Pandemic Pets; How Our Furry Friends Saved Our Sanity

Like everyone else in the country, I sat in a kind of shocked stupor when it was first announced that we would be going into lockdown. I think the biggest shock for most of us was the school closures and onset of home learning. As I write this, England is in another lockdown, though a far less strict one this time around. Mostly, life appears to be going on as normal. Of course by ‘normal’ I mean the ‘new normal’ of social distancing, bubbles, hand sanitising and face mask wearing. Isn’t it weird how quickly we all get used to things like this?

We all live such day-to-day lives now, don’t we? We really can’t plan too far ahead. Especially when it comes to things like weddings, birthdays and Christmas. We all just shrug helplessly and say; ‘we’ll see what happens.’ And that’s a weird and unsettling way to live your life, not being able to plan much, not knowing anything for sure. Young children are good at living like that; they tend to live in the moment, not looking too far ahead. Animals are the same; they have little concept of time or future and so don’t worry about it like we do.

During the first national lockdown, there was a growing and slightly worrying trend of people purchasing ‘lockdown puppies’. For anyone who already had a dog, or had been planning to get one, this was probably a sensible idea, as long as social distancing rules were adhered to etc. But for anyone who bought a puppy on a whim because they were bored, not so good, and I fully expect to see a lot of these lockdown puppies end up in rescue before long.

Having said that, I truly believe that owning pets is massively beneficial to your mental and physical health, and perhaps that was what drove some of this. As well as puppies and kittens, there was also a huge increase in people chicken-keeping for the first time too.

I’ve been an animal lover my entire life. I grew up surrounded by a much loved menagerie of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, gerbils and rabbits and I’m just the same in my adult life. We have dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs and ducks and chickens and until recently pet rats and hamsters too.

Often, I prefer animals to people, or at least I prefer their company and find them generally a lot less stressful to be around. During the first strict lockdown, in the messy middle of home-schooling and juggling work, I found myself turning to my animals even more. I spent as much time as I could outside, and we were so lucky that the majority of the lockdown weather was absolutely glorious. I felt so blessed to be sat in the sun in my large garden, with the cockerel crowing and the ducks quacking.

We were one of the families who got a lockdown puppy, though ours was planned before lockdown happened. In February, a month after I lost my beloved lurcher Skipper, I came across an ad from a lady whose beautiful lurcher was due to have puppies in March. We made contact, spoke on the phone and after she had carefully vetted me, I was put on the list. The day before the puppies were born, we went into lockdown and it became very uncertain as to whether we would get one or not.

As luck would have it, the travel restrictions were lifted just as the pups turned 8 weeks old and we were able to pick our beautiful boy Jesse up mid-May. He certainly entered our lives at the perfect time. We were starting to lag…starting to get on each other’s nerves, starting to get itchy feet. It was getting hard. But having Jesse and integrating him into our family was the perfect distraction and gave us all something positive to focus on. I will always be grateful to him for that. He is now 7 months old and a truly beautiful boy with the sweetest soul. I’ve never had such a loving loyal dog before, he is just adorable in every way, and so smart too!

Jesse at 8 weeks

But even before he arrived, I was so grateful to have my pets in my life. At the start of home schooling me and the kids fell into a routine, where we would start the day with PE, do a few lessons and then take our older lurcher Tinks for a long walk before lunch. We really looked forward to these walks, and it was lovely to have the kids with me and Tinks, when usually they would be at school. We integrated some of our learning into the walks, sometimes had picnics, played in streams, ran down hills and played hide and seek. I’m not sure we would have done all those things daily if we had not had a dog to walk.

Beautiful Tinks

My dogs are my best friends. They are my family. I love them so much I cannot bear being away from them. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have a dog or who doesn’t like dogs…quite what they give you in return for a warm bed, some yummy food and long walks. What we give them is small in comparison. My dogs welcome me home with wagging tails, warm kisses and the absolutely adorable ‘lurcher lean’! They watch me, listen to me, follow me, and love me for me. They don’t expect or demand anything of me, other than the above mentioned food bed and walk! They make me laugh every day with their antics and loopy smiles. They challenge me – to keep going, to get out, to talk to people, to socialise, to train them, to get better, to be better. I would be far, far less without my dogs and I hate to imagine what lockdown would have been like without them.

As for now, as we navigate through another lockdown and balance precariously between old normal and new normal, between hope and fear, between fragile mental health and steely resilience, I turn to them more and more because they are steady, they are sure, they are always there, just being them. Just being dogs. Living in the moment, not worrying about what tomorrow might bring. I hope that anyone who got a lockdown puppy, kitten or flock of chickens is feeling the same right now, because to have pets in your life during tumultuous times is truly a wonderful gift.

Home schooling with chickens in tow

How about you? Did you get a pet during lockdown? How is it working out? If you already had pets, tell me about them and how they have helped you during the pandemic. I’m starting this as a new guest feature so get in touch if you and your furry friends have a story to share. It can be a non-fiction piece or a story or a poem!

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!

