How To Break Bad News To Your Wife….And Get Away With It

Fionnuala is always the first up in our house on week days, busying herself making lunches, ironing uniforms and the million and one other things she has to do to get three kids and a husband out the front door in the morning. It’s chaos, but organised chaos. I normally arrive downstairs 15 minutes or so after her, having spent the preceding time making myself beautiful in the bathroom. Or something like that.

This morning I discovered my wife humming along to some tune on the radio. I sniffed an opportunity to tackle our plans for the weekend….or rather my plans for the weekend. Adam has a rugby match on Saturday morning, while in the afternoon there was the Ireland v Wales rugby international. Probably the biggest match of the season and utterly unmissable.

Then there’s the small matter of Manchester United v Wolverhampton Wanderers in the F.A. Cup Quarter Final after that. Probably the biggest match of the season and utterly unmissable. Basically I was seizing a window of opportunity to tell my beloved, overworked better half that I intended to devote the majority of the day to watching sport. Or sports as my North American readers call it.

Men and their sport eh? Er…sports. Oh….whatever. Fionnuala is not a sports fan, while I will watch almost any sporting event. Although I’m not that keen on golf. Or tennis for that matter. But give me football (soccer), rugby or the NFL and I’m glued to the screen. If I was allowed to get away with it. Thankfully, she manages to divert my attention to more rewarding endeavours. Like starting this blog, writing a book, getting up and behaving like a functioning human being most days.

We’ve been together for 22 years now and have survived via compromise on many topics. Give and take. I’m not a total sporting bore. I’ll only watch a game if one of my teams is involved. Which means United, Ulster, Ireland, the Redskins and Tyrone GAA. I’ve cut down on my celebrations over the years, satisfying myself these days with a strangled roar and muted fist pump whenever they score.

To compensate, Fionnuala has unlimited access to her soaps throughout the week. Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Neighbours, need I go on. The same goes for her legendary box sets binges. After the summer long digestion of Breaking Bad a few years back, she is currently immersed in The Good Wife. And don’t get me started on her obsession with Blue Bloods. Although Selleck’s moustache looks as magnificent as it was in his Magnum P.I. days.

We don’t hide the remote control on each other. We have middle ground which we both comfortably inhabit as opposed to peeking out of our respective trenches across a no man’s land of bomb craters and barbed wire fences. We are flexible and accommodating. An attribute it has taken my self centred, selfish inner voice many years to come to terms with. But I’m getting there, slowly.

Fionnuala jokingly sighed when I tentatively broached the subject this morning, but I knew it wouldn’t be a problem. Just as it’s not a problem me writing this post as she devours Season 5 of The Good Wife. The white flag of truce flutters over chez Black. Peace has broken out in the battle of the remote control. Now come on United. Let’s go Ireland. And where’s that tub of honeycomb ice cream and six pack of Diet Coke?

Who wins the battle of the remote control in your house?

What was the last show you binge watched?

Do you ever miss a game when your favourite team or on TV?

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.

Do You Say Yes When You Mean No?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

My Valentines Date With Mrs Hinch

You can never accuse my wife and I of not being romantic. Yesterday, as a pre Valentines Day treat, Fionnuala took me shopping….for cleaning products. You see, my better half has recently become obsessed with a number of home improvement gurus on social media. As a result, our home has been glistening despite the best efforts of a slovenly husband and three chaotic hatchlings to undo all her good work.

Who are these people? Well, I’m glad you asked. Firstly there’s Marie Kondo, a diminutive Japanese lady who appears to have taken over the world, such is her current status. I was introduced to her via her television show where she sweeps elegantly into the cluttered houses of messy Americans to restore calm and order. She declutters, in a brutally efficient manner.

Less is more. She is the queen of minimalism. The episode I watched, she was rifling through wardrobes, encouraging her baffled victims (I mean clients) to talk to their clothes and tell them they loved them. Before promptly chucking the majority of it in the bin. Throughout, she maintains a fixed smile on her face, nodding and bowing to all and sundry, while explaining her philosophy to an ever present translator.

Then there’s Sophie ‘Mrs Hinch’ Hinchcliffe. This woman is literally everywhere, with an army of Instagram followers. Fionnuala follows her cleaning tips with religious fervour. It’s like a cult, a very clean cult, where everyone brandishes feather dusters instead of bibles and there are no shoot outs with federal agents. Well, not that I know of anyway. Mrs Hinch rules our house with a rod of glistening iron.

