where the heart is: re-imagining the concept of home

Lifestyle

Picture this: I’m on a train from Glastonbury to Oxford. Having been away for a few months, I’m finally heading home. I have no contract on a house – no roof over my head to return to – though, somehow, things don’t seem daunting. I’m heading home.

Isn’t it strange how a place can feel like home, even when you’re not necessarily returning to a bed in a room with material possessions? A few weeks ago, I was sitting on that train with a bursting-at-the-seams suitcase and a backpack twice the size of me, knowing that I’d spend the next few weeks on the floors and sofas of my friends. Even though the concept of being without a physical home was, at times, terrifying, I was so ready to be back in the city I love, surrounded by friends that feel like family.

It’s safe to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own concept of ‘home’ recently.

I suppose, for the last few years, physical ‘homes’ have always felt quite temporary to me. I mean, I lived in a tent for a little while – one of my favourite homes so far – but I always knew that it couldn’t last forever. It was a great few months, whilst the weather was good and our jobs permitted us to travel, but then it ended. After a rocky transitioning period of maybe-living-in-a-caravan and maybe-ending-up-sleeping-above-a-pub-in-Witney, we finally found our little studio flat. Even then, though, Beth and I shared such a small space, and I stayed on a pull-out bed on the floor; that home, too, felt temporary.

Maybe that’s how physical homes always feel, though? I’ve always been a little jealous of friends that still have parents that live in their childhood homes, because that idea feels a little more solid to me. A little more permanent. I had one main childhood home, but from the age of fourteen, we moved house a bit – always in the same village, but still different houses. When I moved to university, my family grew with my mum’s new partner and his daughter, and they rented a few different places before buying the house they now live in. Sometimes, I’d go home for Christmas to a house that I hadn’t even seen before.

Yet still, when I say I’m going back to see my family, even though I’ve only been to their new house a handful of times, I say I’m going home. Because home is not a physical place for me. It never has been.

If I’m heading back to the North to see my family, I’ll always be going home. I have connections to every village neighboring the one where my family now live: school days in Chorley, sixth form and nights out in Wigan, day trips to Manchester, iced coffee on park benches in Bolton… When I head back to Bath – the city that I lived in for four-and-a-bit years – I say I’m going home. Of course I am, because there are still people I love there. Maybe if I go back to Glastonbury next festival season, that will feel like going home, too – because of the people I met and the connections I made there.

Bunkabin living: a metal box in a field that my sister made cute and cosy for us

Edinburgh is a city I’ve always been to alone; a city where I finished my first book and found so much of myself in the cobbled stone streets and teetering stacks of well-read books. It will always feel like home, maybe not because of the friends I made there, but because of the characters I created, the scenes I painted, and the conversations I wrote whilst travelling on my own.

Maybe I’m fortunate enough to have left pieces of my heart in cities all over the world.

So, here I am. Back in Oxford. I’m home. I’ve been sofa surfing with some wonderful friends for a few weeks, and I’ve finally found my own flat. It’s a one bedroom apartment in a building due to be demolished (not in the near future, don’t worry), so I’ll be a property guardian, which essentially means the rent is cheap and they can give me a month’s notice -as can I with them. It also means I have to commit to 16 hours of volunteering a month, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while anyway, and I can decorate however I like.

It’ll be the first time I’ve ever lived alone, and the first time I’ll have the freedom to paint and decorate and furnish my own place. I can’t invest too much time or money into it, because I could be given my months notice at any time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make it my own. It will be temporary, like all of my other homes so far, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the time I have in it. I can make it cosy and unique and a place where I can relax and write and grab a few hours of peace at the end of a long day.

I’m slowly learning that just because things are temporary, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them.

Another example of something temporary but wonderful: a two-week creative writing course I led with these talented young writers

If I’m only in this flat for a few months, that’s fine. It’s impermanent, but still special. Time will pass and things will change and I will still have a home. I will still always have a home, because I don’t just have one.

My homes are in the company of those I love, scattered across cities where I lived and loved and left and came back.

Home is where the heart is – and my heart is, truly, all over the place.

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7 new year’s resolutions (that don’t involve losing weight)

Lifestyle, Mental Health

It’s January; the dreaded ‘diet season’, and the worst month for those of us already struggling with negative body image. But guess what? It’s not too late to make New Year’s Resolutions – and we can resolve to ignore society telling us that shedding a few pounds is the only way to have a great 2019.

So, here are some resolutions to make this year that might actually change your life because, trust me, losing weight won’t change a single thing.

