Death Keeps Me Alive

Death keeps me alive. Let me rephrase that, the thought of death inspires me to live. I hit the ‘big 50’ in April, a total game changer in more ways than one. It was difficult not to react by thinking time was running out, as opposed to I have all the time in the world. I should have been looking ahead, as opposed to over my shoulder at what-ifs and could-do-betters. I can’t rewrite my past, much as I’d like to in parts, but I do have a say in what lies ahead.

Or rather, I have a say in how I react to what lies ahead. Life is a topsy-turvy ride of incredible highs and ridiculous lows, over which I’ve little control. Covid-19 anyone? But how I respond to these inevitable peaks and troughs is within my ballpark. I can meander along in mediocrity or I can strike out and forge the best possible future for myself and my family. The future is in my hands, which I wash on a regular basis I might add.

I don’t want to die, none of us do, but I’m resigned to the fact that I will. What matters is that we wring every last drop out of the time we have left. It can be decades, years, months or less. What we must do is make every day count, make the good ones better, and the bad ones at least more tolerable. We owe that to ourselves and our loved ones. I fear death, but a greater fear is an unfulfilled life, where potential was smothered by anxiety and doubt.

Today is 18 September 2020 and I need to make it the best 18 September 2020 I possibly can. For I won’t get a second bite of this particular cherry. It’s a one-stop, once in a lifetime opportunity. You can sprinkle it with laughter and love or muddle through, staring at the ground and muttering, wrapped up in self-pity and regret. I’m not prepared to allow that to happen, are you? Life is there to be lived, starting today. For today is everything, it’s always today. Make today the best day you can. Tomorrow can wait.

Belfast In September

Irish weather is renowned for its schizophrenic nature and today was no exception. The evenings are getting darker and the leaves are starting to fall, giving the place a distinctly autumnal feel. Christmas is a mere three months away (there, I said it) and there have already been some heavy handed hints in the Black household about yours truly venturing into the roof space to locate the Christmas decorations. It truly has been the strangest of years.

I ran this morning at 06:00 am and, upon opening the front door, was greeted by darkness and drizzle. So much for an Indian summer then, I thought sullenly, as I battled through the deluge and dodged the sizeable puddles on my allotted route. The dreary conditions continued as I made my way into Belfast until I found the drier climes of my office. There I bunkered down until lunchtime, glued to my computer, utterly aware as to what was going on outside.

Imagine my surprise then when I ventured out this afternoon to find the sun splitting the rocks, had there been any rocks to split. You could have fried an egg on the square outside the office and on my walk through the city I was greeted by blue skies, sun bathers and shoppers who had resurrected their summer wardrobe for one final hurrah. I felt woefully out of place in my long sleeved shirt, jacket and snood. I was as hot as a baked potato by the time I reached the train station.

It no doubt will be snowing this time tomorrow or icebergs will be sighted floating up Belfast Lough. You never can tell with the Irish weather where we are well used to four seasons in one day. Why am I surprised I ask myself? In a year that gave us COVID-19 nothing is surprising anymore. Be prepared for anything and assume nothing. For to assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’ Or something like that. Hope you are safe and well today, wherever in the world you are.

Quietly Happy

I’ve been writing consistently all week and my current work in progress (wip) now sits at 46,000 words. It’s a challenge as I’m juggling multiple storylines, locations and characters but one I’m relishing all the same. I’m ahead of schedule and able to write 1000 words a day fairly comfortably without it eating too much into my other responsibilities. My blogging output has been curtailed but I hope you can forgive me that.

On top of that I’m busy promoting Book 2 in the ‘Kirkwood Scott Chronicles’ series which is being released next month. This involves quite a bit of social media work but I’m trying to strike a reasonable work/life balance. I’m not waking up in the night and checking my notifications as it plays havoc with my sleep. I’m also trying to spend less time on the phone in the evenings when I should be focusing on my family.

The office is also busy and I’m in tomorrow working overtime on a new project I’ve been allocated. I’m actually enjoying the challenge and feel refreshed and demotivated. It’s good that my boss has entrusted me with the work and I don’t want to let people down by not giving it my full attention. I go to work to work and my other interests take a back seat to that. I can’t currently run in my lunch break but that will have to wait for now.

This is my life at present. COVID-19 is still everywhere we turn but it’s as normal as it’s ever going to be. I’m not a millionaire author and I doubt I ever will be but I’m happy with the writing niche I’m carving out. I have a good job, a wonderful family and much to be grateful about. Sometimes dreams don’t involve life-changing fanfares and fireworks. Sometimes it’s a quiet happiness, accepting where you are, who you are and what you have.

Draw Back The Curtains

Another dawn run today, thanks to Fionnuala who makes sure I get up when the alarm goes off under this new regime. It was mild and dry this morning but very dark as I headed out off the village on a 5K route I know well. The occasional field of curious cows were my only company as I plodded along at a comfortable pace, my body still coming to terms that it had been tricked into exercise at such a ridiculous hour.

Most houses I passed were still swathed in darkness, curtains drawn and blinds firmly shut, refusing to join my early start to the day. Inside, people still lay curled cozily under their duvets. They were blissfully unaware of my passing, just as I had no idea as to what dramas unfolded within their walls and the trials and tribulations that lay ahead when they did finally rise from their slumber. They were cocooned in privacy.

There were a couple of exceptions, beacons in the darkness. Their curtains were wide open, their living rooms lit up and I could see television sets transmitting the morning news and kettles boiling in kitchens. These early birds were busily rushing through their morning routine, not worried about nosy runners peeking into their lives. They had nothing to hide and were happy to tell the world as much, wide awake and raring to face another day.

There is a lot to be said about being an open book. Yes, we all have a private life and certain personal matters are not for public consumption. But being able to live your life without fear of guilt, shame or retribution has a lot to be said for it. I want to live such a life, a simple life focused on my family and work. They are the cornerstones of my life. The rest is just icing on the cake. If you’re in a similar position then draw back the curtains and shout it from the rooftops.

What If We Could See Coronavirus?

Living in the midst of a pandemic has heightened levels of personal hygiene to unprecedented levels. We are (meant to be) forever washing or sanitising our hands, cleaning work surfaces and wiping down communal areas. We catch and bin our sneezes and sniffles and follow many other catchy slogans in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and well. The slightest cough and we panic. It’s a scary, unpredictable time fighting a relentless, tireless, invisible enemy.

But what if it weren’t invisible? What if we could see COVID-19? Say it were a fluorescent green dye that we could easily navigate? I’m not touching that door handle or getting on that train, the gooey green virus is plastered all over it. We would have one up on our microscopic foe and could combat its global spread as easily as scrubbing a pair of muddy football boots. The war would be over in no time and we could all return to normal life.

If only life were that simple. Unfortunately a lot of the ‘bad stuff’ in life is invisible to the human eye. Many of us are struggling with unseen or hidden problems which consume our lives and drive us to the brink of despair. If you could see a person was battling addiction, suicidal thoughts or mental illness would you intervene and help them? Or would you simply look the other way and avoid them like the plague? Or virus in today’s parlance.

Never judge a book by its cover and equally never assume that you know another or what they are going through. There’s a solution to this and it’s not rocket science nor will you find it in a top secret laboratory. It’s called being attentive and kind to your loved ones. I know it’s an area of my life I can do so much better in. I might not be able to look into people’s souls but I can do everything within my power to minimise the damage I cause others. Be kind today…and stay safe:

Wear A Mask

Wear a mask people!

Today I Wrote

The alarm woke me this morning at 05:20, or rather the snooze function after I had ignored the initial 05:15 summons. I stumbled out of bed and into my running gear, determined to keep to my promise to run before work, where possible. As I said yesterday, not that most pleasant prospect but an essential part of the day in respect of both my physical and mental health. I might not want to run but I most definitely need to run.

Imagine my disappointment then when I pulled back the curtains to discover it was raining. Not just a refreshing drizzle but bucketing down and with no sign of letting up. I would have been soaked to the bone before reaching the end of the driveway, let alone completed my five mile loop. There was no way I was running this morning. I trudged back upstairs with an hour to kill before it was time to rise and get ready for work. Thankfully I had a Plan B.

I got back into bed, opened the notebook section on my I-Phone and started writing. I’m currently 35,000 words into my latest novel and before the hour was up I’d added another 1000 to the running total. The words flowed easily and I was grateful for the unexpected opportunity to flex my creative muscles before the day began in earnest. By the time I got up, I’d already passed my writing target for the day. Not bad.

Life doesn’t always run smoothly or according to plan. There are always unexpected bumps in the road and who knows what lies around the next corner. I’m no scout but I’m learning the benefits of being prepared for all eventualities. Whenever I slip or slide, whenever I take a wrong turn, I need to regroup and revert to another course of action. Sometimes it is two steps back in order to move forward but needs must. Life is unpredictable. Today I wrote. Words, not miles. But stability and progress all the same.

Be Consistent Today

I got up at 5:15 this morning, my first night run in many months. What with the ongoing pandemic I can’t run at lunchtime in Belfast so this is really the only time I have to fit some exercise in. I don’t like running first thing but I’ve made a resolution to suck it up, stop whining and just get on with it. Thankfully this morning was dry and mild. But it was dark, very dark. Hence my hi-visibility vest and torchlight on my phone. If nothing else, I was visible to other road users.

The first few steps were hard, they always are, but once I found my stride and established a rhythm I soon forgot about the time and concentrated on my breathing and pace. I knew the route well so could probably have navigated it blindfold but was still grateful for my vest and torch when a few cars sped past. They saw me and I saw them. About half way round I was also rewarded by a beautiful sunrise to my left. It was beautiful and worth the early start.

When the run was over I was tired but glad I’d made the decision to get up and get out there. I now need to ensure it wasn’t a one-off and run regularly. There’s no point starting out with good intentions on a Monday, all laced up and ready to go, when you’re refusing to get out from under the duvet on a cold, wet Wednesday. I need to take the rough with the smooth, the good days with the bad. I must learn to be more consistent.

Consistency isn’t exciting but it’s what make good people, great people. No award winning writer or Olympic winning athlete got where they were on ability alone. They had to do the little things the right way, day after day, over and over again. Small steps. You can’t buy it, you have to earn it and that’s where the hard yards are won. It’s boring, it’s banal but it can lead to spectacular results, if applied to all areas of your life in a positive, constructive manner. Be consistent today.

Even Sheep Have Feelings

Meet the most captive audience I’ve had yet. Charlie and I met these woolly wanderers on our morning walk today and it got me thinking about a word I’ve seen popping up on social media a lot recently. Sheeple. It seems to describe people who mindlessly go along with the majority on an issue, without properly thinking it through themselves. It’s a derogatory term and one that is usually bandied about in order to insult or criticise.

It’s reared it’s head in respect of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve also noticed it being thrown about with regards the upcoming US presidential elections. And, yes. It’s important that we make our own decisions on these most important of matters. We need to educate ourselves, research the issues and not be swayed by those who shout longest and loudest. It’s called having a mind of our own.

Most of us do in my opinion. We can no longer use ignorance as an excuse given our access these days to the media and internet. Yet, still the word ‘sheeple’ abounds. And, in my humble opinion, it has an aggressive edge to it. Many who use it do so, simply because the objects of their derision are not siding with their viewpoint. It’s the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, so you must be a mindless sheep if you won’t accept my view of the world.’

It’s fair to say I’m not a fan of the word. Everyone is entitled to have, and express, their own opinion so long as it doesn’t hurt or harm anyone else. I think it’s called democracy. There is enough pain and suffering in this world without more unnecessary antagonism. Be kind to people. Even those you don’t agree with. Learn to respect their beliefs and values. Who knows, one day they might agree with you or vice versa. Even sheep have feelings.

Demons And The Dull

It’s rained all week. Dank, dull and dreary. The rain has descended in icy sheets across the Northern Irish landscape and I battle through it on the daily commute to and from work. My head is down, shoulders clenched, I think of nothing but making it to the dry, warm confines of the office. This is August but it feels like November. For once, the pandemic is not the primary source of conversation. Us Irish love to complain about the weather.

It’s dull. Both literally and metaphorically. My senses are stymied. I have a recurring tension headache over my eyebrows and I couldn’t get heated up last night. Christmas seems an eternity away and I’m grateful for the coming Bank Holiday Monday and a three day weekend. I need time to recharge my batteries and replenish my strength. There are blogs and books to write. I need to be sharp, fresh, creative. Dullness is not an option.

Yet, sometimes I need to be dull. When the beast inside raises its ugly head and sniffs an opportunity to rise and wreak havoc within my carefully constructed life. I’ve rebuilt from ruins and it would like nothing better than to reduce my hopes and dreams to rubble again. I need to turn the volume down, to dull the thoughts. Drive them underground, for otherwise they will overpower and consume me. I need to take my medicine like a good boy and dull the pain.

Light and darkness. I exist in both, craving the former but occasionally retreating into the latter for the purposes of self-preservation. I refuse to hide, to cower away from my old enemy, yet now and then a tactical retreat is required. I’ve learnt from bitter experience that going toe-to-toe with my demons will result in defeat. I need to fight clever and catch them in the long grass. For this is a war of attrition, with no ceasefire in sight. Today I need to be dull.

A New Jerusalem – Trailer

My very talented wife, Fionnuala, has created this brilliant trailer for the launch of my new book ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: A New Jerusalem.’ It’s released by Potter’s Grove Press on 06 October and the e-book is currently available to pre-order on Amazon. I’m very excited by the book which I believe is my best yet. All support would be very much appreciated. Thank you 😊

Muddling Through The Storm

I woke up to the sound of Storm Frances battering against our bedroom window this morning. We have been told to expect heavy rain and high winds all of today and into tomorrow. It was dark, cold and I really didn’t want to get out of bed. But needs must so when the alarm clock sounded at 6 a.m. it was time to stumble out from under the sanctuary of the duvet and face another day. Life doesn’t guarantee beautiful, tranquil sunrises every day.

It’s late August but feels more like October at present. So as I stood huddled under cover at Platform 3 awaiting the express train to Belfast, I was glad of my jumper and waterproof anorak. I wasn’t going to win any fashion awards but at least I was warm and dry. I didn’t look out of place amongst my fellow travellers, either, who were equally well kitted out. We had come prepared and that’s half the battle during a storm.

It was the same when we thankfully boarded the more pleasant climes of the train. Everybody was wearing a mask and keeping their distance from one another. Nobody sat beside me and I felt safe and relaxed. The conductor was also wearing a mask and a tannoy announcement stressed the importance of adhering to social distancing measures in light of the ongoing pandemic. Everyone knew the drill. We were prepared.

There’s no need to panic or feel out of your depth if you come prepared. It’s not rocket science and often doesn’t require a great deal of forethought. All you have to do is think ahead and make sure you have what you need to overcome the next obstacle in your path. Be it your faith, fitness or any other manner of personal challenges if you bring along the correct tools you will invariably muddle through. There’s a a lot to said for muddling through.

Walking Towards Normality

After five long months, Adam and Hannah return to school tomorrow. Rebecca starts back the following week. It feels like forever since we have seen them in their school uniforms but tomorrow morning the alarm clock will be set for 6 a.m. and organised chaos will again descend upon the Black household. No more lying in until lunchtime, the return of homework and dirty sports kits. It’s another step towards normality, or at least we hope it is.

Of course, the kids are returning to a very different school environment from the one they left. Social distancing, mask wearing and enhanced hand hygiene will be the mantra preached by their teachers and classroom assistants, policies we wholeheartedly support. We know the children are going into safe, secure schools where the necessary steps have been taken to minimise as much as possible the risk of the virus being transmitted and spread.

There will be some anxiety, that is only natural, but the overriding emotions are those of relief and excitement. Looking forward to meeting school friends who they have barely seen in months, tackling fresh subjects, a return to how their lives should be. Kids should not be cooped up indoors for months on end, even though it was a necessary evil. They need to be outdoors, living their lives and learning more about how the world works.

We hope that this is another step in the right direction, that the days of fear and lockdown are forever behind us. The virus is still out there, it doesn’t rest and will strike again and again if we become complacent and allow our guard to slip. All we can do is follow the rules in order to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the wider community. I hope that, wherever you are today, you are safe and well. I hope you are walking towards normality.

Every Day Is One Of Those Days

Pursuing a dream can be a nightmare. There are days when nothing goes right. Every direction you take leads to a dead end. Everywhere you turn you run into a brick wall. You find yourself racing in ever decreasing circles and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. The tank is empty and all you want to do is lie down at the side of the road and pretend you never started out on this interminable journey.

Those who succeed are not the most talented, the most beautiful, the most virtuous. No, those who succeed are the most pig-headed, the most stubborn, the most persistent. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective. We are the team who play terribly the whole match but still somehow manage to win 1-0. We score last second touchdowns, scrambling about in the mud but still managing to conjure up a win from somewhere.

Some call us lucky but there is probably no bigger insult for luck suggests this is something beyond our control. There is no luck involved in turning up every day, clocking in even when you don’t want to, and putting the work in. Day after day, week after week. Pushing and probing, celebrating every small gain and dusting yourself down and starting again when you land flat on your face to the joy of the ‘I told you so’ brigade.

There are days I don’t want to get out of bed, days when I think ‘what’s the point?’ Yet still I stare down my keyboard, dispel the voices telling me I’m no good, and start to type. This is one of those days. Every day is one of those days, yet here I am. Writing. And if I can do it, then so can you. All you need do is turn up and leave the rest to the talent within, the talent that sets you head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. Do it.

The Stardust Of Ability

I’ve hit a purple writing vein of late, averaging around 1,000 a day on my latest book. I’m hoping to pass the 25,000 mark today and have decided to work at it on my lunch break at work. If the weather is decent I will head out into the square opposite my office, appropriately named ‘Writers Square.’ I’m often at my most creative there and the words flow thick and fast, as if the characters have run out of patience with me and decided to write the book themselves.

When I start a chapter I have a rough idea what it’s going to be about but invariably the narrative evolves and changes as I write. I often have no idea how the chapter will end and the ideas and words unravel in front of me, thankfully revealed as I tap away at the keyboard. All writers have different styles and this is mine. It suits me which is odd as, otherwise, I’m a fastidious planner and list maker. I tried to write Book 1 that way and it was much more difficult to write than the sequel, which I largely wrote as I went along.

I always get anxious before I start writing, the whispered doubts flooding my head, but once I start they dissipate and my mind clears. I chip away at the coal face, taking short breaks as I inch towards my daily target. When I reach it there is a temporary sense of achievement before I look ahead towards the next mountain top. It is a process, a journey, and a slow one at that. But I know I’m on the right track and determined not to stray from it.

Large, seemingly impossible challenges can be conquered if we break them down into manageable, bite-sized chunks. Aim for the sky but take small steps to get there. Celebrate the victories, no matter how small they might seem. You are working towards that day when you can stand triumphant upon the summit and look down with satisfaction at how far you have come. Anything is possible with a bucketload of determination sprinkled with the stardust of ability. You have both.

OCD 101 – Kill The Stereotypes

This One Is For You

I was up early this morning running. 5.1 miles at an unspectacular pace but I got out and did it which was the main objective. I’ve recovered from a back injury but my motivation levels were at a low ebb for a variety of reasons. I needed several kicks up the backside to get out on the road and stop feeling sorry for myself. I want to be fit and healthy and you won’t achieve that sitting on a sofa eating your body weight in junk food. Or at least I won’t.

Motivation is a frustrating thing. There are times you can have the bit well and truly between your teeth. You know exactly what you need to do and you get out there and do it. You are focused, determined and, perhaps most important of all, consistent. You need targets ahead of you on the road, signposts that you can aim towards with each step of the journey. It might be tough, it might be horrible, but that’s the prize and you never take your eyes off it.

