Stating the obvious about anxiety and the virus

There have been some incredible changes this week that affect everyone in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Two weeks ago we were making jokes about ‘car owners’ virus’ and now we’re grumbling about the lack of pasta in supermarkets and being seriously concerned about what the future holds. Most of us aren’t as worried about our own health and what will happen if we get the virus so much as the wider social implications and the health of the vulnerable. I have friends who have been self-isolating for a while now as they have underlying health issues. It’s especially tough for them. In two weeks, life has changed considerably and few of us have any experience of how to deal with the ongoing situation. Things we’ve always taken for granted have shifted and, at times, it feels like we’re in a dystopian novel.

People are reporting overwhelming anxieties about all sorts of things. I know people who are anxious about going outside into their communities and are already asking friends to do their shopping. People are anxious about how they will feed their families over the next few weeks and this leads to panic buying and greed. Some people are just plain scared. Anxiety occurs when we don’t know what will happen and we can’t predict or prepare for change.

The rate at which things are shifting now is very fast: almost daily, theatres and cinemas and cafés are closing. Sports games have been suspended. A lockdown situation may be likely in the near future and schools will probably close or partially close, which is a great strain on all concerned. Kids are worried about their education, their exams. Working parents are worried about who will look after their kids. Many people express anxiety about when and how it will end. Clearly, the most important concern is others’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. We need to make everyone else around us our first priority. We’ll make sure we’re all fine.

I can’t imagine how it would be to be seventy-plus years old and isolated in my own home for twelve weeks. There are only so many books you can read, so much television you can watch, so much cross stitching and jam making and garden digging you can do. I know people can go out for a walk but we all crave human contact: being with others, chatting, empathising. It’s what keeps the world going round and loneliness can be crippling. A friend of mine said she’d ‘go mad’ if she had to spend twelve weeks alone. There are schemes for others to write to lonely people, to Skype them or phone them. It’s a great idea: let’s make friends.

We’ll be all right for toilet roll. The daily tabloids can stop sending out scaremongering news: forget the printed words that whip up fear and hysteria and change the use of the paper: it’s perfect for lavatory tissue. It’s so important to stop spreading fear and start to reassure others that we are equal and in this together and that we’ll all keep each other as safe as we can.

We can all share food; we can Skype or phone our friends. Most of us will be all right. It’s those at risk, the vulnerable and the lonely who need our practical help. What about the number of beds we’ll need in NHS hospitals: where will extra ones be found? What about the health of all those who continue to work in hospitals, who are risking their wellbeing by currently supporting the wellbeing of the entire country? And what about the economic repercussions for all the people laid off from work, the unpaid flight crews and football ground stewards, those who work in shops, cafés, theatres and the many places that will be closed? The retail, hospitality  and leisure industries who have inadequate insurance. How will everyone pay their rent, afford their bills, find food? How will the owners manage? We have to support each other.

People such as Roman Abramovic have been impressive, allocating space from the football club for the use of health workers in the Chelsea area and paying for it. That’s a perfect example of using what resources we have to support others. The best thing that can come out of this difficult time is that people make thoughtful gestures such as this.

I hope the government will put workable policies in place now to support those in greatest need first. I’ve heard a lot of talk about infection and unnecessary contact and how ‘we’re leading the way,’ and that we should ‘expect loved ones to die,’ but not enough calm and focused practical advice and support for those individuals who don’t know how they will feed their kids. I hope this will be put in place soon: extra anxiety isn’t what we need now. I will listen to the daily updates with interest and hope that those people now worse off will be the first in the queue for government help. Political difference and political parties are not important now: call it socialism, call it caring capitalism, call it common sense. We have to help each other.

A few weeks ago, we were all talking about kindness and how we should be more positive. We have to make this a priority. I know a young mum who was scolded in the supermarket by an assistant because she asked for a second bag of nappies for her baby; I know a dad of two who has lost his job yesterday and an elderly gentleman who was shouted at because he coughed in a queue. It’s about supporting each other now, thinking of each other’s wellbeing, both in terms of avoiding the virus and in terms of practical, emotional and economic support.

Each of us has our part to play more than ever. We may not be able to see as much of our dearly loved family and friends as we want to, but we have to make sure we support everyone we can, and when it’s all over we’ll have a massive party and hug each other. There will be lots of things we can volunteer to do over the next few weeks and supporting others’ anxiety is high on the list. Let’s hope something good can come from this difficult time and we can take this opportunity to become a really caring nation. It’s time to put the ‘you’ in community and the ‘I’ in friendship!

Don’t blame the goalkeeper

I was watching my team play in the Champions’ League this week and, I suppose, I was feeling a little bit confident. We had a one-goal deficit, conceded away from home and, on our own territory, I was sure we’d win. The captain was back from injury and we had a full team of strong players, including the second-choice keeper because the number one was suffering from thigh strain. But I was confident that we’d do it. We’re a better team.

We scored the first goal, they got one back and the game went into extra time, two fifteen minute halves. We were playing better than they were – they’re a defensive team anyway and the commentator repeatedly reminded listeners that they don’t play well or score away from home. That was the hex.

We scored a cracking goal in the first part of extra time and I’m sure all the fans thought that was it. But the opposition got one back, then another and, in the final moments, yet another and we rolled over and that was that. We lost 4-2. Unbelievable, given the calibre of our players: there were thirty five shots on goal. But we didn’t score and we leaked too many goals at the other end.

