Finding the right way to unwind…

So this was the year I stopped drinking and forgot to tell anyone

It struck me after a supremely stressful week that quite a few people around me suggested I treat myself to a large glass of wine. Not unusual advice. How many memes, tshirts and mugs are there about mothers needing wine or gin? But what they don’t know: this was the year I stopped drinking. Well, I had two drinks in total and may have a tipple or not at Christmas…

Giving up was not a big deal for me. I am lucky that I don’t have an issue with addiction though I have been around it. Saying no up was just a case of stopping when I didn’t fancy the side effects anymore. I know it was the right thing because earlier this week I had a two day hangover from having one small drink. Somehow though kind friends, who haven’t noticed my lifestyle change, thought I had really earned a drink this weekend after a tough week. But I am happy that I decided against it though I really needed to unwind.

You see, this time last year I had a few social occassions (this is rare, I have little opportunity and very few childcare options). Being the fun mum I am I took it way too far and drank too much on those nights out. I got migraine level hangovers (bad), flushed skin like hives (awful) and a debilitating bout of anxiety (the worst.) So, with actually very little soul-searching, I decided to stop drinking.

It bothered very few people. Afterall, I don’t go out that much anyway. A few older relatives were a little put out. I can’t decide if it’s because they were hopeful I was pregnant (ha) or they just felt judged. Most friends who do know though haven’t given a hoot. Apparently I am not alone, Millenials (I’m almost that young!) are also give up drinking or “Dragged down alcohol sales” as Business Insider put it in an article earlier this year.

According to them, this is a side effect of a surveillance culture because any indiscretion is immediately online. As I say, I don’t go out enough to really humiliate myself but I still realised this year I needed a change. For me, living with the consequences of a drink has been too much. Because the “hang-xiety” isn’t the only reason it takes me to a dark place. I think we often ignore the depressant factor in alcohol in order to enjoy being less inhibited. I am writing about a protagonist at the moment who is really not good at parties. Her awkwardness like many around her is only overcome by drinking copious glasses of wine. I mean, I may have given it up but I can still imagine myself in this position. But weighing it up, I can cope better this way.

This is not to say, of course, that anyone out there who uses wine to unwind is an alcoholic nor that anyone doesn’t have a right to use whatever they like in the name of self-care. Afterall, I have the book Hurrah for Gin in my kitchen to turn to after a hard day of motherhood. However, for me, this year has been giving self-care a bit of a makeover.

It is all about finding what works for you, for me, escaping to books is great. I have on a number occassions this year camped out in my bedroom whilst my husband entertains my son. And it is an escape that sometimes you need. I have also done much more swimming. So reminding myself of this, after a stressful week, I have turned to these two things over alcohol to unwind.

All this is to say, handling anxiety is more important than if I feel awkward at parties or don’t have an easy way to unwind. So for me, I’ll pass on the continuous memes and the wine for now.

Craving Alone Time

I tried to demand “alone-time” this weekend, but realised life and fiction doesn’t work like that…

If I manage to write at the weekend, I am lucky. Sometimes I barricade
myself in the bedroom to get in maybe thirty minutes to myself. My computer is
a constant temptation to my son, he also is rarely satisfied to ask his Daddy
for something. So, I get left alone for very little time. Sometimes it’s
because the noises from downstairs are too distracting, sometimes it’s because he barges in to ask me for a drink or a snack because obviously he thinks I will say yes. This is my reality right now.

I think there are many benefits of being alone with my work, apart from the
practical specifics of liking to work in the quiet. Although a deadline and a spurt of inspiration can be very productive, I find clear space, and quiet is a great combination for creativity.

Even as I write this blog post, a shout comes for me to help my little one. I feel very needed. I also feel frustration at times. Look, we all get sent those poems by kind folks who remind us that this phase will soon be over. But what if I needed to be absorbed in the life of my main character? Will anyone leave me alone with her long enough to get to know what drives her?

