Today Is A New Day

When it wins, it wins big, so I must start again. It’s all or nothing where I’m concerned and this morning I find myself sick and tired, full of loathing and regret. OCD fights a guerrilla war now, striking hard and fast before skulking back into the shadows again to await its next contact. There are no unfurled banners and sparkling uniforms. This is the dirtiest of dirty wars. It takes no prisoners and seeks no parley.

I’ll pick up the pieces, batten down the hatches, bury my dead and face the day, afresh. This is a silent war, there are no booming cannons or clashing swords to herald the coming conflict. It’s an internal struggle, a ten steps forward, nine steps back war of attrition. I play the long game, ceaselessly patrolling the borders of my psyche, ever vigilant, my finger twitching on the trigger.

You will not see it coming. A blade in the back and a second of recognition before the darkness descends is the best you can hope for. Mental health is the most fragile and fickle of commodities. We preen and pose to attain physical perfection, while inside our neglected minds wither on the vine. It laughs as I lace up my running shoes and prepare to pound the pavements once more. For it knows. It knows.

I have my allies. Defences have been bolstered and ramparts manned. The long watch begins once more as I scan the horizon, watching the weakest of suns peek above the treeline in the distance. It’s out there, watching me watching it. We are in this for life, joined at the hip. It will not stop and I will not give in. A fight to the death. Every war has its casualties. Yet, today is a new day. Today I start again.

How is your mental health today?

Thoughts From A Crime Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Desert Of Doubt

Sometimes I don’t know what to write. The ideas well has run dry and my imagination stretches before me, an arid, endless desert of dearth. Those are the worst mornings. The mornings where I sit before my blank screen feeling I have nothing to offer. Nothing to offer myself, nothing to offer my family, nothing to offer the world. I am a husk, an empty, brittle husk, devoid of creative intent.

Doubt is the cactus of the mental landscape. It thrives, where other emotions flounder, it’s roots find purchase in the parched earth and suck what little sustenance there is out of the soil of my soul. Doubt is the demon that doesn’t want me to write, doesn’t want me to run, doesn’t want me to do anything for I’m a fool, a fake, a fraud. Trying to wrestle that cactus of doubt and you are left with bloody, tattered hands.

Doubt will always introduce you to it’s cousin, worry. It’s a weed, strangling any fresh shoots of hope, condemning you to hours of negative, introspective thinking. I’m not good enough, I’ll never be good enough, this is the end of the road. Fatigue plays its part but once doubt and worry get their claws into you, it’s painfully difficult to wrench free. Even when you do, they draw blood, they leave scars.

I am on the cusp of potentially great times, both in my working and personal life. I stand on the edge of achievement and recognition. That is when we are at our most vulnerable, when we relax for an instance and start to think we’ve made it. We are valued, loved, worthy. Then….BANG….we are lying on our backs, staring at the sky, dazed and confused. How on earth did that happen?

I am guarded when it comes to plaudits and praise. I am naturally shy and introspective, socially awkward at the best of times. I wear a mask, exuding confidence and calm, but beneath it I am brittle. The slightest setback and I can crumble, reduced to a pathetic pile of ash. Peeking from my shell is an arduous and nerve shredding matter. It’s not where I want to be, exposed and alone.

It’s when I am here, I rely on my loved ones to gather round, to form a phalanx of protection, shielding me from the barbs of enemy forces. It’s when I need them most, when I reach out and hope they will respond to my cry for help. Without them, I will be overrun, trampled underfoot before being dragged from the battlefield, a lifeless lump. History is written by the winners. The dead can’t talk.

So today, I am anxious, worried, afraid. I don’t know what lies ahead, the next month is make or break in so many ways. Part of me wants to turn around and run screaming for the hills. The way of the coward. But when I do, I see those who have remained loyal, barring my path. They encourage me, console me. Many have dropped away, so I am doubly grateful for those who remain.

I’ve written today’s blog….somehow. The words have trickled, then flowed, the screen is full as my finger hovers over the ‘publish’ button. I’ll go to work, play the game, hit the ball out of the park. It’s who I am, what I do. Always on the front foot, never looking back. You never look back, for that is where the past belongs. Behind you. It’s a long, hard trek across this desert. One step at a time. It’s all I know, all I need.

Where Are You On The ‘Me Me Me’ Tree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you on the ‘me me me’ tree?

Why I Don’t Like Science Fiction

Have you ever noticed how the fantasy and science fiction genres are grouped together, like salt & pepper or bread & butter. Many see them as a seamless combo, and that fans of one genre will automatically be devotees of the other. I love fantasy. I was raised on Tolkien and his tales of hobbits, orcs and dragons. But here’s the deal, huddle round closer and don’t breathe of a word for this is strictly between you and I….

I don’t like science fiction….

Gasp! Shock! Horror! Before I’m hung, drawn and quartered I’ll try and explain myself. Or rather I won’t for, if asked, I’m unable to put my finger on the reason why. I love escapism and unreal, futuristic settings. Give me a post apocalyptic movie and I’m as happy as Larry….whoever Larry is. I say yes to the sinister, the supernatural and the paranormal.

Zombies are my favourite ever big screen invention. Until they are invented, that is. For they are coming. Oh yes. But as for Chewbacca and R2D2. I’m just left cold. I watched the ‘Star Wars’ movies when I was a kid. But I didn’t fall in love with Princess Leia, I didn’t much care for what happened Han Solo and as for C3PO? Well, I found him incredibly irritating. To the point where I was rooting for Darth Vader and his armies of stormtroopers.

Then there’s Star Trek. The following will probably have some viewing me as a heretic and furiously hitting the unfollow button. So be it. But I never much cared for the original TV series. William Shatner’s acting was beyond hammy and the naff sets and special effects haven’t aged well at all. Leonard Nimoy raises an eyebrow and everyone goes into convulsions of ecstasy. Sorry, not my cup of tea.

I haven’t watched any of the current strain of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’ movies. I watched ‘Men In Black’ but it left me cold. Battlestar Galactica? Nope. The only possible exception is ‘The X Files.’ I was obsessed with Mulder and Scully. Then they kissed and everything was ruined forever. Did I tell you about the time I saw Gillian Anderson in Belfast? Oh ok, I’ll save that story for another day.

So, I’m throwing it out there to you lot. Are you happy with the SF & F genres being lumped together? Have elves & vulcans got more in common than I first thought? Would you foam at the mouth with disgust or delight if Gandalf appeared on the bridge of the USS Enterprise in some bonkers Hollywood LOTR/Star Trek crossover. As ever, leave your comments below. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Where Is Your Quiet Place?

This is one of my favourite places in Belfast. A creaky, musty second hand bookshop just around the corner from my office, called Keats & Chapman. I visit it every couple of weeks and have whiled away many a lunch break wandering up and down its narrow corridors. Shelves of second hand books tower precariously above me on either side, holding hidden gems waiting to be discovered by the determined bookworm.

They have a huge fantasy section which I invariably gravitate towards but if you venture deeper into the bowels of the shop, you can find all manner of topics. The entire layout of the store appears shambolic at first glance but the more time you spend there, the more you realise there is a crazy logic to it all. Everything is just where it’s meant to be. I know it like the back of my hand.

I don’t think I’ve exchanged more than 10 words with the owner during my many visits. He sits hunched behind the counter, listening to an Irish language radio station. I don’t buy a book every time I call in, but when I do, money passes hands accompanied by a cursory grunt or nod. Some might view this as rude and, yes, his customer relation skills are a tad lacking but, to me, it adds even more to the charm of the place.

Whenever I cross the threshold of its door, I feel as if I’m entering a parallel universe, where I can leave behind the stresses and strains of the outside world. It’s a still sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of 21st Century life. I could spend hours, days, weeks in this murky domain, inhaling the musty aroma of battered first editions and crumbling paperbacks. Nothing costs more than £3.

Where is your quiet place, that sanctuary of calm you know you can retreat to when it all seems to be getting a bit too much? It could be a regular destination or somewhere you only visited once, but can conjure up in your minds eye in times of turmoil. How do you feel when you are there, or do you crave such a place, but have yet to find it? If the latter, then keep looking for it’s out there, waiting for you.

It’s Like Trying To Raise The Dead

Trying to get teenagers out of bed is a bit like trying to herd cats….a virtually impossible task. Take this morning. At the fourth unsuccessful attempt to rouse Adam from his lair I was greeted with a strangled groan more befitting a scene from a zombie movie. ‘It’s like trying to raise the dead,’ I muttered, musing that my parents never had such problems getting me out of my boy cave, back in the day.

Okay, maybe I am revisiting the past through rose tinted spectacles. But I’m fairly certain I wasn’t as bad as that. As I write this I’m still awaiting our 16 year old son to grace us with his sparkling presence. There will no doubt be rapier like exchanges of wit, which would have left Oscar Wilde chuckling with delight. Or, as is more likely, monosyllabic grunts and little else.

The weird thing is, by the time he staggers down the road to the school bus, he will once again be the class clown, the life and soul of the party. He can turn on the charm like a switch. When I was his age, I was the shyest, most awkward creature known to man. I have no idea where he gets his confidence, it’s certainly not from either of his parents. And for that, Fionnuala and I are grateful.

It’s like trying to raise the dead….

The second the words left my voice, they struck a chord with me. There are times in my life when I feel as if I’m banging my head off a brick wall. I’m trying to communicate with others, I feel as if I have an important message to share, but nobody on the receiving end wants to listen. It can be talking to one of the kids, a work colleague, or any other number of scenarios. I’m just not getting through.

With age and experience, comes wisdom. Some people do not want to know. They aren’t interested in your new idea, project or dream. They are too wrapped up in their own lives to pay any attention to what those around them are doing. The umbilical cord of the self is choking them, blinding them to the countless opportunities and boundless potential open to them, if they would only open their eyes and see.

Life is all about interaction and new experiences. Without that, we wither on the vine, shuffling along like an extra from ‘The Walking Dead.’ Risks are there to be taken, if we turn our backs on them we consign ourselves to decades of regret and bitterness. It is the slowest of deaths, a creeping catharsis which mummifies and sucks every last drop of life from our souls.

Cowards choose the status quo, they stagnate in mediocrity. They still draw breath, but they slowly rot away before our very eyes. We scream, we shout, we jump and down in front of them, but it matters not a jot. They have chosen their allotted path, and nothing we can do will change their minds. They don’t want us, preferring instead to wallow and feel sorry for themselves.

You may read this today and sense a twinge of recognition. It may resonate and speak to you, causing you to reflect on your life and the choices you are making. Or you may stare at it blankly and keep scrolling down your feed, just another meaningless post in your increasingly meaningless life. It’s up to you. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. The dead are among us. Please don’t become one of them.

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.

I’m Going Out….I May Be Some Time

So I’m sitting here in my running gear….on the sofa….blogging. As in, not running. Don’t worry, I won’t post a photo. Why aren’t you running, I hear you cry? Well, I fully intended to. In fact, I should be about two miles into a nine mile run as I write this. That was the plan. Then the heavens opened. As in, cats and dogs, torrential downpour opened. If I had set off five minutes earlier I would have been utterly drenched.

So here I am, looking forlornly out the window as the deluge shows no sign of abating. Maybe it’s on for the day or possibly it might ease off any minute. This is Northern Ireland, after all. We are the masters of four seasons in one day. It could be snowing by lunchtime, or I could be in my shorts, catching some rays. We are permanently confused when it comes to dressing for the weather.

I get very anxious before I run, much as I get very anxious before I do anything. Despite having done so thousands of times before. At present, the anxiety is cranking up to an unprecedented level. Part of me wants to call it a day and get back into my Daddy Pig pyjama bottoms and Nirvana ‘smiley face’ hoodie. Yes, I’ve just typed that. Not many middle aged men can carry off that look. I’m just a natural, I guess.

This also reminds me of childhood summer holidays when I scanned the horizon for the slightest chink of blue sky amidst the storm clouds. We would will the good weather to settle over our play park so we could grab a few precious hours playing football or cricket. Before the next rattle of thunder would send us scurrying for cover, laden down with stumps and impromptu goalposts.

I’ve been caught out in the rain many times, while running. Sometimes it is a welcome, refreshing drizzle, at other times you have to take cover under the nearest tree, such is the severity of the squall. On other occasions you just have to grit your teeth and trudge through the puddles, muttering and mumbling about how much you hate life. That evaporates, however, at the sense of achievement when you finish the ordeal.

The downpour is easing off slightly. I am dogged with indecision. Should I chance it, and hope I make it without getting soaked to the skin. Perhaps play it safe and opt for a shorter route. Or be ultra cautious and abandon my running plans for the day only to mope around the house worrying about weight gain for the remainder of the bank holiday. Oh, decisions, decisions. What a pickle.

Decisions are part of life. My employers pay me a not insignificant amount of money every month to do so. Yet, when it comes to extracurricular choices I’m nowhere near as clear and confident in my choices. Instead I’ll sit here and fret some more. Possibly write another paragraph. Then check my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I also have household chores to attend to. There aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes.

Okay, I’m doing it. The second the clouds clear. That could be in five minutes time. Or five hours. But either way, I’m not going to let Mother Nature get the better of me. I could return with sunstroke or pneumonia, that’s the way the cookie crumbles in this crazy part of the world. Wish me luck, WordPress. In the famous last words of Captain Oates….I’m going out, I may be some time.

How Is Your Garden?

I’ve been gardening this morning. It rained overnight and a faint drizzle still hung in the air as I pierced the soft, pliable soil and turned it over. The spade plunged deep and before long a reasonable sized hole was before me, in which I proceeded to bed a new addition to our array of plants. Digging is hard work and my fingers are far from green. But I was proud of what I had created over the last few weekends.

I was bringing order to the chaos that was our unkempt front garden. When I look at it now I feel calm, as opposed to anxious at the task which I’d been putting off all these months. But as well as order, the garden looked healthy and alive. It was balm to my soul as opposed to the eyesore I’d been consciously avoiding for so long. With very limited ability, and a healthy dose of hard work, this was my humble creation.

Then it hit me. This was my life, not so long ago. An overgrown mess. Thorns and weeds strangling any goodness which was struggling to reach the light. A barren wilderness of selfish need and negativity. My life was in free fall and I was tumbling helplessly into the void, oblivious to the collateral damage I was wreaking around me. I pushed away all offers of hope, for I knew best. I had all the answers.

I delighted in blaming anyone and everyone for my plight. Physically and mentally I was a wreck. I ate all the wrong foods and binge drinked at the weekend. I got out of breath climbing a flight of stairs and my waistline crept steadily upwards. The OCD I’d battled all my life ran amok through me. Inappropriate thoughts and unacceptable behaviour became the norm. My moral compass spun out of control.

That was then. Today, I tend my garden. I still have a sweet tooth but I try to watch what I eat. I run and sweat off the excess pounds when I feel them creeping back on. I don’t drink and don’t want to drink. I take my medication and talk to others when I feel the intrusive thoughts threatening to take hold again. The routines I adhere to now provide me with focus and clarity. I am in control. I am alive.

I take no personal credit for all of this. If I had my way, I’d probably still be languishing amongst the weeds. Others have dragged me kicking and screaming to where I am today, opened my eyes to the truth. My family, my friends, the list is too long to write down here for that would take a dozen blog posts. Yet I am grateful to each and every one of them and always will be. They saved me from myself.

How is your garden? Do you tend to it daily, pruning back the bushes and keeping the weeds at bay. Or has it been overrun, to the point where you are at a loss as to what needs done. Are you adrift and stranded? If so, reach out, swallow your pride and seek the help you need. And when you find it, cling on tight and milk every last drop of love from it. We need you to flourish, to live the life you were created to live.

It can be your family, your friends, a work colleague. It can be medication, counselling or therapy. It can be running, singing, dancing, whatever. It can be reading this blog every day. It doesn’t matter. Just find it and do it. Your garden is the most precious, beautiful thing you will ever have control over. If your garden is healthy, then it’s more likely so will be those of your loved ones. A community of vibrant, living hope. A community of us.

Kirkwood Scott Photo Shoot

Some snaps from today’s shoot for the book in Belfast City Centre. Thank you to my photographer, Peter. The shots he took are amazing. He even managed to make me look semi presentable and I’ll be forwarding them to the publisher over the weekend to help them visualise the book cover. Also thanks to our model, the lovely Rebecca, who brought Meredith Starc to life before my very eyes.

Digging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hangover Dream

As recurring dreams go, the ‘hangover dream’ is top of the pile. I have had it on a semi regular basis since my decision to give up drinking alcohol six years ago. I would say I haven’t looked back since, except that’s not strictly accurate. The hangover dream is testimony. An unwelcome reminder of what once was but can never be again. And here I am, awake at 05:00 a.m, mulling over another night where it has got the better of me.

It’s always a variation of the same theme. I wake up, hungover, gripped by the physical symptoms and a mental unease as to what happened the night before. For I’ve blacked out at some point and can’t remember. I know I’ve messed up though. I always mess up when I’ve been drinking. It’s par for the course. Lily Allen wrote a song about it called ‘The Fear.’ Lily Allen was right.

In the dream I need to be somewhere and I’m late. I’m rushing about, trying to get back on track while battling the nausea and lethargy. I’m pretending that everything is ‘fine.’ Everything, however, is not fine, it’s far from fine. I’m teetering on the brink, wracked with guilt and regret. Never again, I think to myself. This sick cycle needs to stop. And so it does. Until the next time, that is.

