friends

The difference a year makes

“Maybe this Christmas will mean something more
Maybe this year love will appear
Deeper than ever before”
— -Tracey Thorn, Maybe This Christmas

This time last year, I was writing this post, collecting together songs that I felt best summarised why I find Christmas such an emotional time.

Of course, I’ve been listening to that playlist on repeat for weeks this year too, but it sounds different to me this time round. Its transformed from a quietly melancholic collection to one of optimism.

This time last year, I was steadfastly single. I refused to believe in love in the same way I used to do in the past. I had never even said the word to anyone else (except for friends) for years. I was stubbornly resisting the advances of a man who I knew to be very wonderful, on the basis that I would likely just mess it all up anyway and hurt him, given that I was, in my own head, such an awful and cynical heartless monster who would clearly ruin his life.

Luckily, my willpower (helped along by a fair amount of beer) failed me eventually and we went on a date in January. This is probably the best decision I have made, ever. What has followed has been better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve gone from refusing to acknowledge the L-word to telling him many, many times a day that I love him. He puts up with me and my mood swings, is happy to leave me alone when I need social recharge time, and is just really quite marvellous. He makes me laugh despite his cracker joke-level sense of humour, gives great hugs, and most importantly buys me Lego. For the first time in blummin’ yonks, I feel safe, and like I’ve come home.

“So happy new year, this is the one we talked about and
Happy New Year, this is where it all works out
This is where is comes together and everything comes through
Happy ever after all comes true”
— -Simma, Happy New Year

So going into this new year, everything seems different. We’re moving into a new house together, and I really can’t wait. The cat and the hamster have double-barrelled surnames. I have a new job lined up, though it’s in the same centre and will involve moving a mere several metres across the office to a different desk. I still worry that it’ll all come crashing down at some point, but I’m managing to keep those thoughts in check and just enjoy it all for the most part.

Hopefully I’m not sounding too smug here. I just want you all to know about the good things that happen, since I tell you probably far too much about the bad stuff. I’ve had some amazing e-mails in the past from readers who have been through similar experiences to me, and I’d like you to know that things can change and can end up even being miles better than they ever were before.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I know this time of year can be really hard for some. I send my love and hugs to you. 

Hxxx

Lychnobite, by Simma: An album review.

There is a particular pub in Gateshead which I rather like. It’s called The Central Bar and it holds good memories for me. It’s a traditional haunt for my good friends and I on Christmas Eve, it has an excellent range of beers, and does some good nosh too.

And so it was that on one particular Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, three friends and I were in there. We were suitably adorned in tacky, sparkly Christmas attire and were festively tipsy, when a chap started playing his acoustic guitar and singing in the corner of the pub.

Given our rather jolly state at the time, we showed our appreciation of this man’s lovely voice by bellowing along to some of the songs and inventing new interpretive dance routines to others (And thus, the great Gateshead Sit Down dance was born). We were a source of amusement for the singer, who declared that he’d never had anyone invent dances for him before and patiently explained that no magic was at play when we had loudly declared that we wanted him to play Fairytale Of New York then he actually did, prompting us to look drunkenly confused. “Girls, I’m not on the radio you know. I can actually hear you.” It was a really fun afternoon, and we left giggling hysterically and wondering if we could ever show our faces in there again.

The singer in question was Simma, and I’ve since seen him play several times. He fairly recently released his new album, Lychnobite, so I snapped up a copy of it and thought I would review it for you dear people.

On first listen, it’s on the whole a cheery affair, with upbeat tunes perfect for having on in the background while you do something else. Subsequent listens via headphones reveal a more melancholic, complex side to the album.

A particular highlight for me is “Black Dog”, a song about depression which combines a nifty little toe-tapping rhythm with an almost monotonous melody. This makes for an atmospheric juxtaposition, much like the illness itself. Next up is the joyous “Sing”, a marching, uplifting little song that I tend to happily belt out when I have it on at home.

