#ThrowbackThursday Creative Democracy: The Star Princess of Victoria Park

This piece was first published on Quiet Radicals in October 2016

“What I love is either make people think or make people smile – that’s my happy place and I want other people to be happier too.” – Stephanie Shields

Stephanie Shields: The Star Princess of Victoria Park

Stephanie Shields has long harboured a dream to share her work with the world and to make the world smile. Now, with the publication of The Star Princess and The Kitchen Witch she has fulfilled a life-long dream of having her own work in print and read by others.

From her days as the creative mind behind the popular Princess of VP blog, with its substantial Twitter following, Stephanie began writing flash fiction and found her feet in writing 100 word stories.

“My 100 word stories made me believe I’m a writer,” she explained. “So now I can turn my musings, thoughts and suggestions into something that’s not just words on the internet I feel like a real writer. I don’t care as much about money as much as I care about there being something on a bookshelf with my name on it.”

She added: “It took a very, very good friend having faith in me, actively having faith in me and being really invested in me and talking eloquently about something I’d written, which made me realise my dream. It was one person at the right time properly investing in me.”

Born in Wingerworth and educated at St Mary’s Primary School, Hunloke Junior School and St Mary’s High School; Stephanie was a precocious child with a voracious appetite for reading, consuming everything – from the wide array of books her parents stacked their home with – to cans of furniture polish and cereal packets. Her literary education was filled with childhood staples of J R R Tolkien, Noel Streatfield, AA Milne and Tove Jansson. She said: “I always will be inspired by what I read as a child – I will always carry them with me.”

It was this upbringing that fostered a passion for stories in Stephanie.

She said: “I’ve a very soft, childlike heart. My parents gave me a very, very childlike heart – very light and very lovely Polyanna aspect to me which I don’t ever want to lose. If I can retain that through very, very horrid things in life I’m keeping it thank you very much.”

But in keeping a childlike heart she is clear that her stories aren’t just for children, certainly not just for girls.

“I’m not just passionate about writing for children,” explained Stephanie. “I’m passionate about writing, for everyone. This world of princesses, school teachers, dogs having adventures with pirates just pours out through my fingers. Just because my stories involve characters that are childlike doesn’t mean that they are just for children – I think even adults need that idea of we’ve all gone on a fabulous adventure and now we’re coming home for tea!”

She added: “I’ve written a story about a princess which is illustrated by a boy and girl so this book is definitively for boys AND girls – it isn’t “just a girls book” – but I know there are people who won’t let their boys read a story about a princess.”

The idea for the book, published by Cynefin Road, is inspired by real-life kindness. Stephanie explained: “I asked Twitter for some courage – and someone quite literally sent me some vials of courage – magic spells in bottle. I still have the bottles and they live by my laptop.”

The book tells the story of the Star Princess, a girl who has been alone so long in a tower close to the sky that people have forgotten her name, and how the Kitchen Witch weaves a spell to help bring her back to Earth. Her book is charmingly illustrated by Cameron Patrick, aged seven and his sister Jessica, five, and has already been well received by readers on Amazon.

Stephanie is now at work on an anthology of a hundred 100 word stories – drawing her back to her writing roots – alongside more children’s stories and a handful of romances being pulled together for publication.

She added: “I don’t think I’ve developed a masterplan as yet. I’m so lacking in discipline!”

So, why should readers pull a copy of the Star Princess and the Kitchen Witch from the shelves?

Stephanie replied: “Because it’s about hope, it’s about courage and it’s about doing something for someone else for no other reason than it will make their life better. It is about magic – if you believe in magic, proper magic, then the world is already a better place.”

* For more information on Stephanie Shields follow her on Twitter @princessofvp or visit her Cynefin Road author page

#ThrowbackThursday Bringing Change: Hopes & Wishes

First published 9th March 2017 on Quiet Radicals

Last month was welcome in sweeping away and closing doors behind it. Taking with it the immediate instant sting of grief, of loss.

It had started with a tiny heartbeat. For us this was Hope, a miracle after an earlier loss. We saw Hope on a screen, wept and held hopeful hands togerther, marvelling at that tiny heart beating in less than a centimetre of potential.
Just three weeks later as my slightly rounded belly was pressed down, we saw Hope again, not much bigger but with that strong, minute pulsing absent. Hope was gone, lost. All there was now was grief and medical options to physically let her go.

That heartbeat had drummed out a promise of a future world, a world that we now know will not become. Thoughts had been turned to preparations. Preparations which are no longer needed. The loss of that tiny heartbeat had been incorporated into our own heartbeats, only to be a soft echo and nothing more.

