An Ending and a Beginning

Its been a strange year. People are wandering around Europe, weary and desperate, in a way previously unseen. Democracy was served here in the form of Britain voting to leave the European Union, and sadly, the two events are linked.

The PM fell on his sword for asking the Brexit question and the UK got its second female prime minster. Mrs May reminds me of an austere, yet reliable head teacher. Let us hope she can keep the class in order while overseeing the school.

Closer to home, I have recently experienced bereavement. I found this intensely personal, yet commonplace experience, unlike anything else. Emotions come and go; sometimes they bubble up … It has only been weeks, so I am still adjusting.

It struck me recently that myself and others have likened the process of grief to other experiences of loss, such as moving from country to country. There are some similarities in the nature of the cycle; the ebb and flow of shock, denial and with any luck, acceptance. The difference of losing someone you love is the knowledge they are gone forever. If only you could book a flight to go and see them occasionally or even just once more … It’s a shock to find you have no choice, they are out of reach and the timing and nature of their departure was beyond your control.

In the case of an elderly parent, like mine, you may bring some influence to bare on their final days, endeavouring to give them as good an ‘ending’ as possible. I am thankful to have had that opportunity to be there, and I hope, help a little. I found death profound, much like birth it involves a breath; the first or the last.

Within the nougat of life there have been blessings along with the challenges; some things have gone as hoped. A highlight was a restorative break in Sivota, Greece. A holiday was never more welcome, and the breath taking view from the optimistically named ‘retreat’ (think minestrone of kids yelping in pool) provided a fine place to reflect and a chance to become institutionalised, for all the best reasons.Sivota, Greece copy.jpg

At the beginning of 2016, I decided to write a novel. The characters, plot line and themes had been swirling in my head for more than a year. Building work on my house had been the excuse for not getting started. In January, I went on a Guardian Master Class course, run by author, Jill Dawson and put procrastination to one side. A Saturday spent with other souls compelled to write, was the catalyst I needed to open my PC and type Chapter 1.

This month I have completed a first draft of the manuscript. Tada! Writing a novel; the act of telling a story, has been utterly absorbing and at times, a welcome diversion. There is a need for discipline and much time sacrificed (obviously) but I’ve found living with my characters; directing their lives – watching them develop as they struggle, discover secrets, fall in love, hear them speak and so on, has been fun.

Fingers are crossed for modest success, though I’m not quite ready to launch my novel at the world yet. Apparently Jeffrey Archer goes through his manuscript fourteen times before he sends it to his agent. Why fourteen? I’m not sure. But I’ve got the message …

All of the above has kept me distracted from writing my blog, although I have still enjoyed reading other people’s! Is it a cliché to say, I haven’t been in the right place? Sometimes there is a limit to how many areas we can direct our energies; work, kids, husbands, elderly relatives – did I mention the cats … I imagine you have your own list.

Am I trying to justify my absence from here? Probably …

I do hope this finds you well.

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Longing for light; longing to write

December in the Northern Hemisphere, although wonderfully familiar to me, has its drawbacks. You can imagine what I’m referring to, the weather has become cold and the cloud low. Even so, you’re unlikely to catch me admitting to it being “really cold” until the temperature drops to around 2C/28F. We Brits are nothing if not hardy; the gene pool has adapted to withstand our errant island climate.  Autumn crocuses

Just down the lane where I live, there grows a blanket of delicate Autumn crocuses. In November, each day I willed them to stay upright a little longer (not just because they are unusual and beautiful) I knew once they sagged back into the soil it would be a clear signal of Winter rushing in and daylight hours becoming shorter.

Are you affected by a lack of light where you’re living? Perhaps there are other climatic issues that require you to adapt? Looking out of my window, I feel a sense of time shifting. I see an old fashioned kind of English garden; ornamental shrubs of roses have all but closed down for Winter, I count seven pink optimistic blooms and beyond a pale hopeful light is fading against a bank of low anthracite cloud. By school pick up it will be dark…

Experiencing dusk by mid afternoon and darkness when you wake up does have an impact on mood. Many folk report suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. ‘SAD’ identifies a reaction or response of low mood and depression experienced by people who are otherwise unaffected throughout the rest of the year. According to Wikipedia the symptoms are recognised in America as effecting between 1.7% in Florida and 9.7% of people in New Hampshire. That’s a lot of folks. Lamps that simulate outside light can be purchased and do seem to help … but who wants to spend half of the year sitting in front of a lamp for goodness sake!