Then, after the game, the pundits picked over the bones and the goalkeeper came out as being reprehensible. In a way, maybe he could have saved the goals: he was entirely responsible for one or two howlers.

But I believe the culture of blame that sits fault squarely on the shoulders of the keeper or blames the last man standing or the weakest player isn’t fair. A team is exactly that, a team. And once the team has lost, it has to move forward. Part of that process may be to improve on mistakes, analyse how to improve based on prior errors, but that’s not the same as blaming one person and repeatedly rubbing it in.

Paul Robinson, a goalkeeper who played for Tottenham and England, said that an error he once made in an international game cost him sleep and made him under confident for weeks. Fans reminded frequently of his mistake as he played on the pitch and it did nothing for his performance. It stayed in his mind and made him doubt himself, which impacted on his game.

So, in defence of Adrian, our second keeper who let in a couple of goals the other night and who has been a good deputy all season, I’m suggesting that we don’t blame the keeper or anyone else for that matter. Here are my top ten reasons.

  1. He’s only human. He made a mistake. We’re all human. We will make mistakes.
  2. We need to move forward, not pick open wounds. We need to heal.
  3. A team is a team; family groups stick together and support each other. There are ten other players in a team, plus those on the bench – how well did they play their part and help the goalkeeper? Win or lose, a fan supports a team. We are there for the glory and for the grief.
  4. Negativity is harmful. To focus all the time on what is wrong won’t make it right. We need to focus on the positive and how we can improve.
  5. We can’t win all the time. Nor should we want to: it would be dull.
  6. Making mistakes is, in fact, a positive. That’s how we improve. Let’s support our team to get better. After all, people make errors for all sorts of reasons. We don’t know what’s happening in somoene’s life.A judgement based on little or no background information is harsh.
  7. ‘Thanks’ is a good word. Thanks for the goals you saved; thanks for the times you did really well. And the times that are less than perfect, we expect them to happen.We plan for them and accept them. And, by the way, one reason we watch sport is for the thrills and spills, the ups and downs. We are there for the ride.
  8. Oh, and we’re winning the Premiership, by the way.
  9. And we could well win the Champions’ League next year. The competitions happen again and again and we’ll be there to enjoy it.
  10. This one may be unpopular but – it’s only a game. I had a friend once who used to smash his fist against sharp objects when our team lost. Please don’t do that. I know we invest in the tension and the excitement but, once the final whistle blows, it’s gone and we think about the next game.

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Of course, this blog post isn’t just about football. How can it be? There are too many times when the ‘goalkeeper’ is blamed, faults are picked over, repeated, blown out of all proportion. Sometimes, if you let a goal in and let your team down, you’ll feel bad. It’s up to others around you to support you then, to help you improve, to remind you of your good points and to help you move on. There are ‘goalkeepers’ in every family, every office, every factory, every industry, every school, every street, at every level. We are all goalkeepers. At the end of the game, we need to be a strong team and help each other. There will be more games, more opportunities and, if we show solidarity, there will be more wins. We’re in it together for the glory and the grief, the wins and the losses. Enough said.

The Winter Blues and Self-Care

Many years ago, I qualified as a Reiki healer and although I practise a lot it tends to be mostly on family and friends. Oh, and on animals, who are often the best recipients. On many occasions a dog or a cat will sidle over for a spot of Reiki and only the two of us know what’s happening.  I’ve had some interesting experiences practising Reiki, but that’s for another blog. This one is about how I seldom practise healing on myself.

My kids often describe me as a ‘milk-shake’; they tell me that I invite everyone to stick their straws into my full glass and watch as they empty the contents. I think many of us are that way: we are used to being in caring professions, givers of love and nourishment and warmth and free dispensers of our time. Often in doing so, we forget about giving time to ourselves.

I am a real offender in terms of self-care, to the extent that I don’t put heating on in the house because I’m on my own; I don’t cook a proper meal because there’s no-one to share it with. I need to do better.

I often wonder, if I were my own parent or my own best friend, what advice would I give myself about self-care? I’d certainly tell myself that I could do a lot better. I’d never neglect anyone I know as much as I neglect myself. And, of course, the long-term consequences of self-neglect are low self-worth and self- esteem. That’s not a road I want to go down, so it’s time to change.

I’ve just had the virus that many people have had to put up with over the winter. It stuck with me throughout January. I dragged myself to a kinesiologist who said I’d had influenza and gave me some ionic silver to take. Step one in self-care. But I need to adopt a regular behaviour pattern, giving myself more consideration than I currently do.

So here are several things I’m including in my package of self-care to beat the winter blues. They are only little things, but it’s a way of telling myself that I have value. I’m not one to splurge on myself but these little things will count.

Firstly, I’m going to light fires in the hearth more often, even if I’m by myself. The cats will benefit too, so I needn’t feel guilty. I’m going to invest in ‘personal warmth’: a heated throw for when I’m at the computer. Who cares that I’ll be wrapped from head to toe with just a nose and two blue hands poking through? And then there is the nightly hot water bottle or, even better, a heated pad foot thing in the bed. Who wants to snuggle between cold sheets with icy feet?

