Sunshine Through The Fear

We are nearing the end of Lockdown Week 2 and with no idea how long this will go on for, we push on, day by day, tentatively and with hope. I have so many things whirling around in my head that by the end of the day I’m always a bit emotional. As always, the best thing for me is to write about it.

Days have taken on a new reality. A sort of unreality. Surreal and at times confusing. At other times, it feels like the new and established normal. Humans are nothing if not adaptable. It’s hard to believe that a few weeks ago the corona virus was still something we felt we could hold at arms length and generally ignore. Something on the news, something vague and distant. It didn’t take long for the truth to catch us up. It was like hitting a brick wall. There you are then. No hiding under the bed. This is it. The new reality sees many of us jobless and forced to stay at home as much as possible. Unable to mix with our friends or family outside of those in our own houses. Real, normal life has changed beyond recognition. And we all go along with it. Day by day.

I blogged last week about the positive aspects I hoped could possibly come out of all of this and I still stand by those. At the very least, this forces us all to stop. To pause, to breathe, to think. I know I can’t be the only one considering the ‘old’ aspects of my life and wondering which ones I miss and which ones I don’t. But as the death toll escalates at an alarming daily rate, I am also choked with fear.

As my husband leaves the house every day to risk his life, we stay at home. We don’t have to set alarms, so sometimes we lie in. We do PE with Joe Wickes or we run circuits around the garden. We divvy up snacks for the day and my 5 year old sells them in his little shop. We start schoolwork around ten and as my older three are well, older, they sort themselves out which makes me luckier than most, only having to home school one child. And what a child…His light, his laughter, his love, his wide blue eyes and infectious giggles are steering us all through our days.

I work with children ordinarily and used to be childminder so I was never going to struggle too much with homeschooling. The second week has been much easier and we have a good routine now and my little boy has been so good for me. There is far less bribery this week!! I really feel like my little boy is saving my sanity, instead of eroding it as I feared he would.

He soaks up everything I show him or tell him. He whizzes through his phonics and his maths. He loves writing independantly and he told us this very seriously today, pencil poised above paper. I love writing, he said. I could have cried. He completes the literacy tasks sent by school. We usually have our dog walk and exercise around 11am and this always involves pretending to be in a zombie apocalypse. Home for lunch. He loves the forest school, art and science activities the most. We have made natural mandalas, clay faces on trees, sit spots, stone cairns and nature colour wheels. His enthusiasm and his simple, spontaneous joy make me feel like I can do this. And we are doing this. Like everyone else. Day by day. Because we have to.

There are aspects I find tough. I am used to being alone and I love being alone. My normal week would involve a lot of driving around and a lot of running writing classes and groups and a lot of working on the laptop. But I am finding ways around this. I am ensuring I have at least two long baths a week, usually with a glass of wine and a good book. I make sure the little one is entertained by the others so I don’t get disturbed. Trust me, this is essential. I need time on my own. In the evenings, since we signed up to the free Netflix trial I have been indulging in TV time with the rest of the family and so far we are onto Season Two of Stranger Things and loving it. It’s nice to find something we can all watch and enjoy together. Shared experiences are vital to get through this. After that I shut myself away in my room and get on with writing. I edit what will be the next release and then I work on fresh writing in a notebook. It saves my sanity and keeps me me.

The daily death toll is something that my husband seems keen to keep an eye on. Part of me would rather not know. I do not have the news on throughout the day as I do not want to scare the kids. I guess my husband has a vested interest in knowing how bad things are getting due to the fact he is still out there working through this. But it is terrifying. And if I pause long enough in the middle of everything to think about it, I feel the fear like a shard of ice that stops everything. There are death tolls for every country, infection rates, survival rates, advice on how to avoid it. Every now and then it hits you so hard…Everything has changed and will probably never be the same again.

But you can’t let fear rule you. You can’t stay in bed or sit and cry all day. All of us are discovering how resilient and adaptable we are and we should be proud of ourselves. Me? I’m discovering or maybe rediscovering how joyful and positive it is to be around a young child. Working in the garden the other day I noticed all the changes there…The clay faces we moulded onto the fir trees, complete with feather headdresses and stones for eyes…the chalk rainbow on the driveway…the glass jars filled with magical potions… the chalk mural on the wall…the army den constructed around the swing-set…the sit spot at the far end brightened by the primroses we planted up there…the beautiful mandala we made on the picnic table…and I smiled, almost cried if I’m honest. One day everything will start up again…school and work and driving about and there will be less time for outdoor art and science experiments in the garden.

