This Bloody Sleeve Of Mine

I wear my heart on my sleeve. I always have. I’m not one of these people who can face the world with a cheery smile, while inside said world is crumbling to a pile of acrid ash. I don’t do deadpan and if I played poker, my pile of chips would be gone after a few disastrous hands. When it comes to office politics, I can’t play the long game. I become impatient, frustrated, the emotions splashed across my face for all to see.

Take this week. Both inside and outside of work I’ve struggled and failed to remain patient. When I should have bitten my lip and counted to ten, I’ve got to about four before losing my cool and venting my ire. This, of course, has accomplished zilch, zero, nada. Situations have remained unchanged, other than me making myself look foolish and regretting having opened my big, fat mouth.

When things aren’t going my way I tend to force the issue, rather than sitting back and waiting. I’m selfish so me, me, me always trumps the bigger picture and the needs and feelings of others. I end up with egg all over my face and that’s even before the main course of humble pie is served up. I reluctantly gulp it down, resisting the urge to gag on my own bitter, acidic bile.

I wish I wasn’t like this but I am. I always have been. I’m a bull in a china shop when things aren’t going my way. I’m 48 years old but sometimes feel I stopped developing emotionally somewhere in the early 80’s. Maybe that’s the problem. Rather than remain calm and look ahead, I fret that I’ve wasted my life and achieved nothing. I always have one eye on the ticking clock.

It’s a no win situation on all sides. I don’t trust others to deliver the goods because I know best and everyone else knows nothing. I obviously don’t trust God so I turn my back in frustration and snub my nose at his ‘perfect timing.’ I also don’t, and can’t, trust myself. I roll my eyes in office meetings, fire off poorly thought out e mails, and lash out at loved ones who deserve so much better.

My writing is my sanctuary, a safe place where I can think and compose measured, rational prose. It is where I cool off and reflect on my less than perfect behaviour in the big, bad world. I used to think this was where the real me could be found, but that’s not true. Blogging Stephen is kind, thoughtful and considerate. The real Stephen struggles on all these fronts. He aspires to be better but so often fails.

When I’m muttering to myself about the injustice of it all, I’m taking my eyes off the people who need and deserve my attention. As my wise wife often reminds me ‘The world does not revolve around Stephen.’ I hate it when she says that but only because she’s struck the bullseye and spoken the truth. I gripe and groan but should be thanking my lucky stars as to how good I have it.

I’ll try again, and most probably fail, but I’ll try. I’ll hand over my problems and frustrations. To my higher power. I will trust and believe with this most fractured of faiths. I can’t do it all on my own and no amount of ranting will change that. My heart deserves better. It’s time to put it back where it belongs, rather than leave it exposed and vulnerable to the casual slings and arrows of this unforgiving and relentless world.

Do you wear your heart on your sleeve?

Are you a patient person?

How do you deal with frustration and disappointment?

The Land Is Yours

Every so often, I get a phrase in my head that won’t budge. It’s different from the million other thoughts which bounce around my head every day. Different in that I know it is not of me. It’s as if a flying saucer has landed on my cranium and a team of little green men have dumped the phrase out their landing doors. Well, they have returned. For a phrase has settled. Four little words. Or possibly four HUGE words.

The land is yours….

Yup, that’s it. As a C minus Christian with a deeply fractured faith, I want to believe that God has placed the phrase in my head for a purpose, a specific reason. And I believe this to be the case in this instance. I believe I was given the phrase for a friend of ours who has to make a big decision. Hopefully it will help him to make the correct choice. But it’s landed with such a thump on my doorstep that I feel I should share it with you all.

We all have decisions to make in life, difficult choices to take. These involve change, which can be daunting and frightening. Change can be a white knuckle ride of epic proportions. Life is about moving forward, often into the unknown. This invariably involves sacrifice and hard work. Many shy from such responsibilities, preferring the safety of the status quo as opposed to rolling the dice and seeing what numbers come up.

I was such a person for many years. I wallowed in a bubble of inertia, consumed by self pity and haunted by the ghosts of my past. My mental and physical health deteriorated. I succumbed to addictive and inappropriate behaviour. It was my security blanket, my shield. For the last thing I wanted to do was draw back the curtains and expose myself to the truth.

I reckoned nobody liked me much, for I didn’t particularly like myself. I sulked in the darkness and avoided the light at all costs. Until the penny dropped one day. I realised I was wasting my life and wasting the lives of my loved ones. I ripped up the book of excuses and chose to step forward into the destiny that had been staring me in my face all along. All I had to do was reach out and touch it.

The land was mine….

Any farmer will tell you that in order to reap the benefits of the land, you must work hard. Fields of corn don’t just sprout up overnight. You need to tend to them, put the hours in. It applies to everything. Your career, your education, your relationships. Yet, if you combine a strong work ethic with an equally strong belief, then that’s when the miraculous happens. I believe that is where God steps in and turns the impossible into the inevitable.

You might believe in God, Allah, Buddha or the man on the moon. You might believe in nothing, including yourself. If you do, then that is your prerogative. I can’t force you to change. All I can suggest is you might be wrong. Step up and step out. The land is yours and, what’s more, it’s closer than you think. Clamber over the fence or whatever barrier is holding you back from where you need to be, from where you were born to be.

The land is yours….

Start walking and, whatever you do, don’t stop and don’t look back. Keep your eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and feel the virgin earth beneath your feet. Watch as the veils of failure and defeat fall away to reveal what is meant to be. Now look around and marvel at the lush, verdant fields stretching for as far as the eye can see. There is no limit to what you can achieve. Just believe. And leave the rest to your higher power.

Is the land yours?

The Day The World Went Mad….Again

Happy 7th January everyone! The day the world went mad….again. Well it is in this little corner of the planet anyway. The day, all the schools return after the Christmas break and offices and businesses crank into gear once more after the limbo of last week. The trains will be packed, the roads will be gridlocked and stress levels will begin to creep up again after the festive lull.

Many New Year resolutions will already be in tatters, others teetering on the brink. We kid ourselves that this year will be different, special but 7th January suggests otherwise. We find ourselves back exactly where we started, two weeks ago when tinsel and shiny baubles blinded us from the grim reality of the 9-5 grind. It’s back to normal. Or as normal as many of us will ever be.

Grim isn’t it? Enough to make you want to pull the covers over your head and give the crazy carousel of life a miss for another day. I know that’s how I felt when the alarm clock went off this morning. Outside, it was depressingly dark and dank. I have a doctors appointment first thing, then the dreaded commute into Belfast to be greeted by an office of in boxes and in fighting. The joy, the joy.

it’s a churning sea of insanity where the waters rise, covering the last craggy outposts of what we truly want to do with our lives. So easy to be swept away, never to be reunited with our hopes and aspirations again. We cough and splutter, desperate to keep our heads above the waves, gasping for one last breath of the life we crave so badly. Sucking the oxygen of our futures into starved, raw lungs.

It is all we have, so cling on tight. Kick and thrash if you must but survive. Get through today, that’s all that matters. Reach out and cling to something, anything as long as it gets you through the tempest. It can be a person, an event, a target, a place. Reach out and pray for strong hands to pull you above the waves and onto the slippery rocks. Safe, for now, from the numbing nausea of normalcy.

The world has gone mad….again. We are the sane. The dreamers, the idealists, the head in the clouders. They mock us as naive and misguided, but we know better. We see beyond the next bend in the road, we raise our eyes and see blue skies ahead. We strive, we survive, we feel alive. Death can wait, for seasons change and the air suddenly feels fresher. We are the sane, we are the few. We choose a different path.

How mad is your world today?

What are you doing to keep your head above the waves?

A Sneak Peek For You All

A little book update for you all this morning. For it is morning in not so sunny Northern Ireland. Regular readers will know that I forwarded the 6th draft of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ to my editor, Laura, before Christmas. She had the audacity to take a break over the festive period (shocking, I know) but is now fully back in harness and furiously polishing the very rough manuscript that I have spent the last year toiling over.

In the meantime I haven’t been resting on my laurels. I’ve drafted a query letter for prospective literary agents in addition to a two page book synopsis. I’m quite chuffed with how well the synopsis reads but how tough is it to summarise a book into two pages. Sheesh! I’ve also ventured back into the murky world of Twitter to research/stalk prospective agents who I believe are a good fit for Kirkwood.

After looking at in excess of 500, I’ve drawn up a shortlist who I will be submitting my query letter, synopsis and sample pages to, once Laura has worked her magic. Then it’s a case of wait and see. I’m hoping an agent will pick up on it, but if not I will consider self-publishing if there is no interest. It’s a highly competitive market and there is no shame in venturing down the latter route.

So….what is ‘Skelly’s Square’ all about? I thought I’d tantalise your taste buds a little. So here’s a snippet of the synopsis:

Many books have been written about the Battle of Waterloo. Some painstakingly researched by learned historians, others penned by those who were there and survived the horrors to tell the tale. Yet, despite the millions of words, there still remains an element of mystery as to what happened amidst the mud and the smoke. There are grey areas. Some stories have never been told. This is one such story. The story of a company of men, who fought and died as one, but whose valour and courage never saw the light of day. This is the story of ‘Skelly’s Square,’ the ‘Forgotten Regiment.’ For they have returned.

Modern day Belfast, Northern Ireland. Meet Kirkwood Scott. He’s having a bad day, no make that life. He’s stuck in a dead end job, his girlfriend has just dumped him and his family have emigrated to the other side of the world. Then there are the routines, the endless routines which haunt his every waking thought. Kirkwood has OCD, a mental disorder triggered in him as a young boy following the brutal murder of his father. A murder Kirkwood feels responsible for.

Responsibility brings consequences. Ever since that day, Kirkwood has paid the price via a series of tortuous routines, ‘The 49,’ which he must perform. Failure to do can lead to all sorts of bad stuff happening. Planes crash, tower blocks collapse. And it’s all his fault. Why? Because Skelly says so. Kirkwood believes it to be nothing more than an imaginary voice, created as a child when he innocently played with his toy soldiers. But we know better, don’t we? Skelly has returned to wreak his revenge on an ungrateful world which turned its back on him.

Kirkwood is resigned to a life of quiet torment until he meets a mysterious young homeless woman, Meredith Starc. Meredith has her own problems. Traumatised by the suicide of her best friend, Emily O’Hara, indifferent parents, and callous school bullies she flees her privileged upbringing to the streets of Belfast where she survives on her wits, only interested in where the next bottle of wine is coming from. Then there’s the graffiti where Emily appears to be communicating to her from beyond the grave. Not to mention the blood drenched dreams where she is pursued by a figure very familiar to Kirkwood.

Kirkwood and Meredith join forces, slowly gaining each other’s trust and discovering that beneath the gritty reality of Belfast’s streets, a brutal battle rages between supernatural forces of good and evil, with the future of the planet at stake. Guided by a kindly tramp, Cornelius Dobson, who is not all he seems and a wheelchair bound teenager, Harley Davison, they realise they hold the key to saving mankind from a new Dark Age. But can they survive long enough to figure it out, as Skelly unleashes his army of ghost soldiers on an unsuspecting city to hunt them down?

The above is only a snippet of the story and the KSC universe. But I’d be grateful for any feedback. Feel free to comment below.

And So It Begins….

The grind, that is. Back on the 07:53 express train to Belfast. The platform bathed in a sickly glow, casting up the faces of my fellow commuters to me for scrutiny. The same faces as before, some new clothes and accessories, but the same faces. Wearing the same expressions. Mostly frowns, mostly down. The occasional smile, but they are few and far between. I stare at my reflection in the cracked carriage glass. I fit in effortlessly.

I wonder how many New Year Resolutions have been broken already, now we are almost 40 hours into 2019. Or, are they clinging on for dear life as the train rattles through the darkness towards the city lights? Clinging on to hopes and dreams that seemed so attainable, but two nights ago. But now, they squirm and slither through steepled fingers, for another year.

I stand my ground amongst the frowns. Wrapped in layers of woollen hope. Slick with sick but still I see the magic. I see it, eyes wide open. I pray my resolve does not dissolve, does not corrode a hole within my soul. A soul I’ve fought so hard to fill, with iron will. We go again I spoke, I wrote. I’ll practice what I preach this year. They drive me on. The doubters, mockers. I know them well.

The grind is hell to those who dwell within a world of broken dreams. I am the glue, for you, the means and the ends. I am your friend. If you will allow me. Rise up, for we know not where we are going until we take that first faltering step. Watch barriers melt and hurdle fears, go through the gears. To find the grind is but a temporal state. Berate this date. For you and I are more.

How are coping with your grind today?

2019….We Go Again

Being a full time rugby dad, I’ve heard the above phrase often over the last few years as I’ve stood on the touchline supporting Adam. When a team scores and is regrouping for the resulting kickoff it is a rallying cry for the side. Yes, we may have just scored. Yes, we may be leading. But the game isn’t won yet. There is still work to be done. We can’t afford to relax or be complacent.

We go again….

On a personal level, I achieved a lot in 2018. I wrote a book. I ran two marathons. I watched the blog grow to over 8000 followers. But, more importantly, I grew as a person. Yet, there’s still so much to do and I can’t help but feel time is not on my side. So, I go again. Despite being sidelined with illness currently, I’m still hopeful of completing my tenth marathon in May. The Belfast Marathon has a new route this year which I’m looking forward to tackling.

Then there’s the little matter of my book, ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square.’ I’m loathe to blog about it as it’s an entirely selfish exercise, but I realise in order to promote it, I have to occasionally blow my own trumpet. I’m wary of that side of my character, but have good people around me to guide me along that particular path. I’ve even ventured back onto Twitter, which was a huge, and still weird, experience.

The book is currently with my editor, Laura, having gone through the beta reader process. When she returns it, I will be ready to start querying literary agents. I’m currently drawing up a shortlist which I’ve been researching online. I’ve also drafted my query letter and book synopsis. So, I’m standing on the cusp, the edge of submitting sample chapters to them. It’s exciting, but also terrifying.

I’m hoping to be a better husband and father in 2019. A better manager, a better employee, a better son, brother, uncle, everything really. As ever, I will strive to blog regularly and honestly, keeping you updated as to my successes and setbacks. I will also continue to battle with my fractured faith and work at keeping the beast that is my OCD, well and truly shackled in the deepest recesses of my mind.

I want to read more books, watch more movies and start work on KSC2. Ideas are starting to form in my mind as to where Kirkwood, Meredith and Harley go next. I also want to engage more with my fellow bloggers. I regard many of you as friends now, people I would miss if you dropped off my online radar. Blogging is more than just posting blogs. It’s about reading, interacting with, and supporting others. I need to do that more.

I hope you all realise your dreams and targets in the coming year.

We go again. We go together.

What are your 2019 goals?

Everybody Hurts. Most of the Time

My neck hurts. This is a surefire indicator of stress. Here’s a true story. The night before I got married, I got a cramp in my neck. Since then, whenever I get stressed, I develop a dull ache in one side of my neck. Cracking it helps. A little. I have no idea if there is a physical reason for this pain, as I’ve never sought medical help. Maybe it’s all in my head. Or neck. Whatever. My neck hurts. No pain in the neck/marriage related jokes please. I’ve heard them all.

The cause of the stress? Undoubtedly the work report from hell. For there must be a hell. Otherwise, where could this report have been spawned? It is a 300 page, paper boomerang. It keeps coming back. Landing on my desk when I least expect it. Edits of edits. Ad nauseum. Maybe I’m too much of a perfectionist, maybe I should just let it go. Wash my hands of it. They know best. Did I mention that my neck hurts?

My legs hurt. Like, proper ache. At least I know the cause of this. I’ve ran the last three days and was contemplating doing likewise today. But I knew after yesterday’s 10K effort, that I needed a day off. I’m trying to run more consistently and my times have reflected that of late. Yesterday was my best 10K in many moons. It’s a great stress buster as well. My neck doesn’t hurt when I run. But now my legs do.

Swings and roundabouts. My father once said you can’t have a pain in two places at the same time. He might have had a point. So, there will be no running today. I’ll be back on it like a car bonnet tomorrow. Winter running is essential if I’m going to be anywhere near ready for my 10th marathon next year. So I grit my teeth, take the wind and rain, take the cold, take the pain, and get out there and do it.

My brain hurts. Who would have thought that the actual writing of a book was the easiest part? Now I’ve entered the murky world of seeking literary representation. I plan to query 10 of them in the New Year. That’s the shortlist. The long list I’m currently wading through nears 500 in total. From there, I’m seeking to whittle down those who I feel are best suited to my work. It’s hard work. My brain hurts.

I’m researching their likes, dislikes, blah blah blah. British, Irish, American. Male, female. Some seem lovely. Encouraging and understanding. Others less so. They portray themselves as gods and seem to delight in intimidating debut authors from their lofty literary towers. ‘If I don’t like the first line of your manuscript, then I probably won’t read anymore.’ One of them actually said that. Jaw dropping arrogance.

I’m about halfway through the long list. My short list is too long. Should I be spending more time on my query letter? Are my opening three chapters strong enough? Why am I thinking about the second book when there is still so much to do on the first? Will people get the humour? The anger? The hopelessness? I’m bracing myself for the worst, and hoping for the best. But my brain hurts.

That’s the icing on the cake. The hurt cake. Cut into it and you find all the other hurt. The worries, the frustration, the disappointment of everyday life. Family, faith, finances, friends. It goes on. Hurt is everywhere. Physical, Mental, Spiritual, it’s all there. Why bother? Why try? What’s the point? Well, here’s the point. Everybody hurts. Most of the time. But I’ll keep going. Because there is hope.

Yesterday was our daughter’s birthday. Our beautiful, brave daughter who has defied doctors and proved them all so wrong. She is worth the hurt. As are my wife and other two kids. I hurt for them. I run to keep the mental demons at bay. I work to pay the bills. I write to pave a better future for us. I hurt for them. Every day is a battle, but every day is an inch in the right direction. Proving the doubters wrong. Proving. Improving. Embrace the hurt.

Where are you hurting today?

Are you embracing the hurt?

The Try That Never Was

Adam was involved in a very tightly contested rugby match yesterday against a much bigger Belfast school. Privately, I wasn’t expecting the boys to win but they played out of their skins, and almost did. The final score was 17-14 but the score doesn’t fully reflect the courage, skill and work ethic the team put into the contest, which was played in wet, bitterly cold conditions.

The score also doesn’t reflect an incident in the first half when Lurgan almost scored a try which would have won the match for them. A kick through was chased to the line by a Lurgan player and member of the opposing side. As the ball crossed the line, both boys dived on it. From where I was standing, it was impossible to tell who had touched the ball first.

The referee was equally unsighted and asked the boys who had grounded the ball first. The crowd, all seven of us, collectively held our breath and I crossed my fingers and toes, hoping it was a score for the home side. At which point one of the Lurgan players, a good friend of Adam’s, informed the referee that the other team touched the ball first. The referee thanked him and the game carried on. No try.

It was a gesture of sportsmanship by a teenage boy which touched me. Rugby is massive in Ireland and our little nation has arguably the best side in the world, heading into next autumn’s World Cup in Japan. It is fiercely competitive at schoolboy level and played to an incredibly high standard. The top schools players normally end up playing professionally. Think college football and the NFL.

It is also a game where the boys are taught to play hard, but fair. They put in bone shaking hits, but afterwards shake hands and applaud each other off the pitch. The referee is always referred to as ‘sir’, and his decisions are final. The game teaches discipline, self control and respect. I often I wish I could display the same restraint on the touchline as Adam and his teammates show on the field of play.

After the match, I asked Adam his thoughts on the try that never was. He replied that they were mixed. While he desperately wanted to win, he admired his friend for doing the right thing, even if it meant defeat. The school principal later tweeted about the incident, stating that he was proud of his pupil for putting honesty before victory at all costs. It represented the values of the school and what they are trying to instil in their students.

I wondered if I would have made the same call. I’m not sure I would have. I’m incredibly competitive and not the best of losers. I so wanted Adam’s team to win, but it wasn’t to be. Yet, as I walked back to the car it didn’t feel as if the team had been beaten. Instead, there was a sense of pride and vindication. I know that, somewhere down the road, the team will be rewarded for what happened on the pitch.

What would you have done? It’s a tough one, isn’t it? The desire to win versus adhering to the rules. It’s so easy for our moral compass to spin out of control when the stakes are high. Dizzy with success, but left inside with an empty feeling and a bitter taste in the mouth. But next time I’m faced with such a decision I’m going to think back to yesterday’s match and the shining example of a 16 year old boy.

What are your thoughts on the try that never was?

How competitive are you? Are you a bad loser?

Have you ever experienced somebody cheating in order to win?

Homeless Jesus

Soooooo…..

I was out for my lunchtime run today, when I was literally stopped in my tracks by a new addition to the Belfast landscape. Outside a homeless centre I regularly run past, was a statue. At first glance, it appears fairly unremarkable. It’s a bronze sculpture of a man lying beneath a blanket on a park bench. What caught my eye, however, was the name of the sculpture – ‘Homeless Jesus.’

Behind the statue was a inscribed description of the piece. It was created by a Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, and depicts Jesus as a homeless person. His face and hands are obscured by the blanket, but the crucifixion wounds on his feet reveal his true identity. The sculpture is intended as a visual translation of the words Jesus gave to his followers in Matthew 25:45.

‘As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.’

Over the last couple of years I have built tentative relationships with a number of rough sleepers who I regularly pass in my travels around the city centre. I’ve blogged about them in the past and one of the main characters in the book I’m currently writing is homeless. I try to help these folk the best I can, by conversing with them, helping them where I can financially, and basically treating them as human beings.

I could do so much better though. When it’s been near the end of the month and the bank account is running low, I’ve been known to actively avoid my homeless friends as I cannot afford to buy them a cup of tea. Even though very few of them ask for money and often I have to force it upon them. They are proud young men and women and are loathe to be regarded as wasters and scroungers.

The statue stopped me dead today for it pricked my conscience. I once attended a suicide in the homeless centre outside where it is now located. A tragic end to a young life, but sadly no longer a rarity amongst our urban homeless communities. The underbelly of our society which we are quick to hurry past on our way to the office, or chuck a few coins in their direction and smugly feel we have met our social and moral obligations for the day.

I can do so much more. I call myself a Christian and like to view myself as a decent person. Yet, what would Jesus make of the behaviour I’ve described in the paragraphs above? Talking the talk and walking the walk, but only when it suits me. Even if I can’t give them the coins in my pocket, I can still afford them my time and prayers. I’m not perfect and I never will be. But I can do better. Much better. Can you?

What do you make of ‘Homeless Jesus’?

Do you do enough for the homeless people in your town or city?

Would You Be Missed If You Didn’t Get Out Of Bed Today?

We woke up to vile weather this morning.

It was cold, dark, wet and windy. Standard Northern Irish weather. Which made getting up to go to work an even less pleasurable experience than normal. Yet, still we get up and stumble wearily into the day ahead. We front up to any number of monotonous, mundane tasks because…..well…..because we have no other choice. Bills need paid, households need run and kids need educated.

Imagine if we said no. Imagine if we decided to not get out of bed but, instead, burrowed beneath the covers and resolutely refused to budge. Would the world keep turning? Would Wall Street open? Would the mid-term elections still go ahead? Would the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening? Well yes, of course all these things would happen and lots more decide. Life would trundle on, with or without us.

But who would miss us? And by that, I mean miss us as opposed to what we do. Set aside our numerous responsibilities, our roles within the family unit, the workplace and wider society. Who would miss us, the person? Our corny sense of humour, our ability to always say the wrong words at exactly the right time? All the infinite list of qualities which make us the unique creations we are.

When we die, it’s all over. In this life, anyway. Most of us will have a reasonably well attended funeral where our loved ones will say their goodbyes before attempting to move on with their lives. Mourners will have their memories and opinions of us, and there’s nothing we can do to change them. They are as set in stone as the marble headstones our epitaphs are chiselled onto.

Now think back to the split second before you got out of bed this morning. Freeze your world. If you were to vanish, what would people say? ‘He was a great guy, the salt of the earth, I haven’t a bad word to say about him?’ Or maybe some of the remarks would be less complimentary. Some might be harsh, hurtful, untrue even. But others might grate on you, strike a nerve, reveal an unpleasant aspect of your character which you cannot debt.

You might agree with all, some or none of this feedback. I would imagine we are all somewhere in between, nestled in the ‘not bad, but could do better’ pile. There might be a few frowns or even a Road to Damascus revelatory moment of clarity. I’m pretty certain all but the thinnest of skins would benefit from the experiment. A 360 degree audit of who we are, what we do and where we are headed in life.

Ebeneezer Scrooge, I am not. Nobody wants to see me running down the street in a nightshirt, clutching a candle and wishing goodwill to all men. When I run, it’s an altogether less disturbing sight. Or at least I hope. But, even though it’s two months yet to Christmas, we could all benefit from taking stock of our lives. While we can. Where can we do better, improve, make more of an impact. Who are the Bob Cratchitt’s and Tiny Tim’s in our lives who we can make more of an effort with?

It’s not Christmas Day, it’s not New Years Eve, but there’s no time like the present. Think hard before your toes next hit the cold, wooden bedroom floor. Or maybe you have deep, plush carpeting. Either way, no matter how grim the weather or your current circumstances, you have a chance to change today. A chance to make an impact within your sphere of influence. Use that chance. For one day, it’s not going to be there.

Are there days you don’t want to get out of bed?

Who would miss you if you didn’t ‘show up’ today?

If you conducted an inventory of your life today, where could you improve?

Keep Going

My beloved Manchester United won today, coming from behind to beat Bournemouth F.C. 2-1. This was even more exciting, given the nature of the winning goal, a last gasp strike from young English striker, Marcus Rashford. United have a rich history of such last minute heroics, harking back to the 1999 Champions League final, when they scored two goals in the last two minutes to win the biggest prize in European football.

I still get goosebumps when those goals are shown. Just like the time I travelled to Old Trafford to watch them beat arch rivals Manchester City 4-3, courtesy of a 94th minute Michael Owen goal. As the ball hit the back of the net I leapt to my feet and sprinted up and down my section of the Stratford End stand, high fiving all and sundry. I was fuelled by the ecstasy of the moment, in addition to the six pints of Stella Artois I downed in the bar before the match.

The list goes on. During the 1990’s and 2000’s under the management of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, United were an unstoppable force in British and European football. Champions League trophies, Premiership titles, F.A. Cups. They won the lot and much more besides. The never say die attitude and attacking football philosophy of the club was epitomised in countless numbers of last second, come from behind wins. It was their trademark. You never wrote United off. Ever.

Since Ferguson’s retirement six years ago, the club has fallen on comparatively leaner times. While still one of the biggest and richest clubs in the world, success has been harder to come by on the pitch. This season has been no different as the team has struggled to find its stride and play the flowing, attractive football it is world famous for. The game today brought back memories of better times. They are a slumbering giant.

Win, lose or draw I will always support United. They are my team and I’ve followed them for over forty years, through thick and thin. Thankfully the kids have heeded me and both Adam and Rebecca also support the Red and White Army. Hannah isn’t a football fan but I reckon if put on the spot would choose United, if for no other reason than familial loyalty. Plus she would never hear the last of it from me if she did otherwise.

We should never give up on those we support. This can be applied from our favourite sports team to the special people in our lives. Loyalty is what drags them through the tough times, as well as the glory days. Life might seem horrific but it’s a little less horrific knowing there are people out there loving us and willing us on. Such love is indestructible and indefatigable in equal measure. It transcends distance and overtones all obstacles.

Such support makes us want to keep fighting to the bitter end. It makes us want to crawl over broken glass and battle through this morass we call life. For maybe, just maybe, there is a light at the end of the pitch black tunnel. Nothing more than a pinpoint at first, but growing in size and intensity as we break into a run and sprint towards it. Bursting beyond into daylight and new life. A better life, free from the shackles of our old selves.

You might not feel that way today as you read these words but I encourage you to keep going, keep fighting, right up until the final whistle. Keep going for those who are cheering you on, waiting for that special moment when everything falls into place and you score the winning goal. They believe in you, so follow their example and believe in yourself a little bit. For that is where dreams come true.

What’s the most nail biting sporting event you have ever watched?

Are you a loyal supporter? Or a fair weather fan?

Do you believe in yourself enough to fight to the final whistle?

Meet our guest blogger

As part of Hannah’s English coursework she had to write her autobiography so we decided to share it with our WordPress family.

My name is Hannah Catherine Black I am 14 years old. I was born on the 10th of December 2003. I was supposed to be born on Christmas Eve, but I came earlier. I was born in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast I lived there for a year, then I moved. I now live in Aghalee in County Antrim. I have lived there since I was a year old. I live with my mum Fionnuala, my dad Stephen my brother Adam and my sister Rebecca. I also have a dog called Charlie. We got him when he was just a puppy seven years ago.