When I wake up, I have the physical symptoms of a hangover. My stomach is queasy and I’m exhausted. ‘The Fear’ envelops me like a cloying blanket. The smell of cigarettes assails my nostrils and my flesh crawls with anxiety ants. I want to bury my head beneath the covers and not emerge until it’s all gone away. Yet, I must get up, dust myself down and face the waiting day. That’s what great pretenders do, right?

Six years. Why do I still dream this dream, unlocking a portal to a past life I want nothing to do with? I have no interest in alcohol now. I’m never tempted. Nowadays I run, I write, I live. These are the best days of my life and I truly believe there are even better ahead. Yet still I dream. The night before the biggest of meetings with the biggest of bosses. When I need to bounce into work fresh and raring to go. Why?

Never rest on your laurels. Complacency is a stealthy assassin, waiting to creep up behind and slit your throat from ear to ear. Just when you thought you could relax a little, lower those defences. Well, breaking news, you can’t. This is for life. One slip, one poor decision, and you end up slithering back down the slippery, steep slope into the murky mire of a past you so desperately want to leave behind.

It’s there, it always will be. A necessary evil, the umbilical cord between who you were and who you want to be. My advice for what it’s worth is to use it. That cord can be a noose or a lifeline. Use it to guide you, to remind you of the high stakes game you continue to play, must continue to play. Day in, day out for the rest of your life. When viewed within that context, the ‘hangover dream’ is a small price to pay.

I have a dream. A horrible, nightmarish dream but one I need to periodically experience so as I remain vigilant and alert to the warning signs. I must be prepared at all times to repel enemy attacks, to man the ramparts at a moments notice in order to face the coming storm. I feel rough, I feel rotten, but at least I feel something. Alive to the threats, the possibilities, the tripwires and hidden pits. Alive to life.

I’m No Hugh Jackman, But….

I write from the heart, warts and all. You get exactly what it says on the tin. A lot of people seem to like this style, others less so. I cannot pretend to be happy when I am not. This is a modern day skill I have never quite been able to get my head around. I don’t say ‘I’m fine’ and ‘I’m loving life’ when I’m clearly not. I have my ups, my downs, my peaks and troughs. I can be happy Stephen, sad Stephen, somewhere in between Stephen.

I’ve written largely positive material these last two years on the blog. It’s been a slog at times, but I’ve largely posted on a daily basis, ably supported by Fionnuala when I have needed a break or been too busy to write. Rebecca has also popped up with the occasional special guest appearance. We have always viewed Fractured Faith Blog as a platform to show others there is hope, even when all seems hopeless.

In order to adequately explain this, however, I’ve had to, on occasion, revisit the darker times. I’ve had to dip my toe back into the murky waters of despair and dismay. This has been a necessary evil. In order to represent the impact and brightness of the light, you must also depict the soul wrenching darkness from which it emerged. It is the backdrop to who we were and helps educate the reader as to how far we have come.

I call it the Abyss. There are several chapters in the book, where Meredith Starc finds herself cocooned within it, utterly disoriented and devoid of hope. I have also written about it on the blog, the darkest of places, where I once dwelt. A modern day Gollum, scurrying around in the gloom, wallowing in self pity and regret. I hated that world, I hated that life, but most of all I hated myself. I so wanted to be Sméagol again.

Life is so much better now, which I hope is reflected in the content of this blog. The good days vastly outnumber the not so good ones. This allows me to write with a freedom I once knew nothing about. I no longer have to fake it, like so many do both online and in the real world. I am finally comfortable in my own skin, allowing me to discard the mask and throw it aside. I am me and, most days, I can look myself in the mirror and accept that.

This blogger ain’t for changin’. There will, no doubt, be gloomy times ahead, such is the nature of this unpredictable beast we call life. I will continue to mix it up on here, as required. I’m hoping it’s a mostly smooth ride for you lot, but I’m guaranteeing nothing. There will be rough, there will be smooth, there will be the long, largely boring bits in between where nothing much happens.

A consistent message on this blog is to be yourself. It’s okay to feel miserable and disconsolate at times, if that is what your external circumstances are dictating at that particular moment in your life. You don’t have to put on a performance. I know this better than anyone. I’m no showman, Hugh Jackman can rest easy on that front. I am who I am, and so should you. This is me.

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.

My 30 Day Coffee Challenge: Failing Day 1

I read somewhere, or possibly just imagined it, that if you eat or drink a foodstuff you despise for 30 days straight, you will end up liking, or at least be able to tolerate, it. Well, you all know I love a challenge so this was one that had me straining at the leash to attempt. When faced with the food or drink in question, there was only ever going to be one candidate. My arch nemesis, the Moriarty to my Holmes – coffee.

I’ve written in the past about my rollercoaster relationship with coffee. I love the look of it, the smell of it, the whole concept of it. I dream of lounging all day in a cosy cafe, sipping a frappy-cappy espresso whatever, while pretentiously tapping away at a laptop, as I pen my latest bestseller. The one slight fly in the ointment? I hate the taste of the stuff. As in, physically retch the second it touches my taste buds.

Believe me, I’ve tried down the years. I so want to be in the cool coffee quaffing club, but remain the perennial bridesmaid, telling people I’m meeting a friend for a coffee then sadly sipping from my tea or Diet Coke as others load up on espresso shots or assault frothy concoctions piled high with whipped cream and marshmallows. Baristas smile politely and look mildly disappointed whenever I place my order.

Yesterday, I struck out again, more in hope than expectation, on my latest familiarisation programme. It was my first meeting with the other BIG BOSSES in a nearby city centre hotel. I sidled nervously into my seat around the impressive conference table, before the Chief Executive encouraged us to avail of complimentary coffee from a rather complicated looking contraption spouting steam in the corner of the room.

As I edged nearer the front of the queue, I eyed up the machine with some trepidation. It sported an impressive array of buttons. I intently observed those in front of me, determined not to screw up when my moment in the limelight came. There was a BIG BIG BOSS immediately behind me. The back of my neck broke out in a clammy sweat. This was more nerve wracking than the recent job interview itself.

I placed my cup under the ‘tap’, selected cappuccino, the only selection that looked vaguely familiar, and hoped for the best. A creamy looking substance began to fill the cup, before spluttering to a stop near the brim. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I picked up the cup and returned to the conference table. I was a proper adult now, punching my weight with the organisation’s high fliers and go getters. Stephen had finally arrived.

All that abruptly ended, the second I raised the cup to my lips and supped the foul liquid within. I grimaced, swallowed and forced myself to take a second mouthful. I now resembled a constipated water buffalo and was attracting concerned looks from the Head of Corporate Services. I smiled tepidly and pretended to look busy, organising my pens and picking at an imaginary fleck of fluff on my jacket lapel.

After the third torturous attempt I accepted defeat, set the cup aside and slyly opened a can of Diet Coke when nobody was looking. I had fallen at the first hurdle, a Frappuccino fraud of the highest order. Maybe I’ll try beetroot next time, or possibly brussel sprouts. Nothing could be worse than death by caffeine. Failing that, it’s back to the honeycomb ice cream and coconut mushrooms. Oh well….

Mr. Razor Awaits

It’s back to work this morning. Which means I have to shave. My face, I might add. After a glorious bank holiday weekend in the realm of scruffy stubbledom, it’s back to reality with a resounding thump. Mr. Razor has an appointment with me in the bathroom, the second I stop writing this blog and shuffle off to meet him, like a condemned man making the long walk to the gallows.

Being a BIG BOSS now, I have to present at least a veneer of respectability to my adoring team as I go about my daily business. This entails wearing a business suit and tie, shiny shoes and shaving. It doesn’t impact upon my performance in the slightest but is expected of one who has risen to my lofty position within the organisation. Thankfully, no bowler hat or copy of the Financial Times. Yet.

Fionnuala is no fan of the stubble although she did allow me to go two weeks without shaving a few Christmases ago. I was quite impressed with the results, her less so. I do ‘good beard’ and am now of an age where my chin furniture is of a silvery glow. I like to think I resemble a young Clooney. George, not Rosemary, that is. In my minds eye I’m a silver fox, as opposed to a manky old tramp.

Our Adam is now of an age where he has challenged me to a beard growing contest in the summer. Although I suspect his would blow away in the face of a moderate breeze. In these parts, we call it ‘bum fluff.’ Those who are easily offended may wish to look away at this stage of the post. He talks now of shaving, tattoos and learning to drive. What happened to our baby boy?

El beard is, of course, poor laziness on my part. Shaving every day is such a chore. I know you woman have childbirth and everything but really? Shaving and man flu. It’s tough being a male of the species. Please read the previous sentences in a heavily sarcastic tone of voice. Although I have my lawyers on speed dial, just in case. Oh that’s right, I don’t have any lawyers. I don’t even have a lawyer.

It’s all just part of my ingrained desire to hide away, of course. When I’m unshaven and wearing my customary hat, I can glide anonymously through life, without acquiring a second glance. Clean shaven, suited and booted, I feel horribly exposed, just waiting for those around me to point and exclaim ‘Look at him. He’s nothing but a big, fat fraud.’ The voice in my head never fails to disappoint.

But, play the game I must. There are bills to pay and mouths to feed. My office awaits and, within it, a team requiring direction and leadership. So I’ll shave the stubble off, don my work suit and wait for the train along with all the other middle aged business types who share my daily commute to and from Belfast. I wonder if they all feel like I do. Maybe one day I’ll ask. Set up a support group, or something.

I’ve a feeling this could be a big month. A game changer in many ways. Don’t ask me why, I just do. But until that happens, Beardy McBeardFace will have to grin and bear it. Mr. Razor awaits. Is this how Marie Antoinette felt as she faced Monsieur Guillotine? Time will tell. But let’s hope there are better days just around the corner. The world needs more George Clooney lookalikes. I know I do.

The Breaking Even Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Sorry I Don’t Say Sorry Enough

I’ve been a little tardy in replying to comments posted on the blog of late and reading the posts of others. A new job has been steadily eating into my day, in addition to the million and one other pressing matters tugging at my time and attention. This is most unlike me as I quietly pride myself on interacting with others and building a sense of community on WordPress. I hope to be firing on all cylinders again, very soon.

So, sorry….

It’s a small word, but a powerful one. In Northern Ireland, it is bandied about with little sense of its impact. Everyone constantly apologises to everyone else about such inconsequential matters. You accidentally nudge a fellow commuter on a crowded train – sorry – you knock a pen off a colleagues desk – sorry – you neglect to blog in a few days – oh, I’m terribly sorry.

Some of us apologise without even thinking about what we are apologising for, but do we truly mean it. To say sorry is to accept a fault or failing on your part, which is extremely difficult for some. It’s accepting you have fallen short of the standards you have set yourself. For some, that is a bridge too far. It’s tough enough being judged by others, without having to reflect on your own conduct and realise it could have been better.

We need to say sorry, though. It opens the door to forgiveness. It’s whacking the tennis ball across the net and hoping the person on the other side returns your serve. You have to mean it, though. Really mean it. Recognise where you messed up and take positive steps to ensure it never happens again. Sorry is the flag in the ground, the line in the sand, the place of no return. It defines who we want to be.

I’ve said sorry a million times, but for many years I never really meant it. It was a selfish exercise in self preservation, trying to wriggle off the hook when I discovered I had nowhere else to run. It took me a long time to say sorry and actually take affirmative action to prove to others I meant it this time, and it wouldn’t happen again. Words are cheap, they need to be backed up. You need to convince the injured parties.

Saying sorry and meaning it requires guts. It’s not for everyone. But it is a step down the path towards freedom. Breaking free from the shackles of guilt, shame and self loathing. It’s the key to unlocking the cell door you have been languishing in for what seems an eternity. It’s a chance, an opportunity to haul yourself out of the pit and start over again. It’s a painful process, initiating forgiveness, but a necessary one for all concerned.

The etymology of the word can be traced to the Old English ‘sang,’ meaning ‘pained’ or ‘distressed.’ Forgiveness is a painful experience, it drags up past memories which we don’t want to address. But wounds need to be cauterised and sometimes there needs to be additional pain, before proper healing can begin. That’s why so many of us detest change, much preferring to wallow in the status quo.

Everybody needs to say sorry, now and again. It’s a lifeline, one I would encourage you to grab onto and tug for all it’s worth. If you are reading this today, and feel it applies to you, then what are you waiting for? Find the person and say it. Sorry seems to be the hardest word, somebody once sang. But, such a necessary one. Say sorry today. It might just change your life. Forever.

Are you good at saying sorry?

Who do you need to apologise to today?

More Bad News

It’s everywhere isn’t it. Switch on the television and the news channels are saturated, the online world is largely a quagmire of gloom and despondency. Don’t believe me? Spend an hour on Twitter and then let me know your thoughts. Bad news. Tragedies, natural and otherwise, threaten to overwhelm our senses. It’s car crash television and, yet, we find it so difficult to look away.

I’ve no idea why. I mean, it’s not as if our own lives are lacking toil and tribulation. We all have more than our fair share of worry to contend with, be it illness, bereavement or any one of a host of other crisis which can strike without warning. We have our fill of misfortune, yet for many it’s not enough. They crave another bad news story to feast upon. Our hunger is never sated.

I’m as guilty as the next person. I’ve gossiped and judged and felt smug and superior. If it’s happening to somebody else, then it’s not happening to me and my family. Isn’t that the way we operate? I’m not talking mass shootings or earthquakes. It’s more your colleague at work who you’re not that keen on slipping up. The nosey neighbour down the street getting their comeuppance.

Divine retribution. Karma. Call it what you want, we’ve all fallen prey to it’s seductive lure. Just keep it on the other side of the fence. We love to observe, to compare and contrast. The failings and inadequacies of others tend to make us feel a little better about our own lives. We bask in their misfortune, thrive on their ill fortune. That’s just the way the world turns and there’s nothing can be done.

And don’t fall for the ‘happy clappy’ brigade either. Those families with the fixed rictus grins who portray their lives as perfect and without blemish. Who are always fine, spouting about how good their lives are. Life guarantees despair and regret at some point. God may be good, but the world he created most certainly isn’t. It is soiled, broken, on its last legs. We, it’s supposed stewards, made certain of that.

What can be done? I’m not sure. It seems a gargantuan task to steer the planet back into calmer waters. Not in these shark infested seas. We can only do so much. A worldwide, collective effort is required. But how can that be achieved in a world where so many gorge on the grief of others. My most popular post to date this year was titled ‘Some Unfortunate News.’ The case for the prosecution rests.

Running Through My Thoughts

Yesterday was my first pre-work run, necessitated by a promotion which bid farewell to long lunches and leisurely runs through the city. Now let’s get one thing straight, I detest running first thing. It takes a few hours for my body to even consider physical exercise when it awakens. If I had a pound for every time I said I was going to jump out of bed and go running, I’d have at least £637. Possible £640.

So it was with some surprise that I found myself awake yesterday before the dreaded alarm klaxon summoned me to the land of the living. I briefly considered ignoring it before steeling my resolve and flinging back the covers. Today was not going to be that day. I was running a 10K if it killed me. Which, given my aversion to morning exercise, was a distinct possibility.

I peeked out the curtains, to be greeted by a damp, grey landscape. Wonderful. I slipped into my running gear which I had optimistically set out the night before. Opening the front door, I was greeted by a brisk breeze which left me in doubt that the next 6.2 miles of my life were not going to being the most joyful experience of my life. But, there was nothing else for it. I tapped my stopwatch and was off.

After the initial shock wore off, I settled into a steady rhythm. It started to rain and gusts of wind forced me to retreat into my thoughts rather than consider the long road ahead. All sorts of thoughts bombarded my mental floodgates. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, unwanted thoughts, thoughts I latched upon and never wanted to let go of, all of them battling for my attention.

Endless images flashed across the internal movie screen playing in my head. Some made me smile, others caused me to cringe and flinch away. Many were regular visitors, others less so; obtrusive and insisting I invite them in for a protracted stay. As I plodded up a hill outside of the village, I wrestled with the internal Pandora’s Box which intermittently seeks to disturb my settled existence.

One step forward, two steps back. Then four steps onwards again. This is OCD. Forever elusive and tantalisingly beyond one’s stretching fingertips. A seductive siren tempting you onto the rocks with its incessant song. A never ending drumbeat, a vice that refuses to lessen its grip on its victim. Pounding, pounding, pounding you into submission.

If you let it, that is. I take my daily medication. I talk to loved ones. I fill my day with productive, positive activities, not allowing it to lay down it’s toxic roots. And I run. I sweat the stinking thinking from my psyche. I purge myself of the poison that is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I embrace the temporary physical pain of distance running. I’m playing the long game. It is worth the suffering.

At the end of the run I felt cleansed and ready for the day ahead. I know the thoughts will return, they always do. But I will be ready for them, armed and waiting. For years I was it’s docile victim, but no more. It snaps, it snarls, it prowls at the edges of my sanity, waiting for the slightest chink, the most fleeting opportunity. I am ever vigilant, I cannot, will not let it prevail.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

Fionnuala and the kids bought me some new work shirts as part of my birthday present yesterday. Designer shirts no less. I was delighted until I discovered they had no buttons at the wrists. These shirts were no ordinary shirts, no sirreeeee. Instead, they required cuff links, another utterly alien concept to me on my journey through the adult world. What fresh hell was this?

Thankfully they had also included a pair of ‘fancy dan’ cuff links along with the shirts. I awoke this morning, filled with trepidation. I shaved, washed and then started to dress. The shirt was fresh and ironed within an inch of its life. I marvelled at how good it felt on my skin, before glancing dubiously at the accompanying cuff links which sat smirking at me on the bedside table. Taunting, gloating.