Yesterday, I was introduced to a whole new world. I discovered what a scrub buddy was, became an authority on fabric conditioners and a plethora of other products. Fionnuala ooohed and aaaahed as she dragged me up and down the aisles like a seven year old in a toy shop the week before Christmas. All in order to stock up her cleaning cupboard, or ‘Narnia’ as Hinchers refer to it.

Fionnuala’s Narnia cupboard terrifies it. It’s like a holy shrine and woe betide the person who plunders it unbeknownst to her. Every item has a place and she can tell, can tell I tells ya, if anything is a millimetre out of place. Narnia is a scary place. C.S. Lewis would be turning in his grave if he had an inkling what Mrs Hinch was up to, with Mr. Tumnus and the talking beavers nowhere to be seen.

Fionnuala has always been houseproud and spends most of her life running around picking up after me and the kids. I like to think I do my bit around the house but she does a mountain of unheralded tasks when we are out at work and school. She’s the glue who holds us all together. Personally, I’m a shambles without her encouragement, advice and practical wisdom. She is an unsung hero.

So thank you Mrs Hinch and Domo Arigato Marie Kondo. There’s clean and then there’s Hinch clean. There’s tidy and then there’s Kondo tidy. There’s love and then there’s Fionnuala love. A love which she selflessly shares with us on a daily basis. Even when I leave the toilet seat up, forget to put away the bread or wreak havoc to her Narnia cupboard. Happy Valentines Day. We love you.

Are you a cleaning freak? Or a slovenly mess? Leave your comments below.

I’m The Acceptable Face Of Stalking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the nature of obsessive behaviour.

Part 2 later today….

Are you guilty of obsessive behaviour?

Do you know when to stop?

Sticking Your Head Above The Parapets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are your favourite fantasy authors?

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

Do You Believe In Yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you believe in yourself?

What makes a good blogger?

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?

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?

2019….We Go Again

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

We go again….

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

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

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

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

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

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

We go again. We go together.

What are your 2019 goals?

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.

Stop The World….I’ve Lost My Kindle

If you asked me what three items I would take onto a desert island (go on, ask me) I’d probably plump for my glasses, a lifetime supply of Diet Coke (surely that counts as one item?!) and my beloved Kindle Fire. You see, I read….a lot. And the Kindle is my way of stashing hundreds of books without Fionnuala shouting at me for the clutter around the house. Happiness is a new book on the Kindle. Assuming the island has wifi of course.

All that changed a couple of months ago when my favourite electronic device went AWOL. MIA. It vanished. At first I assumed it would turn up as misplaced items tend to do in our house. Or rather, Fionnuala would find it for me. But as the weeks passed, there was no sign of the prodigal paper substitute. I even, shock horror, started to look for it. But it had vanished. Like the Marie Celeste. Gone.

The mystery niggled at me increasingly. Searches under various pieces of furniture proved negative and I began to worry. Had I actually lost it? How could that be, given I rarely take it out of the house. I was resorting to squinting at the Kindle app on my phone. I was even considering the unthinkable, purchasing a real book. You know, with pages. Real paper pages.

My whining increased to such levels that by Christmas morning, Fionnuala had enough and took it upon herself to search for the offending item. She tutted, climbed the stairs and entered our bedroom. I followed her, safe in the knowledge I had turned the room upside down and the Kindle was not there. No way, was she making a fool of me by placing her hands on it within seconds.

She strode over to my side of the bed and began to rummage through an old briefcase where I store random bits of paperwork. Pah, I sniffed. I’ve searched there at least a dozen times. What does she take me for, some sort of buffoon. I froze as, after a cursory search, she stood up and flung the Kindle Fire in my direction. There followed a brief exchange of words, where my wife gently challenged various aspects of my intellect and wisdom.

Once this loving verbal wave had washed over me, and I’d recovered from the shame and embarrassment of being an incompetent numpty, it was as if I had received a new Christmas present. I charged up the Kindle and proceeded to surf Amazon for all sorts of cut price bargains and new releases. All at a fraction of the price I would have paid for them on the high street. Check out this lot.

