Thoughts From A Crime Scene

The written word is a smoking gun. It leaves clues, drops of blood that we follow pitter, patter to the scene of the crime, the grisly truth. A crime scene is an oasis of silence, a deadly dearth, until life explodes upon it. Raised voices, orders tersely barked, the click, whirr, click of the photographers lens. It lies before us, to intrigue and disgust in equal measure. An opulent opportunity to discover what really happened.

DNA, fingerprints, a single strand of hair. A discarded apple core. Every inch of ground pored over in microscopic detail for the ethereal evidence we so desperately seek which is right there, staring us in the face. If only we can find the key to unlock it, to throw back the latch and reveal the light. To lead us to the killer, see justice prevail and restore calm and order, separate right from wrong.

Such it is with our words. What does he mean? Who is she talking about? We second guess and speculate. Is it me, is it him, so and so or what’s his face? The author beguiles and intrigues, smoke and mirrors, scents and shadows. My words mean everything, my words mean nothing, the fickle strokes of a pen on the page building worlds and destroying empires on a lazy whim.

The ideas, they keep coming. An endless procession of plots and characters, hurtling round my mind, begging to be released. They are my then, my now, my not so happily ever after. My past becomes the currency of my future, I’ll pay the toll and take my chances. So much to write, yet so little time. Shackled by the weight of the daily grind, the 9-5. Bills to pay, when all I want to do is tap, tap, tap these characters into being.

Soothing words, brutal words, words of hope and hopelessness. I am a prisoner to them, they will not release me, until I birth them, gagging and choking onto the harsh glare of the keyboard screen. They haunt the inner recesses, demons from the past gorging on the success of my present situation. Dare I let them out for where they dwell, chaos follows close behind. They destroy all they survey.

The written word is a smoking gun. Bag it, tag it, you’ll never get to the bottom of it. A conundrum of could be and what if? It drives me forward, day by day to where I do not know. Will you join me on this journey for I know not where it ends? Words kill like guns, another darling bleeds out from my fingertips. Every contact leaves a trace, a trace of what could have been.

Follow the clues, follow the words. Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, we know not where it ends. Life or death, the flick of a coin, I write on the edge, and none of them are safe. Nobody is safe when I’m in the zone, when I lift the yellow tape and take in what I have created. The bloody, magnificent madness of it all. I am what I am and what will be, will be. Que sera sera, tick tock, adieu.

My characters sleep with one eye open for I am coming for them, a literary assassin. My pen is a blade, the prose spattering the page like an arterial spurt dancing across the watching wall. Look close at those random patterns of life extinct, look closely, can you see yourself? Or is it merely a trick of the light, an illusion of your desire. Time will tell, the truth will out. Every crime scene leaves a story. This is mine.

Where Are You On The ‘Me Me Me’ Tree?

We are all a little self obsessed. It’s human nature, that we focus on our own interests. Animal instinct, if you like. The trick is to be aware of this character defect and work against the grain, to put the needs of others before our own. Love others. You get my drift. It’s not easy though and often the old habits slip back, leaving us trampling over all and sundry in our desire to clamber to the top of the tree. The ‘me me me’ tree.

Life seems grand at the top of the ‘me me me’ tree. We can scan the world around us, pat ourselves on the back and look down disdainfully at those beneath us, who are scrambling for purchase on the slippery trunk and branches beneath. They haven’t quite made it to the top, which makes the fact we have all the more satisfying. It’s easy to forget about these folk who, not so long ago, meant the world to us.

We become immune to their pain, we don blinkers and ear protectors to protect us from their suffering. It’s all so unnecessary and, well, frankly a tad desperate. You don’t need to be sullied with their grief and anguish. It takes the sheen off your own glorious rise to the top. You tend to forget that if it wasn’t for some of those far below, you wouldn’t be lording it up at the top of the pile. Memory can be so selective at times.

Having a conscience is a double edged sword. Wouldn’t it be great if we could plough ahead without that little voice in our head popping up and whispering in our ear; correcting us, chastising is, reminding us of the difference between right and wrong. It can be a real party pooper, a wet blanket of immense proportions. The adult in the room, tidying up behind us and suggesting we turn the music down a little.

Conscience acts as a radar as well. For at the fringes of our senses, we will detect the faintest beep. A voice, a cry of desperation. We look down and far, far below we see someone clinging to a lower branch. We recognise them immediately and our heart aches. For it is a loved one, a person dear to us and who, not so long ago, was an integral part of our life. They haven’t fared so well on the ‘me me me’ tree and have been left far behind in the climb to the top.

They catch our eye, they tug at our heartstrings and, suddenly, it’s too late. We acknowledge that they are part of the reason we are where we are. Have we trampled over them in our victorious ascent? It’s hard to remember, it was all so rushed and confusing. Did we? Possibly? But it’s too late now as the gap between us seems too far to be bridged. We are filled with guilt and regret.

The good news is that it’s not too late. You might be reading this, thinking it doesn’t apply to you. Life is going pretty well right now and you’ve nothing to feel bad about. But look around and think hard. Listen. Do you hear that faint, almost indiscernible beep in the far distance? Listen. There it is again. It’s that relative, friend or colleague who you haven’t heard from in a while.

They need you. Now. Today. Reach out. Make that call, send that message, ask how they are doing. Reach down from where you are perched and haul them up beside you. All they need is that one helping hand, to know they are still cherished and not forgotten about. To show them that you are still there for them, that you still care and will never leave their side again. The ‘me me me’ tree can never destroy that bond.

Where are you on the ‘me me me’ tree?

Going To Work In Sports Socks

I’m not saying I’m a needy dependent but my wife did make me change my socks this morning before allowing me to go to work. I thought I looked perfectly respectable. Dark grey suit, white shirt, black socks and shoes. Fionnuala took one look at my feet and shot me a horrified look – ‘You are NOT going to work in those socks,’ she proclaimed. ‘Why not?’ I replied. ‘Because they’re sports socks!’ she hollered back.

I was utterly oblivious I was heading into the office in running socks. My brain computes black socks as black socks. There is no further sub categorisation. My mind was blown. I’d been doing this for months. Had anyone at work noticed? Did my work colleagues gather by the photocopier to point and snigger as I walked by? Oh look, there goes Running Sock Guy,’ they would guffaw, just out of earshot.

What about running? Had I been hitting the roads in fluorescent tops, shorts and black business socks? I was probably the laughing stock of the local running community, a pariah to be mocked and shunned. Would I be forced to return my marathon medals for crimes against running fashion? I shook my head sadly, my dreams of a seven figure Nike sponsorship deal shot down in flames.

My father was the most resourceful and practical man I’ve ever known. He could turn his hand to anything. If you threw him an assembly manual and a spanner, he could assemble it. Garden shed, swing set, aircraft carrier, he would figure it out. The one thing he couldn’t master were matching clothes. Every morning he would walk into the kitchen and ask my mother if his outfit for the day met the required standard. Often, he was sent back to the bedroom to ‘try again.’

The other day Fionnuala caught Adam going to school in black shoes and ankle socks. It was up there with the cardinal sin – black shoes and white sports socks. Even I know that is a complete no no. Three generations of Black men, joined by the common strand of being utterly incapable of dressing themselves. Thank God for women, I say. The power behind the throne….and the wardrobe.

We fight all our lives to be independent, to break free of the apron strings of our parents and live our own lives. Yet, so often, we are lazy and allow ourselves to lapse back into old habits. We lean too heavily on others, and allow them to take responsibility for our decisions and actions. That way, it’s so much easier when the wheels come off. We can blame somebody else, as opposed to taking the hit.

Life is all about decisions. Will I take that job, will I marry this person, what socks will I wear to work today? They vary in levels of importance. Some we make without even thinking, others we deliberate over for weeks on end. In the end, we have to make a choice, choose a fork in the road and set off down it. Every action has a consequence. The only way to find out what that is, is to take a deep breath and go for it.

How independent are you?

Do you allow others to make decisions for you?

Words Are Where It All Begins

Life is too short. We need to say what we mean. I’ve spent much of my life beating about the bush, avoiding the real issues and choosing to ignore the various white elephants trumpeting in the corner of the room. I often feel that I’ve wasted so much time and am now desperately facing a race against time to set matters straight. To put my affairs in order, to make things right. At times, it seems an impossible uphill battle.

The good news, for the less eloquent of us, is that you don’t need to be Henry V or Oscar Wilde. Impressive oratorical skills are not required. In fact, often the less words you use the better. Cut through the nonsense and get to the heart of the matter. Look that person in the eye, dial that number, compose that message, whatever it takes. Just start the ball rolling and reach out to them. It’s never too late.

It can be three little words – I love you. Or two – I’m sorry. Or even one – Yes. Those utterances can break the dams of hurt and regret, send the walls tumbling down and allow love and hope to grow and flourish. It might not happen in the blink of an eye, but it’s a start, a line in the sand that you’ve crossed. Tear down barriers, repair damaged bridges. The power to do so is within you. Words can heal like no medicine known to man. They sooth troubled souls.

Does this resonate within you? Is there someone out there you need to engage with, to reach out and try again. Well then, what are you waiting for? The time is now, and today is the day. Be brave, and take that step. Speak those words and pave the way for the subsequent actions on your part which will prove you meant exactly what you said. Actions speak louder than words, but words are where it all begins.

Do you need to speak to someone today?

Digging

I’ve been digging in our front garden this week and now understand the meaning of the phrase ‘farmer fit.’ It’s ridiculously hard work. By the time I finished my back ached, my hands were raw, and the sweat was dripping off my nose. I staggered back into the house, doubled over and struggling for breath. ‘You’re not used to real work,’ Fionnuala remarked drily. She had a point, though.

Hard physical labour and I are not on speaking terms. When I was digging, it triggered a memory of watching my grandfather and uncle digging potatoes when I was a young boy. They must have had backs of iron for they never faltered, never flinched from the rhythmic rise and fall as they methodically worked their way through the soil, rarely stopping for rest. These were real men, unafraid of proper graft.

My father was much the same. Broad shouldered and deceptively strong, he could toil in the garden all day, a workhorse who only downed tools when my mother called him in for lunch or dinner. These were tough, unassuming Northern Irish men. They didn’t have muscle vests or gym memberships, they didn’t need them. The land was their gym, the only workout they knew or needed.

All of this reminded me of the poem ‘Digging,’ by Seamus Heaney, which I studied at school. In it, he watches his father dig and compares it to his own art with the written word – ‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’ One of the few lines of verse I remember from my school days, powerful and evocative in equal measure. Writers are diggers, and the pen is our spade.

What are we digging for? Well, I can only speak for myself. I dig to unravel the past, decipher the present and prepare for the future. It is my therapy, my release, a purging, cleansing, bleaching of the spirit. As I write, the toxicity ebbs from my body. I don’t expect fame or fortune. Writing is no means to an end. It is part of me, now. As natural as breathing. I am a writer. I write. That is is the stark, bare truth.

I feel utterly inadequate as I compare my own puny efforts with the spade to the men from my past. There is no comparison between us and, try as I might, I will never match them when it comes to working the land. All I can do is pick up a pen and pay tribute to them. I turn the top soil over and unearth hidden gems, buried deep in the recesses of my memory. Memories, both good and bad, which need to see the light of day once more.

They dug for potatoes, yet I dig more more. I dig to maintain the status quo, an equilibrium and balance so sorely lacking for most of my adult life. I dig to keep on track, eyes fixed ahead, afraid of losing my step and sliding helplessly back down into the miry murk of the past. Dig, dig, deeper and truer with each passing day. Closer, ever closer to the essence of who I am, as opposed to what I became.

‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’

I Love My Husband….But He’s An Idiot

My super talented and slightly sarcastic wife jumped at the opportunity of participating in this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge. Warning – parts of this story may be true….

It was an usually cold May Saturday afternoon, exactly a week after Stephen’s birthday for which his wife Fionnuala surprised him with tickets for the last home game of the season of his favourite rugby team along with their daughters Hannah and Rebecca.

Stephen really would be lost without his amazing wife Fionnuala she has lost count of the amount of times he has “lost” his wallet or work pass only for them to turn up five minutes later in his pocket. Even driving Stephen to the train station for his daily commute to work had its challenges one time she had to do the journey twice because he left his phone on the sofa at home.

Today turned out to be no different than any other day. Stephen, Fionnuala, Hannah and Rebecca headed off to go to the big game the girls were very organised and had coats and scarfs with them and got wrapped up in the car before stepping out in the cold. Stephen began frantically searching the car for his coat but it couldn’t be found. Where had he left his coat? You guessed right he left it at home. Fionnuala and the girls just rolled their eyes at him he really never ceases to give them comedy gold moments.

They headed into the stadium and made their way round to the fan shop were Stephen made the choice of either buying a jacket to keep him warm during the game or a T-shirt it was a very tough decision for him to make and eventually he made the right call of purchasing the jacket. Fionnuala thanked God for giving him the wisdom to buy the jacket because the last thing she needed was Stephen getting sick and being at home again for a week with “manflu”.

Rebecca had a great idea in the shop she saw a huge foam hand that she thought would be great for every time her daddy did something silly she could hit him over the head with it.

The Black family had a great afternoon at the game and still reminisce about the day and look forward to the next comedy gold Stephen delivers.

How do you care for the idiots in your life?

Photographs From Today’s Run

Here are some photos from today’s run. My 12 miles ended up as 13.5 but hey ho. Hannah joined me for the first mile while Rebecca chilled out at a picnic before joining up with me near the finish. Fionnuala was there to capture all the best moments and keep us all under control. The weather stayed fine and my legs felt good. Now for a hot bath and a Chinese takeaway. Not at the same time, I might add. Enjoy your Saturday whatever you are up to.

Fractured Faith Hits 10,000 Followers

Hello from Northern Ireland. We woke up to more good news this morning. Fractured Faith Blog passed the 10,000 follower mark overnight. Almost two weeks ahead of schedule. Fionnuala and I would like to thank everyone who contributed towards the ‘final push.’ It’s been a tumultuous and topsy turvy week and I, for one, am excited for what the future weeks and months bring.

Thank you again.

The Breaking Even Point

Being the most boring man alive, I’m reading a book about leadership at the minute called ‘The First 90 Days.’ It’s aimed at people who have moved into a new work role, normally as a result of a promotion, and who are expected to make an initial positive impact. It features lots of fancy leadership speak, talking about transitional acceleration and the like. I would much rather be reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ but needs must.

I’ve only read the first chapter, there being ten in total. Each chapter focuses on an area of your work life which you can improve upon. Chapter titles include Promoting Yourself, Securing Early Wins and Network Building. Worry not, this is not the beginning of a ten blog series on the topic. I’ve no desire in seeing my leadership plummet so will spare you all the misery of such a proposition.

The one point from the book which has struck a chord with me so far, however, is about reaching the ‘breaking even’ point. This is the stage in a new post where you behind to contribute more than you consume. The aim is to get there as efficiently and effectively as you can, so as you become an asset to the organisation as opposed to a burden. 90 days is the make or break period.

The book was recommended to me by a colleague as I’ve recently been promoted, but it got me thinking. For many years I wasted my life, meandering along with little focus or direction. I was a bit of a mess, if I’m honest, lacking in confidence and self belief. I convinced myself I was a failure with little, if anything, to offer the world. I wallowed in a sea of self pity and loathing.

When my father died, nine years ago now, the wheels came off completely and I spiralled into a destructive tailspin which I couldn’t pull myself out of. If it wasn’t for my family and true friends, I dread to think where I would have ended up. It was car crash television of the highest order and I was the star of the show. Yet, by hook or by crook, I survived it to tell the tale.

This blog is my testimony to that, my survival journal. It’s written as a signpost to others, showing that it is possible to step back from the abyss and make something of your life. It is possible to contribute more than you consume, to attain the ‘breaking even’ point in life, whereupon you feel worthy, valued and no longer a burden on loved ones. It’s the stage in life where you can look yourself in the mirror and not flinch away.

This blog is also a lifeline, a daily reminder I can never rest on my laurels for fear of sliding back into old habits. Complacency can creep up on you so easily, it’s a silent killer. Writing is one of the protective mechanisms I’ve surrounded myself with to ensure I don’t ever return to that cold, dark place. I’ve fought hard to get to my ‘breaking even’ point. It’s been a long and rocky road but I’m finally there. Are you?

Have you reached your ‘breaking even’ point in life?

Help Me With My Bucket List

I turned 49 today. I know, I know, I don’t look a day over 39 you silver tongued charmers. I’ve had a fantastic day with the family, received some lovely presents and eaten far too much. Back running again tomorrow in order to burn off the 49 million calories I consumed today. Thank you to those of you who sent birthday greetings and/or participated in my birthday related posts throughout the week.

Over pizza this afternoon, Fionnuala and the kids challenged me to compile a bucket list of ’10 things’ I want to do before I hit the dreaded big 50 in 365 days time. For, truth be told, I am dreading it a bit. I’ve achieved a lot but I still believe there is a lot more left in the tank. I’ve made progress but the road ahead stretches over the horizon and out of sight. I still feel like that awkward 15 year old.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. Run my 10th marathon.

2. Succeed in my new job.

3. Publish my first novel, ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square.’

4. Write Book 2 in the KSC series.

5. Complete my Wattpad story, ‘Bomb Girl.’

6. Read The Bible and The Lord of the Rings from cover to cover.

7. Get A Fractured Faith to 20,000 followers.

8. Bench press a minimum of 60kg.

9. Create a new look front garden.

And yes, I realise that’s only nine goals. Which is where you lot come in. I’m inviting suggestions for a 10th and final suggestion for the bucket list. Just drop a comment below. I’ll let you know if it’s a possibility and announce the ‘winner’ next week. And sorry for over egging the birthday celebrations. It’s just WordPress has been desperately quiet of late and I’m trying to inject a smidgeon if interaction and community.

Thank you, as ever.

Happy Birthday To Me….Well Almost

It’s my birthday in five days! Where has the last year gone? Search me. No need to guess my age or enquire as to my address for cards and gifts. Well, unless you insist. Rather, I want to spend the week returning the favour. I’m very blessed and grateful for the life I have. There but for the grace of God and all that. It could all have turned out very differently. Yet, here I am. A very fortunate man.

Every day this week I’ll be offering my fellow bloggers a free service from yours truly. Unfortunately it won’t be the contents of my bank account, not that that amounts to a hill of beans, as it’s also four days to my next pay day. Today it’s the opportunity to be a guest blogger on Fractured Faith Blog. We are now nearing 10K followers so it’s a great opportunity for a fellow writer to showcase their talent.

All you have to do is comment below if you are interested, with a brief pitch as to what you want to write about on the blog. I’m open to most subjects. Sell it to me and make me an offer I simply cannot refuse. I’ll post my favourites next week. Please don’t be offended if you’re not chosen. It can be an old post you’re particularly proud of or something brand spanking new. The choice is yours.

Tomorrow I will post another gift I’m offering you wonderful people. Keep tuned to see what that is. If you’re a little shy about sharing your guest blog idea in open forum for now, then drop me an e-mail and we can take it from there. There are so many talented writers on WordPress who deserve 10K followers much more than me. It’s only fair that I use this week to share the love a little.

Drop your guest blog ideas below or e-mail me.

How I Spent My Easter Monday

Charlie the border terrier may be seven now, but he doesn’t know that, so still bounces about with all the energy of a three month old pup. We woke up to a beautiful, sunny day so I decided to take him for a walk around the village so as to burn off some of his excess excitability. The loop in question is 2.5 miles which I regularly run. It’s undulating so I was certain Charlie would be ready for a lie down by the end of it.

Charlie has a unique walking style which involves sprinting 30 metres, stopping, sniffing a fence/lamppost/wall, cocking his leg, and so on. He was on a mission to let every other canine within a five mile radius know that this was his village and it was time to set a few markers down. We tweet, text, and occasionally talk to one another. Dogs bark, sniff and er….urinate.

As such, my 25 minute run turned into a 55 minute stop/start walk. Charlie had a whale of a time and returned home to a well earned bowl of cool, fresh water. Followed by a snooze in the shade. Fionnuala was by now performing heroics tackling the ironing so I resorted to my next chore; clearing our front garden of a mountain of bark, prior to digging it up and replanting for the summer months.

I’m no gardener but who needs the gym after an hour in the son shovelling bark clippings into rubbish bags. I was covered in sweat and aching all over. It’s what we refer to in this part of the world as ‘real work’ which a pen pusher like me is totally ill equipped for. Fionnuala often remarks on how smooth my hands are, given I’ve never done a proper days work in my life. Today confirmed the above.

The sun was now high in the sky as we were blessed with the hottest day of the year so far. I decided to make the most of it as, let’s face it, it could be snowing this time next week. We do live in Northern Ireland, after all. Fionnuala raised an eyebrow when I announced my intentions, suggesting I wait until later in the day when it was a bit cooler. Did I listen to her wise advice? Of course, I didn’t.

The plan was a gentle 10K out of the village to the shores of Lough Neagh and back. As I set off I was greeted with a tailwind which ensured the outward leg was brisk and cooling. No problem. I turned in a reasonable time and headed home in good heart. That’s when the heat hit me in the face, combined with my dog walking and gardening duties. The inward 5 K was sweaty, stifling slog.

I returned home and promptly collapsed in the kitchen in front of a bemused Hannah and a wife wearing her best ‘I told you so’ expression. Thankfully neither CPR nor oxygen were required but maybe I’ll listen to my wife in future when I contemplate running in the Irish equivalent of a heatwave. Us Celtic folk are not built for such conditions. Give me freezing sleet any day of the week.

So a most productive Easter Monday so far and several welcome opportunities to work off the calorific excesses of the day before. I’m back to work tomorrow to start my new job as a BIG BOSS. I’ll be shaving, wearing a suit and tie, talking corporate gobbledygook, that sort of stuff. Thank God for WordPress where I can be me. Simple, silly me. You lucky, lucky, people. Happy Easter wherever you are.

How are you spending your Easter Monday?

Let’s Start Again

When it comes to beating yourself up, I could compete for Ireland at the Olympics. But the last few days have taught me I need to focus on my strengths as opposed to dwell on the perceived weaknesses which always loom large in my rear view mirror. Fionnuala reminded me recently of what I have achieved in the last year, achievements I should be proud of, it’s not all doom and gloom.

I’m a hypocrite but I need to practice what I preach. When I write, I try to be positive and inspire others. The blog is nearing 10,000 followers and I’m hopeful we can hit that target within the next month. We value every one of you, both regular visitors and less frequent fliers. WordPress is the most supportive social media platform and has restored my fractured faith in online communities.

I was asked recently why I feel the need to blog every day. Isn’t it too much for me? Do I really need to? Well, there are a number of reasons. Yes, I am seeking to promote my writing career. It’s my dream to write for a living one day, although a job promotion earlier this week means there is less pressure on me at present to do so. But more than that, I enjoy writing, it is my release, my therapy, my passion.

Above all of these, however, YOU are the reason. I love my WordPress community and I look forward every day to engaging with, and learning, from you all. Communication is a two way street and I get as much out of your comments, as I hope you all do from this one. I read A LOT of your stuff, even though I don’t always get the opportunity to comment in detail due to my million and one other responsibilities.

I’m currently beta reading for three other talented writers, and I’ve connected with many other great people along the way. You are ALL part of this journey and you will never know how much your encouragement has spurred me on in other areas of my life. So today’s post is a thank you and a celebration. I see a lot of pain and sadness on here, people who feel life has passed them by and there is no way back in the game.

My experiences these last two years tell me it hasn’t and there is. Easter is traditionally seen as a time of resurrection and revival. A time when light prevails over darkness, where hope and faith are rewarded. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, we can all agree on such sentiments. Wherever you are, whatever your current situation, you can and you will punch through to the other side.

Starting today.

Do you want to start all over again?

I’ve Got 99 Bibles….

While I’m an avid reader I haven’t picked up my Bible in some time. This has niggled away at my conscience but there always seems to be something else which gets in the way. It’s hard to put my finger on but one of my ‘problems’ is that when I think about reading it, I can’t decide which one to open. Saying I’ve 99 Bibles is a little disingenuous. I’ve actually got five. But 99 made for a cooler post title.

My first Bible was a zip up, tiny travel New International Version (NIV). It was when I started to explore my faith and I was so clueless I went to a high street bookshop as opposed to a specialist Christian one. They had a very poor selection and I settled for this one, even though I can barely read the print. For a long time, I carried it everywhere with me in my manbag.

It was replaced with a larger, black leather NIV which Fionnuala bought me as a Christmas present. This was my go to text when I was at my most diligent. I’ve read it from cover to cover, scribbling notes in the margins and highlighting verses that spoke to me. I was passionate about my faith then, so much so that I’m almost afraid to open it again and see how far I may have fallen backwards.

Next up was another present from Fionnuala. A beautiful C.S. Lewis Bible, peppered with quotes from my fellow countryman. My problem with this tome is that I love it so much I’m afraid to write on it or do anything to detract from its pristine condition. It’s like an immaculate sports car which sits in the garage as it’s owner is afraid to take it out in case it gets scratched or muddy.

Then I tried The Message version. I loved its New Testament translation, especially Paul’s letters, which really came alive for me. But I struggled with its paraphrasing of the Psalms. As in really, really struggled. Oh and don’t get me started on Proverbs. It proper butchered Proverbs. So, once again, I found myself in my local Faith Mission store, scanning the hundreds of translations on offer.

This time, I plumped for a New King James Version (NKJV). I heard that the NKJ is the most accurate translation of the original text but it reminded me of Sunday School with all its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. I liked the NKJV but, again, it just was a tad old fashioned for me in its language. And while I love my Kindle, I can’t read the Bible online. I need a physical copy of it in my hands.