Various people and events inspire and motivate me. Both good and bad. My loved ones who look up to me and expect me to be the very best father and husband I can be. I try to set a positive example in everything I do, I push myself to deliver on all fronts. I also always have one eye looking over my shoulder as I don’t want to regress to where I used to be, to who I used to be. I’m forever on my guard against slipping back into old habits.

There are people from my past and present who drive me forwards as well. The doubters, those who mock and sigh when I talk about my hopes and dreams. Those who dropped me when I needed help most, those who turned their backs and they walked away. This one is for you. I might not be Mo Farah or Stephen King, I might not be at the top of the pile yet, but I’m getting there and I’ll prove you all wrong. This one is for you.

Are You Suffering From COVID-19 Fatigue?

It’s on the news every day, it’s the only topic of conversation in work, you see it everywhere you go. Mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing. COVID-19 has taken over our lives in an unprecedented manner. Will it ever end, Will a vaccine ever be developed to confine this terrible pandemic to the history books? At the moment, the answer is no. The toll on the physical and mental health of people is incalculable.

It’s the weekend and I’m glad I’m off work and don’t have to travel into the city. I’m glad I don’t have to wear a face covering on the sauna-like train to the point where I feel nauseous. I’m glad I don’t have to stand in queues in shops where other customers flaunt the regulations and invade my personal staff. I’m glad I don’t have to go the office and sanitise my hands every five minutes. I’m glad because it’s exhausting.

Today I can breathe fresh air on my morning run and not worry about crowds. I can sit in our back garden and write as opposed to in a cramped office with other people. I don’t have to worry about random strangers with coughs and splutters. I am in a safe place. I want to unwind, to relax, to switch off from the relentless tsunami of information, headlines and unsettling developments. Today I can retreat and recover.

It’s a fatigue of sorts. In the beginning I devoured the daily bulletins and couldn’t get enough. But it’s been six months now and tiredness is setting in. It’s ground me down and I just want it all to go away, even for a few days. Yet, here I am, blogging about it again, shooting myself in the foot, defeating the purpose of my original premise. I’ve completed the circle, turned 360 degrees, back to where it all started. Are you suffering from COVID-19 fatigue?

The Elephants In Our Rooms – OCD 101

Would you trivialise or joke about someone with cancer? About a friend or relative who had suffered a stroke or had a heart attack? Debilitating, life threatening physical illnesses? Well the same goes about mental health and, in particular, the horrors of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It destroys lives. Don’t belittle those afflicted by it. You can’t be a little bit OCD. It’s a recognised mental illness, not a quirky personality trait. Education is key. We must do better on this one.

Are You Anxious Today?

I was interviewed last night for a podcast hosted by a fellow Irish writer. All day the thought of it lurked at the back of my mind, a ball of anxiety and worry growing with each passing hour. I started to regret agreeing to take part, convinced I was going to make a mess of it and come across as a blethering buffoon. As the hour neared, I wondered if I could cut my losses and run for the hills, never to be seen again.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. The podcast host, Conor, was excellent and quickly put me at ease. The questions were interesting and relevant and I soon was lost in talking about writing, my books, and a range of other topics. When it ended, I realised we had been chatting for over an hour, when it felt like only a handful of minutes had passed. Afterwards I wondered what the big deal had been.

I’ll find something else to worry about today, for that’s what I do. Existing on a diet of low level anxiety, never far from the surface of my being. I wish I wasn’t constructed this way, but I am and it could be a lot worse. I manage it via a variety of coping mechanisms which get me through each situation. I muddle through, get by, make it to the other side of the bridge. It might not always be pretty, but it’s effective. I do enough.

If this sounds familiar, if you’re a worry wart, then know that you’re not alone. Join me in muddling through, in doing enough. Dig deep and find what you need in order to get to the other side of what is bothering you today. You have it in you. You can and you will. And when you reach the other side, look back and be proud of your achievement. Celebrate it, remember it and be prepared to learn from it. For the next time.

How Has Quarantine Been For You?

When they vote for the most frequently used words of 2020, surely quarantine must be a front runner. The pandemic sweeping the globe has meant that it has jumped onto our lips and out of our mouths on a regular basis. Most of us have experienced lockdown from behind closed doors, watching our television sets as the world as we know it changes, perhaps irrevocably. We have been powerless to intervene. We have been in quarantine.

There have been perks. More time with our loved ones, endless home improvement opportunities and Netflix bingeing of epic proportions. I managed to edit my second novel and secured a publishing contract. Every cloud has a silver lining. But that does not distract from the terrible q pop physical, mental and economic toll coronavirus has had our nations and communities. We live in broken lands where nothing is what it was. Will it ever be again?

The word ‘quarantine’ derives from the Italian word ‘quranato’ meaning forty. This related to when ships entering Venice were not allowed to unload their cargoes for forty days to ensure they were not bringing disease into the city. The number ‘forty’ also has significant Biblical connotations. The number of years the Israelites spent in the wilderness, the number of days Jesus was tempted by Satan and before he ascended into Heaven. Days and years of waiting, of preparation.

As we emerge into the ‘new normal‘ how has quarantine affected you? The long wait is over for many of us but what are we now going to do with our lives? Is it back to the old bad habits and decisions or are we considering a new beginning, a fresh start? How has your faith been affected? Has it vanished, been damaged, or grown and thrived? Hoping you have a good day wherever you are in this crazy, mixed-up world we now inhabit.

Let The Pain Drive You On

There is always a reason for pain, be it physical or mental. It doesn’t just magically pop out of the ether, determined to ruin your day, year or life. There is a cause, something lurking behind. It can be anything – a pulled muscle, strained ligament or faltering organ. That’s the physical side of it, but I want to talk about mental pain today – the invisible torment that hides within so many of us. The pain that nobody else sees but which moulds and shapes who we are today.

We are who we are because of external factors. It can be an event or an individual. They have brushed against us at some point in our lives and we still have the scars to show it. I had a fleeting encounter a while ago with someone I once considered a close friend, someone who knew me, who I had taken a chance on and opened up to. The encounter left me rattled as it brought back old memories, opened up old wounds. It made me want to give up.

This person used to inspire me, to push me on to greater things. That was then, though, and this was now. A lot of water had passed under the bridge. When I faced them the other day I felt snubbed, unworthy and useless. All the hard work I’d put in rebuilding my life felt like a complete waste of time. I was back to square one, at the bottom of the well, the dirt on their shoes. That’s how they made me feel, or rather that’s how I allowed them to make me feel.

They made me feel that way, or rather I allowed them to make me feel that way. For a fleeting second, I allowed them beneath my skin to wreak havoc. Well, no more. I choose to accept the gift they have given me and use it for my own purposes. The pain becomes a weapon which I will wield to break down barriers and vanquish enemies. It will drive me forwards, towards where I want to be, where I deserve to be. They are my unwitting inspiration.

Don’t Be That Person

I stole this post off Facebook this morning, as it encapsulates my thinking on certain folk. The people who you consider friends. Or rather, considered friends. The people who, when you talk passionately about your pursuits or dreams, suddenly change the subject or look away in mild embarrassment. You tell them you want to be a writer and they stare at you like you have two heads. The people who make snide comments and sarcastic asides. The people who hurt you.

I know everyone isn’t a reader. I get that. I’ve had the whole ‘I don’t have the time to read’ or ‘reading isn’t really my thing’ debate multiple times. I’ve had people proudly inform me that they haven’t read a book since school. I’m never quite sure how to respond to that. They look so pleased with themselves. What are they expecting? A medal? A round of applause? It slightly baffles me, but that’s not even the issue. We are all different and that’s their right.

What hurts are those who completely miss the point. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a book, or building a spaceship or inventing a vaccine for coronavirus. I don’t want your money, I’m never going to beg you make a purchase. If you don’t want to, then that’s fine. But perhaps a crumb of interest? A smidgeon of support? You don’t have to quickly change the subject or develop a sudden interest in your fingernails. All I ask for is recognition that you are there for me.

Do you know people like that? They can talk all day about what they are up to, what their kids are doing. They tell you about every work related drama and ache or pain they have. Yet when you dare to gently turn the subject around to your hopes and dreams their eyes start to glaze over and they look mildly aggrieved, as if an unpleasant smell has invaded their flaring nostrils. It’s unnecessary and it hurts. Don’t be that person. Ever.

Hedgehog 1 Charlie 0

I sat up way past my bedtime last night to watch the Manchester United match which means I’m an extra sleepy Stephen this morning. But at least they won. By the time I was nodding off, however, it was nearing midnight. It was also a very muggy night which made drifting off to sleep even more difficult. I wasn’t looking forward to the following morning’s alarm. Getting back into the swing of full time employment has been a struggle.

Imagine my despair, therefore, when I was rudely awakened by the sound of our border terrier, Charlie, barking like a lunatic downstairs. I stumbled out of bed, staggered down the stairs, and let him out into the back yard thinking he needed to go to the toilet. Next thing, though, I heard an almighty scuffle with our Charles barking and growling like a demented Hound of the Baskervilles. What on earth was going on?

I ventured outside to find him pawing excitedly at a small, prickly ball. A hedgehog, no less, had ventured into our garden and now taken up a defensive pose as Charlie investigated in a frenzy. I didn’t cut a very dignified sight in my pyjamas as I hauled him by the scruff of the neck back into the kitchen. It took much cajoling and a few harsh words to get him back into his cage and settled down again. Hedgehog 1 Charlie 0.

This morning I checked outside to discover that Mr. H was gone, having lived to fight another day. Sometimes all you can do in life is curl up into a ball when under attack and hope for the best. To try and fight back could end in disaster. You just have to take it on the chin and pray you make it through to the other side in one piece. We’ve all had our hedgehog moments in life. It’s part of the experience. That, and the occasional sleepless night.

Dawn Run

Via a combination of the alarm clock and ‘gentle encouragement’ from Fionnuala I got up at 5:30 this morning and ran 10K. My running mojo has been virtually nonexistent of late which has done nothing to help my eating choices and anxiety levels. Lunchtime running is no longer an option now in Belfast and I don’t like hitting the roads in the evenings so the only choice left to me is the dreaded dawn run. Thankfully it was a mild, dry and clear morning.

The hardest part is getting out the front door. I tend to fret before a run but once I actually start the worry falls away. Running is good for my mental health, it cleanses me for the day ahead. It’s akin to a free detox session. I headed out to the shores of Lough Neagh where I turned at the Gawleys Gate Inn for the return leg back into the village. Cows and sheep quietly watched me puff past, bemused at the silliness of humans.

There must have been quite a night at the Inn as empty plastic glasses and bottles were scattered all around it. I counted eight cars parked outside it, responsible folk who had wisely ordered taxis home. I didn’t wish their sore heads and rolling stomachs as they arose to reclaim their vehicles. The days of hungover Stephen are long gone and I very much doubt I will ever have another one. Another benefit of keeping fit and trying to live a healthy life.

It was a slow 10K compared to my speedy times of a few years ago, but it was still 10K. I can now focus on the day ahead and the many other tasks I need to complete. But I know I’ve gotten off to a flying start. The plan is to run 10K every morning this week so feel free to check up on me and make sure I keep to my word. I hope you all have a great day. All comments are welcome and thank you for your continued support of the blog and my writing.

No Need For Need

I woke in a bubble of calm. It’s the weekend so I don’t have to face the daily commute to Belfast, I don’t have any office drama to deal with. I don’t have to worry about masks and social distancing and work colleagues spluttering and coughing. The world with all its incessant drama can wait for a few more hours. I don’t have to shave, I don’t have to look in the mirror. I am in no rush to do anything in this very moment, this very tranquil slice of now.

That will all change shortly of course. There are errands to run and relatives to visit later in the day. There are work meetings next week lurking on the horizon, waiting to grab my attention and drag me under. There is always something just around the next corner, waiting to pounce and burst the bubble. Such is life, such is responsibility and commitment. The wheel spins by and soon it is your time again to play the game.

I choose to live and I chose this life, so I have no grounds for complaint. There is no option to return to sender and ask for a full refund or substitute product. This is it, these are the cards you were dealt. The decisions you make cannot be undone by a flick of a magic wand. Life is frustratingly solid and real. There is no rewind button and even the pause option is but a temporary reprieve. The game awaits you upon your return.

The walls of the bubble are closing in on me as I type these words. Soon it will be time to throw back the covers and do that whole ‘carpe diem’ thing. Needs must. But in a minute, not just now. In this second, this instance there is no need for anything. For need relinquishes our control of the present, it pushes us forward into vistas new and often unwelcoming. Right now I don’t need anything, Right now I have everything I’ll ever need. Right now, there is no need for need.

Have You A Tom Bombadil In Your Life?

Maybe it was an act of subconscious self-preservation but I had completely forgotten about the character of Tom Bombadil in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ I’m now 150 pages into my re-read of the classic fantasy trilogy at a staggering pace of seven pages a day. Frodo, Samwise, Pippin & Merry should already have been dead about a million times over but for the heroics of Mr. Bombadil and his ethereal companion, Goldberry.

A quick flick through any of the LOTR fan forums will tell you that old Tom is a far from popular character. He’s described as annoying and irrelevant to the story. And, yes, his unending gibberish, nonsensical verses and desire to break into song and dance at every available opportunity would tend to grate on the nerves after a while. Even Tolkien said he only included him in the tale as he was a leftover character from an earlier short story.

This probably explains why Peter Jackson did not include him in the movies. Yet, without Tom there would be no movies. Frodo would never have made it to Rivendell, never mind the slopes of Mount Doom, as Tom twice saved the hapless hobbits from Old Willow-Man and the Barrow Wraith. As well as keeping them well fed, tending to their ponies and single-handedly getting them to Bree where they are handed over to their next saviour, the mysterious Strider.

Have you a Tom Bombadil in your life? That annoying, frustrating person who you want to strangle half the time, yet couldn’t cope without? I fear I may be one as well as knowing of others. Well, if you do, don’t be too hard on them. Bite your lip, count to ten, and smile. True friends come in all shapes and sizes but they share one common characteristic – they will be there when you need them most. Just like good old Tom Bombadil.

Writing Matters – People Need Words

After a lengthy hiatus, I started work on Book 3 of the ‘Kirkwood Scott Chronicles,’ last week, tentatively titled ‘No Longer Forsaken.’ It’s been some time since I delved back into this fantasy world I’ve created, so was anxious as to whether I had another instalment in me. This is a fear I face in all areas of my life. That next book, that next run, the next obstacle that life throws in my path. The voice in my head is always there, telling me I’m not good enough.

Thankfully I’ve learnt, through bitter experience, to ignore that voice and forge on with whatever project I’m pursuing. And I’m pleased to say I’ve now reached 5000 words in the new book. After a shaky start, I’ve begun to find my literary feet again and the words are starting to flow. 2000 alone yesterday and I woke up early this morning to crank out another 500 before work. I often write best in the morning, when my mind is clear and focused.

I’m determined to keep blogging, though, as it is my bread and butter, my lifeblood. Without the blog, there would be no ‘Kirkwood Scott Chronicles’ and some of my most loyal readers are people I’ve met on this wonderful platform called WordPress. They might be shorter and snappier for a few months as I pour my creative juices into the book but, fear not, there will be regular content. I owe it to you all and I owe it to myself.

Writing is an art, a craft and it takes practice and patience. You don’t become an expert overnight, no matter how much raw talent you possess. It requires large quantities of persistence and perseverance. It’s not for everyone and many fall by the wayside both in the blogging and writing communities. My advice for what it’s worth? Don’t give up. I’ve seen so many do so and it’s a sad sight. Keep writing, no matter how invisible you feel. The people who need your words will find you.

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Let’s Not Laugh At OCD

The selection of ‘humorous’ memes posted below are the tip of the comedic iceberg when it comes to trivialisation and misunderstanding of this horrific and debilitating mental illness. It ruins lives, it takes lives, it strips it’s victims of every last shred of pride and self-respect they ever possessed. It’s a constant, tormenting voice. The last thing sufferers need is others adding to their anguish and despair.

We have been talking a lot about self-education on social media of late. In today’s age, there is no real excuse for misunderstanding and lack of knowledge. So I would challenge you all, if you think you can be ‘a little bit OCD’ or think it only relates to ‘clean freaks,’ to discover the truth. There are plenty of resources out there that tell it how it really is. Warts and all. OCD can be a life sentence and it’s sufferers need empathy and support, not sniggering and ignorance.

Writing Matters – Fighting A War On Many Fronts

All the great generals frowned upon fighting a war on more than one front. Resources were stretched and supply lines made vulnerable to attack. Better to focus on a single goal and not bite off more than you could chew. Yet, as I’ve currently been submerged by a wave of writing creativity, I’ve found myself doing exactly that. In the literary sense of course. It’s a tiring yet exhilarating process and I’m loathe to let go of the inspirational thread.

I’m well into Book 3 of the ‘Kirkwood Scott Chronicles’ series now and have surprised myself at how easily I’ve slipped back into the stories and characters. I was anxious about starting again, and the voice of doubt I know so well had been niggling at my resolve. Thankfully I ignored it and plunged back into the fray. It was like donning an old winter coat that I hadn’t worn in months. Familiar, safe and comfortable. I was back where I belonged, where I needed to be.

Besides that, I’m also busy pushing promotion on Book 2 in the series, ‘A New Jerusalem,’ which is scheduled for release this October. This involves a lot of promotional work on social media, author interviews and the possibility of a blog tour next month. I’m juggling a lot of balls in the air at the moment, in addition to my commitment to blog on a regular basis. Plus there’s the small matter of being a decent husband and father as well as holding down the 9-5 job.

Im hoping my current workload doesn’t end in burnout and disaster. Making your way as an author is hard work. The actual writing of a book is often the easiest part. But I’m determined not to give up and celebrate the small victories and milestones every day. Each sale, review or encouraging word edges me a little closer to where I want to be. Thank you to all of you who continue to read the blog, buy the books and support my writing dream.

A New Jerusalem – It’s Here

Good Morning from sunny Northern Ireland and what an exciting day it is. You can now pre-order my second novel, ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: A New Jerusalem,’ in e-book format from your local Amazon site. The book goes on general release on e-book and paperback format on 06 October. Thank you to my publishers, Potter’s Grove Press, for turning my writing dream into a reality.

If you like the blog and my writing then please pick up a copy and make my day. Or, if you haven’t already, purchase the first book in the series, ‘Skelly’s Square’ or the linked novella, ‘Bomb Girl.’ Both available on Amazon or free to read if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. Thank you to everyone who has supported the books to date and been kind enough to post such encouraging, uplifting reviews. They all motivate me to keep writing.

http://mybook.to/anewjerusalem

Causeway Coast Road Trip

We took a drive along the Causeway Coastal route today all the way to Portrush. Fionnuala took around a zillion photographs and here are some of them. Special guest appearances from Hannah, Rebecca & Charlie the border terrier. I hope they capture the beauty of Northern Ireland, this wee country we call home. Hope you are all keeping safe and well. Enjoy your weekend and let me know what you think of the snaps.

Read Us & Weep

Writing is about emotion. It’s about creating something substantial from the whirling eddy of hopes, fears and dreams rattling about an author’s skull at any given time. We are creatures of extremes, all of us, and the writer’s role is to connect, to bridge the gap, to let others know that they are not alone on this experience we call life. To loose off a flare into the dark and light a path for the lost and desperate.

So we write. We dip the nib into the red raw hearts on our sleeves and we write. We write about joy and despair, agony and ecstasy, we write from the edge hoping to draw others into our ever-beating cores. We are not about filling blank pages with bland, nonsensical language. Our prose must have purpose for, otherwise, what’s the point. We might as well stagnate and wither on the literary vine.