Other songs are more calmly folky, all with a touch of cleverness to the songwriting that I find really pleasing. There is a clever use of vocals throughout the album (see Whisky Highway as an example), something which I find quite pleasingly different, given my previous experience of Simma is limited to him and one guitar in the corner of the Central Bar

“The Drink” is gorgeous, plaintive, and full of feeling. Meanwhile, “Sixteen Tons” is bluesy and pleasingly cynical, managing to blend together a very American sound with tales of Benwell woe. “Happy New Year” is likely to make its way onto my Christmas Songs For The Existentially Wounded list this year, with its mix of optimism and sadness for times gone by.

The other thing that I really like about Simma is how his Geordie accent creeps into the edges of his songs, lending them a little bit of added personality. All in all, this is a lovely, complicated album which is likely to be on heavy rotation in my household, nestled in nicely between Great Lakes by John Smith and Under Mountains by Rachel Sermanni. 

Hxxx

Making it up as I go along

What better way to spend a Sunday than an eight-hour long improvised comedy workshop?

Now, I know that there are a lot of people who would jump for joy at the suggestion. I also know that I am really not one of them. I can be pretty reserved, and of course there is my social anxiety to factor in.

My good friend Shandy suggested it. She had been to similar sessions before, and thought it would be good for me. I trust her judgement, so I signed us up for it before I had a chance to regret it. And what a day it turned out to be.

Social anxiety is an odd creature. Recently, I’ve been learning about the main thing that makes it particularly odd- self-focus. It’s a weird dichotomy- the same diagnosis that ruins your confidence and makes you want to disappear also manages to persuade you that you are the entire centre of everything that exists. It simultaneously makes you completely hate yourself, and become an insufferable narcissist in your own head.

I think I’m really pretty good at challenging myself. I force myself into social situations that I don’t want to be in on a fairly regular basis. More importantly, I force myself to social situations that I really do want to be in but am completely effing terrified of. I’ll say yes to parties in London where I basically know no-one at all. I’ll arrange and go to tweet ups. I go to lots of bake clubs, and I’m out of the house on most evenings of the week, seeing various different friends and going to all sorts of different events. I’ll merrily agree to SITP talks here and there. Yet no matter how much I push myself to do things, and no matter how well these things turn out, the fear remains the same.

I know the theory. I know that anxiety is supposed to lessen the more you are in a situation, and the more you are exposed to that situation. Yet mine.. doesn’t. I know that I have been in a similar situation before, and it was absolutely fine, yet I still end up a gibbering wreck each and every time. It’s the self-focus that does that. With my social anxiety, its not the other people who are scary, it’s myself, and that can be really difficult to get around. Its this aspect that makes it refractory to exposure therapy.

One of the most exhausting parts of it is self-censoring. I constantly dismiss my own thoughts as not being worthy enough of being said out loud. I’m scared of sounding stupid, boring, of being judged, of not being interested enough. Instead of allowing the person I am speaking to make those judgements, I do it myself, and discard things that I want to say before they leave my mouth.

These things do not make me an ideal person to perform improvised comedy. I am the person who will eventually come up with a killer comedic line about six hours after the opportunity to use it has gone, then will proceed to beat myself up about it for days, weeks, sometimes months afterwards. I have never performed any sort of drama or anything like that, and the opportunities for creativity in my adult life have been pretty limited.

Bev Fox, one of the wonderful teachers at the Improvisation Foundation and co-founder of The Suggestibles

Bev Fox, one of the wonderful teachers at the Improvisation Foundation and co-founder of The Suggestibles


So, you’re asking, how did it go?

Pretty well I think. I was completely exhausted and nigh-on broken afterwards, but it felt like one of the most productive things I have done so far to subdue my social anxiety monster.

The group of people attending the workshop were warm, welcoming, and kind. Bev, who was leading it, was marvellous. I didn’t feel pushed into anything at any time, though I spent the entire day not just outside my comfort zone but pretty much in another continent to it.