  • The Cruel Prince – Holly Black
  • Eat, Drink, Run – Bryony Gordon
  • How To Stop Time – Matt Haig
  • Into The Water – Paula Hawkins
  • Echoes – Laura Tisdall
  • Dreamlander – K..M Weiland
  • The Grey Bastards – Jonathan French
  • My Thoughts Exactly – Lily Allen

All for £20! But here’s where I need your help. I still have a few Christmas shekels left. Can you recommend a book to add to my collection? My favourite genres are fantasy and dark thrillers but I’m open to all your suggestions. I also have an interest in biographies that focus on mental health and addictive behaviour. Leave your comments below. I’m looking forward to reading them all.

What books can you recommend to me?

Have you ever lost anything and it’s been under your nose all along?

I’m Twitter Famous….Except I’m Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Hurts. Most of the Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you hurting today?

Are you embracing the hurt?

It Is Finished

It is finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you ever feel undervalued at work?

How do you handle pressure and deadlines?

Are you where you want to be in life?

Keep Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Persistent Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How persistent are you at loving others?

When did you last miss an important phone call?

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

Now I’m not one to pass comment but….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Did That Happen?

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

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you all.

Are You A Morning Person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to try again this morning….

Are you a morning person?

Are you too hard on yourself?

Or can you try harder than you have been?

I’m Not A Fussy Eater But….

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

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

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

But apart from that, I’m good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which foods can you not stomach?

Are you true to yourself and the watching world?

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

The Winning Ticket – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you believe in the afterlife?

The Winning Ticket – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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?

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.

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.

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?

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?

I’m A Bit Broken

I’m a bit broken

Words rarely spoken

The truth

Tastes so bitter and strange, clay emotions.

Barely alive

Rotten inside

Dead to a world

Where I once loved and thrived.

Cursed with routines

Obsessive dreams

Compulsive acts

Mask stifling screams.

Speculate, ruminate

Gnaw, then regurgitate

Cyclical sickness

These images dominate.

Falling apart

An effortless art

Yet smiling serenely

As I play the part.

A role on a stage

A turn of the page

You don’t even know me

Bird trapped in a cage.

Battered and bruised

Torn and abused

This was my past

Now my present, reused.

Infected, rejected

Defective, Subjective

I yearn for release

From this pain undetected.

For I’m a bit broken

Words finally spoken

Praying they free me

Desperately hoping.

Are you a bit broken?

All feedback and comments gratefully received?

A Bad Day At The Office

I ran my 9th marathon today along when I tackled 26 Extreme’s Causeway Coast Marathon. It was brutal. Hilly trails, clifftop sections, slipping and sliding over stiles and through muddy fields. Not forgetting the windy beach sections where you literally clambered over rocks and little else. I won’t tell you my finishing time, for it was horrible. But I did finish. Somehow.

I fell twice, once in sheep poo. I was stung by nettles, I ache all over. I endured a nagging toothache for the entire 26.2 miles, which erupted at the finish line leaving me nauseous and dizzy in the recovery room. I was disappointed and embarrassed crossing the finish line, but now that I’m home I realise, if nothing else, I didn’t give up. Even when all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and die.

We all have bad days at the office. This was a tough one for me. I’m used to success during races. Personal bests and attaining training goals. That hasn’t been happening this year and it most certainly didn’t happen today. I flopped. I’m not sure, but this could well have been my last marathon. I had set myself a target of ten but don’t know if I could put my body through that again.

Time will tell. I realised today I’m not Superman. I bit off more than I could chew and ignored the advice of people who advised me not to run today. I’m physically and mentally exhausted. I will take a break from marathon training for a while and give my body time to recover. Which will mean less running related posts. Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess. They’re usually my lowest viewed.

HHow do you handle disappointment?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.

Do You Write Truthfully?

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

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

‘Would you like a wee cup of tea?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth is in the Word.

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

Do you read blogs in other accents?

What words or expressions are unique to your dialect?

Do you speak and write the truth?

Waking Up Hungover When I Haven’t Been Drinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know where your demons are today?

Our Eleven Year Old Daughter Has Moved Out

There is never a dull moment at chez Black and this weekend has been no exception. But it has been a little quieter than usual. The reason? Rebecca, our youngest daughter, has been sleeping over at her Granny’s house in Belfast. This was initially meant to be a single night sleepover but she announced to Fionnuala yesterday, who had called to pick her up, that she was staying another night as she was having so much fun.