Before you all start, I know I’m just making excuses. God’s Word is God’s Word. Just pick up a copy, any copy, and read it Stephen. Let go and let God. The truth will set you free, be it KJV or NIV. Just make it ASAP. It’s a mental block, a hurdle I’m struggling to negotiate. And the longer I stare at them on the bookshelf, gathering dust, the bigger the issue becomes for me. It’s the white elephant in the room.

I know you aren’t all Bible readers but, to those of you who do, any advice would be much appreciated. I’ve been very anxious this last week, worrying about big stuff looming up on the horizon. To the point, I felt on the verge of a total meltdown a few days ago. Thank goodness Fionnuala and Hannah were on hand to keep the blog going over the weekend. I’m glad we are all back under the same roof again though.

I’m Home Alone….What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I’m Home Alone this weekend.

Well, almost. Fionnuala and Hannah are off to Dublin tomorrow for the Shaun Mendes concert. Hannah is fit to burst with excitement and I think Mrs Black is secretly looking forward to it as well, although she would never admit as much. They are packing as if they are going for two months, as opposed to a couple of nights. Hannah has saved enough euros to buy the entire merchandise stall at the show.

Adam is attending a formal on Friday night and has various chores and studying to occupy him the rest of the time they are away. Rebecca was going to stay at her Granny’s but has now decided, after consulting with her mother, that she will remain at chez Black to ‘look after Daddy.’ Isn’t it great to know that your children have such utter faith in your parenting abilities?

I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Fionnuala has stocked the freezer with enough frozen food to get us through a zombie apocalypse. We will be feasting on burgers and pizza, breakfast noon and night. Equally, reserves of Diet Coke have been replenished and, if all else fails, I am competent in the use of the toaster and microwave. Although probably not at the same time.

There are tasks aplenty to keep us all busy. The front garden needs weeded and the back yard power hosed. There are clothes to wash, socks to match and shirts to iron. Floors to sweep and dishes to wash. We also have a hyper border terrier to tend to. It’s not as if I’m going to lounge all weekend on the sofa with the remote control. Pffffft. Perish the thought. Whatever gave you that idea?

However….I do have a promotion board coming up that I need to prepare for. There’s also the Ulster – Edinburgh and Manchester United – West Ham games on the high definition 50′ television screen I now have all to myself. Oh….and a few training runs to fit in. I also have to keep the blog up to date, work on Chapter 2 of ‘Bomb Girl’ and obsessively scan my inbox for responses from literary agents.

Hmmmm. So much for the 48 hours of total relaxation I was anticipating. It seems I’m going to be busier than I first thought. It really is incessant at the moment. But I’ll try not to blow up the kitchen or put red clothes into the white wash by mistake and turn everything pink. I have my trusty 12 year old daughter to keep me on the straight and narrow. Failing that, I’ll ask the dog.

Have you a busy weekend ahead?

How do you cope when you’re home alone?

What Mythical Being Are You?

Eyebrows were raised across the nation last week when Good Morning Britain, the U.K.’s leading breakfast show, interviewed an American lady who had decided to live her life as an elf. Complete with prosthetic ears, flowing dresses and ethereal eyed elegance. A proper elf, a la J.R.R. Tolkien as opposed to Will Ferrell prancing around in a pair of green tights and a pointy hat.

The woman….elf…..person informed the bemused interviewers that she was an ‘otherkin.’ She believed she was the spirit of an elf living in a human’s body. She considered herself ‘transpecies,’ identifying herself with elven folk as opposed to the rest of us. And apparently they are many. People who think they are tigers, mermaids and er……unicorns? The list is apparently endless.

Now I’m all for diversity and I’m not averse to living next door to Liv Tyler or Evangeline Lily. Or even Orlando Bloom, especially if Katy Perry moves in. But isn’t this lady going to get a bit of a shock when the first wrinkles appear and she realises she’s isn’t going to live until she’s 900 and sail off to mythical lands to while away her days playing the harp and table tennis with Elijah Wood.

This got me thinking, however. Imagine if we could down tools and drop out of the human race? It’s not as if the species has covered itself in glory so far in its evolutionary journey. Wars, famines and generally making a bit of mess of the planet. You wouldn’t get any of that if the elves were in charge. Imagine a North Korea populated by elves. World peace sorted immediately.

Or if Elrond was POTUS. There would be no inflammatory rhetoric about walls and fake news, although I fear dodgy hairstyles would still be on the agenda. Justice would be dispensed fairly and all would be well with the world. Or, at least until the dwarves invaded from Canada or a psychotic dragon decided to lay waste to Capitol Hill over a congressional misunderstanding.

So today’s question is this? If you could hand in your human card and live the rest of your days as another species, what would you choose? Does a serene elven existence tick all the boxes or would you prefer to live in a hole, eat breakfast seven times a day and be a hobbit? How about an orc? You could be in a bad mood all the time and have a perfectly plausible explanation. I’m an orc! What else do you expect?

What mythical being would you like to live your life as?

Why I Won’t Be Lying For Another 364 Days

Yesterday was the busiest ever day in the two year history of the blog. Our April Fool’s Day post received 227 views and, in total, we broke the 500 view barrier for the first time. We also broke the 9500 follower mark and are heading towards the big 10K, a figure we never dreamed of attaining all those months ago. The old Stephen would have been ecstatic with these numbers.

That’s because the old Stephen loved nothing more than attention and plaudits. He was so insecure and full of self loathing that he fed off such infamy like a blood sucking leech. This morning, though, I look at these figures and, while inwardly pleased, I now recognise they mean nothing. 10,000 followers doesn’t make me a better person or anything special. In the greater scheme of things, they mean nothing.

Especially given yesterday’s record breaking totals were based upon a lie. An innocent, playful lie, but a lie nonetheless. This resonates deeply with me, as my previous incarnations on social media were equally disingenuous. I created a fake persona, the life and soul of the party, Mr. Nice Guy. The more popular I became online, the more detached from reality and miserable the real me became.

10,000 followers won’t guarantee me a publishing deal, nor will it make me a faster runner. It won’t dazzle my bosses and it cuts little sway with Fionnuala and the kids. Blogging is good for me mentally as it allows me to express myself and get a lot of issues off my chest. Issues that I kept bottled up before, festering and rotting inside me like me a rancid carcass.

It’s what I do away from blogging that truly matters. I used to lie a lot. They rolled off my lips effortlessly, I didn’t even think about them as I dug myself into a deeper and deeper hole. It got to the point where I started to believe them myself, or at least could justify them to the extent that I couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. I was aboard a runaway train, hurtling down the rickety track towards my doom.

It all ended in tears of course. Lies cannot lead to happiness. They only paper over ever increasing cracks while you flounder in ever decreasing circles. So, while yesterday’s fibbing was harmless fun, I have no intention of turning it into a regular pastime. This blog is founded on the truth, warts and all, so if you want a sugar coated version of my life, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.

Which means more rejection e-mails and below average runs. More tales of the domestic chaos that is the Black household. We get sick, we get on each other’s nerves, we bicker and scream at each other. But we always make up, and the deep love we have for one another never changes. It’s who we are, it’s what we are, we know nothing else. It’s the truth. Lying can wait. Until 1st April next year.

Have you ever struggled with the truth?

How real are you online?

The Curious Case Of People Who Read Christmas Blogs In March

As the first quarter of the year draws to a close, I’m somewhat surprised that people are still viewing a series of blogs I posted at Christmas – imaginatively entitled ‘The 12 Blogging Questions of Christmas’. Are people accidentally stumbling across these posts or are there folk out there who just can’t abide parting with the festive period? To them, every day is Christmas Day.

These are the people who still have their Christmas decorations up and who binge watch Hallmark Christmas movies which all have the same plot and, more often than not, the same cast of jobbing actors. Their fridge never runs low on cranberry sauce and you can be guaranteed a glass of eggnog if you drop round to politely complain about the constant Michael Buble soundtrack pumping through the speakers.

April Fools Day is just around the corner and I must be ever vigilant against the hatchlings who will be queuing up to make a fool of their clueless father. Is the assault on my Christmas blogs an early strike on their part? It’s another theory to consider as the daily viewing of them continues. Are Santa and his big eared helpers starting early this year? Has the Easter Bunny downed tools and gone on strike?

I will continue to monitor this startling situation and keep you all updated in the weeks and months ahead. You’re welcome, it’s the least I can do. For it’s only 270 days until the big day again and you can never be too organised. Why wait when you can dive waist deep into Yuletide themed blogs written by some strange bloke from Northern Ireland. Watch this space, people.

Why do people read Christmas themed blogs in March?

The Morning I Regretted Making Breakfast

As it was Fionnuala’s birthday the other day, I bounced down the stairs and grandly announced I was going to make breakfast for everyone. I zoomed off to the village shop, returning with bacon, sausages and fresh bread. Throwing them onto the grille, I began to probe the Black clan for orders as they blearily emerged from under duvet covers. Everything was going swimmingly. Or so I thought.

Fionnuala queried what type of bread I had purchased. If it was a pan loaf, she wanted it toasted, but untoasted if a plain loaf. Lightly buttered, bacon and sausage. Sorted. Hannah wanted sausage, not bacon, while Rebecca wanted bacon as opposed to sausage. Even though the former likes bacon on her burgers and the latter sausages in her hot dog. Er….right.

My head was already starting to spin and the anxiety levels rising as Adam emerged from his lair. He wanted bacon on plain bread. Or was it sausage on toast? I looked despairingly at Charlie the border terrier who sat patiently at my feet awaiting his sausage. Bacon? Either way, his dog food would sit uneaten while there were tastier treats on offer from his human masters.

Had there been vegetarians or vegans in the house, I fear my brain would have imploded. I slaved over the breakfast counter, sweat lashing from my brow, muttering under my breath, while simultaneously ensuring all and sundry that everything was under control and I was ‘just fine.’ There was nothing could tip me over the edge. I was on the brink of a culinary conquest of epic proportions.

Until I asked Fionnuala if she wanted a cup of tea. Why, yes she did. Not too weak and not too strong. With milk. No sugar. Oh and when it’s made, can you top it up with cold water? Which necessitated making the tea, then pouring half of it down the sink again. My mind was well and truly boggled. I eventually slumped into an armchair, mission accomplished but utterly exhausted.

I eat most things. Apart from Brussel Sprouts, don’t get me started on them. And beetroot. But I now understood how frustrated Fionnuala would get when she compared making dinner in our house to working in a hotel, cooking five different dishes at a time. Why couldn’t we all eat the same thing? Spoilt rotten we were. I can only now nod in agreement at the varied palates of the Black household.

We are all very different people, with eclectic tastes and preferences when it comes to most matters. Yet, we are all part of the one family and somehow, despite all said differences, we somehow make it work. We are one. A largely functioning one, despite all the hiccups and glitches along the way. We can’t choose our family, unlike our friends. So we have to make it work, knuckle down, and get on with it.

It’s all about compromise. Compromise and a generous topping of patience. We adapt, we agree to disagree, we give and take. Yet the central core remains intact, the bond that holds it all together. Love is the glue. A love which forms the cornerstone of this crazy, chaotic household. Although it might be a while before I volunteer to cook breakfast again. I think I need a lie down after all that.

Sausage? Bacon? Veggie? How divided is your household when it comes to breakfast?

It’s #Pitmad Day On Twitter

I’ll be participating in #pitmad today on Twitter, where writers pitch their book ideas in the form of a 280 character tweet. Literary agents will be scanning the feed throughout the day and, if interested in your pitch, will like the tweet and ask you to submit them additional material. It’s a great way of drumming up interest in my urban fantasy novel – ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square.’

Here’s where I need your help. If you follow me on Twitter, then please retweet my #pitmad tweets. Please don’t like them as the ❤️ button is reserved for interested agents only. And if you don’t follow me on Twitter, then why not? My username is @stephenRB4. Bonus points for guessing the ‘R’. Here’s a clue….it’s the first letter of my middle name.

Thank you for your support

Are You A Confident Person?

Fionnuala and I are attending Hannah’s annual school review this lunchtime. This does exactly what it says on the tin. We sit around a table and listen as her teacher, classroom assistant, physio and occupational therapist update us as to her progress so far this school year. I know we will have nothing to fear as Hannah is a model student, popular, polite and hard working. We always leave such meetings with smiles on our faces.

It’s also fast approaching the time of year where I am subject to my own annual review at work. This time, the shoe is on the other foot. I sit quivering before my boss as he gives me his thoughts on my performance over the past 12 months. Thankfully, I have a very understanding and accommodating manager and I don’t think I’ve screwed up (too much) during the reporting period.

This year is a little different as there is a promotion opportunity looming on the horizon that I have been encouraged to apply for. On the face of it, this might seem a no brainer. I’m one of the few people within the organisation trained to do the job. It’s a considerable pay hike and people have been telling me for years I am capable of performing the role. And yet, I hold back, reluctant to throw my name in the hat.

There’s the little issue of my lack of self confidence to begin with. I’m my own worst critic and constantly tell myself the promotion boat has sailed. My face doesn’t fit, senior management don’t rate me, I wouldn’t be able to cope with the added pressures and demands of the job. I’m the king of excuses when it comes to such matters, my own worst critic. I don’t just knock myself down. I then check the rear view mirror and then reverse over my inert body, just to be sure.

I’ve been dreading this past week where I’ve held the on call phone. I’m not good enough, I won’t be able to cope, I’m going to make a total mess of a call and be found out. I’m always worried about being found out, shown up for the fraud and charlatan hiding behind the professional and competent front I present to the ever watching world. The same applies to the other hats I wear.

Husband, Father, Christian, Runner, Writer. I’m a big, fat imposter and today is the day I’m going to be found out. Today is the day I’m going to sit in front of those who matter and be told I’ve fluffed my lines and my services are no longer required. Pack up your belongings and hand in your ID card on the way out. Stephen has left the building with his tail well and truly between his legs. Game, set and match to the nagging voice inside my head.

Do you ever feel that way? Where your confidence pours through your fingers like water from a gushing tap. You watch as it trickles down the drain, unwilling and unable to take that step out of your comfort zone. It could be the step that changes your life, one way or the other. There’s only one way to find out and yet you hesitate, you hold back. The self survival mechanism within tells you to stop.

You’re at a crossroads. Which way do you turn? You’re sitting in front of an interview panel. What do you say? Decisions need to be made, yet you sit there floundering, barely able to draw breath, let alone formulate an eloquent answer to the question you have been asked. It’s at times like this you need to draw deep from the well within. Hoping you find deep, refreshing waters of inspiration as opposed to a few inches of stagnant, murky despair.

Are you a confident person?

Have you a big decision looming on the horizon?

How do you combat the nagging voice of doubt?

The Hole In The Hedge Train

I’m on the early train this morning. It’s half empty and I’ve two seats to myself. Normally I get a later train where there is no room to swing a cat. I could swing several cats on this one. Simultaneously. We could have a cat swinging contest. I doubt if I’d win though. I’m not a fan of cats. Give me a medium sized dog though and I’d be fine. I’d slaughter the opposition in a medium sized dog throwing competition.

This train isn’t an express which means it stops at every station on the way into Belfast. All 367 of them. Or so it feels. We call them ‘hole in the hedge’ trains. I’ve never climbed through a hole in a hedge and wonder if they reveal some Narnia-esque kingdom. This seems unlikely as, to date, no talking otters or fauns have boarded the 6:49 to Great Victoria Street. One can live in hope, though.

My monthly ticket runs out tomorrow. It clearly says that on said ticket. Yet, my mind works differently. I fret and worry that the conductor will say it runs out today and hauls me off the train into the arms of the waiting constabulary. My career and life in ruins, a social pariah all for the sake of a £9.60 return. This is how OCD works. Never mind mole hills. It turns flecks of dust into Everests of the subconscious.

The automated voice lady is earning her corn today. In seven years doing this journey, I’ve never been able to place her accent. It’s a not quite anything accent. Saying that, she always brings her A game and never gets a word wrong. I wonder who she is and how much she got paid for perfectly pronouncing every ‘hole in the hedge’ service between Newry and Bangor. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.

I often imagine she is an out of work Shakespearean actor reduced to reading train timetables in order to keep the wolves from the door. How demeaning for her. I bet she does a mean Lady Macbeth and dreams of plunging a dagger into the heart of the agent who booked her this rubbish gig. Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble indeed. Thankfully I have yet to encounter the ghost of Banquo.

The train is starting to fill up now with ‘hole in the hedge people.’ Given they reside in fields and start their working days clambering through muddy ditches, they all look very presentable. Not a hair out of place, or a stray twig to be seen. Maybe it’s magic or possibly they have so perfected their morning routines they can slide effortlessly past thorn and bramble. It’s quite the achievement.

We are entering the suburbs now. The city is starting to stir and reality is beginning to settle on this magical train as it trundles through the murky morning. City types will be getting on at the next stop. There are no hedges on this section of the line. I will have to stop writing gibberish soon and don my grown up mask. I am entering the world of the grown ups. I don’t fit in here. I like to gibber.

Sometimes it helps to gibber. To just write, to free flow. To stop worrying about what you think other people want to read and just purge your head of all the nonsense floating around inside. I may gibber more in the future, I may not. Anyway I am nearing my final destination. There are no more stops. The day has started in earnest now. It’s time to smile and face the big, bad world. It’s time to play the game.

Do You Say Yes When You Mean No?

I’m not very good at saying no. In fact, I’m pretty useless at it. I’m a people pleaser, I hate the thought of others thinking bad of me. I’ll do anything I can to avoid confrontation and disagreements, even if it means placing myself in a position where I commit to something which is detrimental to my own well being. This has led to all kinds of calamity down the years. I’ll always say yes as opposed to cause offence.

Does it have its origins in my OCD? Possibly. In the bad old days, before I was properly educated and medicated about the illness, I would succumb to intrusive thoughts and the related compulsive behaviour 99 times out of 100. I was powerless to resist, or so I thought. I would cave in with disturbing frequency. The compulsion would always triumph and the beast within would be sated.

Until five minutes later, that was, when the next tranche of disturbing words and images would hit me, washing away my feeble defences. Such patterns instilled in me an ethos of worthlessness which spilled out into the real world. I was weak and needy because in my skewed mind I didn’t deserve anything more. My default setting was that people didn’t like me as I didn’t particularly like myself.

I could see it in the way they looked at me, the way they excluded me. I felt alone and excluded, unaware this was largely the figment of a damaged imagination. And in doing so I was isolating myself from the people who really mattered, those who cared and could help me. Blinded to this, I stumbled on wrapped up in my own sad little world of self pity and recrimination.

I said yes. A lot. There was no filter mechanism, no ‘off’ switch. I was a runaway train, careering down the track towards my doom. One minute everything was ticking along nicely, the next I found myself somewhere I didn’t want to be, with people I didn’t particularly want to be around. Extracting myself from said scenarios was invariably awkward and protracted. There was always a price to be paid.

Yesterday at work I said no. I could have said yes and the old Stephen would have, then fretted and worried for the next week about what lay ahead. Upon saying no, I was immediately submerged into negative and unwanted thinking. What if my bosses think badly of me? What if it leads to a confrontation? What if this impacts on my career? Am I letting people down? Acting unprofessionally?

I know in my heart that I have made the right call. I’m heading into work shortly to find out if there is any fallout to my stance. I’m hoping not. I’m also hoping this isn’t an isolated incident and it paves the way for further instances where I stand my ground both within and outside the workplace. Being a yes-man is no longer a coat I care to wear. Such people are taken for granted, to be used and abused on a whim.

Are you good at saying no? Or is it a struggle?

Are You A Wall Builder?

Everybody is talking about walls. Or barriers. Obstacles. Objects which will keep people apart. For a plethora of reasons, some of which make sense to me, others where I go ‘hmmmmm….I’m not so sure.’ This post is not about my opinions though, rather the subject of walls. This could be a bit of a rambling piece, so bear with me. Hopefully it will make sense.

There’s Brexit for a start. The British are obsessed with it. The politicians can’t agree on anything and we seem to be going in ever decreasing circles. Some want out, others scream remain. Everything hinges on a hard border. Around my country, Little Northern Ireland, no less. The spotlight is well and truly on our little part of the world.

Then there’s President Trump and his Mexican wall. I’m a bit sketchy around the reasons for this, as I’m no expert on U.S. politics. But a lot of people seem to be getting very angry about it. I watched him give a speech the other day and there was a woman called Nancy sitting behind him in a white suit. I don’t think she was very happy with him for she kept pulling lots of strange faces behind his back. Either that or she was constipated.

Not forgetting the ISIS brides. The English teenage girls who upped sticks a few years ago and headed to Syria and the caliphate. Radicalised online and married off to ISIS fighters they disappeared off the face of the planet. Until now that is. It’s all gone a bit askew for our ‘Jihadi Janes’ and they are begging to return to the U.K. Those of them still alive that is.

This has sparked outrage. Some holler ‘Let them rot,’ while others argue these young women have been used, brutalised and deserve a second chance, as British citizens. Not to mention their newborn babies they are now pleading should be allowed back into the country to receive the urgent medical attention they cannot access in Syria. As moral dilemmas go, it’s right up there.

We are obsessed with walls, be it building them up or tearing them down. But what about the walls within? The walls we construct around our hearts and minds, again for a billion and one different reasons. Some are necessary in order to survive and protect ourselves – from toxicity be in the form of people, objects or situations. Others are cemented by jealousy, fear and mistrust.

I see walls every day I venture onto WordPress. Fellow bloggers peek over them on occasion but hesitate to let the drawbridge down and reveal themselves to the online community. For me, writing is a means whereby I can lower my defences and express myself in a way I have struggled to do for most of my life. It is part of my therapy, my recovery. It is a natural part of my day now. Writing is part of who I am.

Walls have their uses. But it’s a case of horses for courses. Building, and then hiding behind, a wall shouldn’t be our default setting. For decades, Belfast was divided by a ‘Peace Wall’ to keep apart the warring loyalist and republican communities. It was anything but peaceful. 3000 dead testify to that. Some walls are necessary. Some walls bring peace. Others need to be smashed to pieces. You decide that.

Have you constructed walls in your life?

Are they healthy? Necessary?

I’m Exactly What It Says On The Tin

It’s Day Two of my Interview Panel Skills Training – everybody go yaaaaay – and today we are conducting mock interviews – everybody go boooo. I woke up with a sickly sheen of dread coating my body. For I despise days like this, where you are encouraged (forced) to partake in role play within the training environment. The only benefits are I don’t have to go near the office today.

Mock interviews involve us practicing the classroom skills we have been taught during the first day of the course. It’s the safe place where we can make mistakes prior to being unleashed upon the general workforce. Many embrace this opportunity but I’m the opposite. I cower in the corner of the room dreading those fateful words – ‘Your turn Stephen.’ The spotlight suddenly settles upon me.

it’s made worse in that I have to endure this ordeal with, and in front of, complete strangers who then, horror of horrors, provide you with ‘constructive’ feedback regarding your performance. I cringe, I cower, I place my hands over my ears and go ‘lah lah lah’ over and over again. For we hates it my preciousssss, we hates it. Have I ever told you I tend to exaggerate occasionally?But you get my drift.

Hate is a strong word, I know, but I hate these training exercises. Playing a role, donning a persona and acting it out in front of others. I might be asked to be a nervous interviewee, or an empathetic and supportive interviewer. There has even been talk of the interviews being video recorded. So I have to watch myself going through the ordeal. Ye Gods, is there no end to this madness?

I would far prefer to be out in the workplace, doing my job for real and just….well….getting on with it. Being real, being me. Thinking this thought yesterday as I was informed of what lay ahead, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. Playing a role? Donning a mask? Haven’t I been doing this for most of my adult life? For when it comes to fitting in with others and acting the social chameleon, I am second to none.

It’s only since I started seriously writing I have stripped back the layers of pretence and revealed the real me, warts and all. Fellow bloggers commend me on my honesty, but for years I wouldn’t have known the truth if it had walked up and slapped me about the face with a wet fish. I was a liar, a fraud, and especially online where I created a faux personality in order to impress and ingratiate myself with various social media communities.

The book I have written is fiction, an urban fantasy where supernatural forces of good and evil battle one another on the back streets of Belfast amidst its homeless community. Yet my central protagonist, Kirkwood Scott, is loosely based on me in my mid twenties. Within this fictional work I write more honestly about my struggles and flaws than I ever have on this blog.

So, think of me today as I mutter and mumble my way through mock interviews like the most miserable of fish out of water. I will be at my most awkward, socially inept to the point where people may pity me. But, at least they will be seeing the real me. The ugly duckling as opposed to the proud peacock who used to preen and strut around, playing to his audience . Today I’m exactly what it says on the tin.

Have you ever donned a mask? Played a role? Pandered to an audience?

How did you feel, both then, and looking back now?

Are You Gerascophobic?

Oh good….now that I’ve got your attention I’ll begin.

Ahem…..

I’ve just finished reading ‘How To Stop Time’ by Matt Haig which I highly recommend to you all. Haig writes a lot on mental health issues but is also an acclaimed novelist. The book tells the tale of Tom Hazard, who on the surface is a very ordinary forty something History teacher leading a very ordinary life in London. Except he isn’t. Tom has an incredible secret. He is almost 500 years old.

Tom was born in 16th Century France and stopped ageing at 13 years old. Well, I say stopped but that’s not strictly true. He does age, only much more slowly than you or I. For every 10 years we age, he ages one. When he’s 300, he looks around 30, and so on. He has lived numerous lives around the globe, always staying one step ahead of suspicion and rumours regarding his youthful appearance.