Luckily, my ultimate goal for the workshop fits in quite nicely with one of the fundamental basics of improv- turning off your self-filtering. I didn’t achieve it fully- I still felt pretty shy and reserved by the end of the workshop- but I did take some big steps towards it. I found myself taking part in the games much more enthusiastically than I had expected, and even managed to be funny on the odd occasion.

One of the most beneficial parts was towards the start. As part of a game, one of the guys asked who was nervous about coming today. As dictated by the game, this then led to a mass vacating of seats, followed by a scramble for another one. There followed “who has ever had stage fright”- again, mass movement.

When I found myself stuck in the middle of the circle, I went with the emotionally deep and existentially important question of “Who gets excited when they are about to eat spaghetti hoops?”

There followed a pretty amazing discussion with everyone in the group about their experiences of stage fright and nervousness. They were all so honest, and although I am constantly told that I’m not the only one, it was still good to see that perfectly well-functioning adults still suffer from the stomach-butterflies and brain-freezes just as much as I do.

There were games involving eye contact, which is something that I can sometimes struggle with. There was a really interesting part where you had to walk around in either a high status or a low status mode. It occurred to me as I was doing it that the way I naturally walk, giggle, play with my hair, hunch down etc was pretty much a text book version of the low status walk, whereas high status mode, striding around and holding eye contact with people, I felt really weird and unnatural.

So much of what we covered fits in with what I am covering in therapy. Even the terminology is the same. There was one task where we walked around the room and had to quickly name all the objects. Then we slowed down, and asked more questions about each object in turn, eventually getting to a point where we explored our feelings as well. It reminded me of mindfulness therapy- it was all about being in the moment, rather than rehearsing what might happen in the future or dwelling on what you said five minutes ago.

So it basically felt like an 8 hour long group CBT, mindfulness, and counselling session with a whole load of humour thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I have seen Paul Merton’s Improv Chums three times now and there were moments in this workshop which were just as funny.

I’m not convinced that I am destined for a comedy career, but I have taken a whole load of positivity from that one day, and I’m really pleased and proud of myself for doing it.

You can find out more about the workshops at www.thesuggestibles.com. Bev and Ian's improv group, The Suggestibles, do regular gigs in Newcastle upon Tyne so keep an eye out for a performance if you are in the area- they're a right good laugh, and a blummin' lovely people too.

Hxxx 

The Ultimate Christmas album for the Existentially Wounded

"It's why, it's why we hang lights so high
and gaze at the glow of silver birches in the snow
Because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark
We must be alright  if we could make up Christmas night"
-Tracey Thorn, Joy. 


Now, I'll admit that at this time of year, I can get rather annoying.

I love Christmas, I really do. I'm often to be found wearing antlers and tinsel. I put my decorations up at the first opportunity humanely possible, and start on the mince pies in September. This year, I excitedly bought myself a Lego advent calendar, despite the incredulity of the guy behind the counter in the shop. I also have snowman hoodie which yes, I shall wear out in public.

As a child-free, cynical, atheist adult, it might seem like this is a hard time of year to enjoy. And, to be honest, you're probably right. It would be a whole lot easier to throw in the towel and grumble about how commercial it all is, and how I just wish it was over and done with and everything can go back to normal. But I refuse to give into this, and put quite a bit of effort into maintaining my child-like delight at the festive season.

Obviously, its nothing to do with god. And don't get me wrong, I love the presents too (dear parents, if you are reading this, please do take note that I shall never be too old for Lego). But my desperation to enjoy this time of year runs somehow deeper than all that. I don't need to link it to religion, nor do I need to experience it through a child or partner. Christmas reminds me of my own, hard-won personality.

For me, it is about traditions. And these traditions, as they shift and change slightly each year, somehow reinforce my own self to me. Back in what now seems like a lifetime ago, my ex-husband and I took joy in forming new traditions together at this time of year. It was a way of reinforcing ourselves as a couple unit, of forging our own little family ways. Small things, like buying a new special decoration for the tree each year, came to mean a lot to us.

When my marriage broke down on Boxing Day 2010, I had to start again. Everything I had known up until that point fell apart, and my hopes and dreams, which I had been carrying like a shield all my life, shattered in a matter of hours. I had to begin again from scratch, and it was often the smallest of things that seemed to make all the difference to me.