Adam and Hannah were overjoyed at the news. No more annoying little sister barging into their rooms and asking a million and one pointless questions. Hannah actually punched the air in delight when I told her. Ahhhh, sisterly love. Biscuit and crisp supplies have also been notably healthier. Who knew an eleven year old girl could eat so much? The house has also been considerably tidier.

No more trainers lying on the floor where they have been hurriedly kicked off. No bicycles or scooters abandoned in the front driveway just waiting to be stolen by the first opportunistic thief who wanders by. Dishes have been washed, dried and put away instead of left in messy piles by the sink or found three weeks later cultivating alien organisms in the dark abyss that is her bedroom.

I have been missing my comedy sidekick, however. She is the only member of the family who appreciates my Dad dancing and rapping. She laughs at all my jokes even when I know they’re not funny. We talk in silly voices and watch Nickelodeon together. I now feel like I am an only child, sharing the house with three disapproving, eye rolling ‘grown ups’. I am Embarrassing Dad as opposed to Cool Daddy. It’s a tough gig.

I messaged her last night to express my loneliness. I expected empathy, understanding, perhaps compassion. Her reply was a suggestion that I play with Charlie, the border terrier. Sheesh! Eleven year olds can be brutal. And besides, Charlie seemed much more interested in licking his nether regions as opposed to entertaining the human who feeds and homes him. There’s gratitude for you.

She will return later today and normal service will be resumed. It will be World War III. Fionnuala will scream at her for not bringing down her clothes for washing, Adam will scream at her for barging into his room unannounced and Hannah will scream at her because well….that’s what older sisters do to their siblings. Her and I will talk in silly voices, exchange jokes about unicorn poo and binge on Haribos.

The house has felt empty without her. We have all missed Rebecca in our own ways, just like I know she would miss one of us if we were away. It’s weird and a little disquieting to see her empty bed in the morning. We are a family and when one of us is away it feels as if we are missing a limb. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age but I like having us all under the same roof at the end of the day.

Sometimes you only appreciate your most precious commodities when they are not there. Fionnuala and I joke about the joy and freedom we will experience when the kids eventually move out but I also dread that day. We need to harvest hay while the sun shines and make the most of these times. The together times. For one day my little girl will be all grown up and unicorn poo jokes will be a thing of the past.

How do you cope with an empty house when family members are away?

Jokes about unicorn poo are hilarious. Discuss?

What are your views on Dad rapping?

How Are You Really Feeling Today?

This may come across as a bit personal but I’m asking the question anyway – how are you feeling today? Sad? Happy? Worried? Hopeful? Every day of our lives we are exposed to a diverse range of scenarios which impact upon our mood and outlook on life. These can be temporary and superficial or more serious and long standing. How we respond to them moulds our character and shapes our personality. It contributes towards who we are.

So many of us though are reluctant to show the world how we truly feel. It feels….well wrong. Especially if those feelings are not what are expected by our peers. So we wear a mask, we play a role and when asked reply cheerily that everything is fine when in fact it is anything but. We lie to our loved ones and to ourselves. It is necessary in order to fit in, to be accepted. Nobody has time for worry warts or harbingers of doom, right?

I’ve seen it in the workplace, the church and many other social settings. People running around with smiles plastered on their faces when inside they are falling apart. They are afraid to admit they are struggling for fear of what others will think of them. It is both a vicious circle and an ever decreasing one. Why wear your heart on your sleeve when you can bury it under layers of empty words and glib cliches.

I used to be like that. When my father died eight years ago I was expected by some to carry on. There was a funeral to organise and a million and one other matters to attend to. I didn’t have time to grieve. I recall going home that first night and drinking beer in the living room after everyone else had gone to bed. It was to become a ritual that religiously adhered to for the next few years. Yet to the outside world I was a rock.

Inside I was a frightened little boy. Struggling with a loss that it was impossible to rationalise. How could a sore hip that everyone thought was a gardening injury suddenly become terminal prostate cancer? How did so many doctors, consultants and other specialists miss it? How did I miss it? How did I ever think he was going to get better when the evidence that he was not was staring us all in the face?

My father was dying and I was fine. My father died and I was fine. My father was dead and I was fine. Yet I wasn’t fine. I was anything but fine. I wanted to scream at the heavens and claw at the earth like a crazed, feral animal. I wanted things to be as they were before. I wanted to say goodbye properly, I wanted to say sorry, I wanted to say all the unsaid words which instead lay festering on my conscience.

