On mental health and the importance of talking

Today is World Mental Health Day. These events are designed to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness. But for all the publicity and the increase in celebrities talking openly about their issues, there is still a stigma around depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Last year that stigma prevented me from going to a doctor and talking about my own problems with anxiety and depression until it had reached a chronic state. This was despite dealing with close family members and colleagues who experienced similar issues in the recent past and understanding how important it is to talk about these problems.

The fact is that I was, and still am, embarrassed to  talk about it. I’m a very logical person and I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I can be crippled with anxiety and depressed (one usually follows the other with me) for seemingly illogical and mundane reasons. So to turn around and talk about those problems is very difficult. It feels like a weakness, a failing, like I’m screwing up by not being able to cope with problems at work or the little stresses of daily family life.

Yet the logical part of my brain keeps reminding me that it’s normal, it’s an illness, lots of people go through this and it’s all just a physical chemical response to various external pressures over the last 3 years. It’s really infuriating. I understand what is happening to me and I believe I know what the causes are and how I need to improve things. But my body doesn’t seem to listen.

I’ve been taking Sertraline for about a year now. It’s a fairly common anti-depressant which, despite some wacky side effects like incredibly vivid dreams, appears to have levelled out my anxiety to a much more manageable level. So much so that I tried coming off it for a couple of months over the summer, but sadly the symptoms of uncontrolled fear returned after a few weeks and I made the decision to go back on the pills for a bit longer.

Despite the medication I still find that some days I will have a feeling of general anxiety rising in the pit of my stomach. Or I’ll feel a bit down for a day or two. Often this will be followed by a cold or some other physical illness. Almost like my body gets distracted dealing with the early symptoms of a virus and forgets to deal with the long term mental illness for a few days.

I’ve also noticed that despite the improvement in my general mood the illness has robbed me of a lot of my confidence. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert but could blag my way through social situations, presentations at work and even stand on stage with a guitar in front of not very many people (the bands I’ve played in were always under appreciated by local audiences). Now I find myself feeling scared to approach new situations or even attend events like large family gatherings, friend’s parties or music gigs. I manage to force myself to get along to most things and once there I think I bluff my way through well enough, but it’s tiring. Hopefully over time I can recover some of that self-confidence I’d grown over the years.

So things are OK in general, thanks to the medication, some changes in circumstance (moving job helped a lot), an increase in exercise and of course the initial decision to talk to my family and a GP about my problems rather than try to fix things myself and hope it would pass.

If you’re suffering from any kind of mental health issue, no matter how severe, it really does help to talk about it. Even just talking anonymously to other sufferers on the internet can be the first step you need to recovering from the illness. Sites like No More Panic and the depression and anxiety subs on Reddit offer lots of sympathetic ears if your own support network is lacking, or you just don’t want to talk face to face yet.

I guess I just want to say for World Mental Health Day and every day remember, it gets better, it can affect any of us and please try to talk about it.

Hey Internet, stop making me stupid!

Loose. Look at that word. That word makes me very uncomfortable now.  I know it shouldn’t. It can’t help it, after all it’s just a word. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary the definition is: Loose ~ Not firmly or tightly fixed in place; detached or able to be detached; not held or tied together or contained within something. Plus a few extra definitions relating to sport or clothing.

However there’s also a single line, listed under the usage heading on the definition page, which refers directly to what makes me so uncomfortable about this word: The words loose and lose are different and should not be confused.

Someone should tell that to the Internet.

I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t come across the word lose spelled, er, loosely. I think I can understand why, the word is pronounced with a long O sound like pool or food. But then there are plenty of words which are pronounced similarly that only have a single O like prove or lose. Which is great until you remember that English is an anarchic mess of a language which contains the following words: croup, shrewd, suit, ewe, you, fucking luge, cue, queue, shoe, and rue. The long oo sound is not consistent in its spelling.

All this is starting to have a strange effect on me. I’m a pedantic sod at the best of times. A total grammar fascist the rest of the time. Seriously. The amount of restraint it takes to stop me screaming on the Internet at people for not proofreading blogs, news articles or even twitter posts is heroic. Most of the time I can just about forget the grammatical horrors I’ve seen, but the lose/loose error is starting to haunt my mind.

