Ending with nine squares

This started as an Instagram post but even constructing it in my head, I knew it would be too long for that space, although I should remember this space more often – a place for short and long thoughts, however inconsistent.

2020 was the year I started to understand grief and fear, and perhaps only because the whole world felt it at once. 2019 had been the year where my little family’s world had been torn apart by loss, and the hope for 2020 being better than that kept me going in the most part.

The idea of reducing down our experience of this year to nine photos is an odd but interesting one. The moments most like by others weren’t the ones most liked by me. But it led me to look through my photos of this year and remember the moments that kept me smiling, sane, and held together between the lockdowns and the constant back and forth of change.

2020 was a year of new life met but yet to be held. Of growth from seed and frozen glass panes, to the buzz of bees grown out of the detritus of 2019. Of creating the new with my hands instead of with words. The understanding that I can be many things to many people, and yet not needing to be all to every one.

It was a year of piling up books for a time when my mind will be ready, and yet being awe struck by the six that I did manage to give time and space to. 2021 will be the year that I focus on the new things that the old can teach me – books, ideas, lives.

2020 began with experiences that now feel crammed into the months “before”, because the after was slowly, more sparse, more careful. Those experience feel like they belong to another time, but they will have their moments again I’m sure.

It was a year of making something out of nothing, something out of the good and the bad, something that we could all live with. It was a year where I realised my love of stories stretched beyond fiction, and that leading others in a new way of working would be an unforeseen calling.

2020 was a year when getting soaked to the bone whilst walking, and warming up under a blanket on a friend’s sofa was the most blissful. Where travelling into cities made my bones ache with the tension, and my cheeks ache from the smiles often unseen under masks and yet conveyed.

It was a year when touch went beyond what we had known and needed before, where gestures had their place but the sound of a loved ones’ voice so close you could almost feel it was better.

2020 was the first year in a long time where I’d known so little work I could only plunge my hands into the earth to keep them busy, and so much work that I ached for a moment away from a screen or a self imposed deadline.

It was a year when I walked, paddled, and flew, the highest heights and the lowest lows. I ate straight from the earth, and felt overjoyed when others offered and I could accept their hospitality.

In the last few weeks I just wanted to race towards the new year, tired and overexposed to the brutality the challenges had inflicted. But five days away from my laptop has given me space to see, feel, and relish what was possible.

2021 already holds excitement, fear, new life, old lives, a stretch of time and truth. Every year does, we’re just a little more mindful of it this time around.

Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy new year.

A place to retreat to

This is not a review I want to write. You’re going to find out my secret and then I’ll have to share. I’m terrible at sharing.

To be totally honest with you, with myself, I share ‘me’ too much. So much so that it leaves very little time for ‘me’. Urgh. Just writing that sentence makes me cringe.

However, it’s true. I needed an escape. Not a complete run for the hills (my wife needed to escape too) but to be away. I saw someone recommend Catherine McNamara’s writing retreats in Italy. Cat and I met long ago at The Word Factory, and she’s often said we should go out there.

The thing was, she runs writing retreats. I wanted to go away to write, but I also wanted to go away to think, to read, to have enough head space for possibilities. Also, my wife doesn’t write (she tells people that. Actually she’s a damn good poet but she keeps it on the quiet). So would it be fair?

She went along with my plan, when Cat said of course she could do a retreat for the two of us. Because that’s what Cat can do – make it fit for you. The writer who stayed a week or so before us had spent her week mostly holed up in a choice of inside and outside spaces working. But Cat gave her the space to unplug too, to discuss work and life and the universe over beautiful meals and excellent drinks. I imagine anyway, because that’s we did, a lot.

We also got guided tours of two cities that are now firmly in our hearts. I read almost three books (probably the same I managed in the first half of the the year) and took the time to discuss them at length. I thought a lot, but not the worrying thoughts that plague the day-to-day about work and family and life on the whole. I thought about my writing, what was working and wasn’t. I even talked about it, which I hadn’t felt able to for a while because my focus has been on the work that can pay now, rather than hopefully later. I thought and talked about that work too, and how it’s going to play out in the second half of my first year as a freelancer.

