Preparing Shrouds

Frenetic

Kinetic

This panic, magnetic.

It latches, attaches

Destroys the aesthetic.

I scratch til I bleed,

You feed off my need

Delicious disease

So ripe for release.

I mumble the words

Stumble with the herd

Chaotic, hypnotic

Regressing, disturbed.

Gouged

Aroused

Demons carouse

Stalking the fallen

Preparing shrouds.

I’m A Bit Broken

I’m a bit broken

Words rarely spoken

The truth

Tastes so bitter and strange, clay emotions.

Barely alive

Rotten inside

Dead to a world

Where I once loved and thrived.

Cursed with routines

Obsessive dreams

Compulsive acts

Mask stifling screams.

Speculate, ruminate

Gnaw, then regurgitate

Cyclical sickness

These images dominate.

Falling apart

An effortless art

Yet smiling serenely

As I play the part.

A role on a stage

A turn of the page

You don’t even know me

Bird trapped in a cage.

Battered and bruised

Torn and abused

This was my past

Now my present, reused.

Infected, rejected

Defective, Subjective

I yearn for release

From this pain undetected.

For I’m a bit broken

Words finally spoken

Praying they free me

Desperately hoping.

Are you a bit broken?

All feedback and comments gratefully received?

I Am Sic

I am sic

Nervous tic

Binge and purge

This endless urge.

Odd

Erroneous

Out of place

Unworthy of the human race.

Worthy of comment

Worthless, I vomit

Bird in a cage

From the rope I will plummet.

Dead to his Word

Alive to their world

Baptised in blood

Yet drowned in the flood.

No peace here, just pieces

Faceless diseases

Endless attacks

This war never ceases

For I am sick

And I am sic

Liar, fool,

And lunatic.

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

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

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

A Running Concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you up to this weekend?

Are you excited? Nervous? Worried?

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?

It’s 100 Days Til Christmas

Fionnuala thoughtfully reminded me this evening that it was a mere 100 days until Christmas. I think it was her not so subtle way of warning me it was now open season as far as festive preparations went. I fully expect to return home later this week to find a 12 foot inflatable Santa staring at me from across the front garden. Daring me to suggest it might be a teensy weensy bit early for this sort of thing.

I have so much to look forward to….

Firstly there’s the unmitigated joy of the annual visit to the attic in order to retrieve the Christmas decorations. Every year, I vow to put them away in a tidy, systematic order so that when it comes to retrieving them the following year I am not required to undergo a three day voyage into the darkest corners of the roof space. And every year I don’t and end up undergoing a three day voyage into blah blah blah.

Then there’s the Christmas movie channel. Hundreds upon hundreds of made for television ‘classics’ which all essentially have the same plot. A hard nosed, ambitious business woman returns to her home town for some tenuous reason only to have her heart melted by her high school love. She falls in love all over again and the true meaning of Christmas triumphs over corporate greed. The end.

I begin hating these movies but then end up transfixed, even though I know how it will end. They always look like they were filmed in August and feature actors who once appeared in three episodes of that Netflix show you binge watched the previous March. You know….thingy. Meaghan Markle even popped up in one last year. Before Suits and hooking up with Prince Harry.

Yes, the countdown is well and truly on at chez Black. Before too long, we will be inundated with Advent calendars, turkey sandwiches and songs about Italian donkeys. Hannah also informed us that it is 210 days until she sees Shaun Mendes in concert in Dublin. She even has a countdown clock on her phone. I think she’s a little bit excited and could possibly self combust when the day of the show finally arrives.

We love having dates and events to look forward to; how many of us live for the weekend; our precious summer holidays or countless other islands of excitement in our otherwise drab existences. It can be a sporting event, a movie release or yearning to see a loved one after a too long absence. We monitor the days, weeks and months. We are literally wishing our lives away.

We don’t want the here and now, we are always looking forward and ahead. We can’t wait and our impatience cannot be contained. I want it all and I want it now. We are spoilt children continually throwing tantrums in order to get our own way. Becoming blinded to the beauty surrounding us, such is the clamour to escape it and stare wistfully over the horizon towards the next big thing.

It is positive and healthy to have targets, goals, events to look forward to. But not to the extent that we devalue and gloss over 364 days of the year, for the sake of a 24 hour window of mince pies and jolly, bearded old men in red suits. Every day is precious and we should strive to squeeze every last drop of life out of it. We take our lives for granted at times. We need to cherish each day. For it could be our last.

Are you wishing your life away?

Are you counting the days to Christmas? Or another big event?

How focused are you on today?

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?

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?

Back To School

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

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

Ok, I may have made that last bit up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you to be grateful for today?

How manic are your Monday mornings?

The Unadulterated Joy Of Shopping With Hatchlings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bath bombs or dinky donuts?

Boiled or roast potatoes?

Adidas or Nike?

Marathons or novel writing?

You decide….

Are You A Martyr?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a hypocrite?

Do you play the martyr?

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Is Written By The Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you battling demons today? How are you coping?

I’m Running My Ninth Marathon

The Causeway Coast Marathon is now less than a month away as I enter the toughest week of my training schedule. I’ve already run over 16 miles this week but by the end of it aim to have passed 50. This will include a 20 mile effort at some point over the weekend. Following that I will take my foot off the pedal and begin to ease down as I taper my training until the big day itself. I’m excited but also anxious for this, my 9th marathon.

Excited for this promises to be one of the most challenging running experiences I have tackled to date. This is no ordinary marathon, if such a creature exists. The Causeway Coast takes in some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland as it traverses the spectacular North Coast which has provided the backdrop for Game of Thrones. I will pass the famous Causeway itself in addition to a number of other stunning locations.

The route is entirely rural but promises never a dull moment. No plodding along bland, grey city streets here. I will be breathing in the sea air and surrounded by all manner of wildlife and countryside. The course takes me uphill and down, across treacherous rocks, windswept beaches and deserted trails. There will be no cheering crowds, but only the occasional screeching seagull to keep me company.

