing me that was the problem. The estate I grew up on had a horseshoe sized ‘green’ enveloping one side of it. I could access this from the back gate and run around the backs of the houses in a loop. I think I set myself a goal of three times a week but when I started to notice the results, I soon upped that to daily. And I developed a habit, much like my writing one, that benefited my mental health as well as my physical.

They say that to form a habit you must do something every day for 30 days. What started as a habit with running soon became an obsession that I started to view the same way I viewed writing. I had to do it. If I didn’t do it, I didn’t feel good. It would ruin my day. I felt like bad things would happen. I’d lost a lot of weight, between that and some very silly eating habits at the time that haunted me into adulthood, and I really, really, really did not want to risk ever putting that weight back on. I’d been fat and life had been hell. I never ever wanted to be that girl again.

I sometimes wonder where I would have ended up had I not become a mother at the age of 24. I think my obsession with running and my growing fear of food would have got worse. I think I would have carried on writing and possibly would have got published a lot sooner than I did. I don’t think I would ever have let either of my obsessions go.

But motherhood changed everything and rightly so. I was now amazed at my body and in awe of what it had done. When one little girl became two, I had my hands full at a young age, and I also knew that I shouldered a huge responsibility here. I did not want my problems with food and weight and body image rubbing off on them. Writing fell by the wayside. Hard to believe that now, but it really did. I was far too exhausted, overwhelmed and obsessed with my new life as a mother. I was in love and there just wasn’t the time or the energy.

Over the next decade, I had a third child and I sporadically forced myself to run and write. I tried and failed and tried and failed to develop those habits again. I told myself I did not have the time or the energy for either. I told myself I was wary of getting obsessed with them both again, because that wouldn’t be good for my children. And this all went well for a while. I was too busy to consider anything else.

Writing came back to me, or I came back to writing, I’m never sure which way around it was, in the summer of 2011. My then youngest child was due to start school that September and at the time there was no plan to have any more. I suddenly felt horribly afraid and set adrift. I didn’t want him to go to school as not only was I losing my last baby, I was losing the identity I had spent the last decade carving out. Chantelle, the mother.

I hadn’t forgotten about the old me…I just didn’t think she was relevant anymore. I still remember the moment my writing whooshed back into my head, and it was kind of blunt, terrible and painful. I was reading a book and the young character in it reminded me of a character I had created and believed in when I was just 12. I’d written and rewritten his story many times over the years…could I do it again? Could I write again? Was I a writer? As a child and teen that was all I had identified as, but it had been gone so long, did I have any right to try to reclaim it?

I started writing again after finishing the book that had reminded me of my long lost character. I was so embarrassed at first, I wrote in a notepad and hid it if anyone walked in the room. I didn’t dare tell anyone what I was up to because I was suffering badly from imposter syndrome! And I wrote every day, without fail and that built the habit back up and the habit soon became an obsession again. It devoured me. I started writing every evening without fail and any other spare moment I had. I started this crazy, up and down writing and publishing journey and the arrival of a fourth child did nothing to slow me down and I have not looked back. I could never, ever stop writing now. I still can’t believe I let it go for so long…

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

— Franz Kafka

But what about running? Could I claim that obsession back too and was it healthy or sensible to even try? Over the last year or so I’ve noticed major fluctuations in my mood which I am now blaming on the perimenopause. If you’ve not heard of the perimenopause, don’t worry, neither had I, and I will be blogging about this another day. In short simple terms, its the period of time before the actual menopause and women start suffering from a variety of symptoms that for a while, they probably won’t attribute to anything other than life stress.

I don’t want to go into it too much in this post but the way I had been feeling for no real reason, was very, very similar to how I felt as a teenager. That intensity of mood and emotion that can shift at the slightest thing. Intrusive thoughts about how rubbish I am, cruel thoughts about how pointless my life is. Lovely stuff like that. Incredible anger. Deep sadness. And most of all? Just wanting to be alone. The worrying thing was the effect on my mental health, particularly before I did some research and found out about the perimenopause. I was feeling horrible, to put it mildly. I was crying a lot for no reason. I was focusing on body image more than I had done in a very long time, and given my past issues, this was not a good thing.