I can’t read the word now. So many people (most natural English speakers so they’ve no fucking excuse) are spelling it wrong that I’m now second guessing the word when I see it. If I read loose in a sentence I’m hearing lose in my head.  Mentally correcting this seemingly small error is ruining my online experience. It’s so common now that even when loose is used correctly I just assume it’s a mistake. It’s an effect so strong it often takes me a sentence or two to pick up the correct context again and reset to the correct definition.

I don’t want to accept this. I shouldn’t have to.

So this is my plea to the Internet. Stop making me dumb. Take some pride in your spelling. Read what you write before you hit post (seriously, most tools and web platforms even proofread for you) and above all fix these simple mistakes:

Lose is not Loose.
Your is not the same as you’re.
Lego doesn’t have an s on the end under any circumstances.
But maths does (as it’s short for mathematics).
Affect changes something, effect is the result of the change itself.

How to stay focused and be productive

I get distracted a lot. For example I was doing something for work just now and in the middle of it I got distracted, opened a new tab and started writing this post. I should get back to what I was doing and come back to this over lunch…

…right. Where was I? Ah yes writing a poem… nope that’s in another tab. Oh yeah, getting distracted.

I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer, inclined to stop halfway through a task and just stare into space with my thoughts. It used to drive my friends nuts when I was at school if they sat behind me at an exam. From their perspective I spent half the allotted time staring at the ceiling, counting the tiles, but still finished with plenty of time and managed to pass.

My mind tends to jump from subject to subject and I get very easily sidetracked by whatever shiny thing I’m obsessed with this week (snorkeling at the moment if you’re wondering). However I do somehow manage to function as a human being despite this, so I thought it would be useful to share some tips on how I manage to keep my productivity roughly on track.

Some of these ideas are apps either on your phone, on your PC or both. Some of them are simply mental exercises or can be achieved using good old pen and paper. They all help me stay on track throughout the day and hopefully most of you will find them useful too.

To do lists are one of the best tools for staying on top of your day-to-day tasks. A few years ago I started making a point of writing out a list every morning when I got to the office which made it a lot easier to plan my day and order my work into manageable chunks. Sometimes having a list written out can be a little daunting, especially if that list doesn’t change much from one day to the next, but if you embrace the positives it can help you identify quick wins and you’ll learn to love the feeling of ticking off task after task.

I made the switch to electronic to do lists recently and Wunderlist is a brilliant example. It gives you multiple folders and lists, recurring tasks, the option to mark important or urgent tasks and it syncs across multiple devices. All for free.

Outlook Tasks
If, like me, you spend most of your day in an office hooked up to a corporate email server then you’re probably familiar with Microsoft Outlook. It’s array of meetings, appointments and tasks which can be configured on your calendar with various reminders and alerts are great for popping up a detailed reminder on your screen when you need to do something. I use it all the time for reminding myself about work tasks like catching up with a client to mundane household tasks like booking my car service.

These days with many large companies moving to Office 365 and cloud solutions it’s likely that you can access all your reminders on the move as well.

Google Calendar
If you don’t use Outlook or you want a calendar environment which syncs seamlessly with your mobile experience then Google’s offering is perfect, at least if you’re an Android phone user.

Like Outlook, you can use this to remind yourself about appointments, deadlines and anything else you might want your phone to prod you about throughout the day. Plus being a cloud service means it will sync across your phone, desktop and tablet devices wherever you go.

I find it hard to stay focused for long periods. My brain flits between subjects every few minutes and I often find my hand creeping towards the web browser any time my concentration dips. However recently I’ve had some success at improving my concentration using a simple program on my phone called Forest.

The idea is you plant a tree in the app, which will slowly grow over your chosen time period. Any attempt to do anything else on your phone – check twitter, open email or play a game will result in a tree that’s withered and dead. If you can resist playing with your phone for the set time then you end up with a fully grown tree which gets added to your personal forest.

Continued success gives you points that can be turned into different species of tree to add to your forest and there’s various paid extras (e.g. no ads) that can also be purchased.