Two weeks after that, well, what we are left with is the wondering – what is Hope?

What is hope? Defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as “desire accompanied by expectation or belief in fulfillment”. The dictionary definition, as with so many words, falls far short of the lived experience of hope.

Hope is, in the absence of concrete guarantees, the need to get back up. Hope is not a wish, not a vision of what is better, it is the part that screams “DO NOT GIVE IN”. It is not a petalline and blush concept – it is found in the viscera, perhaps even is of the blood rather than the heart. It is the part of all of us that – in the face of abject mortality, in the line of failure after failure, after losses so great we fear we might never breathe again – tears apart at fear, at defeat, at fatigue. It understands that there can be better than this and shrieks “GET BACK UP.”

Hope is in every act of carrying on, every moment of continuing with each other, with our children who have made it into the world. Hope bursts through, blistering and ripping through grief, into love. It does it again and again and will not stop. Hope is the thing that unifies us all. It inspires courage and lets us start over again and again, and again.

Hope is not lost. Hope lives on always, in all of us.

* If you have been or are being affected by pregnancy loss please make sure you are supported. If you are struggling there are a great many organisations offering help and support. The Miscarriage Association and babyloss are good places to start. And, for all it’s worth, our hearts are with you too.

My partner James has also written about this experience- unusually from the perspective of the dad. I warn you, it is heartbreaking but worth reading here.

Throwback Thursday: The Day Sleeper


Her room is different from any room in the house, she chose it for that very reason aged six. The window into the loft faces to the east. It is the only window in the house that catches every sunrise, letting the early morning light flood in each day. It would always awake her and bring a clean new day. A new start in which she would see, in her sunny constancy, opportunity, hope and industry. She would arise with purpose and energy. The energy was now but a whispered memory. Now we know each evening that room fills with gloom, something which never mattered when it was not her sanctuary, her retreat. The gloom seems to soothe her day time sleep, compensating for the fitful nights punctuated by painful coughs.

Today, she slept through most of the morning. Ignoring the brightness of the day. Before noon, I hear the strains of Puccini’s Humming Chorus shimmering through the air from her room. It is a blue day and there is no intervention which can salve the dull pain that accompanies it. I decide to enact the kindness of a breakfast tray knowing, even as I carefully assemble it, it will go ignored. But there is so little time, so little opportunity to show even the smallest acts of love.

I know she walks down a path from which there is no return and I fear it with every fibre of my being. My beautiful child, vacated from life and waiting.
I set the tray down on her bedside table and she almost raises a smile as I sit next to her, pressing my weight onto the mattress and causing the tiniest of movement in her still frame. Her golden hair is matted to her skin by sweat as I push it back from her cheek, but her alabaster skin shines with an ethereal radiance as if all she has left is the luminescence of angels. She reaches her slight hand to mine and interweaves her index finger with mine and squeezes almost imperceptibly.

“Thank you mummy.”

I almost choke at the sound of her raspy and ravaged voice. It’s the first time she has been able to speak in days. My heart is broken at my baby’s change from vibrant 22 year old to crumbling, fragile patient.

The following morning I look out of the windows, see the brightness of the sunrise picking out the greens and blues of the summers day. The yellows, whites and violets of the spring flowers cheerfully nod in the gentle breeze and a murmuration of starlings undulates in the sky above the kitchen window as I stand by the sink. I go to her room with a jug of water and, on entering the light filled room I set it on the side without looking to the bed. But as I straighten back up I see the utter stillness of the bed. It is occupied, but empty.

My lungs evaporate.

• This flash fiction was first published on my old blog Quiet Radicals on 16/7/2016

Love, in three embraces

This morning my boy drew himself into bed, exhausted after his share of caring for the twins in the night and with hot coffee on the bedside table for me to awake and to take over care. He held me close in his hot arms and spoke softly in his low, deep tones to me about love, our love, in the terms of kindness that are habitual for us. The safety, the intimacy and the feeling of the pieces being put together. This is it, for always, all at once familiar and new, exciting and reliable, home and adventure. For all the scars we carry are held as jewels which led us to this very moment, every moment.

On a morning last week my first-born, my golden haired girl, crawled into that same bed, afraid and frantic from a nightmare, having quietly scaled the stairs up to our room in the dark. I brought her close to me and whispered words of comfort to her, intertwined with threats to the spectres of the dark, from the burning ferocity of maternal love. As she melted into safety, into my concerned but tired embrace, we fell asleep in the dark, my heart held in my arms and swept over by the honeyed sensation of knowing she is safe.