One night I was sat writing and crying when I suddenly felt the most powerful urge to move. To get up and run. It was like my mind telling me to get the hell out of there and move. It seemed stupid and my other mind tried to talk me out of it. I was too tired, it was nearly dark and so on. But I ignored that one and I did it.

Now, what normally happens with me and running since I became a mother almost 17 years ago, is I can keep it up for a bit and aim for 3 times a week, not be too hard on myself etc, but that’s not enough to build a habit. Inevitably I miss a few, and that turns into missing a few weeks and the weeks turn into months, just like what used to happen with writing.

This time? I have decided to run every single day without excuses. I do have the time. It’s 20 minutes usually. I have managed to stick at this for over a week now and the difference in my mood is astounding. I have not felt down, sad or angry once this week. I have felt more energetic, more motivated, more rational than I have in a long time. I feel proud of myself too. And we’re not very good at that are we? But I am proud of myself. It feels good. It feels right.

We all know that exercise is good for our mental health, and most of us know that writing is also good for it. Very good, I’d argue. If I can manage to hold onto both of these habits (yet try to stop them becoming obsessions) then I will be very happy indeed and heading in the right direction. I just might be able to get through this perimenopause thing unscathed and have the energy and mind power to deal with the actual menopause!

Advertisements

The Spirit Of Christmas For Non-Believers

Quite a few years back when my eldest daughter was around 8 or 9 years old, she came home from school upset and cross because her teacher had told her that people who don’t believe in God or Jesus should not celebrate Christmas. I was pretty pissed at the time, not least because it’s a rather cruel thing to tell a young child, who had no say at that age over her families choice of religion or lack of.

christmas-3836693_640

I’ve never been religious. I was not raised with a religion, and neither was my mother or her mother before her. Like everyone else, I learned about the different religions at school and I understood that the predominant religion in England was Christianity. This meant that we had to sing hymns in school assemblies and say prayers.

I often wondered if God was real at that age, and I used to say the odd awkwardly hopeful prayer when I wanted something, but that was about it. Of course, as I grew older I thought about religion in more depth and like the rest of the family, I concluded happily that there probably was not a God. I won’t go into the ins and outs of this thought process, as this isn’t a post about atheism or religion. I’m perfectly happy with the idea of no God or Heaven, and though I am also prepared to keep an open mind about anything and everything, I can’t say any religion or indeed any religious person has ever been able to convince me otherwise.

This is a post about Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, as we see played out in every school nativity across the country at this time of year. (Even though I don’t buy the story, I do get tearful every time I watch small children in a nativity!) But if you’re not Christian, or indeed religious at all, then why celebrate Christmas? What’s the point? What’s it all about?

My husband finds it hard to justify. He also grew up in a non-religious household and he finds it hard to understand the yearly fuss and stress that comes with Christmas. He sees it as consumerism and materialism gone mad, and he’s probably right. Our poor planet could do without the extra plastic and packaging that goes on at this time of year. So, if we want to reject all that, and we’re not religious either, then why celebrate Christmas?

retro-gifts-1847088_640.jpg

Well, my reasons are personal and I’m going to list them below. Not because I feel I have to justify anything to anyone, but because I think it’s an interesting subject and because it’s what sprang to mind when I thought about writing a Christmas related blog post!