The only drawback for me is that while it acts as a decent mental reminder that I should be doing something other than browsing the web, a lot of the time my phone isn’t my problem. I need to find a similar app that works on my laptop at home and prevents me from checking YouTube or logging into Eve Online.

Google Drive
I use Google Drive a lot. I use it for financial management (the ability to jointly edit spreadsheets between myself and my wife is great), sharing photos and other files, and I use it a lot for planning.

Whether I’m thinking about a poem, story, article or even home improvements and hobby projects, often the first step for me is to open Google Drive and get a file saved with a few details about what it is I’m planning. If it’s a story this could just be a couple of sentences of synopsis, for a poem it will be a title and maybe one verse (or often a whole first draft, I write poems quickly) and for hobby projects it could be a parts list or just a description of the concept and a high level overview.

Once that’s done I know the idea is safe. I won’t forget it. I can go back and flesh it out at a later date or pick through them during moments of writer’s block. The important thing is that I have the idea and get it down somewhere safe and accessible from anywhere so I can work on it and keep track of its progress.

I find this really helpful for me to see things through to a successful completion and again because it’s in the cloud I can update it on my phone, laptop or tablet wherever I am.

Now I know what you’re thinking but hear me out! Mindfulness might be the hippy technique du jour at the moment with lots of press coverage over the last few years as it gains traction with the alternative therapy community. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day and mindfulness is being adopted in a big way by the NHS and clinical psychologists to treat a host of mental disorders including depression and anxiety.

Basically mindfulness is a type of meditation which trains you to focus on the present moment and your state of mind now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. It can be very powerful and enlightening for practitioners.

Personally I find that anything which forces you to take a few minutes time out to gather your thoughts in peace and settle your mind is definitely worth trying.

There are many courses you can take on mindfulness but to be honest I’d recommend just buying a book with an included CD of meditation examples. Then once you’ve gone through that you can use a timer on your phone or a specialist meditation app to track your times and take you through different types of meditation.

Listen to music
I’m often at my most productive in the office when I’m sat with headphones on and listening to some tunes from my phone. Drowning out the background noise of colleagues having heated discussions, the traffic to the communal kitchen nearby or the bus station outside our office window really helps me focus on the piece of work in front of me and I seem to get distracted a lot less.

A few months ago my ageing iPod classic finally bit the dust to my great dismay, meaning I no longer have access to my entire music collection on the move. For now I’ve replaced this with connecting my phone to the office Wi-Fi and using Amazon’s cloud music app to at least have access to the large number of albums I’ve purchased there over the years. But I think soon I’ll need to see if I can set up a streaming service on my backup server at home, so I can make sure I still have access to all those 80s and 90s metal albums I grew up with!

Get outside
One of the most powerful tools to clear and focus your mind is fresh air and exercise. Even if you just take the opportunity to go for a walk at lunch time or if you go a bit more gung-ho and use your lunch times like I do to fit in some running or gym sessions then I guarantee you’ll see a big benefit in your focus levels.

Plus if you’ve stared at the same piece of work all morning just getting away from it for half an hour so you can sit down feeling fresh and maybe approach it from a new perspective on your return can work wonders.

Learning New Skills

One of the reasons I pick up so many different hobbies is that I really love learning new skills. I think it’s the pride I can take in seeing the result of a process of research, learning and then doing something for the first time.

Recently there was an opportunity to create a promo video for a player group in the PC space game Eve Online which I play (too much). I’ve not done a lot of video editing in the past, but there was a considerable reward on offer in game just for submitting something the group’s leadership liked, even if it wasn’t chosen so I thought I’d learn how to do it.

With the internet it’s so easy to find the tools and the know-how to do something like this. Almost always for free or very little cost. I had a look around and tried a few different pieces of production software before eventually settling for Hitfilm 4 Express and using their own tutorials and a bit of time spent in Paint.Net creating and editing graphics I produced this short 15 second clip two days later.

I’m really happy with the end result. It turned out exactly how I wanted it. Hitfilm 4 Express is free, the tutorials are free and Paint.net is free. These tools are available for everyone and it doesn’t take a long time to learn. The video hasn’t been chosen by the group but they’ve requested a new one with some specific direction which I’m going to try working on soon.

