Why I’m giving up negative thinking for Lent

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Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay

Sitting down with the family for our traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake feast yesterday evening, we got into the usual conversation about what each of us was giving up for Lent. We are not at all a religious family; I would describe myself as agnostic, and my children have inherited their parents’ religious scepticism. But we are interested in the bigger picture, and do not demur from Christmas gifts and Easter eggs!

In the past I have given up things like biscuits, or sweets. Scratching around for ideas this year, I suggested I might give up cake, but then remembered that I’m going away for a weekend with a couple of girlfriends shortly so that seemed a bit daft! We talked mainly about food items that might be given up, so what else was there – coffee, alcohol? Well, I don’t really consume a lot of either, but my morning coffee and a glass or two of wine now and then are small but important pleasures, so giving up those seems like reckless self-denial. I questioned my elder daughter about what the point of Lent might be for someone like me (she will be sitting her RE GCSE in a few short weeks and so is very hot on these questions at the moment). She said that for religious people the act of self-denial becomes about that person’s relationship with their god, but for the agnostics amongst us, she could see little benefit beyond it being another opportunity to make some sort of resolution, but which does not last a whole year.

I am very content with my relationship with food, and consider my diet good, on the whole. I don’t have many bad habits (I gave up Newsnight already, which was a terrible wrench, but it was a major cause of too many late nights!) and I don’t smoke, but I’m really not perfect. So, I stopped thinking about my body and started thinking about my mental habits. One of my resolutions for 2020 is to address finally my chronic self-esteem problem. I have been working through a book I discovered in my local library (one from the excellent ‘books on prescription’ selection) called Overcoming Low Self-Esteem by Melanie Fennell. I have ended up buying my own copy because I realise it is one I will want to hang onto for a long time, which seems unfair to other library users, and I find myself scribbling on copious post-it notes throughout.

Overcoming Low Self-Esteem imgThe book incorporates cognitive behavioural therapy techniques into exercises for addressing, for example tendencies to be self-critical. Low self-esteem can lead to debilitating inhibition, irrational fears, in both social and professional situations, and, I believe, can truly limit one’s life experience, achievement, enjoyment in life and personal relationships. I have found it really tough working through this book, particularly the chapters which focus on understanding the causes of poor self-esteem. Thinking about my relationship with my parents, in the aftermath of my mother’s death just a few months ago has not been easy.

 

What has become clear to me already (and with this book I feel I have started on a journey that will last many months) is my tendency to think negatively, mainly although not exclusively about myself, and this has been a source of pain and of conflict at various times in my life. So, I am going to try to give up negative thinking. Even being aware of when it is happening, will probably be a revelation.

I’ll let you know at Easter how I’ve got on, although I hope I won’t then want to go on a negative thinking binge!

Will you be giving up anything for Lent?

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Happy New Reading Challenge!

The Christmas period never really ends for me until twelfth night – I’m a bit attached to this concept and I’m not sure why. From a Christian perspective I believe it is when the Magi are said to have arrived in Bethlehem, but personally, I feel more in tune with pre-Christian rituals, to do with celebrations of the solstice and the importance of honouring the human instinct for quiet and a slower pace at this time of year, so I am very protective of the ‘downtime’ that follows the hectic Christmas preparations. For me it means time for reflection and, since I am fortunate to have a family, time together to relax and have fun.

So, I make no apology for launching my 2020 Reading Challenge one week into the new year, and here it is!

2020 reading challenge

This is my fourth reading challenge and it has been hard to come up with new genres, so if my themes this year seem rather random, it’s because I was having to think outside the usual boxes.

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I’m starting the year, the new decade, with a look back at the 2010s and have chosen what was one of the biggest selling books of the decade, and which became an international phenomenon – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was also critically acclaimed, although being at the more ‘popular’ end of the market, it wasn’t nominated for the usual high-profile literary awards. Published in 2014, I’m afraid I never read it; I confess I got it mixed up with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train so for years I thought I had in fact read it! I’ve decided to do this one on an audiobook as it’s quite long and I have some car journeys coming up this month.

 

 

The book that closed off the 2019 Reading Challenge (a novella), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, was very short so I don’t feel too guilty about setting a long one for this month. Look out for my review of that book in the coming days.

I hope you will join me at some point on the Reading Challenge this year – why not start this month and pick up a copy of Gone Girl. I am sure there will be plenty of copies knocking around in charity shops – it sold 20 million after all! If you’d like to join us, why not hop over to the Facebook Reading Challenge Group now.

Enjoy your reading year – there are some exciting titles due to be published this year. More of that in another blog!

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Waiting for Spring…

…feels a bit like Waiting for Godot this year!

Tomorrow it’s the Vernal Equinox, the mid-point on the calendar between the Winter and Summer Solstices, when the number of hours of day and night are equal. It may be the official start of spring in meteorological terms, but, here in the UK, it still feels very much like winter! The daffodils in my garden are putting a brave face on it, but we have just had a weekend of snow-related disruption in many parts of the country and the strong winds blowing in from the east mean it is freezing out.

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Spring bulbs are flowering in the sunshine, but it’s freezing out!

