In this seemingly endless scorched summer, marked by a crescendo of the humming noise of life lived out of doors, the accumulation of scents that mark out windless days and relentless light, I feel in need of precipitation and growth.
My mood has been low recently and my creativity as dry as the sandy loam which currently sits beneath the remnants of yellow grass which make up the local recreational spaces. I’ve been trying each day – using Jocelyn De Kwant’s Creative Flow both as a helpful maintenance tool and as a lock pick to try and help me break back in to a sense of forward motion. It must have helped because here I am. Writing.
Although the evidence of my stagnation is all around me, as I am surrounded by numerous false starts of projects with pens, paints and decoupage. Even as I began to write this piece I have to break away to cut my nails, having been irritated by their clacking on the keyboard. The fact I haven’t been annoyed by this earlier in their growth is a marker of the distance between my creativity and myself – it means that in the days or weeks since their last trim I haven’t reached out to my keyboard at all. More than a slight annoyance, when I have a short story project to work on.
My apparent inability to create has brought no relief to my sinking mood, which I attribute to my feeling of not being able to affect change in my life. After Christmas I will be heading back to work, away from my family and especially from my twin babies. This seems to be something I cannot avoid and the likelihood of avoidance only increased by an inability to create a livelihood elsewhere. The sight of my children’s faces give me relief but then trigger an anxiety about being away from their sides as they grow.
I’ve been blessed in the concern of dear friends, old and new, but my inability to articulate what ails me has hampered rescue attempts. It seems that in this tale, I need to save myself.
So I do. I have been kind to myself, rested and taken care. But no-one escapes abandonment on a desert island with bubble baths. Action is required. So I sit down at my keyboard and write. I will work my way forward, because I know no better way.
This evening my Biggest Girl came back downstairs after bedtime in tears.
She was afraid that something might happen to the twins and that they might die. She was worried about everybody she loves dying. It’s a usual part of childhood development – a chat every child and parent has in families full of love.
This conversation always tears my heart a little, as it happens every few months at the moment. I remember being that age myself and sobbing on the stairs for the same reason. The sudden realisation that everyone will die.
I remember my mum and dad speaking in reassuring tones of heaven and life being for a long time and my anxiety around death eventually settled. As I grew older those who died were elderly or ill and it seemed like blessed release.
As I grew older still I learned that death was often indiscriminate, sometimes fast, sometimes slow but always inevitable, if painful. I lost people I loved after long illnesses or suddenly and unexpectedly. I heard and saw death at work all around me.
I came to accept death as part of life and did not fear it, some days even wishing for the day when my energy would be called back into the altogether of the universe. My shifting from form to another energy, as energy is never destroyed, only changed.
Then came my Biggest Girl and death was something to fear again. An uncontrollable constant, which threatened the love I had made flesh. Every day I do what I can to protect my children from death’s looming threat, I hope each day I win.
I tell Biggest Girl death is nothing to fear, that it is like going home and we will be surrounded by those we love, to be happy and cared for always.
“So it’s just like it is now only forever?”
I bite back tears, smile and reassure her, then cuddle her close and send her to bed thinking of this weekend’s plans for a campfire and toasted marshmallows.
After every one of these conversations with my Biggest Girl I am her, I am that little girl crying on the stairs.
I hope we go to that place I describe to her. I try my best to live it now. I’m lucky enough to love these people with whom I have made home and those I welcome into it. My life, to me, is heaven, so death’s shadow once again makes me afraid. I have everything to lose, in a losing game.
Ultimately I remember Shakespeare’s words on the matter, words which mark my grandmother’s grave:
Need the dish on new experiences for you and yours? Bored of financially driven magazine recommendations? Try some of these…
French Netflix Original I Am Not An Easy Man is a must watch – I struggle with dubbing as one of nature’s face-readers – but I persevered and was rewarded.
The premise is the chauvinist Damien (Vincent Elbaz) is flung into a parallel universe where the patriarchy has been swapped for a matriarchy – as one character points out the women are the stronger because they give birth – and he discovers the norms for women are lumped onto men in their entirety.
Leading woman in a man’s world, Marie Sophie Ferdane, is the absolute star as Alexandra, a successful author who counts her conquests with marbles, boxes to ease her troubled mind and who embodies a Don Juan character into a female body.
The aesthetic of the film is brilliant, applying this “matriarchal” sensibility to the modern world in a convincing and detailed manner – right down to the absurd manscaping expected of the boys – as nonsensical on men as it is in women.