Cycling Through Memories

I wrote this piece after a bike ride in early spring which provoked a lot of memories for me on growing up and where my family have come from (i.e. not very far from where we are now). I don’t write a lot of memoir type pieces but I wanted to try something different. I’d started writing this out as a poem but then realised there was a lot more I wanted to say in it and that a prose piece might be more appropriate.

After spending months buried under the accumulated detritus of small home improvements, we finally spent a day clearing out the garage and uncovered my bike from its extended hibernation. As if on cue the sun also re-appeared and although it didn’t bring much in the way of spring warmth, I gave in to the illusion of summer, pumped up my tires, lubed the chain and clipped into my pedals for the first time since August.

Heading out of town I passed my parent’s house where we moved when I was eighteen and the front door I failed to close quietly all those times I snuck home in the early hours of the morning. Next to it is the overgrown burn, which I discovered was full of nettles when I returned from the pub late one night and drunkenly rescued a blind spaniel which had lost it’s owner and wandered hopelessly into the middle of the water. My stung hands gratefully accepted a box of chocolates from the relieved dog owner a few days later.

I see the vet’s surgery where so many family pets have been treated, comforted and too often left forever, before I turn off and pedal up towards the cemetery. Here I keep pedalling but my thoughts linger. It’s three years since I last passed through the gates when we lowered my Gran into the earth to rejoin her husband, who’d been there alone for twenty years. I wonder if I should feel guilty that I’ve never returned to the grave or set eyes on the stone which marks it? Then as I feel the hill steepen under the slim wheels of my road bike, I remember that everyday I pass their house and it’s those times that I think of her. The warm welcome she always gave her grandchildren and the many years of joy we had in her company.

It’s those memories I decide are important. Not of the elaborate box lowered on velvet ropes. I don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife so a cemetery is simply a place for those left behind to remember those close to us and I would rather do that as I pass the places they were happiest. I think she’d prefer it that way.

The handlebars turn towards Auchenblae and I remember all the miles I put on the tyres cycling this route last year, preparing for a two day charity ride from Inverness back to Stonehaven. I never thought the bike would sit untouched for months once that special journey was over.

There’s a slow, steady climb then a long, happy, freewheel down towards Tewel. With head and elbows tucked I race at breakneck speed passed the row of houses where many years earlier I’d pulled over in a dull red Rover 214 with two flat tyres. My mum’s car a casualty of my overconfidence and poor judgement while overtaking a tractor on the small country road.

At bottom of the hill there’s a sharp turn past a farm, down towards a ford over the Carron river. As a small child I was amazed by the road going through a large, flowing river. It seems much less impressive now. I cross the river, take the hairpin turn and stare up a tarmac wall pretending to be a road. Sometime later I reach the top of the climb, much more tired and sore in the legs than I was at the bottom.

I’m on the loop back towards town now. After another fast downhill I change road again, passing a stables and heading towards Toucks. At this stage of the route the image of a large black and white photograph hanging at the top of the stairs in my parent’s house pops into my head. My great-grandparents farmed land at Toucks and though I never met them I’ve seen their faces in that picture countless times.

A terrifying descent into Kirktown of Fetteresso joins the loop back to my outward journey beside a house which once housed a close friend. Site of drunken parties, singing sinatra into broom handles at 6am and one memorable occasion when their family St Bernard sat on his mum before it got too excited and pissed on her leg.

I take it easy now as I head back through the industrial estate where both my parents worked at various times. The smell of freshly cut wood in the joinery, recently changed hands, will always be with me as will the site of black smoke pouring over the roof as the site next door went up in flames while we were visiting.

My feet are unclipped from the pedals as I thread the bike through Edinview, past my old home again and the street where my gran lived for many years. I turn onto the Slug Road at the school. Site of so many endless lunchtime corridor laps, childhood scraps and awful burgers in oversized baps.

The ride ends passing the entrance to Mineralwell park, where I was terrible at primary school sports days and as a teenager we drank cheap booze on a Friday night. I bring the bike to a stop outside my own house now, which is steadily filling up with new memories of family, friends and children.