This is a course where survival takes precedence over personal bests. While my normal target for street marathons is sub 4 hours I will be allowing myself an additional 30 minutes to complete this one. It promises to be my toughest test to date. I hope I will be ready but will be in a better position to answer that question at the end of this week. For Causeway Coast is but a lap of honour. The real work takes place in the weeks and months leading up to it.

Which is where the anxiety comes in. Life has been hectic of late and I’m not certain I’m exactly where I want to be in my training schedule. I am a couple of long runs short and feel as if I don’t have enough miles in the bank as opposed to when preparing for previous marathons. I am concerned that Causeway Coast will be the one that catches me out and I will blow up in the latter stages of the race. It is a niggling, nagging doubt.

This is typical me. I’m a past master at self sabotage and my own biggest critic. I’m the hardest of taskmasters and constantly doubt my own ability to deliver the goods. If self doubt was an Olympic event I’m pretty sure I could compete for my country. The real battle of this marathon will be fought in my mind and not on the roads. The biggest struggle is getting to the starting line as mentally resilient as I can possibly be.

My goal is to have run completed 10 marathons by the end of 2018. I will then re-evaluate my running targets for the future in light of many other personal and family priorities. The best jugglers know their limitations and I’d rather juggle four batons like a pro as opposed to try for a fifth and end up with egg on my face. We shall see. I need to be realistic with regards my ambitions. I also need to enjoy these special days.

Well, that’s it for the mandatory running update. If you’ve made it this far then you deserve a medal. I won’t post about Causeway Coast again until nearer the time. Between now and then there are many miles to negotiate. I just hope for an injury free month which will allow me to turn up on the day and give it my best shot. There will be no excuses and I will give it my all. There will be nothing left out on the course.

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?

I Have Another Shameful Secret

Regular readers will know that I am a massive fantasy fan. As a teenager I was a proud, card carrying member of my school’s Dungeons & Dragons society. This meant I didn’t speak to a girl until I was around nineteen but, boy, did my fellow dorks and I have some rock n roll times in the library on Wednesday afternoons after Double Geography with Mrs. O’Neill. Which, seamlessly, brings me onto the subject of dragons….

And orcs. And dwarves. And even boring old Ents. For at the heart of my love of all things fantasy was J.R.R. Tolkien. I was obsessed with Middle Earth. I devoured The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a young boy. Okay, I skipped all the poetry and silly songs but, apart from that, I devoured it. I thought I was Stryder the Ranger before he became the (in my humble opinion) considerably less cool Aragorn the King. Yes, I was that socially awkward, heavy metaller you probably all avoided in the corridors.

Which brings me to my shameful secret. You see, there is a dark side to my LOTR memoirs. And it involves the ‘H’ word. For, as in Part One, the other week I wrote about my Harry Potter phobia, today I must cough up another dark globule of shame which begins with the letter after ‘G’. Many of you may unfollow the blog when you read these words. Others may contact Social Services. That is your prerogative. For I must confess….

I don’t like hobbits.

There, I’ve said it. Has the world stopped spinning? No? Okay then, good, I’ll continue. What is it with the world’s love affair with hobbits? When there are infinitely cooler races out there to fanboy over. Like elves and dwarves and….and…..well…..orcs! I admit it. I like orcs. I wanted The Pale Orc to squish the incredibly annoying Martin Freeman into the dust all the way throughout The Hobbit movies. And as for Samwise Gamgee? Don’t get me started.

Yes Mr. Frodo. No Mr, Frodo. Three bags full, Mr. Frodo. No wonder Gollum’s eyes looked as if they were permanently about to pop out of their sockets. I mean, how difficult is it to carry a teensy, weensy ring up a mountain. Especially when you’ve got all powerful wizards and armies of humans, dwarves and elves doing all the dirty work for you while you whine about how hungry you are and how much you miss The Shire. Grow up! Oh hang on, they can’t grow up. They’re hobbits.

Hobbits are lazy, greedy, chain smoking borderline alcoholics. They have bad hair and appalling foot hygiene. They are not to be trusted, especially when it comes to items of jewellery. They attract trouble left, right and centre and then complain about just wanting to settle down and lead a quiet life. Hang around a hobbit for any length of time and odds are you will end up dead. Although you may also get to meet Evangeline Lily. Every cloud I suppose.

So I say nay, nay and thrice nay to the cuddliness and the cuteness; to the ridiculous names and the endless smoke rings. Sir Ian McKellen should be stripped off his knighthood for deciding that this most odious of races were the ones who would save the universe from whatever Sauron had up his sleeve. And as for Peter Jackson? Well, he looks like a giant hobbit anyway so I guess I shouldn’t have expected any better from him.

Well, here endeth today’s rant. I feel so much better now I’ve got that off my chest. But fear not. My closet is far from empty. There are still a few more shameful secrets rattling around inside, desperate to see the light of day. So you have all been warned. I’m off now to calm down. I might roll my twenty sided dice for a bit. Or possibly admire the vital statistics of my Level 15 sorceress. She looks a bit like Angelina Jolie, y’know.

What are your views on hobbits?

Were you/Are you an awkward teenager?

What shameful secrets would you care to share?

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?

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?

I Have A Shameful Secret

I have a secret. A dark, shameful secret that I have kept locked away for years, deep inside of me. I never thought it would see the light of day for I feared, to do so, would turn me immediately into a social outcast, a literary leper who would be mocked and ridiculed wherever he went. But, today, the world must know the truth and I will take whatever society chooses to throw at me. It is time for you all to know….

I’ve never read a Harry Potter book.

