Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Christmas Tradition - Countdown to Christmas

Everyone has some kind of Christmas tradition. Be it watching a certain film or attending midnight mass, we are creatures of habit and it is precious tradition that keeps us feeling safe and secure. 

For the past seven years, my family have been lucky enough to go away for Christmas. On the Saturday before every big day, we have driven the five hours down to rainy Devon and settled into one of the most perfect places in the world. We have stayed in the same little lodge, surrounded by other gingerbread houses, in the middle of a forest. The enormous living room window looks out onto the hills, complete with endlessly beautiful sunset and - oh yes - a hot-tub. It's a quiet, peaceful, restful holiday with those I most love and could not be a more perfect way to spend Christmas. 

And so, I am only a little devastated by the fact that we are not going away this year. Much as I hate to sound spoiled, I cannot help but feel a little downhearted the closer Christmas comes. Usually, this one week is the highlight of my year, the thing we spend the previous six months getting excited about, and, this year, it's gone. 

In desperate attempts to get over myself and get excited about Christmas, I have been doing some pretty deep thinking about why this is really a problem. I'll still be alive. I'll still have all of my family. I'll be able to do some of the things that I don't usually get to do in the lodge. Heck, I'll still have a Christmas at all, placing me at the top of the downright lucky scale. 

My internal tantrum is not, in fact, because I do not get a holiday. I am relieved to say that no, I am not that much of a brat. But Christmas is a time of tradition and, now that our most significant tradition - and all of the smaller traditions it brings with it - is lost, I cannot imagine what our Christmas is going to be like. All of our routines will change, where we are, who we are with and, whilst I do not believe that change is a bad thing, it is a tricky one. It is generally very difficult to get excited about something when you have no idea what that something will be. 

Christmas traditions are wonderful but, without them, it is as though Christmas stops being a thing. It is a word given life only by the people who use it. It seems that I must now find out what the word really means to me. 

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Artist's 101 - Countdown to Christmas

I have, in the past, written many a blog about being creative. I would not profess to be good at any of the things that I do and can only refer to the many hours I spend hunched over a notebook or piano as evidence of my commitment to create. Yet, I have no qualms with referring to myself as an artsy type. 

This is not just because I possess a cliched love of all things poetic. In fact, there are plenty of art forms that I simply cannot stand. No, it is the other, more unfortunate artistic traits that tell me music, writing and, indeed, chaos run through my blood. And so, here's my top five signs that you, dear friend, are an artist:

  1. You are a raging insomniac.
    For some artists, insomnia is really quite convenient. For my Dad, returning home from gigs at 4am, a love of sleep would exist in bitter war with his career choice. I know so many people with extraordinary minds who would sit in the same spot for several days, not moving to eat or sleep, until their work is finished. Dangerous though this can be for one's health, it is most certainly an efficient way to work and one that I find myself invested in more and more often.

    Of course, insomnia and artistry are joined at the hip for other reasons. The creative mind never stops. Although the thoughts may not always be tangible, they never stop, running on a continuous loop of craziness which is nigh on impossible to silence.

    Which is why...
  2. You have notebooks literally everywhere.
    And I mean everywhere: under my pillow, by my bed, in every bag I own, in the kitchen, in the bathroom (because no, the imagination does not hit pause whilst in the shower). One of the scariest things about ideas is their ability to come and go in an instant and a notebook is the fastest way to catch them. Thus, my house is one great forest of half-captured ideas, just wasting to be turned into something more.
  3. You are an introvert and yet, somehow, lonely.
    In most cases, creation is a lonely act. It involves delving as deep as is humanly possible into one's mind, having a good poke around and then remaining stuck there until the pretty things fall out. It takes months of commitment, self-control and energy. Between all this, it is perhaps no surprise that artists are, most commonly, introverts. They have to get their energy from themselves because they do not spend enough time with others to get it any other way.

    Which would be fine, were it not for the fact that artists are infamous for being desperately, desperately lonely. Humans are odd in that they most enjoy reading, viewing or listening to the troubling and it falls to the creators of this world to produce it. Thus, painters, musicians and writers have to have some degree of connection with the darker aspects of their minds and being stuck alone with that for any length of time can be really, very isolating. For all the people one can meet through a career in the arts, it remains a lonely one.
  4. You find yourself confusing real life with the one inside your head. 
    More than this, an untameable imagination can lead to a rather confusing life. I am particularly guilty of this. In my head, I replay every situation I have ever been in and, based on these, every situation I could possibly now land myself in. I think of every direction the conversation could travel and imagine my whole life from this point on.

