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Friday, 27 September 2013

A Migraine Message

I had my first migraine when I was about ten years old. I remember coming home from school and lying on the sofa with its dark green linen covers scattered with a pattern of pink cabbage roses.
My mother had to close the curtains because the light hurt my eyes. Then I was sick. And that was the start of a lifetime of living with migraines, although for years no-one put a name to them. When I was at boarding school I used to end up in the sanatorium at the end of every term with 'exhaustion'.
Looking back, they were actually migraines although the term exhaustion wasn't completely wrong.

Last week I had a migraine which stole two days from my week. It was the first one for some months. Migraines can rule your life. I have to be careful of bright lights. Driving in autumn when the sun is low can be a problem. When I go to watch Leicester Tigers on a dull day or in the evening I wear sunglasses to cut out the glare from the floodlights. I know I probably look weird but I don't care! A couple of years ago I went to see Strictly Come Dancing at the De Montfort Hall and spent most of the time looking at my lap due to the huge glitter ball on stage which seemed to be sending out pinpoints of light right in my direction.

There are many suggestions as to the cause of migraine, cheese, chocolate, red wine, hormones and more recently I read that a sudden change in temperature could contribute. My migraines used to be at their worst in the spring when the weather can fluctuate a lot. A year or so ago I cut down on the amount of dairy in my diet. When I get a migraine one of the things I really can't bear is the smell of milk. I've never actually liked the taste of it either and had a tiny amount in my tea, but I do love cheese. Anyway since cutting down, the migraines are less frequent and more bearable. Sometimes I don't even have to go back to bed. I do however have to slow down. But instead of feeling frustrated that my plans have to be put on hold I now acknowledge that the migraines are my body's way of trying to tell me something about myself and the way I am living my life at that time. So I take the enforced pause with as much gratitude as I can muster through the pain, and see it as an opportunity to reflect and to re-assess. My migraines may have improved as a result of cutting down on dairy but I do know that it is also stress which causes them to rear up. Whoa! they say. STOP! You're taking on too much, putting yourself under too much pressure. They are always right.

It has been a busy, exciting and in some ways challenging year. There has been precious little time to stop and smell the roses. I have been writing virtually non-stop and to deadlines for nearly two years now and however much you love something it does you good to have a break sometimes. The latest migraine was definitely the result of exhaustion so, despite having an idea for a new book, I am not going to write anything for a while. I shall just mull things over, potter about and, as the wise and inspirational Julia Cameron advises, 'fill the well'.

I hope you can find time to potter, smell the roses and fill the well this week. Thank-you for reading.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Bedtime Stories

My father was a solitary man in many ways and didn't have much patience with small children.
Despite this he was the one who read me a bedtime story - every night if possible. From what I can remember we started off with Beatrix Potter stories and A.A. Milne poems, moving on to Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows. I remember my father sitting on the edge of my bed wearing the dark navy pinstripe suite and crisp white shirt he always wore for work. He would smell vaguely of ink and machinery because he owned a printing factory and sometimes there would be oil on his cuffs. The kitchen was directly below my bedroom and in a sixteenth century cottage there isn't much soundproofing so I could hear my mother preparing their supper but, as soon as my Daddy began to read, those sounds of everyday life would disappear and I would be transported into a magical world. Not just the world of the story but to a place where, just for a while, I had my father's precious time and attention all to myself.

According to a report in the paper last week bedtime stories are in decline. Only one in five parents get a book out every night and, shockingly, a third of parents never read to their young children. I'm afraid it gets even worse; a quarter of a million children aged up to seven years do not own any books. So why, when seventy-five percent of the parents surveyed said they had received the gift of bedtime stories themselves, is this tradition not being carried on? Thirteen percent blamed a lack of time and nine percent said they were too stressed. This makes it sound as if they consider reading a bedtime story to be a chore, something they HAVE to do, not a joy, not a chance to spend a small portion of time feeling close to and connected with their child.

My husband and I took it in turns to read to our children. Curling up on the sofa to watch television together is good but it's not the same as reading a book. With a story you can pause to discuss what is on the page, look at the pictures, ponder over the words. Good stories have a beautiful rhythm which relaxes and soothes away the cares of the day, not just for the child but for the parent too. That little person snuggles up next to you, warm and fragrant from a bath, their trusting form tucked up next to yours. It should be a sacred time, a time to prioritise above all others, a time to send a child to sleep happy, feeling safe and secure. Sometimes their eyes will close as they listen to the sound of your voice. Sometimes your eyes may droop too but it doesn't matter because you are together in a special place, a place which will not stay the same for long. Before you know it bedtime stories will become a thing of the past. They are too important a part of childhood to be neglected and I feel sad that many parents and children are missing out. As a family we had many favourite stories but these are three of them.

This is, on the surface, such a simple story but look deeper and it is incredibly cleverly put together.
If you've never read it I urge you to do so especially if you aspire to writing picture books.

The next one is an absolute classic. You could never tire of it.