It was only when I started writing that I found the means to lance the boil. This has been a painful, ugly but ultimately cleansing and liberating process. I have allowed the mask to slip and finally looked in the mirror. I see the real me staring back, not the distorted charade I used to be. I’ve thrown away the crutches and stand tall now. What you see is what you get. I wear my scars like trophies of war.

What would you see if you allowed the mask to slip? Would it be good, bad, ugly? Or perhaps a combination of all three. It takes courage and not all of us are at that stage of our journey yet. But ultimately in order to heal we must first reveal. Reveal the truth for what it is and face it unashamed and unbowed. Give the real you a fighting chance to show the world the real reason you were placed upon it. You can only accomplish that by dropping the act.

How are you really feeling today?

How often do you put on a performance for the watching world?

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?

We All Have A Little Gollum In Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a Gollum or a Sméagol?

Do you struggle with worry and doubt?

Hands Up If You’re Tired?

Hands up who’s tired?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How tired are you today?

How do you combat tiredness?

Losing The Battle….Winning The War

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year.

Are you winning your battle?

What does the voice in your head say?

99% Of You Won’t Read This….But I’m Okay With That

I love the eclectic bunch of people who follow this blog. One of the joys of writing is meeting and interacting with other folk who, ordinarily, you would never have an opportunity to engage with. People who share your worldview and people who don’t. All walks of life converge on WordPress to create a wonderful creative stew of humanity. Community is the oxygen of blogging. Without it we wither and wilt.

This blog currently has over 6400 followers, an amazing figure given that we have only been up and running for fifteen months. It has exceeded our wildest dreams and I’m often left scratching my head as to why people keep hitting the follow button. We are grateful for every one of you and our blogging door will always be open. We encourage healthy debate and interaction no matter where you come from and what your beliefs are.

But it’s not all rosy in the garden. I’ve written before about the downside of blogging. The posts that sink without a trace for no apparent reason, the occasional not so complimentary comment and the hard work involved in writing original material on a regular basis. The post I put up yesterday got 68 views. 68. That means that roughly 1% of our followers read it. Approximately a tenth of them commented on said post.

99% of people just kept on scrolling down their feeds. That’s quite a stark statistic when viewed in the cold light of day. A statistic that could wreak havoc amidst my fragile self confidence if I allowed it to. People hate my writing which means that they hate me. I’m a bore, I’m a failure, I’m a fraud who will never amount to anything. This is the voice that whispers constantly in my ear, seducing me with its distorted version of the truth.

Raw statistics can be manipulated. They are malleable. Just ask any politician. Yes, I can brood over the 99% and feel sorry for myself. That would be the old Stephen. Or I can focus on the 1%, the people who cared enough to give up a portion of their precious time to read and comment. To share their wisdom and humour with me. The regular visitors, those who drop by once in a while and others who I will never hear from again. They made the post a worthwhile exercise.

Focusing on the 99% is selfish. Focusing on the 1% is selfless. It is a subtle, yet mammoth, shift in perspective, one that has taken me many years to acknowledge, let alone regularly practice. I am here to serve others, not feed my own ravenous ego. For, once you start, it can never be satisfied and the incessant hunger will drive you over the edge and into the abyss. The darkest and most lonely of places.

I have no idea how many likes or views this post will get. That’s not the point. The point is that it reaches out to one person and makes a positive impact on their day. If I can achieve that then my work is done here. Focus on the 1%. For that is where the real treasure is buried. They are the reason you will keep returning to your keyboard, even when it is the last thing you want to do. Persevere.

Jesus said something similar once about sheep. Leaving the ninety nine who were safe and sound in order to search for the one which had wandered off and needed help. You should look it up. You’ll find it in the Bible. A big book about God. I don’t read it as much I should. But today might be the day I pick it up again. Today might be the day I become the 1% myself. For it is always there for me when I need it.

Just like this blog is for you.

99%? 1%? What are your thoughts on this post? Please comment below.

I Have No Idea What Day Of The Week It Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you ever get your days muddled up?

Are you stuck on the hamster wheel of life?

Make Every Blog Count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on sleep blogging?

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?

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?

I ‘Forgot’ To Take My Meds

Last week I ran out of the medication which I take for OCD. 20mg of Escitaloprem has kept me on an even keel these last six years or so. One of them a day and Stephen is content. They prevent the slavering, starving wolf that is OCD from clawing at my front door and blowing down the house of cards which constitute my always fragile mental health. I rely on these pills. They are literally my first port of call every morning, washed down with a slug of Diet Coke.

