The Enemy Within

The Olympic Flame goes out more than Fionnuala and I. It’s the joy of having three hatchlings which are a constant strain on our time and finances. Even when we do have an opportunity we are normally incapable of doing much more than slumping on the sofa and getting caught up on our favourite TV shows. Of late, it’s been ‘The Enemy Within,’ which I keep referring to as ‘The Enemy At The Gates.’ Some days, I barely know my own name.

Jennifer Carpenter stars in it. She played Dexter’s sister in er…..Dexter. For those who haven’t watched it, she plays a disgraced CIA operative imprisoned for treason who a FBI team use to track down an international terrorist mastermind. You never quite know what side her character, Erica Shepard, is on. On the surface she appears to be one of the good guys, but there is a darkness lurking beneath which occasionally surfaces.

We all have that darkness lurking within us. The part that isn’t for public consumption, that we hide from prying eyes. None of us are perfect and those who protest they are, are deluded or liars. There is a grimy past, an unsavoury secret, something which we will do everything in our power to prevent from emerging into the light of day. It’s a battle which wages unseen from the watching world. The demons within, they claw and scream for release.

Erica Shepard uses her demons to get inside the heads of her enemies. She is a chameleon, manipulating friend and foe alike to achieve her ends. She can think like a terrorist, enabling her to remain one step ahead of all around her. Overcoming and taming your demons equips you to see the warning signs, when the next wave of attacks are launched. For life is all about being attacked. It’s how we handle these is how we dictate the quality of that life.

I’m looking forward to tonight. We are only going to a friends house for a takeaway. Fionnuala may even have a cheeky glass of wine or two, as I shall be driving. Not the most exciting of evenings you might think but it’s a big deal to sofa surfers like us. Our days of being party animals are long behind us. I imagine we will still be tucked up in bed, well before midnight. There was a time when we considered that unthinkable.

I know my enemy. He eyes me every day from the corner of his cage as I pass him by. He is patient, cunning and ruthless. Waiting for the slightest chink of weakness to break free of his chains and throw my life into disarray again. I must forever be on my guard, alert to his tricks and traps. I can never afford to rest on my laurels. He licks his wounds and I eye my scars. Reminders of what he is capable of.

He hates normality, the status quo drives him to distraction. My strategy is to bore him to death. Day after day, month after month, year after year. Like tonight. Chinese food, six pack of Diet Coke. Early to bed and a 10K run in the morning. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep right on moving along. This is how it is, these days. And, oh, how he hates it. The drama, the people, the lifeblood he feeds on, all no longer there.

I keep him under lock and key. I keep the key on a chain around my neck. He wants it more than anything, for it is his only means of escape. He cannot have it. For I possess the tactics and tools to keep him at arm’s length for as long as I desire. I’m no Erica Shepard. Glamorous and ruthless. But, like her, I know how to play the game. Play the game and win. Keeping the enemy at bay. Until the end of my days.

Waiting….

I am succeeding, things are happening, momentum is gathering. The rusty bolt in the gate has finally succumbed to my tugging and twisting. The huge boulder which has resisted me so long is finally starting to trundle down the hill, gathering pace as I run alongside it, breathless and giddy with excitement at what lies ahead. Everything is falling into place. I can see the finish line, hear the cheering crowds. I’m that close.

Which makes these final days all the more frustrating. Everything I’ve touched of late has turned to gold yet, here I am, another Monday morning about to crawl out of bed and head to the office. It comes around so fast. I’m swamped at work but such is the reward for becoming a Big Boss. There is nowhere to hide now, no slacking or skiving. Great things are expected of me, the Bigger Bosses have said as much. Yet, still I dream.

The book deal creeps ever nearer. I check my inbox 5857 times a day. They are busy people but my already frayed patience hangs by a thread. Hurry up, can’t you see I’m straining at the leash here. I regulate my breathing, pop another happy pill and try to focus on the here and now. But I’m a dreamer, always have been, always will. I want this to happen today, now. Waiting is for mugs and I’m tired of being one.

Is today the day, the day I sign the deal that changes my life, the life of my family? Or am I just another deluded, wannabe author, building their hopes up only for them to be dashed against the rocks of anonymity and failure. Were the doubters, the mockers right all along? Am I destined to fall short and prove them right? Only time will tell, I guess. Time. What a double edged sword it is.

I’ve been beaten up and beaten down these last nine years. Nine years. Since my father died. I have the dates tattooed on my arm but I still stare at the ink in disbelief. Would he be proud of me today? My mother told me recently he always wanted to write a book himself. There were so many things he could have done, should have done. Until you took him. God works in mysterious ways. I hate that saying. I’ve had my fill of mysteries.

I’m sure he’s looking down, telling me to calm down, to remain patient, to wait. Echoing the words of my wise wife. Don’t hit self destruct, Stephen. Play the long game, one more week, that’s all it will take. They’re right, I know, but that doesn’t make the pill any easier to swallow. But I’ll wait, I’ll wallow, I’ll pout but I’ll swallow. I’ll get up for work and play the game. What’s one more day between friends. Or enemies, for that matter.

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.

Thank You Everyone

Just a quick note to thank everyone who has forwarded best wishes regarding Fionnuala’s post yesterday that the book has finally found a home and is going to be published later this year. After a few near misses with bigger US agents I finally settled for a smaller, UK based publisher. The clincher was a lengthy, detailed e-mail from the editor, who had clearly read the book from cover to cover and ‘got’ what ‘Skelly’s Square’ was all about.

I’m still processing the news but am, of course, excited and delighted. It’s hard to take in that a ‘mere’ 18 months ago I first had the idea of a troubled young man haunted by an imaginary voice in his head. Except the voice wasn’t imaginary. That I stumbled across a piece of graffiti in a Belfast back alley which was to become the gateway to countless parallel universes. That Kirkwood, Meredith, Harley, Emily, Skelly and Dobson would be born.

The outline for Book 2 in the series is simmering nicely in the background and I guess I should get cracking with putting pen to paper on that one. I’m also committed to my other project, ‘Bomb Girl,’ which is presently being serialised on my Wattpad account. I’ll post a link to that later today for those who would like to sample my fiction writing. There is a third project also – ‘This Troubled Land,’ but more about that another day.

I hope some of you will purchase ‘Skelly’s Square’ when it sees the light of day, probably later this summer. I have a lot of work to do with the publisher, but it will available to buy on Amazon in both e-book and hard copy form. Or you can order one from me directly. Until then, I want to thank you, my WordPress family, for your unwavering support of the blog and my ramblings. Only 30 off the big 10K now. Thank you.

Don’t Give Up

Do you ever get the feeling that there is something exciting in the air like there is good news coming? You feel as if you stretched your hand out far enough you might even be able to touch it? I’ve been feeling this way for a while now chasing and waiting and wondering and hoping and praying that time would speed up and all our prayers would be answered. But today we are still waiting!

It’s not just Stephen and I that are feeling this way close friends of ours are experiencing the same feelings also. I shared a few weeks ago at our prayer meeting that as Stephen is training for his 10th marathon in May we all feel like we’ve been completing a marathon ourselves and are on the final stretch. We are all tired and weary and feel broken and ready to give up but if we just keep going round that next bend it will be all down hill SO DONT GIVE UP.

I’m waiting every day for a letter, an email or a phone call to tell me that a situation I’m going through with my family has come to an agreement, Stephen is checking his email every 30 seconds for good news on his book, Hannah is waiting for Shawn Mendes to follow her on twitter and friends of ours are waiting on prayers to be answered and promises to be fulfilled. We all have something we are waiting for we just have to keep going forward till we get round that last bend.

So whatever you are going through today if it’s not going as well as you wanted it to be just realise you are a day closer to your dream or promise coming to fruition so please don’t give up keep pushing forward.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41v10

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?

Rejection Never Tasted So Good

I received another rejection e-mail yesterday, my fifth in total, but this one was a little different from the others. It contained feedback, words of encouragement, a glimmer of hope in the dark world of the querying wannabe author. What was even better was that it came from one of the biggest literary agents in the U.K. I won’t name names but this agency carries some clout in the world of publishing.

The agent thanked me for my submission and stated she admired the ambitious premise and quality of my writing. Unfortunately, she wasn’t completely drawn in by the opening chapters. So it was a no, but possibly the best no I have ever had in my life. The word quality was there. From someone whose job it is to assess and analyse hundreds of manuscripts a week. She had actually read my work and liked it.

Prior to receiving her e-mail I had been a bit down in the dumps. As days went, this was turning into a pretty rubbish one. Nothing serious, just minor irritations that I won’t bore you with. The e-mail was manna from heaven and I gratefully gobbled down its content like a hungry Israelite wandering around in the wilderness. It re-energised me and provided the kick up the backside I sorely needed.

The key word in her e-mail was ‘quality.’ I was beginning to doubt myself and my writing. Despite the daily encouragement I receive on the blog, the dreaded voice was back telling me I wasn’t good enough, I was wasting my time. It was also constructive. Do I have to work on the opening chapters in order to draw prospective agents into the story? Do away with the prologue?

It truly was a ‘glass half full’ moment. The blog has just passed 9000 followers and there are still a host of other agents to query. Once my editor has completed her work, I can also begin to directly query smaller, independent publishing houses. Then there are the other projects I’m planning to start work on soon which I hope to talk about in a post later this week.

I can’t give up and I won’t give up. Too much has been put into the project in order to chuck in the towel now. There are, no doubt, further rejections ahead but this one was different, one I will forever cherish. A very step, but a step nonetheless, in the right direction. I’ll keep stumbling down the path. Who knows where it will take me but I sincerely hope you all stick around for the ride.

What’s the best piece of constructive feedback you’ve ever received?

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?

An Apology To My Family

Last night my adoring wife posted a blog about our new coffee table. A very lovely addition to our house, which was positioned slap bang in the middle of the living room, patiently awaiting my return from work last night. As the kids returned from school, it was the first thing they noticed and the centre of conversation. The family waited with bated return for my entrance. And, whether or not, I would notice.

My family delight in such cruel taunting of dumb creatures such as I. New photographs are strategically placed around the house. Curtain drapes change colour overnight, furniture is repositioned at a whim. And the first thing I’m asked is ‘Do you notice anything new?’ At these dreaded words, I break into a clammy sweat and descend into panic, desperately attempting to detect the offending article.

I’m no good at this. I live in a bubble. It’s no excuse, but my OCD means I am often wrestling with unwanted thoughts and urges which, while nowhere near as bad as they used to be, still lurk at the edges of my consciousness, threatening to consume me. Last night it was food related, as I fretted and worried over calorific intake, my weight and current lack of exercise due to a head cold aka ‘manflu.’

After dinner I plonked myself on our sofa, within inches of the coffee table. I sensed something different in the room but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The fact I had, minutes before, taken the cardboard packaging the table arrived in to our outside recycling bin failed to register with me. I attempted to strike up conversation with Fionnuala but she simply looked at me, a knowing smirk on her face.

Hannah then swept into the room, enquiring ‘Has he noticed yet?’ It was then I realised there was something afoot. By day, I’m a supposedly highly trained investigator who shifts through masses of material in forensic detail so as to progress complex enquiries. When I leave the office, however, I’m an idiot. Were Godzilla to lumber through Belfast city centre, I doubt if it would evoke a flicker of recognition.

After several tortuous moments and frantic scanning of the room, I finally noticed the gleaming table, a foot in front of my nose. This sparked scenes of great hilarity amongst the other members of the Black household. Once more, I was the clown of the piece, and the butt of their jokes. Yes, I am your idiotic, non observant husband and father. Guilty as charged. Sent to amuse and entertain you as I stumble through life as awkwardly as possible.

I do my best, I truly do. But there are times I feel I’m not cut out for this whole husband and father carry on. I feel I’m continually letting the side down, neglecting my duties, struggling in a role I’m entirely unsuited to perform. I’m selfish and needy, wrapped up in my own mental maze. I blow the tiniest disagreement out of all proportion. I should be the rock of the family whereas I’m usually drowning in quicksand.

I guess we all feel like that at times. Utterly inadequate. We do the right thing 99% of the time but that one failing can bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. Life. It’s a baffling puzzle we will never master. Until then, all we can do is our very best. I’ll soldier on. Fighting my demons, internal and external. Peering ahead for the next coffee table on the horizon. I can do better. I must do better.

Are you oblivious to much of what goes around you? Do you live in a bubble of your own making?

Or are you eagle eyed? On time for every appointment? On top of every aspect of your life?

This Bloody Sleeve Of Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you wear your heart on your sleeve?

Are you a patient person?

How do you deal with frustration and disappointment?

And So It Begins….

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

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

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

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

How are coping with your grind today?

2019….We Go Again

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

We go again….

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

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

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

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

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

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

We go again. We go together.

What are your 2019 goals?

It Is Finished

It is finished.

The report, that is, which I’ve been fretting over these last few weeks at work. Following a final big push, it will be submitted today to they who must be obeyed. I can sit back, relax for 11.6 seconds, and then find something else to panic about, for that is who I am and that is what I do. I used to joke that I don’t meet deadlines, I beat them. Well, this one has left me feeling half dead, as well as pretty beat up.

I’m celebrating by taking a half day and going to watch Adam play a cup match against my old school, Omagh Academy. Today, though, I will be cheering on Lurgan College. Adam is returning to the team after a bout of illness. Part of me doesn’t want him to play in such a big match as he might not be 100% recovered, but I don’t think wild horses could keep him off the pitch today.

Watching my son play rugby is one of my favourite pastimes. Yes, I’ve become a ‘Rugby Dad,’ and I rarely miss a match. It’s nerve wracking watching him out there competing in such a tough, physical sport against boys two years older (and bigger) than him; but that’s the level he’s playing at now and he gives as good as he gets. He has no fear and a level of composure and concentration that I can only aspire to.

His position is tight head prop, one of the most technical and important roles in the team. He is the base of the scrum, the lynchpin if you will. If he is having an off day, then the pack cannot function as a unit, and it all starts to fall apart. I think that’s why the coaches are so keen for him to play today, in such a big match. They need him, in order for the team to perform to its full potential.

I’ve been feeling demotivated and a little jaded in work of late. Unappreciated and frustrated. But the report deadline, stressful as it was, has succeeded in making me realise, I still have a role to play in my 9-5 world. I contributed and know my boss valued my efforts. I surprised even myself with my knowledge of the subject matter and performed under pressure in order to hit the submission time on time.

I’m fortunate to have the job I do, and should never take it for granted. My family come first obviously, but publishing books and running marathons won’t happen unless the bills are paid. The job is the foundation, upon which the other dreams are built. I should be grateful for my job, not griping that it takes me away from the fun things I would rather be spending my time at. The two go hand in hand.

So, today, as I stand on the touchline, trying desperately not to embarrass my son by haranguing the referee, I will realise I’m only there because of the job. It’s a grind, it’s a pain, but it’s a blessing as well. I contribute, I make a difference, and this report is part of that. Like with Adam, the team I work in cannot function to its full potential, without my input. I’m a cog, but a crucial cog.

This deadline has breathed new life into me. It’s another corner turned, another obstacle overcome. Another step in the right direction, to where I want to be. To where I need to be. I have a plan, and I’m totally focused on getting there. I’m not going to give up now, not when I’m so close. Wild horses couldn’t keep me from playing in the games coming up. Yes, it is finished. But, in other ways, it’s only just begun.

Do you ever feel undervalued at work?

How do you handle pressure and deadlines?

Are you where you want to be in life?

Cutting Corners

Life is so busy at the minute, I’ve been tempted to cut several corners. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything I want to cram into it. Something always has to give, which I’m loathe to do as everything seems a priority at present. It would be so easy to take a few short cuts on my way from A to an increasingly far away B. I mean, would anyone even notice if I took a teensy weensy deviation or two?

In my early running career, I ran a trail 10K over a winding forested route. I knew I was running well, but amazed when I neared the finish line to see the digital clock displaying I had slashed three minutes off my previous personal best. I was delighted….until I checked my Garmin which showed my distance as several hundred metres short of 10K. I was gutted and most annoyed with the organisers who had robbed me of my moment of glory.

I was on the verge of firing off a strongly worded e-mail when I checked the small print of the race instructions. Here, I was rather smugly informed that race distance could not be guaranteed due to the hilly topography of the area. I was left with a conundrum. Did I claim a PB (it was a 10K race after all) or just scratch a line through the event, and put it down to experience. In the end, I chose the latter.

It just didn’t feel right to claim the accolades when I hadn’t run the full distance. I had cut corners, albeit not knowingly. The race organisers were at fault, but it still felt disingenuous of me to crow about my time. I hadn’t run 10,000 metres and wasn’t comfortable claiming I had. This weird, heavy sensation settled on my chest. I think it’s called guilt, but could be mistaken.

The same applies to my work and other commitments this week. I could turn a blind eye here, and overlook dotting that ‘I’ or crossing that ‘t’. But it wouldn’t sit easily with me. I would be putting quantity ahead of quality and undoing the high standards I previously have applied to the various projects I’m working towards. Life is about the long haul, taking the rough with the smooth and battling through whatever obstacles confront you.

Short cuts lead to danger. Less traveled paths are poorly lit and full of traps and pitfalls waiting to trip up the unsuspecting hiker. There are bears, wolves and all sorts of beasties waiting to pounce. Best keeping to the wide, well lit avenues you are supposed to be on. So I’ll keep plodding along. It might not be the most exciting journey in the world but at least I know I’m on the right track. Plus you can be guaranteed one thing. You never know what is around the next corner.

Are you tempted to cut corners?

What path are you on today?

Is it the right one?

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?

How Persistent Are You?

Last night I missed an important phone call. It was my own fault as I had my mobile on silent at the time, one of my many bad habits. Thankfully the caller phoned back later in the night, waking me up but I didn’t mind, so relieved was I that they had tried again. I was able to do what needed done and the situation was resolved. I went back to bed, breathing a huge sigh of relief.

But wide awake. Hence, this (very) early morning post. What did I learn from this experience? Besides, stop being an idiot and turn your phone on when you are expecting important calls. Well, firstly I need to listen more. I have a tendency to know what’s best and ignore the sound advice of much wiser people around me. If I don’t listen, then I can’t learn. It’s as simple as that.

I’ve been told I’m a great communicator, both in and outside the workplace. That’s partially true. Yes, I can write and I also know I can be verbally eloquent when the need arises. I’m comfortable giving presentations and speaking out at meetings. But communication is a two way street and also involves listening. Which is just as, if not more important, than talking. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

I’m a poor listener on two fronts. Firstly I often fail to hear what is being said to me. I drift off into La La Land and have no idea what has just been said. I know how rude this appears, and frustrating to the other person. Secondly, I do take in what is being said to me but fail to act on the advice given. Imparted wisdom is precious and failing to act positively on it is foolish in the extreme. Again, I plead guilty.

I need to become an active listener, to make a conscious and sustained effort to hear the speaker and then do something about it. This involves turning up the volume on my phone and ensuring I have a signal to pick up incoming calls. Not doing so, can and will land me in a world of trouble, with only myself to blame. There’s no fool like an old fool and I’m not getting any younger, that’s for sure.

The second area I picked up on was persistence. The caller didn’t give up, they recognised that the information they held was important, so kept trying until they finally got through to me. They didn’t give up. And I, for one, was very grateful for that. Even if it meant being roused from my sleep in the process, it was a small price to pay. Wisdom is toothless unless it reaches the ears of those who need it.

As a parent, I’m constantly trying to educate our children the best I can. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did. I want them to be better than that. Often I’m frustrated when they don’t appear to be listening to me. But they are only kids, what’s my excuse? I’m a hypocrite and need to practice what I preach. If they don’t see me listening to others, then what sort of an example is that to set?

Secondly I need to persevere with them. Throwing my hands up in the air or losing my temper isn’t going to achieve anything. I can’t give up on them, no matter how infuriating they can be at times. Love is many things, including persistent. You don’t give up on those you love. You call them, even when it involves risk. You persevere, you endure, you hang in there, even if it’s by the fingernails at times.

Are you a good listener? Or a day dreamer life me?

How persistent are you at loving others?

When did you last miss an important phone call?

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.

Are You A Morning Person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to try again this morning….

Are you a morning person?

Are you too hard on yourself?

Or can you try harder than you have been?

God Remembers – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

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

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

Do you feel life has passed you by?

That God hasn’t heard your prayers?

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

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 Writing A Book….Still!

I’ve now reached the two third mark of my fourth edit of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square,’ my first, and possibly only, novel. Progress has been slow, but steady, this week. As ever, real life has got in the way, and I haven’t been able to devote the time I would like to the project. It has simply been a case of chipping away at it, where and when I can. I’m fighting the urge to rush ahead and lose the quality.

The beta feedback continues to be excellent; positive and constructive. I made a point of selecting as diverse a range of test readers as possible; from teenagers to pensioners, and every decade in between. They all seem to be enjoying the story and Meredith Starc is emerging as the most loved character. Do I need to rename this ‘The Meredith Starc Chronicles?’

I hope not, as Kirkwood is very loosely based on yours truly when he was a struggling office worker in his early twenties; without the world saving potential of course. Some of the lesser, but still vital characters are also being introduced – Cornelius Dobson, Martim Rodriguez, Gunther von Steinbeck to name but a few. It has been fun creating their back stories, where my love of historical research has come to the fore.

Then there’s Colonel Augustus Skelly, himself. The villain of the piece. I’ve put a lot of effort into detailing his physical appearance and mannerisms. He is truly alive when I write about him and I hope that comes across to readers. My wish is that he evolves into that most delicious of characters – the bad guy you love to hate. There may even be a crumb of sympathy as to how he turned out the way he did….but not much.

There are still a few characters to be unveiled, including one largely based on our daughter, Hannah. This has proved a major challenge. How do you do justice to such a huge personality? I’m hoping she likes Harley, her alter ego in the KS universe, otherwise my life won’t be worth living. Harley is a crucial character and crashes into the story soon, driving the plot on to its conclusion.

Much of the early sections of the book concerned character introduction, development and back stories. This has been essential as both Kirkwood and Meredith have dark and troubled pasts, which the reader must understand in order to appreciate their actions and decisions in the present. Otherwise, the story doesn’t make sense. I hope I’ve penned heroes that you can relate to and empathise with.

Then there’s the real hero of the book, the city of Belfast. I’ve enjoyed describing the streets I walk most days, capturing the grime and the beauty in equal measure. Some locations are real, others I have based on reality but allowed myself a degree of artistic license. This is the Belfast of the Kirkwood Scott universe; gritty, but scratch beneath the surface and you will reveal its supernatural underbelly.

I hope to have this edit finished by the end of the month. Then it’s a case of mulling over the beta feedback, et voila it’s finished. I’ll then turn my attention towards researching potential agents and drafting query letters. As ever, I want to thank everyone who has supported me both in the ‘real world’ and the wonderful world of WordPress. Without you, none of this would be happening.

What do you make of the Kirkwood Scott universe?

Are you writing a book? Have you written a book? Are you thinking of writing one? Where are you on your writing journey?

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?

Writing Sucks, Yet Still I Write

I used to have a very romanticised image of us wannabe authors. We would languidly lie stretched out on our chaise longues, waiting for inspiration to strike before committing to paper the fruits of our labour. These words would flow seamlessly and effortlessly, with no need for correction, before we would fall back, nibble on a fig, and wait for the next literary gem to form in our minds.

Well, that bubble has been well and truly burst. I’ve posted before about writing being hard work. This week has been no exception as I struggle to remain creative and relevant on the blog, while at the same time trudging through the never ending fourth edit of the novel I am currently working on. It has been a case of one step forward, two rewrites back, as I have agonised over minute punctuation, grammar and continuity issues.

When I’m in the zone, the words flow freely. I’m not one for painstaking plotting and planning before I write. I usually just get an idea or scenario and run with it. Often, the story seems to pen itself, and I am but a conduit. Ideas come to me as I write which I know I never would have had, if I had tried to prepare the story in advance. I am at my most creative when I am in the physical act of writing.

Here, I am at my most free. The wind rushes through my hair as I ride the runaway train as it hurtles down the track, heading where to, I do not know. It is exhilarating as the adrenaline flows and I hammer away furiously at the keyboard, afraid to stop or look up for fear that the silver thread of creativity I am clinging onto will snap and this magical moment will be lost forever.

Which is why editing is such a struggle for me. I recognise it is a necessary part of the writing process, but why oh why must it be such a chore. My life is now one where I obsess over quotation marks and commas; I fret over glaring gaps in the plot and continuity errors that a three year old should have picked up on months ago. Paragraphs which I once viewed as unadulterated genius, are brutally hacked to pieces and subjected to searing scrutiny.

The delete button reigns supreme whilst doubts and delays leave me wondering, what’s the point? What’s the point in pursuing this middle aged fairytale when I could be focusing my time and energy on much more tangible pursuits. Why put yourself through this torture day after day, week after week; for a piece that will realistically only see the light of day if I can magic thousands of pounds from somewhere to go down the self publishing route.

Then it hits me. I am not editing the book, rather the book is editing me. The writing process is allowing me to channel my obsessive nature in a constructive, as opposed to destructive, manner. It is chipping away at me, like a sculptor works a lump of shapeless stone; with a patient precision aimed at eventually revealing the beauty within. Removing layers and smoothing rough edges. There is a method to their mundane madness.

Writing makes me a better person, as does running, my other passion. But my true reward is the journey as opposed to medals and published books. They are merely the external signs of what I have accomplished. The real rewards lie within, in how I have changed and am changing as a human being. These are the reasons I sit hunched over my keyboard night after night. It is a painful process, but a necessary one. Pain is the bedfellow of rebirth. You cannot have the latter without the former.

What is your favoured writing style?

Do you struggle with your writing?

How do you overcome your writing fears?

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?

Every Good Plan A Requires A Plan B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a Plan B?

Do You Want To Be In Our Tribe?

Today is the final day of the transfer window for English football clubs; a day of frenetic activity where the top teams look to improve their squads for the coming season by adding quality players to their ranks. Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent and moves will be completed right down to the wire. When the clock strikes 5pm that’s it. No more transfers until the next window opens in January 2019.

It is an exciting day for fans and clubs alike, but also a worrying and slightly desperate one. Some are forced to pay more than they intended to in order to secure the player they wanted; transfers can collapse due to contract wrangles or failed medicals. Agents connive to secure the best possible personal terms for their clients. Promises are reneged upon and skullduggery abounds in club boardrooms across the land.

There is little loyalty these days in the world of professional sport. The days of the ‘one club’ player are gone. Players have finite careers so are keen to earn as much money as they can while they can. If that means twisting the knife into the hearts of adoring fans and jumping ship for a better deal with a bitter rival then so be it. Cash overrides conscience every time. There is no room for loyalty when a £100,000 a week is sitting on the table waiting to be signed.

The individual is more important than the team. It is all about self-promotion, selling the self. The grass is greener on the other pitch and the desire to ingratiate yourself with others more befitting of your skill and ability is overwhelming. It’s an unsettling and uncomfortable time for all. Players show their true colours as opposed to the colours of your team which they used to wear with pride. But at least it ends today whereupon the dust will settle and we can all focus on the upcoming season.

It’s a pity we cannot say that about real life where I increasingly witness the same behaviour in our wider society. The transfer window is open 24/7-365. There are so many people who seem permanently dissatisfied with their lives. They are never happy with the hand God dealt them and are always seeking a better job, a faster car, cooler friends. What they have is never enough. They are forever chasing that mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Promises and hearts are broken. Best friends pass each other in the street without a word being exchanged. Lifelong business partners end up glaring at each other across the courtroom. Marriages dissolve in bitter acrimony and families are ripped apart. Irreplaceable, lifelong damage is caused and deep wounds inflicted that never properly heal. We become distrusting and defensive, a siege mentality of the soul.

The tribe used to be everything, the glue that bonded families and generations together. The tribe offered solidity and substance. It was our moral compass and the foundation upon which our lives were built. It was both a sounding board and a springboard; a stepping stone from which we launched our dreams and aspirations. Without it we were nothing. Without it we are nothing.

Are you loyal to your tribe? Do you show them the love and respect they deserve? Be it at the kitchen table, around the boardroom or on the field of play. Are you fickle or faithful? Willing to stand tall as the storm approaches or more apt to jump ship at the first sign of choppy waters ahead? For in today’s dog eat dog world we need each other more than ever. Tribe looks inwards as opposed to outwards, they cultivate depth and meaning.

Here at A Fractured Faith we seek to offer that in our own little corner of the online world. We want to build community, a safe environment where bloggers from all around the world can find support and encouragement. We want to be your sanctuary, your safe place, somewhere you can heal and thrive. This is a place where you can be you. We cannot offer heaven, but we can provide a haven. And that’s a start.

How important is tribe to you?

Have you been a victim of tribal warfare?

Do you consider yourself part of A Fractured Faith’s tribe?

Hands Up If You’re Tired?

Hands up who’s tired?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How tired are you today?

How do you combat tiredness?

Losing The Battle….Winning The War

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year.

Are you winning your battle?

What does the voice in your head say?

Make Every Blog Count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on sleep blogging?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do Good Blogs Go Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just hope the coach is watching on those occasions.

What makes a good blog?

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

What bloggers do you want to encourage today?

I’m Writing A Book….Part 465,589

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you on your writing journey today?

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well Done Rebecca!

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

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

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

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

Taxi Drivers, Funerals And Awkward Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

The conversation that followed went a bit like this:

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

Me: Oh dear, is she alright?

Taxi Driver: Yes, yes. She’s fine.

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

Taxi Driver: In the car wash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you fallen off the bike in recent days?

Are you willing to jump back on it?

Sucking Up The Bad Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you deal with the bad days?

You’re Never As Useless As You Think You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you with regards pursuing your dream?

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

Blogging Is Hard Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your blogging career going?

Where does your blogging inspiration come from?

Morior Invictus

The paths of the dead

Are where we must tread

To vanquish the demons

Who reign in our head

Death itches and twitches

Denying us riches

Our God given right

Morior Invictus

Yet I fear it not

For X marks the spot

New treasures revealed

And an end to the rot.

Happy Birthday To Us

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

I’m So Close My Brain Hurts

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

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

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

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

That is all – Stephen 👍🏻

Is your brain hurting today?

What are you expecting from my first novel?

Awkward Conversations With People We Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have awkward conversations with relatives?

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

We are proud of you

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

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

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

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

Fionnuala, Adam, Hannah & Rebecca xxxx

Belfast Marathon 2018 – Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Been Your Best/Worst Wedding Experience?

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

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

What’s been your best/worst wedding experience?

List your comments below.

I’m Writing A Book….Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheap Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your simple pleasures?

Tell Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you need to tell a loved one something today?

Don’t Be A Parachute Pal

I am writing staff performance reviews at present where I assess whether or not the members of the team I manage have met their objectives for the previous year. Thankfully as I am such a fantastic manager and they are such a fantastic team I can hand on heart write that they all have. No need for bribes, inducements or back handers. It’s the truth!

One of the key performance areas are strong communication skills; with other members of the team, the wider organisation and external stakeholders. This relates to both verbal and written communications. Active listening skills are always essential as effective communication is a two way street. Ha! You would almost think I was copying this out of a leadership manual. Which of course I’m not.

Solid communication skills also form the base of any successful relationship. Let me give you an example. Fionnuala shouts at me when I do something wrong. I listen (actively), apologise (profusely) and make amends (hurriedly). Sorted! Everyone’s a winner. Twenty two years together and the old methods are still the best methods. She’s right. I’m wrong. The end.

But seriously….

Every relationship or friendship requires give and take on both sides. The best friendships should be equal and centred upon mutual respect and selflessness. The best friends are those who would drop everything for you at the most inconvenient moment. They are there for you no matter what. They are a consistent and immovable part of your life. They stick around.

Over the last few years Fionnuala and I have come to realise this. Real friends are there no matter how stormy the waters are. They put your needs before their own. They hang around after the party is over and it’s time to clean up the mess. We have realised another thing as well – there are not many of these people in today’s self centred world.

We have lost countless fair weather friends over the last couple of years. We have been snubbed, rejected and ignored. The last kind is particularly hard to stomach. Calls aren’t returned, WhatsApp messages are read (two blue ticks! two blue ticks!!) but not replied to and efforts to resurrect relationships fall on deaf ears and dry ground.

Then there are those who want the friendship to continue but on their terms. So they will ignore you for six months and then parachute into your life like visiting nobility, honouring you with their presence. There is always an ulterior motive for these unannounced arrivals. You may never discover what that agenda is but you can be certain that your interests are not at its heart.

Be grateful for the real friends, the true friends. They are more precious than rubies. Identify them and cherish them. Work hard at protecting and nourishing them. For one day they might be all you have. You will cling to them for all you are worth. Just like they might cling to you. Reflect that mirror of love and trust right back at them.

They need you just as much as you need them. So don’t be a fair weather friend, a parachute pal. Stand up and be counted. On the rainy days as well as the sunny ones. Such friendships are few and far between and when they are gone they are gone forever. I realise that with a heavy heart. Loneliness is a constant threat. Don’t fall prey to its icy embrace.

Have you ever been frozen out of a friendship?

What are your experiences of fair weather friends and parachute pals?

For It Was Written Long Before You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day I Woke Up

Fionnuala here sorry I’ve been very quiet lately I have been really busy with a new business venture I’ve started doing.

As most of you know I am a stay at home mum I spend my days making sure washing is done, clothes are ironed, tummy’s are full, cupboards, fridges and freezers are fully stocked for my hungry husband and children and everyday has it’s new drama for me to resolve.

The last few months have been very tough for me for different reasons and I could feel myself falling deeper and deeper into a darkness of depression. I knew there was two things I could do either sit on the sofa and let the darkness take over or fight get up off my butt and do something about it. I had a good talk with Stephen and a good cry (which always helps me) and I felt a little brighter.

Then about 6 weeks ago I woke up early on the Sunday and had this amazing idea to start making craft items and sell them at Craft Fairs I love making things so this made so much sense I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before. When Stephen came downstairs I was buzzing with excitement and told him my plans only for him to pipe up “I’ve been telling you to do this for years” – I must not have been listening! That afternoon I headed up to Belfast with the girls and we bought lots of stuff to get me started. Stephen came up with my business name Rehanna Crafts which is a mix of our two daughters names Rebecca and Hannah’s.

That morning as I woke up from my sleep I felt as if a light switch was turned on flooding the darkness in my head with light and I could think and see things more clearer. In life it’s so easy to let things take over and distract you from what you could be doing. For me it was letting other people’s behaviour and problems overshadow me and my family’s needs.

If you feel like you are surrounded by darkness like there is no way out then please go and talk to someone, do something, anything that will get you outside of your head.

What did you use to love to do that you haven’t done in a long time?

Today is a new day a new beginning.

Today you are going to let your light shine.

This blog post has went off in a different direction I hadn’t planned to share that with you I had planned to post some of my Crafts with you all but looks like someone else is controlling my thoughts this morning 😊

Below are some of my Crafts I have made if you would like to see some more have a look at my Facebook page Rehanna Crafts

What Is Your Worst Habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your worst habit?

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

Dawn Manoeuvres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Writing A Book….Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Name Is Stephen and I Am A Snorer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your experiences of the false Facebook culture?

I Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torch Bearer

My father was a great man. Not a perfect man but a great one, nonetheless. He had flaws but part of his greatness was that he recognised and embraced them. He knew he wasn’t perfect so took positive action to rectify them. Most of the time he was successful at this, sometimes not, but every time he tried his best. And if he failed he dusted himself off, got back up on his feet and tried again. Great men do that. Don’t believe me? Check your history books.

One of my father’s lesser, although still irksome, flaws was his support of Liverpool Football Club. Growing up in Northern Ireland all football mad boys adopt an English football team to support. Mainly because the local sides are so rubbish. The two most popular choices have always been Liverpool and Manchester United. Bitter enemies with a rivalry going back almost 150 years. Loyalty to a team would be passed down from father to son, generation to generation. It is all part of the paternal bonding process.

Yours truly of course had to be different. I decided to support Manchester United much to my father’s disgust no doubt. I have no idea why I made this decision but for as long as I can remember the Red Devils have held a special place in my heart. I have no recollection of consciously rebelling against my father when making this decision but obviously at some point did. Some boys smoke or buy fast cars. I put Robson, Cantona and Solskjaer posters on my bedroom wall instead of Dalglish, Rush and Beardsley.

It is with some relief, therefore, that our Adam has chosen to follow in my footsteps and support Manchester United. Hopefully these will be the only footsteps of mine he chooses to pursue for many of the others lead to dangerous cliff tops, treacherous quicksand and murky dead ends. Part of my fatherly duties, as I see it, is to steer him away from the paths that I spent the majority of my adult life travelling. Manchester United, however, is a much safer option. Plus, combined with his rugby, it gives us another shared interest. And I’m all for that.

The other night I heard him celebrating a Manchester United goal loudly. Very loudly. It reminded me of myself when I was his age. Running round my bedroom screaming at another last minute winner. And it filled me with pride. Pride at the little part I have played in bringing three such incredible young people into the world. Fionnuala has to take the majority of the credit. She has raised them. I just go to work and pay a few bills. That’s the easy part of the deal.

It also filled me with sadness. I lost my father eight years ago to prostate cancer. Adam lost his grandfather. I’m not so sure my father would have been enamoured with his grandson’s choice of football team but I know he would have been bursting with pride at his academic and sporting achievements. The torch has been passed on. It has flickered and spluttered at times when my father and I held it but it burns bright again now in Adam’s hands. It will no doubt flicker and splutter again for that is the way of the world. But for now it burns bright.

How bright is your torch burning today? It may be a mighty blaze or it may be a timid flicker. It matters not. What matters is that you don’t allow it to be extinguished no matter what obstacles you face. For one day you will be called to hand it on. The race will continue but yours will be run. Younger, stronger legs will take over from you but they need you as much as you need them. They need you, flaws and all. From our weaknesses they will emerge wiser. They will triumph where we have failed. They will overcome.

What made you decide to support your current sporting team?

Who are your torch bearers, past and present?

Happy Birthday Fionnuala

A short blog to wish a very Happy Birthday to my incredible wife, Fionnuala. She holds this family together and I am blessed and honoured that she chose me to be her husband. She is the bravest, strongest and wisest woman I know. She will always be beautiful to me, inside and out. We love you Fionnuala xxx

The Library Fine Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you last visit your local library?

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

Do you ever experience phantom smells or tastes?

What Are You Writing About Today ? (1)

I took a day off from novel writing yesterday. I ran and I blogged and I worked. I was still a father, a husband, a son and a brother. But I didn’t write. Which was weird as in the last week I’ve churned out in excess of 11,000 words which is prolific for me. 50,000 plus in total now. But I realised it was time to hit the brakes and reflect on what I have produced so far.

I need to spend a little more time on planning and preparation. I’m in the second third of the book now and I know exactly where I’m going. It has a flow and a direction that I’m pleased with. It is chronologically written in this third which I find so much easier. I wish I could say the same for the first section which involves a lot of flashback scenes. It jumps around a lot which is necessary in order to build the story and for character development. But it means I need to devote some serious time towards editing and structure.

The more I write the more I realise that there is so much more to writing than the physical activity of writing. It the tip of the iceberg, the cherry on top of the cake, the serene swan on the surface while below the waters it paddles furiously to maintain its dignity. The best writers make it appear so effortless, the words flow so naturally. It all seems so simple to the point where one wonders ‘Why can’t I write like that?’ But this is deceiving. Behind the scenes and beyond the pages the reader does not see the blood, sweat and tears that go into crafting every sentence.

They don’t see the frustration, the doubt and the failures. Often you have to take ninety nine steps back in order to move one step forward. And that’s where I am at the moment. I need to pause, put my foot on the ball and reflect on where I am, where I’ve been and where I’m going. In order to do so I’m going to post a series of mini blogs today about that process. I’m hoping this will entertain and educate you as to the creative literary genius that is Stephen Black. Er….right. But I’m also hoping I will unearth some nuggets of knowledge myself along the way.

What are you writing about today?

There Are Times I Don’t Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros And Cons

So today is my fourth day at home since The Beast From The East and Storm Emma hit Northern Ireland. This morning it is still bitterly cold but it seems like the worst has passed us by. A thaw has set in and the green grass is starting to once more poke through the snow drifts. The icicles at our back door, which were a source of much excitement for kids and adults alike, have melted and our snow persons (one of them was dressed in a bikini) have lost their heads. As in literally.

We have barely left the house other than to visit the village shop for essential supplies. Like Diet Coke and er….chocolate. On these excursions I have reluctantly dressed myself and ventured out into the icy tundra. The second I have returned home, however, I have returned to my go to arctic survival gear of thick socks, pyjama bottoms, t shirt and hooded top. My face also hasn’t seen a razor blade in several days. This is how Bear Grylls must feel when he returns to his five star hotel at the end of an arduous day’s filming in the wilderness. I’m a real man’s man sitting here in my Peppa Pig pj bottoms that’s for sure.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. It’s back to work tomorrow and the kids will be dragged kicking and screaming back to school. Fionnuala is probably the only one keen to return to normality because a) she gets us all out from under her feet for a few hours and b) she has started an arts and crafts business (all part of the ever expanding Black business empire) and needs to get out to purchase some supplies. No tomorrow mourning (deliberate typo people) when the alarm goes off will be an utter barrel of laughs. A very leaky barrel.

The downside to the rubbish weather has been that I haven’t been able to run since Tuesday. I acknowledge that many of you may see that a massive bonus but I’m training for a marathon so can’t afford to miss out on too many training sessions. I hope to get back into it with a vengeance next week but I’m a born worrier so have been fretting about my fitness and weight while glued to the sofa. Eating chocolate biscuits. It’s at times like this when my old friend, Mr. OCD, starts whispering in my ear telling me to pack it all in. I’ll never run a marathon and if I try it I’ll blow up in spectacular fashion. Better to stick to the sofa and the binge eating.

The one thing I have learnt about OCD is that it doesn’t like being attacked on more than one front. No army does. Which is where my writing comes in. Yes, the inclement weather has wreaked havoc with my running but this enforced hiatus has allowed me to attack my novel with a fresh fervour. By the end of today I hope to have written 10,000 words since I arrived home on Thursday. Fionnuala and the kids have been incredibly understanding and supportive as I have torn into my laptop. If there is such an entity as ‘the zone’ then I’ve well and truly been in it. It’s almost as if someone else has already written the book and I’m just transcribing it for them. The characters are deepening and the dialogue is flowing. The words are pattering onto the page like droplets of rain on parched earth. It. Is. Happening.

I don’t mean to come across as cocky because that’s the last thing I am. I’m nervous but excited and wanted to share it with you all. I know now that I have it in me. I will finish the book. It might never interest a literary agent or a publisher but I will finish it. I pitched my plot to Adam last night and he told me it sounded great and he would read it. And he only ever reads books with a loaded gun pointed to his head. I know he’s my son and you’re thinking of course he’ll say that but he’s a teenager and would have taken great delight in telling his father his plot outline was pants if that’s what he thought. Teenage kids can be brutally honest. Any parent of one can testify to that.

So that’s today’s update. A weekend of pros and cons. But finishing on a positive note. I hope you’re all having a ‘pro plus’ weekend wherever you are.

A Walk In The Snow

‘The Beast From The East’ hit Northern Ireland with a vengeance today. We awoke to a carpet of white and it has continued to snow heavily all day. Sub zero temperatures combined with a brutal wind chill factor have just added to the fun & games. As usual the country has descended into utter chaos. The kids weren’t complaining though as all the schools were closed meaning they could concentrate on some serious snowman construction.

As for me. Well I drove the on call car into work this morning risking life and limb on the giant skating rink that was the motorway into Belfast. The snowfall meant I had no idea what lane I was in half the time much to the displeasure of psychopathic lorry drivers thundering past me in the overtaking lane. I resolved, upon finally reaching the office, that I was getting the train home even if this meant a three mile walk from my stop to the house. I would walk along the towpath at one with nature.

This seemed a good idea for all of about 15 seconds before I slipped and landed on my backside with all the grace of a drunken walrus. Luckily the towpath was deserted meaning my blushes were spared. I also escaped injury although I was more concerned about my I-Phone ending up in a drift after it catapulted out of my hand as I was performing my mid-air Swan Lake routine. I had been taking a selfie at the time to send Fionnuala and the kids which made my tumble even more ridiculous looking.

My three mile scenic ramble turned into a death match. Now I’m not one to exaggerate but I now know how those German soldiers felt on the retreat from Stalingrad. One of the characters in my novel will be a German soldier *spoiler alert* so at least I could look upon the experience as character development. The scenery would have been breathtaking had I any breath to take. Unfortunately the bitter breeze took care of that.

I’d rather run a marathon any day than walk three miles in deep snow. It was like jogging through treacle. My calves were aching, I had brain freeze (without a scoop of ice cream to be had) and my feet were getting increasingly damp. I was in a thoroughly foul mood when I saw a sight for sore eyes (and face and calves and backside) approaching me. It was Adam who had set out walking to meet me at the half way point. Upon seeing me he burst into one of those slow motion romantic comedy runs while playing Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from his phone.

It truly was a special moment….

He carried one of my bags and kept me company for the rest of the journey home. We were also able to retrace his steps which meant there was no more virgin snow to traverse. We talked about rugby (predictably) but other topics as well. It was a walk I will never forget. Horrendous at times, comedic at others and, finally, touching and enjoyable as I got to spend some quality ‘man time’ with my son. We also got to see some yellow snow (snigger) that a passing dog walker had left behind. And by that I mean the dog and not the dog walker. Or at least I hope so.

I arrived home to a bowl of homemade leek & potato soup and a set of warm clothes from Fionnuala. I then collapsed onto the sofa from where I’m currently composing this post. Looking outside the snow scene looks much more appealing than when I was actually out in it. I am grateful to be home in a warm house. I am grateful that the fridges and cupboards are full and we will not go hungry. And, most importantly, I am grateful that I can return to a loving family who care about me. We should never take any of the above for granted. I most certainly don’t.

What’s the weather like where you are today?

What are you grateful for today?

Blogging. Doubting. Hoping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do yuh want your writing to take you?

A Few Lines

Just a few lines today you will all be glad to hear. It is my last day off work before going on call for a week so today I’m going to focus on the novel I am supposedly writing. Life has got in the way of late as it tends to do and other stuff has taken priority. If there is a secret to novel writing whilst juggling family and work commitments then I would be delighted to learn your secrets.

Hopefully normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Or as normal as this blog will ever be. I’ll be continuing the study of Peter with posts about community and persecution. Again Fionnuala and I would like to thank you all for your continued support of the blog. We are nearing 4000 followers so must be doing something right. Feel free to comment below even if it’s just to say hello. Talk soon.

Down The Rabbit Hole

Day 2 of Operation Home Improvement effortlessly slipped into gear at chez Black yesterday. I continued my painting duties while Fionnuala skilfully concentrated on the wallpapering, a skill set way beyond my limited abilities. I am the manual labourer to her skilled artisan. She learnt to wallpaper by watching her grandmother and mother and, by the end of the day, was continuing the tradition by overseeing a very eager Rebecca at the pasting table. If you are reading this thinking that Irish men are useless then, yes, you are most probably right in that assumption.

I normally break out into a cold sweat when the phrases ‘DIY’ or ‘Home Improvement’ are mentioned. Ask me to pen a thesis or give a presentation to 200 people? No problem. Ask me to put up a shelf or tile a wall, however, and I would invariably crumple in a flood of tears. If I am in Belfast and my comfort zone ends in London then these tasks are roughly somewhere between Ulan Bator and Beijing. You do the maths….I mean geography. The same goes for anything too technological. I will goes to pieces. Literally.

So it was with some trepidation that I faced the weekend that was. But you know what? I actually enjoyed it. Yesterday evening as we surveyed the (almost) finished kitchen I felt great pride at our achievement. Fionnuala had carried out all the difficult tasks but I had contributed, worked hard and didn’t feel the useless, spare wheel that I usually do. I felt part of the process and gone were the feelings of guilt and shame that I usually experience as I skulk on the sidelines of such projects. I even surprised myself with the enthusiasm and energy I possessed as I threw myself into the project.

My writing and running are largely solitary pursuits. Yesterday and the day before I felt part of a team. This was all the more important as the team were my own family. It is ‘mundane’ tasks like this which create the precious memories that you carry in your heart forever. I wrote yesterday about bonding with Adam as we painted the ceiling together. It was much the same yesterday with Fionnuala. As we toiled together we listened to music which reminded us of our early years together in the late 1990’s. Oasis, Catatonia, Blur, Smashing Pumpkins, The Divine Comedy and so on.

We realised that we hadn’t listened to music together in forever. For a couple who always say they have nothing in common this was something that we always had in common from Day One. So it’s important that we cling to, and nurture, such mutual interests. Fionnuala will never run a marathon and I will never master the myriad of skills that she has accumulated down the years. We rarely like the same movies and differ in so many other areas. We are chalk and cheese yet somehow it works. Like yesterday for instance. Even if involved a mortified Hannah watching her father play air guitar with a broom to ‘Champagne Supernova’.

During a recent Q&A session the most frequently asked question was how I find the time to write so often. I do a lot of it when I commute to and from work or if I wake up in the dead of night and can’t get back to sleep. But I had to take a good, long hard look at myself and realise that my blogging has been eating into time when I should have been focused on other urgent tasks. Whereas Nero fiddled as Rome burned, Stephen blogged as the house fell down around him. I write a lot because I truly believe God has given me a talent and placed a lot on my heart that I need to share with people. God also, however, wants me to participate in the real world.

We write about our life experiences but we need to stop writing sometimes in order to experience life. I have learnt that in recent days. I’ll still keep writing so worry not. You will still have to endure my ramblings on a regular basis. We are bloggers and we need to write. It purges, cleanses and revitalises us. It is our lifeblood, it helps make us who we are. But so do the loved ones around us. Never stray to far down the rabbit hole of self absorption that you forget there are still people back up on the surface. Waiting for us. Needing us. They are what matters. The words that follow are just the icing on the cake.

What’s been your biggest home improvement/DIY achievement?

How do you balance your writing with your other responsibilities?

Clean

Hold the front page! Yesterday I got my cleaning head on as the family, some more enthusiastically than others, got stuck into some serious housework. Adam and I are painting the kitchen this weekend, which is probably a four part blog series in itself, so in preparation there was a lot of clearing away and movement of items. It’s necessary to complete this groundwork before the real work begins. So under the watchful eye of Fionnuala the men of the house began to clear out the kitchen. This took a while but in the end it was mission accomplished and Operation ‘More Paint On The Ceiling Than Ourselves’ can hopefully start later today.

The clear out obviously got my cleaning juices flowing as I decided to keep going. I don’t do enough to help around the house so this was a good opportunity to carry out a few additional chores and take a bit of the workload off Fionnuala. I’m a work in progress when it comes to household tasks. I mean who knew that darks and colours couldn’t go in the washing machine together? Well apparently Rebecca (11) did as Fionnuala and her looked on in horror as I loaded the machine. Disaster was narrowly averted and I moved on to other less mentally taxing duties.

I emptied bins, swept floors and polished work surfaces. I cleaned windows and washed dishes. And before any of you go ‘Oh isn’t he just the most wonderful husband’ can I just stop you. I’m not. The fact that I didn’t really know what I was doing and had to constantly stop and ask for instructions is testimony to that. What cleaning product do I use for this work surface? Where is this or that stored? Am I doing this the right way and am I getting in your way? I was trying. Very trying….But in the end I hope I managed to make a useful dent in the seemingly never ending list of chores that need done.

What did I learn from my manic morning? Well a few things really. Firstly, preparation and groundwork are key. You can’t just launch into painting a room. It requires organisation and prior preparation. Brains before the brawn. Thankfully Fionnuala has the former in much greater abundance than yours truly. She kept a watchful eye over Adam and I as, otherwise, we would have probably dived headlong into the painting and made a fearful mess. We would have been more destructive than constructive. It’s better to take two hours to do something properly than rush it in an hour and then spend the next five trying to make amends. Slow and steady wins the race.

Secondly I need to wear my dust goggles more often. Fionnuala works hard at keeping the house clean but even after a day or so dust will accumulate on surfaces. I realised this as I was polishing shelves and tables. What I thought were spotless work surfaces contained a fine layer of dust which I had previously been oblivious to; cleaning is a constant process as opposed to a once a month blitz. We can never slack off as the way of the world is that the dust and grime will just start to build up again. My cleaning prowess needs to be more than a one-off phenomenon. I need to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty on a more regular basis.

It’s the same with our lives. We need to be more watchful in so many areas. Our mental and physical well being; our relationships with loved ones; our ability to ascertain right from wrong. It is so easy for us to relax, become a little lazy and take our eye off the ball. Then before you know it the layers of selfishness begin to accumulate again. We become blinded to the truth and allow destructive patterns and negative behaviour to sneak into our lives. It’s almost imperceptible but it happens and before you know it you are right back where you started. A clean conscience and a clear head require your constant attention.

We have to be always on our guard. There are pitfalls and traps at every corner. And there are those who do not want us to succeed. Sometimes it is other human beings but I believe that often it goes beyond that. I believe there are other forces at work, invisible powers locked in a battle that is as timeless as it is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. We might be mere pawns in this struggle, tossed about on the stormy waters like flimsy pieces of wreckage, but we matter. It is a battle for our hearts and souls. It is the difference between leading loving, impactive lives or drifting off down other paths where our sinful natures will stifle and strangle our natural gifts and talents.

Our enemies are cunning and resourceful. They also work hard. They don’t take days off. They are determined and dedicated. We need to be equally so. So just as I learnt on the cleaning chain gang yesterday I need to be prepared and vigilant. And I need to be watchful at all times. Because, otherwise, the layers of sin and self will start to accumulate on our souls and tarnish the beautiful lives that we were born to live. We need to knuckle down and work even harder, applying the most effective cleaning fluid of them all – love. Love is not fancy words or grand gestures. It is a way of life, a routine, a series of habits that you display on a daily basis.

Love kills all known germs. It is hard work. It can be mundane and monotonous. But it is here that you discover the miraculous.

What are your favourite household chores? And which ones do you dread?

Who are your enemies? How do you seek to counter them?

Ask Me A Question….

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

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

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

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

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

Start asking….

What Are Your Three Best Qualities?

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

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

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

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

I insist….

What are your three best qualities? Comment below.

Medals Or Memories?

I have a drawer full of race medals. When I first started running four years ago I treasured them like precious jewels. The guys I ran with had the motto ‘It’s all about the bling’. We would travel the length and breadth of the country in search of additions to our collections. The bigger and more colourful the better. I remember once running a ten mile race and being handed a commemorative mug, as opposed to a medal, at the finish line. I was devastated.

In my first full year of running I competed in around 25 races. That’s 25 weekends away from my family. Fionnuala was very understanding and supported my healthier lifestyle but looking back I was selfish. As the weight fell off me and my medal collection grew I became increasingly cocky. As my times tumbled so my arrogance increased. Family life revolved around my racing calendar. It was only a matter of time before the wheels came off and indeed they did.

When the chips were down the majority of my running friends were nowhere to be seen. In my hour of need the medal haul meant nothing. My marathon personal best was irrelevant. And it was the people who I had largely neglected that stood by me – my family. They didn’t give a hoot about my running heroics. They just wanted their husband and father back. The real me and not the fake persona I adopted on race day or on social media. They loved me for who I was, not who I wanted to become.

I’m planning to run six races this year and I hope to have Fionnuala and the kids cheering me on at a couple of them. It will mean another six medals but they are not the reason I am doing it. My mental and physical health benefit massively from running and I also raise money for a charity close to my heart. I will be setting conservative targets with regards finishing times instead of busting a gut to get a personal best. And I won’t be going on Facebook or Instagram the second I cross the line to brag about my exploits.

All that glitters is not gold. I can take or leave the medals now. They can go in the drawer with all the others. The medals I will cherish the most are the less visible ones. The memories that will be created with my family, the smiles on their faces as I cross the finishing line and the fun travelling to and from the events. These are the rewards that you will always carry on your heart as opposed to around your neck for a few, fleeting hours. They are the reason I am where I am today.

What do you have in your trophy cabinet?

How do you intend to make memories this year?

I’m Writing A Book….I Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you WordPress.

Repackage Your Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you repackaged your heart in the past?

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

What’s So Super About Heroes?

Everybody needs a hero, right? Someone to look up to. They inspire us to aspire to become more than what we are. They move us to improve. And their very nature makes them super. Heroes cannot be anything but super. They perform at a level beyond our wildest dreams. They operate on a different plane from us mere mortals. They are faster than us, stronger than us and smarter than us. They are flawless and their reflected glory casts a little more light on our drab and dreary everyday existences. We follow their exploits on the silver screen and in glossy magazines. They are everything we dream of being but are not. They are perfection and that perfection exposes and magnifies every fault and failing we spend most of our lives trying to hide from the world.

I disagree with pretty much all of the above paragraph. I’m sorry if that has burst a few bubbles out there. Maybe you want to skip this post and we can hook up again next time. You see, I don’t really want my heroes to be super. To me, a perfect hero isn’t really a hero at all. If everything you do is effortless then it’s not really super. It kind of becomes mediocre. Bland, mundane, run of the mill. I saved the world again today. It was easy…..yawn. Where’s the blood, sweat and tears in that? Where are the demons they have slain to become who they are today? Where are the staggering odds they have somehow overcome along the way? Er….we kind of skipped that part because we’re perfect and cut straight to the super, heroic bits.

I don’t want perfect heroes. Anodyne and featureless, every scrap of personality scrubbed clean from them. Now before I continue I know there will be many Christians reading this so, before you start, let’s set Jesus to one side for the purposes of this blog. Yes I know he was without sin and, therefore, perfect. He was the ‘Godman’ however and I’m talking about human beings here. Ordinary men and woman who commit extraordinary acts. I’m also not talking about superheroes like Wonder Woman or Captain America. I am talking about real people. I’m not really a DC or Marvel hero anyway. Give me orcs and dragons any day of the week. Or possibly Jessica Jones at a stretch.

I’m not really talking about celebrities either. Yes there are role models out there who inspire and motivate us but we risk straying into dangerous territory here. When we start to worship our heroes it can become idolatry. Which is largely unhealthy and counter productive. They are human beings and human beings have a nasty habit of letting you down. Never meet your hero they say as they have a habit of disappointing you in the flesh. They are not what you created them to be in your imagination. They are a pale imitation. That’s because they are flesh and bone. They can never possibly live up to what we have created them to be in our fevered imaginations. They will always fall short.

They are a concept, an ideal, an unattainable image. Striving, and failing, to be more like them will only end in frustration and resentment. I’m not saying unfollow Taylor Swift on Twitter and take your football and baseball posters down but just be wary they don’t take over. Obsession is a companion I know all too well. Filling your head with such individuals are a distraction. Distracting you from the people around you who truly matter. You will never become them and aspiring to do so is a futile exercise. Focus on becoming a better you not a better them.

Having real life heroes can be problematic as well. It’s all very well and good but once more they will eventually let you down. The higher you build them up the further they will inevitably fall. They cannot live up to your lofty expectations of them. And when they don’t it often ends in recrimination and broken relationships. There is resentment on either side and irreparable collateral damage is caused to trust and respect. Seeds of anger are planted on such fertile ground. From these grow weeds and thorns that will choke and entangle us. We will grow to despise those we once loved. And they will despise us back just as hard. Friends become enemies and allies become foes. I’ve lost so many friends so I know this all too well. My days of setting others on pedestals are over.

So what is the point of this post? I’ve dismissed just about every hero in the book. From Batman to Tom Brady. And everyone in between. Comic book heroes, action movie heroes, everyday heroes. Firefighters, brain surgeons, megachurch pastors and your big brother or sister. They are not heroes. They are just people like you or I. Respect them, admire them and love them. But don’t set them on a plinth and get all gooey eyed over them. For they deserve better than that and so do you. Plinths and pedestals are barriers to true relationships and mutual growth. Let’s all get on a level playing field.

Death to heroes.

What are your thoughts of hero worship and heroes in society today? Do you regard it as healthy or a hindrance? Please comment below.

Creeping Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Atheist Angel

Going waaaaay back some of you might remember a post I wrote called ‘Maggie’s Story’ (not her real name) about a young, homeless girl I befriended in Belfast last year. If not, you might want to check it out before reading on as it provides context for today’s post https://afracturedfaithblog.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/maggies-story/

I hadn’t spoken to ‘Maggie’ in some weeks but wasn’t particularly concerned. As is the nature of life on the streets she lived an unpredictable and chaotic existence. Some weeks she would be everywhere I looked whereas at other times she would literally vanish into thin air. I would never ask her where she had been. That was none of my business. She told me what she wanted to tell me.

I was always relieved, however, to see her after such absences. Yesterday was no exception. I was walking across the city centre from the office to the train station. My normal route involves cutting through a shopping centre (mall) which brings you out onto the most eclectic of squares where modern cocktail bars and restaurants sit alongside centuries old chapels and more traditional watering holes.

The square itself is approached from all sides by a series of cobbled, twisted alleyways where you often find city street dwellers. And it was here that I discovered Maggie sitting shivering beneath a worryingly thin blanket. She was as pale as an anaemic ghost, entombed in her regulation street uniform of hoodie and tracksuit bottoms. She looked cold and miserable but her blue eyes were startlingly clear. I knew immediately that she wasn’t using. I can always tell by her eyes.

When she saw me, those eyes lit up and her face broke out into a smile. A smile which made my day. ‘Where have you been?’ she enquired, totally oblivious to the fact that I walked this route every day and she was the one who had been missing in action. We engaged in conversation for a few moments, the details of which are irrelevant to this post. Needless to say her January had been a tough one. But she was alive and clean for which I was grateful.

As I crouched beside her I became aware of a young woman kneeling beside me. It was her flaming, red hair that first caught my eye. She started to talk to ‘Maggie’, her face etched with concern and worry. She told us that she had only recently moved to Northern Ireland from the United States and had lived on the streets in Los Angeles as a teenager. She then did the most remarkable of things, removing her coat and handing it to ‘Maggie’. ‘You’re freezing and you need this more than me’ she explained.

I don’t know who was more shocked, ‘Maggie’ or myself but there then followed a bizarre reverse tug of war between the two girls. ‘Maggie’ is fiercely proud when lucid and very reluctant to accept charity. She will never say no to a hot cup of tea and I have also persuaded her, after much effort on my part, to allow me to buy her food and cigarettes. ‘But only the cheapest brand. You do enough for me as it is’ she would holler after me as I entered the shop.

In all the time I have known her, however, I have never once considered giving her an item of my clothing. I was instantly shamed and humbled by this staggering act of kindness. The American girl, let’s call her ‘Abby’, looked cold herself and I could almost count the goosebumps popping up on her pale arms as she struggled to get ‘Maggie’ to accept her coat. Belfast is hardly Sunset Boulevard in deepest January I reflected, cosy in my heavy coat, cap, scarf and gloves. Yet here she was offering up her coat to a complete stranger who she knew needed it more than her.

The tug of war continued and I assisted where I could in translating West Belfast slang with Southern California drawl as best I could. They were both speaking English but struggling to understand each other. In the end ‘Maggie’ triumphed (she normally does) although she allowed ‘Abby’ to buy a cup of tea for her. I thanked the American girl afterwards and we talked a little as I filled her in as to what I knew about ‘Maggie’.

She screamed ‘Young Christian’ in her language, actions and dare I say it appearance. She looked as if she had just walked off the set of a Bethel worship music video. I’m not sure how but our brief conversation led to her asking what place of worship I attended. ‘I’m kind of between churches’ I mumbled, a bit embarrassed to admit as much to such a paragon of virtue. ‘What about you?’ I replied, bracing myself for a Christian CV as long as your arm. No doubt the daughter of a pastor, worship leader aged ten and veteran of countless global missions and city soup kitchens.

‘Oh I’m an atheist’ she cheerfully replied before saying her farewells and veering off into a nearby cafe in search of ‘Maggie’s’ tea. I stood there, my jaw scraping off the ground, in stunned silence. Here was a non-Christian performing perhaps the most ‘Christian’ act I had ever witnessed. A modern day Good Samaritan. In the space of five minutes she had shown more love and compassion than I had seen many devoted church goers display in five years.

Christianity is just a word, a tag, a label. It means nothing really. It is actions that make the person, not memorising Bible verses or rolling up to church every Sunday. The word ‘Christian’ was nothing more than a nickname given to the first followers of Jesus by the Romans. It was intended as derogatory, mocking term. The early followers referred to themselves as ‘The Way’. The three year ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus paved the way for the early church to explode onto the global scene and bring the mightiest civilisation known to man to its knees within a few centuries.

Atheist, Agnostic, Christian at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. They are nothing but labels. What defines us is love. Do we love those around us? Not just our family or friends but also those on the fringes of society? We need to radically rethink the ingrained stereotypes and prejudices which colour our view of the world. We need to stop judging others and shoving them into neat little compartments which tally with our outlook life. We need to value and include the ‘Maggie’s’ and ‘Abby’s’ of our lives. We need to love the homeless and the atheists (but we also need to love like the homeless and the atheists. Actually love as opposed to just talking about it.

Who are you going to love today?

Lists

I love lists. I am a listophiliac. I’m sure this is not the correct terminology for a lover of lists; no doubt one of you good WordPress people will forward me the correct word. Or even better a list of such words. My love of lists is born out of fear; a fear of forgetting important information and appointments due to my appalling memory. It keeps letting me down and I keep letting people down. Which I hate. So I compile lists, which I love.

Lists of things to do. Lists of places to be. Lists of people to talk to. My lust for lists knows no bounds. I maintain a list of all my son’s rugby results. I keep lists of all my training runs. Including pace, elevation and calories burnt no less. And I have started a list of Netflix shows that Fionnuala and I intend to watch this year. We’ve just finished Manhunt:Unabomber by the way which was excellent. Just thought I’d share that with you all. You’re welcome.

I’ve started reminding Fionnuala of upcoming events, a previously unheard of phenomenon. This pleases me no end but probably just adds to her (ahem) list of annoying features about her husband. There is nothing more satisfying than scoring a completed task off a list. My future is scheduled and organised. I know what I have to do every day both inside and outside of work. I have become a more effective and efficient member of society as a result. I hope it has made me a better husband and father. God loves a trier and I am trying. Very trying at times.

None of us know what the future holds but at least with lists we can be better prepared. It’s akin to a gladiator entering the arena without his shield or his net. I’ve never quite worked out the whole gladiator net thing. If I was about to face my almost certain horrific death in front of a baying, bloodthirsty crowd my ‘go to’ weapon would in all likelihood not be a net. Nets are for fishing. Swords and axes are for fighting. Or at the very least a decent spear. But anyway what do I know. Stevius Blackius I am most certainly not.

On my command unleash lists. Did you see what I did there movie fans? My problem is I also keep lists of past events as well as future ones. Lists of people who have offended me, lists of past transgressions, lists of events which remind me of what an abject human being I am. Lists of shame and blame. Lists about lists. Lists which bog me down and tangle me up as opposed to bring structure and focus. Lists are like ladders. They can carry you to the summit of where you need to be but miss a rung and you come clattering back to earth with an almighty thump.

My lists from the past are like that rickety old ladder. They cannot be trusted and often leave me battered and bruised, sitting on my backside staring up at the sky. They are negative and self-defeating. They needed crumpled up and chucked in the garbage heap. They chain me down from where I need to be. The present. For it is the passport to our better futures. Unless we deal with what is around us now we will never unlock the doorway to tomorrow. It’s not called the present for nothing. It is a gift, a blessing. Just sitting patiently in front of us waiting to be unwrapped.

We need to maintain a presence in our present. We need to look up from our personal organisers and diaries and take stock of the here and now. Just for one second resist the lure of the list. Desist and consider your immediate surroundings. Now what do you see? A friend or work colleague who is struggling and in need of a helping hand. A relative out on their feet through sickness or exhaustion who needs you to be with them. Instead of sitting with your nose buried in a list, plotting your future or ruminating over the past.

Yes, lists can be a saving grace but you really should be saving your grace for today. Right now. Lists are a double edged sword that can inflict paper cuts to our current relationships. They can suck you out of your present where you are needed into a past where you no longer belong. You are prolonging unwanted and unnecessary pain. A past that needs to be buried once and for all. Not exhumed and picked over like the rotting, decaying corpse that it is. There is a reason the past is the past. In fact there are many. We need to remember that. Write them down if necessary. Even if that involves starting another list.

Are you a list maker? Are they a help or a hindrance to you?

What do you like or dislike about AFracturedFaith? Send us a list. We are always seeking to improve and your comments are always welcome.

Bite Your Lip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grind

Yesterday epitomised Northern Ireland winter time at its finest. It was wet, cold, windy and grey. Come to think of it that fairly accurately epitomises Northern Ireland spring time as well. And summer. And autumn. Anyway it was miserable. I stared forlornly out of the window with a hangdog expression, willing the clouds to clear and the sun to emerge. But to no avail. This caused a problem for me. As yesterday was my scheduled weekly long run.

Fionnuala had suggested I do it the day before but why listen to a woman who is right 99.99% of the time and is obsessed with all things meteorological. That would be waaaaaay too sensible. Instead I clung to the hope that that the weather forecasters were all wrong and I would awake to blue skies and perfect running conditions. Instead I awoke to the sound of rain battering relentlessly against our bedroom window.

I hate running in the rain. Besides the whole unavoidable ‘getting wet’ business I also wear glasses; to run without them would be verging on suicidal. I would either end up face down in a ditch or careering blindly into oncoming traffic. Contact lenses are no good either. The slightest speck of dust blown into them and we are referring back to the aforementioned ditch or oncoming traffic scenarios. Either way I end up as fluorescent orange roadkill….in Nike running shoes.

I have yet to come across glasses equipped with windscreen wipers. I just know that one of you good WordPress people will now prove me wrong and inform us all that Archimedes or Galileo actually had blueprints for these many centuries ago. Show offs that they were. If they did then this invention has yet to reach my optometrist. Which is a shame as I would have been the first in the bespectacled queue to purchase such an innovation. In my mind this would be up there with man discovering fire or designing the first wheel. Were cavemen not short sighted like the rest of us?

By early afternoon I had no option but to put my running gear on and brave the stormy conditions. Within half a mile I was drenched and simultaneously attempting to dry my glasses in order to see where I was going. I was virtually brought to a standstill by a wind that seemed to blow in my face no matter what direction I was heading. Parts of the route resembled a steeplechase course as I navigated gargantuan puddles and hurdled fallen branches. I reckon that I spent at least 0.683 of the 12 mile route in mid air like a startled gazelle in lycra. Not a pretty sight let me assure you.

Normally at some point during a long run you find your rhythm and the endorphins kick in. You start to enjoy the running experience and the worries of your world are left far behind. You think good thoughts and make grand plans. This was not the case yesterday. I spent most of the run having imaginary mental arguments with various people and plotting their downfall. I prayed, as ever, but not for world peace and harmony. Instead I pleaded with God to remove the dull ache in my thighs and forget about the squelchy, swampy sensation in my Nikes. But I’m a stubborn soul and refused to admit defeat despite every fibre of my being screaming at me to stop.

And you know what? I did it. One mile became two, became seven. And before you knew it I was gritting my teeth and ploughing through the final mile. 12 miles in total. Bringing my total for the month to 110. Only 40 more to go to reach my January challenge target. Which is again just a small part of my overall winter training programme. The overall target? More marathons later in the year all being well. Somebody once said that the marathon itself is just the victory lap of the process. The real hard work is the months of thankless, grinding training runs at ungodly hours and in horrendous weather. That’s where you win the medal.

You might be experiencing the grind today. At work, at home, in the supermarket, on the school run. The grind is chafing and tedious. But it is here where we are transformed. Everest was scaled one step at a time. We all have dreams and goals but we only attain them via knuckling down and getting on with it. It is uncomfortable and uncompromising; but while it drains our resolve it also builds our character. And one day it will all be worthwhile. Be it crossing a finish line, watching your child graduate or celebrating that 50th wedding anniversary.

Find the grind. For there you find yourself.

What is your grind?

Where do you hope your grind will eventually lead you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can anger be healthy and productive?

Sick Of Being Sick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are sick. But the world is sicker.

How Good Is Your Memory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you deal with toxic memories from the past?

Shatter The Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you been a victim of silence?

Have you used silence as a weapon before?

Can you forgive someone today and shatter the silence?

Beardy McBeardFace – Part Two

Due to unprecedented popular demand (well, three of you) I’ve decided to post a photo of my attempts to grow a beard. This was taken earlier today. It’s been twelve days now since my chin last saw a razor blade and what a journey it has been. I’ve pouted, I’ve preened and I’ve scratched but I can finally score this enterprise off my bucket list.

I’m back to work on Friday after the Christmas break so I’ve decided to bid farewell to the face furniture and return to the clean shaven look safe in the knowledge that I am a proper man’s man. No patchy spots and not a ginger hair to be seen. What’s not to like about that? As tomorrow is my final day of follicular freedom I might experiment. Perhaps with a goatee? Or by rocking the Mexican gringo look?

I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Fionnuala and the kids who have had to endure this abomination over the last two weeks. Fionnuala has been wisely keeping me at arms length but I’ve saved us a small fortune in razor blades and shaving foam. If any of you hear distant screams later tonight, fear not. It will probably just be me hacking at my face while trying to avoid my jugular.

Yours in beardiness

Stephen

We Need You

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you on your journey?

What does the blogging community mean to you?

Make Today Count

I was in the shop today when I was forced to do an actual Scooby-Doo double take. Yikes! Shaaaaaagy! There before my very eyes was an Easter Egg display. On 2nd January. I don’t think the shop in question had even taken down its Christmas decorations yet. I’ve eaten enough chocolate this last week to merit a serious intervention of Willy Wonka-esque proportions so walked on by without making a purchase. Besides we still have 485 boxes of Celebrations and Miniature Heroes to plough through.

The thing is though other people obviously were making purchases. Otherwise why would the shop have Easter Eggs out on sale? It’s a demand driven market. Need and supply. Santa has barely landed back at the North Pole and the Easter Bunny is already dusting down his basket. These seasonal workers have a time of it. I feel sorry for the Tooth Fairy. She never gets a day off. Where’s the justice in that? People are already planning for Easter. No time to hang about. It’s less than four months away!

I shouldn’t have been surprised really. We live in a world that operates at a million miles an hour these days if not faster. After Easter it will be the summer holidays, then Halloween, Thanksgiving and, before you know it, Christmas is just around the corner again. We are so taken up in our planning and preparations that we forget the here and now. Never satisfied with our present and always looking forward to the next big event. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. It’s full speed ahead.

We are wishing our lives away when we should be living our lives today.

Instead of pining for these special days we need to recognise that every time we open our eyes and breathe is a special day. Every day has the same number of seconds, minutes and hours in it. Every day is an opportunity to love and be loved. Those big days down the road overshadow the big days we are living through every twenty four hours. By wishing our lives away we are devaluing ourselves and others. We are capable of so much more, there is so much more that we could and should be doing.

It is good that we look forward to, and celebrate, these special occasions. But life is so much more than that. It is about looking around as well as looking forward. Sorry to come across as the harbinger of doom but who is to say that you will even see Easter, Thanksgiving or next Christmas? None of us know when, or how, our circumstances might change. There but for the grace of God and all that. Who knows? We could all be speaking North Korean and have silly haircuts this time next year. Is North Korean even a language?

Let’s celebrate the ordinary days and make them extraordinary. You can make a difference today. Throw a pebble into your pool of influence and see where the ripples take you. Develop a presence in your present rather than sleepwalking to the next big day. Because when you get there it’s invariably an anti-climax anyway. And you find out the people you share these occasions with are virtual strangers as you have been ignoring them for the last six months anyway.

Don’t count the days. Make the days count. Starting today.

Have you seen your first Easter Egg yet?

How are you going to make today count?

Unhappy New Year

I hate New Year! There I’ve said it.

No, hang on, hate is too strong a word. But I really don’t like it. For all sorts of reasons. The overpriced taxi fares, the fake bonhomie, the soul withering hangover the following morning. All these memories from my past cause me to break out into a cold sweat. This post, however, is about New Year much as I dislike it so I’m not going to focus on the past. Call it one of my New Year Resolutions ha!

Everywhere I look people are making resolutions. They’re going to eat less, exercise more, save the planet, yadda yadda yadda. I’m sure all these declarations are well intentioned and heartfelt at the time but, let’s face it, how many of them last beyond January 7th. By then most of us, myself included, have fallen off the wagon in spectacular fashion, and can only sit on our bruised backsides and egos, watching it roll on into 2018 without us.

This makes us more unhappy than when we started out. For in order to make a resolution you have to be unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your current situation. You are resolving to make a change, to improve your circumstances, to move forward. Yet when the resolution invariably crashes and burns you find yourself more unhappy than when you started. You consider yourself as weak and a failure. Your resolve has dissolved and you haven’t evolved.

You’re back to square one. Make yourself comfortable and take in your surroundings as this is where we spend a good part of our lives. Maybe eat another mince pie while you reflect on what a useless human being you are. Except you’re not. It’s the New Year Resolutions which are useless. You build yourself up all December for this chance, this hope to turn your life around in 2018 only to fall flat on your face at the first hurdle. New Year Resolutions well and truly suck.

This propensity to fail sets us off on entirely the wrong mental footing. New Year and I’ve already flunked out. Just like last year and the year before. By striving to change and move forward we find ourselves ruminating on the imperfections of our past. Which kind of defeats the whole point of the exercise. You sit there with your head in your hands thinking you have to wait another twelve months before you can try again to get a foot on the bottom rung of whatever ladder you are hoping to scale. Right?

Wrong. Why wait a year or a month or a minute for that matter? If I ruled the world (a disturbing thought I know) I would do away with New Year. Who says you can only make resolutions on 1st January. Why not 2nd January, 3rd January or 18th October for that matter. Any day, hour or minute that you choose. Change is a constant process, a state of mind that should run through your veins 24/7/365 not just once a year. So what if you screw up on 2nd January. Dust yourself down and try the next day and the day after that.

Change requires determination. Old habits need broken and new ones formed. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Transformation is a life long process. Do not allow yourself to be defined or confined by your perceived failings on a set, pre-determined day of the year. Every defeat is actually a victory. You learn more about yourself, where you learn from what went wrong the time before and then tweak and tailor your tactics in order to make sure you don’t repeat the same mistake the next time you try. For there will be a next time.

And a next time, and a next time, until it sticks and you nail it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or New York, Paris or Belfast for that matter. They are living, breathing cities which continue to grow to this very second. They are works in progress, as are you. Beautiful creations with a plan and a purpose greater than the sum of all your broken resolutions put together. Make your life one of constant resolution.

For within every resolution lies the solution. To unlock the person you were born to be.

Unhappy New Year everyone! Happy New Rest of your Life!!

Have you a track record of broken resolutions?

What are your 2018 goals and targets?

Beardy McBeardFace – Part One

I don’t have a bucket list but if I ever compiled one I reckon that growing a beard would have been on it. I’ve never had a beard, stubble yes, but never a full one. I’ve always wondered what it would look and feel like. Would I resemble a mighty warrior from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? Or a sad, middle aged man who should really know better.

Fionnuala hates all things face furniture and has always been strongly against the idea of me growing one; anything beyond a two day stubble and she looks at me disapprovingly. She thinks they are dirty but finally relented a week ago and said I could grow one over the Christmas holidays. So it was with much excitement that I banished my razor and shaving foam to the back of the bathroom cabinet. Operation Beardy McBeardyFace was go go go!

There was little to report over the first few days but, as we now reach the week mark, I have become fixated by my facial hair. I have been caught examining it in the mirror. This is bizarre as I normally hate looking at my own reflection and avoid doing so whenever I can. Yet the beard has an eerily hypnotic pull and keeps drawing me back. I find myself stroking it without realising that I am. I even shampooed it the other evening. If this were to continue beard oils and combing may enter the equation. I am like a child with a new plaything.

There are pros and cons to growing a beard. I considered working out how much I would save in toiletries over the course of a year but then decided this was a step in sadness too far. The same goes for the 3.475 days a year I now have to spend on other activities. Like staring in the mirror at myself. Or shopping for beard oils and other related products. The beard is saving me time and money. All I have to do is sit back and do nothing. What’s not to love about that?

The experiment has also reassured me that I do not possess a ginger gene. Being Irish this has always been a concern of mine. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against redheads. Belinda Carlisle was the first love of my life. I used to stalk Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones around Belfast city centre. And Ed Sheerin and Prince Harry have made it cool to be ginger again; no, this all comes from the darkest recesses of my school days when to be a ginger was akin to having social leprosy; you were a pariah, an outcast to be mercilessly mocked for all the days of your life. Duracell Head, Carrot Top, Ginger Ninja and so on and so forth.

I was tubby, shy and wore glasses but at least I wasn’t ginger. Or was I? Thankfully the beard has allayed any concerns I might have had. Not even a hint of copper. It has sprouted up reassuringly dark apart from a grey section around my chin which I think makes me look most distinguished. George Clooney eat your heart out. Why didn’t I think of this years ago. I could have been modelling for Armani. Not only does the beard turn me into a Holywood sensation but it also covers the many parts of my face that I am not so enamoured with. Everyone’s a winner.

Yes a week in and everything is going swimmingly. When I started writing this post I never envisaged it developing into a two parter. Yet it has. You see the beard is taking over. It has developed a life of its own. It is like an alien life form that has attached itself to my face and taken over my mind. And for all the advantages I have listed above there are as many, if not more, disadvantages. The beard is most definitely not beardier on the other side. Part Two will cover all that so try to contain yourselves.

And no before you ask I’m not posting a photo of my bearded self. Some of you may be of a nervous disposition and I don’t want to scare you.

Men – do you have a beard? What have been your experiences with facial hair?

Women – are you a fan of face furniture? Beards? Moustaches? Hipster goatees?

All I Want For Christmas….

Fionnuala and I celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary today. We have decided this year not to buy each other presents but instead are going later this afternoon as a family to the Christmas Market in Belfast. I’ll be blogging about that adventure later so stay tuned for photos of the Black family there. Probably eating. A lot.

Fionnuala loves to sing. I don’t particularly love to hear Fionnuala sing but that has never stopped her before. She also loves Christmas so the house has been rocking all month to her festive soundtracks. One of her party pieces is her variation of the Mariah Carey classic ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. Fionnuala, instead belts out ‘All I Want For Christmas Is Glueeeeeeee’. I’m not quite sure what this means but, anyway, the kids find it hilarious.

Fionnuala is our glue. She has held this family together for many years. She has fixed broken relationships and hearts. It has been sticky and messy at times but she has persevered and overcome every adversity thrown her path. When I was broken she could have shovelled up the pieces and thrown me in the bin. Instead she held me together until I mended. She fixed me. She healed me.

She is the unsung hero of the family. She deserves so much yet asks for so little. She has a heart the size of Ireland and would fight to the death for her family. She would give her last penny to someone in need. Whereas I talk and write she acts. She gets stuff done by hook or by crook. She organises, budgets, schedules, never stops. She brings her A-game 24/7 even when she is tired or sick. She always puts others needs before her own.

She is kind, wise and beautiful. The latter on the outside but, more importantly, on the inside. She puts up with the insanity of being married to me. Without her there would be no me. She is my best friend and is always there for me. Even though I drive her insane on a daily basis. She often tells me that she wanted a husband and not a fourth child. She also says that the world doesn’t revolve around me. I know that now. For the kids and I are mere planets. She is our sun.

She provides the light, heat and energy that we need to survive. We orbit her and rely upon her. She is indefatigable, indestructible and invincible. She never gives up on us and is the driving force behind all the stories and messages on this blog. She is as perfectly simple as I am imperfectly complicated. She loves God and she loves her family and friends. She is my gravity, keeping me firmly rooted to the ground whenever I start to drift off on flights of fancy.

I can’t give you expensive presents this year, Fionnuala, but I can give you my thanks and my heart. You are my wife and my best friend. You are my everything. I love you. Happy anniversary.

Love Is….Hard Work

Everybody wants to fall in love right? We all crave that ‘high as a kite’ feeling where our heart performs somersaults every time we see the object of our desire and they occupy our every waking thought. For many it is the single most important objective in their lives and they devote an inordinate amount of time, energy (and invariably money) towards achieving their goal.

But why do we fall in love? Why don’t we soar in love or, at the very least, hover? Falling suggests a loss of control. Which is correct because when a person falls in love they do, to an extent, lose a degree of objectivity. Often nobody or nothing else matters outside of the object of their affection. When it’s good it’s very good. But it can lead to harm, hurt and potential heartbreak. When we stampede blindly down the road to romance others can get trampled in the process.

Falling in love is both a selfless and a selfish act. Selfless in that you put the needs of the other person before yours and will often park your own ambitions, values and ethics to one side in order to conform to theirs and thus be accepted. Selfish in that, as they are now the centre of your universe, others previously in that position, are now shunted out into the outer cosmos. Somewhere between Neptune and Uranus I suspect.

Yes falling in love is a fantastic experience. Your stomach does somersaults and your head is at 49,000 feet. A fantastic experience but a temporary one. Every fall must come to an end. Often with a shuddering halt. And it is what you do then that truly matters. Falling in love is the easy part. It is a fickle, transient state of being. It requires little effort. It is a feeling, an emotion, an altered reality. But remaining in love? Well that’s an entirely different ball game.

Loving someone on a 24/7/365 basis is hard work. It is a wilful act as opposed to a fleeting fancy. It requires bottomless amounts of forgiveness and patience. Especially when it involves someone who doesn’t display particularly lovable traits; someone who doesn’t appear to reciprocate the love; or someone who you want to scream at and punch in the face rather than buy chocolates and roses. I know. For I have been loved at my most unlovable.

Loving someone likes this often involves telling them what they don’t want to hear. Delivering hard and unpleasant information otherwise known as ‘the truth’. Some of you may have heard of this term. To others it remains an alien concept. Falling in love is like standing under a tropical waterfall. Remaining in love often involves throwing ice cold buckets of water over your sleep walking, day dreaming partner. In order to smell the coffee you must first be woke up. That can be an unpleasant, but necessary, experience.

Loving someone like this is entirely selfless. You have to be entirely selfless in order to destroy the selfishness in the other person. In order to prick their conscience you have to first burst their bubble. And that can be a messy process. True love involves bursting that bubble but also remaining around afterwards to mop up the mess. Sacrifice is a dirty, disgusting business. In order to be truly purged we often have to be submerged in blood, sweat and tears.

Fall in love, yes. Enjoy the rush, the thrill, allow yourself to be swept off your feet. But when you return to terra firma be prepared to roll up your sleeves and knuckle down for a hard slog. Love is a war where many enemies, both internal and external, will attempt to grind you into the ground. True love will prevail but it will be a war of attrition. One day at a time. With its casualties but also with its heroes who are often unsung. For they understand the true meaning of love.

This post is dedicated to my wife, Fionnuala. ❤️

How do you define love?< strong>What are your experiences of falling, and remaining, in love?

How Is Your Writing Coming Along?

Yesterday lunchtime I had a walk around areas of Belfast city centre where scenes of my first novel are to be set. The plan was to capture details that have evaded my memory to date so that when I am writing I can refer to them there and then. Ideally I would like to write the relevant scene while sitting at the location but it was minus 4 yesterday. I’m a wannabe author but I’m not that crazy!

Progress has been slow of late. What with work and family life it is hard to find the quiet time necessary to write. I also don’t want to neglect my blogging which is at the heart of my writing. It is my meat and potatoes. The book is just the dessert. Honeycomb ice cream or strawberry cheesecake I hope.

I’ve written about 40,000 words but I literally vomited them out during a week off work about a month ago. It’s as if they had been lying on my stomach for years and I just had to get them out of my system. I purged myself. What have I learnt? That I can write, yes, but also that I need a structure to form my words around.

I’m therefore spending more time on outlining and storyboarding as opposed to just writing blindly. The latter has surprised me in that I’ve realised that I am at my most creative when in the actual act of writing. That is when the ideas come to me, when I am actually sitting at the keyboard. It has resulted in characters leading me off in totally different directions from what I had first anticipated.

It has also dragged me down a few dead ends, however. A happy medium needs to be struck between spontaneity and preparation. I need a solid foundation upon which to lay these creative bursts. This is slowly coming. I have been using a technique called ‘The Snowflake Method’ where you start with the premise for your novel in one sentence and gradually build it from there. A paragraph, a page, four pages and so on.

The above technique is teaching me discipline and patience. Writing a novel is hard work. Yes, you have your days when the words flow from you like water from a fountain. But at other times it involves monotony and frustration. Taking five steps back in order to move one step forwards. Chipping away at a block of stone in order to reveal the sculpture beneath.

I also haven’t decided on my favourite writing device. At times I favour sitting at my desk writing on the laptop but I also jot down ideas and notes on my I-Phone and Kindle Fire. I also have a notebook which I write in. With this ancient writing tool known as a pen. Some of you may have heard of this. If haven’t just google it.

So that’s my update. I’m getting there but slower than I first expected.

How is your writing coming along?

Decrease The Creases

We live near the shores of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. It is home to a rich variety of wildlife including elegant geese who regularly fly over our house in a perfect arrowhead formation. It’s a wondrous sight but not quite as jaw dropping as the herd of pigs which flew over chez Black around lunchtime yesterday.

Okay. Okay. I made that last line up.

But there was an equally miraculous visage for Fionnuala and the kids to behold. Yours truly standing at the ironing board. As in actually ironing! With an iron!!

Fionnuala hasn’t been feeling that well this weekend and even I couldn’t avoid to see the mountain of ironing accumulating in the corner of our kitchen. Now my housekeeping skills leave a lot to be desired. I can burn water. But surely even I could manage a few shirts and school uniforms in order to take the pressure off my long suffering better half. Wee buns as we say in Northern Ireland.

Over the course of the next couple of hours I fine tuned my technique until a sizeable amount of freshly pressed clothes were folded up on the kitchen table. It was hard to imagine that they had previously been a crumpled heap in the wash basket. I must admit I felt quite pleased with my efforts. I can’t swim and I don’t own a bike so it will be the nearest I’ll ever come to being an Iron Man.

Sorry couldn’t resist….

How many of you feel like a crumpled shirt or pair of trousers? Dishevelled and unwanted. Covered in creases and wrinkles. The wrinkles can be literal, the result of unremitting pressure and stress. Wrinkles are bumps on the highways and byways of our lives. They need to be overcome and the iron creates the searing heat needed to eradicate them. A white hot heat that regenerates and purges. I needed a hot iron in order to remove the creases from the pile of clothes I tackled today.

Sometimes in order to remove the problems in our lives an external heat needs to be applied. It can be a concerned friend or a caring relative. We stumble around in a maze of mistakes and cannot see the bigger picture. We lose our perspective and become subjective. We require a blunt appraisal of our situation from an outside source. Warts and all. We might not like it but the best medicine never goes down easily.

We become blinded by bias and a friendly iron can be be a painful necessity in order to smooth out our predicament. Heat hurts but it also heals. It can lead to wide, flat plateaus of peace devoid of the cobbles of confusion and flagstones of fear. Why sidle on the sidewalk or ponder on the pavement when you can surge ahead on the straightest, narrowest road imaginable.

Chase your dreams on open highways. We all accumulate wrinkles and creases on our life journeys. Don’t allow them to force you down dark alleys that lead to dead ends and delay. Swallow your pride and share your problems with someone who you can be truly accountable to; allow them to bring the heat and drag you out of the trough you find yourself in.

You need never be alone. De-crease your problems and increase your hopes of a brighter future. Just reach out. We are here for you.

Are you an ironing geek? Or do you dread this chore?

Do you need help with a problem today?

Are there people out there who can iron out your creases?

Words

What’s in a word?

All my life I’ve enjoyed playing with words. Juggling them, rearranging them, making them dance to my tune. I guess I’m a wordsmith. They have been with me in soaring to unimaginable heights and plummeting to indescribable depths. They have been my most loyal ally and my most bitter enemy.

What’s in a letter? 26 little squiggles make the world go round. Or at least the English speaking world. Oh look! Do you see what I did there. With one extra letter I’ve made word becomes world. Aren’t I clever? Words are like putty in my hands, I say jump and they say how high. Without words we are nothing. Our lives are fuelled by words. They shape our futures and cement our pasts.

Words can be weapons. They can hack, slice, pierce and gouge. Words can be swords. Look I did it again! Words can start wars and end lives. They can make good men do bad things. Words can unleash the most horrendous evil. It was words that fuelled the killing factories at Auschwitz and Belsen; it was words that sent tens of thousands of brave, young men over the top to their deaths at the Somme.

Words can break hearts and crush dreams. They can worm their way (three times! three times!) through the smallest gap and wreak havoc. They are permanent. You can’t take back a word. The tongue is the most dangerous part of the body. Actions speak louder than words? I’m not so sure about that. Words are just as capable of irrevocable damage. Words end lives.

The voice inside is just as dangerous as the voices around us. The voice that tells us we’re ugly, stupid, fat or just not good enough. The voice that drips words like poison into our muddled minds to be soaked up by our saturated souls. The voice that tells you to do something that you know is wrong over and over and over again. The voice that leads you to your grave. That seductive, hypnotic voice that drives you to distraction with its promises and lies.

The sweetest poisons are often the most deadly.

Withheld words can be just as devastating as spoken or written words. Silence is a weapon as well. The pain of silence deafens and disorientates. That question that goes unanswered, that cry for help that goes unnoticed. Phone calls that aren’t returned, text messages that are read but ignored. Cutting people out of lives cuts them to the bone. There is no pain like the pain of rejection. Loneliness is the slowest, cruellest of deaths.

Tomorrow I’m going to flip the coin and write about the beauty of words. They inspire and they motivate. Without words there can be no hope, no joy, no charity. Words are love. The Word is love. Your words today can heal. They can change lives. They can drive you onwards and upwards.

Your words are the greatest gift you can bequeath to the world. Choose them carefully.

Please feel free to let us know your thoughts on this post. We always appreciate your comments and feedback.

30K

We hit 30,000 views over the weekend and this is just a quick thank you to everyone from the WordPress community who has supported us since we started six months ago. We have been moved by your kindness and touched by an online harmony that we have never experienced on any other social media platforms.

Ours is a fractured faith. But it’s still a faith.

THANK YOU ❤️🙏🏻😊

Are You Okay?

Two little words that mask a multitude of emotions and experiences.

Two little words that paper over bottomless chasms of hurt and disappointment.

Two little words that cement the thickest, highest walls of denial and regret.

Two little words.

I’m okay.

How many times have you answered a heartfelt, caring question with these words. The question of a relative, a friend or perhaps a complete stranger. Words that stumble out of your mouth. When inside all you want to do is scream and scream until your lungs collapse. Two little words. One huge lie.

I see so much pain on WordPress. I see broken people. People who are too scared or proud or whatever to speak the truth out loud. So they write it here. And it saddens me.

I’m broken as well. I’m not okay. But that is the first step. Admitting it to yourself. Facing up to the facade that you have constructed because that is what society expects of you.

Let me tell you. It’s okay to not feel okay. It’s okay to feel devastated and distraught be it through illness, addiction or bereavement. Or those million other demons that force us to our knees.

And why are you not okay? Because you are more than that. You are precious, unique and loved. You have a purpose and a plan. You are a message in a bottle. Adrift on a stormy sea for now but destined to settle one day on the beach of your destiny.

My name is Stephen and I’m not okay.

But I’m okay with that.

So let’s start again. How are you today?

What Do You Dream About?

Did I tell you that I ran a marathon the other day? *collective sigh and eye rolling from my fellow bloggers*. Well the good news is that this post is not about the ‘Loop of the Lough’ Marathon which I ran/endured on Saturday. Well it is a little bit but bear with me. It’s more about the aftermath. As in right now, this very minute.

If there are two things distance runners love after a race it’s food and sleep. We can’t get enough of them. As I write this, however, it is 4:17 am and I’ve been awake for almost two hours. As in wide eyed, bolt upright, five trillion thoughts whirling around my head awake. Ideas for dialogue in my novel are bursting into my consciousness like a meteor shower bursting through the earth’s atmosphere in one of those big budget Holywood blockbusters.

I’m also hungry. Very hungry. The only feeling outweighing that hunger at present is laziness. I’m too lazy to go downstairs to make something to eat. Note to self – we need an upstairs kitchen; or at the very least a bedside toaster. I promise not to leave crumbs in the bed, Fionnuala, if you buy me one for Christmas. Pinky swear. Or at least not on your side of the bed anyway.

If you’re still with me as we meander into paragraph four of this post then thank you. You deserve so much better but thank you anyway. The point I wanted to make is that before I woke up I was having a recurring dream. Fionnuala has the most vivid, lucid prophetic dreams. She sees stuff that is both freaky and amazing at the same time. I hope one day she will write more about her dreams.

I on the other hand dream nonsense. But amidst the nonsense are three recurring dreams which are as follows:

1 – I am sitting in an exam hall but my head is blank. I haven’t studied for the exam and a growing sense of anxiety and panic grips me as I stare at my blank paper and the clock on the wall as it clicks relentlessly on.

2 – I can’t see because I have a ridiculously long fringe down to the bridge of my nose. I freak out and feel claustrophobic. I walk into inanimate objects, fall over quite a bit and have yet to make it to a barber’s shop.

3 – This was the dream I was having before I woke up tonight. I am either hungover, drunk or thinking about drinking. In all three scenarios I feel incredibly guilty but that doesn’t stop me from drinking. These are the worst dreams.

I haven’t had an exam in over 20 years. I haven’t had a drink in over 4 years. And I haven’t had a haircut in er….about 4 weeks. Those of you hoping for deep or witty insights at this stage of the post are about to be bitterly disappointed but I’ll try anyway. Here goes…

Fionnuala dreams about the future whereas I dream about the past. She predicts future events (crazy but true believe me on this one) and has dreams about people and insights into their lives that, when imparted to them, offer hope and light. I dream about failure and inadequacy. And stupid haircuts.

I want to have her dreams but when God was dishing that gift out she was at the front of the queue and I was probably on my third pint of Budweiser. The same thing happened the day of the ‘brains and beauty’ queue. We all have gifts. I got words. Could have been better, could have been worse. But they flow from me every day now.

My dreams might be in the past but my daydreams are today. Now. I dreamt about running a marathon one day. Two days ago I ran my seventh *yawns*. I dreamt about having a semi successful blog that people read and enjoyed. It’s kind of happening now. I dreamt about writing a novel. Ditto. I dreamt about being a decent husband, father and human being. Work in progress but I’m getting there.

Dreams don’t have to remain dreams. You can make them your reality. It just requires a tonne of hard work and a sprinkling of talent. You are special and unique. Seize the day and squeeze every last drop out of it. Live the impossible. Follow your destiny. It’s within touching distance.

Sweet dreams. I’m off to make some toast.

Do you have recurring or prophetic dreams? Or can you interpret any of mine?!?!

What is your dream for 2018? How are you going to make it happen?

The Angriest Solicitor In Ireland

Back in the bad old days when I spent 97% of my life on Twitter I used to spend my daily commute tweeting about my fellow commuters. This series, imaginatively titled ‘Train Tweets’, used to cause my adoring (or so I thought) army of followers and myself no end of amusement as I by and large conducted character assassinations of complete strangers. It was cheap, nasty and attention seeking on my part.

I still make the same commute with the same people and while I no longer tweet about them I don’t really pay them any attention at all now. I’m sorry for what I tweeted about them before but as it was always anonymously and I used pseudonyms I’ve never felt the need to walk up to one of them and apologise. They would probably look at me as if I was a madman. I’ve figured out I spend approximately 7 hours of my week with these people and I’ve never spoken a word to any of them.

Despite feeling bad for my snide tweets I’ve never really moved on from viewing my fellow commuters as anything more than the one dimensional characters I created in my head for my own entertainment. When I look at them I still think of the imaginary back stories I created for them instead of seeing real human beings with lives and families of their own. People with fears, hopes and struggles who deserve a lot better from me than I have dished out to me over the years. I wonder what they see when they look at me every day on the train and feel ashamed.

Yesterday a man I have always known as ‘The Angriest Solicitor in Ireland’ was queuing to buy his train ticket. He is permanently attired in a business suit with his mobile phone permanently clamped to his ear talking loudly about legal matters that make little sense to me. He might as well be speaking Cantonese for all I can make out of it. His tone of voice is curt, cold and uncompromising and he always looks flustered, red faced and at odds with the world, as if spoiling for a fight. For this reason I tend to give him a wide berth.

Yesterday the woman in front of him in the queue wanted to pay for her ticket by debit card but was informed by the conductor that the relevant machine not working and they were taking cash payments only. She did not have any money on her and started to become agitated, thinking that she would not be able to get on the train. From behind her I heard a vaguely familiar voice offering to pay for her ticket. I looked up and saw that it was ‘The Angriest Solicitor In Ireland.’

In the end the conductor allowed the woman to get on the train and pay for the ticket at her final destination. But that didn’t take anything away from the fact that this man, who I had previously dismissed as grumpy and uncaring, had demonstrated a compassion and kindness that I had previously thought him incapable of; I had made up my mind about him, judged and stereotyped him based upon my own preconceptions and stereotypes. God knew the man’s heart whereas I most definitely had not. I had judged him when I had no right to, for he proved himself a better man than me on that occasion.

Never judge a book by its cover. Leave that to God. It made me think about all the other people I have judged inaccurately down the years. We know nothing of these people’s lives at the end of the day. Instead of deriding and ridiculing them we should pray for them or, Heaven forbid, try to find out a little more about them by engaging in conversation. Building real relationships and friendships. Instead of sniping and gossiping behind their backs. Every day is a learning day and yesterday was no exception.

Behind every caricature and facade is a real, living person. We don’t know their story or what is going on in their lives at any given moment. We need to show more understanding and give them the benefit of the doubt. So if you see that grumpy commuter, rude colleague or arrogant fellow student today bite your lip and don’t judge them. Smile at them, say hello to them, pray for them if you believe in prayer. For none of us are perfect and we all have off days.

Do you know a person who you have previously judged and stereotyped?

How are you going to treat them next time you see them?

Why Do You Get Out Of Bed In The Morning?

I couldn’t believe it this morning when the alarm went off. ‘Is that 6 o’clock?’ I asked Fionnuala in groggy disbelief. ‘Actually it’s 6:25’ she replied before leaping out of bed. We had slept in a little. Where had the night gone? It seemed only moments ago that I had placed my head on the pillow and settled down to sleep. Even worse we had gone to bed extra early last. I groaned inwardly and forced myself out of bed into the cold, dark day.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less of an early riser. Some mornings both the flesh and the spirit are unwilling when it comes to rising and facing the daily grind. It was once written that the only certainties we face in life are death and taxes. They weren’t far wrong. The commute to the office is a drag, the working day itself a monotonous chore; each day blends into the next and creates the interminable soundtrack to our life. The working week never seems to end yet those precious weekends are gone in the blink of an eye.

Some days you just want to switch the alarm off, pull the covers over your head and go back to sleep. The term ‘rat race’ is misleading as at least a race promises an end to the race and a possible prize at the finish. The rat race promises nothing but bills and responsibilities. Which begs the question why do we bother? What motivates us every day to get up and face the outside world when all we want to do is turn our backs on it all and drop out of society?

Well the obvious response is that we have to get up. We need to get out of bed and, yes it’s those pesky bills and responsibilities again. In order to have a bed in the first place and, indeed, a roof over that bed we need to pay the man. That means dragging our sorry backsides into our offices, shops and other places of employment across the land. The same goes for school and college. Fail that exam or flunk that test and future employment prospects become bleaker by the day.

With bills come responsibilities. It is expected of us. Fionnuala and I holler at the kids every morning to get up and get ready for school. We are expected to turn up at work, college and school (or home school!). If we don’t then we are letting down others; our families, friends and colleagues. We cannot live with the shame of letting others down. So we shut up and show up. We play the game because others are relying on us to play the game; just like we are relying upon them to also play the game. The game is the most selfish and selfless of activities. We play it because we need to play it; we have little choice in order to survive.

We need to play it but we do we want to play it? We have discussed why we have to get out of bed but do we want to get out of bed? It is a subtle yet very important difference. And there, I believe, lies the key to life. Do you want to get up the morning? What makes the difference between falling out of bed and leaping out of bed? The answer lies in both our dreams and our beliefs.

That might seem a contradiction but our dreams are founded on our beliefs. If our dreams are a majestic palace, then our beliefs are its sturdy foundations. If our dreams are a majestic oak tree then our beliefs are the strong roots that tether it in place. Without our beliefs, our dreams will collapse and crumble to nothing. I dream of running a sub four marathon this coming Saturday; I dream of having a first novel published; I dream of seeing my kids achieve great things in their lives; I dream of a happy retirement with my wife and seeing a little more of the world.

I believe that God will provide all of the above if it is part of his plan for my life. And if they don’t happen then they obviously weren’t. But I believe that is because he has even better plans that I am unaware of at this moment in time. I believe that, through my dreams, I can contribute towards making the world a better place. By running I raise money for worthy causes, by writing I hope to inspire and motivate others, through my family I hope to teach our kids the proper way to live and set an example to others.

I believe in an afterlife and that this life is only a tiny part of my overall journey. There are better times ahead. Both tomorrow and in eternity. Therefore while I acted like a grumpy old man this morning and had to get out of bed I also wanted to get out of bed. Now for a massive Diet Coke fix and the long trudge to the office. Have a great Tuesday everyone!

What gets you out of bed in the morning? Coffee? Screaming kids? Multiple alarm clocks?

Why do you have to get out of bed?

Why do you want to get out of bed?

Phone Moan

I have the most temperamental of mobile (cell) phones when it comes to charging. It will only charge if I use Fionnuala’s charger (I go through phone chargers like Donald Trump goes through aides) and place it at a certain angle until the charging icon comes on. A millimetre to the left or a millimetre to the right and it will switch itself off. I need the steady hand of a surgeon and the unblinking eye of a fighter pilot to complete my task.

I’m on my phone a lot as I use it for my blogging so half of my life is spent either charging the phone or thinking about charging my phone. This is particularly tricky at work where we are not allowed phones in the office for security reasons. While I am hardly ever on my phone at work as I am a model employee the corridor outside often resembles an obstacle course of texting colleagues and charger leads. It’s a wonder there is ever any work done in the place.

I know I spend too much time on my phone as many of us do if we are honest with ourselves. If our most valuable possession is our phone then our phone charger can’t be too far behind. We see them as our lifeline to civilisation and without them we feel naked. It is as if we are missing a limb. When I commute to work in the mornings nobody on the train reads a physical newspaper anymore. They obtain their news fix from their phones or tablets. Do people even talk anymore? We are the walking dead, shuffling along oblivious to what is going on right before our very eyes.

If we only we were as disciplined at checking our physical, mental and spiritual charges? How many of us are running on empty in respect of these areas. Running around at a million miles per hour attempting to stick to unrealistic schedules. We eat the wrong foods, neglect to exercise and become weighed down with stress and the worries of the world. We compensate by worshipping at the altars of money, sex, alcohol, bad food and a thousand other false deities. We are running on empty and desperately try to fill the aching chasms in our lives with activities guaranteed to damage our hearts, minds and souls even further.

We need to take more care of recharging ourselves and spend less time recharging our electronic devices. Take time for yourself and the people around you who truly matter. If you are a Christian spend time praying and reading your Bible. If you’re not find something, anything, that will help you switch off from the ratrace that is life and switch on to your own well being and state of mind. For otherwise one day your battery will run flat and no charger on earth will be able to blow life into it again.

This blog post was brought to you by my I Phone 6 which is currently sitting at 94%.

How much time do you spend on your phone or tablet every day?

Do you spend enough time tending to your own charging needs?

The 1% Is A Liar

Yesterday was my last long run before the ‘Loop of the Lough’ Marathon which I am running for SHINE Charity (Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus) around Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, next Saturday. The run went well and now it just a matter of keeping things ticking over and continuing my disciplined taper until the big day itself. The nerves are well and truly starting to kick in now for a number of reasons.

Although this will be my 7th marathon in total, it’s my first in over 18 months, and a sliver of icy self doubt remains lodged in my brain. Hard as I’ve tried I have been unable to budge it despite knowing deep down that I am capable of this. The target for my comeback at 26.2 miles is sub four hours and my training programme has been tailored specifically around this time. Everything has went exactly to plan. Yet still the sliver remains, burrowing deeper and deeper into my consciousness no matter how hard I try to ignore and repel it.

Doubt is the most sly and subtle of enemies. When all you want to do is build a wall of fact and certainty it drifts through the slightest of cracks like cannon smoke on a battlefield. You can be 99% certain of something and doubt will lob that 1% into the equation like a cluster grenade, exploding to create havoc and ruin within your carefully constructed defences. My OCD is fuelled by doubt; the ‘what ifs’ and ‘but maybes’ having a field day no matter how many times I attempt to drive them away. They thrive on uncertainty and relish hesitation. They sow the deepest of roots, so hard to dig out and destroy.

I fear the 1%. It batters me from all sides like the fiercest of hurricanes. I see it wherever I glance. The same applies to my writing. The 1% tells me I’m not good enough, I’m too old, it’s all a pipe dream and my chance is long gone. The more research I conduct into finding a literary agent and publishing a novel the more complicated and unlikely it seems. Even if I do complete it, even if it is half decent, the market is brutally competitive and the chances of being noticed seem remote. The 1% raises its battleaxe and screams in my face ready to cleave my hopes and dreams in two.

It is daunting but I cling to the shaky belief that the 1% is a liar. It whispers and it screams but I have to turn my back and walk away. The lies are a blizzard of darkness; jumbled memories, words, faces and images. Their timing is impeccable, their intent wholly malicious. But I choose different numbers. I choose the 500 plus training miles I have ground out since the summer. I choose the 30,000 words I have written to date. I choose the millions of words of love and encouragement from Fionnuala and the kids.

Freewill is a gift and I choose to wield it like a sword against my Goliath. To slay the dragon wrapped around my ambition, relentlessly squeezing the oxygen from my lungs. I choose the sword of truth, it’s blade so sharp that not even the toughest of armour or scales can withstand it. I stand on the ramparts of my mind and I watch my enemies flee, my defences strong and intact. The past will not overcome me, it will not sweep me away like it once used to. Believe in your own abilities. Believe in your inner circle.

Believe in the 99%.

How big a part does doubt play in your life?

How do you battle it?

What is your dream?

Happy Christmas Even Though It’s Still November

Like General Custer at the Little Big Horn I had fought long and heroically against overwhelming odds but had reached the point where I realised I was hopelessly outnumbered and defeat was inevitable. My only saving grace was that my opponents were slightly less bloodthirsty than Crazy Horse and his war braves. I raised the white flag and surrendered to Fionnuala and the girls. Yes I am going to get the Christmas decorations out of the attic later today.

Over the last few weeks they have gradually worn me down utilising a series of subtle and not so subtle psychological operations that would not have have looked out of place at CIA Headquarters. Pulling on my heartstrings one moment and then threatening to throttle me with them the next. These ladies could teach Jason Bourne a trick or two. The women of the Black household put the Black into Black Ops.

Our attic is akin to the Land that Time Forgot. Every time I reluctantly pop my head up there I fully expect to be dive bombed by a baby pterodactyl. Our step ladder is a step too short so in order to get into the attic I have to risk life and limb by teetering atop the top step and hauling myself up into the roof space itself. This involves contorting my body into positions that a man of my years was not designed to do. Before pulling down any Christmas decorations I invariably have to pull a few muscles first.

Gaining access to the attic is only Phase One of the operation however. I then have to battle through a minefield of bric-a-brac and discarded toys from years gone by in order to locate the boxes and bags containing the prized decorations themselves. With this bridgehead established I solider on, ignoring aching muscles I never knew I had, in order to haul the decorations down to the impatient little (and no so little ones) waiting below. Getting back down to terra firma is a whole blog post in itself but I’ll save that for another day.

With that my work is done as the more artistic and creative members of the family take over. If you were waiting for me to assemble and decorate a Christmas tree I would certainly have it ready for the big day; but by that I mean Easter as opposed to 25th December. Fionnuala loves all things Christmas and her enthusiasm has certainly rubbed off on Hannah and Rebecca. Before the end of the weekend we will have maintained our title of being the first house in the street with their decorations up. Bah Humbug I say to all our grinchy neighbours.

I want this Christmas to be a special time for us, as close to perfect as I can make it. A lot has happened since the decorations were put away last year. The same decorations may be coming out of the same attic this year but they are being put up within a different environment. This year they are being put up in a home as opposed to a house. This year we are going to celebrate Christmas as a family and look back on how far we have come these last twelve months. There have been ups and there have been downs; sometimes it has been one step forward, two steps back but we have made it. We are together and we are strong.

I wonder if Joseph and Mary felt the same as they looked down at their newborn baby boy all those years ago in that Bethlehem stable. They had just experienced a pretty crazy year (visitations from angels and miraculous pregnancies anyone?) and the birth itself was no exception. But, worried and exhausted as they no doubt were, they had battled through it and come out the other side, stronger than ever. A proper family. They trusted God and he guided them through the good times and the bad. He had a plan for both of them and they followed it to the letter, no matter what that entailed.

I hope I am following His plan too. The words have flowed this week and I am now 30000 words into my first novel. 30000 words that will require no end of polishing, trimming and reordering but I am excited by them and proud of them. I never realised I could run until I started running. Likewise I never realised I could write until I started writing. I have wasted so many years but I hope that period of my life is over. I want to follow His path now as nothing is impossible. We will enjoy this Christmas but if anything I’m more excited for what the year brings ahead for us as a family.

Now where did I put those stepladders?

When do your Christmas decorations go up?

Are you excited for 2018? What plans do you have?

Dried Blood

The other day I was walking through the city centre when I saw before me on the footpath what looked like dried blood. There was little mistaking the dark red colouring or the tell tale splatter pattern of the droplets as they had struck the ground marking the grisly path that some unfortunate soul had taken down the street before they abruptly ended in an empty doorway.

Now I’m no Dexter Morgan, thankfully, but the absence of flashing lights, wailing sirens and yellow tape across the road assured me that I had not stumbled upon a crime scene. I had heard nothing on the morning news about a crazed axeman running through the streets of Belfast. So I was fairly satisfied that there had been no loss of life. But something had happened; so my mind went into overdrive trying to conjure up a likely scenario.

Had it been as innocent as one of the hundreds of schoolboys who take this route to the nearby grammar school every morning developing a nose bleed? Or was it something more sinister? A bar brawl which had spilled out onto the street or an altercation where a knife had been produced? Piercing skin, biting deep, striking home. Since starting this blog I have become acutely aware of the number of homeless people who populate the streets of Belfast. Young, vulnerable people with little hope in their eyes. Had one of them been the victim?

Our streets are caked in blood and grime. Some of it is visible to the eye, but not all. The homelessness, the violence, the drugs, the prostitution. Just like our homes are caked in grime. The grime of our sinful lives. Broken homes, broken relationships, broken families, broken hearts. What you don’t agree? Because behind every veneer of domestic bliss is a less than idyllic reality. Addiction, jealousy, depression, unforgiveness. It is everywhere. On our TV screens, on our social media and in our fickle hearts.

I wonder if on a morning almost two thousand years ago did any travellers on their way to Jerusalem pass a spot by the roadside where they saw a pool of dried blood. They were unfamiliar with the city but were later told that there had been three crucifixions there the previous day. Two common criminals and some madman who claimed he was the Son of God. Well he had been shown up for the charlatan he was and had died on the cross like the rest of them. Good riddance to him too; the last thing they needed was some rabble rouser riling the Romans. There was only going to be one winner there.

Saying that, there had been some strange things happening since then. Weird goings on up at the temple apparently. Some of his wacky hangers on had been running about shouting that he had risen from the dead. Was walking about with holes in his hands where they had driven the nails in. What nonsense. The travellers paid little attention to the tall tales, completed their business and departed the city to head home. Probably two drunks brawling. Or possibly bandits had robbed a less fortunate traveller.

Next time you pass a spot of dried blood on the pavement (or sidewalk as you crazy Americans insist on calling it) spare a thought for the person who shed it and the circumstances that led to them spilling it there. If you are a Christian pray for them. And spare a thought for the blood that Jesus spilled all those years ago. We normally associate spilt blood with danger and harm, but not His, which was willingly given in order to protect and purify.

He gave His blood in order to rid our lives of the guilt, shame and sinful living patterns that plague our every waking step. When it comes to His blood you can be certain as to the reasons for it forming in a pool at the foot of the Cross. There is no need for head scratching or speculation. He did it for me and for you. The decision is ours. Do we accept the sacrifice and follow Him or step over the blood he shed and carry on with our journey through life?

When did you last encounter blood on the street?

Do you believe there was a man called Jesus? Or it is just a fairytale?

Fionnuala’s Faith

Today’s blog is a showcase for the true talent at afracturedfaithblog, my wife Fionnuala. Here are some of the faith inspired images that she has created. I think they are amazing but then I’m bias You can see a lot more of Fionnuala’s work on our Instagram account. Just click the relevant link on our blog site and have a wonderful Wednesday.

A Sea Of Words

I hadn’t expected to blog a massive amount this week but I’m wide awake at 05:00 am so thought I would update you all on my first day of serious writing. I had been putting this day off for some time for a multitude of reasons; chief amongst these was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to do it. That I would open the laptop and stare at a blank screen all day devoid of inspiration and unable to transfer my tangled thoughts into flowing prose.

Well I guess I slew that dragon yesterday. The words did flow, to the extent that at end of play yesterday evening I had passed the 5000 word mark. They could well be the worst 5000 words ever written but here’s the thing – they are written. My worry over writers block reminded me of my concerns about hitting the wall during my first marathon; in each case it never happened because I didn’t allow it to happen. Sometimes we forget the amount of control we have over our own destinies.

The other thing I learnt yesterday was the amount of time people talk and think about writing. When I first got the idea for the book I talked for months about writing it to anyone unfortunate enough to be within hearing range of me. I thought about writing almost as much as I thought up excuses not to write. I read books about writing which often seemed to advocate doing everything bar actually writing. They spoke of endless months of plot structuring and character development in order to create design documents that would eventually be crafted into the finished article.

I realised yesterday that whilst this approach might work for a lot of people it doesn’t work for me. I need to write. I need to get the words out of me that have been festering inside all these years. I need to be purged of them. Sometimes when you are ill and feeling nauseous the only way to get rid of that awful sensation is to actually be physically sick. I feel the same when it comes to my writing. I want my words to see the light as opposed to festering inside. For if they stagnate in the darkness for too long they become something else. Beauty will rot if unattended for any length of time.

I realised that I am a back to front and upside down writer. My first draft will be raw, manic and spontaneous. It is only at the end of the process that I will sit down and begin to smooth out the many rough edges. I will edit and redraft until the cows come home. And when the cows have come home and I have checked that they are fed and watered I will edit and redraft some more; until it is complete, whatever it is. Which leads me to the final (I promise) point I want to make in this post. What you sit down intending to write and what you actually end up writing are often very distant cousins.

Yesterday morning I sat down at my desk with every intention of birthing an introductory chapter which has been germinating in my grey matter for some time. I could almost recite it to you verbatim. All I had to do was transfer that mental screenplay onto a Word document and hit save. A gentle start to my writing career before the real work started in earnest. Did it work out that way? No of course it didn’t. Instead my main character demanded that I delve into his past and explore his past. Over the next few hours he taught me much about himself that I had not previously known. He explained to me how he had turned out the way he had. He educated me.

I had heard other writers talk about their characters writing the book for them once they started and maybe that will be the case with me. The 5000 words I wrote yesterday bore little semblance to the 5000 words I thought I was going to write. My main character asked me to let go of the steering wheel and trust him. That was kind of a liberating experience and took a lot of pressure of me. It was as if he sensed my trepidation and decided to show me the ropes on my first day at a new school. I hope all my characters are as kind to me as he was. Although I have my doubts as some of them are bad, bad people.

Did I say that was my last point. Sorry, I lied. My last observation is that no matter how wrapped up in your literary muse you become don’t lose an awareness and appreciation of your present surroundings. It is our here and now that fuels our pens and allows our creative juices to flow. Yesterday was a great day for the Black Family. Hannah got her new motorised wheelchair which Fionnuala wrote about in the last blog; and Adam and Rebecca both had encouraging days on their respective sports fields. I have been blessed with an ability to write but it is they who have turned that ability into a reality.

They are my lighthouse. I must never lose sight of them no matter how adrift I become on this sea of words in the months ahead.

How do you write?

What writing projects are you working at present?

Power

The day that we have been waiting for for a very long time has finally arrived and I don’t mean Stephen actually sitting at his desk to start writing his book more importantly Hannah got her new all singing and dancing power chair.

The regular readers of our blog will know about all the trials and tribulations we have had over the year regarding pressure sores and unsuitable wheelchairs and we want to thank all of you for your prayers and encouraging words and comments they have all been a massive blessing and support to us.

At church yesterday a lady approached us and told Hannah after speaking with her earlier she got a word for her “POWER” we just looked at each other and laughed and told her that Hannah was getting her power chair today and it was very appropriate Thank you God 😊

Today has been a very emotional day and I am so blessed to see how much this chair has brought comfort, independence and the biggest smile that I’ve ever seen on my amazing daughters face in quite some time. My heart feels like it could burst today Im that proud and happy for her.

At a top speed of 0.8MPH Hannah was treated by an extra proud Granny to a new handbag to match her chair and some lunch in Belfast before heading back home to show off her wheels to her Daddy.

Hannah is now watching the clock for Adam and Rebecca to come home so she can take Charlie Our dog out for a walk and this has really got me thinking about how much we take for granted and about the little things we grumble and moan about.

Today has most definitely been a #ProudMummyDay one which I will never ever forget.

‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well’ Psalm 139:14

Stick To The Programme

Race Day is now only two weeks away and today was my last long run before the marathon itself. As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks my times have improved considerably over the last month to the extent that this morning I was running a minute per mile faster than my projected race pace. I am of course delighted with this and can only put it down to having finally overcome the virus which struck me down during the summer.

With two weeks to go I now enter the stage of my training plan known as the taper. This is where you reduce your mileage and focus on rest and recovery so that you reach the start line refreshed, healthy and injury free. All the hard work has been done and it is now just a matter of keeping your body and mind ticking over until the big day itself. And having run over 130 miles during the last three weeks I should be looking forward to this enforced scaling down of my training schedule.

Marathon runners, however, have a love/hate relationship with the taper. It is difficult to adjust to a regime of lower mileage when you have been pounding the roads for the better part of three months. The mind starts to play tricks on you. Will I lose my fitness? Am I putting on weight? Have I peaked too soon? All these thoughts have assaulted me during previous tapers and I no doubt will entertain them all over again in the coming days.

Part of me wishes the race was tomorrow but the logical part of my brain reminds me that I need this period of winding down in order to be fully wound up come race day. The taper is just as important as the 20 mile long run. At this stage of the journey I have come too far only to blow it all by overtraining and arriving at the start line tired and jaded. For the next two weeks less is more. I need to relax, have faith in the plan and be patient.

Unfortunately relaxation and patience are not two of my strongest characteristics. So I’ll fret and I’ll worry over the next two weeks. Which I know is ridiculous as I have been through this six times before and on each occasion the taper worked and I arrived at the start line in the best shape I could possibly be in. It all comes down to a lack of faith. In myself and in the training plan which has never let me down before and won’t let me down this time either if I would only stop stressing and wise up.

I’m a bit like that when it comes to my spiritual training plan. I know that God has a plan for my life but I become restless and frustrated when things don’t go as I feel they should be going. I get angry, sulk or feel sorry for myself as I watch my life meander along. I want everything yesterday rather than accept that God knows best and allow the plan to be revealed in His time and not my own. My lack of faith unsettles me. It is selfish and disobedient. I should know better.

God has never let me down before and has dragged me out of some almighty self inflicted messes along the way. So I just have to bite my lip and accept that He knows best no matter how much it pains me at times. Just like I need to bite my lip and accept this taper period for what it is; all part of a bigger plan designed to benefit me in the long run. My short sightedness needs to see beyond the here and now and appreciate the bigger picture. Be it 26.2 miles in a fortnight or the rest of my life as a follower of Jesus I just need to stick to the programme.

Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

Are you a patient person? Or do you struggle?

Are you good at sticking to plans?

Thank You

We passed 2000 followers at the weekend and I just wanted to thank everyone again for their support and encouragement. We never expected this when we started back in May. We hope our daily incursion into your lives is of benefit to you. Thank you again. 

Riskbands

Have I told you that I’m running a marathon for SHINE Charity in just under three weeks time? Once or twice I suspect. Well last week the charity posted out my charity running vest for the big day. It’s a demure bright yellow which won’t win me any awards in the fashion stakes but will ensure that I’m visible from about a mile away for passing motorists. I will resemble a giant, fluorescent banana. I’ve had worse looks.

They also sent me out some sponsorship sheets and a charity wristband which I proudly slipped on. Wristbands may now be a fashion faux pas for all I know but I wear three. The aforementioned SHINE addition and one from my favourite singer/author Lacey Sturm saying ‘Living the Impossible’. I have kind of adopted this as my life slogan for if you had told me five years ago that I would be running marathons and writing a novel I would have snorted in derision.

The third one is a simple black band with a verse from the Bible embossed on it. 1 John 2:6 to be precise ‘Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.’ It kind of sums up how I am trying to live my life and the mindset I am attempting to adhere to. Our pastor talks a lot about the difference between being a Christian and being a follower of Jesus. Anyone can make the decision to become a Christian. But attempting to live like he did day after day is a whole different ball game.

He also talks a lot about discipleship. It’s more than just turning up at church on a Sunday, mumbling along to a few worship songs and then shuffling off home again. It’s about how you live your life the rest of the week that matters. Displaying your faith on a consistent basis in a positive and loving manner. Being the light of the world, the city on a hill. Stepping out of your comfort zone armed with only a mustard seed of faith. Taking a risk.

In corporate management speak I am risk averse in such matters. Fionnuala calls me socially awkward which is probably the understatement of the year. Or any year for that matter. I am fairly hopeless around people I don’t know and not much better around those that I do. And I make no exception when it comes to my faith. I am much better writing about it than I am discussing it; which is one of the main reasons this blog was born. I had a story to tell but knew the written medium was the only way I could effectively express myself and do that story justice.

An example of this occurred last week. I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when a colleague asked me what was written on my wristbands. What a fantastic evangelical opportunity. But what did I do? Rather than openly and proudly talking about my faith I muttered something about the Lacey Sturm wristband being the title of a song I liked prior to quickly changing the subject. Epic fail!

I felt like Peter after he denied Jesus three times and the cockerel crowed. Talking about my faith in an open plan office in front of my colleagues was a risk I was not prepared to take. It was a bridge too far. I had turned my back on Jesus. I was willing to wear his name on his wrist but not declare it with my voice. I was left an embarrassed Christian as opposed to an unapologetic follower of Jesus. I had let him down and felt pretty rubbish.

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t turn his back on us even when we repeatedly turn our back on him. He’s got a thick skin that way. He is a bottomless ocean of patience and forgiveness, the ultimate grace generator. And when you stumble, or fall flat on your face like me, he’s there to reach out and help you back on your feet. To follow him. In your own time. But don’t leave it too late for you never know what’s round the next corner.