  1. Stray away from routine. When your body is bored, your brain is bored. Walk a different route to work in the mornings. Go to a different cafe for your morning coffee (and, as a barista, I’d recommend going to your local independent, rather than your local Starbucks!). Change what you have for breakfast every day: there’s more out there than toast and cereal, I promise.
  2. Keep a journal. I can’t stress enough how much writing can benefit your mental health. It’s something I’ve been studying (and practising) for a few years now, and I’ve found that sometimes, even just scribbling down a few lines about why I’m so irrationally angry can really help me find rationality. Writing your feelings down validates them on paper, and suddenly makes this invisible emotion visible again. And if it doesn’t work for you therapeutically – it’s always funny to read back over and wonder what the hell you were thinking…!
  3. Try something new each week. This is a classic resolution for me, but it’s a great one. Similarly to straying from routine, trying something new once in a while stimulates your brain and keeps you from falling into dull, repetitive actions. Trying new foods, reading new books – even buying a new item of clothing. Keep life exciting by keeping it unpredictable.
  4. Speak to strangers. I’ve made some great friends at bus stops. You’d be surprised by how many people are quite happy to be spoken to – and actually how many people’s days you can truly improve with a simple hello. Working in retail and hospitality can be a great way to do this (hear me out – every cloud has a silver lining…). Barista-ing is such a nice way to have an excuse to talk to people. And let’s skip the ‘how’s your day going?’ and start asking more interesting questions. Where’d you buy your shoes? What’s your favourite dairy alternative? Etc, etc…
  5. Listen to more podcasts. Podcasts are a great way to learn things without even trying. I’ve started listening to podcasts instead of music before I go to sleep, now, and every so often I’ll play one on the bus into work in the morning. Some of my favourites are Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place (great inspiring, funny conversations with celebrities on real-life topics) and The Guilty Feminist (hilarious, motivational – give it a go!).
  6. Revel in your independence. See the latest #FreedomFriday for an expansion of this – but really, you are your own person. You could change your life in a single day if you wanted to. You are in charge of every decision you make – and you should enjoy every bit of independence you have. Be proud of the choices you make. Try not to second-guess yourself. Be brave.
  7. Realise that the only person who needs to think well of you, is you. I’ve spent most of my life so far worrying about what people think of me, and trying to get people to like me. Recently, after moving to a new city, I decided to see what would happen if I just let myself choose, what to do – rather than let others’ opinions of me decide. Let me tell you; I’ve been wearing the same pair of dungarees for weeks and I’ve ditched all make-up aside from my eyebrow pencil – and I feel great. If you feel most confident when you take time to do your hair and make-up in the morning, then start setting your alarm earlier to make sure you have time to feel good instead of rushing around at 6a.m. If you feel good about yourself and your appearance, that’s all that matters. Nobody really cares what you look like, they all just care about what they look like to others; but you only start to truly realise when you stop caring, too.

Be kind to yourself this January. Ignore everything you’ll see this month that implies your self-worth is based on your weight. You’re fine just how you are, and your confidence in yourself is both radiant and contagious.

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Dealing with disaster: mid-week reflections

Lifestyle, No Fixed Abode

I think it’s safe to say that our move to Oxford didn’t go totally to plan. For those of you who haven’t heard about the madness we’ve endured this week: saddle up. I’m about to re-live the whole thing…

So, it’s Sunday. The day of rest. Beth and I set off on our five hour drive from Cornwall to Oxford, on the way to our lovely little caravan. We’d been liaising with our soon-to-be landlord for months; she’d sent us video tours of this beautiful two-bedroom static, pitched on what seemed to be private land attached to a residential property. £400 a month between us, all bills included, no council tax… In hindsight, we should have known it was too good to be true.

We drove through some beautiful little villages on our way to the caravan, and kept commenting about how we felt like we were going to drive right up to Hogwarts. We were getting more and more excited: until we actually reached the site. Then, we realised what we’d got ourselves into.

The ‘private land’ we’d thought the caravan was pitched on was completely ruled by Irish travellers. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. There were hundreds of caravans, all encircling the walled-off area that ours was situated in. To begin with, we couldn’t find our pitch, so I hesitantly got out of the car and wandered over to ask someone. I was then told by a lady that this land was ‘family only’, and even when I tried to explain that we’d planned to rent this for months, she was adamant that we wouldn’t be staying there. It was clear from the get-go that we were absolutely not welcome.

This might be a good time to mention that Beth and I both have family histories of travellers. We’ve got heritage way-back-when, but I think our combined accents were enough to put them off and let this particular clan know that we were outsiders. But just so you know – neither of us are prejudiced against the traveller community, and I actually don’t think I would’ve felt so threatened, had they not been so… uh, threatening.

Finally, we found the lady we were renting off, who was lovely and charming and very sympathetic when I told her I didn’t feel safe staying there. She wasn’t a traveller herself, but knew the other residents and just kindly explained they were ‘set in their ways’. This did nothing to reassure me. Beth and I sat in the caravan, listening to the ruckus of the site around us, and knew for a fact that we wouldn’t be safe staying there. As of that moment, we were homeless.