It is at this time of year that many of us start to get itchy feet, desperate to get outside after the long winter, and yet the weather is making that quite challenging. I’m keen to blow the winter cobwebs away, but not to get blown away! We have been relatively lucky here in Manchester, in the north west of England, with very little snow settling, particularly compared to other parts of the country. Temperatures look set to improve by the middle of the week.

The downsides of this protracted winter are obvious: less fresh air, less getting out and about, less exercise and more hours with the heating on! I’ve written here before about my reluctance to make New Year’s resolutions, but at this time of year, I start to get some energy and motivation back. So I’m trying this year to see more of the positive in events, to default to ‘Yes’ and to see a glass half full. In that spirit, I’m trying to think about the upsides of this unexpected weather and one definite bonus is more time for reading: I can still justify curling up with a blanket and a book when it’s too cold to go out!

I’ve almost finished Madame Bovary, the March title in my 2018 Reading Challenge, and am looking forward to starting our children’s book for April, which I’ll be announcing next week. After blogging here about my difficulties with 4321 last week, I’ve resolved to give it another go and take it on holiday over Easter. I’m also looking forward to reading my next book from the children’s library, Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, a Young Bond adventure set during the Cold War. Very topical!

What are you reading at the moment?

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Autumn resolutions

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January is never a great time of year for me – I’m not good with the cold, dark days of winter so it’s pointless me making New Year’s resolutions. In contrast, Autumn is, for me, the perfect time of year to reflect and think about the future. As a mother of three school-age children, my life is, in any case, dominated by the term time calendar, and there is something about the feeling of newness (shoes, pencil cases, planners, etc), the fresh start and the enthusiasm (yes, really, even the kids are usually excited to get back) that screams hope. Outside it’s the time of year associated with decay, when the blooms in the garden are starting to fade, the leaves on the trees begin to turn brown and fall, and the nights are definitely drawing in. In a funny way, though, I find this reassuring. It makes me feel that everything is in the right place, the natural order of things is safely on track, and that is a comfort to me in this era of accelerated climate change.

Big MagicSo, September is my month of choice for resolutions. My reading challenge this month is to read a self-help book and after a bit of indecision I’ve decided on Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually been on my list of books to read for some time, but seems particularly appropriate now as my main resolution is to complete at least a third of the book I am writing by half term (and hopefully another third by Christmas). I’ve been tinkering with it for months, and made some good progress with Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but I feel really focused now and am keen to capitalise on my motivation.

2017-07-26 20.42.01Before the summer break I also read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel and it caused me to reflect on the time and care I give to myself. I think it’s true to say that, as a mother, when you have young children you can often put yourself and your needs at the bottom of the priority list, well after the rest of the family. Ultimately, this often takes a great toll. Now that my children are older, (all at secondary school as of this week, my eldest now in sixth form), I find myself not so much with more time, but definitely with more mental space to tend to my own needs, pursue some of my own passions and award myself more respect. So, I am re-reading WE, slowly and deliberately, a little each day, and working through the exercises.

As a Mum I feel I have for years ricocheted between feelings of resentment at the extent of my ‘self-sacrifice’ and guilt at not doing or being enough! I hope that over the coming weeks the reading and the exercises will help to shift my mindset more towards contentment, resilience, and gratitude – the Holy Grail! I don’t find it particularly difficult to change my habits, get a better eating or fitness regime, etc, but mindset change is much harder. Wish me luck!

Are you one of those who prefer to make their resolutions in September rather than January?

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Reading challenges

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Reading challenges have become popular in recent years: you know, where someone gives you a guide or a format for reading a number of different types of books with a view to expanding your reading horizons. They can be useful for people who feel they are stuck in a bit of a literary rut or good for those who are motivated by a deadline. Those sorts of things usually work for me – I am usually the one in my book club who is up late the night before we meet, racing through the final chapters of that month’s book! I think it’s a personality thing.

What I hear from from people more often though is that they would just like to read more. That they are haunted by their ‘to read’ pile (but, book fiends that we are, we still can’t resist acquiring more). And they would just love to carve out a bit of time in their week to read. When I started this blog, I knew that I would have to make time to read if I was serious about it. And I have. I read for about an hour a day – an hour a day I didn’t have before I started blogging! Which just goes to show that if you want something enough you’ll find a way of doing it. And I believe I am a happier calmer person as a result.

So, if that’s you, and if you don’t necessarily need to widen your reading, but would rather just deepen your reading habit, I would like to share my personal reading challenge with you. I think of it as a yogic or mindful rather than a HIT reading challenge!  Join me if you like, it’s about quality rather than quantity.

You can download the challenge here.

Are you doing a reading challenge of your own that you can recommend?

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Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year!

Apologies, I’m a little late with the new year message, but if like me you have a family you’ll know why! – two weeks of intense Christmas-ness. And with the kids having only just gone back to school, this may well be the first real breath I have taken for about a month! Ah well, I hope you had a good one and here’s to a happy and successful 2017.

