385 Yards To Go

I wrote the other day about the comparisons between marathon running and writing a novel. Both are wars of attrition and many drop by the wayside, battered and beaten. Both culminate in glory and accolades but the path to the finish line is strewn with the collateral damage of the occupation; for every war has its casualties. Sacrifice and discipline are paramount. Without them you will fail, then fall and the dream will remain just that; discarded and shrivelled away.

I described where I am currently with my novel as like being at the 26 mile point of a marathon. The point where you feel you have created your personal Everest only to realise that you still have another .2 miles to go. Or 385 yards to be exact but, hey, who’s counting? Well I am to be honest. Every torrid step of the way. For after almost four hours of constant running you feel every stride and obsess over every step. It is one nearer the glory or the ignominy of stopping. Whichever comes first.

I’ve attempted to describe the agony and beauty of that moment but sometimes a picture speaks the volumes that my muted meanderings can never accomplish. Which is why I’ve dug out this photo. It’s me in the finishing straight at this year’s Belfast Marathon. No smiling, no soaking up the atmosphere and acknowledging the crowds. Just a world of pain as I contemplate nothing but the finish line, just ahead of me.

I could have posted photos of me smiling with my medal to describe the marathon experience but I feel this one captures its essence so much more accurately. It’s not pretty but it is real. Much like my writing style. I’ll post an equally unflattering image of my writing experience later today but, until then, never give up. Knuckle down and buckle up. For the finish line is within touching distance. Only 385 yards to go.

How close are you to your finish line?

Is the pain worth it?

Flash Fiction Challenge

So there I was at the self service check-out yesterday purchasing my body weight in Diet Coke and waiting for the receipt. I refuse to walk out of the store without it for fear that the long arm of the law will collar me, accuse me of theft and I’ll be hauled off to the nearest police cell quicker than you can shout ‘But honestly officer. The receipt is sitting on the counter if you’ll only just let me……AAAARGHHHH……… those handcuffs really chafe!’

As the check-out spewed forth said proof of purchase I noticed that not all of my fellow customers were as paranoid as yours truly. There were half a dozen discarded receipts lying in front of me. It struck me. I wonder who made these varied purchases and then wandered out of the store back to the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives? What kind of days were they having? What kind of lives?

I am an avid people watcher. It must go hand in hand with commuting to and from work every day. When I was on Twitter, back in the day, I ran a daily series called ‘Train Tweets’ where I created imaginary lives for the regulars who shared the 7:13 express to Belfast with me. I was the original geek on a train until Hollywood turned me into Emily Blunt. Serial killers, angry solicitors and Arsene Wenger lookalikes. We had it all on the 7:13.

Earlier this week I was educated as to what ‘flash fiction’ is. A light bulb popped on in my head as I realised I write a lot about writing fiction on the blog but don’t actually write a lot of fiction on the blog. Did that last sentence make sense? I sincerely hope so. For otherwise you might struggle with the rest of this post. Which would be a terrible shame for everyone concerned. Most of all me. But also for all you lot.

Because….

I have a challenge for you all. Should you choose to accept it, in true Mission Impossible style. Below are two of the receipts that I ‘borrowed’ from the Tesco empire. All you have do is write a piece of prose describing a day in the life of the person who made the purchase. Oh….and post it on WordPress. If this takes off then I will run it on the blog as an occasional feature. If not, then I will probably sulk for a day or two but then forgive you all and we can awkwardly agree that this was a terrible idea that should never have seen the light of day in the first place.

Over to you now. Gauntlet thrown. If you choose to accept the challenge then feel free to name check fracturedfaithblog on your accompanying post. If not, then at least leave a comment and say hello. We can talk about the weather. Or maybe the extortionate £2:50 that Tesco charge for a coffee. And what’s a San Pellegino anyway? I had to Google it. Sparkling mineral water apparently. Hmmmmm. Somebody must have had a sore head.

Welcome to Mulberry Square

Just thought I’d share some images of Bank Street, off Belfast City Centre, I took yesterday. This is my inspiration for the fictional location of Mulberry Square which is the backdrop for several of the key scenes in the novel I am currently working on – tentatively titled ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Part One – Skelly’s Square.’ I walk through this part of the city most days on my way to and from work.

It is a vibrant, thriving part of the city full of colour and laughter. It is steeped in history and includes an eclectic range of businesses and buildings – chapels next to bookmakers, traditional Irish pubs next to modern wine bars; fish and chip shops beside gourmet restaurants. It has a little bit of everything, including a darker side that features heavily in the novel.

Such locations continue to inspire me on this insane writing journey I have embarked upon. As do the people who inhabit them. I only hope my writing can do justice to the beautiful, brutal Belfast that is my second home. I’ll blog again later. A ‘flash fiction’ writing challenge for you all no less but, for now, apologies for the dodgy photography. Let’s hope the writing that follows isn’t quite so dodgy.

What parts of your local town or city inspire you to write?

Where is your ‘second home’?

What do you think ‘goes down’ in Mulberry Square?

Only Mad People Start To Write A Novel? Discuss….

Whenever I tell people in the ‘real world’ *dabs fingers patronisingly* that I am writing a novel they invariably look vaguely uncomfortable before changing the subject at the first available opportunity. Some of them stare at me as if I have finally taken leave of my senses while others nod in bemused sympathy, say ‘that’s nice’ or ‘good for you’ as if I am a five year old child tugging at their trousers having told them I have just seen The Gruffalo arm wrestling The BFG at the bottom of the garden.

The few that do clamber over this initial hurdle of disbelief normally come to a jarring halt when the inevitable next question is asked – ‘What’s it about Stephen?’ Their faces drop as I begin to wax lyrical about the world of Kirkwood Scott. Supernatural beings amongst the homeless community in Belfast? Forces of good and evil battling for control of the known universe in that pub we always go to on pay day because it sells cheap beer? He’s finally lost it.

It is disheartening but thankfully there are those that keep me going. A friend visited us last night who I haven’t spoken to in forever. When Fionnuala brought up the fact that her deranged husband was writing a book she was genuinely interested and said she would like to read it. And you know what, I believed her. These are the tiny crumbs of support and encouragement that I cling on to as I plough through the third draft.

Because these tiny crumbs are the oxygen that the fledgling author so desperately needs in order to force him or her to flip open their laptop, stare at the blank screen and then start to hesitantly tap those first few words out on the keyboard. It’s all about belief. And it’s so much easier to believe in yourself when others believe in you first. Especially in the final stages when your literary lungs are bursting and the finish line seems farther away than ever.

I run marathons. Have I mentioned that before? They are 26.2 miles long. People always tend to forget the .2 but let me tell you that is the part of the race when the crowd are at their most inspiring and you need them more than ever before. It is their cheers and hollering that drag your aching, exhausted body over the line. They make the previous 26 miles worthwhile, they are the reason you run at all. They are the fuel that powers you through those lonely training runs in the pouring rain.

I feel like I am nearing the 26 mile stage of the book. Fionnuala has…. er ‘focused my thinking’ by informing me if I haven’t finished it by the end of September then she is initiating divorce proceedings against me. I think she’s joking. I think. But it’s certainly a kick up the creative backside when I need it the most. I need her support at a time like this. I need to finish this project even if it never sells a copy and wins literary equivalents of those awards they hand out at Oscar time for the worst movie of the year.

This book will prove a lot of people wrong. But more importantly it will prove a few people right. Those who cared. Those who believed rather than looked at me as if I had two heads. Those who encouraged me rather than those who offered smirks, sighs or, worst of all, silence. I’m excited about the end of September. Incredibly nervous but excited nonetheless. To be able to let the trusted few see what I have been hammering away at with furrowed brow for the last nine months.

It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m about to clamber out of bed and haul myself into the rat race for another day. I will sit on the train and fret over still gaping holes in the plot. I will daydream through meetings about the colour of Meredith’s hair, still undecided, and whether or not Harley’s character should be introduced at an earlier stage of the story. I will spend my lunchtime run plodding around the city as my frazzled brain works overtime on such thoughts.

But I’m getting there. Only .2 miles to go.

How do you deal with the doubters and doomsayers when it comes to your dream?

What advice would you offer to me with .2 miles to go?

Should We Meet Our Heroes?

During the recent World Cup I have heard the word ‘hero’ casually bandied about to describe the exploits of young men who get paid millions of pounds every year to kick a ball around a field. The same applies to our favourite actors, musicians and authors. I’m as susceptible to this idolatry as any of us. If Eric Cantona walked into the room now I’d probably turn into a gibbering wreck. And when I bumped into Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones in Belfast a few years back I was a gibbering wreck.

Did I say bumped into? That might be a slight manipulation of the truth and by that I mean an outright lie. I actually stalked them through the city centre before cornering them in a jewellery store where I refused to let them leave until I had my photograph taken with them. Thankfully they were both lovely about it. There were no diva outbursts or exaggerated eye rolling. I floated off on my little cloud nine and all was well with the world.

They, for it is always they, say never meet your heroes for they will invariably prove a disappointment. We find out that they are not the perfect creations we had imagined them to be. They are as flawed and tarnished as the rest of us. Just because you are skilled at kicking a ball or strumming a guitar doesn’t mean you are a wonderful human being. When they step down from the pedestal we have placed them upon and face us eye to eye we see beyond the carefully crafted image. We see them for who they really are as opposed to who we so desperately want them to be.

Hero worship is idolatry and the latter reflects an inadequacy within us that we seek to fill with fickle fantasies. There is a hole within us, something is missing so we grasp at the first thing we can find to plug the gap. It can be a pop star, a baseball player or a Kardashian. Worse still it can be an addiction. Why worship a person when you can worship food, alcohol or drugs? They are so much more accessible. We pump our bodies and minds with images and substances; anything to stop us from looking in the mirror.

Mirrors tend not to lie. Our minds eye does. Mirrors strip away the facade and reveal the present in all its not so glorious glory. I personally tend to avoid them for I don’t particularly like what I see looking back at me. The Stephen Black I want to be, I need to be, is not there. I’m not handsome enough, I’m not clever enough, I’m not popular enough. I’m not a sub 3:30 marathon runner. I’m not a published author. I’m not the world’s best father or husband. I’m not anything really.

But then I look beyond my personal pity party, beyond the vain, selfish thoughts that warp and corrupt my perception. I see my wife and kids. I see the people in my life who accept and love me for who I am, warts and all. I see the people who turn up every day for me, who support and encourage me in whatever hare brained scheme I am chasing at any given time. These are the people who you get out of bed for and trudge into work for, day after monotonous day.

Why? Because they are our real heroes. They are the people we are learning from, they are the kindred souls who we smooth our rough edges against, who help to mould us into the people that God created us to be; despite our kicking and screaming every step of the way. They keep us on the path and prevent us from wandering off and along more treacherous routes that lead to dead ends and deadlier drops. They are our signposts, our beacons in the darkness. They are our very lives, our reasons for being.

Never meet your heroes? I disagree. I say meet them. Open your eyes and look around for they are there, right beside you, as you muddle through life. They are our family, our friends, our daily dose of inspiration. See them for who they really are and, in doing so, be grateful that they have been placed in our lives for a reason. They are an oasis of hope, grace and love in this barren desert we trudge across. If we appreciate the everyday heroes around us we are a step closer to becoming reluctant heroes ourselves. For they need us just as much as we need them.

Have you ever met a celebrity and been disappointed by them?

Who are the everyday heroes in your life?

Why Do Good Blogs Go Bad?

Have you ever poured your heart and soul into a blog only for it to sink without trace amidst the plethora of competing posts that flood your timeline? It’s disheartening isn’t it? You stare at your pride and joy and try to process how 99% of your followers haven’t the slightest interest in this latest literary gem. Then the voice in your head pipes up – ‘Well if they won’t read a 500 word blog then what makes you think they will want to read that 120,000 word book you have been droning on about for the last six months?’

It’s little surprise then that many bloggers raise the white flag and go AWOL. Fellow writers who you corresponded with every day suddenly vanish without explanation and you think ‘I wonder what happened to so and so?’ Blogging can be a brutal business. Don’t expect to become an internet success overnight. Building a base of followers is time consuming, tiring work. That’s right, I used the ‘w’ word. Work? Isn’t this supposed to be fun, a release and relief from the daily grind where we can freely express ourselves in a manner we are reluctant to do in the real world?

This battle rages every day in my head. When I lived on Twitter and Instagram I was obsessed with likes, retweets and followers. I wasn’t one of the beautiful people who were guaranteed 2000 likes simply for posting a selfie of themselves pouting at the camera before a night on the tiles. I didn’t have the looks but I did possess a certain sarcastic wit and, dare I say it, charm that ensured people read my offerings. It worked and the followers er….followed.

When I dipped my toe into the WordPress waters last year I adopted a different philosophy. Fionnuala and I spoke long and hard about the purpose of the blog and agreed it was created in order to be a beacon of hope to others floundering with their faith and a raft of other problems that assail our daily lives and buzz around our skulls like irksome wasps, waiting to sting us in the eye if we dare question their presence. We wanted to offer hope where there was none and light the way ahead for weary walkers on the road less traveled.

That is still why I write. Yes it is pleasing and reassuring to have people post compliments about the blog. Yes it is encouraging to watch the follower base rise steadily day after day. But that is the icing on the cake, the cherry on top. The meat and potatoes is the central message I have alluded to above which I attempt to hammer home every time I write. There is hope amidst the brokenness. There is a way out of the mire. No pit is too deep and no problem too insurmountable. Believe and become the person you were created to be.

My message remains the same every morning. There are some brilliant bloggers out there. People who don’t realise how good they are. They inspire me on a daily basis to pick up my metaphorical pen and keep plugging away at our craft. Not all posts will hit the nail on the head or catch the mood of your readers. Some will sink without trace while others will bob back to the surface again and reassure you that maybe you aren’t the worst wordsmith since time immemorial.

Don’t give up. Keep persevering and writing. If you show up every day then the positives will eventually outweigh the negatives. If you want to become an overnight internet sensation or ‘Instafamous’ then stick to other social media platforms. WordPress won’t make you a millionaire overnight but it will immerse you in an environment with like minded individuals who care about their craft. Interact with them, get to know them. They are your peers, your audience, your critical but compassionate eye.

They are the reason I show up here every day. I practice my writing every day on the blog and then transfer what I have honed and developed into the world I am creating in my novel. The blog is my training ground. Every day I swing wildly with my eyes clenched shut and hope for the best. Most times I miss and strike out. But once in a while there is that sweetest of connections and I watch in awe as the ball sails out of the park.

I just hope the coach is watching on those occasions.

What makes a good blog?

What are your experiences of the highs and lows of blogging?

What bloggers do you want to encourage today?

I’m Writing A Book….Part 465,589

Or to be honest I haven’t been writing a book. Or at least not very much over the last two weeks. After a creative spurt which carried me to the end of the second draft I hit a mental brick wall. It wasn’t writer’s block as I knew what I had to write. I just couldn’t find it in me to type the words, to pick myself up and head out on another lap of the literary track. Despite hour upon hour hammering away at the keyboard the finish line seemed further away than ever.

Part of it was life. There has been so much going on that it has been difficult to find the time to commit to writing. Decent chunks of quality writing time that is as opposed to a hurried half hour here and there which are as self defeating as they are unproductive. Hurried writing equates to garbage writing, at least where I am concerned. I need a month in a darkened room. Or a padded cell. Whichever comes around first.

Then there is the fear and doubt which permeate every word I type. The voice continually snipes away at me, chipping away at my fragile self confidence. Who are you kidding, Stephen? This is rubbish, another of your pathetic pipe dreams which will never come to fruition. Give it up and accept that you are never going to be a published author. You’re not good enough. You never have been and you never will be. Fraud. Failure. Fake.

The voice is persuasive but I know it well. It and I have crossed swords many times before. Over my family, my faith and my fitness. I choose to ignore it and push on. It’s tactics are tiresome and if I let it succeed then I am giving in to all those who fuel its furtive whispers and sly suggestions. Every time I open my laptop and start to write it skulks away to curl up in a ball and lick it wounds. I fear it but I will not let it reign supreme.

Next is the sheer enormity of the task. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, one hundred steps back. There is so much still to be done, despite the many hours of work I have already put in. It’s as if I’m frantically swimming towards shore but every time I stop and look up, the beach is further away than ever. My stroke grows weaker and the current stronger. Am I destined to sink to the bottom, where my corpse will lie with all the other drowned dreamers?

All I can do is limp on, or doggy paddle as the case may be. I remind myself of how far I’ve come. It might be akin to excavating the Grand Canyon with a tea spoon but every word, every sentence, every paragraph is another one nearer the culmination of the project. After talking over my concerns with Fionnuala last night I’ve set myself the target of finishing by the end of September. I need targets otherwise this will drift on forever.

At that point I’m going to allow Fionnuala to prise the manuscript from my ghostly white knuckles and forward it to those I have selected to perform the roles of critique partners and beta readers. I hope that their feedback will polish and fine tune my meandering, haphazard word dump into a polished piece of prose fit for public consumption. If you would be interested in volunteering as a literary guinea pig them feel free to hop on the wheel and drop me a line.

I’ll keep providing regular updates of course. The blog is my lifeline, my bread and butter. Yes, it is time consuming when I could be working on the book but it is how I connect and interact with fellow writers going through similar experiences. It’s much preferable to have company on this journey and I truly support those of you who take the time to read and comment upon my random ramblings. Thank you.

Where are you on your writing journey today?

Longford Marathon Update. Everybody Yawns.

The sun has been splitting the rocks for the last month. There hasn’t been a drop of rain. It’s been so barren a hosepipe ban has been imposed. Such has been the heat that I’ve been putting off the next scheduled long run in my preparations for the Longford Marathon next month – a 19 miler. I couldn’t put it off any longer though so decided that today was the day or I could forget about Longford.

I thought I was dreaming when I woke up to the sound of rain drumming against the bedroom window. But, no, upon looking outside I was amazed to see dreary, grey skies and a steady downpour that showed no sign of abating. I waited a few hours in the vain hope that it might ease but as it neared noon I was left with no option but to grit my teeth, get out there and get it done.

At least it wasn’t windy and it was still a warm day. But within two miles my glasses were in dire need of mini windscreen wipers. Has anyone not invented these yet? If we can put people on the moon then surely we can conjure up something for the visually challenged distance runner. These are the random thoughts that keep me occupied out on the roads. The Nuttiness of the Long Distance Runner.

The 19 miles consisted of two wide loops around the village with the plan being to make a brief stop at the half way point to take on board some liquids. By the time I reached the house, though, I had to change my t-shirt and shorts as they were utterly saturated. I towelled myself off, gulped down a glass of barley water and scoffed a handful of coconut mushrooms for a sugar boost. Then there was nothing for it but to head back out into the maelstrom.

I’d love to tell you that the second half of the run was an epic tale of strength, endurance and heroism. But I’d be lying. I’m all for artistic license but that would be a bridge too far. The reality is that it was a horrible, depressing slog. I kept it fairly together until Mile 17 but then a combination of tiredness, the conditions and a series of testing hills led to my pace dropping markedly.

I cut a sorry figure as I aquaplaned back into the village and made my way up the road towards the house. All I could think of was getting dry, downing an ice cold tin of Diet Coke and polishing off the rest of those coconut mushrooms. I looked like a drowned rat and felt more than a little broken. But the run was in the bag and despite slowing down over the final few miles I still finished over two minutes inside my target time.

It was a horrible run. But a necessary one. These are the runs that forge the physical and mental resilience within runners that enable them to overcome any adversity come race day itself. You have to learn to accept the pain and use it to propel you forward towards the finish line. It is inevitable that you will suffer. Best get used to it before the big day rather than it bring you to a juddering halt.

With the marathon just over a month away I will run a 21 miler in two weeks time which will hopefully have me spot on. Not the most exciting of posts today and no earth shattering message underpinning it. Just a very wet, very tired middle aged man updating you all on the torture he puts himself through. Oh and my Garmin app is broke, hence the equally underwhelming image. You’re welcome.

How are you spending your Sunday?

Are marathon runners mad? Discuss.

I Do Good Foot Rubs. But Very Little Else.

I often ask Fionnuala if I’m the most irritating person she has ever met to which she unerringly replies….yes. It’s a gift, I guess, but my long suffering wife has many buttons of which I know how to press every one. Repeatedly. If there is a new, innovative way to drive her nuts yours truly will somehow manage to unearth it; and serve it up with fries and a side salad. Et voila.

I know what a pain I am. I’m beyond socially awkward and if there is an illogical, baffling way to carry out an activity then I will find it. I’m impractical beyond belief, frequently live with my head in the clouds and invariably oblivious to the bedlam in our home as Fionnuala battles to raise three kids, a man child and keep the house in some semblance of order.

She is utterly selfless and without fail puts the needs of others before herself. She has that rarest of combinations; streetwise yet with a heart of gold. She would do anything for her friends and family and has made umpteen sacrifices down the years that I could fill a thousand blogs with. I have no idea why she puts up with me and yet she still does. For that I will never be able to repay her.

She is one of the main reasons I believe there is a God up there. A God who obviously rolled his eyes, took pity on me and sent Fionnuala to sort out my various messes. From my excruciating dad rapping to my bewildering shirt ironing technique; from my inability to operate the oven properly to my endless whining about my work, my running and ‘the book’. She sighs, she swears, she tears out her hair. But she puts up with me.

Tonight I gave my wife a foot rub on the sofa as she binged on one of her favourite U.S. drama series. Fionnuala has to take extra care of her feet following a diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes. That aside, she is a busy mummy who spends most of the day on her feet. She deserves a little pampering now and again; in fact, forget that, she deserves a lot more pampering than I provide her with. But tonight I put down the laptop, set aside Kirkwood Scott for half an hour and exercised my magic fingers.

I don’t know much but what I do know, I do well. And I do know I give foot rubs. It’s not a five course dinner, it’s not cleaning the house from top to bottom, but it was my practical way of thanking my wife for all she does for me and showing that I love her very much. It’s all very well telling someone you love them but that’s not enough. You have to show it. Love is more than an emotion. It is an act of will, it is persevering with your loved one through the bad times as well as the good.

Before the night is over, before you have even read this I will no doubt have put my foot in it again and committed some calamitous act that will have Fionnuala crawling up the walls. I will bow my head and start the walk of shame back to the dog kennel where I spend a good part of my week. Charlie the border terrier will look at it me with some disdain before reluctantly moving over to let me join him for the night.

Do you drive your loved ones insane?

How do you show people you love them?

What Do You Wish You Had Written About Today?

People often compliment me on my honest writing style. They ask me how do I do it as they could never be that open and upfront about their lives. They use words like ‘refreshing’ which I like as honesty is a refreshing attribute in today’s world. I’m not talking about liars here but, rather, people who don’t speak the truth as it might damage the persona they portray to the world. They would rather hide behind a facade than be that rarest of creatures…..their true selves.

I’ve already written at length about this epidemic of evasiveness in previous posts. It is insidious and permeates all aspects of life. We simply refuse to be honest as to who we are. We flinch from the truth as it’s ugliness scares us. But ugliness, much like beauty, is only skin deep. Cut away the scar tissue and expose the miracle within. The real you. With a voice begging be heard, with words and songs and images bursting to be released into this arid wasteland we inhabit.

I fled to WordPress a year ago to practice talking the truth. I had been suffocated by the real world, too ashamed to explore the many flaws and failings I had kept bottled up for way too long. A gangrenous genie that, when released, threatened to turn my fairytale ‘perfect’ life into a living nightmare. Yet, it had to breathe, it had to be. I had no church or friends to turn to so, encouraged by Fionnuala, I turned to blogging. It saved my life as I knew it then.

It was a revelation, a revolution within my soul which had the old Stephen reaching for the white flag while simultaneously throwing the towel into the ring. I write prodigiously and truthfully. I wielded words and practice every day until they surged from my keyboard at will. I needed to write. I had so much to say and the clock keeps ticking. I constantly feel as if I am running out of time. Words can be weapons of mass destruction. They are more valuable than precious stones, than the very air we breathe.

Words are life. They strip away the veneer, the plastic and the false. They are white hot, they cleanse and purge like no other potion or pill known to man. Then why do we shy away from them? Increasingly on WordPress I see fellow bloggers testify that they are unable to write about what they want to. Some are worried about what others might think, some believe they are not eloquent enough to accurately express themselves, others say it would be too painful a process.

More painful than keeping the words unspoken or unwritten? Meandering along a river of regret until they become stuck in the shallows never to be emerge again. So we fall into the same old trap. We say what we think others want to hear, we dilute our diction and side step the stories that are our legacy and our right to tell. They fester and ferment within us, dripping poison into our veins and clogging our arteries, blocking the hopes and dreams that will never see the light of day.

What have you written about today? What are you thinking of writing today? Reflect upon it. Is it really what you want to say, what you need to say? Or is there something else, curled in a ball, buried deep within, that craves to be unfurled like a battlefield banner. A banner which announces to your enemies and antagonists that enough is enough and you are making a stand. Look up and read the words on that banner as it flaps and flutters in the breeze.

Commit those words to memory. For that is your anthem and they are your story. Share them and feel that cloak of secrecy and shame slip from your shoulders. They are words forged in the depths of your being, unspeakably strong. They cannot be broken for they were written with the ink of your blood and your tears. They are your rebirth from the banality and boredom of what you once were. You are whole again. Now tell your story and live to tell many more.

Do you want to write about certain subjects and experiences but hold back? Why?

Is your writing as honest as you would like it to be?

What has this post inspired you to write about?

12th Of July Parades – Aghalee

A taste of the 12th of July celebrations which are being held in our village this year. Feel free to ask questions. It’s all about history and culture and stuff….

What do you know about the 12th July parades in Northern Ireland?

Is this what you expected?

Football’s Not Coming Home

Unless you’ve been living under a rock of late or holidaying on Saturn you will have noticed there is a little football competition taking place in Russia called the World Cup. It is the biggest sporting competition in the world and has a worldwide audience stretching into the billions. This has led to fever pitch excitement and you cannot turn on a television or open a newspaper without being swamped by World Cup related mania.

Not least here in Northern Ireland. Despite getting knocked out in the qualifying play off by those nasty, not so neutral Swiss we were at least not alone in our misery at not making the party in Russia. The Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales also failed to qualify. Which left us with the English who did. Despite four of their squad coming from Manchester United, the team I have supported since a boy, I was loathe to support them.

The reason? It’s got nothing to do with nationality, religion or politics. I don’t even mind the players who seem a hard working and talented unit. I follow the English cricket team and always support British competitors in other events where they are often plucky underdogs against much bigger nations. Nope, my dislike of the English football team boils down to two unrelated factors – their fans and journalists.

English football fans have wreaked havoc across Europe for many decades with their senseless and sickening violence and racism. While they have been well behaved in Russia, largely thanks to a massive pre-tournament policing intelligence operation, scenes of English hooligans laying waste to city after city, still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Their loutish behaviour, inane singing and lager swilling excesses never fail to annoy me.

They are an arrogant bunch too, convinced that whatever tournament they enter they are nailed on winners. This flies in the face of the truth being they have won nothing since the 1966 World Cup. Which they still sing about. Incessantly. Their journalists are no better. Never learning from past mistakes they hype up the team before every competition only to mercilessly tear them to pieces when the inevitable defeat occurs against the football giants of Brazil, Germany or er…..Iceland.

This year was no exception. Initial realism and grounded reporting soon evaporated once they realised the current squad were actually ‘quite good’ having qualified from their group with comparative ease. There then followed knock out wins against Columbia and Sweden leaving England in a semi final against Croatia. The media regarded it as a foregone conclusion and were already gleefully rubbing their hands at the mouth watering prospect of a final against the old enemy, France.

All this seemed to gloss over the fact that Croatia possessed a top team chock full of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus players. It mattered not a jot. England were going to win. Football was coming home and the nation ground to a halt at 7:00pm on Wednesday evening to witness this fait accompli. Meanwhile most of Scotland, Wales and Ireland (both north and south) prayed fervently, crossed fingers and willed Croatia to put an end to this jingoistic, sabre rattling nonsense.

Our prayers were answered. There is a God and justice prevailed. Despite an early English goal (cue scenes of beer quaffing pandemonium from London to Liverpool) the Croatians didn’t panic and slowly worked their way into the game, equalising in the second half and taking the match into extra time. The unbearably smug BBC commentary team began to look a little less pleased with themselves and a second Croatian goal had them all throwing their arms in the air in horrified disbelief.

The final whistle blew. England were out of the World Cup. Grown men in ill fitting replica tops bawled into their pints as news reporters beat a hasty retreat behind every cliched excuse in the book in order to explain this inexplicable loss. They had defied all expectations, they had restored English pride and belief and were now using the defeat as a springboard for the 2022 World Cup in Quatar which they were obviously going to win.

Football wasn’t coming home. The English went into a period of self imposed national mourning. And the rest of us sniggered and got on with our lives again.

What sporting team annoys you the most?

Have you been watching the World Cup?

A Little Taste Of Sweden

Northern Ireland traditionally grinds to a halt this week for the 12th of July band parades as the Unionist community celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 where the army of King William defeated King James and so began over 300 years of political and religious hatred between the two communities. It’s a long, long story but suffice to say Fionnuala and I are seeking to raise our own kids to turn their backs on these cultures and traditions. We believe there is a better way.

We don’t need flute bands, bonfires and gallons of alcohol to have a good time. Nope, for today we took the kids to IKEA, the huge Swedish furniture and home fittings store just outside Belfast. Who needs DisneyLand or Universal Studios when you have fun factories like this on your doorstep. The kids were a tad underwhelmed but Fionnuala needed some raw materials for her crafts business so off we went.

No need for expensive rollercoaster rides when you can have your father career up and down the ramps of the largely deserted multi storey car park in a Fast & The Furious stylee. Even better was to follow when we got inside the store. The dual English/Swedish signage caused much mirth as the kids attempted to get their tongues around some of the more exotic Scandinavian pronunciations. IKEA also kindly place arrows and maps throughout the store so you cannot get lost. It was just like a huge treasure hunt. With walk in wardrobes!

The relief that we were not actually purchasing any of said flat bed furniture was a huge personal bonus. I can barely dress myself in the morning, never mind deciphering impenetrable instructions. The last wardrobe I assembled resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa and could barely survive a mild breeze, let alone two teenage wrecking balls and an eleven year old tornado. I’m more DOA than DIY when it comes to home improvement and any act requiring a semblance of hand to eye coordination is normally beyond me.

The highlight of the trip, however, was undoubtedly the visit to the IKEA bistro after the shopping was concluded. Hot dogs, Swedish meatballs and French fries for five people. For under a tenner! The tomato ketchup dispenser was a personal favourite. And as for the bottomless refills of diet soda. Well let’s just say if I hadn’t already got my money’s worth beforehand then I certainly did then. Four visits to the drinks machine later and I was fit to burst. Sorry, too much information I know.