The next year, my new, empty Christmas tree seemed somehow symbolic of how I had to start to collect some traditions of my very own. These traditions would belong to me, and me alone. I started picking up little decorations here and there, and now I have a rather lovely collection of bits and pieces to adorn my home with. And I've done the same with traditions: baking certain things at certain times, (including my beloved Christmas pie), drinking startlingly strong fruit wine in a particular pub on Christmas Eve with my friends, seeing Rare Exports at the cinema, taking part in a gingerbread contest, and many others. Some of us even go so far as to throw ourselves into the freezing North Sea on Boxing Day which not only washes away any vestiges of hangover cobwebs, but also distracts me from the awfully sad memories I would otherwise be thinking about.

Winter is a dark and often terrifying time for many of us. Dark mornings and dark nights make it easy for the sadness and emptiness to creep in. Getting home to a cold, dark, empty, one-bedroomed flat can start to feel like a failure. But then I pop on the tree lights, and I have something to focus on, some little pinpricks of hope that, in the end, the world is full of good people, and I will be able to spend some quality time with those who I love most- my friends and my family. And I will have an excuse to fill my flat with sparkly things, and wear glitter eyeliner.

Christmas is, to me, an acknowledgement that times will be dark and hard ahead, but that I will get through those times, with the help of those around me. It reminds me of how far I've come, and how proud I am of myself. It reminds me of all the good I have found in the world, of all the little bits of help I have gotten from the most unexpected sources, of all the new people I have met and the pride I have in my oldest friendships. If humankind has the presence of mind to plonk a huge celebration in the middle of the darkest season (even if they have done so on the pretence of a god I don't believe in), then that's fine by me, and I shall do my damnedest to make sure I embrace it with gusto.

I love the standard Christmas songs. I'll dance about to a bit of Slade with the best of them. But the saccharine jingle bells of most of the tunes you'll find on Now Thats What I Call The Ultimate Best Ever Christmas Tunes In World... Vol 3 don't seem to quite catch the nuances of the festive season for me. I've only come across a few songs which do, and I have collected them here for your auditory pleasure. I'm keen to know of more, so if you have any you would like to recommend, please do let me know, either in the comments, by email, or by tweeting me (@SparkleWildfire). What I would like to do is create a playlist of genuinely good, beautiful songs that evoke both the joy and the darkness of Christmas.

Joy by Tracey Thorn.
Tracey Thorn's (of Everything But The Girl fame) Christmas album Tinsel and Lights, which she released last year, was a total revelation to me. Its a gorgeous, calming album which hits just the right pitch of melancholy and joy for this time of year. I think this song says it all really.

Snowglobe by Dean Owens.
I saw Dean play at the Tyneside Cinema just before that fateful christmas of 2010. This is a lovely, sad little song about having depression or mental health issues over Christmas time. It serves as a reminder that mental health issues don't instantaneously resolve over the festive period, and that this time of enforced happiness can be extremely hard for many.

December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush
You may already know by now that I absolutely adore Kate Bush. Even the title of this song is poignant. This song has the same theme to me as Joy: its about using tradition to cover the darkness of the winter.

Winter by John Smith
This is simply the best, most beautiful song about the baby Jesus that I have ever heard. I first saw John play as support for John Martyn, and I have since seen him live several times and been reduced to tears by him. I absolutely adore his voice. I don't mind that this is a song about the nativity: to me it is a song about a story, and I just love how plaintively he sings that "I was there" line.

A Christmas Fable by The Selecter
I love a bit of ska. I've spent a full day agonising over which song to go for from this single. Then it occurs to me: its a double A-side, so I can legitimately have both. The songs are supposed to symbolise the light and dark sides of christmas, so they're pretty perfect for my playlist. Skank 'Til Christmas is all about letting your hair down when everything else in life has gone to shit (I love the references to the current financial situation), whilst a Christmas Fable is about a rather distressing family breakdown on Christmas day.

