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It’s Monday morning and I’m back in the gym

Last week, due to a good friend being in considerable need, my usual routine got derailed. It was no big deal; I’m self-employed, child free and although life is full, and generally fast-paced, when it comes to time-management, I can be more flexible than most.

So instead of toiling at my desk, writing and editing for several hours a day, I was outside in the glorious autumn sunshine, walking two beautiful and achingly grateful dogs for my friend, so that she could focus on more pressing issues. As someone who adores dogs and appreciates nature’s myriad gifts, I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it. Rodney, my own doddery old pooch struggles to get round the block these days, so striding out – wind in hair – was a joy.

So it’s fair to say that writing and editing took a hit. But the thing that slipped completely from my agenda was going to the gym. By now, you might be thinking – so what? Surely taking a few brisk walks a day is better than pounding a treadmill, or performing any number of lunges, squats and crunches? Well, yes – and no. Better for the soul; hell yeah. But better for the abs and the old carcass, generally? Not so much.

When I turned 40, someone gave me a card that said, ‘after 40 – it’s all about maintenance’; as someone who has notched up more significant birthdays since then, I can vouch for that! For me personally, going to the gym forms an important cornerstone of maintaining wellness. Sorry for using the ‘icky buzzword du jour, but keeping well is what it’s about; remaining spry, strong and supple. Vanity also plays a major role – even older women are judged on their appearance – but keeping everything in the right place and for longer can be a full time job in itself. And when I say judged – we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

If a woman looks after herself and has the temerity to look great for her age, she’s deemed vain and obsessive and is accused of ‘having work done’; if she dares to let nature takes its course, dispensing with the hair dye, exercise routine, and the dark arts of cosmetic enhancement – she’s ‘let herself go’.

You can’t win. So why try? Just do what makes you happy. For me, that means keeping it all together for as long as possible.

And what do you do…?

This morning while I was walking Rodney, I bumped into another dog-owner; I’ll call her Sophie. She’s a lovely lady – very friendly, and we chatted for a while about our dogs, the weather, and that Sophie was late for work. I said; “Me too, I really need to knuckle down today.” Then Sophie asked me what I do.

This question always causes me a degree of consternation and embarrassment, because what I do, and what I am does not necessarily marry up. For instance, I am editing my first novel, and writing my second. But am I a novelist? No – absolutely not. At least not until I have published one of them. So I usually mutter something about being a copywriter – and that much is true; for several years, businesses have paid me to come up with words on their behalf.

But today, I found myself curiously and unusually forthcoming – and confessed to Sophie that I was writing a book. “Oh, that’s interesting. What’s it about?” she asked, reasonably. Hmmm; another tricky question. It’s nice when people take an interest, but I find it hard to give them a satisfying soundbite in return. So I usually say (cryptically, I admit) “Oh, it’s about real life and ordinary folk.” If pressed further, I then tell them it is about a dysfunctional collection of people, who live on a modern housing estate much like the one I live on (Sophie too, for that matter). At which point, I am highly adept at switching the focus back to the other person and moving swiftly on.

I can’t help but feel sheepish when I admit to writing fiction – partly because I’ve had some very funny reactions in the past. One lady said; “Ah, bless you – it’s nice to have a little hobby…I’ve got my colouring books.”

Now I’m not knocking adult colouring books, but I don’t think it is comparing apples with apples. Surely colouring books are supposed to be relaxing, and there’s nothing relaxing about trying to dream up new characters, settings and plotlines – or worse, sweating over a blank page when all inspiration deserts you.

Perhaps when I publish my first book (which happily is looking like a distinct possibility), I will feel more equipped to deal with the question; what do you do? Until then, don’t be surprised if when you ask, I start wittering about how my hydrangeas came up blind this year, or about it being time for Rodney’s flea treatment…

September is a joyful month

blackberries

This morning, well before six, I open my eyes to an (almost) audible click. September has arrived.

Wonderful, mellow September; a treasured month when we can still enjoy the warmth of a gentle sun, yet overnight the light adopts a golden hue, and the earth becomes drenched in elegant new perfumes that delight our senses. In September, nature’s bounty goes into overdrive. The heady scents of blackberry, elaeagnus and wild strawberries jostle in the hedgerows, competing with myriad fungi that burst through the soil so fast – stand still long enough and you’ll see them growing at your feet.

Even the dry, pungent smell of rotting fallen fruit in the orchards and fields has its own allure – a sense of nature’s goodness returning to the earth in its rightful and endless cycle.