When my writing stalls because I have been distracted, I start to think:

Why does she want to be left alone? Who won’t leave her
alone and why?

I find that by prompting myself to think about these questions, I am
building both the character and the world around her. Because central to her
motivation may be to escape but, you know what, if my life doesn’t happen like that so she can’t have that luxury in fiction!

Plotting has been hard at times because I have played around the chronology of
this story. What has become apparent though is that it is the people who insist
on interrupting her life are drawing me in more and more. It seems so clear now
she has been forced to change her ideas from the start to the beginning of the
novel by the reality she faces and the people she meets. So, the central
question becomes, can you ever really escape?

As I write this, I am amused because I am not sure this is where the story started. The impetus of the story, which was a dream I had as a child as I have shared before, speaks to me more now. As I mature, I find I am inundated with
responsibilities. “You’ve got to serve somebody”, Bob Dylan said. Well that is true
for me and for my poor main character too.

In using the prompt to make notes, I notice things that have developed in my
tediously long drafting process. It is more than a quirk of her character that
has made her want to be alone, and it is more than a plotting device that her
neighbours interfere and adopt her into their fold. Although I didn’t write a
scene this weekend, the time I spent pondering these questions over the was
productive. And it only came with a few interruptions about buses (a current
interest of my son.)

If you are stuck with your writing, you might try and think about what you
crave most and ask why your character craves the same. I found the question
about alone time but maybe yours might be around success, attention, love, sex…and well all the things we need in our life. Our characters probably need them even more.

How was your writing weekend?

Being Mum

Some weeks I don’t get to be me, I don’t get to write, I am just Mum…

The last few weeks have been tough. We are applying for funding for support for my son and out of the blue the paperwork turned up. If you have ever received a document that goes into depth not just about your child’s strengths but all their difficulties too, you know this is a very emotional and difficult thing to read.

The way it has set me back most though is having to rely on others, whether trying to get hold of staff, getting an advocate to respond to the laughable offer we received from the local authority. And in the mean time trying to entertain little one over half term, deal with sickness, deal with household things. Sometimes the motherload comes crashing down upon you.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com : Learning Education Law now as well as Child Development, apparently.

This has been very hard to handle. I made mistakes at work, I didn’t get things done I needed to, I have spent the week feeling ill physically and having aches and pains. Stress does this to you. It also robs you of the chance to be you, to write, to be creative.

Your circumstances may be different from mine, in terms of the difficulties I am currently facing I hope for you they are. But I know too that I have many things that make my life so much easier than others. So if you do get a week, two or three when the weight of the world tries to crush you what can you do?

  • Still go on Artist’s Dates. A couple hours a week to indulge in something that makes life a little more interesting. This was lucky because my birthday treat came in the middle of this mess so I had one already booked. I hope to share more about seeing the treasures of Tutankhamen soon, it was wonderful. Doing something for you but particularly for your creativity is a real lift at a tough time. I have written about some cheap and easy date ideas I would also recommend.
  • Use your journal. As you may know I use morning pages, and have written about how I try and fit in a few pages of journaling each morning. Boy did I have a lot to moan about in the last few weeks! It does help me to get down my worries, my fears and sometimes inspiration strikes.
  • Re-evaluate what you can achieve in a short time. I had half an hour this week where little one was entertained and I sat down and wrote. I surprised myself by revisiting the ending of the dreaded draft. I have been struggling with this ending for months! Something about the urgency of the little burst of time, a self-imposed deadline, helped me start to fit some pieces together I have been puzzling on for a while.
  • Cleaning up around my space has helped me. I find having a quick sort, doing a job I had been putting off like dusting the light shades, they gave me a small sense of control when I have very little over anything else. The burst of writing only happened after I finally cleared through some paperwork that had been cluttering up my dining table. It helps.