We drove home a happy bunch. Well I say that. The kids were bickering in the back seat by the time we hit the motorway but that’s par for the course. The entire day cost very little money and all our needs were met. Fionnuala made her purchases, the kids were fed, watered and entertained and yours truly obtained more blogging ammunition. What’s not to like about IKEA and the Swedish? I could almost forgive their football team for their abject showing against England the previous weekend in the World Cup. Almost.

It’s the people you are with who make the memories as opposed to the lavish location or amount of money spent. It has taken me a good part of my life to realise that. I spent years down no end of rabbit holes seeking happiness when it was right before my eyes the whole time. As long as I have my loved ones around me then I have everything I need. Nothing else really matters in the end. There’s a lot to be said for cheap and cheerful.

Have you had any memorable day trips recently?

The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Part One – Skelly’s Square (An Update)

The second edit is complete, weighing in at a whopping 113K words. Since then I’ve done very little on it partly due to other commitments and partly because, well, the writing well was fairly empty. I had a very productive 3-4 weeks where I rattled through the draft tweaking and amending it to my hearts content. Then when I got to the end I just needed to put it away and mull over what the next phase was going to be.

That phase started last night when I began a more detailed plot synopsis. I’m hoping that it will allow me to get a better overview of the book as a whole and identify the no doubt many inconsistencies and gaps that require urgent attention. I’ve already decided to drop my original introduction and completely rewrite it from an entirely different perspective. I’m hoping that this will land a more impactive punch and lure the reader into the bizarre life and world of Kirkwood Scott.

It was a big deal for me disclosing the book’s title the other week. I was humbled by the interest fellow bloggers showed in it and the constructive feedback I received. This was a nerve wracking but necessary process. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and don’t have the thickest of skins so realise I need to toughen up in this regard. When the plot synopsis is complete I hope to dive straight into the third chapter which will be largely a matter of connecting all the various dots I have created to date.

After that I will be letting go of my precious project and releasing it to a carefully selected band of beta readers and critique partners. The latter group will be 2-3 fellow writers. I hope we will be able to grow and learn from each other during this important phase. I’m also leaning towards the self publishing route but again it’s very early days. The blog will remain my bread and butter and I’m hoping that from within it will come my core readership base.

So what do you need to do now? Well, nothing really. Just keep being you. Thank you as ever for your endless support and patience. I drone on about this book every week but not one of you yet has told me to shut up. For that I will always be grateful. This blog has grown beyond our wildest dreams and has restored my faith in humanity and the entire online experience. Kirkwood Scott would never have been born if it hadn’t been for you lot.

Would You Write A Letter To A Fellow Blogger?

Yesterday I posted about emojis and the death of the written word. It generated quite a dialogue and one of the themes that emerged was how much people miss receiving, and sending, letters. You know, in the post. Stamps? Envelopes? Am I ringing any bells here people? It brought back to me the excitement and anticipation of receiving mail from penpals. There is something in the care and attention of writing and posting a letter that cannot be replicated into today’s ‘junk food’ society of e-mail, text and social media messaging.

So today’s post is a challenge to you all. Whether or not you choose my metaphorical gauntlet throwing is entirely up to you. It’s a challenge to write a letter and post it to a fellow blogger. Or bloggers if you are feeling particularly inspired. It can be anything. A few lines or your life story. It can include art, poetry, photographs, whatever rocks your boat. The central message here is reaching out across the online abyss and physically connecting with a fellow human being.

There are a few rules. The letter has to be handwritten. No typing you lazy, lazy people. The other person has to have agreed to co-operate. Although, otherwise how would you have obtained their address. Duh Stephen! And although I hate to even have to say this but I’m afraid I must – please refrain from any abusive and offensive material. That would make me cross. And nobody wants to see that.

If you are up for the challenge then simply comment below, telling us who you are hoping to write to and why. Feel free to share this blog and let’s spread this message throughout the blogging community. Or maybe you want to blog yourself about your letter writing process? Include photos of your lavishly decorated envelopes, journey to the mail box or exquisite handwriting. Let’s get writing

Are you willing to accept the letter writing challenge?

Who would you like to write to and why?

What are you going to include in your letter?

Feel free to reblog if you think this is a good idea.

Death To Words. Long Live The Emoji.

Much as the caveman must have pondered life before fire or the Victorians wondered how folk managed before the invention of electricity, one question has vexed me above all others as I continue my blogging journey. We have sent people to the Moon, plumbed the deepest depths of the oceans and scaled the highest peaks on land but above all those astounding achievements one stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The creation of the emoji….

Now I say head and shoulders but of course your common garden emoji does not possess shoulders. Nor do they require them for their disembodied little solar faces alone are more than capable of expressing every emotion ever experienced. Euphoric joy, heart wrenching sadness and the one where you just feel a bit meh. The emoji has it all. And don’t get me started on it’s evil hybrid cousin, the bitmoji. For that’s an entire blog series in itself.

Imagine how much easier life would have been if our little yellow friends had always been around. Life would have been so much simpler and more colourful. We wouldn’t have had to plough through dreary documents like the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence or Treaty of Versailles. It could all have been amicably resolved via a group WhatsApp chat and a few 😊, 🧐 and 🤪.

Emojis are the writing equivalent of crack cocaine. Much as you recognise the vapid, existential nihilism of them you find your thumb gravitating towards the emoji button. The blissful quick hit of that smiley face replaced seconds later by the overwhelming guilt and shame all us aspiring authors feel when we resort to such literary laziness. Yet before we know it we are chasing the emoji dragon again. I’m sure if there isn’t an emoji dragon then some bright spark will invent one soon.

I must admit I have a love/hate relationship with the emoji as I suspect most of us do. Along with the ‘lol’ and ‘smh’ culture that has assailed us in recent times, the emoji is effectively slaughtering the written word. Punctuation and grammar have been sacrificed at the altar of convenience. The full stop is no more and as for the semi colon? It passed away some time ago but nobody could be bothered to pen its obituary.

In today’s ‘fast food’ society we don’t have time to craft words into sentences and paragraphs. We hammer out messages on our keyboards at the speed of light. No time to talk, write or, for that matter, think. Eloquence has been replaced by expediency. Thoughts and feelings can be hidden behind a little smiley or sad face. It is laughing inanely all the way to our graves. We don’t want relationships. We crave followers, likes and retweets. And sooner rather than later.

It’s a stampede, a bloodbath and if you don’t keep up then don’t expect any sympathy from the rest of us. Birthday and Christmas cards are a dying breed. When was the last time you wrote a letter? With paper and a pen? You know a pen?? Even e-mails are sooooooo last year. Why do we even bother with books? Big, ugly cumbersome monstrosities that they are. All that time it takes to read them when we could be spending our oh so valuable time taking selfies or snap chatting our new BFF in Japan who we’ve never actually met. Or for that matter spoken to.

Words used to be doorways to magical worlds and kingdoms. Now they are barriers. There are easier, quicker ways to communicate. Communicate the way we want to. Superficially without style or substance. I don’t want you to know the real me for I’m terrified you will be disappointed at what you discover. I want you to meet the new, improved me. Death to creative, intelligent thought. For a new age has dawned. The Age of the Emoji ☹️

How do you communicate? Text, E-Mail, Group Chat?

How much do emojis and abbreviation rule your life?

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

I’ve Got The Doms – Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about my doomed attempt to build a chiselled physique becoming of my kick ass, marathon running persona. Alas, despite the best efforts of my ever patient son Adam, I failed miserably and crawled away from my first weight session in years a broken man. Far from looking like a Greek God my arms felt like they were made out of Green yoghurt. Little did I know that there was worse to come. Much worse.

It is now four days later and the pain is finally starting to subside in my arms. It’s merely a dull throb now as opposed to a constant, searing ache. I can perform basic tasks unaided such as dressing and feeding myself. On the bright side I reckon I’m close to overcoming my nail biting habit if I keep this up as I’ve been unable to raise my hands to my mouth for a nervous nibble all week.

My timing, as ever, has been impeccable as at work this week I’ve been working on a redraft of a big report which the powers that be are expecting a rapid turnaround on. Having upper arms that feel like they have been set in concrete is not conducive to meeting tight deadlines in a pressurised office environment. It’s a good job I like a challenge. So I’ve been typing through the pain barrier with only the occasional break to sob inconsolably.

I think I’ll stick to running from now on and leave the He-Man heroics to Adam. My legs are strong and I trust them not to let me down come race time. As for my upper limbs? Well I’m afraid I will just have to make do with what God gave me. Much as I’ve thought they might drop off this week, as long as I have enough strength to write the words then that will do just fine. I’ll leave the weights to Arnie and Sly.

I’ve Got The DOMS – Part One

Regular readers will know that I’m a distance runner. Ask me to run 10 miles, or 26.2 miles for that matter, and I will dutifully churn out the 9 minute miles until the job is done. Four years of this self imposed torture has meant I have developed strong leg muscles. But don’t worry. I’m not about to include a photo of them in this post. It’s safe to keep reading, I promise.

The same cannot be said for my upper body. I’m a bit of a wimp to be honest and, when I had a gym membership, tended to avoid the weights section where tanned Greek Gods and Goddesses would prance up and down, admiring themselves in anything that cast a reflection. They also occasionally lifted weights. Whilst immaculately clad in colour coordinated lycra and full make up. And that’s just the guys.

For one already nursing a massive inferiority complex this was not a healthy environment to reside in. So I packed in my membership and stuck to road running. My puny arms and chest would just have to rely on my slightly more impressive thighs to drag them over the marathon distance. I faced up to the fact that I was never going to be the next Arnie or Jean Claude. Until earlier this week that was.

Our son, Adam, is a talented rugby player and is pushing for a place in his school’s 1st team next season. He is held in high regard by his coaches who have encouraged him over the summer to build up his physique for the challenges that lie ahead. As such he asked for gym equipment for his sixteenth birthday earlier this week. This had led to our garage being returned into a makeshift gym with cross trainer, weights bench, bars and dumbbells.

Now my son may be a good inch or two taller than me and twice as broad but I still reckoned I could teach him a thing or two about how to be a man. So when he threw down the proverbial gauntlet and challenged me to undertake one of his upper body workouts I readily accepted. I mean how hard could it be? I wasn’t going to allow the young whippersnapper to get one up on his old man.

I stride into the garage teeming with confidence and vitality. I crawled out of it on my hands and knees half an hour later, a broken man. My arms had turned to jelly about half way through the third set of Romanian dead lifts or Armenian bicep bends or whatever they are called. To me the experience could be summed up in one word – torture. I was 50 Shades of Grey with a suggestion of cardiac arrest.

‘Is that it?’ I bleated pathetically as I dropped the last weight to the ground and staggered back against the wall for otherwise I would have fallen over. ‘No’ he replied seriously, a hint of disbelief in his voice. ‘That’s only halfway. You still have another two new sets to do’. Those words were enough for me. Muttering words to the effect that I’d save that for another day I pushed past him, vowing never to darken this hellish torture chamber again. Unless I ran out of Diet Coke and had to restock from the drinks fridge that was.

I thought that was it. I could resume my spectacularly average running career and that would be the end of the matter. It would remain a dark family secret that none of us would ever discuss again. But I was wrong, so very wrong. For the next morning I would awaken in convulsions of pain, barely able to lift my arms. The nightmare was only just beginning. I had been struck down by the DOMS.

To be continued….

What has been your most embarrassing gym story?

Have you ever been struck down by The Doms? (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)

Thank You

This is not intended as a self indulgent or ‘look at me’ post. But we reached 6000 followers yesterday on the blog and wanted to say thank you to everyone who has contributed towards us reaching this milestone. Fionnuala and I are very grateful for the continued support, encouragement and love that you send our way on a daily basis. We just hope that we make half of the impact upon you all as you continue to do upon our lives. Thank you.

Happy Birthday Adam!

It’s a big day of celebration today in Aghalee, Northern Ireland. Nothing to do with that business Philadelphia 242 years ago when a bunch of blokes in wigs signed a bit of paper. No, today our Adam celebrates his 16th birthday. He has grown about a foot in the last year and can bench press three times heavier than me but he will forever be our baby boy who we love very much,

Happy Birthday Adam!

And Happy Birthday America as well!!

Ghosts From The Past

When I was aged around 12 I developed a facial twitch. The severity and frequency of this twitch would depend upon my anxiety levels at any given moment. I was a painfully shy and insecure young boy so it will come as no surprise that I was bullied at school about this by my peers. It was not the most intense or vindictive bullying I have ever witnessed but it had a massive impact upon me which I still carry to this day.

All I wanted at school was to be accepted and to fit in. My twitch, combined with my shy nature and chubby, unsportsmanlike physique, ensured that I did not. I was a geek, an outcast, not one of the ‘in crowd.’ I firmly believe that this is the reason I grew up with such a brittle, malleable personality. I have always been a people pleaser even if this has meant sacrificing my own beliefs and values in the process. I would always say yes even when every fibre in my body was screaming no.

This led to me getting into a lot of hot water in later life; hot water that almost scalded me alive until I was plucked from it at the eleventh hour. I kept bad company which led to bad behaviour. This has been a constant and recurring theme throughout my adult life. It is only now, many years and many wounds later, that I am learning to be more cautious when I approach new situations and people. I no longer dive in with both feet, wanting to be everyone’s new best friend.

I have to be constantly on my guard. The next disaster could be just around the corner. Fionnuala is a massive help in keeping my feet firmly rooted to the ground. She sees the warning signs long before I do and warns me accordingly. It is so easy to effortlessly slip back into old habits. The transition can be almost imperceptible, an osmosis that creeps up on you and before you know it – BANG – you are right back at the bottom of that slippery slope it took you so long to scale in the first place.

Here’s an example. Today I took my seat on the train for the daily commute into Belfast. Sitting opposite me was a middle aged lady. I paid little heed to her and started to read my book whereupon I noticed her head jerk ever so slightly. Then again a few seconds later. And again. I realised that the poor woman had a similar nervous tic to the one I had eventually grown out of all those years ago.

Within a few heartbeats I was transported back to my childhood self and gripped by an overwhelming urge to replicate the lady’s actions. It was as if my head was in a vice and the only solution to the compulsive thought was to succumb to it, to surrender to the urge. I was gripped in a panic and tempted to run out of the carriage, anything to escape the ghosts from my past.

I didn’t of course. I sat where I was, gritted my teeth and waited until the urge passed. And when it came to my stop I got off the train and carried on with my life. My exciting, vibrant, present life a million miles detached from those unhappy childhood memories. The incident left a lasting impression upon me and an itch that could only be scratched by writing about it. A lesson was learned on that train this morning.

I can never become too comfortable. I can never rest on my laurels and think that I’m invincible to my former flaws and weaknesses. All it takes is one slip, one stumble and I’ll be back to square one. I am still weak, still impressionable, still oh so easily influenced. If I can almost relapse following a brief encounter with a stranger on a train what hope would I have when confronted by larger, more vicious demons from years gone by.

I can never relax. I will never relax.

Do you still fear the ghosts from your past?

How do you fight them?

Unreality Television

A reality TV show called ‘Love Island’ has taken over U.K. television this summer. A dozen muscle bound hunks and bikini clad models are lumped together in a villa on a Mediterranean island where their every move is filmed for our viewing entertainment. Romance blossoms and hearts are broken. Everyone has perfect bodies, perfect tans and perfect teeth. There are villains, heroes and catfights galore.

Reality TV is a sure fire ratings winner. It’s relatively cheap to make and the viewing public can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s because the sight of the often intellectually challenged contestants make us feel a little bit better about ourselves; or maybe it’s just some lightweight escapism from our own dreary lives at the end of another gruelling day at the coalface. Either way, reality TV is here to stay.

The irony of it is that there is nothing remotely real about reality TV. The contestants are carefully chosen and moulded to play the roles that the producers want them to perform. Conversations are scripted and emotions exploited and exaggerated. The footage is carefully edited in order to ensure that every last drop of drama is squeezed from what is essentially a dozen bored twenty somethings lounging around a pool.

We lap it up all the same. Will Jack and Dani stay together despite the former’s ex girlfriend arriving at the villa with her sights set on winning him back? Will nice guy Alex ever get a girl after a string of doomed dates? And is man eater Meghan really the most horrible woman in Britain? Tune in after the break and all will be revealed. Or possibly not depending on what evil tricks the producers have up their sleeves for our hapless heroes.

We love reality TV for its sheer lack of reality. It is fantasy fluff. It is unreality TV. We mock the contestants but it begs the question – how real are we as we go about living our own lives? How genuine are we in our interactions with the people who matter in our lives? And how much of it is inane, meaningless small talk? Do we tell them we love them or is it all bottled up and glossed over because that’s ‘not our thing’?

I used to live my life in a bubble. I drifted along in a world of my own, refusing to deal with my own grief, addictive behaviour and deteriorating mental health. I refused to acknowledge the damage it was causing both myself and my family. Reality took a back seat to selfish, immature behaviour and an inability to face up to the responsibilities screaming at me to be dealt with. I chose to turn my back on reality and live a lie. It was car crash television.

Does any of this ring a bell? Does your life at present currently resemble an unreality TV show? Are you burying your head in the sand and burying your hopes and plans in the process? As in six foot under. Here’s a suggestion. Stop digging. Look up and take what life has to offer you on the chin. It might not be pretty but it’s your life and only you can turn it into a thing of beauty. You only have one chance.

Unreality television is harmless fun. Unreality living is not. It’s a killer. Living a superficial life might give the appearance that all is rosy in the garden but those roses have thorns that will pierce your skin and bleed you dry. Unreality living leads to dissatisfaction, dead ends and disaster. Be real and learn to feel. With those who matter and need the real you in their lives. Who deserve better than a gameshow contestant.

What are your views on reality TV?

Are you living a real or unreal life?

Why Do Christian Bookshops Not Sell The Books I Want To Read?

The Faith Mission Bookshop in Belfast city centre is huge. It stocks thousands upon thousands of Bibles, books, journals, DVD’s, CD’s and so on. The list is endless. You think you are at the back of the store but then see that it opens up into another massive section at the rear. You could spend days in there. And by the looks of some of the customers, it appears as if several of them have.

I have spent many an hour wandering round it but, by and large, I invariably leave it empty handed and frustrated. I only visit when I am looking for a specific title. It’s not as if I’m seeking out some obscure first edition that was printed in 1846 and there are only 12 surviving copies still in existence. The books I’m looking for are new releases by established or up and coming young authors.

Sarah Bessey, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Jamie Wright, Lacey Sturm. All powerful women who write from the heart with a wit and intelligence sadly missing in a lot of the Christian literature on the market at present. They write passionately about their faith, their flaws and their frustrations. They tackle difficult issues that a lot of Christians bury their heads in the sand about. They broach difficult truths. They write from the edge.

Homosexuality and same sex marriage. Equality and the role of women within the organised church. Religion v following Jesus. Sexism. Bigotry. Intolerance. Hypocrisy. The value and merit of short term mission trips. They swear. They complain. They have tattoos and drink too much wine. Yet they speak the truth of the Gospel more powerfully and purely than many of the preachers I have listened to in recent years.

Yet try to get a copy of one of their books in a Northern Irish Christian book store and you are likely to be disappointed. Thank God for Amazon. And I mean that literally and am not taking the Lord’s name in vain. Thank you God! I’m currently reading Sturm’s ‘The Return’ and the opening two chapters have reignited an urge within me to pick up my Bible which has been sadly lacking in me for several months now.

Wright’s ‘The Very Worst Missionary’ is a searing expose of a misspent youth that was plucked from destruction by faith. Her experiences on the missionary field are brutally honest. Bessey’s ‘Jesus Feminist’ is a must for anyone wanting to look beyond the rampant sexism within many churches to how Jesus treated the women within his inner circle. These women do not shoot from the hip and miss.

Whenever I mentioned one of these authors to other churchgoers I was normally met with blank stares and indifference. I almost felt that people switched off when they realised the author was a young women who wrote with a verve and honesty that many lifelong Christians find uncomfortable. Is it because they are unwilling to open their eyes to the possibility that their lifetime of safe, staid beliefs are not what Jesus taught and expected of us.? WWJD? Possibly the opposite of what you are currently.

So there you are. I’m putting it out there. I’m not saying I know it all for I know less than most people. I’m currently not in a church. My faith flickers like a candle in a hurricane. But it’s still there. And it’s quirky, unorthodox, left field Christian authors like the above that are keeping it alive. It might feel battered and bruised but at least I feel. Now where did I set that Bible?

What are your thoughts on this post? I’d be interested to hear them. Please comment below.

Running In The Heat

It was with some trepidation this morning that I set off on a 10K training run. I haven’t run since Tuesday for a variety of reasons, primarily the heat wave that has descended upon Northern Ireland this last week. The heat has been intense and there have been a marked decrease in the number of runners and cyclists out and about. A marathon in Waterford on Saturday was cancelled for health and safety reasons.

I always feel anxious before a run and today I rose to a feeling of dread. I don’t like running first thing in the morning at the best of times. It takes my body an hour or two to wake up. Today, though, I had to get out early as I am visiting my mother this afternoon. I reluctantly donned my running gear and forfeited breakfast in order to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. It was a beautiful morning but already oppressively hot with no breeze at all.

A glass of barley water later and I was off. I chose a flattish route that takes me out to the shores of Lough Neagh and back again. It’s essentially a straight road but you catch a view of the lough at the turnaround point. It looked spectacular today in the morning sun and I was glad to see it as it marked the half way stage of the run. I felt reasonably comfortable and, although my time was far from spectacular, it was within the modest target time I had set myself on my comeback.

The heat seemed to crank up even more on the way back to the village. Passing motorists no doubt thought I was insane but there were also a few cyclists on the road which encouraged me that I wasn’t the only one who had been suffering training withdrawal symptoms. The last climb into the village was tough and I was drenched in sweat by the finish. But it was a good feeling and the endorphins rushing round my system assured me that it had been a worthwhile exercise.

My time was nothing to write home about but was over a minute inside the time I had set myself. The confidence boost was massive. Longford Marathon in mid-August is my target. I haven’t entered it yet but I hope I make it there. I intend to mix up my runs with some weights training during the summer. We also now have a cross trainer in the garage so there is no excuse for working out now, whatever the weather conditions.

Early morning runs are a necessity now given the hot weather. Today proved that I can do it. All I have to do is push the worry demons to the back of my head and get my lazy backside out of bed. I’m off to chez Mother now with Adam and Rebecca while Fionnuala and Hannah are staying at home to work on some new craft ideas. I hope you all have a great Sunday whatever you are getting up to.

How are you spending your Sunday?

What was your last workout like?

Adrift

Fionnuala and I went to the cinema last night. Without kids! We get to do this about once a decade. The movie was called ‘Adrift’ based on a true story of a couple whose dream of sailing across the Pacific turns to tragedy when their yacht is badly damaged in a storm leaving them thousands of mile from safety with insufficient food and water supplies. I won’t say anymore in case some of you are planning on going to see it yourselves.

There were only 14 people in the cinema (yes I counted them. I do have OCD you know) so we were able to sit back and relax without any distractions. I don’t like people sitting beside me in cinemas. Elbows touching, poor eating habits, annoying laughs and plot giveaways. The list is endless. Thankfully this lot were well behaved so I didn’t have to adopt my school headmaster routine.

Fionnuala frowns upon me smuggling food and drinks into movies. The shame of being caught doing so and forever exposed as ‘tight’ I’m afraid would be too much for her to bear. So we treated ourselves to drinks and snacks in the foyer beforehand which ended up costing more than the movie tickets themselves. But at least there was no having to wait until a noisy part of the film in order to slyly open contraband tins of Diet Coke.

Before any 90 minute movie nowadays one must sit through 100 minutes of adverts and trailers. The trailers elicited the standard ‘Ooooooh that looks good’ comments from both of us. But then trailers invariably look good as they are all the best bits of the movie cobbled together. If a movie has a dull trailer then you know it must be seriously bad. Trailers are designed to deceive and trick you into parting with your hard earned cash.

Imagine you had to make a trailer of your life so far. What would you include in it? What would you leave out? In order to impress someone and convince them that they needed to find out more about you and your life? A new boyfriend for example? Or an employer? Those neighbours or that church community? I imagine any highlights reel you chose would only feature scenes which portrayed you in the most favourable of lights.

I used to be like that on social media and towards the world in general. People only saw my best bits, the parts that I wanted them to see. I was desperate to be a box office hit so hid much of the truth of who I actually was from them. I was a facade, a fraud, a front. Lying was second nature to me. I became a slimy, selfish salesman desperate to impress and promote myself to the world while neglecting those who loved the real me. Warts and all.

The net result was that I, just like the movie we watched last night, ended up adrift. Buffeted by life’s storms and hopelessly off course. I was in danger of sinking without trace; a walking, talking shipwreck lying at the bottom of the ocean with all hands lost. I didn’t need any iceberg to breach my hull for I was more than capable of doing that myself. I was the architect of my own demise. Standing at the helm as I silently slipped beneath the unforgiving waves.

Thankfully I somehow survived. I cannot claim any personal credit. My wife and kids kept my head above water. It was they who hauled me out of the water and into the life raft. They reached out their hands and I clung on for all I was worth. If you are adrift today please pay heed. There are those who want to help. Who want to be allowed to save you and be a part of your life. For all good movies deserve an even better sequel.

What was the last movie you watched? Was it any good?

What are your pet hates at the movies?

Have you ever felt adrift?

Book Title Reveal – Part 3

I’ve been posting some photos of Belfast which feature as locations in the book I am presently writing. It’s the first in a planned trilogy with the working title of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Khronicles’ although quite a few of you have suggested I drop the ‘K’ and go with ‘Chronicles’. It’s all great feedback which I’m very grateful for. Keep it coming! I won’t be offended by any of your suggestions.

Today’s location is The Monaco Bar, located in the city centre, just off High Street. I spent a lot of my late twenties and early thirties in this bar. Fionnuala and I had one of our first dates here. Wasn’t she a lucky girl? Winecellar Entry leads to an enclosed square bordered by The Monaco, and another bar, White’s Tavern, which claims to be the oldest pub in Belfast. I always preferred The Monaco though as the beer was cheaper and they screened the horse racing.

Separating the two bars is a bookmakers where I frittered away many an afternoon. And many a pay cheque. Thankfully my drinking and gambling days are behind me but several chapters of the book are based in a bar and bookmakers which are hybrids of several I used to frequent ‘back in the day’. Kirkwood Scott is a cooler, wittier, smarter, braver version of 25 year old Stephen Black.

I have several questions for you today as I’m fed up with having to do all the work on this blog. I’d be grateful for any advice you can provide. So here goes….

Khronicles or Chronicles? The debate rages on. Which do you prefer?

Should a trilogy be divided into parts, books,volumes? Something else?

‘Part One’ has a working sub title of ‘The Square’ or ‘Skelly’s Square’. Skelly is one of the bad guys in the story. Which do you prefer?

Book Title Reveal – Part 2

Earlier today I shared the title of the book I have been working on since last August. I’ve almost completed the second draft of it. It’s weighing in at a whopping 120K words at present. I also said I would share some of the Belfast locations which have inspired me and which feature in the story. This post focuses on the Grand Opera House on Great Victoria Street. It’s quite an impressive building isn’t it?

I walk past it every morning on my way from the train station to my office and the covered entrance to it often provides shelter for homeless people who are normally emerging from their sleeping bags as I pass. I’ve come to befriend a few of them this last year and we are now on first name terms. I have been amazed by their dignity, humility and politeness on every occasion I talk to them.

These conversations gave me the idea of a troubled office worker who meets and befriends a young, homeless woman. One of their first tentative, nervous conversations takes place outside the Opera House and that meeting throws them together in an unlikely alliance against a series of natural and supernatural foes who most definitely do not have their best interests at heart.

I’ll post the next location later this evening. Until then thanks for your continued support for The Kirkwood Scott Khronicles.

What Do You Wear During A Heatwave?

Northern Ireland is on the verge of mass hysteria.

Now don’t be worrying. Aliens have not landed. Godzilla is not lumbering out of Belfast Lough, bearing down upon a helpless city. And, least likely of all, our local politicians have not set aside their innumerable differences and agreed on something. No, it’s much more serious than that.

Today is going to be the hottest day of the year.

So what’s the big fuss I hear you cry? Enjoy it, revel in it, make the most of it while it lasts. But you don’t understand. We live on an island of driving rain, frozen fingers and permanent cloud cover. We wear more layers than the Inuit Nation. We don’t do heatwaves. Our tiny brains simply cannot compute with blue skies and that mysterious yellow orb which is hovering above us. Is it some kind of luminous, heat emitting mothership? Where’s Tom Cruise when you need him?

Social order will break down today. The population will go one of two ways. Firstly there will be the ‘taps aff’ brigade. Gangs of pasty, under nourished youths who will roam the city centre with their ‘taps’ (t shirts) tied round their waists. Flesh will be unnecessarily exposed and some of the worst tattoos known to mankind exposed. Sales of cheap cider will rocket and most of them will wake up tomorrow sunburnt and hungover in a police cell with no idea as to how they got there.

The girls are no better. Navels *gasp* will be exposed and several inches of fake tan and make up applied in order that they might drape themselves on the lawn outside City Hall for the passing world to admire/snigger at. Stare too long and they will greet you with their trademark screeched greeting – ‘Do ye (you) wanna (want to) a picture it lasts longer?’ littered with a few choice expletives. Stay classy, Belfast.

The other extreme are those of us who have no summer wardrobe. We dress like Wildlings the entire year round. The sun may be splitting the rocks outside but we’re no fools. This is Northern Ireland, it could be snowing by lunchtime. So we don our multiple layers and waddle out into the unknown. An uneasy standoff exists between these ‘Day After Tomorrow’ types and the ‘Taps Aff’ Brigade. They eye each other warily. It could all kick off at any moment.

And as for yours truly. Well believe it or not for a man who spends half of his life in running shorts, there’s more chance of Donald Trump tightening gun legislation than there is of me exposing my knees to the great unwashed of Belfast. The most I will accede to is possibly discarding my jacket on the commute to work today. And even then I will feel utterly exposed, convinced that the heavens will open at any moment and I will be shown up for the poor, deluded fool that I am.

It doesn’t stop there. Upon arriving at chez office ‘Air Con’ Wars will be in full flow as rival factions fight tooth and nail for control of the little red switch that offers two settings – Sierra Sauna or Arctic Wasteland. Words will be exchanged and fingers wagged. There might even be a tersely worded e-mail or two. It could end up like ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Except with middle aged men in suits.

This could be my last blog post if social order crumbles as predicted. The survivalists amongst us are already retiring to their bunkers with smug ‘I told you so’ expressions on their faces. If it is then thank you for your support and I’ll see you on the other side. The sun will rise again tomorrow but it could be dawning on a very different world. A world of peeling shoulders and embarrassing white bits. Don’t say I didn’t warn you?

