Where Are You On The ‘Me Me Me’ Tree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you on the ‘me me me’ tree?

Where Is Your Quiet Place?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Like Trying To Raise The Dead

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

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

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

It’s like trying to raise the dead….

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

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

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

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

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

The Enemy Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words Are Where It All Begins

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

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

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

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

Do you need to speak to someone today?

The Tweet That Would Not Die

I wrote last week about my love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with Twitter, and how I found WordPress a much more homely and comfortable environment. I rejoined Twitter a few months back, after many years absence, in order to promote my writing. Apparently it’s all about building a multi platform online presence. Or something fancy like that. Anyway, I once again found myself twittering to the little blue bird.

Truth be told, I was more or less twittering to myself. While I shared all my blog posts on the Twitter account, they averaged around two likes per post. Hello Fionnuala and Hannah! No, that’s not fair. A handful of the WordPress regulars who have accounts provided their usual much appreciated support. Yet, to the huge #writingcommunity, I was just another wannabe writer trying, and failing, to catch their attention.

I tried everything. Witty tweets, serious tweets, interactive tweets. Nada. Zilch. Not an iota of interest. Then a funny thing happened. I tweeted that I had just signed a publishing contract and…..WHAM! My notifications went into orbit. 10, 100, 200 and higher. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. I was inundated with well wishers and congratulatory messages. I was a Twitter celebrity!

I woke up yesterday morning to find I was past the 500 mark. Surely, they would die down soon. But, no, the tweeting tsunami continued. So much so that Fionnuala, who is an account administrator, turned off her notifications, having been driven to the brink by the constant flashing of her phone screen. After the 536th ‘thank you’ my fingers were going numb. And as for my brain, it was turning to mental mush.

With the likes and messages, came followers. Over 100 in one day. This is how Katy Perry or Shaun Mendes must feel, I mused, as the total neared the big 1K. 997, 998, 999, 1000. I was tempted to take a screen shot but, before I could, I was at 1001 and galloping off into the distance. This was nuts. Even on my most glorious WordPress days, I’d come nowhere near these kinds of stats. 1002, 1003….

The old Stephen wouldn’t have been able to leave the room at this point, such would have been the size of his head. My ego would have been running amok, day dreaming of fame and fortune in the not too distant future. I would have cracked open a beer and reflected on what a splendid human being I was, oblivious to the many flaws staring back at me in dazzling technicolour.

I’m still far from perfect. So as I sit here, nearing the 1500th like (yes they are still coming, although the raging torrent has now eased to a steady trickle) I see my 15 minutes of Twitter fame for what it really is….15 minutes of Twitter fame. My most recent tweet is sitting at a whopping seven likes. Back to terra firma with a resounding thump. WordPress is still my online home so worry not.

1500 likes means nothing. That’s not why I do this. They cannot be compared to that one heartfelt message or comment from someone who my words truly resonate with, who I have comforted or inspired. They are the people who make it worthwhile, it is they who drag me to my keyboard every morning. To reach out, to connect. The diamonds in the rough, the wheat amongst the chaff. They are why I am here, and why I will continue to remain here.

How Is Your Garden?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me And My Cave

I live in a cave. A social media cave. Called WordPress. You may have heard of it. It’s my safe place, my sanctuary, a refuge where I’ve been able to lick my wounds and heal. When my confidence was at an all time low two years ago I discovered it. It was a new beginning. A chance to start afresh and tentatively expose my writing to a new audience. An audience which I’ve watched grow beyond all expectation.

I would say my WordPress experience has been 99.9% positive. I’ve met some amazing people along the way. Oozing talent, telling their stories, bravely opening their souls to all and sundry. Bloggers encompass a kaleidoscope of genres, interests and values. A more eclectic bunch I’ve never seen. Yet at their core, runs a common thread of goodwill and kindness. Bloggers aren’t nasty. End of.

2019 has necessitated me stepping out of my comfortable, dank cave into the glare of other social media platforms. This has been a disorientating experience. I feel like it’s my first day at a new school and I’m standing in the middle of a packed playground, stark naked. The cool kids point and stare. I want to run away, back to where I belong. Back to WordPress and steady, stable ground.

Instead I find myself on Twitter, an old stamping ground I find baffling and infuriating in equal measure. Everything is a million miles an hour. My efforts at securing a toehold are largely ignored and I’m lost in a screaming melee of other wannabe authors, desperate to be seen and heard. Twitter is me, me, me, the land of the selfie. It’s also possibly the angriest place on earth.

