It’s not always about… me #self-esteem

Thought Verbs Show Not TellI’ve spent far too many years interpreting certain events and experiences in my past in a way which allows me to heap blame, reproach and criticism (and a whole lot more besides) on to my own shoulders. But as I lose weight, I’m gaining back my self-respect, and with it, a little perspective.

I’m a work-in-progress as much with this as with the weight-loss, but with my diminishing physical burden has come the ability to see emotional things differently; to acknowledge that certain situations and the outcomes that wounded me, were not my fault, or my doing; they were not about me being weak or careless, stupid or naive; they did not come about because of some failing in me, something I did, or didn’t do, some expectation I failed to meet. Those situations were not, in fact, about me at all.

I make no excuse for speaking in general terms. Blogging is a very public thing, and the events and experiences to which I allude are intensely personal in nature. They involve a thankfully small number of people who have passed through my life and who have, in one way or another, wreaked some degree of havoc for me – physically, psychologically, emotionally.

On those occasions, my default position has been this: That I had somehow brought this problem, situation or person’s behaviour on myself; that it was something about me that caused this or that reaction or behaviour.

On one level, when you think like this it makes you feel weak and pitiful. It’s like in a violent relationship where the victim accepts the rationale of the bullying partner when they say, ‘you made me angry’ or ‘you made me do this to you’.  Within the diminished self-esteem that characterises such situations, you let yourself believe that your weakness, contemptibility, failing or fallibility, your unique propensity to irritate or anger, somehow brought about whatever happened.

On another level it makes your own indignation and anger rise up, sometimes in quite uncontrollable ways. Here’s the thinking that has sent me into palpable (but so far private) rages; has seen me ranting at the four walls of my house, bashing out blistering pages of irrational fury on my keyboard (well, I am a writer, it’s the natural place):

“What is it about me, that makes you think it’s ok to do this to me?”

“What is it about me, that makes you behave in this way?”

“What is it about me, that makes you take advantage of my kindness/generosity/… etc.”

“What is it about me, that makes you have so little thought for my feelings?”

Thankfully those perverse pages, filled with purple prose, pouting and profanity, rarely see the light of day – though it has happened once or twice. When I calm down, perspective rebalanced, I see them for what they are, and delete them. Maybe the process of writing is the exorcism of emotion that I need.

The thing is, when people hurt you, behave badly towards you, steal from you, take advantage of you, manipulate you, treat you dismissively, patronise you, bully you, lie to you, cheat you, let you down – it’s not about you. It’s about who they are or the situation they’re responding to. It’s about them.

Bad people do bad things to others; the narcissists, the sociopaths, the liars, the feckless, the cheats, the lazy, the ruthlessly ambitious, the dishonest, the selfish. That’s easy enough to understand, once you realise what you’ve been dealing with.

But good people do bad things too, and that’s a little tougher to handle. Good people can be thoughtless, come under pressure, get stressed, make poor decisions, judge situations wrongly, let stuff overwhelm them, prioritise other people and things over you. When these situations arise, normally good people can inflict hurt, damage those they would normally treat with far more care. But even then it’s still not about you – it’s about them.

So this is my thought for the weekend; a healing and calming mantra, for when you’re tempted to feel indignant, hurt or angry when someone’s actions wound you, or their behaviour falls short of what you hoped it would be – it’s not about me.

Regaining Perspective #walking

2016-06-22 06.29.23Disturbed by the Referendum outcome unfolding overnight and now confirmed (that’s as political as I’m going to get, folks), I took myself out for a very early morning walk, to clear my head. I was out of the door at a few minutes past 6:00am.  I thought I’d share my walk – sights, sounds and smells – in case anyone else needs a shot of perspective. It’s just an ordinary walk, a circuit of 2.4 miles (so my Fitbit tells me) around my local streets and park, but this morning, it was a particular tonic:

Out of the house and everything looks and smells fresh. Torrential rain yesterday evening has brought all the gummy grittiness out of the air and the sun is celebrating. Everywhere pavements and roadways bear evidence of mini-floods – rivulets of dirt, gravel and leaf mould have settled into crevices and gutters. I dance over puddles (new trainers, don’t want to spoil them) and walk down the road instead of the pavement in places to avoid splashback. It’s quiet at 6:00am down the back-streets.