Tom’s longevity means he plays the lute at the Globe Theatre when hired by William Shakespeare. He discover new lands as part of Captain Cook’s crew and parties in Paris with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He never gets ill and doesn’t have to worry about grey hairs or wrinkles. He is immune to the toll that time takes on the rest of us. He is invincible, untouchable, the nearest thing to a superhuman on the planet.

This sounds like an incredible existence except, again, it isn’t. Tom is something of a social pariah, a fugitive from society. His mother is drowned by witch hunters who suspect she has cast a spell on her son. The love of his life ages and then succumbs to the plague in Elizabethan London. He is unable to form meaningful relationships or become close to anyone. His life is a lie, a lonely lie.

The fear of growing old is called gerascophobia, derived from the Greeks words ‘gerasko’ (to grow old) and ‘phobia’ (fear). I googled that, in case you think I’m a smarty pants. But I’m glad there’s a recognised term for the condition, as I think I may suffer from it. Increasingly so, of late. I constantly feel as if my ship has sailed and I’m running out of time. It’s frustrating and more than a little frightening.

I’m 48 years old. I like to think a young 48, both physically and mentally. People tell me I don’t look my age, whatever that means. I’ve a full head of hair and (most) of my own teeth. I’m fitter than I was when I was 18, or at least was until perpetual illness plagued me since Christmas. That has put the marathon training on hold and I’ve consoled myself at the biscuit barrel.

I don’t want to be Tom Hazard. He has centuries of old age to not look forward to, but if someone offered to rewind the last 10-15 years or so, I’d more than likely jump at the chance. Or would I? Yes, I would relive those years very differently but then I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And for one who fears the sands of time then why do I continue to wish my life away when it comes to so many aspects of it?

Nobody in the history of mankind has lived a perfect life. We all have made mistakes, carry regrets and eye the future with trepidation. What lies ahead? Is it all downhill from here. We fret over our futures, and ponder over our pasts. In doing so, we forget the most important time of all. The present. For that is where we are and that is where life is lived. Live in the present. The future can wait.

Are you afraid of growing old?

Would you like to live a life like Tom Hazard?

Where is your present?

What Is Your Worst Habit?

Yesterday I wrote about my ongoing querying of literary agents and how researching their backgrounds prior to submitting your manuscript to them, is the acceptable face of online stalking. It was a tongue in cheek piece, as most of my writing is, but there was a serious message wrapped up inside the frivolity. That being, the obsessive behaviour which fuels the mind of a stalker.

I have OCD and an obsessive personality. I have no filter, no brake, no off switch. I can easily become fixated with activities and even people. This is exacerbated by a complete lack of self awareness when it comes to this particular character trait. I am unaware of my behaviour, in fact I rationalise that it is completely normal and those raising the alarm to me are the killjoys and bores.

This obsessive streak can be explained away as having a stubborn streak or being ultra single minded and determined. Which, in themselves, are admirable characteristics. You need these to run marathons. You need them to carve out a reasonably successful career in my chosen fiend. You need them to slave away at your novel for over a year until it is finally complete.

It’s a double sided coin, however. It’s not so admirable when you become obsessed with running, or paragliding, or base jumping. These activities are designed to be a release from the daily grind, as opposed to becoming the grind itself. They become destructive and counter productive when they drag you away from your core values and the people and pursuits who truly matter.

We become ensnared by these pastimes, they become our raison d’etre. They possess and consume us. They same can be said of online activity. I admit I spend far too much time online, trying to build the blog and related social media platforms. I know it is a necessary evil to pursue my writing dream, but I often need Fionnuala to remind me that I also have a wife and three kids who supersede all my other responsibilities.

This weakness has led me down all sorts of nasty rabbit holes in the past. I cultivated unhealthy online habits which damaged both myself and those I love. I became secretive and distant. Thankfully my current online incarnation is founded upon transparency and accountability. This affords me a safety net should I ever feel the urge to slip back into old habits. I’m learning to police myself again and, in doing so, trust myself again.

Any habit is hard to shake. I bite my nails, drink too much Diet Coke and the list goes on. I’ll never be a hand model but I do recycle all my empty cans and bottles. There are worse habits to have, I glibly inform people whenever I am challenged on these. And, indeed there are. But it’s a warning to always be on my guard. Old habits die hard. They are always lurking, waiting to pounce. The demon that is OCD is never far away.

I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. I’m a boring, middle aged husband and father. I don’t attract a second glance on my daily commute to and from work. None of us do. We are normal. Oh, but if only they knew. If only they knew the dormant madness that lies within. Just waiting for it’s opportunity to be unleashed and wreak havoc on our carefully constructed worlds. If only….

What are your bad habits?

Does madness lurk within you?

I’m The Acceptable Face Of Stalking

Now that I’ve finished my first novel and it’s been through the beta critique and editing phases, the next step is to query literary agents. This, unfortunately, is a bit more than e-mailing them the manuscript, sitting back and crossing my fingers and toes. Instead I have to draft and forward them a bespoke letter of introduction, known as the query letter. My entire submission hangs on the quality of this.

A good query letter should be concise, but informative. It should entice the agent, telling them enough about you and their project, to leave them wanting more. The agent wants to connect, to feel intrigued. You need to hook them, snare them, make your manuscript stand out from the hundreds of others which hit their ‘slush piles’ every week. You need to be unique, different, you need to be ‘the one.’

To do so, you need to find out everything you can about the agent. This shows them you have put the work in, that you care, that you want them above anyone else to champion your literary gem. You research them. Which is a polite way of saying you embark on an online stalking crusade of epic proportions. You binge on their Twitter accounts, pore over their website biographies, eking out every last nugget of information.

You find out their favourite genres, authors and who they already represent. You uncover their pet hates, what they love and what they loathe in a submission. You want to know everything. Their favourite pizza topping, shoe size, the name of their dog. Anything that will give you an edge over the opposition. It’s needy, sycophantic and cringe worthy work on the part of the querying hopeful. But it’s all part of the game.

Fionnuala and I have been watching a Netflix show called ‘You’ where a mild mannered bookshop employee becomes obsessed with a beautiful aspiring author in New York. He stalks her, both online and in real life, worming his way into her life, until he eventually wins her heart. Nothing will stand in his way and he stops at nothing to win the object of his affection. It is a creepy, psychological, seat of your pants show.

I’m beginning to feel like Joe, the star of the show. Beneath the mild mannered, affable exterior he’s a sociopathic monster. I don’t think I’ve quite strayed into the latter territory when it comes to my querying, but my obsessive personality certainly means I am well suited to the task. Down the years I’ve been fixated with authors, musicians, sports stars and authors.

Someone with an obsessive personality has no ‘off’ switch when it comes to such behaviour. We are runaway trains, hurtling down the tracks towards the buffers. We have no filter mechanisms, there is no emergency brake. When I’m in this zone, I’m oblivious to the various screaming sirens and flashing lights telling me I’ve overstepped the mark. It’s like opening a tub of honeycomb ice cream. I don’t know when to stop.

The first mouthful is heavenly, the second better, and before you know it you are halfway through the tub. You want to stop, you know you have to stop, but you continue to gorge on the sticky, sweet goodness until there is nothing left. Just an empty tub, a guilty conscience and the beginnings of a food hangover churning in the depths of your stomach. Yes, your stomach is full, but your soul is empty.

That is the nature of obsessive behaviour.

Part 2 later today….

Are you guilty of obsessive behaviour?

Do you know when to stop?

Sticking Your Head Above The Parapets

I was raised on fantasy novels and this has largely continued into my supposed adult years. It began with a fascination for Middle Earth and all things Tolkien. My mind was filled with adventures accompanied by hobbits and elves, battling orcs and armies of darkness at the foot of Mount Mordor. As a teenager I was a massive Dungeons & Dragons player.

D&D was much more preferable to the realities of surviving a grammar school where bespectacled nerds were fair game for class bullies and psychotic teachers alike. I returned to my love of reading and fantasy in the last decade or so. Once again, it was a means of escape from the harsh realities of life. Except now my wounds were self inflicted ones. I was the sole architect of my demise.

Hiding between the covers of a book allowed me to regroup and lick my wounds. I binged on the sprawling, epic trilogies of Robin Hobb and Raymond E. Feist. I recall reading Feist’s ‘Magician’ at my lowest ebb. The thicker the book, the better, for such tomes were my sanctuary from what lay beyond. Eventually, however, the final words were greedily consumed and I was forced to re-emerge, squinting and blinking into the 21st Century again.

Many fantasy novels involve castles. And where there is a castle, a siege is never far away. Sieges where the beleaguered heroes are surrounded by a brutal enemy; where they face insurmountable odds and all seems lost. Our ragtag armies man the ramparts, pummelled by arrows, boulders, and anything else the opposition can hurl their way. Defeat seems inevitable. There is no way out.

Except there usually is. Reinforcements appear on the horizon at the eleventh hour, a friendly dragon swoops from above to barbecue the enemy, or an unlikely hero leads a handful of brave troops in a last ditch counter attack which sweeps all before them. Usually aided by a wizard or two. The storm clouds lift, the sun peeks through and the forces of good prevail. For good always overcomes evil, right?

Such heroics require a decision. Followed by an act of will. Someone has to take a risk, a chance. They need to raise their head and look over the castle parapets to see what is going on outside. This is a dangerous business. Lifting your head above the parapet turns you into an immediate target for eagle eyed sharp shooters on the other side. Before you know it, you’re being peppered with missiles of various shapes and sizes.

Yet, it has to be done. To invoke change, to lift the status quo, to turn the tide. It could backfire horribly and end up with you toppling over the castle walls, an arrow between your eyes, dead before you hit the ground. But what’s the alternative? Skulking, shaking, waiting for the inevitable when the enemy swarm over the ramparts unopposed and butcher every last man, woman or child? What’s it to be?

I’m at a stage of my life where I’ve made the decision to poke my head above the parapet and face the enemy squarely in the eye. And guess what? They don’t like it. Hell has been unleashed in all its many guises. I’ll continue this theme in a later post but, until then, keep your wits about you if you dare lift your head above the parapet. And more importantly, keep your head on your shoulders.

Who are your favourite fantasy authors?

What role do you think you would play in a castle siege?

Do You Believe In Yourself?

I received an e-mail earlier this week from a fellow blogger asking for advice on growing their blog. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question. After much frowning of brows and scratching of heads I cobbled together a reply where I talked about quality writing, consistent themes and regular interaction with fellow bloggers. Something like that. You get my drift. Etc etc.

The reality is, I haven’t a clue. When I started writing almost two years ago now, it was because Fionnuala saw a talent in my writing and encouraged (forced) me to share it with the world. I never expected it to take off like it has and I never thought I’d now be looking at a blog with almost 9000 followers. One person, my wife, believed in me at a stage in my life when I didn’t believe in myself.

I don’t consider myself a particularly gifted wordsmith. Every day I marvel at the talent of fellow bloggers who, quite frankly, knock my clumsy prose out of the ball park. They have bigger, better stories to tell than me which they do with a skill, passion and verve that I struggle to emulate. Some of you people have no idea how good you are. Seriously. You need to go away and write a NYT bestseller. This minute. Now. Go.

Sooooo….what is it I do? Well, I try to post every day. I’m present, I’m here, that annoying relative who is always the last to leave family functions, making you think they have no home to go to. That’s me. Although I try to turn the annoying dial down to the bare minimum. Some of the best feedback I get is from people saying they look forward to reading my blog every day. I’m a familiar, comfortable pair of old slippers.

I seek to reassure people. To tell them they’re not alone, and there is hope even on the most desolate, windswept nights. I want to be a light, a strong hand hauling them from whatever deep pit they have fallen down. For I’ve been there but was unfortunate enough to survive and clamber out to tell the tale. The blog is a living testimony to that. I want to help, I want to put my own many failings to good use.

I want to make you smile, think, engage, and, most of all, believe. Believe in yourself. For there is a gift within you begging to be birthed, for all to see. For if you believe in something hard enough, then it will happen. Don’t buy that? Then check out that 15 stone, hungover, miserable couch potato who used to dream of running marathons and writing books. Six years later I’m doing both.

You see, I’m nothing special. But one day, the penny dropped. Just as Fionnuala believed in me, I began to bet on my own inherent ability. Initially it was a long shot, a Hail Mary pass of ridiculous proportions. But, occasionally, the long shot romps home first past the finishing past. Occasionally the Hail Mary bobbles and bounces into the grateful hands of the wide receiver.

So, my advice to you all, whatever you are doing, is to believe in yourself. You only get one shot and you’re a long time dead. If you have a dream, pursue it. With passion and tenacity. Let your talent breathe and your hopes soar high into the sky. Live the impossible. It’s closer than you think. That new life is there for the taking. All you have to do is reach out and touch it. Written by one who knows.

Do you believe in yourself?

What makes a good blogger?

I Didn’t Want To Write Today

I didn’t want to write today.

Yet here I am, tentatively tapping at the keyboard. Feeling my way into the next sentence, fumbling through another paragraph. The words come, they always do. A hesitant trickle at first, before I relax and they flow freely. And when they flow freely, then I am free as well. From the past, from the voices that claw at my ever fragile mind. I didn’t want to write today. I had to write today.

I lost my father nine years ago today. To prostate cancer. I remember sitting in a waiting room at the hospital, as a brutish consultant dispassionately informed us there was no hope. I’ll never forget that man. He might as well have been telling us the weather forecast for the week ahead. The words meant nothing to him, yet their impact shattered us. Nothing would ever be the same again.

I rose that day. There was a funeral to arrange and I was the only son, the eldest child, the one of whom strength and courage were expected. So I donned the mask and played the role to a packed auditorium. I was the centre of attention and, sick though it may sound, part of me revelled in it. Though surrounded by death, this was my lifeline. I clung to it for all I was worth.

I revelled, but then unraveled. The bottom of a pint glass became my harbour from the storm. A temporary respite, however, for when I lifted my groggy head above the parapet, the wind and rain lashed more furiously than ever. I was adrift, askew, a mess. I struck out for shore, my compass spinning, floundering, sinking. Constant drinking. Until the day, I said no more. Until the day I stopped.

I’m battered today. Battered by sickness which has reared its ugly head again when I thought I’d shrugged it aside. Fretting over immaterial matters. Matters that don’t really matter. Marathons that aren’t being run. Books that aren’t being written. Six years ago they would have buzzed and niggled until I cracked open a beer and shooed them from my mind. But now, I write.

Battered but blessed. Looking ahead, clear headed and driven. The glass is half full these days, the wallowing no more. I want to make my father proud of me and, more than that, I want to make those still here proud. My wife and children, my friends and anyone else whose life I touch. I’ll visit my past and learn from it, grow, but no longer be held prisoner by it.

No longer consumed, obsessed, possessed. Still stressed. That is me. But blessed. Blessed that these words pour from my pen, from my soul. There’s hope, always hope. If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you take hope. Hope that there are better times ahead, times you deserve, times which will reveal the real you, the true you, for all the world to see. Is that so hard to believe? For belief costs nothing?

Why do you write?

What do words mean to you?

Are you battered, blessed or both?

Why Do Women Not Understand Manflu?

I woke up this morning and groaned. Not only was it a dark and dreary Monday morning, but I sensed a tickle in my throat. My nose was blocked and my energy levels were even lower than I normally would have expected. I sighed and sadly informed Fionnuala that I appeared to be unwell. I received zero sympathy as she launched into the 1001 tasks she has to perform every weekday in order to get the hatchlings out to school.

Manflu had struck….Now I’m not one to complain (cough, cough) but it strikes me that the female of the species struggle to understand the traumatic nature of this affliction. When it comes to empathy and understanding they tend to stare blankly at us, before making some snide remark about childbirth. The words ‘weak’ and ‘pathetic’ are muttered beneath their collective breaths as we shuffle miserably around the house.

I go to work every day. I’m rarely sick, not counting the four week virus I had a few months back and er….all the other times I sniffle or feel a slight twinge. I run marathons in all weathers and regard myself as in reasonably good shape for a man of my years. So, when I am struck down by the lurgy, the lack of female concern and compassion leaves me baffled.

I have queried this with my wonderful wife, to be greeted with a withering stare or hoot of derision. I still await her considered response and I fear I may be waiting a while. So I’m throwing it out there to the rest of the WordPress universe. I look forward to your thoughts as I heroically struggle through the working day. I know I will be in your thoughts and prayers

Ladies – what’s your beef with manflu?

Men – argue our case! Tell them how it is!!

The Blind Leading The Blind

The other day I encountered an elderly blind man in the city centre. He was experiencing some difficulties as double decker buses roared past, mere feet away. I instinctively wanted to go to his aid but the introverted, socially awkward voice in my head held me back. ‘You don’t talk to strangers, Stephen. What if he spurns your offer of help, becomes offended, tells you to clear off and leave him alone?’

I stood there, watching the man, as this internal monologue raged within me. In the end, my guilty conscience outweighed the reticence. In some ways, it was a selfish as opposed to selfless act. Imagine if I turned on the news later to discover the man had been mown down in the rush hour traffic. Never mind the poor man’s family, would I ever be able to live with myself?

I took the plunge, approached the man, and politely asked did he require assistance, half expecting to be told to bugger off and mind my own business. Before the words had departed my lips, however, he gratefully grabbed hold of my forearm and thanked me, explaining where he was going. His knowledge of Belfast street names far outweighed mine, and he knew exactly where he was going.

The problem was, he had strayed a few yards off his predetermined route and lost his bearings. I carefully guided him across the street as he chatted cheerfully, before thanking me and continuing his journey with renewed confidence and purpose. He wasn’t too proud not to accept help when he found himself in a bit of bother. I headed in the opposite direction, impressed by his positive attitude and refusal to let his disability get the better of him.

I know our blog has several followers who are blind or partially sighted. Others have a range of other physical disabilities or chronic illnesses. Many have mental health problems. Blogging is our shared passion, the medium whereby we tell our stories and encourage one another. WordPress is a sanctuary of sorts to us, where we take temporary shelter from the worries of the outside world. It is our safe place, a place where we can be us.

Despite his disability, this man was not afraid to step out across a chilly Belfast on a busy weekday morning and do what he had to do. He wasn’t going to allow his disability to dictate his life for him. He refused to succumb to it and hide at home, wallowing in self pity, as I would have been tempted to do. He rose above it and, even though it was a difficult journey, he persevered. I know he reached his final destination.

He taught me a lesson. He teaches us all a lesson. We are all on a journey and, at times, we will stray off course or encounter unexpected challenges. We cannot allow those to put us off and must keep our eyes fixed on the prize. Where we falter, we should not be afraid to accept the arm of a well meaning stranger. For, while blind, the vision and passion of this man put me to shame.

I moan, I complain, I sulk and I pout. We all do. But that can only be temporary, we cannot allow transitional emotions to define who we are and deflect us from the path we were born to travel. There was a light within this man’s soul which lit up the path ahead for him, a light I have been struggling to ignite for some years now. It truly was a case of the blind leading the blind. On a freezing Belfast morning I was the one being led.

Have you ever helped a person in need on the streets?

Are you in need of spiritual direction?

We All Need To Eat More Pizza

We had friends visiting last night so treated ourselves to Dominos Pizza, given it was buy one get one free Tuesday. It was too good an offer to miss out on, so we ended up going buy three, get three free. And try saying that with a mouthful of ham and pineapple deep crust. Everyone got stuck in and I could barely move by the end of the night. Good job I went for a run earlier in the day.

Calorific intake aside, is there anyone out there who doesn’t like pizza? Certainly not at chez Black last night. The kids attacked it with their usual famished relish and, to be fair, the supposed grown ups weren’t that far behind them. There were a multitude of toppings on offer, something for even the pickiest palate. Ham, pineapple, mushroom, chicken, you name it we had it.

I came downstairs this morning to find Hannah munching happily on a cold slice. Despite our best efforts the night before, there was still loads left over. I reckon if Jesus appeared on Earth today he would be performing his ‘loaves and fishes’ miracle with a Meat Feast 12′ and sides of garlic bread. Everybody loves pizza, it has a universal appeal, right? World peace would be a dawdle if world leaders sat down and discussed it over pizza.

If only everything was that simple. Our world is so fragmented at present it feels as if nothing works. We can’t seem to agree on anything. Nations clash and politicians fail to grasp the nettle. In Northern Ireland, we have been without a functioning government for over two years. I think that’s a world record which we inherited from Belgium the other month. Or somewhere like that.

This is staggering. Even the amiable Belgians are at loggerheads with each other. When did Belgium ever start an international incident? I know they have had their differences with the Dutch down the years but they even make the Swiss look like bloodthirsty warmongers. Us Northern Irish are comparatively off the scale. 3000 dead during 30 years of our ‘Troubles’ is testimony to that.

We cannot agree on our past, our present or our future. Our politicians bicker and bluster but nothing is agreed, and we seem further away from agreement than ever before. At times it is akin to a schoolyard squabble. You feel like banging their heads together and sending them to bed with no dinner. And no cold pizza the next morning either. That would teach them a lesson they’d never forget.

Cold pizza. Cold comfort. This morning is bitter as I sit and write this, and that’s not just because Jack Frost paid our fractured land a visit overnight. Some days the zombie apocalypse doesn’t seem such a bad alternative after all. At least you know where you stand with zombies. They are as predictable as they are hungry. Although don’t try to entice them with a Hawaiian thin crust. That simply won’t work.

Back in the day it was a Noah and a flood. Today fingers hover over nuclear launch codes, and people have nightmare about Brexit, while disease and famine ravage large swathes of the globe. If we can’t agree on the small things then how on earth will we ever agree on the issues that truly matter. I just don’t know anymore. Maybe we all need to eat more pizza. A lot more pizza.

What is your favourite pizza topping?

Can your leaders agree on anything?

The Day My Dog Spoke To Me

Our dog, Charlie the border terrier, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Every morning I fill his bowl with fresh water, and every morning he and I enact the same routine. He pads over to the bowl, sniffs at it and then rewards me with a withering glare, before sulking in his cage for the remainder of the morning. If looks could kill then I’d be halfway to doggy heaven by now. Charlie doesn’t do tap water.

I’ve no idea why as it’s perfectly acceptable tap water. Good enough for the human members of the household. Perhaps he’s just not thirsty, I used to think. Or his sensitive canine palate will only accept Evian sparkling H20 from the purest Alpine springs. His father was a pedigree so maybe that’s where his culinary pickiness comes from. Possibly there’s a bit of corgi in his family lineage.

Given this, I was surprised the other day to find him slurping noisily from a plant pot in the back yard. It had rained heavily overnight so the saturated soil in the pot contained a good few inches of dirty rainwater. Dirty rainwater that our Charlie was gulping down at an unprecedented pace. It was as if he had just crossed the Sahara Desert and was on his last legs. Paws. Whatever.

When he was finished, he ambled past me with a smug expression on his face, his thirst quenched. Can dogs look smug? He trotted past his bowl of clean, cool tap water without a second glance. Here was a dog who knew what he liked and no dumb owner was going to stand in his way. I initially dismissed this as a one off but have since caught him a number of times lapping up muddy water from the back yard.

It doesn’t appear to have affected his health. He’s still a bouncing ball of energy and his all consuming hatred of neighbourhood cats and our amiable postman, Tony, remains undiminished. He just has a preference for al fresco dirty water. Maybe, somewhere deep within his admittedly tiny brain, it is the same primeval beast within which still makes him circle ten times before lying down.

I used to be like Charlie. I had a loving home and family, everything I needed on tap. Yet I preferred spending my nights at the bottom of a pint glass or talking online to complete strangers. I turned my nose up at the pure refreshment on offer for my soul and wallowed in self pity and shame. A physically and mentally unhealthy mess who was more interested in his Twitter followers than his wife and kids.

I’m glad that those times are behind me now. They say you should never look back but sometimes it does no harm to peek over your shoulder to see how far you have come on your journey. We often forget to reflect positively on what we have achieved, instead becoming overwhelmed by the present and what yet lies ahead of us. It is our past conquests where we attain the strength and skills to forge ahead. Our past arms us for the future.

When I get home tonight, I may sneak Charlie an extra biscuit for teaching me an important lesson today. For a dog, he has a pretty comfortable life. I’ll allow him his back yard forays to the dirty plant pot knowing that I now drink from a well of living water. Everyone has the opportunity to sip from this well, yet it remains the less traveled path to so many. I’m glad I made the right choice in the end.

Have you got a pet? What lessons do they teach you?

Have you drank dirty water in the past? Where are you now on your journey?

These Boots Were Made For….Squelching

Now that I’m a full time Rugby Dad, my son honoured me at Christmas by buying me a pair of Wellington boots to keep my tootsies dry and warm as I prowl up and down the touchline. He even included a pair of thermal socks which almost reach my knees. Combined with winter coat, gloves, hat and scarf I now resembled Scott of the Antarctic as I dropped him off for Saturday’s match.

Adam rewarded my sartorial elegance with probably the best match I have ever seen him play. He scored two tries (North American readers think touchdown) and played his heart out. His coach was suitably impressed while my heart burst with pride beneath the 17 layers of clothing I was wearing. I clapped and roared like a demented Eskimo as he hurtled around the pitch for 70 minutes.

All the other Rugby Dads, for we are many, were suitably impressed as well. And not just by what was happening on the pitch. One sidled over to me during the second half. ‘Nice boots,’ he remarked, glancing down in admiration at my new footwear. ‘Thanks’ I replied. ‘My son got them for me at Christmas. I guess I’m a real Rugby Dad now’ I added, clicking my muddy heels like Dorothy on her way to Oz.