There are a lot of very angry people on Twitter. They have an opinion and they want to share it with us all, and woe betide anyone who dares to think differently. Arguments erupt left, right and centre. A minefield of bitterness and bile. Politics, religion, sexuality, it’s all there. And it’s often the so called oppressed minority groups who reign supreme, bullying and baiting the rest of us into submission.

It’s not a place I want to frequent. The blog appears there and I skirt the edges of its writing community. But I’m wary of fully immersing myself. Before too long, I’m beating a hasty retreat back to my cave and my tribe. WordPress is my online home. It’s where I go at the end of a long, hard day. It’s where I feel appreciated, valued and wanted. It is the antithesis of Twitter. It’s where the good people are.

Then there’s Facebook. My authors page was launched there yesterday. ‘Real’ people now know about the book. People I see every day. I have no idea how they will react to this news. Will I become an object of scorn and ridicule? I hope not, but I worry some may see this as an opportunity to mock and belittle me. It makes me edgy, anxious and defensive. It makes me want the security of the cave.

It takes courage to step out of the cave. Courage I’m not sure I have. But here I am, nonetheless. At least I know, if it all comes tumbling down, I have somewhere I can retreat to, I have people who ‘get’ what I’m doing and will rally round when the wheels come off. I hope that time never comes. My period of hibernation is at an end. I stumble out of the darkness and into the light. It is time. My time.

Digging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m No Hugh Jackman, But….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday With Team Black

Today promises to be exciting. I’ve been approached by a ministry team who are running marathon relays through each of Ireland’s 32 counties this year. This weekend is Week 15 and they arrive in County Armagh. It’s a massive undertaking but they are totally committed to completing the challenge, no matter what obstacles or adverse weather conditions they have to overcome.

The ministry leader, Katey, is an inspiring lady, committed to sharing her love of God and his Word with others. I was thrilled to be asked to participate but not quite so thrilled when told I was pencilled in to run the longest leg – 12 miles along the canal towpath from Scarva to Newry. On the plus side it’s a beautiful, and thankfully flat, route which I’ve never run before. And we have been promised dry weather.

My leg starts at 1:00 pm and I plan to be in Newry by 3:00. Hannah is starting the leg with me and I will meet up with Rebecca near the finish line, to pass on a scroll to her, which all the runners carry to represent the Word of God being carried around the island of Ireland. Each relay is started by a church leader and finished by a young person. Rebecca and Hannah are both super excited to be involved.

As ever, Fionnuala will be holding it all together by driving us to and from various locations and keeping us fed. At the finish line there will be a worship event awash with music and colour. I will be the sweaty mess in the corner, nursing sore feet and guzzling water. But it is a worthwhile event and we are honoured to be involved, representing the Father’s Love ministry, led by our dear friends, Graham and Anne McCartney.

It’s been an eventful week and, what better way to end it than this. I’ll post an update later today, hopefully with photographs of us all. In the meantime, any prayers and positive thoughts for Team Black would be much appreciated. I see honeycomb ice cream in my future later this evening. Lots and lots of honeycomb ice cream. What are you all up to this weekend?

The Breaking Even Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Sorry I Don’t Say Sorry Enough

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

So, sorry….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you good at saying sorry?

Who do you need to apologise to today?

Bury A Friend: My Experiences With The Unfriend Button

I haven’t been active on Facebook in many years, but have recently begun to dip my toe back into that social media swamp. I’m starting afresh so need to have a massive purge of my old account. This has necessitated me hitting the ‘unfriend’ button repeatedly as I clear my timeline of those who I never had any connection with in the first place. It’s a cull, a cleansing, an online reorganisation of my life. In a way cathartic, but also a tad guilt ridden.

I wonder what it would be like to be on the receiving end of this unfollow frenzy. Do those affected even notice, or somewhere have I hurt somebody, left them feeling unwanted and discarded? Due to the nature of my previous account, I have never spoken to nor met the vast majority of these people. Yet still, I feel a tiny prick of my conscience every time I hit that button. Am I really that thoughtless, that callous, that cold?

I’ve been on the receiving end of the unfriend button, both online and in real life. I believe the former is known as ‘ghosting,’ where a person makes the decision to cut you out of their life, without explanation. I’ve felt snubbed by those who have turned their backs on me, when I’ve been on my knees and in need of true friendship and support. People who I thought cared about me, wanted to be part of my world.