I was born with Spina bifida and Hydrocephalus which is a condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain. Spina bifida is a congenital defect of the spine in which part of the spinal cord and its meninges are exposed through a gap in the backbone. It often causes paralysis of the lower limbs which I have and sometimes learning difficulties.

I go to Fleming Fulton school in Belfast on the Malone Road. I am now in year 11/12 in school. I am in a class with girls named Leah, Kamile Jodie and Rachel I have been going to this school for 11 years. My favourite subjects are Maths and English because I like the teachers and the way they teach their subjects. But my favourite all time teacher has to be Mrs Devlin who teaches me Maths.

When I am not in school I like to sing and dance. Music is one of the many things that keep me happy, it is my passion. I have been in a few plays and singing competitions. I was once Jack’s mother in Jack and the Beanstalk. I was Cinderella in Cinderella. I also came fourth in a singing contest called Stars In Their Eyes. I was Ariana Grande.

One of my most memorable memories was when I went to Florida with my family and my great Aunt and Uncle, when I was 7. We had a pool in the back garden and my Daddy gave me and my sister dolphin rides up and down the pool.

I have made lots of friends in my school who I will love and be grateful to for the rest of my school years and beyond. My best friend is called Jodie, she is 15 years old and is in my class. We have been friends for as long as I can remember and will continue to be for the rest of my life.

Next year I am going to see one of my idols in concert. I am so excited; his name is Shawn Mendes. I absolutely love him, he is my favourite singer of all time He has inspired in me so many ways through his music and has helped me discover what I want to do in life.

When I leave school my hopes and dreams is to be a singer /songwriter and to be famous. I also want to have kids and a husband of my own one day and maybe a dog. I would also like to be able to walk so that I can be walked down the aisle on my wedding day.

Thank you for reading my story

Are You A Morning Person?

In our house on weekdays, the alarm normally arouses the adults from blissful sleep at 5:45 am. Routine then kicks in and our weary bodies go onto autopilot. Fionnuala commences the Herculean act of getting a bouncing eleven year old and two zombie teenagers out of the house and on their way to school. Uniforms are ironed, lunches are packed and there is much hollering which would raise the dead, but not seemingly a sixteen year old boy.

I’m largely entrusted to get myself ready for work, although Fionnuala might have something to say about that. I stumble out of bed, wash and shave, before dressing and making my way downstairs to bedlam and my first Diet Coke of the day. Slices of toast are hurriedly shoved down throats and then we are all on our way, via bus and train, to our respective schools and workplaces.

Weekends are not much better. Yesterday Adam had a rugby match so I had to have him at his school for 8:45 am. It was worth the early start as they won 57-5 but lie ins are a rare commodity these days. Today, we all had to be up early as we have visitors calling so have to ensure the house is ship shape and ready. It’s little wonder, Fionnuala and I are ready for bed by 10 pm most nights. The all night partying is a distant memory when you’re married with three kids.

It’s fair to say, we are morning people out of necessity more than any great desire to be. If I had a choice, not that I do anymore, I’d much rather remain under the covers as the first rays of morning creep over the horizon. I often claim I’m going to arise for magnificent dawn runs which will leave me energised and inspired for the day ahead. This rarely happens, and my running gear remains untouched at the bottom of the bed.

The same goes for those people who bounce out of bed, stick on a pot of coffee and get tonnes done before the rest of the world stirs. There have been books written about how that first hour of the day can be the most productive. Sorry, that’s just not me. It takes at least an hour for both my body and brain to crank into gear. And anyway, I hate coffee, so I’ll just leave all you Perky Pete and Paula’s to it.

I’d love to be a morning person, truly I would. I could accomplish so much. Sometimes there is so much stuff to wade through that I would happily welcome a thirty hour day. I feel bad when I don’t make that early morning run, when I don’t finish the chapter I had planned to, when I overlook a task or errand that needs ticked off the list in order to keep family life trundling along like a well oiled machine.

Something always seems to have to give. Everything can’t be a priority. Why can’t I be everywhere at once, doing everything at once? Why can’t I keep all the balls in the air at the same time? It’s at times like this, I need to take a deep breath. Turn off panic mode. Shift from negative self-reflection to positive assertion. Focus on what I have achieved from day to day. The runs that did happen, the words that were written, the million and one tasks that were completed.

No, I’m not a perfect husband, father, employee or person. But at least, I recognise that. And I try every day to get the job done, to get from A to B as best I can with the skills that God blessed me with. Trying is sometimes all we can manage. Trying is trying. But it’s better than dying. Dying in a morass of mediocrity and apathy. Giving up and giving in, when there are still battles to be fought and one.

I’m going to try again this morning….

Are you a morning person?

Are you too hard on yourself?

Or can you try harder than you have been?

God Remembers – Part One

Zacharias prayed every day. Which wasn’t peculiar, in itself, given his status as a high ranking priest within the order of Abijah. He was a man of some status, a descendant of Aaron, who had devoted his life to serving God. He was respected by the people, a man viewed as righteous and blameless in the eyes of God. He was humble, preferring to live a modest life in the city of Hebron, as opposed to the more glamorous surroundings of Jerusalem or Jericho.

Zacharias did everything by the book. He married the daughter of a fellow priest, as was expected of a man of his standing. Her name was Elizabeth, a God fearing and obedient woman who shared her husband’s righteous ways. He served for two weeks of the year in the temple, as was required of him, performing the relevant ceremonial duties. On the surface, he and his wife led exemplary lives.

Or did they? You see there was something not quite right about them, for they had no children. Which, in first century Palestine, was a social no no. A childless marriage was viewed as something as a social pariah. Many thought such couples had offended God and were being punished accordingly. What shameful secret were they hiding beneath their perfect lives to have merited the wrath of God?

Zacharias would have been well within his rights to divorce Elizabeth, given she was unable to bear him a son, to continue the family lineage. Nobody would have batted an eyelid had he ‘traded her in’ for a younger wife who would have given him the family befitting of a man who walked in such close alignment with God. Yet Zacharias did not. Why? Well, because he loved Elizabeth of course.

Instead he prayed. Day after day, month after month, year after year. For a family, a son. But now, as they entered their sixties, it appeared that boat had sailed. There was no child, and his prayers remained unanswered. People still gossiped and whispered behind their backs about the honourable priest and his childless wife. Zacharias could have turned his back on it all, his faith and his wife. But he didn’t. Instead he continued to love Elizabeth, pray diligently and serve at the temple.

Today was no ordinary day. No, it was the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. The day, when the nation of Israel offered up prayers of repentance and forgiveness. A very special day. And the most important part of the day was when a hand picked priest would enter the inner sanctum of the temple, the ‘Holy of Holies’. Today, that priest was Zacharias, the childless priest from the barren Judean Mountains.

His job? To carry a fire censer, laden with coals taken from the altar, into the ‘Holy of Holies’ which contained the Ark of the Covenant itself. Zacharias would stand in the presence of God and sprinkle incense on the coals and waft them, allowing a pleasing aroma to rise up to Heaven. It symbolised the prayers of the people, the hopes of a nation. It was most likely the pinnacle of his priestly career.

I’m sure he must have been nervous. His hands were probably shaking as he moved the fire censer from side to side, every last iota of his concentration focused on this most prestigious task. Outside the prayers of thousands of worshippers were rising in volume and intensity. The ceremony was reaching a crescendo and Zacharias stood at the centre of it all. It didn’t get much bigger than this.

Then it ended. He sighed with relief, mouthed a silent prayer of thanks that he hadn’t fluffed his lines, and exited the holy place. The greatest day of his life had peaked. He could relax now, rest and prepare for the long journey home to Hebron. Except it wasn’t. It wasn’t anywhere near over. For God had other plans for Zacharias. The old man who had given his life to God was about to embark on a new adventure; a life he thought was meandering to a mundane end.

Waiting for Zacharias outside was an angel. A most senior angel, as it happens, by the name of Gabriel. Who had a message for the elderly man of God which was going to turn his world upside down. God had been listening to his prayers and now was the time to reveal the plan he had been preparing all along for Zacharias and Elizabeth. For they were to have a son. A very special son. Who would be the spark that would set the known world on fire.

To be continued….

Zacharias – the Greek spelling of Zachariah, meaning ‘The Lord has remembered.’

You can read the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth in Luke Chapter 1.

Do you feel life has passed you by?

That God hasn’t heard your prayers?

Don’t give up hope. God remembers. But we must also remember him.

Unsung Heroes

Our weekends seem to be getting busier and busier as the kids get older. Today has been no exception. Adam had a rugby game in Belfast, prior to starting his part time job at 3pm. In the middle of all that, Hannah had a lunchtime birthday party to attend. As we only have one car, this has meant frantic driving to and from various locations. The icing on the cake has been the constant downpour and ridiculous traffic jams.

Fionnuala has performed heroics ferrying us all around, as ever sacrificing her own day for the rest of us. I often describe our family as a beautiful swan, gliding serenely across a glasslike lake. Beneath the surface, however, it paddles frantically to keep afloat. Fionnuala is the engine room who keeps us moving forward. Without her, we would sink without a trace.

She is an unsung hero and none of us thank her as often as we should for what she does for the family. Today she was so busy that she forgot to eat, until I insisted we pull over at a filling station so she could buy a sandwich. She constantly puts the needs of others before her own. Without her, there would be no rugby matches, birthday parties or part time jobs. Everything would grind to a halt.

So I just want to take this opportunity to thank her. We have guests tomorrow so I’m meant to be cleaning the bathroom so please don’t tell her I’m skiving….I mean blogging. We all love her very much. Sometimes, it’s worth stopping for a second and reflecting on everything the unsung heroes in your life do for you. They give their all, so that our lives run smoothly. We should never take them for granted.

Who are the unsung heroes in your life?

Where Is The God Of My Father?

Where is the God of my Father

Who rescued the lame and the blind?

Where is the God of my Father

Who poured healing oil on my mind?

Kill the will

Take the pill

Numb the thrill

Make me still.

Synaptic relapse

Serotonin collapse

Raging impasse

Stifling morass.

So taste the drill

Run the mill

Surgeons skill

Make me still.

Where is the God of my Father

Now that I’m naked and numb?

Where is the God of my Father

Alone on a slab, splayed and shunned?

Why I Need To Start Reading My Bible Again

I’m as blind as a bat. Seriously. Since I was nine, I’ve had to wear glasses. I remember the first day they were unveiled to the ahem….watching world in Mrs. Robinson’s P5 class. I broke down in tears as the entire class turned as one to gawk at my oh so stylish National Health Service jam jars with equally appalling brown plastic rims. So began a life consigned to permanent face furniture.

I’ve tried contact lenses a couple of times but they aren’t for me. I’d rather stick red hot knitting needles in my eyeballs. Come to think of it, putting in lenses was a not dissimilar experience. When finally in, the tears rolled down my cheeks and my irises resembled maps of the London Underground, criss crossed with an array of broken capillaries. I resembled a vampire in the midst of a particularly bad reaction to sunlight.

My glasses are, therefore, a necessary evil. Without them I can’t drive, read or run. The only time I take them off is when I go to bed at night. I simply cannot function without them, I could not step out the front door, without falling flat on my face. It’s a no brainer that I go nowhere without them firmly attached to my ears. The alternative is unthinkable. They are as part of me, as the nose on my face.

I cannot see without them.

We were visited by friends on Sunday. One of them left her glasses case behind. Thankfully, it was empty. Before leaving, she talked to us about her faith and plans she had for the future , plans she believes God spoke to her about. It was exciting to hear and sparked a flame within me which had been dormant for many months, if not years. A spark which reignited a very battered, fractured faith.

I picked up my Bible yesterday, inspired by the words of this friend. All day I hadn’t been able to get the image of the discarded glasses case out of my head. I thought of my Bible which had lain discarded in the bookcase in our living room for longer than I care to remember. I used to read it every day until life got in the way. The ways of the world took precedence over the ways of God. I was blinded by anger, resentment and self.

I found the verse below, and realised how spiritually blind I have been. I realised how much I need my Bible, as much as I need my glasses. Without its words of truth, I stumble around in an abyss of sinful, addictive behaviour. I allow other voices in my head to drown out the voices that matter. The voices of my loved ones, the voice of God. I realised that I need my Bible. I need it’s guidance. I need Jesus.

He is the antidote for I have become toxic, poisoned by the ways of the world and the voice which has spoken untruth after untruth, layer after layer, clogging my arteries and hardening my heart; forming milky cataracts over my eyes which have blinded me from what really matters. I need the Bible more than I need the happy pill I take every day to inhibit the serotonin levels raging uncontrollably across my synapses.

These are mere words, and are meaningless without accompanying action. But it’s a start and, at present, it’s all I have. This my Declaration of Independence, my call to arms, my battle cry. I’m determined to get back to regular Bible study and reflection. It’s time to get back in the saddle and focus on those who matter. It’s time to open my eyes to the light again, to reclaim the 20/20 vision I so desperately need.

Psalm 119:18 – ‘Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.’

How is your faith journey today?

How important is the Bible in your life?

Has it always been that way?

If You Could Hide Within The Pages Of A Book….

I’ve often taken refuge within the pages of a book. During some of the darkest phases of my life I have galloped through the night, before gratefully clattering across the torchlit drawbridge and dismounting within a courtyard of words and chapters. On all four sides, paper walls have towered comfortingly around me, as impenetrable as stone and steel. I am safe, untouchable, alive.

As I near the completion of my first novel, I also near the year mark in its genesis and evolution. Yes, a year ago the name Kirkwood Scott popped into my head, swiftly followed by that of his nemesis, Augustus Skelly. Well, I say popped into, but truth be told they were always there, just waiting for the opportunity to step forward and formally introduce themselves to myself and the (still) waiting world.

These characters and their adventures have possessed me since then. I have been the conduit through which their stories have evolved. The process has been excruciating at times, but now here I stand on the cusp of recrossing the castle drawbridge and revealing my labours to the big, bad world. It’s a terrifying process and one I have very mixed feelings about.

Part of me is excited to see what happens. But a growing part of me dreads it. My skin is too soft to endure the inevitable criticism and rejection that will follow. Part of me just wants to shove the manuscript in a drawer; something to dig out for the grandchildren in years to come. I’ve done what I set out to achieve – I’ve written a book. The path from here seems too treacherous, too hilly, and utterly beyond my means.

Improbable. Impassable. Impenetrable. These are the words that sit heaviest on my tired shoulders. I sit with pen poised, about to sign terms of surrender as my enemy leers over my shoulder, rubbing its clawed hands in gleeful anticipation of my capitulation. But then I think. I think back to the times I have hidden within the pages of a book, concealed from the storms of life, battering me on all sides.

And I think, what if that book had never been written? What if the author had given up and hurled the manuscript into the fire? What if Tolkien, King, Lewis et al had never allowed their fantastic creations to see the light of day?Where would I be? Where would so many of us be? It doesn’t bear thinking about. I need the written work almost as badly as I need water and oxygen. Reading and writing are akin to life itself.

In today’s fast food, abbreviated, hyper linked world we still need books. 140 character tweets are not enough for me. I need substance, depth and texture. I desire to spend time within the comforting confines of well crafted, structured prose. I need to amble along verdant banks as its waters meander lazily through the meadows of my mind. I need time away from the million mile an hour car crash that we call life.

I know, from connecting with other bloggers, that I am not the only writer consumed by this aching need. We have sought sanctuary all our lives between the covers of a book. Now, we seek to carry on that tradition. To build new strongholds, towering about the mundane, featureless landscape of modern living. We are the architects who have taken the baton from our literary forefathers. We must build. We must create. We must offer respite.

Have you ever hidden within the pages of a book?

Happy Birthday Anne!

A belated Happy Birthday to our dear friend, Anne McCartney, who celebrated her ahem …. something first birthday yesterday. Anne has been a tremendous spiritual and practical support to Fionnuala and myself in recent years, through good times and bad. Anne and her husband, Graham, have been two of the people who have inspired me to retain a faith in God, no matter how fractured that faith has been at times.

She is kind, loving and wise. She remained loyal to me, when many turned their backs and I was at my lowest ebb. She prays constantly for us and I know exciting times are just around the corner for her as she opens a new chapter of her life with Graham. I only hope I can repay back to her 1% of what she has done for us. Happy Birthday Anne from everyone at chez Black. You are much loved and respected.

Is there a special person in your life who you want to give a shout out to today? If so, feel free to honour them by leaving a comment below.

Preparing Shrouds

Frenetic

Kinetic

This panic, magnetic.

It latches, attaches

Destroys the aesthetic.

I scratch til I bleed,

You feed off my need

Delicious disease

So ripe for release.

I mumble the words

Stumble with the herd

Chaotic, hypnotic

Regressing, disturbed.

Gouged

Aroused

Demons carouse

Stalking the fallen

Preparing shrouds.

I’m A Bit Broken

I’m a bit broken

Words rarely spoken

The truth

Tastes so bitter and strange, clay emotions.

Barely alive

Rotten inside

Dead to a world

Where I once loved and thrived.

Cursed with routines

Obsessive dreams

Compulsive acts

Mask stifling screams.

Speculate, ruminate

Gnaw, then regurgitate

Cyclical sickness

These images dominate.

Falling apart

An effortless art

Yet smiling serenely

As I play the part.

A role on a stage

A turn of the page

You don’t even know me

Bird trapped in a cage.

Battered and bruised

Torn and abused

This was my past

Now my present, reused.

Infected, rejected

Defective, Subjective

I yearn for release

From this pain undetected.

For I’m a bit broken

Words finally spoken

Praying they free me

Desperately hoping.

Are you a bit broken?

All feedback and comments gratefully received?

I Am Sic

I am sic

Nervous tic

Binge and purge

This endless urge.

Odd

Erroneous

Out of place

Unworthy of the human race.

Worthy of comment

Worthless, I vomit

Bird in a cage

From the rope I will plummet.

Dead to his Word

Alive to their world

Baptised in blood

Yet drowned in the flood.

No peace here, just pieces

Faceless diseases

Endless attacks

This war never ceases

For I am sick

And I am sic

Liar, fool,

And lunatic.

I don’t write much poetry but I woke with the phrase ‘I am sic’ in my head this morning. Sic, as in the adverb placed after a quoted word to highlight that it is grammatically incorrect but is quoted in its original format. The poem hopes to describe how I felt in my lowest OCD days. It does not represent how I feel today, but I hope it may speak out to others and offer assurance that recovery is possible.

I regard this as one of the most important posts I have published in some time. It felt as if the words were placed within, as opposed to created by, me. They are from me, and not of me. So, I don’t ask this often but if the poem resonates with you could you reblog and share this message within your own community. That would mean a lot to me. For we are all a little bit sic and in need of correction.

‘I Am Sic’ was partially inspired by the song ‘I’m So Sick’ by Flyleaf. Its vocalist and writer, Lacey Sturm, is featured in today’s accompanying image.

A Running Concern

It’s three days to the Causeway Coast Marathon and reality hit home when I received my joining instructions yesterday. These are so long and detailed that I could probably run a marathon in the time it will take me to digest and process them. Cutting to the chase, though, it is 26.2 miles of road, beach, trail and rocks. With a lot of hills thrown in for good measure. Well, what else would I be doing on a Saturday morning?

Now there’s a question. I could be doing a LOT of stuff. Watching Adam play rugby for a start. I knew I’d miss a game by signing up for Causeway Coast but justified it to myself at the time. The nearer I get to Saturday, however, the more I wish I was going to his match. I should be on the touchline supporting him, instead of pandering to my own selfish needs. I feel bad about that and nothing will convince me otherwise.

I could also be working on the book. This week has been a busy one so I’ve barely touched it. I hope to get back to editing this evening, but I’m desperate to complete the latest draft by the end of September. I can ill afford to sacrifice another Saturday when there is still so much work to be done. I bet Tolkien or Rowling didn’t down tools to run 26.2 miles at such crucial points in their writing journeys.

Work is also crazy at present. Deadlines are looming large and there is overtime available if I wished to avail of it. The extra money would be welcome with the expenditure of Christmas on the horizon, but instead I’ll be slogging around the Northern Irish countryside while paying the race organisers a small fortune for the privilege. Not to mention the cost of diesel driving there and back, the weekend before pay day.

There’s also the voice telling me I’m not ready. This will be my ninth marathon but, I go into it feeling less confident than ever. Training runs have been inconsistent and I feel nowhere near the fitness levels I’ve accrued in advance of previous events. I feel sluggish and am filled with trepidation. This isn’t a PB course but I’m anxious of blowing up in spectacular fashion and missing my sub 4:30:00 target.

The hope is that, come race day, experience will kick in and I’ll be dragged to the finish line by a combination of adrenaline and being in the company of my fellow runners. I’m trying to put less pressure on myself for this one and just enjoy the experience. Try telling that, though, to the persistent, nagging voice telling me this will be the day the world will realise what a massive charlatan I’ve been all along.

After Saturday I’ve decided I’ll pull down the curtain on marathon training for 2018. I have so many other competing priorities and the thought of solo 20 mile runs in the dead of winter is an unappealing prospect. My tenth marathon will be next May at Belfast with my now traditional warm up run at the Omagh Half Marathon the previous month. After that, we shall see as to whether or not I call it a day. My body will tell me.

Good, bad or indifferent I’ll publish a post after the race to update you all on how I fared. I know I will be excited come Saturday morning, it’s just there seems so much grown up stuff to wade through between now and then. I’ll worry myself silly over a million and one distractions. Focus and patience are the attributes I need to display. Then, when I reach the finish line I’ll let my feet do the talking.

What are you up to this weekend?

Are you excited? Nervous? Worried?

This Is Me. This Is OCD.

This is me. This is OCD. For it lies. It plants unwanted thoughts in your head. We all have these thoughts. Did I leave the oven on? Why do I need to touch that tap seven times? What would happen if I let go of the steering wheel? The list goes on. Here’s the good news. Such thoughts are perfectly normal. We all have them. And the majority of us shake our heads, think ‘don’t be so ridiculous’, and shoo the idea out of our head, never to return.

I don’t, for I have OCD. The thought doesn’t go away, rather it becomes that unwelcome house guest who turns up uninvited, kicks off their shoes, and asks what’s for dinner. They linger, they fester and they grow to such a monstrous size that they squeeze every other idea out of your head. It holds court, takes up residence and cheerily starts to dismantle every last shred of your former self. It changes you to the extent that you start to doubt who you are.

The power of the obsessive thoughts and images are hard to describe. But I’ll try. Imagine standing in the middle of a boxing ring against a dangerous and skilled opponent. Except your hands are tied, you’re rooted to the spot and blindfolded. Your opponent can land unlimited punches from any angle at any time. You cannot see them coming nor evade or deflect them in the slightest. That is OCD. A sensation of utter powerlessness against a relentless, unforgiving foe.

When a punch lands, you are utterly unprepared for it. You are sent spinning to the canvas, shocked and disoriented. That is OCD. Once the unwanted thought floats into your mind you have no way of removing it. OCD is a bloodless coup, a fait accompli. It storms your ramparts and before you know it, the white flag has been risen. It knows no mercy and gives no parley. It is the Ramsay Bolton of mental illness. It will flay you alive.

The harder you try not to think about the unwanted thought, the more you will. That is OCD. It isolates you from reality and ties you up in nonsensical knots which you cannot untangle, no matter how hard you try. It clouds rational thought and wreaks havoc amidst the foggy confusion. It is ridiculous but that is it’s strength. You are terrified to share your thoughts with another human being, for fear they think you insane.

You would rather hide your dirty, grubby secret than expose it to the light of day. The voice is insistent that if you share that unwanted thought with anyone, it will wreck your marriage, your family and your life. You will end up with nothing, a broken shell. So you keep it bottled up inside, and allow the disturbing, unwanted, graphic images to torment your every waking hour. It is your constant companion, the albatross around your neck.

It consumes the good in you, sucks the very marrow from your bones. You are left dry and broken. There is no tiredness comparable to an OCD loop. If the CIA could bottle OCD and release it as a nerve agent, then all wars would end. Bullets and bombs break bones, OCD breaks wills. It is the end of times, for when it drops its payload, then nothing will ever be the same again. How do you defeat an enemy you cannot see.

It calls you everything, and you believe. You are everything you despise. You are a deviant, a freak, a waste of skin and space and air. You are the devil and it is the detail. It scoops out everything you ever were and ever hoped to be. It is a dragon that you will chase but never catch. It is smoke and mirrors and you choke and cower. It is everywhere but it is nowhere. It destroys worlds. These words are my truth. For this is me. This is OCD.

What Are You Hungry For?

Saturday was the start of the new rugby season, so Fionnuala and I hugged the touchline, to watch Adam play for his college against one of the big Belfast schools. Unfortunately they lost, but didn’t go down without a fight. Adam had a great game and scored his team’s only try. I thought he was our best player but then I’m his father so that’s to be expected. Afterwards, therefore, I was relieved to hear his coach agree with my assertion.

He informed me that, given his performance, Adam was being moved up to the first team for next weekend’s match. We were delighted to hear this as it has been his target all summer and he has worked hard towards attaining it. He will now be playing against boys up to two years older than him, at a much higher level. It’s a steep learning curve but one that he needs to take in order to fulfil the potential within him.

The coach also told me that he did not want Adam progressing too quickly into the first team as he wanted to ‘keep him hungry.’ If he reached his target too easily then that could impact upon his motivation and determination for the rest of the year. Adam has talent and a strong work ethic but to be the best that he possibly can requires more than that; it requires a desire or drive that cannot be taught.

Whenever I’m training for marathons, which is most of the time, I’m permanently hungry. I think about eating all day long. I don’t view myself as greedy, rather I need to eat a lot to replace the calories I burn up on training runs. This allows me to eat pretty much whatever I want. Which means ALL the ice cream. I dread the day I have to stop running as I will probably put on three stone in a week.

We normally associate the word with the physical discomfort experienced through a lack of food. But the wider definition fits better with the etymological roots of the word. Hunger derives from the Old English word ‘hungor’, meaning desire. It goes beyond growling stomachs and yo-yo diets. When we hunger after something, we desire it, we yearn for it, we crave it.

Hunger, within this context, is a double edged sword. While we identify the physical experience of hunger with negative emotions, it is construed as a positive attribute for a young rugby player like Adam, striving to progress in his given sport. To aspire to better yourself, to improve reflects a healthy mindset. We need targets in life, or at least I know I do. For otherwise, we stagnate and become bored.

Flip the coin again, however, and we can hunger after unhealthy desires. Desires that lead us down the wrong path. An unhealthy appetite, if allowed to run unchecked, can result in more than indigestion. It can bring destruction and ruin to your life and the lives of those you love the most. Collateral damage is still damage. Be hungry, but hunger after those things which are going to supplement your life, not suffocate it.

What are your thoughts on hunger and desire after reading this post?

Be a Rainbow in Somebody’s Cloud

Today is Mental Health Awareness Day and I felt its an area that needed to be addressed here. It’s no secret that Stephen suffers from mental health problems he blogs about it regularly and was actually one of the reasons for starting up this blog.

There aren’t very many households now days that don’t have or know some one that suffers from mental health problems. I have family members and friends that suffer from anxiety, depression,OCD, eating disorders to name but a few. I am no expert on mental health issues but if I can do anything I am here for anybody with a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or even a hug and a prayer.

I just told my mum today who is fighting her own battle that everybody has their own issues and problems that they are battling that are mountains to them but to me on the outside looking in they don’t seem too bothersome compared to what I’m dealing with and vice versa.

People deal with things in different ways it’s what makes us all unique. Mental health problems don’t just affect poor or working class people it can affect anybody at anytime.

I once worked with a woman that couldn’t understand why a very healthy and wealthy man that she knew had taken his own life. Her words to me were “he had all that money so he had nothing to worry about”. Money can buy you nice things and help you live a life of luxury but it can’t buy you a healthy mind.

None of us have the right to judge or put anybody down and none of us knows what goes on behind closed doors. We need to be more patient with people and always try to show love and a smile and explode their darkness with light.

Try and be a rainbow 🌈 in somebody’s cloud ☁️

Are You A Martyr?

I wear my heart on my sleeve. I have a thin skin. Some might say I am overly sensitive. The other day in work a colleague made a comment about me that I found very hurtful. So much so, that I was taken completely off guard and unable to respond. I had to excuse myself and retreat to the toilets where I attempted to regain my composure. My heart was racing and I felt faint. It was as if I was back at school, the shy, chubby boy being bullied by the cool kids.