Twenty-four years ago, sitting with my arms around my grandmother as she wept, having fallen in the hospital toilet in what turned out to be her last months, promoted from 12-year-old to the first familiar face of comfort in a moment of fearful realisation. She told me not of her pain but of her shame. The love and protection she always had given me became a well to draw upon to quench this sudden, terrifying need for reassurance. I held her close and spoke words of love which I hoped were enough.

A Year To Save A Dream

It started with a simple dream, a hammock under a tree…

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What’s left when you draw back all the stuff?

Stuff. It’s a bind isn’t it. I’ve been accumulating it like lint for years. I’ve never been wealthy. Much like everyone else just modest gains in income, but roughly breaking even each month after consumerist drives have led me to the acquisition of a cool what-not, the must have doo-dad or the pretty, shiny thing. Stuff that keeps me in the exact same position I’ve been in all my life – treading water.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fortunate comatose position to be in – but lord knows it’s a waste of a life if stuff is all you have to show for it at the end.

In finding the boy, my soulmate (a concept I never believed in, much less daring to hope he was an actual, real person) I found a real dream. First mooted as a donkey sanctuary, where I could rest my weary head in a pretty, flower covered straw hat, it evolved into the simple idea of a house in a wood with a hammock. Security and a home in which to go the long way round for coffee (coffee via stopping for a kiss naturally). We wanted a home where we could run as close to self sufficiency as we could – green energy, harvested water and a garden to eat. We didn’t want for much, just a simple and quiet life spent with our babies and each other.

But, over the last year this dream has seemed to become ever distant with the pressures of work, the new challenges of housing a family which all of a sudden was being added to by two new girls and trying to accommodate the wants and desires of our older, more vocal brood. With these pressures come little oddities. The need for “spoiling” ourselves which, roughly translated, was just spending money on a takeaway, or two, or more a week – because of convenience and exhaustion. Little treats to myself included buying books, many of which are on a pile of books that I continue to have little time to read; items for the babies – often which are not needed but that I wish to have just in case; objets- little bits of art, ephemera and, for the want of a better word, tat; finally food – spending on what I fancied at the time rather than engaging in the tedious exercise of packed lunches or cooking what I had in (which in turn has led to obscene levels of waste.

As I say, although I’ve had the luxury of being able to sustain these behaviours, I’m not wealthy and it has been just enough. The boy, bless his heart, has quietly and without comment left me to this wasteful waistrel approach to my disposable income whilst using all his earnings to support our family and to ensure he is able to drive the many miles to collect his children each weekend. He has no space in that to treat himself.

But this accumulation of stuff has brought us no closer to the dream of hammocks by a house in the woods. It has simply given us more things to move, more things to dust and less freedom to make our modest dream come true.

I can’t even tell you where my attachment to things began, but it has been a long standing fixation it seems. I remember being a precious child about the tea chest of toys I had. My mother couldn’t afford much when we were growing up – until I was two she was a single mum, having given birth to me at 18 years old – even with the support of my adoptive father as he became – we didn’t have much for many years. Even so, I had an old tea chest, enterprisingly coated in a piece of poly-vinyl faux matt leather, about a foot and a half cubed (I recall emptying it out and sitting within it – a toy that held toys). It was full of toys – some home made such as the full wardrobe of Sindy clothes lovingly produced by my mother and aunt – many second hand or donated to us – with the rest made up of the biannual occasion of new toys at Christmas and birthdays. All in all my parents did well for us on a limited budget. The point of this segue into nostalgia is that I would cherish each and every fragment in that tea chest – right down to the broken bits in the bottom – and would never cede an item when it came to being persuaded that some of it had to go.

This continued into my adolescence when I became increasingly precious about stuff. I’d walk a portion of my two bus route across town to school to save the fare and would take to spending it on things in charity shops along the route. Things only ramped up when I remained at home and went to uni for a year, a squandered period in which I invested my student loan in clothes, things and going out – further supplementing my habit with money from my part time job. As I embarked on a career aged 20 – already with a substantial cache of crap – I left home and continued to buy, buy, buy unfettered by the criticism of my parents.

I moved several times, each time hauling a greater and greater quantity of things, moved in with partners and broke up with partners. I never allowed the disposal of more than a handful of items each time. It wasn’t until, after one break up which meant I had to store all my earthly belongings in my parents garage and my precious stuff was destroyed by a fire, that my collection was reduced.