It’s not a nice feeling, and so easy to wallow in self pity, asking yourself why they are being like this and what have you done wrong. You pick at the scab, over and over again, until fresh blood is drawn. The obsessive personality refuses to let it heal if its own accord, you dissect and over analyse in forensic detail the reasons why you are no longer good enough to merit their attention or time.

It’s not a pleasant feeling and a guaranteed way to plummet down a rabbit hole into a Mad Hatters pity party of quite epic proportions. You become the failure they have painted you as, you look in their eyes and see their perception of you, the failure, the inadequacies, the weaknesses. You fail to see the truth, and swallow the bitter pill they have shoved down your throat. You consume the lie they force feed you with.

Look around and take in the truth. The truth is in the eyes of those who remain. The family and friends who have stuck by you, even at times when the wheels have threatened to come off and send us all screaming over the edge of the precipice. They are the truth, and they are all that matters. Not the flatterers, the fairweather friends, the false and the fake. Discard them like an old coat and keep walking forward.

This is an exciting time for me. A major promotion at work, on the verge of publishing my first book and running a blog which has succeeded my wildest dreams. A fantastic running opportunity has also landed in my lap this week and I am loved by people around me who are all I need. I am in a good place, light years from where I was previously. The negativity, the depression, the unhappiness are nowhere to be seen.

And I realise. I needed to be unfriended. It was a necessary evil, a cauterisation of a festering wound which was threatening to infect my entire being. I am free of that life now, free to rebuild and live the life I was born to live. I have what I need as I head towards my birthday on Sunday. So, hit that button all you want, batter it, but you will not batter me into submission. For I am starting again.

What have been your experiences of unfollowing, unfriending and ghosting?

Happy Birthday To Me….Well Almost

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

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

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

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

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

He Is Risen

Good Morning WordPress.

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

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

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

I’m a walking, talking testimony to that.

Don’t give up.

There is still hope.

For….

He is Risen.

Let’s Start Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting today.

Do you want to start all over again?

I’ve Got 99 Bibles….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the Gory Into Glory

The other day I posted about running the Omagh Half Marathon on Saturday. And, sad man that I am, I spent a good part of yesterday evening scrolling through the race’s Facebook page in an effort to find a half decent photo of me crossing the finish line. I wanted to capture that moment of glory, of triumph, the culmination of several months toil and turmoil.

In my mind’s eye, I strode over the finish line like a Greek God, the sole focus of the crowd’s adoring cheers. ‘Isn’t that Stephen Black?’ they murmured to one another. ‘The renowned blogger and talented, if unpublished, author? He runs as well? Is there no end to this man’s talent?’ There would be hearty handshakes and back slaps all round as I bounded home, as fresh as a daisy.

The reality was, of course, somewhat different. I’m just one sweaty, gasping middle aged man lost in a field of other runners. If I resemble a Greek God, then it’s certainly not one who adorns art galleries and museums. I’m not punching the air in triumph, rather fiddling with my stopwatch and begging for the agony to end. I have run the race but, rather than wax lyrical, all I want to do is lie down.

It was glory of sorts, but the most gory sort of glory. It was aches and pains, and not the perfect, pretty picture I naively expected. Not all successes are ticker tape parades and front page news. Many are quiet acts of determination. Glory is most often an ugly, solitary act, gone in the blink of an eye as the next hurdle looms up on the horizon. Yet, you did it, and that’s all that matters.

What are your thoughts on gory glory?

Why I Won’t Be Lying For Another 364 Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever struggled with the truth?

How real are you online?

Why I’m Pulling Out Of The Belfast Marathon

I decided to pull out of the Belfast Marathon today. It would have been my tenth but I realised I was fighting a losing battle and was nowhere near ready for it, both physically and mentally. I’m disappointed with myself but I knew it could well have been an even bigger disappointment had I turned up on the day unprepared. Marathons are brutal. They will chew you up and spit you out if they see a chink in your armour.

The disappointment and frustration is also tinged with relief. I was dreading the prospect of long training runs on my own which would have eaten into the already limited time I have at the weekend. I’ve been without a running buddy for some time now and, while I largely enjoy running on my own, it’s tough plodding 20 miles along deserted country roads with nobody to keep you company and take your mind off the discomfort and pain.

I still plan to run the Omagh Half Marathon next Saturday. It’s my home town and I’ve already paid the entry fee so I’m determined not to miss out on it. There will be less pressure on me now and I’d be happy to complete the course in 2 hours. That’s almost 1/2 hour slower than my Personal Best but my days of killing myself to run faster and faster are long behind me. I’m 100% with my place further down the field these days.