I think the best thing I can do right now is soak up the sunshine from my little lad, from all of my children, from everything bright and green and alive around me and use that to keep going and keep smiling. Embrace this unexpected pause in normality and use it to breathe again, to assess life, to appreciate love and to build it all up stronger than it was before.

What’s keeping you going through these strange and scary times? Feel free to comment and share!

Salainis

I had learned already many of the Outland methods of communicating by forest notes rather than trust to the betraying, high-pitched human voice.

None of these was of more use to me than the call for refuge. If any Outlier wished to be private in his place, he raised that call, which all who were within hearing answered.

Then whoever was on his way from that placed hurried, and whoever was coming toward it stayed where he was until he had permission to move on.

The Lane of a Thousand Stories

It’s not just a lane. To those who don’t know. But then nothing is ever just something. Everything is much, much more than that. To us, the lane is alive with a thousand stories. Millions of lives. Endless possibilities.

For me and you, hand in hand, it’s not just a lane, is it? It’s an adventure waiting to happen. It’s Doctor Who and Clara. It’s sticks turned into sonic screwdrivers. It’s the Tardis waiting for us back home. It’s mud monsters that will drag you down. It’s Cybermen and Daleks and Zygons. It’s a stretch of concrete that twists and turns, and it’s me watching your little legs running down it as fast as you can, yelling over your shoulder to run from the monsters. It’s me, forever tensed that a car will round the corner too fast.

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They are not just puddles in the lane. They are wonders to explore with stones and sticks and welly boots that never quite manage to keep the water out. They are covered with ice to crack and slip on. They are deep with mud to squelch and squerch through. We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going on a bear hunt. They are not just puddles. They are portals to another world. Many worlds. Worlds with trees and telephone lines inside them. Worlds with a mystery face staring right back at yours.

They are not just bushes! Not just a hedgerow to hurl rubbish into. They are blackberries in the summer. Your little hands reaching in to pluck juicy berries from between the thorns. Your sleeve getting snagged on brambles. Your face smeared with red. They are alive, teeming with small unseen lives that run adjacent to ours, unknown. They are buzzing with bees and birds and butterflies, who go about their private lives without fuss or blunder. Who live never to question or worry. Me and you know they are there. And there is not a bush we don’t walk by without knowing or thinking.

Hello Mr Robin. Mr Blackbird. Mrs Blackbird. The shy Heron who takes off should you get too close. The noisy geese. The silent swans. The otters we have never seen. The rabbits in the fields and the buzzards on the telephone poles. The woodpecker drumming. Swifts and starlings and magpies and our favourite, the mighty crow. The crow rules the world, or so we secretly believe. With his knowing caaw and his murder of companions, they could take us all on, should they want to.

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It’s not just a bridge, is it? It’s poo sticks and science. It’s sygnets and ducklings. It’s where we collect conkers in the Autumn. And it’s not just a river, it’s a ford, a fork, an expanse of water fit for paddling. Your favourite place. Your tree dragon and the swing and sitting on the fallen tree, trying to catch tiddlers in a jar. Mucky feet and cold toes. Snacks in the pushchair. Summer. Shady spot, dragonflies and damselflies. Kicking the water. Us and the dogs and me lost in time, caught between now and us, this life and an old one. Me and my sister, stood in the river, captured in a moment that has lasted forever, the sunlight perfect, illuminating our small lives, fishing nets in hand, shadows dancing. At the river, I am full of a thousand memories and with you, I am making a thousand more.

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The lane seems so long when you walk so slow. It’s me saying hurry up, walk faster, come on, come on then, can you at least walk in the right direction? It’s you, picking up stones and sticks and conkers and leaves, staring at bugs, helping them cross the road, saying ‘that’s sad’ when you spot something dead because the lane is not just full of life, it’s full of death and we see it daily. Creatures too slow for the cars. It’s me in a hurry. Urging you on. Rolling my eyes. Come on, come on I’ve got stuff to do. Hurry up and I’ll get you a hot chocolate when we get in.