    And then, the fatal moment happens where I come back to reality and am not entirely sure of what is actually going on. I would question my sanity, were it not for conversations with other, like-minded people who also struggle to keep their feet on the grounds. The challenge is to keep the imagination pointed in the right direction and not at everything it pleases.
  5. You exist in a state of eternal chaos.
    My Dad and I are the perfect examples of this. Were my brain an animal, it would be a puppy. Not just any puppy, but a Labrador: the kind that boings recklessly between everything, feet barely touching the floor. I come downstairs to leave for work and find toast popped up in the toaster that I clearly intended to eat, a hot drink gone cold, things laid out that I definitely meant to take upstairs, I can't find my diary and I appear to have only one shoe on.

    Each thought enters before the last one had been dealt with and I am permanently in search of things I have lost and the memory of things I was supposed to have done.

I may not be an exceptional writer and am, at best, a below-average musician. But, with every item in my check-list ticked, somewhere in here is most definitely a little artist. 

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Decisions, Decisions - Countdown to Christmas

Having crawled through two years worth of essays and relentless study, I have reached yet another dreaded point in my life: decision time. 

I suck at decisions. Choosing my GCSEs was a nightmare, helped only by the categories we had to select at least one choice from. Selecting my A-levels was even worse, as this Queen of the Swots just couldn't judge which subjects she loved the most. By the end of sixth form, I was facing a rather different challenge: I needed to identify my future career and, from this, decide which degree to study and at which university. Having learnt to loath the subjects I had studied through sixth-form, the choice was just impossible.

And so, I chickened out. I signed up to an Open University degree, knowing that I could, essentially, walk out at any time, and took to prancing between jobs and modules whilst I decided what on earth to do with my life.

A few months ago, I really thought I had it sussed. I would stay in Education - the field in which I've currently been dumped - and study for a Masters in Psychology, which would allow me to do the PhD I am desperate to do in Autism research. I considered instead pursuing counselling psychology but was reasonably comfortable with the conclusion that this was a career best suited to a future version of myself who may actually, by then, have the faintest idea what she's talking about. I had reviewed all options, weighed-up my priorities and come to a conclusion in which I was willing to place my faith and excitement.

That is, until I took a different kind of module for my 3rd year and remembered that I really, really love creating. I might not be amazing at it but music and writing have been my number one hobbies since I was old enough to hold a pencil and I have found myself feeling a little stunned by the realisation that yes, I do really want to do these things. 

Since this rather striking thought punched me between the eyes, I have spent endless nights lying, thinking of all of the reasons why I had, at some point, already ruled out music or writing. First and foremost was, inevitably, a lack of talent: I may love creating but I am most certainly not the best at it. In fact, most days, my work falls somewhere on the bummer side of average: not quite the stuff of life-long careers. Lurking somewhere behind this excuse was a little beast who has stalked me for many years, going by the name of "Cynic". This little gremlin takes on the mammoth task of keeping me in my place and helpfully reminded me that, of the thousands of people longing to write a novel or become a hit performer, so few actually do that to invest any energy in trying seems like a ridiculous waste. 

Muddled beyond belief, I started seeking advice from others, desperate for someone to just tell me what to do. My Dad was quick to jump on the bandwagon I was trying to run away from, telling me that education sucks and writing was always what I wanted to do. Others said that I should do what I want to do, that I am too young to worry about the future: not what they were telling me in school. In the end, I did something I would never normally be dumb enough to do, and filled in a comprehensive personality assessment, complete with career recommendations.

Lo and behold, the first sentence in my description (which, for the record, described me perfectly):

"Interestingly, this personality combination is most common among authors."

I am not a person of faith but I do believe that much of our lives are pre-governed by things outside of our control and, the day of the personality quiz, someone, somewhere, was having a laugh. Everything in my brain had told me to just get on with the plan I had made whilst everything around me was telling me to jump off the band wagon and attempt to fly. Ridiculous. 

I cannot help but wonder if I would be quite so confused, were my passion something other than the creative arts. There is a general stigma around arts careers in this country, with most people arguing that music or writing is not a proper job. If anything, this attracts me to the subjects more - who, really, wants a real job? Certainly, the idea of no more Mondays fills me with delight. 

As we come to the end of the year, I have little or no idea what to expect of 2019. Decisions are, by far, my greatest weakness and it seems I have some rather big ones to make. And so, dear readers, all advice welcome... 