Are you a ‘Taps Aff’ or ‘Day After Tomorrow’ type?

What do you wear during a heatwave?

The Best Thing About Writing Is The Not Writing Bit

When I decided I wanted to write a novel last summer I naively believed that it would be a reasonably straightforward affair. Get idea – Write Idea down – Send idea off to publishers – Get six figure advance and three book deal – The end. Oh what a silly boy I was. Ever since then I have been well and truly put in my place by just about everything I have read and heard about the first time in novelist.

You will never get an agent. If you get an agent you will never get a publisher. If you get a publisher nobody will buy it. And forget about the self publishing route because a) it’s too expensive b) you don’t have the time or experience to go down the road and c) did I mention that nobody will buy it because your idea is rubbish, your writing style is rubbish and er…..you’re just generally rubbish.

Well all of the above may be true but, if nothing else, this journey has taught me a lot about myself; what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at. It has also taught me a lot about other people. The good, the bad and the ever so slightly ugly. But most of all it’s taught me about how much of a writer’s life is spent not writing. Don’t believe me? Well here are a few examples for you to mull over.

There’s the thinking to start with. When I’m out running or commuting to and from work I’m thinking about characters, plot, structure, yadda, yadda, yadda. Fionnuala told me this morning that she would hate to spend one minute in my brain. Which I kind of took as a compliment. You need to think, rethink and then think some more before you even think about setting pen to paper or opening your laptop.

Next up is the reading. Why didn’t anyone tell me that writing a book would require so much reading. There’s the research for a start. The novel contains a number of scenes set in the early nineteenth century so I’ve had to research that period in order to add authenticity to those sections. I’ve also had to research modern day Belfast – the history of buildings I walk past every day; certain communities from within which one of my main characters comes from. The list is endless.

I’ve also sought to read as much of the genre that I’m writing about – urban fantasy. This has been daunting as every author I read seems infinitely more creative and eloquent than I am. Their stories flow effortlessly, their ideas spark off the page. It got to the point where I avoided such fiction as it was only depressing me. But I realised that in order to improve I need to learn from the best, no matter how painful and humbling an experience that is.

Then there’s the scene visits. Much of the novel is set in modern day Belfast. So I’ve found myself wandering round the city on my lunch breaks. Looking at buildings, really looking at them; buildings that I have walked past a thousand times before. Noticing details that I have never noticed before. Taking photographs and getting funny looks from passers by. It’s as if I’m seeing the city for the first time, or at least for the first time through the eyes of my characters.

I could write a dozen blogs on this subject but I’m going to stop for now. I’m nearing the summit every day and I’m hoping the view from the top will be spectacular when I get there. But that’s only half the story. Standing atop Everest is not what changes a person, it’s the journey to get there that does. I’m well on my way. There’s still some way to go. But I’m learning. Every step of the way.

How much of your writing process involves not writing?

Where are you on your creative journey?

Urban fantasy fiction in modern day Belfast with a twist of historical flashback? Yay or nay?

Lunchtime In Belfast

So it’s Monday lunchtime and I’m sitting outside the office in the square basking in the warm sunshine. They are predicting a heatwave this week and word has it that Thursday could be the hottest day on record in Northern Ireland. Like ever! All around me office workers are sitting eating their lunches while tourists amble in and out of the imposing St. Anne’s Cathedral just across the street.

I’ve spent the morning within the arctic confines of our open plan office researching the role of the British Army when first deployed in 1969 at the start of the Northern Ireland troubles. It was a brutal period marked by senseless sectarian murders, street riots, explosions and hijackings. It was a time of confusion and carnage. Belfast was the Beirut of Western Europe. The British Government referred to it as an internal security situation.

Who were they trying to kid, it was a war. I grew up in that world although I lived in a relatively quiet rural area and my parents did everything in their power to shelter me from the reality of what was going on in Belfast and other hot spots. Even then I was tainted by the hatred and violence that flooded into our living room every night on the television news. It was everywhere, you could not escape it.

I’m so glad our country is at peace now. Our children will not grow up in that environment. Belfast is a modern, cosmopolitan city now with a thriving tourist industry. Security barriers and bombed out buildings have been replaced by trendy bars and restaurants. You can freely stroll around the city without fear of being caught in the crossfire of a terrorist attack. Another innocent victim. Collateral damage. Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.

Belfast is a better place. I sit back and stare upwards at the clear blue skies. When I look back down three rough sleepers pass me by. One of them has no legs and is propelling himself along on a wooden skateboard that looks like it was built in the 1950’s. The last time I saw a disabled person use such a mode of transport was when I visited Eastern Africa several years ago. I had never seen such poverty and thought I never would again.

Yet here it is in 2018 on my own doorstep. I look away in dismay to see half a dozen young people at the other side of the square clearly involved in a drug deal. In broad daylight as the tour coaches pull up outside the cathedral and the camera toting hordes disembark. All in the square outside my comfortable office. All in front of my comfortable life. The same square where two teenage girls brawled viciously the other week, fuelled by copious amounts of cheap cider.

The same square where a young man was viciously raped on his way home from a nearby club. Beneath the shiny veneer this city still stinks. You only have to dig a little and it’s there, the nasty underbelly. How civilised are we really? When we can live in a world that is still overflowing with greed and violence; with poverty and despair. It would be unimaginable if it were not for the fact that it is happening right in front of us.

I want to contribute, I want to make a difference, I want to make this wretched world a better place. I see progress and I see potential. But some days you set eyes on sights that bring all your dreams and plans crashing to the ground. Some days you just want to turn your back on it all as you can’t stomach it anymore. Today was one of those days. And all it took was a lunch break in the dazzling sunshine.

The Secret Of My Excess

When it comes to weaknesses, ice cream has to feature fairly high on my list. My favourite is Maude’s Pooh Bear honeycomb flavour. Plonk a large bowl of that good stuff down in front of me and I’m one happy camper. I could eat it until the cows come home and probably keep going until they have to head out to the fields the next morning again. Brain freeze frightens me not. It requires a brain to freeze for a start.

The down side about downing industrial vats of icy heaven is it’s high calorific content. I reckon if I didn’t exercise the local Fire Service would be required at some point to winch me from the sofa and out of the house through a Stephen sized hole. I’m not greedy but I do have a big appetite. My addictive nature doesn’t help either. Me and the word ‘moderation’ are not on first name terms. I am creature of excess.

I was watching Man v Food tonight where the presenter tried, and heroically failed, to eat a restaurant’s signature ice cream dish which was roughly the size of a small barn. I remarked to Fionnuala that I would have given the challenge a serious rattle. That’s how much I love ice cream. Ploughing through buckets of the stuff would be my idea of bliss. Even if it meant me ending up in the emergency room having my stomach pumped.

Thank goodness I discovered running then. I am pretty much in permanent marathon training this year which means my ice cream fetish can be fuelled with only minimal pangs of guilt. I consume a lot of calories but I also burn off a lot of them. On average a marathon will burn off 3500 of those bad boys. And, believe me, that’s a lot of honeycomb ice cream. Which is a great comforter for aching limbs and blistered feet.

I’ve been known to think of nothing else but ice cream from the 20 mile point onwards in a marathon. It makes the pain worthwhile. The old Stephen would have wanted nothing but an ice cold pint of beer at the finish line. The new me heads straight to the freezer in search of frozen dairy products. The endless miles lead to endless smiles at that point. It’s a temptation that I’m happy to succumb to. It’s harmless and I’ve worked hard for it.

The running and the ice cream balance each other out. The key word in that last sentence is balance. For many years I had no concept of the word. I lived a selfish life where all the cards had to be stacked in my favour. I gorged myself on alcohol, junk food and social media. There were no restraints, no curbs, no brakes applied. It was all or nothing. I wanted it all and pushed and pushed until I was left with nothing.

All of us have weaknesses. We are all flawed, imperfect creations. Some of us have Achilles heels whereas for others this vulnerability occupies their entire body. When it comes to addictive behaviour it is vital that we have checks and balances in place to control our baser instincts. We cannot afford to allow our runaway trains to hurtle uncontrollably down the mountain side. It will only end in carnage.

So I’ll continue my love affair with honeycomb ice cream. But I’ll also keep pounding the roads in order to offset the extra calories. We all deserve a treat or two but it’s important we temper our permitted excesses with discipline, transparency and accountability. Failure to do so can only lead to tears and recrimination. Excess kills success. Control your cravings. Before they control you.

What is your Achilles Heel?

Do you struggle with excess and temptation?

Why I Gave National Selfie Day A Miss

Some of you may have been wondering why I haven’t been posting about my running exploits of late. Although many of you are undoubtedly not. I’m not injured or anything and have been plodding along the highways and byways around our village as ever. My Garmin has been playing up, however, which means I haven’t been able to sync runs to the corresponding app.

A screenshot of the app is how I evidence the run. As I can’t do this at present then I’m loathe to write about runs that I can’t prove I ran. I could be making the whole thing up. Us runners have an unwritten rule – if it’s not on Garmin/Strava/Forerunner then it didn’t happen. Call me weird but that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t been blogging about my running. It’s not the only one though.

I also reckon it’s not the most exciting subject matter unless you’re a fellow runner. I’m ever conscious of the fine line between informing you all about my life and bragging about it. I desperately don’t want anyone thinking the latter so am always very careful when I write updates on the book I am writing or upcoming races. I used to be that big head on Twitter/Instagram. It’s a role I don’t want to reprise.

I wrote a blog yesterday about the book that received a fairly lukewarm response. I’m fine about that but it was a timely reminder that everyone’s life does not revolve around me and my running and writing. I took a day off yesterday from the book as I had other priorities to attend to. The break will have done me no harm as my obsessive nature is never far away.

I noticed during the week that it was National Selfie Day. I cringed when I read that as it brought back some horrible memories of my previous incarnations on the aforementioned social media platforms. I now tend to avoid cameras where I can. I don’t do any social media bar WordPress and fret about future marketing of the book if it ever sees the light of day. Thankfully I think I saw two selfies the entire day on WordPress from a couple of serial offenders who seem to do little else.

I think that says a lot about the calibre of the bloggers on WordPress. I hope I never go back to being that vain, self centred person. Thankfully I have a very sensible wife who helps keep me on the straight and narrow. And three fantastic kids who regularly bring me down to earth and remind me that I’m an embarrassing, middle aged man who cannot dance, rap or do anything remotely cool.

I’ll keep blogging but there will be periods when I won’t talk about the projects I am working on. Now you know the reasons why. I want this blog to inspire, encourage and motivate others. In order to do that I attempt to set a positive example. This blog is not about me, it is about others. I cannot and will not go back to the way things were. I’m better than that and you all deserve better than that. That is all.

What are your thoughts on the selfie culture?

What have your experiences been like on other social media platforms?

120,000 Words Of Stephen

Writing a book is a great leveller. Take this for example. Buried beneath the tonnes of insecurities and doubts that accompany setting out on such a venture I have always clung desperately to one tiny crumb of comfort – that I was an above average wordsmith and could express my thoughts and emotions eloquently in a manner that would entertain and enthral you – the people who read my daily ramblings with such patience and understanding.

Wrong.

Turns out that I’m not the next William Shakespeare after all. Although his endless toilet jokes and use of the phrase ‘Hey nonny nonny’ are not what I aspire to anyway. You see writing is hard work. Sometimes the words flow effortlessly and it’s as if my fingers are alive with passion and creativity as I merrily transmit the ideas and themes from my brain onto the screen of my laptop. Other times I stare at the screen with all the enthusiasm of a constipated caveman.

There are days I write garbage. There are days I write nonsense. There are days I write nothing at all so devoid am I of energy and inspiration. I write lazily, I write without structure or focus. I ramble, I prevaricate, I repeat myself over and over. I use the same infuriating words and despite repeatedly banging my head off the the wall saying I will not. Lazy, pointless words. Like ‘really’ and ‘though’ and ‘however’. Especially the last one. It has become the bane of my editing life.

However….

I still cling to the flickering hope that one day this shambolic story will see the light of day. That hope is fuelled by this blog. Every day you lot loyally read my rants and post encouraging comments which never fail to bolster my flagging confidence. You push me forward on the days when all I want to do is throw the laptop in the river and pretend that I had never started the whole sorry process. You are my cheerleaders.

Without the short skirts, inane grins and pom poms you will be glad to hear.

My fear is this though. Gah! There I go again. Focus, Stephen. Focus! My average blog post is 500 words a day. I deliberately restrict myself to that as there is nothing more disheartening than beginning an interesting post only to discover that it is in fact ‘War and Peace’ for the twenty first century. I tend to drift off and rarely finish them. So I keep them short, snappy, succinct. Quality over quantity. That’s the plan anyway.

500 words. Anyone can endure 500 words of Stephen right? Plus it’s mostly life affirming content aimed at motivating and comforting people going through tough times. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Everyone’s a winner. And they all lived happily ever after. Etc Etc. But what about 120,000 words of Stephen as opposed to 500? 120,000 words of urban fantasy set on the reasonably mean streets of Belfast? How far can I test the resilience of you good, good people?

It’s the joy of the fledgling writer who aspires to be an author. Who will read this drivel? Did Lewis, Tolkien and King feel like this? Please: no J.K. Rowling anecdotes at this point. I’m not a Potter fan. A number of you have already kindly offered to be test readers for some chapters I will be releasing throughout the summer. I may never hear from them again. And if I do will their ‘constructive’ feedback send me screaming from the halls of WordPress never to darken it’s doors again?

At the end of the day there’s only one way to find out. Like the first time I stood on the start line of a marathon with knocking knees and churning stomach. 3 hours and 56 minutes later it was done. I was a marathon runner. This process is taking ever so slightly longer than that. It’s a marathon of marathons. But I’m getting there. One anxious step at a time. And I’ll always be grateful for the support and kindness you guys provided along the way.

Can you handle 120,000 words of Stephen?

Rowling v Tolkien? You decide.

Isn’t It Time You Moved On?

I wasn’t really in the mood to work on the book last night. It had been a long day and I was tired. I forced myself, however, to open my laptop and start editing. The chapter in question was one of the first I had written, some six months ago. I knew it would need a bit of renovation as I feel my writing has improved since I started this journey. The early chapters, I find, require more scrutiny with regards continuity, structure and plot development.

As I read it my heart sank. The words just didn’t flow. The plot was full of holes and as for the quality of the writing? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t one of my finest literary sessions. I began to despair as I read over one particularly clunky segment. How on earth was I going to turn this pigs ear into a silk purse? Surgical intervention was urgently required in order prevent my literary aspirations from flatlining beyond resuscitation.

Then it hit me. Or rather I hit it. The delete button that was. Rather than spend hours attempting to save the poorly paragraph I just pulled the plug. I removed it in its entirety and started writing afresh, but this time from the stronger position that six months additional writing afforded me. This meant I had a much clearer idea of who my characters were and where the story was going. The result was a much improved passage which I knew fitted into the overall story arc.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that in real life? Hit the delete button on the less glorious parts of our lives? The seasons we would rather forget about, which leave us squirming with embarrassment? The cruel words spoken that we cannot take back. The selfish actions that we cannot undo. The memories that we would much rather see discarded on the cutting room floor as opposed to playing on an endless loop inside our heads.

Unfortunately we can’t. Or even if we could, should we? Those bloopers and own goals might not make our personal highlights reel but they have contributed towards who we are today. I have realised that becoming a good writer involves a lot of bad writing. Believe me I know for I’ve churned out some shocking stuff that will never see the light of day. But I’ve learnt from it and improved as a result. Any worthwhile process requires a little pain.

We can’t rewrite our pasts but we also shouldn’t beat ourselves up over them. Stuff happened. Stuff that we need to deal with and move on from. If we are continually looking over our shoulders at what is behind us we are more likely to stumble and fall over what lies ahead. Learn from your past, yes, but use the negative as a positive, and then let those sleeping dogs lie. Some bridges are meant to be burnt. Applying a scorched earth policy to the past has its merits.

I seriously need to practice what I preach with regards this topic for I am a master of wallowing in self pity, navel gazing and doom mongering. So this post is written for myself as much as for anyone else. The ghosts of the past will haunt your present and poison your future if you allow them to. It’s time to pack away those toxic toys for you were born for better than that. You were born to live and to thrive. That time is today so cast those chains aside and choose to do so.

Freedom comes at a price. You have paid it. Cut the cord and unshackle those chains. How can you remain a prisoner to your past when you hold the key to the cell door in your hand. You are your own self imposed jailer. Isn’t it about time you handed in your resignation letter and chose a new career path? One more fitting of your many talents. It’s your time. It’s time to move on. All you have to do is take that first step.

Do you dwell too much on your past?

How do you propose to move on?

What Are You Afraid To Blog About Today?

Whenever I scan my WordPress timeline I see a lot of courage. I see broken people talking honestly about their experiences. I see them being open about their flaws and weaknesses. I see a community supporting and encouraging one another through the healing process, one faltering step at at time. I see second, third and forty fifth chances being grasped and held onto for dear life. I see hope, grace and love.

I don’t see much egotism or honesty. There are very few shameless selfies and desperate appeals for likes or followers. I see no trolls or online bullies other than fellow bloggers sharing their past experiences of them. I see no drama but I see trauma. The trauma of life which has caused us to flee to this platform, pulling down the drawbridge behind us. We are besieged but we are together. We are strong.

It is unique and humbling to realise that through mutual brokenness we can unite, heal and rise stronger than ever before. These are the themes I am weaving throughout the book I am working on where a group of outcasts are drawn together to save a world that has turned its back on them. On their own they are nothing but united they become an entirely different proposition.

If you are staring at a blank screen today, wondering what to write about I want to encourage you to start typing. Write from the heart. Speak the truth, loud and clear. Exorcise the demons of shame and pain which are holding you back from who you were created to be. We want to hear your story and celebrate your achievements. In order to do that though you must overcome the fears that continue to drag you down.

Fear is a weed, a toxin, an alien lifeform that poisons our thoughts and actions. It restricts and it contorts. It is a master of disguise and it thrives upon its lies. Whispering them in your ear and your dreams day after day, night after night. It is an occupying force, an aggressor which will consume and subsume you to its treacherous will. It fights dirty. It will kick and scratch and bite. It knows no limits nor depths.

Fear cannot kill you but it can stop you from living. It can stifle and stymie potential and ambition, preventing you from becoming the person you were created to be. But do you want to know a secret? Fear has a weakness, an Achilles heel, that when exposed and exploited will bring it crashing to its knees. That weakness is YOU. Which is why it hates you so much and devotes so much energy towards destroying you.

You can conquer fear, overcome it and send it scurrying back to where it first crawled from. Fear is a bully. It hates to be confronted and exposed for the despicable coward it truly is. Stop running from it. Turn and face it. Raise your sword and strike it down dead in its tracks. Your sword is your story, your weapon the words within you that fear so wants you not to write. Your salvation is staring you in the face every time you stare in the mirror.

You are the superhero you’ve been waiting for all this time. We are a tribe that fear cannot breach. Today I encourage you to embrace the freedom that is fearlessness. Throw off the shackles and stride out of your cell. Live your life and not a life sentence. Expose your fears for what they are. Write about them. For you are not alone anymore. Fear can be conquered. The resistance starts today.

What are you afraid to write about?

Are you brave enough to write about your fears today?

On The Cusp

For years I was a closed book, lying on a shelf gathering dust and regret. My pages were tinged with poison; dare to leaf through them and you would have been contaminated with my anger and grief. So I hid my pain, burying it deep down a well wherein I dwelled. For I was unwell, enduring a daily hell where I was suckled by demons dispatched from my past to distort my present. I was off kilter, adrift, unhinged.

The hinges are back are the door now. I was healed by a man from ancient times who worked with wood. He would have known a bit about making doors. Wood was his life and his Word became my life. A wooden construction killed him in the end. Yet wood could not destroy him just as Roman steel and Palestinian rock could not contain him. He walked free just as I also would from intrusive thinking and addictive behaviour. I am free to be be.

I am an open book now. I pour myself out onto the pages of this blog. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I see, I believe, I breathe. By helping myself I seek to help others who are stumbling along similar paths. I am purged from the urge to hit the self destruct button as I did in days gone by. Days of shame and sin, self loathing and pain: where I lashed out at those who loved me most and deserved it least.

I have been saved from an early grave. Therefore why do I still doubt? I sought and found the truth, the door is unlocked and open. Yet why do I hesitate from walking through it, why do I find myself turning my back on it and walking away? Have people damaged me that much? That I have succumbed to the humdrum numbness of hypocrisy and indifference. The inane laughter and empty words of so called pillars of society.

Why do I care that they do not care? I stand on the edge of the forest now. I can see the wood for the trees. I see them for what they are and for what they were turning me into. I walked away from them but I do not want to walk away from Him. I lurched from church to church but He was waiting patiently beside me all along. I only need take that step. Not towards their doors but through His door. Silently and without fanfare. For this is a private performance on my part.

Thoughts become words and words become actions. Actions write my story. Just as I lift my foot to take that step He lifts a pen to write my story. It is not one of glory for it has been gory, a story of fear and failure. Yet still I stand poised to take that step. Not through the doors of a church for I desire not the false smiles and fake bon homie of people I barely know. People who have no desire to know me beyond ninety minutes on a Sunday. Routine. Rota. Religion. Ruin.

They are Christians. He was not. They are not the way. He was and is. I do not need them yet I need Him. And all the more incredible, he still desires to know me. Broken, discarded me. When everyone else walked away and shut their doors he flung his wide open and welcomed me inside. I stand on the other side. Hesitant, suspicious. When I walk now I do so with a limp. I leave in my wake a trail of tears. My wisdom has been won at a price.

I am an open book and this is today’s page. I sweat these words out of me like a runner sweats as he churns out the miles. It is a painful purity yet I know no other way. To run is to suffer as is to write. Yet I still do both. For I know no other way anymore nor do I wish to. This is the path I have chosen today. Will I choose it tomorrow? I do not know. For all I know is here and now. Staring at a page. Standing at a door. On the cusp.

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 7)

Yes it’s your favourite time of the week when I update you on how the novel//project/bane of my life (depending upon my mood at any given moment) is coming along. Well, this week has seen significant progress and the word count on the second draft currently sits at just over 78K. I was off work quite a bit last week so had a couple of days when I could get well and truly stuck into edits and rewrites.

It’s becoming more and more noticeable to me how my story telling skills have improved as the writing process has continued. The early chapters read like short stories in isolation while there is much more of a flow and continuity to the second half of the story. I’m also pretty pleased as to how a couple of big set piece action scenes have panned out. Much better than I had originally thought.

I’m starting to warm to this editing lark as a) the first draft was not quite as horrific as I had anticipated b) it is helping me to spot gaps in the plot and character development and c) by chipping away at each line, paragraph and page I know I am edging towards an end product that I can be proud of. It’s slow, tedious work but I know it will be worthwhile in the end.

Equally slow and tedious has been the background historical research I have been carrying out relevant to the back story of several characters. At times I have been tempted to bin the research and just ‘wing’ the scene I have been working on it for. But when I sat down to write it earlier today the benefits of the donkey work was apparent. The scene really flowed and I was confident that, whilst fictional, the historical backdrop was accurate.

The life of an unpublished writer is a lonely and deeply paranoid one. I’m still highly reluctant to share my work with anyone and I rarely discuss it in the ‘real world’ due to the largely indifferent response I have got from most people I have mentioned it to; I have made a few tentative advances to potential test readers but then instantly regretted it and pretend the conversation never took place.

I have also been avoiding other fiction like the plague as I invariably compare the work of published and established authors to my own offerings and feel wholly inadequate. I know that is silliness personified but this huge slice of uncertainty still lodges in my gullet. I’m not going to be the next Tolkien or King overnight so why beat myself up over it. Small steps, Stephen. Small steps.

And don’t get me started on agents, publishers and marketing or I will run screaming from this post and jump into the nearest river. It seems like writing the blasted book is the easy part compared to what follows afterwards. If I can compare this to a marathon I feel like I’ve barely run a mile and have an awfully long way to go yet. But like when I race, I just have to break down the process into bite sized chunks.

On a more positive note the blog continues to prosper and the feedback and support from you lot has been fantastic as ever. You are the base, the foundation, the cornerstone of this project. Without the blog it would be little more than a middle aged pipe dream. It edges closer every day and, improbable though it may seem, I’m determined to give this everything I’ve got in order to make it a reality. For that I can only thank you all.

Would you like to be a test reader for ‘the project’? Or assist in promoting/marketing it?

What are your views on publishing vs self publishing?

Have you any tips on securing a literary agent or publisher?

Thoughts On Death

Our family has been touched by death these last few weeks. It has sparked a flurry of emotions in us all – emotions so deep and diverse that I could blog about them until the end of the year and still not have covered everything. Yet none of them matter an iota when it comes to the finality of death. We can scream and shout, cry and call all we want. Death is death and it’s not going to bring that person back.

A death inevitably leaves so many unanswered questions. Why? How? But what if? Could we have done more? Did we do too much? The list stretches over the horizon. Death is as cruel as it is arbitrary. It makes no sense. But it falls upon the living to try and pick up the pieces and attempt to carry on as best they can. Pick up the pieces of the life that has just been extinguished. And pick up the pieces of the lives still being lived.

Death changes the living. Some for the better, some for the worse. It necessitates change and some are better at that than others. It can end lives, effectively turning the bereaved into walking corpses themselves. They can walk, talk and their chests rise and fall. Yet they are as bereft of life as those they buried or burned. Death is a callous thief and if you allow it to, it can steal your life away from right under your nose.

It can inspire and motivate. Those left behind can go on to greater things, reach heights and attain goals they never thought possible. It can be in order to emulate the dead person, to become more like them. Or it can be in order to avoid becoming like them. Death is neutral, passive and final. Yet it is a kick start, a jolt, a new beginning for so many. Death begets death or life; it offers despair or hope. The choice is yours.

The dead have no voice yet they speak to us every second of every day. They continue to live on in our minds and memories. Some are more impactive than when they were alive. They participate in every conversation we have, they are involved in every decision we make. You don’t need a crystal ball to communicate with them. Just stop and listen; for they are here, there and everywhere.

Where do the dead go? Heaven or Hell? Paradise or Purgatory? Do they party or perish? Are they judged for their crimes and misdemeanours or do they drift away scot free into the ether? We want them to suffer. We want them to be at peace. Yet are we suffering? Are we at peace? If only we could devote the same attention to ourselves as we do to those who have moved on beyond our grasp. Death is too slippery, too cunning, too complex for our feeble minds. A Gordian knot of grief that we will never unravel.

Death breaks hearts. It shatters dreams. It burns bridges. It scorches the soul. It is fire and it is ice but either way it burns deep. There was never enough time while they were with us yet, now that they are gone, the weeks, months and years stretch before many like an unending desert of despair. To some death is freedom while it condemns others to a life sentence. Death rips up roots and tears down hopes. It cares not.

We queue to shuffle past the dead and mumble meaningless words to those they left behind. We are sorry. Sorry for their loss, sorry for their pain. But mostly we are sorry for ourselves. Sorry that when we stare at their remains we are staring at our own futures. We are death waiting to happen. It may be sudden and merciful. It may be drawn out and agonising. But it will come as surely as dawn follows dusk.

What are your thoughts on death?

That Time I Went Through My Neighbour’s Bin

Storm Hector hit our village the night before last which brought high winds and heavy rain. Our ten day summer was officially over. The gazebo was dismantled and put away; the paddling pool was emptied; the garden furniture was placed in the garage as we battened down the hatches and prepared for the worst could Hector could bring. He had a stupid name anyway so I wasn’t overly concerned.

I woke the next morning to the sound of cacophonous rattling outside. This was strange as I am normally awakened by the sound of our neighbour’s sixteen dogs barking. All at once. Every day. Without fail. But I digress. Had the Russians invaded? The North Koreans? Or whoever Donald Trump had posted an offensive tweet about recently? The Greenlanders? The Fijians? It’s hard to keep up these days.

I arose (staggered) from bed to investigate. A peek out the window allayed my more serious concerns regarding alien invasion but I was nonetheless dismayed by the sight revealed to me. A neighbours bin had been blown over during the night and emptied its contents all over the street. And by all over the street I meant in our front garden. Hector had left his calling card. Although I doubt if the United Nations would have been losing much sleep over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in front of me.

I bounded into action. Throwing on clothes (nobody needs their first sight in the morning to be a middle aged man chasing rubbish round the street in a pair of Peppa Pig pyjama bottoms) I ventured outside to survey the carnage. Our front garden was bedecked with every type of garbage known to man. I gingerly tiptoed through the chaos and tidied up the mess, all the while shooting daggers at the offending house from whence said detritus had emanated from.

By the end of it all I knew what they liked to drink (cider and lots of it), eat for breakfast (their own body weight in Honey Nut Loops) and even how their exceedingly grumpy teenage daughter had fared in a recent R.E. exam (not very well – sniggers). A five minute rummage through their bin and I knew more about them than in all the preceding ten years we had lived within a hundred yards of each other. I don’t know my neighbours very well I glumly concluded.

Perhaps rooting through a neighbour’s bin is a tad extreme in the getting to know you stakes (although each to their own I guess) but it’s a sad indictment as to how little we know about the people we share our lives with. And I don’t just mean the folks down the street who we exchange pleasantries with once in a blue moon. What about our colleagues, friends and family. How well do we really know each other?

It often takes one of life’s storms in order for us to open up to others. In times of crisis we are more likely to spill our garbage all over a friend or relatives immaculate front lawn. All of our secrets, faults and dramas. Yet we expect them to clean up the mess. I know I have and it wasn’t a pretty sight. All my dirty laundry and grubby skeletons made my neighbour’s bin look tame in comparison.

We need to talk more. Listen more. Take a risk and reach out more. This post is as much for myself as for anyone else. I have cut myself off from so many but when the you know what hits the fan I expect so much from them. Do it now before it’s too late. For one morning the storm will come and you will need that shoulder to cry on. Even if he is wearing Peppa Pig pyjama bottoms.

Do you talk to your neighbours?

What’s the most interesting item you’ve ever discovered on your front lawn?

How Was Your Life Before WordPress?

I used to be a closed book. I would bottle emotions up inside me and share nothing with nobody. I prided myself on keeping a stiff upper lip. When I lost my father to prostate cancer I cried just the once, at his bedside during those last eerie moments before he slipped away from us. After that, nothing. I had a funeral to organise. A family to console. And alcohol to drink.

This routine continued for years. I lived in the shadows; secrets and half truths were my constant companions. I hid from the truth for it was a mirror that I did not wish to stare into, a reflection of the man I was becoming, the man I had become. And it was not a pretty sight. I did not like this person and did not want to confront the demons he was battling. So I did what all cowards do when confronted with the truth. I ran away.