‘You certainly look the part now’ he continued, before roaring at the referee about the other team being offside, a rule I’m still struggling to get my head around. Yes, I did look the part. I felt like I belonged there, that I fitted in, a sensation which for most of my life was an alien concept to me. Instead, I was a social chameleon who changed his behaviour and opinions like Lady GaGa changes clothes during a concert.

I was perfectly happy with Adam being the star of the show, the centre of attention. I may have looked faintly ridiculous but I was where I was meant to be, supporting him. Despite the early hour and the dreary conditions, it certainly beat lying in bed with a monstrous hangover, a pastime which, until several years ago, occupied the majority of my Saturday mornings.

I hope Saturday was the first of many such outings for my boots. There are many muddy fields to be traversed. And win, lose or draw at least I won’t lose any toes through frostbite. Safe in the knowledge that, as well as looking the part, I now feel the part as well. Part of a jigsaw which, when pieced together, is called family life. It’s where I’m meant to be, rather than the many other places I’ve tried to squeeze myself, desperate for attention and acceptance.

I used to be a square peg struggling to fit into a round hole. I’m still a square but much more comfortable in my own skin now. I’m where I needed to be all along, where I was meant to be, with the people who believe in me and what I am trying to achieve. I have cast off chains of self loathing and doubt, in order to reveal the real me, warts and all. I look the part because I am the part. The missing part.

Are you a social chameleon?

Do you look the part? Is it all just a show for the outside world?

Are you happy in your own skin?

What Do Bloggers Do On Sunday?

From personal experience, Sunday is the quietest day of the week on WordPress. People tend to be offline and blog traffic picks up later in the week again. For many people, Sunday is traditionally a day of rest. They have a lie in, spend the day with their family, some go to church. I also realise that others have to go to work. To some, Sunday is just another day while others treat it as special time which should be protected at all costs.

My Sunday’s follow a typical pattern. They used to start with a stinking hangover, followed by skulking around the house eating unhealthily and largely feeling sorry for myself. How times have changed. We aren’t connected to a church (loooooooong story) but friends do come to our house every Sunday morning to listen to worship music, pray and study the Bible. Today, I spoke about using the Bible as a weapon.

Now, by weapon I don’t mean literally bashing people over the head with it, although I have been sorely tempted at times. Even loooooonger story. No, the Bible can be used to protect you from unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour. I know it is not for everyone but I believe it has helped me become a better, more thoughtful, considerate person. I’m no expert and a lot of it still challenges and confuses me, but I do get a lot out of it.

Afterwards we all hung out for a while. Fionnuala baked a birthday cake for our friend, Graham. When our friends left, I ran a 5K even though I felt tired. I’m still recovering from a mystery virus I’ve been battling since before Christmas. I’m much better than I was, and back running again, but there are days when it is the furthest thing from my mind. I forced myself out there, though, and felt all the better for it.

I’m no culinary giant but promised Fionnuala last week I would cook dinner on Sunday. She suggested sausage casserole as even a walking disaster zone like yours truly could manage that one. Rebecca helped me by cutting the up carrots and onions while I peeled potatoes. We both ended up with stinging eyes from the onions but I managed not to burn anything and everyone seemed to enjoy it. It’s another dish I’ve mastered which I can add to my recipe book.

The remainder of the day will be taken up with blogging and writing an article a website has approached me about. I’ll also drop an e-mail to my editor to see how she is progressing with the book. We will hopefully get caught up on some of our shows, although Fionnuala always has a busy Sunday evening, preparing lunches and uniforms for the week ahead. So much for Sunday being a day of rest then.

Monday comes around oh so quick. Our weekends are precious times and I’m blessed that I can spend mine with family and friends, people who truly matter. I hope you do the same and are doing so now, instead of reading my rambling words. We only have so many of these days, we should make the most of them. I hope you are all having a great Sunday. Whatever you are doing today.

How do you spend your Sunday?

Words

Words are something that we all use every day of our life

Words that are spoken in many different languages and ways be it through speech, sign language, communication boards, text messaging and writing to name but a few

Words that are loving, encouraging, beautiful, uplifting and words that are dangerous, nasty, hateful and ugly

Words can be as damaging as being physically assaulted. Those words stay in your head torturing you putting you down and make you feel hopeless, worthless and useless again and again and again. Bruises fade, cuts heal and memories can fade but the power of a spoken word can last forever in your head.

We all have the power of the spoken word within us it’s how we use it that counts. My mum brought me my brothers and sister up telling us “if you can’t say nothing nice then say nothing at all” and I can’t honestly say that I have not always put that into practice. Sometimes our mouths or our fingers on the keyboard can run away with us and before you know it you have tore somebody’s character to shreds or insulted and hurt someone who in turn will replay those words over and over again in their head because once that word is out there there is no taking it back. We can apologise and ask for forgiveness and that can done but forgetting is the hardest part.

I now tell our children “if you can’t say nothing nice say nothing at all” I’m pretty sure they don’t always practice it but I still keep telling them it because one day it could stop them from hurting someone they love more than they could ever know.

The spoken word can be very powerful but the unspoken word can be even greater.

God Bless

Fionnuala xx

I’m With The 39%

According to a poll taken yesterday, 61% of its population think the United Kingdom is in crisis. The reason? Why, Brexit of course. The ongoing saga reached new depths last night when Prime Minister Teresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by over 200 votes in Parliament. This triggered the Labour opposition calling for a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

That vote will be tonight and, no doubt, front page news tomorrow morning. The television news has almost exclusively led on Brexit for months now. It’s everywhere, you cannot escape it wherever you turn. Even Donald Trump is tweeting about it which, I guess, makes a change from building walls. Northern Ireland certainly has had its share of walls down the years, primarily to keep our opposing communities from killing each other.

Northern Ireland lies at the heart of the dilemma. If the U.K. withdraw then it causes all sorts of problems regarding the ‘invisible’ border between ourselves and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. It’s a logistical and trade nightmare. The threat of a ‘hard border’ terrifies many. Unionists insist it will lead to a weakening of the relationship between our little country and the so called mainland.

I went for a run this afternoon. The sun was shining and I was surrounded by blue skies and mild temperatures. I ran two miles out of the city to a park where I completed two circuits of an idyllic lake, inhabited by graceful swans and inquisitive ducks. After three weeks of sickness, I was finally starting to feel healthy again. I forgot the worries of my world for an hour and focused on the next mile, the next bend in the road, the next step.

I know crisis. Often it has been self inflicted, but on other occasions it has been simply life pulling the carpet from under our feet as only life can. You’re drifting along minding your own business when BAM! Your world collapses around you. Be it bereavement, illness or financial hardship we’ve all been there at one time or another. Crisis is as much part of life as the air we breathe.

We often become desensitised to the true meaning and impact of the words we casually throw about. How many of the 61% who took that poll will sleep in a doorway tonight or worry where their next meal is coming from? How many are picking up the telephone to be informed that a loved one has been killed in a road crash or diagnosed with a terminal illness? How many?

Brexit sucks and, yes, it will impact many people. But is it really a crisis? I didn’t feel in crisis today as I ran out of the city centre. I was alive and grateful. Grateful that I could run and had a well paid job to return to afterwards. Grateful to drive home to a loving and supportive family. Grateful to have loyal friends, willing to stick with me through the good times and the bad.

I’m proud to be one of the 39%. Count your blessings and not your woes. Love your loved ones and block out your foes. I’ve spent most of my life wallowing in a half empty glass, but no more. Even if it’s only 39% full I’m going to focus on it and not the ‘what if or could have been’ culture which blinkers many of us. Brexit will come and go, just like the many other temporary storms sent to test us. Look beyond them. For there lie the blue skies.

Are you a 61% or a 39% kind of person?

Algebra Is Hard. Common Sense Is Harder.

Rebecca handed me the homework from hell yesterday evening. Algebra, no less. I initially thought it was Geography and was a study of North African nations until I realised it was Maths. Or, in order to avoid confusing our loyal North American readership….Math. Armed with a lowly ‘C’ in my O Level Mathematics back when we used chalk and slate to ‘do our sums’ I endeavoured to assist.

Algebra is HARD! How they expect a 12 year old girl to get her head around it, I don’t know. Einstein and that bloke in the bath (Archimedes) would have struggled to compute the fiendish equations devised by Rebecca’s Year 8 Maths teacher. I scratched my head, furrowed my brow and sweated profusely until tentatively arriving at the answers. How I got there I’ll never know. Although Google helped.

I’m confident Rebecca will get there, though. She has taken to Junior High School with her usual enthusiasm, throwing herself into both academic and extra curricular activities. She has a work ethic second to none and can often me found voluntarily taking on extra work or reading, in addition to her allotted school work. She sets a great example to everyone else in the household.

Algebra is an acquired skill. With study and perseverance you can get better at it, and improve your understanding. I was queuing in the village shop this morning when I heard two of the older members of staff discussing their teenage colleagues who work most of the weekend shifts. ‘They’ve brains to burn, but no common sense’ remarked one of them. The other wholeheartedly agreed before they became aware of my presence at the till.

‘My wife always says that about me, and I’m 48’ I cheerily informed them. The two ladies looked at each other, before exploding into laughter. I made my purchase and walked away from them, both still chortling at my hilarious statement. It’s not for nothing that locals call me the Oscar Wilde of the village with my witty repartee. Oh alright then, nobody says that, I made that bit up.

It’s true though. Fionnuala says I am one of the most intelligent people she has ever met, but also one of the dumbest. I’m utterly impractical and if there is an awkward, convoluted way of doing something then I can be relied upon to stumble across it. I get out of taxis backwards, stuff like that. Write a 400 page novel, run a marathon, hold down a reasonably important job? No problem. Rewire a plug or change the tyre on a car? Errrrr….

There’s a less humorous side to this. I’m an appalling judge of character and throughout my life have made terrible choices, landing myself in all sorts of hot water in the process. I can only blame OCD and excess alcohol for so much. At the end of the day, I had to realise I’m a grown man and needed to take responsibility for my decisions and their consequences. Life is a constant battle to bolster this particular Achilles heel of mine.

You can’t teach common sense, like you can algebra. But I can learn from the many harsh lessons I have rightly experienced down the years because of my foolhardy nature. Scars have their value. I bear mine as a reminder of what can go wrong, if I press the self destruct button, and bring unnecessary pain on both my loved ones and myself. I’m learning. Slowly. Algebra is hard. Common sense is harder.

Do you struggle with common sense?

How good were you at algebra?

Can someone please explain the whole Maths/Math thing to me?

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?

I Interviewed A Dying Man….

I interviewed a dying man once. I was visibly shocked when he calmly informed me that this was the case. He mentioned it as you would the weather, or how shocking the train service has been of late. It was matter of fact, making conversation, a throwaway comment. To many, that sounds as if he did not value his life, that he had given up, that he no longer cared. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The dying man had lived a full life, an incredible life which he gradually revealed to me during the course of our interview. If I were to tell you half of it, you might raise an eyebrow but I can tell you that it is all true, having researched this man before we met l. He had squeezed every last drop out of it, and now looked back upon it as it drew to a close.

He spoke clearly to me throughout, and his eyes had a piercing intensity that suggested an iron will and steely focus. For this man, though dying, had unfinished business. Which was why he had agreed to meet me, after weeks of careful brokering via an intermediary. There was still work for him to do, and I was the conduit he had chosen to facilitate his dying wish.

I cannot tell you what that wish was, as to do so would reveal his identity and betray his trust. Other than to say, if and when it is fulfilled, it will probably feature on the front page of many newspapers. There are very few people on this planet who can work towards granting his wish, but I happen to be one of them. I feel pressure, responsibility, a burden. But it is one that I gladly accept.

The dying man told me exactly what I needed him to tell me. The baton had been passed on, the gauntlet thrown down. The ball was and is in my court now. The dying man told me he had found his faith in the depths of his despair. As such, he was prepared to meet his Maker. He believed and had spent the latter years of his life helping others as God had helped him through his own personal valley of death. He believed.

This incredibly intelligent, wildly successful man believed. Prior to meeting him, I was somewhat in awe of his achievements and reputation, I was nervous meeting him, unsure as to what to expect. Yet where I might have expected arrogance and vanity, instead I found humility and compassion. He was at peace with his circumstances and his diagnosis. Utterly confident as to what lay ahead.

Yet, I still doubt. I waver, I falter, I stumble in my faith. This great man had chosen me to assist in granting his dying wish. Am I even fit to lace his shoes? As we shook hands at the end of our meeting he said two words to me – ‘God Bless’ – and it was as if his eyes bored into my soul, stripping away all the earthly layers and seeing me for the broken earthly vessel I am. Yet still, he believes in me. He trusts me to deliver my end of the bargain.

I saw life in his eyes. Life and hope and purpose. The dying see the world in 20/20. They see the rest of us, the living, as we stumble about lost in our earthly fogs. The dying implore us to carry on, to realise their dreams and aspirations. They see that time is short, but they know the truth. I interviewed a dying man and looked into his eyes. He shared his truth with me.

An Idiot Abroad – My Adventures In London – Part 1

I write this post from my hotel room in London. Despite the street outside sounding like a scene from ‘The Fast And The Furious’ last night, I managed to sleep quite well. We are staying in Mayfair, which is one of the most expensive properties on a Monopoly board. It’s apparently quite posh, swanky and other words to that effect. I will take their word for this as we arrived at the hotel at 9:00pm last night and I was in bed by 9:15.

The journey from Belfast to London passed without incident. Oh, apart from the drone sighting at Heathrow which meant we were kept on the plane for an extra 30 minutes upon landing. Tempers flared and mutinous mutterings abounded as the captain and his crew valiantly attempted to keep passengers in their rows with their seatbelts on. I buried my nose in my Kindle and pined for bed.

We eventually disembarked and, after a 17 mile hike, caught the Heathrow Express to Paddington. My colleague has little experience of public transport in the capital so it was left to yours truly to navigate the route to Mayfair. This involved Phase 3 of our arduous journey – the London Underground. This entailed catching the Circle Line to Baker Street before transferring to the Jubilee Line, and continuing on to Green Park.

I worked out the route, mastered the ticket purchase machine, and even managed to get us through the barriers without being knocked over by herds of Oyster card waving commuters. After another 5 mile trot we found our platform, to be informed by a disembodied voice from above that there were delays on other lines due to there ‘being a person on the line at Sloane Square.’

The tube journey itself was a mildly disappointing experience. There were no stabbings, mass brawls or tense hostage situations involving Tom Cruise or that other bloke, what’s his face, Jason Bourne. Our transfer passed without incident and we arrived at Green Park in good time. From there, our hotel was a two minute walk away. I was home and hosed, or so I thought.

I spent the next 20 minutes travelling up and down in a Victorian era lift which resolutely refused to deposit me on the 5th floor. Other residents came and went, while I smiled and nodded at them while frantically pressing buttons like a demented lift attendant. I contemplated using the stairs but a sign sternly informed me that they were for emergency use only. In the end I stormed to reception, where the bemused concierge looked at me as if I was an utter idiot.

‘Have you used your keycard sir?’ he politely enquired, before referring me to the large sign within the lift indicating that the lift would only function if you inserted your room keycard in the equally visible slot. I mumbled an embarrassed apology and sheepishly retreated to the now perfectly functioning lift. I had triumphed over drones and one of the most complex underground systems in the world, only to fall flat on my face at the final hurdle.

I need to get up now and do battle with the aforementioned lift shaft again. Who knows when I will reach the breakfast buffet, if ever. Stay tuned for a later update on my adventures in London. Our meeting this morning is in Pall Mall. It’s the pink section on a Monopoly board. Then, it’s back to Belfast this evening. That seems like an awfully long way away at present. And who knows what adventures lie in between.

What’s been your weirdest lift/elevator experience?

Have you ever been stuck on a plane or train?

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

I’m on a road trip today. Not that I particularly want to, what with this current lurgy still afflicting me. The only trip I want to take these days is up the wooden hill to my bed. But, needs must, the hatchlings require feeding and Fionnuala has cushions to buy. So I’m off to London today with work. I return late tomorrow night with a busy schedule in between. I can hardly contain myself. Hmmm.

Fun fact. Northern Ireland has two main airports. Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport. I’m flying out of the latter, named after one of the city’s legendary sons, the Manchester United footballer. Regarded by many as the greatest footballer of all time, including the legendary Pele no less. The Spanish media christened him ‘El Beatle’, such was his fame.

Best truly had the world at his feet, such were his silky footballing skills. But he succumbed to the glamour and the glitz and his incredible talent was stunted by alcoholism and a life of excess. He died prematurely of liver failure, the world never seeing his full potential. His burial was akin to a state funeral, with thousands lining the streets to pay homage to a sporting great.

His death was all the sadder, given this unrealised potential. A European Cup winner, he left United due to his chaotic lifestyle and followed a career path which meandered and then flatlined with a number of increasingly smaller clubs. It was a life of unfulfilled potential. He could have been so much more, he should have been so much more. His legacy was ‘what could have been.’

This is a question that intermittently haunts me as I navigate life. What could have been? Could I have done better? I know I could have? Could I have done more? Most definitely. Have I spurned countless opportunities? Absolutely. Have I fulfilled my potential? Probably not. Is there still a chance I can? YES! I may be 48 years old (but a strikingly young looking 48 years old at that) but I can.

Potential is such a subjective term. The good news is that there is plenty of it around. We all have it, by the bucketful. It’s coursing through our veins. Yet it, in itself, is not enough. It can only be realised through hard work and commitment. That is where so many of us fall away. We are beguiled by the earthly trinkets of this world which tempt and distract us from our true calling on this world.

There’s a famous story about George Best. He is in a five star hotel room, cavorting with his girlfriend, a current Miss World. He is sipping champagne and the bed is covered with banknotes. He is laughing, partying, the happiest man in the world. A hotel porter enters and looks around the room. He fixes Best with a sombre expression and asks ‘So, tell me Mr. Best. Where did it all go wrong?’

Best died a legend. They named an airport after him. His face appears on our banknotes and, yes, there is now a George Best Hotel in the city centre. But, to many, his legacy is one of failure and unfulfilled potential. He achieved so much on his God given talent, but there could have been so much more. To many, he is a hero, a role model. To me, he is a warning sign. I don’t want to be another George Best. Do you?

Are you fulfilling your potential?

What more can you do with your life?

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.

Belfast 2019

I’ve been a bit under the weather of late, and unable to run, but it’s good to have targets so I thought I’d write about my main racing target for 2019 – the Belfast Marathon on 05 May. It seems a long way off at the minute, but for most people January marks the beginning of their marathon training programme for Belfast. Due to this sickness, I’m not quite there yet but I’m hopeful the situation will improve soon.

This will be my 4th Belfast Marathon and my 10th in total. Not bad for the out of shape wreck who first donned running shoes almost five years ago. There have also been a raft of half marathon and 10K runs for good measure. Like last year, my warm up race for Belfast will be my home town half marathon, in Omagh, on 06 April. As with Belfast, it will be my fourth time running this undulating route.

Belfast will be particularly exciting this year, as it is a new route starting at the iconic Stormont Parliament Buildings and winding its way through all parts of the city before finishing off in Ormeau Park. There are several sections of the route I’m looking forward to, areas of the city I have never run through before. What won’t be different will be the fantastic atmosphere and crowd support. Belfast is a special city.

I’m not running for a charity this year, I’m doing this one for myself. Collecting sponsorship brings its own pressures and I think I’ll have enough on my plate just getting to the start line in one piece. And as for time? Well, I’d be delighted with sub 4 hours having run the other three in 3:56, 3:33 and 3:51 respectively. I’ll have to research the new route to see if it’s as challenging as the original course was in sections.

You might be thinking to yourself, is he mad? Hasn’t he enough to be getting on with? Family life is exhausting at the best of times, not to mention work, blogging commitments and the small matter of writing and publishing a book. But I need to run, even if it’s slowly and way off the pace I’m accustomed to. That is frustrating, but nowhere near as frustrating as not running at all.

There are physical benefits of course. Running keeps me in shape and I’ve worked hard at my fitness these past few years. But more importantly, is my mental health. Running maintains me on an even keel, it detoxifies and purges a lot of the nonsense that rattles around my head on a daily basis. It focuses me. I don’t want to run, I need to run. It keeps the wolves from the door. For there are many of them.

I’m heading out for a lunchtime plod later. It won’t be pretty and I’ll not be setting any personal bests. But I’m feeling a little better and I can’t sit around on my bum any longer. The pain in my legs afterwards will be compensated by the sense of achievement. 26.2 miles seems a long, long way at the minute but I’m going to get there, one step at at time. I’ll keep you all updated as to my progress.

Don’t Tell My Wife I’ve Written This

They are legion. Breeding. Multiplying. Every time I turn my back, more of them appear. Cloning. Driving me to the depths of despair and the heights of frustration. Are they a hallucination? A figment of my overworked imagination? Is there a medical term for such a psychosis? Do I require medication, counselling, a lie down in a darkened room? No, for they are real and I am, therefore, doomed.

Cushions….

It all started innocently enough. Almost as an afterthought, Fionnuala mentioned one day last month that she had her eye on a new set of cushions for the living room. I thought nothing of it, as I leave all such interior design matters to her refined eye. I struggle to match my socks in the morning so this was a whole new world to me. A world I had no intention of setting foot upon.

I had my side of the sofa, and Fionnuala had hers. We had a cushion each, with one in the middle to act as a security buffer or sterile corridor in the event of any unwanted infractions by either party. The United Nations were on speed dial in the unlikely event that this occurred. Unlikely, but you can never be too careful where such matters are concerned. All was well with the world.

Now we have three cushions. Each. With a Great Wall further separating us. Woe betide me, if I attempt to dislodge any of them even a fraction of an inch. I used to recline and relax on our leather settee. Now I teeter on the edge of it, scared to breathe. Nothing, but nothing can be found, in this forest of fabric. Phones, Kindles, remote controls, even Rebecca disappeared for several hours over the festive period.

I thought there was a glimmer of hope as one set featured some elegant swans within a wintry backdrop. Perhaps they will be gone by Easter. But what seasonal horrors will replace them? Chicks? Bunny rabbits? The mind boggles. Either way, I am fighting a losing battle for the one domain where I thought I was safe. If a man’s home is his castle, then surely the sofa is his throne.

And there’s more. Oh, so much more. The madness has spread. To the bedroom. Never one to rest on her laurels, Fionnuala has started spring cleaning a full two months early. The cushion invasion has spread to the bedroom. I returned home yesterday to be greeted by an impenetrable barrier of the abominable objects. A Grand National winner would have struggled to hurdle them.

I have estimated that if I want to go to bed at 10:30 p.m. I will actually need to commence operations at around 9:45 p.m. in order to complete a successful excavation and reach my mattress. Any less time, will result in abject failure. There are also a myriad of Health and Safety ramifications. Do I now need to wear a hard hat when on site? Perhaps a hi-vis vest, clipboard and whistle?

If you are talking to my wife, for she occasionally blogs herself, deny all knowledge of this post. It can be our little secret, okay? For I fear the consequences if my concerns are divulged to her. Suffocated under an avalanche of cushions or battered to an unrecognisable pulp by them. Neither modus operandi particularly appeals to me. Instead, I will grit my teeth, smile, and continue to teeter.

On the brink….

Are you a lover of multiple cushions?

Or do they strike dread into your heart?

What household habits within your home drive you insane?

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?

The Days When Everything Clicks

Today was one of those days as far as Adam’s rugby went. He was selected to play for Lurgan College’s 2nd XV away to Banbridge Academy. Banbridge had won the corresponding fixture 10-7 earlier in the year, and another close contest was expected. We were missing a few players however, due to the Christmas holidays, so my hopes were tempered accordingly.

How wrong I was. From the kickoff, Lurgan tore into the opposition like teenagers possessed. I don’t know what they put in their Christmas turkey but, whatever it was, it worked. A series of surging runs, slick passing and crunching tackles in the first five minutes set the standard for the remainder of the match. Lurgan emerged 48-7 winners, with Adam scoring twice.

He was then called upon to play the last 10 minutes of the 1st XV match, due to one of our players going off injured. Showing no fear at the step up in class against bigger and older boys, he played his part in a smart passage of play which culminated in Lurgan scoring under the posts. Lurgan ended up winning 43-15. Adam, the only member of the squad who had played in two winning sides in one morning.

On the drive home Adam confided in me that there had been times earlier in the season when his spirits had been low, due to the team underperforming. Despite that, he never missed an early morning gym session; nor did he fail to attend a training session, despite the grimmest of weather. He turned up week after week, playing his heart out in under strength sides.

Today, everything clicked. All the hard work and perseverance paid off and Adam earned the reward. The Schools Cup, the biggest school’s rugby tournament in the country, starts in two weeks time. Lurgan College will be competing against the top sides in and Adam will be going toe to toe with the best schoolboy players in Northern Ireland. He was worked hard for that privilege and Fionnuala and I were very proud parents today.

Talent and natural ability can only take you so far. It counts for nothing, unless it is underpinned by hard work and determination. Often the most brilliant talents fall by the wayside, distracted by other trinkets and temptations. It’s so very easy to take your eye off the ball, your foot off the pedal; so easy to succumb to the doubters and mockers. To succeed, you need more.

Hard work. Dedication, refusing to give up whatever the obstacles and whatever hand grenades are lobbed in your direction. I often doubt my own ability as a runner and writer. I let my head drop and listen to the voice telling me that I’m not good enough, that I’ll never be good enough. Voices from my past, voices from the here and now and, who knows, voices further down this road we call life.