The process involves aligning four holes on each shirt cuff before sliding the link through each one. They can then been straightened and the cuff link secured. I had previously thought only Victorian gentlemen wore such instruments of torture. But, no, they are apparently ‘all the rage’ and a ‘must have’ for the man about town these days. What next I wondered. Monocles? Pocket watches? Commuting to work on a penny farthing?

After several failed attempts, and much griping, I managed to secure one of them, without impaling it upon my wrist and hitting a major artery. I twisted and turned every which way, impressing myself with my flexibility at such an early hour. Who needs yoga I thought. Just try and put on a pair of cuff links every morning. Harry Houdini eat your heart out. He had nothing on me. Bring on the chains and water chamber.

I wasn’t allowed to rest on my laurels as number two provided an even more Herculean challenge. It knocked the Gordian knot into a cocked hat as I was now forced to lead with my weaker left hand. Prayers were uttered and curses muttered until I eventually emerged triumphant from the bedroom. If this was a test of my manhood, I was utterly vindicated. I felt like Pinocchio. I’m a real boy. Er….man.

I swaggered downstairs to proudly show off my new found talent to Fionnuala. ‘Not bad for a 49 year old man,’ I boasted until she gently informed me that one of the cuff links was fastened the wrong way round. My testosterone bubble was instantaneously burst, and I meekly allowed her to fix it in a fraction of the time it had taken me to do first place. I felt like a little boy being dressed for school by his mother.

Lunchtime now looms on the horizon, where I was planning a much needed run. I may have to allow myself an extra hour to wrestle with my wrists. Or, alternatively, just throw in the towel and book the rest of the day off. I fear phoning Fionnuala asking for assistance might be frowned upon. No, I’m on my own with this one. Although I might have the emergency services on speed dial, just in case.

I knew this promotion would mean stepping out of my comfort zone, it’s the nature of the beast. Tomorrow I’ll be taking another step into the unknown but, this time, it doesn’t relate to sartorial matters. No, my new job necessitates longer hours so less opportunities for lunchtime running. So, tomorrow I’ll be indulging in the dreaded dawn run. Tune in for more of the same nonsense.

Happy Birthday To Me….Well Almost

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

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

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

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

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

He Is Risen

Good Morning WordPress.

Fionnuala and I hope you all have a wonderful Easter wherever you are.

I’ll post my ‘normal’ blog later in the day.

Never give up, no matter how much of a mess your life has become.

I’m a walking, talking testimony to that.

Don’t give up.

There is still hope.

For….

He is Risen.

Let’s Start Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting today.

Do you want to start all over again?

My Mind Is Turning To Mush

I’m….ahem….working from home today. My ever so supportive boss authorised this so I could prepare/cram/panic blindly in advance of my promotion interview tomorrow. I’ve hit the books all morning but, as my brain is on the verge of turning to macaroni & cheese, I’ve decided to take a blogging break. Some people boil the kettle or go outside for a sneaky cigarette. I blog….and bite my nails….and drink excessive amounts of Diet Coke.

Studying is hard! I’ve completed my research, written my study notes, and pondered what questions might come up during the interview. Now it’s simply a matter of getting it all to stick in my head. Oh, and there’s a 10 minute presentation to give. Just me, the interview panel, a flip chart and collection of brightly coloured markers. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? On second thoughts, don’t answer that, I’d rather not think about it.

My revision technique is the same one I used back in the day when I was a university student, blasting my way to a glorious 2:1 B.A. Honours Degree in Modern History. Followed by a rather less glorious four years of unemployment as countless companies screwed their noses up at my hard earned qualification. I make notes, memorise them, write them out longhand and so on, ad nauseum. Repeat to fade.

That’s the easy part. The trick is to stride into an interview room and effortlessly rattle off said notes in textbook responses to questions on leadership, resource management and strategic thinking. What, no questions on sport, hobbits or the Battle of Waterloo? My worst case scenario is staring blankly at the panel, before beating a hasty retreat, muttering apologies about being in the wrong room.

Well, I guess I should stop wittering on and get back to the serious business of corporate values and public governance. Whatever that is. Big Boss talk. Twenty dollar words. This time tomorrow it will all be over. Except it won’t as I’m the last to be interviewed so I have to hang about the office all afternoon, talking to myself and avoiding all other forms of human interaction. Bilbo Baggins never had these problems. Plus, he had Sam Gamgee to help him.

How do you study for exams or interviews?

Man Vomits Casually Outside Bar

Catchy title, huh? But there I was, hurrying through the city centre to catch my train home when I beheld this wondrous sight. A very respectable looking middle aged man, standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette and checking his phone messages. Nothing to see here, folks. Perfectly normal. Next thing, however, he casually leans over and vomits before taking a leisurely drag of his cigarette and returning his attention once more to the phone screen.

It was a genuine double take moment, like you see in the cartoons. Initially I thought he had spilled his drink but nope, there was no pint glass, and it was the contents of his stomach that was forming a puddle on the pavement as opposed to any beverage he might have been holding. I’ll spare you the gory details but, upon closer inspection, I’m fairly confident I could have hazarded a guess as to what he had for lunch.

Nobody else was paying much attention to this startling spectacle. I mean, what else, would you be getting up to on a grey Tuesday afternoon in Belfast other than being violently ill outside a local hostelry? This is a city where the bars are always busy and an increasingly noticeable percentage of the population stumble about in broad daylight under the influence of something or other. Beer, spirits, drugs, illicit or prescription. Whatever.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Stephen? Too right for, ten years ago, this could well have been me. Except I usually made it to the bathroom on time. Usually. Have I ever been sick outside a pub? Yup. But at least I looked suitable sheepish about it and made a reasonable attempt to conceal myself down a side entry before I performed the dastardly deed. Plus, I was never a smoker.

If I was still a betting man, I’d wager top dollar that Casual Vomit Man is back in the bar now, having cleared his nausea and returned to the fray. It’s a well known trick of the drinking trade. Empty stomach means more capacity for further alcohol intake. It’s like starting all over again. Twice the fun at zero expense. Except for the poor soul expected to clean up the mess outside.

I sincerely hope he gets home in one piece, without any further mishaps. Who knows, he may well wake up in the morning feeling as fresh as daisy, with no recollection of the incident. I’m afraid I won’t though. I’m a writer and I’m always greedily scanning the horizon for material. Casual Vomit Man is already immortalised in the blog, maybe he will turn up in a future book. It’s classic Kirkwood Scott territory.

Our streets aren’t paved with gold anymore. They’re paved with vomit and blood, decorated by broken bottles and discarded needles. We are all culpable, none of us can turn our backs on a society we have contributed towards, be it consciously or unconsciously. This is now and this is us. Man vomits casually outside a bar. Teenage addict begs for loose change around the next corner.

Nobody looks twice.

Nobody thinks once.

The Job Interview

I’ve been quiet of late for a number of reasons. One of these is that I’ve applied for a promotion at work so have been working on my application. Lo and behold, I now have an interview on Thursday so need to further prepare for that. This has meant less time for writing but considerably more time for fretting and imagining the worst possible scenario when I step in front of the interview panel. I am DREADING IT.

I might appear confident, calm and collected in the bloggerverse but I can assure you all, it’s a carefully contrived front. I have zero self confidence and continually run myself down, before others get an opportunity to do so. I’m at my most comfortable when I’m writing when I can be at my witty, most erudite best. A bit like Oscar Wilde, my fellow Irishman, but without the side burns and frilly collars.

If I’m successful at interview I become a BIG BOSS, as opposed to my current medium sized self. The fools might even give me my own office, although I think asking for a nameplate on the door might be a bridge too far. Maybe I could just make do with a nice potted plant or desk diary. Either way, it’s a big step up in salary, workload and responsibility. I applied for the position very reluctantly and with a heavy heart.

You see, I want to be a writer. I’m a homebird. I want to sit at my laptop on the sofa and tap out stories and tall tales to my heart’s content. I wrote a 350 page book last year. My family loved it. My friends loved it. My beta readers and editor loved it. Two literary agents have asked for the manuscript but still I’m waiting for ‘the one.’ To temper the euphoria I’ve also had my fair share of rejection e-mails.

Am I selling my dream down the river by going for this promotion? Is it the end of my hopes of becoming a full time writer? I sincerely hope not. If nothing else, it could provide me with the finances if I end up going down the self publishing route. It will also put the family in a much more comfortable financial position. I’m being a realist here, much as I prefer to daydream about book deals and signings.

We shall see what Thursday brings. For all my doubts, I’m a competitive bugger so will give this my best shot. Part of me will be bitterly disappointed if I don’t get it, part of me relieved. Does that even make sense? This post has been more a rant off the top of my head, as opposed to a structured, thoughtful piece. I hope you can excuse me the luxury of shooting from the hip in this one.

I’ve Got 99 Bibles….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Accomplished

I’m delighted to say I completed my home town half marathon in Omagh today. I was very nervous about this run as my training this year has been disrupted by three bouts of illness. I had a heavy cold for most of the week and haven’t run since last Sunday. I wasn’t sure until Thursday I was going to run and, even then, was concerned I would be able to complete the course.

Somehow I did. Thankfully the weather conditions were kind and I awoke to dry, sunny conditions. My target was to complete the undulating course in under two hours and I set out hoping to stay ahead of the pacer. I plodded round at a steady pace, conscious I was always ahead of him but afraid to look over my shoulder to be greeted by the two hour pack bearing down on me.

At the half way mark I was over a minute ahead of schedule and I dared to dream. With 5K left I knew I only had to keep going and I would hit my target time. The final 400 metres is around the leisure centre’s running track and a big crowd dragged my flagging body round it. I was so pleased to look at my stopwatch and see the time at 1:58:05. I clutched my winner’s medal. It was over.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as pleased with a time. It’s nowhere near my fastest but, given my less than perfect preparation, it proved to the nagging voice in my head that I’m still a decent runner. My legs ache now but it was all worth it. I’ll take a break now and work on steady mileage before planning my next race. Thank you to everyone who has supported my moaning running posts in recent months.

I Won’t….I Can’t….Oh All Right Then….I Will

Tomorrow I’m due to take part in my 4th Omagh Half Marathon. I should be excited but have never felt so underwhelmed before a race. I’ve been sick all week, my third bout of illness since the start of the year, which has laid waste to my plan to run the Belfast Marathon next month. Omagh was meant to be the consolation prize but, low and behold, a stinking head cold has struck down the entire household.

I’m over the worst of it thankfully and it’s Fionnuala and Hannah who are currently in the midst of Storm Influenza. Our family’s general health has been under attack for some months now. But I’m determined to run the race if I can, despite my doubts I will be able to complete the course. As such, I intend to set out with the two hour pacer and cling on to them for all I’m worth.

My PB is 1:35 but I think running a two hour marathon tomorrow would be a bigger achievement. I haven’t run in a week and am nowhere near the physical shape I’ve been in before previous events. I feel unhealthy and out of shape. Mentally, my confidence is also at a low ebb. It doesn’t take much for me to launch into full-on pity party mode so Fionnuala has been giving me much needed pep talks throughout the week.

I’ll post tomorrow after the race, whatever the outcome. I’m hoping I’ll feel better after another 24 hours of paracetamol and rest and that my legs will remember enough to fuel me round the undulating 13.1 mile course. Life is about soldiering on, even when every fibre in your body wants to disappear under the covers and switch the lights off. Tomorrow will be one of those days. But I’ll get through it….somehow.

Why I Won’t Be Lying For Another 364 Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever struggled with the truth?

How real are you online?

Can I Introduce you to Father’s Love Ministry Ireland

You may have all read in previous blogs we have posted about very good friends of ours called Anne and Graham who have started up a ministry, if not let me tell you a bit about them.

Graham and Anne have received numerous prophetic words all pointing towards starting up their own ministry and in September 2018 it was birthed. For the past 6 months we have been meeting weekly at our house until suitable premises became available and after much prayer the new premises have been found.

If you would love to hear more about Father’s Love Ministry Ireland and are on Facebook please give their page a like https://m.facebook.com/Fathers-Love-Ministry-Ireland-283189355639753/ you may even see some posts from Stephen and myself.

Graham and Anne have been tremendous support to Stephen and I especially in our darkest days and we are so happy and proud of them today.

God Bless and have a lovely day

Fionnuala ❤️

I Check My E-Mail 6,479 Times A Day

I’m on the train into work after five days off. Yeeee-haaaa!

Not….

My work inbox will be full of e mails. Some I will delete without even opening, others after cursory glance. Some will require immediate action, others I can put on the long finger. I may even reply to the occasional one. I will delegate, prioritise, solve problems and make decisions without a second thought. It’s what I do. All while stifling groans, and the occasional moan.

An old boss of mine once told me to only check your e-mail twice a day. Any more, was a waste of time. If something is really, really urgent then you won’t get an e mail about it. You will receive a personal visit, or at the very least a phone call. E-mails eat into your working day, they suck at your attention and distract you from the priority business. It’s a piece of advice which has always resonated with me.

I check my business e-mail twice a day. Or at least that’s the standard I try to maintain. I check my personal e-mail 6,479 times a day. I’m a querying writer. That’s what we do, right? For that next e-mail could be the one from a literary agent making all my dreams come true. Although in all likelihood, it’s a ‘thanks but no thanks’ generic rejection, plunging you into the depths of despair again.

So, I’m a hypocrite but at least I’m consciously hypocritical. I need to let it go a la Frozen. What will be, will be. But then the notification appears on my phone and I’m scurrying to the in-box. Only to sigh in disappointment when it’s Manchester United trying to entice me into buying a season ticket. Which I’ll never afford unless I get a six figure advance. Anyway, back to the day job. Time to tuck ten dreams away for another 8 hours.

Step Away From The Ice Cream

It is finished….

Yesterday afternoon I consumed the last of the gallon tub of honeycomb ice cream which has taken up residence in our garage freezer. Taunting me, tempting me, luring me onto the rocks of overindulgence like the most seductive of sirens. I have battled the urges, wrestled with the need, but finally succumbed to its delicious, sugary, ice cold charms. I write this a broken, but satiated, man.

The Omagh Half Marathon is now less than three weeks away so I have slapped a self imposed ice cream ban on myself. The Black household has gone into training lockdown, meaning Maud’s Pooh Bear is now a banned substance. Random freezer inspections will be taking place to ensure this ruling is adhered to; any infractions will be frowned upon and dealt with sternly. I have been warned….by myself.

My addictive nature of course snorts in derision at these feeble attempts to lay down the law. He’ll crack, it tuts knowingly. Pay day is less than a week away and he always likes to treat himself at the end of the month. A new book for the Kindle? Stylish running attire? His own body weight in honeycomb ice cream? Yes, it’s only a matter of time, you wait and see. He’ll fold like a deck of cards, just like he always does.

Well, maybe so. And, as I write this, I already feel anxious at the thought of life without ice cream. I’m entering (ice) cold turkey and don’t fancy my chances. But if I’m to have any hope of running 13.1 miles at Omagh without stopping, then Winnie has to go. No more sitting on the sofa, digging into its sugary goodness with my trusty spoon. Nay, nay and thrice nay. I say.

I still have my beloved Diet Coke. To deprive myself of it would be a bridge too far and I fear my body would enter some form of anaphylactic shock. My central nervous system would shut down and I’d take to my bed, turning my back on society like a 21st Century Miss Haversham. Without the creepy wedding dress, of course. Creepy wedding dresses are not my best look.

The running has been going quite well. I’ve been steadily upping the mileage and, while my times haven’t been spectacular, they’ve been respectable enough. But there’s little point slogging ten miles in the wind and rain, to undo all your good work in a feeding frenzy last witnessed when Roy Schneider hollered ‘Get out of the water’ in ‘Jaws’ all those years. I’m no Great White and I don’t want to turn into a Great Black either.

Fionnuala and I are going to take a potential new car for a test drive this morning. Afterwards I’ll head out on a training run, weather permitting. Both of which should distract me from all things ice cream. Crisps, biscuits and chocolate are also to be consumed in moderation from this date onwards as I work towards a lean, mean running machine turning up on the start line at Omagh.

I expect the blogging community to fully support me in this venture. If you detect even the slightest whiff of backsliding on my part, then I fully endorse a ‘naming and shaming’ WordPress intervention on your part. This is no time for pandering to my doe eyed, whimpering, needy self. Tough love is required and I know you’ve got my back on this one. I thank you all.

Are you willing to drop everything and intervene?

Have you ever wrestled a fully grown man to the floor over a tub of ice cream?

What are you willing to give up to support me in the coming weeks?

Chasing Your Losses

This week the Cheltenham Festival takes place, the biggest horse racing festival of the year in the United Kingdom. Four days of top racing as the very best horses, jockeys and trainers from Britain and Ireland compete for the glory and prestige of a Festival winner. It’s the World Cup of equine sport, think Kentucky Derby and Melbourne Cup rolled into one and then spread out over 28 races.

I used to be obsessed with Cheltenham. It was my Christmas Day. I didn’t bet excessively throughout the year, but from January onwards would start to study the racing form in forensic detail, trying to pick out Cheltenham winners. The house would become cluttered with racing papers and I would spend my lunch breaks scuttling round the city’s bookmakers looking for the best prices.

Come Cheltenham week itself, I was a nervous wreck. I would always take the week off work and watch every race, a case of beer at my feet. My stomach would be in knots as I jumped every hurdle and willed my horse to be first across the finishing line. Sometimes they were, but invariably they were not and my racing funds would steadily become more depleted. The initial excitement would turn to despair and self recrimination.