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Not-So-Magic of Christmas - Countdown to Christmas

With Christmas comes a great many things: parties, bright lights and enough food to kill a man; presents, trees and talk of some strange man in a red suit; love, stress and, lurking somewhere in all that, a thousand busy-bodies telling us exactly how Christmas should be done.

One way or another, we have all been exposed to the Festive brigade. Be it in magazines, television or the mouths of our best friends, advice worms its way into our brains, trampling on our festive spirit and crushing any chance of a stress-free season. We are battered with images of the perfect Christmas dinner, the ideal party dress and the most classy decorations. Where we had otherwise intended to have a chilled, relaxing day, we are lead to believe that schedules and regimentation are the only way forward. 

Even the most care-free folk can find themselves comparing their Christmas day with others, being left with a supreme feeling of inadequacy having determined that just about everyone does a better job than them. 

We talk of Christmas spirit as some other-worldly power, divine or magical in form. We remark at its power to warm the heart and soften the spirit but, in all of this, we neglect to say anything of any substance. 

Many contradictions lie in this issue: on the one hand, the most magical things in life are often those that cannot be labelled, identified or picked up. On the other, we can find ourselves so obsessed with the spiritual that we neglect to see the things that are truly significant to our lives. 

If every celebrator of Christmas was a Christian - or, even, held an unquestionable belief in Santa - then, perhaps, Christmas spirit would be enough. Down here in the real world, however, faith of these kinds is not held by many and yet, universally, people hold Christmas in their hearts and minds as something wholly precious. 

It is not schedules or extravagant recipes that make Christmas, anymore than it is last-minute shopping or the perfect gift. It's the little moments: the lopsided tree or the mis-match of chairs round a breaking table. It's the pyjamas at midday and the shrug that accompanies every "sod it, it's Christmas."

My point is, Christmas is entirely personal and, if our Christmas makes sense to anyone else, it cannot possibly mean anything. Christmas spirit isn't magic, it's just life: plain and simple. It is honest relationships and, generally, it is the most naff things that fill us with the greatest warmth.

The Festive brigade are everywhere but that does not make them right. Life is imperfect and for that, it is truly wonderful. 

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Back to the Blogs - Countdown to Christmas

When I started these blogs, I had just finished my GCSEs. My life was one, long stretch of free time and I was itching to fill it with something I enjoyed, something creative and something I was good at.

A relative of mine was running a very successful parenting blog and, in my blind ignorance, I found myself asking exactly how hard it could be. And so, with little else to do, I got myself a-clicking and The Wrong Notes was born.

Granted, it was a steady start. I was blogging most days and the majority of posts consisted primarily of crap. I practically weed myself with excitement when my blog stats showed that I had a whole two readers and the world of social media advertising was a ball game with which I was completely unfamiliar. In short, I had no idea what I was doing.

Yet, slowly but surely, blogging started to really mean something to me. Every once in a while, I would receive a beautiful message from someone, telling me that they read my work and that something I had said really meant something to them. Suddenly, the writing that had always existed just for me started to become something that other people wanted to read; something with purpose.

This, combined with a great, steaming heap of shit going on in my life, was what lead me to start The Mental Life. Where The Wrong Notes was a generally fun place to barf out my thoughts, this new page was serious, sensitive and, sometimes, downright intense. My readership was smaller but my inbox was constantly filled with people sharing their experiences or responding to my thoughts and I came to love my writing in a very different, more serious way.

But, just as I was truly beginning to know what I was doing, some idiot got in the way: life. I started working two jobs, doing a degree, studying for work-related courses and, somewhere in all of that, trying to have a social life. My days started at 7am and did not end until midnight. Time was a commodity that I was desperately chasing after and, somewhere in all that, unnecessary things had to give.

Things like these blogs. Between what feels like a million essays, a full week at work and attempts to maintain the relationships most important to me, I just did not have time. And I still don't. I have little time and even less energy for things that are not wholly required and the thought of adding blogging to my already agonizing to-do list, frankly, makes me shudder. Equally, the thought of spending yet another year cutting out everything I enjoy for the sake of work, work, work makes me feel an immense sense of guilt at the time I seem to be wasting.

So, I have made a deal with myself to get back, one step at a time, to doing things that actually matter to me. Every year, I commit to posting a blog each day throughout December. It's a ridiculous thing to do that literally noone cares for but me and, for that reason alone, it is most definitely worth doing. And so, we begin our Countdown to Christmas...