Downtime: 2013 365 Challenge #299

I get my downtime when I'm asleep

I get my downtime when I’m asleep

One of the things I’ve discovered through doing the daily blog challenge is the psychological and physical effect of having no downtime. For probably 98% of the 299 days of blogging and writing this year, I have put the children to bed at 8pm, gone downstairs, cooked dinner, eaten it while catching up on social media and blog comments, then opened my laptop.

At some point between that point and 11am the following morning, between normal household duties – dog walking, dishwasher stacking, cooking, ironing, child hugging, sleeping – I find the time and energy to write my 1000-1500 words.

Sometimes, like today, they were written in a supermarket café with free WiFi while placating a whining small child with crayons and cookies. Sometimes, like now, I stand at the computer at 11.38 p.m, having just been woken up from a three-hour sofa doze by hubbie going to bed. On very rare and wonderful days I’ve actually written some of it in the day time and I only have to format the post, add photos and tags and publish. Those are good days.

I’m not saying this for sympathy or to have a moan. Well, maybe a little bit. 😉 I’m saying it because a) it’s 11.40pm and I have to think of something to waffle on about and b) I’ve realised that the lack of downtime is starting to send me slightly doolally. It isn’t the work: I don’t mind working hard. Plus, I get whole chunks of my day when I’m sat cuddling a child on the sofa, or walking the dog, or driving to and from school, when I’m free to just think. What struck me was the lack of guilt-free downtime and the effect that has on the mind.

This is my downtime!

This is my downtime!

When you work a paid job, you get a lunch break. You might not get to actually take it (I ate at my desk pretty much every day of my ten-year marketing career) although I think you should always make a point to try. As a contractor I made sure I took my full thirty minutes or an hour, every day, to eat a proper lunch, get some fresh air, and switch off. It’s guilt-free time. You’re being paid to take a break.

Then you get home, sometimes late, granted, (I think 2 am was the latest I got home from work after a particularly challenging deadline), and then that time is yours, until the alarm goes off in the morning and it starts again. And then there are weekends. Well, if you’re not working of course!.

Of course all that goes out the window when you have children, although they do sort of sleep at least some of the time, theoretically giving you an element of guilt-free downtime. Maybe.

When you’re self-employed, though, that guilt-free time is so much harder because, if you’re not working, you’re not earning. I’m not earning anyway, but that’s beside the point. I am trying to make money, and to do so I have to keep on working. Some days I check my sales reports obsessively, as if hoping to see something to make the pain worthwhile (I rarely do.) But all work and no play makes me a grumpy, tired, stressed bunny.

David Eddings' Belgariad

David Eddings’ Belgariad

Last week I re-read David Eddings’ Belgariad series and it felt like being on holiday. Reading = work for an author (well, mostly! It helps if you’re reading something brilliant or within your genre).

Spending a few hours every day curled up around my favourite book was a way to escape without feeling (too) guilty. Unfortunately I came to the end of book five yesterday and the next five books (the Malloreon) are at my Mum’s house. She’s asked to have a week of peace, after my sister and her family went back to the states, so I can’t go and get them until tomorrow.

Probably just as well, as I need to catch up with the writing. Except I haven’t. Instead I’ve been falling asleep on the sofa and waking up at midnight, blurry eyed and numb-brained, trying to make up words for the blog and Claire, trying to think up deep and meaningful tweets or FB status updates, trying to choose front cover images for Two-Hundred Steps Home (October is proving particularly challenging as it hasn’t had a ‘theme’ in the way the other months have).

All the while, in the back of my mind, I know I want to do NaNoWriMo (Hahahahaha falls on floor laughing), it’s half term next week, and I just discovered in my diary that I agreed to give a talk on abstract art to a local college on the first Monday after half term. Eek! There goes any chance of guilt-free downtime in the near future!

Anyway, apologies, this has just turned into a bit of a whinge. It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be an insightful discussion of the effects of life in the twenty-first century where we are never off work, we’re never switched off, we’re never free. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll file that one away to write about another day!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire smiled as the sun streaming in through the window gently woke her; warming her skin and sending sun fairies dancing across her eyelids. With a sense of impending adventure, she pushed back the covers and wondered what was causing the fluttering of anticipation in her stomach.