With very little money, and no other plans of accommodation, we hastily checked in to the nearest (and cheapest) inn, on top of a pub in Witney. We called our parents, sobbing and feeling utterly useless as adults. We couldn’t believe we thought it might work out – and Beth started her Master’s degree in only three days time. We had no plan. Nothing. So, we did what we do best – went downstairs to the pub and ordered the largest glass of wine they could offer.

That night, we met a lovely lady called Bernadette; her daughter had just started at the same university as Beth, and she’d come all the way from Paris to help her move. She’d also had a few days from hell, and we all wallowed together, then met up for a hangover breakfast the next day. One of the ladies that worked in the pub overheard our conversation about being homeless, and offered us live-in accommodation if we went and worked there. It was a lovely offer – and a great back-up plan – but with Beth completing her degree as well, it might not have been ideal.

So, on Monday morning, after waking up with both hangovers AND stomach bugs (which we’re now, finally, at the tail end of), we set off to find a home. Never has a task felt more important before. We went around every letting agency Oxford had to offer, and were told time and time again that our options were slim. Every two-bedroom flat was either a minimum of £1500 a month, too far out of the centre, or – because I don’t have a contracted job yet – would need the rent for the year paying upfront.

By midday, we were hopeless. As a last ditch attempt, we went to the university and told them that unless we could get a flat sorted, we’d have to go home. A wonderful, wonderful lady there found us a studio flat in about an hour. Probably assuming we were a couple (who doesn’t assume we’re a couple these days?) we were given a studio flat with a double bed, but I popped out and bought a single as well so that we don’t have to be that much of a couple. We have a bedroom, a bathroom, and, after months of tent living – a kitchen. With a fridge. 

One more night in the inn with our new friends, and then we moved into our flat on Tuesday. Safe to say, everything worked out in the end. Today is Beth’s first day of her MSc, and while she’s at her seminars, I’m blending in with the Brookes students by chilling in the library and getting on with my work. My final submission for my own Master’s degree was signed and posted yesterday – so that manuscript has now gone off, too! Both of my book babies are awaiting judgement from publishers or marking tutors, so it looks like I’m going to have to find something new to write soon…!

In the meantime, this Saturday will be the first session of my Mindfulness Writing Masterclass, at 3pm in Common Ground, Oxford (in case you’d forgotten). Today, I’m doing my finishing touches and getting some handouts together, so I’m excited to finally get started and start building a life here in Oxford.

What a week! I’m so thankful for all the support we’ve had from friends and family to get us through. It was a minor disaster – but one we overcame. We might be back in halls again with all the eager first-years – but I guess it’s alright being those ‘two old lesbians upstairs’…

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If you’d like to come along to my course on Saturday, go and grab your free ticket here on Eventbrite.

Emptying my house: a voyage of discovery

Lifestyle

For those of you that don’t know, my tenancy for my house in Bath is ending in a couple of weeks, and my wonderful friend and current housemate, Beth, and I will be moving. Where to? I hear you ask: well, we’re still not sure. But we’ve bought a tent and we’ll take it from there.

Beth and I are polar opposites of each other when it comes to collecting physical ‘stuff’; she’s very minimalistic, whereas I am a huge hoarder. There is clutter in my bedroom that I can’t even remember the significance of, yet still seem to have some emotional attachment to. But because we don’t know where we’ll be moving to, or for how long – and we know we’re likely to be living in a, uh, tent… Well, I’m having to be firm with myself on how much actual ‘stuff’ I can take with me. So, I’m clearing out.

I wanted to write a blog post about all of the interesting things I’ve found in my bedroom so far, but I’ve just chosen a couple of them to write about today because it’s late and I have a lot of packing to do. Beth and I have been living in this house together for three years now, so I didn’t actually think there’d be many surprises. But wow. The underneath of my bed is a treasure trove of well-read Creative Writing textbooks, socks, and cereal bar wrappers. There was a whole draw in one of my cupboards that I’d completely forgotten about, and I somehow managed to discover some kind of weird parallel universe of old matching pyjama sets.

Amongst all of the absolute rubbish, though, I have found a couple of gems that I’d like to share with you. The first: a diary from 2014. This diary is absolutely brimming with weird dreams I’d had – I must’ve been in a phase of writing them down – so it’s been interesting to read through how gloriously disturbed my mind was back then! I was also far more creative than I am with my notebooks now (there are lots of pretty quote pages… I was probably procrastinating.)