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It’s not just a lane. It’s songs and silliness and passing the time. It’s make-believe and storytelling and laughter and tears. Death and life and why? Why Mum? Why?

It’s not just a lane. It’s Nature, who was here first with the blackberries and the hawthorn and the Oaks and the Hazel and the dandelions, bluebells and daisies. It’s all the things that exist despite us and will go on after us. But for now, for a moment, it is our lane. Not just a lane, but our world and a thousand stories and lives.

Nothing is ever just something.

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10 Ways I Eliminated Stress From Christmas

It sometimes feels to me like two types of people exist in the run-up to Christmas. There are the ones who love Christmas, who embrace each and every part of it, who put their tree and decorations up in November (I don’t get that!) and who adore every single tediously over-played Christmas song. They love Christmas shopping because they love shops! Because they love people! They are full of the joys and the jollities and don’t understand why others are so bah-humbug about it. Which brings me to the miseries. Snapping and snarling at anyone who mentions Christmas too soon. Rolling their eyes if Tesco has mince pies for sale in September. Then they’re running about scowling and muttering, barging others out of the way as they try to get their Christmas shopping done last minute. They don’t enjoy Christmas. They find it stressful! And it can be stressful, let’s face it. I’ve had my share of stressful Christmases. Ones I wanted to be over before they had even begun. I’ve had tears and tantrums and regrets, and plenty of muttering under my breath; I’m doing it differently next year! We’re all searching for the perfect Christmas as portrayed in the ads and the movies, yet we all know it doesn’t exist! So why do we try?

I have chipped away at Christmas induced stress over the years and every year it gets better and less stressful. Why? Well, let me tell you what I did!