I remember a friend of my mother’s remarking at the time that, although devastating to me, it would be liberating in the long run. I didn’t see it like that then, especially as I was aware of that friend’s own attachment to things, so I picked up where I left off.

By the time I met my future ex-husband I had less stuff and it wasn’t until our marriage fell apart and I moved out that I realised how little I had. I remember moving into my own flat for the first time, the first property I had ever owned, and scraping together what free furniture I could to put in it so my then toddler daughter and I could build a home. From this starting point I dedicated myself to filling that place, taking my solo earnings and investing them as and when I could, with pieces of second hand furniture and new bits and bobs. I did so and by the time I met the boy I had once again stuffed a space with things. Fortunately, due to his own disasters, he came with very little, so once again I got away with maintaining the collection. He even diligently moved all of this when it came to moving into a bigger house, which circumstances meant could only be a rental property, literally filling the house with all this stuff.

The time has now come where, with the arrival of our twins, any gains I’ve made in savings are being put into the luxury of maintaining my maternity leave. The dream is no closer and I have to reflect on my role, or lack of therein, in that. I cannot change my income situation and the boy does his thing to just try and keep the plates spinning. I’m certainly in no need of handouts and would not accept them – so I have to think of what I can do to change these circumstances.

In honest reflection it means I have to deal with the stuff and my need for the stuff. It has to make a contribution to our lives or it has to go and contribute for its previous upkeep by being sold. It is of such volume I’m not even certain where to start, but go it must and not for any sort of zen, tackling the clutter reason. I have to accept that my attachment to things stands between us and a dream.

Now, the last time I did a silly minded challenge to self was in ridding myself of a wardrobe full of clothes in 2016 – what a ludicrously decadent thing to be able to do – but it meant I was able to shake off my fast fashion habit (chronicled at my Quiet Radicals blog).

I’m giving myself a year, yet again, a year to turn it around. I’ve no expectation of that meaning by this time next year we’ll be ensconced in our house in the woods. What I’m aiming for is a turnaround in my behaviour and laying a foundation to make that dream a reality, to save (for) that dream.

Hammocks depend on it.

 

Kindness: The charity that has to start at home

More early morning dispatches – today I sit typing onto the laptop at 4am. An odd sort of kindness to myself, waking up in the early hours to be fully awake to feed my children, but it has helped me carve out thinking space and in turn writing space. This is time I am starting to make my own, to tap into something that is ill afforded to me in the hours where it is easier, and more acceptable perhaps, to go about the business of tidying and binge watching television.

Self kindness is something I have always struggled with. I have not been as kind to myself, by a long chalk as I have been to others. I’ve always been subject to a greater level of criticism, scrutiny and intolerance from my own view of myself, something I would not impose or even consider applying to anyone else. I’m hyper critical of my appearance – I can’t be seen dead in public without any make-up, the dimensions I see in the mirror are apparently not what everyone else sees and I worry constantly about not being a good enough mother. Even in the introduction to this blog I’ve managed to knock the fact that I’m doing my best in being a mother of twin newborns, a seven year old and stepmum to an eight and six year old, a partner, a daughter and all the other roles I strive to fulfil, and reducing my lack of time to pursue my intellectual ambitions as down to being lazy.

I suppose by reflecting on how kind, or more importantly how unkind, we are to ourselves goes a long way to answering what kindness might be.

For me, this clearly involves addressing judgement. I don’t consider myself as judgemental of others, but I am aware of how judgemental I am of myself. I’ve discussed the matter of self kindness widely with others, both in person and via social media and it seems it is as complex as anything else. One of the themes that has emerged is the link between self kindness and worth. For some of us we don’t treat ourselves kindly because we simply don’t believe we are worthy.

For some people this meant they struggled to do themselves simple kindnesses such as making themselves a cup of tea in the morning, or to make sure that they even ate during the day. For others it meant that they actively tortured themselves with the details of their own perceived shortcomings.

In my own experience it was the prioritisation of other’s needs beyond my own basic welfare – every time. Putting others first is not a completely negative thing – it is the basis of service and duty. When unmitigated self-pressure and sacrifice go unchecked and unrecognised over a long period, however, it leads to self-neglect, burn out and serious health (mental and physical) implications. Almost two years ago I found myself in a situation of burn-out and stress at work. I had been putting work ahead of my own welfare for around a year, whilst trying to balance my responsibilities as a parent and to care for a relative. I came to the point that I was almost unable to go into work – how I carried on going in is still something I am not able to explain. My temper was short, my memory was poor and daily I found myself searching for vocabulary which could not be called to mind. The worst of it was the physical panic reactions – the feeling of my heart racing, the sensation of being trapped and the inability to remember anything.