As she rose and walked to the window, Claire remembered where she was. The gorgeous hostel perched on the hillside with views to die for. It was still early and the other occupants of the room were sound asleep. Pulling on yesterday’s clothes, Claire crept from the room and headed for the kitchen.

The silence continued throughout the hostel, and Claire wondered just how early it was. The kitchen clock said 6 a.m. and Claire laughed, the sound echoing around the empty room.

When did I last wake at dawn without an alarm clock?

Her body felt alight with energy, and Claire thought she would burst if she didn’t do something with it. She wolfed down a quick breakfast, scalding her mouth on too-hot tea, then paced quietly back to her room to grab her boots and bag.

Her discussion with the manager the previous evening had revealed that the South West Coastal Path ran almost from the door of the hostel. The manager had raved so much about the spectacular views that Claire had decided to walk some of the route before driving to Plymouth to meet Conor.

Thinking about the meeting gave her butterflies, so she pushed the thought aside and stuffed snacks and a jumper into her bag. The manager had said a map wasn’t necessary, as the path followed the coast all the way round to Hope Cove. Having checked the map, she suspected she wouldn’t make it quite that far.

The hostel remained silent as she let herself out and into the tropical gardens of the National Trust property. With a deep breath Claire inhaled the scent of plant life soaked in dew, smiling as it sparked memories of the New Zealand bush. She shivered as the early morning air raised goosebumps across her skin, and set off towards the path.

The sun greeted her again as she left the trees and reached the path, and she soon settled into her stride. To one side lay the estuary, sparkling blue beneath her. That’s a long way down. Claire looked around, as if only just realising how high up the path was along the cliffs. I hope it isn’t too steep. She remembered being up near Old Harry Rocks and shuddered.

The path grew steadily steeper, until it was nothing more than a trail of rocks climbing vertically towards the azure sky. Forcing herself not to look back or down, Claire concentrated instead on keeping her footing on the uneven path.

It would be so much more convenient if I hadn’t discovered that I’m scared of heights.

She chanced a look at the view, and swallowed the bile that rose up her throat. Beneath her, crumbling rocks appeared to tumble in slow motion to the sea, as if frozen in the very act of falling. The sea itself rippled in a palette of blues and greens, darker and more foreboding than the sparkling strip of water seen in the distance from the hostel. On a sunny day it seemed merely stark. Claire couldn’t imagine what it would be like in a storm.

Encircled by the stunning vista, Claire wondered for a moment what had possessed her to fly half way round the world, bankrupting herself in the process, to admire the beauty of another country, when she’d barely scratched the surface of her own.

If I thought the Lake District was pretty in winter, that’s going to be nothing to what this place is going to be like in June.

As the sense of adventure built within her, Claire pushed on up the steep path towards the outcrop of rocks silhouetted against the sky above her. The change from light to dark left sunspots in her vision and she blinked to clear it.

Then the world went sideways. Slipping on loose shale, Claire lost her footing and began to slither back down the path towards the cliffs. Thrashing like a landed fish, Claire grabbed around at the grass in an attempt to slow her passage, as the rocks tore at her bare legs and arms.

At last her frantic attempts worked and she came to a halt at the very edge of the path. The rocks loosened by her passage continued on over the edge, falling away to the sea far below.

Claire lay panting, unable to process anything but the fact that she was still alive. Slowly, one piece at a time, her body began to yell out its grievances. Clawing her way back up to a flatter part of the path, Claire assessed the damage. Both shins and arms wept blood, and a tentative exploration of her face revealed a similar story.

Great. I look like the victim of a traffic accident.

She bit her lip against the pain and humiliation, glad no one had been there to witness her fall. Bad enough that she felt like a peeled plum and was going to be sore for days. Then another thought crept in unwelcome and she groaned.

Conor’s going to die laughing.