River by Madeleine Peyroux & K.D. Lang
A cover of this track also appears on the aforementioned Tinsel and Lights album. Thanks to the ever marvellous Ian Robinson (@eyeswideshut75) for suggesting it.

White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin
Thanks to Steve Haigh for reminding me of this. There's so much truth and humour in this gorgeous little tune, and it really sums up a good old family Christmas.

The Atheist Christmas Carol by Vienna Teng
This is just gorgeous.Thanks to Jackie (@Jackpot73- one of those new people so I am so thankful for having met this year) for

Silent Night/ 7 O'clock News by Simon and Garfunkel
Pretty self explanatory.

Love is All We've Got by Paul Fisher
I have loved Paul's music since the first time I saw him at a folk night when I was still underage drinking. I can remember being completely astounded by the noises that were coming out of this guy on the tiny stage upstairs in the Egypt Cottage pub. Turns out he has made a beautiful, gorgeous, poignant Christmas song this year which I will be listening to over and over.

Candle Song 3 by Mojave 3.

Tar Barrel in Dale by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
Another one suggested by the lovely Jackie. A New Year's song about a Northumberland tradition. This year has been so cruel to so many of my friends and people I know, so I listen to this hoping that the new one brings those who I love some luck.

Hxxx

P.S. Here's my Sparkle Wildfire Top Festive Tip for the year: mulled wine liquid soap might seem like a good idea in the shop, but its really not. You end up smelling like a wino.

So this one's for the friends

"So this one's for the friends
If not so for themselves
And this new life's directing us
Remind us in a town
You made us feel at home
We broke our backs on floors of stone
But I'd rather wake there any day
Than wake up here alone"
-The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly

Today is World Mental Health Day. although this year the focus is on older people, I am in a nazel-gazing, emotional kind of a mood, and have found myself thinking a lot about my friends.

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, I know a lot of people with varying degrees of mental health problems. In fact, I would say that I probably know more people with some sort of mental health problem than those who don't. I find myself thinking of how much I wish I could change how they feel, draw out some of their pain or anxiety or depression for them and lighten their lives a little bit. I think of how wonderful and individual they are, and how amazingly brave and strong they are. The reasons for their problems are as diverse as they are- if there are reasons. I think of how badly they are treated by others, of the stereotypes that are applied to them, and want to shout from the rooftops about how wonderful all of these people are.

The other aspect is how my friends treat me. Its not big, sentimental gestures, nor is it anything to do with the length of time I have known someone. Its the bunch of flowers and bottle of wine that arrived in the post a few days after my marriage broke down. Its lending me an oil-filled radiator when the heating in my flat has broken and fixing my DVD player. Its letting me sit on the sofa in their house in silence because I don't feel like speaking but I don't want to be on my own. Its the rushing round to my flat to remove a spider because I'm too scared to do it myself. Its the constant sarcasm and good-natured banter at work. Its the tweeps who always cheer me up and check how I am when I am in a self-pitying mood, and the patient soothing of my drunken self via WhatsApp at 3am. Its the afternoons of laughter and the knowledge that, if I need to cry hysterically I could, and no one would think any worse of me. Its the quiet, unthinking hug when I am struggling to smile during someone's wedding, or the amazing poem written for my birthday.

These are the sort of things that I have built into my little emotional fortress. There are people out there who can't understand where I derive meaning from in life- I have no god, no children and no husband after all. But all of these little gestures, and all of these wonderful people form the basis of my meaning. Without them, I really don't know where I would be, but I'm pretty sure it would be an awfully dark place. This, for me, is the foundation of my humanism.

I don't tell my friends this kind of thing enough, but I'm so thankful and lucky to have them.

Hxxx

Which Way to the Nearest Wilderness?

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau 

I was a pretty proficient reader as a child, and I have a vague memory of winning this book for some reason or another from school. I had completely forgotten about it, then for some reason, the title just popped uninvited into my head the other night, and I knew I had to read it again. I managed to find a secondhand copy, which, when delivered, turns out to be an ex-school library copy, still nestled in its plastic cover, and with a label stuck neatly into the front declaring it a gift to the school from the P.T.A. It has that beautiful, musty smell of old books and appears to have been last taken out of the library in 1991. I can't help but wonder by who, and what they thought of it. 