The buzz would dissipate and the ‘poor me’ mentality descend upon my shoulders like a robe of disgrace. Why had I been so stupid to fritter away the little money I had on a useless nag who was still toiling several minutes after the rest of the field were home and hosed? I would wake up every morning, hungover and miserable. A wise man would have got out while he could. Instead, I chased my losses.

For the uninitiated this means placing increasingly large bets in the hope of recouping the money you have already lost. Speculating to accumulate. Punters call it ‘getting out.’ Sometimes it works, and that 33-1 long shot romps home, amidst scenes of wild hysteria. Grown men hug each other and backs are slapped as we smugly collect our winnings. These moments, however, are few and far between.

Normally you lose, and dig an even bigger financial hole for yourself. You fail to see the warning signs and instead hurtle down the track towards oblivion. You are that train wreck. I would wake up the morning after the festival with a bruised liver and even more bruised ego. Vowing to never again indulge in such reckless abandon. Until the next time. For it was only 364 days until the next Cheltenham.

I don’t bet on the horses anymore but it was another manifestation of the addictive behaviour which ruled my life with an iron rod for many years. Horses, alcohol, people, I was easy prey to them all. There was no filter, no panic button, no emergency brake. I chased my losses, until I stood teetering on the brink, staring down into the abyss below. Just one more step. One more step. Chase your losses to the bitter end.

You might be chasing your losses today. It could be anything. Alcohol, drugs, relationships, the list in endless. My advice? Get out. By whatever means you can. Break the cycle and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. While you still can. For the abyss will swallow you whole if you take that final step. Only the blind chase their losses. Open your eyes before it’s too late. Chase the things in life that matter.

Are you chasing your losses today?

Have you chased your losses in the past?

How did you break the cycle?

My Little Black Book

I have a little black book….

But don’t worry, it’s not that kind of little black book. My little black book contains the details of literary agents I’m researching. Agents who, if they tick all the requisite boxes, I will query with regards the book. The book, the book, always the book. Writing it was the easy part. This is the real battle, the real war of attrition. Trying to hook that one agent. The one.

I had a nibble last week, a chink of light in the dark abyss that is attempting to secure literary representation. An agent asked to read the full manuscript. Which, I duly forwarded. Now, I wait again. The voice in my head rubs its hands, if it had hands, with glee. She will hate it, it whispers. It’s too long, too wordy, too….everything you don’t want to see in a published book.

In the meantime, I update my little black book. More agents to query, Twitter accounts to stalk, websites to devour. Query letter, book synopsis, first three chapters. Times New Roman, double spaced, no Word attachments. Bang, Bang, Bang. 6-8 weeks, if you don’t hear from us then consider it a pass. An endless not so merry go round of raised hopes, dashed dreams and interminable waiting.

Agents. What do they like, what do they hate. What do they want? Plot, characters, rinse and repeat. Their details are highlighted, circled and underlined before being savagely crossed out the moment the dreaded rejection e mail arrives. There are worse little black books to keep, much worse. Especially those we keep away from prying eyes, locked away in the deepest, darkest recesses of our hearts.

Filled with petty grudges, festering emotions and dangerous desires. We clutch them close to our chests and will fight tooth and nail to keep them from seeing the light of day. If only people knew what lay beneath the bland facade we display to the world every day. If only they could see the hate, the guilt, the devastation. If the truth of our little black books were known, then anarchy would reign. Madness would triumph.

I hope one day, and soon, to no longer need my little, black book. In my dreams, I secure an agent who, in turn, secures a publishing deal and we all live happily ever after. It lies open for anyone to see, yet it hangs around my neck like a rotting albatross. Taunting me, reminding me of imagined flaws, inadequacies and failings which wreak havoc within my already spinning head.

Do you have a little black book? What’s in it? Let me see, let me pry, just a peek, I promise not to tell anyone. Cross my heart and hope to die. What secrets do you hide? What monsters lurk? The deceit, the loathing, a Pandora’s box which would destroy your life and many others, were it to be unleashed, screaming and flailing into an unsuspecting world. A personal apocalypse.

Let’s build a funeral pyre, a bonfire or these terrible tomes. Stand with me as I light a match and toss it on the pile. We form a circle round it, holding hands, united in our desire to change, to build a better future. A future where no such books exist, where hope replaces dread and doubt. A better place, where you and I can live the lives we were born to live. Oh little black book, where are you now?

Tell me about your little black book?

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?

I Don’t Snore….I Breathe Heavily

Gosh I’m tired. Have you ever went to bed, dropped off to sleep and then been rudely awakened by the phone ringing? You jump up, thinking you’ve been in a deep slumber for hours, only to look at the clock and realise it’s been for a matter of minutes. It’s a disconcerting, disorienting experience. Well, it happened to me last night. Not once, but twice. Now that’s beyond rude, that’s downright barbaric.

The calls were work related but on both occasions I was in the land of Nod. After the first one was concluded, I grumpily returned to bed, muttering to Fionnuala about how much I hated being on call and the sooner I published my first New York Times Bestseller the better. I was wide awake so read for a while until my eyelids began to droop once more. I set down my book and drifted off to Sleepyville again.

DRIIIIINNNNNNGGGGGG!!!

The phone again. This time I was slightly less irritable to the unfortunate soul on the other end of the line. I listened carefully, took some notes and asked the relevant questions. Content the matter could wait until morning, I trudged once more up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. As I slipped beneath the covers again, I silently prayed there would be more nocturnal disturbances.

Thankfully, on this occasion, my prayer was answered. I woke up this morning, considerably fresher than before. Fionnuala confirmed I slept soundly, making scurrilous allegations that I woke her up with my snoring. Utterly unfounded, I might add. I may have been breathing a tad heavily due to my levels of exhaustion, but snoring? Now that’s a bridge too far.

I spent the morning busting myself with phone calls, scene visits and collating and reviewing documentation. I was bright and focused, as opposed to the crankasaurus who answered the phone not 12 hours before. I sheepishly conceded I had been less than friendly with the first caller. As opposed to being rudely awakened I was also rude once awake. I felt more than a little guilty as a result.

Consistency is something I am always working to maintain in respect of my temperament and behaviour. It’s all part of becoming a better human being, the ability to remain on an even keel whatever external factors I am facing. I can always do better and last night was a perfect example of that. Yes, I was tired, but that’s no excuse for my impersonation of Oscar the Grouch.

The person on the other end of the phone wasn’t particularly helpful or co-operative. They were contacting me to pass on a problem as opposed to helping me resolve it. Again, this doesn’t excuse my tetchy response. It was unprofessional and unnecessary on my part. I’m not perfect, far from it, but at least I’m aware of my shortcomings and working towards eradicating them.

When were you last rudely awakened?

Have you been abrupt with someone recently and regretted your behaviour?

When were you last accused of snoring?

Do You Say Yes When You Mean No?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You A Wall Builder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you constructed walls in your life?

Are they healthy? Necessary?

I’m Exactly What It Says On The Tin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Beating Yourself Up

Of late, I have been bumping into people who I used to spend a lot of time around. I would have regarded them as friends. In fact, I spent more time with them than I did with my own family. It was a period of my life when I had stopped drinking and started running. I thought this was a massive step forward at the time. In reality, I was merely replacing one addictive behaviour with another one and my loved ones continued to suffer.

The chance encounters were not wholly unpleasant. I had a long chat with one of the persons, a lovely man who I never had any issues with. Part of me regretted the way our friendship ended, but after our talk I realised there were no hard feelings on his part. He was always the wise one in the group, who tended to keep a wary distance from the more negative behaviours and conversations. Turns out he no longer runs with the others, either, although he still sees them about.

I drove past two of the ‘others’ recently. I was driving Adam to a rugby match and they were, naturally enough, running. They didn’t see me, thankfully, and I’m not proud to say that the sighting elicited less than savoury feelings within. I felt anger, bitterness and resentment towards them. I looked at then and saw nothing but arrogance and vanity on their part. I wanted nothing to do with them.

I later told Fionnuala about them. I needed to tell someone as I could still sense the encounter festering within me. It was cathartic to talk about it, a form of purging. ‘You used to be like that,’ she replied, just like that. I was initially a little taken aback although I don’t know why as my wife is nothing but frank when it comes to telling me how it is. The truth can be hard to swallow. The best medicine always goes down hardest.

Was I really that self absorbed, that much of a strutting peacock? Obsessed with appearance and personal bests as opposed to my family, the people who truly mattered? Deep down, I knew that I was. I spent my weekends away from home, on endless long runs or travelling up and down the country in pursuit of medals or ‘bling.’ ‘It’s all about the bling’ was our motto, our mantra. How wrong I was.

I wasn’t drinking, I was going to church, I was off social media and leading a clean and virtuous life. Or so I thought. But the truth was I was as bad as ever, having merely placed one flaw with another. Inside I was the same shallow, weak, insecure mess I had always been. Except now I had added hypocrisy to the host of other character traits I possessed. Blinded to the truth by shiny, worthless trinkets.

The scars remain, even to this day. My encounter with the runners proved that and I’m forever struggling to contain the resentment that lies dormant within. I still run but it’s a solitary, slower pursuit now. The days of running clubs and multiple race entries are a thing of the past. I see it for what it is now. Vacuous and meaningless. I would never go back to that lifestyle. Once bitten, forever shy.

I’m not jealous of them. But I am annoyed seeing them still produces such emotions within me. I need to feel nothing. No, that’s not quite right. I need to feel forgiveness. Towards them and towards myself. Stop beating myself up about the past and move on. For I’m only hurting myself and, again, those around me who require my unrivalled attention. They deserve better than that. I deserve better than that.

Do you still beat yourself up about the past?

Do you ever bump into ghosts from your past?

How do you move on?

I’m Having A Bad Hair Month

I’m overdue a haircut. This, I might add, is not a deliberate act on my part, for those of you thinking I have opted to grow my locks in an effort to imitate a bohemian writer. No, I’ve just been too disorganised and lazy to walk the five minutes from my office to the barber shop I usually grace with my patronage. Plus, there’s my illogical fear of stilted, awkward conversations with barbers which I have written about in the past.

My hair is therefore at that annoying ‘just too long’ phase. I find myself absentmindedly playing with my fringe as it threatens to submerge my eyebrows, edging evermore towards them. I have now taken to maintaining a ridiculous side parting in a futile attempt to tame a barnet which is threatening to rebel against all known forms of acceptable follicular etiquette. I look ridiculous.

The back is faring no better. My hair is starting to curl as it brushes my neck, reminding me of the disastrous ‘grunge years’ when I thought I was Kurt Cobain and tried to grow my hair accordingly. The few photographs that remain from that dubious period of my life show me scrunching my shoulders in a vain effort to make my hair look longer than it actually was. In a checked shirt, Metallica t shirt and DM boots. Not my best look.

Then there’s my sideburns. When closely cropped and well maintained, I keep a pair as a desperate throwback to my trendier youth. Quite frankly, I’d feel naked without them. But now, I resemble an extra from a Dickens movie. I’m Stephen Whizzlemarch or something like that. All I’m missing is the top hat and surly demeanour towards orphaned children. If I extend them with my fingers I may take flight such is their length.

My morning routine now involves a losing battle with my hair, as I battle to mould it into some presentable shape which won’t scare babies and pensioners. It’s worse on the colder days when I wear a hat to work. I stride into the office and remove it, to be greeted with hoots of derision from my co-workers. I look like a deranged clown and may as well have been atop a miniature tricycle, juggling oranges.

The horror continues, now that I have resumed running again. It’s a sweaty, hot mess. I’m amazed I didn’t cause a crash yesterday as I lumbered through the village, looking like Christopher Lloyd in his Back to the Future days. Thankfully the police did not receive any calls regarding a wacky scientist running amok donned in high visibility running gear. The shame, I fear, would have been too much for me.

So, I need a hair cut. I dream of sitting in the barbers chair and telling him to get rid of it, all of it. A number four all over, the joy of watching my troublesome lockstumbling to the shop floor. It would be a huge weight off my mind. Literally. And well worth enduring ten excruciating minutes of small talk about the weather, local politics or what sort of a season Paul Pogba is having.

I shouldn’t complain. I’m a 48 year old man and have a full head of hair. As well as most of my own teeth. It’s starting to take on that ‘salt and pepper’ look that Mrs Black loves so much. I like to think I’ll turn into a silver fox a la Clooney, looking all mean and moody on the sleeve of my debut best seller. Only time will tell. But I’m the meantime, I need to get to the barber shop. And pronto.

What’s been your worst hairstyle down the years?

Have you destroyed all photographic evidence of it?

Are You Gerascophobic?

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

Ahem…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you afraid of growing old?

Would you like to live a life like Tom Hazard?

Where is your present?

What Is Your Worst Habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your bad habits?

Does madness lurk within you?

I’m The Acceptable Face Of Stalking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the nature of obsessive behaviour.

Part 2 later today….

Are you guilty of obsessive behaviour?

Do you know when to stop?

Sticking Your Head Above The Parapets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are your favourite fantasy authors?

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

I Didn’t Want To Write Today

I didn’t want to write today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you write?

What do words mean to you?

Are you battered, blessed or both?

Three Rejection E-Mails Later….

It’s two weeks since I started querying literary agents with my book ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square,’ and I said I would keep you all regularly updated, so here goes. To date I have queried 15 agents, all of whom I chose after researching them online and judging they would be a good match for both myself and the novel. This has been a sizeable piece of work in itself.

Each agent has differing submission guidelines. Some ask for attachments, others that you cut and paste into the body of the e-mail. Some ask for the first 10 pages of the book, while others want 50. Some want this, and others demand that. It is a confusing and baffling world I have entered, and on more than one occasion I’ve queried the sanity of my actions. Is this really worth all the time and effort?

Especially since, to date, all I have received is three format rejection e-mails. The first one didn’t even name me. There has no feedback, no advice, nothing. Just cold, impersonal ‘thank you but no.’ Every time I see an e-mail in my inbox now, a clammy sweat breaks out across my back. People keep telling me I only need one agent to say ‘yes’, others that you’re not a real author until you receive at least 100 rejections.

I’ve braced myself for all this, of course, but it still niggles at my fragile self belief. I’m only human, after all. Yet, I’m remaining hopeful. I know the book will see the light of day, somehow, even if I ultimately have to go down the self-publishing route. It would be nice to be taken on by an agent but, in this ultra competitive market, I know it’s not the end of the world if I don’t. I’ll keep you all updated in the weeks and months ahead.

How do you handle rejection?

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?

Why Do Women Not Understand Manflu?

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

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

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

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

Ladies – what’s your beef with manflu?

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

Are You Alone? Then Read This

I joined Twitter a couple of months ago to promote my (currently) non existent writing career. I used to be a bit of a whizz on Twitter back in the day. I held court on it and waxed lyrical to my army of adoring followers. My dry, yet achingly witty and intelligent, tweets won me adoration and acclaim. Usually typed when I was several sheets to the wine courtesy of my old friend, Mr. Budweiser.

But that was then, and this is now. Now I stand awkwardly in the corner of the room with my Diet Coke as all around me fellow authors, who all appear to know one another, tweet nonsense about their current work in progress and whether or not their protagonist should be written in the 1st or 3rd person. It’s a dog eat dog and me, me, me social platform. Heavens above, some of them even post selfies, an unwritten no no on WordPress.

I’ll persevere as that is where all the literary agents and publishing houses hang out. But it’s just somewhere I go to ply my trade, a 9-5 environment I’m obliged to visit on a regular basis. It’s not my home, it’s not the place I retreat to at the end of a long, tiring day. A place where I tear off the mask, slip into something more comfortable and abandon the airs and graces of social etiquette.

For that place is WordPress. It is my home and you are my people. A place where I am accepted for who I am, not who I want to be. Yes, I can be witty and intelligent if the mood takes me but I can also be honest, brutally honest if need be. Where I can bare all, safe in the knowledge I will be supported and valued. WordPress is my safe place, and you are my people. It will always be my online home.

Which brings me to the point of this rambling post. It’s great that people can be themselves on here, but it also means I see a lot of pain. I see desperation, anger, guilt, rejection, hopelessness and sorrow. I see people on the edge, one step away from toppling over the precipice and falling into a chasm of nothingness from which there is no return. But most of all, I see raw, unfiltered loneliness.

Loneliness is a silent killer. You can be in the middle of a crowded room, smiling and nodding in all the right places, but inside there is nothing but a hollow shell. Your phone rarely rings, beeps or vibrates. You have nobody to talk to, to sob and scream at. You are an island of isolation, adrift on a sea of sorrow. So you cling to the only piece of flotsam within sight, you cling to it for your very life depends on it.

You cling to WordPress. For it is the only community where you feel a semblance of self worth and acceptance. My message to you today is that you are not alone, for we are many. We need to reach out, engage and care for each other. Visit other people’s blogs, check up on the quiet ones, read between the lines and scan the skyline for rescue flares and warning beacons. They need us just as we need them.

I post every day on WordPress. I am here. Use me. Talk to me. For I’ve been there. Where you are now, as you read these words. Or talk to someone else if you think I’m the most annoying blogger on the planet. It doesn’t have to be open forum. Send an e-mail. Reach out, for there are strong hands, able and willing to pull you from the pit. Yes, you are lonely. But you need never be alone again.

Are you alone, desperate, frightened? Then reach out?

Or do you want to help others? Then reblog this post or write your own.

Let’s slay those demons.

I Have An Obsessive Personality

I have an obsessive personality.