***

Why Reading and Parenting don’t mix: 2013 365 Challenge #289

David Eddings' Belgariad

David Eddings’ Belgariad

I was scanning through some of my old blog posts for inspiration today, and I came across one from July last year discussing how much I missed reading adult books and listening to proper songs while raising my young children. (I mostly read children’s stories and listen to their music in the car.)

Much as I love books like Where the Wild Things Are and songs like She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain, there’s only so much you can take.

My post discussed the main reasons why reading had become a rare event, with a one year old and a three year old to care for. What’s frightening is that most of the reasons are still applicable, even now the children are three and four.

These were the reasons:

  • I tend to zone out the world entirely when I’m reading a good book; something that, until recently, hasn’t been vaguely possible. My son especially requires constant vigilance to ensure his continued good health (not because he suffers from any kind of illness, but because he likes to throw himself off high things). This is still true but because now I worry he’s digging up the garden or feeding his lunch to the dog.
  • Kids (and husbands) have an in-built sensor that alerts them when you’ve got to a good bit. Husbands you can just about tell to feck off, but it’s only on really bad days that I say that to the children. Still true, though the likelihood of me telling the kids to “Please go away, Mummy’s reading,” is much greater than it used to be.
  • Even after they’ve gone to bed, assuming I can keep my eyes open to read, the little one wakes every couple of hours, and on the rare occasion I’ve read past midnight, he’s guaranteed to be up and screaming from 1am until 5am. I had one awful night during my consumption of Hunger Games when I didn’t actually get any sleep. Not the best way to get through the following day without going to Mummy Hell in a handcart. Still true: the children don’t wake as often, but they do take it in turns through the night. I also go to bed later because of the daily blog. I’ve still been caught out reading or working until 1am and then not getting any sleep after that.
  • Then there has been what to read. I get paranoid that reading books of the same genre as the one I’m writing might lead to me inadvertently copying a character or piece of plot. This is still true, although my choice of books is more limited by my tiredness and short attention span, as I can’t imagine reading anything quite like Two Hundred Steps Home!

Recently I have ignored all these factors and got stuck into rereading the Belgariad series by David Eddings. I’m on book four already. They’re an easy read and, because I’ve read them before, I am able to put them down (just about) when the children need me. I suspect the daily blog has suffered – certainly my self-imposed 10am deadline has fallen by the wayside, but I needed the break. And being a perfectionist is over-rated!

Best of all, because they’re in paperback format, I don’t have to wait until the children have finished with the iPad. And the children see that I’m reading, not working or surfing the net, as they might imagine when they see me with the tablet in my hand. They say one of the best way to raise readers is to let them see you read. Well, after this week, my kids are going to be moving into a library when they’re older! 🙂

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire’s head pounded in time with the noise of the train: chugga thud, chugga thud.

Digging her thumbs into her temples, she tried to massage the pain away, but the contact only gave it somewhere to focus. It felt like someone had slotted a clamp either side of her skull and was now cranking the handle.

Gritting her teeth against the discomfort, Claire focussed on the tiny screen, cursing each time the train’s lurching motion causing her to press a wrong key.

How do people use their phones for anything other than making calls? My fingers must just be too big.

Claire carefully tapped the screen above the tiny black arrow and prayed the website would give her the right page.

I miss my iPad.

She dwelt on why she’d had to sell it.

I miss money too.

The thought wandered around her mind like a lost puppy, while she waited for the page to appear. It wasn’t money, exactly, that she missed. She’d never had any before, not really. Her extravagant lifestyle in Manchester had been funded mostly by credit. Despite the large salary, she’d always seemed several months’ pay in arrears. But, so long as the money was coming, it felt like hers and that was enough.

Now, for the first time, she was experiencing life without the expectation of that monthly sum, and it was an uncomfortable place to be. Even with knowing that she was working finally, and money was on its way, she knew she was at least a month’s salary in arrears, with the bills she had run up in New Zealand.

How do people live without credit? How do they pay the bills, or eat? Never mind run a car.