A bike ride in the summer sun which only lasted a half hour or so and which I’ll feel in my legs and bum for a few days after, has taken me far beyond the seven mile loop, back through a lifetime.

Looking after yourself

I haven’t written a piece for the blog for what seems like months. Probably because it has been months. The truth is I don’t know what to write here anymore. I’ve started a few pieces only to delete them after they’ve sat unfinished for weeks. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything to write about; I’m still cooking (although much less since my daughter was born), still playing music (although much less since my daughter was born) and still running and cycling (although… well… you get the idea). I’m also writing poetry and fiction and have managed to pick up a few more small interests which could make for interesting blog topics.

My problem is that there’s a whopping big elephant in the room. Before I can get back to writing about the hobbies that really interest and excite me, I feel like I should write about the big issue I’ve been trying to overcome for the last year. Since the middle of 2015 I’ve been treated for anxiety and depression.

But you know what? I’m not going to. I’ve been feeling like I owe it myself and others to go into a detailed post writing about my journey through this illness. The truth is I don’t. I don’t owe it to anyone to make myself ill again by going over the ground that got me here in detail.

Instead I’m going to say this. If you feel under pressure. If you feel stressed. If your little ball of occasional anxiety is growing every day until you dread going to work, seeing friends or doing the things in life you enjoy. If you feel down and don’t know why. If you feel down and you do know why! Talk to someone. Do what you can to get help and take it when it’s offered.

Talk to those closest to you and don’t just assume they know what’s going on and understand. It can take some explaining, but it’s absolutely worth doing so they can support you through this.

The best advice I can give anyone though is to look after yourself. Find a sport or hobby that you want to do, anything that keeps you fit and gets you active a couple of times a week. If you don’t already do something, try something. Don’t assume you can’t do something because you have to be a certain level of fitness. Everyone has to start somewhere and you’ll be amazed at the improvement in your personal fitness you can see in the first few months of trying a new hobby.

Take time out and relax. Get outside and sit in the sun or walk along a beach. Read a book in your garden with a glass of wine.

Eat well and eat balanced. Treat yourself only occasionally (but do treat yourself) and cut down on booze. All these things, exercise, diet, physical fitness and mental health are intrinsically linked. While it can be hard to juggle everything, if you find that you’re completely ignoring aspects of your health it will end up impacting your overall welfare.

Look after yourselves. Don’t keep problems bottled up. Get help if you need it.

Seeds Of Ideas

The piece below was written for a competition ran by the National Literacy Trust last year to promote poetry in schools. Sadly I didn’t make the shortlist but I’m happy with the poem and hope some of you like it.

Seeds of Ideas

The line on the page is a seed laid in the soil,
As my eyes rake over the words,
I water the furrowed earth
With thoughts and inspiration,
The seed, planted in compost of grammar,
Tenderly tended with metaphor and simile,
Germinates; sending forth shoots,
Leading to new buds,
Images in my mind flower as words, music, rhythm,
And lines on a page,
Waiting to blow on the breeze and be planted again.

Rabbit, spinach and carrot casserole

Ooh look, a post about food. A recipe nonetheless! Yes I am still cooking, but since my wee girl arrived I’ve found us falling back on tried and tested dishes or quick and easy meals by necessity, instead of anything new which I could write up for the blog. Now she’s fast approaching her first birthday though we’re starting to make a bit more space for old hobbies or taking more time over meals at weekends. Especially if it’s something she can try eating herself!

We had a whole rabbit in our freezer for a couple of months and the Sunday after Hogmanay seemed like a good time for a low and slow winter stew. The bunny was taken out the day before to defrost then I put together this simple casserole with some leftover festive carrots and a handful of frozen spinach (if you don’t have a bag of frozen spinach in your freezer go to the shops and get some, it’s brilliant for chucking in stews or pimping instant noodles, ready made curries and soups). Cooking the rabbit on the bone means not a single bit of meat is wasted and it turns out there’s a surprising amount of it on wee thumper! We got two large dinner portions out of this and there was enough leftover for another two small servings or one big lunch serving (which came to work with me on the Tuesday).

