Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Bedtime Story (13/12/2017)

By the time this story goes live, it will be a week after I've had the chance sing in my first concert in many years.  In November, I signed up for a five-week singing course with a local ladies barbershop choir.  I have absolutely loved singing with others again - so much so, that I plan on joining the choir properly in January!  So, to celebrate, here's a story all about the magic of song.

If you want to hear me read this story as a podcast, just click here.

And if you want a book as a last-minute Christmas gift, my brand new children's novella, Isabella, is out now!

Caitlin's Carol Concert

Christmas was nearly here.  The tree was up, the fairy lights were twinkling and everywhere Caitlin went, people seemed to be excited and full of smiles.  It was Caitlin's favourite time of year, but before school finished for the Christmas holidays, Caitlin had something she wasn't looking forward to.

Every year, Caitlin's school put on a Christmas play.  All the children's families would come along to watch and there would be a rush of costumes to make and words to learn, in the weeks leading up to it.  But this year, the school had decided to hold a Christmas carol concert, instead.  And Caitlin was not impressed.

Caitlin liked music and she never minded the short songs that usually featured in her school's Christmas plays, but this year, the songs were much longer and more serious and everyone had been taught to sing sweetly and clearly.  The older classes were even adding some harmonies.  Each class was also performing a song on their own.  Caitlin was terrified; she didn't think she could sing; what if she let her class - or worse, the whole school - down?!

"I don't want to sing in the concert," Caitlin insisted to her mum, the day before the show.  "I can't sing."

Her mum frowned.  "Of course you can," she replied.  "Everyone can sing!"

Caitlin shook her head.  "I can't," she said.  "I get all the notes wrong and then I get embarrassed and I forget the words..."  She took a long, deep breath.  "The class will sound better if I'm not there."

Mum tutted.  "Don't be silly.  I think you sound lovely when you sing.  Besides, it's not about how good you are.  It's about standing up there and being part of something.  Singing can be such a joyful thing to do; you shouldn't make it scary, by worrying about it.  Just let go and enjoy it."

Caitlin wrinkled her nose.  Singing didn't feel all that joyful to her.  Although, to be fair, when they'd practised for the concert at school, Caitlin was usually pretending to sing along, hoping nobody would notice that there was no sound coming out.

Despite her mum's words of encouragement, Caitlin was still feeling worried by the time the evening came.  Her dad tucked her into bed and Caitlin sighed.  "Dad, can I miss the concert, tomorrow?  I'm not good at singing and I'm really nervous."

Dad cocked his head to one side.  "Why don't you think you're good at singing?"  

Caitlin shrugged.  "I'm shy.  You have to be really outgoing to sing.  You have to be loud, not all whispery like I am when I sing.  And if I try to sing loud, I'll just sound like I'm shouting.  I just don't want to do it.  I'd rather stay at home."

Dad kissed her on the forehead.  "There are lots of very famous singers who sing gently, rather than belting out a tune," he insisted.  "Anyway, you won't be singing by yourself.  All your classmates will be with you and you can listen to them, to make sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing."  He smiled down at her.  "Your mum and I are really looking forward to seeing the concert.  Your big sister's been practising her harmonies for weeks!"

The following morning, Caitlin waited for her big sister, Harriet, to come downstairs for breakfast.  When she joined Caitlin at the table, Caitlin whispered to her: "You need to persuade the teachers that I'm too poorly to be in the concert, this afternoon."  She patted her own chest.  "I'll just pretend to cough a lot, or something."

Harriet looked bemused.  "Why would you pretend to cough?  The concert's going to be fun!"  She blinked at her sister.  "Is this why you wouldn't practise with me, all those times I asked you?!"

Caitlin nodded, her cheeks flushing red.  "You sound really pretty when you sing," she replied.  "I'm not brave enough to sing loud, because I just sound rubbish."

Harriet laughed.  "That's nonsense!  You have your own voice and it's special because it's yours.  You should try really singing your heart out this afternoon.  I think you'll enjoy it a lot more, if you do."

They finished their breakfast in silence and soon, it was time to head to school.

The day passed much too quickly for Caitlin and before long, her class were lining up, ready to head into the hall for the concert.  The reception class were opening the show with a cute little song about reindeer.  Caitlin watched the children - all younger, yet seemingly braver than she was - and it made her feel sad.  She could see her parents sitting in the front row.  She could see Harriet, standing proudly with the older children at the back of the stage.  The next song was one the whole school were singing together.  Caitlin did her usual trick of miming along, moving her mouth in all the right places, but not making any sound.  Then, to Caitlin's horror, it was her class that had to take centre stage and sing a song on their own.

As she shuffled into the place she'd been told to stand, Caitlin looked at her classmates, all smiling and looking straight out at the audience, like their teacher had told them to.  Caitlin's mouth felt dry.  Her heart was hammering against her rib cage.  Her forehead had started to sweat under the hot lights.

The music started.  Caitlin felt like running away.  She wanted to yell "stop!"  But she forced herself to think of everything her family had told her.

This is about standing up here and being part of something, she thought, remembering her mum's words.  Singing can be such a joyful thing to do.

She remembered her dad, telling her to listen to everyone else, to make sure she was doing the right thing.

And she recalled her sister's words: You have your own voice.  And it's special because it's yours.

The musical introduction was over.  The class began to sing.  Very quietly, Caitlin joined in.  She forced herself to stand tall and to stare out into the audience, with her head held high.  And, weirdly, as she did, her voice seemed to get a little louder.

She listened to the words she was singing - all about Christmas and presents and being with people you love - and she thought about what they meant to her.  And, to her surprise, she began singing a bit louder, still.

With each word she sang, Caitlin realised her shoulders felt lighter and a smile was slowly creeping across her face.  The words that tumbled from her mouth seemed to be coming straight from her heart and lighting her up like a Christmas tree.  Instead of standing stiffly, scared to move, Caitlin started to sway to the rhythm of the music, singing freely as she went.  She listened to the sound of all of her classmates singing in unison, letting their voices wash over and comfort her, making her confident enough to sing even louder.

At the end of the song, when the audience burst into applause, Caitlin waved at her mum and dad, unable to stop herself from grinning.

Later, when the concert was over and the family were heading home in the car, Mum turned from the front seat and smiled at Caitlin.  "I'm really proud of you," she told her.  "You did something, even though you were scared, and you did a fantastic job."

Caitlin beamed back at her.  "Actually," she began, "I hope we do a concert instead of a play next year, too."

"Really?!"  Mum chuckled.  "But I thought you didn't like singing?"

Caitlin shook her head.  "Oh, Mum," she tutted.  "I just needed to find my voice, that's all!"

And with that, Caitlin turned to look out of the window, at the darkening sky outside, singing to herself all the way home.


Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Bedtime Story (6/12/2017)

It's officially my favourite time of year and that can only mean one thing: it's time for Christmas stories!  I hope you and your little ones enjoy the first of this year's seasonal bedtime stories.

You can hear this story as a podcast by clicking here.

And if you're still looking for Christmas gifts for the little ones in your life, my newest children's book, Isabella, is out now!

"What Does Santa Want For Christmas?!"

Every year, Milly knew
She had a special job to do.
On Christmas Eve, before bed,
The same thought popped into her head:
"Let's leave Santa a surprise!"
And she'd plate up one of Mum's mince pies.

But this year, she changed her mind:
"You know what would be really kind?
To give Santa's mood a festive lift,
We could leave a proper gift!"
Then Milly rubbed her chin and said:
"What would Santa like to get?"

Milly had lots of gift ideas,
Like brand new bells for his reindeers!
Or perhaps to keep the dirt at bay,
A tin of paint for Santa's sleigh?
As Milly's parents looked at one another,
Her ideas kept coming; one after the other:

Would Santa like a brand new sack,
For carrying presents upon his back?
Or some of those trainers that light up and spark,
To help him see when he walks in the dark?
Perhaps he'd need a new map of the world,
To help him find every boy and girl?

Milly's mind buzzed with a hundred thoughts:
"Maybe we could buy him some swimming shorts?
After all, when his work is done on Christmas Day,
I'm sure he'll need a holiday?!
Perhaps he'll fly off somewhere hot and sunny.
Maybe we should leave him some spending money?!"

But soon, Milly realised her plan had a flaw:
She ran to her room and flipped through her draw.
She rummaged through pants, t-shirts and socks,
Then emptied out her money box.
Milly's face grew sadder and sadder:
She couldn't afford a present for Santa!

"He won't know how grateful I am, will he?"
Asked a terribly sad, disappointed Milly.
But "of course he will," her parents told her.
"You'll understand that when you get older."
And Mum had an idea that was perfect, too.
"What if this year, the mince pies come from you?!"

So, on Christmas Eve, Milly rushed into the kitchen with glee,
As excited as a young chef could possibly be!
She mixed and she stirred, she scooped and she baked,
Until she was so tired, she was barely awake.
She held the tray of mince pies with her oven glove.
She knew they were special; made with love.

Suddenly, Milly knew that was the important thing.
And the feeling it gave her made her heart sing.
She may not have bought a big gift for Santa,
But now she realised that that didn't matter.
Milly climbed into bed and closed her eyes,
Dreaming of Santa - and of fresh, warm mince pies.


Why This Year's I'm A Celebrity Proves We STILL Don't Understand Anxiety

There's a tradition in my household.  For a couple of weeks, in late November/early December, we all gather around the TV to watch (in recent years, some very minor) celebrities eat kangaroo anus, get covered in cockroaches and generally banter or bicker around a campfire.

Yes, it's I'm A Celebrity season.

It's one of those love/hate shows.  Many have (probably with good reason) spoken out against the potential for animal cruelty involved (do those cockroaches really want to be dumped on a reality TV personality's head?!) and it's fair to say that I'm A Celebrity hasn't been without its fair share of drama.  Just two years ago, I wrote about the vile Lady C's appearance on the show, during which she point-blank refused to undertake certain challenges unless she was told in advance what reward she'd get and worse, she violently insulted anyone who disagreed with her, even attacking Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley's children.

This year, though, the main talking point for many watching the show, has been the treatment of Iain Lee, radio broadcaster and comedian.  Iain came into the show as a late addition along with Labour MP, Kezia Dugdale and from very early on, was outspoken about his mental health issues.  He talked about the importance of sharing your feelings and explained that he hates the toxic idea that men can't - or shouldn't - cry.  It was quickly obvious to most viewers that Iain is a sensitive person and someone whose honesty is to his credit.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of his campmates.

Another celebrity in this year's camp is boxer Amir Khan; a man who fights people for a living, but screams at insects, was the first person this year to say "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here" in order to get out of a trial and claims to be afraid of snakes, despite his own behaviour being decidedly snake-like.  Can you tell I'm not a fan?!

Amir quickly became friendly with footballer's wife Becky Vardy, ex-footballer Dennis Wise and soap actor Jamie Lomas.  Together, this group began acting in a way not dissimilar to scenes played out in schools throughout the land.  They were the "cool kids."  And cool kids always need a target.  That target is usually someone different.  Someone intelligent and sensitive.  Their target in the camp?  Iain.

During a now infamous "Dingo Dollar Challenge," (in which two celebrities are sent out of camp to undertake a challenge, in the hope of winning a treat for the whole group) Amir and Iain won a plate full of strawberries and cream for the camp.  On their way back to deliver the goodies to their teammates, Amir suggested they sneakily eat the treat by themselves and then get rid of any evidence.  Iain laughed at this suggestion (never before made by any celebrity in well over a decade of the show being aired), but it quickly became clear that Amir was serious.  He told Iain: "I'm eating them now, so it's up to you what you do" and sat down to do just that.  Now, Iain should have stood up to him and refused to get involved.  I'm not excusing Iain for joining in.  However I'm also not going to judge him too harshly for the fact that he didn't walk away.  Why?  Because I've been that target, "othered" by the "cool kids."  And I've gone along with things I wouldn't normally have done, in the hope that it might make them treat me as an equal.  It was very obvious by this point that Iain already felt like an outsider, yet here he was being invited to do something naughty with one of the popular camp members.  Add to that the fact that Iain was hungry and missing home, the treat proved too good to resist.  He and Amir polished off the strawberries and cream, then returned to camp, lying that they'd failed their challenge.

But it was what happened next that really horrified me.

Almost immediately after lying to their campmates about the result of their challenge, Iain told Amir that he felt guilt-stricken and wanted to come clean. Amir was absolutely adamant that he should do no such thing, going as far as to say "you tell them it was you, don't you dare mention me."

It's absolutely typical "cool kid" behaviour.  School bullies love to drag the quiet, sensitive one into things they know they could get into trouble for, then deny any responsibility.

To Iain's credit, he owned up and did take almost complete responsibility, refusing to discuss Amir's part in proceedings, when asked by a campmate.  Later on, when Amir's fellow school bully crowd spoke with him about what happened, they were insistent that "you wouldn't do that sort of thing" and Amir was only too happy to go along with their views, confirming to Dennis Wise that "it was Iain, yeah."

Unfortunately for Iain, "Strawberrygate" had made him even more of a target than he was before.  Now, the "cool gang" of Becky, Amir, Dennis and Jamie were constantly whispering in corners about him.  Becky told him to his face that he was a "game-player," after Iain said he wanted to go home.  She claimed he was going for the sympathy vote and worse, in the Bush Telegraph (the jungle equivalent of Big Brother's Diary Room), she declared him "a fake.  As soon as the cameras are on, he wants the limelight."  This, from someone who is supposed to be the ambassador for an anti-bullying charity, really sticks in the throat.

I fully believe that Iain did want to go home, when evictions began.  Why wouldn't he?!  He was forced into taking full responsibility for something he hadn't initiated, he was isolated from the group, bitched about and, most recently, mocked for having failed to complete a trial which Dennis Wise then achieved the top result for.  It's no wonder that Iain, who has been completely open about his mental health issues, has struggled in the face of such playground bullying.  It has made for extremely uncomfortable viewing.

Anxiety is not something to be trivialised or mocked.  I know this, from personal experience, but it shouldn't have to be the case that we only understand something once we've experienced it firsthand.  We need to be more open to hearing how others feel and why they feel that way, even if it makes us uncomfortable in the process.

Those who find Amir hilarious, or who praised Becky for "telling it like it is" (a phrase that needs to die painfully, given how often it's attributed to people who are actually just boldly speaking hate or being judgemental/rude) have claimed that Iain has isolated himself from the group.  Let me explain how that happens, when you're suffering with anxiety:

Anxiety is like a little devil on your shoulder.  When you do something good, it will tell you it was bad.  When you do do something bad, it will gnaw away at you, reminding you of what a terrible person you are.  I have no doubt that this contributed to Iain's insistence on coming clean about the strawberries immediately and I'm certain that knowing his campmates were furious with him (and seemingly less angry with Amir, who ducked out of admitting his full role), will have eaten away at him.  Anxiety makes you paranoid that nobody likes you as it is, so when people are beginning to show signs that they're genuinely not keen on you, you magnify those small signs in your mind, until you're utterly convinced that you are hated.  So, to realise that a group of people who resemble the popular kids at school are whispering about you behind your back, can be absolutely crushing to someone with anxiety.  To see Dennis Wise insisting that the trial Iain failed to complete was "really easy" and that the water that caused Iain such panic was "only a metre and a half," not three metres deep as Iain had said it was (Ant and Dec, the show's hosts have since confirmed that the depth was three metres), will only add to that feeling that you're not liked or believed.  You only had to look at how wounded Iain looked as Dennis crowed about the ease of the task, before Iain magnanimously shook him by the hand and congratulated him. 

When you convince yourself that you're not good enough and that people dislike you, or think less of you than they do of the rest of the group, you tend to go into yourself.  You isolate yourself because you think that's what everyone else wants you to do.  It really is like being at school: if the cool kids don't want you on their table, you sit by yourself, instead.

Some of the other campmates have had the empathy and humanity to recognise that Iain needed a friend (although, laughably, not the one who's meant to be an anti-bullying ambassador).  Shappi and Kezia took him to one side for conversations and tried to include him a little more.  Sadly, those two have since been voted off the show, leaving Iain much more of a target.  Jennie is now perhaps the person best placed to show Iain a little kindness, whilst the likes of Amir delight in running him down at every given opportunity.  Indeed, Amir has insulted Iain's supposed "weakness" when it comes to facing his fears, despite the fact that he screams at the mere idea of something crawling on him.  He even announced that he'd like to punch Iain for his "sneakiness."  

But Iain isn't the one talking behind people's backs.  

There are sneaky people in that camp.  They're the ones behaving like the in-crowd at school.

And yet Iain, still showing a level of decency the others frankly don't deserve, has been consistently trying to rise above everything and force himself to be a team player, even when you can see that he is visibly upset and would rather be alone.  He even sacrificed his own email from home during a recent challenge, in an effort to ensure others got theirs.

In last night's televised challenge, the campmates were split into two groups and put in a taxi, which was then filled jungle critters.  Amir screeched and wriggled, howling at the mere thought.  Iain, who was sitting next to him, tried to reassure him by telling him that what he could feel on his back were not spiders, but cockroaches, knowing that if he knew the truth, he'd freak out more.  But despite Iain's attempts to calm him, Amir continued to shriek and scream throughout the ordeal.  Yet, afterwards?  He spoke in the Bush Telegraph, insisting he hadn't screamed at all.  

This is gaslighting.  And this is what Amir, Becky, Jamie and Dennis are all guilty of.  Each of them has spoken about Iain using words that would be more accurately used against themselves.  "He's sneaky."  "He's playing mind-games."  "He's weak."  "He's got a lot of problems."

Notice how rather than talk to Iain about why he's quiet, why he seems to be isolating himself or why he might be saying he wants to go home, they all simply gather together to talk about him?

For me, this is becoming increasingly disturbing viewing.  As the camp grows smaller, Iain's status as an outsider only seems to become more prominent (although I was pleased to see him having a good time at "The Jungle Arms" pub, last night, integrating much more).  I was bullied at school.  I know what it feels like to be constantly worried that the "cool kids" are talking behind your back.  I know what anxiety can do to your mind and your behaviour.

Honestly?  I would love Iain to win.  Because it's about time we stopped rewarding those who are openly nasty and who try to push their own negative traits onto others.  It's time we tried to understand those who feel isolated.  Those who are different.  Those who are brave enough to start a conversation on the subject of mental health in the first place.

But really, my biggest hope is that we all learn something from this.  If we can, as a majority of viewers, accept that slagging people off behind their backs is wrong and that allowing a clearly distressed person to become more and more isolated is the last thing that should be happening, at least some good will have come out of Iain's experience on this show.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Bedtime Story (29/11/2017)

I'm a big believer in being honest with children and talking about our feelings.  We all experience different emotions at various points in our lives and we rely on those around us to help us negotiate our mood swings.  So, this story is about the importance of sharing our feelings - and about the importance of having good friends and family to help you talk those feelings out.

To listen to me read this story as a podcast, just click here!

A Mood A Minute

Feelings happen all the time,
You might not even notice.
But some day you'll be feeling fine,
The next you're at your lowest.

So, when Milly, Anthony and Bo
Met with their friends, Susanne and Bennett,
It will be no surprise to know
They experienced a mood a minute!

First off, Milly wanted to play
A game she'd invented herself.
You had to pretend it was Christmas Day,
And you were Santa's chief elf.

But Anthony said it sounded dumb,
And Bo and Susanne weren't keen.
Bennett shook his head and said "no!"
Which Milly thought was mean.

Milly felt sad and a little ignored,
To think that her game had been mocked.
She sat down alone, looking bored,
But around her, her friends soon flocked.

They explained they just wanted to play something else,
They hadn't meant to hurt Milly's feelings.
With that, Milly's heart began to melt,
And her bad mood soon started healing.

As the friends began a different game,
Bo wanted to be the leader.
But it turned out that Bennett wanted the same;
He couldn't wait to succeed her!

That made Bo feel terribly cross.
"I said it first!" She cried.
When Bennett sneered that she couldn't be boss,
It made Bo feel angry inside.

She stamped her foot and felt rather hot,
As her cheeks flushed a fiery red.
But as she stood there, glued to the spot,
Susanne said: "We'll take turns, instead!"

Bennett said sorry for making his friend
Feel so mad when he hadn't intended.
And sure enough, that helped Bo's feelings to mend
And soon the commotion had ended.

Then Susanne suggested they play
With the new toy she had just got.
It was shiny and new, the best toy of the day!
Susanne had one - the others did not.

Anthony sighed; that toy was his dream!
All he wanted was one of his own.
His eyes were practically turning green,
He was envious right down to his bones.

Why did Susanne have such a cool toy,
When he didn't have one as well?!
Anthony was so jealous, he felt annoyed.
And the others?  Well, they could all tell.

"I'll always share it when we play together,"
Susanne told her envious friend.
And though it's mine and you can't keep it forever,
You can play with it 'til our playdate ends."

Outside, the rain had started to fall,
And so inside the house the friends stayed.
As the weather erupted into a storm,
It made poor Susanne feel afraid.

She pressed her hands over her ears
and her whole body trembled with fear.
She could hardly wait for the storm to clear;
She didn't want those grey clouds to come near!

But "the weather can't hurt you,"
Anthony said, giving his friend a hug.
"And it's bound to pass, soon,"
Bennett added, as they sat on the fireside rug.

Having her friends to make her feel better
Soon put the smile back on her face.
Susanne wrapped her arms around her pink sweater 
And stayed huddled by the fireplace.

Once the rain had stopped and the sun came out,
The friends went rushing outside.
They wanted to build a den, somewhere,
In which they could camp out and hide.

But Bennett had spotted a spider,
Whose web had been spun on a bush.
As Bo stood with it beside her,
Bennett dashed off in a rush!

He was suddenly terribly nervous
And hung back, not daring to look.
He stared at his feet on purpose,
And his whole body shook.

Then, his friends helped him edge a bit nearer,
Showing him that it wasn't so bad.
And when Bennett saw the spider clearer,
He found himself feeling glad.

His friends had gently encouraged him
To see that he needn't be scared.
And so Bennett, with another grin,
Entered the den they'd prepared.

As they sat in their den, outside,
The friends thought about how they were feeling.
From sadness to anger, jealousy to fright,
And nerves; emotions had left them all reeling!

But they knew it was okay to feel things,
And to share how you're feeling inside.
And the best thing that friends bring,
Is the knowledge you don't have to hide.

It's normal to be sad or feel cross.
And we all feel jealous, now and then.
It's okay to be scared or nervous of
The things that you fear in your head.

But good friends and family will help you,
To share those feelings out loud.
It helps when you talk your emotions through:
"We'll always do that," the friends vowed.

So, next time you feel an emotion,
Don't feel you must keep it inside.
There's no need to cause a commotion,
Just share your feelings with pride.


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Bedtime Story (22/11/2017)

If there's one thing synonymous with British weather at this time of year, it's rainSo, here's a story about rain not necessarily having to stop play!

If you'd like to, you can also listen to me reading this story, by clicking the link.

What Can We Do In The Rain?!

It was raining, it was pouring,
And Becky found it boring!
Surely rain meant she couldn't play?
The wet weather had ruined her day.

Her sister, Elkie, shook her head.
"Rain creates more games," she said.
"There are loads of things that we can do.
I love the rain and soon you will, too!"

But Becky gave a confused frown.
It was so rainy out, they'd surely drown!
She raised her voice to loudly complain:
"Oh, really? What can we do in the rain?!"

"We'll put on our coats and wellies and go out,
Then we'll jump in puddles and splash about!"
But though Becky quite liked Elkie's suggestion,
She still folded her arms and repeated her question:

"What can we do in the rain?!" She cried,
As the droplets continued to fall, outside.
"Splashing in puddles might be fun for a while,
But if I get wet and cold, that won't make me smile!"

"We can catch the raindrops in a jar or a pot,
Then measure how much rainwater we've got.
We'll add mud and leaves and mix them together,
Making cool potions, all thanks to the weather!"

By now, Becky's interest was slowly growing.
And since the rain showed no sign of going,
She figured she'd ask Elkie for more of the same:
"So, what else can we do in the rain?!"

"We can make paper boats and sail them downstream,
We can have boat races or work as a team.
We'll watch them float, or maybe they'll sink?
Perhaps in the water, they'll curl up and shrink?"

The idea sounded fun, Becky had to agree.
She glanced at her sister, smiling with glee.
"Tell me more," she asked once again.
"Tell me what else we can do in the rain!"

"We can take our washable paints outside,
And let the rain make pictures," Elkie said, wide-eyed.
"We can watch the colours run into each other,
Then when we've made one rain painting, we'll just make another!"

"We could make mud pies, or dance and sing in the rain,
Or talk about what looks different and what's just the same.
We could follow the rain on the ground, running by,
And when it stops, look for a rainbow in the sky!"

By now, Becky's mind had been opened wide;
She could hardly wait to get outside.
She no longer thought the wet weather a pain.
All she wanted to do was play in the rain!

"And the best thing about it?" Elkie then said,
"Is knowing, when you're soaked from your toes to your head,
That inside the house, it's safe and it's warm,
And you can go back indoors and dry off from the storm."

"We can drink hot cocoa, snuggled up with a pillow,
And watch the rain making trails down the window.
We'll be tired out, from all the games we found to play.
And we can rest and make plans for the next rainy day!"

It all sounded lovely, Becky thought to herself,
As she rushed to grab her welly boots from the shelf.
"Come on," she called, as ideas buzzed through her brain:
"Let's go outside and have fun in the rain!"


Thursday, 16 November 2017

How Caitlin Doughty Changed My Life (And Death!)

Spiders.  Blood tests.  Vomit.  These are all things guaranteed to strike fear into my heart.  But the biggest fear I had was, for many years, the one thing that can never be avoided.  The one thing we will all eventually face: death.

My fear of death was so enormous that I would freeze in my seat, if I drove past a hearse.  I obsessively watched programmes about ghosts, in an effort to remind myself that death couldn't possibly be the end.  I was so utterly terrified of being buried alive, that I would tell my family that if anything happened to me and I was thought to be dead, I wanted to be buried in a huge crate, with enough room for a bed, several bottles of water, food, tools to aid my escape and a mobile phone and laptop.

Quite what use I thought a phone or a laptop would be underground, I'm not sure, but it eased my fears to imagine having them with me, so I kept on insisting.

There were nights - and I wish I was making this up - where I would lie in bed in the darkness and hold my breath for as long as I could, just to see if I could possibly imagine what death would feel like.

And then one day, I stumbled upon a YouTube page.

It happened entirely by accident.  I had been thinking - for reasons I can't even explain - about the Titanic.  I had decided to see if there were any good documentaries about it on YouTube, to placate my sudden fascination and, as is customary when you dive down a rabbit hole on YouTube, the search results eventually started to get stranger and stranger.  I watched the (awful) alternative ending to James Cameron's 1997 movie.  I saw a Lego version of the Titanic sunk in an outdoor pool.  I spotted - but did not watch - a video insisting that the Titanic was sunk on purpose.  And then a video came up with the title: What Happened To Titanic's Dead?

The thing with my death phobia was that whilst I was totally freaked out by death, I was also weirdly curious about it.  Things seem much scarier when you don't know much about them, after all.  I can vividly remember seeing a sign for a local crematorium, reading "Family Open Day" and being torn between feeling creeped out by such an event and - bizarrely - almost wanting to go along.  I never did nip down to the crematorium's open day, but I did click "play" on that video.

The channel - Ask A Mortician - was hosted by Caitlin Doughty, a real-life mortician, with her own funeral home in America, Undertaking LA.  Two hours later, I was still on the channel, glued to the screen as I watched videos on all kinds of subjects, from dressing a corpse to the decaying process and everything in between.

And a weird thing happened.

As the veil was lifted from this frightening subject, it started to lose its horror.  To my enormous surprise, the longer I watched these videos, the more I found myself considering my own mortality and not feeling the same fear I had always felt.  Instead, I realised that I was starting to see myself as a being made of organic matter, who therefore has a natural shelf-life, so to speak.  Death - that big, dreadful thing that made me so terribly afraid - was just the end of life.  And by shying away from it, we were not only making it more frightening than it needs to be, but we were stopping ourselves from taking a more active role in the process of caring for those who are dying or who have died.

Caitlin Doughty

Of course, it helps (a lot!) that Caitlin is enthusiastic, passionate about changing the way death is treated and very funny.  Her dark sense of humour appealed to mine immediately and her personality and easy way of discussing big and potentially scary subjects was a huge reason that I kept watching for so long.

But, once I had finally turned off my laptop and rejoined the land of the living, the memory of what I had seen remained firmly lodged in my brain.  I realised that I was thinking about death in a whole new way.  Yes, the unknown quality of it was still a little unnerving and of course I don't want to think about the deaths of any of my loved ones, but in terms of accepting my own mortality (and embracing the need for open conversations about the end of life), I realised I had turned a corner.

In fact, I hadn't so much turned a corner, as I'd crossed the street, walked round several corners and entered an entirely new part of town.

I wanted to lift the veil further.  I wanted to know what happened to the dead and what choices we have in terms of how much involvement we have when a family member or friend passes away, as well as what choices we have for ourselves.  The more I demystified the subject, the less frightening it was.  I even found myself using a new phrase: "I view death as just a really good lie-in."  And I found myself meaning it.

within a week or two of binge-watching Caitlin's YouTube videos, I had ordered her first book, too.

Reading it (and yes, I will be getting her latest book once Christmas is out of the way) opened my eyes even further.  I was completely captivated by Caitlin's vision of a world in which death is not some big, frightening prospect, but a natural fact of life which we embrace.  I was fascinated by her ideas about home funerals and the families of the deceased being more involved in the preparing of the body - if they wish to be.  After all, isn't that the last thing we can do for someone we love?  

But perhaps most importantly of all, Caitlin's frankness on the subject of death was what really stayed with me.  I had always been one of those people who, if asked if I'd like to live forever, had gleefully shrieked: "OF COURSE!"

It was a shock to my system to hear myself saying "actually, I'm not sure I would."

As Caitlin so rightly says, it's death that influences our lives more than anything.  The idea that some day we will be gone is often what gives us the kick up the backside we need in order to take a risk, do something life-changing or really try to make a difference to the world.  If we knew we'd all live forever, would we bother so much?  Isn't it the knowledge that we have a finite amount of time on this planet that encourages us to squeeze every last drop out of life that we can?!

It was a bizarre feeling to realise that in the space of just a few weeks, I had gone from someone who cringed at the word "coffin," to someone who was determined to add her voice to those campaigning for greater openness on the subject of death.  I'd gone from someone who looked the other way when passing my local funeral home, to someone who wondered how much involvement they allow families or friends to have, in the wake of a death.

Indeed, armed with my newly gained insider knowledge of the post-death process, I found myself considering what I actually wanted to happen in the event of my own death.  Gone was the longing for a large crate and a long list of supplies.  I told my parents I wanted a natural burial, with a tree or wild flowers marking my grave, rather than a headstone.  I wanted a biodegradable casket and I absolutely, in no uncertain terms, did not want to be embalmed.

Seriously, if anyone has me embalmed after my death, I will haunt the heck out of them.

A natural burial site.

I'm not going to sit here and say that I have absolutely zero fear of death, now.  I still worry that it will be painful.  I still don't know what - if anything - happens to my soul afterwards.  And I still can't bear the thought of anyone I love passing away.

But those fears are as natural as death itself is.  Grief is a natural thing.  The unknown is something that will always cause a little apprehension.  And nobody wants to think of themselves - or anyone they love - experiencing pain.

But death itself - the inescapable fact of it - is no longer something I am afraid of.  It's just a reminder to get out there and do things whilst I have the opportunity.  

What I want now, is to spread the word.  To encourage others to peek behind the curtain, the same way I did.  To remind people that it's important to know what we want for ourselves in the event of our passing and to make our wishes known to those we'll leave behind.  It might not be something we want to talk about, but it's going to happen and it's best that we have these conversations whilst we can.  To paraphrase Caitlin, only by communicating openly and honestly about what we want at the end of our life, can we try to ensure that we have a good death.  For ourselves and those we care for.

The fear is gone.  I want to live my life to the fullest, embracing my mortality and understanding that there will come a day when I'm not here, anymore.  I want to ensure that those I leave behind know what my wishes are for my final days and afterwards.  I want people who fear death to know that that fear can be overcome.  

I have overcome mine.

Life will one day go on without me.

And that's okay.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Bedtime Story (15/11/2017)

Readers of my "regular" blog posts might know that the last year has been rather tumultuous in terms of friendships.  But having come through the other side of all the heartache, I am strangely grateful for everything that happened.  It taught me many things - lessons I carry with me, every day.  One of those lessons was the realisation that I had other friends I never knew I could be so close to, and through those friends, I'm doing so much more than I ever did, before - from nights out and planning holidays, to joining exercise classes and singing groups, my life is full of rich experiences, made all the more special by the friends I'm having those experiences with.  Sometimes, we don't see what's right in front of our noses, until life forces us to take a closer look.  

This story is dedicated to each and every one of my wonderful mates.

As always, you can also listen to this story as a podcast.

Billy No-Mates

Billy didn't really have any friends.  He sat on a table with other kids at school, but they were just people who happened to be in his class.  They sometimes sat together at lunchtime, too, but Billy was sure that was only because he always shared his crisps with everyone.  

Billy didn't mind, at first.  He was very shy and talking to people - even his classmates - made him feel a bit nervous.  So, he kept himself to himself.  He helped Polly with her maths and he always shared his coloured pens with Timothy, because Timothy always forgot to bring any, but besides that, Billy was pretty quiet.

When it came to PE and the teacher asked everyone to get into pairs, Billy would simply wait to see who the last person without a partner was, then offer to join them.  He didn't have a friend to rush to right away, after all.

At playtime, Billy listened to everyone else planning what games they were going to play and he'd just slot right in, if there was a space for him.  He didn't like to take charge - besides, nobody would listen to someone as quiet as him, anyway.

Billy went on living his quiet life and he figured that was the way things would stay.

But after a while, Billy started to feel a bit sad about not having any friends.  He wondered what it would be like to to have lots of mates who wanted him around.  One Friday afternoon, after school, he started thinking about how he could make some friends.  He was watching a cartoon on TV, about some friends who hung out in a treehouse, when he had a brilliant idea.  There was a big tree in the back garden!  Maybe, he could build a treehouse of his own?  Surely, everyone would want to be his friend then, just like in the cartoon!

Billy grabbed some old blankets, a handful of twigs and some rope.  Then, very carefully, he climbed up the tree in the back garden.  The trouble was, Billy didn't have a clue what he was doing and it had been raining, meaning the branches were rather slippery.  He quickly gave up and began trying to climb down the tree again, but he couldn't quite find a safe way down and before he knew it, he'd slipped and... Crunch.  Billy's arm was broken.

Billy's mum rushed him to hospital, where a nice doctor x-rayed his arm and showed him a picture of the broken bone.  She put a plaster cast on Billy's arm and told him to be careful, from now on.

On Saturday morning, Mum and Billy went to the shops.  They saw Mum's workmate Sandra and told her all about what had happened.  Sandra told Mrs Green from the Post Office and she told Gregory Thompson from the bakery.  Before long, it seemed like everyone knew about poor Billy and his broken arm.

Billy and his mum went back home.  Billy was feeling rather sorry for himself, so he decided to go up to his room and try reading a comic book.  Mum tried to cheer him up by writing him a little message on his plaster cast.  "You can get all your friends to sign it, when you go back to school," she told him.  But that just made Billy even sadder.

Just then, the doorbell rang.  To Billy's surprise, it was Polly from school.  "I came to see how you are," she told Billy, when Mum brought her up to his room.  "Can I sign your plaster cast?"

Billy was puzzled, but he held out his arm for Polly to scribble her name.  "Why do you want to sign it?"  

Polly frowned at him.  "Because you're my friend, silly!"  She replied.  "You're always so kind and you never let me get stuck with my maths.  You always help!"

Before Billy could answer, the doorbell rang again and, seconds later, Timothy arrived in his room.  "Hey mate,"  Timothy called.  "I was so worried when I heard you'd broken your arm!  Are you okay?"

"Am I really your mate?!" Billy exclaimed.

Timothy burst out laughing.  "You're so funny," he chuckled.  "You always share your pens with me at school.  Of course you're my mate!"

Within seconds, the doorbell rang again and, when it opened, Harvey and Leon, the twins from Billy's class, headed straight up to Billy's room.  "How are you feeling?"  Harvey asked.

"Um..."  Billy began.  "A bit surprised to see you all, to be honest..."

"Well, we couldn't not come over," Leon replied.  "You have to be there for your friends.  You know, like you always are.  I never get picked first for PE, because I'm just not very sporty, but you always come and offer to be my partner."

"And you're always so great when we're playing games, too," Harvey added.  "You're really good at slotting in exactly where we need someone.  We don't even have to ask.  It's like you just know.  You're a great friend to us, so we wanted to come and be here for you."

Billy opened his mouth to reply, but the doorbell rang yet again and the next thing he knew, Rhiannon, who always sat with him at lunch, had arrived.  "I bought you some crisps," she said with a smile.  "Since you're always such a kind friend, sharing yours with everyone at lunchtime.  I figured it was the least I could do!"

Billy gazed in stunned silence at the people stood around his bed.  Polly, Timothy, Harvey, Leon and Rhiannon.  He thought he had always been so quiet and shy, they must have barely noticed him.  And yet, here they all were, telling him that he was their friend.  Billy didn't know what to say.  "Thank you..."  He whispered.  "Thank you all so much for being here."

"What are friends for?" Rhiannon smiled.

Billy grinned back at her.  "I thought I was just sort of... Well, just there," he confessed.  "I didn't think I had any friends."

"Are you kidding?!"  Leon laughed.  "I'd be lost without you.  We all would!"

"Just because you're quiet, it doesn't mean nobody notices you," Polly added.  "You've been a friend to us all without even realising it.  But it's about time we all told you how much you mean to us."

They scribbled their names on Billy's plaster cast and they all talked and laughed, until it was time for everyone to go home.

Later, when the sky was dark and it was time to sleep, Billy lay in his bed, staring at the cast on his arm.  He smiled at the names scrawled on it.  

The names of all his friends.