Regular readers will know this anyway. It’s an aspect of my OCD which I have struggled with for the majority of my adult life. I don’t do things by half. When I develop a new interest or passion I must push it to the nth degree, to the point where everything else takes a back seat. When I am in this zone, my moral compass spins horribly out of control and I lose all sense of perspective.

I used to be obsessed with work, although this was often driven by a fear of failure. I would work ridiculous hours and was forever spending my weekends immersed in it, when I should have been focusing on my family. In my warped mind, this wasn’t a problem as I was doing it for them. The next promotion or pay rise. Putting bread on the table, bringing the bacon home. In reality, it was all about my ego.

When my father died, It was alcohol. I was a weekend drinker, but before long the weekends began on Thursday evening and ended on Monday morning. When our finances were tight, I always made sure there was enough for a case of beer. I drank to forget. To forget about my father’s death, to dull the intrusive thoughts and compulsive urges, to block out the mess I was making of my life.

Alcohol fuelled the Twitter years. I became obsessed with building up a legion of followers although I tweeted largely nonsense. It made me feel wanted, valued, relevant. I didn’t realise though that is was further estranging me from my loved ones, from the people who mattered. I was in the room with them, but I might as well have been a thousand miles away. I was an empty shell.

When I stopped drinking, running took over. My weekends would be spent away from my family again, at races all over the country. I became obsessed with personal bests, medals and beating the people I trained with. While my body was healthier than it had ever been, my mind was sinking further into the more. Image and appearance were everything. I was shallow and selfish.

I still run, but nowhere near the levels I used to. I now race 2-3 times a year when it used to be 2-3 times a month. I enjoy running but largely train alone now. I prefer it that way. Before I used to feel under intense pressure, both from myself and other people I ran with. I don’t want to go back to that way of living. When I run now I reap the mental as well as the physical benefits.

Passion. Drive. Ambition. Determination. These are all words which most of us would agree are positive. But there is a line and, when you cross it, you enter a whole new world. The world of the obsessive. We suck the joy out of everything like a ravenous lion sucks marrow from a bone. Except our demons feed on anxiety, fear and doubt. We lose all sense of who we are and who we want to be. It is the darkest of realms.

I don’t want to go back there, and I don’t think I will. But I must never rest on my laurels. You can’t be cured of OCD. It’s like someone saying they used to be an addict, but they’re not anymore. It is always there lurking, watching, like a dormant volcano waiting for its opportunity to unleash death upon the unsuspecting countryside. It stalks its prey, waiting to pounce and rip you apart.

Have you an obsessive personality?

Have you ever crossed the line?

How is your mental health today?

The Blind Leading The Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you in need of spiritual direction?

Do You Have Recurring Dreams?

I don’t dream much, and when I do, I invariably cannot remember their content when I wake up the next morning. Fionnuala is the dreamer in our family. She regularly has lucid dreams that often end up becoming reality down the road. She is a seer and her nocturnal adventures are often a startlingly accurate glimpse into our future lives. It is a gift I’ve always said she should develop further.

But last night I had a dream. A recurring one at that. I was at an airport, going through security. I knew I was on time and there was no great rush to make the flight. Yet, things started to go wrong. I set off the alarm going through the security scanner so had to be searched. Turns out it was the zipper on my jacket. What an idiot! Then I dropped some coins so scrambled about on the ground to collect them.

It went downhill fast after that. I got separated from the people I was travelling with. I have no idea who they were but it was a business trip to London. Then I misplaced my boarding pass so had to root desperately through my bag in order to locate it. By now, I only had thirty minutes to make the flight. I could still do it. I hurried in the direction of my boarding gate only to turn a corner and find myself….in a hospital!

And no ordinary hospital. A porter breezed past me pushing a trolley carrying the charred remains of a body. Suddenly I was in a nightmare. I retraced my steps and thankfully found myself back in the airport. After studying the overhead signs I figured I had to leave the main terminal and make my way outside to another building, from where my flight would depart. I was just relieved to leave the sinister hospital behind me.

As I walked towards where my plane was supposed to be, I found myself alone. Where were all the other commuters and tourists? I kept walking and realised I was hurrying through a building site. This part of the airport hasn’t even been built yet. I resigned myself to the fact I was missing the flight and immediately started worrying about how I was going to explain this to my bosses.

It was then that I woke up and started writing this post. I have a vague recollection of having had the same dream before, although cannot be certain. Other recurring ones include sitting an exam which I haven’t studied for, and walking about with a fringe that obscures my vision. Answers on a postcard please as to what that last one is about. Which reminds me, I need a haircut.

I often worry that I’ve wasted my life in respect of my writing. I know I’ve achieved a fair bit in respect of my family and working life. But I’ve a deep seated fear I’ve blown it with regards becoming a published author. I should have had my head in the game a good decade ago, instead of drifting along ignoring the nagging need to write which has always tugged at my subconscious. There is too much to do now and it’s too late. I’ve missed my flight.

I hope I’m wrong and that next time I dream I make the flight. Pass the exam, get my fringe trimmed. Dreams are weird places. Some are comfortable there, but it’s largely an unknown landscape to me. Im in no hurry to return to that creepy airport/hospital complex. I’m awake now so I guess I’d better arise and get ready for work. Thankfully no airports are involved in my daily commute. Although I hope the train is on time.

Do you have recurring dreams? What are they about?

Have you ever missed a flight?

We All Need To Eat More Pizza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favourite pizza topping?

Can your leaders agree on anything?

The Day My Dog Spoke To Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My First Rejection E-Mail

I was a little disheartened to receive my first rejection e-mail from an American literary agent yesterday. Not disheartened I received one but, rather, I received it less than ten hours after submitting it to said agent. I had been told it could be anything between 4-12 weeks to receive a reply, given agents are so busy. Given this agent works for a top U.S. agency I therefore had my suspicions.

To be fair, at least I received a response. Some agents state they will only contact you if they are interested in your work, otherwise you are left hanging in suspense until you eventually give up hope, assume the worst, and move on. I was prepared for rejection, it’s part of the process, but not quite so soon. Was this some sort of a world record? Were my sample chapters really that bad?

Or had the agent even bothered to read my submission? Given the five hour time gap between where I am and the Big Apple, it appeared she had dropped everything and spent her working day reading the query letter, synopsis and 50 page sample of an unknown Northern Irish unpublished author. High powered meetings were rescheduled and working lunches cancelled for little old me.

Her rejection e-mail offered little in the way of clues. I wasn’t named and it’s bland, generic quality suggested it was a standard automated rejection. It offered no feedback, stating I wasn’t the right fit and something about her heavy workload. I sighed, added it to my newly created rejection e mail folder and went to bed, the excitement of the last few days a distant memory.

How do you handle rejection?

These Boots Were Made For….Squelching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a social chameleon?

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

Are you happy in your own skin?

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?

Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Bless

Fionnuala xx

I’m With The 39%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algebra Is Hard. Common Sense Is Harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you struggle with common sense?

How good were you at algebra?

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

The Land Is Yours

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

The land is yours….

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

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

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

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

The land was mine….

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

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

The land is yours….

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

Is the land yours?

An Idiot Abroad – My Adventures In London – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s been your weirdest lift/elevator experience?

Have you ever been stuck on a plane or train?

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you fulfilling your potential?

What more can you do with your life?

The Day The World Went Mad….Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

How mad is your world today?

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

A Sneak Peek For You All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belfast 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

All I Want For Christmas Are My Blood Results

The more eagle eyed of you may have noticed I haven’t posted a running blog in some time. Well, that’s because I haven’t been running. It’s been two weeks now due to an illness which has made climbing the stairs, let alone marathon training, an ordeal for me. I’ve been lethargic, listless, exhausted and no matter how much I sleep, have been unable to shift the symptoms. To use a medical term, I feel rubbish.

I struggled during the summer of 2017 with a similar ailment. Doctors poked and prodded me, but seemed none the wiser as to what was the cause. Two courses of antibiotics failed to clear matters up, and I routinely informed enquirers that I’d picked up some mystery bug. I resigned myself to feeling lousy and soldiering on as retiring to my bed for the remainder of the year was simply not an option.

I continued to run, but my times were a minute a mile slower than normal. In the end, my doctor took a blood sample which revealed a folic acid deficiency. This impacts upon the production of red blood cells, which we rely on to carry oxygen around our bodies. Without the sufficient levels of folic acid, the body lapses into a state of fatigue. Which was exactly how I was feeling.

I was prescribed a folic acid supplement and, within weeks, was feeling much better. It took another few months to regain my running form but by the end of 2017 it was all systems go again. Until this month, when I have been struck down with exactly the same lethargy. I told the doctor as much when I returned to the surgery on Christmas Eve but they cannot prescribe anything until fresh tests are run.

I phoned the other day to get the results. The receptionist rather cryptically informed me that they had come back clear, bar my folic acid levels, which they wanted to test again. The earliest they can see me, though, is 7th January. Until then, I remain in limbo, unsure as to what the problem is, and unable to access the medication I need to resolve the issue. To say I’m frustrated is an understatement.

My energy levels have slightly improved since Christmas but I have been taking it very easy and haven’t taxed myself. The furthest I’ve walked is to the freezer to get another bowl of honeycomb ice cream; which has bolstered my morale but also, unfortunately, my waistline. I miss the physical benefits of running, and wallowing at the bottom of a biscuit tin is not where I want to be.

The mental benefits are even more important to me. Running purges me of the negativity and ‘stinking thinking’ which used to hold court in my head. In order to maintain reasonable levels of self-belief, I need to be running. The physical exertion is painful but nothing compared to the mental anguish which distance running helps prevent within me. There’s also the small matter of my scheduled 10th marathon in May.

I received a lot of lovely gifts this Christmas, but I’m going to be greedy and ask for one more. Santa has returned to the North Pole and it’s a bit early for the Easter Bunny, so I’d appreciate your thoughts and prayers to get me through the next week so these new tests can hopefully get to the bottom of my present malaise. All I want for Christmas are my blood results. It’s not much to ask, is it?

The 12 Blogging Questions Of Christmas – Day 11 – Is It Over Yet?

I know Christmas isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some people dislike the increasing commercialism of the festive period, while for others it brings back painful memories. There are empty seats around the dinner table. Some are going through despair and tragedy. Christmas is an unwanted distraction, something they could do without. Many cannot wait until it ends and normality can return. Or as normal as life will ever be.

I’m mindful of this as I progress through this festive series. I’ve been delighted by the response and that so many of you are having a great time with friends and family. But when do you call it a day? Or you itching to take the tree down on Boxing Day? Sick of turkey sandwiches by New Years Day? Or a traditionalist who squeezes every last drop out of the 12 Days of Christmas.

When does Christmas end for you?

Attitude Changes Behaviour

Adam’s rugby squad were visited by a motivational speaker yesterday. Sports psychology is big industry now and with the Ulster Schools Cup starting next month, it was a very appropriate time for such a visit. So instead of charging about on a muddy pitch, thirty teenage boys sat in a classroom and heard the following message – Attitude Changes Behaviour. Three big words.

The speaker told him that if they took nothing else away from the session, to take those three words. He spoke about walking out onto the pitch, as opposed to running out. Not looking at the opposing team, but focusing on your own warm up. And how victory started in the mind, before a ball had been kicked or tackle had been made. The brain is the most important part of any professional athlete. It all starts there.

The same applies to any walk of life. It all starts in the head and, if we confront any situation in life with the wrong attitude, then we are destined for failure. If we adopt a negative attitude, then more than likely there is going to be a negative outcome. I know this better than most people. My default setting is pessimism. Where I am concerned, the glass is invariably half empty.

I struggle with self confidence issues. When you have been plagued with OCD for the majority of your life, it is hard to think otherwise. You are your own worst enemy, an ever decreasing circle of self pity and negativity. If I can’t even defeat the enemy in my head, then how can I be expected to overcome the myriad of challenges I face in the outside world.

For many years I gave up. I allowed the enemy to wash over me and waved the white flag of surrender. I ran away, I gave up on my dreams and aspirations. Alcohol became a refuge, as well as a plethora of other addictive, inappropriate behaviours. I was a mess without a message. There was no hope, no glimmer of light. Only self enforced darkness. I stood on the edge of the abyss, staring down.

The penny eventually dropped. I run marathons now, I’ve written a book. I hold down a challenging, responsible job and have a great family. I’m still wary of new situations and people but I’m trying to instil the same positive mindset in our kids. If nothing else, I want them to avoid the many pitfalls and hazards which I stumbled over. I want them to be better than me, they can be so much better. I want them to attain their full potential.

I don’t want them to be like me, charging around in my 40’s, playing catch up and trying to realise dreams I had 20 years ago. I constantly feel like I’ve wasted time, that I’m running out of time. There isn’t enough time. My every waking hour is taken up with this. I have the attitude now, but my worry is that it’s too late. No matter how hard I work now, it’s too late. This is a ripe feeding ground for my old friend; OCD. It watches. It lurks.

Attitude Changes Behaviour. A phrase I had never heard before the motivational speaker visited Adam’s squad, but one which deeply resonates with me today. I have changed and I am continuing to change. The attitude has been corrected and healthier behaviours installed. I just hope I haven’t left it too late. But at least the kids have a future now. If nothing else, i have achieved that. A legacy I can live with.

Something Has Been On My Mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Twitter Famous….Except I’m Not

I woke up to 30 new followers on Twitter this morning. This kind of freaked me out. Where had they all come from? Had I been sleep tweeting? Is that even a thing? As I was pondering this, I received another three followers. What on Earth was going on? This must be how Justin Bieber feels when he wakes up and checks his phone in the morning. Although he probably has people to do that for him.

Turns out an established author had included me in a tweet, asking his followers to support new writers on Twitter. And by golly, they did. The idea is to build up an online writing community where authors can advise and encourage one another. I must admit, this is a very different Twitter from the one I inhabited many moons ago. Support? Encourage? These were an alien language back in my Twitter heyday.

Back then, I had no purpose on Twitter other than to spout (usually) drunken nonsense and hide from my real life responsibilities. I was an inebriated ostrich with my head well and truly wedged in the online sand. Not a pretty sight, let me tell you. And not a very nice person, either. I had no focus, no passion, no ambition. Other than walking to the fridge to get another beer. And possibly a packet of crisps.

The 2018 version of me is hopefully a very different beast. I’m on Twitter to broaden my online presence, a seeming prerequisite for any aspiring authors seeking literary representation. There is a method to my madness. For that’s what it is, madness. Trying to seek literary representation is the long shot to end all long shots. But God loves a trier, and believe me I’m trying.

I’m writing this post as much for myself as for anybody else. It’s a reminder. A reminder to keep my feet firmly rooted to the spot as I reach for the stars. The maths, are math as you lovely North Americans insist on calling it, are simple. For all the multiple followers, I still haven’t sold a copy of this blasted book. I don’t have a publishing deal. I don’t have literary representation.

Nothing. Nada. Zilch. That’s where I’m at, that’s my starting point every day. That’s what I focus on. I need to remain humble, accountable and transparent. For otherwise, what’s the point? It’s easy to hit a retweet button and acquire new followers. Money for old rope. But the people that matter? That’s a whole different ball game. And they are who I most focus on as this crazy rollercoaster ride to publication takes another unexpected twist.

Everybody Hurts. Most of the Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you hurting today?

Are you embracing the hurt?

Where Are You God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you believe in?

Life is Meh. But At Least We Have Doughnuts

I pride myself on being positive when I blog, but when I sat down to write today, I was struggling to find anything. The well was empty . The last few days have been quite disheartening for us, with very little seeming to go our way. Fionnuala saved the day, though, by bringing these bad boys home for from a shopping trip to Dublin. Everything seems (slightly) better after a Krusty Kreme Doughnut.

What treat makes your day less meh?

I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus But….

For the first time since the year of our Lord 2002, Santa Claus is not coming to our house this Christmas. The hatchlings are all grown up so the Big Man is going to give chez Black a miss and leave it to their long suffering parents to ‘deliver the goods’ come the 25th. He will be missing out on his mince pie and glass of Diet Coke and Rudolph will have to go elsewhere for his carrot and bowl of water.

This hasn’t impacted, however, upon the current level of excitement in the house, especially amongst the girls. I have already sat through ‘The Christmas Chronicles’ with Kurt Russell four times, and the decorations went up well over a week ago. And are still going up. Despite Fionnuala’s insistence that this would be a more low key Christmas, every time I leave the house I return to find another wreath or set of lights in situ.

On Friday night, Rebecca and her friends went to their old school for the switching on of the Christmas tree lights. As self confessed ‘big girls’ at Junior High, they sniggered knowingly when informed that Santa Claus and his elves would be there for all the younger kids. They made me drop them off down the road from the school itself, to avoid the embarrassment of being dropped off by an adult human being.

The same applied to being picked up. They phoned through a rendezvous point where I waited patiently, until they graced me with their company. As they piled into the car, giggling and nattering, I raised an eyebrow in surprise. Both of them were clutching selection boxes, yet I knew there was no shop at the school and neither of them had any money on them. Hmmmmm….

Me: ‘Where did you get the selection boxes?’

Them: ‘Santa.’

Cue further giggling. It seemed that, despite their avowed intent to no longer write Father Christmas letters, they had no problem with playing along if there was free chocolate on the table. Twelve year old girls can be brutal. Oh, to have their moral compass, I mused, as they proceeded to demolish the contents of their dubiously acquired boxes in front of me. Santa Claus had been played, and I was an unwitting accomplice to this heinous crime.