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Many of you will have made New Year’s resolutions this week. January doesn’t really work for me as a resolution-making month; I find I have a greater chance of success in September at the start of the new academic year. I also love Autumn more than I do Winter so I have more mental and physical energy. That said, I am looking out of my window at a cold but beautiful sunny day and I am feeling pretty good about life! So, rather than make new resolutions, I am resolving to consolidate and reaffirm my existing ones like making sure I swim at least once a week. I was doing pretty well but then December happened!

2017-01-04-14-16-54We have also completed a rather intense phase of building work in our house so I’m itching to get things back under control domestically. When thinking about this I was reminded of a book I picked up a couple of years ago called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I’ll give you the sub-title which more or less sums up what the book is about:

“Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun”

 

 

Gretchen is a mother of two young girls who lives in New York City. She wrote this book after thinking that perhaps she could squeeze more joy out of life by applying herself to a year-long programme of change. She breaks the areas of her life down into eleven different categories and focuses on a different one each month (December is the month for having everything in place and practicing it all in toto – she calls it “Boot Camp Perfect”). For each category she identifies five or six or so different ‘tasks’ that will help her to meet that month’s goal. So, for example, January’s goal is health-related and is to “Boost Energy”. The tasks are not only related to physical health (go to bed earlier, exercise better) but also to mental health (“toss, restore, organize”), linked to clearing the clutter in her home and unblocking energy.

2017-01-04-13-30-54Other examples: June is a month to “Make Time for Friends” and September to “Pursue a Passion”. Her basic premise is that in order to implement change successfully you have to make things habitual. Once these habits are embedded in your lifestyle they are hard to break – for example, I manage to find 5-10 minutes each day to brush and floss my teeth, but found it really hard to find the same amount of time to drink enough water…until I got into the habit of drinking a glass at 10, 12, 2 and 4 o’clock each day. Sounds banal but it works.

 

 

Gretchen has an approach I can relate to – it’s systematic, involves planning and lists, and takes the pressure off the first week of the new year; I know that if I made a new year’s resolution to eat more healthily from January 1st I’d fail before the week was out as I still have half a Christmas cake and a mountain of fancy chocolate gifts in the house! You get a whole month to implement each new ‘set’ of tasks and a whole year to make the overall transformation. It’s all about changing habits, gradually.

The book is not a self-righteous instruction book, as I find so many titles in the self-help and ‘how-to-change’ genres are, it’s written very much as a diary of Gretchen’s own progress in implementing her programme. I embraced the book enthusiastically after I’d read it and it really did help me to embed some practical changes in my life which I would say have improved my happiness and wellbeing. The author also has a website, which you can access here, on the same theme where she writes regularly about happiness and habits and also about her passion for books (another reason why I like her!).

Since this book was published in 2009, she has also written and published Happier at Home which I picked up last summer while on my holiday in New York but haven’t yet read, and Better than Before. (I’m resolving now to read the former!)

I’d definitely recommend The Happiness Project. It’s for people who are serious about making change in their lives and who could benefit from a framework on how to do it.

What changes have you resolved to make this year?

Are there any books that you have found helpful in making change in your life?

In need of a post-holiday magic wand?

Most children will now be back at school. And most parents will be breathing a bit of a sigh of relief! Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE having mine off, and enjoy being able to step off the term-time treadmill for a few weeks, but I am always glad to get back to the routine. I have one teenager and two precocious pre-teenagers in my household, and whilst I’m no longer in the zone of clearing up their toys every five minutes or spending all day and every day ‘entertaining’ them as I did when they were little (here’s to you if you still are), a low-level chaos still seems to take over the house when they’re off school. They leave ‘stuff’ everywhere, they change clothes multiple times a day, and once the disorder sets in it is so hard to rein it back.

A few months ago, I bought Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, in a flurry of enthusiasm; after having some work done in the house and finding so much irrelevant and pointless stuff lying around as I prepared for the builders, I felt a sudden motivation to “sort things out once and for all”. The family cowered and hoped I’d get over it quite quickly. I made a good start, organising both my own wardrobe and persuading my husband to do his as well. This is Marie’s Step 1. Step 2 is Books, so I’m psyching myself up for that one! Here’s my review of the book.

I’d love to know what you think, or if you have the same feeling of needing to reorganise once the Autumn comes around.

the-life-changing-magic-imgI didn’t think that the words “life-changing” and “tidying” could belong in the same sentence in anyone’s world, let alone adding the word “magic” as well! Don’t get me wrong, like many people, I enjoy the buzz I get from a clean tidy space, it’s the cleaning and tidying bit I don’t like. Marie Kondo is a different kind of animal, but she is highly likeable because she doesn’t try to hide it. She confesses that when she was a child she loved tidying both her own and other people’s things, and devoured women’s magazines with all their cleaning and tidying tips.

I felt vaguely uncomfortable at times with this book; I was worried that it was a bit of a throw-back, like I might turn into my mother whilst reading it! However, (isn’t there always one of those?) it IS actually more than that. Decluttering experts, psychologists and television producers all know that a chaotic domestic environment often says as much about our minds as it does about our lifestyles. It can also affect our minds and our lifestyle more than we realise. And that is where Marie Kondo is coming from, in her quirky, charming and guileless way.

Continue reading “In need of a post-holiday magic wand?”