And finally 'Sniff, sniff, sniff, where is Wiff? Where did that little dragon go?' I can still remember the words all these years later. Such fun!

Thank-you for reading. I'd love to hear about your favourite bedtime stories. In the meantime, it's the first week of Autumn in the U.K. I hope it's a good one wherever you are.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Pangs of Regret

I have always loved cycling. I can remember my father teaching me how to ride a bike without stabilisers. We lived in a thatched cottage on a village green and I went around and around that large expanse of grass with him by my side, ready to catch me if I fell. And then suddenly he wasn't there and I was free. I can still remember the elation, the pride in myself, the sense of achievement. What I didn't realise was that the sense of freedom would remain with me every time I got on a bike.

Last Saturday my husband and I took an impromptu trip to Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.

 My daughter had discovered late on Friday night that the printmaking course she was meant to be doing was not local after all! So while she went off for her day of creativity, we decided to hire some bikes. Here is Mr. G all ready to set off with his trousers tucked into his socks!

Since those heady days of childhood when a friend and I used to spend hours cycling through pretty Leicestershire villages, sometimes doing nearly twenty miles in an afternoon, I have cycled sporadically. Occasionally, we have taken our bikes to Rutland Water and we have cycled on holiday in France and along the Camel Trail in Cornwall. But every time I sit on that saddle, curl my fingers around the handlebars and place my feet on the pedals it is like coming home.

The bicycle which I loved more than any other was a Raleigh, in a beautiful kingfisher blue colour. It was on this bike that I set off one morning to my grandmother's house thirteen miles away. That afternoon I was due to be returned to boarding school and I hoped that my grandparents would shelter me, but of course they wouldn't contradict my parents wishes. When I finally left boarding school I was sent to a sixth form college in Oxford and my beloved bike went with me. It took me to tea at Browns and big slabs of chocolate cake and cream. It took me to Blackwell's to browse amongst the books and breathe in the scent of printed words. It took me down to the beautiful Christchurch Meadows. One night that bike got me away from a kerb crawler who stalked me on my way home from a meeting with friends. This was the bike on which I had an accident on the Banbury Road and that incident planted the seed for Last Chance Angel. At the time I seem to remember being more worried about the bicycle than about myself.

So why, when it was so loved, when it served me so well, did I abandon it? After I married and my parents moved house the bike gathered dust and cobwebs in a cowshed at my grandmother's farmyard. Then when she died, before I could do anything about it, it was disposed of. I mourn that bicycle to this day. I feel guilty that I didn't take better care of something which holds so many happy memories. I know that whenever I get on a bicycle now I will still feel that wonderful sense of freedom but also it will be tinged with pangs of regret.

So as not to end on a down note here is a favourite dahlia from the amazing walled garden at Clumber.

Thank you for reading and I wish you a very happy week ahead.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

A Good Place to Sit and Think

We have a table and chairs next to our small vegetable patch. It is a secluded space, a good place to sit and think, maybe write a little and plan. Last week I was doing all three in the late summer sunshine when a butterfly landed on my notebook. It was exactly the same type of butterfly which had rested on a nearby plant a couple of days before, and had stayed long enough for me to photograph it.


It is a Speckled Wood and I could see every tiny detail as it blessed my page, from the fine, painterly white line along its serrated edge to the tiny, coppery hairs on the wings, glimmering in the warm afternoon sun.. On one side I could see its eye, probably watching me as I gazed back, and its almost microscopic mouth which was constantly moving. I could even see the way its legs darkened towards the feet. Before flying away, the butterfly closed its wings completely for a second, as if saying goodbye, as a person in the East presses their palms together before taking their leave. The butterfly left me feeling honoured, peaceful, richer.

Due to their process of metamorphosis, butterflies are symbols of transformation and re-birth. We can relate the stages in a butterfly's life to our own life phases from the egg to the vulnerable caterpillar to the protection of the cocoon when we need it, before emerging from those difficult teenage years unrecognisable and transformed. Last weekend British summertime officially ended. There are signs that things are winding down, that autumn is on its way. I have already walked through my first spider's web, (aargh! but interestingly spiders are also symbols of transformation), strung across the path near the washing line, darkness has been falling by eight o'clock and we have had some wonderful skies.

Autumn always seems to me to be ripe with possibilities. There aren't so many outside distractions and it seems to be a much better time for making resolutions than in January. I am about to begin a new project, another teenage novel which at the moment is still taking shape in my head. As usual, when I begin anything, I have doubts as to whether my tenuous plans will actually extend to form a complete story and if so, whether the end result will be good enough. So how do I balance these doubts with my desire to write? To be honest, with difficulty, but I do tell myself to try and focus more on enjoying the process, rather than scaring myself silly by looking too far ahead to the end product. And from time to time I retreat to my space at the top of the garden and hope that the peace and quiet and maybe even the odd butterfly will bestow inspiration upon me.

I hope you have a special place to sit and think and let inspiration flow. If you do, I'd love to hear about it. In the meantime, thank-you for reading.