I don’t believe I am a sufferer of SAD, my problem is one of relativity; fortunate to have lived in other, blouse clingingly hot places, I notice the cold now I’m back and take seriously my scarf and gloves routine. Unfortunately, the lack of light is not something you can control. I remind myself that In Singapore (and Houston) it was not always pleasant – returning to a roasting hot car and grappling with a steering wheel too scalding to touch. But being close to the Equator meant regular, light/dark daily cycles of approximately twelve hours, all year round. And frankly, it’s wonderful; everyone knows what they are doing, their brains are not constantly trying to reorientate and calculate if its time to wake up yet. The children used to accept that when it went dark, it was time for bed; ‘mother’ nature was living up to her name.

Last time I repatriated back to the UK I anticipated I might notice less as time went on … and really it isn’t that cold, something I was reminded of when I read Aisha Ashraf’s recent blog (Expatlog) – Aisha lives in Canada, where it really does get cold – I have immense respect for people coping and in fact enjoying truly cold climates.

For me it helps to write about life’s little difficulties and share them here; ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’. Sometimes I’ve worried about sharing too much. Jo Parfitt’s monthly Inspirer (another heart felt blog and she’s been at it many years) entitled Is it Dangerous to Overshare? reminded me recently why I do.

Others may need to protect themselves and shy away at the thought of talking about anything personal with people they know, let alone share it on the internet with those they don’t. That is okay and its normal ‘Information is power’ after all. And in keeping negative experiences to ourselves we may hold them safe (I do that too sometimes) but what of the power of helping others by sharing?

Before the internet and the opportunity to instantly communicate with so many other human beings, many now commonplace sufferings went unshared and we missed the chance to support and help each other. What a waste, we thought we were the only one who checked the plugs five times before leaving the house or worried about our parents dying while we were living abroad …

I met Jo Parfitt because I was lonely having arrived in Houston and decided to attend the 2009 Families in Global Transition Conference ‘FIGT’. Having been encouraged by Jo from the time I met her to write from my challenging place of isolation, I was, later on able to explore the pros and cons of publishing my memoir with her. Truthfully, I would probably not have discussed with many people my episode of depression, had I not taken the risk and had the memoir published by Summertime Publishing. The point was to share the learning from my loss of identity and depression in a way that was accessible and enjoyable for readers. Ultimately, I longed to write and found it cathartic to do so.

Even after writing most of An Inconvenient Posting the decision to publish was made more complicated because it didn’t just affect me, the ‘story’ reveals a family experience. As one well meaning husband recently quipped,

“I’d die of embarrassment if my wife wrote a book like that about us.”

“Just as well I’m not married to you then!” my reply.

I know the friend was speaking ‘his truth’ and didn’t mean to cause offence, none taken, although I encouraged him to read the book before he commented further… Thankfully my own husband felt we had little to conceal. He, at least, wasn’t ashamed of my struggle or my words.

As always, I would love to hear from you if you’ve time to put aside a few minutes from the mayhem of the festive season.

Lastly, an unashamed little plug: As its December and Summertime Publishing are offering a one month only kindle promotion on five of its most popular titles (including Inconvenient) I thought I’d share the link and some reviews on my blog and Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

Writing with Benefits

Can writing, in its many forms, make us happier? Research tells us that it can be a useful coping mechanism for managing stress. So how does that work?

Most of us like to read and appreciate being able to do so, whether that be for the learning we gain or the gathering of interesting facts; being enthralled by a heart-stopping storyline or simply noting the Emergency Evacuation Notice that might just save our life. But have you ever considered being the writer? You may be thinking what would be the point of that? Or perhaps you already write.

There is the obvious allure of making mega bucks as an author; realistically that only works for a few premier league novelists and I’m very happy for them. But I don’t want to dwell here on money, even though it is undeniably important and clearly can contribute to happiness.

Journaling

Regulars to my blog will know that a few years ago, when I was really struggling emotionally, I began to express myself by writing down my feelings and thoughts, something I’d not done before.