You don’t have to go to a lot of effort to joint it nice and neat. Mine was just cut into quarters and then once the rabbit was cooked I fished out the quarters, slid the meat off the bones and returned it to the pot along with the frozen spinach for the last bit of cooking. Easy.

We gave Chloe a bit to try and she loved it, as did one of our cats. The other one wasn’t interested at all but you can’t please everyone.

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Serves 3-4

1 Rabbit, quartered
3 Balls of frozen spinach
3 Carrots, chopped into large chunks
500ml Chicken stock
1 Sprig Rosemary
Handful of fresh thyme
1 Glass of red wine
1 Onion, chopped
1 Clove of garlic, chopped
Worcestershire sauce
Plain flour

Pre-heat the oven to 160C or gas mark 5
Dust the rabbit in some seasoned plain flour and fry off the quarters in a casserole dish until browned, then take them out and leave to one side.
Gently fry the onions until soft then add the garlic and carrots.
Once you can smell the garlic, raise the heat and deglaze the dish with the wine.
Add a large splash of Worcestershire sauce and then return the rabbit to the pot.
Pour in the stock, add the rosemary and thyme then cover the dish and put it in the oven.
Leave to cook for at least an hour and a half then remove from the oven and fish out the rabbit quarters.
Strip the meat from the rabbit bones and place it back into the casserole along with the frozen spinach.
Return to the oven for 20 minutes then remove the lid and continue to cook for another 20-30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
Serve with mashed tatties or big chunks of crusty bread.

Reflections on 2015

The Christmas tree is back in its box. The decorations have been gathered from their vantage points around the house and the first work shirts of 2016 have been ironed ready for the return to the office this week. As I wait out the last few days and hours of the Christmas holidays I’ve been reflecting on the year that’s just passed and what it means for the year to come.

One thing about the year to come… it can only improve from this point! My adorable daughter picked up an awful cold just before Christmas which of course she then passed on to my wife and I. Which means that the first time in about 8 years that I’ve not had to work or be on call for work over the festive period I’ve spent mostly in bed ill. Which was nice. Thanks Chloe. Oh and I’ve just lost a game of Trivial Pursuit to my wife for the first time. 2016 is terrible so far!

However that leads me nicely into the biggest event which happened to us in 2015 and it was back in the middle of January. My daughter Chloe was born in the very early hours of a Thursday morning in Aberdeen. We’d started the process the previous morning by driving to the hospital in Montrose, but we’ll just gloss over that (and the terrifying blue lights transfer in gale force winds). Despite her slightly dramatic entry into the world, she is amazing. Every day we see her beautiful soul shine a little brighter as her personality develops and she grows from baby to toddler.

Adjusting to life with a baby hasn’t been easy, although the rewards are immense. I can’t get enough of hearing her laugh or the feeling when she gives me a hug. Still, at times this year has pushed me to breaking point and beyond.

As well as the arrival of our daughter we were also settling into a new house at the start of 2015, having moved to Stonehaven at the end of 2014. The first half of the year also saw me stuck in a job I had tried to get out of for two years without success and the pressure of that started to take its toll. All this added up to a trip to the doctor’s to seek treatment for depression and chronic anxiety.

It’s never easy admitting to mental health issues. I’ve not made a big deal of it or gone public (until now) as it isn’t really anyone else’s business. However as it has been a massive part of the last year for me I felt I should include it in this post. Thankfully, the GP I saw was superb and very understanding which has meant I’ve been able to get most of my issues firmly under control through the second half of the year. I now feel pretty much back to normal 95% of the time, which is fantastic and makes dealing with the rest of life a lot easier. Perhaps in the future I’ll write-up my experience of mental illness in a bit more detail, but for now I’m just glad I can move on.

I mentioned my job earlier. In the summer I was eventually successful in escaping from my previous role and have finally left the front line of corporate IT support. Albeit I’ve just moved to the vendor side of the relationship. I’m now working as a consultant for a Norwegian software house, but it’s a massive change for me and a hugely positive one. I started in the role in August and the first few months have been very enjoyable so far including an eye-opening trip to our head office in Oslo set in idyllic surroundings on the banks of Oslo fjord.