Progress follows purpose. We heal old wounds, open new doors and break down once insurmountable barriers. We mend fences and build bridges. We look backwards and all around us for inspiration but always face forwards. For that is where the harvest is richest, that is where we find the trees bearing the sweetest fruit. New memories must be found and moulded. They are our essence, the fuel that drives us forward.

So read it and weep. Tears of sorrow or joy, both are manna from heaven to the writer. Our words are our weapons and we strike deep and true, aiming for the heart of our readers. Hate us, love us, but please don’t be ignore us. We do nothing by halves and ache for feedback and critique. The ink flows more freely down a two way street. Indifference and apathy are death to our twitching ears. Read us and weep, read us and reach out.

Two Days To Go!

The next instalment in the ‘Kirkwood Scott Chronicles’ series – ‘A New Jerusalem’ will be available for pre-order in two days time, prior to going on sale in October. I’m very excited and hope you are as well. If you haven’t read ‘Skelly’s Square,’ the first book in the series yet, it’s available to buy in paperback & e-book format from your local Amazon site. As is ‘Bomb Girl,’ the linked novella. Both are also currently FREE to read if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. Thank you 😊

Are you looking forward toA New Jerusalem?’

Have you read ‘Skelly’s Square’ and ‘Bomb Girl’ yet?

Defining OCD

Lily Bailey is one of the leading advocates in the mental health community when it comes to promoting understanding and awareness of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This is one of the best definitions of OCD I’ve seen and there’s nothing I can add to it. I’d highly recommend Lily’s memoir, ‘Because We Are Bad,’ if you want to learn more about the horrific, absurd reality of living with OCD. Thank you.

Thoughts From The Prancing Pony – Be A Hero Today

When I write, I write of heroes and villains. Creatures of extremes, in respect of both their abilities and personalities. J.R.R. Tolkien was no different, not that I would compare myself in any other way to such a literary giant. Yet, in my re-reading of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy I’ve reached the stage where Frodo, Sam & Pippin have almost crossed The Shire, following a couple of uncomfortable near misses with the Wraith Kings, the Dark Riders.

‘Courage is found in the most unlikely of places.’

So Frodo informs Pippin, after their otherworldly encounter with Gildor Inglorion and his fellow elves, an ethereal band passing through the Shire on their way to distant shores. Gildor and his people provide the hobbits with protection, sustenance and wise counsel before they embark on their own journey towards the Bucklebury Ferry and strange new lands. They’re only tiny, inconsequential folk but the future of Middle Earth rests on their well-fed, hairy shoulders. The most unlikely of heroes.

We all need to step up to the plate and display courage at some point in our lives. Failure to do so will mean our hopes and dreams are repeatedly trampled upon, by others in this rat race called life. You may not feel particularly heroic, you might not look like Superman or strut about like Wonder Woman, but the ability to perform heroic acts, no matter how small, exists within us all. We just need to dig deep and draw upon it when the time is right.

The word ‘hero’ originates from the Greek ‘heros’ meaning defender or protector. It is therefore not an aggressive expression, rather one that denotes shielding others from harm. Others less fortunate than ourselves. Be a hero today. Protect or defend another human being; from hunger, bullying, poverty, abuse, the list is endless. You decide when and where within your sphere of influence. Nobody is too small to be a hero. Just ask the hobbits of Hobbiton.

Writing Matters – Six Days

Good Morning from Northern Ireland. It’s only SIX days until you can order this bad boy. I’m very excited as I feel this is the best book I’ve ever written and can’t wait for people to read it and share their thoughts with me. It’s released in October and the first book in the series, ‘Skelly’s Square,’ is currently available on your local Amazon page. Or FREE if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. Thank you.

Are you already a Kirkwood Scott fan?

Will you be reading ‘A New Jerusalem?’

Do We Ever Truly Recover?

We’ve all been through difficult times in our lives. It could be anything – sickness, injury, bereavement, financial or family turmoil, addiction or mental health issues. The list is as long as your arm and then some. Such struggles might be in your past, you may be battling them now, or they might be just around the corner, waiting to pounce. We don’t know when, but it’s a nailed on certainty we will all wander into the desert of despair at some point during our lives.

Tragically not all of us emerge from the other side but, for those of us who do, we are changed creatures. The journey takes its toll, we become new creations. Sometimes this means discarding habits and rituals that are detrimental to our well-being, sometimes we pick up new skills and talents. We break apart and grow anew, it is a process, a voyage, an experience unique to who we were and who we want to be. We walk alone.

We recover, but are we recovered? The dictionary definition of the word is ‘to return to a normal state of health, mind or strength.’ It originates from the Latin word ‘recupare’ meaning to ‘get again.’ To recover is to get back to where we once were, to find that moment, place or state of mind we once cherished. It is to return to the status quo, square one, the safe ground we strayed from in the first place. The circle is closed and all is well again.

But is it? When we travel through the trauma of treacle are we ever as we were before? I can only speak of my own story but I am not the person I was ten years ago and I am now in a very different place. I’ve battled demons and they now circle my castle walls, watching and waiting for me to lower my defences, to end my watch and turn my back on their cruel claws and vicious beaks. They want to torment, torture, tear me apart. They do not recognise any truce or treaty. Their war is without end.

I don’t recognise the person I was, so how can I say I’ve recovered? I’m no longer where I was, in fact I’m heading in a very different direction now. Yet, I cannot forget who I was nor my actions, as to do so would allow complacency to creep in. I cannot relax as I know what lies within me, dormant but intact. I unlock the door to that particular cell and the years of hard work are undone in the blink of an eye. I will fall at the feet of my enemy.

The stakes are too high, there is too much on the table for me to rest on laurels. I must be alert, attentive and aware of my flaws and weaknesses. One slip and I will tumble off the cliff, my screams unheard as I fall into the abyss, never to return. I’ll never fully recover as to do so is to relax and declare the war is won. It will never be won, so I write to warn others of the pitfalls and perils I fell foul of. My recovery is a flare, a bell, a klaxon of alarm.

Are you on the other side, or wading through the mire? Either way, do you feel fully recovered? Has every cut and bruise healed, your skin unblemished and rejuvenated? Or do you wear your scars with pride, a red badge of honour to remind yourself and others of the battle ahead and around us. It rages on. My OCD will never go away but I fight it every day, using coping mechanisms other than alcohol to overcome it.

Be confident in your recovery and reach for the stars, but never for one moment think you have recovered. For to do so, is a false flag mentality that could be your ultimate undoing. You are getting there, step by step, and you look forward to what lies ahead. Your new normal will be a better, stronger place than where you were before. You are recovering, you are in recovery, but you must never go back to the place where everything started, where it all began to unravel.

Thoughts From The Prancing Pony – Life Begins At Fifty?

I turned fifty a couple of months ago. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, I don’t look a day over 40. At first, I was dreading the event, thinking I was effectively signing my own death warrant. It was all downhill from there and I’d nothing to look forward to bar my body gradually falling apart and becoming more forgetful. I was tempted to raise the white flag on my running, writing and everything else I aspired to be good at. I’d left it too late and run out of time.

Last night I coincidentally reached Page 50 in my re-read of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. I’ve set myself the target of finishing it by the end of the year, at a projected pace of seven pages a day. I last read the books as a teenager many moons ago and am already amazed at how much I overlooked, or more likely, themes and messages that my younger brain was simply unwilling, or unable, to digest.

Bilbo Baggins is fifty years old when he first sets off on his adventures in ‘The Hobbit.’ Now, I know it’s difficult to compare hobbit and human ages as the former far outlive the likes of you and I. Bilbo is celebrating his 111th birthday at the beginning of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ and Frodo has come of age at a sprightly thirty-three. But it still struck a chord with me. Life really only began for Bilbo Baggins when he turned fifty.

What I had also forgotten was that following Bilbo’s mysterious disappearance at his 111th birthday party, it was another seventeen years before Gandalf returned to the Shire to explain to Frodo the significance of the ring he had inherited from his Uncle Bilbo. The one true ring, the ring to rule them all. So, aged fifty, Frodo set up with Sam, Merry and Pippin on his own incredible adventure.

I’m no hobbit and I’ve no immediate plans to down tools and set off on a quest to battle dragons and unearth treasure troves. But it did encourage me that there is still plenty of life left in this middle-aged dog yet. I have mountains to scale and paths to walk, we all do. When at your lowest ebb, we must all remember this. Age is no barrier and I’m determined to keep pressing on, to find out who and I am and where I’m meant to go.

Next time, I’ll continue to unravel fresh insight and meaning from this most wondrous of tales. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea but I encourage you to stick with me as I follow the journey beyond the Shire into the lands of dwarves, elves and men. There is much ground to cover and much more to learn. Thank you for reading and feel free to comment below with your thoughts and opinions.

Writing Matters – When You Phone It In

I have an admission to make. I have, on occasion, these past few months been going through the motions with my blog posts. In our office it’s known as ‘phoning it in.’ It’s a half hearted effort, I’ve done the minimum and little more. I’ve been posting because I felt I had to as opposed to that I wanted to; I thought nobody would notice but it appears I’ve been underestimating the eagle eyed blogging community. They’re not fools.

My numbers have been dropping. It’s vanity, I know, but it’s also reassuring to see that people are reading and commenting on posts. It offers encouragement and the support and feedback guide me as to what people want me to write about. Just like a plant needs water, a blogger needs interaction and sounding boards to kick back off. Otherwise, it becomes a frustrating and largely futile task. Communication is a two-way street.

My posts have been flat and mundane. They have largely been tick-box exercises, blogging by numbers and on auto-pilot. The fire and passion that I normally feel stirring in my belly when I write has been sadly lacking. I haven’t wanted to write about anything close to my heart so I’ve just filled posts with fluff and inconsequential matters. I’ve been present but not a presence. I’ve been an empty vessel, a clanging cymbal.

The message has been missing and my mission has been a mess. I’m not quite sure why this has been. On paper, three months off work should have afforded me oodles of space within which to flex my creatives muscles. But I haven’t, other than finishing off the edits for my second novel. The lockdown has shut down the part of my brain that sparks and fizzes with new ideas and stories. I’ve shut up shop and turned my back on the challenge that a new writing project brings.

Returning to the workplace and a semblance of normality has helped although it has taken me several weeks to get back into the saddle. My focus and concentration levels were next to nothing to begin with but have improved in recent days to the point where I’m beginning to resemble a manager. Rusty cogs are starting to loosen and grind into life. I’m rediscovering my mojo, finding my rhythm. There’s life in this middle-aged dog yet.

The first green shoots of life emerged last week in the form of a post announcing a number of blog series I would be focusing on for the remainder of the train wreck that is 2020. Recent posts about my writing and OCD have attracted positive feedback. The blog is responding to treatment, it is stretching its aching limbs and clambering off the sick bed. I look forward to blogging again, whereas before it was an inconvenience, a necessary chore.

I also have been revisiting the pages of my favourite bloggers as well as discovering new sites. I’m reading more, which I feel is an essential area if one wants to improve as a writer. WordPress is no longer an irregular stopping point and I’m committed to delivering a quality product on a daily basis. It’s time well spent as opposed to wasted. I’m excited about what others have to offer and equally excited about what I’m serving up to you all.

So, I’m back, and I apologise for the average fare of recent months. I can, and will, do better. It’s 4th and inches and I’m going for it, hold back the punting unit. Writing is about taking chances, about exposing your soul in the hope that it reveals fresh insight to inspire others and offer hope to the broken. I no longer want to phone it in, to play it safe. I’m here and I’m ready to row across the great unknown towards fresh shores.

OCD – The Silent Killer

I have OCD and I’m not in control. There, I’ve said it, that wasn’t so hard was it? Even a few years ago, I would have veered clear of ‘outing’ myself and identifying with the mental illness. It was embarrassing, shameful and humiliating. But the longer I’ve walked this path, I’ve realised I have a responsibility to talk about OCD and share my experiences of this horrific, yet so misunderstood, disorder. It’s a curse but one I can help battle through the gift of writing.

Many people still associate OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) with being a ‘clean freak,’ someone who is fixated with cleanliness and germs. Yes, this is an aspect of the illness which affects some but it’s like saying you can only get cancer in your lungs. It’s a shallow, lazy interpretation of a multi-headed beast which can be as easy to label as herding cats. How can you be expected to explain to others what you can barely explain yourself?

Take my OCD. It doesn’t involve washing hands or scrubbing floors. Fionnuala would probably be delighted if the latter was the case. There is no outward manifestation to it. Instead it lurks within, polluting my mind. Imagine dropping a thimble full of black ink into a swimming pool. Watching it spread throughout the water, colouring and distorting it. That’s an obsessive thought entering the mind. It spreads, occupies and contaminates until it possesses your every waking thought.

That thought can be anything. The more disgusting and outrageous the better. It’s entire purpose is to nibble and niggle at your conscience, tricking you into believing that you are a truly horrible human being. It will grow and breed until you can think about nothing else, you are sidetracked and derailed. On the surface all might appear calm, but beneath the waters you are kicking and screaming, drowning in the obsession. The only escape is to indulge the compulsive act.

With me this usually involved a complicated mental routine that I would perform in my head a pre-determined number of times. If I did not perform it perfectly then I would have to start all over again. I would have to drop everything else and focus all my attention on this draining and distressing act, often hiding from the outside world until I was satisfied I had perfected the routine and therefore rid my mind of the obsessive thought. Until it re-emerged again moments later, bigger and badder than ever.

Now, tell me, where is the control in that? Imagine having your day all planned out when such a thought enters your mind, convincing you that you’re a disgusting, disturbed deviant. The only way to alleviate the anguish is to shut yourself off from the outside world and wage an internal war against the slippiest of foes. A brutal, toe-to-toe conflict against an enemy with limitless time and resources. While your outside existence slips down the drain.

You don’t control the OCD, the OCD controls you. It has you in a chokehold from which there is no escape. The compulsive act offers only temporary release and in fact feeds and facilitates the next wave of obsessive thoughts. It is a false ally, a smiling assassin, promising relief while actually dragging you deeper into its pit of despair. You are tossed about like a paper boat on a storm lashed ocean. There is no control, the life of an OCD sufferer is at the whim and fancy of its demonic master.

So the next time you laugh at an ‘OCD meme’ or make that ‘Oh, I’m so OCD’ comment while playfully rolling your eyes, think on. It is a silent killer, the third most prevalent mental disorder in the world according to the World Health Organisation. It debilitates and destroys lives. Would you say ‘Oh I’ve a bit of cancer?’ No, I thought not. You’re either OCD or you’re not. For your sake, I pray it’s the latter.

Writing Matters – My Safe Haven

Have you ever been hurt by the words and actions of another and they’ve been completely oblivious to the damage caused? They are so wrapped up in their own affairs the offence they have caused fails to register? It happened me the other day and I must admit it stung. I can have a less than thick skin at times but, on this occasion, I believe my wounded reaction was justified. Some people don’t think before they speak. Others do, but simply don’t care enough about the consequences.

I’m no saint. I know that I have caused hurt in the past, we all have. But part of life is learning from our past failings and ensuring they are not repeated. It’s about progress and forward motion, as opposed to repetition and ruin. This requires a degree of self-awareness that is sorely lacking in some people. So, when it happened me recently, I was disappointed that the other person was so unaware of a character flaw which they have displayed on many previous occasions.

It’s at moments like this I tend to avoid looking in the mirror and reflecting on my own words and actions, or rather inaction. You see, I said nothing. Rather than risk a confrontation with the other person, I bit my lip and took it on the chin. A double whammy so to speak. I didn’t stand up for myself, I didn’t challenge the other person’s behaviour, I buckled and folded like a deck of cards. It’s an area of my personality I don’t particularly like, not fighting my own corner.

What would have happened had I spoken up? Well, I’ll never know now, but from past experience the other person would not have reacted well, no matter how I worded my objections. I’ve been down that road before and it didn’t end well. Whenever I become embroiled in an argument I tend to capitulate and apologise once the dust settles. I hate people thinking ill of me, even when I know in my heart I’m in the right.

This is another character flaw that I’m not proud of, my lack of a backbone in such situations. At times like this, I wish I was more stubborn, more obstinate, more downright surly. I know people who can go days, weeks, months without speaking to another person they have fallen out with. They don’t give the other party a second thought and get on with their lives. Their loss, I’ve got a life to lead, let them stew in their own juices for a while.

I’m no good at stewing, hopeless at raising the drawbridge and battening down the hatches. When it comes to siege situations I’m waving the white flag within hours and sheepishly emerging to lay down arms and petition for surrender. I’m a diplomat, not a warrior and strive to keep the peace at all costs, even if I inevitably walk away with little to show for my efforts. I wish I was stronger, tougher, less of a walkover. I’m not.

So, I write. This is how I express myself, how I work through the issues bouncing round my skull. I’ve been unable to express myself verbally at the time, so I limp away, lick my wounds and then hammer out my frustration on the keyboard. Writing is a release that I have been unable to avail of for most of my adult life. Before, I would have lashed out at loved ones or buried my woes at the bottom of a pint glass. I was hurting and hurt others in the way I processed the perceived umbrage.

I am grateful for this blog. These past three years I have retreated to it on numerous occasions to deal with the storms of life. It is my safe haven, a tranquil harbour where I can lay anchor and ponder on where I’ve went wrong and how I can steer clear of the rocks next time round. I am equally grateful of those who have taken the time to read and respond with the wisdom and experience of their own life lessons. I hope to sail these waters for many more years.

I’ve Lost My Wife To The Hallmark Channel

During the current pandemic there has been unprecedented boxset watching. Oh, to own shares in Netflix. Many of us have escaped the sad reality of the spiralling global death toll by seeking escapist refuge in our television sets, tablets or phones. We have dropped anchor on our sofas, disengaged our brains and floated off into make believe worlds where heroes prevail and everything is sorted out within a sixty minute episode, ad breaks included.

Here at chez Black, we have been no different. Ozark, Line of Duty and Warrior Nun to name but a few. Normally accompanied by lashings of Diet Coke and the occasional tub of honeycomb ice cream. Desperate times have called for desperate measures. Fionnuala and I have waded through enough explosions, fight sequences and terrifying car chases to last us a lifetime. We see more of Will Smith and the Rock than our own families. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Fionnuala has worked very hard to keep the house in order and her sanity intact, with an annoying husband and three messy teenagers permanently in lockdown residence. Adept at multi-tasking she has fitted in much of her viewing while ironing, cooking or attempting to prevent the house from resembling a bomb site. Is it little wonder, then, that she yearns for a quieter, simpler life? That’s when she discovered ‘When The Heart Calls.’

Now in its 7th season it tells the story of life in an early 20th Century Canadian frontier town where everyone has suspiciously good teeth. It’s centred around the perfect schoolteacher, Elizabeth Thatcher, played by that actress who has appeared in all those other Hallmark movies. Mountie Jack is the hero of the show, romancing Miss Elizabeth while keeping on top of the surprisingly high crime rate, given the idyllic setting and angelic population.

All the women in the show are incredibly slim and wear beautiful dresses. The men are rugged, yet dashing, and all have hearts of gold beneath their gruff features. Each episode involves a moral dilemma where the saintly status quo is threatened before good old honest moral values win the day and the natural order is restored. Bad eggs are thrown in jail, crooked businessmen exposed and everyone smiles and nods wisely as the end credits roll.

My wife is a hopeless, slavering addict. She’s devoured the first five seasons and almost lost her mind upon discovering that Netflix U.K. wasn’t currently streaming Seasons 6 and 7. She expressed her outrage in a tweet to Netflix even though I gently suggested they had probably all gone home for the weekend and their CEO most likely had bigger problems in their inbox. This observation was met with incredulity and a withering rebuke. I kept quiet after that.

Thankfully some slick research was able to locate the missing seasons. I’ve no idea how she accomplished it, as it was all very technical and far beyond my admittedly tiny circle of knowledge. But she was a happy woman last night as she settled down to the opening episode of Season 6. I returned to my book knowing all was well within the Black household again. All was equally well in Hope Valley, although a new character was rubbing the sheriff up the wrong way much to the chagrin of all concerned.