This was utterly inexcusable on my part of course. I knew well in advance that supplies were running low yet did nothing about it. Why? I don’t know. Ask me a question on sport. For I knew the consequences if I came off my medication for any length of time. The tiredness, tetchiness and tension would descend upon me like three little prescription pigs, the precursors for Mr. Wolf’s grand entrance a short time later.

I’ve done this before. I know the score and it’s a bloated, lopsided one. When it comes to going toe to toe with the big bad OCD it’s a horrendous mismatch. I rarely see beyond the second round before I’m on the ropes, being pounded and pummelled to within an inch of my life. The referee has no option but to step in to spare me from any further punishment and I slump to my knees, battered and beaten. Same old story, same old stupid Stephen.

It can’t be laziness. Ordering a repeat prescription requires a one minute phone call followed by a two minute drive to the local pharmacy in order to collect it. It also doesn’t cost me anything. So it must be arrogance, thinking that this time I’ve tamed the beast, that I’m capable of throwing aside my consistent companion and striding off into the serotonin saturated sunset, a glorious new creation no longer reliant on mass manufactured medication to keep me on the straight and narrow.

I never cease to be amazed by my own powers of self delusion. Within three days of going ‘cold turkey’ I was a twitchy, neurotic mess. It started with a dull headache above my left eyebrow which gradually descended before taking up residence behind the corresponding eyeball where it proceeded to intensify until I felt like I was being stabbed in the iris with a knitting needle. I became more irascible and intolerant. The reasonably sane front that I presented to the world on a daily basis was no more.

I was about to blow a la Vesuvius….

It all came to a head last Thursday when I had two massive arguments at work when normally I would have bitten my tongue and walked away. Middle management meltdowns in the middle of an open planned office are not a good look, career wise. They left me feeling professionally embarrassed and clutching at straws to explain my bizarre behaviour. It was akin to an out of body experience. I was hovering above, powerless to intervene and switch off the torrent of paranoid nonsense that the lunatic below was spouting. Who is that madman? Does anybody know him? Oh hang on….it’s me.

I came home that evening with my tail between my legs and sheepishly explained the events of the day to Fionnuala. She suggested (insisted) that I reorder my prescription ASAP then collected it herself after I had, once more, forgotten to do so. So here I am, back on the meds. The headache has already eased and I’m ready to face the world again with the help of my little 20mg friends. Just one a day and I’m okay. That’s just the way it has to be.

I wonder. Am I that reliant on them? Or is it, and I pardon the pun, ‘all in my head?’ Do they actually. correct the chemical imbalance in my brain to such a degree that I cannot function without them. Or are they nothing more than an emotional aide memoire to convince me that I’m one of the ‘normal’ people when most days I feel anything but; I have thoughts that only fellow OCD sufferers could even begin to understand. Incessant images that only the relief of routine can remedy.

Until they start again that is. Circles of chaos which rise and fall as they rattle round my cranium that a runaway rollercoaster. The thoughts are never fall away, they prowl around the edges of the comforting campfire biding their time. Waiting for the slightest opportunity to pounce and drag down into the darkness of the abyss. I never want to reside their again. So I take the pill. Be it Escitaloprem or M&M’s. I take it.

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?

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 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?

Death To Words. Long Live The Emoji.

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

The creation of the emoji….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much do emojis and abbreviation rule your life?

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

I’ve Got The DOMS – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

What has been your most embarrassing gym story?

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

Ghosts From The Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can never relax. I will never relax.

Do you still fear the ghosts from your past?

How do you fight them?

Unreality Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your views on reality TV?

Are you living a real or unreal life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your pet hates at the movies?

Have you ever felt adrift?

The Secret Of My Excess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your Achilles Heel?

Do you struggle with excess and temptation?

Why I Gave National Selfie Day A Miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on the selfie culture?

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

Isn’t It Time You Moved On?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you dwell too much on your past?

How do you propose to move on?

What Are You Afraid To Blog About Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you afraid to write about?

Are you brave enough to write about your fears today?

On The Cusp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was Your Life Before WordPress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was your life before WordPress?

What difference has blogging made in your life?

Still turning the knife

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are You Going To Blog About Today?