Part of me wanted to confront this person about the comment. He appeared utterly oblivious to the damage he had caused with the glib, throwaway remark. I had witnessed his casually cruel tongue before but never been on the receiving end until now. Worst of all this person was a Christian, a man who portrayed himself as clean living, church going example to the rest of the office. I was angry, disappointed and confused.

I said nothing in the end. I let it go. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do. Time will tell. I had half hoped he would have approached me in the days that followed to apologise, but that has yet to happen. I’ve largely avoided him since and any communication between us has been minimal on my part. That’s what I do when I am hurt. I curl up into a ball like a frightened hedgehog and withdraw from the situation in question.

I’m good at playing the victim, the martyr. Part of me thrives on it even. I mope around, licking my wounds, feeling sorry for myself and lapping up any scraps of pity and sympathy thrown my way. Poor little Stephen. It is at times like this I need to take a good, long look in the mirror and see myself for what I truly am. To peel away the layers of ego and confront the hard, cold truth. For I am a hypocrite.

When I was young I sometimes wondered why I was named after a Bible character who featured so briefly before being promptly stoned to death. Why couldn’t I have been named after a more heroic figure like David, Joshua or Samson. Ok, maybe not Samson. Samson Black makes me sound like a WWE wrestler. And the last thing any of us wants to see is me prancing around the ring in a pair of rhinestone encrusted Speedos.

Now I realise that Stephen was a greater hero than any of them. He didn’t lay waste to opposing armies on the battlefield, swinging a mighty sword and performing great acts of courage and heroism. His bravery was a different kind. He instead stood before his prosecutors and spoke the truth with eloquence and dignity, before stoically dying for what he believed in. He refused to denounce his faith and was willing to give up his life for what he believed in.

His martyrdom was selfless and for others, unlike my own pale imitation which is motivated by neediness and attention seeking. For I am a bigger hypocrite than the man who struck me with a metaphorical stone during the week. I think of all the hurtful things I have said and done to those I care about. Then I realise that I have no right to take the high moral ground. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone? I have thrown more than I care to recall.

I have yet to forgive the man for his comment but realise this is what I must do in order to move on. I should also be thankful for him. For the incident has revealed to me faults and failings that I need to address in my own life. People who I hurt and whose forgiveness I should be seeking as opposed to focusing on my own petty concerns. The truth hurts but it is the best kind of pain. Sometimes we need to embrace that pain and never let go.

Are you a hypocrite?

Do you play the martyr?

What do you need to do to address situations in your life where you can do better?

We Live In A World Of Purple Pens

Rebecca starts at her new school today. She is extremely excited about this and last night was a bit like Christmas Eve in our house as she bounced around, getting ready for the big day. Yesterday, Fionnuala took her out to get the last bits and pieces she needed. The school had helpfully shared a list of what pupils required on its Facebook page. A very long and expensive list. My debit card has never known such frenetic activity.

Included on the list were pens. Each pupil was required to have blue, black and purple pens. Hang on a minute. Purple? I didn’t even know such a colour of pen existed. What happened to good, old fashioned red pens? Adam explained to us that the school no longer allowed red ink as this was regarded as too ‘negative’ a colour for marking homework. Instead teachers now did so with green pens and pupils responded to their grades in purple ink.

Once my jaw had bounced back off the floor I reverted to my old friend Google for confirmation of this nonsensical practice. And, lo and behold, Adam was right. Schools viewed the use of red ink as potentially harmful to a child’s fragile psyche. The poor, little lambs. The colour red was synonymous with harm and danger whereas green and purple were deemed more calming and neutral options.

Of course, we towed the line and purchased the purple pens. Apparently they are freely available at all good retailers. But what next? Purple traffic lights? Road signs? Will bulls now take offence if wrongly coloured rags are waved in their faces? I’m all for educating our kids in a safe and positive learning environment. I was bullied at school by teachers as well as pupils and know very well how a child’s fragile confidence can be damaged by those meant to bolster it.

But is this a step too far? Do we not need the colour red in our lives? Red signifies danger and acts as a warning sign. It guides us and allows us to avoid potential harm. Without it we are left exposed and more likely to stray off the straight and narrow path? We are humans and, as such, are infinitely capable of shooting ourselves in the foot. Sometimes we need alarm bells to ring and flashing lights to go off in our heads.

I know I do. If there is wrong decision to make, I will make it. I act on instinct, I don’t think and frequently put my foot in my mouth. I have an impulsive, addictive nature which, if left unchecked, would get me into all sorts of trouble. I don’t recognise the danger before it’s too late. I need the colour red in my life. Preferably in ten foot high letters and surrounded by wailing sirens and flashing lights. Purple fire engines are of no use to me.

This is why I need the right people around me. This is why I am always wary and cautious. The slightest prompt or thought can trigger me and quickly spiral out of control until it is too late and I have entered a whole new world of pain. I need honesty, transparency and accountability. I need people who will tell me how it is. Who will scream at me until they are red (not purple) in the face. I need the truth. Every single day.

Rebecca sets off on a new adventure today with a new school uniform, a new school bag and a new pencil case full of purple pens. Such is the changing world we live in. But when I arrive at work this morning and organise my desk I will be making sure that my trusty red pen sits front and centre. Old habits die hard and I’m too long in the tooth to change now. We may now live in a world of purple pens. But, I for one, still need the colour red in my life.

What are your thoughts on the purple pen debate?

Do you need the colour red in your life?

One Little Spark

This is the iconic Bank Building, which has stood in the heart of Belfast city centre since 1785. For the last 40 years it has housed Primark, one of the most popular department stores in the country. The building has become a famous landmark with its iconic clock overlooking Royal Avenue. It is a popular meeting place and buskers and street evangelists often ply their trade outside it, vying for the attention of the passing public.

Yesterday morning, just after eleven, Rebecca and I were travelling out of Belfast along the M1 motorway. We were heading home, having been in the city on an errand. A fire engine suddenly flashed past in the opposite direction, its sirens wailing and blue lights flashing. Then a second….and a third. We wondered what was going on. When we arrived home, Fionnuala was watching a live video feed from the city. The Primark building was on fire.

The fire started on the roof, apparently after a workman’s blowtorch was left unattended. A stray spark had started a fire which was soon raging out of control and spreading downwards. Thankfully the building was safely evacuated and hundreds of frantic shoppers spilled out onto the streets below. Within hours the building was an inferno and a black, choking shroud of smoke could be seen across the skyline.

Fourteen fire appliances and over 100 firefighters battled the blaze throughout the day. The roof collapsed, followed by all its floors leaving only a blackened, smouldering shell. There are genuine fears that the historic building will have to be pulled down. Hundreds of staff have lost their jobs. The city is mourning the loss of an old friend. It had survived the German Luftwaffe and countless terrorist bombings during ‘The Troubles.’ But now it was gone in the blink of an eye.

I walked past the blackened hulk this morning on my way to the office. There was an eerie silence and the smell of cloying smoke still hung thick in the air. So much history, culture and memories lost. All because of one tiny spark. Life will go on. Businesses will reopen and trade will resume. Yet it won’t be the same. The shockwaves of that spark will ripple outwards for many years to come.

Life can be like that. One moment of madness, one loose sentence and the fire is ignited. Small at first, but soon raging out of control, fanned by petty fears and jealousies. Before you know it friendships are consumed, relationships destroyed and families are left in ruins. The fire and smoke of our foolish actions can have repercussions which will impact upon the lives of others for generations. No family tree can survive its wrath.

Think before you speak. Consider the bigger picture and play the longer game. Wisdom and discretion are hard won, but invaluable, qualities to possess. Take responsibility for your words and actions. Nothing burns like a spiteful tongue and nothing hurts like a deep burn. Such wounds may never heal fully and even if they do the scars will remain throughout the ages. Yet they can be so easily prevented with a little care.

Are there fires raging in your life today?

History Is Written By The Winners

When my OCD was at its worst I was a slave to my own thoughts. They controlled me from when I opened my eyes in the morning until last thing at night. The obsessive thought would settle like a toxic dew and only lift temporarily whenever I completed the corresponding compulsive act. This normally involved tortuous mental routines which would leave me physically and mentally drained.

At the time I didn’t know I had OCD. Like many others I thought OCD was ritualistic hand washing or cleaning, neither of which I was prone to. Instead I thought I was a deviant, the only person in the world having the unwanted and deeply disturbing thoughts and images which assailed me from all sides, at all hours. These were very, very bad thoughts. Which therefore made me a very, very bad person.

When my OCD was it’s height I must have had thousands of such thoughts every day. Multiply that by the days, weeks, months and years and you get an idea of the numbers involved. The scale and complexity of the disorder is staggering. OCD is a jealous, possessive mistress that demands your total attention. It ruled my life with an iron rod; brutal, relentless and utterly forgiving.

My already fragile self-confidence plumbed new depths. I believed the OCD was part of me, as opposed to an alien mental disorder which could be managed by medication and other therapies. I was consumed by guilt and shame. I despised what I was becoming, what I had become. Every day brought fresh horrors and unspeakable scenarios. When I was lost in a routine it was as if time stopped. Nothing mattered except the routine. Nothing.

The key to my incarceration was disclosure. I finally summoned up the courage to tell Fionnuala the truth about what was going on inside my head. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t judge, she didn’t run straight to the divorce courts. Instead she researched my symptoms online, effectively diagnosed me and encouraged me to seek the medical health I required. She was there when I needed her most. Her love broke the chains.

Disclosure involved transparency, courage and honesty on my part. There was a risk involved but after I took that first step, the beast lost its hold over me. It thrives in the darkness where it wriggles and squirms, growing in guile and deception with every passing day. It whispers false truths but shirks from the light. When I saw it’s true face, the beast lost its power over me. It shrivelled and skulked, retreating into the shadows to lick its wounds.

You might be reading this today in the grip of obsessive, irrational or addictive behaviour. You know what you are doing is damaging but you cannot stop. You are alone and broken, you see no way out of your predicament. If you are, then I hope this post is of some comfort to you. You are not mad, you are not evil and you are not tainted. But you do need help. Take that first step and ignore the voice.

The voice is not you, it cannot be allowed to drown out your true identity. Rise up and fight back. Rebellion leads to freedom. Freedom to live the life you were created to live. Do not let the enemy within triumph. Fight back. Treat your self inflicted wounds as battle scars, red badges of courage and honour. History is written by the winners, by the victorious and not the vanquished. You are a winner. Start writing your story today.

Are you battling demons today? How are you coping?

Confessions Of A Recovering Catfish – Part Two

I never considered myself a catfish until it was recently pointed out to me. I mean, my profile picture was me. I told people the truth regarding where I lived, what I did for a living, the nuts and bolts of my everyday life. But it pretty much ended there. Beneath the veneer of respectability I created a version of myself who was cooler, wittier, more outrageous than the very plain person sitting tapping on their phone.

I escaped into a fantasy, online world where everybody loved me and thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. I became increasingly detached from reality and the people who really mattered. Harmless half truths snowballed to become whopping great lies. I became a master at mind games and manipulating situations to my advantage. I let my family down, I let myself down. I was spiralling out of control. Always down.

It all came to a head when I met someone online who was a bigger catfish than even I was. They, too, were who they said they were. They posted photographs and lived a life but, beneath the seemingly tranquil surface, was a twisted, unhinged mind. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. This catfish was hooked. I felt sorry for them as I was regaled with stories of how crappy their life was and how badly they had been treated by others.

I wasn’t prepared for the blizzard of emotions they blasted me with. They said I was the most incredible person they had ever met. They adored me, they worshipped me, they loved me like they had loved no other. To my eternal shame, I fell for their honey coated words. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I knew it was very wrong but I craved the attention, the adulation, the incessant accolades and adulation.

They was a she of course; and she was very clever. She plucked at my heartstrings like a concert violinist. About her terrible marriage and abusive husband; her eating disorder and self harming; her suicidal thoughts and erratic mood swings. I was the only one who could save her. And if I didn’t do so then, well maybe, bad things would happen her. Maybe one day I would message her and she wouldn’t be there.

Looking back on it all now, I shake my head at my own naivety and gullible nature. I ended up hating her and part of me still does for the damage she caused me and my family. But not as much as I hated myself. For since it ended I have battled thoughts of revulsion and loathing towards myself. I have beaten myself up day after day after day. Even though I have been forgiven by my loved ones I still struggle to forgive myself.

My catfish days have also damaged my relationship with God. I walked away from the church and largely shun organised religion now. I avoid interaction with other Christians as so many of them let me down. I am also better placed now to see beneath the superficial friendships and faux concern of church life. I don’t read my Bible, I don’t talk to God, I don’t even know if I am a Christian anymore.

Most of all I let myself down. This blog is my attempt to put things right, to use my writing skills for good and seek to warn others of the pitfalls that I plunged blindly into; I want to help others and, by doing so, help myself. To put the past behind me and forge ahead with the people who matter. To cast aside the baggage of shame, guilt and despair. To rebuild and resow. To emerge out of the darkness and back into the light.

Every Good Plan A Requires A Plan B

Over the weekend I intend to have completed the ‘beta’ draft of Chapters 1-10 of my first book and will be in a position to forward it to a number of kind souls who have expressed an interest in taking part in the beta reading process. We were bowled over by the initial response and I’d like to thank everyone in advance for the time and effort they will be expending to review my work.

Unfortunately we have had to set a limit on the number of people we can accept for the process. Otherwise it becomes an overly complicated venture that defeats the purpose of the exercise. I’m hoping, however, those who are involved are looking forward to the journey as much as I am. Although I will confess I am also filled with more than a little trepidation and nerves. I’m going for it, though.

Like Kirkwood Scott, the eponymous hero of the book, I am a master at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; at falling flat on my face with the finish line just ahead; at knocking over a tin of paint onto the canvas as I’m applying the final touches to my labour of love. I’m determined not to do that this time as I have worked too hard on this project for it not to see the light of day.

My family and friends also deserve this. They have listened to me whine and complain for almost a year. Fionnuala has endured this more than anyone to the point where she has turned around and pleaded to me ‘Just finish the thing’. The kids have been patient and understanding. There have been times when Daddy hasn’t been ‘Fun Daddy’ as he sits hunched over his laptop, hammering away at the keyboard.

The dream is that the book will get picked up by an agent and sold to a publisher. I am realistic, however, and realise how difficult it is for a first time author to secure such a deal. All I can do is try, though, and that is my favoured option. Plan A, so to speak. All good generals have a back up plan, however. So I’m also exploring several other options. Self publishing being one of them.

What I’m trying to say is that those of you who want to read the finished work will get an opportunity to do so, even if it means publishing it as a serial on WordPress. For I believe ‘Skelly’s Square’ continues a story of hope and redemption from the dark places that lies at the heart of all my writing. I believe it is a story that needs to be told as I believe there are those who desperately need such a lifeline to clutch to.

The only fly in the ointment to date is that I have had no male victims….I mean volunteers willing to take part in the beta process. I am keen to cover as many demographics as I can so come on chaps, don’t be shy and step up to the plate. Let’s show the ladies how it’s done, right? If any of you are interested then drop me a line over the weekend. It’s still not too late to get involved.

So that’s the update for now. If you never hear from me again it’s because the betas hated it and I’ve went on a sulk of epic proportions. But let’s hope that this is another small step towards revealing the finished product. And then I can start telling you about my plans for Part Two of The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles. For even the baddest of bad guys deserves a second chance, right? Thank you and stay tuned.

If you have questions or comments about my first novel: ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles : Part One – Skelly’s Square’ then please leave them below. Thank you.

Do you have a Plan B?

Our Eleven Year Old Daughter Has Moved Out

There is never a dull moment at chez Black and this weekend has been no exception. But it has been a little quieter than usual. The reason? Rebecca, our youngest daughter, has been sleeping over at her Granny’s house in Belfast. This was initially meant to be a single night sleepover but she announced to Fionnuala yesterday, who had called to pick her up, that she was staying another night as she was having so much fun.

Adam and Hannah were overjoyed at the news. No more annoying little sister barging into their rooms and asking a million and one pointless questions. Hannah actually punched the air in delight when I told her. Ahhhh, sisterly love. Biscuit and crisp supplies have also been notably healthier. Who knew an eleven year old girl could eat so much? The house has also been considerably tidier.

No more trainers lying on the floor where they have been hurriedly kicked off. No bicycles or scooters abandoned in the front driveway just waiting to be stolen by the first opportunistic thief who wanders by. Dishes have been washed, dried and put away instead of left in messy piles by the sink or found three weeks later cultivating alien organisms in the dark abyss that is her bedroom.

I have been missing my comedy sidekick, however. She is the only member of the family who appreciates my Dad dancing and rapping. She laughs at all my jokes even when I know they’re not funny. We talk in silly voices and watch Nickelodeon together. I now feel like I am an only child, sharing the house with three disapproving, eye rolling ‘grown ups’. I am Embarrassing Dad as opposed to Cool Daddy. It’s a tough gig.

I messaged her last night to express my loneliness. I expected empathy, understanding, perhaps compassion. Her reply was a suggestion that I play with Charlie, the border terrier. Sheesh! Eleven year olds can be brutal. And besides, Charlie seemed much more interested in licking his nether regions as opposed to entertaining the human who feeds and homes him. There’s gratitude for you.

She will return later today and normal service will be resumed. It will be World War III. Fionnuala will scream at her for not bringing down her clothes for washing, Adam will scream at her for barging into his room unannounced and Hannah will scream at her because well….that’s what older sisters do to their siblings. Her and I will talk in silly voices, exchange jokes about unicorn poo and binge on Haribos.

The house has felt empty without her. We have all missed Rebecca in our own ways, just like I know she would miss one of us if we were away. It’s weird and a little disquieting to see her empty bed in the morning. We are a family and when one of us is away it feels as if we are missing a limb. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age but I like having us all under the same roof at the end of the day.

Sometimes you only appreciate your most precious commodities when they are not there. Fionnuala and I joke about the joy and freedom we will experience when the kids eventually move out but I also dread that day. We need to harvest hay while the sun shines and make the most of these times. The together times. For one day my little girl will be all grown up and unicorn poo jokes will be a thing of the past.

How do you cope with an empty house when family members are away?

Jokes about unicorn poo are hilarious. Discuss?

What are your views on Dad rapping?

How Are You Really Feeling Today?

This may come across as a bit personal but I’m asking the question anyway – how are you feeling today? Sad? Happy? Worried? Hopeful? Every day of our lives we are exposed to a diverse range of scenarios which impact upon our mood and outlook on life. These can be temporary and superficial or more serious and long standing. How we respond to them moulds our character and shapes our personality. It contributes towards who we are.

So many of us though are reluctant to show the world how we truly feel. It feels….well wrong. Especially if those feelings are not what are expected by our peers. So we wear a mask, we play a role and when asked reply cheerily that everything is fine when in fact it is anything but. We lie to our loved ones and to ourselves. It is necessary in order to fit in, to be accepted. Nobody has time for worry warts or harbingers of doom, right?

I’ve seen it in the workplace, the church and many other social settings. People running around with smiles plastered on their faces when inside they are falling apart. They are afraid to admit they are struggling for fear of what others will think of them. It is both a vicious circle and an ever decreasing one. Why wear your heart on your sleeve when you can bury it under layers of empty words and glib cliches.

I used to be like that. When my father died eight years ago I was expected by some to carry on. There was a funeral to organise and a million and one other matters to attend to. I didn’t have time to grieve. I recall going home that first night and drinking beer in the living room after everyone else had gone to bed. It was to become a ritual that religiously adhered to for the next few years. Yet to the outside world I was a rock.

Inside I was a frightened little boy. Struggling with a loss that it was impossible to rationalise. How could a sore hip that everyone thought was a gardening injury suddenly become terminal prostate cancer? How did so many doctors, consultants and other specialists miss it? How did I miss it? How did I ever think he was going to get better when the evidence that he was not was staring us all in the face?

My father was dying and I was fine. My father died and I was fine. My father was dead and I was fine. Yet I wasn’t fine. I was anything but fine. I wanted to scream at the heavens and claw at the earth like a crazed, feral animal. I wanted things to be as they were before. I wanted to say goodbye properly, I wanted to say sorry, I wanted to say all the unsaid words which instead lay festering on my conscience.

It was only when I started writing that I found the means to lance the boil. This has been a painful, ugly but ultimately cleansing and liberating process. I have allowed the mask to slip and finally looked in the mirror. I see the real me staring back, not the distorted charade I used to be. I’ve thrown away the crutches and stand tall now. What you see is what you get. I wear my scars like trophies of war.

What would you see if you allowed the mask to slip? Would it be good, bad, ugly? Or perhaps a combination of all three. It takes courage and not all of us are at that stage of our journey yet. But ultimately in order to heal we must first reveal. Reveal the truth for what it is and face it unashamed and unbowed. Give the real you a fighting chance to show the world the real reason you were placed upon it. You can only accomplish that by dropping the act.

How are you really feeling today?

How often do you put on a performance for the watching world?

Would You Sit Beside This Man On A Train?

The 17:00 express train from central Belfast to Portadown is normally packed. As in standing room only. Even sardines would find it a tad oppressive. If you have issues with personal space or spending 25 minutes with your face crammed into a stranger’s armpit then I suggest you avoid it. This is the less than perfect environment where I do a lot of my writing. I bet Tolkien didn’t have these problems.

Yesterday started like any other commute home. Having battled my way onto the carriage I was prepared for the usual torturous experience but, lo and behold, there in front of me were not one, but two, empty seats. Displaying an acceleration that Usain Bolt would have been proud of, I lurched forward in order to secure one of them. I felt like Charlie when he opened the wrapper to find the golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory..

Having hit paydirt I braced myself for the expected cavalry charge as my fellow passengers fought tooth and nail for the vacant berth beside me. The only other empty seat on the carriage, if not the entire train, for all I could tell. People would kill for this ordinarily. Old ladies and young children would be flung aside as grown men grappled like Grecian wrestlers. All for the Holy Grail that is sitting down on the 17:00 express.

Nothing.

There was no stampede, no fisticuffs, no tears or tantrums. My fellow commuters squeezed onto the carriage and stood, sweating and swaying, as the train lurched out of the station. They appeared oblivious to the empty seat, as if it had been cloaked with a shield of invisibility. I was left alone with my thoughts. Which proceeded to wreak havoc on my ever fragile self confidence. Did I smell? Nope. Exhibit an aggressive, intimidating aura? Oh please.

I was left with only one logical explanation which the voice proceeded to gleefully whisper in my ear for the remaining 24 minutes of my lonely journey. They knew. Knew what? I spluttered back indignantly. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they knew. I warily eyed a few of them and was met with blank expressions. Yet that was just a ruse, a ploy on their part. For they knew. They all knew. I had been found out as I always am.

I have spent most of my adult life feeling like a fraud, a fake, the odd one out. I’m more a fish in the Sahara, as opposed to a fish out of water. I’m socially awkward, find it hard to make friends and invariably was the one left standing on his own in the corner at the party. Which was why I drank to excess in order to acquire the necessary fortitude to interact with others like a normal member of the human race.

These thoughts of inadequacy and exclusion are never far from the surface of my mind. I battle them every day. Writing helps me lance and drain the boil. As does running. They purge and cleanse me of the unhealthy toxins which used to course through my veins. I constantly remind myself that I am as good as the next person, that I deserve to be where I am in life and that I can walk into a room with my head held high.

I hate selfies. I’ve written about my disdain for them. Yet I discreetly took one yesterday as I sat on the train home. For myself as much as anyone. To convince myself that I don’t have two heads or the word ‘loser’ tattooed on my forehead. To convince the voice that I’m just an ordinary commuter in a suit, no different from the thousands of others who shuttle in and out of the city every day. I am me and that is enough.

Tomorrow is a new day. I hope I get a seat. I hope even more that someone sits beside me. I promise to spray on extra deodorant and not initiate a creepy conversation with them as they studiously attempt to ignore me. But even more than that I hope I get the chance to show the world that I’m a better person than the one the voice tries to convince me I am. I hope, I hope, I hope. Sometimes that is all I can do.

Would you sit beside this man on a train? I promise not to read over your shoulder.

How do you combat anxiety and doubt on public transport? Or in any social setting for that matter.

Hands Up If You’re Tired?

Hands up who’s tired?

I imagine quite a few of you now are staring at your screens feeling a little awkward that you have a hand in the air at the request of some random guy from Northern Ireland. But don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to simultaneously pat your head and rub your tummy for that would be just plain weird. Plus you might drop your phone or laptop and I’m not sure the insurance would cover the circumstances.

Tiredness is everywhere and everybody is tired. Fionnuala and I are constantly telling each other we are tired. There is always something to do and not enough time to do it. The list of tasks and demands stretches far over the horizon into the days and weeks ahead. Who needs ebola or the zombie apocalypse when we have tiredness. It is highly infectious and has reached epidemic proportions.

It’s Monday morning and I don’t want to get up. I feel more tired now than when I left work on Friday. I don’t want to get out of bed and run. I don’t want to put on my work clothes and get the train to work. I just want to go back to sleep and start the weekend all over again. And I’m certain that many of you experience those exact same emotions every time the alarm goes off and Monday morning comes around again.

We are a community of tired people. It is the strand that connects us all, the common denominator in our eclectic and varied lives. It is the great leveller which brings us all, whatever our backgrounds and beliefs, together. We are Team Tired. We are tired of being tired but there is no pill or potion to cure this condition. So we soldier on and do our best because, well, that’s what we do right?

Oh you can put your arm back down by the way. I’ll be finished in a few paragraphs.

When the battery on a car runs flat it needs a jump start, a spark to reignite it’s engine and bring it back to life. We are the same. It can be an unexpected phone call or message from a friend to say they are thinking of you; an encouraging word from a colleague; or an unsolicited blog from half way across the world that you stumble across on your lunch break. Whatever it is or wherever it comes from, we need it all the same.

We are not defined by our tiredness just like we are not defined by our colour or creed. The spark we so desperately desire is just beyond the veil, tantalisingly out of our reach. All it requires is a few steps and you are there. Energy is life. Without it we may as well wave the white flag of surrender. Give in to the exhaustion and fatigue. Lie down, close our eyes and wait for the inevitable coup de grace.

I choose not to lie down. So I’m going to throw back the covers and crawl out of bed. I’m going to go to work, I’m going to force myself to run at lunchtime, endure a three hour afternoon meeting and then come home to a million and one questions from our irrepressible 11 year old daughter. I’m going to go through the motions but I’m going to do it with emotion. Knowing that victory lies on the other side.

Tiredness doesn’t have to be a life sentence. You just have to find a purpose, your reason to keep going. Put one step in front of the other. I know you can do it no matter how exhausted you might feel as you read these words. Rise above it. The world awaits you and you were born to walk this path. It is a long and hard path at times but the rewards await you. Just around the next corner.

How tired are you today?

How do you combat tiredness?

Losing The Battle….Winning The War

I am supposed to be running the Longford Marathon in two weeks time. It was the target I set myself after completing the Belfast equivalent in May and some of you may recall I blogged about my intentions at the time. I thought it was a realistic proposition and I could juggle it with all my other competing priorities. I had before, right? I’m Super Stephen and you name it I can do it.

Wrong.

I’m not super. Far from it. And as I neared Longford I realised I wasn’t quite there. I was a couple of long runs short of where I needed to be. My times weren’t quite right, my diet hadn’t been great and other matters had meant the running had slid further down the pecking order. There have been family issues, work demands and the little matter of wrestling with a 120,000 word manuscript.

This has sucked both time and energy from my sails. I have been left stranded in the running doldrums. So I’ve taken the decision to miss out on Longford and instead aim for the Causeway Coast Marathon at the end of September. It ticks a lot of boxes for me at the moment. It’s closer than Longford and offers a greater challenge as it incorporates road, trail and beach sections.

The latter mean that it is not a Personal Best course. I can take my time and enjoy the experience, take in the amazing scenery and not place myself under quite as much pressure. Because, whilst pressure can inspire and motivate, it can also deflate and crumple dreams and ambitions. At the minute I’m trying to convince the voice in my head that I’ve made the right call.

The voice that nags and niggles my every thought, telling me that I’ve bottled it and taken the easy way out. I’ve fought this voice for most of my adult life. It has been at the heart of many of my most spectacular personal car crashes. Always pressing the accelerator and taking stupid, unnecessary risks when I should be adhering to the speed limit and checking my rear view mirror at regular intervals.

Although not defined or restricted by her disability, Hannah’s spina bifida means she requires our constant care and attention. Fionnuala’s health has not been great this summer either and Rebecca starts junior high school next month. Adam is about to start a big year as well, both academically and with regards his rugby. They all require me to be around, as a husband and father.