There are even numerous Christmas episodes which is timely as, seeing it is late July, the good folk at Hallmark will soon be polluting our screens 24/7 with the nine million Christmas movies they have in their archives. All involving the same three basic plot lines and dozen or so actors who make up the main cast of When The Heart Calls. All will be well again in a world where social distancing doesn’t exist and there isn’t a bottle of hand sanitiser to be seen. Happy Christmas everyone!

Me, My Mask & I

Yes, I know I need a haircut. My return to post lockdown society has not included a visit to the barbers yet. I hope to fit it in soon. Or allow Fionnuala and Adam to do it, seeing as they did such a good job last time. But today’s post is about my mask wearing adventures on public transport, which became mandatory in Northern Ireland last week. It’s also looking likely this will apply to shops in the near future.

Staff at Translink N.I. have been preparing commuters for several weeks now by handing out free masks at bus and rail stations. So, nobody has an excuse for not knowing the requirement or having access to a face covering. That aside, the buses and trains have been largely empty as many people are still working from home or avoiding this form of transport. I invariably have a carriage to myself, although that doesn’t negate the need for me to cover up.

I felt faintly ridiculous when I first donned my mask upon entering the station complex. I resembled a surgeon who had gotten somewhat lost. This soon disappeared, however, when I realised that everyone else was in the same boat. Some had their own coverings, of every shade and colour, while others opted for scarves or alternate coverings wrapped tightly round their mouth and nose. We were all in this together. Oh, except for under 13’s and those who were medically exempt.

Translink N.I. have been criticised, by myself included, for not sufficiently enforcing this public health requirement. The message seems to have got through for the media have been reporting of persons being refused travel for refusing to don one. And, as I entered the complex yesterday, everyone I saw was wearing one. Apart from one elderly lady on my platform who I can only assume was exempt. It was a sparsely populated platform, where normally it would be shoulder time shoulder.

My problem with masks is not the actual wearing of them, but rather the mechanics of the operation. The second I slip mine over my ears, my glasses start to steam up and I find myself stumbling about like a drunken zombie. There is an art to affixing said face covering to avoid fogging up but I’ve yet to quite master it. I staggered onto my carriage, grateful that the lack of fellow travellers meant there were no further mishaps.

Then there’s the small matter of breathing itself. I felt a little short of breath and claustrophobic, although much of that may have been in my head, due to the novelty of the scenario. Let’s just say, I’m glad I didn’t pursue a career as a submariner or miner. I don’t like having my face covered but for the sake of a 25 minute train journey, could just about manage. That said, I was relieved to arrive at my stop and remove the mask the second I stepped off the train.

While some seem to think the crisis is behind us, I’m not so sure, therefore have no problem with wearing a mask when required to do so. There were 19 new positive cases in Northern Ireland yesterday, largely due to a cluster resulting from a house party where revellers shared the same microphone during a karaoke session. Such irresponsibility and selfishness does not help us fight the common enemy of coronavirus. It was deeply disappointing news to read.

So I’ll blunder on with my steamed up spectacles. I might look slightly silly but sometimes you have to set your own vanity aside for the greater good. I look a tad foolish and I’m badly in need of a trim but it’s a small price to pay in the midst of a global pandemic. I’d be interested to hear your face covering stories so feel free to comment below and share your experiences with us all. Thank you for reading and please stay safe.

Will You Be My Coffee Buddy?

My love-hate relationship with coffee took another unexpected twist the other week when I discovered I quite like the espressos our new office coffee machine makes. I’ve even taught myself how to make one. Okay, this involves little more than pressing a few buttons and setting a cup under a nozzle but it’s an achievement for me nonetheless, and I feel like the most sophisticated Italian barista in the land. Anything beyond that though and I’m flummoxed.

I’m not as keen on big mugs of the stuff, that some of my work colleagues guzzle down by the gallon. I’ve tried that and it left me feeling a bit queasy. Nope, short, sharp caffeine infusions appear to suit me better. Anymore than that and I’m prone to moan about an upset stomach and revert sulkily back to my tin of Diet Coke. It’s taken many decades for me to learn what a boundary is and not to cross it. Long may that continue.

The espresso gadget at home is a different kettle of fish. Every time I step within six feet of it, let alone consider using it, something goes awry. Red lights appear and strange noises emanate from it. I’m an utter technophobe at the best of times but this does nothing for my confidence in such matters. The machine obviously despises me and I usually end up having to call Fionnuala to rescue me from its evil clutches. 21st century life is hard.

As for coffee shops, I’m equally hopeless. The immense range of choice and unpronounceable drinks make it a daunting experience that I fear I’m woefully unprepared for. I’m still gathering up the courage to speak to a barista for fear they will look down their noses at me, tut and shoo me from the shop, head hanging in shame. At times like this I yearn for a coffee buddy to show me the ropes and induct me into this strange new world I’ve uncovered.

Just like the beverage, I’m an acquired taste. I’ll dither over choice, ask innumerable stupid questions and pull various faces of disgust as I sample the various brands and blends. On the plus side, I’m reasonably good company, will adhere strictly to social distancing guidelines and pay my way. Interested? Then feel free to comment below and blow me away with your sparkling repartee and love of all things caffeinated

Thoughts From The Prancing Pony – I Don’t Like Hobbits

Hobbits annoy me. There, I’ve said it. Apologies to all you Elijah Woods fanatics out there but they do. Sir Ian Holm will no doubt be turning in his grave and Sean Astin will be…well, doing whatever Sean Astin does these days. Didn’t he pop up in the last season of ‘Stranger Things’ or something? Anyway, I digress. The big news of the day? I’ve finally started my re-read of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy after a thirty years hiatus.

I’ve worked out if I read seven pages a day I will have it finished by the end of the year. Piece of cake, right? Except it’s now Day 4 and I’m already a reading behind. So, it’s now fourteen pages tonight. No pressure at all especially if there’s a bit of elvish poetry or Shire drinking song I can skip over. I love Tolkien but please don’t get me started on his poetry and drinking songs. That’s what a university education gets you I guess.

Which brings me back to all things hobbits. Setting aside their disgusting feet (pots and kettles Stephen?) they do not stand out as heroic creatures. They’re physically weak, small of stature and wide of girth. The latter is kind of unavoidable given that their entire culture appears to revolve around food and the consumption of large amounts of ale. Six meals a day, no less. You’re not going to catch a Took or a Baggins nipping out for a quick 10K before second breakfast.

They’re also a tad fond of the pipe. No, not crackheads, more tobacco. According to the early pages of LOTR, which contains a potted history of the hobbit species, they invented the nasty habit and even got the dwarves and wizards hooked on the stuff. Want to make a shilling or two in Third Age Middle Earth? I suggest opening an inn or a tobacconist in the Shire. They will have you run off your large, hairy, unseemly feet. You’ll be rolling in money.

Then there’s the inter-familial strife. It would appear that all hobbits are related to one another, a bit like certain parts of Northern Ireland, and are forever bickering about who said what to so and so’s great great grandfather, several centuries ago. Hobbits have long memories and sharp tongues, such is the level of rumour mongering and gossip they spread throughout their fair and tranquil land. Why they can’t get around a table and thrash out their differences I’ll never know.

Then there’s world affairs. They haven’t a clue, living ostrich like existences with their heads permanently stuck down hobbit holes. The universe could be falling apart and they would carry on obliviously. The height of their travel aspirations is a long weekend in Bree, never mind what’s kicking off in Rohan and Mordor, just down the well travelled road. Terrifying wraith like dark riders rampaging through your land might be a slight clue but it all washes over their annoyingly curly, wide-eyed heads.

So, yeah, hobbits are not my favourite Tolkien creations. Give me orcs any day of the week. Orcs are much maligned and misunderstood beasts. At least they’re consistent. You always know where you stand with an orc. If you bump into one, you’re fairly certain they are going to want to kill you. A bit like zombies. You don’t get that with lazy hobbits, grumpy dwarves or languid, day dreaming elves. I like orcs. They do exactly what it says on the tin.

As for humans, well that’s for another day. I still have a long way to go before I encounter Strider and his lot. I’ll be posting irregular updates as to my progress through this gargantuan tome and would love to hear your thoughts. Are you a LOTR fan, always meant to read it, or it simply isn’t your cup of tea? Feel free to comment and that way I won’t feel such an awkward geek boy. Wherever you are stay safe and enjoy your day.

Writing Matters – New Cover Art

Good Afternoon fellow bloggers from Northern Ireland. Here’s the cover art for my new book, ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: A New Jerusalem,’ which is being released this October by Potter’s Grove Press. It’s the sequel to ‘Skelly’s Square’ and I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Feel free to comment below and thank you to those of you who continue to support my writing dream.

Coming To Fractured Faith Soon

I’m always looking at ways to freshen up the blog and keep it relevant. There are times when the creative juices dry up and you feel you’ve taken one too many trips to the well. On other occasions, you pour your heart and soul into a post, only for it to sink without trace. Then there are the brainwaves that never see the light of day, but instead wither on the vine. So, I’m aiming today to commit to a number of writing projects which I’m seeking to progress throughout the remainder of this rollercoaster year.

These will give the blog a degree of structure and consistency which it lacks at times, and allow me to explore issues and pastimes close to my heart. That said, I don’t want to be so rigid as to not be able to write about anything that catches my eye on any given day. But the ideas listed below are the foundations of what I hope to blog about over the next few months. I’m hoping I can clamber back into a daily routine and approach the noble art of blogging as a passion as opposed to a chore.

1. Writing Matters – with a new novel out in October, I’m now looking towards my next writing challenge. I plan to start work soon on the latest instalment in the Kirkwood Scott Chronicles.’ With the working title of ‘No Longer Forsaken,’ it will be the third, and possibly final, book in the series. But fear not as I also have a couple of spin off projects in the pipeline, which all form part of the KSC series. You’ll be able to obtain regular updates on my writing via the blog.

2. The Elephants In Our Rooms – mental health is a topic very close to my heart and one of the reasons I started the blog was to talk about my OCD and educate people about this much misunderstood mental illness. I will continue to do so and hope to create a safe environment here where people can share their own mental health experiences and learn from others who have walked, or are walking, a similar path. We need to talk about the elephants in our rooms otherwise they will trample all over us.

3. Thoughts From The Prancing Pony – regular visitors to the blog will know what a massive Lord of the Rings nerd I am. I’ve been meaning to re-read the trilogy for ever and have now estimated that I can do so by the end of the year, at the sedate pace of seven pages a day. I’ll blog about my thoughts on the Tolkien classic and whether it still captures my attention and imagination like it did when I first read it over…cough…ahem…thirty years ago.

4. The Bible Is Hard – as I struggle with my forever fractured faith I document some passages of the Bible where I’ve hit the proverbial brick wall. In the hope that somebody out there will be able to throw some light on the proceedings. The conversation is open to all – Christians, agnostics, atheists and people of other faiths and beliefs. Is there an afterlife? Was Jesus the Son of God, a prophet or just an all round good bloke who wanted to make the world a better place? Let’s find out together.

5. The Family Von Black – ‘The Sound of Music’ was one of my late father’s favourite films. All it was missing was a cameo from John Wayne and he would have probably described it as perfect. I’ll continue to write about our day to day life in gloriously damp Northern Ireland as we emerge bleary eyed from lockdown to find out with some trepidation what the world has been up to. There’s never a dull moment with three teenagers and a crazy border terrier in the house.

So there you go. Plenty to mull over. As ever, blogging is a two way street so I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ideas. What do you think? Do any of them strike a particular chord with you or do they stink the house out? Is there anything else that you think I should be writing about? I’ll clear the stage and leave the floor open to you all. Thank you, as ever, for your continued support of my writing and the blog. It will always be appreciated.

How Is Your Mental Health Today?

Now and again I ask this question on the blog, and I thought now was as important a time as any, given the current world we live in. As we emerge from lockdown at various paces and with varied levels of success, many of us bear the mental as well as the physical scars. Some of us have coped better than others, some have thrived, others have struggled and barely made it through. It’s been a battle and none of us have been unaffected.

Let’s start with me, then, as I’m sure many of you are awkwardly twiddling your thumbs and staring at your feet, praying for someone to break the interminable silence. Well, thanks for asking. I’m back at work full time and slowly feeling my way back into the office environment. Initially I was anxious about returning to the daily grind. I quite enjoyed being at home with my family…although my family may beg to differ.

The thing I have struggled with most are my concentration levels. My job is quite intense where I’m required to analyse and assess large amounts of dense information, manage a team and make detailed decisions in respect of strategies and policies. I’m paid well for it and I’ve worked hard to reach the level I have within the organisation. But a lot is expected of me, I’m expected to deliver. It’s not life or death but my actions and decisions do impact lives.

I’m slowly finding my feet again and regaining my stride. My OCD is under control although I’m ever conscious the next flare up could be just around the corner. We can’t take our mental health for granted any more than we can take our physical health for granted. If we don’t exercise, eat badly and pollute our bodies with toxic substances then eventually stuff will start to go wrong. Our minds are no different.

So I still studiously avoid certain situations and people. I can’t be around them for to do so is exposing myself to emotions and experiences which aren’t healthy. Some might find my lifestyle a bit dull. I don’t party, I don’t go to the pub, I don’t really go out a lot besides going to work and with my family. My circle of friends is a fraction of what it was. I keep to myself and try to live as good a life as I can. I’m not perfect, but I try.

I’ve been off the rails and have no desire to return to the darker periods of my life. It’s a work in progress and I can never rest on my laurels, given my propensity to press the self destruct button. I run, I read and write, I watch Netflix and drive Fionnuala and the kids insane with my odd ways. I try to be the best husband and father I can. I know I can do a lot better, but I also know I’ve been a lot worse. I’m getting there.

But enough about me, what about you? How is your mental health? Are you 100% and loving life or is getting out of bed a bridge too far at present?How has the global pandemic impacted upon your life? Are you excited, joyous, anxious or frightened? What steps are you taking to look after your mental health? Counselling, medication, meditation or good old fashioned physical exercise?

Have you a faith? Does it help or hinder you? Does it offer you comfort and strength when you are at a low ebb or do you feel intimidated and overwhelmed by the high standards your faith community seeks to maintain. Does it make you feel inadequate and unworthy? A lot of questions there, and plenty to chew on. I’ll stop now and open the floor to you all. Wherever you are, stay safe, enjoy your day, and please don’t take your mental health for granted.

Happy/Unhappy 12th July

Good Morning from Northern Ireland. Happy 12th July. Or Unhappy 12th July. You see, it depends on what part of the community you originate from in this fair land that I call home. Anyway, it’s a big deal whatever way you look at it. For this day 330 years ago the Protestant army of King William III of Orange defeated the Catholic forces of King James II at a little river outside Drogheda in County Meath called the Boyne.

To commemorate the battle ever since, the Protestant unionist community hold parades where flute, pipe, accordion and brass bands march through the towns and cities of Northern Ireland followed by thousands of members of the Loyal Orange Order or ‘Orangemen.’ ‘LOL’ has a completely different context in Northern Ireland so tread carefully if you ever visit. One side call it celebratory, others inflammatory and triumphalist.

The Orangemen wear suits, bowler hats and carry umbrellas. Even when it’s not raining. They match under colourful banners depicting King William crossing the Boyne on a white charger. Even though he was more than likely on a brown horse but the painters of the time used a little artistic license to portray him in a more heroic light. The battle also took place on the 1st July as opposed to the 12th. Something to do with calendars I believe.

The parades are very loud and a kaleidoscope of history and culture. If you are ever in our country on the 12th I would encourage you to attend the event for the experience if nothing else. As a young boy I attended them as it was just what you did. It was a carnival atmosphere and many view the 12th as a bigger deal than Christmas or their birthday. Bands practice for months in advance of the big day. It’s a public holiday and the main parade is broadcast live and heavily covered by the media.

My memories are of warm lemonade and overpriced packets of crisps. Of sitting bored at the side of the road for several hours before the excitement of the bands passing. In twenty minutes it was over, akin to watching the Tour de France cycle through your village. The highlight was picking out my grandfather as he marched behind his village band. He would smile, wave and we could all go home happy then, safe in the knowledge that all was well in the world.

Except all wasn’t well. The country teetered on the brink of civil war as rival paramilitary groupings murdered mostly innocent members of the other community. Over 3600 dead in 30 years. Many more maimed or traumatised by the senseless sectarian strife. Families torn apart, never to recover. Deep wounds still remain to this day even through we now live in more peaceful times. It doesn’t take much for old grudges to bubble to the surface and the spark of hatred to ignite again.

Every year there is disorder around the 12th. Rival sides clash. Stones and bricks are thrown, petrol bombs and occasionally bullets and blast bombs fired at the police endeavouring to keep the factions apart. It paints the country in a most unflattering light at a time when the tourism industry is seeking to attract visitors to the many wonderful attractions the country has to offer. The huge majority abhor the tribal violence but still it happens.

Coronavirus means there are no big parades this year. Single bands are allowed to parade around their local area as long as no more than 30 people are involved and social distancing is maintained. It will be a quieter, less contentious affair, although the threat of violence is never far away. Some will be disappointed, others relieved. The 12th July will always continue to divide and alienate, and even a pandemic won’t change that. I’ll be staying at home and keeping my head down.

Bloggers Don’t Wear Masks

I wrote yesterday about compulsory mask wearing and how it was an issue for some people. I watched a video the other night of a mature American lady screaming like a chastised toddler because she was asked to wear a face covering in a store. I don’t know what was more shocking – the seismic scale of her tantrum or the sorry reality that she’s not a one off and many other people across the globe would probably react in exactly the same manner.

It would appear that their ‘right’ to do whatever they want, whenever they want, overrides the safety of those around them. They put their needs before those of their fellow human beings. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so worrying. Has society really reached the point where we cannot make small sacrifices for the greater good? I don’t particularly enjoy wearing a mask, they’re uncomfortable, but I’ll do it if it means contributing towards defeating a deadly virus.

The ironic thing is, we all walk around wearing masks anyway. They are called our faces. How many times have we produced a false smile when inside our hearts are breaking? The same goes for our mouths. How many times have you answered ‘I’m fine’ when, in reality, your world is falling apart? Turned up and went through the motions when all we really want to do is crawl under a rock and die. We act, we perform, we put on a show, rather than show the world how we are really feeling.

So, what’s another mask when our lives are dominated by them anyway? Masks are part of our daily walk, we don them all the time to protect our privacy from prying eyes, to keep up appearances. To show vulnerability and honestly expose our faults and weaknesses is just not the ‘done thing.’ It’s frowned upon, people don’t want to hear of our inner struggles, it’s all so sordid and unnecessary. Only shiny, happy stories will suffice.

I wore such a mask for many years. In work, at church, wherever I went. People didn’t see the real me, warts and all, they saw the version of me that I thought they wanted to see. I lived a chameleon like existence, changing my personal values and character traits at a whim in order to fit in and feel valued. I was a walking, talking charade. I played the part of the happy chappy when inside I was a seething ball of anger and despair.

One day I hit rock bottom. And from there I started to rebuild. At the heart of that was this blog, the place where I tentatively began to write three years ago and share my scars with the world. I was nervous at first, fearful as to how others would respond. I need not have worried. WordPress was, and still is, the most supportive, encouraging social media platform I’ve ever experienced. I’m so glad I stumbled onto it all those years ago.

I discovered like minded souls. People who were willing to open up and exorcise their darkest demons via the written word. Survivors who had battled the odds, faced their worst fears and emerged out the other side. Fellow travellers who wanted to share their experiences, good and bad. They wore no masks but bathed in the truth and made no apology about it. They wanted to write, needed to write, it was as natural and necessary as drawing air into their lungs.