I’m good at nutrition but bad at self-love, so the bowl of plain miso, vegetable, and lentil stew I have for lunch will be nicely flavoured with paprika and accompanied with a hunk of wholemeal bread from now on. It will be workers’ food rather than workhouse food. Someone whose opinions I respect reminded me that ‘Lucullus dines with Lucullus;’ the Roman emperor enjoyed food even when eating alone. I will consider the 80:20 rule more often: 20% of the time, a bit of indulgence is fine, so that’s a glass of red wine for me tonight.

Treats are a very low priority on my list. I have a voice in my head from my past that regularly tells me ‘You don’t need this…’ and ‘You can do without that…’ While there is sense in not overindulging, I need to look for positive treats and that includes taking myself out more. I’d happily treat a friend to a cup of chai latte in town or a nice cooked breakfast in a café, so I can do that for myself. I know dragging myself away from the desk will be difficult, but I’m capable of cajoling myself into the car and out for a coffee break. Indulgent, yes, but I don’t have to freeze my toes off at the computer all day. I’ll work much better and much happier after a creamy cinnamon chai.

And the final treat has health benefits. Going out more into the countryside is a must from now on. I can enjoy walking in the woods whatever the weather, splashing in the mud, crossing boggy fields, hiking up hills and coming home warm and dirty, then leaping in a steaming shower. Nature is out there to be enjoyed. There is a colourful pheasant with a long tail who calls into my garden daily looking for food, much to the delight of my cats. I have called him Phileas and I will go out and feed him each day. And there are places I can go to at night to spot deer and badgers, then come home for a brandy by the fire. Talking delight in small things is part of self-care.

It’s easy at this time of year to become stuck in old habits, not giving ourselves enough care and love. I’m amazed by one of my neighbours who I’ve seen out regularly, running up hills with her Labrador: I know she’ll go home and have a slice of cake and a glass of red wine afterwards. That’s self-care, an inspiration: self-love is what it’s all about. In the absence of parents and family and friends, we have to be our own parent. We have to treat ourselves with the same love and generosity as we would our own children. I’ve been exceedingly bad at it. It’s time to change and I’ll start now, by throwing away the cold green tea I’ve had sitting next to me for the last half hour and making myself a fresh hot cuppa.

 

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Happy New Year. 2020, a new year, a new decade and new beginnings…

I love the moment when a new year begins: it comes with a feeling of optimism, new opportunities, out with the old: we start anew with a clean slate. And there’s a new calendar, a new diary, clean pages with nothing written on them yet. But oh, I wonder what will we write on these blank pages in 2020?

The last year and the last decade mean different things to different people. My heart went out to a friend of mine on Facebook who ended the year with a post that said 2019 CAN JUST F*CK OFF! I sent messages of positivity. I know my friend has had a life-changing bad year and I hope that everything will improve and happiness will return.

We don’t always have control over what will happen to us in the future and we have no crystal balls (mostly…), which is why it’s both exciting and a little bit scary. But we do have choices and we can take things into our own hands, to choose what we do based on the hand of cards life deals us.

The last decade has been wonderful for me: I left a job I love for the excitement of doing an MA in order to become a published author. I was determined that’s what I would do and I was lucky; I wouldn’t have it any other way now. I love writing novels and writing occupies a great deal of my time, giving me the opportunity to be creative, which is so important to me.

In the last ten years, my kids grew up, left home, embarked on their own lives and now, at the beginning of the new decade, I am attempting to reconcile the empty nest with the thrill of independence and having a great relationship with two adults whom I truly admire, not to mention their wonderful partners. But I still miss them like crazy at times and I’ve decided that is my right as a parent: I won’t feel guilty about those terrible moments when out of nowhere I suddenly want to mourn their absence. It has very little to do with feeling pleased about the great humans I’ve raised: it’s a natural process of coming to terms with change.

There were a few down times in the last ten years: I lost my dad and that’s been tough. My mum died in the previous decade and I still haven’t got over that. I’m not sure we ever do recover from the loss of loved ones.

I moved from the place where I’d lived for 20 years and brought up a family. I’m now in a house I actually like for the first time in my life although putting down roots is still hard and I keep wondering if I should move again. I suppose some things will never change.

But I have an incredible family, great friends, wonderful neighbours and a job I adore. Simply being healthy, happy and loved means that I am truly blessed and long may it continue.

So during the next decade, although I may not know exactly what will happen and there may be changes I can’t readily predict, I hope I’ll still be writing novels. Two books have already been finished and there are others waiting in the wings. I hope to travel, to continue to grow and learn, to be healthy, to spend time with those I love and to have fun, a sense of mischief, laughter and interesting conversation.

The world out there is beautiful; if we can ignore for a moment the savage injustices and inequalities, the waste, the greed and the cruelty, it is indeed a wonderful place to be. Many of us hope and strive for things to get better for everyone. Working together towards poositive change is the only way to be alive.

So 2020 begins and with it the new decade, the roaring or rocking twenties. Let’s be positive; let’s hope for healthy, happy, exciting times. That doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand and ignoring threats and dangers: quite the opposite. Solidarity brings all sorts of rewards and it is time to stand strong. But we also have to keep ourselves and others safe, and that means being cheerful, positive and reaching out.

We don’t know what will happen, but we will make it the best that we can. So I’m starting the decade by sending good wishes to all who read my books, check out my blog or who just want to receive my best hopes for the twenties. I wish for happiness, health, laughter and love for you all. May you be blessed. Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa.