Something has to give and, this time, it is the Longford Marathon. Who knows, Causeway Coast may have to give as well because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to squeeze it all in. And if the voice regards that as failure then so be it. I’ll take that one on the chin. I believe it requires more courage to say no and hit the brakes as opposed to careering blindly over the edge of the cliff.

This is not defeat. Defeat is letting the enemy crush you so that you can never rise against it again. Call it more a tactical retreat. The most skilful strategists play the long game, they consider the bigger picture. They soar like eagles above the battlefield, seeing everything. They are blue sky thinkers, 20/20 generals. Wisdom is a 360 degree perspective. I want to soar with them. So farewell Longford.

There’s always next year.

Are you winning your battle?

What does the voice in your head say?

Make Every Blog Count

The deeper I immerse myself in the book I am currently writing the more concerned I become about the quality of my blogging. I worry that I’ll only be able to make so many trips to the literary well before it runs dry and I am left bereft of ideas and words to pour out onto WordPress. I want my writing to be relevant and fresh. I don’t want to be simply going through the motions. I call it sleep blogging.

We all have gears. I know that from my running and work. It is oh so easy to hit cruise control and drift along in your comfort zone. You are loathe to put the pedal to the medal as with that come inherent risks and dangers. Why confront and challenge when you can conform and collude. Breaking through and pushing on is painful. It hurts and takes a toll. You pay a price in order to progress.

Writers must have a purpose when they set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. There must be a reason for the activity, a message that they want to impart. Writing without purpose leads to lazy language as we drift from sentence to sentence, meandering from one paragraph to the next. It is padding, filling the empty expanses of the page or screen with the creative equivalent of white noise. Night of the Literary Undead.

Not all my blogs hit a nerve or strike a chord. Some result in healthy discussions which can last for months while others slip relatively unnoticed beneath the radar. The goal of the blogger is to find that bullseye, that common thread which brings people together and gets them talking. In order to promote debate a blogger must be passionate about their subject matter. If you blog solely for likes, follows or, dare I say it, financial gain then you are less likely to succeed.

This blog is on a mission. A mission which I view as eminently possible and will not involve me swinging from a treacherous precipice a la Tom Cruise while flicking the camera a cheesy grin. I am no hero but I am here. Every day. Seeking to encourage and motivate others to be the best possible version of themselves that they can be. Offering a helping hand to pull them out of the pit and back into solid ground.

I hope that this vision and these values come across in my writing. Otherwise I might as well retire my typing thumb and pull down the shutters on fracturedfaithblog. I encourage you to do the same. Every time you sit down to draft a post ask yourself why are you doing it, what message are you hoping to put out there. Really think. Because your words matter. They cannot afford to be wasted. We need to hear them.

Blog from the heart. Shoot that flare up into the night sky for it needs to be seen as opposed to spluttering like a damp squib, neglected and soon forgotten. Blogging is a privilege, we must never forget that. For others throughout the world to be able to express themselves freely is but a dream. Your words today can bring solace and healing to the battered and bleeding online tribe gathered around you.

I hope today hasn’t been too heavy for anyone. That wasn’t my intention but I woke up with these words on my heart and needed to share them. I’ll post something silly next time to restore the equilibrium. I look forward to hearing your comments on this post. I love this community and I love your words. You each have a message. One that matters. Make every blog count.

How do you seek to make your blogs relevant and impactive?

What are your thoughts on sleep blogging?

Competing Priorities

These last few weeks the pressure has been on big style in my office as the powers that be have demanded the delivery of a number of long term projects within an increasingly short term deadline. I have been shackled at my desk, pounding away at my keyboard like one of those harassed detectives you always see in the movies. Without the cloud of cigarette smoke engulfing me and glass of bourbon surgically attached to my right hand.

I’m comfortable with handling such pressure as I’ve been doing it for over 17 years now. I also trust my analytical and report writing skills sufficiently to know that I will deliver a quality report on time. If they would just leave me to get on with it. What doesn’t help is hordes of stressed colleagues continually circling me like vultures over a dying animal in the desert. Leave be people in my focus bubble and the job will get done.

Everything is a priority. On Monday, Task A is the priority. Then someone else will tell you that Task B is urgent before the next knock at the door demands Task C ASAP. I might clown about a bit but I’m no juggler despite this place increasingly resembling a circus. It’s fire fighting of the highest order and the priorities pile up as the next crisis lumbers over the horizon. It’s inevitable that it will all end in tears.

Declaring everything a priority actually means that nothing is a priority. Jumping mindlessly from one test to the next without any plan or structure is a sure fire way of ensuring that nothing is seen through to its completion. When we panic or become stressed then we are more likely to rush and make mistakes. There can only be one priority at a time, otherwise we may as well pull down the shutters and all go home.

I have many competing demands. I am busy at work but desperately trying to get my head above water so that I can take some leave. I’m training for a marathon next month and have set the month after that as the deadline for finishing my book. There are bills to be paid, telephone calls to be made and jobs around the house that have been overlooked for too long. There is also the small business of blogging.

You might think these are all worthwhile pursuits and you would be correct in that assessment. All of the above are a far cry from the not so distance past when my priorities were making it to the weekend so I could get ridiculously drunk and predicting next year’s Champion Chase winner. My interests now are physically and mentally edifying whereas before they were shallow and destructive.

None of them, however, are my priority. Note the use of the singular there as opposed to that term I despise – competing priorities. There can only be one be it a Highlander, a ring to rule them all or in the busy, barmy world of Mr. Stephen Robert Black. That priority is my family; for without them I’m incapable of delivering any of the other stuff. They are the foundation upon which everything else is constructed.

The job pays the bills, the running keeps me in shape and the writing is my dream. But I would drop them all in an instance if they came between my family at myself. Choose your priority wisely. It can fuel your other dreams powerfully and blast you off on the adventure of a lifetime. Or it can bring you crashing back to the ground and reality in a ball of flames. There can only be one.

Do you struggle with competing priorities in your life at present?

What is your priority?

Do you have a middle name? The more embarrassing the better.

I ‘Forgot’ To Take My Meds

Last week I ran out of the medication which I take for OCD. 20mg of Escitaloprem has kept me on an even keel these last six years or so. One of them a day and Stephen is content. They prevent the slavering, starving wolf that is OCD from clawing at my front door and blowing down the house of cards which constitute my always fragile mental health. I rely on these pills. They are literally my first port of call every morning, washed down with a slug of Diet Coke.

This was utterly inexcusable on my part of course. I knew well in advance that supplies were running low yet did nothing about it. Why? I don’t know. Ask me a question on sport. For I knew the consequences if I came off my medication for any length of time. The tiredness, tetchiness and tension would descend upon me like three little prescription pigs, the precursors for Mr. Wolf’s grand entrance a short time later.

I’ve done this before. I know the score and it’s a bloated, lopsided one. When it comes to going toe to toe with the big bad OCD it’s a horrendous mismatch. I rarely see beyond the second round before I’m on the ropes, being pounded and pummelled to within an inch of my life. The referee has no option but to step in to spare me from any further punishment and I slump to my knees, battered and beaten. Same old story, same old stupid Stephen.

It can’t be laziness. Ordering a repeat prescription requires a one minute phone call followed by a two minute drive to the local pharmacy in order to collect it. It also doesn’t cost me anything. So it must be arrogance, thinking that this time I’ve tamed the beast, that I’m capable of throwing aside my consistent companion and striding off into the serotonin saturated sunset, a glorious new creation no longer reliant on mass manufactured medication to keep me on the straight and narrow.

I never cease to be amazed by my own powers of self delusion. Within three days of going ‘cold turkey’ I was a twitchy, neurotic mess. It started with a dull headache above my left eyebrow which gradually descended before taking up residence behind the corresponding eyeball where it proceeded to intensify until I felt like I was being stabbed in the iris with a knitting needle. I became more irascible and intolerant. The reasonably sane front that I presented to the world on a daily basis was no more.

I was about to blow a la Vesuvius….

It all came to a head last Thursday when I had two massive arguments at work when normally I would have bitten my tongue and walked away. Middle management meltdowns in the middle of an open planned office are not a good look, career wise. They left me feeling professionally embarrassed and clutching at straws to explain my bizarre behaviour. It was akin to an out of body experience. I was hovering above, powerless to intervene and switch off the torrent of paranoid nonsense that the lunatic below was spouting. Who is that madman? Does anybody know him? Oh hang on….it’s me.

I came home that evening with my tail between my legs and sheepishly explained the events of the day to Fionnuala. She suggested (insisted) that I reorder my prescription ASAP then collected it herself after I had, once more, forgotten to do so. So here I am, back on the meds. The headache has already eased and I’m ready to face the world again with the help of my little 20mg friends. Just one a day and I’m okay. That’s just the way it has to be.

I wonder. Am I that reliant on them? Or is it, and I pardon the pun, ‘all in my head?’ Do they actually. correct the chemical imbalance in my brain to such a degree that I cannot function without them. Or are they nothing more than an emotional aide memoire to convince me that I’m one of the ‘normal’ people when most days I feel anything but; I have thoughts that only fellow OCD sufferers could even begin to understand. Incessant images that only the relief of routine can remedy.

Until they start again that is. Circles of chaos which rise and fall as they rattle round my cranium that a runaway rollercoaster. The thoughts are never fall away, they prowl around the edges of the comforting campfire biding their time. Waiting for the slightest opportunity to pounce and drag down into the darkness of the abyss. I never want to reside their again. So I take the pill. Be it Escitaloprem or M&M’s. I take it.

The Tesco check-out

The Tesco check-out

https://everythingblog333.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/the-tesco-check-out/
— Read on everythingblog333.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/the-tesco-check-out/

Today’s Flash fiction reblog is special for a number of reasons. Firstly it’s from the other side of the world, Australia. The land of kangaroos, didgeridoos and er…..boomerangoos? Secondly it inspired a blogger who hadn’t written in some time to put metaphorical pen to paper. Thirdly it’s just great writing. We have all stood in a store and compared our own less than perfect lives to the ‘beautiful people’ in the next aisle.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.

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?

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.

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 1

Good Morning. It’s the hottest day of the year so far in Northern Ireland with temperatures pushing 30 degrees celsius. How our pasty bodies are going to cope I have no idea but I thought I’d make the most of the beautiful weather to showcase some of the city scenes that have inspired me for the novel I’m writing at present. It’s an urban fantasy largely set in Belfast that I’ve been working on since last August.

I’ve decided that I can’t keep calling it the ‘novel’ or the ‘book’ any longer. It’s starting to drive me insane so goodness only knows what it is doing to you all. So…..drumroll please….I can exclusively reveal that the books (for I hope the story will cover several) will run under the banner of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Khronicles’. Gasp. I know. Stay tuned to the blog for further details as the day progresses and the opportunity to be a beta reader (guinea pig).

To kick off I thought I’d share some street art that I discovered in an alleyway off the city centre some months ago. This art gave me the idea for one of the book’s central characters and this particular piece of art and the alley where I found it are the backdrop for two of the pivotal chapters in the book. She has a name of course but I’ll keep that under wraps for now. Or maybe you can come up with a better one for her? I’m open to suggestion.

What would you name ‘graffiti girl’?

What do you think of the Kirkwood Scott Khronicles’ as a book title?

All constructive feedback welcome?

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.

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?

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?

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?

Still turning the knife

Last weekend saw the passing of my father and just as I had wrote a nice blog about him trying not to focus on the bad memories he managed to turn the knife yet again. Just when I thought he couldn’t hurt me anymore he did. My mum, my brothers and their families, myself, Stephen and our children have all been treated disgustingly by this man who from now on I refuse to even call my father.

During his life he robbed us of happy memories. We were all well down his pecking order everybody and everything came before us and even in his death we are still being treated that way. In his death he has robbed us of our grieving and robbed us of mourning him at his funeral. Now he has left us with nothing but anger and hate.

Hate for a man that we should be able to look up to and respect and anger that he couldn’t see the gold that he had under his nose instead of casting us aside for money. Money was his god and where has it got him? It may have bought him a fancy coffin and bought him a family of strangers and their fake love that didn’t really care about him just what he had in his wallet but where is his soul now, did he get anywhere near those pearly gates?

I haven’t wrote this for sympathy or for people to tell me they are sorry for my loss because I’m not sorry that he has gone and neither are my brothers.

It’s Father’s Day this weekend and I will not be spending it crying. I will be celebrating with my children and my husband and celebrating the wonderful dad that he is a man who has made mistakes in the past but was able to change and turn his life around. I will be celebrating my brothers and the amazing fathers they are and will be. I will be celebrating my father in law the man that was taken far too soon the man who also saw his flaws and changed for his family. I will be celebrating my Grandfather a man that would have gone to the ends of the earth for his family who without a doubt is in heaven today.

To the man who banned his wife and children from his funeral I hope you are proud of yourself now.

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 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?

I’m A Christian Blogger But I’ve Stopped Writing Christian Blogs

When we started this blog in May 2017 the large majority of my posts were overtly Christian. They were quite popular and the blog grew quickly with a predominantly Christian following. A lot of those folk still support the blog and this post is primarily written for them. I feel I owe them an explanation for I’ve pretty much stopped posting Christian blogs. There are reasons for that which I hope will make sense to you.

I still see myself as a Christian. I haven’t set foot in a church, however, in over six months and it’s been quite a while since I picked up my Bible. To be honest, I’ve been quite angry with God for a number of reasons that I won’t bore you with here. My prayer life is somewhat hit and miss as well. So, for me, to keep up the pretence of running a Christian blog would be disingenuous and hypocritical on my part.

I could quite easily have maintained the charade. I know the Bible well and could have carried on knocking out daily studies and devotionals. But that would be wrong. Many people have commented on the honesty of my writing and I want to maintain that honesty. My relationship with you guys is very important to my continued recovery from a chequered online past. I want to be as transparent and accountable online as I am to my family in the ‘real world.’

I want to reassure you that I am not backsliding or slipping back into my own ways. I believe I retain higher standards and morals now than I did when I was within a church environment and ‘pretending’ to lead a perfect life. I also saw a lot within the church that made me question if it was the right place for myself and my family to be. Following Jesus is essentially about freedom, forgiveness and redemption. I believe that can be achieved without regular church attendance.

This post is not intended as an exercise in Christian bashing. I could rant and rave but that would be counter productive. Yes, a number of supposed Christians who I would have regarded as friends or acquaintances have disappointed and, on occasion, shocked me as to their behaviour since I made the decision to walk away from the church. But this post is not about them. They are my past and to dwell on such grievances is both draining and toxic.

I am alright. I am okay. In fact I’m better than ok. My marriage is strong and I am loved and supported by a wonderful woman. I truly believe we are raising our kids the best we can. We have taught them manners and the difference between right and wrong. I am excited as to their futures for I believe they are on the cusp of amazing lives. We are a happy family. A happy, functioning unit.

I have my running and writing. Fionnuala has her crafts business. We are content. My book is not a ‘Christian’ book although it does lean strongly on Christian themes of love, hope and redemption. I still believe in God but I don’t believe in a lot of the people who claim to speak in his name. I follow Jesus but I’m not so keen on many of his followers. There are many wolves out there in sheep’s clothing. I have felt their claws and teeth. Once bitten, twice shy.

I hope this post has not come across as negative. That was not my intention. I just wanted to explain my current thinking as I’ve become aware that a number of Christians who regularly commented on my posts no longer do so. I am sorry if my content is no longer to your liking and hope you find other bloggers who meet your needs. I’m not saying that I won’t revert to more overt Christian posts on an occasional or regular basis in the future. I am saying that it’s not for me at present.

I hope the above has made some sort of sense as it has largely been written off the cuff. If I want to fulfil my dream of blogging and writing for a living then this post had to be written. I’d rather take one honest step back than two not so honest steps forward. I hope also that my writing continues to encourage and entertain those of you who still drop by, be that on a regular or occasional basis. Thank you for your continued support.

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?

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?

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?

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.

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!

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?

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

My Big Fat Irish Black Toenail

Half Marathons are great fun. You pay the organisers £27 for the privilege of running for nearly two hours whereupon you end up a big, aching, sweaty mess. At the end you queue ten minutes with hundreds of other aching, sweaty messes for a banana, chocolate bar and bottle of orange juice. I’m off chocolate at the minute so I took that home for Fionnuala. You also get an (admittedly) pretty cool medal and T-Shirt. That fits like a Small even though I ordered a Large.

I woke up the following morning to discover that I had obtained another race memento. A black toenail. The big toe on my left foot to be precise. Don’t worry. I’m not going to post a photo of said toe as I fear that would be a bridge too far for many of you. Suffice to say it’s not a pretty sight. Just one of the many perks of being a decidedly average distance runner. Along with blisters, stress fractures and plantar fasciitis. Don’t know what the last one is? Google it. Or look it up in the dictionary under ‘Agony’.

It’s not painful but strangely fascinating in a hypnotic kind of way. It has a mesmeric quality that enthrals and repulses in equal measure. I reckon I could have snagged a role as an extra in ‘The Greatest Showman’ along with Wolverine, Troy Bolton and that lady with the beard. Apart from the fact that I can’t sing. Or act. Trifling details I know but anyway. Had I sustained this injury around Halloween I reckon I would have been a massive hit with the local trick and treating community. Yup, I would have been pulling them in from miles around. Roll up! Roll up! See the man with the blackest toenail in Ireland. Vomit inducing guaranteed or your money back.

Bruises are par for the course when it comes to running, or any physical activity. We pick them up as we traipse through life and wear them like an external purple badge of honour before they go that horrible yellowy-green colour and then fade away. Some are bigger than others, some last longer than others but even the most gruesome one should eventually disappear. They are a temporary phenomenon and if we are just patient enough the body will do what it does best – heal itself.

It’s a shame the same can’t be said for bruised hearts and souls. We accumulate them just as easily as we travel through life. They aren’t as visible though and we hide them away rather than admit we are hurting and in need of help. We hope they will fade away in time and some do. But others are so deep that we carry them around for life, damaged and broken, unable to cope with what has happened and unwilling to reach out for aid. These invisible bruises are uglier than any busted toenail and the ripples of repercussion emanating from them can echo through lives and generations.

Every day I read about fellow bloggers who are nursing these invisible bruises. WordPress is the one safe place where they can reveal their wounds to the world. Many choose anonymity as they are still too raw and painful to publicise. We are all damaged goods. Damaged by others. Damaged by ourselves. Damaged by the random awfulness of life. Addiction, Depression, Anxiety, Physical Disability and Illness, Bereavement, the list is endless. Suicidal thoughts and images of self harm. They haunt my timeline and scar my thoughts. They impact me deeply.

Fionnuala and I want to remind you that you are not alone. We started this blog in order to reach out and help others. We are all broken but we are not beyond repair. Healing is possible. If you feel the need the talk then please do – we have a private e-mail which you can access via the ‘contact’ or ‘prayer request’ tabs on the blog site. Please use it. Some of my posts have been quite negative of late. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I want you to see my bruises as I know no other way to write. So I rant and I rave but it’s only because I care.

I’m going to post a poem later *collective groan* titled ‘Bruises’ but until then know that you are not alone. Not as long as this blog exists.

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.

What Is Your Worst Habit?

Fionnuala often affectionately tells me (at least I hope it is affectionate. Can you be affectionate and annoyed at the same time?) that if there is an awkward way to do something then I will find it. Take Lent for example. My sincere intention to refrain from biscuits, chocolate and crisps lasted all of…oh….let me see now….around 4 minutes. I displayed all the willpower of an anaemic gnat before I went snuffling off to the cupboard in search of sugary sustenance.

My ‘problem’ reached new heights (or depths depending on your perspective) over Easter itself when I devoured anything remotely unhealthy within arms reach. My eating Everest was a huge (as in HUGE) Cadbury’s chocolate Fruit & Nut egg which Fionnuala bought me as otherwise I would probably have sulked when the kids got their eggs. Or stolen them. So it’s my wife’s fault really. She forced me to cram every last chunk of it into my greedy gullet. I’m the innocent party in all of this don’t you see? Don’t you??

A chocolate egg. With raisins in it! And nuts!! What evil genius created this delicious delight. I was powerless in its grasp. Fast forward to the following morning and I woke up with a momentous food hangover. I felt nauseous, sluggish and very, very guilty. I’m a binge eater and with my running I can largely get away with it. I don’t put on much weight and if I do I tend to lose it fairly quickly again. Yet that morning I felt rubbish and resolved I was going to eat healthily between now and the marathon in just over a months time.

That’s right. I’m giving up chocolate…..after Lent!

It’s back to front thinking of the highest order but that’s the beauty of life. You can make a decision to change at any time and contrary to popular belief it doesn’t just have to be on 1st January. I’ve had more than my fair share of bad habits down the years. I’ve successfully knocked some on the head while others have proven more difficult to shake off. I would include a chronic Diet Coke problem, nail biting (just fingers, not toes) and binge eating in the latter category. Fionnuala has also mentioned my talking and breathing at times but I’m pretty certain this was in the heat of the moment and she didn’t really mean it.

I am proud that these bad habits are relatively minor in the greater scheme of things and that the bigger demons I have slain have far outweighed them in terms of significance. I also contend that my good habits now outnumber the not so good ones. It’s all part of the process of trying to become a better human being as you battle through life. You mess up, you learn from it and you resolve to do better the next time. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. The day you stop doing that is the day you might as well throw them towel in.

So I have a challenge for you all. I’m off all the aforementioned junk food until 7th May. I want YOU to join me. What bad habit are you willing to kick into touch for the next month and possibly beyond? Comment below and we can create an online accountability network. If it is a sensitive or private issue then feel free to send an e-mail. You are greater than your worst habit. Give it up rather than simply giving up. You will be shocked and surprised with the levels of willpower and discipline you can dredge up.

What is your worst habit?

What habit are you prepared to give up for the next month and possibly beyond?

Dawn Manoeuvres

Over the last few mornings I have launched covert dawn operations at chez Black as I have attempted to extricate myself from the house and head off to work without waking Fionnuala and the kids who are still on their Easter break. As I normally move around the house with all the finesse of a hamstrung hippopotamus this has required previously untapped resources of stealth and balance on my part. But, all round good guy that I am, I resolved to be as quiet as Quiety the Mouse so as not to disturb their slumbers.

I ironed shirts, raided sock drawers and packed gym bags on tip toe avoiding squeaky floorboards with the grace of the nimblest of ninjas. I put the bins out and you could have heard a pin drop…. if I’d had one to drop. I waa Silent Stephen performing backward flips and forward rolls with the athleticism of an Olympic gymnast. Alright I may have made that last bit up but you get my drift. Whereas our house around 6:30 am on a week day normally resembles Piccadilly Circus at rush hour it has been an oasis of calm these last two mornings.

As I drove into work I reflected proudly on my efforts, pleased that all my sneaking about had achieved its goal of allowing the rest of the family a lie in. Apart from Charlie the Dog but he needed out for a wee anyway and had been giving me strange looks from his cage as I crept around the kitchen. I shared my toast with him which seemed to buy his acquiescence so all was well. Yes I was like the incredibly quiet cat who got the cream as I hurtled down the road towards the office.

But then it hit me. A few years ago I spent most of my life sneaking around the house. But for entirely selfish, as opposed to selfless, reasons. Back then my very existence was founded upon lies, secrets and deception. It became second nature to me. I told so many lies that I even believed them myself half the time. Much of my time was spent either concealing the truth or struggling to remember the nonsense I had come out with for fear of being tripped up. I felt increasingly unhappy and depressed about the life I was leading. I was a fraud and a failure. My mental health suffered and I simply could see no way out.

Things inevitably came to a head and I was dragged out into the light as opposed to of my own volition. Whilst incredibly painful at the time for myself and my loved ones we emerged on the other side stronger and wiser. I came to realise that living a double life was neither clever nor exciting. The only person I was fooling was myself. I was travelling in increasingly decreasing circles and becoming a prisoner in a cell of my own making. I was miserable and forever in fear of being found out. I was sick. Sick of myself and sick of the direction in which my life was heading.

Nowadays I don’t keep secrets. There is great freedom in waking up in the morning and not worrying about what I said or did yesterday. It was an exhausting existence and one I would not recommend to anybody. If this post strikes a chord with you I want to tell you that you’re not alone and it’s not too late to turn your circumstances around. Stop and think of the damage you are causing. To yourself and others. You have a choice. Either you can continue as you are in which case I can guarantee you the situation will only deteriorate. Or you can be brave and make a decision to change.

It might be painful. Oh who am I kidding, it will be painful. But the long term gain will outweigh the short term pain even if it might not seem that way at the time. Shake off the shackles of secrecy and stride into a sanctuary of safety and serenity. Cut your ties with toxic relationships and walk away from the demons of your past. Your present is bright and your future is even brighter. You are better than this and you were created to achieve so much more than skulk in the shadows. You need to hold your head high and walk out of the self inflicted storms you are wandering through aimlessly.

So what do you reckon? Are you going to start today? By ditching that rucksack on your back which has been weighing you down for so long. By kicking it to the kerb and starting afresh. Afraid to take that leap of faith? Feel there is too much at stake and you can might lose everything? Believe me it’s nothing compared to what you will lose if you allow the status quo to continue unchecked. You will be found out. It’s only a matter of time. Make the change today. Now. Before it is too late. Before you’ve allowed it all to slip through your fingers.

What are your experiences of lies and secrets? Have you been a victim or a perpetrator?

Are you in a dark place now? Are you willing to change?

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.

I’m Running A Marathon…Still

Today I’m providing a two part update on my running and writing exploits of late. The title above may have given it away that this first instalment covers the former. Those who would rather gnaw their own foot off than read a running blog may look away now with my blessing. But more fool them for opening it in the first place given the blindingly obvious, giveaway heading.

The Belfast Marathon is a mere 34 days away. Not that I’m counting. It will be my third Belfast Marathon and eighth in total. Well get me. My PB (that’s Personal Best for us in the know) is 3:33:20 which I set at Belfast in 2016. I will be nowhere near that this year and will be happy with anything under four hours. I’m two years older now (if not wiser) and injury and illness last year have taken their toll. Plus I’m no longer part of a running group so have been plodding a lone furrow which tends to take the wind out of your sails a bit. Hey ho.

Training has been going well all the same. I’ve been injury free (touches nearest tree based object) for the guts of a year now and I’ve consistently been hitting my target times. Saturday last I completed a 20 mile training run with the minimum of fuss. I felt stiff and sore the next day but ‘no biggie’ and I completed a 10K yesterday feeling a-ok. My warm up race is the Omagh Half Marathon this Saturday which I’m looking forward to as it’s my home town. I’ll bore you all with my adventures at that in due course.

So I’m nervous, excited, a bit of everything really. But I’m as ready as I’ll ever be and the countdown is well and truly on now. I have a 21 mile training run scheduled in another 2-3 weeks and then I’ll wind down for the big day itself. You can then brace yourself for a flurry of photographs of yours truly looking sweaty and unflattering in running gear. But it’s a small price to pay for such a high quality, diverse and entertaining blogging product right? In the interim, to bide you all over, here are some equally unflattering snaps (of me I might add, not other members of the family) from previous runs.

Today I Was Snubbed

Today I was snubbed. By someone who not so long ago I regarded as my best friend. I’m not going to disclose the reasons we stopped talking. Suffice to say our paths went in separate directions. We live in the same village, however, and are both runners so it was only a matter of time before we bumped into each other again. Today was that day.

I was around 10 miles into a 20 mile training run. This will be one of my last long runs before the Belfast Marathon on 7th May. I’ll write about that separately but it so happened I was running one way through the village and he was coming in the opposite direction. We were both wearing luminous yellow running tops so it wasn’t as if we could avoid each other. I had been dreading this moment for months but resolved to pass myself and be polite.

We said hello to each other (I’ll give him that) about ten feet away from one another. As we neared I slowed to a halt, expecting him to do likewise. It would be an awkward minute or so of small talk but at least we could walk (or run) away afterwards with our heads held high. At least we could be adults about what had happened. Our daughters play together at school and our wives still talk occasionally so it wasn’t much to ask, was it?

Imagine my shock then when, having seen me slow, he just kept on running. I stood there, my two arms the same length feeling about two inches tall. After a few seconds I gathered myself and continued my run, muttering a few choice expletives under my breath as I did so. I hardly ever swear so, yeah, to say I was annoyed and upset was a massive understatement. Is this what our friendship had come to? That we couldn’t even exchange a few meaningless pleasantries in the street?

I’ve written in the past about how much my social circle has shrunk over the last year or so. There are many reasons for this and much of it has been self-inflicted. I’ve often thought I don’t need anyone except Fionnuala and the kids and that is largely true. Many of the people in my life I had to walk away from. I was in a very unhealthy place and needed space to recover and rebuild my life. In time, I became used to running on my own. I became used to having an empty social calendar.