A caged beast is an angry beast. Anger is unpredictable, it lashes out where it pleases. It is indiscriminate, there is no rhyme or reason to it. I was very angry. But I hid. I refused the help which was being offered to me and turned my back on those who loved and cared for me. I retreated into a world where I constructed false versions of myself, layers upon layers of deceit and negativity. Nobody knew me for I did not know myself anymore.

I lived online. Twitter, Instagram, whatever. Everything is rosy in those gardens. Roses have thorns though and these thorns drew blood. The wounds I inflicted on myself and others cut deep, leaving scars that remain to this day. Signposts to a past I never intend to return to. I devoured myself, a keyboard cannibal who cared more about likes and retweets than I did about my own flesh and blood. I was a living, breathing, walking crime scene. A detached witness to my own prolonged murder.

I wrote back then. 160 characters of meaningless nonsense at a time. Portraying a life I was not leading. Craving attention in order to fill the aching void within me while neglecting those who needed my love the most. The words meant nothing, there was no substance or passion underpinning them. They were empty words from an empty shell of a man. Distress flares from the sinking ship of my soul which was slipping beneath the black, unforgiving waves with all hands lost.

Then stuff happened. My deluded bubble burst and all around me life crashed in. A necessary pain which purged and cleansed me. I was both branded and scourged clean. The truth revealed itself with a clarity I had never experienced before. I was lucid and thinking straight whereas before I had been deluded and wandering in an impenetrable mental fog. I never thought I would write again online. I had nothing to say. Life had broken me and squeezed me dry of any creative juices I might have once had.

That was before WordPress. An online community when the selfie did not reign; where prose and poetry meant more than pouts and preening. Where damaged souls like myself congregated to heal and lick their wounds; some self inflicted but not all. I write on here most days now. It is my release, my therapy. The words flow where before there was nothing but arid ash. I speak the truth now for myself and for others without a voice.

That’s where I am today. I am a writer. I blog. I’m writing a novel. All thanks to the gentle promptings of a loving wife who believed in me and believed in my talent. Who encouraged me to start this blog some thirteen months ago. Life before WordPress seems a distant memory now. How I managed without writing I’ll never know. But I know this much. It saved me then and it’s saving me now.

How was your life before WordPress?

What difference has blogging made in your life?

What Are You Going To Blog About Today?

It has come to my attention (well I do investigate for a living after all) that I follow a lot of fantastic bloggers. I try to keep up with as many of them as I can and, where possible, offer encouragement and support. I can’t do that with them all, though, as otherwise I would never be off WordPress but even if it means just liking a post, I do it. Just to let people know that I care and appreciate their written efforts. It’s the least I can do given the tremendous support we receive on a daily basis.

The flip side of that is that a lot of bloggers don’t blog or, if they do, it is very infrequently. You see it all the time. The ‘Sorry I haven’t blogged in ages but I’ve been soooooo busy/life got in the way/haven’t had anything to say’ type introductions. Delete as appropriate. Whenever I see those words at the start of a blog I tend to keep on scrolling. But no more. I want to address those bloggers today. So here goes. Ahem….

Firstly no need to apologise. If you don’t want to blog then that’s entirely up to you and the rest of us will muddle on regardless. But ask yourself this question – why did you go to all the bother of creating a blog in the first place for it to lie unattended gathering dust? Didn’t you want to communicate, express yourself, stretch your literary muscles and slobber those creative juices all over your keyboard. There must have been some reason that started the ball rolling before it ground to a shuddering halt.

Now people often ask me ‘Where do you find the time to blog given all your other interests and commitments?’ Initially this made me a little uncomfortable. Guilty even. Was I neglecting Fionnuala and the kids? But when I reassessed all this I came to the conclusion that Fionnuala and the kids were one of the main reasons I started blogging. It benefits my mental health and allows me to express a message of hope and redemption to all those who have been or are going through similar struggles.

Yes, I blog most days. It takes around 45 minutes to write, edit and post. Often I do it on my daily commute to and from work. So it’s hardly eating into ‘family time’ as some like to call it. If you are really serious about blogging then surely you can find the time to do so. Nobody’s life is that consistently busy. And if it is, what could you sacrifice in order to find the time? The benefits of regularly blogging far outweigh the time and effort required to do so.

The community vibe on WordPress is incomparable. You won’t find it on any other social media platform. Twitter is too poisonous, Instagram too artificial, Facebook too close to home. And don’t even get me started about Snapchat. People care, they listen, they reach out to others in times of need. No matter what your problem there is someone on here who can help. There is no more loving tribe.

Have nothing to say? I also struggle to get my head around that one. We are writers. We write. Life too busy to write? Then all the more reason to find a few moments to tell us all about it. Talk, listen and interact. Don’t just scroll aimlessly. Get involved. Say something. Anything! You won’t regret it. So rant over and I’ll leave you with a challenge. And don’t worry. It involves no cardio vascular activity whatsoever.

1. Post a blog today. Tell the world about your day, your thoughts and your dreams. And if anyone complains then blame me.

2. I don’t ask for much but I’m asking you to reblog this post if you agree with my message. Let’s spread the word and get people writing.

3. Post a comment. Let’s get a debate going. Why have you not been blogging? Do you want to write more? Speak to other bloggers? Make new friends? Well be brave. We are waiting for you.

4. Post a link to your blog. Your words have value. Share them. Who knows, they could make a massive difference in someone’s life today.

Take a chance. Blog today. What could possibly go wrong?

The School Run

Fionnuala and Hannah stayed at my wonderful mother in laws last night so I was entrusted with looking after Adam, Rebecca and Charlie the border terrier; or rather they were entrusted with looking after me. Either way the prospect of orchestrating the school run this morning filled me with dread, despite Fionnuala’s detailed instructions which the average five year old would have been able to follow without too much bother.

I was up bleary eyed and not so bushy tailed at 7 a.m. to tackle the first of my herculean challenges – the ironing of the school uniform. Fionnuala says I have the most awkward, impractical ironing style she has ever seen. Which makes perfect sense given the awkward, impractical man I am. Putting the ironing board up was a battle in itself. Think Steve Irwin wrestling a crocodile and you’re close. Or did he wrestle alligators? Hmmmmm…..

Fifteen minutes later and you could have cut your finger on the creases in Adam’s trousers. His school shirt looked as if it had been injected with Botox – totally wrinkle free. I had the school uniform, all I was missing now were a couple of school children to fill said clothing. I utilised an old tactic taught to me by Fionnuala. Stick some bacon under the grill and wait until the aroma wafts up the stairs. Ten minutes later, hey presto! We have salivating kids storming the kitchen.

The lunches were next on the agenda. I played it simple. Ham sandwiches, yoghurts, biscuits and crisps. Easy peasy. Charlie kept an eye on proceedings just in case I messed up. Or dropped a slice of ham for him to gobble up. This was a breeze. I was bringing my A-game to the adulting stuff. Alas, it was all going too well. Disaster struck when Adam plodded barefoot into the kitchen. He had no clean black socks! Had my good fortune finally run out?

Thankfully I had put on a clean pair only that morning. I did what any other self respecting father would have done and sacrificed them for my son. I raided the sock drawer and came up with the only other clean pair I could find; a rather fetching set of novelty reindeer socks. . It was the middle of June and 20 degrees celsius outside but hey, a man has to do what a man has to do. I may have gotten a few odd looks later when I strolled into the village shop but I reckon I rocked the look. Haters gonna hate and all that.

I was on the home stretch now. Dishes were washed and I left Rebecca to sort her own hair out. I was hitting them out of the ball park but, believe me, French plaits were a bridge too far. She did compliment me on my delicious bacon sandwiches though. Charlie also wagged his tail a lot when he got his bacon so breakfast was a win-win all round. Following that it was the small matter of chauffeuring Adam to his bus stop where I resisted the urge to publicly embarrass him in front of the other miserable looking teenagers awaiting their transport.

My last task was to drive Rebecca to school. While she no doubt missed the slick, uber efficient morning routine Fionnuala provides she admitted she did enjoy ‘Daddy Rules’ which allowed her an extra half hour outside playing before bedtime and an extra fifteen minutes asleep the following morning. With her safety deposited at the school gates I headed on into Belfast to see my wife and other daughter; all the while wondering if I had left the iron on.

Some people wonder if I do anything other than write or run. I accept I could bore for Ireland on either topic. But I hope that today’s post shows that there is more to me than that. I do try. And I’m determined to be the best possible husband and father I can be in the process. I want my wife and kids to have good memories of a man who wasn’t perfect but did his best. Love and hard work can take you a long way. I intend to see how far I can go.

How slick are you at getting out of the house in the morning?

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 6)

Writing makes me happy. Editing and proof reading not so much. I’m now around 30K into draft two of the novel. There have been a few cringe worthy moments (did I really write that?), more than one double take (that makes zero sense, Stephen. Zero sense) and the occasional stunned pause (er….actually that’s not bad). Slow progress continues to be made, despite the constant distraction life throws in the way.

At this rate I should be finished by around 2045. Well, maybe not but it feels like that sometimes. I’ve had to de-Belfast some of the dialogue because, otherwise, 99.99999% you wouldn’t have a clue what the characters were talking about. I’ve also started some historical research which will form the back story of several of the main characters. Battle of Waterloo anybody? I’m a mine of useless information on it now. Ask me anything.

I’ve no idea at what stage an author stops tapping their keyboard, leans back and goes ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ I imagine they will have to pry my cold, dead fingers from the manuscript as I’m hauled kicking and screaming off to the nearest padded cell. As ever the support I’ve received from you guys has been amazing. If it wasn’t for your feedback I doubt if I would have ever started this project, let alone persisted to this point.

I’m going to make these updates a weekly feature. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more but I’ve been advised to keep the plot a closely guarded secret for now. All will be revealed in due course. In the meantime you will just have to be patient. I hope it will be worth the wait for those of you who have expressed an interest in reading the finished product. Now I had better get back to editing this chapter *sighs*

The Familiar

I woke before five this morning. It has been a long, hard week of on call duties so you would have thought the weekend would be a time to relax and unwind; to catch up on those lost hours of sleep. Not a bit of it. So here I am writing this post before I get up shortly to take Adam to rugby training. An hour to myself before the chaos of another full weekend cranks into gear and whisks us away.

I am wide awake yet so weary that I can barely keep my eyes open to type these words. It has been a warm night so the fan in our room provides a comforting aural background. It hums like the engine of an aeroplane. I can close my eyes and imagine that I am 40,000 feet in the air on my way to faraway lands on breath taking adventures. Yet when I open them I haven’t moved an inch and am surrounded by familiar sights.

The familiar is my foundation, my bedrock, my cornerstone. It anchors and steadies me. Without it I would be swept away on currents of naivety and insecurity. Some regard the familiar as frustrating and stifling but it is my lifeblood. My familiar keeps me rooted to the truth. This stability feeds my ability without which I would wither into a ball of self pity and apathy. The tree of life never moved so why should I?

This is the golden hour when my head is clear and the words flow effortlessly. The arrows I draw from my quiver fly straight and true, striking their targets with unfailing accuracy. Words are my weapons just like silence is my enemy. When I write I aim to shock and awe the darkness which previously mocked and gnawed at my self belief. When you allow the light to enter your life you can never truly be alone again.

The gentle humming of the fan offers a calmness that allows me to flex my creative joints. It is a benign noise unlike the killer bee swarms of intrusive thoughts and compulsive actions which used to reverberate around my mind morning, noon and night. The familiar is my ally. The thoughts remain but then so do I. Intact and secure. For now? For ever? I cannot say but the familiar is a strong, impenetrable door which keeps the creatures of the night at bay. They snarl and they prowl outside, sniffing and scratching. But they cannot enter.

I am tired but I am sober and alert. Five years plus since I jerked awake to cruel hangovers and crueller memories of the night before and the damage done. I awaken now and look forward with hope and anticipation as opposed to over my shoulder with fear and trepidation. The familiar is crisp and clear and comforting. It is my now and it allows me to reflect upon the wreckage of my past from a safe distance. Those demons have taught me well. I have the scars to prove it.

The familiar is life and there is nothing dull or boring about that. It is ripe with opportunity. It saddens me that it took years of stumbling around in the dark to reach where I am today. Have I left it too late? How I wish I had those wasted years back. But without that waste I would be unable to taste the dazzling potential that lies just out of reach. The familiar is my bridge to what would have been impossible back then. The familiar is a weaver of dreams.

The familiar allows me each day to sift through the gilt and shame of the past to uncover nuggets of wisdom and knowledge. My past was a battleground but I emerged from it victorious and intact. I had to endure the horrors of war in order to enjoy the peace of the familiar. It was my reward and I cling to it every day with pride and faith. It will carry me forward to where I need to be. I need the familiar like an addict needs the needle.

I will get up soon. This hour has been well spent. I hope you think so too and awaken in your own bed surrounded by those you love. They say the truth will set you free but you can only recognise the former and appreciate the latter if you have first been exposed to the lies and served time as their prisoner. The familiar is the key that will unlock your cell door. It is your golden ticket. It is your next breath. Seize it. Cherish it. Protect it. It is you.

How do you spend the first hour of your day?

Have you discovered the power of the familiar?

Where are you at today on your journey?

Well Done Rebecca!

Fionnuala and I endured….I mean enjoyed Rebecca’s final primary sports day this morning before she heads off to junior high in September. The Black Family have never fared well at these bar my own glorious victory in the parents water balloon throwing event many years ago. My price was a massive chocolate bar. It was, as ever, a team effort. I won the chocolate but Fionnuala helped me eat it.

Adam never won anything until he was handed a rugby ball in junior high. And now he is being scouted by a professional team. The same applied to Rebecca. Every year she tried her hardest but always fell short of winning a medal. This year she put in extra sprint training in the week leading up to the big day. I have been coaching her the best I can although sprinting is not my forte. It takes me about three miles to get going.

It all paid off today though. She qualified from her heat to line up in the Year 7 Girls Final where she finished like a train to clinch the bronze medal. She gets it at a special school assembly tomorrow. Fionnuala and I were both so proud of her. Perseverance and hard work pay off no matter what your skill set. It has been a hard year for Rebecca at the school and, to be honest, we are glad that she is leaving it.

The junior high was the making of Adam and we hope it will be for Rebecca as well. She deserves a fresh start at a good school away from playground gossip and lies. She can hold her head up proud tomorrow when she gets her medal. It made sitting through 40 (yes you read that right) chaotic races before her event, standing in the heat for two hours and being blanked by former so called Christian friends all the more worthwhile. Well done Rebecca!

Taxi Drivers, Funerals And Awkward Conversations

Fionnuala and I travelled to England today for the funeral of a very dear friend who died suddenly a few weeks ago. I wrote a little tribute to him back then. Our friend was a highly decorated detective who held senior ranks in England, Northern Ireland and Canada. He also had a wicked sense of humour and I know he wouldn’t want me writing a depressing post today. So I won’t.

I have a reputation for saying the most inappropriate things at funerals. Usually to the family of the deceased. I invariably put my foot in my mouth which I suppose beats putting it in the grave but only marginally. I am the King of the cringeworthy comment, the Master of the awkward silence. Today was not going to be that day, however. I was determined to be on my best behaviour throughout proceedings.

Upon touching down at East Midlands Airport we had hired a taxi to take us to the crematorium. Our smartly dressed driver was of Middle Eastern descent but initial communication issues were quickly resolved and we were soon on our way out of the airport. At which point our driver politely asked if he could make a private phone call using his hands free kit.

‘Of course’ I replied. Our driver nodded, inserted an earpiece and then commenced a very lengthy conversation in his native tongue with the person he had called. We had no idea who this was, of course, because a) my Arabic is non-existent and b) his earpiece meant we were only privy to half the conversation. The only word I could make out was ‘Allah’ which he regularly said, a stern expression on his face.

I began to worry for the man. Had he received bad news? A death in his own family perhaps? A relative taken suddenly ill? The conversation continued and he looked increasingly irritated and unsettled. At any moment I expected him to break off the call and dump us at the roadside, apologising profusely that he had to shoot off to deal with a family crisis. I braced myself for the worst as he terminated the call at his end and turned to face me.

The conversation that followed went a bit like this:

Taxi Driver: I’m sorry about that but wife’s car has broken down?

Me: Oh dear, is she alright?

Taxi Driver: Yes, yes. She’s fine.

Me: That’s good. Where did she break down?

Taxi Driver: In the car wash?

I paused briefly with images of the poor woman stranded in her vehicle as the spinning rollers descended over the windscreen. And then I spoke these words of wisdom.

‘Oh well. At least the car will be clean’.

Oddly enough the conversation petered out quickly at that point. The remainder of the journey passed in silence and, despite wanting the earth to open up and swallow me, we arrived at our destination in one piece. The funeral itself passed without incident and I managed not to drop any more verbal clangers. For my work had already been done. And somewhere up on a cloud our old friend would have been laughing his wings off.

What’s the most embarrassing comment you’ve ever come out with at a social gathering?

On a scale of 1-10 how socially awkward are you?

Sometimes You’ve Just Go To Get Back On The Bike

After a nightmare run on Saturday where I had to walk after 3 miles it was with some trepidation that I started a 10 mile run this lunchtime with a work colleague. I made the decision not to run yesterday and was glad that I did as I’ve had a very busy weekend work wise. This morning was no different with my office line, work mobile and personal mobile ringing incessantly. It was challenging but a blessing in disguise as it took my mind off the forthcoming run.

Yesterday also allowed me to do some much needed work on the second draft of the book. Which is a marathon in itself. I also remembered to bring my Garmin along on this run as I went out without it on Saturday and think I may have messed up my pacing by setting out too quickly over the first two miles. I was determined to make the same mistake today. Preparation is half the battle.

We set off at a very steady pace. Like Saturday it was a warm, muggy day but the route was much flatter; through the city centre and onto the Lagan Embankment which eventually leads us past the Cutters Wharf Bar and onto the old towpath which leads to Lisburn. We turn at The Lock keepers Cafe and then head back into the city. The pace was steady and we were able to hold a conversation over the first 3 miles.

I kept expecting the jelly limbs to hit me but felt relatively comfortable and before I knew it we were at our turning point. After stopping for a quick glass of water we headed back. I have been troubled with blisters on both feet since the Belfast Marathon and experienced some discomfort in my left foot but it was minor and didn’t stop me from maintaining the pace. With each passing mile I grew more confident that there was to be no repeat performance of Saturday’s shambles.

I forged on over the last mile and finished the run soaked in sweat but satisfied, just under 3 minutes inside my 4 hour marathon pace. It may have been ‘just another training run’ but it felt special. I had overcome the doubts and worries of the previous 48 hours and proved to myself that Saturday was nothing more than a blip. Bad days come and bad days go. As do bad runs. I was back in the game.

Not the most earth shattering post today but a small landmark. If you feel you’ve messed up at something, no matter what, don’t hesitate to get back on the bike and try again. The longer you put it off the harder it is going to be in the long run. There is nothing to fear. Don’t let that molehill become a mountain. Make it happen and prove the doubters wrong. Now I’m off to soak my blisters.

Have you fallen off the bike in recent days?

Are you willing to jump back on it?

Sucking Up The Bad Days

Since I started running just over 4 years ago I have prided myself on rarely, if ever, having had to stop and walk during a run. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have done this. Walking is for quitters I would say and a quitter I am not. Less than a month ago I ran the Belfast Marathon without stopping. That’s 26.2 miles of constant running. 42 kilometres. 3 hours, 51 minutes and 10 seconds. I would rather have died than walked.

Yesterday I set out on a 5 mile training run. Like I have a thousand times before. It should have been utterly uneventful. Yet after 2 miles I felt like death. My arms and legs were like jelly, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I plodded on for another mile, determined to finish, before the unthinkable happened. I found myself walking. I looked down at my legs and there it was. I was walking. My body had rebelled against my disbelieving brain.

I was still 2 miles from home so had no choice but to soldier on. I lowered my head in shame as cars drove past no doubt thinking ‘Hey there’s that guy from our village who runs marathons. Why is he walking?’. I felt embarrassed and utterly rubbish. The OCD voice in my head was jubilantly informing me that I had finally been found out for the fraud I was and that this was the end of my running career.

After half a mile I felt slightly better so cautiously started running again. I felt fine and managed to run home without stopping. But my confidence had taken the mother of all kickings. I racked my brain as to what had went wrong. Yes, I had foolishly set out during the warmest part of the day but heat doesn’t normally affect me like that. My Garmin is on its last legs so I was running without a watch and was unable to pace myself. Had I run the first two miles too quickly?

Either way I am dreading my next run. Is this the beginning of the end? Has my always fragile self belief finally been irreparably torn to shreds? Will this perceived failure on my part overflow into other areas of my life? What if I turn the laptop on later and am incapable of writing a word? What if my hard earned progress as a husband, father and half decent human being judder to a sweaty halt just like my body did two miles from home yesterday?

It’s at times like this that I need to look back on what I have achieved and focus on the positive. I had a bad run. Get over it. They happen. You should be glad that they happen to you much less than they do to other people. These bad days make the good days all the more memorable. Practice what you preach Stephen for wallowing in self pity is not a good look on you. Suck it up as they say.

I woke up this morning to find the sun had risen. The world was still turning. The international, national and, for that matter, regional news made no reference to a middle aged, average paced distance runner having had a bad day at the office yesterday. Fionnuala and the kids had not left me and there was still a roof over our heads. All was as it should have been. I had lived to run another day.

Never let your mind deceive you and magnify the negatives to the extent that they eclipse the many more positives in your life. You can be your own worst enemy. Liars never prosper and that equally applies when we lie to ourselves. Embrace the truth. Bad days happen. We are not perfect. It’s called life. And we can’t reach the promised land unless we occasionally flail about in the desert of mediocrity yesterday. Like I did yesterday. Suck it up Stephen. Shake it off.

How do you deal with the bad days?

You’re Never As Useless As You Think You Are

Some of you may be aware that I’m writing a book. It’s a supernatural fantasy set in Belfast which covers a lot of the themes that I blog about; mental illness, homelessness, faltering faith to name but a few. It’s heroes are deeply flawed outcasts on the fringes of society. They have been rejected by a world that now requires them in order to save it. As individuals they are a pretty motley crew. But together they are a whole different prospect.

I’ve recently completed the first draft. 120,000 words which I have written here, there and everywhere over the last six months. On the train, in the garden, even in bed. It has been very difficult given my many other commitments and it has been a case of an hour here and an hour there whenever I have had some spare time. There has been no great plan or strategy. I have just written the story as it has unfolded in my mind.

What I lack in talent I make up for in stubbornness. You can blame good old Mr. OCD for that one. I have refused to give up even though I have been tempted to many times. It’s rubbish, it will never be published, everyone is going to hate it and you will be a laughing stock; all these thoughts have trundled through my mind on a regular basis. Yet somehow I have persevered and here I am six months later with a first draft in my hands.

Fionnuala and the kids have, as ever, been incredibly supportive, patient and encouraging. Beyond them the reception has not been quite as rapturous. I have mentioned it to a number of friends who have either quickly changed the subject or in, some instances, completely ignored it. It’s as if they are either embarrassed at me daring to have this dream or dismiss it as the most preposterous idea they have ever heard. Such conversations have been disheartening and off putting.

There have been a few exceptions thankfully. Our friend, Rosie, for example who has been so excited about the project that at times I have worried her head might explode. Her enthusiasm has more than made up for others who….well….frankly don’t care. I hope I get the opportunity to prove them wrong. I like proving people wrong. It’s a novelty after a lifetime of proving them right. Just like those who raised eyebrows whenever I said I wanted to run a marathon, start a blog etc etc etc.

Another person who I know would have believed in me is my late father. Earlier this year my mother told me that he had dreamt of writing a novel and had actually once started a manuscript. He never got the opportunity to complete it so I guess I’m doing this for him as well. He turned his life around and achieved incredible things in his latter years. I hope I can emulate him for I know he would have been 100% behind me.

It was with some trepidation therefore that I started the second draft a week ago. I was editing words I had written six months ago. What if it made no sense? What if it was utter nonsense? I was almost too scared to start and considered placing it on the shelf for another day. But something made me persevere. And 20,000 words later guess what? It’s actually alright. Granted it still needs a lot of work but I haven’t been cringing with embarrassment as I’ve gone through it.

Never be afraid to pursue a dream. To try a new activity. To learn a new skill. You might have convinced yourself a million times that it’s pointless but do it anyway. For you will never be as bad at it as you thought you would be. You might even be quite good. Or very good for that matter. I’m not quite sure where I am on this scale. I hope I’m good enough. Either way, I’m going to find out. As should you. For a little talent, a lot of hard work and the right people supporting you can take you a long, long way.

Where are you with regards pursuing your dream?

Do your friends and family support you or throw a wet blanket over your plans?

On Call 24/7/365

I go on on call this morning for the next seven days. On a meh scale of 1-10 this scores a 47.757 in my book but unfortunately it’s part of the job and, to be fair, I do get paid well for it. That doesn’t make it any less of a pain, however. Extra pressure, phone calls in the dead of night, tricky decisions to make and always the fear of making a mistake and falling foul of they who must be obeyed on the top floor.

I’ve been performing on call duties for almost 18 years now and like to think that I’ve always done so to a high standard. I am professional, efficient and effective. I make best use of the resources I have and manage in them in a way that ensures a quality end product. Basically I do the best I can with what I have. And what I don’t know I have the gumption to hold my hands up, admit it, and source an expert opinion from someone who does.

That won’t stop me counting the hours until next Friday morning though. Back in the not so good old days the end of an on call week would have been celebrated with copious amounts of alcohol after a week of work enforced abstinence. Nowadays I just breathe a sigh of relief and crack open a tin of Diet Coke. Being on call sucks. But it’s only one week in seven so I just have to grin and bear it.

As a husband and father I need to be permanently on call for my family. Fionnuala sets the gold standard where this is concerned. She always puts the kids and me before herself and has made many sacrifices for us. Without her our lives would be even more chaotic than they already are. She regularly drops everything for other people and never expects anything in return.

My default setting is a selfish one. I spent many years putting my own needs before those of others. It was all about Stephen and it inevitably ended badly for everyone concerned. I learnt some hard but important lessons. Today I try to be more like my wife. Little things. Like this morning I went to the shop and put diesel in the car as I knew Fionnuala was driving into Belfast later. I did this without being asked to do so. Every long journey begins with a small step.

I am trying to apply these small steps to all areas of my life. Putting others first. My family, my friends, work colleagues. Even total strangers I encounter on my daily commute to and from work. Some days I fare better than others but at least I recognise it is an area I need to address. Being consciously selfish is an improvement on being unconsciously selfish. I’m striving to improve and evolve into a better person.

This is a lifetime process. When it comes to selflessness you need to be on call 24/7/365. 366 if it’s a leap year. You won’t get paid for it; in fact some of the time you don’t even get a thank you. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I want to help other people – those I like and those I’m maybe not so keen on. It doesn’t really matter. Where I can help, I will. If that person accepts my offer, then great; if not, well not so great, but at least I tried.

The same applies to this blog. Fionnuala and I want to help YOU. We have been through a lot together and hope others can benefit from us sharing our experiences. The good, the bad and the downright ugly. This blog is 24/7/365 or as close as we can get to it. If you are struggling with one of the issues I write about then all you have to do is reach out and we are there for you. There won’t even be a charge.

Do you work on call? What’s it like for you?

On a meh scale of 1-10 how is your day going?

Blogging Is Hard Work

Blogging is hard work. Never forget that. It requires creativity, determination and hard work. I try to post every day but coming up with original content is no easy matter. Finding the time to write is also a challenge. I blog on the commute to work, on my lunch break, in bed. Anywhere I can find a sliver of time to write. Sometimes my content is rushed but I always do my best to ensure a quality, thought provoking content.

I put everything into my blogs. I strive to be innovative yet honest; realistic yet hopeful; humble yet proud of what I have achieved. I take risks but they are always carefully considered and calculated. I aim at delivering a varied content that won’t bore the reader but at the same time remains consistent with my core theme and central message – that no matter what your back story you can always recover and lead the life you were created to live.

The blog has grown beyond our wildest expectations. We don’t overly plug it on other social media platforms. I tend to avoid Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for a variety of reasons. WordPress is my backyard and you, my fellow bloggers, are my neighbours. Since we moved in just over a year ago you have supported and encouraged us every step of the journey. I speak to a number of bloggers every day. Dare I say it but friendships have developed.

We have been fortunate in that 99% of the comments we receive are positive. And as for the other 1% – well people are entitled to their opinions. If everyone agreed with everyone else then life would be boring, right? Some blogs are more popular than others. Some sink without trace and you wonder why but it is a learning curve that I’m willing to scramble along. Every day is a school day on WordPress.

You stumble and you fall but you keep going. One comment from a fellow blogger can make the post a worthwhile exercise. It can make up for the hundreds of people who scrolled past your post without a second glance. Even that is a positive. It toughens me as a writer and prepares me for the time when I will be submitting manuscripts and awaiting those dreaded rejection letters. Always moving forward.

I’ve said before that I hope the blog shows the few people who supported me through the tough times that they were right to do so; and to the many others that did not that they were wrong to do so. Bridges have been burnt but some rivers are never meant to be recrossed. Much as the past seeks to drag me backwards I am determined to look forward to new opportunities on previously untraveled paths.

Blogging is hard work. But keep writing, keep hitting that publish button. Don’t be one of those ‘Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while guys but I’ve been sooooooo busy’ people. I don’t totally buy that. If you are determined to succeed as a blogger then you will find the time to write. And surely a busy life provides you with all the ammunition you need to blog more. You will be bursting with ideas and keen to share them with the world.

So I will keep writing. I will keep posting. I will continue to interact with other bloggers and support their work. I will keep moving forward as there is no other viable alternative. I will battle my demons, both internal and external, for this is my battlefield. I will make my family proud and I will share my message loud. Nothing is impossible and hope is a bottomless commodity. Never give up on yourself.

How is your blogging career going?

Where does your blogging inspiration come from?

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 5)

I finished the first draft of the novel at the tail end of last week and have now started the laborious, but crucial, editing process. The first draft weighed in at a whopping 120K words and I’m presently around 18K words through the first edit. This has been useful in identifying plot gaps and clunky dialogue. I’m also working on greater detail regarding character development and scene setting. It’s a massive undertaking but I’m determined to see it through to its conclusion.

On top of all this I’m trying to conduct some background research which will prove necessary in order to add credibility to several of the characters. Also as I wander around Belfast city centre I am constantly seeing little details which I know will end up in the book. I’ve taken the plunge and booked a week off work later in the month where I will work exclusively on editing and rewriting.