Having recently arrived in Houston on a posting from England, the austere black covered notebook slung carelessly on my bedside table would become a place of refuge, an escape from my isolation. The notebook had begun life as a safe place to store my seemingly endless ‘to do’ lists, but was soon transformed into a journal. In the privacy of my bedroom, alone with my silent friend, I could say absolutely anything; shameful ramblings allowed me to unleash my authentic feelings. Instead of being in transition, I realised, I had become completely stuck – set adrift, marooned in my own head. I discovered that the process of scribbling down the unspeakable was like releasing steam from a pressure cooker!

Months later when daring to look back at my daily entries, I was surprised at the depth of feeling contained in those pages. I didn’t remember feeling them so intensely or writing them in that way and yet there they were, staring right back at me.

I summed up my sense of incredulity:

‘How is it that a formerly together, fulfilled human being can find herself torn down by the simple act of moving from one western country to another?’

Thoughts of that ilk, captured in my journal, galvanized me to write about the process I was going through and my learning from it. So the journal itself remained personal (worth noting as the privacy of knowing you won’t have to share, allows you to write freely) and later it would provide me with the material I needed to write my story as a memoir and thus share it.

What of other types of writing? Essays, articles, blogs, short stories, novels, even tweets; do they help us to move forward therapeutically?

Books and Essays

In March Pico Iyer, a journalist, writer and novelist, was the keynote at the Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) in Washington. He also held a Writer’s Forum session (skillfully hosted by Apple Gidley) where he spoke of the “interesting conundrum of writing” and how through imagination and creativity an “alternative self appears in the world”.

Although most of Pico Iyer’s ten books are about travel and “new global people”, it was his words about the joy of “inhabiting the alternative universe” that particularly resonated for me, he was referring to writing fiction – he’s published two novels as well. Most writers experience a sense of escape and being in another world when they are engrossed in the task of writing, I find it still wonderfully restorative and what I want to share with you is that anyone can have a goboy arms up superman

A top tip for writer’s block from Pico Iyer was to write from “the deep place”.  And to help you capture a sense of a place you have visited, he recommends emailing a friend (imaginary or otherwise) describing it from your memory. To help bring your writing to life, Iyer advises scribbling down notes at the time; snippets of dialogue, ideas and the like to refer to later.

Blogging

Unlike journaling, blogging is of course a typically public activity and yet it can still be therapeutic. Particularly if you find the act of sharing and connecting with others has that affect on you.

People blog for many different reasons; something that was also discussed at the FIGT Conference where Linda Janssen (adventuresinexpatland.com), Maria Foley (iwasanexpatwife.com), Norman Viss (theexpatcoachdirectory.com) and Rachel Yates (DefiningMoves.com) – all successful expat bloggers – spoke of sharing and connecting with others through their blogging. Some bloggers do it for personal expression, others for business reasons. My word of caution would be to be mindful of sharing personal content which could impact adversely on people close to you…

Twitter

Twitter is an exciting way to connect instantly (and publicly) with people all over the globe. With its 140 character limitation, it can be a succinct way of expressing yourself and sharing useful information. Twitter can help you hone your writing skills as the challenge of trying to capture what you want to say in a tweet encourages discipline and creativity. Beware; tweeting can be time consuming – Twitter has a reputation for being a hungry bird and is not a great vehicle for expressing difficult emotions or managing your stress levels! I heard someone who advised “If you wouldn’t shout it out in the supermarket then don’t tweet it.”

Getting Started

Wondering how to get started with writing yourself to a happier place? All you need is a blank screen or a sheet of paper and a willingness to try. The benefits of journaling are well documented. One way to begin, is to ask yourself What is going on for me right now? Or you could ask yourself for an image, a thought, a phrase or a single word that represents how you feel. Try not to censor what comes up.

Resources:

There is of course an abundance of material on the internet to help you get started on your writer’s journey; you could search for whatever is most tailored to your needs. Here are some resources I have found helpful:

http://www.juliamccutchen.com/

Write Your Life Stories http://www.joparfitt.com/2013/03/write-your-way-to-a-happier-you/

Books:

Journaling Through: Unleashing the Power of the Authentic Self by Angela Caughlin

Writing memoir: Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Writing Begins with the Breath, Embodying your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring

Blogging:

On the therapeutic value of blogging: scientificamerican.com

Free Blog tips every blogger should read: weblogs.about.com

Twitter:

A step by step guide to Twitter: blogs.telegraph.co.uk

How to get started with Twitter: support.twitter.com

You can ‘follow’ me on Twitter at @laurajstephens

Your greatest resource might be your time and the giving of it to writing. Good luck and let me know how you get on.