This solitude has allowed me to focus on my family and my writing. There are benefits. But sometimes I wonder what if? What if I had a church I could regularly attend every week without feeling like a social pariah? What if I didn’t have to endure 20 mile runs on my own and had friends to keep me company? What if my mobile phone rang occasionally and it was a friend just calling up for a chat? Then I shake my head and gather my thoughts up again. Those days are in the past, a place where I cannot return.

It was sad that on Easter Sunday a person who portrays himself as a ‘big Christian’ and pillar of his local megachurch chose to snub an ex friend who left his social circle under a cloud. Yes, I sinned. Yes, I’m not perfect. But does that give you the right to do what you did to me today? I should have expected no less but I naively did and ended up shaken and upset. It’s hard to move on when people don’t allow you to move on. It’s hard to forgive when others refuse to forgive you.

I won’t be at church tomorrow but he no doubt will. Hands in the air and singing aloud. Worshipping God. But I know that God will be with me as well as I sit at home processing the hurt and pain I have inflicted on others and experienced myself. For Jesus died for me just as much as he died for him and all the other Christians who have chosen to turn their backs on us. Jesus won’t turn his back and, for this fact, this Easter I am grateful.

Have you ever been snubbed by someone you used to be close to?

How do you handle hurt and rejection?

Scraps

Meet Charlie the Border Terrier. He’s the sixth member of the Black Clan. I thought he deserved a post written about him because 1. I’ve written about everyone else and didn’t want him feeling left out. Dogs have feelings too y’know and 2. He can’t write for himself like the others can. Dogs can’t write y’know. Or at least none of the dogs I hang about with.

So what can I tell you about Charlie. Well. He’s six years old and we’ve had him since he was a puppy. He is the world’s friendliest dog. He is also the world’s most untrainable dog and believe me we have tried. In the end we just gave up. He’s either too stupid or too intelligent to obey even the most basic of commands. I’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt and plumped for the latter. Although there are days I have my doubts.

Charlie loves sleeping, barking, eating and having his belly scratched. In no particular order. He hates baths, cats and being told to get off the sofa. He is in love with Fergie, the little white Shih Tzu who lives next door. And she is in love with him. They are the Romeo and Juliet of the canine world. But alas their love will never be consummated. For their nasty human owners do not want to be ankle deep in Border/Shih Tzu puppies anytime soon. Shame on us.

Every morning I pour Charlie fresh water and set a bowl of dog food in front of him. Expensive, nutritious dog food, no cheap nonsense for our Charles. And every morning he looks at me with an expression that says ‘What you expect me to eat this muck? before sulking off to his cage for the remainder of the morning. Eventually he will reluctantly eat it if there is nothing else on offer all the while shooting me daggers and muttering under his breath about canine rights. We are cruel, unreasonable human beings and he lets us know this in no uncertain terms.

There is a pecking order in our house and I know where I stand in it. Somewhere roughly between Charlie and the front door. As in ‘Well if you don’t like it, then there’s the front door.’ Charlie has me wrapped around his little finger, I mean paw, and every night when we sit down for dinner positions himself beneath me where he bombards me with his most long suffering, hang dog expressions. Mug that I am I always cave in and end up feeding him scraps from my plate. He will happily gorge himself on these while his bowl of dog food sits untouched in the corner of the kitchen.

We can all be a bit like Charlie. Begging for scraps from a table while our perfectly acceptable meal lies discarded and untouched. Why we do have this insatiable need to crave more and not just be content with what we have? For it is more than enough if we would only open our eyes and inhale the truth. Scraps cannot fill us. They just leave us hungry for more, never satisfied, never full. Hunger leads to bad choices and poor judgement. It is a path that can only lead downwards.

Scraps are unhealthy and unedifying. You are better than that. Look in the mirror and see the person you are. You were created to sit at a table with those that love you and respect you. To dine on love, compassion and respect. Not scurry around on the floor barely existing on the occasional morsel thrown your way. One more like on social media, one more empty compliment, one more night out with people who have little time for you when sober. Is that really what you want? Really?

The people who matter are right before your eyes. Every day. They hang around because they see something in you that you cannot see for yourself. That you are special. That you are enough for them. They accept you for who you are. You do not need to change for them, you can drop the exhausting charade. All they ask is that you sit with them, spend time with them and believe. Believe in what they believe. That you are a good person, that you are complete and that, by acknowledging and accepting this, you complete them as well. They are your grass and it shines a brilliant green. You need never cross to the other side again.

Have you a pet? Who wears the trousers in that relationship?

What are your experiences of feeding on scraps?

Achilles Heel

Achilles heel. Scabbed. Won’t heal. Pick at it. Secrets revealed. Itching. Twisting. Tired of bitching. Peel it off and start again. Take the pain but what remains? Scarlet blood flows free and proud. Love and grace replace disgrace. Grit your teeth to save your face. Love again to run your race.

Achilles heel. Tensed and taut. Athletes crouch and pistols pop. Off they hurtle down the track. Forward. Onwards. Don’t look back. Sinews straining. Years of training. And for what? A crowning glory? Crowds are roaring. But if it snaps a different story.

Achilles heel. Ancient tales. Heroes turning in their graves. Arrows piercing exposed skin. Unsheathed swords sliding within. Scraping bone and piercing organs. Writhing hydras. Towering gorgons. Monsters unleashed. Ravenous beasts. Havoc wreaked. An end to peace.

Achilles heel. Guard it well. For heels are gateways to a hell of such dimensions that it will melt away all your pretensions. And leave you bony, broken, baffled. All hope snaffled. Life’s a raffle and you have lost. What’s the cost? Pay the ferryman and come across.

Achilles heel. Doesn’t matter if you run or walk, limp or crawl. He’ll welcome you all. With open arms and boundless charm. No need for pyrotechnics or alarm. But once you’re in the doors are locked. The clocks are stopped. The lights go out. You learn your plight. Eternal night.

Achilles heel. Painfully real. We all have two and here’s the deal. Slice open one you’ve still a chance. To get away, still save the day. But lose the second and you’re down. A helpless mess upon the ground. Vultures circle high above. Hyenas feast upon your blood. All for what for you gained naught.

Achilles heel. So now you’re dead. Scavengers fed and long since fled. And what of you? A pile of bones, stripped of your pride and left alone. No wifi here or mobile phones. But never fear. You won’t be bored. For we have so much to explore. New depths of pain you’ll not ignore.

Achilles heel. And here it ends. The train wreck just around the bend. You knew it all yet you knew nothing. The years of lies, deceit and plotting. It brought you here where you’ll remain. Eternal pain, forever stained. Alone and shackled in your chains. And there is only you to blame.

Who Are Your Favourite Bloggers?

I’m always delighted and slightly surprised when someone compliments me on my writing. It’s that inbuilt inferiority complex that I have dragged around behind me for most of my life. A nasty case of you’re-not-good-enough-itis. For many years I was so disenchanted with myself that I hid behind different characters that I created in order to gain attention and cover up the many glaring flaws that I perceived as having.

It took me to the brink in more ways than one. I almost lost everything. But over the last year or so I have come to the conclusion that maybe I’m not such a bad person after all. Maybe there is hope for me and a purpose for my life. And that is why the majority of my writing focuses on my faith, family and fitness. For they are the three constants in my life that I have clung on to when the rest of my world has been crumbling apart. Likewise they have been the foundations on which I have started to rebuild.

This blog has been part of the rebuilding process. The more I have written and revealed myself to the blogging community the more you have supported and encouraged me. It has been refreshing and invigorating to discover a social media platform where people put others first and talk openly and honestly about their lives and struggles. Where vanity and ego play second fiddle to compassion and selflessness. If only Facebook, Instagram et al could follow that example.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Personally I’ll take the thousand words any day of the week. The rampant selfie culture holds no interest for me anymore. Beauty fades, prose and poetry do not. They are timeless and irreversible. New words lead to new worlds. Worlds overflowing with possibilities and opportunities. Words bring people together and create caring communities where before there was separation and isolation.

WordPress typifies this bringing together of like minded souls. So the purpose of this post today is to further promote and spread our community. If you would like to I would encourage you to either reblog or post a link to your favourite blog or blogs below. This will create a list of new sites for people to check out and follow. It is about putting others before ourselves and encouraging fellow bloggers to write and read more.

My Name Is Stephen and I Am A Snorer

I’m feeling a little under the weather. I awoke yesterday with a cold that one of my daughters thoughtfully passed on to me. One of the perks of sharing a house with little people. I felt lousy yesterday and a little less lousy today. All I want to do is sleep. All Fionnuala wants to do is sleep as well. But she has been unable to. Why you ask? Well I’m glad you did. For I have a confession to make.

For my name is Stephen Black and I am a snorer….

I know this may come as a shock to you and for that I apologise from the bottom of my phlegmy heart. There was you thinking all this time that I was the perfect man without a flaw. If you want to unfollow the blog now I fully understand and we can both just move on from this unfortunate incident and pretend it never happened. It’s for the best. It’s not you, it’s me. And so on.

I don’t think I snore all the time. But when my head is congested and my lungs are tight I guess I do. I woke up this morning to discover that my wife was not in bed with me. Had she finally seen sense and left me? Or possibly been abducted by little green men? If the latter then they don’t know what they have let themselves in for. Those Farrell woman are tough and don’t take kindly to being poked and prodded.

But no. I checked my phone to see that I had a WhatsApp message. From Fionnuala. At 4:53 am. Stating that she was downstairs and could still hear my snoring over the sound of the television. Surely she was mistaken. We live about twenty miles from Belfast International Airport so perhaps it was a plane passing overhead. Or our neighbour’s rooster having a particularly croaky start to the day.

Unfortunately I have to hold my hand up and take this one on the chin. My super snorey saliva stained chin. I am a secret (or not so secret) snorer. I checked the overnight news but thankfully there were no zombie related incidents for I feared I had wakened the dead. Just my wife. So now I feel lousy for two reasons. But I’m off work today so she has the pleasure of my company which is surely a silver lining. Er….right? Hello…..?

We all have annoying characteristics. Many people attempt to portray themselves and the lives they lead as perfect and wonderful. Don’t believe me? Just scroll down your Facebook timeline for two minutes. What we get is a heavily edited, airbrushed version of their realities. We don’t see the arguments and the tears and what they look like first thing in the morning. They seek to deceive us but really they are deceiving nobody but themselves.

Ever done that yourself? Show of hands? Don’t be shy now. Well I’m raising mine. I used to be like that. I had convinced myself that I had to portray a perfect image in order to be liked. Until I realised. The people who truly matter see beyond the mirage. They see the truth. They want the real you, warts and all. For that is the person they love. Our flaws are what make us so unique and fascinating. We should embrace them, not try to hide them in the closet with all our other skeletons.

So my name is Stephen Black and I’m a snorer. And I bite my nails, have a terrible memory and a million other bad habits that drive my wife nuts. I once asked her did I annoy her when I breathed? Her response? ….Yes. 😳 But I am me. And I know that buried deep down (waaaaay deep down) are other qualities that balance out the equation and make sharing a life with me worthwhile. Don’t be embarrassed by your imperfections. For it is they that make you perfect.

Are you a secret snorer? Or do you live with one?

What is your worst habit? I promise I won’t tell.

What are your experiences of the false Facebook culture?

I Wonder

I wonder. If there was a rapture would I be taken or left forsaken, alone on my throne in a world of broken bones and bleeding souls. Tortured by thoughts of what if and maybe. Come back and save me. My loved ones gone in an angelic throng while I wriggle and squirm, a pitiful worm.

I wonder. If there was a rapture who would God capture. That nice couple next door or the man down the road. Would churches be emptied or would they be full of embarrassed Christians and blustering pastors. Stripped to the bone by their all seeing master.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would we even notice who was gone for they’d be so few. One in a thousand or possibly two. We’ll list them as missing and contact the police. We’ll worry and cry and we’ll pray with our priest. Then we’ll quietly move on hand in hand with the beast.

I wonder. If there was a rapture who would we blame. For blaming and shaming is part of the game which we’ve played all our lives. We’ve schemed and we’ve skived, we’ve cheated and lied. We’ve bleated and nurtured this will to survive. To kill all that’s good in us, let darkness thrive.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would there be a panic. A manic breakdown of societal norms. Or would shoulders be shrugged and the experts wheeled out. To fill our dead minds with theories and doubts. It’s the Russians, the Chinese, some alien disease. God forbid that the truth would bring us to our knees.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would anything change. Would we rant, spit and scream, so incensed and inflamed. Then after a while just dust ourselves down, return to our phones with a shrug and a frown. For God’s overrated and Satan’s a riot. If there’s wifi in Hell I might as well try it.

I wonder a lot. These unwelcome thoughts. That I have to get out before my brain clots. This dirge is a purge of a tangled up mind. I’m writing it blind but I urge you to think. If the heavens swung open and angels descended. Would you still remain when the trumpets relented?

I’m A Christian But I’m Not Reading The Bible

Whenever I’ve asked people to describe my writing style the most frequent word I hear is ‘honesty’. For someone who had led such a dishonest existence for many years this is music to my years. So, in continuing my tradition of transparency and accountability, here’s another truth bomb for you all to chew on.

I’m a Christian and I haven’t read my Bible in weeks….

I know, I know. An outrageous admission. And here’s the thing. I love reading. My Kindle Fire is like an extra limb to me. I’ve always got a book on the go, sometimes two. I can’t sleep at night unless I’ve read at least a few pages. I’m a self confessed bookworm. Loud and proud. Yet when it comes to the most important book of them all, I’ve been left cold of late.

Even stranger is that for all the years I’ve been a Christian (five in May fact fans) I’ve always had a very healthy relationship with the Bible. I’ve read it regularly and thrived on the vivid story telling, imagery and themes within its pages. At our last church I led a youth group and house group where I regularly led Bible related discussions. I was even asked by the pastor to deliver sermons at the Sunday service. People said I had a gift of interpretation, of analysing the text and drawing fresh learning from it that others could not see.

But of late there’s been nothing. Nada. Zilch. My Bibles (for I have several) have sat on the bookshelf gathering dust. NIV, The Message, NKJV, I’ve tried them all but there hasn’t been a spark. I’ve tried The Gospels, Proverbs, Psalms and even Job. Yes Job! That’s how desperate I am! But all to no avail. They’ve just been words. Words that I’ve read a hundred times before. No passion, no startling revelations, no Charlton Hestonesque bolts of lightning from above. It’s as if the Holy Spirit has upped sticks and gone on an early Easter vacation.

Initially I thought I just needed a break. Was it burnout? Or perhaps the novel I am working on was draining my creative juices? Was it because I’m not a member of a church anymore? Was God punishing me for turning my back on ‘the church’? I haven’t a clue but whatever the reason it’s certainly been effective. And do you know what’s worst of all? I don’t feel particularly guilty, ashamed or bothered. I still regard myself as a Christian, I still believe in God, I still try to lead a good life, I still pray. Check, Check and double Check.

Is that enough? Can you still continue to function as a card carrying Christian without a church and without a Bible? Is Saint Peter presently scribbling furiously in the ‘negatives’ column of his big book as I type this. Is Satan (for I also still believe in him) rubbing his hands gleefully and notifying Hell Airlines to book me a one way ticket with immediate effect? I honestly don’t know (there’s that word again). But I woke up this morning with an urge to write about it and share it with you all. So here I am.

We pride ourselves on the fact that Christians, Muslims and people of many other faiths read this blog. We even have a healthy smattering of agnostics and atheists. We welcome them all. This is not an exclusively Christian blog. It is a blog written by Christians who have doubts and concerns about their faith; hence its name. We are not perfect and we tell it how it is. The Christian life is not all happy clappy (more snappy crappy) ever after as many would want you to believe. It is frustrating, infuriating and full of pain and rejection. Don’t believe me. Just ask Jesus about his three year ministry on the planet.

So I am where I am. Honest but hanging on to my fractured faith for all I’m worth. I hope this is just a blip and I will fall in love with my Bible again in the not too distant future. Maybe God is giving me a mini vacation before the real work begins, just over the horizon. I’m sure I will find out soon enough. Until then I’ll stare at my Bibles on the bookshelf and they will stare back at me. A war of attrition with no end in sight at present. But I won’t throw them out or hide them away in a drawer. And at least that’s something. They are part of me and I am part of them. We’re just having a break from each other.

How often do you read the Bible?

Or have you never picked one up before?

Do you read other books of faith?

Whatever your thoughts I’d be interested to hear them?

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?

Everything You Wanted To Know About Ireland But Were Afraid To Ask

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Black Family in a wet and windy Northern Ireland. Just for a change….

Okay he was probably Welsh, didn’t know a shamrock from his elbow and never saw a snake in his life but those are just details right? Today is a big day on the island of Ireland.

Later today I’m going to write about living in Northern Ireland after a fellow blogger suggested this topic. So if you have any questions about the country then please feel free to comment below.

But be warned, I’m not your stereotypical Irishman. I hate Guinness, can’t speak Gaelic and green is most definitely not my colour. But Fionnuala and I are born and bred Irish so we will do our best to answer any questions you might have.

What questions do you have for us about growing up and living in Ireland?

I’m Out On My Feet

I’m out on my feet. Ideas replete. Shackled and stymied by lies and deceit. I’ve tried and I’ve failed. My dreams are derailed. My hopes on a ship that has long ago sailed. I’m struggling to think. Do I need a drink? Cowering from demons I thought long extinct. Their malice so plain as before them I shrink. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet. So tired I can’t sleep. Lucid yet broken, beyond counting sheep. I’m bored of addiction, four decades of fiction. The tales of a fool who was ruled by restrictions. Possessing my thoughts, this brain full of rot. Delaying, decaying, amounting to naught. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet, no respite or relief. So burdened by thoughts, my head like concrete. Cracked lips, yellowed teeth stained by years of deceit. Entombed in a realm where I’m king of the thieves. Believing the lies, ignoring the signs. Condemned to a life of frustration and sighs. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet I heard myself bleat. Obsessing, regressing, wrapped in my own grief. I was digging my own grave, refusing to be saved, reliving the guilt and the sin being replayed. My head in the clouds and my foot in my mouth, the bottle I’d throttle to drown out the noise. The noise of my past, dreams shattered like glass. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet, so battered and bruised. Shattered, in tatters, soiled and abused. Rejecting the poison that sickens my soul, running amok as it swallows me whole. Placed my head in the noose to discover the truth. Choking to death on this facade of health. Would rather die poor than inherit your wealth. I’m out on my feet.

I was out on my feet but I’m not going down. Determined to fight and recover lost ground. So burn your white flags for I’m turning the tide, increasing my pace and regaining my stride. A glimmer, a shimmer, a hope oft denied igniting our dream that has somehow survived. For I’m back on my feet.

Our Next Blog – You Decide

It’s a wet, grey day in Belfast and my brain cells feel equally overcast. Maybe it’s because I’m diverting all my creative juices into the novel at the minute but the ‘ideas well’ is well and truly dry on the blogging front. Which got me thinking. Why do I have to do all the hard work when our wonderful WordPress family can get their thinking caps on as well.

So as a one off I’m opening it up to the floor and asking the question – What would you like us to write about? It can be as obscure or bizarre as you want. But please keep it clean. We will pick the best two suggestions and then post on the topic over the next few weeks. Current affairs, Fiction, Biography. You suggest it and I’ll give it a rattle if it rocks my boat. Extra bonus points for the most innovative and imaginative comments.

Dr. Hell’s Emporium Of Pain

I cut a sorry figure as I staggered out of the dental surgery three days ago. I had been booked in for a routine filling. Something about me consuming too many fizzy drinks. Who me? I had innocently enquired when asked. I may be partial to the occasional Diet Coke or ten but other than that I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now just give me a jab to numb my mouth, fill the tooth and I’ll be on my way. Fionnuala and I were meeting my sister immediately afterwards for breakfast and the prospect of a sausage and bacon filled soda was all my mouth was focused upon.

‘Are you numb?’ my ‘butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth’ dental surgeon asked after administering an injection to the offending area of my mouth. ‘Er yes I think so’ I replied. It did feel a bit numb, but anyway I had been through this before and it wasn’t that painful anyway. Just crack on and let’s get this over and done with. I’m a busy man don’t you know. After breakfast I had to go to work. Plus I still had to buy Fionnuala flowers for her birthday. That magnetic spice rack she had been after. And a million and one other things to do. This filling was a trifling inconvenience.

Twenty minutes later I was squirming in the dental chair, eyes rolling in my head as the Butcher Dentist of North Street (for that is her new name) wreaked havoc in my mouth. ‘I’m afraid the hole is too deep to fill’ she sweetly simpered. ‘I’m going to have to remove the root in order to save the tooth.’ And with that she threw back her head and emitted a blood curdling cackle before falling upon me with demonic relish, her instruments of mouth destruction reflecting maliciously off my terrified retinas.

Okay I might have slightly exaggerated that last part but, hey, I’m a writer and artistic license is my prerogative. What I’m not exaggerating was the pain. I very quickly realised that my mouth was nowhere near numb enough and I needed another injection. In fact I needed all the injections. The second her drill came into contact with the exposed nerve I entered a whole new universe of pain. Searing, white hot agony that made my toes curl and my innards turn to mush. On a level of 1 to 10 it was a 37. The next five minutes or so seemed like days. I’m convinced I aged several years in that chair. If not decades. Which I can ill afford.

At one point I let out a high pitched whimper which must have alerted her to the fact that her patient was a tad distressed. ‘I think I’ll stop there for today. I haven’t got near the root and you’re in too much pain.’ She almost seemed slightly disappointed as if I had ruined her morning. ‘We’ll have you back in a few weeks and, between now and then, you can decide if you want root canal treatment or the tooth removed.’ And with that I was being ushered out of the room by the dental nurse. Shell shocked but alive I shuffled to reception where I was given my new appointment card and charged £14 for the experience. Ain’t life grand?

‘What happened you?’ asked a shocked Fionnuala as her ashen faced husband emerged from Dr. Hell’s Emporium of Pain formerly known as North Street Dental Practice. As the delayed onset shock set in I just gestured for her to drive. Anywhere. Half an hour later as Fionnuala and my sister tucked in to French toast and bacon I made do with two Ibuprofen and tentative sips of tea which then dribbled down my chin much to the unease, no doubt, of adjacent cafe customers. My jaw felt the size of a house and arrows of agony were still shooting through the tooth in question.

Brave little soldier that I am I headed into work afterwards where the sympathy was predictably underwhelming. I resembled an extra from The Walking Dead for the remainder of the day and was in bed before eight. It was the best nights sleep I have had in months. Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose. I don’t know if I learnt anything from the day so prepare to be disappointed if you are expecting some deep, spiritual learning to be be revealed in the final paragraph. Because it’s time for the final paragraph.

Well here goes anyway. Always be prepared for the worst. Never trust a smiling dentist. All dentists lie. Dentists are liars. Have I made myself clear on that last point yet? Take the pain relief. As in all of it. Give me all the drugs. Now. Never attempt to drink hot tea after a mouth numbing injection. You’ll just end up looking like a drooling idiot and will frighten any young children in the immediate vicinity. Also never arrange a dental appointment if it is your wife’s birthday the next day and you are not yet completely organised. Pain and present buying are not a good mix. That is all.

What’s been your worst dental experience?

For All Demons Bleed….

It’s all about me. I’m selfish you see. So vain and conceited, it’s all about me. I fight the urge, this endless dirge, the need to purge myself of me. My needs. They feed my brain. They inflict pain. I smother others with my greed. It sows the seeds which grow the roots which, when afoot, choke and constrict. Restrict the man I want to be. Beautifully and wonderfully formed. Yet I conform to shallow sins, the endless din of voices fuelled by evil whims.

Yes, it’s all about me. For I’m selfish you see. You want an example? I’m so glad you asked. For I’ll put down my glass and trample the dreams of my loved ones aghast. I just want the best but it ends up a mess as the baby obsessions emerge from their nest. They’re as blessed as I’m cursed, they wish only the worst, driven forward by demons for actions rehearsed a million, a billion, a trillion of times. I’ll tell you I’m fine, I’m feeling sublime, yet inside their fingers are gouging my mind.

For it’s all about me. I’m selfish you see. The world keeps revolving round my gravity. I’m clever and witty and everyone’s friend. I’ll bend to your blend at the drop of a hat. I crave the attention and, oh did I mention, I run and I blog and I’m writing a book. So have a good look, gather round young and old. Click follow and swallow the lies that you’re sold. A slippery slope, a dope on a rope, I hope beyond hope that the demons are choked. By a force beyond words. A force beyond me. A life giving spirit, at last I’m set free.

It was all about me. I was selfish you see. But little by little I’m trying to change. They had me deranged but I’m prying away. They bite and they pull but I’m stronger each day. I’ve escaped from the filth and the guilt and the silt of my past which has clogged up my laughs and sliced through my life like a knife through warm butter. From gutter to author. I’m better than this and I’m better than you. I’ll run and I’ll write and I’ll love and I’ll smile. For with every mile you’re a mile down the road. That odious toad that I must offload, the demons they’re screaming as I grow more bold.

Now it’s all about them. I’ve discarded my past like the rags that they were. So dirty and soiled, they were drenched in the oil of earthly transgressions and shallow desires. Now I stack the dry bonfire and strike up a match. To raze to the ground those demonic clowns who clung to my soul like a leech fat and round. So bloated and soaked in the filth that they found. Now I’m watching them burn and then turning and walking away. To start a new day, a new week a new life. With the people that matter, free from relentless chatter.

Yes it’s all about us. That’s the thrust of these words. And I trust you see through them, the prose and the verse. To the truth of a man who was saved from disgrace. By a grace with no depths and a love with no bounds. I was lost, now I’m found. And I hope you see hope in the words that I write. That they open your eyes and offer fresh sight, a glimmer of light. To vanquish the darkness that’s raging inside. You’re better than that and you will succeed. For all demons bleed when faced with the truth. Your power over them is about to take root.

The Library Fine Police

Yesterday I paid a visit to Belfast City Library. There were a number of reasons for this lunchtime jaunt. Firstly I had just emerged from the three hour ‘meeting from hell’ so needed to get out of the office to shower my head. I also needed to get a book as part of my research for the novel I am currently writing. Have I mentioned I’m writing a novel? And finally I wanted to pay a visit to the library cafe which features in a scene of said novel.

My head had been spinning from the meeting but went into overdrive when I realised that the cafe no longer existed but had been replaced by a couple of soulless vending machines and a sorry collection of plastic tables and chairs. Where was the little old lady behind the counter and her collection of delicious, homemade sandwiches? Where were all the scholarly types brushing crumbs from their copies of the Irish Times? And most importantly where were all the caramel squares and German biscuits??

I turned on my heels in total (but very silent) outrage and sulked up the stairway to the next floor where the History section was housed. I was amazed to find the research book I required within minutes and even more amazed to discover that there were no outstanding fines on my library card which I hadn’t used in about 479 years. I had built myself up into a complete tizzy that I had a £1 fine from 2012 that had accumulated unbeknownst to me into a six figure payment. Cue visions of alarms screeching, metal shutters clattering down and men in dark suits and sunglasses dragging me off into the bowels of the building. ‘We have the target contained and neutralised. Go Go Go’.

Thankfully this was not to be. The librarian scanned the book, handed it back to me and asked that I return it within three books. Which I will. On pain of death. Must not forget about book….must not forget about book….must not forget about the book. As I gratefully scuttled back down the stairs I was struck by how much the floor had stank of stale cigarette smoke which did nothing to make me want to linger. Yet when I stepped outside onto the street again I saw no smoking area or huddle of patrons sucking on their Marlboro lights and sharing critiques on Hemingway and Steinbeck.

Where were all the smokers? Had I imagined the smell? I sometimes wake up with phantom smells in my nostrils. Cigarettes and alcohol mostly. Even though I have never smoked and gave up drinking almost five years ago. Had my library visit been a journey into a parallel universe? Was there a secret library cafe where smokers rubbed shoulders and consumed ‘Rocky Roads’ and ‘Fifteens’ at an alarming rate? Was this next to the cells where the men in black housed those who had failed to pay their overdue book fines? Dragged off to a dank dungeon never to be seen again.

My library visit had mixed results then. I’m going to have to use my imagination and recollection to write the library cafe scene. And I returned to work mildly nauseated with the odour of stale tobacco. Eurrghhh. I can actually smell it now as I write this. But I did get the book I wanted and avoided the evil clutches of the Library Fine Police. And I did come up with several ideas if I ever feel the literary urge to further explore the dark underbelly and hidden recesses of Belfast City Library further. I might save that for the second novel. That’s if I ever get around to finishing the first one.