There I’ve said it. Are you still reading? I hope so for I will need all the support and counselling I can get in the coming days and weeks. What’s more I’ve never watched a Harry Potter film from start to finish. And believe me I’ve tried. I so want to fit in with the rest of the reading universe. Yet something holds me back. It leaves me cold. I just don’t get it. I change the channel always about half way through the quidditch game. Is that even the right word? Sighs….

I should love Harry, adore him and Emma Watson and the other one; you know, the annoying ginger bloke. Robbie Coltrane is in it. He was brilliant in Cracker. And Young Adult Fantasy is my favourite genre. Hunger Games? Loved it. Twilight? Read them all before they made the movies and everyone decided they weren’t cool anymore. Divergent? Yes, Yes and three times Yes. I was raised on a diet of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This should soooooo be my cup of tea. Yet I retch on it like yucky coffee.

We hatezzzzz the coffeeeeee…..

It’s not as if I’m a literary snob either. I’ll give anything a go and am not one to be put off by a bucket of hype. After Game of Thrones exploded into our consciousness I watched the first season, became hooked and then read all the books before Season 2 came out. I stalked the cast all over Belfast city centre, cornering the Starc girls in jewellery stores, accosting Samwell Tarly in a coffee shop for a selfie. I had no shame.

I even gave the First Fifty Shades book a rattle to see what all the fuss was about. I found Christian robotic and Anastasia well….a bit annoying if I’m honest. Fun fact. My office colleague, Claire, used to play tennis with Jamie Dornan when they were teenagers. She said he was a bit quiet. Just thought I’d drop that in there. You’re welcome. So you see, I’m not one to be put off by fads and gimmicks. I’m as gullible as they come, a marketing dream.

As an aspiring author, J.K. Rowling should be my hero. The whole writing the first book in a coffee shop in her spare time, getting rejected by how many publishers before she got signed. It’s the rags to riches that keeps so many of us returning to our keyboards, day after thankless day. I haven’t even given Harry and her a chance. It’s as if I have a mental block when it comes to all things Hogwarts.

This troubles me. Should I seek professional help? Harry hypnotherapy? Are there support groups out there that I can attend? I’m willing to give anything a go. Anything to avoid the social alienation of being ‘that guy who hasn’t read the Harry Potter books.’ A social pariah of my generation, pointed at by people in the street who protectively usher their children away from me as I pass them by. The man who puts the Dumb into Dumbledore.

I write this post from my knees, a broken and desperate shadow of my former self. Please help me. Tell me I’m not on my own. Is there anybody out there who feels my pain? Who share my guilty secret? And if not, what do I have to do to become a PotterHead? Is there a magic potion I can take? Or perhaps one of you can wave your wizards wand and that will do the trick. I’ll try anything.

Are you a Harry Potter addict? Or does he leave you cold?

What are your ‘guilty secrets’ when it comes to your book collection?

Why Are You Settling For Second Best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you been settling for second best?

What path are you traveling at the moment?

What is holding you back from seeking a better life?

Competing Priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your priority?

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

Do Christians And Three Legged Dogs Go To Hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on Hell?

Blog God

I was jokingly referred to as a famous blogger the other day. Once I had stopped howling with laughter, wiped the tears of mirth from my eyes and picked myself up off the floor I started to think. I really don’t want people to think of me that way. For that’s not the intention of this blog at all. Beneath the words and behind the posts I am utterly ordinary. In many ways I am the dullest person I know. Run, Blog, Sleep, Repeat. That’s how I roll.

Beneath every serene swan gliding elegantly on the surface of the lake is an ugly duckling paddling furiously to keep afloat and on course. The most beautiful cruise liners in days gone by were powered by lots of hot, sweaty men shovelling furiously in the white hot heat of the engine room. And it’s the same when it comes to my writing. Far from a pretty sight. Don’t believe me? Well let’s consider Exhibit A shall we?

My ever supportive wife took this photo of me the other evening. I am writing. But note the lack of a velvet smoking jacket and silk cravat. The glass of port and expensive cigar. See me for who I really am. I’m decked out in my Buzz Lightyear pyjama bottoms and Washington Redskins t shirt. Both are beyond shapeless. I haven’t shaved in three days. If I went out in public looking like this and remained motionless for any length of time people would lob their spare change at me.

And yes, yes, you are not mistaken. That is a gallon tub of honeycomb ice cream sitting on my lap. See that slightly crazed expression on my face. That is the lesser spotted Stephenus Blackius in the midst of a feeding frenzy. I haven’t even bothered with a bowl because why bother with dining room etiquette when there is sugary, gooey goodness to be shovelled down my throat. I have reluctantly agreed to use a spoon for the purposes of the photograph.

Let’s face it I look a bit mad don’t I? This book is slowly turning me into a gibbering, slavering, ice cream snorting freak. I wear this accolade like a red badge of honour. For I am happy in my slovenly attire. I am happier than I have been in many years. Being myself. No longer playing to an audience, no longer people pleasing but revealing the real me to the world. You don’t wear a three piece suit when you’re dragging your sorry body out of the pit.

The words are flowing as never before. What’s the opposite of writer’s block for I am currently experiencing it. Writer’s can’t stop? For that is me. Of late I’ve had to deliberately rein myself in and ease off the accelerator as I have other competing priorities. I can’t allow my addictive tendencies to cross ‘that line’ and turn a lifeline into a noose. My words are my salvation, the labour pains of rebirth as opposed to the death knell of another pipe dream reduced to acrid ashes in my mouth.

My words are fuel for I’m no longer a fool, a slave to popularity and attention. I’ve walked the paths of the dead but I now choose to pen words of hope and redemption. No selfies, no gimmicks, just bitter experience and hard won truths. Bettering away at my keyboard like a lunatic with bits of honeycomb in my beard and looking anything like the suave, sophisticated literary legend I used to aspire to be.

This is me. I am what I am. I am a writer. I aspire to be an author. But I also aspire to be a better husband, father and friend. They are the real rewards on this path to publication. No amount of sales will better that aspiration. Becoming a published author is a long shot. But I’m a sucker for outsiders. Why else would I support the Redskins? And why else would I turn up every day, chipping away at my dream and scooping away at my ice cream.