Running, for me now, is about keeping fit and mentally healthy. It makes me a better husband, father and person. I’m not interested in strutting about adorned in medals and bragging about my exploits on social media. That was the old me. Which is why I love writing on WordPress. It’s me. Good days, bad days. What you see is what you get. Warts and all. 26.2 miles can wait for now.

Are You A Confident Person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a confident person?

Have you a big decision looming on the horizon?

How do you combat the nagging voice of doubt?

Don’t Try This At Home Kids

Any distance runner knows that Vaseline is their best friend. I’ve seen and heard enough horror stories to realise that. Grown men weeping as they cross the finish line in blood soaked t shirts, their nipples red raw and on fire. And don’t get me started on the joys of inner thigh chafing. Who needs a knife wielding Anthony Perkins when you can run 15 miles without Vaseline and then create your own horrific shower scene.

I always make sure I have a tub on hand. When I run out, I steal a dollop from Hannah before I hit the roads, much to her disgust. ‘Ewwwww Daddy, I put that on my lips and you rub it on your….’ I’m always finding new ways to embarrass our teenage daughter but prancing about in public dressed in bright orange Under Armour while smothered in Vaseline is a hard one to beat.

Only an idiot would embark on a run without their bits and bobs suitably protected from the horrors of chafing. Or so you would think. Two days ago I headed out on a lunchtime spin around the Titanic Quarter of Belfast. I’m slowly upping the mileage again as I recover from the latest bout of illness to have laid me low. I thought I was well equipped and had everything I needed before setting off from home that morning.

How wrong I was. No Vaseline. I weighed up the options before shrugging my shoulders and deciding to chance it. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was tackling a 26.2 mile trek. This was a gentle training spin over a fraction of the distance. I’ll be alright. So off I sauntered, throwing caution to the wind. An hour later I hobbled back into the office, a broken man. Think John Wayne in business attire and you’re not a million miles off the mark.

It felt as though my thighs had been attacked by a sandpaper wielding maniac. I had been flayed alive. Every step was tortuous and my 15 minute walk later in the afternoon to the train station was a trail of tears. Fellow commuters shot me concerned looks as I crawled onto the platform, wincing every time trouser fabric caressed skin. Crawling home over broken glass would have been more fun. And less painful.

I won’t repeat what Fionnuala said to me when I arrived home but it was words to the effect of ‘Have you had an accident in your trousers my poor, darling husband?’ I can always rely on her to cut the chase on such matters. The remainder of the evening was an uncomfortable ordeal. I arranged myself on the sofa, smothered in Sudocrem, unwilling to budge an inch for fear of much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

48 hours later and I’m thankfully recovered. I’m out running again later today but won’t be taking a step out the door unless I’m smothered in the good stuff. I’ve learnt my lesson, and a very painful one at that. The mind is a fickle mistress. She often seeks to diminish and soften past memories. They become dim recollections, easy to brush aside as we stumble on towards similar calamities. The penny never drops.

Pain can be a good thing. Sometimes we need it. It is the red flag warning us there are dangers further up the road. The rest then is up to us. Do we blithely ignore it, hit the accelerator and hurtle round the next bend to face our fate? Or do we stop, frown and think back to the last time we faced such a dilemma. Before taking a step back and sheepishly reaching for the Vaseline?

How do you use pain as a warning system in your life?

What’s been your worst chafing experience? Do share. I promise not to breathe a word of it to anyone.

Are You A Wall Builder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you constructed walls in your life?

Are they healthy? Necessary?

I’m Exactly What It Says On The Tin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Beating Yourself Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you still beat yourself up about the past?

Do you ever bump into ghosts from your past?

How do you move on?

What Is Your Worst Habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your bad habits?

Does madness lurk within you?

Sticking Your Head Above The Parapets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are your favourite fantasy authors?

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

Do You Believe In Yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you believe in yourself?

What makes a good blogger?

I Didn’t Want To Write Today

I didn’t want to write today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you write?

What do words mean to you?

Are you battered, blessed or both?

An Apology To My Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blind Leading The Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you in need of spiritual direction?

We All Need To Eat More Pizza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favourite pizza topping?

Can your leaders agree on anything?

The Day My Dog Spoke To Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These Boots Were Made For….Squelching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a social chameleon?

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

Are you happy in your own skin?

What Do Bloggers Do On Sunday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you spend your Sunday?