It has come to my attention (well I do investigate for a living after all) that I follow a lot of fantastic bloggers. I try to keep up with as many of them as I can and, where possible, offer encouragement and support. I can’t do that with them all, though, as otherwise I would never be off WordPress but even if it means just liking a post, I do it. Just to let people know that I care and appreciate their written efforts. It’s the least I can do given the tremendous support we receive on a daily basis.

The flip side of that is that a lot of bloggers don’t blog or, if they do, it is very infrequently. You see it all the time. The ‘Sorry I haven’t blogged in ages but I’ve been soooooo busy/life got in the way/haven’t had anything to say’ type introductions. Delete as appropriate. Whenever I see those words at the start of a blog I tend to keep on scrolling. But no more. I want to address those bloggers today. So here goes. Ahem….

Firstly no need to apologise. If you don’t want to blog then that’s entirely up to you and the rest of us will muddle on regardless. But ask yourself this question – why did you go to all the bother of creating a blog in the first place for it to lie unattended gathering dust? Didn’t you want to communicate, express yourself, stretch your literary muscles and slobber those creative juices all over your keyboard. There must have been some reason that started the ball rolling before it ground to a shuddering halt.

Now people often ask me ‘Where do you find the time to blog given all your other interests and commitments?’ Initially this made me a little uncomfortable. Guilty even. Was I neglecting Fionnuala and the kids? But when I reassessed all this I came to the conclusion that Fionnuala and the kids were one of the main reasons I started blogging. It benefits my mental health and allows me to express a message of hope and redemption to all those who have been or are going through similar struggles.

Yes, I blog most days. It takes around 45 minutes to write, edit and post. Often I do it on my daily commute to and from work. So it’s hardly eating into ‘family time’ as some like to call it. If you are really serious about blogging then surely you can find the time to do so. Nobody’s life is that consistently busy. And if it is, what could you sacrifice in order to find the time? The benefits of regularly blogging far outweigh the time and effort required to do so.

The community vibe on WordPress is incomparable. You won’t find it on any other social media platform. Twitter is too poisonous, Instagram too artificial, Facebook too close to home. And don’t even get me started about Snapchat. People care, they listen, they reach out to others in times of need. No matter what your problem there is someone on here who can help. There is no more loving tribe.

Have nothing to say? I also struggle to get my head around that one. We are writers. We write. Life too busy to write? Then all the more reason to find a few moments to tell us all about it. Talk, listen and interact. Don’t just scroll aimlessly. Get involved. Say something. Anything! You won’t regret it. So rant over and I’ll leave you with a challenge. And don’t worry. It involves no cardio vascular activity whatsoever.

1. Post a blog today. Tell the world about your day, your thoughts and your dreams. And if anyone complains then blame me.

2. I don’t ask for much but I’m asking you to reblog this post if you agree with my message. Let’s spread the word and get people writing.

3. Post a comment. Let’s get a debate going. Why have you not been blogging? Do you want to write more? Speak to other bloggers? Make new friends? Well be brave. We are waiting for you.

4. Post a link to your blog. Your words have value. Share them. Who knows, they could make a massive difference in someone’s life today.

Take a chance. Blog today. What could possibly go wrong?

The Familiar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you spend the first hour of your day?

Have you discovered the power of the familiar?

Where are you at today on your journey?

Sucking Up The Bad Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you deal with the bad days?

You’re Never As Useless As You Think You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you with regards pursuing your dream?

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

On Call 24/7/365

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Press That Button

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Conversations Have You Had With Yourself Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What conversations have you had with yourself today?

How To UnSubscribe From A Toxic Relationship

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

Because stuff like that happens, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Is Your Mental Health Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your mental health today?

Do you need to get something off your chest?

That Time I Frightened A German Teenager On The London Underground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s been your most humiliating public transport experience?

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

I’m A Christian But I Still Worry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you worry about?

How do you cope with worry?

Is it a sin to be a Christian and worry?

For It Was Written Long Before You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmmmm….thought not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday Fionnuala

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

What Are You Writing About Today ? (1)

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

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

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

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

What are you writing about today?

Bite Your Lip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncommon Sense

You haven’t the sense you were born with!

This critique of my decision making and problem solving skills has dogged me throughout most of my adult life. I am told that I am intelligent and I hold down a reasonably important job where I (shock horror) manage other adults and ‘do the grown up stuff’ without blinking an eyelid. I can deliver presentations to large audiences, brief senior management and function effectively within a high pressure working environment.