This road feels as if it’s out in the country, perhaps because for a stretch, it lacks a pavement, bearing just a painted line to separate vehicle from human traffic. A tall hedge leans, loaded with leftover raindrops; an old wall exudes rich, mulchy odour.  Climbing roses droop across the path and I have to duck to clear them.

A car whooshes by, and another.  Whooshes is naughty, as this particular stretch of road has a 20mph limit.

2016-06-22 06.32.14A house ripe for renovation, and the garden is overgrown. I can’t help but admire the architectural beauty of a clump of thistles. Onwards, and I pass the school, where a food truck is waiting to be let through the barrier. The driver, a Sikh, smiles and waves. I’m getting more of that sort of thing these days and I can’t deny, I appreciate it.  I smile back.

Down a smarter road now, bigger houses set back off the road. I pass a runner and a ‘serious’ cyclist (lycra, helmet, head down). The pavement is uneven, dipping and rising, and as the sun shines in my eyes, I have to watch my feet. I reach my decision corner – go left for a longer walk, right for shorter.  I go left.

A house on the corner which has had the builders in for months – I watched them arrive every day in the dark, back in the winter months – is complete, with a new contemporary façade.  It’s looking good.

2016-06-22 07.08.12The next road is busier – it’s a bus route and a cut-through. It too has been freshened by last night’s rain, which is a good thing.  Yesterday was Bin Day and I had to walk past piles of refuse sacks which ponged mightily. Some always get ripped open by foxes and magpies, and it’s never pretty. Shielding my eyes against the sun, now directly in my face.

I’m by the shops now, an arcade of perhaps two hundred yards, running round a corner. The first of two cafes is just opening up.  Already there are builders’ vans in the lay-by, workers waiting to begin their day with a fry-up.  Round the corner, the baker is open already, more workers coming and going with sandwich bags. The open door oozes the sickly-sweet odour of iced buns and pastries – it never used to tempt me, and it certainly doesn’t now.

The second café is in full operation, the scent of breakfast fry-up just a little more tempting than sugar icing, but stale fat… no. A man stands outside smoking, fiddling with his phone. More white vans and their branded brothers come and go – this is quite the place for building and renovation trades to congregate.

The all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, even closed, is cloaked in the stale, sticky odour of sweet-and-sour and stir-fry.  Tatty paper notices advising prices and new opening hours cling to the insides of its windows.  I hold my breath for a few moments.

2016-06-22 06.38.22Traffic queues beside me now, for the next few hundred yards.  I pass my favourite honeysuckle bush, a heady counterpoint to the sweet-and-sour. Cut down a side street where the paving slabs are inexplicably… pink.

My ‘long’ route takes me through a corner of the park; the grass is in need of cutting and that’s unusual, as our local parks are impeccably maintained. The chicken-wire gate to the tennis courts hangs open. I pass through a dank tunnel of foliage and head towards the children’s play area, empty of course, at this hour. I’m even too early for the dog walkers.

As I emerge from the park, I almost bump into a man walking along the pavement. The last part of my walk is uphill, and it takes all my energy. I’ve been keeping up a pace with a fast playlist, and I’m struggling now, but just a few hundred yards to go. The pavement runs alongside the park, but it’s uneven, with big grass-filled cracks between the slabs, so once again, I have to watch my feet. I reach another favourite tree, which I’ve enjoyed watching flourish, from its barren winter state, through the first glimpse of leaves, then blossom, and now full summer greenery. Just a hundred yards to go. The fence beside me reeks of wet wood and creosote – I like it.