But September isn’t only for gardeners and nature lovers. For many of us, it brings a new energy and creativity – and a new resolve after the hazy, lethargy of summer. And, whether you’re 7 or 57, the ‘Back to School’ mood can be a powerful thing; galvanising us – pushing us towards our goals, with gentle but firm hands, without the tired resignation or the hectoring tone that New Year brings.

From our house to yours, we wish you a happy and joyful September.

Dear Rodney, thank you for staying another day

In her autobiography The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction, Dallas actress Linda Gray talks about her daily gratitude walk.  Linda’s life challenges have been well documented; she suffered polio as a child, grew up with an alcoholic mother, and entered an abusive marriage at twenty two.  After her big break in Dallas at 38, the trials kept coming, with a marriage break up and the loss of her sister to breast cancer.

Yet Linda – now in her 70s – is known not only for her limpid eyed portrayal of Sue-Ellen, but for her grace, beauty and wisdom.  In her book, she describes her gratitude walk as a time to contemplate her many blessings, and the cornerstone of every day.

I have a good friend, who is beautiful, kind and very spiritual, who also takes the time (and head space) to do this – and she radiates happiness and goodwill.  This woman is not alone; a growing army of us are doing exactly this – and reaping the spiritual benefits.

As a person who battles melancholy and depression, for me, living in this way is more of an aspiration than an achievement…but I’m getting there. One thing I have done consistently for the last year, is to begin each day by thanking my wonderful old doggie for staying with me another day.  I say it out loud, the moment I open my eyes and feel his warmth beside me.

rodney bev selfie Aug15

One day, it will not be the case, but for every day Rodney is here, I am truly grateful.  The walk we do together, around the streets and green spaces where we live, is our gratitude walk, whatever the weather, and however slow the pace.

 

 

 

Stoned out weekend

A streaming cold curtailed my weekend plans so the boyf and I ended up staying in.  It was a good excuse for vegging out in front of a screen but I’ve given up on television as I cannot abide reality TV or game-shows, and on the weekend, there’s little else.

Thank god then for Apple TV; in our house at least, this provides a way of watching YouTube on a massive screen. On Saturday night, we ended up viewing four hours of Rolling Stones footage, combining the fascinating Totally Stripped DVD (released 2016), followed by most of Voodoo Lounge, and a bunch of other promo films from 1966 to 2011.

I admit it – I obsess about the Stones, but it has been a painful year for music lovers.  We lost Bowie and Prince within months of each other (which hurt a lot) and I hate to point out the bleedin’ obvious, but the Stones are of an age when they should not be taken for granted.

So this is me, publicly thanking Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie for the rockiest, most memorable and infectious rock n roll sounds in our living history.  Thank you so much – you are truly wonderful.

Musically, the Stones can do no wrong – they never disappoint, wiping the floor with bands a third of their age (which is fair enough; they’ve had the practice).  Keith Richards is quite possibly the best guitarist on the planet, Mick Jagger, the ultimate showman, and where would they be without Charlie Watts – voted Rolling Stones Magazine’s 12th Best Drummer in the World (WTF?  How good are the first 11?).

But the Stones are more than just shit-hot musicians – and more than the sum or their parts. I don’t care if it makes me sound like a barmy old Grandma when I say that, even in their 70s, the Stones still drip passion and charisma like no one else. They’ve hypnotised me for decades.  Please, never stop, never stop, never stop…

Red in beak and claw

Yesterday I heard a rumpus in my garden and when I went outside to investigate I spotted a tiny wren bouncing from fence post to tree bough, chittering dementedly.  As alarm calls go, it was very effective; the poor little bird was beside itself – I mean, really shouting.

wren shouting

Then, from over my back fence, I heard a woman’s voice coaxing her cat back into the house.

Now I’m no detective, but the combination of Bagpuss being corralled inside, and the wren’s distress call painted a pretty vivid picture.

Any nature lover is used to the mixed emotions stirred by seeing animals do what they do naturally – which is to follow their instincts and survive.  Awe, fascination and love, can turn to abject horror on a sixpence.  I’ve stopped watching natural history programmes on TV.  My heart can’t take it.

Because first I’m welling up, chest heaving, when (for example) the majestic polar bear is starving and cannot feed her gorgeous ‘ickle roly-poly cubs.  Ah, but then her luck changes as a cute-as-a-button seal comes flobbering along.  Then the chase is on! And next I’m sobbing for the lost seal (and its family); you get my drift…

I like cats – for their grace, beauty and intelligence. I prefer dogs; for their loyalty, kindness and boundless enthusiasm (except for my poor old Rodney, who doesn’t do joy anymore – at 16, eating and sleeping is pretty much his repertoire).