 

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My Christmas past, present and future…

I always look forward to Christmas. I’ve been doing it for a long time, pressing my nose against shop windows, gazing at the twinkling lights in town, anticipating the fun and excitement of 25th December. Arguably, anticipation is a huge part of the whole Christmas package, putting up sparkly decorations, buying presents, going to carol services, listening to that Slade song you haven’t heard for a whole eleven months and watching Love Actually again on TV.

We know we’re really lucky to be able to enjoy Christmas as we tuck into that special dinner with our families, as we invariably remember of those who can’t share the joy: there are people in war-torn countries, others living in shop doorways. People have such high expectations of how perfect Christmas time should be that disappointment, loneliness and depression may go unnoticed and unsupported. Charity and kindness to others have always been an integral part of Christmas; in many ways we’re still living in the times of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim Cratchit.

This year could be my first empty nest Christmas and, after years of the festive season being mainly about the kids, planning for twelve months to make the celebrations great for them, the prospect of a silent house can be a strange thing to come to terms with.

If I think about it, Christmas has always been a full-pelt, manic time. I was reminiscing with my brother just the other day about how Christmases used to be when we were kids and it was one of those ‘if you told people nowadays they’d never believe you’ moments. Read on:

When I was about seven, the council moved us into a house. We had a bath, a toilet. Unprecedented luxury. Previously we’d had a moveable tin bath and a shared khazi in a field. Now we had a proper house with three bedrooms and a garden. No heating, no double glazing, no fridge, no phone, no carpets, but it was Buckingham Palace. We slept under coats – no blankets or sheets or duvets – and woke with huge icicles hanging inside the windows but we thought we were in paradise. We lived in the kitchen all year but on Christmas day our Dad bought a precarious paraffin heater and we were allowed to go into the front room to sit on the sofa. A real privilege.

We had very little money. Dad sold his Vincent Black Shadow one year, a motorbike that he should have hung onto, to buy us presents. But we had vegetables in the garden. My brother and I used to be sent out to pick Brussel sprouts in a wind so fiercely cold that our little fingers were numb and frozen to the sprout plant, which we hung onto to stop ourselves from blowing over in the icy blasts. Good times.

Christmas fare was about Mum plucking and gutting the pheasant our father had shot in the nearby woods while Dad uncorked a bottle of Bourbon he’d procured from some fella and drank the lot. We’d sit down to a cooked meal, everyone digging in except me,  experiencing early vegan tendencies, refusing to eat something dead and full of lead shot, expecting a slap for being ungrateful or ‘mouthy.’ Then we had to have Christmas pudding although nobody really liked it, and those orange and lemon segment jelly fruits that were still unopened in the wrapper well into January. It was tradition. It’s what people did, and we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Christmas, once I’d become a parent, was about having a fun family time. I’d cook and bake for days before, take a hamper of goodies (and a bottle of Bourbon) and dinner down to my dad who’d refused to set foot in my house, then go back and start the festivities. My son and I would cook while the others watched the TV; we’d throw all sorts of creative things at the meal: crème de cassis in the gravy, vodka and chestnuts in the sprouts, and have a great time making vegan Yorkshire puddings, hoping they’d rise. Then four of us would sit at the table, pull home-made crackers full of gifts, eat too much and drink a bottle of sparkling wine. Happy memories.

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This year my son is in México for Christmas. He’ll have a great time and we’ll catch up on Christmas day for a chat on Skype. It won’t be the same but we can’t hang onto the same for ever. My daughter may come home if she can escape from the excessive workload she has and find a train on Christmas Eve. The offer is on the table: we could prepare food early in the morning, drive down in the campervan, pick her up and have Christmas dinner on the beach. An empty nest means you can do things differently, and I’m learning to relish change.

Next year, we’ve talked about spending Christmas in France. Choices open out like the pages of a new book. One day, I’d love to spend Christmas somewhere warm, although I can’t imagine how it would feel: I’ve been cold in December since year one. But it’s about grasping opportunity. Imagine spending a week in a log cabin with friends, surrounded by snow, fir trees, bears!

It’s difficult, of course, at first, to come to terms with change: Christmas usually means family, tradition, being together, sharing, the same-old. But there’s a nettle to be grasped that might just be a twig on the tree of life. It’s the chance to reinvent. Christmas could become all sorts of things now: camping on the beach, helping out in food kitchens, inviting new people to share hospitality and a log fire, sitting at the top of a mountain with a baked tofu sandwich.

Being privileged is something I’m strongly aware of in this age of food banks and cardboard box homes. This time of year reminds us that we should put something back, and not just at Christmas. But with the opportunity to rethink Christmas and not expect it to be routine and humdrum comes the chance to find a different way of having fun and coming together, to avoid the expense, the narrow expectation and the commerciality.

So perhaps it’s time to dispense with the eye-rolling ‘Oh not this old song again’ and the ‘Oh no: I’ve got the family coming to Christmas and I’ll have to peel all those sprouts’ and start again with the celebration of life, enjoying each day for its sheer pleasure. Christmas can be just that, simple delight, whether you are five or fifty five.

So bring it on, with my very best wishes. Merry Christmas everyone, however you choose to spend it: have a wonderful day and may your 2020 be filled with good health, love and your heart’s desires.

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Autumn is here – what will it bring, though?