What is your go to writing attire?

Writer’s Block? Or Writing Non Stop? Where do you sit?

The Tesco check-out

The Tesco check-out

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

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

385 Yards To Go

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

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

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

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

How close are you to your finish line?

Is the pain worth it?

Welcome to Mulberry Square

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

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

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

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

Where is your ‘second home’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should We Meet Our Heroes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are the everyday heroes in your life?

Why Do Good Blogs Go Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just hope the coach is watching on those occasions.

What makes a good blog?

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

What bloggers do you want to encourage today?

I’m Writing A Book….Part 465,589

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you on your writing journey today?

Longford Marathon Update. Everybody Yawns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you spending your Sunday?

Are marathon runners mad? Discuss.

I Do Good Foot Rubs. But Very Little Else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you drive your loved ones insane?

How do you show people you love them?

What Do You Wish You Had Written About Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has this post inspired you to write about?

12th Of July Parades – Aghalee

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

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

Is this what you expected?

Football’s Not Coming Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What sporting team annoys you the most?

Have you been watching the World Cup?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would You Write A Letter To A Fellow Blogger?

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

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

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

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

Are you willing to accept the letter writing challenge?

Who would you like to write to and why?

What are you going to include in your letter?

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

Death To Words. Long Live The Emoji.

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

The creation of the emoji….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much do emojis and abbreviation rule your life?

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

Thank You

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

Happy Birthday Adam!

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

Happy Birthday Adam!

And Happy Birthday America as well!!

Ghosts From The Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can never relax. I will never relax.

Do you still fear the ghosts from your past?

How do you fight them?

Unreality Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your views on reality TV?

Are you living a real or unreal life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your pet hates at the movies?

Have you ever felt adrift?

Book Title Reveal – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Wear During A Heatwave?

Northern Ireland is on the verge of mass hysteria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you wear during a heatwave?

The Best Thing About Writing Is The Not Writing Bit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much of your writing process involves not writing?

Where are you on your creative journey?

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

Lunchtime In Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Of My Excess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your Achilles Heel?

Do you struggle with excess and temptation?

Why I Gave National Selfie Day A Miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on the selfie culture?

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

Isn’t It Time You Moved On?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you dwell too much on your past?

How do you propose to move on?

What Are You Afraid To Blog About Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you afraid to write about?

Are you brave enough to write about your fears today?

On The Cusp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your views on publishing vs self publishing?

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

Thoughts On Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on death?

That Time I Went Through My Neighbour’s Bin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you talk to your neighbours?

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

How Was Your Life Before Wordpress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was your life before WordPress?

What difference has blogging made in your life?

Still turning the knife

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

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

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

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

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

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

The School Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 6)

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

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

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

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

The Familiar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you spend the first hour of your day?

Have you discovered the power of the familiar?

Where are you at today on your journey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well Done Rebecca!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you fallen off the bike in recent days?

Are you willing to jump back on it?

Sucking Up The Bad Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you deal with the bad days?

You’re Never As Useless As You Think You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you with regards pursuing your dream?

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

On Call 24/7/365

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogging Is Hard Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your blogging career going?

Where does your blogging inspiration come from?

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 5)

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

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

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

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

Don’t Press That Button

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Lonely?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you lonely? How does it affect you?

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

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

Why Are Some Friends So Unfriendly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Conversations Have You Had With Yourself Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What conversations have you had with yourself today?

Morior Invictus

The paths of the dead

Are where we must tread

To vanquish the demons

Who reign in our head

Death itches and twitches

Denying us riches

Our God given right

Morior Invictus

Yet I fear it not

For X marks the spot

New treasures revealed

And an end to the rot.

It Isn’t In Our Blood

Help me

It feels like the walls are caving in

No medicine is strong enough

Someone help me

Feel like I’m crawling in my skin

Sometimes I feel like giving up

But I just can’t

It isn’t in my blood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It isn’t in your blood….

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

Happy Birthday To Us

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

How To UnSubscribe From A Toxic Relationship

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

Because stuff like that happens, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Is Your Mental Health Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your mental health today?

Do you need to get something off your chest?

That Time I Frightened A German Teenager On The London Underground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s been your most humiliating public transport experience?

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

Travelling Sober

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you choose today?

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

At Least You Know Where You Stand With A Zombie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m A Christian But I Still Worry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you worry about?

How do you cope with worry?

Is it a sin to be a Christian and worry?

Awkward Conversations With People We Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have awkward conversations with relatives?

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

Why Do You Write?

Why do I bother?

Why do I write?

Why do I struggle with words every night?

To convince all the wronged

The despised and forlorn

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

So I’m penning a story

Of hope and redemption

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

You click and you like and you comment and follow

But have you considered why you feel so hollow?

So empty inside, so frayed at the seams.

Consumed by dark nightmares which once were bright dreams.

Your plight has been sanctioned

Left bitter and vanquished

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

Friendships, romances all of them dead

You made this mess so best lie in your bed.

Your soul is in tatters

You’ve lost all that matters.

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

But I’ve been where you are

I will show you my scars

I was dead in the gutter

But could still taste the stars.

Stripped bare but He cared

He reached down to me there

Grace cloaked my disgrace

From the whispers and stares.

So that’s why I write

I’ve recovered my sight

Scales fallen from eyes

To reveal truth and might.

Better times lie ahead

For the damned and the dead

Turn your back to the lies and embrace truth instead.

Why do you write?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are proud of you

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

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

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

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

Fionnuala, Adam, Hannah & Rebecca xxxx

The Vultures Are Circling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are your defences today? Do they require bolstering?

Are you aware of vultures circling above in your life?

Belfast Marathon 2018 – Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Night Before….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who needs alcohol?

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

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

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

So I started on Job….

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway…..