It took me a long time to learn that I deserved to be factored into my own priorities. I had to train myself in the skill of saying “No” whilst being able to reconcile this with my own sense of what was right. I took to taking little steps towards self care – giving me time for myself, starting to acknowledge my self imposed high standards and how I should let go of all my “shoulds”. It is important to note however that I started to resolve this with the help of a very talented and eminently qualified consultant psychologist. Accepting help is a vital self kindness I wish to address at another point.

As it was, when I became stressed at work, it still wasn’t for myself that I went for help. It was for my daughter, when she became the victim of my short temper, albeit just with a single snappy comment made to her, but once was enough.

Ultimately for me, drawing on my own experiences of behaviour and therapy, and the discussion with friends, my conclusion on kindness to the self boils down to two elements:

1. Recognition of self worth

2. Honouring needs and wants

And I don’t mean this in a manner of two separate things in isolation – these factors work in a cyclical fashion – one feeds the other. You can’t honour what you don’t recognise and unless you honour your value then how can you recognise it?

When it comes to honour I’m not considering devotional offerings of animal sacrifice or utilising an altar – I’m considering small ways of making sure to share kindness with yourself.

2018 – A Kindness Odyssey

As I write I have my littlest, big twin balanced in the crook of my arm, trying to relieve her of the wind which I can hear gently growling within her belly after nursing her, as her minutes-older little sister, already full of milk, gurgles softly within the safety of her moses basket a few feet away.

Its 5.45am, just over two hours after I’ve relieved my partner for my share of the night shift. We’re working as a team and tonight I’m trying a new approach to my share of the night feeds. The last couple of nights I’ve found half-asleep breastfeeding a little trying, often ending with me dozing in bed with a child in my arms. This is a bad state of affairs – I’m more aware than most of the threat of co-sleeping – so I’ve had a think and decided a fully awake set of early morning feeds is the answer. It seems it has also given me time and headspace to create – so here I write.

In the last weeks I came to the realisation that I was thoroughly entranced by the scrolling of social media. It’s understandable I think, alongside the exhaustion of dealing with two newborns, to revert to mindless scanning of all the feeds, but it can become an exhausting and consuming process of mentally sifting words, concepts and news. It has stifled creativity in me and, although sparking ideas, has become somewhat obstructive due to its distracting ease. I came to realise that, having had months of a pregnancy so physically exhausting that it rendered me massively mentally diminished, that my faculties were back firing on all pistons and time was a-wasting. I decided on a full-blown act of self care and gifted myself the kindness of a week long break from the pressure of social media, full force cold turkey.

Kindness has become a new obsession, with the return of my capability to reflect and analyse. It seems that the threats to the world right now are rooted in a place where kindness is somewhat lacking. There is a lot of focus, globally on protectionist policies and a reduction in social provision which has seen the most vulnerable start to suffer – the news in the UK recently has reported increases in homelessness, the impact of benefits changes on the poor and increases in racism reports following Brexit. Globally the headlines have been dominated by the accounts of sexual assault and harassment, looming threats of nuclear war and mass manipulation of people and democracies using covertly collected data through social media. The world has become a dark place, without redeeming features.

This is a bleak setting in which to be nurturing new life, so its understandable that my brain might be reaching for answers to this darkness. Kindness, that most basic sign of the good that permeates humanity, is the easiest to go to. It leaves traces everywhere.

I’ve been lucky over the last six weeks to have benefited from kindnesses of several kinds. The kindness of strangers – the cheering comments of other social media users on the days when new baby exhaustion has been grinding; the kindness of personal values – the anaesthetist flying in the face of accepted practice by insisting I have the support of my partner’s presence as the doctor administered the terrifying spinal block needed for the birth of my children; and the kindness of love as my partner set aside the suffering of full blown ‘flu to ensure I did not have to deal with around the clock feeding alone.

This is all such great fortune and I know that in this I am supported by so much advantage and privilege. This is not the norm for so many people. In fact structures and systems in this world mean that so many people are exposed to discrimination, cruelty and exploitation. I resolved to set my mind to kindness, to understand how kindness might become a revolutionary act, how, with intention, kindness might change the world, starting small and growing outwards.