The next time I have an opportunity to demonstrate my faith I hope I don’t waver. I want to be a follower. I want to step out of the boat in faith. Christians wear wristbands. Followers wear riskbands. 

Do you wear a wristband? What does it stand for?

Are you a risk taker? Or risk averse?

Long Hair Don’t Care

When I was 20 back in the day I wanted to be Kurt Cobain. Without the heroin habit and suicidal tendencies of course. ‘Nevermind’ still remains my favourite album (does that give away my age?) of all time and I can tell you where I was the first time I heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I can also tell you where I was when I heard of his death. That was a sad day and I recall reading the newspaper and shaking my head in disbelief. Such a talent. Such a waste.

I began to wear second hand ‘grunge’ clothing which, oddly enough, cost more than brand new gear. I wore this with pride around Belfast. I was a rebel who lived life on the edge. Of course I never wore it when I went home to visit my parents but every rock legend has to start somewhere. I bought a second hand acoustic guitar and started to play until about a week later when I realised I hadn’t a note in my head and flung it into the corner. 

Air guitar was more my thing and I spent many a happy hour throwing shapes and thrilling sold out auditoriums from the safety of my bedroom. Jumping off the drum riser (bed) and landing on my knees was my speciality move until I received complaints about the noise. Had to tone it down a bit after that as, metal god that I was, I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the neighbours.


I went to a motorcycle shop and bought a genuine biker jacket. The guy in the shop started to quiz me about crankshafts and the like and I nodded knowledgeably and muttered something about my bike being in the garage at the moment. I also wore skin tight black jeans which left little to imagination and took around half an hour to get on and off. Just think Ross Gellar and the episode of ‘Friends’ where he bought a pair of leather trousers. 

But most of all I wanted long hair. Long, straight hair. I resolved that I was growing it and painfully inspected it each day in the mirror to monitor progress. Initially all was well but disaster loomed once it crept over my collar. It started to grow upwards again. The back of my head resembled a ski slope. I was bereft and no matter how hard I tried to straighten and coax it, my follicles steadfastly defied the laws of gravity. I looked more like Kirk Douglas than Kurt Cobain and was inconsolable.

If you viewed any photographs of me taken during this era and you would have been convinced that I had no neck. Whenever a lens was pointed in my direction my default setting was to scrunch up both shoulders in a desperate attempt to convince people that my hair was longer than it actually was. The cringe factor was off the scale and, for the last 20 plus years, I have made it my life’s work to hunt down and destroy any visual image of me from that period of my life. 

No matter how hard I tried I was never going to be Kurt Cobain. I realised that it was much less expensive (and embarrassing) to just be myself. Externally at least. Throughout my adult life I have always tried to be someone who I am not in order to impress others and fit in. I have had more reincarnations than Dr. Who and they have all invariably ended in disaster. Hurting myself and my loved ones in the process. 

Being yourself is hard in this day and age. Peer pressure to behave in a certain way is huge and many buckle under the strain of it all. But accepting and beginning to like who you are is the first step towards maturity. My family love me for who I am even though I can try the patience of a saint. Being yourself is infinitely harder than playing a role and living a lie. But infinitely more rewarding. God created me this way for a reason. He has a plan for all of us and to act out of character is disobedient and self-defeating. 

Be brave. Be honest. Be yourself. 

R.I.P. Kurt.

Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

How hard do you find it to be yourself?

Do you even know the real you?

Tell us about your worst ever hairstyle.

Attention To Detail

I work in an investigative environment. My job invokes asking lots of questions and finding stuff out. I analyse, assess and dissect. In forensic, minute detail. To miss a tiny piece of information can have serious repercussions. It is fascinating, but painstaking, work. But I’ve been doing it for seventeen years now so I guess I’ve picked up a bit of expertise along the way. 

I’ve been told I have a gift for drawing learning and teaching out of the Bible. I enjoy researching and studying it from different angles and presenting well known stories and passages from new and different perspectives. I’ve been fortunate enough also to have been given the opportunity to share my thoughts at house groups, youth cells and in church itself.

The same applies to any challenge I tackle. I am currently training for my seventh marathon and am sticking rigidly to a training plan. I do exactly what is required of me every day. The same applies to my writing. I blog every day and have started on the strucure for my first novel. My investigative background has been of great benefit to me. I’m determined and recognise that attention to detail is essential in order to reach my targets.


Yes, if you asked anyone who knew me they would probably place attention to detail near the top of my skills set. I wish the same could be said for my home life. You see, I have so much junk whirling about my head that I often neglect those I love the most who are right in front of my eyes. The kids ask me questions and I am miles away, thinking about something else. I am oblivious to basic household chores that require attention.

I would walk through a darkened room without the metaphorical light bulb in my head telling me that the literal one above my head needs replaced. The time went back last weekend and there are still clocks in the house that need adjusted. The list goes on. I am a nightmare and drive Fionnuala nuts; too busy brooding over my past and daydreaming about my future to focus on what really matters – the present, the here and now screaming in my face.

I am flawed and frustrating. I know that. I am a work in progress. I know that also. I want to become a better person and make up for decades of lost time. But I guess I need to learn to walk before I start running. Today I was going to write about the blog reaching 2000 followers but God has a way of bringing us back down to earth with a resounding thud. Yes, we can reach for Heaven. But only if we keep our feet well and truly on the ground. 

Pay attention to your loved ones. Never take them for granted. Or one day they might stop paying attention to you.

What is your biggest flaw?

Do you pay attention to your loved ones? Or is it an area of your life where you can improve?

You Decide 

I had a creative growth spurt over the weekend (if such a thing exists) which resulted in me coming up with numerous blog ideas. But little old indecisive me hasn’t a clue which one to write first. Which means that they are all currently languishing in the dank dungeon that is my drafts folder.

Sooooooo….I’m going to let you lot decide as to which one I publish first. Below is a brief synopsis of each one so as you can decide which you would like to read first. It will then be tomorrow’s post. Don’t all rush at once now….


1 – Long Hair, Don’t Care – the sorry saga of my doomed to fail efforts to grow my hair back in the day when I thought I was the next Kurt Cobain. Without the talent and the baggy sweater because my mother wouldn’t let me wear clothes like that.

2 – I’m Walking On The Air – did I tell you that I’m running a marathon in 26 days time? Well my new running shoes have arrived. Join me on my first training run in them as I pretend I’m the next Mo Farah. Then wake up and smell the coffee.

3 – Witches Road – a darker post regarding my thoughts on a murder that took place along a road that I regularly run. I share my thoughts and emotions on the scene itself and the parties involved. 

4 – Foetus – another cheery tale about crippling hangovers, some of the darker days of my life and the faith that dragged me kicking and screaming through them.

Please comment below with your choice and I’ll announce the winning post later today.

Thank you!

Swearing In French

I stopped swearing about four years. I can’t remember the exact date but I know that it literally happened overnight. Just like that I went from regularly dropping the ‘F Bomb’ and similar expletive hand grenades to nothing. Nada. Zilch. It was like someone had reprogrammed my brain. I like to think it was God but, whoever or whatever it was, I wasn’t complaining. It was a dirty habit and one I was glad to be rid of.

I literally could not get the words out. Whack my shin off a hard surface. No problem. I would grit my teeth, smile and give a cheery smile. Close down a Word document and forget to save four hours worth of work. Never worry. Life goes on and at least nobody died. I cringed in the presence of others who showered their conversations with cursing. It just felt so uncomfortable. No unnecessary. So wrong. It was part of my past; a past I had no intention of going back to.


I had many bad habits at the time and, in the greater scheme of things, swearing was probably near the lower end of the scale. But I was still proud of my achievement. I was not brought up in a house where cursing was allowed and, to this day, I have never sworn in front of my mother much as I have been tempted to at times. I became one of those annoying reformed alcoholic types. Frowning at those who swore in my company and chastising relatives and friends whose language did not meet my lofty standards. 

I was a massive hypocrite of course. Yes I had got to grips with what was coming out of my mouth. Unfortunately the same could not be said for what was going on inside my head. There were still plenty of impure thoughts rattling about which led to equally impure actions. I was akin to a footballer whose team had lost 12-1 but only wanted to talk about the goal he had scored and not the final score. Beneath my sparkling new exterior the creeping rot continued on its inexorable path.

Fast forward a few years and I feel I have finally come to grips with that rot. It is a daily struggle, and I have stumbled many times along the way. There are days I am still tempted. There are days I am ravaged by guilt and self pity but I get through them. My family inspire me. The support I get from the WordPress community is an incredible comfort. My faith, which ebbs and flows, is always there is some form or another. We are tentatively exploring a new church. I have plans. To run marathons and to write a book. There is hope and there is a future.

This blog has been a salvation; a means of expressing myself on social media in a positive and constructive format. But I can never become complacent. For disaster is only one poor decision away. It so easy to slip back to old ways. They can slip like wisps of smoke into your consciousness without you even realising it. An example?The other day I found myself in a stressful situation. Before I even knew it I swore….in French. ‘Merde’ I muttered under my breath. Nobody heard it and I chuckled at the silliness of my utterance. Swearing in French did not count I reasoned with the disapproving voice in my head.

Or did it? Momentary, insignificant lapse or the first step on a slippery slope back to where I started. Every landslide starts with a single rolling stone. That first sip of beer. That first click of a keyboard. That first text message. My French folly taught me an important lesson. I can never relax, never let down my defences. Every day is a battle and every day I must not let my standards lower. I can be proud of where I am and what I have achieved. But that must never become vanity and arrogance. The brink, the pit, the abyss. Call it what you will but I must never go back there.

Whatever the language….

Have you ‘F Bomb’ issues?

What are your worst habits?

How do you fare in the daily battle against temptation and bad habit?

Fuel 

Two nights ago I woke up at 2:45 a.m. And that was me wide awake. No matter how much I tossed and turned I could not get back to sleep. Why? I have no idea. There was nothing particular on my mind and everything I tried to return to the land of nod was doomed to failure. I read, I got up for a while, I even blogged (my blogs have sent many to sleep these last few months but it didn’t work on me) but all to no avail.


In the end I gave up and drove into work early. I was in the office for 07:00 a.m. My colleagues gave me strange looks as they drifted in but thankfully none of the usual hilarious quips that accompany such an early morning premonition; for example ‘Has she finally seen sense and kicked you out?’ or ‘Did someone wet the bed last night?’ Oh my aching sides….

The rest of the day passed in a drowsy fog. No amount of Diet Coke could shake it. I was The Walking Dead. By 09:30 I was ready for my lunch (thankfully not brains) and I struggled to focus on my computer screen and the words on it. A lunchtime run helped lift my slumber a little but by 3:30 p.m. I was ready for home. My working day had been a bit of a non event. Sleep deprivation was wreaking havoc with my Friday. I was tired, grouchy and wide open to any negative, intrusive thought that happened to drift across my consciousness.

When I hit the sack last night I don’t think I managed five pages of the book I am currently reading. I normally need a good twenty pages before drifting off. I must have been asleep by 10:30 p.m. I slept, largely uninterrupted, until 08:00 a.m. I woke up a new man. Fresher, more alert and feeling less sorry for myself. When Fionnuala, who was heading out for the day with the girls, asked me what I had planned I even mentioned the words ‘gardening’ and ‘cleaning’ in the one sentence. Unheard of!

I had caught up on my sleep. I need it just like I need water and food. Without it I struggle to function at the level required of me. Physically and mentally. Deprivation leads to disintegration. The same applies to my spiritual life. These last few weeks I haven’t been at church, haven’t been reading my Bible and haven’t been praying. I have struggled as a result. I have been less patient with people and more likely to get annoyed with them. I have been bearing grudges and unwilling to forgive. I have felt sorry for myself and resentful of others. I have set a poor example to those around me.

I want my writing to inspire and provoke thought. I want to offer hope to those without hope. I want to bring light into the lives of those who currently are surrounded by darkness. I want this blog to be the launch pad for my book. I have a story and I want to share it with others. But without God getting involved none of that is going to happen. Even the most expensive sports car isn’t going to move an inch without fuel in it. I need spiritual fuel just as much as I need sleep. I need it more so. Without it I grind to a halt.

Today is a new day. I will run. I will garden. I will clean. Fuelled by a proper sleep. But I’m also going to make a point of picking up my Bible and talking to God. For without that my soul dries up and the words cease to flow from my keyboard. I just ask that you take care of your own needs today. Physical, emotional and spiritual. Whatever your belief system do what you have to do in order to be properly fuelled to face the challenges of the day ahead.

None of us can do it on our own. You may feel utterly lost and alone as you reading this. Broken and worthless. Running on empty. Let me tell you that you are not. You just need the proper fuel to get going again and back into the race. You are special, unique and precious. We need you to be whole again. Don’t give up. Ever.

Are you running on empty today? I hope these words have been of some comfort to you. Please feel free to leave a comment.

Funderland 

Today is Pay Day which, for a limited time only, makes me the most popular member of the Black household. This will of course not last and normal service will no doubt be resumed before the end of the weekend. It is also the start of the half term holidays and Funderland is opening in Belfast. Funderland is an annual, outdoor carnival and the kids have been chomping at the bit to visit it this year and spend Daddy’s hard earned money. I mean, what else would I be doing with it.

So tonight after work I am taking Adam, Rebecca and two of their friends to the greatest show in town. Unfortunately Hannah is a little under the weather so is staying at home with Fionnuala. At face value I cannot say I am jumping up and down with excitement at the prospect. Carnivals combine many of my pet hates. Rollercoaster rides (terrified of them), possible clown sightings (even more terrified of them) and unhealthy food coming at me from all angles.


The kids are excited, though, and that is all that matters. This is another positive memory that Fionnuala and I, as parents, are creating for them. These memories are the building blocks of a happy childhood; they are laying foundations for their lives ahead where they may face tough times but can always fall back upon a  strong, solid upbringing that taught them right from wrong. Amongst the candy floss and toffee apples tonight we hope that bonds are strengthened and relationships deepened. 

Our children are a blessing to us. They are our legacy. As parents we too often find ourselves screaming at them to wash the dishes (our washing up rota is a literal war zone most evenings) and bring their dirty school uniforms down for washing. Homeworks, constant demands for money and sibling warfare are a drain on the most patient parent. And our house is no exception. There are times when we are both driven to despair by their antics. Surely we didn’t behave this badly when we were kids? 

I’m pretty sure God blessed me with kids for reasons other than keeping the Black family line intact. They continue our education as human beings long after we have left school. They are little professors who reside in our homes and teach us values that we have either  forgotten over the course of time or never quite figured out in the first place. They help untangle the roots of selfishness that take hold in our hearts and chip away at the layers of bitterness and resentment that calcify our souls.

I look at our son and learn about patience and humility. I look at our eldest daughter and see courage and determination. And then I look at our youngest daughter and experience humour and fun. Fun – a word that I somehow lost from my adult vocabulary many years ago. Don’t get me wrong they are no angels and there are days when we want to string them up but would we have it any other way? No, I don’t believe we would.

Jesus hit the nail on the head when he said ‘Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter at all.’ As we grow up into adults we all too easily slip into a life of complacency and mediocracy. We pick up bad habits and stumble along, oblivious to the warning signs all around us. As we grow more physically mature, we become more spiritually immature. Instead of progression there is regression. Little teachers are placed in our lives for a purpose.

We need to ensure that the inner child within us all lives on. We need to ensure that the daily grind does not destroy the values we were born with; the purity, faith and unconditional love of a child. We need to remember that life is to be lived and not merely endured. For it is only when we reconnect with the inner child that the outer adult can mature into the person God created us to be; and fulfil the plans he has set out for us.

We need to remember that Funderland can be every day and not just a once a year experience.

When did you last have fun?

What do you learn from children?

Who washes the dishes in your household?

Hotdogs For Breakfast 

We have an important appointment to attend this morning. Which means an early start for all. Thankfully Fionnuala is as super organised as ever. As I write this she is making hot dogs for breakfast. What a woman!

I am a born worrier and when it comes to appointments I make no exceptions. What if it doesn’t go to plan? What if I say the wrong thing? What if the other person doesn’t like me? The list of ‘what if’ scenarios is endless and very few of them have a happy ending. 

Worry is the most pointless emotion. Yet so many of us fall back upon it as our default position whenever an important appointment is looming on the horizon. I don’t know about you but 9 times out of ten that appointment is never as bad as we imagine it is going to be. In fact it’s usually a whole lot better.


Jesus tells us not to worry and yet I still do, as opposed to handing it all over to him in prayer. This is something I know I need to work on; along with doubt and negativity. Becoming a Christian doesn’t make you perfect overnight. It’s not as if a magic wand is waved and all your problems disappear in a puff of smoke. In fact, if anything, they increase. 

But following and studying Jesus will make you a better person, little by little. Which in turn will make the world a better place if you apply yourself to leading a life adhering to the values he taught. It is rocky, less travelled road. But it does lead to your ultimate appointment. The one with the pearly gates and the fluffy clouds. 

If you have decided to follow Jesus and lived your life the best you could then you have nothing to fear or worry about at this appointment. For He will welcome you with open arms. You will be home and your worries will all be behind you.

I wonder if they serve hotdogs for breakfast in Heaven?

Revelation 21:4 – ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

Are you a worrier?

What appointments do you have today?

What’s your favourite breakfast?

Cloudy With A Chance of Grace 

I cannot remember the last day I went for a run when it didn’t rain. Ireland is renowned for its beautiful green countryside but I mean really? Could we have one day when I can go out for a run and not come back looking like a drowned rat? At this rate I will turn green myself. Or at the very least develop webbed feet. Which is not a good look for a middle aged man training for a marathon in just under five weeks. 

I keep telling myself that this will benefit me long term as come race day I have to be prepared to go out and perform, whatever the weather conditions. I doubt the race organisers would take kindly to me asking them to reschedule were the heavens to open. Wet weather does have its benefits. It cools you down but try telling that to the bespectacled man setting out to run 26.2 miles without windscreen wipers. How I haven’t ended up in a ditch yet I do not know. 

So when the ‘Loop of the Lough’ Marathon comes around on 25 November I will have no excuses if I awaken to wet roads and grey skies. I will have to don my wet weather gear and dodge the puddles the best that I can. Failing that I will probably end up in the lough but I will give it my best shot anyway and will have no excuses.

Recently I have felt that it has been Fionnuala and I against the world. I won’t bore you with the details (as I’m seeking to be positive here) but it sometimes feels like once we overcome one obstacle there is another larger one in our path. It has been disheartening and frustrating. I pray about it but, at times, feel as distant from God as I have ever been. I ask him for wisdom and guidance but often feel as if we are fighting a losing battle.

I’ve lost a lot of friends this last year. This has been largely my own fault but I do feel let down all the same. I have trust issues and am struggling to make friends. Which is hugely hypocritical given the trusts I have betrayed in the past. I cling to God, Fionnuala and the kids as they are really I have. This initially deflated but then I realised that they are really all I need. All the more so as I so nearly lost them.

I am making a big effort to feel less sorry for myself in both my writing and thinking. Before I adopted this new approach a Taylor Swift song constantly resonated round my brain – I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me. Except I added an extra line – I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me….especially myself. I’m trying to move past that now because, otherwise, I am no good to my family. And I will never open up again to the possibility of new friendships.

I used to walk through life with a permanent rain cloud over my head. I truly was Mr. Doom and Gloom. The pity party was permanently raging in my head. And, just has been the case with my recent training runs, I was regularly soaked to the bone in sadness. I try to think of it differently now. I am still getting soaked but this time it is by the grace of God. Who drenches me on a daily basis. He has given me a loving family, a home, a job and a healthy body and mind allowing me to write and run.

I have a lot to be grateful for. Thank you God for raining on my parade. The grass is always greener or His Side.

Psalm 72:6 – ‘May He come down like rain upon the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.’

How was your day on a scale of 1-10?

Where are you today and what is the weather like?

Did God shower you with grace today?

Every Team Needs A Kicker

Greetings from London. My brother in law and I flew in yesterday from Belfast to watch the Los Angeles Rams – Arizona Cardinals NFL game at Twickenham along with 72,000 other fans. I’ve been an NFL fan since I was sixteen when it was first aired in the U.K. Since then I’ve had a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with the Washington Redskins; three time Super Bowl champions but, nowadays, perennial underachievers.

The match itself was a birthday present from Fionnuala and the kids and I had been looking forward to the day for almost six months. When it came I wasn’t disappointed. The NFL certainly knows how to put on a show. There were pyrotechnics, cheerleaders and marching bands, and that was all before a ball was kicked or thrown. In the end the Rams won comfortably in a very one sided match up but that didn’t deflect from our enjoyment of the day. 

I particularly enjoyed watching the teams warming up before the match started. The first players out to do so were the kickers. I wondered at this as their participation in the game is minimal. They don’t tackle, run or throw the ball. They just come on the field occasionally to try and kick a field goal or extra point after a touchdown. You could even argue that they are not even real American football players as their jersies never seem to get dirty. All they have to do is kick the ball through the posts. How hard can that be?

The kicker for the Rams was warming up at our end of the pitch. His preparation was meticulous, taking kick after kick from various distances and fine tuning his technique with every attempt. His accuracy was unerring and the strength of his kicking leg was incredible. At one point he converted a 70 yard kick. And that was him just warming up. As the warm up ended I remarked to my brother in law that the Rams kicker would not miss a kick during the match itself, such was his preparation.


And I was right, he didn’t. Five times the Rams offense got within scoring distance but were unable to score a touchdown. Five times the kicker came on and BAM, the ball went sailing between the post for another three points. The same went for the extra point attempts after the Rams scored a touchdown. In the end he scored 18 of the Rams total of 33 points. There are 50 players on a team yet he scored over half of their points. I left the stadium with a new found respect for a position I had once mocked as not being a ‘real’ American football player. 

American football teams, like all teams, are made up of people with different skills and abilities. They all have a role to play and, no matter how minor or insignificant that role might seem, without them doing so the team itself cannot effectively function. An American football team needs high profile players like the quarterback who regularly grab the spotlight and headlines. But they also need guys like the kickers who you might rarely see but who can win or lose the game with just a single kick. Their role within the team is just as important.

The same goes for life. We all have a role to play. You might be reading this now feeling insignificant and undervalued. You might feel inadequate and useless. That’s not true. You have an important job to perform in this game called life. You might not know what that is yet, you might be doing it now and not even realise it. Without it however, and without you, the world is a lesser place. You are needed and your time will come, like the kicker in the big game. So never undervalue yourself and your skills and talents. For without them the world is a duller place.

Be prepared. Stay focused and keep practicing. For your moment will come. God put you on this planet for a reason and has a plan for you. Never lose hope for the day is fast approaching when you are called off the sideline and thrown into the game. Your actions and your words could change someone’s life. Forever and for the better. You could be their lifeline. You just have to be patient and, like the kicker, hone your talent day after day so that when you are called upon the ball goes sailing between the uprights.

Every team needs a kicker. The team called humanity needs you.

What’s the biggest sporting event you’ve ever attended?

Are you a NFL fan?

Do you feel part of a team? Or are you sitting on the sidelines feeling lost and lonely?

Care & Love 

A rare theological discussion broke out in the office yesterday. Delighted as I initially was it soon degenerated into the usual nonsense as the youngest member of our team innocently enquired ‘Did they have bicycles in the Bible?’ Amidst howls of derision from my co-workers I wracked my memory banks for all of a miilsecond before sagely replying ‘No. But they did have donkeys….and the occasional camel.’

Not to be discouraged she persevered with her line of questioning. ‘Well what about wheelchairs then? There were lots of disabled people in the Bible. How did they get about?’ I rolled my eyes and patiently replied ‘No. 1st Century Israeli roads were not really conducive to wheelchairs even if they had existed back then. Mats. People were carried about on mats….at least until Jesus healed them.’

The conversation meandered on then to how many humps Biblicals camels had and I surveyed the shattered remnahts of another evangelical opportunity gone awry. I’m sure Paul didn’t have these kind of problems when he preached to the Gentiles. But it switched on a lightbulb in my head. Jesus was telling people to get up from their mats and walk all the time but how did they get to him in the first place anyway? I’ve heard of flying carpets but motorised mats? Surely not?

Our 13 year daughter, Hannah, is a wheelchair user. She was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. Hannah is fiercely independent but is presently waiting for an all singing, all dancing motorised wheelchair. This will make a massive difference to her life because, at present, she is making do with a chunky manual wheelchair which she has difficulties operating. She is fine getting around the house but, outdoors, often needs help. We do this unhesitatingly without even thinking about it.


She is our daughter and we would do anything for her; including pushing her to the ends of the earth if need be. In legal terms we are her carers. And yes, we care deeply for her, but it goes beyond that. We do it because we love her. Had we lived in Biblical times and heard of this guy called Jesus who has healing people at will then we would have got her to him by hook or by crook. Hannah’s faith would have done the rest.

People carried their relatives and friends to Jesus on the mats. It would have been backbreaking work on rocky, uneven roads. They would have stumbled often and there might have been the odd expletive along the way. But they did it anyway. Out of love for the person they were carrying, underpinned by a faith and hope that Jesus could achieve the impossible and make their wildest dreams come true. They pushed through crowds, dismantled roofs and roared for people to move but they got their nearest and dearest to Jesus. 

The mats were carried by aching limbs and throbbing feet. But they were powered with love. And I know as the disabled friend or relative rose unaided from their mat Jesus would have smiled at the amazed, yet joyous, expressions of their carers. Because as well as changing the lives of their loved ones through physical healing he was also bringing spiritual and emotional healing to those who had given up their lives for others who needed them. 

Jesus generated extreme emotions in people wherever he went. He was the eye of a three year ministerial storm that went on to change the world beyond recognition. He was love but, in the end, he was surrounded by anger, bitterness and hatred. During those three years, however, he shone like a beacon to the desperate and disenfranchised. They came to him. Even if it meant being carried. 