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

That’s the patience of Job I guess.

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

That’s the impatience of Job I guess.

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

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

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

And they all lived happily ever after….

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

What do you think the Behemoth and Leviathan were?

Have you ever had friends as useless as Job?

I’m Broken. Are You?

I’m broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m broken. Are you?

I’m A Christian But I Don’t Do Hugs

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

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

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

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

Please God. Make it stop. Now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Heaven be a hug free zone for you?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheap Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your simple pleasures?

A Tree On The Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Love Is A Mist….

If love is a mist

Then I must persist

For cords of affliction

And wisps of addiction

Are flogging my faith on a rack of derision.

The demons are screaming

Stop me from believing

Oozing lies, succubi

Leave me battered and bleeding.

Their hunger is fed

On the paths of the dead

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

Cutting ties, crushing lives

We can all sympathise

But the blame lies with me

Wrapped in guilt, when once free

Destruction their function

Impaled at this junction

Slicing my soul without fear or compunction.

Yet I will resist

I’ll repent and desist

And walk through the mist

Towards fresh joy and bliss.

For this kingdom of sighs

Will give way to new life

And I will be vanquished

A thorn in their side.

Embracing Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What aspects of your life would you like to change?

Tell Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you need to tell a loved one something today?

Don’t Be A Parachute Pal

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

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

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

But seriously….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever been frozen out of a friendship?

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

We Are Team Stupid!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It works be stupid of you not to.

Hands up if you’ve ever been stupid?

Care to share your dumbest moments?

What’s Your Favourite Bible Story?

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

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

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

What’s your favourite Bible story and why?

Binge

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

Rock & Roll I most certainly am not….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swallow Your Pride. Swallow The Pill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For It Was Written Long Before You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Big Fat Irish Black Toenail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmmmm….thought not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Your Worst Habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your worst habit?

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

Dawn Manoeuvres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Writing A Book….Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Running A Marathon…Still

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

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

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

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

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

I’m lying in bed. Not the most glamorous image to start your day I appreciate but bear with me. I’m still sore from the 20 mile run on Saturday. I’m also tired and I’m struggling to throw off the duvets and start another day. I’m off work (hurrah) but there is still so much to do. I’m scheduled to run a 10K (a so called recovery run meant to loosen me up after the 20 miler but right now it sounds like the death match from hell). My legs don’t want to propel me out of bed let alone out into the roads outside where I have to say it sounds a bit squally as I lie here typing.

I’m also working towards completing 10,000 words on the novel over the Easter break. I use the word ‘break’ in the loosest possible sense of the word. The first draft is currently sitting at around 80,000 words and is about two thirds complete. After that begins the hell of editing, proofing and worse still allowing a selected few to read it. I think I’m dreading that bit the worst. It’s akin to throwing your new born baby to a pack of starving, feral dogs. Sorry for the disturbing image but it is.

Oh did I forget to mention that I’m a father and husband. Old, selfish Stephen would have swept those trivial responsibilities under the carpet a few, short years ago. I tended to airbrush all that on my social media platforms as it was all about me after all, right? Well, no. They are my foundations upon which everything else is built. Without them the whole house of cards comes tumbling to the ground. Without them there is no running, there is no writing. Just me, broken and bloodied under the rubble of what used to be my life.

There are practical matters to attend to. Rebeca is going on a school trip to Scotland later this month so I need to venture up into the swirling vortex that is our roof space in search of a hold-all for her. It’s two weeks away but she wants to start packing now. Her mother has trained her well. If I’m not back in an hour call for Indiana Jones. No, on second thoughts, make that Lara Croft. The Angelina Jolie version, not that new girl. We watched Skull Island, the latest Kong movie, yesterday. I’m now frightened to venture into the roof space for the love of God.

There’s also the small matter of preparing for a meeting with the Education Authority later this week over proposed plans to close Hannah’s school; other issues regarding her still inadequate transport to and from school; trying to drag my lazy son out for a training session when he’d much rather spend his Easter holidays glued to his Play Station (because becoming a professional rugby player is just going to fall into his lap obviously); and the million and one household tasks that Fionnuala has quite rightly been asking me to carry out for only the last nine years or so.

To say we are a busy family is something of an understatement. You think my itinerary is nuts, then try checking out Fionnuala’s. It cray cray. But we keep going. Because there’s nothing else to do right? Well at least that’s how I deal with it all. I might not be the most talented writer or runner but one thing is for certain is that I won’t quit. Maybe I have my OCD and anxiety to thank for that. Mental health truly is a double edged sword. I’ve seen others with far greater ability than mine fall by the wayside. Why? Only they can answer that.

All I can say is that you shouldn’t give up. Not now and not ever. Don’t be that person sitting in their armchair aged eighty wondering ‘what if?’. Don’t be that person who gave in the doubting voices, most of all the voice in their own head. You’re not good enough, you’ll never get there and so on ad nauseum. Don’t be that person who got knocked down once too often and just lay there, refusing to get up. Get up! Get up for those who believe in you. And what’s more get up for those that didn’t believe in you.

So congratulations. You’ve got this far and you’re either thinking that Irish guy is a moron or maybe he’s got a point. If it’s the former then no hard feelings and thanks for making it this far. Close the door behind you on the way out. But if my Easter Monday rant has sown a seed in your mind then, well, what are you going to do about it? You have dreams, you have plans. Well how about today you take that first step towards making them a reality. Prove them all wrong. Prove yourself wrong. Start today. Join me. Make it happen.

So what are you going to do about it? What are your plans for the rest of 2018?

Isn’t It Time You Stepped Out Of Your Tomb?

We all get buried alive at some point in our lives. It can be of our own doing or we may have been the unwitting victims of other people or circumstances beyond our control. Either way we come to our senses covered in dust and fumbling around in the darkness for some way out. The air is stifling and we can feel the panic rising in our throats. Our natural inclination is to scream. But who would hear us if we did?