Some have fallen by the wayside and left the blogging world, others dip their toe in the water only occasionally now. While others have remained, steadfast beacons offering daily encouragement and support. Others have emerged to fill the ranks, it is a vibrant, ever changing community of like minded souls. We need no masks here as we have nothing to fear from one another. Express yourself. Speak the truth. Throw away your mask.

A New Jerusalem – Coming Soon

Good Morning. It’s an exciting day for me as I reveal the cover art for my new book, ‘A New Jerusalem.’ It will be released in October 2020 by Potter’s Grove Press but is available for pre-order from 01 August in e-book and paperback format. Please feel free to comment below and let me know what you think. Book 1 in the series, ‘Skelly’s Square’ is currently out there so you’re not too late to pick up a copy in advance of October. Thank you.

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

Face coverings became mandatory on public transport in Northern Ireland today. It has been widely publicised and staff at bus and train stations have been handing out free masks to commuters throughout the week. So, model citizen that I am, I duly boarded the train this morning with my mask on. This is no easy task for a spectacle wearing gentleman who fogged up immediately and clambered into his seat, grasping for purchase like a drunken sailor.

The 08:28 express to Belfast would normally be standing room only and I’d be ‘enjoying’ the commuting experience with my nose wedged in some fellow traveler’s armpit. But, since returning to work, the trains have been near empty. I’m not sure if a lot of people are working from home or avoiding public transport at the minute. Either way I had the luxury of a double seat all to myself as I sat back and surveyed my surroundings.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I observed a fellow passenger, several seats in front of me, boarding the train without a mask. Bold as brass he summoned the conductor to buy a ticket. Here we go, I thought, he will be put in his place in no uncertain terms and told to affix said face covering immediately. But no, the ticket was purchased without any form of query or challenge by the powers of law and order. Hmmm, I thought, this can’t be right.

Thinking I had gotten my dates wrong I checked the Translink N.I. Twitter feed. Nope. FACE MASKS ARE MANDATORY ON ALL TRAINS AND BUSES FROM 10 JULY. It was everywhere. I googled the meaning of ‘mandatory.’ Something that is required, compulsory, obligatory. That’s fairly clear, I thought, wiping my condensed glasses as I squinted at the screen of my phone. I decided to query it via a tweet. How very daring, I know.

To be fair, the head tweeter at Translink N.I. responded within minutes to inform me that some passengers were exempt from wearing masks for medical reasons. Fair enough I replied, but the conductor I observed at no point asked the passenger if there was a reason as to why he had boarded the train without a face covering. Gotcha, I thought, wriggle out that one Head Tweeter Person. Game, set and match to moi.

Oh no. Quick as you like, my inbox chirped to reveal that I was most mistaken. Persons with medical exemptions are not required to provide evidence of said exemption. And, whilst the wearing of face coverings was mandatory, staff are much too busy to check up on people not wearing them. It is just assumed that they have a perfectly good reason for not doing so and are allowed to carry on regardless while the rest of us frown from behind said masks.

I bit my lip and was on the verge of replying but then concluded it was clearly a pointless exercise. Head Tweeter person was wasted in social media and should certainly pursue a career in politics such was their skill at avoiding simple questions and twisting and turning the truth to suit their needs at that particular moment. Do as we say, not as we do. They were clearly making up the policy as they went along in order to protect a colleague who couldn’t be bothered doing their job.

The gentleman in question could have had a perfectly plausible explanation for not wearing a face covering. A polite question would have gathered that reason and set my mind at ease as we hurtled through the Northern Irish countryside towards the city. But let’s not rock the boat and cause a scene. As long as we look good in the media who cares if the virus spikes again and me and my family are placed at unnecessary risk. Well played, Translink N.I.

Happy Birthday To My Book

Here are the latest reviews for my book, ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square,’ which will be a year old tomorrow. Thank you to those who continue to take a chance on an unknown Northern Irish writer and the fantastic reviews you take the time to post. They keep me motivated through the good times and the bad. The book is available via your local Amazon site in e-book and paperback format. Or, FREE if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber.

Expose Your Scars

Good Morning from Northern Ireland. I saw this on Twitter last night and shamelessly pilfered it. Apologies to all concerned but this is OCD in a nutshell. OCD is voracious, forever hungry and on the prowl for its next meal. It will suck you dry, bleed you out. It is cruel, merciless and without pity. It revels in our misery, it’s ability to turn our days, worlds and lives upside down at the flick of a switch, the press of a button. It knows us inside out and back to front. It will rip you apart.

The compulsions are overwhelming and even now, writing about the topic, I can feel a ripple of unease stirring in my stomach. I’ve scratched the surface, poked the bear, dangled my leg in the lion’s cage. Remain too long and it will drag me in, maul and ravage my body and soul. So this will be fleeting visit, a mere toe dipped in the cesspit of the obsessive thought and corresponding compulsive act. Another paragraph, maybe two, but that is all.

Why do you do it then, some might ask? Why place yourself in the danger zone, pop your head above the parapet? You blog about OCD, tweet about OCD, you’ve even written a flipping book where the main character has OCD. Aren’t you tempting fate, heading for a fall? And sometimes I agree with those voices. But then I remember, when I was at my lowest I craved knowing I was not on my own. That there were others out there who shared my pain, who understood.

So I’ll shout it from the rooftops, even though the drop below is terrifying. I’ll keep coming back for more, no matter how battered and bloodied I am from the last encounter. I’m not a survivor but I’m surviving. I need to tell my story now just like I needed someone to tell me theirs all those years ago. It is a responsibility I will not shirk and I encourage you all to do the same. Expose your scars in order to exorcise the demons that still lurk in the shadows.

Happy 18th Birthday Adam

Fionnuala and I feel very old today as our eldest child, Adam, turns 18. He’s taller than me, stronger than me, he has facial hair! We are very proud of the witty, intelligent, kind young man he has turned into. Fionnuala takes 99% of the credit for that. I’m looking forward to what a big year brings for him both academically and on the rugby pitch. Wishing you all a very happy Independence Day. Stay safe.

Don’t Suffer In Silence

I fear I’m getting old. For everything hurts. A lot. Take last Saturday for example. I bent over in the kitchen to put some rubbish in the bin, only to discover I couldn’t stand up straight again. A sharp pain in the base of my back ensured that. Hobbling over to a nearby chair my watching wife and children reacted in the only way they knew how…they burst out laughing. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so settled for somewhere in between.

Almost a week later, the situation has improved. I’m still subject to a dull ache but Ibuprofen is my best friend and I’m a brave little soldier at the end of the day. I haven’t been able to run but am trying to maintain a daily 10,000 step regime on my Garmin. It’s frustrating but what can I do? Maybe my body is telling me something I’ve suspected for some time. You need to slow down, Stephen. Pain is a warning sign and it’s time I started paying attention to it.

My right knee has been bothering me for some time now. It’s fine during the actual act of running but afterwards is always stiff and sore. There are times I struggle to straighten my leg. I really should be icing it but am hopeful the enforced rest might help it. My days of marathon running are behind me but I still want to keep running in moderation for both my physical and mental well-being. How else would I get ideas for my writing?

Which brings me to my feet. I returned to full time work this week and bought a new pair of shoes two days ago. Breaking them in has been a painful process and I removed them yesterday evening to reveal two badly skinned big toes. I awoke this morning and gingerly inspected them. Ouch. I may have to resort to new depths and become a trainer wearing commuter, people I used to sneer in derision at. It serves me right for my snobby ways.

The shoes look good but make me feel bad. On the surface I resemble a reasonably normal member of the human race but inside I’m gritting my teeth and hobbling through the pain. There is no release, no relief, no respite. I just have to suck it up and struggle through the pain. The only break I get is when I take them off and tentatively massage my tender tootsies. Regular readers of this blog know I’m not one to complain though…oh alright then, maybe a little bit from time to time.

There are many of us walking about looking good on the outside but struggling badly beneath the surface. We hide the pain and bear the invisible wounds in stoic silence. I know that pain for I carried it for many years myself. OCD and grief left me on my knees. I resorted to quick fixes to ease the torment and, in doing so, turned my back on those who mattered most. I nearly lost it all but somehow survived thanks to the love and support of my family.

You might be in a similar position as you read this. It could be bereavement, addiction, unemployment, divorce, there are any number of reasons you feel there is nothing left to fight for. You don’t want to take another step, you’re tired of the loneliness and unceasing monotony of life. You’re on the brink of stepping off the conveyor belt and calling it a day. You have nothing left to give and just want a little peace and quiet.

Know this. You’re not alone. I’ve been there as have many others. It’s why I blog, why I write, even if only one person reads my words and knows my story. Knows there is hope and a weak, faltering light at the end of the tunnel. Words are my salvation, they allow me to exorcise the past and unveil a better future. Don’t suffer in silence. Pride is a killer. Swallow it and reach out. There are those of us who know and care. We want to help…if you will let us.

Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

I’m easily distracted at the best of times but when the OCD hits it’s hard to maintain focus and concentration when it’s seductive, velvety, barbed wire tones insist you drop everything and succumb to the latest intrusive thought fluttering onto your mindscape. As innocent as an autumn leaf drifting in the breeze, as deadly as a hand grenade lobbed into a crowded room. It explodes and your world changes. Forever.

You don’t want to go there, yet you must. Like a persistent child tugging at their parent’s wrist you capitulate to the thought for, otherwise, it will occupy your every waking thought. It will niggle you at first, but then grow in stature and volume until it consumes you whole. You stand on the brink, staring into the darkness below. You know what lies ahead but you jump in, feet first anyway. Rational thought deserts you when you most need it.

The rabbit hole is deep and dark and deadly. It does not recognise human concepts such as time nor distance. There are no rules or boundaries, it does not pander to such petty restrictions. It is an unchained beast, rampaging unchallenged through the subconscious, feasting where it wishes. Many have tried to tame it and fallen, crushed beneath this behemoth of chaos. It does not care, you are it’s plaything, to toy with as it sees fit.

I’m a survivor. I’ve crawled from the rabbit hole many times now, battered and bruised, but somehow intact. I am an ageing Alice and I bear the scars to illustrate my tale. They map out what was and what is. I know it’s tortuous tunnels, full of dead ends and wrong turns. I’ve spent many years, lost within its slick black depths. I’ve bettered it, bartered with it, been battered by it. I stand alone, victorious. Until the next time that is…for there’s always a next time.

Maintain

More Kind Words

The positive reviews for ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square’ keep coming in. Hard to believe that it will be a year old later this month. But, worry not, for Book 2 in the series, ‘A New Jerusalem,’ is out in October 2020, published exclusively by the good people at Potters Grove Press. Thank you to those of you who have supported my writing. Both ‘Skelly’s Square’ and the linked novella, ‘Bomb Girl’ are available to read via your local Amazon site. Or FREE if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber.

What Is Wrong With America?

The Northern Ireland Executive announced on Thursday a raft of lockdown easing measures over the coming weeks. These include the opening of bars, restaurants and cafes; competitive sport to return; gyms, museums and galleries to reopen; and a halving of the two metre social distancing rule. Deaths and infection rates have fallen markedly. There is hope for guarded optimism, a chink of light at the end of the tunnel.

The vast majority of the Northern Irish public have stuck to the plan. We have kept to the rules and stayed at home. The death rate per 100,000 people for Northern Ireland is the lowest in the United Kingdom. Our politicians, normally a petty, dysfunctional bunch who can’t agree on anything, have pulled together and displayed real gravitas and leadership. I’ve been both impressed and surprised. It’s sad it has taken a global pandemic to garner consensus and common sense.

I return full time to work on Monday and the shops will be open as I stroll through Belfast city centre towards my office. Yes, I may have to wear a mask on the train and queue outside the local Tesco, but we are a quantum leap from the dark days of April where the city resembled an apocalyptic ghost town. There has been real progress. Whilst there is still much to be done and no room for complacency, there is hope for better days ahead. And soon.

Then I look elsewhere. Deaths in England are still near 200 as day, yet their beaches were packed two days ago when record temperatures hit. Despite being warned to stay away, the masses flocked to seaside resorts such as Bournemouth. Cars were abandoned, rubbish bins overflowed and fist fights broke out. It was the ideal breeding ground for a virus that needs no second invitation to wreak havoc. Did the beach goers give any consideration to this? It would appear not.

The death toll in Brazil has surged past 50,000 this week. And that’s a very conservative estimate. It is believed that many, many more may have lost their lives to coronavirus. The Brazilian President has headed an appalling government response to the crisis, describing it as nothing but a ‘little flu’ as he posed for selfies with supporters. The arrogance and callousness of the man has been staggering. The people he was elected to serve have been utterly betrayed and left horribly exposed to an invisible killer.

The same can be said about other nations. The virus seems to be ripping through countries such as Mexico, Chile and India. New infections are breaking out in Germany and New Zealand, nations who thought they had beaten the bug. Then there’s the USA. 49,000 new infections yesterday. Fresh outbreaks in Florida, Texas and Arizona. A nation led by a man who seems oblivious to the suffering of millions so long as his huge ego is massaged and nurtured.

If the rise in infections continue we could be looking at 10-15,000 deaths a week by mid summer in the States. These are heartbreaking figures for the supposed most advanced nation on earth. Trump supporters holler about the freedom to swagger through their towns and cities, toting automatic weapons. An assault rifle will be no use to anyone when they’re in an intensive care unit in a medically induced coma, their lungs turning to mush. Are they really that blind?

I’m not a politically minded person but I had to write these words. The land of the free and the home of the brave? Bravery is heeding the medical and scientific advice, taking the necessary precautions and keeping you and your loved ones safe. Freedom is staying healthy and living to see the other side of this crisis. You may not agree and I stand to be corrected, but how could such a global power have gotten it so wrong? And is there any way back?

More Praise For ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square’

Some recent reviews of my novel, ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square,’ which is fast approaching it’s first birthday next month. The sequel, ‘A New Jerusalem’ will be published this October by Potters Grove Press. ‘Skelly’s Square’ and the linked novella, ‘Bomb Girl,’ are both still available in paperback and e-book format via your local Amazon site; or free, if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. Please check them out and let me know what you think. Thank you.

Enjoy The Good Times

Another cheesy shot of me, I’m afraid, but our Hannah worked so hard creating this unbelievable treat containing all my favourite chocolate and sweets. I will have to be winched off the sofa when I finish eating all my birthday gifts. Although I’m sure I will have plenty of help if required. I’ve had a great day so far and been spoiled rotten by Fionnuala and the kids. I’m banned from saying ‘I don’t deserve this’ but still…

I know this isn’t a fun day for everyone. Not everyone has a father to spoil, for a whole plethora of reasons. I lost my own father ten years ago to prostate cancer, aged a very young 64. So, while I’m enjoying the day, I recognise it has a sad side which hangs over many of us. I miss my father today, the kids miss their granda, Fionnuala misses her father-in-law. Life is the flip of a coin, a double edged sword. Enjoy the good days.

The Largest Sausage Roll In The Land

This bad boy arrived in the post for me yesterday afternoon. Imagine my delight as I unwrapped it, an early Fathers Day present from Fionnuala and the kids. For if there’s one thing I love more than honeycomb ice cream, it’s sausage rolls. Cold sausage rolls, none of that heating them up in an oven or microwave for me. Although I doubt if you could get this beast in a microwave, given it’s girth. It was akin to holding a bazooka!

I reckon it will take me some time to chow through the meaty behemoth, although I no doubt will have some others of help. Charlie the border terrier has already tasted it and approves. It’s the largest sausage roll in the British Isles apparently, weighing in at an impressive three pounds. Considerable running will be required to burn these calories off. I may need to be winched off the sofa when I finally polish it off.

Thank you to Fionnuala and the kids for this early gift. It certainly brought a smile to my face. I’ll post more photos as the weekend progresses if any other edible treats emerge. Happy Fathers Day to all the Dads out there and my thoughts are also with those of you who do not have a father to celebrate with. These days bring happiness for some abs sadness for others. I hope you are safe and well wherever you are today.

Fionnuala’s Photos – Part 2

Some more photos taken by Fionnuala on her phone the other evening. I was driving. This is the road that leads into our village. These are all natural shots with no filter or special effects added. Isn’t she a talented one? The sunsets are amazing in Ireland at present. I’m off to work later and hope you all have a great day wherever you are in these crazy times 😊

Fionnuala’s Photos – Part 1

Amongst her many other skills, my wife is also a talented photographer. These are some shots that she took as we drove through Belfast on Sunday night, on our way home from watching ‘Back To The Future’ at the drive-in cinema. Sometimes we take for granted how beautiful our immediate surroundings are. Amazingly, Fionnuala took all these on her phone with no filters or fancy effects. More to follow later today.

My Latest Author Interview

I was interviewed by GKJ Publishing yesterday about my writing past, present and future. The link is attached below. I hope it offers some insight into my work and the Northern Irish accent isn’t too difficult to decipher.

Stephen’s Interview with GKJ Publishing

Start The World, I Need To Get Back On Again

I’m back to work on Monday. Well, I’m dipping my toe in the water, anyway, returning to the office on a part time basis. Our workplace is not officially back to normal but I’m returning in order to break the ice and help prepare for when all the staff are back. It’s been 12 weeks since our office was closed as part of the overall lockdown measures which effectively closed down the country. I’m part relieved, part nervous about the return.

Relieved as this can’t go on forever. Fionnuala knows me inside out and back to front and wisely informed me that the longer I stay off work, then the harder it will be for me to return. She made a very valid point. It’s very easy to slip into the comfort zone, lounging on the sofa while collecting my full salary every month. I need to get up and about again, instead of slipping into a rut and hiding in the house for the rest of my life.

The thought of getting up again at 6 a.m. and going out into the cold, dark, wet mornings doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. Nor does the prospect of travelling on public transport again, especially in these times. Will I need to wear a mask? What social distancing measures will my employers have put in place? Are they adequate and what do I do if a colleague strays within two metres of me? There’s only one way to find out, I guess.

Then there’s the little voice chirping in my ear that I’ll switch on my computer, stare at the screen and promptly fall to pieces. Have I forgotten how to do my job? Will the backlog of tasks and demands simply overwhelm me to the extent where I run screaming from the office with my hands over my ears. Will I be found out as the fraud I’ve always suspected I am? Unable to put the mask back on and play the part of the calm, knowledgeable professional?

These are just some of the thoughts that swirl around my addled mind. I’m a worry wart and a bit of a drama queen, an expert at turning the tiniest molehill into the mightiest mountain. I need to ignore this voice and focus on knuckling down to the reality of the situation. I need to get back to normal for the sake of my mental and physical health. This doesn’t just apply to me but also my family, my friends, all of us. The world hasn’t stopped turning, we need to clamber back on board again.

We will never take normal for granted again. As the lockdown eases we are starting to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. We only became aware of what we had when it was, by necessity, taken away from us. We have all missed the mundane. It will be good to re-establish a routine and engage again with a society we have watched from afar for three months now. We have seen the best and worst of humanity, the best and worst of ourselves.

We will all have learnt during this crisis. It has been a time for introspection and reflection. We may have faced some difficult, uncomfortable truths. Lockdown had changed us all. Some have reopened old wounds, while others have allowed old scars to heal. When we emerge again, squinting into the sunlight, will we change for the better, or slip back into our old ways? The choice is ours, let’s hope me make the right decisions.

If you’re venturing out into the real world again, I wish you well. If you’re looking forward to it with relish, then I hope it is as you remembered it. If you’re uncertain and filled with trepidation, then I empathise and share your concerns. You can do it, though, and the reality is never as bad as the thoughts that precede it. 2020 may be a year to write off for many, but don’t give up on it quite yet. There is still life to be lived if you choose to do so.