We slept in, we stayed up late, we got up early, we crashed out. Whatever worked on that day. The only ‘order’ was ours to decide.

I run retreats, much shorter, one day retreats for Writers’ HQ writers. I know the power of saying – “don’t worry, whatever you do today is yours to do. You don’t have to do the washing up, and you don’t have to think about what’s going on at home, you just need to be in the room writing.” I watch writers leave with big grins and new ideas. I forgot what that feels like myself. Until Cat gave us that, or maybe just the space for it. New ideas, hope, and relaxed grins.

I’m going back, next time, as a writer writing rather than a writer in need of a break. I’m going back to sit in the sun-warm outbuilding to write more of the next draft of my novel where Cat wrote her first. I’m going back to continue to reform ideas when the head space is lacking. I’m going back to be in great company and to be looked after in the way I hope I look after my writers (if only for a day and not a week!). I’m going back because I promised Voss (the pup) I’d kick the ball some more.

I didn’t want to share, because I know that Cat’s weeks get booked up. There’s some availability left in late August/September I believe, and if you fancy being part of a taught group then Cat will be running a tutored retreat with Tom Vowler in September (which I’m gutted to miss). She’s taking bookings for 2020 too if you like to plan ahead.

You can find all the info about the retreat on Cat’s website, as well as more about her award-winning writing. Just leave me a week, eh?

A day to be marked

Yesterday, I got to the six month mark of working ‘alone’.

Yesterday, my grandfather past away.

Yesterday, was my last day of full work before I go on holiday. A proper holiday for the first time in two years.

Yesterday, I took a deep breath for the first time in a while.

The call finally came that we’d waited for, for so long. I passed the point that I’d been looking to. I breathed.

I could breathe because it hurt a little less knowing that he wasn’t suffering now. I could breathe because I’m proving myself with every day of freelancing. I could breathe because I’m never alone, not really. Life and work intermingle so closely now, I can’t untie them. And actually, I’m okay with that.

I am my work, I am what I produce, but I’m also how I think and feel and act and react. Working 9-5 wasn’t working, but freelance has offered me flexibility and a chance to break the mould. Freelance has also offered me the chance to work with more brilliant and kind people than ever before.

I have family members who lift and support me whilst allowing me to help develop their baby at Writers’ HQ. Without Sarah, Jo, Natalie, and the team, daily life would be gif-less, giggle-less, and with fewer swear words.

Alongside this role, I’ve been fortunate enough to join teams at multiple companies via We Are All Connected and I love being part of the Brighton scene again via Robin’s brilliant company. I’ve been lucky to get calls out of the blue from people who seen that I’ve moved on. I’m lucky enough to see now that I made a good impression on them, and it’s led me to working with exceptional female leaders like Anne and Fiona at HighNetWork.

I learnt that I can work all night when I say yes too many times, but it’s better not to. I’ve learnt that I can say no, and I’ll be respected for it not criticised. I’ve learnt that things will come along when they are needed because I have faith: in my network, and in my ability to reach out, support others, and in my work. I’ve learnt not to squirm too much when writing self praise.

I’m learning that I can box-up and un-box life and work to form some sort of balance. I’m learning what patterns work for me, breaking old habits and forming new ones. I’m learning that my clients have my back, as much as I’ll have theirs. So that yesterday, I felt able enough to say “I’m feeling this” when I got the news about Granddad, and they knew I meant it when I said I’d finish up my work before I go away.

I have learnt more about faith and trust in the last six months than any other time before. There are so many to thank for that, none more so than my wife who has always believed in the woman I will become and am already becoming.

There is more to unpack in the grief, in the joy, in the every day of life. But. This blog marks a change. And I’m proud that I’m marking it myself.