I have to admit, I’m a summer person and the warmer months always seem to pass too quickly. It’s good to be outside in the sunshine, walking in the countryside, travelling to new places in the van, enjoying the open space on the beach. I love to cross the channel, go to France and beyond to favourite places. In spring and autumn, it’s still possible to do all these things, ignoring the extra layer of clothing you have to wear against the cooler weather, or just braving the elements. In winter, of course, it requires a mind-set change to enjoy walking in the cold and damp, but it’s possible to find joy in squelching mud and wet hair. I think that’s a good metaphor for life, trying to adjust to the climate, to external conditions and learning to celebrate them.

But September brings the autumn months and with it, Brexit. It is difficult to accept changes that almost half of us didn’t vote for, with the prognosis of food shortages, prescription shortages, higher prices, possible job losses and a great deal of uncertainty. A no-deal Brexit looms as a possibility. As a firm Remainer, I fear for the stability of my European friends in this country, for the stability of us all. I have enjoyed the right to be European for a long time. Those who voted Leave had no idea what quitting the EU would entail when they made a choice and there must be so many regrets from those voters now, since many people chose to leave Europe based on misinformation, lies and empty promises. We are living in difficult times where division of opinion, whatever party you support, is becoming the norm. There is anger, confusion and bitterness.

So, as winter approaches, I feel the need to search for positives. Cold weather, incessant rain and dark evenings don’t necessarily bring optimism. Open fires, crumpets, brandy and hot chocolate are temporary fixes, although those of us who have homes are ever fortunate to be warm, dry and under shelter. A good book will always lift the mood for a while, an engrossing film or an evening spent with good friends.

Winter months can also bring loneliness and solitude. Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and Christmas festivities are family times and it is a pleasure to share and celebrate with loved ones. A huge family, a tribe, is something special and belonging to an extended family is a privilege and a joy. Having parents, children, a circle of relatives, people who welcome each other into their houses, to their tables and into their clan is a priceless thing – ask anyone who doesn’t to belong to such a group. Families and friends are like a blanket protecting us from being alone and without them we are diminished. Winter is a cold time to be alone.

The cooler months are for me a time to write prolifically and I am blessed on that journey. I have several books in the pipeline, several finished, a great deal with a brilliant team and two new books ready to go next year. I am lucky that, when it’s cold and damp outside, I can sit at the computer and create new characters, new worlds, and to write stories that I hope will entertain others. I am lucky to have something positive to occupy me.

It’s a long time from now until the spring and it’s easy to be demoralised by the grey skies and bitter winds. But each month brings its compensations. I love the mists of autumn, the blackberries to be picked, and then the sloes. I love it when the skies hang heavy with snow and we can go out in scarves and gloves. I love sitting outside, warming hands in front of an open bonfire, gazing at stars. Christmas lights always do it for me too; although the words commercial and artificial may echo in my ears, I’m a sucker for the bright twinkling colours and the simple songs about winter wonderlands and merry little Christmases. Nowadays, I’m at the point where Christmas needs redefining; gone are the times when we enjoyed family fun around the table, the kids pulling open presents and laughing. But something else will take its place – life has to be celebrated while we can, every moment of it.

Then a new year will arrive, with much to look forward to, more to celebrate – a new spring, then summer. It’s important to believe that we are on the verge of exciting new beginnings over which we have some control or choice, even if there are changes afoot that we can’t predict or prevent. It is easy to see the end of summer as the end of warmth and freedom and the arrival of winter as something cold and sad as the year comes to an end. But, even in these worrying times where precious institutions such as the health service may be under threat, where supermarket shelves may become emptier and the everyday things we took for granted may become less affordable, we have to remain positive. We can write letters to leaders, sign petitions and demonstrate in our cities, and we can vote – that in itself is a positive.

Hope and joy will keep us alive. The summer may be fading, but each season brings its own gift, however cold the weather. Whatever we may feel about the end of an era and the prospect of uncertainty and changes we cannot prevent, we still have each other and we can still retain friendship, solidarity and humanity. Whatever may come, we must insist that there will be good times and laughter, happiness and opportunity. A new chapter may be beginning, but we can write our own story within the confines of a blank page.

My unconventional relationship with the sofa, based on Dr Who and the Champions’ League semi final game

 Perhaps I should start by saying that the only time I sit down conventionally is when I’m writing at the computer. And that is hardly conventional sitting – my cat, Colin, is behind me on my chair, occupying three quarters of the seat, so I am perched on the end, which isn’t a bad thing as it leans me myopically closer to the screen and the keyboard. Colin is purring, I’m typing away, so it’s a symbiotic situation that leaves me with a warm butt and Colin with a feeling of being connected to the person that feeds him.

Most of the time at home, I sit on the floor. At mealtimes, I am sometimes at the table, sometimes on the move, but for the purposes of reading or watching TV, I’m on the floor or on the exercise bike.

So – the situation with the sofa is as follows. I have one – a sort of soft sofa that visitors or family can lie full-length on with a cup of tea, nodding off if they wish, with a cat stretched across their torso. Sofas provide comfort. But, for me, a sofa provides more comfort than simply a place to stretch out and relax. A sofa is a sort of safe grandparent figure.

I only had one grandparent, and that’s a story for another blog. My Nanny Leigh was lovely but she wasn’t your conventional grandparent who lived in a conventional place and did conventional things. I certainly wouldn’t have crawled onto her knee for comfort. She’d have giggled and said something to me I wouldn’t have understood. So perhaps it’s not surprising that sofas are places I go to seek solace.