Don’t Forget To Be Silly

I’m currently wading through the final edits for my second novel, ‘A New Jerusalem.’ It’s been a slog but I’m finally starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. My family have kept spirits high and yesterday’s work was broken up by several Tik Tok videos involving dance routines, silly voices and air guitar. Rumours that I may have been involved in all of these are utterly without foundation and will be challenged in a court of law if pursued.

Life is serious at the best of times but seems to be even more so at present. All you have to do is switch on the television news to realise that. As a wise man once said, we live in interesting (and depressing) times. We count our blessings. We are all safe and well. We have a roof over our heads and food on the table. I’m getting paid to sit at home and watch Netflix all day long. Life could be a whole lot worse.

Even so, these are days of worry and uncertainty. As we near a return to life outside we fret and frown over what we can expect. How will school and work look? Even the thought of the daily commute to and from the office now appears a minefield of unseen dangers and strange new protocols. Part of me doesn’t want to poke my head above the parapet. As many are straining at the leash to return to normality, whatever that is, others are more reticent.

So it’s important to find humour in the midst of all the doom and gloom. For without it what are we? I, for one, can’t function without it and my writing is laced with Northern Irish banter. We call it ‘the craic.’ Mine is dry, sarcastic and hopefully raises the odd smile. My family groan at my embarrassing ‘dad jokes’ but I get the occasional giggle and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Be serious. Become educated and aware of what is going on in the world around you. But please don’t take it to the level where you forget to smile and laugh with your loved ones. Don’t let our broken world drain you of the joie de vivre that needs to course through our veins. We need it to survive, to rebuild and to overcome. Without it we are monochrome. We cannot survive without colour and vibrancy.

Don’t forget to be silly.

Signs Of Life

I’m not saying life in lockdown is dull. For if I did then I’m sure Fionnuala could find plenty of household chores to occupy my time. But the days do tend to drag. I had to ask this morning what day of the week it was. By necessity, we find ourselves staring out of our front window a lot at the street outside. This means what was normally banal and routine takes on a whole new significance.

I wouldn’t go as far to say we have turned into creepy, curtain twitching neighbours. Well, not yet anyway. But the daily arrival of the postman or grocery delivery van whips chez Black into a frenzy of excitement. The window cleaner returned last week after several months AWOL. It was akin to the Second Coming. I fear I may internally combust when I next see the man who cuts the hedges across the road. Or the council workers who water the hanging baskets.

Online shopping deliveries take the hysteria to a whole new level. Who has ordered what and when? We clamber over each other to get to the front door first. While, of course, maintaining social distancing as the bewildered courier leaves the package at the door, before beating a hasty retreat from the wide eyed, slavering horde on the other side of the glass. We then descend on the item, jostling to see who it is addressed to. Never a dull moment in our house.

Imagine my ecstatic reaction this morning then when I looked outside to the see the sight above. The council were marking the road signs at the entrance to our street. Yes, I was that odd man of a certain age taking photographs while not so discretely hanging out the window. No, I don’t have any shame left and am quite willing to write a 500 word blog post on the subject. There are no depths, no rock bottom as far as I’m concerned.

The council workers were thankfully blissfully ignorant of all this as they went about their business. Otherwise, I fear the next vehicle to have entered the street would have been the local constabulary, enquiring as to my recent bizarre behaviour. They painted the road then moved on, utterly unaware of the impact their presence had induced in at least one of the residents. For all I know this could have sparked an avalanche of creative writing in the village.

Hmmm. Road markings. We need them, don’t we? The signs that warn us when to stop, slow, give way. Without them, there would be a lot more collisions and mishaps when we are out and about. They guide us, inform us, keep us safe and out of harms way. We take them for granted, never give them a second thought, yet they save lives. It’s a boring, repetitive job to mark the roads, yet a vitally important one as well.

We adhere to them, for failure to do so can lead to injury to ourselves and others. Plus there’s the small matter of vehicle repairs, fines or even visits to court. It’s the law so the large majority of us tow the line. If only we had such road markings as we journey through life. Telling us what to do and what to avoid. Wouldn’t it make things a whole lot easier? The truth is most of us do but we tend to ignore them much of the time. Because we know best.

Be it a family member, a friend or a faith system, we all have access to signs and signals to guide our moral compass and keep us off the rocks. The sirens may entice and seduce us but the markings on our personal paths are there. All we need do is be aware of them. It’s mundane, it’s unspectacular but what’s the alternative? Do the simple things and do them well. Follow the rules laid out before you. Be you and live your life. Stay on the road you were born to walk.

Don’t Give Up

My first novel, ‘Skelly’s Square,’ received its 60th five star review in the USA last night. When you add up the totals world wide it has around 150 such reviews. I’m very proud of this achievement as it encourages me that people like my writing and the stories and characters I’ve created. The point of this post, though, is not to brag and blow my own trumpet. Instead, this is a post about rejection as opposed to success.

I received 80 rejections from agents and publishers before I secured a deal for Skelly’s Square.’ These rejections varied in length and style. Some were encouraging, most were kind but, at the end of the day, they all boiled down to the one unpalatable message – thanks but no thanks. These were tough months as e mail after e mail landed in my inbox, all delivering the same bad news. Very tough months.

Then in the space of a week I received two offers. Not one, but two! All the prior rejections were forgotten. Somebody believed in my writing enough to take a chance on a first time fantasy writer from Northern Ireland. It was enough to fill me with the confidence to keep writing as did the subsequent positive reviews. It provided me with the focus and resolve to write the sequel in four frenetic months last year.

The sequel, ‘A New Jerusalem,’ will be published this autumn. This time round, I secured a deal with my first query. But I know what it’s like to fail, to fall short, to be told I’m not quite good enough. Everyone experiences that feeling at some point in their lives. Some regard it as soul destroying, others character building. It thickens the skin, hardens the resolve, gives you the conviction to keep plugging away in pursuit of your dreams.

If we all gave up at the first hurdle, or eightieth for that matter, no books would ever be written, no music recorded, no movies produced. It’s not always the most talented who make it, it’s the most determined and dedicated. Those who refuse to give in, who keep clinging on and battering at the door until it finally creaks open and a chink of light beckons the artist inside to the warmth of within.

I’m currently writing the back cover for ‘A New Jerusalem’ and growing increasingly excited about it seeing the light of day. I’m thinking ahead to the third book in the series and some possible spin offs. The possibilities are many and it’s all because I stuck at it when all seemed lost. I hope today, whatever challenges you are facing, you refuse to succumb to the odds and persevere. I believe in you. Start believing in yourself.

Why Did God Create Covidiots?

This pandemic has certainly brought out the best and worst in humanity. There have been incredible displays of bravery, kindness and selflessness. Communities have come together as never before, neighbours helping each other when previously they were barely on nodding terms. We have become more considerate and caring. Rifts have been sealed, feuds forgotten and broken bridges repaired. It has been a time of reconciliation and forgiveness for many.

The flip side of the coin has been less edifying. Incredible selfishness as some flaunt lockdowns, caring only for their own base needs as opposed to the greater good. Those who are more interested in getting a haircut or some other trivial desire when our intensive care units are overflowing. They cannot see beyond the end of their own narcissistic noses. I see these people for who they are and have little time for them anymore.

These people have hard hearts and soft minds. Why? I struggle to understand the rationale and logic of such individuals. Were they created this way or have a number of psychological and environmental factors contributed to such an arid mindset? In the Bible, God says he hardens the hearts of some people in order to fulfil his greater plan. Yet, that flies in the face of man being given freewill, the ability to choose between good and evil.

Don’t you just love Biblical contradictions. Would Pharoah have acceded to the demands of Moses and the Israelites been freed long before the culmination of the ten plagues, if he had been allowed a more malleable heart? Are the Co-vidiots as they are referred to, instruments of a God trying to teach the planet a lesson? Confused? I am. Am I bad? Or have I been made bad in order to better light up the good in the world?

So many questions…

Nothing Is Normal Anymore

What would we do without Netflix? That’s been the joyous cry from many households in recent months as millions have battled through the lockdown experience by binging on their favourite movies and TV shows. Old favourites, new gems and those series you’ve always meant to finish but never quite had the time. Time is all many of us have now. We reach for the remote control and immerse ourselves in the box in the corner of the room.

Fionnuala and I have been working our way through a few box sets during our enforced downtime. We are currently watching ‘Ozark’ and next up it’s ‘Orphan Black.’ Fionnuala has been getting caught up on the new ‘Dynasty’ as well, while I’m devouring the new ‘Killing Eve’ and have waded through five seasons of ‘Luther.’ These are a welcome reprieve from the never ending doom and gloom on the news channels where it’s one disaster after another.

Escaping from reality is a relief at times like these. Where we can forget about the horrors currently consuming our world. We can switch off our overwhelmed brains and disappear down a rabbit hole of romance and drama, action and adrenaline. Anything is better than what is going on in our hospitals and care homes. Anything is better than the protests and riots, the endless bad news flooding our living rooms on the hour, every hour.

Nothing is normal anymore. In fact, much of what is going on is more befitting of a Hollywood blockbuster. Contagion anyone? Conspiracy theories abound as the world implodes and we sit in our homes, watching helplessly. When will it end, will it ever end? And if it does, what can we expect when the dust has settled, when we venture out again? The great unknown, so many intangibles, nothing but questions and confusion. Who can we believe anymore? The media, our politicians and religious leaders?

We crave what was, what we took for granted. The banal, the ordinary, the run of the mill. We will never look at them like that again. We will never sigh or roll our eyes at the mundanity of routine. We desire nothing more than our boring, ordinary lives again. We are sick of spectacle and crisis, it’s too much for our battered senses. Oh to be back to the the 9-5, the daily grind. We want our lives back, our world back, but is it too late for all that? Have we lost everything we once held dear?

I hope not. I truly do. I watch the daily figures hoping that we’ve turned a corner, that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, there is Netflix. The once fantastic is the new normal while the real world contains what once we only saw on the big screen. There may be no dinosaurs or space ships (well, not yet anyway) but this is where we are. Day after day, month after month. A pandemic and the remote control. A not so brave new world.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

On my rural runs on the roads outside our village I pass a lot of cows and horses, grazing in fields. Ireland has an abundance of grass. We are on nodding terms and I like to think they look forward to seeing the funny looking man in brightly coloured running attire as much as I enjoy seeing them. Rebecca sometimes joins me on her bike and stops to talk to her farmyard friends. Charlie is less impressed when he joins us although the cows are fascinated by him.

Last week I became aware of a sign on one of the fences, asking people to refrain from dumping rubbish, or ‘fly tipping’, in a field. This was a problem for some time when the local recycling centres were closed due to the coronavirus. It’s a selfish and nasty act, polluting the countryside with household waste. What I didn’t realise though is that depositing fresh cut grass in fields was a hazard to the animals; poisonous, no less.

I googled this and discovered that fresh cut grass can lead to colic and stomach ruptures when eaten by animals. As the grass has already been mown the animal does not chew it and tends to gorge, meaning they consume large amounts which are already fermenting when they hit their stomachs. As they have not chewed the grass properly they have not produced sufficient saliva to dilute the fermentation process. This can prove fatal in some cases.

Horses and cows love grass, it is their primary food. Yet it can kill them. That got me thinking, I tend to think a lot when I’m out pounding the streets. We can have too much of a good thing and be seriously damaged by those activities and pastimes we initially enjoy. It can be alcohol, food, relationships, anything really. I know this first hand given my addictive, compulsive nature. It’s so easy to slide from moderation into excess. So very easy.

The modern word ‘gorge’ originates from the Latin ‘gurges’ meaning ‘whirlpool.’ Imagine the toxic sights, sounds, tastes and smells we consume when we are in the process of gorging. They create a maelstrom within us, an invisible storm which wreaks havoc with our minds and bodies. Our physical and mental well being can be irrevocably affected. We will the whirlpool to abate but sometimes it is too late. It is out of control.

We need to be wary and take steps to ensure we do not succumb to the temptation of gorging on the poisons of life. This may involve erecting warning signs and building higher walls and fences to deter the fly tippers we encounter throughout this journey we call life. In these unprecedented times it is so easy to lean on corrupt crutches when our natural checks and balances have been thrown so off kilter.

Such preventative measures can take many forms. It can be talking to loved ones or seeking professional help. It can be self education and learning what your limits are. You may need to cut down on, or stop, certain activities and cut off ties with individuals who are impacting detrimentally on your quality of life. It’s learning to say ‘no’, a word I know I have struggled with in the past. A small, yet monumental, step.

The more you say ‘no’, the easier it will be next time. Choking bonds are loosened and you will be more able to fill your lungs with clean air and expel the poison within. All that glitters is not gold. Beauty conceals the rot within. Don’t succumb to gorging. Be strong and believe in your ability to walk away from the edge of the abyss. I’m thankful today for my farmyard friends reinforcing this important message to me.

Social Media Blackout

See you all tomorrow.

Say Yes To The Voice That Says No

There’s always been a darkness within me for as long as I can remember to choose the wrong path, make the bad decision which will lead us down the rabbit hole into a world of pain. I’m not sure if we are born with it but the person who plumps for the morally correct alternative 100% of the time is more than likely telling pretty little lies. Why do we do this? The large majority of us know right from wrong, we understand the basic moral codes that society teaches us from an early age.

Today’s obsession with self was never more evident than this weekend when unseasonably high temperatures drew thousands to beaches and parks despite being warned of the ongoing risks to their health. Many people hate being told what to do, be it by their parents, peers or parliaments. The need to satisfy their own desires which overrides any default setting within that their actions are not for the greater good, they are not in the public interest.

I used to blame others for my own failings. I used to blame alcohol or grief or anything that seemed reasonable and apt at the time. Yet, at the end of the day, it was all of my own doing. I was not ‘out of my mind,’ it wasn’t a case of ‘he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ I knew exactly what I was doing and my actions were those of a sane, rational man. Selfish actions originate within the self. It’s not a team game, just me, myself and I glibly ignoring the quiet, calm voice within. The voice saying ‘no.’

The voice that says ‘no’ is often drowned out, it’s washed away by shiny, pretty trinkets which entrance and enamour us. It could pout, it could sulk, it could pack its bags and hit the road. Yet it doesn’t. It hangs around and toughs it out, waiting for those quiet times, those moments of clarity when all is still and we are prepared to listen. Then it speaks with purpose and poise. It does not shout or apportion blame. It simply highlights what we already knew. Deep down within. It is our soul speaking to us.

It will always be there, no surgery or exorcism can fully root it from our bodies. It is a light, a beacon, an ever present second chance that will never turn its back on us. It is change, it is hope, it is revelation. It’s the escape hatch, the emergency chute which we can utilise at any time. When we hit that button the light will flood in, drowning out the other voices which constantly seek to preoccupy and disorient us. All we need do is say ‘yes’ to the voice that says ‘no.’

It costs nothing, yet is priceless. It is life, illuminating the wreckage of the world around us and our role in that destruction. Society is on its knees as disease and disorder threaten to subsume all that is good and right. Death walks amongst us, it prowls and purrs with pleasure as the flames burn bright against the night sky. It is all around us and reigns within, yet it fears the voice that says ‘no.’ It has met its match and it knows it.

I am currently rewiring, realigning, stepping back from the brink and attuning my senses for the voice that says ‘no.’ At first I hear nothing bar the screeching static of decay and excess, but persevere and there it is. Barely audible at first, yet gathering in pace and volume as I draw nearer to its soothing rhythm. No, No, NO. Be a better person, lead a better life, choose to breathe and believe there is another way. The way. That is how it all begins. We are shown the way and must choose our path.

I’m learning, back to basics but picking up the pieces as I feel my way again along the path. The babble of voices is no more, those who knew best, who sought to stymie and silence me. I walked away and there was nothing but a void of bitter debris left behind. Strip it down, tear it out, break and build again. The voice that says ‘no’ is the most precious gift you will ever hold in your hands. It is free and it is yours. You need only say yes.

I Picked Up A Bible The Other Day

I started reading the Bible again a few days ago. I’ve been thinking of doing so for quite some time, but always holding back. Yet, here I was, staring at Romans Chapter 1. That was then. I’ve reached Chapter 5 now. Hardly setting the world alight but I’ve read a little every day. About grace and faith and sin. Words I struggle with on many levels. I find it hard to express myself when it comes to such concepts, such ideals, such realities. Paul says it so much better than I ever could.

I’ve been angry with God for a while now. I even started to doubt if he existed but a small kernel within me insisted that he must. For otherwise, what is the point…of anything. There must be something, there has to be something. Plus, how can you be angry with a God that doesn’t exist? So I concluded there is a God and I am angry with Him. But the more I thought about it I realised it’s not Him I’m angry with. I’m angry with others.

During my church years, as I like to refer to them, I always wanted to fit in, to be the best possible ‘Christian’ I could be. I compared myself to others and always ended up coming off second best. This would annoy and frustrate me. I felt like an outsider, the odd one out, as if there was an invisible screen between myself and the rest of the church family. Hmmm…family. That’s how they described themselves but I felt an outcast, a fake, the black sheep of this whiter than whites family.

I fell away, lost interest, turned my back on it all. I didn’t experience their 24/7 optimism, their shiny happy mentality. I still got fed up, felt miserable and struggled. My mental health had improved inordinately and I enjoyed reading the Bible and other supporting texts. But I didn’t enjoy church, especially the social times before and after the service. I dreaded them, truth be told, and I smiled awkwardly amidst their hypocrisy and my own gaping inadequacies. So I stepped away from it all.

The hypocrisy of it all still annoys me. But the penny dropped. Was Jesus a hypocrite? No. So why am I tarring him with the same brush as some of his supposed followers? Why am I allowing a handful of people to stand between my relationship and understanding of Him? I enjoy reading about his life, I want to learn more of the history and context of the period. I still have issues with sections of the Bible but I’m prepared to wrestle with them.

So I’m starting again, stripping it all down to basics. I’ve selected a few key texts which started me on my spiritual journey and I’m reading them again. Authors such as C.S. Lewis, Nicky Gumbel and Lee Strobel. I’m going to listen to the songs of Lacey Sturm and Flyleaf again. I’m open to learning and debate. But I don’t want to go to church, I don’t want to hang out with other believers, I don’t particularly consider myself a ‘Christian,’ which, in itself, is a man made concept.

What am I then? A follower of Jesus? I’m not even sure about that as how can you follow someone you don’t 100% believe in? How can I obey the Word of God when some of it seems indecipherable and wrong? Other sections are tedious beyond belief, full of contradiction and confusion. Do I want to teach it, spread it, sow the seed? Not really as I need to practice what I preach first. I need to focus on me, learn to walk before I run. That’s where I went wrong the first time around.

So I’m reading, studying, taking it in. I might even blog about it on occasion. I’m not sure I want to talk about the contents of this post so please don’t be offended if I’m quiet in the comments section. It could all derail after a few weeks and normal service will be resumed. I have no targets, no lofty ambitions. I just want to see what happens. My faith is fractured, flawed and fragile. I will continue to slip and slide. But isn’t that what Paul forewarned all those years ago?

Social Distancing – Here To Stay? – Part One

I visited our local fish and chip shop yesterday, a pay day treat for the Black clan. And while you might think society is returning to normal, walk into any shop or business and you can see that this is clearly not the case. Social distancing is here and it’s here to stay. Be that shopping for groceries, filling the car with diesel or ordering two bags of chips, a cheeseburger and eight chicken goujouns. Oh, and not forgetting the carton of gravy sauce.

How is social distancing affecting your life?


OCD – Don’t Suffer In Silence

Thrilled to be sending a copy of ‘Skelly’s Square’ to Lily Bailey, author of ‘Because We Are Bad,’ the best memoir on OCD I have read. Lily is one of a number of talented mental health advocates who inspired me to write about my own experiences with this vicious, relentless, yet very misunderstood mental illness. If you struggling with your mental health during this ongoing pandemic then please do not suffer in silence. Seek help.