I’ve allowed Fionnuala and Adam to read a chapter which was nerve wracking. Imagine what it will be like when I reluctantly hand over the full manuscript to a chosen few for constructive feedback, proof reading and general dismemberment. All this and I haven’t even broached the thorny subject of whether to go down the traditional publishing or increasingly self-publishing route. Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.

it’s slow but steady progress. Family and work commitments take priority and I’m not a night owl (I need my beauty sleep) so I work at the book where and when I can. I am fortunate to have a very patient and understanding wife. Hopefully one day it will all prove worthwhile and the finished product will see the light of day. I’ll continue to post regular updates throughout the summer. Thanks for your continued support.

Don’t Press That Button

There is a scene in The Simpsons where Homer finds himself facing a big red button with a large ‘Do Not Touch’ sign above it. You can see his tiny brain wrestling with temptation before he finally cracks and presses the button. Predictably enough, all hell breaks loose. DOH! Homer once again proves himself to be the bungling buffoon that we all love to laugh at. Because none of us would ever do anything so stupid, right?

Er….wrong. I can only speak for myself but I have lost count of the number of times I have faced the same button and succumbed. I know what I am doing is wrong and I know that it will all end in tears. Yet, I do it anyway. And guess what? All hell breaks loose. A decision that takes less than a second to make can lead to a lifetime of repercussions. The ripple effect of your actions can also spill over in the lives of countless others. People we love and care for.

So then why do we do it? What causes the Homer gene to kick in and allow logical, rational thought to fly out the window? When the chips are down why is our integrity and moral fibre nowhere to be seen? There is a saying – the grass is greener on the other side. We are never content with what we have, we always want more. And we are arrogant enough to believe that we can attain it without having to pay a price. A heavy price.

Take King David, a man after God’s own heart. That’s quite the title to live up to – one would imagine that he would be beyond reproach, as pure as the driven snow. He had everything; wealth, fame, more camels than you could shake a stick at. But it wasn’t enough. He became bored and lazy. Rather than leading his men in battle he preferred to lounge about his palace, partying the night away and then rising late the next day.

That’s when he saw Bathsheba. The rest, as they say, is history. His weakness and lack of control led to the death of his son. He paid the heaviest of prices. The Bible is riddled with such weak characters. Men who made bad decisions which ended up backfiring horribly. All because they weren’t satisfied with what they had. They always wanted more – more money, more women, more land. More, More, More. Well, sometimes less is more.

Fionnuala has a favourite saying – if the grass looks greener on the other side then you need to get watering your own side. They are wise words. Focus on what you have around you. You are on that side of the river for a reason. It is where you belong. Over reach and you will either drown in the crossing or realise when you get there that all is not what it seems. All that glitters is not gold. Paths of gold turn out to be the paths of the dead. From where there is no return.

We all have a self-destruct button, an Achilles heel, a chink in our armour. The trick is to be aware of it and put in place processes and people that allow you to overcome the urge to press the button when it is at its strongest. For urges pass. Temptation is not a permanent state of mind. And if you can tough it out you will emerge unscathed on the other side. Do it once and the next time it will be easier. Exposure leads to resilience and resilience culminates in victory.

I did it and so can you. Get watering. Look around. Be grateful for what you have. The other side is a mirage, a lie. Remember these words the next time you are tempted to eat, drink, snort, cheat, lie, whatever. Tell the button to butt out. Say don’t as opposed to doh. Look closely and you will see the other side for what it truly is. A graveyard of weeds. Just waiting to choke the life out of you.

Have you pressed the button before? How did that work out for you?

Are you tempted by the button today? What are you going to do about it?

Are You Lonely?

We purchased a gazebo and some new garden furniture over the weekend. I am useless at all things practical (I just do the words) so largely left it to Fionnuala and Adam to assemble all the tricky bits. I provided unskilled labour where required. When completed it looked a fine sight. We are hoping we can have a decent summer and spend as much time as possible outside under its canopy. We were outside until almost 10 p.m. last night enjoying the warm evening. In the end we reluctantly packed up and went inside.

It is not often the six of us (Charlie the border terrier included) are all in the one room. This is a rare event in our busy lives as usually one or more of us is off doing something. We also have two teenagers who spend a lot of time in their rooms as teenagers do. The sunshine and novelty of the gazebo lured them out last night, however. We hope it is not a one-off occurrence. I happily tapped away at my laptop surrounded by loved ones. I felt safe and loved.

It hasn’t always been this way. When my OCD and binge drinking were at their worst I felt quite the opposite; haunted by loneliness, depression and shame. My family loved me just as much as they do today and I loved them. It was just that I was incapable of expressing that love back. I was emotionally stunted and too wrapped up in my own fears and insecurities to notice that those around me were struggling as well.

I cut myself off from the real world and retreated into a twilight existence of alcohol and social media. Even when I kicked the former and replaced it with running I still struggled massively with the latter. It is only really through starting this blog that I have found a healthy way of expressing myself and maintaining an online presence. WordPress has been a blessing. It offers reality and truth whereas other platforms deceived me with fantasy and lies.

Loneliness is a silent killer. It is a creeping death. I have been watching the images of the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and the deadly lava inching down the mountain side destroying all in its path while local residents have looked on, powerless to do anything about it. That is loneliness. It shows no mercy and is indiscriminate as it destroys all in its path. Once it has you in its clutches it is nigh on impossible to escape. It owns you, it takes residence in your soul and you become its plaything.

I have experienced extreme loneliness. A lot of this has been a self imposed exile. Occasionally it has been necessary for me to be alone, an act of self preservation from unhealthy and toxic friendships. I have also, through my actions, inflicted great loneliness on loved ones. I recognise this now and spend every day seeking to make amends. Some days are more successful than others. But every day I try.

The novel I am currently writing touches upon the theme of loneliness. My principal characters all experience it to various degrees before fate and circumstances throw them together. Today I choose not to be lonely. I am fortunate to have that choice as I know not everyone does. I choose to spend time with my family in the gazebo rather than prisoner in my own mind. I choose to run, but not to drink. I choose to take my medication and stifle the voices of condemnation in my head.

Are you lonely today? Is there anything you can do about it? Spend time with your family? Talk to a friend? If nothing else, leave a comment below and talk to us. We are a community and need to reach out to each other more. Life is hard enough without having to live it on your own. Where we can, we need to take a stand and confront it. Loneliness can be overcome. One step at at time. Let’s start today?

Are you lonely? How does it affect you?

Is your loneliness a self imposed exile? Or has it been thrust upon you?

Have you overcome loneliness in the past? How did you go about that?

Why Are Some Friends So Unfriendly?

Fionnuala has been visited this week by an American friend who she has not seen in over 30 years. They have kept in touch, most recently on Facebook, but this is the first time they have actually physically met since then. And you know what? It was as if it was yesterday. They started chatting right off and there were no awkward silences or stilted conversations whatsoever. This got me thinking about the subject of friendship.

To me, this was a sign of true friendship, a bond that distance nor time can diminish. Fionnuala and Elaine have always been friends and will always be friends. They are there for each other, no matter what. A friend of mine died suddenly last week. I had not seen him in a number of years as he had been working in Canada. I have recently been informed that he stipulated in his will that he did not want flowers at his funeral; instead people have been asked to make donations to SHINE, the charity for spina bifida and hydrocephalus.

Our daughter, Hannah, has both of the above and some years ago my friend, John, took part in a charity cycle round the circumference of Northern Ireland to raise funds for the charity. He still remembered us despite his high powered, globe trotting career. I was truly humbled when I became aware that he had asked for this in his will. Again, it was a true act of friendship despite not having seen him in years.

Elaine and John didn’t forget their friends despite the passage of time. We remained a constant fixture in their hearts and minds even when we were thousands of miles apart. They cared and made that effort to maintain the relationship. And we made the effort as well because friendship is a two way process. There is give and take on either side. Both parties have to work at the relationship in order to make it succeed.

If only all friendships could be like that. I know people who would never stay in touch with me unless I made the effort to do so with them. There are people I talk to every week. I tell them about my life; my family, my running, my writing. They nod and they smile in all the right places but you can tell they have no interest. I know people who only contact me when they want something. People who don’t return calls or reply to messages. If you asked them they would state we were friends. But I know in my heart that they’re not.

Why are people like that? Are they oblivious to the pain they cause with their slights and silences? Are they that emotionally switched off that these not so subtle snubs fail to register with them? Or are their hearts so hard that they simply don’t care? It saddens, frustrates and angers me. I see it happening to my kids as well which is even harder to stomach. I see it in the office, the church, everywhere. People no longer seem to be willing to go that extra mile for others.

What is the answer? Do we persevere with these friendships in the hope that the situation will improve? Do we love them even harder in an effort to thaw them out? To lead by example and show them what true friendship is? Are we willing to endure these false relationships because we are afraid of losing the little connection that we have with these people? Our need for company leads us to sacrifice our integrity and ethics at the altar of ‘popularity’.

Or do we cut the cord and walk away? Accept that they are unwilling or unable to take the friendship beyond it’s current status? Would they even notice if we stopped phoning or messaging them? It’s a tough one and I’m not sure I have the answer. But it worries me. Society is becoming more superficial by the day. People crave friends and likes and followers on social media. Is that what we have become?

Do you have ‘unfriendly’ friends? How do you deal with them?

The Giants Causeway

Today was spent acting as tour guide for some American visitors to Northern Ireland. We took them along the Causeway Coastal Route which shows off the beautiful scenery of Northern Ireland’s North Coast. The weather was equally spectacular as well with temperature hitting 26 degrees celsius. I only wear shorts when I run though so the thousands of tourists were spared the sight of my legs.

As one of our guests is a big Game of Thrones fan we visited several locations which feature in the series – Cushendun Caves, Ballintoy Harbour and The Dark Hedges. We also took in The Giants Causeway where Rebecca and I climbed the famous rock formations for this selfie. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow on the blog. I hope you are all enjoying your weekend wherever you are in the world.

What Conversations Have You Had With Yourself Today?

Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of people who seem to be talking to themselves in public places? They always cause me to take a double look before I realise, with some relief, that they are actually in the middle of a conversation via an earpiece attached to their mobile phone. Well, thank goodness for that. I was just about to notify the men in white coats to come and whisk them away.

My mobile phone rarely rings these days. And I kind of like it that way. I prefer to communicate via the written word now. Around eighteen months ago I had a massive cull of my contacts list that brought my social diary to a juddering halt. I changed my ringtone a few months ago and then realised what a waste of money it had been as I rarely ever hear it. It’s ‘Easy Street’ by The Collapsible Heart Club by the way for anyone who’s interested. Walking Dead fans will get the reference.

So my phone rarely rings. But like the earpiece aficionados I observe on public transport I often hold conversations with myself. We all do. Mine used to be pretty brutal. An unceasing barrage of criticism and abuse. Past indiscretions and mistakes played on a never ending loop in my head. Welcome folks to the wacky world of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depressive thinking. It’s a veritable hoot.

The thoughts are still there but are less extreme now. I wouldn’t say life with myself is a constant lovefest but at least we tolerate one another now. It’s an uneasy stand off, a shaky truce at best. But my wife and kids keep me grounded. My running and writing also help to purge me of the feelings of self loathing, guilt and shame which are lurking beneath the surface of my psyche just biding their time and waiting for the right moment to renew hostilities.

It’s important that we take better care of ourselves mentally. And that means trying to cut down on the internal conversations where we end up battered and bruised on the ropes. I find it incredibly hard to take compliments from people. I usually brush them off with a sarcastic aside while thinking to myself ‘Well you wouldn’t be saying that if you knew what I was really like.’

This is part of the reason I’m so honest in my writing both on the blog and in the novel I’m currently editing. I address some unpleasant topics and make no apologies for that. I’m talking to you, my audience, but I’m also speaking to myself. Constantly trying to remind myself that beneath all the negativity is a decent person trying to break out, trying to move on and leave his past behind.

It’s an uphill struggle at times but a necessary one. If we can’t live with ourselves then what hope do we have of a harmonious life with those around us? Being involved in a constant battle with me, myself and I leaves little time for others. We leave ourselves exhausted and dead to the lives that we were born to live. We need to climb out of the trenches and raise the white flag. The war is over.

Unless we find peace of mind then we will find our minds in pieces. There is truth in this truce. Surrender is the the first step towards victory and not defeat. There is power in compromise and understanding. Take a moment today and have a quiet word with yourself. Hold out the hand of friendship and then grasp it as hard as you can. You have just made the best friend you will ever have.

What conversations have you had with yourself today?

Morior Invictus

The paths of the dead

Are where we must tread

To vanquish the demons

Who reign in our head

Death itches and twitches

Denying us riches

Our God given right

Morior Invictus

Yet I fear it not

For X marks the spot

New treasures revealed

And an end to the rot.

It Isn’t In Our Blood

Help me

It feels like the walls are caving in

No medicine is strong enough

Someone help me

Feel like I’m crawling in my skin

Sometimes I feel like giving up

But I just can’t

It isn’t in my blood.

Not the words of Stephen Black, average blogger and wannabe author. No, they were written by Shawn Mendes, multi million selling singer/songwriter and teenage heartthrob. Although to be fair we do look very alike. How do I know this you ask? Because Mr. Mendes has stolen the heart of our eldest daughter, Hannah. And his music has been a constant auditory backdrop at Chez Black for the last three months or so. As in incessant. Think Guantanamo Bay interrogation techniques incessant.

We have been exposed to the entire Mendes experience in recent weeks. There has been tension as he has drip fed new songs online to his adoring army who, I am reliably informed, are known as the Mendes Army. In my day you went to a ‘record store’ (ask your parents) and purchased the cassette tape (ask your grandparents) of your favourite artiste on its release date. Money was exchanged. You interacted with another human being. Strange times, I know.

Two weeks ago his world tour dates were released. He was coming to Dublin! Hannah almost passed out. But that was nothing compared to last week when Fionnuala purchased tickets for Hannah and herself to the concert. I think you could have heard Hannah’s screams of delight in Dublin, if not Canada itself, the home of young Mendes. Well, there goes my overtime for last month. But at least I have a very happy daughter.

Despite my best efforts ‘In My Blood’ has wormed its way into my brain like one of those wriggling alien lifeforms always does in science fiction movies. I have found myself involuntarily humming it. Feet have been tapped and rumours of dad rapping to it are not entirely unfounded. I only knew the words to the chorus though and, whenever it came round, would burst into song much to the embarrassment of my mortified teenage daughter.

At dinner the other evening the topic of Mr. Mendes came up. It eventually does in any conversation with Hannah. She was asked what ‘In My Blood’ was about to which she very eloquently explained that it was about Shawn’s own mental health battles with loneliness and anxiety. I was intrigued so googled the lyrics which are partially listed above. I was slightly shocked and more than pleasantly surprised. It was if the song was written about me.

On the surface Shawn Mendes is a hugely successful, talented, confident young man with the world at his feet. Money is no object, he’s on the A list of every party and he could have any girl he wanted. Except our Hannah’s, he’s too old for her! Yet even someone like him can be struck down by the demons of the mind. It is further evidence that nobody is immune to mental health issues in society today. It is reaching epidemic proportions.

It is encouraging that role models like Mendes can come out and discuss their struggles in the media. That takes courage. I will no longer look upon him as just another pretty boy pop star adorning the bedroom walls of my daughter. And I feel slightly less bad now about the dent our bank account has taken over those ticket prices. I’m already undergoing counselling in advance of when she hits his tour merchandising stall in Dublin next April with my debit card.

If you are struggling with your mental health then today is the day to do something about it. Talk to someone about it. It is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Get the help you need in order to live the life you were born to live. Do not allow it to rule your life for you are not defined by it. You can get better because you are better than it. Speak up and break free. Don’t be a slave to it.

It isn’t in your blood….

Please feel free to share any comments or thoughts you have on this post. It’s good to talk.

Happy Birthday To Us

Fractured Faith is a year old today and what a year it has been. Fionnuala and I would like to thank you again, our fellow bloggers, for the support and encouragement you have provided along the way. Here’s to the next year.

How To UnSubscribe From A Toxic Relationship

I am notoriously bad at keeping on top of my e-mails. Yesterday I checked my personal account and discovered, to my horror, that I had over 3000 unopened e-mails. Of these I would estimate that 2985 of them were junk that, if I never ever read, I would still die a happy man. My account still looked a giant mess, however. So I decided to have a clear out for fear that buried deep within those 2985 is the one from an international publisher offering me a six figure advance for my as yet unfinished novel.

Because stuff like that happens, right?

As I began to wade through the electronic debris I realised that I was subscribed to numerous mailing accounts who regularly bombard me with communications that frankly I have little or no interest in. I must have been interested at some stage of my life, otherwise I would never have subscribed to them. Although I have no recollection of subscribing to a lot of them. Perhaps I was drunk at the time? Had my account been hacked? Companies selling my e-mail address to other companies?

In order to unsubscribe from these you have to open the e-mail, scroll down to the very bottom of it and hunt around for the minuscule ‘unsubscribe’ link which you then click. You then have to complete a questionnaire explaining to the company why you no longer wish to avail of their service before they graciously announce that your request will be processed within the next 7-10 days.

In the interim I will no doubt continue to receive more garbage from them. Just in case I have a Road To Damascus moment and decide to resubscribe again because life has proven unbearable without them. The entire procedure left me exhausted and a tad dejected. I felt as if I had let the team down. I could see the disappointment and disapproval etched on their faces. I had been made to feel guilty by an anonymous, automated mailing account.

You can only imagine then the problems I’ve had in recent years ‘unsubscribing’ from a number of relationships which I realised had become toxic and unhealthy for me. These were tortuous, complicated extractions where all manner of tactics were deployed in order to shackle and oppress me. Bullying, guilt and emotional blackmail were all utilised and I admit I fell hook, line and sinker for them on numerous occasions. Breaking free took a momentous effort.

These relationships were poisoning my perception and knocking my moral compass out of the ball park. They were incredibly bad for me yet I hung onto them for grim life. I was miserable and unhappy but it took me a long time to realise that they were the primary reason I felt so. I only realised this when I finally cut the cord. The scales dropped from my eyes and I saw the damage and pain that these relationships had been causing myself and the people who truly cared for me.

If you find yourself in a toxic relationship and what I have written strikes a chord then my simple message to you is this – GET OUT! It can be a relationship with of a person; it can be a relationship with food, pornography, alcohol, drugs, anything. Make the cut. Make it quick and make it clean. Because it is a one way relationship of take and no give. The other party is sucking your soul dry. You do not have to justify your self worth and value through them or it. You are better than that.

It won’t be easy. Dragging yourself from quicksand never is. But if you look around you will see others willing to reach out and pull you free. They might be people you have known your entire life. They could be complete strangers. But they are there and they are waiting. The rest is up to you. Either sink back into in the sands of narcissistic abuse and scramble back into the life you were born to live. Choose well. Choose wisely.

Have you escaped a toxic relationship? Or are you currently ensnared in one? We would love if you could share your thoughts and experiences with our online community. Just comment below and get involved.

I’m So Close My Brain Hurts

These last few days I’ve been diligently chipping away at the final chapters of my novel. I finished the ‘big finale’ chapter yesterday and now I’m penning the fallout from that. This includes the impact that recent revelations have had on my central characters in addition to tying up bothersome loose ends plot wise and setting the scene for the next book in the series. For this is just the beginning of a long journey for our heroes.

I’m taking tomorrow off work to finish it. Aspiring authors never seem to have enough annual leave! I hope that this will leave me with a first draft. It will have a creaky plot and even creakier grammar and punctuation but it is what it is – a first draft of a first novel that began last summer when a seed of an idea took root in my head and refused to budge. I started writing it in earnest last November and, 120K words later, here we are.

Where do I go from here? I’m not quite sure but I know I cannot afford to rest on my laurels. There is serious writing and editing ahead, along with a ton of supplementary reading and research to flesh out the back stories of several of the characters. There will be second edits, third edits, twenty seventh edits. Baring my soul to feedback and hopefully constructive criticism. Making decisions as to whether I go down the publishing or self-publishing path. Wondering if it will ever, ever see the light of day.

Whatever happens I will keep you lot updated whether you want me to or not! I’m bursting to tell you more but I’ve been advised to play my cards close to my chest at this stage regarding plot and character details. All I can hope is that my writing style and the themes I am passionate about will resonate with you and tempt you into wanting to dip into the weird and hopefully wonderful world of my skewed imagination.

That is all – Stephen 👍🏻

Is your brain hurting today?

What are you expecting from my first novel?

My Summer 2018 Target

I haven’t done a lot of running since completing the Belfast Marathon on 07 May but I have been looking ahead and planning my next race target. I’ve considered and discounted a number of options but can now reveal (cue drum roll) that my ninth 26.2 mile challenge will be the Longford Marathon on 19 August 2018. Yikes! That’s only three months away.

I ran Longford in 2015 and really enjoyed it. It’s a small, mostly rural race which advertises itself as the flattest marathon in Ireland. Now you’re talking. It also promotes itself as the ‘Friendly Marathon’ and I can vouch for that. The goodie bag I received in 2015 could have fed a small family for a week. It helps that their primary sponsor is one of the largest bakeries in the country.

Longford is about a 90 minute drive from where we live which means I can avoid the hassle of an overnight stay. I can leave home early, run the race and still be home at a reasonable hour. It also follows at a perfect time between the Belfast and Dublin Marathons. Now all I have to do is haul my lazy backside back into a training schedule and hit the roads again.

I will of course keep you all updated as to my progress but hopefully not bore all our non running followers too much. As ever this isn’t about me. It’s about promoting the physical and mental benefits of physical exercise and evidencing how it helped turn around the life of a formerly depressed, overweight, binge drinking couch potato. It’s not about running, it’s about finding an activity that can transform your life.

If I can do it, then anyone can. And that includes YOU.

What is your summer target?

We Lost A Friend Today

This was meant to be a weekend of celebrations. The Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan and, more importantly for the men in the Black household, the small matter of the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley between the mighty Manchester United and the not so mighty Chelsea. Harry and William normally attend the final so poor planning on the part of the ginger prince. I wonder if he will have it on at the reception?

The blog also celebrated its first birthday. Yes a year ago this weekend I posted my first rambling thoughts and it’s been downhill ever since. I wanted to thank everyone again for their support and encouragement over these last crazy 12 months. This blog has helped restore my faith in both myself and in my fellow man (and woman). It has breathed new life into old bones and a tired heart. It has been part of my regeneration.

I have proven some people wrong and I hope others right. Those who believed in me and showed faith in me. I also hope I have begun to repay some of that faith back but I know I still have a long road ahead of me. Today I also wanted to share exciting updates on my writing and running projects. Important milestones reached and fresh challenges ahead. All that was placed on hold, however, when we received the news late last night of the death of an old boss of mine.

He had recently retired after a successful policing career where he held senior positions in England, Northern Ireland and Canada. He was a mere 57 years old but as fit as a fiddle. He once cycled the perimeter of Northern Ireland in four days to raise funds for a charity close to my heart. He died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes. The suddenness and close proximity of death once again crashes into our lives scattering our grand plans and schemes in all directions. It cares not. It goes where it wants, when it wants. That is the way of death.

He was a hard taskmaster with high standards but he was also fair. He pushed me when I didn’t want to be pushed and didn’t think I could achieve anymore. He helped mould me into the investigator I am today. He was good to me, had a wicked sense of humour but also a kind heart beneath his stern and imposing work demeanour. He was equally generous towards Fionnuala and the kids. He became a friend to us all with his infectious laugh and cocky swagger.

Blogging is a selfish vocation so I’m naturally going to turn this around to myself. How do I feel? Well, very sad that he is gone and more than a little angry that he is. Angry with myself for not keeping in closer contact with him and angry with God for once again allowing bad stuff to happen to people we care about. I want to know why. But I know my prayers will be met with silence. They always are.

I also feel strengthened. More determined to forge ahead and attain the goals I have set myself in the years I have left. I refuse to take my foot off the accelerator or let the doubters and the mockers drag me down. I refuse to let my many flaws and weaknesses derail me from the path I am currently on. I want my family to be proud of me. There is still so much to do, so much to achieve.

So rest in peace John wherever you are today. I imagine you are cycling hard on some long, straight road with the sun beating down on your back. You lived a short life but you lived it with vigour and purpose. You squeezed every last drop out of it. Thank you for teaching me to look beyond the comfort zone where life is tougher, but ultimately, so much more rewarding and satisfying. I have many reasons for carrying on. You are now another one.

How Is Your Mental Health Today?

The sun is splitting the rocks in Belfast today. That’s if there were any rocks to split. The thermometer has hit 20 degrees celsius no less and pale, podgy people who should really know better are publicly displaying waaaaay too much pale, podgy flesh. Others are sticking rigidly to their philosophy of ‘This is Belfast. It could be snowing in five minutes’ and are refusing to discard their scarves and overcoats. There is an uneasy standoff between the two factions as they exchange disapproving looks at each other in passing.

I wore a suit to work today as I had an important meeting to attend. Jacket, shirt, trousers, even a tie! I normally just wear trousers and an open necked shirt. Smart but not overly formal. My appearance in the office this morning therefore led to all kinds of ‘hilarious’ comments from my colleagues. Ranging from ‘Has somebody died?’ to ‘Is your case up in court today?’Side splitting stuff I’m sure you’ll (not) agree.

People were judging me by my appearance. I looked different from how I usually do and they commented on it accordingly. Just like if I had turned up sporting a Mohican or a neck tattoo they would have noticed. I was a different Stephen from the Stephen they interact with every other day of the week. And they were right. I was a very different Stephen. I was worried sick.

While the peculiar big yellow ball in the sky, also known as the sun, blazed down upon the rest of the city I was walking around with an invisible, but nonetheless, very real cloud of anxiety hanging over me. I had scraped the side of the car on the journey to work and fretted all day about the damage I had caused. It wasn’t much but I was annoyed with myself for trying to drive through a gap that simply wasn’t there.

I was also worried that Fionnuala would be disappointed in my poor decision making and manoeuvring skills. She hurt her legs this morning and the last thing she needed was another tale of woe from a flustered husband. I attempted to explain the damage to the car via text and phone call but in the end she told me to send a photo. I nervously did as instructed and waited for judgement to be passed. The axe swung over my head as her reply arrived…..

And I paraphrase….ahem…’Is that it? I’ve seen bigger dents in your head’.

I had fretted all day and turned a molehill into a mountain. So that when I bared my soul and confessed all I discovered that the outcome was nowhere near as bad as I had initially anticipated. Fear feeds on doubt and indecision. Guilt thrives in the dark. It is only when you step forward into the light that your self inflicted wounds can be identified and treated as opposed to left festering in the shadows.

I got caught telling a tiny white lie the other day, something I saw as irrelevant and inconsequential. But the most devastating of landslides begin with the tiniest trickle of loose earth. I was annoyed at myself and resolved to nip that particular unhealthy practice in the bud when it next occurred; which is did in the case of the scratched car. I was honest and reaped the benefits of telling the truth as opposed to digging an even bigger hole for myself.

Is there a cloud of anxiety following you around today? Are you feeling guilty and need to get something off your chest? My advice? Seize that bothersome bull by the horns and speak to whoever you need to in order to dispel it from your mind. There are too many of us suffering in silence. Our mental health is precious. Speak out today. Before it is too late. You are greater than your fears. Let the sunshine in.

How is your mental health today?

Do you need to get something off your chest?

That Time I Frightened A German Teenager On The London Underground

So there I was yesterday afternoon. Sitting on the tube as it hurtled beneath the streets of London towards our stop. It was packed which meant that my work colleague was sitting further down the carriage whilst I was surrounded by a gaggle of excited German teenagers who had embarked at the previous stop. I decided to give up my seat to one of them and move down the carriage nearer my colleague.

I did this for a number of reasons. Firstly I am a gentleman and an all round top guy. You should always give up your seat to a lady who is standing or at least offer to do so. The fact that 99 times out of 100 I ignore this etiquette on my daily commute in and out of Belfast is besides the point. A mere trifling detail. I’m a Christian and we are all a major disappointment to our God but he loves us anyway, flaws and all. Moving swiftly on.

The real reason I gave up my seat was that I was afraid I would become separated from my colleague at our stop. I can barely find my way around our village back home let alone one of the largest cities in the world. This meant standing for a few moments but I was alright with that. I caught my colleague’s eye and confirmed with her that we would be disembarking at the next stop. All was good and I was an anxiety free Stephen.

That lasted for a fleeting few seconds as I realised that the German teenage girl sitting next to my colleague was looking at me in a manner which meant only one thing. She was considering giving up her seat to me. She saw an opportunity to perform an act of kindness towards an elderly man laden down with luggage in a stuffy, crammed compartment. I saw only humiliation, despair and the end of my middle age.

I had been dreading this day for many years. It would effectively signal the end of my life and send me sailing down the slippery slope of free bus passes, ear hair and knitted cardigans. I fixed her with a desperate expression. ‘Do. Not. Do. It. I am in full possession of my faculties. I ran a sub four hour marathon the other week. I am not your grandfather. There is no need for this you incredibly kind, but hopelessly deluded German teenager. For the love of sweet Jesus. Don’t.’

Of course I said none of the above but my powers of telepathy must have somehow got through to her. Which was cool because (a) I didn’t know I was a telepath and (b) that I was a bi-lingual one at that. She looked away and the moment was gone. I had survived and thankfully disembarked a few moments later. I will never forget that kind German girl. Just as she will probably never forget the crazed, perspiring, staring Irishman who gave her the creeps on the tube.

As near misses go this was probably a Def Con 4 experience. I know that the day is coming when a young person will offer me their seat on public transport. Just as I know that I will respond with maturity and grace by undoubtedly glaring at them before storming off down the carriage in a strop. I increasingly feel as if I’m running out of time and yesterday was merely another example of that. The clock is ticking. Faster than I want it to.

It’s just life and I guess I will have to accept that. Live in the present and enjoy the many positives surrounding me today. Be thankful for what I have, not what I’ve lost or think I need. I am where I am for a reason. I cannot take my eye off that ball. So today this forty something is grateful for what he has – his family, his fractured faith, his fitness….and kind, German teenagers on the London Underground.

What’s been your most humiliating public transport experience?

Are you worried that life is passing you by too quickly?

Travelling Sober

I’m on a works trip to London today and, as I write this, I’m sitting in the lounge at Belfast City Airport awaiting my flight. Everywhere is packed not least the airport bar. In fact no matter what time you are at an airport the bar is packed to the gills. People seem to throw acceptable etiquette concerning alcohol consumption to the kerb when they get airside. No matter what the hour, they can be found downing over priced drinks to their hearts content.

In my drinking days I would have been in the midst of them. It was never too early and some of my most memorable (what I can remember that is) trips to sporting events began at some ungodly hour seeing how many pints of Stella Artois I could get down my neck in the bar before the flight was called. There then followed an Olympian sprint to the departure gate which normally sobered me up sufficiently in order to board the plane. Where I would promptly start drinking again.