I remember reading this book over and over as a child. I really loved it, although I do remember not quite relating to the situations the main character, Eunice, finds herself in. She has a brother and a sister, and parents who are teetering on the brink of divorce, with a stormy home life characterized by constant arguing. I remember struggling with some of the words, but caring enough about the story to get out a dictionary and find out what they meant.

On reading it now, as an adult, I’m amazed by it. It’s a wonderful, forgotten book, and one of the best portrayals of girls and friendships as I’ve ever seen in either a children’s book, or even adult literature (although I will make an exception for Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which I’m also reading again at the moment and which is like the perfect counterpoint to this book.) I wouldn’t say its feminist as such, but it is about girls who are not defined by their looks or even their talents, but by their friendships, personalities, morals, and philosophies.

It doesn’t, like most children’s literature, shy away from difficult topics like divorce, bitterness, or mental health issues. It’s ostensibly aimed at girls, but isn’t shrouded in pink or ponies or candy-floss. Nor is it  faux-darkly serious- There isn’t a vampire in sight. It’s a Ken Loach-esque naturalistic, social realist sort of YA, I suppose. The language is actually quite challenging: on the first page, words like philosophy, hobgoblin, façade abound.

It centres around Eunice’s decision to go into the wilderness, build herself a cabin, and live as a hermit, prompted by reading Walden. In the meantime, her sister suffers-and survives- heartbreak, her parents separate and precariously reunite, her quiet, sensitive brother requires- and survives- counselling, Eunice and her best friend set up a business, fall out, and make up again. Where a lot of YA for girls is all about boys, reinforcing the belief that a girl can’t be fully whole without a relationship, this book shows Millie stepping away her boyfriend when he declares he loves her, and eventually embracing her independence, even within the context of a relationship.

Reading this now, as an adult, I’m amazed by how many important life lessons are in there. I suspect they may have seeped into me without my knowledge as a read and re-read it as a child. Is this where my love of peanut butter sandwiches comes from? My ability to deploy sarcasm liberally? My-previously unsuspected, and completely surprising to myself- ability to bounce back from my own divorce? My love of my own company and need to retreat, coupled with an overwhelming love for my friends? Although I must admit, the idea of living in the countryside on my own fills me with absolute dread.

I finished reading it in three days, and I’m slightly stunned that one hardly-known little book could have that much packed inside it. I suspect they don’t make children’s books like that anymore.  

Hxxx

Lessons and a legacy

On the 7th November 2007, my life changed forever.

In a very small ceremony in Toronto's Civic Hall, I married the man who completed me. Together, we embarked on a three year journey characterized by security, comfort and love. We had our moments and arguments, but we enjoyed a really good marriage. The overwhelming feeling I remember experiencing in those days is safety. 

People are often surprised when I tell them I'm divorced. In my head, I desperately tell myself this is because I look far too young to have been through this particular mill, or because I'm simply so amazingly wonderful that no-one could possibly imagine anyone wanting to divorce moi. I tell myself these things to stave off the fear that they're astounded that anyone would be daft enough to marry me in the first place. And of course, the next natural question for them to ask is "What happened?!"

I find it hard to know how to pitch my answer. Its pretty much impossible to hit the right tone in an everyday conversation. I have no idea if its even possible to convey-within a few sentences of a polite conversation- what it feels like to have your entire world shattered, being forced to give up all your hopes and dreams and worldview in the process, and yet also how you are utterly amazed at yourself for getting through it all relatively unscathed. At least I can now just give them this link and tell them to get back to me in twenty minutes

I usually find myself sounding far too dismissive of it, as if it was all a bit of a breeze and I barely even noticed it happening. But the other alternative is to sound like I'm still a gibbering wreck because of it, which I'm really not.