Please pray today for the disabled but also for those who care for them. They are the unsung heroes within our communities working quietly yet tirelessly out of a spirit of love. Jesus loved their love. And so must we.

Mark 2:4 – ‘Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.’

What are your thoughts on this post? We would love your feedback.

All Aboard 

I do a lot of my blogging during my daily train commute to and from work. In recent weeks, however, this has been more of a struggle. The schools are back which means I have to battle through legions of orcish hordes (schoolchildren) every morning at my stop in order to board the express train to Belfast.

Often it is standing room only as the forty seats in each carriage (yes I’ve counted them) are already occupied by the time the train reaches my platform. As many people again then squeeze into the carriage as the conductor cheerily ignores every health and safety regulation in the book. This means that my travel experience usually involves staring at somebody’s armpit or trying to keep myself from being pitched headlong onto an unsuspecting fellow passenger’s lap.

I fully expect some morning to be asked to clamber onto the carriage roof or hang perilously from its side for the al fresco journey of a lifetime. No doubt Northern Ireland Railways will charge me extra for this unique travel experience. Until then I mutter to myself and endure the daily rat race in and out of the city centre. The sooner they invent teleportation the better I say.


On the rare occasion when there is a spare seat on the carriage it is usually a fight to the death between the two nearest standing passengers. I’ve seen some brutal standoffs along with equally impressive turns of foot in order to secure that much sought after vacant berth. The exception is where an elderly person is in the vicinity. On these occasions people generally do the decent thing and offer up the seat to the more senior traveller.

I always freeze in these situations. It’s a bit like holding a door open for a female colleague at work. Will they regard me as a chivalrous gentleman or an out of date sexist pig? At what age do you merit being offered a seat? 60? 70? Will they be grateful or offended? I personally dread the day when somebody offers me a seat on the train. It will be equivalent of the day I discovered my first grey hair or when I make a cultural reference in the office to be met with blank expressions from my younger co-workers. 

These are the trials and tribulations that I face every morning. I always get on the train, however. And I always reach my final destination. Sometimes the journey is more pleasurable than others but the end result is the same. Just like life. Sometimes we sail through life in luxurious comfort without a care in the world. At other times it is a mundane, uncomfortable slog. And occasionally you are literally hanging on by your fingertips as you hurtle down the track. 

Whatever lies ahead never be afraid to get on board. Whatever lies ahead. As a Christian I’ve had some hairy rides but on these occasions I just shut my eyes and ask God to get me through it. And he does. It just involves a little courage and a little faith. Don’t be left standing on the platform of life as your future flashes past you. You only get one shot at it. Even if it does involve the occasional elbow in the ribs or umbrella in the face.

What are your thoughts on this post?

Are you a commuter? What is your daily commute like?

Where are you on your journey through life?

Grateful 

What with Storm Ophelia, school closures and other daily dramas I haven’t had much of a chance to write these last few days. Hopefully normal service will be resumed again soon. In the meantime I just wanted to drop a line to thank you all as we passed 20,000 views yesterday.


Since the blog started back in May we have been thrilled by the support and encouragement we have been shown in opening up our lives and sharing our story. I’m still not quite sure why anyone would want to read my nonsense but I am none the less very grateful for your comments and feedback.

As ever none of this would be possible without Fionnuala. While I do most of the writing she is truly the power behind the throne. The blog was initially her idea, she provides much of the inspiration for my writing and is constantly guiding and supporting me. She is also the technical brains behind the blog and runs our associated Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts which I would encourage you to check out.

Thank you all again ❤️🙏🏻😊

The Morning After 

Just a quick line to update you all that we survived Storm Ophelia which has now passed Ireland. Thank you for everyone who sent thoughts and prayers our way. They were most appreciated and we feel much loved by our WordPress community. Please say a prayer for the families of the three people who lost their lives yesterday in the storm – Stephen & Fionnuala ❤️🙏🏻😊

Storm Warning 

Storm Ophelia is about to hit Northern Ireland later today and we are bracing ourselves for 80mph winds, heavy rain and major disruption. I know this might sound like ‘small fry’ to readers in other parts of the world who have experienced much harsher weather conditions in recent months; but this is predicted to be the worst storm to hit Ireland in thirty years and a ‘red’ weather warning has been announced, the highest possible. 

It was announced late last night that all schools are to be closed today so the kids, of course, are delighted. I have spent the morning outdoors storing away the garden furniture, plant pots and any other objects that might take off when the winds take hold. Fionnuala is currently at the supermarket so that we are stocked up with  everything we need for the next 24 hours. Then it is just a matter of sitting tight and hoping for the best.

The Northern Irish are not very good when it comes to extreme weather. The lightest of snow coverings and the country seemingly grinds to a halt; heavy rain seems to cause flooding no matter how prepared the authorities tell us they are this time; and once the temperature dips below zero we become gibbering wrecks. This is all the stranger given that one of the most popular topics of conversation is the weather. In fact if it wasn’t for the weather I would struggle to hold a conversation with some people. 


When all else fails we can ramble on about what a bad summer we are having; when the conversation hits a lull there is always the latest forecast to fill in the gaps. We are a country obsessed with the weather yet we are totally unprepared when Mother Nature flexes her muscles and ups the ante a notch or two. The first snowfall of the year in this country evokes scenes straight out of ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. We are a strange breed and Storm Ophelia has done nothing to convince me otherwise.

This time around I have been most surprised by the nonchalance and naivety of a considerable proportion of the population. Many people have commented that the authorities are overreacting by closing the schools and we have gone ‘health and safety’ mad. This baffles me. Are you seriously saying you don’t have an issue sending your child to school knowing that later in the day they are going to have to make their way home in hurricane force winds? Personally we won’t take that risk with our kids.

People can be so arrogant and full of their own self importance. It annoys me and I pray for the patience to deal with such folk. This ‘it will never happen to me’ attitude is prevalent in our society today. Yet when it does it becomes a case of blaming anyone except the person who should shoulder the responsibility – ourselves. We blunder through our lives too proud or ignorant to ignore the numerous storm warnings that flash before our eyes. That person is bad for you? Nah, I know better. Maybe you should cut down on the alcohol/cigarettes/whatever your vice is?Nah I know better. 

And when it all comes crumbling down we come running looking for sympathy and babbling excuses. But by then it is too late. We ignore the voice on our head advising us otherwise. I have been as guilty of this as anyone. Call it your conscience, call it your inner voice, call it (as I do) a nudge from God we ignore it. And walk into the latest storm to envelop our lives utterly exposed and unprepared for what lies ahead. We don’t learn from our mistakes. We live in circles of sorrow, our own personal Groundhog Days of grief.

I screwed up yesterday. I let bitterness and unforgiveness get the better of me. I ignored the warning signs and thought I knew best. Afterwards I talked it through with Fionnuala, acknowledged my failings and resolved I would be better prepared the next time I was placed in such a situation. I hope today that you can learn from your past mistakes and when the next potential storm barrels into your life you are ready and willing to hear and act upon the warning signs.

Proverbs 8:1 – ‘Does wisdom not call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?’

Have you ever ignored a storm warning and paid the price?

How do you deal with the storms of life?

The Unlikely Angel

As we have now reached mid-October it makes perfect sense that the Christmas movie channel is now showing at chez Black on a 24 hour loop. Personally I’ve always been a ‘Christmas begins on 1st December’ kind of guy but, as with most matters in our house, I am heavily outnumbered. Yes, Christmas has officially begun.

Heavy hints have already been dropped that I am due a visit to the attic to bring down the Christmas decorations; Santa lists have been drawn up with FIFA 18 featuring heavily; and I’m convinced I saw a packet of mince pies in the cupboard the other day. Fionnuala is already plotting and planning the highlight of her year and has brainwashed (I mean) encouraged the girls to join her in loving all things festive.


99% of the aforementioned Christmas movies are American produced. In fact it strikes me that somewhere in the United States a Christmas movie is always being filmed. They always feature actors I have never heard of who appear to make a perfectly good living starring in movies that nobody has ever heard of. They invariably are romantic comedies set in small town mid-America. Everybody has good teeth. They always have happy endings and Santa never gets stuck up the chimney.

Today was a little different. I was ‘treated’ to ‘An Unlikely Angel’ starring Dolly Parton, one of Fionnuala’s childhood heroes. My wife was in Heaven which, oddly enough, is where Dolly ends up in the movie after a car crash featuring a deer and some decidedly dodgy stunt work. Next scene she’s walking through the pearly gates which just about accommodate her NFL-esque shoulder pads and a hairstyle which must have taken scaffolding and a gallon of hairspray to construct.

Dolly hooks up with a rather odd looking man in a white suit who may have been St. Peter or, at the very least, a pretty senior angel. Michael. Or possibly Gabriel. He basically rips up millennia of theological doctrines by explaining to an understandably bewildered Dolly that in order to remain a permanent fixture amongst the clouds she needed to make amends for her decidedly unsaintly existence by returning to earth as a trainee angel in order to perform good deeds and earn her season ticket to the afterlife.

It was at this point that I gave up and decided to go for my morning run. But the title got me thinking. Some of you may believe in angels and are convinced that they walk unseen amongst us; that they are permanently engaged in spiritual warfare against demonic forces in the battle between good and evil. Others might think this the stuff of fairy tales and place angels in the same box along with leprechauns and The Abominable Snowman.

Whatever your beliefs there is nothing stopping you displaying angelic qualities today to someone in need of help. It can be the smallest of acts. A little kindness goes a long way. Just open your eyes and look around. There is someone right now close to you who will benefit from your angelic intervention. It will brighten up their day and, guess what, you will feel a whole lot better about yourself afterwards as well. It might not get you into Heaven but it is sprinkling a little heavenly love on the life of someone desperately in need of a little love and grace. 

The best bit is that doing the above doesn’t require any specialist training. You don’t need qualifications in low level flying or advanced harp playing. Allergy to feathers? No problem. White isn’t your colour? We can work around that. Feel you’re not good enough and that your chequered past doesn’t make you eligible for the position? Worry not. God isn’t bothered so why should you? No matter what your past you can turn your back on it and do good today. 

Become an unlikely angel today. Backcombed hair, huge shoulder pads and rhinestone sequins entirely optional.

When does Christmas officially start in your house?

What are the best/worst Christmas movies you have ever watched?

Do you believe in angels?

Pace Yourself 

I’m currently training hard for my seventh marathon at the end of November. I’m running it for SHINE Charity (Spina Bifida & Hydrocephalus) and my target is to complete the race in under four hours. I’m a bit nervous as it will be my first marathon in eighteen months but training has been going well. I’ve been gradually increasing my weekly long runs which are the bedrock of any marathon training plan.

Last Saturday was my longest run yet. Eighteen miles from our house to my mother-in-laws in Belfast. I realise that most married men would run that distance to get away from their mother-in-law but I have always liked being different. I had been thinking of taking on this challenge for some time but when the day itself came it was drizzly and dank. Well I do live in Northern Ireland after all!

I knew the route I was taking was hilly. It is an initially undulating route that then climbs gradually from Miles 7 to 14. The final four miles are then all downhill into Belfast itself. In order to complete a sub four hour marathon I need to average 9:09 minute miles. Sounds pretty straightforward when you type it out but try telling that to your legs after 20 miles. I’m not fast but I am strong when it comes to pacing and race tactics. Plus I’m determined and will plod along all day in order to finish the race on schedule.


The first seven miles went largely to plan and I built up a handy two minute cushion which I knew I would need for the hilly middle section. And hilly it was. How come these routes never appear so steep when you drive them. The gradual ascent was exacerbated as the weather closed in around me. I was wet, cold and tiring with only a few bemused looking sheep for company as I trudged along the most isolated section of the route. I kept telling myself it was character building and would stand me in good stead come race day. My aching legs begged to differ.

My mile splits began to slow down mile after miserable mile. I didn’t panic, however, as I knew I could make up the lost time during the final descent. As I hit the top of the mountain I was thirteen seconds behind my target time. I kicked on, my tired limbs welcoming the skyline of Belfast to my right as I descended. Miles 15-17 were my fastest three miles of the race. I was now comfortably back inside my target time. I could afford to relax during the last mile although my legs were starting to turn to jelly as I reached my final destination. 

Fionnuala and the kids welcomed me with warm, dry clothes and multiple glasses of water. I finished well within my target time, sore but happy. A great confidence booster and another challenge scored off my bucket list. As well as that it taught me to believe in myself. Even though I fell off the pace during the tough section of the race I knew that if I persevered I would get through it and things would improve on the other side. A little faith goes a long way. Eighteen miles to be precise. 

Life can be like that. A dull, painful trudge that never seems to end and never seems to get any easier. But you have to keep going, if not for yourself then for those around you who need you and rely upon you. There will be horrible times, times where there seems little hope. In those tImes all you can do is plod on and stick to the plan. As a Christian I trust God to get me through the hard times. I know from past experiences that He will. Just as I know, as a runner, that my body and strategy will get me through the tough parts of race.

Find something to believe in. Hang on to it through the tough times. Then sit back and enjoy the thrill of the descent on the other side.

James 1:12 – ‘Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.’

What’s on your bucket list?

How do you get through the tough times?

Quietly Excited 

It is 6:37 am in balmy Northern Ireland and I can’t sleep. The reason why? Adam’s big rugby match is less than four hours away and I’m excited about it. I never sleep well the night before one of his matches and tonight has been no exception. I kept wakening up, had weird dreams and then dozing off again. I won’t get back to sleep now so thought I might as well squeeze a blog post out of it.

It is good to feel excited. I’m excited about being excited again as it’s an emotion I haven’t experienced much lately. I have been in a rut this last week or so and a lot of my writing has been negative and about my past. I have revisited a lot of dark places from there and this has taken its toll. Some of that darkness has seeped back into my present life and that has not been healthy. It has sucked the life out of my bones and left me feeling agitated and irritable.

I read a blog post the other day about a mental health illness where the sufferer is unable to derive pleasure from anything. They are incapable of feeling excited about anything. I know this does not relate to me because I am different. I have chosen not to feel excited about anything. I have allowed the darkness to suffocate my light. That has to change. Starting now.


I have a lot to be excited about. There is a lot happening in our busy lives and I’m grateful to God for everything He has done for us this year. The Bible is full of excitement. Imagine how Moses must have felt when he parted the Red Sea? David after he slew Goliath? Daniel as he walked unscathed out of the lion’s dead? The disciples on a daily basis as they watched and listened to Jesus? Never let it be said that the Bible is a dull book. It overflows with excitement.

My heart needs to overflow with excitement. Overflow into other people’s lives and drown their own fears and inadequacies. It is time to crush depression and anxiety. But that excitement has to be genuine. Not the once a week ‘happy clappy Christianity’ that some try to portray at church on a Sunday. Parading their perfect families and fake smiles while in their hearts there is nothingness. I want my excitement to be real and genuine. 

I am not that type of person. My default setting is ‘glass half empty’. I don’t run round church with my hands in the air singing ‘Praise Jesus’. I am a quiet worshipper. I read, I write and I think. A lot. Possibly too much. But I want to be a quietly excited worshipper. And that means immersing myself in more positive environments. The people I spend time with, the books I read, the music I listen to.

It will soon be time to get up and face the day. I am excited about today. And not just because of the rugby match. I am excited to be alive and well. I am excited to be married to a wonderful woman and to have three fantastic children. I am excited to be writing these words to you. In fact I am excited for you and the plan that God has mapped out for your life. I won’t shout. I won’t roar. But I am excited. Quietly excited.

2 Samuel 6:14 – ‘And David danced before the Lord with all his might.’

What plans have you for the weekend? Are you excited about them?

What is your emotional ‘default setting’?

Modern Life Is Rubbish

It doesn’t take much to annoy me and I got very annoyed at work yesterday. I felt left down and undermined by the actions of a colleague who had taken an issue to our boss rather than first discuss it with me and find a way to resolve the problem. I’m even getting annoyed as I type this now. So much for writing being a cathartic experience.

I lost a lot of respect for the person in question and, as for ever trusting them again, well don’t get me started. It was the trigger for me to look back over the last year or so and reflect on a number of people who I perceive to have let me down. People who I thought were friends but have subsequently been revealed to have been indifferent and uncaring. Others have attempted to dictate to me; throw my past in my face at every available opportunity.

I have very few friends now. I have massive trust issues given the events I have described above. The thought of establishing new friendships now fills me with dread. Why go to all that effort when ultimately it will all end in ruin. At this stage of life people have formed their inner circle of friends. They don’t want any more. I feel like an intruder and an interloper. Unwanted and excluded. 

My pity party was promptly ended by God. He has a habit of doing that. And I realised I was being a massive hypocrite. How can I be expected to trust others when I don’t trust God. When I don’t trust myself. What about the number of times I have betrayed the trust of my family down the years. Ripped it up and thrown it in their faces. Lived in the shadows and hid from the truth of who I really was.

Yesterday I told Fionnuala what was the point forgiving others when they just let you down time and time again. Why bother? Yet Fionnuala persisted with me when I didn’t deserve it and I hope that it was worthwhile in the end. Her love and courage dragged us through the mess I had created. She didn’t have to but she did. Just like Jesus dragged mankind out of its self inflicted mess at the Cross.

Recent world events do nothing but reinforce the mess we are still in. But God has not given up on us just like Fionnuala has not given up on me. She displays more Christ like attributes in her little finger than I do in my entire body. I do most of the writing for the blog and, as such, receive a lot of positive comments. But really they should be reserved for her. Without her I am nothing. I see Jesus in her every day and that keeps me going.

It is 6:00 am as I write this. Today is a new day. I hope and pray that my frustration and resentment do not get the better of me today. I hope and pray that I can rise above petty office politics and be the better man. I hope and pray that I can focus on those who choose to love me despite my many inadequacies. I hope and pray that I can be more like Jesus and less like Stephen. 

I hope and pray….

John 14:1 – ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.’

Have you woken up feeling frustrated and resentful?

Do you have trust issues? Have you been let down recently?

How do you feel now after reading this post?

Be A Painkiller

I rarely get headaches but since my return on Friday from a work trip to England I have had a persistent one just above my right eyebrow. It niggled away at me for most of Saturday before flaring up again in church this morning. Was the sermon that bad? Well it wasn’t great to be honest but I doubt very much if it was the reason for my discomfort.

It was so bad that by the end of the service I had my eyes clenched shut and a pained expression on my face. To the casual observer it looked as if I was immersed in earnest prayer. Or constipated. Or both. On the journey home afterwards we stopped off at the supermarket to get some supplies and I consoled myself with two paracetamol and a giant honeycomb cookie. Fionnuala suggested my recent decision to cut back on my Diet Coke intake might be the cause. I felt like Renton in that ‘bucket scene’ in the first Trainspotting movie.

As the day has unfolded the pain has receded quite a bit but I can still feel it lurking just beneath the surface of my forehead, waiting to erupt again when I least expect it. It is an unwelcome guest and I wish it gone. I had always marked headache sufferers down as slightly theatrical attention seekers who were invariably struck down when asked to do something they didn’t want to do. I now realised that headaches were neither big nor clever. They sucked.

How many headaches have we caused down the years? How many tears have we created? How many hearts have we broken? It’s not so great being on the receiving end is it? For many years I was a constant headache for our family. A one man wrecking ball. Back when Miley Cyrus was still Hannah Montana and Billy Ray was singing about achy breaky hearts. Back then I was the sorry source of many such a heart. 


Every morning I wake up now and try to repair the damage that I have caused. It is a slow, arduous process. It only takes a second to say sorry but it takes a lot longer to prove to your loved ones that you mean it. Headaches are hard to shift. But not as hard as mending broken hearts and erasing painful memories. You can’t just pop a couple of painkillers and hey presto. Love is the ultimate painkiller. But true love isn’t flowers and chocolates. It is turning up day in, day out and being there for the people you care about.

It is doing the little things, the mundane and the routine, over and over and over again. To the point where trust is re-established. Where healing can begin. Where forgiveness can be allowed to wash away the hurt and the pain. Where fresh roots can be put down and new foundations laid. Our actions will never make our victims forget what we have done to them. But they will cause them to remember less often. 

I encourage you to be a painkiller today. Think of the one person you have been a headache to; it could have been yesterday or it could have been years ago; it could have been one act or it could have been decades of hurt. Then do something to ease that pain. Talk to them. Show them that you care. Love them through your actions. Create new memories with them and, in doing so, allow the old ones to fade away.

The world has enough headaches without us adding to them. Kill the pain today. Inside of yourself and inside of others. With love.

What is the worst headache you have ever had?

How are you going to be a painkiller today?

The Paper Umbrella 

I love books. I have hundreds of them and Fionnuala is constantly encouraging me to have ‘book culls’ in order to free up some space in our already packed to the gills abode. A few years ago she bought me a Kindle which rarely leaves my side. I probably have another hundred or so books on it. Logical, rational minds would therefore conclude that the problems with book storage are a thing of the past. No more need for overladen book shelves when your library can be held on a pocket sized device. Right?

Er….wrong. Much as I try I cannot resist the lure of the second hand book store just around the corner from my work. It is a treasure cove of hidden literary gems where I spend many of my lunch breaks, wandering studiously up and down its aisles. Invariably I leave with a purchase much to the dismay of my long suffering wife. I am indeed a hopeless case.

Much as I love my Kindle and the many bonuses it brings to my reading experience (LED screen means I can read in the dark, new releases are usually cheaper than the hard copy version, highlighting option as opposed to underlining with pen) I can never totally sever my ties with holding an actual book in my hand; the feel of it, the smell of it, the taste of it. Ok I made that last bit up before you call the psychiatrist.

The same applies to my Bible. Or should I say Bibles as I have four different translations. I also have a Bible app but I never feel comfortable reading the Word off a screen. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s like having to settle for a Diet Pepsi when you asked for a Diet Coke. It will never hit the spot in quite the same way. Maybe it is the whole ‘tablets of stone and scrolls’ thing. I just can’t visualise Jesus standing up and reading from his I-Phone 8. Which of course he wouldn’t have anyway as that’s vain and materialistic.

I picked up my Bible this morning and, before I started reading, asked God to speak to me through his Word today. Before I had even read a word I got a picture of an open, upturned Bible. Over my head like an umbrella. The leather cover faced outwards and upwards shielding and protecting my head from the outside world. From temptation and the way the world wants me to lead my life. I felt safe there, protected from the pressures and distractions of everyday life.


Meanwhile the open pages of the Bible were showering words down onto my head. Words like love, hope and faith. God was refreshing my mind and my body with truth and light. I was underneath an umbrella but was being soaked by his grace. And it didn’t bother me in the slightest. God was speaking to, and refreshing me, before I had even looked at a page. I had benefited from his Word without reading a word of it.

I had to write about this immediately. God doesn’t send me many pictures so this was an event that I wanted to share with you all. And I hope it makes sense to you. The Word can be whatever you need it to be at any given moment. One day a shield of protection, the next a waterfall of grace. Or both simultaneously! All you have to do is pick it up and ask God to speak to you through it. For when you are picking up a Bible, you are picking up life itself. 

I would encourage you today to pick up a Bible and read it. You might do this every day anyway; you might have lapsed of late and feel a need to re-engage with the Word; or you might never have done so before. Pick it up, open it and read it. Even if it’s just for five minutes. What have you got to lose? Nobody needs to know. Just you and Him. Today. Now. I hope and pray it is a worthwhile exercise.

Hebrews 4:12 – ‘For the Word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates to even dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’

What happened today when you picked up your Bible?

And if you didn’t pick one up how was your day anyway?

A Few Lines

I will write a ‘proper’ post later today but just wanted to write a few lines from sunny Southend (where I am working for a few days) to thank you all for your continued support and encouragement. We hit 1500 followers overnight which is amazing given that the blog only started four months ago.


We hope that the blog continues to demonstrate that no situation is irretrievable no matter how bleak things might appear. The light will always vanquish the darkness. Hope and faith will always triumph. Love will always overcome evil. There is always a way out. Never give up. Trust God and hand it over to Him when it all gets too much for you.

Stephen & Fionnuala ❤️🙏🏻😊

Clutter 

We have been spending Saturday afternoon having a bedroom clearout. My wife (who has more shoes than Imelda Marcos) has found dresses she forgot she had. Never worn! With the price tag still on them!! Likewise the amount of loose change that we have recovered has been akin to getting paid to tidy up. There is no greater incentive for a lazy husband the weekend before pay day.

The end result is that we can now make it to our actual bed without having to negotiate an assault course which would challenge your average Navy Seal or SAS unit. When I step out of bed tomorrow morning my feet will actually make contact with a wooden floor as opposed to a two inch layer of odd running socks. 

It has been hard work but necessary work. The room was getting far too cluttered and we had to brutally address our innate hoarding instincts. As a result we have a much more streamlined and tidy living space. It reminded me a bit of my head these last few days. I haven’t blogged and haven’t felt like blogging, making me feel that I have been to the creative well once too often.


I have felt flat and a bit listless, devoid of ideas. I realised that I had fallen foul of the subject I have recently written and warned about – spiritual dehydration. Practice what you preach indeed Stephen. This has made me feel like a hypocrite and I have reacted by throwing a bit of a pity party inside my head. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

Fionnuala has been asking me all week what has been wrong with me and I honestly haven’t been unable to put my finger on it. She then suggested that perhaps my blog material in recent weeks hasn’t helped. I have written a lot about my past and revisited a lot of dark areas. I believed that writing about my experiences would be cathartic and help others. And they have, but at a cost.