August saw another big challenge – Ride The North. A two day bike ride from Inverness back to Stonehaven via the hilliest road route they could find (or so it seemed). Easily one of the hardest things I have ever done. Possibly the hardest. It was an amazing experience, great fun and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a serious challenge. I also managed to raise over £300 for Home Start UK in the process. I felt very proud of myself as I came down the hill into Stoney. I’ve cycled into the town countless times but it’s rarely been such a relief! That was pretty much it in terms of fitness and adventure for the year as exercise took a back seat to make time for nappy changes!

Although 2015 saw me step back from the blog for a variety of reasons, I carried on writing in other ways. I’ve long been interested in trying more creative forms of writing and had considered an open learning English degree or something similar to stretch myself in that direction. At least I was considering it until I found out how much it was going to cost! Instead I joined the local writers group and have been introduced to a very welcoming and creative bunch of local poets, fiction writers and essayists. Through the group I’ve rekindled an interest in poetry I hadn’t explored since school and have also written a few pieces of short fiction. Some of the work has been published on this blog and I hope to put up a lot more this year.

In terms of other creative work I have pretty much neglected my music. When a baby enters your life it’s inevitable that something has to give and playing, writing and performing music has been the biggest casualty of my hobbies. I might have cut back on running and exercise but I at least can try to make up for that by going to the gym at lunchtime. I’d get some funny looks practicing the mandolin or guitar in the office kitchen…

Music is something I definitely want to pick up again and I have a couple of minor goals for 2016 but I won’t be putting a lot of pressure on myself to get them ticked off. At the moment it’s all about relaxed aims and not forcing myself to do things.

Outside of what I’ve achieved over the last year I’ve had some great trips (Keswick in the summer, Oslo, Aberfeldy for my birthday to see Lau play in a small town hall). Listened to some wonderful music – albums by Lau, Chvrches, Treacherous Orchestra, Olafur Arnalds (collaborating with Nils Frahm and Sarah Ott), Anais Mitchell (just got into her stuff this year) and Rachel Sermanni all stood out for me this year. Star Wars finally got its mojo back with an awesome adventure in The Force Awakens, while on TV Fargo returned for a brilliant second season and I now have a thorough, detailed knowledge of the Cbeebies TV channel.

Other things had a big impact on my year, in particular the awful news in November of the attacks in Paris. While dreadful acts of violence and terror happen all over the world the events in Paris and in particular the assault on the Bataclan concert venue seemed to hit very close to home. I think it’s because Paris is a city I’ve visited in a country I’m incredibly fond of. Also the target of the attack was a rock gig by The Eagles Of Death Metal, a band whose work I have on my iPod, in a venue which one of my favourite bands (Deftones) was due to play the very next day. In fact members of that band were at the gig on the night it was attacked. The victims were my Parisian analogues just out to enjoy a band they liked on a Friday night.

If I have one big theme I want to take out of 2015 it’s that despite some problems I’ve come through it all relatively unscathed and with a fantastic, beautiful family to share it with and support each other. It’s far too easy to put unhealthy amounts of pressure on ourselves these days and while having goals and aims is admirable it should also not be at the detriment of your own health and personal relationships.

The first half of 2015 was a mad, high pressure rush of new baby, mad work situation, cycle training and deteriorating health. While after the summer things calmed down and I was able to step back and find the necessary space to get back on track and enjoy being with my daughter, my new job and being more relaxed about my spare time after Ride The North was over. Hopefully I take that relaxed enjoyment with me into 2016 and beyond.

Happy New Year!

National Poetry Day – The Same Light

Here’s a piece I’ve written to mark National Poetry Day and this year’s theme of light.

The Same Light

The light of our sun
Travels 93 million miles,
To illuminate our world.

From Damascus to Durham,
The particles bring life,
Lifting the veil of the night,
To let us see beauty
And identify strife.

The same rays of sunshine,
From a single star,
Glint off a camera
On the west highland way,
Reflect off a rifle in Homs,
Or a refugee’s tent near Calais.