It was all very sudden. There was an inclination that something wasn't quite right for a week or so before, but nothing too terrible. On Christmas Eve I was feeling a bit wistful. I told him I was worried, to which he said "Don't be so daft. We'll be together for ever." That's an exact quote, by the way. I feel like its burned into the inside of my skull, and can actually see the words scrawledin sooty black. Two days later, on boxing day, he told me he wanted to divorce. He had decided he wanted children, and there was no longer any place for me, and my lack of desire for children, in his life. This was not negotiable. There was no room for trying, marriage counsellors, pleading, nothing. He'd decided that I just wasn't worth fighting for, and that was that. This may have been the best and worst part of the whole thing. Its utterly crushing to know that you're not worth any effort, but his absolute certainty that this was It meant that I was saved from having to hang on for months on end, telling myself that he might just change his mind. I was saved from limbo, but tipped into hell. 

The embarrassment is possibly the worst bit. Having to acknowledge that you've failed at what you consider to be the most important and central bit of your life- if not your entire life itself- is truly awful. To this day, I'm terrified of meeting anyone who i haven't seen since it happened. I'm going to a wedding soon in which there will be people there who I haven't seen from school, and I'm already preoccupied with how much of an utter failure they will think i am. I don't think I'll ever quite shake this feeling.

I used to honestly believe that he was my world. I used to worry about him getting ill and dying and whether or not I'd survive without him. I always concluded I wouldn't. I used to think that love was the single most important thing that could ever happen to me, and that if I didn't have it with this man then my life meant nothing at all. I thought I was quite pathetic, emotionally, and that I would never be able to cope with half of the things that most people go through as part of their daily lives. Other people could cope with divorces, but not me, I thought. I'm left both terrified that I won't ever feel like that over someone again and terrified that I will. I thought he made up for all my faults and that as part of a couple they would be forgiven, whereas on my own I wasn't worthy of anyone's consideration. 

However, approximately two weeks after that fateful Boxing Day, I had my own flat and I was absolutely loving living on my own. My friends- who I had mildly neglected during my marriage- rallied round and were and still are properly, properly amazing. All of that love that used to be directed at one man is now spread liberally over all of them. I've discovered a fierce loyalty that I didn't know I had. I've gotten myself involved in many things that I would never have dreamed about being brave enough to do during my marriage. these things would seem tiny and inconsequential to anyone else, but to me they are a lifeline.

I totally surprised myself. I didn't sail through it all, by any means, but I surpassed my own expectations of how I would cope with flying colours.  I know now that I have a capacity to cope with things that I would never have discovered if this hadn't happened to me. I have a renewed confidence that, when terrible things happen, I'll survive in my own right. I have faith in my own personality, and know that I don't need another person as a prop. A relationship is an optional extra, not a baseline requirement. My friends come first, above all things. I've learned that support comes from the most unexpected places (@eyeswideshut75, I'm looking at you, amongst others), and that asking for help is not in any way shameful. These are lessons that I'm bloody glad I now know.

I'd love to end on that positive note, I really would. But alas, its not that simple. I'm left with an inherent distrust of anything nice that's said to me. All of my beautiful ideas of love are shattered and I now know that its most definitely not All You Need. I've been unable to say and feel the word ever since in relationships, and have purposefully shied away from a few opportunities because of the terror of letting myself go. I have to fight with the cynicism that raises its ugly head every time a friend announces an engagement, or I go to a wedding. It's not the done thing to laugh bitterly out loud at the vows, I hear. This doesn't mean I'm not genuinely happy for them, I really am. I just hate the fact that my right to feel the excitement and happiness that blissful ignorance brings has been taken away from me.


If you ever visit Toronto Zoo, you'll find a little brick in the pavement just outside the gift shop which commemorates my wedding. It'll be there forever (or at least whilst the Zoo is still there), but the concept of forever has been ruined for me, and I don't think I'll ever get it back. Sometimes I think about how we have let that little brick down. 