When did you last visit your local library?

What’s the largest fine you’ve ever paid?

Do you ever experience phantom smells or tastes?

There Are Times I Don’t Think

There are times I don’t think. And when I don’t think I’m back on the brink. I huff and I puff and I blow my house down. Left standing in rubble, the boy in the bubble. A bubble of trouble, a mess and a muddle. A puddle of pain, the stress and the strain. I know I’m to blame and I’m stricken with shame.

There are times I don’t think. Can’t say it’s the drink for that’s over. I’m sober. Five years on the wagon, I’ve slain that old dragon. But the habits are older, they’re the worst of hangovers. I hang over the edge but I’ve taken a pledge. I’ve changed and I’m trying. The past can stop prying for I’m done with dying a death of regret.

There are times I don’t think. There’s no rhyme or reason for this is our season. Our future is bursting with promise and hope. Yet I’m such a dope. My synapses relapse, my defences collapse. I regress to type, I believe all the hype. I’ve nothing to hide yet the demons inside seek to thwart and deny the man I’ve become.

There are times I don’t think. Old habits die hard. I need to reprogram and live for the moment, not worry and scurry and dither and frown. Excuses like nooses which rob me of life. My kids and my wife are the air that I crave, my escape from the grave. The loves of my life, the reason I write. These words are for them, my last requiem.

There are times I don’t think. The impact of actions, my flustered reactions. Looking guilty and sly when inside I’m buzzing with passion and life. Planning birthdays and dinners and trying to change. My reasons sound lame but i promise I’ve tamed this beast from my past. Let this be the last. I’m discarding my mask.

There are times I don’t think. Those times need to end. So today is the day when I break all the trends. I’ve crafted these words like you’ve crafted your gifts. Your beauty and patience are the reason I live. I promised to change and I promise I have. Today I’ll start thinking, leave behind all the hurt. For better or worse. We’re blessed more than cursed.

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?

Persecute & Perish

The third in my series of ‘Peter Posts’ focuses on the persecution of the early Christian Church in the Book of Acts. Being a Christian back then was a high risk occupation. Jesus had been crucified and then his body had ‘disappeared’ from the tomb. Crazy rumours were spreading like wildfire around Palestine that he had risen from the dead and would return to overthrow the Roman occupation. Jerusalem was a tinder box of emotions and it would only have taken the slightest spark to throw the city into open rebellion.

The local religious leaders needed to reaffirm their authority. The crucifixion of the rabbi who claimed he was the son of God had backfired spectacularly. Thousands were flocking to the teachings of Jesus under the leadership of Peter (the Galilean fisherman formerly known as Simon) and his rag bag collection of disciples. Someone had to be made an example of and that someone was my namesake Stephen who was brutally stoned to death after eloquently and passionately professing his faith before the religious leaders of the Sanhedrin.

Before this Peter had also experienced a taste of the ruthless persecution of the early church which was to follow. In Acts 4 John and him were brought before the Sandhedrin and warned to keep their mouths shut and desist from preaching in Jerusalem. In the following chapter they were again warned about their conduct whereupon Peter replied:

We must obey our God rather than human beings. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. (Acts 5 29-30)

Blimey! How to win friends and influence people. Probably not the wisest thing to come out with to a group of religious zealots looking for an excuse to kill you. It was only the intervention of a Pharisee named Gamiel which saved his neck. Peter, the same Peter who denied he knew Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion and then skulked off weeping bitterly, was now putting his life on the line to publicly declare that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Son of God as prophesied throughout the Old Testament. This was incredible, revolutionary talk. Delivered with style and passion by a man who spent most of the Gospels with his foot well and truly wedged in his mouth.

Here was a man who had been transformed, who was on fire. The Holy Spirit was roaring through his veins and he could not be silenced, no matter what persecution he faced. And do you know why? Because he was no longer afraid. In his darkest days between the death of Jesus and the resurrection he must have beaten himself up, his weaknesses and flaws horribly exposed for all to see. He was a coward, a failure and a fraud. Would we have been surprised if he had fled to the hills never to be seen again? Or chosen a more permanent exit like Judas after his ultimate betrayal?

Yet he didn’t. He came back a changed man, a better man. Yes he was forgiven by Jesus but he also chose to forgive himself and make amends. He faced decades of persecution by choosing not to persecute himself over his past. He chose to move on, to move forwards and become one of the most influential figures in the history of civilisation. The Bible is full of such stories; of people who messed up but were used by God for great things. Because they chose to suck it up and make a fresh start.

Have you messed up? Do you beat yourself up day after, month after month, year after year over it? I would encourage you to take a leaf out of Peter’s book. Forgive yourself. It’s not easy (believe me I know) but it is possible. Peter faced enough external persecution in his life without having to deal with the internal variety as well. Don’t listen to the internal voice trying to drown out your hopes and dreams. Fight for your future because nobody else will for you.

In order to conquer your world you must first conquer your fears. Peter did. And so can you. Today. Now.

Have you persecuted yourself in the past? Are you still your own worst enemy? Pleas comment below and share your experiences with our community.

All Fogs Are Temporary

My plans are in ruins!

Now I’m not one to exaggerate but I had planned to go on my long run this morning only to awaken to a blanket of fog outside. A real pea souper even though that description never rang true with me as wouldn’t pea soup be green? And I’ve never seen green fog even in that Stephen King movie about the fog. Or was that mist? Can you get green mist? And what’s the difference between mist and fog anyway?Aaaaarrrrghhh! My brain hurts!

So here I am blogging instead of running. The weather man says it should clear later in the morning but that’s no good to me as there is lots of other stuff going on today. Plus the longer I wait the less likely I am to go out and run. I always get very nervous before a long run as self doubt and negativity creep in. My next target is the Belfast Marathon on 7th May so I have plenty of time but try telling that to the grouchy gremlins who reside within my head. They are already rubbing their hands with glee at the sight of fog and telling me my training schedule is in tatters now and I’m doomed to fail.

Fog has only a temporary grip on reality.

I know this fog will clear like all fog clears. It is a transient phenomenon. And when it clears everything will be exactly as it was before. The houses in our street will not have moved. Dinosaurs will not be roaming the earth. The Washington Redskins will still suck. Nothing will have changed. And I will go out for my run and all will be well. I might have to curtail the distance I planned to run but it can be made up another time. I will not lose four years of fitness and confidence in the space of four hours. The world will keep turning and Stephen will keep running. Fact.

The same applies to the mental fogs that sometimes descend upon us. When the fog closes in we feel disoriented and confused. We lose our bearings and panic sets in. We don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we are going. We become afraid as who knows what monsters lurk out there in the shadows. The fear of the unknown is magnified as our mind starts to play tricks upon us. Depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and self loathing set in. Our defences crumble as the armies of despair and paranoia overwhelm us. We turn on ourselves. And our fog filled minds can be our most bitter enemy as it knows every weakness to play upon and every button to push. We succumb to it.

Fog conceals the truth.

It plays tricks. It is a liar. It distorts and twists. It may seem impenetrable but the truth is that the light is still there. And the fog in our heads has only temporary power over it. The light and the truth are constant. They are set in stone. The sun and the moon will always be there when the fog lifts. Clear skies will return to show you that nothing has changed. Mental illness is not who you are. You are who you are. And that will never change. Your soul will continue to shine brightly just as the stars will continue to shine at night. No fog can steal that from you.

How do I know this? Because I too have stood in the fog unable to see past my own hand. I have fallen to my knees and given up all hope of ever finding a way out. But I did. And when I did emerge I discovered that nothing had changed. My loved ones still loved me. I was still the same me. The mental fog I had struggled with had merely distorted my vision and muddied the waters. It had polluted my perception of who I was and what I stood for. It had created an altered state where I could not flourish and thrive. A state where subjective, pessimistic thinking reigned and hopelessness took root.

And if I can do it then so can you as well. The sun will always burn away the fog. It’s rays of faith, hope and love will break through and will light the way for you. It can set you back on the right path, the road to recovery and well being. The light will always emerge victorious over the darkness. The fog will always dissipate and no matter what you addiction or obsession it is temporary. All chains can be broken. Freedom is a choice. All you have to do is believe and make that choice. Make the right decision. Today. Now. Walk out of the fog and welcome to the rest of your life.

Have you experienced the fog? Are you currently there? Or have you overcome it? We would be interested in hearing your thoughts. Please comment below.

Here’s To Being Average

Adam and I spent yesterday morning painting the kitchen ceiling. Fionnuala has been asking me to do this for around two years now but I have been waiting until our son was tall enough to help me out. Some might call that laziness and indifference. Not I. I regard it more as excellent forward planning and best use of resources. Well yesterday that day came. I decided it was time to paint the ceiling. Or rather I was told if it wasn’t done this weekend my life wouldn’t be worth living. Yes it’s sad but it’s true. Our son, aged 15, is now taller than me.

I am 5′ 11” tall. This pains me. When people ask me how I tall I am I sometimes reply ‘Almost six foot’. Does this make me feel any better about myself? Well, not really. I so wanted to be six foot tall but sadly it was not to be. I’m not short but I’m not tall. I’m kind of somewhere in between. I’m average. Adam on the other hand is going to be a giant. He’s hit six foot and is still growing. This became obvious yesterday as we tackled the ceiling. He didn’t need to use the stepladder once. I, on the other hand, was up and down it more often than a forgetful firefighter.

Our son now looks down upon me. I’m his little old man. And now that he has started serious weight training as part of his rugby training regime he’s just going to get bigger and bigger. Fionnuala is already giving him the talk about girls because the way his rugby career and physique are developing he is going to be attracting a lot more female attention in the years to come. He has an exceptional talent that, even now, has the rugby coaches and scouts sitting up and taking note. I think he will one day play rugby professionally, he’s that good. I know I’m his father so am naturally bias but that’s what I think. Time will tell.

I was never that good at rugby. Or football, or any other sport for that reason. I was average at best and never stood out on the playing fields. The same went for my height and many other areas of achievement (or lack of) in my life. I viewed my average abilities as inadequate when, looking back, they were entirely adequate. To compensate I always craved attention and popularity. That needy nature still lurks inside me and raises it’s not very pretty head from time to time. Thankfully I have a wise and wonderful wife who can knock this particular demon back down whenever it surfaces.

As I grow older, but not taller, I’m learning that you can’t be a superstar at everything you try. If you were brilliant at everything then life would be pretty boring. You would have no standout talents or abilities, you would just be equally amazing at everything. Nothing would stand out. Even superheroes have flaws or weaknesses. Perfection is well….average. And being average at most stuff you tackle in life is alright actually. You get by, you manage. And the ninety nine average traits in your life allow your talent or gift to shine all the more brightly, like a beacon of hope on a dark, featureless hillside.

Our average characteristics contribute towards our unique nature. They help in shaping us into the complex, incredible creations that we are. They define us and complete us. Every genius had a generous dollop of average as well thrown into the mix. God insisted. Otherwise our egos would run amok and our ability to express humility and modesty would be swallowed whole. YOU are exceptional and were placed on this earth at this time to do exceptional things. And being average at this or that is all part of the exceptional person you are.

You are who you are for a reason. Never forget that. It’s time to start feeling comfortable in your own skin. For it’s the only one you will ever have….unless you happen to be some some kind of weird snake-human hybrid. Which would be far from average. So here’s to being average. It’s the new awesome.

What height are you?

Are you comfortable in your own skin?

What’s so awesome about celebrating the average?

Ask Me A Question….

How many times have you opened your mouth to say something to a loved one but have been unable to force the words from your lips? You’ve felt too awkward or embarrassed to make public what may have been sitting on your heart for what seems like an eternity. So the unspoken thought or emotion lies dormant within you never to see the light of day. It’s a frustrating, infuriating feeling right? You are bursting at the seams but unable to seize the moment. And another opportunity meanders by. Another day is lost and important words go unspoken.

I have often bottled up my emotions and allowed them to fester and spoil within me. They eat away at you from within, like acid working on your stomach lining. Why is it so hard to speak the truth when lies seem to drip so effortlessly from our lips? Why do we stumble over proclamations of love when words of hate and ill feeling fly from our mouths like flocks of crazed crows? We cannot practice what we preach unless we first practice how to speak lovingly, truthfully and without fear.

So today I’m going to suggest an exercise. I want you to ask me up to three questions. It can be anything. Something that you’ve always wanted to ask but have held back. It might be trivial, it might be silly, it might be deep and spiritual. Whatever it is I will answer you truthfully. But it will be a special kind of truth because it will cross the ether and unlock your own truth reservoir. When I have answered I want you to speak to a loved one later today and tell them how much they mean to you; how much you appreciate what they do for you. You can even mention the dreaded ‘L’ word if you want. That’s love by the way not laundry.

You do not have to participate if you don’t want to but I hope that you do. It could be the safest of steps for you or it could be a gargantuan leap into the unknown. Either way I hope releasing words of love and kindness from within you will start a tiny tsunami of positivity that spreads throughout your community. It could fizzle out or it could start a chain reaction that results in permanent, concrete change within damaged relationships and brittle friendships. Call me naive but I hope and pray that this is so.

So it’s over to you. Are you up to the challenge?

Start asking….

Ode To OCD #2

If silence cuts like a knife

Then I have died the death of a thousand cuts at your hands

Your scars have scarred me

You have sliced me with your lies

Strangled by our soul ties

More lies

You’ve broke me in two

But I’ve broken me too

Now I’m breaking on through

To what?

Nothing that’s what

For I am everything that you have allowed me to become.

You Are A Warrior

Adam and I went to the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast last night to watch Ulster Rugby play the Southern Kings in a Guinness Pro 14 match. We had a great night; Ulster won 59-10 and we got complimentary burgers from my brother-in-law who is in charge of the catering and hospitality at the stadium. It made the frozen toes and long walk back to the car afterwards worthwhile. Note to self – wear thicker socks next time you got to a rugby match in February!

It is the start of a big rugby weekend. The Six Nations Championship has started and Ireland play Italy later today in Dublin. That, however, is not the main event for the Black family. Adam has been selected to play for his school’s senior team today for the first time. He will be playing against boys three years older than him but the coaches recognise his talent and potential and are throwing him in at the deep end. They have confidence in him and believe he has the ability to cope with this step up in class.

Fionnuala and I will be nervously cheering him on from the touchline. Win, lose or draw we are very proud of him as we are of all our kids. Adam has the skill and work ethic to develop into a top rugby player and hopefully play professionally one day. My dream is to watch him play one day at the Kingspan for Ulster Rugby. And even if he doesn’t watching him play has brought us closer together this last year. It has become our thing. I’m passionate about his rugby. I know I get a bit carried away at times but he has been blessed with a gift and I want him to run with it as far as he possibly can.

It is a dream at the minute but dreams can become reality if you are prepared to roll up your sleeves and work at them. They are reality waiting to happen. You just have to reach out and take what is rightfully yours. It might not happen overnight but it will do eventually if you just keep your eye on the prize and keep moving forward. Fear and doubt will do their best to scupper your ambitions but they have to be ignored and kicked to the kerb. You are better than that. Of that I am certain.

Do you have a dream that remains unfulfilled? Have you given up after a lifetime of having been knocked down and pushed back? I encourage you to dust yourself down, take a deep breath and stand tall again. You are better than the demons who oppose you. They are more frightened of you than you are of them. That is why they fight so viciously. Because they see the light within you and it terrifies them. They see what you do not see. They see the real you and in that they see their ultimate demise.

You are a warrior standing on the battlefield of your own destiny. You wear the armour of a good and righteous person. Your enemies stand amassed before you and you have a choice. Do you cower before them and allow your life to meander aimlessly and without purpose? Or do you fill your lungs with air and roar a battle cry of defiance? Do you charge towards them in the knowledge that you are better than them? You can conquer depression, addiction, guilt and worthlessness? You are a hero. You are my hero and you will stand victorious over all you survey. I know you can do it. Do you?

What enemies are you facing on the battlefield today?

How do you propose to conquer them?

For My Father

Yesterday I visited a grave with my mother. My father’s grave. We lost him eight years ago to prostate cancer, aged a very young sixty four. He had recently retired and was looking forward to traveling, gardening and voluntary work for his church and a number of charities he was involved in. He was a great man and a great loss. I only cried once, at his bedside when they turned his ventilator off. Once.

Since that day I have cried many times. But on each occasion I have been crying for myself. Selfish, shameful tears. And I wonder what my father would have made of the various messes I have made of my life. I am certain of one thing though. He would have forgiven me. Because that’s the type of man he was. It’s another reason I need to forgive myself for my past. I owe it to those people, dead and alive, who have forgiven me. They deserve better than the sight of me wallowing in self-pity.

When we left the graveyard I told my mother for the first time that I had started to write a book. I am still very shy about telling people. But she seemed genuinely interested about it or as interested as my mother is about anything these days. It was then she told me that my father had always dreamt of writing a book but never had the opportunity. It was taken away from him just like he was taken away from us. His death was senseless and it knocked me off track for many years. But now I have focus again.

Graves are full stops on lives. They are shrines to the past. Yet if you believe in an afterlife, as I do, they are meaningless; for my father was not in that grave we stood shivering beside yesterday morning. He was elsewhere. He was never in that grave for his journey continued onwards. The dead travel beyond the grave but so many of the living cannot. How many people have given up on life at the loss of a loved one? Been unable to move beyond the trauma of bereavement? Become the living dead?

We must look beyond the grave. Grief is a process and for many it is a long, hard journey but we must endeavour to push through that process to the other side. We must keep going for those who need us and rely upon us. Death can distract us from life. Many almost see grief as as a relief as it allows them to raise the white flag and collapse at gravesides never to rise again. The dead deserve better than that from us. We owe it to them to pick ourselves up, walk away from the graveside, and live. Somehow.

I’m writing this book for many reasons and for many people. But now I have another. It is the book my father never wrote. It is me telling the world that I forgive him just as I forgive myself. Just as he has risen to a better place I too have risen from the ashes of grief and shame. My sinful past is just that, the past. I am walking away from the grave of my former self. I have no need for wreaths and headstones for I have words now. Words of truth and hope. They are my dream and they will become my legacy. Because I know I can do this. And I will.

In loving memory of Andrew Charles Black 18.05.45 – 08.02.2010.

What Are You Going To Stop Doing Today?

Stop it.

There is something you are doing today that you should not be doing. I don’t know what it is and I don’t particularly want to. The point is you do and you know that it is wrong. Wrong to yourself and wrong to others. Damaging and destructive. You know you need to stop and that thought nags away at you constantly. Well that’s good for that’s your conscience talking. If you care enough to know it’s wrong then you can find the strength to stop doing it.

Think of all the times you have tried to stop before and failed. How did you feel when you relapsed into your old ways? Beaten, despairing, self loathing. Not a great way to live is it? Now imagine a world without that ‘thing’. Imagine the freedom, knowing that it no longer had a grip on you. Write a list if you need to outlining how you currently feel and how you would feel if you stopped. I wager that the pros far outweigh the cons. Which is why you need to stop in order to kickstart your life again.

You are better than this. You know that deep down. It needs you more than you need it. You were created for better but life has just temporarily derailed you. It’s time to dust yourself down and get back on track. It’s time to cross over to the other side. I know you can do it. Why? Because I did. I stopped and it turned my life around. And if useless old me can stop then so can you. What’s more I’m by your side and you can be accountable to me. For as long as you need me. Here’s what we are going to do.

Small bites. Commit to stopping for 24 hours. Don’t look beyond that. But for those 24 hours give it everything you’ve got. You will be tempted but that’s ok, that’s normal. The key is that you don’t give in to that temptation. Fill the void in your day that the ‘thing’ consumes with something else. Anything else. Stay busy and push on through. I am here if you need to talk. I will be thinking of you and praying for you. Just get through that first 24 hours. Then we can think about the next 24.

Will you join me in stopping today?

What Are Your Three Best Qualities?

I make a point of reading as many other blogs as I can when I can. Sometimes I comment, other times I only have time to hit the like button but I do value the work of my fellow bloggers. There is a sense of community here that I have never experienced on other social media platforms before. People seem to genuinely care about others as opposed to seeking the spotlight themselves. WordPress is a selfless as opposed to a selfie zone.

A lot of people who write on this platform are struggling with a myriad of demons. There is an honesty and vulnerability expressed here that is refreshing compared to the fakeness of other platforms. It is raw and it is painful but it is real. Reality can be a tough pill to swallow but it is only when we recognise our weaknesses and accept our fears that true healing can begin. The best medicine is often the most bitter tasting.

The nature of this process, however, is that people are often very hard on themselves. Sometimes unfairly so. You are all wonderful people who deserve peace, love and happiness. Fionnuala and I are often deeply saddened by some of the stories we read. The negativity is often heartbreaking. Today I want to flip the coin. Life is about love. We were placed on this planet to love others. But before we can do that we must learn to love ourselves. That can be hard and I know I am my own worst critic.

So today I want you to comment below, listing your three best qualities. When you have written them down take a moment to reflect on them and think back to times when you have displayed them for the benefit of yourself and others. When you are in that good place, realise how special you are and how needed you are on this broken world we live in today. Look in the mirror and realise you are amazing. Do it now.

I insist….

What are your three best qualities? Comment below.

Ode To OCD #1

You let me binge

And now I’m singed

Unhinged.

Swinging from the gallows that I constructed for

You.

As you look on

The idle god of all you survey.

You smile

As I decay

Dismayed and flayed.

Splayed in my grave

Of rotating routine.

I’m Writing A Book….I Think

Some of you may know that I am currently working on my first novel. It’s fiction and is largely set in the city of Belfast but that’s all you’re getting out of me! I’m actually very reluctant to talk about it and I’ve deliberated all day about writing this post. But as I get asked about it occasionally I thought I would provide a little update. It’s as much for myself as for anyone else if I’m honest as I need you guys to hold me accountable and keep me honest.

After an initial flurry of words and ideas (40,000 words blasted out during a week off work) progress has slowed down considerably due to a variety of reasons. Fionnuala and I have little enough time as it is due to the pressures and demands of everyday life. Days merge into weeks and I realise that I’ve barely thought about the book let alone open up the laptop to write. Life is good but there is always a guilty sensation at the back of my head that I am allowing my lifelong dream to write a novel pass me by.

Anxiety often gnaws away at my ambition. Doubt and low self esteem are always waiting in the wings only too willing to throw a spanner in the works. It happens in all areas of my life and writing is no exception. The voice keeps telling me that I am delusional; that I lack the talent and discipline to write a novel. That it will never amount to anything. Because of that I have been almost glad to have excuses not to write. It is the elephant in my room.

The success of the blog has also caught me somewhat unawares. I’ve been amazed that people want to read my posts and even more amazed that they seem to enjoy them. I’ve committed to daily posts and, as such, have taken my eye of the ball when it comes to the book. If I could compare myself to an ostrich sticking its head in a sandbank then the blog is the sandbank. I’ve tried to convince myself that I need to establish myself as a writer first, via blogging, before I turn my thoughts to completing and seeking to publish a novel. But who am I kidding, it’s just another excuse.

It’s time though to forge on again. Yes I could be writing unpublishable garbage but there’s only way to find out. This novel is a nagging, niggling weight on my mind. It’s fluid and always changing and I just need to get it out of me and onto the screen of my laptop. I’m worried that it will be terrible but I’m more worried that I will never finish it. Something I know I will always regret. I want to do this. I need to do this. I will do this.

So from today I’m recommitting to the book. 500 words a day or more ideally. I’ve found that I’m not a storyboarder. I need to be involved in the physical act of writing for the ideas and concepts to flow. I need to vomit the words out and then worry about structure and format later. My drafts will be rougher than rough but that’s how I seem to operate. The fine tuning and sandblasting will follow that. If that means skipping a blog post in order to maintain my word count then so be it. I’m sure you can all cope without me for a day or so and Fionnuala, Hannah and Rebecca are more than able blogging deputies.

Thank you all for your unerring support these last few months. This blog has changed my life beyond words and you have been part of that. The book will be the next stage of the journey. Whatever happens I can lie on my deathbed and say the following. I married a wonderful woman, was blessed with three kids, ran at least seven marathons and wrote a book. Four childhood dreams which became reality. Not bad for a weirdo geek boy.

Thank you WordPress.

Repackage Your Heart

First World Problems have once more raised their ugly head at chez Black this last week or so. Having struggled through various sicknesses and other crises during the month of January we thought we were due a turn of fortunes. A reprieve from the trials and tribulations of modern life. But oh no for much, much worse was to befall us. The final nail in the coffin. The coup de grace to end all coup de graces. Whatever that means. It sounds a bit like cut the grass but I think I might be wrong on that one.

Yes the unthinkable happened. The village shop ran out of Diet Coke! Yes you read that right. The village shop ran out of Diet Coke. Well alright I’m exaggerating slightly when I say that. Blame it on my withdrawal symptoms. The shop didn’t exactly run out of Diet Coke, rather it ran out of the 1.75 litre twin packs (£2:50 = bargain) which I largely survive on in lieu of healthier drinks such as say lighter fluid or cod liver oil.

I drove to the next shop. They had none either. And then the next. Not a drop. I drove back home to break the sad news to Fionnuala. She took it reasonably well but I think she was just putting on a brave face for me. I’m pretty certain I saw her lower lip trembling at one point. As the Alpha Male and hunter/gatherer of the household I felt I was left with no option but to venture out again in search of sustenance. I returned to the scene of the original crime determined to use my finely tuned investigative skills to find an answer.

Alan the shopkeeper listened patiently to my impassioned pleas as I gesticulated frantically at the empty shelves where the elixir of life used to reside in plentiful supply. He nodded and smiled as the grown man in front of him whimpered and whined at the injustice of it all. He was empathetic and his active listening skills and positive body language were beyond reproach. I’m sure he has been on a ‘Challenging Customers’ course although I’m not sure there was a module on ‘Hysterical Aspartame Addicts’. If there had been he would have passed with flying colours no doubt.

‘Coca Cola have recalled the product’ he explained calmly when afforded the opportunity to respond to my tiresome tirade. ‘The packaging is being redesigned. It should be back in the shops soon enough.’ And with that he was off down the canned food aisle leaving me with a sliver of hope. We could tough this out. It wasn’t the end of the world. The United Nations would not be required to send a peace keeping force in and Donald Trump would not be tweeting about it in the morning.

We would survive and life would go on. I clutched at the lifeline that was 18 tins for £5 (even though Fionnuala complains it doesn’t taste the same) and trudged out of the shop; muttering about Coca Cola and their amateur marketing strategies. Redesigning the packaging indeed. What nonsense. The packaging wasn’t the reason I bought it in bulk. It was what was inside the bottle that mattered. That taste, that kick, the fizzy bubbles exploding on my fuzzy tongue. How vain and shallow these faceless marketing clowns were.

The second the above thought settled on my mind I was also bowled over by the hypocrisy of my thinking. For years I was obsessed with my appearance. At school I was the tubby, spotty kid. I was bullied and as for girls?! Well I don’t think I spoke to one until I was nineteen. Thankfully Fionnuala took pity on me and turned a walking, talking social pariah into an almost functioning member of the human race. Otherwise I’d still be a single Pringle failing abysmally to impress the opposite sex.

To combat this I have always sought to repackage my geeky, awkward inner psyche with all manner of disguises. Diets, gyms, tattoos (three and counting), personal trainers, Twitter wannabe z-lister, Instagram embarrassment, designer clothes, church youth leader, marathon running, terrible Taekwondo student, and now fledgling author and blogger. The list is endless. Everything aimed at covering up the fraud and failure I have always, rightly or wrongly, regarded myself as.

I was a chaotic chameleon for many years. Living a lie beneath various disguises and personas. But deep down I knew it was all a facade. You cannot repackage your heart. No matter how desperately we try we are still the same person beneath the various layers of deception we clothe ourselves in. I am still the same shy, insecure boy I was all those years ago. Clever with written words but a gibbering wreck when asked to socially interact in a room full of strangers.

I’m slowly learning to consistently be myself and live comfortably in my own skin. I want people to like me for who I am not who I think they want me to be. This has cost me a lot of friendships over the last year or so but it has also brought me closer to the people who matter. It has bolstered my flagging faith and brought me nearer to God. He knows me inside out and upside down; he created me and you like this for a reason, warts and all. We don’t need to be recalled from the shelves. No amount of redesigning ourselves can take away from who we really are.

We are spiritual beings. Our souls are ethereal and eternal. They are our very essence and when we break it down no amount of earthly transition can change that. We are who we are. There’s no need to change for anyone no matter how tempting that might be. Don’t repackage yourself for anyone or anything. For it is what’s inside that counts. Look beyond the packaged lies. Believe in who you are. You can never be taken off the shelves of life for that.