Just as I was about to clamber upon my metaphorical high horse and deliver a lecture about integrity and values, I thought to myself – ‘They’re twelve year old girls. What’s your excuse?’ How many times had I said one thing, then acted in a way that suggested the complete opposite. I stick to my principles when it suits me, then chuck them out the window when I see an opportunity that addresses my own selfish needs.

Behaving in a consistent manner is hard work. I like to think I’m solid in that respect, but the truth is I can do so much better. It might not be chocolate boxes, but it’s so easy to rip up your belief system and chuck it in the bin when you’re faced with an easier option, a more tempting alternative. And before you know it, you are surrounded by empty wrappers and your face is smeared in tell tale chocolate.

Is Santa Claus coming to your house this Christmas?

When did you last say one thing and then did the complete opposite?

How do you stick to your beliefs and values?

Can You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Was Too Good To Eat….So I Ate It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10K Day

I ran my fastest 10K in months today and finally feel I’m coming out of the running slump I underwent following the Causeway Coast Marathon, two months ago. I’ll not be setting Personal Bests any time soon, if ever, but it feels good to recover a little speed and be running at a reasonable pace again. The fact I haven’t ran beyond 10 miles since the marathon also helps.

I’m increasingly convinced my running improves in the cooler weather. The last two summers my form has tailed off, and only picked up again in the autumn. Maybe it’s my Northern Irish blood, but I don’t seem to appreciate warm conditions. Colder weather can be tough initially but, so long as you have sufficient base layers, you soon heat up after a mile or so.

My thighs are aching this evening but it’s a worthwhile pain. My long term target is the 2019 Belfast Marathon, my 10th. I’ll factor in a few half marathons in the New Year as prep races and start to build up my longer runs from after Christmas. Until then, it’s just a matter of keeping things ticking over. Running is my therapy and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to clear the cobwebs from their head.

Happy Thanksgiving From Ireland

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American followers. Being a sad man, I looked up the number of views Fractured Faith has had this year. Of the 79,053, over 45,000 of these were from the good old U.S of A. I have no idea what you see in the ramblings of a Northern Irish man but I am thankful today for all of you. Have a great day, don’t eat too much turkey and let’s hope the Redskins beat the Cowboys!

How are you Thanksgiving Day?

I hate Guinness and I’m Irish. What national treasure do you despise?

What NFL/College team do you follow?

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?

I’m Giving Up Blogging To Join The Circus

Relax. I’m not. Although….

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

The circus school van…..

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

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

Ahem. In no particular order….

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the pros and cons of running away?

My Week’s Been Meh – How About You?

I’ve been devoid of words this week. Last night, I sat down to write a blog post. Normally, I start with an idea and just go with the flow. The words tend to follow quickly and before you know it, voila, the post is finished. I’ve gotten into a habit of posting regularly, which means I maintain a presence on WordPress, while still chipping away at editing the book. Last night was different. I had nada, nothing, zilch.

The tank was empty. The well was dry. Since starting to write again, 18 months ago, I’ve never really experienced the dreaded writers block. And I’m unable to pinpoint what has been at the heart of my current malaise. Yes, I’m tired, but then Fionnuala and I are permanently tired. We’re parents, that’s what we do. The alarm clock always goes off too early and lie-ins are a very rare luxury.

I’m also still recovering from a tooth extraction which is taking longer to heal than I thought it would. I’ve been popping painkillers every day, which undoubtedly doesn’t help with regards the prevailing feeling of lethargy. If it persists, I’m going to have to revisit the chamber of horrors, otherwise known as my dental surgery. For someone who has never had problems teeth wise, 2018 has been my annus horriblis…..er….toothus.

Work has been incredibly busy. Senior management are (literally) screaming for a 350 page report that my boss and I have been painstakingly crafting for several weeks now. They want it yesterday and we are resisting the pressure by telling them it will be ready when it is ready. We both take pride in our work and aren’t prepared to sacrifice quality and accuracy for a quick turnaround.

The report is sucking up a lot of my creative energy. After sitting at a computer screen all day writing and editing, the last thing you want to do when you go home is sit at a computer screen, writing and editing. I’ve also been helping Rebecca revise for her upcoming school tests as well as the 101 other tasks that take up your time when you step through the front door in the evening.

Progress on the book has also suffered. I’ve reached the stage where I’m sick of reading it over and over again. Every time, I discover more glaring errors and omissions that I somehow failed to detect in the preceding four edits. It’s one step forward, five steps back at times. So much so, that I’ve had to walk away from it for a few days. When is a book finished? Are you ever 100% happy with it?

I ran today for the first time this week and was very pleased with my pace and stamina. That is one area where I seem to be holding firm. I’m hoping for another 30 plus mile week. Running is great therapy for me, the mental and physical glue that holds my frayed ends together. Not having any upcoming race targets has also allowed me to relax a little and not beat myself up as much.

I’ve titled this post ‘My Week’s Been Meh’, which might be a tad theatrical but what can I say, I’m an aspiring author so claim that as my prerogative. There’s nothing wrong and things could be a billion times worse. I’m not sad, I’m not unhappy, I’m just….meh. Hopefully this post will act as a catalyst to kick start the word machine that is my brain again. It’s a start. Thanks for getting to the end of this post. Give yourself a pat on the back.

How is your week going?

When did you last feel meh?

How did you emerge from the other side?

Dreams Of My Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you dream of loved ones who have passed on?

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

Ode To OCD #4

Garrotted

Besotted

Hypnotic narcotic.

You beckon me

Threaten me

Neural dichotomy.

Tossing me

Turning me

Desperate, I yearn for thee

Obsessive

Compulsive

I yield to thee, OCD.

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

We woke up to vile weather this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Do You Find The Time To Read?

I’m currently reading ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn. It’s a fantastic read. Eerie, edgy and beautifully written. The twists and turns of the plot leave me none the wiser as to how the story will turn out. It ticks every box as far as I’m concerned, a real page turner. Well, it would be if I didn’t keep falling asleep every time I picked it up. Page 221….check….Wow!….I never saw that coming….I wonder what….zzzzzzzzzz.

Books such as this I would normally devour within a week. Ten train journeys to and from work and it would be in the can and on to the next one. Except I’m not. The reason? I’m writing. And editing a lot. Meaning the only sliver of my day when I have an opportunity to indulge in my love of reading is when I go to bed at night. Whoever said authors needed to read a lot obviously hadn’t three kids and a full time job.

In order to read more, something needs to give. Give up running? Nice try, but I’m afraid that’s a non starter. Running is a physical and mental necessity in my life. It purges me of the many toxins which regularly pollute my body and soul. Running while listening to an audio book? Don’t even go there. It takes every ounce of my concentration to put one foot in front of the other, let alone digest a novel. I don’t want to end face down in a ditch.

I could give up work but there’s the irritating matter of the mortgage and numerous other bills to pay. Plus the thought of me getting under Fionnuala’s feet all day at home, is not a recipe for a blissful marriage. My dream is to become a full-time author, but if that day ever comes I will need a shed at the bottom of the garden to protect my long suffering wife from the temptation of strangling me.

I’ve been reading all my life but, at this rate, it will take the rest of my life to finish ‘Dark Places.’ Meanwhile, the backlog of untouched books on my bookshelf and Kindle continue to grow unabated. Just because I can’t finish a book shouldn’t impact on me continuing to buy them, right? I’m the eternal optimist and constantly convince myself I’ll get caught up soon. Which never happens.

It’s a Gordian knot, a Catch 22, my own personal Brexit. A conundrum which I’m no nearer to resolving. Writing and reading? It’s akin to pouring two litres of water into a one litre bucket. So I’m throwing it out there this morning. Fellow writers, where do you find the time to write? Answers on a postcard please. Or alternatively, you can leave a comment below. I might even reply. If I can find the time.

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?

Making Fireworks Night Every Night

The Belfast skyline will be lit up tonight with thousands of fireworks, as the city celebrates Halloween with a bang. Quite literally. Thankfully it’s a far cry from our troubled past when bomb explosions and gunfire plagued the city on a daily basis. Northern Ireland has come a long way since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, when the warring factions agreed to put away their weapons for good.

I’ve had my fair share of fireworks down the years. We all do. It’s part and parcel of the crazy rollercoaster ride, otherwise known as life. One minute you are toddling along, minding your own business, then the next thing ‘BANG,’ your world is turned upside down. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but always in a manner which catches us off guard.

I’m no lover of change, like many of us I fear upheaval and embrace the status quo at every available opportunity. I’m a creature of habit and a great believer that if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. Sometimes situations burst into your life which you have no control over, sickness and bereavement to name but two. In these cases, we unfortunately have no choice but to roll with the punches and make the most of a bad lot.

Other incendiary devices in our lives, we do have more control over. The decisions we make and the actions we take can land us in a firefight of epic proportions. Some fireworks light the way ahead, while others blind you and lead you stumbling down paths full of snares and pitfalls. Fireworks can be exciting and enticing but they can also be confusing and disorienting. Great caution must be taken when near them.

Then there’s the Katy Perry school of fireworks. You all know the song. People who enter our lives and light up our faces like the Fourth of July. The individuals who make all the cold, dark nights that preceded them worthwhile. They fizzle and flare, making us oooooh and aaaaah as we stand open mouthed and starry eyed, bewitched as they dance across the sky. These are the fireworks we live for.

If you’re attending a fireworks display tonight I hope you wrap up warm and keep safe. I also hope you enjoy a spectacular display for nobody wants a damp squib on a night like this. We all need special people in our lives. The trick is to do everything in our power to ensure they remain there. They help us deal with the mundane. They ensure that every day of our lives is one worth celebrating.

What’s the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen?

What type of fireworks are currently in your life?

Stupid Things I Say To My Barber

This post was inspired by my recent visit to the Tivoli Barbers in Belfast city centre, for my quarterly shearing. Thankfully my genetic make up has blessed me with a full head of hair at this age in life but, that aside, these places fill me with fear and foreboding. The reason for that? Having to indulge in small talk with the barber, an almost mandatory obligation at such encounters. You see, I don’t do small talk.

I made a real effort this time, though. The Tivoli is bedecked with boxing promotional posters, one of the few sports I know nothing about. I was determined, however, to engage my barber in whatever topic he opened up with. Barbers love to talk. It’s all part of the hairdressing experience. And this time, I was going to venture beyond the normal monosyllabic responses and awkward silences.

If the weather came up, I was well versed in the cold snap presently gripping our fair island. If football, I knew I was on solid ground and could converse fluently in the current demise of Manchester United. And if it were boxing, then I was going with the non negotiable opening line of ‘What do think about Carl Frampton’s next opponent?’ I only know the names of around five boxers and he’s one of them.

I was shocked, therefore, when the conversation veered towards uncharted waters. My ever talkative barber began to bemoan the dwindling economy in the city centre and how several nearby businesses had either closed or relocated. Seeking to allay any concerns he had, I confidently reassured him that I would always frequent the Tivoli as they were reliable, quick and offered the cheapest hair cut in town. £6 no less.

‘I know,’ sighed my barber sadly, not the response I had been expecting at all. ‘We’ve been charging the same price for five years now. Which reminds me, I need to put our prices up.’ I instantly froze, my blood turning to ice as I felt the glares of the waiting customers behind me boring into the back of my head. Unwittingly, I fear I had just made their lunchtime visit to the Tivoli a slightly more expensive one.

When my locks were shorn, I sheepishly slipped my coat on and asked him how much I owed, while resolutely avoiding eye contact with all and sundry. ‘That will be £6 to you, mate,’ he replied, with a knowing wink. I handed him £7 and told him to keep the change, before beating a hasty retreat from the establishment. Once outside, I extracted my foot from my mouth, vowing never again to speak to a barber. Or anyone, for that matter.

My route to and from work, takes me past the Tivoli every day. I dread my next walk past it, to be greeted by a sign in the window announcing a price hike due to the prevailing economic climate. Forever carrying the secret shame, that I was personally responsible for the long haired gentlemen of Belfast having to dig a little deeper into their pockets for the ‘cheapest haircut in town.’

What do you talk to your barber/hairdresser about?

Have you ever said something inappropriate and immediately wished the ground would swallow you up?

Will You Run With Me Today?

As regular readers know, I’ve been struggling with my running of late. When I do run, my pace has been way off what I’m used to. That’s when I run. Many days, I have dug out my trainers fully intent on hitting the roads, only to sigh, shrug my shoulders and discard them. My motivation, mojo, whatever you wish to call it, has been missing. This weekend was a perfect example. Zero miles.

When I was marathon training it was tough but I always managed to get out there and get it done. One of the silver linings in that 26.2 mile cloud was that I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted, and I sure love my food. No matter how tough the conditions, there was always the prospect of a tasty treat at the end of the training session. This usually involved ice cream or chocolate. Preferably both.

The problem with my most recent blip is that, while marathon training has ground to a halt, the corresponding high calorie intake has not. If anything, it has increased, leaving me feeling sluggish and bolted. It’s an ever decreasing circle which I fear will lead nowhere but to an ever increasing waistline. The chubby schoolboy within is bursting to get out if I allow him to.

The solution to this self inflicted pity party starts this today. Although my days of marathon running may be numbered, there is no excuse for this recent malaise. So this lunchtime, I’ll be escaping the office and pounding the pavements of Belfast again. And you are all going to join me. I need to be accountable, motivated and driven when I’m out there battling the elements.

All messages of support and encouragement would be most appreciated between then and now. As my Garmin is playing up I’ll be timing the run on my phone so, in a way, you will be with me every step of the way. All eight miles of it for that’s what I’m aiming for. By documenting my runs on the blog, I know there will be no hiding place for me. Feel free to harass me if I haven’t posted a run in a while.

Running is not the most important thing in my life. Far from it. But it is important, as it assists my mental health in such a way that it overflows into so many other areas of it. Without running, I know I am more vulnerable to my ever vigilant OCD. Which nobody wants to see, believe me. So join me on my winter running adventures. I’ll post a run update later with regards today’s challenge.

Will you join me on my running challenge?

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?

Choosing Grace Over The Grave

I’m going to a leaving function after work today. I usually avoid these events like the plague but it is for two members of my team, who are moving on to other positions within the organisation. It would ‘look bad’ therefore, if I didn’t ‘show my face.’ Excitement has been building in the office all week as people look forward to an evening of laughter and frivolity. Apart from one person that is….me.

I’m dreading it and as I sit here typing this, the anxiety and tension are already unfurling within me, like a lazy cobra preparing for its next meal. In my drinking days, I would have been the first one in the pub after work today and the last to leave. And by leave, I mean stagger outside, mumbling incoherently after a night of embarrassing behaviour fuelled by alcoholic excess.

All that ended about five years ago, so most of my present colleagues have never witnessed that version of Stephen. Lucky them. I wouldn’t have wished my company on anybody. I was loud and obnoxious, but by equal measure incredibly dull. I thought I was the life and soul of the party, but would always wake up the next morning horrendously hungover, gripped by dread and fear as to who I had offended in my drunken state.

I don’t drink now. I’m Mr. Clean-Cut, Stephen Tee Total, the running bore who pounds the pavements as opposed to pounding the pints back. I take part in marathon runs, as opposed to marathon drinking binges. I’m sure some of my colleagues regard me as a bit of a wet blanket, but it was a choice I had to make five years ago in order to save my marriage, my family, my own sanity.

Alcohol used to shield me from the chronic shyness and low self-confidence I display in social settings. I am incredibly awkward and shy. Alcohol released me from all such inhibitions and allowed me to say what I wanted to whoever I wanted, oblivious to the consequences. Until the next morning, that was. Then reality would rush back in like an unstoppable tide, stripping me bare; my many inadequacies exposed like slick, jagged rocks poking about the waves.

Alcohol was a crutch. Choosing to stop has cleared my head and allowed me to see I never needed it in the first place. This is the real me. Yes, I’m still a bit of a mess at times, but at least I’m a sober mess. I’m no finished product by any means, but at least I recognise my many flaws now and can work towards improving. I’m not successful every time and there are still setbacks but at least I’m trying, as opposed to my former self who buried his head in the sand.

So this evening will be awkward. I will fret all day about it. I’m running at lunchtime which will help and I also have a busy day work-wise to take my mind off what lies ahead. I intensely dislike being around drunk people, which is ironic given the amount of time I spent in my own inebriated company. But I will muddle through, engage in small talk and smile in all the right places. For that is what I do.

Tonight I will be the first to leave the bar and tomorrow I will be the freshest person in a sea of bloodshot eyes and throbbing headaches. I won’t display any smugness for that was me and could so easily be me again, were it not for the grace of God. It was the easiest choice of my life in the end, choosing grace over the grave. It was the only choice. I need to keep making it every day.

Are you socially awkward?

What are your coping mechanisms?

Do you shun social events?

Why I Love Being Rubbish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you control your ego?

Getting Back On The Horse Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you get back on the horse again?

Is Your Glass Half Empty Or Half Full?

I’m going to run today. That might not sound like the most earth shattering statement, but for me it’s a fairly big deal. After the disastrous Causeway Coast marathon a few weeks ago, I fell out of love with running for a while. I huffed, I sulked and I briefly considered packing it in altogether. I felt like a failure, it had beaten me up and left me, literally, lying in a painful heap on the roadside.

When it comes to throwing a pity party, I’m in a league of my own. Moping around comes second nature to me and were navel gazing an Olympic sport, I’m pretty sure I would be a medal contender. You may have picked up on this in some of my recent posts. For that, I can only apologise. Nobody deserves Sulky Stephen, be that in the flesh or in writing. That all changes today, I hope.