  1. All my favourite parts of Christmas stem from the Winter Solstice …  The way various cultures have celebrated the Winter Solstice led to so many of our Christmas traditions. Pagans, for example, would mark the shortest day of the year by slaughtering cattle so that they would not not have to feed them over the hard winter months, and at this time the wine and beer were fully fermented, hence the traditional feasting we know so well. The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian tradition from Scandinavia, and is where we get the word yule from. Fires were lit and a log was dropped into the hearth as a tribute to the Norse God Thor. Saturnalia was the ancient Romans way of celebrating the Winter solstice, and involved banquets, gift-giving and a party atmosphere. So many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are pagan in origin or have evolved from ancient cultures marking the shortest day. The Christmas Tree, wreath, holly and ivy, fires, candles, feasting, and giving to charity to name but a few. I wish I’d known this when I was younger, but I was able to explain this to my daughter when she was upset. I suppose technically if you’re going to celebrate the Winter Solstice in this way then you ought to do the whole thing on the shortest day of the year and not on the 25th. My son wanted to do this last year, but instead, we decided to mark the shortest day with pagan inspired ideas and save our gift-giving for the 25th. So this Winter Solstice we will be making bird feeders and hanging out for the birds, bringing in holly, ivy and fir cones to decorate the house, making a chocolate yule log, lighting a fire and putting together our Winter Solstice altar.
  2. Christmas is a time for nostaligia and I love a bit of that… It’s the end of the year. We all slow down a bit. The kids are off school, there are days off work, and more time than usual to sit and reflect. There is something so nostalgic about this time of year and I think it affects us all. We can’t help but look back on Christmases of the past, the good and the bad. I always think back to my childhood Christmases, and of course, over the years I have copied some of the family traditions we had then with my own kids. I talk to my kids about Christmases that stick in my mind and I smile sadly and think about the food we ate back then, the relatives no longer with us, the things we watched on Tv. It;’s no wonder I get a bit emotional this time of year!
  3. Christmas is a time for giving… My eldest daughter has just turned 16 and for the first time this year she went out shopping without us and bought us all a present using her own money. we have no idea what she got us, and I and my husband were so surprised an touched by her thoughtfulness. This is the first time one of the kids has used their own money to buy something for the family and I think it’s lovely. What’s even more lovely is how excited she was about it! I think she’s now at the age where she realises that choosing thoughtful gifts for your loved ones is actually way more exciting than receiving them. This is something that comes with age and maturity. When you’re a little kid you just want the presents! As you get older, you begin to find true joy in choosing gifts for the people you love, things that will mean something to them and let them know how you feel about them.
  4. Christmas is a time for hope… It is an optimistic time of year. People tend to be more forgiving, thoughtful and reflective. As the year draws to an end, we look forward to the next one and think about how we want it to be. Perhaps we want to make changes, try new things, make amends, and even do our bit to make the world a better place.
  5. Christmas is a crazy, often tacky, quite bizarre, exciting, nostalgic, reflective chaos and if you’ve got kids it’s even more so… Christmas changes. It doesn’t stay the same. When you’re a little kid it’s all excitement and jumping up and down and hanging out your stocking and writing to Father Christmas…Then when you grow up a bit and enter your teens and early adulthood it becomes less about family and more about friends. I remember some great Christmases around that age, hitting the pubs and clubs, all dressed up and sparkly, and swapping silly joke presents with my friends! It becomes about drinking and hangovers. Then you have kids of your own and it changes again. You bring back traditions you loved as a kid, and you create your own. You spend all year picking up things you know they will love. You thrive on their excitement as the big day gets closer. You happily feed the frenzy of Santa’s sleigh bells and reindeer and leaving out milk and cookies, and watching Elf and Home Alone. You get to do it all again! And then I imagine, as they get older and grow up and leave home, it changes again. I quite look forward that sometimes, as much as I adore the current crazy we have at this time of year. I sometimes imagine me and my husband as old people, slowing down, enjoying time together, drinking some home-made cider and wine and falling asleep in front of the TV.

gingerbread-house-3873431_640

So, there we have it. Reasons I love Christmas and have always loved it despite not being remotely religious. I think this is a special, sparkly time of the year for anyone who enjoys it. I think the trick is to think about what it means to you and go with that. It can be a weird and stressful time of year, but it really doesn’t need to be. At the end of the day, all you really need are your friends, family, some good food and a drink or two! I absolutely love this time of year, although I’ve had my fair share of horrible Christmases and many moments of wondering what the point is. I don’t stress about it at all now. I do it exactly the way I want to do it and love every moment. Merry Christmas folks!! Have a good one!!

Barefoot On The Cobbles – Guest Post by Janet Few

Dr Janet Few.JPG

When Chantelle kindly offered to allow me to pay a visit to her blog, she said that her own writing was gritty, contemporary and non-conformist. I reckoned that I could manage at least two out of three. Then I discovered that her blog was called Glorious Outsiders and that certainly had a resonance. I am here to talk about my new novel Barefoot on the Cobbles and my slightly eccentric life; Glorious Outsiders abound!