Have you repackaged your heart in the past?

How do you intend to live a life consistent with the real you?

Creeping Glory

For the seven of you out there who enjoy reading my running posts, I completed my online challenge yesterday to run 150 miles in the month of January. A day early no less but nobody likes a show off so I won’t brag about that. Oh hang on I just have. Anyways. It was an online challenge so all I have to do now is e-mail the organisers a screen shot from my Garmin app confirming the mileage and they will post me out a medal and compression top. To the victor the spoils. I had to pay £14.99 for this privilege (plus postage and packaging) but let’s not deflect from my glorious achievement here.

I’ll post a photo of them when they arrive. A photo minus me because I’m not a big fan of having my photograph taken. Plus those of a sensitive nature, with medical conditions, or eating might struggle with the sight of your truly in a compression top. It’s not a pretty sight let me assure you. I have battled low self esteem all my life and a desperate need for attention and acceptance. This, in turn, has gotten me into all sorts of trouble. I am a terrible judge of character and throughout my life have effortlessly fallen into the wrong company at the drop of a hat. In fact forget the hat, I’ll just do it anyway.

Running and writing used to be just two more tools I used to grasp the spotlight. It was all about me. The problem with being in the spotlight, though, is that you are exposed and blinded. Disoriented and unaware of what is going on around you. And in my case, inside of me. I was becoming a vain, selfish and thoroughly unlikeable person. Others could see it but not me. Or when I did during a rare moment of lucidity I didn’t care. I just shrugged my shoulders and carried on regardless. I was hopelessly hooked on the attention and forever chasing my next fix.

It was all about the next race or the next personal best. I joined a running club and had no shortage of running partners both at work and at home. I was Mr. Popularity or so I thought. My phone never stopped. My weekends were spent travelling around the country to race events instead of with Fionnuala and the kids. Then one day all that stopped. I run alone now. My phone can sit all day without anyone messaging me. And you know what? I’ve learnt to be okay with that. Because it’s no longer about me. It’s about others. It’s about YOU.

Running is now a means to an ends. I don’t run for the glory, I run because I need to. It cleanses and detoxifies me mentally. When I run I can dispose of all the negativity and unwanted junk rattling around my brain. I get most of my writing ideas when I run. Anxiety and dark, unwanted thoughts seep out of me along with the sweat from my pores. I used to use running to lose weight physically. Now I do it to unload excess mental and spiritual baggage. Running empties me and leaves me with a focus and clarity of vision which is laser sharp.

Running has taught me how to embrace and overcome pain. It has taught me patience. I prefer long distance running. My favourite race is the marathon. 26.2 miles is a daunting challenge but one thing I am not is a quitter. When I start a race or a challenge I will not stop until I have completed it. One of the few positive attributes of my obsessive nature. If I have to crawl to the finish line then I will. Defeat is simply not an option. I hate looking at myself in the mirror at the best of times but it would be doubly galling if i was looking at the face of a loser. I choose to overcome no matter what it takes.

So I will never stop. And I will never give up. And nor must you. No matter what. When I run I break every mile down into twenty sections. I run to the next bench, the next hedge, the next pothole in the road. I break a seemingly unassailable distance down into manageable bite sized chunks then count them off on my Garmin. Every 1/20th is a battle won and a step towards winning the war. I break it down in order to build myself up. I make the impossible possible. And so must YOU. I’ve written before about finding your grind. Become a pain sponge and suck it all up. Because, like me, YOU are not a quitter either.

Don’t look at the summit. Just focus on the next stretch, the next bend, the next step. Break it down and you will see the barriers fall and the milestones pass behind you. YOU are better than this. Never mind creeping death. Yours shall be a creeping glory. The enemy never feels threatened by an opponent who barely appears to be moving. He is oblivious to slow, almost imperceptible progress. His defences will fall and he will idle. And before he knows it YOU are past him and it’s game over. YOU are astride your Everest and the pain has been replaced by glory. The glory that is your story. Creeping Glory.

Take my hand and run with me ok? Together we will overcome.

What are your thoughts on this post. We would love to hear them. Please comment below and let’s get talking.

Bite Your Lip

Sometimes you need to bite your lip. For the greater good. Today is one of those days. I’ve been worrying about today all week. Anxiety has been tapping on my chest like the first drops of rain tapping against a window, harbingers of the coming storm. For me that storm is avoidable today. But I will need to bite my lip. A lot.

Fionnuala won’t be with me today as she is away visiting her aunt and uncle in Dublin. I will be on my own. I feel exposed and inadequate but this is something I need to do, something I have to get through. Somehow. There is a bigger picture here, a longer game to be played. Today is only a skirmish. There are many more important battles after today. So I have to bite my lip.

I am passionate. I shoot my mouth off at times because I care. The old me didn’t really care about anything other than himself. I would trample over the needs of my nearest and dearest on a regular basis. Caring too little was my downfall. Today it could be because I care too much. Is that a sign of progress? Of a deepening maturity? Or is it merely a different side of the same coin?

I need to bite my lip until it hurts. Until I draw blood if necessary. Taste it, savour it, lick it from my dry lips but not a word, Stephen, not a word. Surround your thoughts and impulses with wisdom and patience today. I hate it, I hate it. I want to say it as I see it. I want to rant and rave at the injustice of it all. I want to kick and punch and scream until I’m blue in the face. But to do so would be selfish. And that boat has sailed. I’m different now.

So I’ll bite my lip. I will embrace the pain for the pain is my anchor. It will steady and focus me as events unfold. I’ll be the eye of the storm. I will smile and nod in all the right places and keep my thoughts to myself. I will not let the side down for if I do I might not be in the side come next time. It will hurt but that is nothing compared to the hurt and repercussions of speaking out today.

The truth will not be heard today. I will tuck it away for another time. It can wait. The weight of waiting increases my anxiety. The pitter patter on my window increases. And before you know it these isolated drops of anxiety have transformed into dark, unrelenting sheets of depression. I know the signs. I’ve been battered by this storm many times before. But not today. For today I’ll bite my lip.

The truth will set you free I’m told. Well that is true but today freeing the truth would be akin to unleashing a brontosaurus in a fine china boutique. So the truth must remain unspoken and in shackles. The truth is a double edged sword. It can be liberating but you have to pick your moment. Timing is everything. Today is not the time. So I’ll bite my lip and grimace through what needs to be grimaced through. That is what I must do.

Biting ones lip is often regarded as a seductive act. But today I cannot be seduced by the satisfaction of revenge and retribution. That would be too easy. I need to rise above it and survey the battlefield below. I want to be on that battlefield. I want to charge headlong into the enemy; screaming and slashing. Killing in the name of. Until they are no more and I am breathless and sated. Exhausted but exhilarated.

Revenge is so satisfying, it slides down your throat as smoothly as ice cream on a scorching summers day. But today I will feel as if I am swallowing razor blades as each pointless platitude is proffered. It will be the smallest of small talk but needs must and I need to muster the strength to get through this ordeal. Or deal with the consequences at my leisure. Today will be a hard day. My eyes will blaze and my heart will burn with white hot fury. But I’ll bite my lip. Because I’m better than them.

Have you ever had to bite your lip and say nothing for the greater good?

How did it feel? Was it worth it? Please comment below and share your experiences.

I Want To Read Your Blog

A shorter blog today you will all be glad to hear. They say that in order to improve as a writer you should read, read and then read some more. So today I’m going to follow that advice. I want to read your posts. I want to find out more about you and, in doing so, learn from you. I’m putting my feet up and taking the day off.

So……

If you have any current or archived posts that you would like me to read and/or comment upon then let me know and I will. Have you had a good day? A rubbish day? Has one of our posts reminded you of something we wrote about once in the past? Do you need feedback? Advice? Prayers? Or just a little golden star to brighten up your timeline. If so, then comment below.

Yours

Lazy Stephen 🙂

I’m Messed Up And Proud. Who’s With Me?

Many moons ago Fionnuala and I got married. One morning shortly before the big day I woke up with a crick in my neck. I thought little of it, assuming I had slept in an awkward position. But it continued to ache and niggle in the coming days despite how much I stretched and manipulated it. I swallowed paracetamol but might as well have been taking M&M’s for all the good they did. Come our wedding day the crick was still there.

And so it was. Fionnuala married a pain in the neck….with a pain in the neck.

Have you ever cracked your neck? There are few more satisfying sensations in the known universe. Over the coming weeks and months I developed my neck cracking technique down to a fine art but to no avail. The pain persisted and months became years. I learned to cope with the pain. It was rarely agony, more annoying. It just became part of the ‘Being Stephen’ experience. OCD? Check. Binge drinking? Check. Always complaining about his sore neck but never doing anything about it? Yup that’s me.

On the grand scale of all things pain it was fairly low down the scale. It wasn’t chronic, debilitating or life changing. But it was my pain and therefore it was important to me. I lived with it, I knew it inside out and I bored anyone stupid enough to ask me about it to within an inch of their lives. You’ve heard of Becky with the good hair. I became Stephen with the sore neck. It defined me. Until it wasn’t there any more. One day it was gone just like that. Without any explanation. Those of you thinking it was all in my head are free to stop reading any time now.

Until this week. The pain is back. In exactly the same place. I’m popping and cracking like cray cray again. Fionnuala is delighted. I made that last sentence up. Go and see a doctor? Don’t be so ridiculous. What would I write about then. I have a sore neck and you are all just going to have to get used to that. Until it decides to go away again. Anybody with a sore neck feel free to enter into lengthy correspondence with me. For I get what you’re going through. We can set up an online support group. Perhaps get some counselling. For I know your pain.

I know your pain.

We hear that phrase a lot. It’s misleading of course. Everybody’s pain is individual and unique to them. I cannot fully understand your pain just like I cannot fully understand what it is like to be a pterodactyl. Although I’m fairly certain that would be a pretty cool experience swooping from cliff tops and all that. But anyway I digress. Back to the pain thang. I cannot fully relate to another person’s neck pain but I’m probably more qualified to do so than most. I don’t know what you are going through but I can empathise. Which is part of the reason this blog was started. I want to be your pain killer. Or at the very least your pain partner.

I’m a screw up, a walking disaster, a deeply flawed and feeble individual. I’ve spent most of my life making poor choices and inflicting pain on myself and others. But no more. This blog arose like a phoenix from the ashes of my messed up life. It was forged in my pain. I know that sounds a bit dramatic there but bear with me. I know what it’s like to mess up. Repeatedly. It has been largely self inflicted and I’ve learnt the hard way but I’m confident it was a reason. It was part of my apprenticeship, my on the job training. I was being prepared for this. I see that now. There was hope in my hopelessness.

The world needs more messed up people. People honest enough to stand up and be counted. People who are willing to expose their own inadequacies in order to help others in similar situations. People who don’t hide behind fake smiles and ‘I’m fine’ platitudes. I’m not fine but I’m fine with that. And I’m fine with helping others in any way that I can even if it’s just to let them know that they’re not alone. Pain can be restricting. Just watch me try to turn my head 45 degrees if you want proof of that. But it can also be liberating.

Pain can lead to freedom. It creates character, self awareness and fortitude. It opens doors to new experiences and new relationships. It strips back the layers of pride and selfishness and allows you to excavate your true personality. It allows you to discover who you are meant to be. It is revelatory and revolutionary. If it wasn’t for the pain of my past I wouldn’t be writing these words today. And you wouldn’t be reading them. We would never have known each other existed. And connecting with you is worth all the pain in the world.

I’m messed up and proud. Who’s with me?

OCD And Me

You never fully conquer OCD. It is a wily and resourceful enemy. It will choose not to face you on the open battlefield where the massed ranks of your respective armies can clash in combat in an honourable fight to the death. OCD is not interested in such forms of conflict. It will not look you in the eye and engage you in this manner. Such finite battles mean little to it for it is focused on the long game. It fights a war of attrition, a guerilla war. A war without end.

You can bombard it with medication and therapy and it will simply vanish into the shadows like the last wisps of mist on a crisp summer morning. You can unleash your finest cavalry regiments to hunt it down but to no avail; it will be as futile as trying to sweep up leaves on a blustery autumnal morning. OCD is the Scarlet Pimpernel of mental illness. It can lie dormant for a seeming eternity lulling you into a false sense of security before swooping to strike when you least expect it. It has a calculated cunning.

OCD is a slim rapier blade as opposed to a broadsword. It does not hack and bludgeon you into submission yet it is just as deadly at its murderous craft. It probes and pokes at your defences, infinitely patient, waiting for the moment when it spies a chink in your armour. Then, and only then, will it will lunge forward forcing its blade beyond the gap in your armour and striking home. Piercing skin and muscle, driving deep inside; causing untold internal damage which is invisible to all but it’s victim. When it withdraws its blade again the damage is done and it stands back to admire its handiwork. It’s blade slick with your dark, sticky blood.

OCD is the skilled sniper who penetrates your present from a mile away with a single bullet to the head. OCD is the silent assassin who sneaks unseen into your bedroom at night to hammer a dagger through your heart while it covers your mouth with its other hand so no one can hear your dying scream. OCD is the enemy who plants the land mine unbeknownst to you on the path you are travelling. One moment all is well and you are striding ahead with purpose. The next you hear the eerie click a micro second before your life is blown sky high.

OCD is the shrapnel that remains with you many years after you believe the war is over. It is the wound that aches and chafes, a constant reminder of its potential and its presence. For days, weeks, months it is nothing more than a dull ache, a nagging inconvenience that you somehow manage to live with. You cope, you manage, you survive. There is nothing else to do. But when it rears its head like a dormant dragon and breathes fire you are blown away by its power and penetration. It sears you to the bone with its white hot malice.

OCD is not interested in occupation. It will retreat and allow you the higher ground. It is the master strategist and its patience is boundless. It’s armies never tire but will launch wave after wave of assaults on your ravaged defences. It will grind you down into the dirt, it will crush your spirit as it will crush your bones. It will never stop, it will never give up. It is immovable, irresistible, unstoppable. It thrives on the counter attack. It’s fury is unrivalled. And when it comes it takes no prisoners. For war is hell and it is the devil come to take you for its own.

OCD is not interested in truces or white flags. It sneers at diplomacy and tact. It engages in total war and will not be satisfied until it has razed your world to the ground. It desires your total destruction and nothing less. There will be no prisoners, no negotiations and no backing down. It is a fight to the death. Your death. Olive branches will be tossed into the flames of what once was to burn with everything else you once held dear. It is a brutal, uncompromising siege that will never be lifted until your world lies all around you, broken and in ruins.

It can not be beaten. At best it can be driven back beyond your borders. And even then you must never lower your guard because it will prowl your perimeters like a ravenous lion waiting, watching. All it takes is one seemingly innocuous thought to drift lazily over your towering walls and settle at your feet. It can be anything and it can be nothing. But in that split second you realise it is too late. You raise your shield and dive for cover but it is too late. For the thought has exploded into a million fragments which riddle you from head to toe with intrusive thoughts and the irrational, destructive cycle of compulsive carnage begins again. A merry go round of mayhem, your life on hold again.

Trapped beneath the ice, your screams unheard and frozen in time. OCD is all of this and more. I am OCD and OCD is me. I must never lower my defences. Never. And so I write and I pray and I hope. This foe is forever.

What is your knowledge of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Are you a sufferer or have you never heard of it before?

Please comment below and let us know your thoughts on this post?

Straight Outta Aghalee

I am many things. I am a father, a husband, a son and a brother. I tackle all of these responsibilities with varying degrees of success. I am an exceedingly average distance runner and wannabe blogger and author. I like so see myself as a good friend but all the good and not so good friends I have lost down the years may beg to differ. I am good at a few things but not so good at a lot more things.

I’m a mass of contradictions, a warren of dead ends, a mansion house full of locked doors and dusty attics. We all are really. We excel at some pursuits and are repelled by others. I am many things. But there is one thing I am not. I am not a rapper. I am a 47 year old, married father of three living in rural Northern Ireland with a reasonably important job and an equally reasonable mortgage. On the surface I am the epitomy of respectability. But I wanna be a rapper….

This drives Fionnuala insane of course. When it comes to pet hates of mine, she has many. She could probably write several dozen blogs on the subject but, thankfully, chooses not to. I break out into an embarrassing mish mash of shape throwing and guttural grunts at the slightest opportunity. I drop the mic (usually on my big toe) and spit out lyrics so toe curlingly bad that Tupac must be turning in his grave.

South Central Aghalee is my crib. This consists of quiet residential housing and sleepy farmland. The nearest we get to excitement is when a passing tractor backfires. There was once an attempted robbery at the village shop but the wannabe gang banger ran off empty handed when the owner hurdled the counter and threw a charity collection box at him. We prefer hot tea to Ice-T and M&M’s to Eminem.

The kids are mortified when I break out a la NWA. They want me straight outta the room as opposed to Straight Outta Compton. I have three stock phrases that I periodically repeat over any backing track I care to follow. These are ‘Yeh’ ‘C’mon’ and ‘Awhhh’; all delivered in the poorest of American rapper accents. I gesticulate wildly while doing so, flailing my arms like an out of control windmill in a hurricane. My audience don’t know where to look. You could hear a penny drop. I live in Awkwardsville – Population Me.

I know I’m an embarrassment to my wife and kids but I hope that I’m an entertaining embarrassment. Amidst the eye rolling and pleas to stop there is also the occasional poorly concealed smirk. I have a propensity for melancholy so it’s important that I allow my silly side to emerge now and again. I’ve been the architect of many bad memories down the years so I am relieved when I can lay down funnier foundations. I am using my comedic wrecking ball to smash through the walls of pain and disappointment that have hemmed me in for most of my life.

Silliness is an escape valve that releases the pressures of everyday life which constantly build up inside of us. I was once told I have a dry wit but often that is not enough. You need to throw yourself off the cliffs of conformity and immerse yourself fully beneath the waters of humour and irreverence. There is freedom in fun and farce. I don’t do it enough. They say writers thrive on anguish and despair but if it’s that all I have to feed on then I fear my art will be starved and ultimately snuffed out.

So I will continue to hip and hop and annoy….a lot. I will revel in my rhyming and off beat timing. My raps will be crap and I ain’t all that. But at least our hatchlings will grow up and look back fondly on years of daft antics. I might only be papering over the cracks but at least I’m trying. It’s never too late to start afresh and do your best to make amends. Bad memories can never be erased but if the good ones outnumber them then they lose some of their sting.

I’m trying. My rapping is very trying. But God loves a trier. For now that’s all I can do.

What are your embarrassing ‘talents’?

Melancholy v Mirth? How do you balance them?

I’m An Angry Christian…. I’d be an Angrier Atheist

I get angry with God sometimes. Quite a lot if I’m honest. I sometimes try and convince myself that there is no God. Because then life would be a whole less complicated. And I would be a whole less angry. Which would declutter my mind and leave space for other emotions to take root. More positive emotions. Happiness for example. Or at least less unhappy. Is less unhappy even an emotion?

I have struggled with OCD for a large part of my life. It seeps into many areas of my existence but one it has never trespassed upon is my belief in a God. Sometimes I wish it would. That the voice in my head would tell me there is no God like it used to tell me all other sorts of nonsense on a daily basis. And instead of wrestling with this intrusive thought for days on end I would just shrug my shoulders and say ‘You know what OCD? I’m going to give you this one. You’re right. There is no God.’

It never did though. That’s the thing about OCD. It doesn’t exist to make your life easier. Shame that. Atheism leaves even more unanswered questions than believing does. And if I’m an angry Christian I dread to think what sort of atheist I would be. The Hulk? So I’m left with God and his all-powerful, all-knowing existence. And all the parts of the Bible that frustrate me and I don’t understand. I like to understand. I suppose it’s the OCD again. I need certainty and fact. Doubt is a killer for me. I will ask the same question over and over again until I get a rock solid, definitive answer. All this faith and ‘handing it over to God’ malarkey drives me nuts.

Trust God and he will protect you. Okaaaaay. But when? And where? And how? And a million other questions. Why does he have to be so mysterious and shadowy when going about his business. Why can’t I have a road to Damascus experience like Paul? All these people that boldly stand up in church and proclaim that ‘God spoke to me clearly this morning’. Why can’t that be me? Do you think they might be making stuff up? People lying in church???! Whatever next!

I know all the theological arguments. I read. A lot. So no comments please about free will or original sin or final judgement because I understand all that. But that doesn’t stop me feeling less cranky now. Because bad things are happening to good people at a lickety split rate. Our countries are still governed by imbeciles, babies are still dying from cancer and planes are still going down in the oceans. Why? Why? Why?

I pray and I pray and I pray yet my son still gets bullied at school. I pray and I pray and I pray yet my daughter still can’t walk. I pray and I pray and I pray and evil people still get away with murder and openly gloat in my face. Then I go to church and lots of happy, smiley faces tell me that life is wonderful and God is good. Something doesn’t add up here. Am I the odd one out here? Am I even a Christian? Do I want to be a Christian if this is what it boils down to? Turning the other cheek. Smiling through the insanity of life.

I wish I had their faith. I’ve tried to be that smiling, robotic face on a Sunday morning. But I can’t do it and nor can Fionnuala. She is many things but most certainly not a Stepford Church Wife. We always feel the odd ones out, the outsiders, the black sheep of the church family. I know our surname is Black but that’s just plain ridiculous. What are we missing out on? What part of the Christian life is not clicking with me? Why am I angry with God? Why do I ask so many question? Oh hang on that’s another question! Gahhhhhhh!

For all it’s infuriating sections the Bible has given me what I have needed of late to placate my frustration and anger – rubbish role models and hopeless heroes. Some of the angriest and most useless men in the history of the world. Job, Moses, David, Gideon, Samson, Peter, Paul. I could go on. And when I read their stories (I’m ploughing through the laugh-a-minute-a-thon that is Job presently) I see a glimmer of hope. Washed up nobodies at various points of their lives that God used to rewrite history. The world we live in today was shaped by anger and disillusionment just as much as it was shaped by Bethel music videos and stadium mega churches.

They were driven by anger and despair. All their lives. David lost a son. Job lost ten children. Moses lost the privilege and power of Egypt. Paul lost everything, including his head in the end. Some of the angriest, most bitter men you could hope to meet. The common denominator? God allowed them to be angry. He allowed them to rant and sulk and shake their fists at the heavens. He allowed them to bombard him with questions and let off steam. He could have struck them down mid tirade with fire from heaven but he didn’t.

He allowed them to get it out of their system. Without that many of the Psalms wouldn’t have been written. Job? Ecclesiastes? Lamentations? Forget about it. The Bible would have been a much slimmer read. God allowed anger because it’s part of the communication process. Anger can be healthy. It’s when you bottle it all up that it starts to fester and pollute your thoughts and actions. God doesn’t expect us to be happy, smiley drones 24/7 and pretend life is wonderful. Because *newsflash* it’s not.

So I’m heartened and somewhat reassured. I’ll never work God out. But I need him because otherwise what’s the point? I get angry and fed up with life whilst accepting that there is a God. Think how much more bleak and desolate the world would look if I didn’t believe. I’m an angry Christian. I’d be a much angrier atheist. He’s all I’ve got so I’ll rant and I’ll sulk but above all else I’ll hope. That when I get it all out of my system there are better times ahead. I’ll hope and I’ll pray. It’s all I’ve got.

Do you get angry with God? Or are you an angry atheist?

Can anger be healthy and productive?

2018 – The Year Of Death

I got a phrase in my head the other day. This happens from time to time. It’s hard to explain but it’s as if the phrase was not of me. I didn’t think it into existence, it came from elsewhere, as if someone or something else planted it in my mind. I’m not sure if it is a promise, a warning or just my admittedly overworked brain playing tricks on me. Whatever the reason the phrase was there and I had to deal with it. What was the phrase? Why, I’m so glad you asked.

It was this. 2018 is the Year Of Death.

On the face of it, not the most cheery or reassuring message. It’s hardly up there with ‘2018 is the Year of Winning the Lottery’ or ‘2018 is the Year of Manchester United Winning the Champions League.’ Was there going to be a death in the family? It was enough to send a serial worrier like me into a full blown panic. Yet I didn’t feel frightened by the message. Something told me that it had been sent to reassure and comfort me as opposed to dismay and alarm.

I began to see the flip side of the message and realised it was a message of hope and intention. It was a positive proclamation. Death should not be feared especially within this context. Death is just part of the journey. I have walked a long and winding road in recent years. I have been carrying a lot of baggage from my past which has weighed me down and distracted me at times. It has made the journey a longer and more cumbersome one than it needed to be.

I saw it as an old fashioned leather rucksack filled with stones. It’s straps were cutting into my shoulders and my back was aching from the weight of its contents. It was literally killing me. My past was playing havoc with my present and preventing me from reaching my future. The rucksack was overflowing with guilt, shame, embarrassment and a host of other negative emotions that needed flushed out of my system; a toxic stew that had to be purged from my contaminated soul.

This blog is part of that purging process. It has grown beyond our wildest dreams and we have big plans for it in the year ahead. It has reignited my love of writing and I have received amazing feedback and support which has spurred me on. I want to write, I need to write and I hope I’m reasonably good at it. The written word is my weapon against the past. I will use it to slay my demons. I will use it to cut the rucksack free from my weary shoulders and let it fall by the wayside.

With it no longer holding me back I can stride on with fresh vigour and purpose towards my destiny. So I say death to the past. Death to guilt and shame. Death to regret and remorse. Death to addictive behaviour. Death to obsessive, intrusive thinking. Death to fear and worry. Death to negativity. Death to jealousy and hate. Death to the self. Death to relationships and friendships which drag you down. Death to lies. Death to anything which prevents you from becoming the person you were born to be. Death to Death.

You were born to live. You were born to make an impact, to make a difference. You are a pebble thrown into a vast, still lake. The ripples you create spread out across its surface from shore to shore. You are an agent of change. You are an electrical current surging through the grid of creation. You are unstoppable. You are irresistible. You light up your environment like a firework on the 4th of July. You are precious and unique. You are loved. You are love.

2018 holds no fear for me for it is the Year of Death. I embrace it.

What are you ‘Death to’ in 2018?

Stay At Home Christian

I’m heading out on a loooooong run tomorrow morning instead of going to church. Does that make me a bad Christian? I hope not. It’s just I’m not feeling the whole church experience once more. It has been a year now since we left the small church we had been attending for over four years. Since then we have drifted like nomads in the desert from oasis to oasis in search of a new spiritual home.

The churches we sampled during 2017 just haven’t felt right for one reason or another. At times we have felt close to making a decision but on each occasion we chosen to move on. They have been too big, too impersonal, too ambitious or too closed down. Yes you want your local church closed down? Easy? Just invite us along. I guarantee they will have folded by the end of the month. If not earlier.

We have tried home church, online church, churcity church church. But still we have nada. It’s got to the point now that I don’t really want to even be around Christians. They all seem no nice and happy and smiley. Everything is perfect and wonderful and ‘nice’. They have no concept of personal space and will hug you like their long lost brother the first time they meet you. Then ignore you the following day in the high street or not reply to your mid week text message, desperate for a little support and fellowship. Then hug you the following Sunday again like some sort of holy Groundhog Day.

That’s just a personal experience of mine and the purpose of this post is not to bash church going folk. That would be petty and bitter. I’m a bit better than that I hope. Let’s just say that Fionnuala and I have had a few negative church experiences which leave us wondering will we ever find somewhere. We keep telling ourselves that we need to be part of a church, that we need the structure and discipline of the Sunday environment. It’s what people like us do right? We go to church. It’s all quite bewildering and depressing to be honest.

Our son, Adam, has no interest in church. He finds it boring and his idea of hell is being dragged out of bed on a Sunday morning to be subjected to worship music and lengthy sermons. Even at the hip, happening churches we went to where the worship was like a rock concert and the pastor had ripped jeans and designer stubble. So we don’t force him to go. Which hasn’t been an issue of late as we haven’t been going ourselves. Adam describes himself as a ‘stay at home Christian’.

Ask him to recount a Bible story and he will deliver it in an engaging, witty manner. He once explained the Christian themes and symbolism behind ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ better than C.S. Lewis himself could. He gets it and understands it as clear as day. He has a relationship with God I’m certain of that. He just does it his own way. And the way in which he leads his life regularly puts me to shame. He is the total opposite of me when I was his age. He is athletic, cool, funny, and popular. I was none of these things.