I always seek to set a positive example to my son, to encourage and support him no matter where his rugby career takes him. Fionnuala and I treat the girls exactly the same way. We live for them and through them. But today, Adam made me a very proud father and taught me an equally valuable lesson. Dreams can come true, but only if you are prepared to put the hard work in. That is where the best days are.

The days when everything clicks.

The 12 Blogging Questions Of Christmas – Day 6 – What Do You Believe In?

Sixteen years ago today, Fionnuala made one of the worst decisions of her life. She married me! I’m joking…..I think. Since then, we have had our ups and downs, but we are still together and facing all the world has to throw at us. We have been blessed with three wonderful kids, and I’m looking forward to finishing work today and spending five (yes five) days off, in their company.

I won’t be running over the Christmas break, due to illness, so hope to spend as much time as possible lounging on the sofa watching Christmas movies and observing the ongoing chaos all around me. I don’t deserve my wife and kids, but I have them anyway. They are always there to support me, be it in my work, my writing, or my running. They believe in me, so I must be doing something right.

Christmas is all about belief. For the kids, it can be whether or not the big guy in the red suit exists and, if so, are you on the good or naughty list. For others, it can be whether or not the Son of God arrived over 2000 Christmases ago, or is that nothing more than an elaborate fairytale. We all need to believe in something. For if we don’t believe in something, then we’ll fall for anything.

What do you believe in?

Who believes in you?

The 12 Blogging Questions Of Christmas – What Was Your Favourite Book Of 2018?

Blogging is all about interaction and community. During the course of 2018 I have stumbled across all kinds of varied, interesting people. All with relevant and inspiring stories. I’m hoping to find, and interact with, many more in 2019 and beyond. To encourage this intent, I’m going to run a festive themed blog series over the next twelve days which I have imaginatively titled…..cue drum roll……

The 12 Questions of Christmas!!!

Catchy, huh?

Each day I will ask a question. All you have to do is comment and engage with other like minded bloggers. Who knows, your new blogging best friend could be out there just waiting to hear from you. The Lennon to your McCartney, the Simon to your Garfunkel, the Sonny to your Cher. Okay then, maybe not the last one, but you get my drift.

So, without further ado, here’s today’s question.

What’s the best book you read in 2018 and why?

For me, it has to be ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. Startlingly original. Dark, funny, quirky, heart wrenching. Just a few of the words to describe the debut novel which stood head and shoulders over anything else on my Kindle. With honourable mentions to ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn and ‘Bonfire’ by Krysten Ritter. Anyway, enough of me. Over to you….

Something Has Been On My Mind.

I wrote some time ago that I was no longer going to write exclusively about Christian topics. I described myself as a Christian who blogs, as opposed to a Christian blogger. My reasons for this have been well documented so I don’t think I need to repeat them on this post. Suffice to say, I felt awkward and uncomfortable doing so, given my own fractured faith. Enough said.

At the time, I received a lot of support for my stance. From Christians and non-Christians alike. People replied that they respected my decision and the rationale behind that. Phrases like ‘refreshing honesty’ were thrown about and I felt vindicated. People understood, or at least I thought they did. I forged forward, content that all was well and I could focus on other topics close to my heart.

Very, very gradually though I began to realise that all was not as rosy as I first thought. Certain Christian bloggers stopped reading and commenting on my posts, others less and less so. It has been a trickle, as opposed to a flood, but a noticeable one, nonetheless. Like a leaky tap in the corner of the room. Barely audible but there all the same. Drip. Drip. Drip. In certain quarters, I have become somewhat of a blogging outcast.

It’s not as if I’m shouting atheism from the rooftops. I still consider myself a Christian, albeit a deeply flawed one. The majority of my posts contain a consistent Christian message. Love others. It’s just I choose not to deliver it as overtly as I used to, and as others continue to do. I don’t quote Scripture, although I still read my Bible. My faith is more private. I’m seeking to focus on my relationship with Jesus.

My daily views have dipped considerably and for a long time I was unable to put my finger on the reason for it. Or rather, I chose not to. I didn’t want to speak out loud what I’d been privately thinking for some time. Even less so, I haven’t wanted to air my thoughts. Yet, here I am, writing about it. It’s that whole ‘refreshing honesty’ thing again. I write what I see. I might be horribly mistaken. But that’s what I see.

WWJD – What Would Jesus Do, or rather think? I’m not sure what his views on social media would be. I know it can be a fantastic evangelical tool, if used properly. But I still reckon he would be old school when it came to missionary work. Walking the streets, looking the broken in the eye, loving the unlovable. Not sitting behind a keyboard, tapping merrily away. You can only do so much from there.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still a core of Christian bloggers who I read, and interact with, on a daily basis. They have always shown love in the way they support and encourage me, no matter what I write about. But I see a worrying trend amongst other Christians on WordPress to only interact with other overt Christian bloggers. Isn’t that kind of missing the point?

I saw the same thinking when I went to church. We stick to our own, we don’t reach out beyond our comfort zone. We smile politely and nod and say all the right things, but where is the integrity, the desire to get your hands dirty and mingle in the mire and the mud of the sinful. For that is where Jesus would be. Up to his knees in it. Be that on WordPress or in a doorway with an alcoholic, a drug addict, whoever needed him.

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?

Happy Birthday Hannah

Today marks a special day at chez Black. Our middle hatchling, Hannah, turns 15 years old. Fionnuala and I are deeply proud of the wonderful young woman she is turning into. She has her moments, don’t we all, but her kind nature, sensitive heart and bubbly personality serves as an inspiration to us all. We love her almost as much as she loves Shaun Mendes. Happy Birthday Hannah. Have a fantastic day shopping with your mummy and granny.

Only People In The Movies Slip On Banana Skins

Have you ever watched an old black and white movie where one of the characters slips on a banana skin and then launches into mid air before coming crashing back to earth again. Cue howls of laughter. Oh stop, my aching sides. I always thought such scenes were confined to the silver screen. Surely such idiots didn’t exist in the real world. Until two days ago, that was.

I was walking through the city centre, on my way to the train station, minding my own business, when suddenly I was propelled skywards. In a scene more befitting of a slapstick version of ‘The Matrix’ I found myself experiencing a weird, out of body sensation. I realised I was in mid air and hung there, awaiting gravity to do ‘its thang’ and return me to terra firma. I didn’t have to wait long.

My right hip collided painfully with the pavement and I lay there, dazed and confused, staring at the offending article. A banana skin. I was more embarrassed than hurt. It was a busy street and I cringed, expecting howls of laughter or, at the very least, a stifled snigger. Nothing. I waited some more. Life continued on around me, as if I was invisible. Had I imagined the entire episode?

Hauling myself gingerly to my feet, I checked all was in order, desperately avoiding eye contact with any of the pedestrians hurrying past in either direction. Too late. An old man caught my eye. Oh well, at least he had the compassion to show an interest in my well being. I braced myself for an embarrassing conversation about how I was fine really, no harm done, thanks for asking anyway, etc etc.

‘You slipped on a banana skin,’ he cheerily announced, before continuing on his way, a broad smile on his face. ‘Er yes, I was aware of that,’ I sourly replied, not sure if he was extracting the urine or somehow thought I was unaware as to what had happened. An old lady then distracted me, by asking was I alright. In the the meantime, 8,473 other people had scurried past, unconcerned as to my plight.

I thanked the lady, muttering I was fine, before fleeing the scene as quickly as I could, given my aching hip and bruised pride. In hindsight, I should have disposed of the banana skin, to save somebody else a similar plight, but at that moment in time, all I wanted was for the ground to open and swallow me up. Later though, I thought about it more. Are people really that uncaring in today’s society?

Okay, I wasn’t badly hurt, but I could have been. Bar Olly Obvious and the old lady, it was as it my aerial antics had been invisible. Are city folk that conditioned nowadays to avoid interacting with other people, for fear of being stabbed, mugged or otherwise harmed? Where have all the Good Samaritans gone? Would I have ran to someone’s aid if I witnessed a similar scenario? I’d like to think I would have. Does that make me a minority of one?

Life is full of banana skins, scattered along the road we travel, just waiting to trip us up along the way. It’s inevitable we will all come a cropper one day and find ourselves flat on our backs, staring up at the sky. It’s then that we need people around who love us and will help us back onto our feet. People who will always love us, no matter what the circumstances. People who hang around, when the going gets tough.

We need those people. We also need to be those people.

Have you ever slipped on a banana skin? Or witnessed someone else? How did you feel? What did you do?

Have you the people around you, who will step up to the mark, when you need help in your life?

Where Are You God?

It was a frosty start this morning as we arose to face a dark and dreary Tuesday. The car thermometer informed us it was below freezing as Fionnuala drove me out to the train station for my daily commute to Belfast. Ahead of us was another busy day. The weekend seems a long way off, and tends to be even busier than the week itself. The Christmas break can’t come quick enough.

My local train station in the morning resembles the American evacuation of Hanoi. Utter chaos. Woefully inadequate car parking facilities mean vehicles are abandoned on the road, as school children and office workers converge on the tiny stop. The mighty minds at Northern Ireland Translink have also cut the number of carriages, meaning getting a seat is nigh on impossible.

We cram onto the train, jostling for position and breathing space. I’m convinced I will be asked one of these days to sit on the roof, more akin to Mumbai than Moira. Everyone looks suitably miserable on the journey into Belfast, the majority with their noses buried in their phones or other electronic devices. Eye contact is kept to a minimum and Heaven forbid you attempt to strike up a conversation.

When we arrive in Belfast, it’s a stampede onto the platform and every man and woman for themselves in the dash for the barriers. Where sour faced staff await us, begrudgingly inspecting our tickets before allowing us through and onto the hustle and bustle of the city centre and beyond. Despite the lights being up, I don’t think the festive spirit has gripped the city yet. I’m not sure if it ever will.

The walk to the office is equally grim. It’s as if the number of homeless people in Belfast multiplies by the day. They huddle in doorways and shopfronts, cocooned in blankets, but still shivering against the biting cold. I walk past and onwards to my warm office, where petty office political wrangles await. Want to fully expose yourself to the lowest human qualities? Greed, arrogance, deceit? Work in an open plan office for a year.

It’s at times like this I ask, where is God? For I don’t see him on my daily commute. Instead, I see a world I’m not particularly proud to be a part of, a world that seems to be spiralling out of control. God has been very quiet in our lives of late. Hopes have been dashed, prayers gone unanswered, and obstacles loom up in every direction to frustrate and restrict us. I still believe in God, but I do wonder at times. Where are you?

Then, Fionnuala pointed out the sky to me this morning. She was looking up, whereas I was glumly staring ahead. That sums up the two of us quite well. The photo below doesn’t do justice to the majestic orange and purple hue, framing a crescent moon, kept company by a lone star, blazing brilliantly over the gloomy earth below. I wonder if the Wise Men looked upon a similar sight as they journeyed to Bethlehem.

The sight gave me hope. Hope that there are better times, and that God has better plans ahead for us. It certainly doesn’t feel that way, at present, but I guess that is what faith is all about. Without hope, we are lost. We need to believe in something, otherwise life is pointless. We need guidance. A single star in a chilly morning sky might not be much. But for me, today, it was enough.

What do you believe in?

Can You?

Northern Ireland seems to be in a state of permanent darkness at present. When I wake up it’s dark, cold, wet and windy. I go to work and sit in an office all day. With no windows. Then I come home. It’s dark, cold, wet and windy. The only time I encounter daylight is on my lunchtime run. When it’s slightly less dark but still cold, wet and windy. Has the Arctic Circle been moved south without anyone telling us?

These conditions affect us all but at least I have a warm house to go home to at night. On my walk to and from the office I feel sad for the growing number of rough sleepers who I pass. I stopped the other day and gave a few pounds to one of my homeless friends, Inesa. She was huddled outside the train station with her dog, Poppy. Poppy is in immaculate health. Shiny coat, wet nose and well fed. Inesa, not so much.

You see, Inesa puts her dog’s health before her own. She told me she has had a flu for three weeks and her boyfriend, Vladimir, was too ill to venture down into the town from the park where they sleep at night, when they don’t have the £40 needed to stay in a bed and breakfast. Inesa is too scared to stay in a hostel because of the hassle she gets from another girl, Maria.

Maria told me a different story, of course. The truth is an evasive commodity and I have to take everything I’m told with a generous pinch of salt. I’m minded to believe Inesa, though. She is always sober, polite and humble when I see her. She never asks for anything and when I do offer to help, she always accepts it reluctantly. She once told me she felt bad taking money from me, as I have children to look after.

Inesa is on a journey, as am I, and our paths have chosen to cross on the drab streets of Belfast. The aforementioned Maria is the inspiration behind the character of Meredith Starc, in the book I’m just finished, but there’s a dash of Inesa in there as well. Meredith also has that humility and pride, despite her circumstances. I told Inesa this once and she laughed with genuine delight, that she would end up in a novel.

I was running along the Lagan Towpath yesterday, accompanied by two rowers who cut a swathe through the water to my left. All three of us were working hard. I was pumping my legs while their arms strained to propel themselves along. It was a fairly even contest. At times I was ahead of them, while on other occasions they forged into the lead. But, we were all heading in the same direction.

My prayer and hope today is that Inesa, Maria, Vladimir and all the other rough sleepers in Belfast, continue on their allotted journeys, with brighter times ahead. And if this post can prick the conscience of one person today to show kindness and love to similar folk in their own town and city, then my work is done. They deserve better and I know I can do more. Much more. Can you?

Who Would Win A Fight Between Donald Trump’s Hair And Tom Selleck’s Moustache?

Living in Northern Ireland, a country obsessed with politicians who are utterly incapable of agreeing about anything, you would think an educated, intelligent young man about town like myself would have more than a passing knowledge of the subject. Well, yah boo sucks to you, for I have very little interest in our learned leaders. As they are, by and large, buffoons of the highest order.

I don’t understand Brexit other than it appears to preoccupy the majority of the United Kingdom. Hard borders? Me no understand. Nor do I care to. No, whenever the news is on, I tend to zone out and focus on matters utterly irrelevant to what is actually being said. This happened earlier today when I watched an interview of Donald Trump on the White House lawn. He was about to get into a helicopter.

Firstly the background noise suggested that he was standing quite close to the helicopter for he could barely be heard about the sound of its rotor blades. He was shouting, something else which he tends to do a lot. I couldn’t tell you what he was shouting about, but I’m sure it was very important and probably involved the Russians or the Saudi Arabians. Possibly both.

No, there was only one question burning a hole within me. Why doesn’t somebody tell the helicopter pilot to turn the engine off.? That way, there would be no need for POTUS to bellow like an angry hippopotamus and become so red faced I feared he was about to suffer an embolism. You would think he could hold fire a few minutes, to allow the most powerful man in the free world to speak in more measured tones.

Equally disturbing was Mr. President’s hair which has always fascinated me. It has a strangely mesmeric quality. Whenever it appears on my television screen, I am hopelessly glued to it which is all the more ironic given it’s attachment to Donald’s skull. Yet, in the face of high powered chopper blades, it didn’t budge an inch. Not an inch, I tells ya!

Is there where the NASA budget is currently being siphoned off? To fund top secret government research into industrial strength hair products. I suspect this may lie at the heart of improved US-North Korean relations of late. Kim Jong-Un anyone? Never a hair out of place. I’m right you know, I know I am. Putin has no need for such products. Never mind the hole in the ozone layer, if it even exists that is. More hairspray please.

The only man who even comes close to matching Trump with regards follicular matters is Tom Selleck. He of Magnum P.I., Friends and most recently, Blue Bloods. Quite frankly, the man has most magnificent moustache I have ever set eyes upon. His face furniture is unparalleled. I’m convinced he got the Magnum gig, due to similar helicopter/hair related issues as referred to above.

Which brings me to the heart of this post. Never mind international trade treaties or gun law restrictions? The real debate is – If Selleck and Trump were to go toe to toe in a wind tunnel then who would prevail? The immovable barnet or the unstoppable lip caterpillar? I ask that you give this matter your urgent consideration and comment below. The world thanks you.

It Was Too Good To Eat….So I Ate It

I was in a coffee shop the other day and was drawn to this bad boy. A raspberry and white chocolate scone. An uber scone, a scone to end all scones. Thankfully the calorific content was nowhere to be seen, as it lured me onto the rocks of decadence. I was powerless to resist and, before I knew it, the scone was on my plate and destined for my stomach. Scones like this are the reason I run 40 miles a week.

I’m happy to report it tasted just as good as it looked although, if I’m honest, it barely touched the sides going down. I was tempted to go up to the counter for a second one, but at the last minute resisted the urge to make an utter pig of myself in public. Self control and Stephen are not normally on speaking terms, but on this occasion I reined in my baser cravings and stuck to the one serving.

I’m not very good at saying ‘no.’ I’m a creature of excess. When I drank, one or two beers wasn’t enough, I had to keep going until I passed out, making a complete idiot of myself in the process. When I took up running, I wasn’t happy at reaching 5K. I kept going until I crossed the finish line in my first marathon. And then ran another eight. So far. Number 10 is planned for next year.

The good thing about running is that I can pretty much eat what I want, within reason. My thighs might ache, but it’s worth it when you can look forward to edible treats at the end of the day. In the bad old days, I would binge eat and then crash diet, surviving on toast and Diet Coke. This behaviour was all tied into my OCD, resulting in bizarre eating habits which I found incredibly hard to shake.

Many people see OCD as a controlling mental illness and, to an extent, it is. Victims are shackled to an ever decreasing circle of unwanted obsessive thinking and irrational compulsions. We also lose control, though. Control of our lives as we succumb to the routine, always the routine. It takes control of our lives as we simultaneously lose control. It tricks, it seduces, it tears us to pieces.

OCD promises release and relief from its mental anguish if we only wave the white flag and surrender to the compulsion. The thought of even momentary escape from it, is tempting beyond belief. We are dragged, kicking and screaming, into its hungry embrace. Like my raspberry and white chocolate scone, that next pint, that next whatever my obsession of the week was, I couldn’t say no.

It was too good to eat, but I still had to eat it. The texture, the taste, it lured me to the extent where, before I know it, I’m cramming it’s sugary goodness down my throat. I cross the line, I push the button, I crave the one thing that’s bad for me, but I just have to have it. Until reality sets in. The next time I wake up with a hangover, step on the scales or fall down the OCD rabbit hole without a bottom.

I manage my OCD today through a combination of medication, having the right people around me and being transparent and accountable about it. I can never rest on my laurels, for it is a slippery and cunning enemy. All it needs is one chunk in my armour, one gap in my defences and it will pour through. It will unleash hell and I will be powerless to resist. OCD is a killer, but I’m alive today and that’s all that matters.

Do you struggle with addictive behaviour? How do you control such urges?

Where are the gaps in your defences? How do you prevent them from being breached?

It’s 23 November….Happy Christmas!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Er….okay. I realise it’s not even December yet, but Fionnuala and I buckled to pressure from our daughters today. Hannah has already been watching Christmas movies for several weeks, and was belting out festive tunes this morning in the car. It was only a matter of time before I was dispatched to the roof space, armed only with a shaky stepladder and a wonky head torch which has seen better days.

Every January I vow to put away the Christmas decorations in an orderly, systematic manner so that the following December, or mid November, I can easily retrieve them without sustaining a hernia in the process. And every January, they get haphazardly hurled into the pitch black void and forgotten about for the next twelve months. Do I ever learn my lesson? No, I do not.

There follows the traditional sight of yours truly stumbling about in the darkness, muttering and mumbling at the grievous injustice of it all. I wrestle with artificial trees, hunt down recalcitrant Santa figures and roller skate on stray baubles, my arms flailing like windmills as I struggle to stay upright and avoid an unscheduled visit to Accident & Emergency. The joy of Christmas. No. Not ever.

This year’s frolics were enhanced by being on call. There is no more bizarre feeling than conducting high powered telephone conversations while balancing precariously ten feet off the ground in pyjama bottom, a tatty hoodie and several garlands of tinsel. Please do not tell my bosses any of the above. Christmas on the unemployment queue would not go down very well with Fionnuala and the hatchlings.

My efforts were not in vain, however. While I was lurching from one calamity to the next, Fionnuala and the kids were assembling the masterpiece below. I take no credit whatsoever for it, as my wife is undoubtedly the brains and beauty of our marriage. Her innovation and imagination when it comes to all things creative, never fails to amaze me. I can barely tie my own shoe laces.

So, Christmas has arrived at chez Black, and not before time. As ever, ours is the first tree up in the street this year. That said, Fionnuala has vowed we will be scaling down the decorations this time around. No seven foot inflatable Homer Simpson Santa’s in the front garden and NASA will not be able to see our house from space. The plus side is we won’t have a five figure electricity bill to look forward to in January.

You may share in our early festive spirits. You too, may be breaking out the mince pies and binge watching endless Christmas movies which all have the same plot; successful business type who hates Christmas returns to their home town, only to fall in love with their high school sweetheart (eventually) and, in doing so, discover the true meaning of Christmas. Tell me I’m wrong?

I promise not to blog about Christmas again until at least 01 December. Although, that may be a lie. Now excuse me while I extricate myself from the roof space. I’ve been up here for hours, my head torch is fading and I’m starting to get hungry. If I’m not back on here tomorrow can someone contact the emergency services. Or at the very least, lob a few mince pies in my direction.

When does Christmas start in your house?

Who puts the decorations up in your home?

Where is the strangest place you’ve taken a phone call?

Why do all Christmas movies have the same plot?

I’m Giving Up Blogging To Join The Circus

Relax. I’m not. Although….

I was driving home from work last week, after a brutally tough day in the office. My head was fried, my brains were mush. All I wanted to do was get home and vegetate on the sofa. I was too tired to write, run, do anything really. My neck ached, a sure fire sign of a stressed Stephen. That’s when I saw it. Sitting in front of me at traffic lights. Sign from above or utter coincidence? I had no idea. But there it was.

The circus school van…..

I had no idea such centres of learning existed. A school where I could learn to crack a whip and traverse a tightrope. A seat of education where I could master the art of being fired from a cannonball, yet live to tell the tale. This was my chance, an opportunity to escape the monotonous morass of life. Where the bills mounted up and responsibility weighed heavy on tired shoulders and weary eyes.

Then reality struck as it invariably does, and the dream evaporated in front of my eyes, before it had even taken shape. The grass wasn’t greener on the other side. The side where the big top sat proud, it’s flag fluttering enticingly in a refreshing breeze. I couldn’t ditch life, and run away to join the circus. I had a wife, three kids and a border terrier. What’s more, there was all this….

Ahem. In no particular order….

1 – I’m scared of heights. So you can forget about the tightrope walking, or being flung through the air from one trapeze artist to the next. I don’t care if there’s a safety net below to catch me if I fall. I ain’t going up there. It’s non-negotiable. Plus, nobody wants to see me in sequins and lycra. That’s a bridge too far, in anyone’s books. As in, bridge between Hong Kong and mainland China too far.

2 – I’m scared of clowns. No, make that terrified. Clowns are evil. Ever since I watched the library scene in Stephen King’s ‘It,’ where Pennywise the Clown is standing there with the red balloon. Then there’s Brian Denehy in that John Wayne Gacy movie. The zombie clown in ‘Zombieland.’ The list is endless. Clowns are a phobia I will take to my grave. Behind their rictus grins lie madness.

3 – I can’t juggle. Give me two batons and I’m fine. Add a third, and within seconds, I’m all fingers and thumbs. My hand to eye coordination, what little there is of it, goes to pieces and it all comes crashing to the ground. It’s a metaphor for my current circumstances really. There are too many balls in the air, so something has to give. And as for flaming torches? Let’s move swiftly on, shall we?

4 – Only an idiot would get in a cage with a ravenous lion, armed with a chair, whip and comedy moustache. If Leo really wanted to, I’m sure he could make quick work of Marco the Magnificent or whatever he chooses to call himself. Plus, there’s the whole ethical side of it, which I won’t even go into. Suffice to say, the taming of lions is a non starter. I couldn’t even train our Charlie to sit and give you his paw.

So, as I said, relax. I’ll be here on WordPress for the foreseeable future. I’ll run and I’ll write. I’ll slog on at work and do the best I can to finish this book I’ve been droning on about for over a year. But I won’t be picking up the phone and calling Belfast Circus School. Life in a caravan, traveling the length and breadth of our fair island is not for me. I’ll stick to what I know. Sometimes that’s the best way.

Do you ever dream about running away and joining the circus? Or just running away?

What are the pros and cons of running away?

Dreams Of My Father

I lost my father eight years ago to prostate cancer. Since then, I’ve tried to keep memories of him alive. I’ve run marathons in honour of him, written a book where his legacy is touched upon, even had his name tattooed on my forearm. But I’ve rarely dreamed of him. Which has always puzzled me, given the impact he had, and continues to have, on my life. Until last night that was.

Last night I dreamt of my father. I was on a train platform with an old man who had missed his train. I was with friends but told them to go on, and I would wait with the old man until the next train arrived. He had with him a bundle of old police files, decades old, detailing past investigations. I began to leaf through them, to pass the time, if nothing else.

You see, my father was a part time police officer when I was a young boy, growing up in the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles.’ Every night he went out to work, and we prayed he would come back to us the following morning. Many men and women didn’t. Thankfully, my father did. I grew up to become a civilian investigator involved in police oversight. I police the police, if that makes sense. So, I had an interest in these files.

As I flicked through them, I realised some of the documents referred to my father. I was excited and enthralled, keen to learn more about his police career, which I was too young to understand at the time. I looked up from the files and saw a group of men standing to my right. One of them had his back to me, but he looked familiar. As he turned slightly and I viewed him in profile, I realised it was my father.