Before I was any sort of published author, I was and still am, an historian. As such, I am not particularly interested in politics or tales of the great and good. I am fascinated by ordinary people, how they lived and the influences that underlie their behaviour. If I say that the presentations that I give on historical topics include aspects of witchcraft, mental health, non-conformist religion and the role of women, you might get the idea. It is the marginalised who intrigue me the most; truly the outsiders.

I am also a keen family historian. I seek out my ancestors and pay tribute to all those from whom I descend. These are not rich people, nor are they anyone who is well-known but they are those who, if it were not for me, might be forgotten. I have several non-fiction books in my portfolio; books about social history, genealogy and local history. I had reached a lull in ideas for more non-fiction topics, so I thought it was time to turn to fiction. I hadn’t written ‘stories’, since I was an angst-ridden teenager. I was all set to craft a very different novel, when the tragedy upon which Barefoot on the Cobbles is based came to my attention. It was a story that was not recalled in local folklore, which piqued my interest. So, in a way, I still haven’t written fiction, as this is the retelling of a true story. I did find that my historian’s instincts had to be suppressed at times. Although very little in the book is pure invention, there were occasions when I had to create plausible scenarios to fill in the gaps in the historical record. At first, I found it very difficult to convince myself that I really could just make it up!

Barefoot is set, in the early years of the twentieth century. This era provided me with plenty of scope, encompassing as it does, the First World War, the fight for women’s suffrage, the influenza epidemic, the dawning of a social conscience and medical care in pre-NHS days, all of which feature in the book. So, from that point of view, the novel is not contemporary, yet the emotions that my characters experience are recognisable today; the psychological make-up of human beings does not change.

3d

In Barefoot on the Cobbles you will find a narrative set in the beautiful Devon landscape; communities whose lives were shaped by the sea. So not just real people but real, recognisable places. There are scenes in the local asylum, on a battlefield, in court and on deathbeds. I think that qualifies as gritty. It isn’t all doom and gloom because the characters’ lives shaded from joy to despair, as do our own. As I struggle to answer the question, ‘What is your book about?’ I often say it is about people and the incidents in their pasts that led to the tragedy that is the culmination of the novel. It is a ‘why-done-it’.

Who then are Barefoot’s non-conformists, the Glorious Outsiders? The person who became the main character is a fisherman’s wife, who is past middle-age and described by some of her neighbours as ‘odd’. On the surface, her behaviour seems unconventional and the novel seeks to explain why this is so. Apart from this desperate mother, you will meet the troubled daughter, the reluctant soldier, the traumatised engineer, the militant suffragette, the alcoholic bankrupt and others on the side-lines.

I will leave you with the blurb and if you want more information, it can be found on my own blog The History Interpreter http://bit.do/bfotc

“In the euphoria of the armistice a young woman lay dying. Daisy had grown up, barefoot on the cobbles, in a village on the rugged North Devon coast; she was mindful of the perils of the uncertain sea. Her family had also been exposed to the dangers of disease and the First World War but for Daisy, it was her own mother who posed the greatest threat of all. What burdens did that mother, an ordinary fisherman’s wife, carry? What past traumas had led, inexorably, to this appalling outcome?

Vividly recreating life at the dawning of the twentieth century, Barefoot on the Cobbles is based on a real tragedy that lay hidden for nearly a hundred years. Rooted in its unique and beautiful geographical setting, here is the unfolding of a past that reverberates unhappily through the decades and of raw emotions that are surprisingly modern in character.”

Barefoot on the Cobbles – a Devon tragedy ISBN: 978-1-911438-54-0 is published by Blue Poppy Publishing https://bluepoppypublishing.co.uk and paperback copies can be obtained from them. It is available on Kindle from Amazon, in various English-speaking countries. The link for the UK is https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07K3YMYRV

 

Slipping Through My Fingers…

Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning
Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile
I watch her go with a surge of that well known sadness
And I have to sit down for a while

I’d never even heard the song until I took my daughters to see Mamma Mia at the cinema. They were only little at the time, just four and five years old. And I don’t even like Abba, or any ‘pop’ music for that matter. But when that song came on, accompanied by the character of Donna helping her daughter get ready for her wedding day, well, the tears just flowed down my face. It was quite ridiculous and embarrassing. But it was just every word, you know? And I got this image in my head, of the first time I’d had those same emotions about my little girl. My eldest, two years old, running off ahead of me down an alley behind the flat we lived in at the time. I remembered watching the back of her, her long blonde hair swinging from side to side, and I had this sudden, startling image of her starting school, which up until that moment had always seemed an impossible thing. But I could suddenly see her, school uniform on, hair in neat plaits, school bag on her shoulder…

It hit me in the cinema, maybe twice as hard. They were both already at school by that point, and my third child was just a year old, and I already knew how fast it went, how the time, and the children, slipped through your fingers.