It started when I was a child, the first time I watched Dr Who and the Daleks. I was petrified. So, of course, I hid behind the old sofa and peered out at the scary metal creatures with the protruding stick arm that killed everyone with a blast of radiation and turned them into skeletons.

The good thinking about a sofa, and hiding behind one, is that it is big. You can duck behind it and just listen to the scary sound effects, or you can peek round the corner, having a huge barrier of safety, a wedge of furniture between you and the terrifying thing on the screen. It is also soft and giving, like a big hug, so you can lean against it and believe you are getting support from something larger and therefore less vulnerable than you are. Its solidity is solace itself.

Years later a student of mine, Magic Dave, recommended Gothika as a film he said I’d enjoy. Enjoy is one of those peculiar words. I did enjoy Gothika, but in the way that I’d have enjoyed having my toenails plucked out singularly for the fun of it. I watched the entire film behind the sofa, scared witless.

Peering out at Halle Berry’s psychologically terrifying and thrilling performance was even worse than the daleks. I took out my contact lenses and hid behind the sofa, peering out blindly occasionally to guess if the screen was safe enough to watch. I’d formed a habit now – the sofa was a shelter, a den and a giant brave grandparent all rolled into one.

And, of course,  there was the question of football. I’ve even put squashy cushions behind the sofa now, a duvet, pillows, a flask of soup, for watching football. Istanbul, the Champions league final of 2005, found me camped out for the entire 90 minutes plus extra time plus the heart-stopping Dudek heroics of the penalty shootout. And, cowardy custard that I am, I’ve hung out behind the sofa for most Liverpool games this season, both Premiership and Champions’ League.

This leads me to the Barcelona game last Wednesday, the game we lost 3-0 and still played very well. I was shivering behind the sofa singing ‘He’s Virgil Van Dyke’ at the top of my voice, clutching my flask of soup, hiding, peering out for a few seconds then diving back when the going got tough.

So, this Tuesday, with a 3-0 deficit, the game at Anfield, where will I be watching the entire match? I’ll be behind the sofa. I have no idea what will happen in terms of the final outcome, but I’m hoping for a miracle, a good result, the way my team often succeed by doing things the hard way and respond to adversity with heroics. We might score the first goal, a second before half time and then the second half is poised for a third goal. This will evoke memories of Istanbul, (seen from behind the sofa.) Messi may not turn up and maybe Mo Salah will. Maybe he’ll be fit and Sadio Mané will be on a roll and I may even be able to crawl out from behind the big sofa and watch some of the action before ducking back and shaking like a leaf, screaming ‘I can’t watch, I can’t watch’ at the screen.

Statistically, given that we’re three goals down, it’s possible that we’ll lose and I may emerge from behind the sofa to watch it all, Messi scoring the first, Suarez the second, and I’ll sit and watch the heroics of my team, playing well, missing sitters, not being quite incisive enough to score when we should have nailed it, but deserving to have found the net for a goal or two. I imagine I’ll sigh and be philosophical and say ‘Well, on another day we’d have won.’ ‘Who can play against that kind of Messi free kick?’ ‘We played much better than the result shows’ and ‘Next year, we’ll be there…’ I won’t need to be behind the sofa if we are five down on aggregate – the result would be a foregone conclusion, so therefore there’d be no tension, no fear. I’d be safe sitting on the floor in front of the screen in the knowledge that we’d lost.

But at least, although my air-borne dreams of football and trophies will have been dissipated, the sofa will be there in all its avuncular firmness, and I’ll be able to hide next season when, of course, my team will be beak with a vengeance, fully fit, ready to win the league, the Champions’ league, even do the treble.  The duvet and pillows and flask of soup will be at the ready and I’ll be able to dive behind for safety at any moment when a penalty is given, listening for the roar of the crowd to tell me whether we’ve scored or not before I can creep out safely and cheer.

I have a lot of reasons to be grateful to my sofa. But sitting on it is the last thing I use it for – unless guests come round and they’re not in my house to watch horror films or football.

On International Women’s Day – it’s about being worth it.

Today is International Women’s Day and there’s much debate about whether we need a day to celebrate all women. It doesn’t take long to realise that we’re not there yet in terms of gender equality – experience and statistics speak for themselves: in the workplace, in terms of pay, in terms of prospects, even in terms of childcare and the home, we aren’t all sharing equal status yet. Some people don’t want equality; some don’t care about others’ equality and for some it’s a global issue whereas for others, it’s personal. And of course, men need to be equal too.

Perhaps it starts with accepting, loving and celebrating the people we are as individuals – only then can we accept, celebrate and love others. It makes sense: in the world where people feel the need to project perfect selfies on social media and are embarrassed by their bodies, to such an extent that they are afraid to attend health screenings; where people feel dissatisfied with their lives and fall into anxiety, perhaps we need to adjust to the fact that, while not being perfect, our imperfections are all right. We are unique and we shouldn’t try to be perfect. Perfection is overrated and it doesn’t matter.

My parents’ generation affected their kids’ confidence by pointing out our faults all the time. We fell short. My generation affected our kids ‘confidence by telling them they were beautiful and could do anything they wished and when they couldn’t, they fell short. We just need to accept it all – we are all beautiful, we can try to do anything and yes, we have faults: we will fall short occasionally but it doesn’t matter. That’s part of who we all are.