The webpage slowly revealed itself, one picture at a time, like some kind of digital striptease. The wait stretched endlessly but, when all the text and images were visible, the story was still the same. Hiring a car to travel around the south west was way beyond her budget.

Who knew I would ever miss my little Skoda.

With careful precision, Claire opened a new search window and tapped out “Skoda” with the tip of her index nail. The page, when it appeared, was not what she was expecting.

They still make them? That looks more like a Volkswagen. I can’t afford that.

Without really knowing why, she changed the search term to “Second hand car” then added “Exeter”. A few painstaking clicks later and she was looking at a list of second hand cars that were the same price as hiring one for a few weeks.

Her heart thudded beneath her ribs and her throat ached for a cup of tea. The throbbing in her temples increased as she scanned the list of cars. Age, mileage, alloy wheels, five speed, four speed, petrol, diesel. The words seemed important but they might as well have been in Icelandic for all the sense they made to her.

With an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, Claire realised she’d never actually bought a car before; her university runabout had been provided by her parents and, after that, her wheels had always belonged to the company. Even the Skoda.

Dropping her phone into her lap, Claire let her head fall back against the grimy seat. Staring at her own reflection in the window, her mind chewed on the growing sense of failure. Her image looked pale and haggard and her whole body ached.

How pathetic. I’ve been driving for ten years and I’ve never bought a car. I’ve never bought a house or had a mortgage. What do I know of the real world? I’ve lived in my stupid little bubble and been so proud of myself for being a success. What bollocks.

A tiny voice suggested she call Conor and ask him to source a car for her. She immediately quashed it. She did not want to owe Conor any more favours. A mental image of his eyes glittering with pleasure at her helplessness made her shudder.

With a sigh, Claire picked up the phone and staggered down the moving carriage to the corridor. In the end there was only one person a girl could call.

As the phone connected, Claire leant back against the wall and swallowed down tears.

“Dad? Hi, I’m glad you answered. … What? It’s Claire. Claire. … Yes, I’m okay, how are you? How’s the book coming along? … Great, that’s great. Look, I need a favour. … No, it’s not that. I need some advice. … Dad, how the hell do I buy a car?”

***

Book Reviews Again: 2013 365 Challenge #279

What I'm currently reading

What I’m currently reading

For a stubborn person I can be easily led. Present me with a reasoned argument, or merely an impassioned one, and I may well come round to your way of thinking. It’s not that I don’t have my own opinions, more that I don’t have faith in them. If you tell me I’m wrong, there’s a strong chance I might agree with you just because I’m used to being wrong.

That’s why I don’t read book reviews, especially for books I’ve read. I remember researching a post for this blog, and looking up Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved the book, but most of the reviews I read said it was historically and culturally inaccurate, yada yada. I felt bad for liking it – as if I had been fooled, gullible me, by the writing and led like a mindless sheep to an understanding of a culture that was inaccurate. (I’m a history graduate and I hate getting the facts wrong, even though I know there is no such thing as one right version of events)

I came across the problem again when I listed the book I’m currently reading on Goodreads – Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings – and happened to see some reviews.

I’ve read the book – the entire set of ten it is from – a dozen times. The characters were my friends when I had no others, (in the days before Facebook, Twitter and WordPress, when friends were found in books rather than online).

I’ve chosen to read it now to break me out of my critiquing cycle, like putting on a comfy sweater. So reading reviews calling it formulaic and lacking in originality was not what I needed to hear. What if it’s true? Does that make me somehow inferior for loving the book and being totally engrossed by the characters? What if I start picking faults? Like when someone points out your favourite actor has a funny nose (Buffy) and then you can’t see anything else and your favourite show is ruined forever.

Goodreads' change of policy post

Goodreads’ change of policy post

I read a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog a while ago about authors not writing reviews and it supported why I don’t like leaving reviews unless I loved, loved, loved a book. I do still write them for the indies that I enjoyed reading, particularly because indies need the support (and because I hope the karma will pass round to me one day!) But I do feel reviews are not all that helpful for books.