Imagine my excitement. I summoned him over, eager to show him what I had discovered in the files, and quiz him about their contents. He sat beside me but, try as I might, I could not find the file. I rifled through the paperwork time and time again, but the section pertaining to him had vanished. My father sat patiently, not saying anything, as I grew increasingly frantic and impatient.

I was letting him down and concerned he would leave again before I had the opportunity to share with him what I had found. I had so many questions and this was my big chance, but it was slipping through my fingers. I woke up, saddened the dream had ended but glad my father had visited. It was before he fell sick, when he was a healthy, strong man. No job was too big, no task too cumbersome. He could turn his hand to anything.

Gardening, car engines, plumbing, electrical tasks. He could do it all. Whereas I can’t change a plug and don’t know one end of a carburettor from the other. He was a man’s man, whereas I’m the least practical person you could ever meet. His talents certainly didn’t rub off on me, yet in other ways we were so alike. As in my dream, there was so much I wanted to say to him before he died. But never did, for one reason or another.

One day your loved ones are there, the next they are gone. We take their presence for granted, say we will see them next week, promise to phone them, but then the business of life gets in the way. My advice? If you have to, need to say something important to a loved one today, then say it. Today. For tomorrow might be too late. Leaving you clinging to fading memories and fleeting dreams.

Do you dream of loved ones who have passed on?

Do you need to say something important to a loved one today?

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?

HAPPY BIRTHDAY REBECCA

Happy Birthday to this 12 year old girl today. If you don’t know her, then I’ll spell out to you how much we love her.

R – Rowdy

E – Energetic

B – Beautiful

E – Exciting

C – Clever

C – Cheeky….Sometimes

A – Athletic

HAPPY 12th BIRTHDAY REBECCA!! 😊♥️🎂

What’s The Stupidest Question A Stranger Has Ever Asked You?

Now I’m not one to pass comment but….

There I was, minding my own business yesterday, around two miles into a seven mile lunchtime run. I was happily loping along at a very respectable pace, enjoying the autumnal sun and surrounding scenery of the Lagan Towpath. This riverside walkway is always busy in the middle of the day with fellow runners, cyclists and strolling office workers. Today was no different, or so I thought.

Walking towards me were three twenty somethings, two males and a female between them. I paid them little attention, instead focusing on my pace and rhythm, like all elite distance runners do….ahem. It was therefore with some surprise that I noticed one of the men was gesturing towards me. He had something in his hand, which I couldn’t quite make out. A lost tourist, no doubt.

George R.R. Martin and that big iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland have a lot to answer for. The good people of Belfast are regularly accosted on their lunch breaks by roving gangs of octogenarian North American tourists seeking directions to the Game of Thrones studios or Titanic Museum. I know it’s done wonders for our tourist industry, but if there’s one thing I like less, it’s being asked directions mid-run. I mean, how rude!

Except, this wasn’t a holidaying pensioner, but rather a young man wearing a tracksuit and baseball cap. He wasn’t pointing a camera in my direction or waving a map of the city centre. Yes, he was holding something in his outstretched hand, but as I closed the gap between us, I realised it was none of the above tourist paraphernalia, but instead a cigarette. An unlit cigarette, for that matter.

I slowed as I approached him, and our eyes met. ‘Do you have a light?,’ he hopefully enquired. My jaw dropped to the ground as I considered my response and conducted a quick mental inventory. Nike trainers? Check. Base layer and running app. Yeah, I’ve remembered them. Packet of Benson & Hedges King Size and lighter? Darn, I knew I’d forgotten something. ‘Er….no,’ I replied as I hurtled past, a look of utter disbelief on my face.

I’ve been running for over four years and I’ve been stopped and asked some silly questions in my time. But this was a new one, even for me. I know runners who vape. I know runners who take the odd sneaky cigarette on a night out. I’ve even seen two guys standing puffing their brains out before the start of the Belfast Half Marathon, two years ago. But I’ve yet to encounter someone who would light up mid run.

My nicotine starved friend asked the question yesterday as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I’m still scratching my head about it, over 24 hours later. But it got me thinking? What’s the most pointless or inappropriate question you’ve ever been asked by a stranger? Or am I over reacting? Was my track suited friend posing an entirely reasonable request? There’s no such thing as a stupid question, right?

Post your experiences below. There’s no prize by the way. But you’ll have my undying gratitude.

How Did That Happen?

We passed 7500 followers yesterday. Quite the achievement for the little blog that Fionnuala encouraged me to start almost eighteen months ago. Since then, there have been almost daily posts about life, the universe and everything. I’m not quite sure why, but people continue to read and post encouraging comments. It has been both an enlightening and humbling experience which has restored my belief in the online human community.

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you all.

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?

I’m Not A Fussy Eater But….

When it comes to food, I’ve always prided myself on being able to eat pretty much anything. I’m not a fussy diner. Place a plate of food in front of me and ten minutes later, possibly sooner as I’m a quick eater, it will be gone. I inherited that from my father, although Fionnuala has performed wonders with my table manners and eating habits in the years she has known me. I even chew my food now, before swallowing.

Yes, invite me to your home for dinner and you will not have to worry about special dietary requirements. Because I eat pretty much anything.

Er……apart from mussels. In fact, better make that most shellfish. And prawns. I don’t like prawns. I think it all harks back to an unfortunate afternoon spent eating fresh oysters in a bar in Dublin many years ago. Followed by two days of shivering uncontrollably in bed, drenched in a clammy sweat. Although that might possibly have had something to do with the eight pints of Guinness which accompanied the oysters.

But apart from that, I’m good.

Oh beetroot, I forgot beetroot. Horrible, slimy, yucky, purple beetroot. Which no matter how hard I try contaminates my otherwise perfect restaurant salad, it’s juices infiltrating every mouthful. Why did God invent beetroot? It serves no practical purpose other than to irritate me. Right up there with wasps. Don’t get me started on wasps. They don’t even produce honey. They just sting you and then die.

Olives. I can’t stomach olives. We sometimes have breakfast in the office where everyone chips in a few pounds and ‘Fast’ Eddie dishes up bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, tomatoes….and olives. I think he’s trying to impress us all but I’m not having it. They resemble alien eyeballs and I sure ain’t putting one in my mouth. They should stick to floating about in fancy dan cocktails. Not on my breakfast platter.

Brussel sprouts. The most pointless addition to the long list of Christmas traditions which will be descending on chez Black from 1st November onwards. Fionnuala is already checking out the Christmas movie channel. I am a reasonable man. It takes a lot to get me wound up. I rarely lose my temper. But the sight of a brussel sprout nestling amidst my Christmas dinner might just be the straw that broke the camels back.

Hmmmmm. This self inventory isn’t going so well is it? And that’s just the subject of food. What else do I dislike? If I sat down and took a long, hard look at my prejudices what would I unearth? On other people, their beliefs, values and morals? Their faith, culture and social norms? Am I as open minded and liberal as I like to think I am. Are any of us? For once you start to scratch beneath the surface, all sorts of nasty surprises are revealed.

Often the person we portray to the world bears no resemblance to the one we face in the mirror every morning. We slip on a mask before we open the front door and face a new day. We put on an act as we worry what others would think, if they knew the real us. Would they be disappointed, embarrassed, angry? Some of us don’t even know the real ourselves as we bury the truth beneath layers of denial and self loathing.

Be you. Recognise your flaws. Embrace them. And then, where possible, take steps to eradicate or minimise them the best you can. Because nobody is perfect, nor does anybody expect perfect. Pretending to be somebody you are not is a bit like pretending to like a food you actually despise. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it doesn’t impress anyone. Food poisoning is bad enough. But poisoning your mind and soul could have much more far reaching consequences.

Which foods can you not stomach?

Are you true to yourself and the watching world?

How often do you reflect upon your beliefs and values? Are you more prejudiced than you first thought?

The Winning Ticket – Part Two

Earlier today I wrote about purchasing a monthly train ticket for the princely sum of £138. Since then I have been commuting to and from Belfast, constantly checking my wallet to satisfy myself it was where it was meant to be. I would produce and stare at it longingly like Frodo Baggins on his way to Mordor with the one ring to rule them all. Thankfully, minus the annoyingly protective Samwise Gamgee at my side.

The good news is that I have managed to navigate the first half of October without losing said ticket. It remains in pristine condition, safe and sound in its plastic sleeve, less wrinkles than a botoxed socialite. I proudly wave it at the conductor every morning, mentally calculating how much money I have saved since abandoning my previous policy of buying daily tickets.

I guard it with my life. It is indeed my precious. All £138 of it. If only I treated all the precious commodities in my life with such care. Physically I ‘try’ to eat healthily and run regularly. I’d like to think I’m in decent shape for a man of my venerable years. Mentally, I take my happy pill every morning which wards off the slumbering monster called OCD which lurks in the darker recesses of my mind.

But what about my soul? I’ve always thought there is something beyond life. This can’t be everything, at least that’s my take on it. Call me naive but I believe in an afterlife and how you conduct yourself in this existence, determines where you’re going to end up when you trundle off this mortal coil. When that happens I won’t have to worry about my weight or cholesterol levels. But I will have to worry about my soul.

It’s worth a tad more than £138 but I often neglect the most important commodity I will ever possess. I need to be kinder, humbler and more loving. I need to put others before myself, give generously of my time and energy. There is so much I need to do better and more often. And yet I so often neglect what’s staring me straight in the eye, jumping up and down and stamping its feet like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

Tomorrow is another working day. I’ll brave the packed Belfast Express, clinging on to my ticket for all I’m worth. But I’m learning to cling even more tightly to the wisdom and guidance I so desperately need to traverse this minefield we call life. It’s involved a lot of tentative steps but I’m hopeful I’m headed in the right direction. For this is one journey where a one way ticket is all that I’ll require.

Do you believe in the afterlife?

The Winning Ticket – Part 1

As many of you know, I get the train to and from Belfast every day as part of my commute to work. My adventures on the 07:53 express to often feature on this blog. Today’s post is no exception. But today I want to talk about money, or rather saving money. Something I’m not very good at normally but we, as a family, have been making a big effort at of late in order to become more economically frugal.

I normally think nothing of landing at the station and purchasing a daily return ticket to Belfast – £9:60, no less. In an average month, I make this transaction approximately 20 times. Which, if you do the maths/math/finger counting, equates to forking out £192 per month on travelling to and from the office. A sizeable outgoing, I’m sure you will agree. With me so far? Good, then I’ll continue.

When it comes to good ideas in our house, you will normally find that 99% of them originate from Fionnuala. For it was she who suggested I research the price of a monthly return ticket to Belfast. When I checked, I was amazed to find that this cost a mere £138. A saving of £54 a month. That’s £648 a year! Imagine all the Diet Coke and honeycomb ice cream I could buy with that.

It was with some smugness, therefore, that I made my purchase at the beginning of the month. I clutched my brand new, shiny monthly ticket as if it was a winning lottery ticket. The conductor even gave me a little plastic wallet to hold it on, so that it would never become torn or creased. I felt akin to public transport royalty. Then it struck me. What if I lost it?

I’m a bit of an expert at ‘misplacing’ items. Keys, wallets, anything remotely valuable. My mind is a leaky sieve and Fionnuala and Rebecca are forever running around after me, picking up the detritus of my life. How on Earth then could I be trusted to hang on to a tiny ticket for an entire month without it going AWOL? Which would necessitate yours truly having to go permanently AWOL when he reported the bad news back to his wife!

What happened next? Find out later today in Part 2 of ‘The Winning Ticket.’

Why I Love Being Rubbish

I upped my distance to eight miles yesterday. A very slow eight miles, but eight miles nonetheless. It was a beautiful autumn day, a total contrast to the heavy rain and high winds which swept across Northern Ireland on Saturday. I’m nowhere near the level I was running at, even six months ago. A couple of gears have disappeared, but I’m just grateful I’m out there at all. I’ve missed running.

The old me would have been disgusted with yesterday’s effort. For the old me was all about getting faster and stronger. This was the fuel which fed a ravenous ego, a vanity which was out of control. The old me was all about personal bests, losing weight and impressing people. I was all about image and self. At the time I thought I was coolness personified. Looking back now, Mr. Cool just leaves me cold.

I was running two races a month then, always pushing. Races ended with inane grins for mindless selfies, which were posted straight onto my Instagram account. It was the most shallow of existences. On the surface I pretended that all was well, but beneath the cracks were deepening and widening. My body was becoming leaner and stronger, but my soul was withering away to nothing.

I remember running a half marathon a few years ago, where I posted a personal best, my fastest time ever. I should have been ecstatic. But I hated every step of the run, as I raced pedal to the medal, oblivious to the cheering crowds, unable to soak up any of the carnival atmosphere. All I cared about were my mile splits and getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. It was a means to an end, nothing else.

As I crossed the line, there was no sense of joy or achievement. There was nobody there to greet me. I collected my medal, took the statutory selfie, got in the car and drove home. For I was furious. Furious that a rival of mine had run a quicker time. My life revolved around comparing myself to others and straining to be bigger and better than them. Pathetic thoughts from a pathetic mind.

I was the healthiest I had ever been. I used to brag that I was in the best shape of my life, as fit as a fiddle. I was running like the wind, and alcohol free. Yet there was a different poison coursing through my veins. A poison as deadly as the strongest alcohol. I was consumed by it, it blinded me to the truth and led me down paths I never dreamed I would ever travel. Paths of shame, pain and destruction.

My ego still lurks beneath the surface, waiting for the slightest whiff of an opportunity. If I allow it out of its cell, if I allow it to run unchecked it will wreak havoc, destroying all in its path. It is a battle which I must win, there is no other option available to me. It must remain shackled and chained, deep inside the dungeon of my subconscious. It sulks and pouts. It waits and watches. I must be ever vigilant.

So I run, and continue to reap the physical and mental benefits of an activity which has been such an integral part of my life in recent years. But I run slowly, far from the cheering crowds and shiny medals. They mean nothing to me. I’m running some of the slowest times I’ve ever clocked in recent times. There are no selfies, no personal bests. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt prouder than I did after my eight mile plod yesterday.

How do you control your ego?

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?

Getting Back On The Horse Again

Storm Callum hit Northern Ireland with a vengeance yesterday. About half a mile into my comeback run to be precise. I have run very little since the Causeway Coast Marathon at the end of September, but vowed yesterday to get my running shoes on and pound the pavements again. Which sounded like a great idea. Until I ran straight into Callum. What followed was one man’s largely losing battle with the elements.

Within a mile I was drenched, but thankful I had chosen to wear a base layer underneath my running top. I might drown but at least hypothermia would be averted. The same could not be said, unfortunately, for my sodden feet. My thighs were also turning bright red but I plodded on into a strong headwind, no matter what direction I turned. It’s character building, I lied to myself, as I lurched on into Mile 2.

The route I take from the office out along the Lagan Towpath is usually teeming with fellow lunchtime runners. They were few and far between yesterday, however. Anyone with an ounce of sense was firmly ensconced in their cosy, dry workplaces. Only the truly dedicated, and by dedicated I mean stark raving mad, athlete was taking to the streets today. I largely had the towpath to myself, bar the occasional bedraggled dog walker.

I nervously eyed the river as I ran alongside it, mindful of how high the waters looked. Much higher and I was in danger of having to swim back once I reached the halfway point of the run, where I turned and retraced my steps back into the city centre. I’m far from the world’s best swimmer and the triathlon will never be on my list of challenges. Plus, nobody wants to see me in swimwear, not my best look I can guarantee you.

By halfway, the initial misery had passed, to be replaced by a perverse euphoria. I was running, I was actually running. Running very slowly, well below my normal pace, but still running. I could sense my rock bottom confidence rising with every soggy step. Despite being battered on all sides by the wind and rain, despite resembling a deranged, fluorescent escapee from the lunatic asylum, I was doing it.

When I eventually finished I looked as if I had been dragged through several hedges and a car wash backwards. But the sense of achievement far outweighed the aching limbs. I was a runner again. Several unwanted demons had been slain en route and I’d proven to myself that I wasn’t the utter waste of space I previously thought. Which could not have been more timely, given the busy schedule I have ahead of me over the coming months.

I’ll not be setting Personal Bests any time soon, if ever, and I have no races planned. But at least I can get out there and work at regaining the physical fitness I’ve spent years working on. I can also mentally detox and run the intrusive thoughts and unwanted images out of me. OCD is a thought based illness. It cannot function when I’m too tired to think. I sweat it out of me, a drop at a time. It has no control over me when I run. I become my own master.

There’s also the small matter of a book to finish. I haven’t been near ‘The Kirkwood Scott’ Chronicles in the best part of two weeks but hope to start work on it again over the weekend. I’m hopeful that Version 4.0 will be finished by next weekend at the latest. Then it’s time to start researching and harassing potential agents. It’s a big challenge but I feel I’m ready to get back on the horse again. All bad things must come to an end.

How do you get back on the horse again?

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

My hiatus from novel writing and running has allowed me to re-evaluate and focus on more important areas of life – namely my faith and family. A few days ago I asked for suggestions as to which book of the Bible I could feature in a future study on the blog. I was inundated with responses. Thank you very much to those who took the time to respond. I ended up with dozens of selections.

So much so, that I decided to pick two books, from the Old and New Testaments respectively. The ‘winners’, for want of a better word, were Psalms and Luke. I hope to post weekly blogs focusing on these studies, starting with one on Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, this coming weekend. I hope they will prove of some worth to you as I now have more time to study, and reflect upon, this neglected area of my life.

Is God Really Good?

When I was at school, and Queen Victoria sat upon the throne, I had a very grumpy English teacher called Mrs Hume. I felt sorry for Mr. Hume if she was as grumpy at home. Mrs Hume was a well balanced woman. She had a chip on both shoulders. Life had dealt her a poor hand and, instead of writing bursary winning poetry at Harvard, she was stuck in a freezing cold portacabin in rural Northern Ireland.

All the other English teachers had spacious, warm classrooms in the main school building. Not so, Mrs. Hume. Her portacabin was drafty and cramped. In the winter months it resembled a Siberian concentration camp, only less friendly. Mrs. Hume never took her coat off and sat huddled in it at the front of the classroom, rolling her eyes at our excruciatingly bad analysis and interpretation of Shakespeare, Chaucer and D.H. Lawrence.

After two years of her acerbic feedback and pithy asides, a miracle occurred; or rather, two miracles. Firstly I obtained an ‘A’ grade in my ‘A’ level English Literature; and secondly I survived two winters in that portacabin without losing any of my extremities to frostbite. Armed with my certificate and a fully functioning set of digits I set off to university where I, of course, chose to study….er….Modern History.

I often wonder how my life would have turned out had I decided to pursue an English degree. Perhaps, nothing materially would have changed. Or we could all be speaking Russian or have grown tails or something. What is certain though is that, beneath her barely contained contempt for the human race, Mrs Hume was doing something right. For, otherwise how could I have achieved the grade that I did. The woman could teach.

The one lesson she consistently hammered home was to avoid using lazy language. Words like ‘nice’, ‘fine’ and ‘good.’ Including them in one of your essays would awaken a dark, primal rage within her which ensured you never did it again. She, in her own cantankerous style, encouraged us to embrace and explore the English language. She demanded passion, vitality and expressive thinking. Describing Tennessee Williams as ‘good’ didn’t quite cut the mustard with her.

God is Good.

If you hang around Christians for any length of time, you will hear that stock phrase rolled out. It’s up there with ‘I’ll pray for you’ and other such cliches. God is Good. Is that the best we can manage? To describe the Creator of the Universe, the omnipotent, omniscient power behind everything we know. Who sent his son to the Cross to wipe clean the slate of sin for all eternity. Oh that was nice. That was lovely. That was good.

Saying God is Good isn’t good enough. Which is why he told Moses to call him ‘I AM.’ We can do waaaaaaaay better than good, but at the end of the day our tiny brains are utterly incapable of putting into words who or what God is. We don’t even understand a fraction of what is going on in our universe, planet, let alone our own bodies. We are stumbling about in the dark, half the time. I respect those who hold agnostic or atheist views. But do they know for certain? Are they 100% sure? Really?

Christians can be so lazy and I’m the worst offender. We are saved and think the hard work is done when, the reality is, it’s only just begun. It’s not fluffy and comfortable; it’s a bloody, brutal unforgiving war against a cunning, determined enemy. We need to work harder, think smarter, do better. Good is not enough. God isn’t good, God is God. Recognising that is an important, hard earned lesson. Thank you Mrs. Hume for teaching me about it.

What are your views on lazy language?

What was your English teacher like?

Care to share your experiences of Christian cliches?

What words would you use to describe God?

The Tooth Will Set You Free

Remember that tooth? You know, the one I have been whining….I mean writing….about these last few weeks? The idiot who ran a marathon with toothache? Then collapsed in a heap when he crossed the finishing line and cried like a baby the whole way home? Yeah that tooth? Well, three visits to the dentists later and it’s still there. And this is where today’s story begins….

On Monday I sat, a complete wreck, in my dental surgery waiting to be summonsed into the torture chamber. The omens were not particularly good. The receptionist sweetly informed me that their computers kept crashing so the dental team were unable to view x-rays prior to commencing work. Part of me perked up at the prospect of an 11th hour reprieve.

Another part of me just wanted it over and done with. The computer gremlins seemingly vanquished, I was invited into the treatment room where my always bright and breezy dentist gave me the option of a tooth extraction or several painful and expensive root canal sessions in order to save the offending back molar. Even then she could not guarantee it would be successful. Just get it out,’ I pleased. Toothy and I were finished.

Not one, not two, not three, but four pain killing injections later, I lay back in the chair like a drooling bumpkin, unable to feel my ears, let alone my mouth. Hannah the dentist, all seven stone of her, began to valiantly tug and pull at the tooth. I felt nothing initially, the anaesthetic was doing it’s job. Then a sickening crack. I looked up into her eyes, expecting to see her triumphantly holding the tooth aloft.

How wrong I was. She held a tooth, or rather, part of a tooth. Such was the level of decay, the molar was crumbling. Part of it had broken off, but the base and roots remained resolutely in place. Hannah frowned before delving determinedly into my mouth again. This girl wasn’t giving up. That’s when the pain began. Which, given my level of pain relief, was astounding. Yet, there it was.

She huffed and she puffed but it would not come. Her silver instruments flashed before my eyes, before playing a cruel tune across the exposed nerve. A veritable xylophone of agony. In the end I waved a hand frantically in the air. Enough! The pain was too much. She admitted defeat, saying she would refer me to a specialist who would remove the remainder of the molar under sedation. Lots and lots of sedation, I silently prayed.

Teeth. Meh. Who needs them? Well, we all do I guess. But I certainly don’t need this one. Yet, it doesn’t want to leave me. It reminded me of my OCD, of how certain unwanted, intrusive thoughts refused to budge from my beleaguered mind, no matter how hard I tried. Addictive and destructive thinking. A sinful cycle of deception and despair. A desperate desire for the pain to end, for release, for freedom.

I wanted to be free of them, as much as I want to be free of this mischievous molar. I cannot be free of the tooth, I thought as I typed the sixth paragraph of this post on my phone. Then my verse for the day flashed up on the screen, and I smiled. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humour. I’ll sign off by quoting the verse. The rest, I think, is pretty explanatory. Accessing the truth can be incredibly painful. In end though, it’s worth the effort.

John 8:32 – ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

How is your relationship with the truth?

Which Book Of The Bible Should I Start With?

As I wrote earlier in the week, I’m going to be blogging about Christian topics in future posts, although not exclusively. As I’m tentatively finding my way back into Bible study, and in order to be accountable, I thought I’d throw it open to my fellow bloggers as to which book I study first. The book with the most votes will then feature in regular-ish posts, delivered in my own unique, slightly offbeat style.

Please take a moment to leave a comment as to which book I study. I’m excited about this opportunity to share God’s Word with you. You might want to pray about this, or perhaps you already have an idea in your head. Possibly an old personal favourite or perhaps one of the more obscure ones you want to learn a bit more about. I will abide by your decision and will announce the ‘winner’ over the weekend.

Which book of the Bible would you like me to blog about?

Views of Christians and non-Christians both welcome.

Are You On The Right Tracks This Morning?

Good Morning. I have a busy, but exciting day, ahead. I’m on the 06:13 train to Belfast, a full 90 minutes before my normal one. The reason? I have a big meeting to attend this afternoon, so want to get in early to prepare for it. A three hour meeting, no less, where I will be bombarded with questions by our senior management team. I need to look smart and think smart. All prayers and kind thoughts would be much appreciated.

The 07:48 express to Belfast is normally standing room only, as we are crammed into carriages like claustrophobic sardines, thanks to the good people of Northern Ireland Translink who resolutely refuse to put on extra carriages as that would ‘cost too much.’ It reminds me of one of those trains, you see on the Indian sub-continent. Next thing they will be charging folk to sit on the roof.

The 06:13 is an entirely different experience. It was empty. I had my pick of the seats, indeed I almost had an entire carriage to myself. I’ve heard of the early bird catching the worm but this is ridiculous. It was a veritable ghost train, hurtling through the darkness towards the bright lights of Belfast. Getting up early was hard this morning, but I reaped the reward. It was worth the struggle and effort on my part.

Of late, my faith has been a little bit like my train experiences. For a long time, I’ve been lazy. Not physically, but rather spiritually. I’ve been quite content to go with the flow, and drift along with the masses. I’ve done the bare minimum with regards my prayer life and Bible reading. I’ve turned my back on Christian fellowship and run a mile from anything remotely resembling a church.