So tomorrow I am taking a leaf out of my son’s book and being a ‘stay at home Christian.’ I’m going to run along quiet country roads. I’m running away from church but I hope I’m running towards God. I will think and pray. I will declutter and detoxify, flush out the bitter negativity and cynicism along with the sweat from my pores. Church and Christians seem like barriers between myself and God at the moment. They bring out the most decidedly un Christian attributes in me.

I hope this post hasn’t offended anyone. I know our followers are a mix of believers and non believers. I always seek to be honest but never to upset. I see myself as a writer who happens to be a Christian as opposed to a Christian writer. I will never ram my faith down people’s throats but I will talk about it. It is fractured and church is partially responsible for that. Not as much as I am though. I’m not a church basher. There are many wonderful churches out there. And there are many wonderful Christian people. WordPress has reaffirmed that for me.

At present WordPress is my church. And you people, whatever your belief system, are my congregation. I’ll be thinking of you all out on the road tomorrow morning.

Tell me about your church experiences?

Good? Bad? Indifferent? Non existent?

What does church mean to you?

CSI: You

Crime scenes can be fascinating but grisly locations. My work occasionally involves me attending them and experiencing the other side of the cordon. I’ve even had to wear those silly forensic oversuits, masks and gloves on occasion. It wasn’t my best fashion moment let me tell you. I resembled a giant, white Teletubby. My Tinky Winky was decidedly un rinky dinky! Here’s a tip as well should you ever find yourself in one (well you never know). If you bend over make sure you are wearing an undergarment. They tend to rip quite easily. You’re very welcome.

Crime scenes are frenetic, highly pressurised environments. Scientists, photographers, mappers and scenes of crime officers buzz around carrying out their various duties. They have to be painstakingly meticulous. The tiniest oversight can result in crucial evidence being overlooked. A hair, a speck of blood, a fingerprint. Attention to detail is paramount. Clues can be concealed anywhere and only the most highly trained mind can identify and decipher them. I tend to find myself at the eye of this storm. I direct, advise and consult. But when it comes to the technical, scientific stuff I take a step back and leave it to the boffins and geeks. For I am neither. Cos I am the coolest of albino Teletubbies.

You might pore over a crime scene for hours and see nothing. A highly qualified specialist can spend just a few moments working the scene and report back with observations and findings which will leave you standing slack jawed in astonishment. Piecing together what happened at any scene is a team effort. It requires a cast of many. I cannot be expected to do it on my own. I don’t have the necessary knowledge, experience and skills. I rely on others to paint a picture for me. I delegate and I listen. Failure to do so can be career suicide.

When all the pieces of the jigsaw are presented to me I can then begin to slot them together. This is where my analytical and interpretive skills come to the fore. I provide a strategic overview like a general surveying a battlefield far below him. I’m nowhere near as important as a general but you get my drift. Jigsaws can be frustrating and time consuming. But there is no better feeling than fixing those last few pieces into place and the picture finally merging into focus. It makes all the hard work beforehand worthwhile.

Life can be a bit like working a crime scene. Baffling and bloody in equal measure. Attempt to decipher it alone and you will soon find yourself in hot water. You will quickly become swamped and end up hopelessly out of your depth. You need others around you, people who you can rely upon. Experts who will guide you through the pitfalls and lead you to the truth which is often staring you right in the face. You cannot rush life’s trials just like you cannot rush a crime scene. It takes time and it requires teamwork.

I spent a good chunk of my life trying to do it on my own. Attempting to unlock the riddle locked inside a conundrum wrapped inside an enigma that was me. I never got very far and invariably blundered past the subtle signposts and discreet directions set out along the path I travelled. I have been clueless to the clues and oblivious to the obvious. Unable to make any sense of the evidence spread out before my weary eyes. Blinded by my own selfish and sinful needs. Unable to see the wood for the trees. Bogged down in a quagmire of self pity and negativity. Going nowhere fast. When the answers were staring me right in the face all along. My faith and my family. They were my solution. They were the magnifying glass that this Sherlock Holmes needed.

Crime scenes cannot be held forever. Eventually the cordon will be taken down and the various agencies will pack up their bags and head home. The cleaning agencies will scrub the streets clean and it will be as if nothing ever happened. Nothing to see here folks. Move along now people. You only get one chance at at crime scene. Time is precious. You need to process it as a team before the opportunity is lost forever. They call it the golden hour. One chance, don’t mess it up. No pressure. Just like life really. You get one chance.

Your life is like a crime scene. It is a living, breathing, messy puzzle and you are the detective called to unravel its secrets and decode its mysteries. You only get one shot at it so tread carefully. Examine every inch of it and from every possible angle. In minute, fine grain detail. Every crime scene examination is a search for the truth. The truth you have been searching for your entire life. Your purpose. Your meaning. Your calling. The tiniest grain of information could unlock the door to worlds and universes that you never knew existed before. The key to your life.

But don’t do it alone. Use the resources available to you. Those who know you better than you know yourself. I can’t tell you who these people are. They are your tribe, your inner circle. Allow them underneath the cordon tape and into your confidence. Show them the beautiful mess that you are. Allow them to sift through the debris and help you piece together the jigsaw that reveals your purpose and destiny. Let them help you for you cannot do it alone. You must not do it alone. For before you know it the scene will be lost and the secret treasures of your being will be blown away into the night never to return. You will be unable to find the message in your mess.

Standing alone and confused on a dark, damp street. In an ill fitting Teletubby costume. Not knowing who you are nor why you are here. Now that would be a crime.

How are you getting on at working your crime scene?

Who are your tribe? Do you allow them under the cordon?

Is there a message hidden in your mess?

January 150 Mile Challenge Update

After three days on the sidelines due to illness I started running again yesterday. 8.1 miles yesterday and 7.2 miles today bring me up to 60 miles in total for the month so far. Which has me back on schedule to attain my target of 150 miles in January. Running to me is mentally beneficial as much as physical. It does wonders for my high stress levels and low self esteem. A running Stephen is certainly a happier Stephen.

I will post occasional running stories throughout the year. I don’t want to become a running bore (which I am prone to do) but running is part of me and part of my story. So it would feel odd if I didn’t write about it now and again. In a previous blogging existence I wrote about nothing else. But that blog was all about my ego and craving attention for all the wrong reasons. When I write about running now I do so in order to promote the benefits of healthy exercise to those struggling with addiction, depression or other mental health issues.

It costs nothing and it’s given me renewed life and freedom. Four years ago I weighed over 15 stone in weight and could barely run the length of myself. I’m now three stone lighter and ran my seventh marathon last November. I plan to run more this year. If I can do it then so can anyone. All you need is a little bit of ability and a whole lot of determination. Dreams can become reality. All you need to do is wake up and take that first step.

Keep running your race. Wherever it takes you,

The Ugly Truth

I used to lie all the time. In fact I became rather good at it. I lied to my wife. I lied to my kids. I lied to my mother and sister. I lied to my friends and work colleagues. I lied to anyone who I was engaged in conversation with for any length of time. I lied face to face. I lied on the phone. I lied via text message. I lied online. I liked to lie. I was a walking, talking lie-ability.

I even lied to myself. And I was such an accomplished liar that even I began to believe myself. I still continued to believe that I was a more or less honest, upstanding husband, father, son, brother and so on. Like any addict I was delusional. I thought I could stop lying at any time and return to the real world. Every lie, however, took me a step further away from where I needed to be. My lies accumulated and created a sticky, tangled web from which there was no escape.

Why do we lie? Why are some of us seemingly allergic to telling the truth. Well at the heart of it is self preservation. Lying is fundamentally a selfish act. The liar seeks to preserve their reputation and prevent others from seeing what lurks beneath the lies – the ugly, sinful truth. Why confront that when you can be mesmerised by beautiful, glittering lies. Lies are fluffy, soft and shiny. The truth, on the other hand, is all sharp edges and hard surfaces. Lies are beautiful. The truth is no oil painting.

The truth regarding me was not a pretty sight. And eventually it was exposed for all to marvel at it in its malignant magnificence. They say the truth will set you free but it didn’t feel like that every time it happened to me. And it always did. I wasn’t as good a liar as I thought I was for I was always found out. That moment when you realised you were exposed and cornered; when your blood turned to ice and your heart lurched into the pit of your stomach. There is no more sickening feeling.

It was then and only then that I saw the lies for that they really were. I saw the pain and distress I caused my loved ones. I saw that beneath the cocky, swaggering exterior I was nothing but a lilywhite coward. My legs turned to jelly and I struggled to breathe. I was overcome with nausea and self pity. I became nothing. Without my protective cloak of lies the cruel, ugly truth burned me to a crisp. It left me naked and bleeding, ashamed to look at myself in a mirror. I still struggle with that even to this day.

Learning to tell the truth again is hard work. When your default setting is to lie it takes a conscious act to do anything but that. The truth is clunky and cumbersome. It trips you up and slows you down. The truth is sitting in a huge traffic tailback as Liar Airlines zooms past overhead. Learning to tell the truth again is like learning to walk again; one painful, uncertain step at a time. It is so tempting to fall back into old habits and tell a little, white one just to oil the wheel the oils of life.

But one lie is never enough just like one drink is never enough for an alcoholic. Every landslide starts with one tiny stone rolling. And I must never be swallowed up again by an avalanche of my own creation. My lies are the smokescreen I create in order to hide sinful secrets. Secrets that have broken me time and time again. I cannot and will not allow that to happen again. I must fight the urge to lie and avoid the liars who have led me down dark paths before.

Every addict is an accomplished liar. Strip away the lies and you see the addiction for what it truly is. The truth to an addict is like kryptonite to Superman. It brings the strongest miscreant to their knees. It obliterates them and it is only then that they can start to rebuild. From scratch. The truth is a wrecking ball in the cosy life of a liar. It is radical and violent. There is nothing cuddly about it. Every avenging angel comes with fire and fury, not fluffy clouds and heavenly choirs.

I cling to the truth. It burns and cuts me. I slip and stumble but I cling on for dear life. An ugly truth for a battered, dirty soul.

Do you struggle with telling the truth?

How have lies impacted on your life?

Sick Of Being Sick

Chez Black has been struck with all kinds of sickness and illness over the last few weeks. Fionnuala has been particularly unfortunate and has been struggling with all sorts of ailments. Once she overcomes one bug another one has appeared over the horizon to blight her. It has been a very exhausting and debilitating period for her.

Hannah and Rebecca have both been off school this week with various sniffles and coughs. Hannah also had a nasty stomach bug after Christmas. Even our eldest, ‘IronMan’ Adam, came home from school today feeling under the weather. And as for yours truly? Well I’ve been manfully battling manflu these last three days. But I’m not one to complain right?

We’ve had to miss various trips and appointments. We haven’t been to church in over a month and have effectively quarantined ourselves off from the rest of civilisation bar essential journeys. We are well and truly sick of being sick. It seems that we have picked up every lurgy going. You name it, we have it. I know we have been hit by nothing really serious but it’s still been a frustrating start to 2018.

If only everything was so infectious. Why can’t I be struck down with excessive kindness, tolerance or generosity? Wouldn’t it be great if you woke up one morning and couldn’t stop smiling? Or caught a nasty dose of neighbourly love? Nope. These characteristics seem to come much harder to most of us. They are not an automatic action like sneezing or coughing. They require an actual effort on our part. An effort that is often lacking on the part of many.

Fionnuala and I watch the regional, national and international news but see nothing but hatred and bigotry. We turn on mainstream television and see traditional values and morals being relentlessly attacked by the ‘politically correct’ police. You are scared to open your mouth today for fear of offending someone. Our skins are becoming thinner as our hearts become harder.

The same applies to all aspects of society. People don’t seem to care any more about nobody but numero uno. Indifference and apathy are reaching epidemic proportions. If you dare to have an opinion contrary to the accepted norm you are ostracised and ridiculed. It’s a mad, mad world. Or rather it’s a sad, sad world.

I’m embarrassed by our elected representatives. I’m appalled by many of our so called celebrities. I’m disappointed by supposed role models. I’m let down by family and supposed friends. It’s little wonder we often as a family do not want to mix and mingle. Be it attending the workplace, church or social events. Everywhere we look we see shallowness and hypocrisy.

We will soldier on through this period of illness just as we will soldier on through life. We will love where we can and hold our heads high. We are proud of our home and our kids even though our throats are sore and our noses are blocked. We care and because we care we won’t give up. We remain optimistic even though the world doesn’t offer much in the way of optimism.

We are sick. But the world is sicker.

The Day I Laughed

The other evening my brother-in-law sent me the link to a very silly song that he had written. I have a very juvenile sense of humour. My favourite comedy shows are the likes of The Fast Show, Alan Partridge and Larry David. The sillier the better as far as I’m concerned. I tend to take life very seriously and am a born worrier so I’m not quite sure why this is. Fionnuala thinks I stopped maturing mentally at around fifteen. Some women would say this happens to all men.

Despite my love of immature, childish comedy shows my default setting is one of natural pessimism. To me the glass is always half empty as opposed to half full. In fact the glass is more than likely empty, cracked and in need of a wash. I am always prepared for the worst possible case scenario and then I’ll take it from there. I am prone to self pity and melancholic moods. I can be a right miserable git at times. Fun Time Stephen I am most definitely not.

There was one line of the song that set me off. I laughed. And I laughed. And then I laughed some more. I rolled around. I clutched my sides. The tears rolled down my face. I couldn’t breathe. I was literally in stitches. This started Fionnuala and the kids. They started laughing at my reaction to the song. We were all in hysterics. It was infectious and uncontrollable. They didn’t even know why I was laughing so hard.

When we had all eventually calmed down Adam and Hannah, aged fifteen and fourteen respectively, told me that they had never seen me laugh like that before. That quickly sobered me up. Surely they were mistaken? Was I that much of a sourpuss? Did I walk about with a cloud permanently hanging over me? Fionnuala agreed. She said I no longer laughed like I used to years ago. I had changed given the additional responsibilities and worries that life had piled on my shoulders.

This surprised and saddened me. I didn’t want to believe them but realised they were right. I couldn’t remember myself when I had last laughed like that. It had felt cleansing and liberating, like the exhilarating feeling after a long run. It’s true what they say. Laughter is the best form of medicine. I resolved then that I would strive to laugh more and worry less. I don’t want my kids growing up with memories of a stern, Victorian father.

Life today can be demanding and stressful. There is so much that can cause us to frown. I’m a realist. The world can be a very dark place. Only a fool living in a bubble would think otherwise. But if you sift through the debris of despair there are nuggets of joy and laughter to be found. Seek them out and embrace them for they are more precious than any ruby or diamond. They are like manna from Heaven. We need to laugh more. Sometimes it is the only thing standing between ourselves and madness.

Laughter is healing to both ourselves and others. It can cut through any barriers. It is universal and requires no translation. We need to find something, anything, to laugh about. Lifting our heads in laughter is essential and edifying. We were created to laugh as well as cry. Even a simple smile can change lives. It costs nothing but it can be priceless to those around us. It promotes love and well being. It unlocks doors, hearts and souls.

Find something to laugh about today. Laugh with others, not at others. Laugh joyfully and lovingly not spitefully or maliciously. Just laugh.

When did you last laugh until you cried?

Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full kind of person?

How Good Is Your Memory?

I have a great memory. I have a terrible memory. Confused? Let me explain. Ask me to name the Manchester United Premiership winning team of 1992-1993. No problem. Schmeichel, Irwin, Pallister…..Ok Ok you’re not interested, I get it. Back to the main message.

Ask me however what I did yesterday and I struggle. This drives Fionnuala nuts and rightly so. She will ask me to pick up some groceries on the way home. I’ll walk in the door empty handed. She will bring up a discussion we had the previous day. I will look at her blankly. She will remind me about an appointment that we have. I will have no recollection of this.

It drives me nuts as well. I don’t do it deliberately and I can’t understand why I’m like this. When it comes to my job I have an encyclopaedic memory. Dates, names, locations i’m like a walking computer spitting out the details. Ask me what I had for my dinner the previous evening, however, or the route I took for my last long run and I am in trouble.

Maybe it’s hereditary. I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s which really worries me but when I think about it logically I honestly don’t think that’s the reason. We lead hectic lives so maybe it’s just total information overload and my tiny brain can only retain so much. Is it because I use up so much of my time fighting off the intrusive OCD thoughts which threaten to swamp my consciousness? Who knows. It’s not as if I do it deliberately and it’s not as if I don’t care. It’s embarrassing and when I look in Fionnuala’s eyes after I’ve forgotten another mundane detail I see hurt and disappointment.

I don’t want to hurt and disappoint my wife. This hurts and disappoints me. I want to be reliable, trustworthy and bang on my A-game when it comes to my family commitments and responsibilities. So, in order tocounter my shocking memory lapses, I have started to religiously note everything down in a diary. If it ain’t written down then it ain’t happening. It’s always within arms reach. It is my go to new best friend.

I’ve realised I need to write stuff down in order to get it into my head. I need lists and schedules. It’s how my brain works. Without them it turns to mush. I’m already reaping the benefits and believe I have impressed Fionnuala of late with my recollection of a few upcoming events. She will never admit to this but I thought I should record it in the blog for the purposes of posterity anyway.

Isn’t memory a bewildering topic? I can’t remember what I did yesterday but can recall events from thirty years ago with laser accuracy. Down to the fine grain detail. And why is it that so often it’s the traumatic, distressing memories that we retain? Replaying them over and over like a broken cinematic reel. If only we could break the cycle and drain the memory banks of these poisonous thoughts.

I’ve been the victim of some of these thoughts but I’ve also been the originator. Either way they continue to haunt me. I can’t undo what happened and I can’t erase them from my memory. All I can do is focus on the here and now. Focus on working on my memory in order to support my wife and kids today. And by doing so ensure that their memories thirty years from now are happy ones.

We can’t tear down the bad memories but we can be the architects of better ones. Start building today. Even if you have to write it down.

What is your memory like? Do you rely on a diary?

How do you deal with toxic memories from the past?

Shatter The Silence

Silence is golden they say. In today’s hectic world it is almost impossible to escape the constant hustle and bustle of everyday life. With technological advances we are rarely totally alone nowadays. We crave anonymity and inaccessibility. We just want five minutes of peace and quiet. We need a break, a time out, a little ‘me time.’ The ‘must have’ holiday invariably involves a deserted beach with no internet.

Some people choose to drop out of society. They become hermits and recluses. They turn their backs on human interaction. There can be a plethora of reasons for this. Some say it is the only way they can sustain a meaningful relationship with God. The noise of the world creates too many barriers between them and their Creator. They argue that by turning their back on modern life they are discovering the true meaning of life.

Others are hounded into silence. They have given up. Life has knocked them to the canvas once too often and they cannot pick themselves up again. They have been abused, betrayed and hurt beyond repair. The pain of a lonely life is preferable to the horrors they have experienced. They retreat into their self made fortresses. They become ghosts, drifting through life like wraiths on the wind.

All of the above scenarios involve choice. Although all three originate from differing needs they all entail a decision being made in order to improve an individual’s set of circumstances. Be it for physical, mental, emotional or spiritual requirements the quest for silence is all-consuming. It may be for self preservation or self improvement but it is dictated by free will. We decide. We crave the silence. It is more precious than anything. It is the gold at the end of our rainbow.

What if we don’t have that choice however? What if the silence is forced upon us. I see so many relationships today that are empty shells containing nothing but silence. So many friendships derailed by miscommunication and misunderstanding. For some silence is a weapon in their armoury that they wield to devastating effect. It can cut deeper than the most refined steel, piercing dreams and shattering lives. Silence can be a killer.

The victims are left bewildered and broken. Their is no closure, no explanation for how things have turned out the way they have. Questions are unanswered, apologies are snubbed, olive branches are thrown into the fires of recrimination. They are left hanging in limbo, twisting in the wind, clutching at the noose which squeezes the last breath of hope from their screaming lungs.

Many say Hell is a place of eternal silence and darkness. I can think of nothing more horrific. Silence is golden they say. It can also be toxic, sickening and leave its victims broken and bleeding. A cold shoulder can burn as deeply as a white hot poker. It can brand people for life, scar them beyond recognition. There is much to be said for reconciliation and restoration. No relationship is beyond salvage if embraced with love and hope.

Swallow the bile and the pride. Find it in your heart to forgive. Expose yourself to the healing glow of forgiveness. It’s not easy but it can be done. Put down that stone you are about to throw. Look around and then look deep into your very being. Are you really any better? Taking the high moral ground means you only have farther to fall when the tables are turned and you find yourself in a similar situation.

For that time will come. As certain as night follows day. Shatter the silence. Let your voice be heard. It could save a life of today.

Have you been a victim of silence?

Have you used silence as a weapon before?

Can you forgive someone today and shatter the silence?

Excess All Areas – Part One

I am a creature of excess. When I get involved in an activity that I am passionate about I have to take it to the nth degree. If there is a nth post graduate qualification, or possibly a masters option, then sign me up. I always take it to the limit, to the extreme, to 100% and beyond. Is that even possible? To give over 100%. Answers on a postcard please. I am Mr. Excess All Areas.

In my days of copious alcohol consumption one drink was never enough. Social drinking has always baffled me. Having one beer was pointless as far as I was concerned. I drank to get drunk. Doesn’t everyone? No??! Well who knew. I didn’t even like the taste of it. It was an ends to a means; a way of getting from Point A to Point B as swiftly as possible. Point B was where it was at. I had no problems or worries there. The downside was that the following morning I awoke with a horrific hangover to find I was right back at Point A again. I binged. Then cringed….and winged.

Some years ago I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Order (OCD). This explained a lot. I was largely driven by it. At times I fled it but on other occasions it urged me onwards to new heights. Or depths depending on your perspective. When I run, my default setting is to run long distances. When I have the bit between my teeth at work, I clock up long hours. When I became a Christian in the early days I lived, ate and breathed it. I have an addictive personality. Which is why I avoid PlayStations, scratch cards, heroin and daytime soap operas like the plague.

When I took up a new activity or interest I had to become the best I possibly could at it. There were no half measures. I could never be a lukewarm participant. With me it was either freezing cold or scalding hot. And as we all know exposing yourself to extremes of temperature is a dangerous business. I bolstered what little talent I had in any given field with bucketloads of OCD fuelled determination and stubbornness. It was all or nothing. The secret of my success was excess. It is a fine line between passion and obsession. I still walk that tightrope every day.

I can, and have, become obsessed with just about anything. In order to ensure the integrity and impartiality of this post (he typed pretentiously) I asked Fionnuala to compile a list of 10 things I have become obsessed with down the years. Her initial response was ‘only 10?’ She’s a laugh a minute my wife. Anyway here is her list….

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook (before I discovered Twitter and Instagram), alcohol, work, running, Diet Coke, Tomb Raider (the games and Jolie movies), football, calories, the Game of Thrones cast (primarily all things Stark) Katy Perry (not so keen on the new haircut) the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival (which is held in March but I started preparing for it the previous November), selfies (hangs head in shame), lying (hangs head even further in shame), being liked by others and being somebody who I am not. In the end I had to tell her to stop. She’s probably still typing.

I see a lot of similar people on WordPress. Their demons drive them to excess. They are damaged souls. Life has gouged great holes in them, gaping wounds. They seek to fill these voids with anything that will allow them to feel again. They are beyond numb for at least numbness is something. They are nothing. They need something, anything to cling onto. Excess is their oxygen. It is what propels them gasping and spluttering above the raging waters of depression and despair. It is life.

It can be anything. Drugs, alcohol, money, power, sex. It can be a person. It can be a possession. Anything. But it must be ramped up to excess. Excess is the common denominator that underpins every story I read. Addiction, Depression, OCD, Anxiety, Anorexia, Bulimia, the list go on. We crave escape, release, freedom. But the demons are clever. They seduce us with their soothing words. They promise the above but in reality they are urging us deeper into the mire of captivity. They lie. The shiny baubles they dangle so tantalisingly in front of us are worthless. It is all superficial. We need to look beyond the bright lights to find the truth.

They are masters of deceit. Yet we fall for it time and time again. One more glass, one more hit, one more purge and all our problems will be gone. Or at least eased. Anything to get away from our drab, dreary realities. There must be more to life than this. We see excess as the swipe card which will allow us access this magical kingdom, this nirvana which we have been so desperately seeking. It is only when we stand on the other side and the veil falls back that we realise we have been duped.

We crave the grave. Not literally (although tragically some are driven down that dark path) but we seek an end to who we have become. I am currently reading ‘How To Murder Your Life’ by Cat Marnell. If you ever read one story of recovery from addiction and mental illness read hers. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. Brutal, visceral honesty. Searing passion and written in such a frantic, beautiful style.

Sorry I’m obsessing again. Do you see a pattern developing here? But the title says it all. Excess is our weapon of choice. When we survey the crime scenes of our lives we will see it glistening in a pool of our own blood. We are murderers and the victims are our lives. We flee the scene but, despite what we think, we cannot flee ourselves. We wake up and are right back where we started. Excess is a prison not a get out of jail free card. It doesn’t open doors, it builds walls. Between yourself and your loved ones. Between who you are and who you have the potential to be.

It is a double edged sword. A sword that can be wielded for good or harm. My next post will focus on the latter and explore how we can use our excessive, obsessive natures to overcome our demons. We can turn the tables and slay them with their own weapons. And as they lie bleeding at our feet we can finally taste true freedom. A new world where we can live without fear and shame. Just believe. You are within touching distance.

Can you relate to this post?

What are your experiences and thoughts regarding excessive and obsessive behaviour?

Who Do You Trust?

Last year I made an unusual New Years Resolution. I decided to give up having friends. That’s right. I was going solo. All I needed were Fionnuala and the kids. The reason? Well largely it was forced upon me. I had self destructed in such spectacular fashion that some people no longer wanted anything to do with me. Others did but only if I adhered to a number of pre-conditions. After some consideration I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t. And others again I had to cut adrift myself as they simply were not good for me.

Within a relatively short period of time I went from having a reasonably busy social life to well….nothing. We left the church we had been actively involved in and are still struggling to find a new spiritual home. I cut off all my ties with various running groups I had been linked to. I left all formats of social media and deleted a swathe of contact numbers from my mobile phone. I don’t have a big family. I have one sister who I don’t see very often and I lost my father in 2010 to prostate cancer. Since then my mother has become something of a recluse and, although we talk every day on the phone, I maybe see her once every couple of months.

It was Fionnuala and the kids. I got up, went to work and came home. I run on my own. I go and watch my son play rugby but don’t really mix with all the other parents. I keep my head down wherever I go and usually wear a cap. People walk past as if I don’t exist and that’s just fine by me. I used to seek out the limelight whereas now I shun it. Plus I can no longer fall back on alcohol to combat my social awkwardness. I’m a weirdo, a geek, an oddball. As long as I have my Kindle Fire and Netflix then I’m as happy as a pig in you know what.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m anti-social. I’m shy and awkward but I would love to have friends. The written medium is my strongest communication format. I feel very at home when I am writing. Put me in a room full of strangers, however, and ask me to engage in small talk and I would crumple in an embarrassed heap. I’d be like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. ‘I’m mellllllttttiiiiiiinnngggggg!!!!’ Flying monkeys optional. They really freak me out by the way.

I want to have friends but I just can’t get my thang together on this front. I’m just me and not a lot of people get thar. I like hobbits and zombies and running 26.2 miles for ‘fun’. These icebreakers tend to be greeted by a lot of blank stares whenever I drop them into the conversation. I’ve been trying to explain my rationale regarding this situation for five paragraphs now but I guess the ever so eloquent Taylor Swift sums it up best.

I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me….

The Social Media Wannabe Formerly Known as Stephen Black has inflicted and sustained considerable damage over the last few years. Thank God I’m now back on the straight and narrow. I have massive trust issues, however. I trust very few people. I’ll take that a step further. I don’t even trust myself most of the time. It can take years to establish trust but you can destroy it in a few seconds. Fionnuala dragged me very reluctantly back onto social media via this blog and I am slowly starting to find my feet again. I am learning to trust others and myself again. I hope others are learning to trust me as well.

It’s a constant battle though. I want to help people through this blog but I’m ever alert and wary. Am I coming across as too arrogant? Pretentious? Am I disclosing too much about myself? Too little? How do I come across? Am I doing enough? The questions keep coming. And it all boils down to one little word – trust. Trust rusts. It needs constant attention like one of those massive road bridges that are constantly being painted to combat corrosion. Once the painters get to the far end of the bridge they have to start all over because the near end has started to rust again.

I want to thank WordPress. For allowing me to be myself. For allowing me to lower my defences and display my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For allowing me to trust people again. For allowing others to trust me. For allowing me to learn to trust myself again.

I am everything you are allowing me to become. I trust this community, this tribe. I think I’ve finally found my people. Thank you.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Where do you stand on the issue of trust?

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