You see that’s one of the annoying things about tombs. You don’t get many people hanging around them apart from the occasional loved one paying their respects. Or possibly a rogue gravedigger or gardener squeezing in a bit of overtime before the Easter break. Normally though tombs are pretty deserted places. Just you and your thoughts. So there’s no point really in screaming. Looks like you are going to have to figure your own way out of this predicament.

Which brings me to Awkward Issue Number Two. Tombs are kind of designed so as occupants have no problem getting into them but when it comes to leaving again, well that’s a whole different ball game. Once you’re in there nobody really expects you to have a change of heart and leave again. There are no fire exits, no secret compartments and no skylights. It’s one way traffic so sit back and make yourself comfortable. You’re not going anywhere in a hurry. That big, old boulder isn’t going to budge an inch no matter how hard you huff and puff at it.

Hmmmm. This isn’t going so well is it? Looks like we’re well and truly stumped here. If only we had Jesus to exert some of that supernatural power of his and roll away that pesky boulder as if it was a tiny pebble. Oh hang on a minute, we can. Or if Jesus isn’t your thing why don’t you hang your hat on whatever your understanding of a ‘Higher Power’ is. It can be Brahman or Buddha or any other spiritual life force you choose but choose quick cos you’re not getting out of here on your own.

It’s time to realise you’ve messed up and you don’t know how to make things better. Once you’ve handed that over it’s half the battle. You’re buried alive under tonnes of guilt, shame, lies, sin, whatever. It can be an addiction, a toxic relationship, a mental health or eating disorder, anything. But whatever it is you are six feet under and the rest. You’re running out of air and there’s no sign of the cavalry coming over the horizon. You are sunk without a trace.

Now nice and slowly. Hand it over.

Pray. Scream. Throw some stuff around if it makes you feel better. Hey, you can even curse if you want. This isn’t church and I won’t be telling. But when you’re done I can guarantee that you’ll feel better. For you’ve taken that first step. Accepting that your situation is out of control and that you need help. Acknowledging that things can be better and you want to keep walking in that direction. Having faith that whatever it is you have chosen to cling to will somehow get you back to a life worth living.

What’s that? A slight rumble at first but slowly it increases in volume. Dust starts to cascade from the ceiling, the ground beneath your feet begins to shake. Thin shafts of light permeate the gloom as the supposedly immovable object rotates ever so slowly away to reveal daylight outside. Fresh air seeps into your starved lungs and you rub your eyes in disbelief. Can this be real? You’re free? Or at least starting out on the road to freedom. Armed with faith, hope and the love of others who have been through what you are going through and survived to tell the tale.

Three steps and you’re there. Accepting the problem is out of your control. Handing it over to a power higher than yourself. And then accepting the help of wiser, experienced people who have walked the same road. My hope today for you is that if you are reading this, entombed and lost that you realise that all is not lost. All tombs can be breached and no stone is too heavy not to be rolled away. Light will always extinguish darkness and love and faith will always overcome anguish and despair. Just believe and step out into the garden.

Are you in a tomb? Have you extricated yourself from one in the past? Please share you experiences below.

Today I Was Snubbed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you handle hurt and rejection?

What’s So Good About Friday?

What’s so good about Friday?

What’s so good about life?

What’s so good about lying, hatred, violence and strife?

What’s so good about suffering?

What’s so good about greed?

Never learning our lessons

Never realising our needs

What’s so good about trying?

What’s so good about loss?

What’s so good about Jesus?

Beaten and nailed to a Cross?

Well he’s the reason I’m still here

Trying my best to survive

He’s the reason my family

Every day flourish and thrive

That’s what’s good about Friday

That’s why he took the pain

That’s why he endured nails and a sword

Piercing his skin like a flame

So next time you moan on a Friday

Or mutter or mumble or mope

Think back to that darkest of all days

And thank Him for giving us hope.

Scraps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your experiences of feeding on scraps?

Hannah The Campaigner

We are not protestors by nature but yesterday took to the streets of Belfast with many other concerned parents to protest against plans by the Education Authority to close seven special needs schools in the Greater Belfast area and merge them into three ‘super schools’ which would be created to cater for students with physical disabilities and learning difficulties.

Our daughter, Hannah, has been attending one of these schools, Fleming Fulton, since she was three years old. Hannah was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus and is a wheelchair user. We were very proud of Hannah yesterday as she spoke at the gates of Belfast City Hall in front of hundreds to express her opposition to the proposed closures. Here are some of her words.

‘I was born with spina bifida basically my legs don’t work but my brain does and that’s thanks to the hard work and dedication of my parents, doctors, teachers and workers at my school. I have been going to Fleming Fulton since just before my third birthday, it is like my second home, I have made the best of friends that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

If the Education Authority goes through with what it is planning I will be separated from my friends and will have to go to a different school which I don’t want to happen. I love my school the way it is and don’t want it to change.’

Fionnuala and I are proud of all the kids but Hannah took the bar to a new level yesterday. Sometimes you have to stand up to the faceless government mannequins who put cuts before kids and who deny our most vulnerable young people the education and health care they are entitled to. Hannah deserves better and she spoke out for herself and her classmates today. She made us very proud parents.

This is a full recording of Hannah’s speech if you would like to hear it.

Achilles Heel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Are Your Favourite Bloggers?

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

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

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

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

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

Belfast Marathon Update

Ten miles this morning. The sun was shining, there was zero wind and I ran a loop of my village which took in a spectacular stretch along the shore of Lough Neagh. It was so warm that I had to remove my woolly hat after three miles which has been surgically attached to my head these last few months. I won’t tempt fate and say winter is finally over as I’ve heard there is snow forecast for Easter.

The Belfast Marathon is just over six weeks away now and I’m planning a 20 mile training run over the Easter break. Today went so well that I’ve decided to run this loop twice next weekend. I’m pretty sure the second circuit won’t be as enjoyable as the first but embracing and accepting the physical and mental pain is all part of the training process. Better to come to terms with it during a training run than be totally unprepared come the day itself.

I’ll post a book update later on. Busy, Busy, Busy!

What training targets have you set yourself?

Are you still wearing your winter clothing?

Why Are We Ashamed Of Our Mental Health?

I have had full blown man flu (aka a slight cold) this week and have made a point of ensuring that the entire world has known about it. Bar putting a two page advert in the local newspaper I have done everything humanly possible to squeeze the last drop of sympathy from my cynical family and largely unsympathetic work colleagues. And now I’m shouting it from the rooftops on WordPress – I HAVEN’T BEEN WELL!!!

You see if us men don’t let you ladies know when we are ill then you largely ignore us. Well maybe that’s a tad unfair. You don’t totally ignore us. Not if you include such loving observations as ‘Oh man up’, ‘Grow a pair’ and ‘You think that’s bad. Try childbirth’. These are just a selection of the loving comments that I have received down the years from my adoring wife. Other more creative and colourful offerings are, alas, largely unprintable.

This time around I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ve sucked it up, grown a pair and soldiered on despite my croaky throat and phlegmy chest. I’ve trudged into work, trudged around work and then trudged back out of work again. I’ve went to meetings, driven hatchlings to and from school, washed the occasional dish and emptied the occasional bin. It has been an exhausting and heroic effort on my part. Thankfully I’m not the type to brag about such exploits and I merely mention it in passing. As I said. Just in passing….

However….

If you were to have asked me this week how I was I would have considered it ‘open season’ and proceeded to enthral (bore) you with my recent medical history. It’s the least you would have deserved for enquiring. No stone would have been left unturned and you would have walked off with an intimate knowledge of my week of coughs, sneezes and other unmentionable noises. We love to talk about our aches and pains don’t we? If it wasn’t for them then a lot of us would have nothing to discuss.

I’m no different from the next hypochondriac. Within ten minutes of walking into work the other morning feeling lousy the entire office knew about it and were taking draconian preventative steps to avoid infection; that time I hurt my foot running last summer I was blogging about it within hours; yet since being diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) a number of years ago how many people have I informed? You could probably count them on the fingers of one hand.

The reason? Well I’m embarrassed. I worry that I will be judged, that people will look upon me differently and think less of me. I know, this is crazy thinking. A person with a recognised mental illness has as much right to discuss it openly and without fear than a person who has stubbed their toe or sprained their wrist. Yet we don’t. We skirt around the issues, we conceal the truth and we bury our heads in the sands hoping it will all just go away. Alternatively we come onto WordPress and converse about it within a safe, caring environment.

It should be easy but it isn’t. Try explaining your OCD to the average person on the street. It’s like trying to explain quantum physics to a caveman. No, I’m not a ‘clean freak’. Fionnuala often wishes I was. No I’m not constantly in the shower or washing my hands. For some people that is OCD. For me it is not. For me it is dark, repulsive thoughts that relentlessly assault my senses and literally batter me to my knees. The only means of obtaining temporary relief is to perform intricate, exhausting mental routines. Until the next thought arrives. And then the one after that.

Thanks to medication and talking to Fionnuala I am largely on top of it now. The bad days are less often. But it’s still there, lurking in the recesses of my mind, waiting to pounce if afforded the slightest encouragement or opportunity. It never has a day off. Given half a chance it will break you beyond repair. That’s why we need to be as vocal about our mental health as we are about our physical well being. We need to talk about it and not brush it under the carpet. We need to seek help rather than suffer in silence.

I follow a lot of bloggers who do just that. They are true advocates and are getting the message out there that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of; they are letting others know that they are not alone. They are a community and together we are strong. They are educating and combating ignorance and misinformation. They are the true heroes and have inspired me to write more about my own battles. If you would like to learn more about OCD then can I recommend the following books in no particular order of preference:

‘Because We Are Bad’ – Lily Bailey

‘Mad Girl’ – Bryony Gordon

‘Pure O’ – Rose Bretecher

What is your knowledge of OCD?

Are you vocal about your mental health?

How has WordPress helped you in finding others like yourself?

My Name Is Stephen and I Am A Snorer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your experiences of the false Facebook culture?

I Wonder

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

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

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

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

I wonder. If there was a rapture would there be a panic. A manic breakdown of societal norms. Or would shoulders be shrugged and the experts wheeled out. To fill our dead minds with theories and doubts. It’s the Russians, the Chinese, some alien disease. God forbid that the truth would bring us to our knees.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would anything change. Would we rant, spit and scream, so incensed and inflamed. Then after a while just dust ourselves down, return to our phones with a shrug and a frown. For God’s overrated and Satan’s a riot. If there’s wifi in Hell I might as well try it.

I wonder a lot. These unwelcome thoughts. That I have to get out before my brain clots. This dirge is a purge of a tangled up mind. I’m writing it blind but I urge you to think. If the heavens swung open and angels descended. Would you still remain when the trumpets relented?

I’m A Christian But I’m Not Reading The Bible

Whenever I’ve asked people to describe my writing style the most frequent word I hear is ‘honesty’. For someone who had led such a dishonest existence for many years this is music to my years. So, in continuing my tradition of transparency and accountability, here’s another truth bomb for you all to chew on.

I’m a Christian and I haven’t read my Bible in weeks….

I know, I know. An outrageous admission. And here’s the thing. I love reading. My Kindle Fire is like an extra limb to me. I’ve always got a book on the go, sometimes two. I can’t sleep at night unless I’ve read at least a few pages. I’m a self confessed bookworm. Loud and proud. Yet when it comes to the most important book of them all, I’ve been left cold of late.