I’ve become a zombie. I walk, I talk, I breathe. On the exterior, I give all the signs of being a perfectly normal, functioning human being. But inside, I have been dead. My faith has shrivelled up, a dried husk desperately in need of hydration and cultivation. I have succumbed to old habits and allowed my OCD to read its ugly head once more. I have chosen wrong paths and made poor decisions. I have taken the easy option and boarded the wrong train.

You will never be short of company on the wrong train. For it’s where the majority of us, end up at some point in our lives. You might have been on it recently, or indeed are travelling on it as I write this now. It’s the easier option, but an altogether less pleasant alternative. It’s taking you to the same destination, but in a very different manner. Your legs ache and fellow commuters elbow you in the ribs. It sucks.

The ghost train involved a little more effort, but is worth it. You travel in more spacious surroundings. It’s the train you need to be on, the train that your loved ones need to be on. Yet, it’s virtually empty. I’m going to be making a greater effort in the future to consistently board the ghost train. You can even call it the Holy Ghost train….did you see what I did there. Sorry, got a bit carried away there.

What train are you boarding today? Are you taking the lazy option, are you switching off and backing down, when you need to be switching on and stepping up to the mark? I would encourage you to join me on the ghost train today. I could sure do with the company and I’ve saved you a seat. It sure beats spending your commute with your nose shoved into a stranger’s armpit.

What train are you boarding this morning?

What’s been your worst commute to work?

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?

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.

Start Playing The Martyr

I am quite partial to melancholy, to wallowing in self pity, feeling sorry for myself. There are various terms one can use to describe the act of introspective navel gazing. When the odds are stacked against me, and everything is going belly up, you can be guaranteed I’ll throw myself the mother of all pity parties. Fionnuala sums it up most succinctly when she catches me in this state of mind.

‘Stop playing the martyr….’

Which is ironic as I am named after the first Christian martyr, Stephen. The above phrase is largely associated with negative behaviour. It refers to a person who is overreacting to a given situation, behaving in an inappropriate or immature manner. I know when Fionnuala levels the comment at me I invariably stop what I’m doing and concede that I’m being a prat.

The word martyr is derived from the Latin, martur, meaning ‘witness.’ It is a person who is willing to sacrifice their life for a belief they adhere to; be that religious, political or for any other number of reasons. It is regarded as a noble, heroic act; laying down one’s life rather than capitulate or conform to values that fly in the face of everything you represent. Martyrs should be revered, not ridiculed.

Stephen was such a man. Facing the Sanhedrin, a collection of hostile Jewish leaders, on trumped up charges of blasphemy, he features very briefly in the Book of Acts. But what a show stopping appearance. Rather than bend the knee and renounce his faith, instead he eloquently and articulately gave testimony to, or witnessed, his belief that Jesus was the Son of God, who they rejected and murdered.

As well as eloquence, intelligence and a detailed knowledge of scripture, he displayed remarkable courage. He fronted up to them, exposing them as ‘stiff necked’ hypocrites, whose ‘hearts and ears are still circumcised.’ He spoke the truth and the only way they could stop the truth, was through stoning him to death. A young man named Saul, held their cloaks as they did so.

Stephen features for just over two pages in my 1250 page Bible, yet he sits shoulder to shoulder with giants of the faith such as Abraham, Moses and David. He set an example for millions of other Christians who followed in his bloody footsteps, willing to risk everything as opposed to renounce the faith. Stephen inspired Peter and Paul, the two fathers of the early Church.

Don’t be afraid to play the martyr, but do it for the right reasons. Don’t pout and sulk like I do, because you don’t get your own way. Instead hold your head up high, like Stephen did to the Sanhedrin, standing tall for what he believed in. Because when he looked up, he saw beyond the hate filled expressions and expletives and saw Heaven open to reveal the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Martyrdom today is linked to acts of terror or selfishness. Stephen epitomised the true meaning of the act. He was a visible witness, a presence, a voice, speaking love and truth over those who despised him. His last words were akin to those of Jesus, seeking forgiveness for those who killed him. We all can learn from Stephen. A martyr in the truest sense of the word.

The story of Stephen can be found in Acts Chapters 6-7.

Do you play the martyr? In the selfish or selfless sense? Or possibly both?

What do you learn from the story of Stephen?

Mud, Sweat and Toothache

I’m off work today, and currently perched on the sofa, editing Chapter 70 of the novel. I’ll be blogging later in the week about my latest trip to the dentist, earlier today. Thankfully it was a much less painful experience than the last visit. The offending tooth has been packed and capped, prior to it’s permanent extraction in a week’s time. The pain is gone, for now. Hallelujah! Can I get an amen?

It’s a pity the same can’t be said for the pain in my thighs after Saturday’s brutal Causeway Coast Marathon. Looking back on it, I’m not as dejected as I was first was with regards my performance. I discovered today that I covered over 3200 feet in elevation. That’s the equivalent of scaling Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest peak, with 200 feet to spare.

I thought I’d share two photos which encapsulated the highs and lows of Saturday. The first is a photo of my muddied, battered legs in the recovery room at the end of the race. My toothache was so bad at this point that I had to sit down, such was the nausea and dizziness I was experiencing. It was one of the less enjoyable hours of my life. The Causeway Coast effectively broke me.

Photo two is the reason I did it – my Causeway Coast finishers medal and buff. Which I’ll add to my eight other marathon medals, currently languishing in a bedroom drawer. I look forward to digging them out in years to come, so as to bore the grandchildren silly with my tales of derring do. My dream is to run a tenth and then drop down in distance. We shall see.

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?

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?

I’m Getting Paid To Go To The Movies

Tonight I’m going to the cinema. Unfortunately it’s not a date night with Fionnuala but, instead, work related. Myself and a colleague are attending the screening of a documentary at a small film festival in Belfast. It’s content is very relevant to an investigation we are conducting and my bosses are keen that we view it. I will be scribbling notes instead of eating popcorn but I can live with that.

It’s going to be a long day. I need to be in work early to brief another colleague about the events of the past week and hand over the on call phone. Thankfully, it’s been a relatively quiet week on that front, but I still have a few loose ends to tidy up. All that, and I have to squeeze in a lunchtime run. The Causeway Coast Marathon is only eight days away so it’s important I keep the legs loose and the engine ticking over.

We will grab something to eat before the film and head there straight from the office. I feel like a VIP as I’m getting the opportunity to meet the director beforehand. There will be no red carpet and you won’t have to endure the sight of me in a tuxedo but it’s still something special, a little bit out of the norm. The screening is a sell-out and I’ve had to pull a few strings in order to secure seats.

We still had to pay for our entry. And what an ordeal that was as our finance section made me jump through hoops in order to secure the princely sum of £12 for the tickets. Countless e-mails were exchanged and forms filled out before they reluctantly handed over the cash, accompanied by ominous warnings that I had to forward them the receipts first thing Monday morning or suffer the consequences.

My colleague has also insisted that we eat before the screening as she doesn’t want to end up getting ‘hangry’ when we are both representing the organisation and required to be on our best behaviour. I’m happy with an extra sandwich in my lunch but will tag along with her to guarantee she doesn’t turn into ‘The Incredible Hulk’ mid movie and wreak havoc within the auditorium. She’s around 5’2′ and weighs seven stone.

The silver lining is that I can claim overtime for the evening. That’s right, I’m being paid to go to the movies. Of course, I will be working incredibly hard, networking beforehand, taking copious notes during, and pressing the flesh and back slapping afterwards. There will be no munching on wine gums or dozing off during a quiet scene. Although I might smuggle in a Diet Coke or three.

I’ll have to remain wide awake and bushy tailed throughout as I’ll be expected to provide the bosses with a detailed briefing on Monday morning as to what l we viewed, accompanied by recommendations as to how it impacts upon the investigation and the needs of the organisation. Although, few and far between, there are moments when I can impersonate an adult and ‘do the grown up stuff.’

As perks go, it’s not the highlight of my career. I once travelled to Spain for four days on enquiry. But it’s something different and an interesting start to another hectic weekend at chez Black. I’ll provide further updates over the next few days but, for now, it’s almost time to leap out of bed and face the day ahead. Writing about it is one thing. Living it is an entirely different proposition. I’ll see you all on the other side.

When were you last at the movies?

What’s the biggest perk of your job?

What are you up to this weekend?

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 ☁️

The Bible Is Full Of Idiots

I didn’t come up with that title for shock value but, let’s face it, I’m not far off the mark. Let’s consider the evidence.

I’ll start with Abraham. He hardly covered himself in glory now, did he? That business with Hagar, the slave girl, who gave birth to his son, Ishmael. Although his wife, Sarah, didn’t help to be fair. A bit like Adam and Eve. Dumb women egging on even dumber men. You couldn’t make it up. Although doubters would contend it is all made up. But, I digress. Onwards.

I think Samson was at the back of the queue when the grey matter was being dished out. He tended to act first and only engage his brain afterwards, when the damage was already done. I mean, that business with the foxes and setting their tails on fire. It’s like something out of a really bad Rambo movie. Like Abraham he was also a bit of a disaster with the fairer sex. Just ask Delilah.

Which brings me to David. Warrior, King, Visionary. A man after God’s own heart. Oh, and numbskull. He decides to lounge about on the roof of the palace when his armies are on the field of battle. Lo and behold, he sees Bethsheba and the rest, as they say is history. Cue adultery, deceit and murder which culminates in the death of his own son. Not his finest moment.

Peter, Peter, Peter. Where do I start? The disciple whose foot was permanently in his mouth. A man whose very presence within the inner circle of Jesus gives hope to us all. Denying Jesus three times was bad enough. But offering to erect some huts at the Transfiguration when Elijah and Moses descend from Heaven. It’s akin to meeting the Queen, sticking a pencil up your nose and going ‘Wibble, Wibble.’

These men (and women) were idiots. Their words and actions revealed inadequacies and character flaws which we can all relate to. People are weak and flawed; we are vain, selfish and forever falling flat on our faces. Yet, God still continues to pick us up, dust us down, and use us for His purposes. He has a plan, and we are part of it. Any idiot can apply to be part of the team.

I’m no exception. I mess up day after day after day. I ignore God, I moan at God and I consistently do the opposite of what I’m meant to be doing as a card carrying Christian. I don’t go to church enough, I don’t read my Bible enough and I don’t pray enough. I sin, and seek his forgiveness; then I sin again, anyway. I’m forever straying off the straight and narrow. I don’t like being around other Christians and sometimes I don’t like being around God.

Yet still He patiently tolerates me and seeks to use me. He waits and then plants an idea in my head which I reluctantly mull over, before finally agreeing that he was right all along. He encourages me, supports me and motivates me. He reveals to me the truth, His truth, not the tainted truths being peddled by the supposed pillars of our community. Hypocrites are twist the Word to suit their own petty needs.

I get angry when I think about these people, but not as angry as I get about myself. I know I can do better. I let religious buffoonery get in the way of my relationship with Jesus. I hope it’s a righteous anger, a means to an end. For I need an end, a finish line, a target. Otherwise, life is a futile, empty gesture. I need to open my eyes. I need to cast off the shackles. I need to stop being an idiot.

Do you get angry with yourself and other Christians?

Who is your favourite Biblical idiot?

Can you do better in your walk with God?

Only An Idiot Would Sit Under An Apple Tree

Rebecca came home with her first Science homework of the new school year, which was to write a newspaper article about a famous scientist. I overheard Hannah and her discussing who discovered gravity. Hannah hit the nail on the head when she stated that it was some guy who was sitting under a tree when an apple landed on his head. They initially were of the belief that this ‘guy’ was Albert Einstein, until I gently corrected them it was Isaac Newton.

I’m a font of useless information. I tend to do quite well in quizzes and set me in front of a television game show and I usually get more questions correct than I do incorrect. I always win family board games as I am a 48 year old man who shows no mercy to his wife and children in such settings. They must be crushed. I tell the kids it’s character building but they look strangely at me and shrug their shoulders.

This competitive streak runs through any activity I undertake. I want to be the very best at what I do, be that working, running or writing. I push myself to the limit. My obsessive nature comes to the fore and I’m off to the races. The same applies to the kids. As I stand on the sidelines at Adam’s rugby matches I am kicking every ball and making every tackle with him. Yes, I am that Competitive Dad you all love to hate.

It’s a pity this competitive nature doesn’t carry over into every area in my life. For example, the kitchen. I can operate an oven and cook basic meals reasonably well when I put my mind to it. If I’m given enough time and rigidly follow the recipe I can do it. But, by and large, the kitchen is a foreign environment to me, full of weird and wonderful implements which I have no idea how to operate.

This became very evident when Fionnuala proof read a chapter of the book and howled with derision at my reference to chromeless steel kitchen utensils. I obviously meant stainless steel but this utter lack of such knowledge of such matters means it is necessary that I share the manuscript with as diverse a range of beta readers as I can find. Otherwise, howlers like the above could slip through the net making me look stupider than usual.

Despite knowing a lot, I don’t know everything. None of us do. We all have grey areas in our knowledge banks, fields of learning where we will never sit at the top of the class. We cannot be experts at everything we set out to do. If we aspire to absolute excellence then we are headed for a short, sharp shock. Nobody likes a know all because, at the end of the day, they know very little about their own inadequacies.

Wisdom is knowing that these areas exist and relying on others to support and educate you so as you don’t end up with egg all over your face. Wisdom is listening and soaking up information as opposed to blundering on, wreaking havoc due to your ignorance. It’s important that you gather these people around you to guide you through the murk and gloom of the grey area, to emerge unscathed on other side.

I’m sure Isaac Newton didn’t know everything. Otherwise why would he have sat under a heavily laden apple tree and earned a bang on the head for his troubles.? Albert Einstein didn’t exactly set the world on fire at school, either. Wisdom does not equate to intelligence and vice versa. A healthy dollop of both is necessary in order to avoid the many pitfalls life throws in our path at such regular intervals. Use your grey matter to fill in those grey areas.

What are the grey areas in your life?

How do you seek to fill them in?

What is your favourite invention?

Prayer Warrior? I’m More A Prayer Wimp

During my church going days, I attended a fair share of prayer meetings. They always bothered me. You see, while others prayed aloud for what seemed forever, I wondered if they were more in love with the sound of their own voice, as opposed to in love with their Creator or the people they were supposed to be interceding on behalf of. At other times, although I didn’t like praying aloud, I often felt I had to, in order to fill the awkward silence in the room.

I envied those who stated they felt a powerful connection with God during prayer, for most of the time I felt nothing. While others fervently bowed their heads and focused intensely on the job at hand, I found myself drifting off and wondering what was for dinner or how United were faring in the early kick off. I would risk opening an eye and look around the room to see who else was risking an eye open and looking around the room. Mostly I was the only one.

I was equally jealous of those folk who bounced out of bed in the morning to ‘spend time with the Lord.’ I preferred spending time with my duvet while they brewed up a pot of coffee, opened their third generation Bibles and then took a photo of it to post on Instagram as to how humble they were. This would set them up for the day ahead while I stumbled around wondering where I had left my shoes and wishing it was bedtime again.

Then there were those who heard God talk to them during prayer time, who received a word, or sometimes multiple words. When I did pray it was invariably a one way conversation, with me bleating on about how rubbish I was, to be met by a wall of silence. I tried to maintain a journal to record revelations and answered prayers but usually gave up after a day or three, instead using said journal to list my running times or book ideas.

Our church sometimes went on prayer walks around the town, stopping at various strategic locations to pray for specific needs and concerns. It was all very coordinated and planned with military detail. I sloped along at the back of the prayer pack, desperately attempting to prepare a few words in case the pastor pounced, and asked that I pray for local commerce or political leaders in the area.

I had as much interest in them as the man on the moon. I would go through the motions to keep ‘leadership off my back’ and look good in front of my fellow Christians. But, the truth was, my most fervent prayers were selfish and centred on my own needs. I tended only to bend the knee when I was in trouble and needed dug out of a large hole. The rest of the time I was too distracted, too lazy, too full of the ways of the world.

I was a prayer wimp, as opposed to a prayer warrior. And when I left church, just under two two years I pretty much gave up on prayer altogether. I believe in the power of prayer but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t happen. I need to pray on my own and pray with others. I need to pray powerfully and expectantly. Even though I doubt this will involve watching the sun rise, while sipping on my coffee. I’ve never liked coffee anyway.

I need prayer. But I also need to pray. I’ve read book after book about when to pray, how to pray and what to pray. All this talk of prayer circles, prayer chains and prayer rooms leaves me dizzy. Shouldn’t it be simpler than that? Shouldn’t it be the simplest, most natural act in the world? To communicate with your Maker? Then why does it feel so complicated, so difficult, so unattainable? Answers on a wing and a prayer please.

Do you believe in the power of prayer?

Are you a prayer wimp or a prayer warrior?

What experiences, good and bad, have you had during prayer communities?

The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square

Over the weekend I received a raft of feedback from beta readers regarding the first 15 chapters of my debut novel – ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles- Skelly’s Square.’ Its an urban fantasy aimed at the Young Adult/New Adult market. Set in modern day Belfast it tells the story of our eponymous hero, a twenty something underachiever ravaged by a mental illness which dominates every waking hour of his life.

All this changes over one bizarre pay day weekend when Kirkwood’s not so cosy, alcohol sodden existence is turned upside down by a chance encounter with a young homeless woman, Meredith Starc. He realises that she may hold the key to unlocking the traumatic experiences which scarred his childhood and now manifest themselves in the form of the malignant Augustus Skelly.

Skelly lives in Kirkwood’s head and controls his life via an intricate series of compulsive routines which Kirkwood must perform in order to keep at bay crushing feelings of guilt and anxiety. Put simply, bad things happen when Kirkwood fails a routine. Very bad things. The routine is everything and hangs on the roll of dice every morning.

It could be anything from a fifteen mile run to inane mental gymnastics involving question and answer sessions with a work colleague. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is completed to Skelly’s satisfaction. Meredith has her own problems. Living on the streets, since the death of her best friend, Emily, she spends her days at the bottom of a wine bottle, trying to avoid the many dangers that rough sleeping in Belfast entails.

Thrown together, Kirkwood and Meredith must become unlikely heroes in order to untangle the mystery that is Augustus Skelly. A figment of a damaged psyche or a more sinister figure preparing to unleash an ancient evil that threatens the world as we know it? They must overcome their own inner demons in order to triumph in a supernatural battle of good versus evil which has raged across the cosmos for countless millennia.

Sound interesting?

Well, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response from the beta readers. The initial feedback has been incredibly positive and helped calm this novice author’s frayed nerves. I never thought I’d hear the words ‘awesome’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ used to describe my little story. If I dropped dead tomorrow, and hopefully I won’t, then I would die a happy man. The responses have validated the last eight months of writing, no matter what happens next.

The betas have truly risen to the mark and I want to thank them publicly for the time and effort they’ve put into their responses. It hasn’t been a total gush-fest and they’ve offered constructive and valid comments which I aim to implement in order to strengthen the structure and plot; in addition to spotting a shedload of punctuation and grammatical issues. I never knew commas and quotation marks could make such fascinating correspondence topics.

I’ll be sending out the next 15 chapters of the book to the betas later today, with more confidence now. I was apprehensive about this process but now see the benefits of throwing myself to the beta wolves. Even though we still have a long way to go, Kirkwood is a step closer to seeing the light of day. I will continue to blog daily and hope you keep popping over to follow his progress. Thank you everyone for your continued support.

Would the above book synopsis catch your eye?

What do you make of the world of Kirkwood Scott?

What have been your beta reader experiences?

Back To School

The kids are all back to school today. Hurray I hear beleaguered mothers all over WordPress cheer. No more bored teenagers skulking around the house, no more playing the role of a police officer/boxing referee separating squabbling siblings; and no more endless board games that nobody ever wins because we suddenly realise that none of us are that good at general knowledge.

Fionnuala’s morning routine is a slightly chaotic, but highly oiled machine. Once the alarm hits six am she ‘bounds’ out of bed to begin the multitude of tasks she has to perform in order to get three disorganised kids and an even more disorganised husband out of the house. Lunches are made, uniforms are set out and breakfasts prepared. All with a cheery smile and a happy heart.

Ok, I may have made that last bit up.

Adam resembles a Walking Dead extra first thing in the morning, only less lively. He shuffles around, with a glazed expression, intermittently grunting in response to questions. I know he will be alright, however. Despite his best attempts to convey the contrary, he actually has a brain between his ears. And throw him a rugby call and he will suddenly burst into action.

Hannah is no lover of school and would much rather spend her morning under the covers watching Shawn Mendes videos on You Tube. She also has a genuine head cold but her evil parents showed little mercy and chucked her out of the door anyway. She left in good spirits though, and I reckon she’s secretly looking forward to getting caught up with all her friends.

Rebeca is the polar opposite. She started at junior high school last week and has been counting down the hours over the weekend for Monday morning to come around again. There isn’t a nerve in her body and it’s so refreshing to see. When I was her age I was a blubbering mess when I started at grammar school. I’m glad the kids haven’t inherited my anxious nature when it comes to new challenges.

The same old routine can be a grind at times. It’s hard work getting up day after day to perform the same chores and go to the same places as we did yesterday. It can be boring, dull and repetitive. We yearn for a change, something new and fresh to add a dash of colour to proceedings. To make us feel more human as opposed to hopeless hamsters hammering away on a wheel that never takes us anywhere.

There is magic in the mundane, however. Where would we be without it. Imagine waking up with no reason to get out of bed; wandering around a house without the noise and clamour. We would be lost and bereft without our loved ones, those who we take for granted. We need routines as much as we need the air we breathe. Life would be meaningless without it and without them.

So no matter where you are this Monday morning, no doubt muttering and moaning about something or other. Be grateful for what we normally take for granted. There is much to be thankful for, no matter how bleak your situation might appear. It might not seem that way, but believe me, the alternative is not worth thinking about. Embrace the mundane for it might just save your life.

What have you to be grateful for today?

How manic are your Monday mornings?

The Unadulterated Joy Of Shopping With Hatchlings

Today I tested the limits of my parental skills, I attempted the Everest of fatherhood. As Fionnuala is housebound nursing a heavy cold, I took our three hatchlings (aged 16, 14 and 11 going on 61 respectively) out shopping. I felt a bit like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible; all that was missing was being suspended from wires with a silly fringe and pair of Cuban heels.

Our target was the Junction One Retail Outlet near Antrim. Adam needed new trainers and a gum shield, Hannah was buying a birthday present for her best friend, and Rebecca just wanted to spend the £3.30 that was burning a hole in her pocket. Fionnuala also asked me to get roast potatoes for dinner. The pressure was well and truly on. I was already breaking out into a clammy, cold sweat as we entered the outlet.

My fears were confirmed as Adam, the pickiest of dressers, was horrified to learn that his beloved Adidas store at the centre, had relocated. He refused to set foot in ASICS and reluctantly toured Nike before announcing there was nothing he liked and stomping outside. He later informed me that if he realises his dream of making it as a professional rugby player he would point blank refuse a Nike seven figure sponsorship deal.

Hannah fared much better. Upon entering The Beauty Outlet she announced she ‘was in heaven’ and spent the next twenty minutes sampling various perfume and make up samples. Ever the duck out of water I stood awkwardly, the only man in a shop full of women who hunted for bargains with a steely eyed determination that I found mildly disturbing. These ladies meant business!

Rebecca was caught on the horns of a dilemma between spending her money on a bath bomb or a a box of chocolate sauce covered dinky donuts. I know, it’s a tough one and she will probably blog about it later so I will leave you all on tenterhooks over that one. An hour later we were all back in the car and homeward bound. I don’t know about the kids but I was exhausted.

Such was the excitement I forgot to call into ASDA to get the roast potatoes. I resorted to the village shop, who only sold small bags; not enough to feed our ravenous hordes. My punishment was to peel extra potatoes for dinner, a task I found strangely therapeutic. But please don’t tell Fionnuala or she will have me doing it every time. I peel a fine potato though, even if I do say so myself.

Dinner passed uneventfully. Nobody complained about the aesthetics of the root vegetables served up and all was well. Today’s post is a running and writing free zone, if only to prove that I do occasionally contribute towards household duties as opposed to acting like a big kid and messing about on WordPress. Following this, I’m off to start on the dishes. No rest for the wicked!

Tomorrow normal service will resumed. There is work, the kids will all be back to school and our house will be chaotic from six o’clock onwards. There is also the small matter of a marathon to run in three weeks and the next slice of the book to be e-mailed to my fantastic team of beta readers. The feedback has been amazing so far and I can’t believe people are actually enjoying it. Oh hang, there goes my boost about not blogging about writing.

Bath bombs or dinky donuts?

Boiled or roast potatoes?

Adidas or Nike?

Marathons or novel writing?

You decide….

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?

It’s Not God’s Fault If Christians Are Idiots

Over the weekend, Fionnuala and I reorganised our bedroom. This included a bit of a spring clean and moving some furniture around. It was hard work but worthwhile. I found my missing Garmin watch charger and several dozen odd socks whose whereabouts had been baffling me for some time. I also recovered the grand total of 27 pence, a couple of euros and an old pound coin. Winning!

At the end of the day it was as if we had a new bedroom. There was so much space. I commented to Fionnuala it was as if we were away somewhere in a hotel room until the sound of the kids squabbling or the dog barking well and truly burst that bubble. Moving your bed 90 degrees may not be cutting edge feng shui but it certainly made a big difference as far as I was concerned.