When I wallow, I eat. A lot. And allllllll the wrong foods. Which plays right into the hands of the voice in my head. Telling me I’m a failure, that I’m a fraud, that the weight is creeping back on and in the blink of an eye I’ll be 15 stone again, four years of hard work gone in a puff of smoke. That’s what the voice does best. It needles and niggles until I raise the white flag and admit defeat. It is relentless.

I cannot allow that to happen. I’ve worked too hard for one bad experience to wash away everything I have achieved so far. So today, I run. Not for personal bests or fancy medals, but for my own piece of mind. I need to run for my mental health. It dulls the voice and fills me with a self belief and worth that I desperately need in order to function as a reasonably normal member of the human race. It keeps me sane.

I have no targets in mind, no big race plans ahead. I just want to retain a level of physical and mental health that can then permeate other areas of my life. When I run, I’m a better husband and father; I’m a better employee; I’m a better writer. I’m not going to worry about the time and I know this first run back won’t be pretty. There will be sweat and quite possibly tears. But, hopefully no blood. Unless I collapse in a blubbering heap at the end.

As ever, my family have inspired me. Fionnuala has encouraged me to get back out there. Adam’s never say die attitude every time he steps out onto the rugby pitch; Hannah’s ultra positive outlook on life and Rebecca’s infectious enthusiasm. They have all contributed towards evaporating the gloom which has settled over me these last few weeks. The gloom that seeks to consume and devour me.

I’m no world beater when it comes to times, but I won’t let the world beat me when it comes to my mental health. There is too much at stake, too much to lose. I’ve come too far, to slip back into the abyss now. This not only refers to my running, but other things as well. My family, faith, work and writing. People are relying on my, they have invested their time, love and prayers in me. To turn my back on that now, would be incredibly selfish.

Finally, I want to thank all my fellow bloggers who have supported me of late. Those who have written kind comments and prayed for me. I am incredibly grateful, a subject we all neglect and which Fionnuala reinforced in a blog she posted yesterday. She has inspired me to adopt a ‘half full’ mentality as of today, as of now. It’s time to stand up, step up, rise up. It’s time to run 7 miles at a spectacularly average pace.

Is your glass half empty or half full today?

Where Is The God Of My Father?

Where is the God of my Father

Who rescued the lame and the blind?

Where is the God of my Father

Who poured healing oil on my mind?

Kill the will

Take the pill

Numb the thrill

Make me still.

Synaptic relapse

Serotonin collapse

Raging impasse

Stifling morass.

So taste the drill

Run the mill

Surgeons skill

Make me still.

Where is the God of my Father

Now that I’m naked and numb?

Where is the God of my Father

Alone on a slab, splayed and shunned?

Living with an OCD Sufferer

This morning as I was working my way through my busy daily routine I got this thought in my head saying “Fionnuala you should write a blog about caring for somebody with OCD “. It was a thought that really stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking about something that I’ve never thought of before. I actually do care for somebody with OCD. I don’t look at myself as a carer even though I am. I take care of my daughter who has physical disabilities but I do that out of love and as a mummy any mother would right? But I also care for my husband who suffers from OCD.

These kind of thoughts I call my God thoughts. A few years back Stephen and I went through one of the toughest and testing periods of our marriage and thankfully we came through it and on the back of that this blog was birthed which also came from a thought I woke up with one morning.

The purpose of this blog is to help others through our own personal experiences and to date Stephen has wrote about OCD and how it affects him as a sufferer but we’ve never touched on how it affects other family members around him.

I’ve mentioned thoughts a lot so far and I am going somewhere with it. I get thoughts popping up in my head some are good but sometimes I get bad thoughts we all do but the majority of people that get a bad thought forget about it as fast as it arrived. For somebody with OCD that gets a bad or nasty thought it doesn’t go away it runs on a loop round and round in that person’s head until they either act on it or take a panic attack and break down. That is the type of OCD that my husband has and that’s the OCD my children and I live with.

Living with somebody that suffers with OCD isn’t an easy one. OCD is a horrible nasty illness. Stephen once described our youngest Rebecca as a Tsunami because you could follow her trail right round the house! OCD is the exact same when it’s been acted on and it’s always left to the loved ones around the sufferer to clean up the wreck and devastation that it leaves behind.

To live with someone with OCD you always have to try and be three steps ahead of it:

Step one – keep a look out for something or somebody new that has captured their attention.

Step two – think of what dangers they could get themselves into and the repercussions it could have

Step three – keep a look out for warning signs of said mentioned dangers.

In step three you need to be careful with what you do because if you talk to the sufferer about your concerns out love to try and nip something in the butt it can actually start a thought process that will snowball out of control and backfire on you. That has happened to me many times so now I just keep quiet, pray for guidance and step in before things get out of control.

I hate OCD for me OCD is a mistress that takes control of my husbands mind and robs my children and I of his time and attention. Sometimes the children and I would be talking to Stephen and we get no response. He is there in body right in front of us but in his head he is a thousand miles away deep in thought fighting a battle in his mind that none of us know anything about.

Some people see me not as a carer but as a control freak because I have to keep a close eye on what Stephen does. At times I think it’s because I have trust issues with him and other people think that too but I’ve realised over the last few weeks as I’ve prayed and drew closer to God that it isn’t Stephen I don’t trust it’s the control that OCD has on him that I don’t trust and I can’t trust. I have to control some of things that he does because the repercussions affect not just Stephen but the children and myself so I don’t see it as control I see it as love and protection.

On the times that Stephen has acted on his OCD thoughts and I’m standing face to face with it starring down at me I don’t see my husband anymore he’s not there. Yes it may look like him but I can see in his eyes that something else is controlling him and that’s OCD. I’m the type of person that would get hurt or crumble if somebody came against me but say anything to my family and there is nothing that will stop me from fighting to protect them no matter how scary or frightening it looks.

I watch as the panic sets in the lies start to come out and continually asks questions until the truth comes out and Stephen reappears then it’s time to clean up the devastation left behind.

It’s not easy to care for someone with OCD it is hard work but I do it out of love for my husband and my family. Family and friends have came and went throughout our lives and can’t understand why I’ve stayed with Stephen and forgiven them. They have thought that have just took the easy the route and stayed with Stephen for the kids. This is all nonsense. If somebody you loved had an illness would you throw them out on the street? If they were diagnosed with cancer would you tell them right you are on your own now I don’t want to know? In my opinion the form of OCD Stephen has plants cancerous thoughts in his head to kill everything good that he has achieved in his life and what is coming to him.

I really hope this blog helps anybody that also cares for a loved one with OCD. If you do I’d love to hear how you cope with being their light in the darkness.

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

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

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

Is God Really Good?

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

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

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

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

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

God is Good.

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

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

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

What are your views on lazy language?

What was your English teacher like?

Care to share your experiences of Christian cliches?

What words would you use to describe God?

Today….I Must Be Honest

A Fractured Faith has increasingly, in recent months, acted as a vehicle to publicise a book I have been writing. Since the turn of the year, it has taken up a considerable amount of my free time. I have made steady progress and a few months ago started to release sections of it to a dozen beta readers for honest feedback and constructive criticism. Around half of these volunteers have since fallen by the wayside but those who have stuck about have been worth their weight in gold.

This time last week I was nearing the end of the book’s fourth edit. I anticipated there was approximately another week’s work and I was done. Then it was just a matter of collating and reviewing the beta feedback, tweaking the manuscript as suggested, and moving onto the next phase of pitching the story to potential agents. I was nearing the end of phase one of the journey, so was pressing down hard on the accelerator as the finish line loomed up ahead.

That was last week. I haven’t written a word since and cannot bring myself to look at it. There are a number of reasons for this that I won’t bore you with. I initially thought I was sick of the story and characters. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all. As the week has progressed, however, I’ve come to the conclusion there is more to it than that. I’m not sick of the book, rather I’m sick of myself.

I started this blog with Fionnuala to help other people, not sell a book or promote myself as some hot shot writer. The message was about humility; pointing out to others that it is possible to utterly mess up your life, yet still recover and rebuild it. It increasingly feels I’m not doing that but allowing my ravenous ego to take over and drag me kicking and screaming in completely the wrong direction. I may write the words, but I don’t want the blog to be about me.

So the laptop remains switched off this week, as I struggle with where I am heading. At the minute, I don’t know when it will be switched on again either. The same applies to my running shoes since the disaster that was the Causeway Coast Marathon two weeks ago. I never thought I would hear myself say these words but I don’t particularly want to run or write at present. I just want to be close to Fionnuala and the kids. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted.

I can only be honest. I know no other way to write. I’ve poured everything into the book and I’m not sure I have much left to offer. The prospect of countless rejection letters completely switches me off. I know my skin isn’t thick enough to handle that. Increasingly, the thought of tidying up the final few chapters and storing it a drawer, grows increasingly appealing. My dream was to write a book and I will have achieved it. That might be enough.

Running and writing a book are stretching me too thin. There is so much more I could be doing to support my family rather than pursuing distant pipe dreams. I’m not sure I have the strength to follow either to the distance. Mentally, I feel exhausted and, physically I’m not far behind. These, in turn, damage my spiritual health, which I am trying hard to rebuild. It has to be my priority, for if it suffers then I cannot fulfil my primary roles of being a good husband and father.

That’s how it is, at present. I’m excited to have started my Bible studies again. I’m excited for, and proud of my kids, for everything they achieve every day. I love my wife deeply and want to be there for her in any possible way I can. As for publishing a book or running a marathon? At the minute, there is nothing I can think of doing less. That could change tomorrow. But today, I must be honest. There is no other way. Honesty is what I crave.

Are You On The Right Tracks This Morning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What train are you boarding this morning?

What’s been your worst commute to work?

Why I Need To Start Reading My Bible Again

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

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

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

I cannot see without them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your faith journey today?

How important is the Bible in your life?

Has it always been that way?

Preparing Shrouds

Frenetic

Kinetic

This panic, magnetic.

It latches, attaches

Destroys the aesthetic.

I scratch til I bleed,

You feed off my need

Delicious disease

So ripe for release.

I mumble the words

Stumble with the herd

Chaotic, hypnotic

Regressing, disturbed.

Gouged

Aroused

Demons carouse

Stalking the fallen

Preparing shrouds.

I’m A Bit Broken

I’m a bit broken

Words rarely spoken

The truth

Tastes so bitter and strange, clay emotions.

Barely alive

Rotten inside

Dead to a world

Where I once loved and thrived.

Cursed with routines

Obsessive dreams

Compulsive acts

Mask stifling screams.

Speculate, ruminate

Gnaw, then regurgitate

Cyclical sickness

These images dominate.

Falling apart

An effortless art

Yet smiling serenely

As I play the part.

A role on a stage

A turn of the page

You don’t even know me

Bird trapped in a cage.

Battered and bruised

Torn and abused

This was my past

Now my present, reused.

Infected, rejected

Defective, Subjective

I yearn for release

From this pain undetected.

For I’m a bit broken

Words finally spoken

Praying they free me

Desperately hoping.

Are you a bit broken?

All feedback and comments gratefully received?

I Am Sic

I am sic

Nervous tic

Binge and purge

This endless urge.

Odd

Erroneous

Out of place

Unworthy of the human race.

Worthy of comment

Worthless, I vomit

Bird in a cage

From the rope I will plummet.

Dead to his Word

Alive to their world

Baptised in blood

Yet drowned in the flood.

No peace here, just pieces

Faceless diseases

Endless attacks

This war never ceases

For I am sick

And I am sic

Liar, fool,

And lunatic.

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

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

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

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?

This Is Me. This Is OCD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are You Hungry For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a Rainbow in Somebody’s Cloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible Is Full Of Idiots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you get angry with yourself and other Christians?

Who is your favourite Biblical idiot?

Can you do better in your walk with God?

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?

Only An Idiot Would Sit Under An Apple Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the grey areas in your life?

How do you seek to fill them in?

What is your favourite invention?

Are You A Ditherer Or A Doer?

This weekend is jam packed and it hasn’t even started yet. I have a busy day at work ahead, working on a big project with an ever nearing deadline. A colleague is leaving to take up a new position in China and we are having a farewell 5K run for him this weekend. Most people organise farewell lunches or drinks for this sort of thing. Stephen arranges runs. Yes, I am that running dork and stand guilty as charged.

Adam is working tonight at the Kingspan Stadium, where Ulster Rugby are taking on Edinburgh. And tomorrow morning, he will be taking to the field of play himself for Lurgan College’s first game of the season against RBAI, one of the best sides in the country. I never sleep well the night before he has a match and I doubt tonight will be any different. I’ve also just remembered that he needs a new gum shield.

At some point over the weekend there is also the small matter of fitting in a 20 mile training run, my last long one before I tackle the Causeway Coast Marathon in two weeks time. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the latest draft of the novel in chipping away at; I’m attempting to complete a chapter a night, ever aware that my loyal army of beta readers are currently scouring over Chapters 15-30.

I’m a master at procrastination. If I can put off a task or activity to a later date, then I will do it. Meetings, phone calls, anything remotely challenging, I will dread it’s approach. Give me an opportunity to reschedule and I will gleefully do so; then worry myself sick until the day in question comes around. I will only act swiftly if I’m backed into a corner and left with no other option.

I’m not one for grabbing thistles or bulls by the horns. Carpe diem is not my battle cry. I don’t laugh in the face of danger and you will never, ever see me on a documentary with Bear Grylls no matter how many million copies Kirkwood Scott sells. It’s not in my nature, it goes against my grain; my ears have no interest in the call of the wild. I’d rather leave it for tomorrow, for we all know, tomorrow never comes.

I’ve no choice this weekend. I need to man up and grow a pair, as Fionnuala so often tells me. She really is the most charming wife. But she’s right, and without her pushing me on I would never get anything done. I’d dither, delay and dally until the cows come home. And the last thing I need is a herd of Frisian cattle sashaying through our front room. Especially if I’m chasing a bull around the kitchen trying to grab its horns.

There comes a time when you have to leap out of your comfort zone, grit your teeth and jump in with both feet. Because if you don’t then the boat will have sailed, and you will be left standing on the dock, forlornly watching your dreams sail over the horizon. Yes, there will be trepidation, fear and probably more than a little pain, but ultimately I believe it is both necessary and worthwhile in order to lead the lives we were created to live.

If you procrastinate you will never liberate. We are blessed in that the majority of us are not shackled, at least physically, by chains which restrain us. We have freewill to make the decisions which will impact upon, and shape, our present and future lives. Sometimes even shrinking violets like yours truly have to seize the day. And if I can, then so can you. Even if it means the occasional sting or jag along the way.

Are you a ditherer or a doer?

When did you last seize the day?

I Told You So….

Don’t you hate it when people say that? They always look unspeakably smug and the urge to scream in their faces is almost irresistible. We don’t like being told we are wrong, even more so admitting that we were. Pride is a bitter pill to swallow, even when it has been sugar coated and gift wrapped in the most palatable of packages. We gag, we choke, we resist the urge to swallow. Being told we are wrong is just wrong.

A few months back I had a horrific experience at the dentists which involved insufficient anaesthetic, followed by a world of white hot pain. The butcher….I mean dental surgeon eventually took pity on me and called it a day. She made another appointment for me, stating that my only options were root canal surgery or having the tooth removed. Neither appealed particularly to me at the time.

I told her I’d think about it and then come back with a decision. She said that was fine but sooner, rather than later, because the cavity was deep and was only going to get deeper. She ominously warned that the pain would be on a whole new level unless swift action was taken. I nodded in agreement, before fleeing the surgery, vowing never to darken its door again.

For three months all was well. Bar the odd niggle, there was no pain. I mean, what did she know about teeth? I laughed in the face of the countless certificates on the wall and numerous letters after her name. For I was doing just fine, living in a toothache free world. Granted, I dared not drink or eat on that side of my mouth but ’twas a small price to pay for escaping a return to her chamber of unspeakable horrors.

Until this week that was. The pain has returned, subtle at first but increasing by the day, spreading from the tooth, along my jawline and into my neck. Ibuprofen has become my best friend and I am perfecting a new technique of running with my mouth closed and breathing through my nose, in order to avoid cold air hitting the offending area. It’s quite the sight, I can assure you.

I know that I’m only delaying the inevitable. The day is fast approaching when I will have to skulk back to the surgery, with my tail tucked between my legs. I am already imagining the disappointed expression on my dentists face as I explain, between sobs, that she was right all along, the pain is too much and I need ALL THE DRUGS! She will tut, smile wanly and reply “Mr Black. I was afraid this would happen. I don’t want to say I told you so but….”

I will rise above this verbal barb, and respond in a mature, adult manner. By falling to my knees, grabbing her pristine scrubs and screaming “JUST GET IT OUT OF MY MOUTHHHHHH!!!” I’ve thought about it for a while and regard this as the only reasonable course of action. I’m sure dental surgeons see this sort of behaviour all the time. She won’t even bat an eyelid and remember, doctor-patient confidentiality is an unbreakable bond of trust.

Expect further tooth updates to follow. Let’s face it, it beats me droning on about marathons and writing novels. But whatever I post in the future don’t reply “I told you so.” For those are even more painful than the little enamel elf currently tap dancing along my back right molar. I wish he would go back to Tooth FairyLand or wherever he normally hangs out. I don’t even need a pound coin under my pillow. Just go!

Care to share your favourite ‘I told you so’ moments?

What’s the worst toothache memory?

Prayer Warrior? I’m More A Prayer Wimp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you believe in the power of prayer?

Are you a prayer wimp or a prayer warrior?

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

The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square

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

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

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

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

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

Sound interesting?

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

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

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

Would the above book synopsis catch your eye?

What do you make of the world of Kirkwood Scott?