Even stranger is that for all the years I’ve been a Christian (five in May fact fans) I’ve always had a very healthy relationship with the Bible. I’ve read it regularly and thrived on the vivid story telling, imagery and themes within its pages. At our last church I led a youth group and house group where I regularly led Bible related discussions. I was even asked by the pastor to deliver sermons at the Sunday service. People said I had a gift of interpretation, of analysing the text and drawing fresh learning from it that others could not see.

But of late there’s been nothing. Nada. Zilch. My Bibles (for I have several) have sat on the bookshelf gathering dust. NIV, The Message, NKJV, I’ve tried them all but there hasn’t been a spark. I’ve tried The Gospels, Proverbs, Psalms and even Job. Yes Job! That’s how desperate I am! But all to no avail. They’ve just been words. Words that I’ve read a hundred times before. No passion, no startling revelations, no Charlton Hestonesque bolts of lightning from above. It’s as if the Holy Spirit has upped sticks and gone on an early Easter vacation.

Initially I thought I just needed a break. Was it burnout? Or perhaps the novel I am working on was draining my creative juices? Was it because I’m not a member of a church anymore? Was God punishing me for turning my back on ‘the church’? I haven’t a clue but whatever the reason it’s certainly been effective. And do you know what’s worst of all? I don’t feel particularly guilty, ashamed or bothered. I still regard myself as a Christian, I still believe in God, I still try to lead a good life, I still pray. Check, Check and double Check.

Is that enough? Can you still continue to function as a card carrying Christian without a church and without a Bible? Is Saint Peter presently scribbling furiously in the ‘negatives’ column of his big book as I type this. Is Satan (for I also still believe in him) rubbing his hands gleefully and notifying Hell Airlines to book me a one way ticket with immediate effect? I honestly don’t know (there’s that word again). But I woke up this morning with an urge to write about it and share it with you all. So here I am.

We pride ourselves on the fact that Christians, Muslims and people of many other faiths read this blog. We even have a healthy smattering of agnostics and atheists. We welcome them all. This is not an exclusively Christian blog. It is a blog written by Christians who have doubts and concerns about their faith; hence its name. We are not perfect and we tell it how it is. The Christian life is not all happy clappy (more snappy crappy) ever after as many would want you to believe. It is frustrating, infuriating and full of pain and rejection. Don’t believe me. Just ask Jesus about his three year ministry on the planet.

So I am where I am. Honest but hanging on to my fractured faith for all I’m worth. I hope this is just a blip and I will fall in love with my Bible again in the not too distant future. Maybe God is giving me a mini vacation before the real work begins, just over the horizon. I’m sure I will find out soon enough. Until then I’ll stare at my Bibles on the bookshelf and they will stare back at me. A war of attrition with no end in sight at present. But I won’t throw them out or hide them away in a drawer. And at least that’s something. They are part of me and I am part of them. We’re just having a break from each other.

How often do you read the Bible?

Or have you never picked one up before?

Do you read other books of faith?

Whatever your thoughts I’d be interested to hear them?

Death By Blogging

Today was largely spent chained to the laptop, revisiting and editing a number of chapters for the book. It was a graft and once again, as if I needed reminding, I realised what hard work writing can be. Some days the words just refuse to flow and you have to drag them kicking and screaming out of your imagination and onto the computer screen. Every sentence is a battle and every chapter a war.

I managed to get to where I needed to be and, before I closed the laptop down for the day, decided to carry out a word count. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the first draft is now sitting at 68,000 words. That’s over 200 pages. For the first time I felt as if I could actually do this. There is still a world of pain ahead and many long hours of rewriting and editing. But I’ve overcome a very awkward second quarter of the book and feel I’m roughly where I need to be now.

I’m literally bursting to share the plot and characters with you all but know I can’t do that yet for obvious reasons. All I can divulge is that it’s set in modern day Belfast and genre wise would be young adult fiction with very gritty themes and a sprinkling of the supernatural. In my head it is a trilogy and this first instalment largely sets the scene for a bigger and bolder story arc in the second and third books. This book largely concentrates on the inner struggles of the main characters before they turn their attention to the outside world.

I’m fairly word blind as I type this so apologies if my thinking is a bit skewed this evening. My neck aches which is a tell tale symptom that my brain is shot for the day. But I feel it’s important I blog about the book in order to hold myself accountable to you guys who support me on a daily basis in my writing and running ventures. The blog keeps me honest and underpins everything I do. Without it there would be no book and there would be no marathons.

Blogging helps keep me sane. It keeps my feet on the ground as the majority of my writing here explores my very flawed and fractured character. I’m my own biggest critic and I use my past failings to hopefully ensure that others do not make the same mistakes. My faith and my family feature heavily in my blogging and I make no apologies for that. They are the reason I am where I am today. All of the above ensure I remain grounded and keep my dreaded ego in check.

So I’ll go to bed tonight and probably dream of words and letters. We have come a long way since the blog launched last May. But there is still a long way to go. I wrote some months ago about how I regarded 2018 as ‘The Year Of Death.’ Death of the old ways, death of the old me, death of the demons who ensnared and almost destroyed me. I encourage you to join me in burying your past as well. Here’s to life and love and light. Here’s to words and miles. Here’s to you people.

What are you seeking to bury this year?

What does FracturedFaithBlog mean to you?

Everything You Wanted To Know About Ireland But Were Afraid To Ask

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Black Family in a wet and windy Northern Ireland. Just for a change….

Okay he was probably Welsh, didn’t know a shamrock from his elbow and never saw a snake in his life but those are just details right? Today is a big day on the island of Ireland.

Later today I’m going to write about living in Northern Ireland after a fellow blogger suggested this topic. So if you have any questions about the country then please feel free to comment below.

But be warned, I’m not your stereotypical Irishman. I hate Guinness, can’t speak Gaelic and green is most definitely not my colour. But Fionnuala and I are born and bred Irish so we will do our best to answer any questions you might have.

What questions do you have for us about growing up and living in Ireland?

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