This month won’t go down as my most successful writing month, which is ironic given the #WritingCommunity are ensconced in #NaNoWriMo. But for me, if I just get through all the things I am being asked to do as my darling boy’s Mum, then I will chalk it up as a win.

The danger of civility

Who else was brought up to always be civil?

Politeness is a premium for a lot of people. That means that if you don’t agree, you find a way to navigate the conversation by agreeing to things you don’t agree with or by maybe making a tactful counterpoint. To make any argument you are expected to keep your voice calm, demonstrate control over your body and finish off conversations with polite enquiries. I heard myself thank her though I was I left angry by a call.

But what if there are many things in your life that make you angry, make you want to rage. I have been exploring these thoughts in my writing. Mainly it seems through pathetic fallacy where storms rage around a character as the anger bursts out. But when anger burst out in real life, I am not sure that it does feel like a massive storm.

Pain, the place from where your anger spurts forth, is interior. I studied the excellent The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry many years ago and I think about how it reduces the body to a mind without language. It is possible this is true for psychological pain as much as for a body harmed. Pain, anger, both of these things are all-absorbing. The world outside us swallowed up and if we truly give in to this pain, any wail comes from gut-deep. It bursts from inside, Alien-style, truly gut-wrenching anger is barely a metaphor for what happens inside.

Feeling out of control, at the mercy of outside forces, that is like the storm metaphor that comes up over again in my work. The world seems chaotic. No one can agree. The politics that I can’t bear to mention that seems to be ripping us apart in this country, well that should cause us pain. There are problems that are not being solved because we are so focused on Europe right now and we do have a right to be angry about that.

And isn’t that the real problem of learning civility at your mother’s knee? Born into people-pleaser people, let’s not make a fuss. Keep quiet about your anger or if you are seeing things going wrong: don’t make a scene. Does that ring true for anyone else? Because at times I wonder that we are not all more angry.

I write under the influence of my own anger. Right now, this week, I am trying to tackle the system. The one that is supposed to offer the right support for my son. And it makes me angry. Our needs, his needs being ignored are hard to stomach. Negotiating a complex system is hard enough but it comes with a side of this anger at a broken system. Because when people say the right thing but do not do the right thing, they are playing the civility game too. Built into our bureaucracy. When I deal with people, whether they are being helpful or not, I have to be polite. It is supposed to be collaborative you see.

And so when I write about anger I know I may never get down on paper how this feels. I hear instead the charge in my head of another’s more powerful words, “RAGE, RAGE, against the dying of the light…”

And then sit down politely at the meeting, smile, wish you good afternoon because we were all raised to be civil, weren’t we?

20 Cheap and EasyArtist Dates

Although a divine experience for an Artist might be a night at the ballet or spending a weekend away, just you and your journal, for most of us this isn’t an option. Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist’s Way that we spend two hours a week nurturing our Artist. Here are some great Artist Dates you could try that are free (or pretty cheap) and you can even bring your little one along for the ride.

1. JOURNAL ART Talking of journalling, I took the chance to learn some lettering. I’ll never own a beautiful bullet journal but even I can play with titles and doodles

2. DOODLE Speaking of art, Cameron also encourages you to draw. I have little talent in this area but I have challenged myself to sit to my ideas and doodle about them. The pictures were poor, but the expression still engaged my mind and made me laugh.

3. MIND MAPS I was taught to use these at school to revise. I am still not sure if they helped me connect the dots about science and history: my grades at the time I suppose were fine, but can I remember it now. But using a mind map whether to track your hopes for the future or plan out bold new ideas can be helpful and creative

4. COOK SOMETHING Particularly something new. I have been reflecting on food memories recently and dug deep to think about things I loved as a child. But if nothing else you can basically put any ingredients you have into Pinterest and come up with a recipe. It doesn’t have to be fancy, I recently made microwave mac ‘n’ cheese. This may not suit your tastes but I was delighted with the ease of it.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

5. BUY FRUIT I recently taught my picky eater about pomegranate. This is a relatively inexpensive buy at our local market. Given he despises pips in fruit this was a minor triumph. Talking about it, even looking up how to cut it was interesting and new. And that’s got to to be a kick start for creativity.