Happy Birthday Fractured Faith

Seems like no time but the blog is now three years old. That’s a lot of posts. Some of you have been there from the start, some have joined along the journey, others have disappeared into the ether. We are grateful for everyone who continues to read and comment. As long as that continues I will continue to write on this site. I hope you are all keeping safe and well. Here’s to the next three years. Enjoy your day wherever you are.

Too Tired To Care

Tiredness. It’s a by product of this pandemic. A lot of us are tired a lot of the time. Tired of the rising death toll, the deceitful, treacherous politicians. Tired of the relentless trickle of bad news. Really bad news you couldn’t make up in a million years if it wasn’t for the fact it was scrolling across your TV screen on Fox or Sky or whatever channel you were enduring at that very moment in time. I’m tired of all this. I’m tired of being tired.

Tiredness desensitises us. We become so tired we don’t care anymore, turning our backs on the horrors of the daily news. Tiredness erodes empathy and compassion. It dulls our ability to love those we do not know and reveals the jagged edges of our souls. We become irritable, our resolves of patience at an all time low. We cease to care as to care is to expose your mind to pain and heartbreak.

It’s a two way street. Why should I care about a government who twist the truth to suit their own needs? Why should I care about those who openly flout the guidelines and put their own base desires before the lives and welfare of their own citizens? Am I stooping to their level, am I better than that? Possibly but I don’t care enough to slam on the brakes and edge back from the edge of that particular abyss.

Tiredness permeates every cell of our bodies, it’s a creeping osmosis of apathy and indifference. We are riddled with it, yet we don’t care. Rather, we embrace it, wrapping ourselves deep within its numbing embrace. We crave the sense of nothingness, we seek out the dark. For it hurts less than the light of truth, a truth that reveals the world for the train wreck it has become. We near the end of the tracks, destined to teeter over the precipice.

Routine kills. It sucks the marrow from your bones, leaving you brittle, dry and devoid of emotion. You become too tired to be angry anymore and when that time comes, you are in deep, incomparable trouble. A trouble from which there is no gallows reprieve, no last throw of the dice. When you no longer care, you’re no longer there, not really. You become a ghost encased in a tomb of flesh and sinew.

The heart still pumps but what for, what need is there for it anymore? Better surely to lay down by the roadside, to step off the beaten track and no longer scan the horizon ahead for signs of hope? A fractured faith is better than no faith at all he once said but what did he know? Better to wallow in the prose and poetry of the dying than bask in texts of joy and love. The words of old prophets turned to ash and dust, lying unread in motel drawers.

The vultures are circling overhead, keen to descend and pick at the carcass of what might have been. Our world will never be the same again, yet many of us are too tired to care anymore. Numbers are meaningless, my moral compass spins out of control as the voice holds sway. For I must be a bad person to have such thoughts, to wish an end to the idiots in power and all those beneath them. We, the uncaring, are damned.

So I’ll get up and watch the news even though I’ve seen it all before. I’ll scroll down the social media feeds, an obsessive desire to slowly drive by the car crash one more time. I have to see it again, to take it in with my own eyes. One time, one hundred times, it matters not. My incredulity is as before, my battered emotions ready for another pummelling. Tiredness intervenes, throwing in the towel to prevent another beating. It is a blessing. Too tired to care.

OCD Tales – Repeat Ad Nauseum

I’ve been on my phone a lot during lockdown. I’m aware of this and it annoys me. I try to curtail my checks but the little voice in my head often wins out. Just one more scroll through my social media accounts, another glance at book sales, a quick nosey at the news headlines or coronavirus death toll. I often give in when I know there is other much more relevant stuff in the real world I could be doing. As I said, this annoys me.

It’s just another aspect of the many headed beast that is addictive, obsessive behaviour. I struggle with moderation, my brain cannot apply the brakes or flick the off switch as easily as others might. It’s a double edged sword. When I launch into a project I tend to dive in with both feet and give it everything I have. That’s probably why I’ve run ten marathons and am now starting work on my third book.

I often wish I was wired differently. It would make my life a whole lot easier. But I am who I am. I try to moderate my behaviour with medication and talking to Fionnuala when I’m faced with a niggling urge or unwanted thought. But sometimes I keep it bottled up and the pressure builds until I think my head is going to burst. The beast unfurls within my stomach and it’s icy tentacles grasp at my tightening chest.

This is OCD. Doing something you don’t want to do but feel compelled to in order to ease the building panic and anxiety within. If I don’t check my Twitter feed religiously, I could miss a potential sale. If I don’t get 100 likes a day on a blog post then I’m a writing failure. If I don’t…if I don’t…if I don’t. These words beat a relentless rhythm through my head as I struggle to juggle competing priorities and demands. It’s an endless war of attrition.

They say a watched kettle never boils. Well, I can’t afford to take my eyes off the stove for a second. For if I allow the contents of my mind to bubble over, who knows the damage that might be caused. Scalding, scarring, searing through flesh and destroying anything it touches. These are the thoughts that race through my mind like a runaway train, hurtling towards the end of the track, where devastation and destruction await.

Perversely all is calm and tranquil on the surface. I come across as day dreaming. You might ask me a question and I’ll not answer. I’m a million miles away, waging a brutal battle against an unseen enemy, going toe to toe in the trenches. There can only be one winner and no parley will be called for or given. OCD is a dirty fighter, it does not abide by the rules. It is seductive and vicious in equal measure. It knows no boundaries.

I must always be on my guard against its lies, for it argues that excess is the key to success. Excess can be good for you cannot give or love enough, right? But it wraps me up in a Gordian knot of selfish strands that envelop me within a web I cannot cut my way out of; even with the sharpest of blades. I writhe and wriggle in vain, awaiting the coup de grace, where the beast sinks into venom into my veins. Obsessive thought. Compulsive action. Repeat ad nauseum.

Researching Book Three

Another day in paradise. Or lockdown hell, whichever way you wish to look at it. I woke up to more five star reviews for ‘Skelly’s Square’ on Amazon. The USA and UK are now tied at 56 five star reviews each. These mean so much to me as they bolster my ever fragile confidence. They comfort me that I can write and encourage me to persevere with my dream of becoming a full time author. Every review is cherished and appreciated. None of them are taken for granted.

While ‘Skelly’s Square’ continues to be read, the sequel, ‘A New Jerusalem,’ is currently being edited by my publishers, Potters Grove Press, with a view to an autumn 2020 release. I’m very excited to be working with River Dixon and his team and can’t wait for the continuing adventures of Kirkwood, Meredith and Harley to be released onto an unsuspecting world. I believe it to be a better book and I’ve improved as a writer, but I’ll let the readers be the judge of that.

Which brings me to the as yet untitled Book 3. I’ve now started researching it, making the most of this enforced break from my 9-5 job. As you can see from the image accompanying this post, I’m knee deep in the Battle of Waterloo, which features across the ‘Kirkwood Scott’ series. I probably spend more time making the 1815 chapters as accurate as possible than I do on the rest of the story. It’s bloody, brutal and ultimately heart breaking; but it has to be right.

The lockdown is being gradually eased in Northern Ireland. We are now allowed to meet outdoors in groups of 4-6 people, as long as social distancing guidelines are maintained. Garden centres and recycling centres have reopened as have churches for the purpose of private prayer. Small steps in the right direction. I am hopeful we have turned a corner. Until then I will continue to read and write. Thank you to those of you who have read and reviewed the book.

The Day After…

So, after yesterday’s marathon ‘heroics’ I feel like I was my beaten up in my sleep last night. My thighs are like lead and I’m still dehydrated, despite drinking loads yesterday. The height of my exercise today will be a short walk to the park to watch Adam train. The lethargy after a marathon normally lasts several days so I’ll hopefully get back running later in the week. Thank goodness I don’t have to stagger into work today.

So, as today is a ‘rest day’, I thought I’d just pop up a picture of my first book, ‘Skelly’s Square.’ Have you read it yet? What did you think? Or would you be interested in it? To find out more, visit your local Amazon site and search under ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square.’ Then let me know what you think. Book 2 in the series, ‘A New Jerusalem,’ is out this autumn/fall so what better time to check out its predecessor. Hoping you all have a great day wherever you are.

My 10th And Final Marathon

The Belfast Marathon, which I was training for, was unfortunately cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. But they offered a virtual alternative which you could run any time in May or June. I hadn’t really trained for it but went for it this morning with a target of anything under 4:30:00 in mind. I ran 10 loops of the village and, although I struggled near the end, finished in a time of 4:16:09.

My family provided great support throughout the run. Adam cycled three of the loops with me and Rebecca kept me fuelled with drinks and sweets. Fionnuala filmed the finish where they applauded me through the finish line, made out of toilet roll. Rebecca then presented me with a plastic trophy, medal and goodie bag. The organisers also provide a medal and t shirt when you e mail them evidence of your run.

This was my tenth and final marathon. I’m getting no younger and have been having a few problems with my right knee. I also can’t commit to the time required to seriously train for such events. It’s a massive undertaking and I have too much else going on to justify signing up for another event. I’m content with my last one which I got to finish in front of my loved ones. It was a fitting end to my marathon running career.

I’m hobbling about the house at present like the old man I am but inside I’m very pleased. These are tough times and it was nice today to forget for a morning what is going on in the outside world. The only news at the minute seems to be bad news. I hope you are safe wherever you are and my marathon running exploits have done a little to brighten up your day. When we have our family around us, we have much to be grateful for.

My 10th And Final Marathon

The Belfast Marathon, which I was training for, was unfortunately cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. But they offered a virtual alternative which you could run any time in May or June. I hadn’t really trained for it but went for it this morning with a target of anything under 4:30:00 in mind. I ran 10 loops of the village and, although I struggled near the end, finished in a time of 4:16:09.

My family provided great support throughout the run. Adam cycled three of the loops with me and Rebecca kept me fuelled with drinks and sweets. Fionnuala filmed the finish where they applauded me through the finish line, made out of toilet roll. Rebecca then presented me with a plastic trophy, medal and goodie bag. The organisers also provide a medal and t shirt when you e mail them evidence of your run.

This was my tenth and final marathon. I’m getting no younger and have been having a few problems with my right knee. I also can’t commit to the time required to seriously train for such events. It’s a massive undertaking and I have too much else going on to justify signing up for another event. I’m content with my last one which I got to finish in front of my loved ones. It was a fitting end to my marathon running career.

I’m hobbling about the house at present like the old man I am but inside I’m very pleased. These are tough times and it was nice today to forget for a morning what is going on in the outside world. The only news at the minute seems to be bad news. I hope you are safe wherever you are and my marathon running exploits have done a little to brighten up your day. When we have our family around us, we have much to be grateful for.

Social Distancing – Northern Ireland Style

Rebecca, Charlie and I made some new friends on our walk this morning. Apparently the cows of Aghalee don’t believe in social distancing, preferring the…ahem…herd immunity approach to combating coronavirus. They were a friendly and curious bunch but a left a lot to be desired with regards their personal hygiene and toilet training. Rebecca loves her visits to see them as well as Mac the horse who lives in a neighbouring field on the same road.

Are You Proud Of Yourself?

For a long time I wasn’t proud of myself, how I looked, how I spoke. I wasn’t proud of my thoughts and actions. I became embarrassed and awkward when people complimented me, because I believed I didn’t deserve it. I was unworthy of their praise. And yet, I sought the limelight and attention, I pushed myself to the front of the throng. But when I got there, I wanted to turn around and run away. I was a walking contradiction.

I couldn’t understand myself and when you can’t do that, then what hope do you have of understanding others? And if you can’t understand yourself and others then what’s the point? If you can’t work out the needs of your nearest and dearest then you cease to function as an ordinary human being. You stop contributing towards your sphere of influence. Where there is no extraordinary in your ordinary you cancel yourself out. You become null and void.

Emotions can hinder and divert you from where you need to be, but they can also clear a path and accelerate you towards predestined individuals and locations. They are a fuel for life; explosive, deadly but necessary in order to function. Without them we lose our infuriating humanity, our ability to hate, to love, to remotely care about anything. Without them we wither inside and die, we turn our backs on the exceptional heights waiting to be scaled. We abdicate responsibility for our lives.

They are deceptive, as infuriating as herding cats. Many tether their lives on the cornerstone of logic and reason. We live in a world of structure and routine. Yet, nations are being brought to their knees by a microscopic virus nobody had heard of five months ago. The most painstakingly detailed risk assessments and contingency plans are being ripped up before our eyes and tossed into the fire. Our world is burning and nothing will ever be the same again.

We cling to the rock face, we clamber for the tiniest finger hold and refuse to look downwards into the yawning abyss. Our logical minds tell us not to let go, that we can only inch upwards along the chosen path. But what if we were to let go, to side with our emotions and do what our heart, as opposed to our head, told us to do? What if we were to fall away and start again, from the bottom? To rebuild and lay fresh roots, to strike out across virgin soil in a new direction?

That’s what I did. And you know what? Most days now I can look at myself in the mirror without flinching at the face staring back at me. I remain more flawed than formed but my heart beats in my chest as it never did before. In the meandering limbo of lockdown I awaken with purpose and direction. I know what I want to do, I’m proud of what I want to achieve. I’m no longer adrift, yet I had to fall away from the rock face in order to find myself. I am reborn.

Amidst the horrors of this pandemic, there are green shoots of opportunity for those who can discern them through the smoke and flames. There is a chance to reflect, refocus and reorientate. A flicker of hope exists, waiting to be fanned, fed and nurtured into a steady, solid flame. Pride dwells within it. Pride, not arrogance. For pride is earned, it is a hard won reward. Arrogance is as worthless as ashes in the scalding wind.

Today’s question…are you proud of yourself? Or are you too ashamed to even begin to think of such matters. Have you given up, are you hopelessly adrift of where you need to be? My message is that there is still time to grab the rudder and set sail towards a new horizon, to steer your vessel off the rocks and into fresh waters. When there is nothing else, when you have nothing else, there is still freewill. Be proud of who you are going to become. Starting today.

Should I Blog More?

Eight miles yesterday, out to the shores of Lough Neagh and back. The sun continues to shine in Northern Ireland although a cool breeze was most welcome on the return journey. The country roads were quiet apart from the occasional fellow runner, cyclist or dog walker. Dogs must be loving lockdown, they’ve never been walked so much. As ever, 99% of those I passed returned my greeting. Country folk are friendly.

The U.K. death total has now risen above 33,000, second only to the United States. Northern Ireland remains in lockdown. Our Executive released a five stage plan on Monday which will gradually return society to something nearing normality. It’s not time specific which I like. We are not yet ready to enter Stage One, it depends on when certain conditions are met. It could be next week or next month.

It’s unlikely the schools will return before September and I’ve no date for when my office will reopen. I’m using the time to work with my publisher on the edits for Book 2 and begin research on Book 3. I’m also busy promoting Book 1 on Twitter. I’m selling copies most days and posted a signed copy to Texas yesterday. I’ve also had another order for a signed copy from California. The ‘Kirkwood Scott Chronicles’ are going down a storm in the States.

I hope you are all keeping well as I write this. These are tough times and it’s important we stick together as a blogging community. I encourage you all to keep posting and interacting with each other. Even if it’s just to pop in and say hello. I’m contemplating blogging twice a day as a means to boosting connections with you all. My posts have been a little sporadic of late, I’m as guilty as anyone. What do you all think? Should I blog more?

Back To Work…For A While

I returned to Belfast this morning for the first time in almost two months. I had volunteered to work a four hour supervisory shift in the office where a skeleton staff are performing key duties. While my own team have been closed down for now, I offered to help another team who are still operating a customer service. It wasn’t the most taxing of days. All I had to do was field a few phone calls and clear some e-mails. Even I could manage that, I thought.

Normally the motorway into Belfast would be bumper to bumper at that time of morning but I was greeted by light traffic. It felt more like a Sunday afternoon as opposed to weekday morning. Upon hitting the city I pulled over to let a funeral cortege pass; the hearse followed by around fifty mourners on foot. I felt bad for the weeping relatives at the front as they shuffled disconsolately behind the coffin. A wreath marked ‘Dad’ caught my eye.

Had the deceased been a victim of coronavirus? And why were none of the mourners adhering to social distancing guidelines? My natural sympathy was tinged with annoyance. Couldn’t they pay their last respects in a more careful manner? Or how would I have reacted in their place? What would I have done? Grief erodes logical, rational thought. People crumble and succumb to the relentless pain. Did I have a point and, if so, why then did I feel such a pompous hypocrite?

Work itself was quiet. I did what I had to do and then made my way home again. My next shift isn’t for another two and a half weeks and there are no plans for the office to open on a more permanent basis. The Northern Ireland Executive, our devolved government, issued a five stage plan yesterday for returning to a semblance of normal society. Offices re-opening are at Stage 3, with no definitive date. I won’t hold my breath.

If nothing else, I felt like I was making a contribution. Sitting at home on full pay might sound great, and initially it was, but the novelty wears off after a while. I need to get back to work just as the kids need to get back to school. This can’t go on forever. But it must be done gradually and with great care. Relaxing the lockdown too soon could lead to the dreaded second wave that everyone is talking about. 627 people died in the U.K. yesterday. Have we even passed the first?

Tomorrow will be a return to the ‘new normal.’ I’ll get up, watch the morning headlines and then go for a run. There are chores to do around the house. The day will meander by as the previous fifty in lockdown have. We are at home and safe but for how much longer must we remain in limbo, uncertain as to what the future holds. There is light at the end of the tunnel but it is a very long tunnel. All we can do is wait. And hope.

Woke up…Ran A Half Marathon

Five loops of the village this morning in bright sunshine amounted to a half marathon. I haven’t run this far in some months now, so was quite anxious at the prospect. I actually tried to talk my way out of yesterday until Fionnuala gave me a pep talk, ‘encouraging’ me to lace my trainers up and hit the roads. Thankfully it was a warm, dry day with a slight breeze to cool me on certain sections of the route.

Some might think running the same route five times in a row would drive you insane, but I like the routine. It helps my pace and concentration levels, plus I’m never far from the house in case something goes awry. I see the same horse, the same cows, the same man out mowing his lawn and can drift along, eating up the miles with each passing lap. Lockdown can feel like Groundhog Day over and over again.

I go back to work tomorrow. It’s only a four hour shift but it’s a break from the routine. The lockdown has been extended until 28 May in Northern Ireland so it’s unlikely the office will open properly until early June at the earliest. There is talk of professional sport starting up then as well, albeit behind closed doors. It’s unlikely the schools will open again until September, so the kids remain at home learning online.

One of my dreams is to run ten loops of the village, a marathon distance. I ran half that today and felt I had a sixth lap in me, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. I dream of that day, just as we all dream of a return to some semblance of normality. Until then, we will continue to drift in ever decreasing circles, struggling to keep our head above water and spirits up. Wherever you are in the world reading this, I hope you are keeping safe and well.

They Sicken Me

The weekend has brought more sunshine to the United Kingdom. Yet, dark clouds are gathering. Thousands breached rules on social distancing to hold street parties to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Some of these scenes were screened on television news outlets to almost universal dismay. Many others flocked to parks to picnic, party and essentially do whatever they wanted despite their actions risking their own lives and those of loved ones.

They talk of a lockdown but, in my mind, it is increasingly in name only. Adam, Rebecca and I visited our local park yesterday for our daily exercise. Adam and I ran some interval drills as part of his ongoing ACL rehabilitation programme while Rebecca cycled round the perimeter of the pitch. We were adhering to social distancing guidelines and the plan was to be back in the house within the hour.