Shannon Thompson wrote a post on Facebook on Friday about the new Goodreads’ change in policy, saying she was upset to see people defending their right to be trolls. If all you want to do in a review is insult the author, then really what are reviews worth? (If you want to see our discussion on the subject, visit Shannon’s FB page.)

Anyway, I’m not sure of the point of my ramble except I’m trying hard to ignore the world and enjoy the book I have loved each of the last ten or eleven times I read it (though I am noticing the ‘telling rather than showing’ and the adverbs. It was the first book in the series, so I’m being tolerant!) I might even write a review explaining why I love it so much, but I can’t advise you to read it: what if you hated it? 🙂

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire brushed the curtain aside and peered round into the bay. Kim lay with her eyes closed and Jeff sat beside her, gripping her hand with both of his. He looked up at the movement.

“Claire! Welcome home.”

She pulled the curtain closed behind her and took a step forward. “Thanks, Jeff. I think you’re the only person pleased to see me.” Then, realising this wasn’t her drama, she forced a smile on her lips. “Kim’s looking better this morning.”

“Yes, your visit really helped. The nurse said she slept well for the first time last night. Just as well, someone from PLAN is coming in to see her soon.”

“PLAN?” Claire wondered for a moment if that was what Dotty had said she was working for, but couldn’t remember. She prayed the young girl wasn’t about to turn up here as well. An hour in the car had been more than enough time with her endless enthusiasm.

“Psychiatric Liaison people. To see if Kim is safe to come home, or whether she needs to go to a secure ward.”

“Oh.” Claire looked around for another chair and carried it over next to Jeff’s. “What do you think?”

Jeff dropped his head, although he didn’t let go of his wife’s hand. “I don’t know.” He exhaled loudly, as if breathing out his doubt. “What a mess. Who knew an accidental pregnancy could have such awful repercussions.”

Claire sat in silence, unwilling to probe. The weeks she’d spent gallivanting around New Zealand felt dirty, somehow, when she considered what Kim and Jeff had been going through in her absence.

As the silence stretched on, Claire tried to sift through the questions in her mind to find one that was safe to ask. How’s married life, or How’s work? weren’t exactly appropriate. She was just grateful that Jeff apparently felt no blame towards her for her own role in the catastrophe.

As if sensing her thoughts, Jeff raised his head finally. “It was never your fault, you know. I wish Michael had kept his stupid mouth shut, of course. It wasn’t the end to the wedding we had hoped for. Kim’s boss went off on one, with the whole cast taking sides. Kim took it well, though. Fought her own: said she’d sue him for being a misogynistic bastard if he took her role away.” He paused and a smile flickered across his face. “She was magnificent: you’d have been proud.” He sighed.

“It was all fine for a few days. Then she got cramps; she was in agony. When we got to the hospital they said it was too late.” His face crumpled and Claire realised, for the first time, that Kim wasn’t the only one who had lost a baby.

Jeff’s eyes were red when he raised his head to look at her. “And then when they said she couldn’t have any more kids. It broke her, you know. I didn’t realise she really wanted to be a mother – we never talked about it that much. Maybe you don’t realise you want something until someone tells you you can’t have it.”

He fell silent and they sat listening to the sound of Kim’s breathing. When Jeff spoke again his voice was low. “After that, she wasn’t Kim anymore. She cried all the time, at the tiniest thing: TV adverts, pictures of kids, pregnant women in the street. The doctors diagnosed her with depression and gave her some pills but she wouldn’t take them. Said they made her feel worse. And then …” He stopped.

Claire knew what happened next; she’d been there, in a manner of speaking. Her mind was full of words but none seemed adequate. How could you relate to someone who had been through so much? She wanted to do something to help. Whatever Jeff said, it was still partially her fault.

“If it helps with the psych assessment, I’m happy to come and stay for a while, look after Kim.”

“What about your job? I thought you were starting a new job this week?”

Claire thought guiltily about Conor, everything she owned him and how much he’d put his own neck on the line to hire her. She thought about how much she was looking forward to getting back to work, having a purpose again. Not to mention some money to pay off her credit cards.”

She shrugged. “It’s just a job.”

***