I’m desperate to see a sequel, which is tantalisingly dangled in front of as Alexandra appears in this world at the end…
Partly Political Broadcast – In the hundredth episode of the fast-paced, wry take on the current political landscape, you’re spoiled to a recap of all the greatest insults for our favourite politicians. Your Twitter hot takes will no doubt benefit – “Haunted Toby jug in a suit” Nigel Farage, “Catalogue model for Dynorod” Theresa May, “Quentin Blake drawing” Jeremy Corbyn and “Badyear Blimp” Donald Trump.
Hosted by comedian Tiernan Douieb, probably named by the fairies who replaced him with a changeling, this is a high energy bounce through the horror of modern politics – must listen.
Reclaim The Earth: Women Speak Out For Life On Earth – edited by Leonie Caldedott and Stephanie Leland
This isn’t a new book – first published in 1983 by iconic publishers The Women’s Press means it is 35 years old – but most of the truths of the essays in this book still stand firm. Topics such as nuclear proliferation, chemical pollution, land rights, childbirth, infanticide and ecology remain as relevant, if not more pressing, today. Reading these words written by women a lifetime ago has really refuelled my passion to make change in the world. I’ve dog eared so many pages it would make any librarian weep – but there’s a lot to reread so forgive me. I also note that you can pick up copies via Amazon for as little as 18p – check it out now.
Blue cheese and roast beef toastie – we discovered this on the specials board of The Larder Cafe, in Buckingham, which in of itself is a real find (farmhouse plated breakfasts – cor!). Lush – especially with their fresh mint homemade potato salad – but we reckon you could knock this one up at home too.
Are you a creative soul who wishes that your artistic exploits formed more of your working life? You really need to make a start with Meg Kissack’s That Hummingbird Life – this amazing website is chock full of leaning resources, pro tables, an amazing podcast (which I have often harped on about via Twitter!). If you want to take things a step further Meg, positivity superhero and talent excavator, also offers one to one mentoring and courses. Bullshit free rebel rousing? What’s not to love.
Having finally found that one transformational, magical love and that love becoming our big fat blended herd of a family, all I want is to stay embedded in the warmth and chaos of it all.
So, very much key to my dream of being amongst my family as much as I can, is to write. I know I’m not alone and quite likely, nothing particularly special, but a dream sits on the back of a belief that you can make change. In my case I hope to write my way into a world where I have to leave my loves less.
The thing about babies is, they need care. Around the clock care. Two becomes particularly labour intensive as they manage to spread the work over longer periods of time. Breastfeeding is great, but again it takes out at least one hand in terms of logistics and comes with its own energy demands.
Now, school runs in the mix. This adds an extra element of fun. Again it takes its wedge of time and its portion of energy.
I have a partner who wholesomely believes in pulling his weight in the relationship and we both pull the same way, but our domestic commitments, his time spent working (often late into the night to allow him to be part of family life in the day) and just trying to live a rounded family life, mean that there is still a lot to do.
So, where to find the energy and the time to commit to writing The Novel That Will Save All (hereto referred to as “The Novel”)?
I’m not an exceptional person. I’ve been happy for too many years to simply relax in my free time and to not commit time and effort to expand my dreams beyond the ordinary. I believe you might call it coasting.
But the thing about transformational love is that it is absolutely that – transformational – it makes you a different person without ever asking. You start to want to build worlds in places where you were quite content with just a cosy little niche in the world as it was. Such a unique love turns you into a revolutionary, ready to take on your most lazy instincts to create and raise castles in which to house your love.
I’m going to have to make time and energy. I’m going to have to commit energy and time I do not have to getting words onto the screen.
Sometimes you have to rip out a part of yourself, so you can fashion it like clay into building blocks, then breathe life into it with sheer will.
It’s Friday and you may be looking for some ways to kill time this weekend or just even looking for some inspiration for the week to come. So, on my dragnet approach to the world, here’s what I’ve found…
SEE: Happy! A SyFy series adapted from a Grant Morrison graphic novel which has crash landed onto Netflix this week starring Chris Meloni (Law and Order SVU) as a bruised and abused ex-cop turned saviour to a daughter he didn’t know existed. Naturally he comes with an be-winged unicorn as a sidekick. We binge watched it in a day. Be warned it comes with some Black Mirror-esque stomach churning darkness.
HEAR: Rumpole, Radio 4. New episodes of Julian Rhind-Tutt’s version of the wily criminal barrister. I can’t physically picture JRT as Rumpole, yet nevertheless it works. Three new episodes at 14.15 on 7, 8 and 9 May – I’ll be catching up on iPlayer after.
READ: Fifty-One Moves, by Ben Ashcroft, Waterside Press
I’m late to the party on this one, as it was originally published in 2013, but its importance cannot be over emphasised. The viewpoint of a young boy shunted around the care system after being abandoned to it. A vital read, particularly for anyone in education, law enforcement, justice roles or social work. It’s the very rarely articulated account of a child turned over to the system and you will want to bear witness.