And so on. Once checked into the hotel there would be a quick turnaround before the imbibing started again. Food was reluctantly eaten but the primary concern was more alcohol. At some point the evening would become a blur and I would vaguely recall stumbling back to my room following last orders where I would lie comatose for a few hours before the dreaded morning came around. At which point hell would be unleashed.

Waking up in a hotel room in a strange city with a horrific hangover is no laughing matter. Especially if you need to bring your ‘A game’ to an important business meeting in less than two hours time. The fear strikes hard. Did I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues last night? Where did I leave my wallet? Will Fionnuala still be speaking to me when I phone her later? Waves of paranoia and self loathing would sweep over me as I struggled to work out how the shower worked and recovered my crumpled clothes from the floor.

Breakfast was a continuation of the torture. Pushing greasy food around my plate and pretending I wasn’t ‘that rough’ to my invariably chipper colleague who had wisely retired at an early hour to leave me talking to some random stranger about football and the meaning of life. You would always meet the same guy in the lift the following morning and exchange embarrassed small talk before we shuffled off to our respective tables to die the death of a thousand fried eggs while trying to avoid projectile vomiting over the waitress.

There then followed the meeting itself which was always held in a hot, stuffy room. You tried to nod and smile in all the right places while inside your stomach performed somersaults and your inner voice condemned you as the most useless, worthless human being ever to have cast a shadow on God’s earth. Your colleague would make excuses for you and you would thank them profusely during the nightmarish tube journey back to the airport.

Today the strongest liquid I will be partaking of is Diet Coke. I’m giving the bar the widest of berths and muttered about having to fork out £1.15 for a bag of crisps. I’m dragging my colleague out for a run later as opposed to dragging her to a pub. And I fully intend to be tucked up in bed with my book by ten pm at the very latest. Breakfast tomorrow will be a totally angst (and vomit free experience). My wife will be speaking to me and all will be well in the world.

I’m not perfect but I’m feeling perfectly fine today. Progress to becoming a better human being is measured by how you behave when faced with situations that you previously failed miserably at. I’m taking small steps but I’m taking them in the right direction. Sobriety is a choice and I choose it today. Then when I wake up hangover free in my hotel room tomorrow morning I’ll have to make the same decision all over again. It applies to any vice, struggle or temptation you face.

What do you choose today?

What’s been your most horrific airport or hotel experience?

At Least You Know Where You Stand With A Zombie

When it comes to scary movies I’ve never been one for vampires and werewolves. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve dipped my toe into the Twilight series. The werewolves do share our surname after all. But Bella did need a good shake by the end of it all and I was kind of hoping that the oh so perfect Cullen clan would have been wiped out in the final battle. Oh that the entire lot of them had been wiped out by a rampaging zombie horde.

Yes, I’ve always been a zombies man. The most terrified I’ve ever been in a cinema was when, aged seventeen, I went to watch George A. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Partially terrified by the content of the movie but more so that I would be flung out for being under age. You see, zombies are the most misunderstood of creatures. Which is why I’ve always had a soft spot for them. Note to self – never reveal to a zombie you have a soft spot. It will probably end in tears.

Zombies are not evil per se. You will never find a zombie plotting world domination while stroking a cat on its knee. Or constructing a death ray machine capable of reducing us all to dust. That’s all a bit above their pay grade. No, zombies are quite content just shuffling about and eating any humans that are stupid enough to stray within arms’s reach. It doesn’t take much to please a zombie. Just feed them. Regularly.

It’s the people who created the zombies who are the bad guys in all this. And that would be er….us. This is excellently captured in ‘The Walking Dead’ where the undead have effectively become a backdrop to the main story where our heroes battle the real monsters – their fellow man. Zombies don’t lie and steal and betray. There’s no need for them to as the survivors are doing a perfectly good job of it themselves.

Our natural instinct is to fear such apocalyptic scenarios. That classic icebreaker – ‘What would you do in the event of a zombie apocalypse?’ has us all breaking out into a cold sweat. Personally I don’t think I would last five minutes. Unless Fionnuala was there to hold my hand. My survival skills are minuscule at best and I’ve even less common sense; although my marathon running might give me a fighting chance of at least outpacing them for 26 miles or so. Following that I would most likely expire quickly afterwards. Ho hum.

The bonus of a zombie rampage is at least you know where the real monsters are: clue – they’re the shuffling, stinking undead wanting to gnaw on your neck. In the real world we have no idea where the monsters lurk, but oh they lurk. The difficulty is they look no different than you or I. It can be that handsome, respectable guy you meet at the bar; or the unassuming woman you strike up a friendship with at work. It can be anyone, anywhere and at anytime.

They don’t even have to be part of your real world. Don’t believe me? Go online and prepare to enter a whole new world of pain. Catfishing, ghosting, bullying, blackmail, it’s all there. People who you think you know and can open up to turn out to be figments of warped imaginations. They get a kick out of inflicting venom and bile from behind the comparative safety of their keyboards and phone screens.

Fear is fear and pain is pain whether it’s le being chased from your home in the dead of night by the armies of dead or realising that the real monster is the person you thought you could trust and rely upon. At least you know where you stand with you local, neighbourhood zombie. He may not have your best interests at heart but he’s consistent if nothing else. He might munch on your heart for a bit. But he’ll never break it.

What are your views on this post. Please comment below. Let’s talk!

I’m A Christian But I Still Worry

I am a natural born worrier. Ever since I can remember I have fretted and frowned my way through life. I can turn the slightest molehill into Mount Everest and the most innocuous issue into the mother of all dramas. Every week I look at my diary and am appalled by the appointments and commitments I have to navigate in order to make it through to the following weekend. If I wasn’t worrying about something then I’d be worried that I wasn’t worrying.

I worry about areas of my life that I suppose it is socially acceptable to worry about. My family, my work, paying the bills, all the normal stresses and strains of everyday life. But I also worry about upcoming events where I should be feeling a sense of anticipation and excitement as opposed to anxiety and edginess. I worry about my next run, my next writing session, my next day off.

Why am I worrying about events which should be reducing my stress levels as opposed to increasing them? Why do I place myself under this intense pressure? A lot of it comes down to my sense of worth and value. I beat myself up a lot about my past. I don’t like myself a lot of the time and I feel I have let a lot of people down, not least myself. So I try to be a better husband, a better father, a better person. Then worry myself sick when I sense I’m not quite at the level I believe I should be at.

I’m also trying to prove people wrong. Again myself included. That I’m not a failure, that I’m not a waste of time and space. That they were wrong to judge me and conclude I was a walking disaster. That I can succeed. So I set the bar so very high then worry as to how I am going to attain all the targets and goals I have set. And every time I reach one the sense of satisfaction is fleeting as I immediately focus on the next one.

As a Christian the Bible tells me not to worry. It’s chock full of verses to that effect. If you google ‘Bible verses worry’ you will be inundated. Jesus devotes a good chunk of Matthew 6 to the subject. Which, of course, makes me even worse when I worry. I’m worrying because Jesus told me not to worry. I’m not following his teaching, therefore I’m being disobedient, therefore I’m sinning. Oh woe is me.

But hang on a minute. Isn’t the Bible full of worriers? Great men of God who instead of glibly trusting the Almighty hummed and haahed with the best of them. Wouldn’t Noah have fretted when he sent the dove from the ark and then sat all those days waiting? What about David when Nathan told him God knew all about his little dalliance with Bathsheba? Or Paul (The Artist Formerly Known As Saul) when he was struck blind on his way to Damascus?

I reckon they all worked themselves into a right lather. Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Peter the list goes on. Jesus was without sin but he also experienced the same emotions as you and I. When he had his ‘moment’ in Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion did he experience dread and uncertainty? Was he worried about what was to come? He was God but he was also human and susceptible to human frailties. He got tired, he got hungry, he got angry. He worried?

The lesson I believe is how he and the others dealt with it. Yes, they worried but instead of succumbing to it they forged on ahead and overcame their fears in order to accomplish what God wanted them to. Paul became the greatest missionary ever known, Peter founded the Church we know today, Jesus went to the Cross and saved mankind. Their worries were temporary states of mind yet their achievements when they pressed on through are permanent and can never be taken away from them.

I’m a worrier. I was born one and I’ll probably die one. It’s the way I am. I can’t change that. But I can change how I handle my anxiety. Instead of crumbling under the strain and giving up I can persevere and get through it. I can pray for God not to remove the worry but to get me through it to the other side. Having faith means trusting God to guide you along the rocky paths, not removing them altogether. For the journey equips you with the attributes you require for when you get to where you are meant to be. And that’s where the real work starts.

What do you worry about?

How do you cope with worry?

Is it a sin to be a Christian and worry?

Awkward Conversations With People We Love

It’s the weekend and Rebecca and I are off to not so sunny Omagh to visit my dear old mother. We shall talk about the weather, soap operas and our various aches and pains. It’s what mothers and sons talk about isn’t it? Rebecca shall ask 34,575 questions on the way there and back. I shall answer approximately 8 of these and reply ‘I don’t know’ or ‘ask your mother’ to the remainder.

Mother will have prepared an extravagant lunch and insist that I eat everything placed in front of me or she will take offence. Have you ever seen that episode of ‘Father Ted’ where Mrs. Doyle insists that Ted takes a cup of tea? That’s Mother politely insisting that I take another chocolate biscuit and me politely declining because I’ve already eaten three and I’m fit to burst. Until I finally crumble and eat it. Anything for an easy life.

I only get to visit my mother about once a month although we do speak on the phone every evening. I make a real effort to maintain a relationship with her, especially since my father died eight years ago. She has lived a very quiet life since then having never really recovered from his loss. My sister and I have both tried to bring her out of her shell but she has stubbornly deflected all our best efforts.

Some evenings we have very little to talk about. She is a private person so feelings and emotions rarely break the surface. Some nights there is very little to talk about but I still make the effort. Often it is an exasperating monologue on my part with very little involvement on her part. Other times I can’t get her to stop talking. On occasion I’m tired and the last thing I want to do is make the call. I still do it anyway.

As mother-son relationships go ours is fine. It plods along. We love each other although we very rarely tell each other that we do. Heaven forbid! It is unspoken but it is known and no less stronger for that. I am blessed that I still have my mother. Every conversation we have is a gift, a bonus, an opportunity. Sometimes they feel like a chore, a duty, an obligation; but I never take them for granted because one day one of us will be gone and there will be no more talking.

I realised that when my father died. We also had a rocky relationship at times and there are many words I wished I had said to him before he left us. I hope he knows how I felt about him and what a positive and lasting impression his life has left upon mine. Often when I need to talk to Adam I wonder if what I say will impact upon his life and the choices he makes in the years to come. I pray that I speak wisely and guide him down the right paths.

Mothers Day has already passed in the U.K. but I realise that many of you further afield will be celebrating it this weekend. For those of you fortunate enough to still have your mothers with you make the most of this opportunity. Many of us, for a plethora of reasons, are unable to talk to our mothers or fathers this weekend no matter how badly we want to or how hard we have tried to. Some bridges cannot be crossed in death or life.

Our parents are not perfect but then neither are we. We are all human. And that means we are all flawed. So if you have to endure an awkward conversation with a parent or sibling this weekend just take a deep breath and get on with it. They are probably thinking exactly the same thought when they look at their phone and realise it’s you calling. Yet they will answer and make the effort just as you will. Through gritted, yet loving, teeth. Because that’s what we do.

Do you have awkward conversations with relatives?

Is there a relative you would give anything to talk to today?

Why Do You Write?

Why do I bother?

Why do I write?

Why do I struggle with words every night?

To convince all the wronged

The despised and forlorn

That they’re not alone and can survive the scorn.

So I’m penning a story

Of hope and redemption

I’m screaming it loud so I’ll get your attention.

You click and you like and you comment and follow

But have you considered why you feel so hollow?

So empty inside, so frayed at the seams.

Consumed by dark nightmares which once were bright dreams.

Your plight has been sanctioned

Left bitter and vanquished

And try as you might you’re all out of lost chances.

Friendships, romances all of them dead

You made this mess so best lie in your bed.

Your soul is in tatters

You’ve lost all that matters.

Dragged down rabbit holes, you’re the maddest of hatters.

But I’ve been where you are

I will show you my scars

I was dead in the gutter

But could still taste the stars.

Stripped bare but He cared

He reached down to me there

Grace cloaked my disgrace

From the whispers and stares.

So that’s why I write

I’ve recovered my sight

Scales fallen from eyes

To reveal truth and might.

Better times lie ahead

For the damned and the dead

Turn your back to the lies and embrace truth instead.

Why do you write?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

It’s been a quiet week on the novel writing front due to weddings, marathons and life in general. As ever this has raised my anxiety levels but I realise there are only so many hours in the day and I need to sleep at some point. I’m currently working on the final climactic chapters of the first draft which are largely action based and which draw all the main characters for the first time to the one location.

The word count is hovering at just over 100K and I reckon another 20K should do it. I just have to cram in a satisfying conclusion for Book 1 plus enough loose ends to tease the reader into Book 2. This is no easy task let me tell you. I have major decisions to make as I know not all of my main characters are going to see Book 2. Creating and maintaining tension whilst simultaneously remaining credible and ensuring consistency and continuity is a serious feat of mental juggling.

It’s sad putting so much effort into developing characters when you suddenly realise you have reached the end of the road with them. Such sacrifices, however, are necessary for the overall plot and structure. This is dark YA fantasy literature so everyone cannot happily sail off into the sunset much as I might like them to. The main characters are continually walking the paths of the dead and, inevitably, some will not make it to the other side.

Following the first draft the serious editing process begins. My fear is that I discover chapters I wrote some months ago are utterly rubbish and have to start all over again. I’m almost afraid to dip into them again. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and am my own worst critic. I know, as an author, that constructive feedback is essential in order to develop and improve but the scared little boy inside of me is still terrified to take that step. Hopefully it will come with time and experience.

I also have a stack of research work to complete in respect of developing the back stories of several of the main characters. This will involve books on mental health, military history and a plethora of other topics. I warn you now. My characters are an eclectic bunch thrown together by circumstance from all corners of the globe and history onto the streets of modern day Belfast. There will be carnage and lots of it.

I’m currently preparing a review of a book by a well established, published author who contacted me after she read my blog and thought we had similar writing styles. I hope to post that in the next week or so but if any other published or unpublished writers would like me to review their work then please get in touch. I’m also checking out a site where unpublished writers can connect and share feedback and ideas.

As far as the blog itself, Fionnuala posted sneakily yesterday after we passed 5000 followers. I wanted to pass this milestone quietly but, as ever, she had different ideas. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who sent me such kind and thoughtful messages. I’m just me and very undeserving of them but thank you anyway. They have bolstered my confidence and motivated me to forge on with my writing and running.

As for future plans. Well you can expect posts on topics as diverse as the noble art of boiling an egg to the considerably less noble art of catfishing; more of my unique take on famous biblical stories; and news of my next marathon project which I hope to tackle during the summer months. Plus all of the usual crazy nonsense that incorporates our million mile an hour lives. Thank you again for your continued support.

Are you a published or unpublished author? Where are you at on your journey?

Would you read a dark fantasy adventure set in modern day Belfast with spiritual and historical themes as detailed above?

All feedback is much appreciated. Please post your comments below.

We are proud of you

Around this time last year Stephen wasn’t in a great place which is no big secret as he regularly blogs about it. As a result of his state of mind back then I encouraged him to do what he loved to do again and that was to write which was when this blog was birthed.

Over the last year Stephen has fought his demons by putting pen to paper or in this case fingertips to the keyboard and he has broke down many barriers and obstacles.

The reason I am writing this is because today this blog has reached 5000 followers. I noticed last night that it was at 4995 and asked him was he going to blog about it and he said no that it would come across that he was boasting. Stephen is a very selfless person nowadays the old Stephen, which he refers to himself as, would be shouting this from every platform possible. I am writing this because I am bursting with pride at the man, husband, father and my best friend he is now and of everything he has accomplished via this blog.

Congratulations on the 5000 Followers Stephen and the first year of Fractured Faith Blog.

Fionnuala, Adam, Hannah & Rebecca xxxx

The Vultures Are Circling

Life can seem pretty perfect at times. Everything is trundling along just as it should be and we are enveloped in the comforting glow of permanent sunshine. We are in love and loved. We are healthy and bursting with positivity for the future. We have big plans and bigger dreams. Our family form a protective circle around us. Nobody is missing. Everything is as it should be.

Our friends are genuine, loyal and ever present. They are there for us, just as we are for them. They are selfless and attentive, responding to our needs and concerns as we do theirs. They are relationships based on trust and equality. There is no Judas in the room, no silent assassin the shadows waiting to lunge forward and slide a dagger of deceit between our ribs. Piercing organs, tasting death.

We are physically and mentally strong. We fear nothing. The demons within us are silent for they have been conquered and vanquished. Where once they were sovereign and many they are now scattered and few. They skulk in the shadows of our psyche, licking their wounds and dreaming of times when they wreaked havoc and rampaged through our consciousness, hellbent on destroying everything we held sacred.

We are confident and comfortable as we stand on the ramparts and look out across the plain. We see no dangers on the horizon, no dust clouds to indicate an approaching enemy. Our defences are high and strong. We raise our faces to the blue skies above and let the sun caress our skin. Yes, life is perfect. For we have made it that way through our blood, sweat and tears. We have built this sanctuary with our own hands. We deserve no less.

But suddenly something catches our attention high above. The tiniest of specks. Just the one…no wait…two….three. Silently circling our citadel of calm. Circling. Waiting. For the inevitable storm is coming. It could arrive in the dead of night when the phone rings unexpectedly. Or it may be more subtle and innocuous. An innocent text message, a conversation, a glance. That is when they will swoop from above.

When they do it will be sudden and brutal. They will take no prisoners and they will show no mercy. Their goal is a simple one – your complete and utter destruction. They will butcher everything and everyone you once held precious until the streets are awash with blood and the cries of the desperate are silenced. Then they will turn and laugh in your face. For you knew nothing after all. You are broken and beaten, your fortress lying in ruins around you.

Rain or shine, they are always there. Our hovering harbingers. Their eyes miss nothing, they are ever vigilant. Their patience is immeasurable. Waiting, always waiting. For the slightest chink in your armour, the tiniest gap in your defences. And when that first breach is made they will flood through with an unprecedented fury, slaying all those foolish enough to stand in their path.

So use these days wisely. When all around you seems serene never let your guard down. Never become complacent, never relax. For that is all they require. One lapse, one slip, one moment of madness. Then you will look to the skies above and watch helplessly as your carefully constructed world implodes around you. Their joy is your devastation. The vultures are coming….

How are your defences today? Do they require bolstering?

Are you aware of vultures circling above in your life?

Belfast Marathon 2018 – Recap

You’re probably all bored silly by my marathon exploits so I promise this will be the last one….for a while anyway. Fionnuala did a great job providing updates yesterday but that was nothing compared to the support that her and the kids offered at various points along the route. They must have covered a fair few miles themselves getting about and it was a logistical masterclass traversing Belfast on marathon day with three kids, one of whom was wreaking havoc in her motorised wheelchair.

Thankfully the day wasn’t as hot as predicted and running conditions were perfect. It was dry and mild with hardly any wind – I couldn’t have asked for much better. My original plan had been to set out with the 3:45 pacers and I started roughly 30 seconds after them thinking I could reel them in over the first few miles. Unfortunately I’m not sure what instructions they were given but they certainly weren’t running at 3:45 pace. I never got within touching distance as they steadily disappeared over the horizon.

Experience kicked in and I didn’t panic. I let them go, knowing that pursuing them would have been suicidal. I knew I was running well within my sub 4 hour target. As long as I stayed ahead of the 4 hour pacers I was fine. At Mile 7 I saw Fionnuala and the kids for the first time. Adam ran alongside me to hand over a tub of Vaseline as I had stupidly left mine in the car. Vaseline is a marathon runner’s best friend when it comes to chafing issues. I won’t horrify you with the gory details but it’s not a pretty sight let me tell you.

There then followed a number of hilly miles up into West Belfast and over into the north of the city. I hit a little blip at around Mile 10 when I saw ahead a hill I had completely forgotten existed. Two miles later I hit the Antrim Road, a three mile gradual ascent out of the city. This is a section of the race traditionally feared by runners but I was surprised at how strong I felt going up it. At halfway I checked my watch and knew I was well ahead of my target time.

At the top of the Antrim Road there follows a steep descent. I clicked my fastest mile of the race here – 7:59 no less. I made sure I took on fluids and gels at every opportunity as the number of walking wounded I passed increased with every mile. At Mile 17 you hit a towpath which takes you back along the side of Belfast Lough into the city. It’s a lonely section with no crowd support but I just kept telling myself to plod along as close to 9 minute mile pace as I could. I was still well ahead of schedule.

Miles 20 and 21 are through the Belfast Harbour Estate which again is a rather soulless experience. But then I was back in the city again and running through big crowds, along roads that I regularly cover during lunchtime training sessions. The towpath along the River Lagan is an old friend and I tried to convince myself that this was just another 7 mile training run. I was counting down the miles now as I swung onto the Ormeau Road where some of the largest crowds are gathered.

At Mile 23 I saw Team Black again. Adam appeared from nowhere to run alongside me with a handful of jelly beans. Rebecca then joined us and I could hear Fionnuala and Hannah cheering from the sidelines. It spurred me on as the next mile was a horrible ascent where I really started to struggle. It was my slowest mile of the race (9:42) but again I knew, barring an utter disaster, I was going to clock under 4 hours. I kept putting one foot ahead of the other and eventually reached the top of the road which then swung left and thankfully flattened out.

I was starting to relax and take in the atmosphere. The crowd support was fantastic. People at the roadside kept offering sweets, chocolates and drinks but I no longer needed them as I passed Mile 25. One final slight ascent and I turned left onto the Annadale Embankment. I could now see the finishing line to my left in Ormeau Park. At Mile 26 I saw the final turn into the park. Then it was just a matter of the finishing straight. People were calling my name but I had no idea who they were.

I crossed the line in 3:51:10, well within my 4 hour target. Fionnuala and the kids were waiting for me at the finish line where I collected my finishers medal and t-shirt. I was stiff and sore and had some impressive blisters but other than that felt fine. Saying that, the walk back to the car took more out of me than the marathon itself. The rest of the day consisted of a hot bath, lots of liquids and even more ice cream and cake. I want to again thank all my fellow bloggers for the support and encouragement they have given me along the way.

So that was Marathon number 8. Plans for number 9 are already underway *collective groan*.

The Night Before….

This time tomorrow I will have completed my eighth marathon. Today is all about resting as much as possible, loading up on pasta and getting an early night. The race starts at 9 a.m. tomorrow and the forecast is for a warm day. I’m glad it’s going to be dry but I’m wary of the heat. Even if it means slowing a little I’ll make sure to get plenty of fluids on board at the water stations.

My target is to run sub four hours and I’m planning to go out with the 3:45 pacers and stick with them for as long as possible. That will allow me a comfort cushion if I slow in the latter part of the race. I’ll post a review tomorrow. In the meantime any kind prayers or thoughts forwarded to Northern Ireland tonight will be gratefully received. See you all on the other side.

I’m Stephen. I’m Sober And Socially Awkward

My anxiety levels were fairly high yesterday morning as we set off to attend the wedding of Fionnuala’s brother, Gearard, to his fiancée, Emma. Ever since I gave up drinking five years ago I have struggled at social events, especially those where I have to interact with people I don’t know. Alcohol was my crutch to get through these occasions. I was always the first person to get drunk and usually ended up sleeping in the corner just as the party was getting going.

My strategy yesterday was to keep busy and ensure Fionnuala and the kids had a great day. Hannah had to be a bridesmaid and the other three all had roles during the church service. All I had to do was turn up in a suit and not embarrass my daughters with my ‘dad dancing.’ I had been well warned beforehand. The second I started busting out my moves was the second I would be forcibly evicted from the venue.

I spent the morning performing taxi duties ferrying Fionnuala, the girls and my beloved mother in law to and from various hair and beauty salons. I also paid a visit to the florists to collect button holes as well as ferrying the worryingly relaxed groom from his house to where the car would be coming to convey him to the chapel. Some of the men had a beer beforehand but I stuck to the Diet Coke.

The service ran smoothly. The bride turned up five minutes early. Hannah looked amazing and performed her role perfectly while a bird flew around the rafters of the chapel for the entire service leading the priest to comment that the Holy Spirit was well and truly in the building. The weather was mild and dry which is basically all you can ask for in the land of driving rain and bitter cold.

When we arrived at the reception venue there was iced beer and sparkling wine on the patio overlooking the lawns. This would have been the beginning of the end for the old Stephen as I would have enthusiastically launched myself into the complimentary alcohol. I would have been drunk well before the meal and speeches and no doubt making a total fool of myself in the process. Weddings were always a disaster for me in that respect.

I had no internal shut-off mechanism when I drank. I was a binge drinker and would consume as much beer as I could as quickly as I could. My sole objective was to get inebriated as this killed my innate shyness and social awkwardness. I thought I was the life and soul of the party when in reality I was the talk of the party. And for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Even worse was the sight of me the next day. Horribly hungover and gripped by self pity and a fear as to what I had said or done the previous day.

Today, however, I woke with a clear head. Tired, yes, but still able to run 10K, my final training run before the Belfast Marathon. I was out of my comfort zone yesterday. I’m not very good at small talk and feel uncomfortable around people drinking alcohol. The temptation is no longer there but it brings back a lot of bad memories. I did my best, however, to get into the party mood and, most of all, ensure that Fionnuala and the kids had a great day.

In the end they did. And so did I. The meal was great and the speeches entertaining. I even got a mention in the groom’s speech. Afterwards there was cake, a magician and Star Wars figures. Well it was May the Fourth after all. Hannah even allowed me on the dance floor to shake my thang towards the end of the night. There is video evidence of my shape throwing somewhere on Facebook apparently. We didn’t get home until almost two in the morning. A great day.

Who needs alcohol?

Are you socially awkward? How do you deal with it?

Hobbits, Dinosaurs And Gnashing Of Teeth – My Study Of The Book Of Job

A while back I posted a blog about my struggles with the Bible entitled I’m A Christian But I Don’t Read The Bible. It engendered an amazing response and it was a great comfort to learn that I was not the only person with difficulties in this spiritual area. What it also did was encourage me to pick up my dusty Bible and try again. Obviously I needed to break myself in gently again so I chose a book that would allow me to ease back in to scriptural life.

So I started on Job….

Oh Job, where do I begin. Not only is it one of the longest books in the Bible, it’s also one of the most frustrating and impenetrable. For those of you who haven’t endured (I mean basked in its glory) here’s a potted synopsis.

So Job is the richest man in the Old Testament. He has it all. A large, loving family who appear to all get on with each other. Unheard of I know! More livestock than a Texan rancher. Plus he’s Gods main man. Wise, faithful and apparently without blemish. He has it all. Until one day Satan (hiss! boo!) challenges God. Let me have a pop at Job and we’ll see what a goody two shoes he is. I’ll have him cursing your name faster than you can saddle a camel.

I’m not sure how long it takes to saddle a camel but just go with me on this one.

God agrees, like obviously, and before long Job is beset with all sorts of tragedies. His family and livestock are all wiped out in a series of highly suspicious enemy raids and natural disasters. Except for his nagging wife. Hmmmm. Is she in on the act? Job reacts like any Old Testament character having a bad day would. Teeth are gnashed, robes are torn and the wailing commences. Pretty standard really.

Job’s three best mates then roll into town. One of them is called Bildad which sounds a bit like Bilbo so I’ve always imagined him as a hobbit. Smoking a pipe and with big, hairy feet. At first they do nothing. Literally nothing. For a week they all sit around and do nothing but watch Job wailing and gnashing. It must have been totally awkward. Have they never heard of small talk to break the ice. Funny weather we’re having? Err…maybe not. How are the kids? Nope….not that one either.

Anyway…..

Eventually they do. Start talking that it is. And how we wish they hadn’t. There then follows thirty odd chapters of them berating poor old Job. As if he hasn’t enough to deal with he also has the worst friends. Ever. The gist of it is that God wouldn’t have allowed this for no reason. Mr. Perfect Pants Job must have some pretty sordid skeletons lurking in his closet, some grisly secrets that have led to him getting his comeuppance. They’re kind of gloating and how Job resisted slapping them in the face I’ll never know.

That’s the patience of Job I guess.

To be fair he gives as good as he gets. It’s handbags at dawn as he argues his case and bemoans how God could have treated such an all round good guy like him in such an unfair fashion. It’s a pity party par excellence. Seriously this guy would have given David a run for his money in the complaining stakes. If God had allowed Job to write the psalms I reckon the Bible would have ended up twice as long.

That’s the impatience of Job I guess.

Another bloke turns up whose name I can’t remember off the top of my head. It begins with an ‘E’. But he’s definitely not a hobbit. He has a pop at Job as well until eventually God gets fed up with the lot of them and intervenes. Finally! This is when Job is reminded who the boss is and how clueless he really is about life, the universe and everything. The Almighty gives him a large piece of his omnipotent and omniscient mind. Job and his buddies are well and truly put in their respective boxes.

God takes them on a crash course of creation, reminding them that they haven’t a leg to stand on when it comes to questioning his authority and plans for the cosmos. He basically tells them to zip it, concluding with incredible accounts of Behemoth and Leviathan, fantastic creatures which he brought into existence. There has been much debate as to what these creatures may have been. Hippos? Crocodiles?

When I read it all I could think of was a brontosaurus (behemoth) and fire breathing dragon (leviathan). The Book of Job had moved from Middle Earth to Westeros in my mind….via Jurassic Park. In the end Job holds his hands up to God and concludes You’re right God. I’ve no right to question you. You know best and I’m just going to have to trust you on this one’. For his resilience God rewards him by doubling what he had before with regards his by doubling children and livestock.

And they all lived happily ever after….

Job left me bewildered and baffled at times but it also reignited my love of interpreting Bible stories. It has also inspired me to write a series of posts over the next few weeks focusing on themes I have touched upon in the above paragraphs; themes such as friendship, forgiveness and suffering. Not to mention the hobbits and dinosaurs. I hope, believer or not, you get something from the series. It might make you think, I might make you smile or it might annoy you so much you never read another post of mine. Let’s find out shall we?

What do you think the Behemoth and Leviathan were?

Have you ever had friends as useless as Job?

I’m Broken. Are You?

I’m broken.

There I’ve said it. I’m in bits. And you know what. I’ve never felt so good. Why you may ask? Have you finally lost the plot, Stephen, and floated off to the land of fairies and pixie dust? Possibly but let me explain. Then if you still think I’ve lost my senses I’ll quite happily wait for the men in white coats to come and cart me off the nearest secure facility. Deal? Great. Then I’ll proceed.