Well, my eldest turns sixteen this very week, so this song is back in my head again. And tomorrow, my fourth and youngest child starts school. Gulp. I had tears in my eyes for the duration of my dog walk this morning. And that bloody song going around and around and around…

The feeling that I’m losing her forever
And without really entering her world
I’m glad whenever I can share her laughter
That funny little girl

These words come back to taunt me now my little man is about to start school, and I can’t deny that’s exactly how it feels; like I’m losing him forever. Of course, I know I’m not and in many of my more rational moments, I imagine how much more work I’m going to get done now. And how he won’t have to be dragged out on so many dog walks, and I won’t always be saying; come on, come on, hurry up.

Slipping through my fingers all the time
I try to capture every minute
The feeling in it
Slipping through my fingers all the time
Do I really see what’s in her mind
Each time I think I’m close to knowing
She keeps on growing
Slipping through my fingers all the time

I’ve tried, since he was born, to capture every minute, to soak up every part of it, to live and exist in that one moment, that one speck of existence. I breastfed him much longer than the other kids…there was no hurry for any of it to pass…I carried him in a sling until he was too big, just clinging to that feeling, the weight of his little body against mine, the feel of his soft, fat cheek, the smell of his curly, wispy hair.

And it never feels possible or real that they will grow older and go to school. It just doesn’t. Because you live in the moment with small children. They are always just the age they are. Soon you can’t quite remember or grasp who they were last year, what they looked like, what they could do and not do, and in the same way, you can’t see too far forward. You can’t imagine them much older. You just can’t. They are always just sort of stuck.

So it hits you hard, I think. Letting them go. And I know, he will have so much fun, and he will learn so much more, and I understood a long time ago that motherhood is really just a long process of gradually letting go. From the moment they start to walk and talk, to the first moment they pull their hand out of yours, to that all-important milestone, the first day of school.

This week I have watched as countless Facebook mummies have posted back to school pictures of their children, and it gets to me every time. All those fresh, smiling faces. Polished shoes, neat hair, book bags waiting to be filled. You can see all their potential and hope and optimism and you hope they get to hang onto all of it for as long as possible. You want each and every one of them to feel excited, and curious and valued. You want them all to be okay. And I know, that behind every back to school photo, behind every beaming smile, is a tearful mother feeling a mixture of so many things.

Bewilderment that it all went so fast. Relief, that they are going to get some life and time back for themselves. Perhaps excitement as they start a new chapter in their own life, maybe a new job or another opportunity that had to be put on hold. Worry for the child. Will they fit in? Will they be able to cope? Will they have nice, understanding teachers? Will they make friends? Sadness that an era has come to an end. That you can’t ever go back. Can’t stride into those photos you took when they were just a baby, can’t scoop them back up and feel them rest their tiny head on your shoulder. It’s always onwards. To the future. The next part of life.

Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture
And save it from the funny tricks of time
Slipping through my fingers (Slipping through my fingers all the time)

With those words ringing in my head, I just ironed all the little name labels onto his uniform, and double checked his book bag, shoes and PE kit are all ready to go in the morning. He’s only doing three hours for Christ’s sake! It will be time to go back and get him before I know it! But the first day leads to the second, and eventually to full-time school, to years slipping through my fingers that I won’t be able to grasp onto no matter how much I want to slow it all down…

So, this mummy will try to be brave in the morning. I’ll have a mantra in my head, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry… I’ll have a great big smile on my face and I will have to absolutely refuse to let that song inside my head. Not even for one second. I’ll get him ready and I’ll see him off and I’ll do the hardest and most important thing you do as a mother.

I’ll let go.

Just for a bit.

39395236_2029498557069399_3170160290830483456_n