This Bloody Sleeve Of Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you wear your heart on your sleeve?

Are you a patient person?

How do you deal with frustration and disappointment?

The Land Is Yours

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

The land is yours….

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

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

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

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

The land was mine….

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

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

The land is yours….

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

Is the land yours?

I Interviewed A Dying Man….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you fulfilling your potential?

What more can you do with your life?

The Day The World Went Mad….Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

How mad is your world today?

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

A Sneak Peek For You All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And So It Begins….

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

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

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

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

How are coping with your grind today?

The Days When Everything Clicks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The days when everything clicks.

The 12 Blogging Questions of Christmas – Day 2 – Why Do You Blog?

Good evening from blustery Northern Ireland. Thank you to everyone who took part yesterday. Some great suggestions. Today I’m going to revert to the topic of blogging, and why we do it. Some of us are frequent bloggers, others less so, but we all share a love of the written word. Getting our thoughts out there and sharing them with the big, bad world.

The question is simple.

The answer possibly less so.

Why do you blog?

Attitude Changes Behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something Has Been On My Mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Hurts. Most of the Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you hurting today?

Are you embracing the hurt?

The Try That Never Was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on the try that never was?

How competitive are you? Are you a bad loser?

Have you ever experienced somebody cheating in order to win?

I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus But….

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

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

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

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

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

Them: ‘Santa.’

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

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

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

Is Santa Claus coming to your house this Christmas?

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

How do you stick to your beliefs and values?

Can You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Was Too Good To Eat….So I Ate It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s 23 November….Happy Christmas!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When does Christmas start in your house?

Who puts the decorations up in your home?

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

Why do all Christmas movies have the same plot?

Happy Thanksgiving From Ireland

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

How are you Thanksgiving Day?

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

What NFL/College team do you follow?

Homeless Jesus

Soooooo…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you make of ‘Homeless Jesus’?

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

My Week’s Been Meh – How About You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your week going?

When did you last feel meh?

How did you emerge from the other side?

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

We woke up to vile weather this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Persistent Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How persistent are you at loving others?

When did you last miss an important phone call?

How Did That Happen?

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

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you all.

Are You A Morning Person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to try again this morning….

Are you a morning person?

Are you too hard on yourself?

Or can you try harder than you have been?

I’m Not A Fussy Eater But….

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

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

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

But apart from that, I’m good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which foods can you not stomach?

Are you true to yourself and the watching world?

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

Choosing Grace Over The Grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you socially awkward?

What are your coping mechanisms?

Do you shun social events?

The Winning Ticket – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you believe in the afterlife?

Why I Love Being Rubbish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you control your ego?

God Remembers – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

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

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

Do you feel life has passed you by?

That God hasn’t heard your prayers?

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

Unsung Heroes

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

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

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

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

Who are the unsung heroes in your life?

Getting Back On The Horse Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you get back on the horse again?

Is Your Glass Half Empty Or Half Full?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is your glass half empty or half full today?

Separate your needs from your greeds

Thankful-Grateful-Blessed.jpg

October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month and as most of you know we have been blessed with our very own Spina Bifida Warrior Princess Hannah.  You can read our story about finding out about Hannah’s diagnosis in The Butterfly which was actually my first ever blog.  We of course love everything about Hannah and wouldn’t change anything about her and we are and will be forever be grateful for having her in our lives and are thankful that she continues to defy her original diagnosis.

Gratefulness is a word that has been popping into my head a lot of late.  So many of us always look at our lives as a glass half empty rather than half full and never look at the bigger picture.  We are never happy with what we have and crave for something else be it loosing weight, a car like so and so down the street, marriage, friendship, promotion the list can go on and on.

I once found myself moaning and complaining about the kids acting up and misbehaving in front of a couple who have had major difficulties in getting pregnant and weren’t able to have kids and I when I caught myself on I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me I was so embarrassed and ashamed of myself.  From then on I have always tried to think before I speak and be thankful for the things that I have.

A few years back I decided that I was going to try and go back to work, which I did for 15 months before I wised up and resigned.  In those 15 months I discovered exactly what was right under my nose and I couldn’t see it.  I had a husband, three amazing children and a home that needed my attention.  I had been selfish and had put my own needs before that of my family.

My mum has a saying “separate your needs from your greeds” I don’t often like to admit when my mum is right but when you think of it it is true.  We always want something else what we have is never enough.

At the weekend I set a challenge on my Facebook page for people to list something in their lives that they are grateful for and not one person commented.  Why aren’t we happy with what we have?