For many years I thought I was the Big ‘I am’. I knew best and anyone who thought otherwise was a clueless fool who didn’t deserve my attention. I knew best when it came to my work/life balance. I knew best when it came to my mental health. I knew best when it came to my alcohol consumption. I knew best when it came to my addictive and inappropriate behaviour. I knew best.

Then one day I realised that I didn’t, that in fact I knew nothing. I knew nothing about the needs of my loved ones. I knew nothing of the hurt I had caused them. I knew nothing of the long term damage I was causing myself and others. I knew nothing of the depths I had sank to in my endless pursuit of the next high, the next thrill, the next rush. Anything to fill the ragged, gaping hole inside of me that, try as I might, I could not breach.

Realising that you are in fact clueless as to how you have been leading your life is a sobering thought. Some refer to it as the end of the road, others rock bottom. Either way, most regard it as a dark place from which there is no return. Where you lie shattered and twisted, beyond redemption. Brokenness is seen as the end, a failure that irrevocably defines you. It is the end. I disagree. I view brokenness as the beginning.

The best thing about hitting rock bottom is that you can’t go any lower. Impact is preferable to continued free fall. It is liberating as it instigates a change that you must accept. Brokenness makes us face the reality of who we are. We can no longer hide in a world of fantasy and lies. We have no option but to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the cold light of day. We might not like what we see but it is the truth. And the truth is the key that will set us free.

When you are broken you are forced to choose a path. You can lie there in a mangled heap at the bottom of your pit of pity or you can rebuild. Brokenness offers hope, a new start and a new way. Less than two years ago I lay broken. Mentally and spiritually. I chose to rebuild. I started to glue the pieces back together again. A slow, painful process for all concerned but a process all the same.

The glue can be whatever you need it to be. For me it was my family and fractured faith. They were my therapy. They led me to this blog where I chose to bare my soul on a regular basis. A risk I know but one I was prepared to take, one I needed to take. A safe place where I could lick my wounds and breathe again. A place where I discovered a community of equally broken souls. Trying to find their way back to the light.

There is beauty in our brokenness. The cracks expose our old, toxic selves and allow the bitter bile of our past lives to seep away, drop by drop. Brokenness purges and cleanses us. It allows the light to flood in and reveal who we really are. And if we choose not to flinch and look away we can see our real selves waiting to be reborn and rise from the mess that was. Ready to start again. Broken yet yearning to be whole again.

I was broken but I strive to be whole again. This blog is part of that journey. It will be a year old in a couple of weeks and is just one of the steps on the ladder I have climbed to emerge from the dark abyss where I once lay bruised and bleeding. If you are lying in that same abyss today facing a similar fate know this – it is an opportunity to rebuild. You can go no lower. Seize that first rung and start to haul yourself back to the life you were born to live.

Brokenness is a gift. Take it. Unwrap it. Use it. Today.

I’m broken. Are you?

I’m A Christian But I Don’t Do Hugs

Every night before the girls go to bed we perform the same routine where they kiss us and tell Fionnuala and myself ‘Night Night. Love you. See you in the morning’. We hug them and repeat the same words back to them. It’s a nightly tradition that I hope never ends. We are lucky if we get a grunt out of Adam but he’s a fifteen year old boy who doesn’t ‘do’ emotion. Unless it involves a rugby ball.

Fionnuala and I are not a touchy feely couple. You know the cringeworthy types who invoke eye rolling and ‘get a room’ asides from us as they stick their tongues down each other’s throats at the first available opportunity in public displays of their undying love for one another. Until they split up three months later in the messiest manner possible on Facebook allowing the rest of us to feel very smug and shoot one another ‘I told you so’ looks.

We love each other and are secure in the knowledge of that. We don’t need to ram it down other people’s throats (pardon the pun) every time we step out the front door. Neither of us come from ‘hugging’ backgrounds. Unless hugging our siblings by the throat counts. Our families just don’t do open displays of affection. It doesn’t mean we love each other any less than families that do. It’s just not us.

Imagine our horror then when we became Christians and realised that many of said community loved nothing more than hugging it out at the drop of a hat. It didn’t matter if they had known you for thirty seconds or thirty years you were enveloped in a totally unreciprocated bear hug that always seemed to last an eternity. I would stand there awkwardly, both arms the same length, saying my first, heartfelt prayer of the day.

Please God. Make it stop. Now.

I have been known to enter churches by the side entrance to avoid roaming welcome teams hellbent on refusing you admission unless you get your hug on. I’ve felt like a NFL running back trying to jink through a gap in their defensive line and high step it down the aisle to the end zone that is our regular seat. The service itself offers a blessed reprieve but the mayhem commences again afterwards over tea and coffee. They are everywhere and they will stop at nothing. Nothing I tell you.

Only to be outdone by high fiving, guitar wielding youth leaders the hugging mafia know nothing of social boundaries or awkwardness. Because God loves hugging. The Old Testament is full of it right? My anxiety levels rise. If (and it’s a big if) I get to heaven and stand before Jesus will he be offended if I offer him a firm handshake as opposed to a WWE stylee rib crusher that will have me tapping out within seconds.

I break out in a cold sweat when I think of an eternity of unnecessary physical contact and really average worship music. Will there be a separate heaven for Flyleaf and Nirvana fans where we can all nod at each other and avoid eye contact where possible? Where it’s okay to feel a bit fed up now and again and not have to walk around with a permanently plastered on rictus grin a la The Joker.

I hope Jesus can accommodate me. I love him and I want nothing more than to learn his ways and become more like him. But I’m me and that unfortunately involves sarcasm, grumpiness and the very occasional expletive. I blame him. He made me like this but I’m certain he did so for a perfectly valid reason. Im not sure why but hope one day he will sit me down and explain it all in words of three syllables or less.

So that when he does and the recognition finally dawns on my face I can smile and realise that he was right all along. Who knows….I might even give him a hug 😉

Are you a hugger? Or do you squirm from their grasps and run screaming for the exit?

Will Heaven be a hug free zone for you?

What’s Been Your Best/Worst Wedding Experience?

Good Morning from a sunny (yes, you heard that right) sunny Northern Ireland. This is a big week for the Black Family. As well as the usual work and school madness Fionnuala’s brother is getting married on Friday. Hannah will be a bridesmaid and Fionnuala, Adam and Rebecca all have roles to perform during the service as well. All I have to do is shave and turn up on time in a suit and tie. I think even I can manage that.

My question for you this morning is what is your best and/or worst wedding experience. You are not allowed to include your own as I don’t want to be the instigator of multiple divorce proceedings here. The funnier or weirder the better. I’ll post another blog post later as I have more exciting news for you all. Bet you just can’t wait!

What’s been your best/worst wedding experience?

List your comments below.

I’m Writing A Book….Still

The irony is not lost on me that if this series continues for much longer I will have effectively written a book about writing a book. That aside, I made further steady process this week. Around 5000 words to be precise. This involved a series of dialogues between several of the main characters which sets the scene for the final chapters which will be primarily action based.

I enjoy writing dialogue and watching the characters bounce off one another and develop accordingly. I’ve blogged before that many of my narrative ideas come to me during the physical act of writing so my fingers often find it hard to keep up with the plot as it comes tumbling out of my mind. These are my best moments when the book feels as if it is writing itself and I’m just frantically fighting to cling on to this particular literary runaway train.

The main characters continue to come to life before my very eyes. They are broken underdogs struggling to come to terms with the frightening responsibility which has been heaped upon their shoulders. A week ago in the story arc they were just struggling to get by in their drab, dreary worlds. Now those struggles are the least of the worries as they interact with creatures and conflicts far beyond their craziest dreams.

They do so with a healthy dollop of cynicism, sarcasm and dark humour. So much so that I often forget that I have a story to drive forward when often I find the dialogue meandering off script into tributaries of obscure pop culture reference and ‘in jokes’. I also have to constantly remind myself that I’m writing for a universal audience so therefore have to cut back on the Northern Irish colloquialisms. Bout ye. Dead on. Stick it out. Etc. Ad nauseum.

I’ve been circling the final chapters for some weeks now but feel I have reached the point where I can finally swoop and feast upon them. I’m also at the stage where I’m ready to send a sample chapter out to some trusted people for review and feedback. This is one of the most nerve wracking parts of the process. I need honesty but have I a thick enough skin to deal with that. There is only one way to find out I suppose.

As ever time is an issue. In an ideal world I would lock myself away for a month and just blast it out. Unfortunately I live in the real world so I’ve been writing where I can and when I can. This has been a disjointed and largely unsatisfactory process but it’s all I’ve got at present until that first six figure advance drops into my bank account. Yeah right, Stephen. Meanwhile back in the real world.

As ever I want to thank my family for their support. Fionnuala is not a ‘book’ person (she’s far too busy with life for that) but patiently listens to my writing gripes and complaints while providing IT emergency response every time I forget to save three hours of writing and go into full blown meltdown. She really is the brains (and looks) behind the operation. She also administers well placed kicks in the backside every time I wallow in self pity.

I want to thank our WordPress readers as well for the constant stream of support and encouragement. Your advice and willingness to share your own writing experiences, good and bad, continue to comfort, inspire and motivate me. Without your support of the blog I would never have had the belief or confidence to step out on this journey in the first place. For that I will always be grateful irrespective of whether or not this book ever sees light of day.

Please add your comments and feedback below. My skin needs toughening!

Belfast Marathon Update

I bought these bad boys yesterday and will be breaking them in over the next week or so in advance of the Belfast Marathon on 7th May. It will be my third Belfast Marathon and my eighth in total. I’ve never entered a marathon feeling less confident but I’m hoping that new running shoes will give me the boost I need to cover the 26.2 miles in my target time of sub four hours. We shall see.

Cheap Date

I had another long work day yesterday so booked today off in order that Fionnuala and I could go shopping for new outfits for her brothers wedding next week. We hardly ever get time together alone so vowed that we would make the most of it. A romantic lunch perhaps? It was pay day after all so the world, or at least Belfast, was our oyster. I hate oysters by the way. Most seafood actually.

I think the last time I went clothes shopping was 1998. It was a Tuesday afternoon if my memory serves me right. I used to be a right clothes horse. I would only wear designer brands. Everything was a label. I thought I was Noel Gallagher. In reality I was a bit of a prat. But clothes shopping was a major pastime for me. I knew where to go for all the best brands and bargains.

Fast forward twenty years and I am clueless. All the shops I knew are gone, replaced by retailers that mean nothing to me. I’m less fussy now. I just want a blue or a grey suit. That fits me and is machine washable. As quickly as possible please. With the minimum of fuss. And none of that skinny fit nonsense. I want to be able to walk around without flaunting my junk for the world and her auntie to see.

Fionnuala guided me through the fitting room hell with the patience of a saint. Eventually we agreed upon a reasonably priced grey suit with white shirt and purple tie. I couldn’t get out of the shop quick enough. My days of being a fashion doyen are long gone. Nowadays my wardrobe consists of 1) loungewear 2) running gear or 3) work clothes.

I have no ‘going out’ clothes probably because we never go out anywhere. But we resolved today to ‘do lunch’ together. So where did we end up? You guessed it. Sitting in the car eating sandwiches we bought in a garage and sharing a packet crisps. Listening to 1980’s ‘golden oldies’ on the radio as we stared out at the rain battering against the windscreen. With the heat on full blast. It is late April after all.

And you know what? We were as happy as two pigs in a big pile of poo. If we could have changed into our pyjamas we would have. An hour alone with food (which we chose ourselves), music (which wasn’t the new Shawn Mendes song played for the billionth time) and best of all not having to separate three hatchlings from tearing each other’s throats out. What’s not to love about that.

We all have hopes and aspirations. Fionnuala and I are no different from anybody else. But we should also appreciate the simple things in life as well. Sometimes it’s nice just to pull over and let life flash past for a while. It can wait for an hour. When your every waking moment is fretting about family issues or work worries. When you’re pushing yourself to run marathons or write books.

Sometimes doing nothing is the best choice. Or as little as possible. I constantly feel like I’m running out of time rather than appreciating the time I have. I’m falling over myself straining to see what’s down the road instead of looking around me and enjoying the moment. Who needs fancy restaurants and designer clothes when you can share a bag of crisps in a deserted car park?

What’s the cheapest date you’ve ever been on?

What are your simple pleasures?

A Tree On The Line

I write this today from the train to Dublin where I’m travelling for a business meeting. In the past trips to Dublin normally meant one thing only – let’s see how much alcohol I can consume between getting there and my return. How times have changed. Nothing but Diet Coke will be passing my lips between now and my return later today. A sober Irishman in Dublin! Whatever next?!

When Fionnuala dropped me off at the local station this morning to get my connecting train to Belfast I had a brief moment of panic when I heard a garbled tannoy message announcing that there was a tree on the line and and trains to Belfast and Bangor had been cancelled. But I had to get to Belfast in order to get the Dublin Express. I could not miss this meeting. Two of the big bosses were going! I was even wearing a tie!!

Thankfully it was all much ado about nothing. I tracked down a passing conductor and established that I had misheard the announcement that there was indeed a tree on the line but it was affecting all trains between Belfast and Bangor. I breathed a sigh of relief and resolved to get my ears cleaned out at the next available opportunity. The tie was going to Dublin after all.

For those few moments of uncertainty, however, all sorts of scenarios raced through my mind. Was I going to have to sheepishly phone my boss and say I couldn’t make the meeting? Or call Fionnuala, who was by then in the middle of the school run, and ask her to somehow get me to another station further down the line before the Dublin Express passed through. I dallied and dithered. Prevarication reigned supreme.

The truth of the matter was that I didn’t have a Plan B. I just turned up at the station assuming that everything would run according to plan. I could sleepwalk through the journey and serenely arrive at my destination on schedule without a hair out of place. Cos that’s how I roll and that’s how life is. Nothing ever goes wrong and all our dreams and plans drift smoothly along without the slightest hiccup. Right?

Oh if only. Unfortunately life has a nasty habit of slapping you in the face with a proverbial wet fish whenever you least expect it. Life is cluttered with trees on the line so it makes sense to always have a Plan B up your sleeve. And a Plan C through to Z for that matter. That’s Zed for me and Zeeeeeeee for our North American readers. Which I can never really get my head around but hey ho.

I used to live with my head in the clouds. I drifted through life with little thought to future commitments and present responsibilities. Words like ‘consequences’ and ‘repercussions’ did not register on my radar. I was selfish and thoughtless. It was only when the wheels came off (or the tree crashed onto the line) that I realised I didn’t have a Plan B. My works came crashing down around me in no uncertain fashion.

Thankfully my loved ones rallied around and became my Plan B. When I was floundering they provided stability. They helped me find myself when I thought I had blown it all. My faith, family and witness saved me. I wobble in respect of all three from time to time but they are my safety net. And I need that for otherwise it is a long, long way down. Never assume. Always have a Plan B.

When was the last time a tree crashed down on your line?

What’s your Plan B? Or C or D for that matter?

How do you North Americans differentiate between C and Z? My mind is blown.

If Love Is A Mist….

If love is a mist

Then I must persist

For cords of affliction

And wisps of addiction

Are flogging my faith on a rack of derision.

The demons are screaming

Stop me from believing

Oozing lies, succubi

Leave me battered and bleeding.

Their hunger is fed

On the paths of the dead

As my starved, broken soul craves the wine and the bread

Cutting ties, crushing lives

We can all sympathise

But the blame lies with me

Wrapped in guilt, when once free

Destruction their function

Impaled at this junction

Slicing my soul without fear or compunction.

Yet I will resist

I’ll repent and desist

And walk through the mist

Towards fresh joy and bliss.

For this kingdom of sighs

Will give way to new life

And I will be vanquished

A thorn in their side.

The 21 Mile Run

I write this from our bed. I’m not so sure about getting up as I’m not so sure I will be able to. I completed the 21 mile training run yesterday. Somehow. It was not a pleasant experience. I knew from the first mile something was not right. I felt like I was running flat out but my time didn’t reflect it. My legs were okay but my arms and upper body were drained. I had nothing to offer. By mile 4 I was visibly slowing. The panic button pressed, I plugged on thinking it was a blip and I could run through it.

It wasn’t and I couldn’t. By mile 7 when I had my first drinks stop I seriously considered stopping but my stupid pride wouldn’t let me. I soldiered on and the situation improved slightly. I was still hating every step of it but my mile splits stabilised and I was able to hold a steady, if highly unimpressive, mile pace. The heat wasn’t helping. Only an idiot would schedule their longest run of the year on the hottest day of the year. I was that idiot.

At 14 miles I had my second drinks stop and rued not having bought energy gels for today. My pace was the same but I was dreading the final section. And rightly so. By mile 17 I was running nine minute plus miles and the slightest gradient felt like Everest. An elderly lady pulled up alongside me in her car and asked was I okay. I mumbled that I was alright, then remembered my manners and thanked her for stopping. I imagine she could have ran faster than me at this point.

I stopped greeting passing walkers and cyclists which is most unlike me. Motorists waved at me and I had no idea who they were. If Katy Perry had been standing at the roadside by an iced lemonade stall I would have grunted at her and staggered on. The last two miles included a couple of sizeable hills. An old sheepdog lying in the shade looked on in pity as I waddled up the first. By the second I had lost the will to live. My form and rhythm had totally vanished. It was just a matter of getting to the top.

The last mile back through the village should have been a victory parade but turned into a death march. The German retreat from Stalingrad was a cheerier experience. I willed my Garmin watch to read 21 miles and counted the seconds down. I refused to walk even though my normal walking pace was probably quicker than I was managing at present. My last mile was an embarrassing ten minutes. But then finally it was over.

I’m not sure what went wrong. The heat certainly played a factor as did the busy week at work I had just finished. I also had a nasty eye infection which must have taken its toll. I should have had energy gels as well. On the plus side I completed the run and still somehow ended up a minute inside four hour marathon pace. So all was not lost. Plus if you are going to run a stinker then you might as well do it during a training run as opposed to on the big day itself.

That said my confidence has taken a blow. I don’t think I could have finished a marathon today. At 21 miles I was gone. Out on my feet. I will be better prepared and rested on 7th May. Hopefully it will be cooler and my plan to run alongside a pacer surrounded by other runners will hopefully help. I know the course and know I can complete it. The crowd and the adrenaline will hopefully drag me along as well.

My taper commences now with the race just over a fortnight away. I will focus on reduced mileage combined with a healthier diet. When I’m flat out at work I tend to eat all sorts of rubbish. Running is a great leveller. Just when you think you are on top of your game the wheels tend to come off. I’m going to try and get out of bed now. Wish me luck. If you hear muffled screaming you’ll know who it is.

Embracing Anxiety

Today is the day of my last long run before the Belfast Marathon in just over two weeks time. I’ve worked out my route and hydration strategy; I’ve decided what gear I’m going to wear; the weather is dry and mild. Now it is just a matter of going out and doing it. I know I’m capable of it as I’ve completed such distances many times before. Yet as I type these words I feel nervous and worried.

Why? I have no idea. It’s just me. I am a natural born worrier. If I didn’t have something to worry about then I would be worried. The only way to overcome the anxiety is to confront the problem and dive headlong into it. I know that once I get a few miles into the run I will be fine. All feelings of self doubt will disappear and my confidence will soar. I will actually start to enjoy the experience and wonder why I got so worked up in the first place.

It is the same with every aspect of my life be it family or work matters. Before every important event or meeting my worry levels rise to a crescendo before melting away the minute said event or meeting commence. You would think that decades of experience would teach me that worrying was counterproductive and pointless but every time the old routine kicks in and my own personal Groundhog Day is repeated.

Our bodies and minds are constantly battling chains and shackles that delight in tying us up in knots and denying us from becoming the people that we were created to be. We are at A but we are destined to be at Z. How do we get there? By overcoming the hurdles and barriers that ourselves and others place in our paths to deny us our destinies. It can be a person, an event or situation, an illness or addiction.

Whatever it is, it is strong and relentless. And if you allow it to it will suffocate your dreams and snuff out your potential. It will win if you allow it to. Somehow, and from somewhere, you have to find the courage and conviction to overcome it. You need to stand tall, look it in the eye and tell it NO! No, you won’t let it win. No, you are not going to give up this time. And no, the cycle of submission is not going to be repeated.

I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It will not be easy. After 21 miles today my body will be tired and aching. But the feeling of achievement and satisfaction will far outweigh any temporary physical or mental discomfort. The worry and anxiety will have been left far behind on the road along with the negative thoughts and doubts. You will have broken free. And breaking free is a form of rebirth. You have become a stronger, braver version of you.

If you are reading this today and experiencing the doubt and fears I have described I would encourage you to lace up your metaphorical running shoes and run straight at that problem or situation that is weighing so heavily upon you. We can’t run away from our problems but we can run towards them and through them. Eventually you will emerge on the other side. Where you are meant to be. Battered and bruised possibly. But alive. And free.

Change is painful. Change is frightening. But in order to improve we need to embrace it. In order to become better people we need to become better at dealing with change. Anxiety and worry magnify the fear of change to the extent where we cower away from it. Today is the day to stop cowering. Face it. Embrace it. I’m away for my run and I’ll see you on the other side. Who’s with me?

Are you shackled by worry and anxiety? How do you deal with it?

What aspects of your life would you like to change?

Tell Them

I have had a crazy week work wise which meant I wasn’t able to post yesterday. But fear not, I’m back and normal service is resumed. However I’m very tired so don’t be expecting a Dickensian masterpiece today. More low expectations than great. Sorry, that was a terrible play on words. Let’s just forget I ever mentioned it and move on to the next paragraph ok? Great.

Without going into the nature of my work I had to deal with a number of sudden deaths during the week. They were all equally unexpected, sudden and in tragic circumstances. One second these people were there and the next they were not. No opportunity for loved ones to say goodbye to them, no chance of righting wrongs or seeking forgiveness. They just ceased to exist. Snuffed out in an instance.

I am trained to deal with these incidents in a professional and empathetic manner, as are my colleagues. It is distressing but necessary work. We arrive and we do what we have to do as discreetly and sensitively as possible. It does leave its mark though. I saw sights this week that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But I’m alright. My employers will offer me trauma counselling (which I won’t avail of) and I will go home to my family.

It is my job. I get paid a significant amount of money to do it. I move on to the next week and the next incident and the world keeps turning. Well my world does anyway. For those families and friends left behind it does not. It comes to a jolting, juddering stop. And for some it never starts again. The colour is drained out of their lives never to return. They don’t move on because moving on suggests forgetting and they never want to.

Why? Because the memories are all they have that’s why. So they cling to them like a drowning man would cling to a piece of floating wreckage. It is all that there is between them slipping away into the nothingness of grief and despair. Memories are fickle, flighty friends. The good ones can provide comfort and solace but the not so good ones can flutter endlessly around your mind like a belligerent bat.

Why didn’t I ask them for forgiveness? Why didn’t I forgive them? Why didn’t I say no? Why didn’t I say yes? Why didn’t I stop them? Why didn’t I let them go? Why didn’t I say that? Why did I say that? The list could go on forever but I’m sure you get my drift. Why? Why? Why? Those unanswered questions that snag beneath our skin and gouge away at our flesh the more we twist and turn in an effort to dislodge them.

Think of the people you love most in the world. Think about when you last saw or spoke to them. Now imagine that you never saw or spoke to them again; and think about the regrets you would have, think about all those unanswered questions that would start to slowly settle on your mental landscape like ash from a volcano which for ages lay dormant but is now ready to erupt again with unrivalled fury.

Think of that and then seek them out. Now. Today. Tell them you love them. Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them they’re better at handstands than you. Tell them whatever has been sitting on your heart but needs to be spoken aloud. Because tomorrow it might be too late. And you will be left alone with only your memories to accompany you into the beyond.

Do you need to tell a loved one something today?

We Are Team Stupid!

Have you ever done something so stupid that you were left stunned or amazed at your own….for want of a better word….stupidity? Well that’s ok because you are not alone. We all have those moments. And if you haven’t then maybe you’re being a teeny-weeny bit economical with the truth. Or just plain lying. Which is a bit….er….stupid.

It’s that moment you want the earth to open up and swallow you; you cringe and pray that nobody has noticed when you know they all have; it can be harmless, innocent and of little consequence; or it can have earth shattering repercussions that change lives forever. We all have the capacity to be idiots and mess up. It’s ingrained in our DNA, part of our genetic make up.

None of us are perfect. Life is all about decision making and sooner or later we will come to a crossroads where we take the wrong turn. We will say or do the wrong thing and all our carefully concocted plans will come crashing down around us like a house of cards. We find ourselves scrambling around in the rubble trying to pick up the pieces and repair the damage.

People are not perfect. Those who claim to be perfect are liars. And stupid. In no particular order. The good news is that us fully paid up members of Team Stupid are in good company. We are many and will never be alone. But just because you commit a stupid act doesn’t mean you are a stupid person; often it is the most intelligent folk who commit the most jaw dropping, idiotic acts.

Stupidity has no respect for social or cultural distinctions. It embraces us all equally and holds open the door cheerfully inviting us to step over the threshold. I like to think I am a reasonably intelligent member of the human race; yet I have the capacity to raise the stupid bar to unprecedented levels when the urge takes me. It’s a gift I guess.

I referred to the words ‘stunned’ and ‘amazed’ in the first sentence for a reason. That’s because the word’s etymological roots hail back to the Latin word ‘stupere’ meaning stunned or amazed. Our gobs are smacked and our flabbers are ghasted. We cannot comprehend our inability to mess up and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We are our own worst enemies in that respect.

The good news is that the only way we can grow in wisdom and discretion is by stepping boldly through that stupid shower in order to emerge on the other side. That can be an excruciatingly painful, but necessary, process. The only way we grow and mature is through learning from our mistakes. They are unavoidable and although we can minimise them we can never completely eradicate them from our lives.

So next time you inadvertently swallow a stupid pill don’t beat yourself up too much about it. Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take two forward. Stupid is not evil. It’s contagious but it’s not terminal. Bridges can be rebuilt and damage can be undone. Stupidity is part of your life but it doesn’t have to define your life. Accept it for what it is. An opportunity to learn and move on.

It works be stupid of you not to.

Hands up if you’ve ever been stupid?

Care to share your dumbest moments?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

So there we have it. Ten months into this project and almost 100,000 words later I find all my characters in the same place at the same time. All nine of them. Number ten couldn’t make it but then he is a master of delegation and has sent along some more than able deputies to represent his interests. I reckon another 20,000 words should do it et voila we have the first draft of my my first novel. There might not be ten of them left at the end of it all but I guess you will just have to wait and see.

It’s rough, it’s raw and it’s riddled with grammatical errors and continuity issues. But it’s real. it exists. I have unlikely, irritating, unwilling heroes and dashing, likeable and utterly evil villains. I’ve got witty dialogue (well I thought it was funny when I was writing it) and tonnes of naff pop culture references. I’ve got action; chase scenes, explosions and the occasional dead body. It’s gritty in places, ethereal in others and hopefully showcases the wonderful, horrible juxtaposition of a city that is Belfast.

There are flashbacks, fast forwards and occasionally sitting about not really doing a lot. Some chapters cover seconds while others span centuries. It’s geeky, it’s nerdy and occasionally other worldly. I hope the next time I update you that the first draft will be in the bag. That’s when the real work will begin. The editing, the rewriting, the polishing and weaving together of various themes and sub plots. I also have a tonne of research to do in order to flesh out a number of characters and their back stories. Will it ever see the light of day? I don’t know the answer to that question.

Maybe a literary agent will pick it up and sell it to a publisher. Maybe I’ll end up going down the self-publishing route. Maybe it will sit on my laptop and never be read by anyone except a trusted few. Maybe even they won’t be bothered. But I will be able to say I gave it my very best shot. Just like I said I would give this blog my very best shot 11 months ago. And it kind of turned out alright. I’ll keep you all updated over the next few months but, as always, your support and enthusiasm is what keeps my writing alive. The journey hasn’t even started yet.

What’s Your Favourite Bible Story?

Normal service will be resumed on the blog tomorrow. Or as normal as this blog will ever be. My last question this weekend is for everyone; believers and non believers alike. I’ve been struggling to read my Bible of late yet I like to think I have a fairly good knowledge of it. From a very early age I attended Sunday School and was taught the stories of the Old and New Testaments. In Northern Ireland most kids from my background go through this process. Meaning that when they grow up most people, even if they haven’t a spiritual bone in their body, will know their Bible stories.

Fionnuala’s is the story of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit descended on The Apostles, while Rebecca’s is Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Adam had to rack his brains for a bit but eventually plumped for the adulterous woman who Jesus saved from being stoned. Interesting choice for a fifteen year old boy. Hannah chose the story of the disabled man who Jesus healed after his friends lowered him through a hole in the roof. I didn’t ask Charlie because he’s a dog. And dogs can’t talk. I tend to focus more on characters than stories but I’ve always been drawn to the stories of David and his Mighty Men. They kicked serious backside.

I’m slowly coming round to Bible study and prayer again. I love to study the history, culture and politics of the period. I’m also interested in other faiths. Some are interesting while others I view with concern and trepidation. Where I struggle is with man made religion and misinterpretation of the ancient truths which he has taken and distorted to meet his own needs. I don’t have a problem with Jesus who taught love, faith and hope. My problem is with so many of his followers and the churches who fail to practice what he preached. I’m a work in progress. I guess we all are.

What’s your favourite Bible story and why?

Are Marathons Boring?

I’m posting a weekly running update as the Belfast Marathon is only 22 days away. It’s crept up so quickly and next weekend I will have my final long run of 21 miles before I ease back on the mileage, known as tapering, in advance of the big day. This week I’ve ran roughly 30 miles so it’s been pretty steady with no spectacular distances or times. Next week will be a different kettle of fish, however, which should see my training cycle peak at 50 miles.

I’ve been watching a lot of the Commonwealth Games over the last two weeks and was saddened to see top Scottish distance runner, Callum Hawkins, collapsing a mile from the finish in the men’s marathon when leading by over two minutes. It was a very distressing sight and shows that even the best runners cannot take the 26.2 mile event for granted. I hope he recovers from the physical and mental effects of the experience and returns better than ever.

I’m not sure what went wrong with Callum; whether it was his hydration strategy, pacing or the infamous wall that many runners hit in the final miles of the event. I was asked during the week do I not get bored during a marathon. What do I think about to pass the time? The scenes of Callum Hawkins collapsing prove that it is impossible to be bored during a distance race. Your mind is constantly processing information regarding the route, weather, road surface, hydration, gels, pacing and other runners.

You’re also dealing with the internal struggle. The voice in your head constantly doubting your ability to complete the race, telling you to give up and stop. It exaggerates every little niggle and turns each climb into Mount Everest. There is no hiding place in the marathon. Unless you have prepared to the best of your ability it will find you out, chew you up and spit you out at the side of the road. To me it is the ultimate physical and mental challenge which is why they mean more to me than any other distance.