Sometimes you have to reorganise the priorities in your life as well. Of late, I have been heavily focused on the book I am writing. Over the last month it has been as if my creative writing dam has burst for I’ve been making huge strides forward. Initial feedback from beta readers has been frighteningly good which leads me to believe I may have a half decent product in my hands.

Other pursuits have had to give though. One of these has been reading. I love to read but other than for the purposes of researching the book have been unable to do much of late. I have six books on my Kindle that haven’t been touched. This is most unlike me. Yet over the last week or so I have been getting subtle nudges to pick up one dust covered tome in particular. A book that I haven’t looked at in several months now. That book is my Bible.

The Bible used to be a priority in my life. I read it every day. I highlighted sections of it, made notes and tried to apply its teachings in my life. Then that all fell to the wayside. I’ve blogged about this at length previously so don’t particularly feel the need to cover old ground again. Let’s just say I stumbled. Stuff got in the way. Other people, other Christians and my own vanity and pride. I took the failings of others out on God.

I accused others of being hypocrites when the biggest hypocrite of all was staring me in the mirror every morning. I have come to the conclusion that it’s not God’s fault if Christians are idiots. I don’t mean to be glib or accusatory as there is no bigger idiot than me. But this has been a revelatory moment for me. So much so, that I’m picking up my Bible again starting today. We will see how that goes.

I may put it down again after a week. I don’t know. I hope not. I may devour it like I used to. I don’t know. I may even blog about it. Only God knows the answer to that one. But as far as life furniture goes, I’m shoving the good book into a more prominent position. It has been rescued from the pile of odd socks and dusted down again. I say Bible but I actually have four. They all might get an outing in due course.

So you have been warned. This blog may contain material of a biblical nature in the future. Fear not though, as I won’t be ramming it down anyone’s throat. That style of ‘evangelism’ leaves me cold. I’d like to finish by thanking all the Christian bloggers who have stood with me during this spiritual drought and patiently guided me back on track. Reading your daily wisdom has been part of that process.

Have you ever experienced a spiritual drought? How did you deal with it?

When did you last pick up your Bible?

Do idiotic Christians interfere in your relationship with God?

I’m Writing A Book….Still: (Part….I’ve Forgotten Which Part)

Regular readers will know that I’m writing a book. I’ve been droning on about it for the better part of a year. It’s titled ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ and is the first part of Young Adult fantasy series based in Belfast. The hero of the piece is very loosely based on yours truly in his 20’s, except cooler and braver. Plus he talks to girls and battles supernatural beings. I don’t recall doing any of that either.

I’m now about a third of the way through the latest edit. Beta readers have been selected and I’m bracing myself for the first raft of feedback. Fionnuala is reading and formatting the draft as I go along and loves it. I have also allowed a good friend to have a look at it and, again the feedback has been very positive. But then you would expect them to say that. They have a personal connection with me.

Waiting for beta feedback is like waiting for exam results. You start off fairly confident but as time passes the voice in your head sows seeds of self-doubt. This snowballs into a Gordian knot of worry and anxiety. It is out of my hands, however. All I can do is chip away at the edit and hope that people like it when it finally sees the light of day. If nothing else, I will have fulfilled the lifelong ambition of writing a novel.

This edit has encouraged me though as, for the first time, the story has a fluidity and structure that was previously lacking. I’m equally pleased with the depth of, and interaction between, the characters. I’ve put a lot of thought into the development and I hope this comes across in the characters of Kirkwood Scott, Meredith Starc and Augustus Skelly. Minor characters have been fun to write as well.

I have decided to start off down the traditional publishing route. I know it’s a long shot but, if nothing else, it will provide me with experience of the process and provide some much needed skin toughening. Rejection letters are part of the experience and I will just have to get used to that. I’m already beginning to think about query letters, book synopsis and sample chapters in addition to ways I can broaden my social media presence.

People say that the real work only starts when the novel is written and I am starting to appreciate that now. I’m researching books on the publishing process and the work expected of a first time author in respect of marketing and self-promotion is immense. I’m learning all the time but it is a very steep learning curve. Reading posts from fellow bloggers on a similar journey also helps.

Beta Readers. Critique Partners. Editors. Agents. Publishers. The list is endless. So I’m reaching out to you today, my fellow WordPressers. If you can offer advice or guidance regarding any of the topics I’ve touched upon above then feel free to contact me and let’s talk. Likewise, if anyone can point me in the direction of any useful people in the industry then I’d love to hear from you.

This has been a bit of a rambling post today but I really wanted to update you and thank you for all the support you send my way on a daily basis. I’d also appreciate prayers from those of you with a faith. I know my own faltering faith has been greatly bolstered in recent times by a number of you whose prayers and Christian wisdom have been of great comfort to me. Hope you all have a wonderful day ahead.

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?

Do You Write Truthfully?

Coming from Northern Ireland I have an accent, just like we all have accents. It’s not the broadest of accents. While I work in Belfast, I’m a bit of a country boy having been raised in the market town of Omagh in the west of the country. So basically my accent is a bit of a hybrid. My mother claims I have a city accent whereas my work colleagues maintain I have a rural twang.

This has been a bit of a challenge for me when writing the novel. A few of the characters have strong Belfast dialects so I’m trying to reflect that in some of the slang they use; without making it impenetrable for non Irish readers. An example is the word ‘wee’. In Northern Ireland we prefix everything with ‘wee’ no matter what its shape or size.

‘Would you like a wee cup of tea?’

‘Did you see that wee cruise liner that has just docked?’

‘What about that wee direct nuclear strike the other night?’

Wee….I mean we….have our own colloquialisms just like every region or state does. Accents are slippery beasts. I have known people go to university in Scotland and come back home after a term with thick Glaswegian brogues. Adversely, other folk emigrate to the other side of the world and, thirty years later, still retain their original dialects. Accents define us, yet why then are some of us so keen to ditch them?

Some argue that retaining our accents in foreign climes evidences a strong personality. We are comfortable with who we are and, therefore, have no desire to conform to those around us. We don’t mind standing out or attracting attention. Others are less confident and, be it consciously or unconsciously, need to merge with their new environments in order to feel included and safe.

I fear I fall into the latter camp. I would be that idiot who returns from a month in Australia sounding like Crocodile Dundee. I’ve spent most of my life a needy, neurotic mess. I craved popularity and being liked to the extent that everything else was jettisoned in the process, be that accent, beliefs or ethics. I was a cultural chameleon, a master of malleability. Which got me into all sorts of trouble.

It got to the stage where even I didn’t know who I was. I would look in the mirror in the morning and shake my head in disbelief at the man I had become. My moral compass was permanently spinning out of control. I kept a private journal and it was as if I was writing about a different person most days. I disgusted myself and was my own biggest critic. I led a quadruple life as opposed to a double one.

The penny finally dropped when it was pointed out to me that my true voice was in my writing. In a perverse twist I discovered that, whereas I lived a lie, I couldn’t write anything but the truth. Even if my toes cringed in embarrassment and shame as I did so, I knew no other way. The evolution of A Fractured Faith lay within this revelation. It had been staring me in the face all along.

The Truth is in the Word.

Some bloggers express difficulty in writing about what is really going on, or has gone on, in their lives. I understand how difficult that can be. But today’s blog is all about being yourself no matter what your circumstances or surroundings. We all need an anchor when buffeted by daily storms. Let your anchor be your writing and the rest will follow. Now I’m away for a wee five mile run.

Do you read blogs in other accents?

What words or expressions are unique to your dialect?

Do you speak and write the truth?

Waking Up Hungover When I Haven’t Been Drinking

Last night, after dinner, Adam and I went to the park to work on his rugby skills. The new season is less than three weeks away and he is pushing for a place in the first team this season where he would be playing against boys two years older than him. I say boys but these guys are huge. Adam has been working hard in our garage which he has turned into a gym to prepare for this step up to the next level.

You can be strong, fast and super fit but it means little if you can’t catch and pass the ball. So last night was all about ball handling. We performed a series of drills which he performed with ease before I sent up a series of high kicks for him to catch. These varied in terms of height and difficulty but, once again, they posed little problems for my talented son. He caught every ball with ease.

I actually think he was becoming a little bored by the end of it as I concluded the session by sending up probably the easiest kick of the evening. I could even catch that I mused as I watched the ball arc through the sky and then descend to where he awaited it, perfectly positioned as ever. It was an absolute dolly, and 99 times out of a 100 he would have caught it with his eyes closed.

Except this time he didn’t. At the last second he took his eye off the ball and it squirmed through his fingers before falling to the ground. ‘What happened there?’ I asked in astonishment. ‘Sorry it was so easy I just assumed I had it so took my eye off the ball.’ I sent up a few more testing kicks to end the session which he caught with ease. Just that one mishap. Because he took his eye off the ball.

This morning I woke up with a hungover. Which is odd because I gave up drinking alcohol more than five years ago. I felt nauseous, my throat was dry and I was gripped by fear and doubt. It took me several minutes to convince myself that I hadn’t been drinking the night before. I could even taste the stale alcohol on my breath, the smell of it filled my nostrils. I call these experiences, phantom hangovers.

Thankfully they are few and far between. I have no interest in returning to my drinking past. I am never tempted to succumb, it just isn’t an issue for me. Yet, just like Adam last night, I can never afford to take my eye off the ball. For, to quote the old adage, to ASSUME makes an ASS out of both YOU and ME. When it comes to patterns of addictive behaviour there is no such thing as an easy day.

This doesn’t just relate to my drinking. It applies to a lot of other destructive ‘bad habits’ from my past that I have worked hard at overcoming. I know that I can have 364 good days but they will mean nothing if I mess up on day 365. I need to be open, accountable and transparent. My integrity is non-negotiable just as my time on this planet has a limited shelf life. I cannot afford to stumble again, I have too much ground to cover yet.

Never underestimate your demons. They are master strategists and play the long game, lying dormant in the shadows; waiting for the slightest slip on your part whereupon they will slip between your defences and catch you napping. Always be on your guard for your enemies prowl around you like hungry lions, waiting to pounce and devour you. Never take your eye off the ball.

What strategies do you apply to your life in order to keep your eye on the ball?

Do you know where your demons are today?

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?

We All Have A Little Gollum In Us

The book. The book. It’s always the book. So by the end of this week I will have finished the third draft of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’. 120K words. 90 plus chapters. 400 ish pages. I’m now in a position where it can be printed out, bound and attacked with a red pen. I have beta readers waiting in the wings and the pressure is most definitely on. Suddenly this dream of mine is starting to feel very real.

Last night in bed I had a mini panic attack. I suddenly didn’t want to be a blogger or aspiring author. I wanted to step back into the shadows of anonymity and forget I ever started this crazy journey. I didn’t want the attention, the expectation, the pressure. I wanted to bin the manuscript, delete the blog and pretend the last 15 months never happened. Why did I ever think I was talented? I can’t even decide on Meredith’s hair colour for goodness sake?

It was as if I was a nervous groom on the eve of his wedding, dithering on whether or not he was going to put in an appearance on the big day itself. All the hard work had been done and people are relying on him to be there. Without him there is no wedding. Without me there is no book. But the world will still keep spinning. Thousands of other books will be written and published. Civilisation will muddle on and survive without learning of Kirkwood Scott and his strange story.

As I edit I am plagued with doubts. Why do I keep using the same words over and over again? Why does the plot resemble a leaky, old boat in places? The list goes on. I know that the beta reading process is designed to pick up on a lot of this but the actual thought of letting real people digest and dissect a years work? Well it’s terrifying if I’m honest. Will my skin be thick enough to endure the feedback I know is needed in order for this project to get off the ground?

I’m chain drinking Diet Coke as if it’s going out of fashion. My nails are bitten to the quick. I’m driving Fionnuala insane. Okay, no change with the last point but you get my drift. I’m sacrificing time and energy in order to drag this albatross around my neck to completion. And for what? To be torn asunder at the beta stage? To be rejected again and again and again by countless agents and publishers? To fritter away my money on self publishing only to never recoup a fraction of the money.

These are my fears and doubts. This is me being honest. I’m sure I am not alone in these thoughts. Most competitors are afflicted with pre-match nerves before the start of an event. The knees of soldiers always knocked together on the eve of battle. This is part of the journey, the process, the experience. It goes with the territory. Aspiring authors are paranoid, despairing, needy creatures. We are the Gollums of the literary world.

Oh to be a Sméagol again I sometimes think. A carefree, happy go lucky hobbit whose only concern was what he was going to have for his second breakfast. Before he stumbled across The Ring and was submerged into a world of obsession and darkness. I don’t want to be a Gollum. I seek the light for I have lived long enough in the abyss. I’m a little bit like Kirkwood Scott in that regard. Now there’s a coincidence.

For here’s the thing. The book is one of many beacons in my life, keeping me on this path less traveled. It might seem pie in the sky to some but it grounds and focuses me. It is my reality. Which steels my resolve and convinces me that it is worth the worry and the doubt. It is worth the tossing and turning at night and the bitten nails. We all have a little Gollum in us. Just don’t let him take over my precioussssssss readers.

Are you a Gollum or a Sméagol?

Do you struggle with worry and doubt?

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?

I Have No Idea What Day Of The Week It Is

I returned to work yesterday (Thursday) after three days leave. The problem with this was that while my colleagues were beginning to unwind for the weekend (some might query did they ever wind up in the first place) I bounced into the office with a bad case of Mondayitis. In my mind it was the first day of the working week as opposed to the fourth. I had no idea what day of the week it was.

This led to all sorts of problems. I made phone calls arranging meetings on Tuesday when I meant Friday. This made me look an even bigger idiot than I normally am when I make such calls. And my relaxed five day list of tasks suddenly became a panic stricken race for survival as I desperately tried to cram them all into two. My time management and prioritisation skills went out the metaphorical window as I struggled to adapt.

It was all a bit disorientating, like being in a different time zone from everybody else. They were buzzing along in an East Coast stylee while I was plodding along several thousand miles behind them, just off the coast of California. I was trudging through treacle as they shot out of the starting blocks and sprinted towards the weekend. For once, Stephen the Tortoise was not winning the race.

I often feel the odd one out where I work. As I head out for a lunchtime run, many of them are tucking into not so healthy lunches. When I mention I’m writing a novel, most of them look at me as if I have two heads. And a tail. They scramble over each other to ascend the slippery career ladder. I care about my job and what it involves but now have other competing priorities in my life. Work is no longer the be all and end all.

This can be a lonely existence at times. Some might view me as a dreamer who needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Who needs to get his head back in the game and his body back on the hamster wheel of reality. But that’s not me anymore. And yes, while I may dream, I am working towards making those dreams a reality. A reality that will provide a better future and lifestyle for my family. While at the same time scratching an inch that I have had for most of my adult life.

What I am trying to say in my own hamfisted way is that it is okay to march out of step from the masses. You are not a rat and this is not a race. You might be sitting reading this feeling unhappy or unfulfilled. That is good believe it or not for those negative emotions are the fuse you need to light in order to propel yourself towards a better, brighter future. Towards becoming the person that you were created to be.

Become a Thursday person. Or a Friday person. Or an any day of the week you want to be person. Life is about making choices and you have been blessed with the freewill to do so. It might result in a few wrong choices but that is how we learn. And who cares if your choice is against the flow and results in a few funny looks or snide remarks. To me that proves you are headed in the right direction….wherever that may be.

I write this on a Friday morning. When I woke up I was convinced it was Saturday before realising I had to get up and go to work. I have no idea what day of the week it is. But I do have an idea of what I want to achieve today. And the day after that. And the week after that. I encourage you to do the same. Get up, stand tall and walk free. The rest of your life is just around the next corner.

Do you ever get your days muddled up?

Are you stuck on the hamster wheel of life?

What Makes A Good Writer?

I wrote yesterday that I’m taking a mini blogging hiatus over the next few days as I focus on completing the third draft of my novel. I’m happy to report that progress is being made as I now have the first 14 chapters, roughly 12000 words, in a coherent running order. Yesterday was the first time I saw a tiny chink of light at the end of this very long tunnel. My jumbled thoughts were coming together into a more structured, seamless story.

At the heart of this process remains the blog, There would be no book without it as the daily routine of writing has given me the self belief to bring the story which has been bouncing about in my head for the best part of a year to life. While I’m still an utter novice as an unpublished author at least I have the blog to fall back upon if the former dream never comes to fruition. My dream is to write for a living but, if not, my writing will always remain a passion.

I’ve been blogging consistently for 14 months now but it still baffles me as to what makes a good writer? What baffles me even more is when fellow bloggers ask my advice on the same subject. I never know what to say as I have no creative writing qualifications or any real grasp of the mechanics of writing. I just tend to sit at my keyboard and the posts and chapters tend to write themselves. In some ways it’s akin to an out of body experience. Sometimes when I read over a piece again I don’t even recall writing it.

Does that make sense? So I’m sorry if my answers to such questions come across as a bit half baked. Because I don’t intend them to be. Consequently I’m going to return the serve today and bounce the question back to you lot. What attracts you to a writer? What makes you want to desire more of their thoughts and words? What lures you into the imaginary worlds they create and tempts you to give up your valuable time to curl up with them in your favourite chair?

Over to you. What makes a good writer?

Why Are You Settling For Second Best?

There was uproar in the office yesterday when ‘Fast’ Eddie, my colleague and proprietor of our charity tuck shop, returned from his lunch break with fresh supplies for the ravenous hordes I like to call ‘the team’. Tayto Cheese & Onion Crisps? Check. Double Decker chocolate bars? Double Check. But most importantly, cans of Diet Coke? Er….no. He produced a box of Pepsi Max and, looking very pleased with himself, announced that it had been offer and was too good an opportunity to miss out on.

Now call me a prima donna (and nobody wants to see these legs in a tutu) but I was at a very delicate stage of writing a complex, sensitive report that required total focus and concentration. In order to drag it kicking and screaming over the finish line I needed Diet Coke and lots of it. What was this Pepsi Max madness? I cautiously circled the office fridge, inspecting its contents dubiously while berating ‘Fast’ Eddie for his utter lack of respect for moi, his most loyal customer.

‘Doesn’t it all taste the same?’ was his response. It was like a red rag to a bull for a Coca-Cola connoisseur such as yours truly. ‘No it most certainly does not’ I spluttered in disbelief. ‘It’s like giving a new born mother somebody else’s child and saying It’s a baby. They all look the same anyway’. An uneasy ceasefire settled across the office interrupted by occasional sarcastic exchanges and thinly veiled threats to withdraw my custom from his business empire.

I mulled my options over. While I can quite happily run ten miles on my lunch break I am much too lazy to walk the five minutes it takes to go around the corner to the nearest shop to buy my own supplies. Plus it was now a matter of principle. To back down would be a sign of weakness and my principled stance would be in tatters. I decided to tough it out for the afternoon and settled down to scale the north west face of the report from Hell sans my favourite beverage.

This resilience lasted approximately 23 minutes before I cracked, flounced to the fridge and admitted defeat. As a decidedly smug ‘Fast’ Eddie looked on I flung open the fridge door and removed a can of this ever so second rate substitute. I opened it and took a very reluctant swig before retiring sheepishly to my desk. I spent the remainder of the afternoon sulking at my work station, only occasionally raising my head to mutter ‘It doesn’t taste the same’ and ‘This had better be a one-off.’

I had settled for second best. I wasn’t prepared to go the extra mile (or 100 yards in this case) to get what I truly wanted. I caved in and opted for the easier, less demanding option. The comfort zone of a spacious, air conditioned office tool precedence over trudging through the mean streets of Belfast in order to satiate my aspartame addiction. ‘Fast’ Eddie claimed the moral ground and the office hyenas roared their approval.

I have spent most of my life settling for second best. Traveling the safer, more well worn path as opposed to taking a risk and pursuing my dreams. My family deserve better than that. Heck, I deserve better than that. We get one chance and it is only this late in the day that I’m finally realising that. It involves a lot more hard work on my part but isn’t that what makes it all so worthwhile in the end?

This morning my on call week ends and the weekend begins. Fionnuala and the kids are picking me up after work and we are going to spend the evening at the seaside before watching a blood red moon set over the horizon. The old Stephen would have turned his nose up at this in the past as it would have eaten into his precious beer drinking time. But that was then and this is now. Why settle for less when what you really want is more?

I’m off to work now. But I’m stopping en route to purchase my Diet Coke supplies for the day.

Have you been settling for second best?

What path are you traveling at the moment?

What is holding you back from seeking a better life?

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.

Do Christians And Three Legged Dogs Go To Hell?

The man over the bridge has 16 dogs. He used to have 16 3/4 dogs but the old three legged one that used to lag behind the others has gone to doggy heaven. Do three legged dogs get their other leg back when they go to heaven? I’d like to think they do. I have no idea how he lost the limb in question but I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. But now I’m assuming he’s going to heaven. What if he’s going to doggy hell?

If such a place exists that is. A lot of people don’t believe in hell. I’ll take that a step further. A lot of people who profess to be Christians don’t believe in hell. Or at least their behaviour indicates that they don’t. Others smile knowingly and tell us not to worry about such matters. Jesus loves us and we are going to heaven and anyway it’s all symbolism and allegory right? A bit like the Garden of Eden and that big boat that Noah supposedly built.

My biggest problem with hell is that I believe in it. I often wish I didn’t. Life would be so much easier if I wasn’t fretting over death all of the time. I could do and say what I wanted without having to worry about consequences and repercussions. I sometimes feel like the ‘ghost’ at the end of a Scooby Doo episode when they are unmasked to reveal that it was kindly old Curtis the Caretaker all along.

And I would have gotten away with it if wasn’t for that pesky Hell.

Thinking about hell all the time and the distinct possibility that I might end up there does have its benefits. For a start I reckon Jesus would be proud of me as he spoke about hell more than any other subject during his missionary on earth. Which is all the more startling because many church leaders rarely mention it. All that hell stuff isn’t good for morale in ‘church land’ where everything is wonderful and nobody ever has any problems.

So if it’s good enough for Jesus then it’s good enough for me. He didn’t pull any punches either, painting a vivid, graphic picture of what we could (not) look forward too if that was to be our final destination. Anyone with even the most sketchy knowledge of the Bible can’t turn around and say they weren’t warned. It is as vivid and visceral as the story of the Cross. Jesus can be a real party pooper at times.

Hell is the ultimate style cramper. How am I supposed to live the life I want to live with all these rules and restrictions holding me back? Isn’t being a Christian meant to be about freedom and not having to worry? Well I did all that yet I don’t feel particularly liberated and I fret more than ever. Hell is the ultimate life beyond life sentence. It is the dark cloud on the horizon of all my good intentions. I can hear it, taste it, almost touch it. It’s coming for me.

But there we have the nub of it. Hell exists for a reason. Hell is love. Because Jesus doesn’t want us to go there. So he laid it on thick and told us how it really was. Like one of those anti smoking campaigns where they show terminal cancer patients talking about their nicotine habits. Ignoring Hell is choosing to live your life how you want to. Accepting Hell is an opportunity to live life the way you were meant to.

I believe in Hell. I don’t know where it is or what it looks like and I sincerely hope I never find out. I want to go to the other place where there are bottomless bottles of Diet Coke and you can eat honeycomb ice cream all day long without having to run ten miles afterwards to burn it off. I want to take that three legged dog for walks and not have to worry about worrying all the time. Hell gives me that opportunity. Hell is freedom. Hell is grace. Hell is truth.

Woooaaaaah!! That was a serious one, Stephen. Bring back the running and writing posts. All is forgiven.

What are your thoughts on Hell?

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?

Longford Marathon Update. Everybody Yawns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you spending your Sunday?

Are marathon runners mad? Discuss.

I Do Good Foot Rubs. But Very Little Else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you drive your loved ones insane?

How do you show people you love them?

What Do You Wish You Had Written About Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has this post inspired you to write about?

12th Of July Parades – Aghalee

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

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

Is this what you expected?

A Little Taste Of Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you had any memorable day trips recently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would You Write A Letter To A Fellow Blogger?

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

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

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

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

Are you willing to accept the letter writing challenge?

Who would you like to write to and why?

What are you going to include in your letter?

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

Death To Words. Long Live The Emoji.

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

The creation of the emoji….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much do emojis and abbreviation rule your life?

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

I’ve Got The DOMS – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

What has been your most embarrassing gym story?

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

Thank You

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

Happy Birthday Adam!

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

Happy Birthday Adam!

And Happy Birthday America as well!!

Ghosts From The Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can never relax. I will never relax.

Do you still fear the ghosts from your past?

How do you fight them?

Unreality Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your views on reality TV?

Are you living a real or unreal life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your pet hates at the movies?

Have you ever felt adrift?

Book Title Reveal – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Title Reveal – Part 2

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

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

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

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

What Do You Wear During A Heatwave?

Northern Ireland is on the verge of mass hysteria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you wear during a heatwave?

The Best Thing About Writing Is The Not Writing Bit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much of your writing process involves not writing?

Where are you on your creative journey?

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

Lunchtime In Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Of My Excess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your Achilles Heel?

Do you struggle with excess and temptation?

Why I Gave National Selfie Day A Miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on the selfie culture?

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

120,000 Words Of Stephen

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

Wrong.

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

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

However….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you handle 120,000 words of Stephen?

Rowling v Tolkien? You decide.

Isn’t It Time You Moved On?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you dwell too much on your past?

How do you propose to move on?

What Are You Afraid To Blog About Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you afraid to write about?

Are you brave enough to write about your fears today?

On The Cusp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your views on publishing vs self publishing?

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

Thoughts On Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on death?

That Time I Went Through My Neighbour’s Bin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you talk to your neighbours?

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

How Was Your Life Before WordPress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was your life before WordPress?

What difference has blogging made in your life?

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 School Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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