Take What Tortures You And Write About It

I’ve got a confession to make. Just lately I’ve been suffering from a strange, and as far as I know, nameless, affliction. The only way I can describe it to you is by asking you to recall the feeling you get in your stomach just before you sit an important exam. You know, that lurch, that turnover, that horrible tightness that takes your breath away for a moment? Yeah, that.

I first noticed it happening whenever I thought about my writing. The things I had planned to do once my littlest child was in bed. I put it down to a sort of nervous excitement, and a borderline panic about how little time there is to write all the things I have in my head.

Then I noticed it happened at other times too. Just randomly. My stomach dropping, lurching and rolling over.

So, then I blamed it on something else. I’ve always been interested and engaged in political thought and debate, but even more so in recent years. This is not a bad thing, but then it gets to the point where you are feeling angry and helpless all of the time. Post Brexit was pretty bad. It’s all pretty bad. Climate change. Inequality. Housing crisis. A rise in racism and hate crime. Endless war. The fact we’re being organised and dictated to by massive corporations hellbent on destroying the world. The fact you cannot trust the media to tell you the truth.

sadlaptop

So, I made the decision to delete Facebook from my phone. Something I never thought I would do! I was getting seriously addicted. Picking it up to check my newsfeed first thing in the morning, and pretty much every chance I got throughout the day after that.

I did feel an immediate sense of relief. That first morning stomach lurch dissipated. I picked up a book instead. I no longer check my phone throughout the day because there is nothing to check. I have a quick scroll through Facebook in the evening, once I have done enough work to deserve a little break, and I’m sad to say it’s still the same. The violence rages  on, the world gets hotter and there seem to be angry and ignorant people everywhere.

I did feel a sense of relief and freedom for a while. But that feeling in my stomach has not gone away. In fact, I am getting it more often. Maybe it is because I’ve become aware of it, nervous of it even? Confused by it, and as a consequence, fixated on it? I don’t know, but it is strange, and  very annoying. Sometimes it takes my breath away. I have to stop, hold onto something and take a very deep and deliberate breath. And then I am okay again.

I can’t blame anything in my personal life. Everything is as it should be. Everyone is in perfect health. Money is tight, but it’s never been any different at any time in my life. We have a lovely home and a huge garden. We grow our own fruit and vegetables and raise chickens and ducks. We’re outside, a lot! I’ve got my four beautiful, intelligent children, and yes they come with their own issues, and yes being a parent is sometimes stressful and exhausting. But I’m a placid, easy going sort of person. I roll with the punches. I look back on the past fondly, I focus on the now, and I don’t look too far ahead,(unless it’s my saving up for a VW Campervan.)

So why the bad feeling? What does it mean? What is it trying to tell me? I just can’t work it out. It takes me by surprise at random times of the day, creeping up and sucking the air out of me, crunching up my guts and making me think I have forgotten something important. Am I about to sit an exam? Am I about to confront some scary, aggressive person? What is it??

I don’t know, and maybe I will never know. Maybe it built up over time and my stomach got so used to being tied up in knots, it just doesn’t know how not to be. All I can do right now is try to make use of it. I wrote a short story you can find in Bird People And Other Stories called She Is… I wrote this story to keep a novel at bay, and I’ve started writing a second short story with the same characters. Basically the story is about teenage girls, bullying and revenge, but the narrator describes this constant heavy feeling in her belly. She wakes up with it, and it comes and goes throughout the day. Of course, this came from me and my own experience, and I’ve carried it on into the next story. In her mind, it’s because something bad is going to happen, she just doesn’t know what or when. It’s a sense of foreboding for her, a warning from her body.

My fears for the way the world is heading, my fight to find hope, my questions about human nature, have all been rolled out and examined in Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. (On the third draft now) I didn’t even realise I was doing it at first, but I’ve poured so much of my current state of mind into this story-line. Elliot is the child in me, the hopeful innocent looking for the good in people. His mother Laura is the cynic in me, (exaggerated a fair bit! )Through her I get to rant and rave, I get to swear and scream at the cruelty and injustice in the world. I get to indulge myself in misery and cynicism, fearing the worst and totally giving in to it. I get to hide under a duvet and pretend it’s not happening.

In The Mess Of Me Lou is the voice for my own teenage angst and body issues. She is louder and brasher than me, able to say things I was not.

In recent short stories I have released endless frustrations and anxieties. From my utter dismay that people think it’s okay to dump rubbish in the river where I live, to my constant paranoia that one day soon the Earth is just going to snap, just going to cull us all in one bloody swoop, freeing itself at last. I honestly don’t know how I would cope with this world if I were not a writer!

'Writers are desperate people and when they stop being desperate they stop being writers'Charles Bukowski.jpg

I think this is the best and sometimes the only thing we can do with something that tortures us. Use it, write about it, pass it on to a fictional character. Maybe this is one way to eventually rid yourself of it! Or at least gain a better understanding of it. I think writers do this all the time, often without even realising it. We project our fears and anxieties onto made up people, into made up worlds. So it’s not us with the problem, it’s someone else.

And then, we feel like we have some control. We can direct the proceedings, we can work out what the problem is, we can send the character on a journey and we can even create a happy ending 🙂 I truly think this ability is one of the greatest things about being a writer.

What about you? Please feel free to leave a comment!