Marathons are exhilarating, exhausting, excruciating, frustrating and heart breaking. But don’t ever call them boring.

Are marathon runners mad? Discus.

Fun Friday Continues….Even Though It’s Saturday

Today’s question is for all you bookworms out there. What was the last book you read and what did you make of it? To get the ball rolling here are the last few I’ve read. I read a lot much to Fionnuala’s dismay but I know that in order to succeed as an author you need to soak up as many other styles and genres as you can. Read, Read and then Read some more. I think Stephen King said that. And he’s done alright I suppose.

  • Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs
  • The Very Worst Missionary – Jamie Wright
  • Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions – Russell Brand
  • Sylvia Plath: A Biography – Linda Wagner-Martin

Happy Reading!

Stephen 🙂

What Bloggers Would You Invite To Dinner And Why?

I’ve posted some heavy duty stuff in recent days so thought I would lighten matters up somewhat. The weekend is just around the corner and sometimes us bloggers take life just a little too seriously. I know I’m the worst offender. So to kick off ‘Fun Friday’ *cringe* I thought I’d pose you a few questions.

I’ll probably be Mr. Miserable again by Monday so make the most of it 😂

If you were to host a dinner party what three bloggers would you invite and why?

Feel free to post the links to their blogs in the comments section below.

Binge

Sometimes a word settles in my mind and refuses to budge. I suppose that’s the joy of writing. We get obsessed with words. They are our tools, the vehicles or medium through which we communicate our thoughts to the outside world. It’s my birthday at the end of the month (please no need for presents) and if you asked me what I truly needed at the moment (as opposed to wanted) then I’d probably plump for a thesaurus.

Rock & Roll I most certainly am not….

Todays word? Well the clue is in the title. Well the clue is the title. It’s binge. So I googled it as I don’t have a thesaurus….yet; and discovered that it originates from a 19th Century English practice where wooden vessels were immersed or soaked in water in order to allow the wood to swell and seal up any cracks so as to prevent leaking. Mind. Blown. It was a positive, practical activity in order to stop boats sinking when launched.

Of course all good things come to an end and the word soon became slang for excessive drinking; people would literally immerse or soak themselves in alcohol. And today the term has been expanded to include any excessive activity. We binge. Be it alcohol, drugs, food, Netflix or whatever. It is when we consume something or someone to excess. The positive, practical meaning of the word has largely disappeared. It has been replaced by more negative connotations.

I have binged throughout my adult life. I am impulsive and display obsessive, compulsive traits that verge on addictive. I do not know the meaning of the word ‘moderation’. With me it is a million miles per hour or not at all. I have binged on food, alcohol, social media and people. My foot was permanently on the accelerator and before I knew it, too late, I had caused another car wreck. I need and I want but I rarely think. Think of the damage I am causing myself and others through the act of binging.

When we binge the object of our excess becomes an idol. It becomes an all consuming sun that blinds us from reality and obscures us from the people and activities around us that really matter. We have no internal alarm system that tells us to slow down or stop. We fly too close to the sun and, like Icarus in the famous fable, our wings are burnt and we plummet to our doom. We are destroyed by that which we loved. Our act of love towards the idol becomes an act of hatred towards ourselves.

The people that used to matter no longer seem to matter. We binged. Our wings singed. And we fell. To our hell. Our idols made us idle. To the truth. We become disoriented and end up lost and confused. To binge is to run in an ever decreasing circle. A maddening maze from which there is no escape. It is as infuriating as it is illogical. When you binge it is like running a race wearing blinkers. You are oblivious to your external environment and can focus on nothing but the object of your desires. The object of your destruction.

I’m not quite sure how the original positive meaning of the word ‘binge’ was contorted into the largely negative associations it has now. Why can’t we binge on the good stuff? Family, friends, exercise, art, literature? Why can’t we binge on loyalty, love and life? I guess we can and do except we use different words to describe those actions and emotions. The difference as I see it is a loss of control. When we binge we lose control. And loss of control will invariably end in heartache and despair.

It’s time to take control again and bin our binging proclivities. I still am vulnerable to binging tendencies but the good days now far outweigh the bad. If you are currently in a binging cycle I want you to know that it can be broken and you can emerge on the other side. You might not be unscathed but you will be alive. Freedom is a possibility. I can’t wave a magic wand and make it all disappear but I can offer hope. There is always hope. Cling to it. You are better than the binge.

Do you binge? Or have you in the past? Our community would love to hear your stories. We are non judgmental and supportive. Please comment below if you would like to get involved.

Alternatively if you would feel more comfortable communicating in private we can be contacted via the blog’ ‘contact’ tab.

Swallow Your Pride. Swallow The Pill.

I have felt my mood spiralling steadily downwards throughout the week. This has trickled into my writing which has been largely negative and downbeat. I don’t apologise for this as I have always said I would write honestly on this blog. Those who choose to read it see the good, the bad and the frequently ugly. Warts and all. I spent too long living a lie on social media so this latest incarnation is, if nothing else, a truthful one.

The reason for this? Quite simple really. I never bothered to order my repeat prescription for Escitaloprem which I take on a daily basis to combat OCD, Anxiety and Depression. It’s one little, white pill a day but they make all the difference to my mood and outlook on life. Without them I start to feel irritable, edgy and miserable within a few days. Negative thinking takes over and the familiar voice in my head starts to whisper those familiar words.

You’re useless. You’re a failure. You’re a laughing stock. You’re hopeless. You’re a terrible husband, father and son. You are an utter nobody. You are a sad, little man going through yet another mid life crisis. You can’t write and you will never make a second career from it. You have no friends and there is a very good reason for that. They all saw through you, saw you for the fool you were. Nobody wants anything to do with you. You are nothing.

I could go on but I’m sure you get my drift. When I’m at home with Fionnuala and the kids I feel safe and loved. But the moment I step out of the front door it sets in. This overwhelming fear. I compare myself to others and every time fall painfully short. Former friends snub me. Others would cross the road if they saw me. Messages are not returned and phone calls are not picked up. Outside of my family I am lonely and unwanted. This came to a head last Saturday when I ran a half marathon along with 3500 other people and didn’t speak to another person the entire time I was there.

I avoided people I used to run with. I hid in my car before the race and left the moment I crossed the finishing line instead of hanging around to mingle and chat like everybody else. It is a dark cloud, a black dog and it envelops everything in its path. This continued into my working week. I have been largely disinterested and demotivated, plodding through the motions. I have to get up and go to work for my family. Today I forced myself to pick up the phone and re-order the prescription. I will get it tomorrow and know I will be back on an even keel by the weekend.

It annoys me that despite my wonderful wife and children I still need that pill. Despite holding down an important and respected job I still need that pill. Despite my running and writing which are incredible stress busters I still need that pill. Despite all the many positives I have going for me I have still found it difficult to look in the mirror this week. I still feel an outsider, a loser, a nobody. All because I chose not to swallow a little, white pill. The crutch that I fear I will have to lean upon for the rest of my days.

I’m a husband and I struggle with my mental health. Im a father and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a son and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a blogger and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a marathon runner and I struggle with my mental health. I’m an aspiring author and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a Christian and I struggle with my mental health. I’m a well paid manager and I struggle with my mental health. I struggle when I don’t take the pill.

I need to swallow my pride and swallow the pill. It restores me to who I want to be. The pill and nothing else. Not work, not church, not anything. The pill. We need to accept sometimes that we are powerless to depression and need to accept all the help we can get. If you’re in a similar situation tonight I would implore you to swallow your pride and swallow the pill. If it’s what you need to function and face the world. Don’t be an idiot like me. Order you prescription. Collect your prescription. Take your prescription. Please.

Please feel free to share your own experiences of prescription medication below. This blog was written to support and encourage within our community.

For It Was Written Long Before You

I wear my heart upon my sleeve. Pick at the stitches, watch it bleed. I thought it contained all my needs. Yet I was wrong, so wrong and now. I watch the scarlet droplets one by one. Communion wine upon my tongue. The acrid fumes they fill my lungs. And I am done.

I’m done with all the hollow words. I’m done with following the herd. The vacuous nothingness I yearned. The chances spurned, the bridges burned. Scorched earth and ashes fill my urn. Fresh lashes tear my skin and burn. Hard lessons learned.

I spurned fresh opportunities galore. So I could gorge myself on more. The score was settled long ago. But on I forged, ablaze with sin. Oblivious to the deafening din. Of voices old and voices new. Imploring me to start afresh. To step out of my stinking mess.

I wore my heart upon my sleeve. You watched me grieve in silence though. I started high yet finished low. The perfect storm, I can’t conform. I am the eye, the sickening still. Imploring you to heed my will. You watched me from that bloody hill.

I was a sick man, not a slick man. A blinded patient with no patience. Demented by fermented juices, hanging over, dry and useless. Dreaming of those silken nooses. Choking on my wordless mucus. Intervention, not attention saved me; days too dark to mention.

The light it came, I sought it not. I’m standing at a desolate plot. You can be proud of me again. I kicked my habits to the flames. They burn and squirm and beg for mercy. Silently I take their curses. Turn my eyes to ancient verses. Holy words from empty churches.

I tear my heart from off my sleeve. I empty it of fear and greed. And fill it with these words of glory. Dripping from that Cross so gory. Wisdom etched in ancient stories. For it was written long before you. Words of love sent to restore you.

I’m A Christian But I Intensely Dislike (But Don’t Hate) People

Sorry about the cumbersome title but I know ‘us lot’ aren’t allowed to hate people because Jesus says we shouldn’t; even though God spent most of the Old Testament laying down fire from above on anyone who looked at the Israelites the wrong way. Jesus is right of course but then Jesus is always right. So us Christians must turn the other cheek (ouch), love our neighbour (have you met my neighbour?!?!) and carpet forgive even the most heinous of acts. Hands up who does that on a 24/7/365 basis?

Hmmmmm….thought not.

Of course there will be a smattering of raised arms from the ‘Stepford Wives & Husbands’ Brigade who you see glamming it up with their perfect 2.4 children (boy named after obscure Old Testament minor prophet, girl called Grace, not sure about the .4) at a evangelical ‘super’ church near you every Sunday. They love everyone and will tell you that while nodding enthusiastically; fixed, rictus grins plastered to their faces. Until they ignore you in the supermarket the following Wednesday or when they cut you up in their Audi at the school gates without a second thought.

The rest of us will shuffle uneasily and stare at the ground, myself included. Which annoys me because I truly get forgiveness. I like liking people. I don’t want to have enemies just as much as I don’t want my head full of these negative thoughts towards certain individuals. Feeling angry, resentful and vindictive all the time is just so exhausting. It genuinely eats you up and casts a dank cloud over your days which relentlessly follows you around and refuses to budge. I hate blazing arguments and cold, unending silences. I’m the one who apologises even when I know I was in the right just so as to make the peace again.

All very good in theory but then why can’t I practice what I preach. I ran a half marathon yesterday where 3,500 people took part. How many did I speak to during the event? None. That’s right zero, nada, zilch. I skulked in my car before the start and then scuttled off as fast as my aching legs would allow me once I’d lurched over the finish line. In previous years I would have been part of a group who would have travelled down, ran together and then taken lots of selfies afterwards which I would have plastered over Instagram. Just to let people know what a great, popular guy I was.

Those days are long gone. I’m a lone wolf runner now. And not in the enigmatic, Forrest Gump stylee. More in the socially awkward, avoid fellow runners at all costs stylee. If such a stylee exists. While hiding in my car yesterday before the start I messaged Fionnuala to say I had never felt as out of place. Her reply was typically to the point. ‘You’re a runner. You’re about to race. How can you feel out of place? You’ve as much right to be there as anyone else. Stop beating yourself up.’ She’s good like that and it was just what I needed to get my sorry backside out of the car and to the start line.

Saying that I still hid behind a tree right up until the starters klaxon sounded before slipping anonymously into the shuffling herd as they commenced their 13.1 mile odyssey. This post was meant to be about said odyssey but nobody wants to read another running post. They even bore me at times. Runners are geeks. A modern day phenomenon who, if they had been around in the 1980’s, would probably have been playing Dungeons Dragons, spending their weekends rolling 20 sided dice and pretending to be Level 12 paladin knights called Lucius the Avenger.

Rumours that I was in my school’s Dungeons & Dragons Society are totally unfounded and will be strongly contested….

The one observation I will make about the race is that after about a mile a guy I used to be very friendly with passed me. He didn’t see me but I certainly saw him. We ended our friendship on bad terms and as he passed I could feel the waves of anger, resentment and intense dislike (but not hatred) rolling off me towards him. He probably hadn’t spared a thought towards me since we parted company over a year ago yet I still allow myself to be affected so adversely. By him and others. Which filters throughout so many other areas of my life. Outside of my immediate family I trust nobody, I struggle massively to make new friends, I haven’t been to church in over four months and am highly demotivated at my work. What gives God?

I get the theory so please don’t bombard me with lots of well meaning Scripture. I just want to hear from others about their experiences. Christians and non-Christians alike. I’ll even accept comments from the ‘Stepford’ community although of course nobody will own up to membership and they’re probably tied up with Sunday School or a cake sale in any event. Do these feelings bubble up within you? How do you deal with them? Are there particular people who press your button no matter how hard you fight the red mist? How do you move past these feelings? For I’m a bit stuck on this one if I’m honest.

Omagh Half Marathon

I’ll post a proper race review later but just a quick note to say I completed my home town marathon in a time of 1:50:54 earlier today. Really pleased with my time on a hilly, challenging course. All roads lead now to the Belfast Marathon in a month. Thanks to everyone for the continued support.

I’m Writing A Book….Still

Sooooo….I wrote earlier today about my training for the Belfast Marathon on 7th May and how that’s been going. Now it’s time for ’round two’ so to speak as I post an update about how the novel I am attempting to write is coming along. Which is a tad trickier. I mean I think it’s going okay but how can you objectively self assess five months of writing which nobody has read outside of your immediate family. Who are, of course, contractually obliged (check the small print folks) to say that they liked it.

I’m only really getting a chance to devote time to it at weekends and when on leave. I set myself the target of 10,000 words over the Easter break which I passed today. But that’s 10,000 words of what? Genius? Drivel? I haven’t a foggy if I’m honest. All I know is that it’s careering along at the moment and getting easier to write as I delve deeper into the story. I’ve found out a few hard truths along the way as well. Such as ‘learning’ to write a novel is not for me; nor structuring and formatting, not at this stage anyway. I just need to get this first draft out of me by hook or by crook. It needs to be birthed before the labour pains become too much for me to bear.

When that’s all done and dusted it will require a serious amount of polishing and fine tuning. I am in serious need of a thesaurus and have been shocked at how limited my vocabulary is when all along I thought I was quite eloquent and ‘wordy’. I’ve realised that I use certain words repeatedly. As in every. single. paragraph. Lazy. Lazy. Lazy. I will also need some serious work with continuity. One minute a character is standing at a bar ordering a round of drinks. The next he’s back at the table waist deep in dialogue. Teleportation sub plot perhaps?

The self doubt is reaching ridiculous levels. Stephen doubts he can run 20 miles. Solution? Stephen puts on trainers, opens front door and runs 20 miles. Simples. Pity the same can’t be said about writing. I’m excited about it but if a marathon seems a slog then this a marathon of marathons. It’s akin (*repetitive word klaxon sounds*) to triumphantly spending five months scaling a hillock only to find Mount Everest looming on the other side. Even if it is half decent what about literary agents, publishers, self publishing, the law stuff?! The mind boggles and I think I need a lie down.

The other annoying issue is not being able to talk to anyone about it. When I mention that I’m writing a book in the ‘real world’ most people smile patiently, say ‘that’s nice’ and then move on to more ‘grown up’ topics such as, say, the weather or the price of a loaf of bread. I’m just waiting for the day someone ruffles my hair, gives me a pat on the head and tells me to run along now. It’s not that people are deliberately being rude it’s just that this burning passion of mine does not register on the adulting scale where work deadlines, unpaid bills and domestic dramas take precedence.

So I soldier on. Baring my artistic soul in private and periodically posting vaguely worded blogs citing impressive word counts but little else. Did Dickens have these problems? Is this why so many writers turn to the demon drink? Am I doomed to drone about this on WordPress, because nobody else particularly cares until my dying day? Have I set a new record for the use of question marks in a blog post???? If you have any advice, suggestions or simply wish to provide a virtual shoulder for me to blubber over then please comment below.

Death By Blogging

Today was largely spent chained to the laptop, revisiting and editing a number of chapters for the book. It was a graft and once again, as if I needed reminding, I realised what hard work writing can be. Some days the words just refuse to flow and you have to drag them kicking and screaming out of your imagination and onto the computer screen. Every sentence is a battle and every chapter a war.

I managed to get to where I needed to be and, before I closed the laptop down for the day, decided to carry out a word count. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the first draft is now sitting at 68,000 words. That’s over 200 pages. For the first time I felt as if I could actually do this. There is still a world of pain ahead and many long hours of rewriting and editing. But I’ve overcome a very awkward second quarter of the book and feel I’m roughly where I need to be now.

I’m literally bursting to share the plot and characters with you all but know I can’t do that yet for obvious reasons. All I can divulge is that it’s set in modern day Belfast and genre wise would be young adult fiction with very gritty themes and a sprinkling of the supernatural. In my head it is a trilogy and this first instalment largely sets the scene for a bigger and bolder story arc in the second and third books. This book largely concentrates on the inner struggles of the main characters before they turn their attention to the outside world.

I’m fairly word blind as I type this so apologies if my thinking is a bit skewed this evening. My neck aches which is a tell tale symptom that my brain is shot for the day. But I feel it’s important I blog about the book in order to hold myself accountable to you guys who support me on a daily basis in my writing and running ventures. The blog keeps me honest and underpins everything I do. Without it there would be no book and there would be no marathons.

Blogging helps keep me sane. It keeps my feet on the ground as the majority of my writing here explores my very flawed and fractured character. I’m my own biggest critic and I use my past failings to hopefully ensure that others do not make the same mistakes. My faith and my family feature heavily in my blogging and I make no apologies for that. They are the reason I am where I am today. All of the above ensure I remain grounded and keep my dreaded ego in check.

So I’ll go to bed tonight and probably dream of words and letters. We have come a long way since the blog launched last May. But there is still a long way to go. I wrote some months ago about how I regarded 2018 as ‘The Year Of Death.’ Death of the old ways, death of the old me, death of the demons who ensnared and almost destroyed me. I encourage you to join me in burying your past as well. Here’s to life and love and light. Here’s to words and miles. Here’s to you people.

What are you seeking to bury this year?

What does FracturedFaithBlog mean to you?

Who Am I? Who Are You?

It was St. Davids Day on Thursday. He’s the patron saint of Wales so my two Welsh colleagues pulled out all the stops and laid on a Welsh breakfast for the entire office. We had Welsh cake, Welsh waffles, Welsh fruit cake and er…..German chocolate spread. They wore daffodils (their national flower) and brought a Welsh map into the office to educate us more about their country.

For example who knew that the population of Belfast was larger than the population of Cardiff? That there were more sheep than people in Wales? Or that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was in fact originally a Welsh man who got kidnapped by pirates and hauled back across the Irish Sea? This was all the more remarkable given we had spent most of the week mercilessly mocking them about Ireland having beaten Wales the Saturday before in the Six Nations Rugby Championship.

I was very impressed by their patriotism and sense of national identity. They are proud to be Welsh and even taught me a few Welsh words. Lechyd Da (pronounced Yakky Da) which is a traditional Welsh greeting meaning ‘good health’. Apparently. It also saddened me slightly though. In Northern Ireland we can’t agree on anything when it comes to our national identity. Language, flags, anthems you name it our communities and politicians fall out over it. To the extent that our local legislation has collapsed and we are facing direct rule from London again. Which nobody really wants but seems inevitable at the moment.

I’m as bad as anyone. Ask me my nationality and it depends on what day of the week it is and how I’m feeling. At home I’m Northern Irish; I have a British passport but when I’m abroad and people ask me where I’m from I often say I’m Irish. Because everybody loves the Irish and I can’t be bothered explaining the whole ‘well actually I live in the United Kingdom but on the island of Ireland’ thing. And now that we (as in 51.9% of the British population) have voted to leave the European Union we face the prospect of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Even though nobody wants that and 56% of Northern Irish people voted to remain.

That’s why I like rugby so much as a game. Religion or nationality don’t enter the equation. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic or Protestant. If you are good enough you are good enough. There is one national side containing the best players from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They have even created a unique rugby anthem, ‘Ireland’s Call’, which everyone can sing together before the start of the match. It is a unifying and emotional experience. It’s no wonder the team plays with such passion and is currently ranked 3rd in the world.

Fionnuala and I have experienced first hand the difficulties of living in a world where people judge you and attach labels based upon your background and upbringing. Labels conceal the real person struggling to be heard beneath. What’s the first thing you do when you buy a new pair of jeans or a sweater and bring them home to excitedly try them on? Why, you remove the labels of course. We don’t want our kids growing up in the same bigoted, jaundiced society that we did. We want them to live their lives free from prejudice and hatred. We want the best for them. And that means ripping off the labels.

I am me and I refuse to be labelled and stuck in a box. I want to cut loose from stereotypes and preconceptions. Writing is my key to unlocking the prison cell I have inhabited for most of life. A life sentence of conforming and adapting my personality in order to fit in with the values of others. I made myself permanently uncomfortable in order that others whose company I was in could feel temporarily comfortable. I was a cowardly chameleon, a miserable master of disguise. Blogging has removed my need for that. Hence the honesty of my writing. It is like breathing fresh air for the very first time after a lifetime in stifling captivity.

My hope for you today is that you are comfortable in your own skin. And if not, then why not, and what are you going to do about it? Strike out on a journey of a lifetime in order to find the real you. It will be a rocky and winding road for sure and you may stumble from time to time. But don’t despair and don’t give up. It is a journey of discovery which, in turn, will lead to recovery. Recovery from a past of false labels. Recovery of your true identity. Finding the person that stares at you every morning, trapped behind a mirror of lies. Breaking through and finding the real you.

So……who are you?

Blogging. Doubting. Hoping.

Blogging can be an entirely selfish experience. A lot of what we write relates to our own lives and the inevitable ups and downs we face along the way. Much as I try to focus on helping others I too often find myself writing about myself – my family, my faith, my running, my writing. I don’t like writing about myself as that way lies arrogance, vanity and a loss of self control. I’ve fallen victim to these vices in the past and I really don’t want to revisit them.

Yes, the blog is my bread and butter and I really am grateful for how it has reignited my love of writing. It is the platform from which I’m hoping to launch my writing career. There are days when I am filled with hope and confidence that it will happen whereas other days, like today, it seems a remote pipe dream. Doubt nags at my positivity like a dog gnawing on a bone. I look in the mirror and see a foolish, middle aged man dining out on daydreams and chasing a pot of gold at the end of an unattainable rainbow.

The beauty of novel writing is that I can escape reality and escape myself. The words I write are about fictional characters and settings. I can sit unnoticed on the sideline and watch their stories unfold. I’m not the centre of attention which suits me just fine. I don’t like being in the spotlight anymore whereas I used to crave it. I’ve flown too close to the sun, like the mythical Icarus, and had my wings singed causing me to come crashing to the ground. So it’s a daily battle as my desire to write and express myself goes toe to toe with my need to keep a lower profile and stay out of the limelight.

I have a dream but does it sit comfortably with the progress I have made to date? Sometimes I’m not so sure and worry that I’m pursuing targets which are neither healthy nor attainable. Maybe I should just settle for mediocrity. Maybe running marathons at my age is too much? Writing a book is a one in a million potshot. Am I even good enough? The only person to have read anything to date is Fionnuala. I’m scared to let anyone look at it for fear that I will be mocked and ridiculed.

So I’ll continue to wrestle with the conflicting forces inside of me. I have so much to be grateful for and sometimes I think I should draw a line in the sand and focus on what I have. We have a good life yet I’m striving to improve it. Haven’t I watched enough of my half baked plans self destruct in the past to know better? Or am I wiser now and more discerning? Who knows? Well God does but he’s not telling me just yet. Until then I’ll just continue to tentatively nudge along this tightrope of creativity in the hope that I make it to the other side without falling.

I’m blogging blind folded and I hope with all my heart that it takes us where we need to be. Doubt is healthy in a way I suppose. It tethers us to reality when, otherwise, we would drift off up into the wide, blue yonder never to return; swept away on a flight of fancy that can only end in regret and disillusionment. Yes doubt can be an unpalatable, but necessary, medicine. It is alright to doubt as long as you don’t feed the doubt to the extent that it paralyses talent and ambition. Doubt can destroy dreams like a warm knife through butter. Cutting through all the promise and potential until there is nothing left.

I hope. And I doubt. They are not comfortable bedfellows but they are who I am. They are two sides of the same coin. A coin that seems to spin forever as I flick it in the air and watch to see what side it comes down on. I watch with bated breath and dry lips. It’s a game of chance and my chance may be small but a small chance is better than no chance at all. So I’ll keep writing and hope my ideas and images gel into the book I know I have inside me. I need doubts. They keep me grounded. They keep me humble. They keep me real and honest.

And so this post draws to a close and I find myself writing about that taboo subject again – me. But whereas before I would have been oblivious to that delicious irony today it stares me down as clear as day. Self awareness is a hard earned skill and I have the scars to prove it. Scars I am proud of. They are part of who I am. They are signposts. Warning of the excesses of the past and pointing towards better times and places in our futures. A promised land of milk and honey. I’m feeling my way along the tightrope and I dare not look downwards and backwards. Only forwards and onwards. Hoping. Doubting. A step at a time.

Are you paralysed by doubt? Or do you see it as a healthy dollop of realism?

Where do yuh want your writing to take you?

We Need You

I read a lot of blogs on here and try as much as I can to interact with, and encourage, you the good people of WordPress. Some posts are penned from places of hope and restoration by writers who have been through horrendous experiences but have emerged (battered yet triumphant) from the other side. Others are darker stories from people who are walking similar paths but are at different stages of their journeys. Their rawness and honesty is to be applauded as they stumble through the eye of the storm.

If AFracturedFaith has a mission statement it is to act as a beacon of light to those who are walking the same path as me but not quite as far along. I don’t see myself as a role model but if my words can help even one person then my work is done. Every day I read inspirational stories of courage and resilience. I see tales of tragedy and trauma. But through it all another theme emerges. I see talent amongst the trauma. Pain exposes potential. It unearths an energy and creativity that, otherwise, might never have seen the light of day.

It is akin to the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Where there was once decay and destruction I can now see the first shoots of recovery emerging from the ruins. Your words are rising upwards and creating a latticework upon which you can construct new life. Not only for yourself but for the others who follow your blog. Every positive message is a step forward not just for you as an individual but also the wider recovery community. Your words move us; they turn us into a movement.

I see some of you question the value and validity of your posts. You wonder if anyone even reads them, what’s the point? My message to you is to keep writing and posting. Your words are both therapeutic and educational. They reveal as well as heal. They help others cut through chains of addictive behaviour and find a way through the mist of mental illness. They provide clarity and focus. Your mind may once have been in pieces but you now offer peace of mind. You are both a peacemaker and a pathfinder.

We need you. I need you. And I hope that some of you need me as well. I have spent too much of my life as a needy, attention seeking man. I now want to draw attention to your needs and your talent. Together we are strong and can change lives and worlds. Our former brokenness can lead to breakthrough in the lives of others. Our scars act as signposts for others travelling further down the road behind us. If we sow enough seeds some of them will fall on fertile ground and flourish. From tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow.

So keep sharing your story. The rough with the smooth. We want to hear your voice loud and clear. You are special as is your story. We can learn so much from you. There will be tears and there will be heartbreak. That is all part of the process. It is a necessary evil which will ultimately lead to a greater, sustainable good. You may feel worthless, useless and hopeless but you are not. You are not. Your perceived ‘lessness’ offers us more than you will ever realise. Don’t ever stop.

Where are you on your journey?

What does the blogging community mean to you?

What Do You Love Most About WordPress?

Fionnuala and the kids have been trying in recent weeks to drag me kicking and screaming into the 21st Century by adding me to the family’s Snapchat group. This appears to involve sending each other photos and/or videos of yourself with animal ears or speaking in squeaky voice. Or both! At the same time!!

It’s all a bit beyond me. Firstly the app couldn’t acknowledge my facial features when I tried to take a photograph. Now I realise I’m no Brad Pitt or George Clooney but at the same time this was a bit of a blow to my already fragile self-esteem as Fionnuala says I’m no Quasimodo either.

I’d never seem a photograph of him before today but I have to say the face rings a bell….

*tumbleweed drifts across screen*

Anyhoooooo….another app they’ve introduced me to is Bitmoji. You know the one where you can create a cartoon character of yourself which can then reflect your every mood. Say happy….

Or sad…..

Or I feel like rocking the Christmas elf look.

In hindsight I don’t think I have the legs for those tights….

That aside I’ve taken to Bitmoji like a duck to water. Fionnuala is already bitterly regretting showing me how it works as I now bombard her and other friends with Bitmoji images as opposed to texting them ‘words’ or, heaven forbid, having an actual conversation. With words, eye contact and adulting stuff like that.

Isn’t it amazing how lazy we have become at communicating with each other. Why bother expending all that energy expressing yourself when a 😊 or a 👍🏻 will suffice. We love creating layers and barriers in order to hide our true selves. Being honest and open is almost regarded as a sign of weakness in this day and age.

We have become an emoji culture.

We are in fact an emotionless culture.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all the same. So many people offering up entirely inaccurate and misleading caricatures of who they really are. We are the happy selfie generation while inside there is despair and selfishness. Nobody sees the real person anymore. They are buried beneath fake smiles and glazed eyes.

That’s what I love about you guys. The WordPress community. Realism. Warts and all. So real it cuts me to the bone at times. You wear your hearts on your sleeves every day. You inspire and motivate me. You tell stories of brokenness. You speak the truth even if it is a painful truth. You desire healing and growth. You want to move forward, to leave behind the zombie generation.

You want to help others but realise, before that, you have to help yourself.

We are the refugees of social media. The online outcasts. We have fled the coming storm and sought sanctuary within WordPress. It is our fortress, our stronghold. We have pulled up the drawbridge and now sit around the fire telling stories of struggle and recovery. We are a family, a community. We are one.

We don’t need selfies. We don’t pout or preen for the camera. We are what we are. Fragile, weak, yet real. Words are our weapons and tools. Together we are strong. There are multiple beliefs and faiths on the blogs I read here every day. But they are bound together by love, empathy and wisdom.

Physician heal thyself. But you are. One day at a time. One blog post at a time.

Why do you love most about WordPress?

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