Back home, and the first thing I do is check how long my walk took. When I started this healthy lifestyle thing last September, this particular walk (which I took only rarely) would take me 60 minutes, and I’d arrive home with aching hips, pouring with sweat, good for nothing. Today it’s taken me 45 minutes.  I’m glowing yes, but it’s a healthy, exercised glow, not a sickly, unfit one. I’m bursting with endorphins, and even the Referendum and its unsettling implications won’t shift my feel-good.

What, No Photo? #BloggersBash 2016

Bloggers Bash 16Call yourself a blogger, Jools?  

I’m a rubbish blogger.  A properly rubbish blogger.

I mean, what was I thinking of, going to the 2016 Bloggers Bash yesterday in London, and not even once, not one single time, getting out my phone and snapping a photo or two of the assembled gathering. Other bloggers – the proper bloggers, the real ones, the ones with their readership’s interests and thirst for information on this unique event in the blogging calendar at heart – other bloggers managed it, but not me. What in the world was I thinking of, showing up to a Bloggers Bash and not taking any photos?

Face it, Jools, you’re not a real blogger at all, are you? You’re a fraud.

In my defence, I’m a fraud with just two hands. And on a sticky day, moisture clinging to the warm air, those hands of mine were preoccupied in the critical task of keeping my core temperature under control.

Ha! I bet you thought you were over all that menopausal flushy business, didn’t you?  

I thought, with dropping almost 60 pounds in the last 9 months, that rushes of steaming hot blood to the head would be history. Not so much, so it seems.  So… one hand gripping my life-saving pound-shop battery-operated fan, and the other hand clutching a glass filled to the brim with crushed ice and a drop or two of neat… water… and that was it. No spare hand for that phone.  And being an oldie, I haven’t quite grasped the techniques required to both hold a phone and take a picture simultaneously with one hand only – I’d have needed both hands anyway. And abandoning both cool-aids at once, I simply could not do.

Until, that is, I was pointed in the direction of Geoff Le Pard’s spectacular sugar-free Banana and Almond cakes.

Yes, cake.  Sugar free.

Oh my goodness, they were tasty! Having gone added-sugar-free several months ago, my taste-buds have acclimatised to less ‘sweet’ in everything, but to taste a snack that has every characteristic of a real, actual… cake… but has absolutely no sugar, is, quite frankly, a moment of bliss.  I confess, I dropped the fan in my bag, abandoned my crushed ice, and fell upon said delicacies.  [With Geoff’s permission, I will shortly – as soon as he provides it – reproduce the recipe here for all interested parties.  Trust me, it’s a good one.]

Calm down, Jools, enough with the cake. What about the bloggy part of all this, Jools. What about the actual Bash itself?

You know what, it was great. It was an absolute joy to take a small corner of the blogosphere and make it ‘real life’.  A room full of people who normally communicate from behind their PC screens, but managed to get on trains, boats and even planes, to show up in London for the day, turned out to be a room full of friendships waiting to happen. Yes, bloggers do actually talk, and listen, and laugh, and share face-to-face like real people. We do!

There was the joy of putting new faces to names and URL’s, and the pleasure of reconnecting with bloggers who’d come to the inaugural event last year [ahem…]. There was recognition (Awards!) for some really great bloggers, and a provocative presentation from Luca Sartoni (Growthketeer at Automattic/Wordpress). There was access to alcohol, food, cake, chocolate and for some reason I didn’t fully appreciate, a mountain of Maltesers (one of my favourite impossible-to-stop-munching sweet-treats until I gave up on chocolate). There was above all a joyous sense, simultaneously, of diversity and commonality – all sorts of bloggers, from all sorts of backgrounds, blogging all sorts of stuff, united for the afternoon in their enthusiasm for the strange world of blogging about whatever pops into your head.