Then there is the case of rewarding ourselves, being ‘worth it’ as the advert constantly reminds us. Being worth it is not about indulging ourselves, but about cherishing the person we are. I often think of it as being our own best friend. If my friend perceived a problem with his or her appearance, their happiness, their health, their relationships, their job, I’d be there for them. I’d encourage them, tell them they were special, wonderful, and bad things don’t last forever – it will come good again soon and I’d encourage them to keep going. So why don’t we do that with ourselves sometimes? Why do we behave like our own worst enemy and let the inner voice tell ourselves we are rubbish?

Is it just a women’s problem, on this international day of women, the fact that we want to highlight our own inadequacies and ignore our real potential, or do we all share the self-deprecation, whatever our gender? Here’s a basic example. Yesterday I had some great news – my book is being published in Slovakia. I was thrilled. I didn’t need rewarding though – the news was exciting enough in itself. Then I saw a lovely jacket I wanted to buy, not expensive, useful.  I can afford it but I don’t need it, as a reward or otherwise. I have other jackets – but my first response wasn’t ‘I don’t need it’ but ‘I’m not worth it’ – I should spend the money on someone else or on something more sensible.

Human wastefulness is another debate for another time, buying ‘stuff’ we don’t really need – but the real issue for me here was that it was a nice jacket, it would suit me ok, I’d wear it a lot and get a lot of fun from it but, no, I don’t deserve the treat – I can do without.

There is a school of thought about success that I agree with, and it’s to do with Ki or Qi – basic energy. I use Ki in Reiki healing; I studied it for years in Ki-Aikido, and it makes sense – focusing on what you want is important. Not in a greedy way or a selfish way to the exclusion of others, but simply to focus on a goal that is important to us is how we go on to achieve it. We need to focus on the positive, on the inner voice that tells us we are worth it, that we are strong. If we dissipate our focus with anxiety or self-deprecation, we dilute our potential; we hold ourselves back. Then the cycle begins again: we feel inadequate and miserable and we start to fail again.

So on International Woman’s Day, the message is simple, whatever your gender. Care for yourself and then you can care for others. Love yourself and then share the love. Believe in yourself and you’ll be able to believe in everyone else.

Much needs changing in the world, today and every day to promote equality:  attitudes to gender, race, religion, culture, age, species and sexuality – I could go on. Maybe we should start with ourselves first. Self-respect means we respect others and that’s the beginning of change for equality. It’s a nice thought for the day.

Now about that jacket….

If a vegan diet is good for a septic tank, then it might just be good for us…

I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a man who shovels poo for a living. More accurately, he has a machine which slurps waste from septic tanks and cess pits. Not the best job in the world, perhaps, but someone has to do it. On the plus side, it took him half an hour to stand by his machine while it sucked the smelly stuff from the septic tank in the field and  educated me on the vagaries of cess pits.

It was his conversation that interested me most. We had a lovely chat about waste: he knew all about it, the ups and downs, the best sort, the worst sort, what to put in a septic tank to make it function well and what never to put in. He was a real expert.

I’ve lived in the house for a year and had paid no attention to the bog-standard septic tank covered in nettles and briars in the field adjacent to my garden. I’m very careful what I put down the drains of course: no detergent, no washing powder, no cotton wool or plastic, just gentle stuff which biodegrades, a bit of food waste, water, that sort of thing.

So I uncovered the tank and invited out the man to clean it. What he said really surprised me. Not the bit about the tank being old, that he had no idea how it functioned so well at such a great age, that it would benefit from installing a smart new system, and everything else you’d expect him to say. What was really interesting is that he said ‘You don’t eat meat, do you?’

I was impressed: he could tell things about my diet from my cess pit? Now that’s a real professional.

It turns out that meat, the cooking of it, the disposing of residual bits of it through drains, the residual oils, all contribute to clogging and to the general bad condition of the system. Basically, it’s greasy and likely to make the drainage system function less well.

Now there’s an allegory.

If regular meat intake clogs drains and is bad for them, I wonder what it does to the human digestive system and to arteries?

I hear a lot from non-vegan people about vegan diets being inadequate and how do we ever manage to survive without meat. I am asked frequently what I eat and how I get enough protein, vitamins, how I maintain a high level of energy. I agree, whatever you eat, vegan or otherwise, it pays to have some understanding about the value of what you’re putting in your body. I take vitamin B12, and vitamin D in the winter. I consider what goodness I am getting from my food at each meal. I try to weigh up the balance of nutritional benefits and avoid foods high in sugar and bad fats, palm oil, too many empty calories. Doesn’t everyone?

Image result for vegan food

Nowadays, some people want to veganise everything, so they can enjoy burgers that bleed, authentic sausages, and cheese which tastes exactly like the ‘real thing.’ I can understand why these products are popular; it’s impressive when people who love meat and dairy give it up and it’s understandable that they want to replicate their favourite flavours and textures in everyday vegan fare. It’s useful to have ready-made standby foods in the freezer too. 

On social media, I read about a lot of vegans who are thrilled to find ‘sfv foods’: safe-for-vegan stuff is really just food not originally intended for vegans but that just happens to contain nothing which is non-vegan. Such ‘accidental vegan’ foods include things like Oreos, some makes of custard powder, pickles, some types of pot noodles, some crisps, bourbon biscuits, Skittles. Some vegans’ delight when discovering Oreos are vegan is touching. Vegan pizza has been a huge success, as has vegan ‘fish’ and chips. Now people can be vegan and not give up fast food and treats they crave from their pre-vegan diet.