  1. I Stopped Cooking A Turkey – I’d spent too many years watching that damn bird cook in the oven, taking up all the space, causing all the stress about whether it’s cooked properly or not, or is going to be ready on time. Then one year my husband said, why do we even buy one? We don’t even like it. And he was right. We don’t eat turkey any other time of the year. Given a choice, when I was a meat-eater, I would have preferred chicken every time. Why did we feel we had to be slaves to a tradition? So we stopped and replaced it with meat we did like, such as chicken and lamb. My eldest and I are vegetarian so we make veggie pies. It’s been about eight years since I last tried to cook a stupid massive, dry, boring turkey. Less stress! turkey-1917130_640.jpg
  2. I Got Strict With Relatives – when I was a kid I loved a big family Christmas. Nan and Grandad and Uncle Colin, Mum and Dad, us four kids and big sister’s boyfriend all around the table together. Such fun! But it wasn’t bloody fun for my poor mother, was it? I soon learned this the hard way. Over the years we’ve had various relatives around at Christmas, and we’ve slowly become braver at establishing ground rules. Such as, you won’t still be here eating and drinking and keeping the baby awake at 11pm. We used to feel guilty, but we don’t anymore. This is our family and our time and we’re quite happy to have people over and feed them, but it has to be within a set time. Come at this time, go at this time. We need our time to slop about in pjs and watch films together, just us. It was horrible when we first had to mention it, but now it’s fine and we never get anyone outstaying their welcome
  3. I Have A Christmas Notebook – I’ve done this for years and it saves me so much stress and time! Quite simply, it’s a notebook which rolls through a fair few years and when it’s full I start a new one. I write the year on a page, and on the following pages, I write who I’m buying for and what I will buy them. There is a stocking list page for the kids and a Christmas Eve box page, a main present page, a page for my husband, a page for my mum, other relatives and so on. When I buy something I tick it off the list, even if it’s something really tiny for a stocking. I know I’ve done it then and I stay on track. I started doing this about ten years ago, I think. I used to just buy presents, chuck them in the cupboard and then have to get them out to count them every now and then, or to check what I had bought. Now, it’s all in the notebook! Easy!
  4. I start buying in January – I don’t go mad, but if I see something cheap or reduced, or something that won’t go out of date like pens, or socks, for example, I’ll grab it and stick it in the cupboard. I then start seriously in June and ramp it up another notch in September. Each year I’ve finished earlier than the year before. I hate shopping, so I like to get it done as soon as possible.
  5. I buy most of it online – Pretty much all of it actually. I hate shops and people and crowds at this time of year so I avoid them entirely and do it all online. Sitting at my desk in the warmth and comfort of my own home, with a cup of tea on the go, I can browse the net and get the best deals and research what to get people and get through it all pretty easily. Thank goodness for the internet. I can still recall the nightmarish Christmas shopping trips before online shopping. Ugh.
  6. I wrap up as I go along – Okay, actually it was one of my daughters who started this. She gets so excited about Christmas she likes to start wrapping in October so I let her! She doesn’t wrap her own obviously but most days she wraps up a few things for me, which means there is hardly anything to do come Christmas Eve. I spent far too many Christmas Eve’s sat on the floor with cellotape stuck between my teeth, running out of wrapping paper and losing the scissors! Now that never happens because it is all done.
  7. I’ve cut down what I buy and simplified it – My kids are good and they don’t ask for much anyway. But other years have seen me stressing out about what to buy other people, you know, the ones who always say ‘oh nothing’ when you ask them. Or the ones who already have everything they need. I used to worry about what to buy them but I don’t now. If I can’t think of anything cool and they haven’t asked for something specific then they get a voucher. Sorted. I’d rather spend the brain time thinking about what to get my kids.
  8. We started our own traditions – Christmas is such a time of traditions, and I do like this aspect of it. But the trick is to shake off the ones that annoy or stress you and invent your own! A few years back I saw a thing on Facebook about Christmas Eve boxes. I always gave the kids pjs on Xmas eve anyway,  and I really liked the idea of packing up a book and some hot chocolate or something too so I started it. We’ve been doing it for about five or six years now I think and the kids love it! This was never a thing when I was a kid but hey, traditions can change! Last year we started a new one. Secret Santa. We put our names in a hat and everyone picked out a person to buy a present for secretly. We all got £5 and the only rule is it had to be something that person would appreciate. This was so much fun and we made sure to leave the Secret Santa presents to the end of the day when everything else was over. We’ve done it again this year and I think we always will. My 10-year-old son asked me if we could also celebrate Yule and the winter solstice this year so we are. We researched ways to do this and have made a list of ways we can celebrate this time of year, such as bringing logs and greenery into the home, doing some baking and arts and crafts and giving back to nature by decorating a tree with bird food. We can’t wait!ivy-456550_640.jpg
  9. I don’t do Christmas cards – I stopped giving people Xmas cards about 6 or 7 years ago. It just seemed so silly! If I see you a lot, I can say HappyChristmass. If I see you on the day, why do I need to give you a card as well? And if I hardly see you at all, isn’t there a reason for that? I don’t want trees to be cut down for this wasteful silliness! I can see why it would have been nice when the Victorians invented it. They didn’t have phones, emails or social media. There are so many ways to wish people happy Christmas these days, why do we feel the need to slave over a giant pack of cards, dutifully crossing people off a long list? Cut out the stress and stop doing cards. No one cares if you do, I promise.
  10. I don’t buy much food – I used to write extensive lists of things I thought we had to have. The world would end if we didn’t have these things! A tin of Quality Street, a box of Roses, a family box of biscuits and so on. Why??? I’ve cut it right down. I don’t want all that crap in the house. Yes, we will have some candy canes and chocolate decorations on the tree and yes the kids get a tube of sweets and chocolate coins in their stockings. I’ll buy the meat and vegetables for the roast dinner and the crackers and cheese etc for the evening meal. I’ll make sure there is hot chocolate and squirty cream and there will be something a bit nicer for breakfast too, like brioche or croissants. The kids get bought chocolate by other people, so I really don’t need more in the house. I’ve had years where the unhealthy food dragged on for weeks after the day, making us all feel yukky. Not anymore. We don’t need to have a house crammed full of food just because it’s Xmas! I do make my own Xmas cake and mince pies and we also make our own gingerbread creation. That is more than enough!gingerbread-house-2538660_640.jpg

So, there we have it. One happy, peaceful, silly, family Christmas. It took me years to achieve this but now it feels like the norm. I told my daughter that I was blogging about stress at Christmas, and she replied with ‘but we don’t have any stress at Christmas.’ Yay!