So… just in case you’re a blogger thinking you missed something good (you did), and just in case you’re thinking you might attend next year (10th June, get it in your diary), here are my top take-aways from the 2016 Bloggers Bash:

  • The simple, delightful pleasure of a sociable afternoon with blogging at its heart
  • Lovely, lovely people – new friendships, hopefully not just in the Facebook kind of way
  • Pointers to great blogs I haven’t come across before
  • A recipe (don’t let me down, Geoff) for a truly delicious sugar-free naughty
  • A valuable lesson on what’s really important about blogging (see below…)

Am I a little bit jealous of those bloggers with tens of thousands of followers? Every now and again, yes, I am. But am I blogging for any goal which is met through acquiring followers in vast volume.  Actually no, I’m not. At the moment (until I get back into writing my second novel at least) the purpose of my blog is to make myself accountable for my newly adopted healthy, weight-lossy lifestyle. If in the course of that, I can spread some inspiration, positivity and general feelgood, that makes me very happy indeed.  But none of that has a great deal to do with numbers.

So that last take-away from this year’s fabulous Bloggers Bash comes courtesy of Luca Sartoni – and it lets me off the hook, big time: If your goals for blogging do not depend on acquisition of a huge readership, stop chasing volume. It’s okay not to get hung up on the numbers.  It’s ok to just have fun blogging. 

And it’s definitely okay to have fun at the Bloggers Bash.  It’s even, possibly, I venture to suggest, just about okay… to not take pictures.

Five Things to do with Today’s Extra Hour

2015-10-25 15.54.40

The clocks went back last night in the UK, treating us to an extra hour. But what to do? What to do with it? Here are a few ideas – not including having a lie-in – based on what this procrastinating writer has been getting up to today.

  1. Go for an early walk round the park, kick through the damp leaves and smell the morning dew. (I’m feeling virtuous, can’t you tell?). Say ‘hello’ to everyone you pass and draw no confidence-sapping conclusions from the fact that the only person to totally ignore you is the 30-something, tight-t-shirted hottie, preoccupied by his smartphone.
  2. Read a big chunk of book (radical for a writer, eh?). Finish one book, begin another. Chain-reading, with but the briefest interval to top up the coffee pot.
  3. Catch up with last night’s #Strictly and waste no energy feeling guilty that at the age of, oh, 50-mumble, the one you’ve got your eye on is the ex-boy-band member.
  4. Write a really, really serious blog post about a seriously personal subject and then realise you can’t possibly post it. Gah!
  5. Cook-up a big, blippy pot of autumn yumminess with mince and mushrooms and tomatoes and sweetcorn and a garlic-laden, gloopy gravy (countdown to consumption – 30 mins).

So what did you do with your extra hour?

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

Namedrop Central: Me and Mickey Spillane

imageSeeing his famous quote on Chris #TSRA’s blog, brought to mind the time I went to tea with Mickey Spillane.

Many writers will be familiar with the quote, attributed to prolific author of bestselling gritty detective stories, Mickey Spillane:

The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.

Thanks to Chris The Story Reading Ape’s blog for sharing this pertinent quote yesterday.

It reminded me of something else too – that I once met Mickey Spillane. It was back in May 1992, and not just in a book-signing queue either.  I was invited to tea at his home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

I was holidaying in the USA with an American friend. We were visiting with her parents, who lived at Pawleys Island, just a few miles up the coast from Murrels Inlet. It’s a small and close-knit community and they knew Mickey Spillane socially. Keen for their British guest to experience something beyond the undeniable beauty of the South Carolina coastline, they wondered if I’d be interested in meeting their local celebrity author, as he had extended an invitation for us to join him for afternoon tea.

Now, I wasn’t a writer at the time. I’ve always loved books and reading, but if I’d had the slightest inkling of where my passion would lie some 20 years later, it’s fair to say I would have made a great deal more of the encounter than I did.

My hosts had been kind enough to source a couple of his books for our visit, but there wasn’t time for me to read them. Nevertheless, whilst I betrayed a staggering ignorance of his considerable body of work, Mickey Spillane graciously signed them for me. I recall him writing something like, “To a real doll…” although I’m ashamed to admit both paperbacks have since vanished from my bookshelves, probably during one home move or another.   I expect he wrote that kind of thing on the inside covers of a lot of books, but it made me blush nonetheless.