What have been your beta reader experiences?

The Unadulterated Joy Of Shopping With Hatchlings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bath bombs or dinky donuts?

Boiled or roast potatoes?

Adidas or Nike?

Marathons or novel writing?

You decide….

Are You A Martyr?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a hypocrite?

Do you play the martyr?

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

Everybody Loves An Underdog

During my nightly phone call to Mother yesterday she informed me that our home town of Omagh is awash with red and white flags. The reason? My county, Tyrone, have reached the All Ireland Gaelic Football Championship Final. To provide some context, it’s the equivalent of your team reaching the F.A. Cup Final or SuperBowl. Gaelic Football is massive in Ireland and your side making the final is a very big deal.

Tyrone are a very good side, certainly one of the best in Ireland. They are an incredibly fit, skilful and determined group of young men. Their work ethic and team spirit is second to none, which is all the more admirable as Gaelic Football is an amateur sport. No million dollar salaries or supermodel girlfriends for these guys. They all have ordinary 9-5 jobs and play for the love of the sport.

The downside is that they face the mighty Dublin in the final who have won the All-Ireland for the last three years. Experts regard them as one of the best teams of all time. The game is also being played at their home stadium of Croke Park where 80,000 fans will congregate on Sunday to watch these two great sides do battle for the famous Sam Maguire Trophy. Excitement is at fever pitch.

I won’t be at the match but I’ll certainly be glued to the TV screen cheering on the underdogs. For, while an extremely good side, most people expect Tyrone to lose. Dublin are just too powerful, too fast, too clinical. At best, most people are hoping that Tyrone will put up a good fight and not lose too heavily. They have done really well reaching the final and can hold their heads high, whatever the outcome.

I’m not so sure. I’m the eternal pessimist but when it comes to my teams I always retain a glimmer of hope, no matter the opposition. I think Tyrone have a definite chance and in a one off final anything can happen. Tyrone could have the game of their lives whereas Dublin might have a bad day at the office. I always favour the underdog because not always, but occasionally, they overcome the odds.

Where there is hope, there is a way and I see a way for the underdogs to win this game. Their fans will undoubtedly travel down to Dublin in their droves with the same hope. Otherwise, why bother going. These are true supporters, people who invest their time and money into supporting their team. They take the rough with the smooth. They don’t jump ship when they encounter stormy waters. They hang in there through the good times and the bad.

You might feel like an underdog today. You might face seemingly insurmountable challenges and see no way of overcoming them. My message is to not give up hope for where there is hope there is a chance. In order to seize that chance, however, you need to work hard. You need to shed the blood, sweat and tears required to give what you truly desire an opportunity of becoming reality. You need to believe in yourself.

You also need to show up. Day after day, week after week, and on the big occasion itself. There is no hope unless you are at the starting line and as prepared as you possibly can be when the tape goes up. I know this as I’ve faced many life events as a massive underdog, yet still somehow come up trumps. Everybody loves an underdog and underdogs can and do win. But first you have to learn to love yourself.

What have been your experiences with underdogs?

Do you consider yourself as one?

We Live In A World Of Purple Pens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on the purple pen debate?

Do you need the colour red in your life?

One Little Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there fires raging in your life today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you last pick up your Bible?

Do idiotic Christians interfere in your relationship with God?

Just Do It….Until It’s Done

I went for a run this morning. A 18.5 mile run. At the 16 mile point, everything hurt. My legs, my arms, my achy breaky heart. And let’s not even mention the chafing issues, shall we? Thank the Lord for vaseline, that’s all I will say on the matter. My tongue was as dry as the Sahara, my sweat was sweating. I just wanted to lie down and rest. For a very, very long time.

Why was I putting myself though this self inflicted torture, I hear you cry. Well I’m tackling the Causeway Coast Marathon in just under four weeks and today was my penultimate long run. I will run 20-21 miles in two weeks time and that should have me ready for the big day; or as ready as I’ll ever be. So today was a necessary evil if I’m to have any chance of completing the Causeway Coast.

I was meant to run the 18.5 miler yesterday but heavy rain put paid to that plan. So instead I sat and fretted about it, thinking up dozens of reasons why the run was too much for me and I should forget about the whole crazy marathon plan. I’m too slow, too old, too busy, too tired. Round and round my head like a rickety old runaway train. I went to bed full of doubt and dread as to what lay ahead.

But I did it. I laced up my running shoes, gritted my teeth and went out and ran it. Yes, it hurt. Yes, my thighs feel as if I’ve been kicked by an angry rhinoceros; and yes I’ve run out of vaseline. It was wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty. I pulled a lot of strange faces over those last two miles and I’m sure I frightened a few, passing motorists. But as my Garmin chimed 18.5 miles I knew I had beaten my old foe, anxiety.

He will be back of course. Oh, you can be sure of that. But every time I go toe to toe with him and triumph he is weakened and his grip on me loosens. Anxiety is a demon that can run amok through our lives if we allow it to. It wants us to fail and keep us boxed in, convinced that we will never amount to anything. It steals our dreams and replaces them with nightmares.

Anxiety is a flat track bully. He likes getting things his own way and isn’t used to his victims fighting back. For that is what we are, victims. Yet victims have a voice, an inner strength. And victims become survivors when they fight back. It is horrible, it is scary, it is daunting but it is the only way to tackle anxiety. Head on and at full speed. Catch him unawares because we have the element of surprise on our side.

Let’s do the maths. Or math as you crazy North Americans insist upon calling it. I ran for three hours today, which was preceded by a day of worry. If I had ditched the run that would have been multiplied by many more days of self loathing. Instead I sucked it up and finished the run feeling elated, vindicated, alive. It was short term pain. But the long term gain more than made up for it.

Its just taking that first step. When you commit to the act of ‘doing’ then you invariably find that the ‘fear’ of doing is not what you anticipated; indeed the more you ‘do’ and edge towards being ‘done’, it evaporates like a morning mist in the face of the rising sun. And when you’re ‘done’ the wonder what the fuss was all about. Just do it….until it’s done. Nike hit the nail on the head with that one.

How do you deal with anxiety?

Are you ‘doing it’ today? What is holding you back?

History Is Written By The Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you battling demons today? How are you coping?

Confessions Of A Recovering Catfish – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confessions Of A Recovering Catfish – Part One

As a teenager I was chubby, shy and extremely quiet. Girls were a foreign species to me and my exploits on the sporting field left a lot to be desired. As a result, I was singled out for my fair share of bullying by both fellow students and, I’m sad to say, teachers whose supposed job was to protect me. Those years left their mark on me. I carry them still.

I retreated into a make believe world where the bullies could not reach me. I hid in books and wreaked revenge on my tormentors in the world of role playing where I could be anyone I wanted. What chance had my psychotic physics teacher against a 12th level berserker armed with the Warhammer of Doom? It was what I needed at that time of my life in order to survive.

And that’s how it continued. Oh, I dropped the dice throwing and axe wielding along the way but I still existed in a world of make believe. Alcohol took centre stage. I discovered my drug, my refuge from social awkwardness where I could be everybody’s friend and the life and soul of the party. People liked this new me, even though I didn’t particularly think much of him.

The downside was the following morning when the inevitable hangover would lumber over the horizon and I would wallow in my self inflicted bed of self pity and recriminations. Never again, I would swear. Until the next time that was when it would be all aboard the Ego Express again. I lived the lie and loved the lie. I could be whoever I wanted to be. It cost me about £40 a night but was a small price to pay.

Then along came social media. If Dungeons & Dragons was my first tentative joint and alcohol the first acid trip, then Twitter and Instagram became my crack cocaine and heroin. I became hopelessly hooked to the extent where I effectively lived online. At its height, or depth depending on how you wished to look at it, I had over 8000 followers! My witty, wry 160 character vignettes were the talk of the town.

I also dabbled in the darker domain of direct messaging. I could tell people whatever I pleased. It’s not that I outright lied but I certainly massaged the truth to paint myself in the best possible light. I realised I had a gift with words online that I could never hope to replicate back in the real world. There was no filter, no comeback. I could be as outrageous or inappropriate as I wanted. It was here that I first became aware of the term ‘catfish’.

Catfish – ‘someone who creates a false online identity. These are commonly found on social media and online dating sites. Often the sole purpose of a catfish is to create and exist in a fantasy reality.’

I encountered people who posted fake profile pictures, people who lied about their age, their job, their relationship status. Anything seemed to go. I was initially appalled but unable to resist the lure of online life. I kept coming back for more. It began to impact upon the people who truly mattered – my wife and children. Yet I allowed myself to be dragged in too deep. And before I realised, it was too late.

Fionnuala often says that my intelligence is only matched by my gullibility and naivety. I am a terrible judge of character and online was no exception. I fell in with some very ‘strange’ people and before I knew it was behaving in a manner which appalled me when I later journaled about it in the cold light of day. It was if I checked in my morals and values whenever I logged in online. I was becoming a catfish myself.

To be continued….

What are your views on catfish?

Have you encountered a catfish online?

Have you ever painted a false picture of yourself on social media?

Why Writing Rubbish Matters

Yesterday I started to edit the first ‘Kirkwood Scott’ chapter I ever wrote, over ten months ago. At the time I thought it was award winning and revolutionary. Turns out I was wrong. It was, in fact, unadulterated rubbish. A bloated, meandering mess with no structure or flow. Just a muddled melee of thoughts and ideas which lurched from sentence to sentence. A bit like this paragraph really.

Deep down I knew this, so had been putting off sitting down and reading it again. It had become the elephant in my literary room. But I knew I would have to eventually. So, yesterday I seized the bull by the horns (because everyone knows elephants don’t have horns) and sat down to re-read the chapter through half closed eyes. Please, Please, Please don’t make it as bad as I recalled it was.

It was. I refer you to my first paragraph. I sighed, for I knew it was a rewrite. Bar the setting. I really liked the setting which was based upon a most unpleasant morning I once spent in a toilet cubicle at Newcastle International Airport. Long story but it goes down as one of the most horrific hangover experiences of my life. And, believe me, there have been a few.

An hour later and I had effectively rewritten the chapter. In one go. Bam! I sat back and scratched my head. I read over it again. It was slick. It flowed. It wasn’t half bad actually. What was all the fuss about? Why had I been so worried about peering under this particular rock again? I had hurdled it effortlessly and was now galloping on towards the next chapter. Wee buns as they say in Northern Ireland.

Producing rubbish is part of the writing process. It’s that first coat of paint on the wall. It’s patchy and streaky. It will never see the light of day when painted over. But it is essential in order to ensure the next layer is of better quality. And the later after that. Until eventually you are staring at the finished product which will last you the rest of your life. Every precious stone needs to be polished and refined, otherwise it is just a stone.

I had to endure two terrible experiences in order to produce a decent end product. The first one involved sticking my head down a public toilet and being violently ill. Classy, I know. The second was a form of verbal vomiting which was no more edifying. They were necessary evils but they forged the way for the finished article. Without them I would still be staring at a blank computer screen.

Rubbish living and rubbish writing can result in something worthwhile if you put your head down and power on through. As a dog returns to its own vomit so a writer returns to their early drafts. We sigh, we cringe, we roll our eyes; but we also roll up our sleeves and begin to sift the corn from the chaff, the golden flakes from the grimy silt. If we dig deep enough, we will strike the untapped creative spring.

Write, write and then write some more. Just don’t give up. For you are laying the groundwork, pouring in the foundations and erecting the scaffolding. Every architectural masterpiece resembles a monumental monstrosity at some point in the building process. Just ask Kirkwood Scott. He’s seen it all. Life from the inside of a toilet bowl ain’t a pretty sight. But it’s still life.

How do you feel when you write rubbish?

Where are you at in your writing process?

Have you ever been sick in a public place? Care to share? I’ll hold your hair.

Do You Write Truthfully?

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

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

‘Would you like a wee cup of tea?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth is in the Word.

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

Do you read blogs in other accents?

What words or expressions are unique to your dialect?

Do you speak and write the truth?

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?

Waking Up Hungover When I Haven’t Been Drinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know where your demons are today?

How Are You Really Feeling Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you really feeling today?

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

Plastic Policemen

I lost my father eight years ago to prostate cancer. I lost myself the same day and it has been a long, painful journey to claw my way back from there to where I am today. Writing has played a huge part in my recovery. I have self medicated with words and blogged my way out of the depths and back to the surface. These eight years have seen unspeakable depths but also breathtaking highs. It has been quite the experience.

Last night I completed the third draft of the book I am writing. I worked my way through a chapter titled ‘Plastic Policemen’ which was one of the first I wrote when I started work on the book last November. It covers an incident in the childhood of Kirkwood Scott which deeply affected him and set in progress a series of events which would change his life and the lives of countless others forever.

The chapter is based on a real life event which I experienced when I was an eleven year old boy. It is one of four chapters which paint the picture of Kirkwood’s relationship with his father. They are deeply personal chapters and I regard them as the cornerstone of the book. Without them there is no story. Without wishing to sound arrogant I view them as some of my best written work. It was as if they wrote themselves.

I’ve never been able to put my finger on where ‘Plastic Policemen’ fitted into the running order, chapter wise. It always floated about on the fringes. Until yesterday that was. Yesterday it dawned on me. This is your opening chapter, you idiot. This paints the picture for all that follows. They say open your book with a bang, hook the reader and reel them in. I’ve been searching for that ‘bang’ for months and it was sitting in front of me the whole time.

Last week I reached out, via the blog, for test readers willing to review the book in its draft form and provide feedback. I was amazed and humbled by the response. Talented, intelligent fellow bloggers willing to give up their valuable time in order to help little old me. It has left me excited but also a little nervous. What would I send them? That question was answered last night. It will be ‘Plastic Policemen’.

It is the beginning. The beginning of a book? Definitely. The beginning of a new stage of my life? Hopefully. But if nothing else it has exorcised demons which have lay dormant in my soul for too long. Which makes it an ending as well. The end of a journey. A writing journey, yes, but also a personal one which has brought me to where I am today. On the cusp of revealing my deepest, most personal memories to the world.

Thank you to the test readers who have bravely raised their heads above the parapet to face the bombardment which is about to commence. And thank you to those who stop by here every day and provide such support and encouragement. I will never be able to repay you or express my gratitude sufficiently. I hope one day you will read this book and go ‘Oh I know the guy who wrote this. It was thingy. Fractured something.’

What do you look for in the opening chapter of a book?

What is the best opening chapter you have ever read?

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?

Would You Sit Beside This Man On A Train?

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hands Up If You’re Tired?

Hands up who’s tired?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How tired are you today?

How do you combat tiredness?

Losing The Battle….Winning The War

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year.

Are you winning your battle?

What does the voice in your head say?

99% Of You Won’t Read This….But I’m Okay With That

I love the eclectic bunch of people who follow this blog. One of the joys of writing is meeting and interacting with other folk who, ordinarily, you would never have an opportunity to engage with. People who share your worldview and people who don’t. All walks of life converge on WordPress to create a wonderful creative stew of humanity. Community is the oxygen of blogging. Without it we wither and wilt.

This blog currently has over 6400 followers, an amazing figure given that we have only been up and running for fifteen months. It has exceeded our wildest dreams and I’m often left scratching my head as to why people keep hitting the follow button. We are grateful for every one of you and our blogging door will always be open. We encourage healthy debate and interaction no matter where you come from and what your beliefs are.

But it’s not all rosy in the garden. I’ve written before about the downside of blogging. The posts that sink without a trace for no apparent reason, the occasional not so complimentary comment and the hard work involved in writing original material on a regular basis. The post I put up yesterday got 68 views. 68. That means that roughly 1% of our followers read it. Approximately a tenth of them commented on said post.

99% of people just kept on scrolling down their feeds. That’s quite a stark statistic when viewed in the cold light of day. A statistic that could wreak havoc amidst my fragile self confidence if I allowed it to. People hate my writing which means that they hate me. I’m a bore, I’m a failure, I’m a fraud who will never amount to anything. This is the voice that whispers constantly in my ear, seducing me with its distorted version of the truth.

Raw statistics can be manipulated. They are malleable. Just ask any politician. Yes, I can brood over the 99% and feel sorry for myself. That would be the old Stephen. Or I can focus on the 1%, the people who cared enough to give up a portion of their precious time to read and comment. To share their wisdom and humour with me. The regular visitors, those who drop by once in a while and others who I will never hear from again. They made the post a worthwhile exercise.

Focusing on the 99% is selfish. Focusing on the 1% is selfless. It is a subtle, yet mammoth, shift in perspective, one that has taken me many years to acknowledge, let alone regularly practice. I am here to serve others, not feed my own ravenous ego. For, once you start, it can never be satisfied and the incessant hunger will drive you over the edge and into the abyss. The darkest and most lonely of places.

I have no idea how many likes or views this post will get. That’s not the point. The point is that it reaches out to one person and makes a positive impact on their day. If I can achieve that then my work is done here. Focus on the 1%. For that is where the real treasure is buried. They are the reason you will keep returning to your keyboard, even when it is the last thing you want to do. Persevere.

Jesus said something similar once about sheep. Leaving the ninety nine who were safe and sound in order to search for the one which had wandered off and needed help. You should look it up. You’ll find it in the Bible. A big book about God. I don’t read it as much I should. But today might be the day I pick it up again. Today might be the day I become the 1% myself. For it is always there for me when I need it.

Just like this blog is for you.

99%? 1%? What are your thoughts on this post? Please comment below.

I Have No Idea What Day Of The Week It Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you ever get your days muddled up?

Are you stuck on the hamster wheel of life?

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