When we arrived, four twenty something males were kicking a football around the pitch. Now I could be horribly wrong but they didn’t look as if they belonged to the one household. They weren’t following social distancing rules. And as for daily exercise? They seemed more interested in smoking and drinking beer than the football which they were half heartedly kicking back and forth. My two teenage children were appalled by the example being set to them by so called adults.

This is where we are at. The death toll in the U.K. stands at over 31,000 and rising, only second to the United States, where over 80,000 are now dead. But who cares in today’s vacuous, self obsessed, privileged ‘me me me’ society. Our society ‘celebrates’ the sacrifice and selflessness of fallen war heroes by getting drunk, dancing the conga up and down the street and doing their bit to raise infection rates within their community. They sicken me.

Seven Years Ago

Tomorrow will mark the seventh anniversary of when I decided to pack in alcohol. I thought I was Oscar Wilde when I was drinking, an irrepressible wit and the life and soul of the party. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I was, on the contrary, an idiot of epic proportions, putting my own selfish needs before others, most importantly my loved ones. They deserved better, they still deserve better, and I thank my lucky stars they’ve stuck with me through thick and thin.

I’ve achieved quite a lot in the intervening period. I’ve ran marathons, been promoted, become a published author. I like to think I’ve been a decent husband and father, although that is very much still a work in progress. I can, and must, do so much better. I thought I would miss alcohol but turning my back on it was surprisingly easy. I never feel the urge to return to it and the thought of its taste and the ensuing hangover make me shudder involuntarily.

I’ve lost touch with a lot of people as a result of my decision to stop drinking. Some of these have been conscious decisions on my part, necessary life surgery in order to live my life as I feel I should. Others have simply drifted away, alcohol seemingly having been the only interest we had in common. This saddens me but was the friendship that strong if we only ever came together in an intoxicated state? We’re they even friends, rather mere acquaintances?

Some undoubtedly think I went a ‘bit funny’ during this defining period of my life. The invitations to socialise started to dry up and I was no longer part of the work ‘drinking culture.’ There were mutterings that I’d ‘found God,’ or maybe he found me. I’ve never quite been sure how that one works but he has flitted in and out of my life during these seven years. I know he’s there but I’m not sure where I am with regards my relationship with him.

God and I are more on and off than Ross and Rachel. I get annoyed with him, I am annoyed with him, but there are moments I still miss reading the Bible and learning more about the times and teachings of Jesus. Sometimes I get a strong urge to pick up the Bible or the works of C.S. Lewis. Yet, I always stop short and find something else to do. I think of defining moments when God hasn’t been around, I think of the hypocrisy of many Christians I knew and know.

Jesus turned the other cheek but he never turned his back on those he loved. When we stopped going to church we were dropped like a hot potato by many Christian ‘friends.’ And where is God during the current coronavirus crisis? Questions like these niggle at me and make me hesitate. I stand on the fringe and I remember previous hurt and rejection. Once bitten, twice shy. I don’t want to be part of that scene, a scene where I never felt fully comfortable or accepted.

I don’t miss alcohol and I don’t miss church. I don’t miss certain people, just as I’m sure they don’t miss me. I don’t miss the falseness, the veneer of friendship which evaporated once the going got tough. Life is too short for such games, for that is all they were. All I need are my wife and kids even though I’m sure I’m driving them crazy with this enforced absence from work. I like visiting the cows with Rebecca, giving Fionnuala foot rubs and burning lasagne.

I’m better than I was, and alcohol is no longer part of my life. I still have recurring ‘drunk dreams’ and wake up feeling panicked. I have ‘phantom’ hangovers where I can taste the stale beer on my breath and sense the fear and shame. I don’t think I’ll ever drink again, I don’t know if I’ll ever pick up a Bible again. Maybe that part of me is gone as well, maybe it is merely hibernating. I don’t miss church, I don’t miss Christians but sometimes I miss Jesus.

Painting Away The Pain

I was on painting duties in the bedroom today, as our enforced home improvement programme continued. Fionnuala had chosen a lovely shade of dark blue and my job was to paint an awkward high section of the wall behind our wardrobes. My DIY skills are ‘limited’ to say the least so I approached the task with a degree of trepidation. My objective? To get more paint on the wall than on my face. The Papa Smurf look was not one I sought to emulate.

Balancing from a chair on one foot while brandishing a dripping paint brush in one hand, I took to the job with some relish. Before long I had established a steady rhythm and was slapping on the paint like there was no tomorrow. And, without blowing my own trumpet too loudly, I think I did a reasonably good job; even the awkward little bit connecting the wall and ceiling. Fionnuala, performing a supervisory role, concurred. Job done.

I had been anxious beforehand, worried about botching the job and undoing all the good work Fionnuala had carried out on the other walls over the weekend. Anxiety is a standing order, a staple dish in my mental diet. It’s the thought of doing something, the period immediately before I start. That’s when the voice starts whispering in my ear, telling me I’m no good, I’ll make a mess of it, why am I even bothering to try? The voice is used to getting its own way.

I’m going for a run later. The Belfast Marathon should have taken place two days ago. It would have been my tenth. In its place the organisers have announced a virtual version which you can run, at a time of your choosing, in May or June. One of my favourite local routes is a lap of the village which measures exactly 2.6 miles. I’ve always wanted to run it ten times, it’s a challenge that has been on my bucket list for several years now.

I’ve decided, therefore, to accept the challenge and plan to run ten laps of the village before the end of May. I know I can do it plus I get a medal and t-shirt for doing so. I pass the house at the end of each circuit so can stop for drinks and gels, even change my top if need be. I’ll take my time and the plan is to complete the challenge, rather than break any records. Everything will be stacked in my favour. Yet, still I can feel the anxiety unfurling within me.

Anxiety is a rich breeding ground for the voice. It sniffs out the thread of worry that I’m gnawing on and lunges for the jugular. It whips up a vague unease, pops it in the oven for an hour or so et voila…dishes up a horror show of wicked doubt and prevarication. The voice doesn’t want you to fail. No, it desires much, much more. Failure requires at least trying. It doesn’t even want you to cross the start line. Do not pass go, do not collect £200.

If you do manage to ignore it’s seductive tones and take the first step, then you have won. For one step leads to another and before you know it you’ve clocked up the first mile, the hardest mile. Mile 26 is a piece of cake compared to Mile 1. And as for the 24 in between, well they will take care of themselves. Just get that first mile under your belt and kick the voice to the kerbside. Watch it wither and die and you stride up the hill away from it.

I want to win. So I cross the starting line, I turn my back on the anxiety and strike out in the opposite direction from it. Be it painting walls or running the roads, it holds no sway over me, it is a toothless tiger, a powerless mogul. I choose to live my life how I want to, not weighed down by the twin terrors of anxiety and OCD. I will not yield, I cannot back down to this nemesis which haunts my world. I will prevail.

We Will Slay Them

Last night I got an e-mail from my publisher containing the latest edits for the new book. I had expected a literary bloodbath, as my inadequate grammar and punctuation were torn apart by expert eyes, attuned to high quality prose. I envisioned the red pen being wielded like a bloody blade, glistening in a murderous half light before being plunged again into its helpless victim. Death by semi colon.

Thankfully this wasn’t the case. The editing process was a light touch, tightening and improving the narrative where required. My publisher included constructive and encouraging notes which allayed any fears I might have had and reassured me that I was on the right track. He showed he believed in my work and his offer of a contract for ‘A New Jerusalem’ wasn’t a horrible April Fool’s Day prank delivered several weeks late.

I’m my own worst enemy I know. The reception for ‘Skelly’s Square’ should have put any concerns I retained about the quality of my prose to bed. People like, indeed love, it and I’ve over one hundred 5 star Amazon reviews to bolster that bold statement. Yet still the whispering doubts remain, the solitary voice that tells me I am a fraud, a fake, a fool whose latest mid life crisis is bound to end in abject failure and humiliation.

The same applies to my running and most other tasks I tackle in life. I’m convinced I’m going to mess up even before I’ve crossed the starting line. I’ve run nine marathons, in perfectly respectable times, yet every time I lace up my trainers I am wracked with worry that this will be the run that will expose me as the chubby teenager who was never good enough to make the school rugby team. Always one of the last to be picked for any sporting activity.

This fear factor can bring you to your knees. Yet, somehow I must learn to confront and overcome its seductive tones. Giving up would be so easy, especially in these strange times when staying in on the sofa and doing nothing is considered a heroic act. It would be so easy to let go of the rope and fall back into the pit, there to lie forever and never trouble another soul. I would be forgiven, accepted, exalted by the voice. It would soothe my wounds with junk food and vacuous online distractions.

I don’t want to be that person. I want to clamber, hand over fist, out of the pit into the dazzling light. I want God to look over and protect me as I push myself beyond the boundaries onto greener, lusher pastures. I want to succeed, to make my family proud; to look in the mirror and hold the stare of the man I see, to connect with him, engage with him, be at ease with who he was and who he is striving to become. I want to change, to heal, to improve.

These are hard days, challenging days, where everything we held fast to and believed in has been turned upside down and inside out. It’s a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions with no real sign of ending. It’s too easy to stick your head in the sand, to curl up into a foetal ball and turn your back on a new world full of dangerous unknowns and frightening permutations. Giving up would be the easiest of options, the percentage call. Nobody would blame us.

Yet I won’t. Today I will switch on my laptop and dive into the edits. I will open the front door and go out for a run. I will be a good father, husband and son. I will do it for others and I will do it for myself. I will do it for you, the person reading this post who thinks the same thoughts and fears the same demons. I want you to kill them, to stand atop the dragon of despair and thrust your broadsword into its toxic heart. We will slay them, til all are gone.

The Internet – A Double Edged Sword

Since we went into lockdown six months ago, grocery shopping has been quite a stressful business. Maintaining social distancing, one way systems around supermarkets, the handling of items that maybe a dozen people have already handled. Your mind is in overdrive and you’re on constant alert. Even Fionnuala, a veteran at this new way, admitted to me the other day that she dreads going shopping now. It’s akin to a military operation against an invisible enemy.

Thank goodness then for online shopping. Not so much food, as you can no longer expect your local Tesco van to pull up to the front door the day after you place an order. You have to wait weeks now, such is the demand for deliveries. You would probably have starved to death as online delivery slots are are rare as hen’s teeth. Then there’s the substitute items. Ask for Diet Coke and they turn up with Pepsi Max or, God forbid, own brand cola.

Online shopping does work though with regards other items and, without it, this enforced quarantine would be a whole lot harder. If I want a book, it’s on my Kindle within seconds. We’ve been gardening and decorating quite a bit these last few weeks and all manner of boxes have been arriving at the front door. Vans are forever turning up and their drivers dumping everything from wallpaper to potted plants on the doorstep.

If it hadn’t been for online shopping my birthday, earlier this week, would have been a non event. But in the weeks preceding it Fionnuala and the kids have been furtively secreting packages about the house, away from my curious eyes. This meant that come the big day I was able to unwrap a Garmin watch, Kindle Fire, clothes, books and even a personalised cheeseboard and knives. I do like cheese. Have I ever mentioned that before?

Perverse as this may read, I’m saving a fortune by staying at home. My fuel bill and train fares have disappeared. Going outdoors necessitates spending money. Sitting on the sofa reading and watching Netflix does not. This has allowed the extra pennies to go towards home improvement and other projects that have been on the back burner forever and a day. The planet shutting down has opened up a whole new world within our own four walls.

The online world is a murky one. It contains all kinds of traps and pitfalls. I’ve stumbled into such pits down the years. It can be darkly addictive and many of us wish we didn’t spend the amount of time we do on it. I know I’m online more than I want to be. It’s necessary in order to build and promote my writing career but, given my obsessive nature, I’m conscious of the dangers and risks. It can, and will, take over if we allow it to. I’m forever wary of it.

But, like most things, it has a positive side to it which has certainly come to the fore as the pandemic continues to sweep all in its path. Social media and apps like Zoom have allowed us to keep in touch with friends and family like never before. You don’t have to be a hermit and many people’s lives will never be the same again now they have had to adapt their social interactions. Online quizzing has exploded and many churches, businesses and clubs are reaching out to new audiences as a result.

The internet is a double edged sword. The flip of a coin can lead you down new roads which can enhance or destroy your life. I’ve wandered down both in my time. Enjoy and make the most of this valuable and innovative tool. But tread carefully and read the signposts carefully. One stray step off the well trod path and you could find yourself lost forever, a helpless Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole from which you will never emerge again.

Are You Wasting Away?

I’m in a queue. The council have arranged a rubbish collection in an adjoining village and we’ve seized the opportunity as our wheelie bin is full to the brim. Being in lockdown means more food consumption and general waste. The queue itself is very orderly. Us Northern Irish are good at waiting in line. Everybody observes social distancing and follows the instructions of the council workers to the letter.

The council worker supervising my line informs me that currently ‘every day is like Christmas’ due to the unprecedented demand for their services. More Groundhog Day, than Christmas, I think grimly. But before long I’m dumping my mandatory six black bags into the back of the bin lorry and driving off the site. In and out within five minutes. Not bad as I had been expecting half the county to descend en masse with a tonne of garbage.

Waste. The coronavirus is overflowing with it, and I’m not just referring to the smelly variety. Everywhere I see waste. Our time, the economy, and human life itself. The global death toll rises every day until the numbers threaten to lose all meaning and relevance. 250,000 dead, 260,000 dead. It’s just numbers and I struggle to digest the enormity of grief and trauma behind those bare statistics. My mind is boggled, blown, baffled by the casual senselessness of it.

The Americans blame the Chinese. The Chinese blame the Americans. The Russian government isn’t telling the truth. The British government is, and being slaughtered by its media for doing so. In a few days the U.K. death toll will have overtaken Italy as the highest in Europe. Many are terrified to step over the threshold of their front doors for fear of infecting a loved one, while others don’t care as long as they get their hair cut or a day at the beach.

Waste. But can we turn the tide and make something of this enforced hiatus in our lives? What can we do to fill the void as the hands of the clock drag interminably on another tedious circle? Well, there’s plenty to do around the house, all those tasks and chores we had been putting off forever. Rooms are being decorated, gardens tidied up and work surfaces gleaming. Boredom isn’t an option when you have a to do list as long as your arm.

We are exercising as never before. When I’m out on my daily run I see others walking, running and cycling along the country roads outside the village. Inside many are hitting treadmills and exercise mats, lifting weights and burning calories. When all this is over the streets will be flooded with a nation of fitness fanatics. Pilates and yoga YouTube sites are seeing unprecedented numbers of hits. We are stretching and sweating away the lockdown blues.

Then there are us bloggers and writers. Documenting our new way of living, sharing our experiences and reaching out to others through the online communities we have immersed ourselves within. I am reading, writing and researching; working on book cover designs with my publisher, reducing my TBR list and getting back into a daily routine while starting research on my third novel. This is time well spent, not wasted. My creative juices are flowing and filling the void of boredom and inactivity.

So, yes these are days of waste and despair, but they also offer opportunity and hope. We stand on a precipice and the choice is ours. Succumb to inertia and the voice telling you no more, or rise and seize the sliver of inspiration and innovation shining its light onto your upturned face. What do you choose? To curl into a foetal form and wait until it’s all over or stride towards the horizon, no longer a victim of circumstance? I know you will choose wisely.

Country Folk Are Friendly

I’ve been regularly running the country roads around our village since the lockdown of six weeks ago. Yes, it’s that long since I’ve been in Belfast as my office remains closed. Running during my lunch breaks is a dim, distant memory as I’ve embraced the rolling, rural terrain for my daily exercise. This has meant more hills to climb which I detest but know will benefit my overall fitness in the long term. I’m determined to still fit in my work trousers at the end of all this.

That’s not the only notable difference. My lunchtime work runs through the city took me past hundreds of fellow runners and office workers out for a stroll. As I navigated a route through them I was largely anonymous. The large majority of city dwellers studiously avoid eye contact with those they do not know. Encouraging nods or smiles are frowned upon and treated by most with grave suspicion. We stick to our own and never the twain shall meet.

This doesn’t happen in the country. 99% of people I pass acknowledge me with a greeting; it can be a few words, a wave or another form of greeting. Cars pass me and their drivers wave. I wave back even though I don’t know them and they probably don’t know me. It’s just politeness, common courtesy, but does wonders for fostering a sense of community in these troubled times. I don’t feel invisible, a potential threat to be avoided at all costs.

WordPress is a bit like that. When I hit the publish button and sit back I look forward to those who check in with greetings and comments. Some are regular passers by, others less so, but the huge majority are friendly, constructive and positive. In almost three years of blogging I could count on the figures of one hand how many people I’ve had issues with. It’s a friendly, supportive community, a safe place where you can express yourself in the written form.

These are lonely, confusing times. Many of us are struggling to adapt, we feel lost in the avalanche of depressing headlines. To some, the slightest interaction from a fellow human being could be all it takes to get them through another day. That human being could be you. So whether you’re walking down the street or scrolling through your timeline make time for others. We are all in this together, this pandemic has brought us all down to the same level.

Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

Never let it be said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. For lockdown has provided me with an unexpected opportunity to expand my household repertoire under the careful, often bewildered, supervision of Fionnuala. She’s had me painting fences, assisting with wallpapering, baking flapjacks. But more than all that, she’s taught me the difference between tidying up and cleaning. This has been a quantum leap for yours truly. Mind well and truly blown.

I’ve always thought myself a tidy enough person. If a sweet wrapper is lying on the ground I’ll pick it up and put it in the bin; I’ll wipe a table if I see crumbs on it and shout at the kids for leaving their stuff lying around the house. I did my bit to keep the house in some semblance of order. Or so I thought. Since lockdown I’ve had to learn the difference between superficial tidying and proper cleaning. As in killing germs as opposed to just repositioning them around the kitchen.

Fionnuala has introduced me to the wonderful world of bleach and disinfectant. I’m lifting ornaments and cleaning under, as opposed to around, them. I’ve polished furniture, swept floors and even started making the bed. With all the pillows and cushions in exactly the position they’re meant to be in. You name it, I’ve attacked it with vigour and vim – wood, metal, glass, it’s all felt the wrath of my cleaning fury. I’m a man possessed.

My default setting is with my nose stuck in a book or dreaming up ideas for the next Kirkwood Scott adventure, but I’m keen to pull my weight around the place and not get under Fionnuala’s feet too much. I always recognised the amount of work she does, but the enforced time at home has taken this to a whole new level. It’s a full time job keeping on top of the endless chores with a husband and three teenagers under the same roof.

For years I treated my mental health in the same manner. I would pick at it, fuss around the edges and do the bare minimum, thinking this was enough to keep my head in order and prevent the messy monsters within from running rampant. It was only when the rubbish was piled waist high that I recognised skimming the surface and refusing to get my hands dirty was slowly but steadily dragging me under, never to return.

It was only when I started to methodically and regularly confront my issues that the mental makeover started to show progress; serious DIY work as opposed to papering over the cracks, removing the layers of dirt and grime in order to reveal the true person underneath. No more skirting around the elephant in the room, sticking my head in the sand like an obstinate ostrich. Grabbing the thistle and taking the pain, for after the pain comes healing and growth.

Therapy. Medication. Counselling. These are the cleaning products of the mind, they polish the process of recovery and rehabilitation. Don’t lie in the debris, pick yourself up, dust yourself down and climb from the pit. The abyss piled high on all sides with the detritus of wasted lives and shattered hopes. The rut can be all consuming, it dulls the senses and rusts our resolve to realise dreams and aspirations. Don’t let its noxious lies overwhelm you.

So as I scrub the toilet bowl or sweep the floor, I’m glad this silver lining has been revealed to me at a time when the planet seems to be falling apart. Mental order removes the dirt of despair and allows us to glue the pieces of self back together. We are whole once more, different but whole. Our cracks are scars and through them we rise from the ashes to face the world again. A new way of living, a fresh chance to live, laugh and love.