I am thankful for the life that I have it is not perfect but I am thankful for it anyway.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.       1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 16

What are you thankful for today?

Where Is The God Of My Father?

Where is the God of my Father

Who rescued the lame and the blind?

Where is the God of my Father

Who poured healing oil on my mind?

Kill the will

Take the pill

Numb the thrill

Make me still.

Synaptic relapse

Serotonin collapse

Raging impasse

Stifling morass.

So taste the drill

Run the mill

Surgeons skill

Make me still.

Where is the God of my Father

Now that I’m naked and numb?

Where is the God of my Father

Alone on a slab, splayed and shunned?

Living with an OCD Sufferer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

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

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

Is God Really Good?

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

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

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

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

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

God is Good.

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

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

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

What are your views on lazy language?

What was your English teacher like?

Care to share your experiences of Christian cliches?

What words would you use to describe God?

Today….I Must Be Honest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tooth Will Set You Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your relationship with the truth?

Which Book Of The Bible Should I Start With?

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

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

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

Views of Christians and non-Christians both welcome.

Are You On The Right Tracks This Morning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What train are you boarding this morning?

What’s been your worst commute to work?

Why I Need To Start Reading My Bible Again

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

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

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

I cannot see without them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your faith journey today?

How important is the Bible in your life?

Has it always been that way?

Happy Birthday Anne!

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

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

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

When God Falls Silent

It is written

Mitigation

Twisting truths

To quote verbatim

Spare the child

And spoil the rod

Worshiping

Your silent god.

Verses, Curses

Robed Subversives

Empty hearts

Yet flowing purses

Holy men with hollow souls

Break the rules, you pay the toll

Creaking bridges

Lurking trolls

Faster, Faster

Master, Master

Bend the knee

To plastic pastors.

How Can A Fractured Faith Blog Be Improved?

The blog continues to grow and, of late, has been a bit of a pot pourri with regards topics and themes. I’ve posted three poems in the last week, very unlike me I know. Yet, I’ve woken up with the words in my head and felt no option but to write and post them. I have no idea if they are any good but I’ve received some lovely comments which have cheered and encouraged me.

I also posted a Christian blog yesterday about the martyrdom of Stephen. I would describe myself as a Christian who blogs as opposed to a Christian blogger, but occasionally am led to dip my quill into more reflective, spiritual waters. The post has fared poorly which surprised me a little as the blog has a sizeable Christian following who normally support such posts.

Family life also inspires many of my posts. There are not many days that pass without some comedy gem at chez Black. As I am normally on the receiving end of these, I feel compelled to write about it. Fionnuala and Rebecca post occasionally while updates on Adam and Hannah also feature. I’m keen to stress that this blog is about more than me. Otherwise my ego runs unchecked, which nobody wants to see.

I occasionally write about my job and work colleagues. I seriously could write a book about this but, given the sensitive nature of my employment, I can only discuss it in the broadest of brush strokes. Maybe one day I will be able to open up a little more about it. I don’t mean to be secretive but I like getting a monthly pay cheque and this could be scuppered if my bosses discovered I was spilling the beans.

My struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) lies at the heart of me and, therefore, my writing. I’m passionate about educating people about this often misunderstood mental illness. It never fails to amaze me how uneducated many are concerning OCD; they regard it as the comedy cousin of mental health as opposed to the horrific, crippling disorder it really is. OCD ruins lives. OCD ends lives.

The eponymous hero of my debut novel – The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ is a victim of OCD. I post weekly updates about the progress of the book but, again, can only disclose so much, for obvious reasons. People seem interested in the book and I hope it sees the light of day in some format, even if that means serialising it on the blog. It’s a planned trilogy but we will see. No point writing three books if everybody hates the first one.

Which brings me to my running posts which sink without trace most times. I understand that us runners are interminable bores, and only fellow running geeks can be bothered hearing of our latest exploits. There will be less of them in the months to come as, after the disaster that was the Causeway Coast Marathon, I have no plans to race again until next spring. I will still keep my training runs going, but over lesser distances.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I want to know what you would like to read more of; are there topics you would like to hear more, or less, about? What do you like and what are you less keen to peruse? Are there new topics I could cover? I’m willing to consider anything, within reason. I’ll hand it over to you now and look forward to reading, and responding to, your comments. Thank you again.

Start Playing The Martyr

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

‘Stop playing the martyr….’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you learn from the story of Stephen?

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!!

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