Over to you guys. What stresses you out about Christmas? Have you changed things over the years to ease the pressure, and if so what? Please feel free to comment and share!

It’s Ok To Ask For Help

I’ve never been very good at asking for help, and I blame my parents for this. With the best of intentions, they brought us kids up to be polite, and not ask for things. It was one of the most repeated mantras of my childhood. ‘Don’t ask for anything! Wait until you are offered!’ I can see why they drummed this into us. They didn’t want their children to be brattish or demanding. They thought children who marched into someone’s house and asked for an ice lolly were rude. I can clearly remember playing in the garden at my Nan and Grandad’s house on various hot summer days. We knew the ice creams were kept in the chest freezer in the cellar. We knew our doting Nan would give us one if we asked, but we didn’t dare. We kept egging each other on, urging one of us to go and ask for an ice cream. I expect we worked up the nerve eventually, but it definitely took some time!

Not asking for things in sweet shops and toy shops was the norm. My mum would have given us ‘the look’ if we had ever dared. She always said it was much nicer to give a child something they had not been expecting. But the trouble is, not asking for treats becomes translated by a child into not asking for anything, including help. Take me in the classroom, all the way through my education, too scared to put my hand up for any reason, including going to the toilet!

I’ve had a problem with asking for help my entire life. I hate asking anyone for anything. If I have any kind of problem, I will do everything I can to try to solve it on my own, before I give in and reach out for a helping hand. It really is quite ridiculous. I can’t help assuming that asking for help annoys the person you are asking, puts them out, or means they will begrudge you.

This has also made things harder as an indie writer. Indie writers cannot do it all alone. They just can’t. But in the beginning, this was how I approached things. I struggled with so many aspects of indie publishing, from formatting, to cover design, to marketing, to gaining reviews, and I was absolutely rubbish at asking for help! I truly didn’t want to bother people.

Fast forward four years and six books later and I am beginning to change my mindset. For my sixth book, The Tree Of Rebels, I actually had a book launch.  I wasn’t quite brave enough to do a real life one, so I opted for a Facebook one and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was amazed by the response and the positive results of sales, reviews and follows. I’ve also started asking for help more by sending out ARC’s for the first time ever. I would never have done this before, but now I am trying to live with the mantra; ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get!’ Out of the 45 people I asked, 31 responded positively, and I have received 18 reviews on Amazon UK and 6 on Amazon US. This has without a doubt given this sixth book a far bigger kick into orbit than the others have, and I will learn from this and do an even bigger and better book launch next time!

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Learning to ask for help is not easy when it has been indoctrinated into us to be polite. Last week was a really hectic one for me work-wise. I had all the normal bits to do and a rather big dog walking/sitting job as well. I love my day-job as a dog walker and sitter, but I’ve only gone back to it fairly recently as it was too tricky to combine with my youngest when he was first born. Last week I was so busy walking back and forth, that my blog post didn’t get written or posted and I only managed to scrape in an hour or two of editing Elliot Pie each day. There was one day in particular when I had a lot of walking to do, washing to hang out, a parcel to post that had been sitting there for weeks, washing up to do and God knows what else. Instead of trying to do everything myself and then getting grumpy, I reached out to the kids and got them to help. Two took the parcel to the post office and one hung out the washing, and wow, what a difference it made just having those two jobs crossed off the list! I felt I could breathe again and calm down and it made me realise how rubbish I am at asking for help at home too.

I do what my mum used to do. I do everything myself get worn out, feel unappreciated and then moan about it! I must stop doing this! I have four children and the oldest three are more than capable of helping out. If it involves the animals, they jump at the chance anyway, so why the hell am I trying to do it all by myself? Again, I think the reluctance to delegate chores goes back to being told not to ask for things as a child.

I don’t want my children to grow up unable to ask for help, so I am trying to set them a good example now. I’ve told them all about the amazing response I had when asking for help to launch the latest book. I want them to see that asking for help doesn’t make you weak, or needy, or annoying. Yes, you should strive to be independent and proactive, but when you genuinely need help from others, you should not feel ashamed to ask for it. And it makes such a huge difference!

Have you ever found it hard to ask for help? How did you overcome this? I would love to hear from you! Please feel free to comment and share.