EAT: Use up your old bananas with this recipe suggested by top notch Twitterer @barfilfarm. I tried it a few weeks ago and can utterly recommend. You want to make banana bread even better? Slice it, toast it and butter it. Heaven on a plate. Thank me later.
LEARN: I’ve had a look around futurelearn.com – it’s a great resource offering many great FREE courses – I’ve previously done courses on scriptwriting, witness psychology and cyber security. I’ll be dipping into their Mindfulness course run by Monash University starting on 7th May.
I’m finding myself often sitting and gazing at my now four month old twin daughters.
They already seem so big already. I am right there, close by each day and already I feel like I am missing out on so much. It is all passing by so quickly, their faces shifting in shape from newborn to the chubby faces of their age, almost between blinks. Every minute they seem to pick up fragments of personality, new skills, onwards towards the next stage. Sometimes I find myself, as they cry in my arms through no other cause than tiredness, looking at them warmly and steadily with rapt love, so aware that this stage will be over all too soon.
Their older siblings make things no easier. My biggest girl, my first born and for so long my little side-kick, is moving through the years at school at an alarming pace, becoming more and more independent and I’m painfully aware I’ve missed so much. Ever since my first period of maternity leave for her I have worked full time, often with overtime, to allow our life of the two of us to continue forward with security. I’ve missed school performances, despite my best efforts, and exhaustion has often meant I’ve not been entirely present for so much of our free time. That realisation, that admission, is devastating.
Recently, ever aware of time passing me by, I’ve started to fret that I’m not remembering enough. I find myself desperately trying to soak up the detail of each moment, trying to hold down every sensation – how the light falls across the babies smiles, how their skin feels on mine, the exact sound of their coos. These are the details of the times I will have to use to sustain me when I have to be away from them, as they put these early months behind them, develop and grow.
In this second maternity leave, I find myself dreading my return to work. I’m equally cursed and blessed you see. A well paying job but having to sacrifice time with my babies to make it work. All the security, but so little time to be with the very thing I am working for.
I know, it’s rare these days for anyone to have the luxury of staying at home to see their children grow up and it might as well be a pipe dream. It is what everyone would have, would that they could. But some people do – don’t they – they have the best of both worlds? Security and the time to make the most of precious moments?
This, surely, is something I can make work? I am creative, I seem to be able to write things people want to read. Would this be even possible? I have ideas for novels, for books, for projects. What would it take for me to advance this in a real way to try and make our dreams come true?
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 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.”
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
It started with a simple dream, a hammock under a tree…
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.
I am doing my own stepping forward, if only in trying to lead a more deliberate live of love and kindness…
Trite isn’t it. The idea of once every year the cliché of fresh starts. A barrage of fitness posts on social media, healthy eating tips and resolutions to effect change are abounds. Predictable, dull.
But in this world, this world that is so very different to the world at the start of 2016, normality is no longer predictable. In point of fact the world is becoming a darker and much more terrifying place. What we learned from 2017 was that in the war between good and evil is that a) evil is something that is contested and not agreed upon, no matter how similar it is to commonly accepted reference points from the past (I refer you to the ‘good folks’ mentality of the American right towards what ostensibly appear to be Nazis; and b) good will not always win, just because it should.
It is into this world that I have brought two new-born girls, alongside my eldest daughter and another son and a daughter I welcomed into my blended family. In these dark times I have to admit, I am afraid. I am afraid for my children. We appear to be at the precipice of epoch defining change and there are no apparent leaders stepping forward to contest that definition being written by those who would profit from it at the cost of all the precious attributes of humanity – kindness, humility, hope and shared progress. Who will stand to unite those who will not accept the sale of the world to the highest bidder?
But there is hope. There is always hope. From between the shadows there are quietly stepping forward thousands of men and women who are ready to make change. They are ready to lead – some in grand ways which might form governments – some of whom are willing to lead in the smallest of ways, making better choices at home and hearth – and neither of these types of leadership are of greater value – all world leaders begin with a home of whatever description and the better we make these homes, the stronger we make these families, the greater the chance we give the fight for good.
So, though the “New Year, New Starters” have previously been some sort of herd thought process, oft driven by consumer culture, perhaps we should see them as much, much more. These are the little manifestations of hope. Hope that we can all change and be better. Good has not yet lost.
So I apologise, with the launch of this new blog I am part of that wave of post-Christmas optimism. I am doing my own stepping forward, if only in trying to lead a more deliberate live of love and kindness, writing it out onto a message to stuff in a bottle and tossing that bottle out on to the turbulent waves of the present.