6. SHOP FOR FOOD AT A MARKET So the overpriced sourdough rosemary loaf was not free and fives times the price of normal bread, but it was divine. Wandering around any foodie market counts too because smells can transport you to other worlds. Like a Chai stall taking me back to my trip to India.

7. BAKE BREAD Alright so my banana and pumpkin seed bread turned more into a stodgy cake but this is one I will definitely try again. To make a traditional loaf is my next challenge. It feels bold and I doubt I have the proper patience but anything that takes such concentration and effort while also yielding results quickly has got to be good for my inner artist.

8. LISTEN TO MUSIC Online is a great place to find anything and if you happen to want do a deep dive on Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring you can spend hours listening with your eyes closed to the Philharmonic of your choice. This was another easy one I could do one evening so didn’t need childcare but was very inspiring

9. STAY SILENT I tried this one while I cleaned. No podcast, no cleaning video and no music on in the background. I didn’t particularly enjoy this one but I did notice that I really concentrated on the cleaning, finally removing a stain on the stairs carpet so there was that.

10. TREE-BATHING A practice from Japan, that has become popular – shinrin-yoku – spending time with trees can be very relaxing. As I understand it this can be as simple as walking in the trees in your neighbourhood. This one is an easy one for me as we have a large Royal  park on our doorstep and I could take my son along too. Trees are always inspiring and the air is good for your health.

13. PINTEREST Make something, not just pin something you have seen. I choose a project about the lunar cycles to do with my son. This is more practical for me as I can’t always be alone. It engaged him well but best of all we were proud of ourselves and pinned it on the fridge.

14. USE THE INTERNET This could be a disaster and a distraction but it might be worth the risk. I am not sure it’s what Cameron had in mind, but after many joyful hours finding Broadway tunes online and reading about shows I hadn’t seen, I included this one on my easy-to-do list

15.BROWSE BOOKSHELVES This may be an obvious one but I have been taking more mindful trips to the library. Browsing books in different genre and reading a few pages about Japanese flower arranging before I realised I was too impatient to take up the practise. It’s the browsing that fires up your creativity.

16. CHARITY SHOP BOOKS There are so many great reads at charity shops. As I wrote here, it’s one of my favourite places to find a book bargain.

17. SPOTTING COLOURS This is a favourite that I can do in charity shop too. Looking everywhere for pale mint and aqua that are my “signature colours” I spotted them then in other places, like the chemist signs and a pretty shopping bag. This can just be a game and again one you might do with a young one in tow.

18. COLOURING IN My son doesn’t really like that I have my own set of Sharpies in pastel colours that he is not allowed to touch, but there you go a few years back I gave in to the craze for colouring in. I recently got an Autumnal book in a bargain bin at the Works as I think they are less popular as a past-time than a while back. I like it as an activity to occupy my hands instead of my smartphone which I am trying to use less often.

19. PLAYDOH is another one to get out when you have a little one around, he doesn’t seem to mind that I cut out flowers and cute animals while he makes letters or planets (much more his thing)

20. LEAF-COLLECTING This is my favourite Autumn activity and a little different from tree-bathing where you are just silently contemplating them. There are games to be played with the perfect leaf, spotting different shades of colour. I don’t feel the need to have a child along for me for this one, I think secretly everyone understands the impulse to pocket the perfect horse chestnut.

I think the main thing is to approach any Artist’s Date with a sense of play. Part way through the programme, Cameron advises you get used to taking mini-breaks. I think I have had to be quite creative and often take my son too so it is important to acknowledge these simple things can help inspire you too. While it is great to line up trips away, perhaps trying a new class or visiting a new museum, there are easy and cheap things you can do at home too.

You can catch up on my weeks on The Artist’s Way programme here: