The Genuine Article

January 4, 2021

I think we can all agree 2020 was the year we will always remember but would rather forget. But it did happen. To press delete and erase the last twelve testing months from existence would be taking a step back not forwards on life’s path. For better or worse, 2020 changed who we are and how we now live. It tested me, and then some, but it also taught me some hard and valuable lessons. My past self would have no doubt swept them under the carpet so as not to draw attention to her many flaws. My present self, however, is all about keeping it real. So with that in mind, I’m going to do the brave thing and share the good, the bad and the ugly bits of my past year. 

Let’s start on a positive note.  

The Good 

Adapting to the enforced changes in our daily routine and prolonged separation from friends and family inevitably brought its fair share of troubles and practical challenges cooped up under the same roof twenty-four seven. I did, however, feel incredibly thankful we were all together to help each other through the tough months of lockdown. Much of the time we focused on our own work and school-related projects, which made the moments that we did spend eating, cooking, chatting, laughing and taking walks together all the more special and gave me a deeper appreciation of living in and cherishing the present moment. 

I found contentment in small, simple things. Fresh air. Open spaces. Forest walks. Sunlight. The garden. Waking up to a new day. Watching nature reclaim the Earth its human destroyers had temporarily abandoned, and my eldest son turn his reclaimed bedroom back into a pig sty. Smiling whenever another mysterious Amazon parcel arrived for my youngest’s latest ‘Doc Brown’ project. Rare haircuts. Hubby’s bear hugs. Maskless smiles. My secret chocolate stash. Books. Podcasts. Phone calls and Facetime with people we couldn’t see in the real world. Netflix. Relaxing in the bath. Gazing up at the stars. The arrival of the four bright supermoons. Following the Space X Launch to the ISS. The Saturn/Jupiter Super Conjunction. The joyful return of Strictly.

The Bad

The hardest moments came riding on the back of the first wave of the pandemic. Everything I’d hoped to accomplish personally and professionally this year sank beneath it. I didn’t suffer alone. It crippled my husband’s software development business. Freelance work became as scarce to find as loo roll, and we weren’t eligible for government aid. He did, I’m relieved to say, eventually find permanent employment in the last quarter of the year. 

We survived by the skin of our teeth, but those six months in between were some of the hardest and most stressful we’ve gone through in a long time. Not helped by the extra financial strain of paying rent on student accommodation my eldest wasn’t and still isn’t using. Watching several thousand pounds we could have put to better use crumble to ash burned deep. The humungous hole the months of lost income left in the family coffer will necessitate careful and tighter budgeting in 2021. Sadly, this also means putting my publishing dreams on hold until our bank balance is in a healthier state. 

The impact of COVID also brought major disruption to both my sons’ higher and university education. The cancellation of the Scottish Higher exams brought even worse news for my youngest, resulting in months of uncertainty and worry over his final grades. He did better than expected thankfully, although he still felt he could have achieved a higher grade in a couple of his subjects had he been given the opportunity to sit the exams. Whether this loss will jeopardise his chance of a University place has yet to be decided, but given the ongoing disruption and cancellation of this year’s exams he’s now under double the pressure to improve his odds of success. 

Our wee house started to come apart under the combined strain of its stressed-out occupants. The boiler packed in. New plumbing leaks sprung through the kitchen ceiling, which have plagued us ever since we replaced the upstairs bathroom a couple of years ago. The leaks haven’t gone – and others have since appeared elsewhere – but the house is still standing. As are were. We weathered storm COVID in spite of all the boulder-sized hailstones it rained down on our house, and for that I’m hugely grateful. Others weren’t so lucky. It did, however, take its toll on my mental health. 

Which bring me to:

The Ugly

I struggled to focus. My thoughts played repeated games of pinball inside my skull and my other executive functions wandered off into the fog. At first, I attributed this mental blip to high level of stress I was under. It’ll pass, I assured myself. 

It didn’t. 

My writing productivity dropped from a loping limp to a sloth crawl. The words wouldn’t flow. And when I did manage to forcibly pry them out of my obstructive brain, often as not they weren’t the right words. Rewrite, delete, wail, repeat became my daily mantra. I should have been kinder to myself. Gone on more walks, vegged out in front of the telly, read more for pleasure rather than for book research, stretched more or did what everyone else in the world was doing and made sourdough bread. I didn’t do any of those things. Well, not enough. I became my own worst enemy.

I sat and sat, beating my head against the keyboard until even the R key quit on me. I wasn’t aware I used it more frequently than any other letter. Maybe it’s just the angry Scot in me coming out, who knows.

One month blurred into the next. I put on weight. My joints grew stiffer and my heart heavier. My brain ached. Doubt and frustration filled it. Other writers can pop books out like babies. I couldn’t even produce one after ten years of trying.  I’m never going to finish it, I thought. I’d promised myself it would be done by my birthday. I realise now this was an utterly stupid, arbitrary and soul-destroying goal to set myself. 

The truth is, that all of the time, work and mammoth perseverance I’ve invested into learning my craft and creating my ambitious story in the last decade hasn’t been wasted. I’ve grown, as a writer and person. The world I’ve built from the ground up has expanded into a universe. My characters have evolved into real people. I have written a lot of words. Probably close to half a million. A few aren’t half bad. My first published book was a trial run. My second as yet unpublished was better, but still needs work. My third, which is actually my first but very different Is actually looking in pretty decent shape after its 4th redraft. I didn’t see it that way at the time. I saw it as another failure. That I was a big, fat failed writer. 

Things came to a head at the end of November. After living under the all-consuming shadow of the pandemic for the best part of the year, my mental health had reached the limit of its resilience. I felt like an egg long past its use by date. Cracked on the outside, rotten on the inside. Count your blessings, I told myself. You’re still here

My birthday arrived. I’d taken my 50th lap around the sun. Yay me! I couldn’t celebrate in the way I planned but that didn’t mean I should let this milestone moment pass without a mention. I shared the happy news on Twitter. I wasn’t expecting a round of applause but did hope one or two people might wish me Happy Birthday. More fool me. Nobody did. I’d set myself up for more disappointment by attaching my self-worth to likes and retweets and followers, most of whom see me as an invisible number to artificially inflate their own follower count. I shouldn’t have taken it personally, but I did. 

Meanwhile, in the real world, family and friends showered me with flowers, cards and well wishes. My boys gave me a big hug and bunch of tulips and my hubby, bless him, made me a special afternoon tea. We ate too much cake, drank a lot of fizz, watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and took a family walk around the grounds of Abbotsford House (past home of Sir Walter Scott) to burn off the excess calories. Of course I missed celebrating the occasion with my friends and extended family, but it was a relaxed, happy day nonetheless. 

It was also the moment I finally woke up.    

I’ve known for some time that I needed to change my mind set, but like many of the promises we make ourselves thinking something amounts to sweet fuck all unless you put it into action. I said the same thing to myself this time last year when I vowed to let go of all the unhealthy traits I’ve let erode my self-esteem and negatively charge my brain over the last half century. I wasn’t ready then, primarily because my twisted little mind was still in the driving seat while I lay trapped in the boot. I was still choosing to believe the lifetime of lies it had drip-fed me. 

It’s taken another year of painful self-reflection and hard knocks for me to realise that my identity doesn’t define me. That’s just packaging, held together by the ego. To find our true selves we need to uncover each layer of giftwrapping, like in a game of Pass the Parcel. I haven’t found the main prize yet, but the teeny piece of it I glimpsed through a tear in the paper gave me the kick up the backside I needed to wake up and grab back the wheel. 

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

It’s the choices we make and action we take that define who we are and the path we weave through life, not the labels we assign ourselves. Of course, that doesn’t mean we need to throw out all of our old wrapping with the junk mail. With a little TLC, the parts we do want to keep can be upcycled, creating in the process something fresh, unique and of greater quality than the original. 

This brought to mind something I wrote back in 2019 before my brain went AWOL, inspired by the ancient Japanese art form of Kintsugi, a technique used to repair broken pottery. Rather than disguising the damage, the broken pieces are glued back together using gold or silver powdered lacquer to accentuate the object’s imperfect and resilient beauty, thus honouring its unique history while appreciating and accepting at the same time the impermanent nature of life.

‘Flaws should be cherished not hidden. For every crack, chip and missing piece is a moment preserved in time; there to remind us that life, no matter how brief or imperfect, is the most precious gift we are given. The bowl is stronger for having been broken and person who broke it all the wiser for it.’ 

Zarek, Book One of The Crystal Keeper

Exposing your vulnerabilities and admitting your failures isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s mark of strength and courage. Personal growth comes from accepting yourself as you are – the good, the bad and the ugly – and making peace with the pieces that your ingrained beliefs have falsely taught you were flawed. 

The universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you already are.

Rumi

That has been my biggest lesson and the standout moment of last year. 2020 didn’t break me. It revealed through all the nicks and scratches it dealt me the light I’ve kept hidden inside. 

In 2021, and for every year thereafter, I plan to use its gold lustre to transform me into a stronger, healthier, happier version of myself.

Happy New Year everyone x     

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