 While I’m happy that ‘accidental’ foods like vegetable extract, baked beans, peanut butter and hummus are vegan, I’m cautious about commercial high sugar, salt and high fat foods and the long-term effects of eating too much processed fare, vegan or not. I’m happier cooking something from scratch, with simple ingredients that I know and that I can be confident are good for me. While I understand that people can live off a diet of bourbons and kettle chips and still be vegan, and that fast food takes less time to prepare and it’s great to have an indulgent cruelty-free sweet treat occasionally, ready meals are perhaps best as a stand-by.

Of course, it’s a different kettle of hummus when it comes to alcohol – in moderation. There are great vegan wines to be found, beers too, and supermarkets are starting to understand what makes alcohol vegan and label it accordingly. I still find myself in trouble in bars, restaurants  and shops when I ask ‘Is the wine vegan?’ There are still many places where I’m greeted with confusion, horror and the question ‘Why, isn’t all wine vegan?’ Why, indeed.

Back to the neglected cess pit in the field. What if our bodies are similar to septic tanks: we put stuff into them and they reflect our lifestyle- choice back by being in good working order or less so, depending on the nature of what we put in? The better the quality of ‘stuff’ that goes in on a daily basis, the better the tank functions long-term.

Of course, there’s no scientific correlation between the cleanliness of a septic tank and the health of the human digestive system; I’m being facetious: it’s just a thought. I’m delighted that the meat-free septic tank is hanging in there. I will continue to feed it a diet of biodegradable waste, detergentless cleaners and good vegan manure. I certainly won’t be adding any Oreos and custard into the mix, but there may well be a recycled glug or two of good vegan Merlot every so often.

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Revelling in life’s little pleasures…

Happiness is about enjoying the small things. It’s about getting the most from each moment and not letting an opportunity pass to feel grateful and blessed. Of course, there is happiness to be found in the big things: presents, promotion, pastimes, but perhaps real happiness is something we can connect with every day.

It’s true, external things bring pleasure. We aspire to something and then when we attain it, we believe we are happy. Why not? I know plenty of people who are exhilarated by the excitement of a new job, or a shiny car, a new relationship, a new home, a holiday: all these things bring the possibility of happiness and fulfilment. For me, completing a novel, beginning a new one, holding my finished book in my hand with its wonderful front cover design and title has the capacity to make my heart sing.

Things which happen by accident make us feel blessed. Winning the lottery, for example, would open up many new doors, offer new horizons and the chance to change. Things which happen to us externally, which are not fully of our making, are exciting because they present us with instant opportunities to make life better. Similarly, a promotion to a better job defines us as successful and it’s natural to feel that our achievements make us more exciting or more complete people.

But the problem with chasing happiness is exactly that: we are always seeking the next buzz, the next chance of fulfilment. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there has to be interim happiness which doesn’t depend on luck or someone else’s benevolence.

The base line  for happiness is our own good health and the health of those we love. Bereavement or constant worry about sickness will put a huge barrier in the way of happiness.

However, if we are blessed with life and energy, happiness can be found all around us. It is about taking the time to relish in the small things that promote sustained happiness. I suppose it’s back to the old concept of the half empty glass, and whether we can celebrate that it’s half full.

Today, it’s cold and raining. Usually, that doesn’t initiate a feeling of euphoria. But to be able to put on warm clothes and step outside, feel the wind, the water on your face, to come home and have the luxury of a fire in the hearth, a warm cup of steaming tea in your hands. That’s happiness.

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It’s easy to let immediate opportunities for happiness pass us by. We struggle through each day, busy with deadlines looming, technology pulling us in and absorbing us. How often do we take time to watch the sun rise or set? If it’s only when we’re on holiday, then maybe that’s not often enough. Maybe we should do it more frequently, taking a small drink, breakfast  or supper with us, and think about savouring every bite.

We have music all around us, but when do we stop everything we’re doing, turn up the volume and really listen to every note? We see people we love daily, but how often do we enjoy deep conversation or the time to take someone’s hand, look into their face and completely appreciate every moment we share?

As a fan of the beautiful game, I find it easy to fall into the trap of being governed by the lottery of  a result. If my football team win, I believe I’m happy. If we lose, I’m disgruntled and look for someone to blame: the ref, the goal keeper, the manager, the weather, the fixture list. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for life: it’s too easy to invest in superficial things we can’t control and which don’t really matter, then fall into the trap of blame and anger when it doesn’t go our way. But it is the people we love and the beauty within the moment which really make us happy.

Doing things for other people, making them smile, being kind, positive actions and thoughts towards others makes us happier, not just because we bask in being good, but because there is genuine pleasure to be found in making others’ lives better. Joy lies in reciprocating and sharing more than in allowing some external gratification to wash over us in a passive way.

Unless it is a beach, the waves from a vast ocean washing over us in the warmth of the sun. Or climbing hills, playing in the snow, squelching our boots in mud, alone or shared with others whose company we love. Not much beats grasping each transient moment life gives us, inhaling scent, savouring the taste and listening to the unique sounds. Perhaps nature is always there for us, offering us the opportunity to enjoy being alive in the present.

If that is so, if we can find joy in the duration of each moment, then we are truly blessed.