But anyway, back to cats; what I don’t like is their mean streak.  The vast majority of pet moggies are well catered for, dining at the feline Ritz most days.  They have absolutely no need to hunt – certainly not in order to eat. So catching small furries can only be for sport and entertainment. It’s no coincidence that cruel women are often labelled ‘catty’.

I reckon old Spitycus McSpite had probably killed my little wren’s mate or offspring – which is gut wrenchingly horrid, but you can’t blame a cat for being a cat.

A whole day later, my wren is still out there, shouting retribution for her fallen friend, and if pluck could overcome might, then I reckon old Spitycus would be in the vets by now.  It’s a reminder that nature is wild and cruel and impossibly beautiful.

Cats

Last night I was privileged to see Cats the musical, performed by the gifted students of Hillview Performing Arts School in Tonbridge.
Before you picture quivering sets, pitchy vocals and Mrs Johnson banging out Memory on an upright piano, let me set you straight. This uplifting and slick production was performed at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge, and was worthy of the West End – and has no doubt secured the futures of some of its performers there.
My better half and I were invited by our dear friends and neighbours, whose beautiful and talented daughter was one of the dancers. Even as mere hangers on, we were bursting with pride to see her glide through her paces with poise and grace, totally committed and loving every minute.
It was an emotional night on every level; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soaring score, the grace and beauty of the dancers, the heart-rending vocals (not a dry eye in the house for Memory) and the glamour and excitement of the costumes and staging overall.
Without exception, the young people of Hillview showcased their talents purrfectly – but there was more than proficiency at work; there was passion, too. Oh, I know it’s an overused word, but the energy of the cast alone could have registered on the national grid. Bless every single member of the company, on stage and off – you all earned your night of adulation. Thank you for such a memorable night.

I’ve gone 4G

No, I haven’t shifted to another mobile network – instead I’ve upped my gym, gossip, girlfriends and giggles quota. Last week I found myself alone when my partner was plucked from his London studio and drafted to its counterpart in San Francisco.

In the past, I might have used the time as an excuse to hibernate, not seeing or even speaking to anyone, because like many writers, I have a tendency to get sucked into an interior world, inhabited only by imaginary friends and alter egos. Call it introverted, imply insular, whisper depressive – the point is, this time I fought the urge to hide. Instead, I began every day with a punishing gym workout – after walking my beloved terrier, Rodney, of course; the cornerstone of every day.

Then it was home to write, in intensive bursts – or not – and catch up with a handful of kind, funny and beautiful girlfriends, and whether over dinner, coffee or just a walk in the park, there was plenty of gossip and giggles. And suddenly a week that I thought might drag had raced by until on the Saturday, the sparrow had landed (and has valiantly battled jet-lag ever since).

Has my waistline noticed the increased gym activity? Probably not; but did my heart lift in gratitude for the female friends who were just there – proving again and again that I was not alone but part of a community of women who look out for each other. Thank you ladies; you are beautiful inside and out.

Another day spent with imaginary friends

Writing fiction is like playing with imaginary friends. You invent a bunch of personalities and then set them on a path of action and adventure. None of it is real, yet they live and breathe, first in the author’s heart and mind – and later (if he or she has done the job well) in the reader’s.

The characters we create become almost as vivid as friends and family in the real world. I have to confess to falling hard for one male protagonist I once wrote about… probably the less said about that the better!
The reason I mention this is because I have just begun the sequel to my first (and only) novel, Beginner’s Guide to Burb-Watching. It feels right and good – like coming home on a Friday night after a long, tough week at the office.

The characters I created some eighteen months ago now feel like old friends – and in this volume, they’ll be joined by a host of new ones. In my new book, I want to do my characters justice, bringing them to life on the page once more. So I’ll start them off, guiding them firmly at first, before giving them a little freedom to roam independently. For me personally, it is always a magic moment when they begin to breathe on their own.

Delaying the inevitable?

Rodney small res
Stephanie Chapman Photography

A few days ago my little dog had surgery to remove the tumour from his neck.  We went this route because a scan and a couple of biopsies revealed that the cancer was contained; our very skilled vet Tim thought it well worth a shot.  Poor Rodney looks as though a pirate has attacked him with a cutlass – now he’s sore, itchy, sleepy and confused.  And quite possibly cancer-free.

Last night was a sleepless one as I watched him pace, keen, and scratch in great discomfort.  It was hard to bear.

Today, after a steroid shot and a teensy dose of diazepam, he’s comfy and I am relieved.  But at some point, the big hill will rise up to meet us and the buck stops with me.  Please god, let me be strong enough to put Rodney first when the time is right.  Because sometimes, actions speak louder than words.