This week I have mostly been…

I’ve thrown myself down a few creative holes recently and had quite a busy week for putting work online in some form or another.

I recently began publishing articles on Medium to try out that platform and give myself another outlet for some writing which I think would be unsuitable to host here. I think I would like this site to become very informal and just be personal reflections rather than anything too serious or professional.

At the end of last week I posted an article there about how I try and maintain self-belief in the face of anxiety, depression and the mental issues which these conditions inflict on me

Then at the weekend I presented my parents with the gift I’d made for them to congratulate them on their ruby wedding anniversary. It’s a drawing of the family tree which they planted the seeds for forty years ago, along with a short poem I wrote for them
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I’m pretty proud of it as someone who is really, really bad at drawing!

After that it was back to music and a project I’m working on throughout 2017 – recording 50 tunes throughout the year in a mix of video and sound recordings. This is an effort to get me learning and writing new music as well as building confidence in myself as a musician again. On Tuesday I posted a video of two tunes played on mandolin – Road to Banff and The Spey In Spate.

Once I’d recorded the mandolin set I left the camera set up and decided to do an impromptu poetry reading. I entered some poems into a major competition towards the end of last year and received confirmation that they’d not made the shortlist this week. Which, while disappointing, does mean they are now free to be entered elsewhere and shared with the world again. One of those poems is Leaving The Woods, which I wrote around the idea of leaving your childhood behind and based on some memories I had of the woods we played in as children.

I also published it via Medium with a bit of background on the poem itself and the stories told within it

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.

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!