Mickey Spillane, author of stories featuring more violence and sex and a higher body count than was typical of novels of the time (he wrote from 1947 until his death in 2006) could not have been more kind and generous towards us, his guests. We enjoyed tea on the lawn at his beautiful home and he showed us around his gardens. We talked of the impact that Hurricane Hugo had had on the region just two or three years earlier. He posed with us for photographs, but these too have dissolved away.

Looking him up on Google this afternoon, I particularly liked another of his quotes, answering those who criticised the high sex/violence content in his stories:

Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar… If the public likes you, you’re good.

In these modern, changed times, when most of us can only dream of making a living from our stories, we should celebrate authors like Mickey Spillane, who lived our dream, and lived it well.

A Warning to Grown-Ups Everywhere: Never Accept Sweets from Children

yellow-763833_1280Have you heard of ‘Mega Sours’? Nor had I…

I’m auntie to two adorable mischievous 11-year-old boys, and I had the pleasure trauma of visiting them on Sunday. One of these sweet-faced innocents devils-in-disguise approached me with a bag of boiled sweets.

‘Auntie Julie, would you like one of my sweets?’ he said.

‘Don’t,’ said my brother – their father.

I should have heeded his warning. Instead, thinking, how bad could it be, it’s just a boiled sweet after all, I dipped my hand in the bag. In my defence, I was playing the good Auntie – like when you know which hand the mystery vanishing thing is in, so you pick the other hand – that sort of thing.

I pulled out a yellow sweet.  I presumed lemon. I figured it was probably something like a pear drop – you know, a bit sour on the outside but basically a lump of sugar. I don’t much like boiled sweets, but saw no reason to refuse.

Said innocent child devil-in-disguise smiled his usual open, gentle, sweet smile. I think I saw an evil glint in his eye, but it passed in a moment.

Cautious now, I licked the boiled sweet. It exploded a payload of acid across my taste-buds. By then I believed I knew what was in store.

‘Really, you don’t have to do this,’ my brother said.

‘Oh… I think I can cope,’ I replied. Too rash. Too bold by far.

I popped the concentrated pellet of acid into my mouth.

‘The pain only lasts about 20 seconds,’ said my brother, as my face contorted and sweat began to bead on my forehead.  He lied.

A full minute later, I was grappling in my handbag for a tissue into which to expel the still sizzling, sulphurous blob before it burned a hole completely through my tongue. Sugar began to leech through the stinging citric coating, but relief didn’t come. Tissue in hand, I surrendered, spitting out the almost intact fizzing fireball to shrieks of laughter from said impish small child. It took out my lips as it exited.

‘I warned you,’ murmured my brother.

In what I can only describe as an understatement of intent, these caustic, atomic acid bombs are known as ‘Mega Sours’. They’re not kidding.  Imagine the juice of fifty of the sourest lemons, extracted and concentrated into a gumball-sized sweet.  Then multiply that by, oh, about another hundred thousand times.

As this poison sizzled into my tongue and assassinated my taste buds, it peeled a 55-year-old layer of enamel from my teeth. As I tried to swallow the acid run-off from this monstrous ball-of-death, I retched – my throat didn’t want to know. I tried to wash it down with a glass of water. I ingested Polo Mints. Eventually I massaged my mouth with toothpaste.

Nothing worked.

Some three hours later, trying to eat normal food, my taste buds were still comatose, my tongue still numb.

Whatever happened to tasty Toffee Bon-Bons, Liquorish Allsorts or Smarties? Pear Drops were tangy, but survivable; likewise Pineapple Cubes. Aniseed balls were about the most unpleasant thing you could torture a grown-up with. When did catastrophically caustic confectionary become the order of the day?

This morning, my mouth seems to have recovered from the assault. Breakfast tasted like… breakfast, although (to put it delicately) my digestive system chose to remind me I still had perhaps a teaspoon of undiluted acid coursing through it. This notwithstanding, I’m relieved the barest taste of a Mega Sour appears to have done no lasting damage.

What a whole bagful does to the dental status of a child, is anyone’s guess.