Fionnuala says there are two Stephens. ‘Work Stephen’ who is confident, assertive and strong; and ‘Home Stephen’ who can barely change a light bulb and who dithers over whether he wants pizza or Chinese from the takeaway.

I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure….

I cannot make a decision to save myself. My self esteem is low so my default setting is to please people. I want to be liked. It’s different in the working environment. I am representing an organisation and making decisions on their behalf. It’s not personal and if people don’t like the decision then they can blame the organisation and not me.

It’s different outside of work. The buck stops with me. When I am asked a question I’m immediately second guessing what the person who asked the question wants me to say in response. My brain goes into overdrive. If I say pizza will they be annoyed because they really wanted Chinese food. Or vice versa? I hmmmm and I haaaaa and then end up saying ‘Oh I’ll have whatever you’re having’. This drives Fionnuala nuts. ‘I wish you would make a decision’ she sighs.

This people pleasing disposition has got me in all sorts of bother down the years. I can’t say no. I hate confrontation and disagreements. I will agree with someone’s opinion or point of view even when every molecule in my body is screaming that they are wrong. This has led me down many wrong paths and before I know it I’m up to my neck in a whole world of pain.

I have worked hard this year on many aspects of my personality. This includes making decisions based on what sits best with my conscience as opposed to what the other person wants to hear. It also involves saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘no’ and veering clear of people and situations which I know are not healthy for me. This has drastically wiped out a large chunk of my social calendar but I view it as a small price to pay.

Fionnuala has asked me in recent weeks what I want for Christmas and as usual I wasn’t able to give her a straight answer. Until now.

All I want for Christmas is wisdom and discretion.

I don’t want common sense. I want more. I want uncommon sense. I want the wisdom of Solomon. I want my yes to mean yes and my no to mean know. I want to make healthy, well informed decisions which I know are right for me and my family. I want to walk along the paths I was born to walk along. I want that piece of my mind that has always reneged at this to know true peace of mind.

Is that too much to ask Santa?

Would you say you have common sense?

What bad decisions in your past have influenced your present?

Aches On A Plane

I flew back to Northern Ireland last night from England where I have been working these last two days. It was great to get home but the journey itself was not the most pleasurable experience. I have had an annoying cough for the last two weeks and, as per usual, have ignored Fionnuala’s repeated urgings that I visit the doctor as I probably have a chest infection. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ I scoffed derisively. *UPDATE – I finally went to the doctor this morning who predictably confirmed that I have a chest infection. DOH!! 

So I coughed and spluttered my way over the Irish Sea. My misery was compounded as the plane started its descent into Belfast International wheb the change in air pressure led to my left ear starting to hurt. Initially a dull ache it gradually built to a stabbing pain which had me hunched over in my seat praying for a rapid landing. Which never came….

Eventually we touched down. However no matter how much I swallowed, jiggled my ear, held my nose and blew my cheeks out the ear would not pop. To the extent that by the time I got home I could barely hear out of the orifice. And even as I type this almost 24 hours later the situation has still not returned to normal. Cue violin strings….

If I had listened to my much wiser wife a week ago I would today most likely be infection free and pain free. Instead I cut a sorry sight. Clogged up lungs and clogged up ear. Tired beyond belief and unable to run for at least the next few days. Oh woe is me….


Solomon had the right idea when he described ‘Wisdom’ as a woman in the Book of Proverbs. My wife is a very wise woman. This occasionally involves her expressing her loving wisdom to me in a raised voice. Repeatedly. But as Proverbs 8:1 testifies this is sometimes necessary in order for the wise women in our lives to get through our stubborn male skulls.

It is important for men (and I suppose ladies too) to have wise people around them who they can rely on for advice and be accountable to. When faced with a decision or problem these are the people who we need to turn  to at an early stage. Sensible choices can be made and worries and concerns nipped in the bud. 

Failure to do only results in mounting pressure followed by discomfort and pain. A little like my earache. And before you know it you are faced with an avalanche of trouble which so easily could have been avoided.

Now excuse me now while I take my antibiotics…. 😒

Proverbs 8:1 – ‘Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?’

What has been your worst airplane experience?

Who are the wise people you turn to in times of need?

What is your favourite proverb?

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