Anyway, there you have it. I'm not one for mystery, and prefer to have things out in the open. It's cathartic to tell you all, dear readers, this sort of thing, and I'm pretty sure that if this really was just a blog about skepticism in healthcare you'd be bored shitless by now. So forgive my oversharing, and this muddy little puddle of melancholy in an otherwise bright and beautiful day.

Hxxx

On thinking about God.

I think I have probably always been an atheist. I can't remember having any revelatory moments in which I realised the idea of God was dead to me, and I also can't remember ever really, truly having a need for a god. I remember a few occasions, in those awful dark moments that pounce on you in life, that I wanted a church to go to. A physical place of comfort, which would surround you with warmth and love and knowledge that everything in the world would get better eventually. But I don't think that really had anything to do with an actual wish for a god. And in actual fact, I feel really quite uncomfortable in churches, like at any moment i'm going to be found out and burnt at a stake. 

What I realised quite recently, though, is that this has never actually been a conscious decision to not believe in God. And how could I have been reasonably living as an atheist for so long without ever really confronting how I came to be this way?  I was actually quite startled about how little I knew about atheism (or agnosticism, for that matter)

I was so, so lucky in my parents, who I think both had a Catholic upbringing (I say think because I have literally no idea what religion my Dad is. We've simply never had that conversation). Their attitude was very much: "let her make her own mind up when she's ready". Though my Mum believes in God, she thinks that if he is so omnipresent, there's no need for her to traipse to a church when clearly she could be getting on with something more interesting. I'd never say it to them, but I'm so thankful to them for letting me just drift along pretty much ignoring anything religious. I went through a bit of a phase of deciding i might be Buddhist as an early teen (yes, yes- I was a bit of a hippy-goth type creature, and I refuse to be ashamed of it), and my Dad in that way which is typical of him showered me with leaflets for the Newcastle Buddhist Centre and even bought me a book about being a buddhist. Even now I'll claim occasionally to be a Buddhist, but this is only when I'm grasping for an excuse to make someone else kill a creepy crawly because I'm too scared to. 

I'm also utterly unknowledgable when it comes to religions, including Christianity. I'd just much rather find out other stuff about people than their religion. I want to know if they're nice people, if they're funny, what they do for a living, and who they think will win the Great British Bake Off, rather than which church they go to or whether they believe in the right god or not. I figure my ignorance is bliss, provided I spread it liberally over all religions. Although offering a Jewish vegetarian some bacon brownies may not have been my best moment. 

There is a reason that I've been thinking about my own lack of belief, and that reason is a Skeptics In The Pub talk by the (exceptionally charming) Alom Shaha. His talk was brilliant, and I found I was sat there thinking 'why have I never thought about any of this before and yet it all makes SUCH SENSE'. (I'm really not going to go into every thought I had during his talk, except to say... *swoon*). I bought his book, The Young Atheist's Handbook (whilst attempting and failing to not blush and make a stupid joke about only buying it so I can feel young) from him and voraciously read it over the following week. I found myself doing all sorts of thinking about my lack of belief.

YAH


Now, I would absolutely love to write an eloquent, concise review of his book but I doubt I'd do the genre of book reviewing justice. I'd just like to say that it's very beautiful, and that you all should buy it, if you haven't already. I've found that since reading it, I'm a whole lot more confident and vocal about not needing belief in god now and in discussing this with other people without having fear of offending anyone. At least I know my own lack of belief now stands up in the face of my own questioning. And, in the face of that, I started reassessing a fair bit about the rest of my life- how I feel about love in the wake of my divorce, for example. It sounds a bit far-fetched that one little purple book can do that sort of thing but I guess sometimes the most profound moments appear very unexpectedly.

Anyway, all of this is a very long-winded way of saying: I have thought about it, and I'm now very confident that I just don't have room or need in my life for a god. I'm fine (and actually weirdly comforted) by the thought that this is it: there's nothing beyond, no afterlife, no higher being, no destiny... Just this, and this is what we make of it ourselves.

Oh, and if you're wondering: I think Danny will win this year's Great British Bake-Off, but Iwant Brendan to win.

H xxx