The feedback from our blogging community has been fantastic but facing old adversaries has been draining and unsettling. Instead of clearing the cobwebs from the corners of my mind it has allowed unwanted memories and vulnerabilities to take hold and begin to clutter up the channels of light and positivity I have been working hard at maintaining. They have been unwanted tenants.

There is merit in flagging up the pitfalls of your past for fellow travellers on the same road. But I need to take better care of myself as well. You need to understand your past in order to plan for your future but not to the extent that your present self becomes bogged down and helpless. 

I will blog about my past again. I feel it is important and if I can act as a beacon for those in similar peril then all the better. But there is so much more around me in the here and now that I can also write about. It is time to open my eyes and look around me and in front of myself. If you always look back you will invariably stumble over the baggage of the past. 

All the more reason for a clearout.

Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

When was the last time you had a spring clean? What forgotten treasures did you re-discover?

Do you think revisiting your past is a healthy pastime? Or can it clutter up your present?

What do you do when your blogging mojo is absent?

The Butterfly

Im a very proud mummy tonight our Hannah sang in Belfast City Hall for her school’s 60th Anniversary in front of Royalty and it really got me thinking about everything that we were told she would never be able to do or achieve. 

When we first started this blog I wrote a bit of testimony about our experience then and I thought I would reblog because we are busting with pride for Hannah tonight.

Well done Hannah don’t let anything dull your sparkle.

Fractured Faith Blog

This is my first time blogging, normally it’s my husband’s witty blogs that you read and it looks like I’ve caught the blogging bug whichthankfullydoesn’t require medical attention asI’ve seen enough of doctors, therapists and hospitals this week. I want to share a bit of testimony with you about a small part of my journey but somebody who is a HUGE part of my life; our daughter Hannah.

In March 2003 we discovered I was pregnant. We were really excited we had already ason Adamwho was 8 months old. We were looking forward to our two children being really close together and good company for each other as they grew up. My pregnancy was progressing really well. I was healthy and had gone back to work after my maternity leave with Adam. Lifewas good and our baby was due on Christmas Eve. We were really looking forward to our big…

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Dehydration 

Since finishing the Belfast Half Marathon two days ago I have felt lousy. Tired, shivery and a headache that just won’t shift. I’ve self diagnosed (as ever) and concluded that I must be suffering the effects of post race dehydration. I took on board water and energy drinks at regular intervals during the race itself but must confess that I neglected myself after the event. 

You see, my numero uno vice is Diet Coke. I drink gallons of the stuff. And yes, I know it isn’t good in such amounts. And yes, I equally know that it’s not going to remotely hydrate you like H2O would after running 13.1 miles. Never forget the .1. That’s the most important bit. So after I collected my medal and t-shirt upon crossing the finish line on Sunday I celebrated by cracking open a DC as opposed to water. 

And then another. And then another. By the end of the day I had polished off a six pack. I woke up the next morning feeling awful. It was akin to a hangover from my drinking days. A horrible, groggy feeling that I thought I would never experience again after I stopped drinking alcohol four years ago. I spent most of yesterday feeling sorry for myself. Why me? Instead of basking in sporting glory I was wallowing in self pity. I felt dire.


Today has been better. I have forced copious amounts of water into me and am gradually feeling more human. Diet Coke is evil. I don’t need this grief. A dehydrated Stephen is a grumpy Stephen. It’s a mistake that I won’t make again. Future race days will be fuelled by water and nothing else. I don’t want to repeat this listless sensation ever again.

There are days too where I feel spiritually dehydrated. Flat. Empty. Devoid of anything even remotely resembling the Christian spirit. These days usually follow periods where I have neglected my Bible study, prayer life and church attendance. It’s so easy to lose your spiritual discipline. There are so many earthly distractions which are capable of dragging us off in any number of directions except the one that matters. Towards God.

Spiritual dehydration can be fatal. A parched, arid soul will eventually transform into a hellish scenario. A desert wasteland of broken dreams and ruined hopes. Where anger, frustration and unforgiveness reign unopposed. But freely available prayer, study and worship can unleash floods of living waters and torrents of unlimited grace.

The choice is yours. All I know is that it works for me. I need to remain spiritually hydrated. My sanity and quality of life depend on it. Literally. Without it I wilt quickly. I lose my focus and find myself lapsing into old patterns of sinful behaviour. I choose hydration. I choose life. I choose Jesus.

John 4:14 – ‘but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I give him will become in him a well of water springing up in eternal life’.

Have you ever been physically hydrated?

How do you stay spiritually hydrated?

Running Scared

I ran the Belfast Half Marathon this morning in 1:56:29. My target was to complete the course in under 2 hours. The time was 21 minutes slower than last year but given the summer of illness and injury I have had I was just happy to get home in under my target time. 

My confidence was very low going into the race. I knew the virus had taken its toll and I’ve been slowly increasing my distances over the last month, ever cautious of a fresh relapse. I had ran for four years with hardly any problems until this summer. It has taught me that being healthy and able to run is a gift that I will never take for granted again.

I try not to refer to OCD as ‘my OCD’. Whenever I do, Fionnuala quickly corrects me. To do so is to define who I am in respect of it. OCD is not part of me. It is the enemy, an alien invader which I have battled against for years. I do not own it nor do I want it. It is the outsider seeking to creep into my mind on a daily basis and lay siege to my every waking thought. It scares me silly.


I take 20mg of Escitaloprem a day which has helped massively in blocking the intrusive thoughts. Combined with prayer and being more open about my mental health has allowed me to lead a relatively normal life. I also believe that running regularly has helped. After a run I am too exhausted to humour such thoughts. Running has replaced alcohol as my numero uno OCD buster.

It is never far away, however, and I have felt it prodding at my defences over the last week or so. I have been eating badly and food is something I would obsess over. I count every calorie I consume. My daily limit is 2500 calories. If I have run that day and my Garmin says I have burned 1000 calories then I’m allowed 3500. With me so far?

If I go one calorie over the target figure then I regard the day as a ‘fail’. I cannot ‘fail’ an odd number of days. To do so leads to mounting anxiety and never ending thoughts about food and my weight. This is the ‘obsession’ part of OCD. It is an endless loop in my head that plays at a deafening volume, drowning out the rational voice in my head which tells me I am being ridiculous.

Let’s say I go 500 calories over my target on Day 1. 1 is an odd number which is bad. So I need to binge eat the following day and deliberately go over my target in order to end the ritual on an even number of days. Screw up Day 3 and the ritual trundles on to Day 4 and so on. It sounds insane because it is insane. But unless I finish my eating binge on an even numbered day I feel so unsettled and anxious that I struggle to function. This is the ‘compulsion’ I must perform in order to ease the anxiety.

There are few worse feelings than forcing yourself to eat in order to accumulate calories as part of a ritual. You don’t enjoy the food. You just chew, swallow and repeat. This process is accompanied by guilt, shame and self loathing. I cannot look myself in the mirror after such an episode. I used to binge eat in secret so as to not raise suspicions. Buying extra chocolate bars when I was at the shop, snacking continuously at work.

Waking up the ‘morning after’ with a food hangover is horrendous. If the previous day was an odd numbered one then I face another day of eating food I don’t want to eat. If it was even numbered then I face a day of feeling fugly while struggling to stay within my daily target. My stomach is unsettled, I feel groggy and have a headache. The only means of allaying this misery is comfort eating. Which brings me back to where I started. Catch 22.

This week has been a bad one. I have had five consecutive ‘fail’ days. Which meant when I woke up this morning I felt compelled to go over my daily target. And as I was running a half marathon this equated at over 4200 calories. The thought of having to eat that much sickened me. I got out of bed with a feeling of imminent dread as opposed to looking forward to the race which I should have been.

The old me would have suffered in silence and succumbed to the obsessive thinking. I would have taken the beating and said nothing to anyone. Today, however, I am a different man. I talked it through with Fionnuala and realised it no longer has the power over me that it once did. I rebuke it and I hand it over to God. Who loves me just the way I am, warts and all.

I’m not going to binge eat today. Tomorrow might be different but that’s another tale for another day. Today I might not have run a personal best. But I bested OCD. And that’s good enough for me.

1 Peter 5:7 – ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.’

Do you struggle with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour?

What is your understanding of OCD?

How do you vanquish feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing?

Can you spot me in the photo?

15000 Views

We passed 15000 views yesterday. This blog was not created for views and followers but instead to get a message across that we hope will help others. It has been four months since the blog was set up and we have been amazed by the support and feedback we have received. Thank you everyone and here’s to the next 15000.

Forgive and Forget

Fionnuala here today not sure if Stephen will be blogging as he is away with work so thought I would write about something I feel God has been nudging me about over the summer. 

Over the summer both of my parents became ill at the same time which resulted in me spending a lot of time waiting around hospitals and then at my mums house when she got home.  This resulted in me thinking about forgiveness and holding grudges 

I grew up with my parents arguing and fighting most of my life even both sets of my grandparents argued and fought with each other and one of them didn’t even share the same bedroom so to me this was normal life and how grown ups behaved.  When Stephen and I had an argument we both had different ideas of how things would go.  Stephen drove me insane by wanting to talk it out and try to resolve the argument where my idea of normal was going into a sulk and giving each other the silent treatment for not hours or days but weeks or months nobody saying sorry because they were right and the other was wrong and so this resulted in us arguing about arguing- total madness!

If holding a grudge was an Olympic sport I’d win gold every time.  I would mentally take note of anything that somebody said or did to me and bring it up months or years later just to prove that I was right and they were wrong.  

Eventually Stephen’s logic of “you should never go to bed on an argument” got through to me and I started to see that what I grew up with wasn’t normal it was time for that chain to be broken time to get off that roundabout so that it wouldn’t be the normal for our children.

I have now learnt that it is so much easier to love and forgive somebody than to take note of their wrongs and throw it up in their faces when they are at a low point in their lives this is what I did just to make me feel better but it never really  did if anything it just made me feel horrible.

Bearing grudges on others is like having a cancer inside of you it spreads rapidly throughout your body strangling all the goodness until you are left with nothing but hatred and bitterness.


Matthew 18:21-22

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

When stephen was at his lowest I didn’t like that version of him and it would have been very easy for me to turn my back and walk away from him but by showing him love, faith and hope, because he didn’t have any of this for himself, and putting all my trust in God I was able to forgive him.

So the question now is how do you forget?  By handing it all over to God he can take that hurt and pain and channel it into something beautiful.  Before I became a Christian there was a song that I could never listen to because it took me back to a time and place that I did not want to be reminded of then one day it came on the radio in the car and as I reached out to turn it off God gently nudged me and told me to listen to it I ended up laughing and since that day that song has no affect on me anymore. 

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Football Crazy

A miraculous occurrence took place in our house earlier this evening. Manchester United were due to play in their first UEFA Champions League match and I was just settling down to watch it on my phone, resplendent in my MUFC hooded top. I have supported United since I was six years old, through thick and thin. They will always have a special place in my heart and some of my best trips have been to their stadium, Old Trafford, to watch them play.

Adam and Rebecca have followed in their father’s footsteps and are both United fans; Hannah is ambivalent but if she had to choose would also say she was a Red. I am also convinced that Charlie the Border Terrier has a soft spot for them. If only he could speak. Which leaves us with my long suffering wife, Fionnuala, who has endured my life long love of all things United since we first met twenty one years ago.

She hates sport. She hates football. She tolerates Manchester United through gritted teeth. They are just another infuriating aspect of my character, along with countless other flaws too numerous to mention here. I am not nearly as bad as I used to be but she is resigned to the fact that if a United match is on television she loses her husband for ninety minutes. Plus injury time.


Imagine my shock therefore this evening when I saw her donning my United anorak to head out to the supermarket. Yes it was raining cats and dogs outside. Yes it was the only anorak to hand. But to anyone who later passed her in the shopping aisles, she was a fully fledged, 100% Red Devil. Liverpool fans would have looked away from her in disgust; Arsenal supporters turned the other cheek. But for tonight I was proud of my better half. She was finally one of us.

It’s so easy to put on a false front to the world. And just as Fionnuala was able to pass herself off as someone she was most definitely not, so many of us do the same every time we step out of our front door. Take me for instance. For years I passed myself off as the respectable, hard working family man. Always cracking a joke, always well thought off. When inside I was an emotional mess, unable to grieve for my father, living a fake online life and teetering on the brink of alcoholism. 

It was frighteningly easy to pull off. I did it for years. In the end it all came crashing down around me but I had a good run for my money. How many of us are the same? Donning a mask of convenience whenever and wherever it suits us. Living a lie in the shadows. Unwilling and unable to face reality and step out into the light. It is oh so easy to hide scars and wounds. But wounds need to be exposed to the fresh air in order to heal.

Are you ‘keeping up appearances’ today? Putting on a brave face? Playing to your audience while inside you are crumpling under the weight of anxiety and despair? Portraying yourself to the world as Mr. or Mrs. Respectability when in reality you are consumed by sin and self loathing? If you are, the good news is that you are not alone. The even better news is that there is a way out.

God sees us for who we really are. We can pull the wool over everybody else’s eyes but not His. He knows us better than we know ourselves. And He wants us to be the people He created us to be. Some of you may be reading this nodding your heads in agreement. Others may be snorting derisively thinking what a load of nonsense. But don’t take my word for it. There are millions of us walking this earth today who would not be had we not accepted that we could not do it alone and realised we were sinking fast under the twin burdens of addiction and mental illness. Millions of us who were living a lie. Fronting up to the world while all the while dying on the inside. 

You can change. You can start again. You can be honest with yourself and others. Just give God a chance. After all he has given you countless chances. On the verge of giving up? Hand it over to him in a simple prayer and see what happens. Live the life you were born to live. What have you got to lose? Oh and by the way, United won 3-0. Thanks to my lucky mascot of a wife.

1 Samuel 16:7 – ‘For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’

What colours do you sport when your favourite team are playing?

Does the world see the real you? Or just what you want it to see?

When did you last open your heart to God?

Responsibility

Rebecca is now a Year 7 in her primary school meaning that she is officially a ‘big girl’. On their first day back after the summer holidays their new teacher gave them a talk on the duties that this high office now held. They had to act responsibly and set an example to the younger children. Tasks included litter collection, mentoring the Year 1 pupils, distribution of break time fruit and so on. I was exhausted just reading it.

When she came home that day Rebecca stressed to us the importance of her new position and how responsible she had to behave from now on. We christened her ‘Little Miss Responsibility’ and queried did this new found vigour extend to keeping her room tidy, adhering to the washing up rota and not bickering with her brother and sister. She wasn’t so sure about these but 100% about the school stuff. She would figure the rest out later. 

The kids get the responsibility message rammed down their throats at home, school and pretty much everywhere else from an early age. But do we, as supposed adults, practice what we preach? I, for one, know that I have been a massive hypocrite in this respect. I shout at the children for not completing their household chores but how many times, in recent years, have I neglected my responsibilities as a father and husband? I know it would be a long list.

The word ‘hypocrite’ has its origins in the Greek word ‘hupokrites’ meaning actor. How much of our adult lives are an act? Putting on a performance in order to fool the world that we are great people and that everything is just fine and dandy. When in reality it is just a facade, a front, a futile attempt to hide our inadequacies from ourselves and our loved ones. I am guilty of this on so many fronts. How about you?


I believe our first responsibility as ‘grown ups’ is to be honest to ourselves about these flaws and imperfections. It is only when we do so that we can identify weaknesses and vulnerable areas of our lives where we need to improve. We need to expose the murky corners of our hearts to the light. This may be a painful experience initially but in the long-term it will lead to recovery and healing. It will lead to a better quality of life. 

Life is not a performance. It is real. There are no dress rehearsals. You only get one shot at it. If you want to make a difference in your time on this planet your first responsibility must be to be honest with yourself. Brutally honest. By becoming better people we can then start to focus on our responsibilities to our families, our friends and most importantly to God. For, no matter how good an act we put on, he sees the real us. Our ultimate responsibility is to Him.

How hypocritical do you feel today?

How do you think you can become a more responsible ‘grown up’?

ReVamp 

Fionnuala, the brains (and lets face it beauty also) behind AFracturedFaith has given the site a bit of a revamp which hopefully will make it easier for you to navigate round, access previous posts and check out some of our favourite bloggers. It also provides links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

We hope you enjoy the new look. Feel free to let us know what you think but please direct all IT related questions to Fionnuala. I just writes the words. 

Keep the faith – Stephen & Fionnuala 🙏🏻❤️😊

That Back To School Feeling

The hatchlings return to school this week and you can feel the autumnal crackle in the air as another soggy Irish summer drips to an end. This summer has been one of illness, chaos and upheaval for us. We have struggled to make sense of it all and at times have felt adrift, spinning helplessly from one crisis to the next. The lack of control as to what disaster life can gleefully throw at you next has been disconcerting and downright frightening at times.

The kids have suffered as much as anyone as their summer has mostly consisted of trips to visits sick family members. I can just see the classic first day back at school question now being directed towards them. ‘Where did you go on your summer holidays?’ Answer – the hospital. We have had some fun day trips but, truth be told, the holiday period has been a bit of a damp squib for them. Fionnuala and I both feel bad about this but it really has beyond our control.

It came as no surprise then that all three of them are looking forward to going back. Adam is excited about starting at a new class, Hannah can’t wait to see all her friends again and Rebecca is buzzing at experiencing life as a Year 7 ‘big girl.’ In fact the only person more looking forward to seeing them return is their mother who has been cheerfully counting down the days to their return. We love them dearly but the three of them have been at each other’s throats of late due to the cabin fever which has been enforced upon them.

Looking forward to going back to school is an utterly alien experience to me. I used to dread it and the smell of fresh leather or a crisp, white shirt can trigger dire memories even now. If Christmas Eve was heaven then this other ‘night before’ was distinctly hellish. You see I was bullied at school and painfully shy. If you were not a rugby star at the grammar school I attended then frankly you didn’t exist. I loved rugby but was rubbish at it; which makes it even more bizarre that Adam shows such potential. No, I was more at home throwing a twenty sided dice in the Dungeons & Dragons Society than a rugby ball on the playing fields. 


It gladdens me that the hatchlings do not have to go through the ‘night before’ misery that I endured year after year. And I am proud that we have raised such confident, outgoing and self assured little people. They are an incredible blessing to us and, no matter how grim life might appear, they put it all into a more positive light. It is one less thing to worry about as, believe me, we have enough on our plates at the moment. With room for seconds. 

Fionnuala and I face our own ‘back to school’ experience this coming weekend. After eight months without a church we are dipping our toes back into the waters and returning this Sunday. We left our original church for a variety of reasons which I won’t go into as I don’t wish for this post to turn into a mud slinging exercise. We thought we had found a wonderful replacement but it then closed unexpectedly leaving us confused and more than a little lost.

Did God not want us to be church goers? Had we plans for us which went beyond the traditional Sunday morning experience. In the intervening months, if anything, we have felt closer to God than ever before. If we hadn’t left church then this blog would probably have never been born. And we have certainly leaned heavily on Him to get us through the annus horriblis that has been 2017. 

But we have both felt that something has been missing. Having a faith involves a 24/7 relationship with God. It is not just rocking up to a building every Sunday morning and pretending to everyone that your life is wonderful while they pretend back to you that their life is even more wonderful. It goes beyond pretending to pray and mumbling your way half heartedly through a few songs. It is not standing afterwards bitching about ‘so and so’ and complaining about how you got nothing out of the sermon. 

Churches are more than buildings and churches are more than the people who inhabit them. Church is life and truth and freedom. It is about helping others and putting total strangers in need before yourself. It is about willing yourself to forgive when every fibre in your body screams ‘NO’. It is about loving people who you don’t particularly like. Church is not boring, it is truly revolutionary. To follow Jesus is to rip up the rule book of life and go completely against the earthly grain.

These are some of the truths Fionnuala and I have learnt during our enforced sabbatical. And sometimes God removed us from the unhealthy church environment we were in, in order to allow us to grow as individuals, as couples and as a family. Because otherwise we would not have made it through this year. God has some pretty ‘out there’ thinking but it all falls into place eventually if you just keep plugging along, living life according to His will.

Why are we bothering to go back then? Why endure the social awkwardness of being the new kids on the block again? Given that we feel we have been spiritually bolstered and refreshed during the intervening period. Well, to be honest I’m not exactly sure. It could be another unmitigated disaster. I could be blogging next week about what a horrendous mistake we made.

But something had been nagging at the both of us to try again. Maybe we were simply not in the right church community last time. Or maybe we were not in the right mindset and God had to bench us for a quarter and give us a good talking to before throwing us out onto the field of play again. But whether church was not ready for us or we were not church here we are again. Ready to set foot back on the merrygoround again.

You might love your church. You might never be out of the place and sit on every sub-committee there is to sit on. You may feel totally at home there surrounded by incredible people. Or you might hate church. You may be at home now reading this, licking your wounds and vowing never to darken the doors again of a community where image and self were more important than humility and compassion. You may have never been to a church but be curious. You may have never been to a church and wild horses could never get you to set foot in one.

Whatever your preference church is there. And always will be. Because it is a manifestation of God. He is always there, whatever your view of Him. I have loved Him and I have cursed Him. It matters not a jot. Nothing can change His being just like nothing can change his love for you. So we go back to church this Sunday with a mixture of hope and trepidation. But secure in the knowledge that He is with us whatever happens.

Proverbs 3:5-6 ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.’

What are your memories of that ‘back to school’ feeling?

Do you do good church? Or have you had bad experiences there? Maybe you have never set foot in one. What are your views on the church today?

The Twinge

Last night I was ready to rock in front of the television in my Washington Redskins t-shirt and Peppa Pig pyjama bottoms (I know I’m quite the catch) when Fionnuala received a text. We had recently treated ourselves to a super comfy leather sofa and I have been working hard developing a new ‘butt groove’ following the sad recent departure of the Twirly Chair (RIP).

It was our son Adam who, applying the wisdom and logic that only a 15 year old boy can, decided (without telling us) to go to a friend’s house and race quad bikes around a muddy field. In a pair of shorts. Now resembling a swamp monster he was expecting one of his long suffering parents to come and collect him. And as in one of them, I mean me.

It was akin to snatching a glass of ice cold water from the cracked, parched lips of a man dying of thirst. My dreams of an evening in front of a box set were dashed, snatched away from me at the 11th hour. I reacted as any nature, intelligent forty seven year old man would. I threw a massive tantrum. 

I pouted. I snarled. I winged to Fionnuala about how selfish Adam was to expect me to put my hard earned Saturday night on hold in order to provide a taxi service for him. Fionnuala was as understanding and sympathetic as ever ‘Wait until he’s eighteen. Then he will be phoning you at 2am to pick him up from outside some club.’ Harrumphing (is that even a word?) and muttering I changed (I did consider keeping the whole Peppa Pig thang going but what would the neighbours think), got into the car and headed off into the dead of night.

By dead of night I exaggerate ever so slightly as it was only 9pm and still daylight. But I reserve the right to exaggerate when in mid-flounce. As I crouched over the steering wheel, griping to myself in true Dick Dastardly style, I rehearsed the piece of my mind that I was going to serve up to my errant son upon collecting him. We were going to have a serious father-son conversation where I was going to lay down a few home truths about boundaries and responsibility.

Then I felt a twinge. All week I had been experiencing a niggle in my right knee as I have upped my running distances. 95% of the time it would be fine then a sharp pain would shoot into my kneecap before disappearing just as suddenly again. It was more annoying than anything but it was always lurking at the back of my mind when I set out an a run. It was a hindrance, a niggle; a twinge.

This twinge, however, was in my heart and not my knee. A twinge of the conscience. That undefinable quality that sets us apart from all the other species on the planet. The ability to differentiate between right and wrong. I realised that I over reacted (just a tad) when Adam had asked for a lift home. Who was being the selfish one really? Him for wanting to harmlessly hang out with his friends on a Saturday night? Or me for neglecting my parental duties which involved putting on a pair of jeans and driving the grand total of two miles to pick him up?

Thank God for twinges. Be they physical or spiritual. They are a warning sign. That there might be a bigger problem brewing if we do not deal promptly with the matter at hand. With regards my knee it might involve easing back on my mileage or a visit to my doctor. With regards my conscience it entailed biting my lip and displaying a grateful and willing heart as I drove to collect Adam. Children are a blessing. To be celebrated and not winged about. 

What is your favourite item of loungewear that should never see the light of day?

When was the last time you had a twinge of conscience? How did you respond to it?

Who Is Jesus?

It’s Pay Day and the Black family are hitting Belfast to celebrate. Adam wants a haircut (he’s sooooooo fussy about his hair), Hannah wants to get her eyebrows threaded (I don’t even know what this entails but I hear it’s very painful) and Rebecca (who I have just asked) needs stationary for going back to school. She has also informed me that she wants to find £1,000,000. She doesn’t want much.

I write quite a bit about my faith on this blog and, whilst my style is not to ram it down people’s throats, at the heart of it is putting across a message as to how it has changed my life and rescued me from addiction, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The blog has given me the confidence to write more and I am now at the point where I am plotting my first novel which will feature the above themes.

The ultimate pay day was when Jesus paid for the sins of mankind on the Cross. My thoughts on Jesus and what he has done for me are clear for all to see but in this mini-blog I wanted to hear your thoughts. What does Jesus mean to you. Is he the Son of God? Your Lord and Saviour? A great prophet? A holy man? An inspirational teacher? A fraud? Or a make believe character created to control the masses? Did he even exist? 

What does Jesus mean to you?

I would love to hear your thoughts.


1000 Followers 

In just over three months we have hit the 1000 follower mark. We are not doing this to gain followers, rather get a message across. We, as a family, just wanted to thank you all for supporting the blog.


Stephen & Fionnuala 🙏🏻😊❤️

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