IMG_0739As well as those, I found a piece of writing from when I was stuck in Tamworth station on Christmas Eve, waiting for my delayed train home to Manchester. I remember I’d been in this station for hours and there was still no sight of the train. It was getting close to midnight. I was at the end of my tether. Here’s a little snippet:

My day has already stretched over sixteen hours. I’d take a quick nap, but I know the minute my eyes close, the train will come. It’ll be like that episode of SpongeBob, where he’s waiting in the rough end of Bikini Bottom for a bus home, and every time he goes to get a snack, a bus goes past. I think it must’ve mentally scarred me as a kid. It’s all I can think about, staring at the vending machines opposite me. If I go and put a quid in the machine, a train will pull into the station and leave without me, I’m sure of it. The twix isn’t worth it.

Another wonderful find is the soft toy I grew up with: Tutu. Tutu is a little pink monster that I used to carry around as a kid. I don’t know why she was in my wardrobe or how the hell she got from Bolton to Bath at some point over the last three years without me noticing, but we were happy to be reunited.

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There’s so much more that I’ve stumbled across during my ‘clearing out’ and I am absolutely useless at throwing things away (how am I going to reduce my room into just a few boxes? how?) but I haven’t time to write about everything. Stay tuned and keep up to date with the blog to read about the whole process: moving house, living in a tent and, uh… living in a tent.

Things are about to get wild.

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Turn your ‘should’s to ‘could’s: and see results in your motivation

Lifestyle

Research for my latest novel has me delving into therapies, recovery activities and exercises for motivation. One particular activity I was introduced to yesterday was, “Write down your rules for life.”

Your rules for life, so to speak, are not necessarily rules that you stick to all the time. Your rules can be things that you feel you should be doing, or maybe things you feel guilty if you don’t do. Here are some examples:

  1. I should go for a run every day.
  2. I must not be selfish
  3. I should always text back straight away
  4. I must never be late for work
  5. I should always put make-up on before leaving the house

In my research environment, we were then told to change these negative, authoritarian words like ‘should’ to something that was kinder to ourselves. I thought this was a really interesting phrase to use, and noticed that many of the others in the environment were changing their rules to more tentative words: I could, I can, I might…

After speaking to my housemate later that evening, she pulled up an article she’d read about the impacts of using the word ‘should’. As the article says, although should’ may occasionally give good guidance, more often than not it “induces guilt, and decreases the desire to do something you might otherwise want to do.”

In this article, psychologist Susan Heitler suggests to use the words ‘could’ and ‘I would like to’, rather than ‘should’ – and the more thought I put into it, the more it made sense. Even from a simple, stripped-back perspective: if you tell yourself you would like to do something, rather than you should do something, you’re surely more likely to do it, right? It just makes more sense.

Similarly, if you use the word should when addressing others, you’re very likely to make them feel guilty for not already doing said thing. Therefore, they’re less likely to feel motivated to do said thing because, let’s face it, nobody likes being told what to do. Telling others that they should be doing something is appealing to that little bit of rebel we all have inside of us: the voice saying, “If I should, then I ain’t gonna. Don’t tell me what to do.”

For example, if I said to my housemate (which would never happen, by the way, because she is far cleaner than I am): “You should have done the washing up today. You should really help out more.”

(God, it felt weird even writing that.)

She’s not going to do it. Actually, she’ll probably be pissed off that I’m telling her to do something. But if I said, “Could you do the washing up today?” I reckon she’d be more likely to pick up the sponge.

Using the word could implies that you have an option. You could do the washing up, but there’s no pressure. You could also not do the washing up, no biggie. Similarly, if I’m speaking to myself (happens a lot), I can change I should go for a run every day, to I could go for a run every day, if I feel like it. Hey, no pressure. If I don’t feel like going for a run, I’m not going to bother, but I have the potential. I totally could, if I wanted to. But I don’t need to feel like I should be going for a run, even when I don’t want to. I tried this technique out on myself this morning, because I have a whole host of things to do and very little time to do them in. I wrote myself a little list of things that I should be doing / have already done, but used the phrase would like to instead.

Things I would like to get done today:

  • Finish off my publishing portfolio
  • Edit my manuscript submission
  • Write another synopsis & query letter

Things I could also do, if I want to:

  • Email various people waiting for work and thank them for sticking with me while I’m busy
  • Call a lady about renting a tent pitch

Just seeing these little lists already makes me feel like I’ve no pressure to complete any of my tasks – but that makes me want to do them even more! Not because I should, but because I could – and why waste that potential?

Susan Heitler’s article Should You Use This Word? on Psychology Today explains this concept far better than I can, so go and give it a read. Also thank you to my housemate, Beth, for pointing this out to me! It was too helpful of a concept not to share.

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laughing on the outside: rainy day writing, manuscript soundtracks & more

Lifestyle, Writing

When I was doing my A Levels, my best friend Amy would send our group of friends an email every single Friday wishing us a good week and linking us to The Cure’s Friday, I’m in love. That was my soundtrack this morning, when I was cleaning my house; I danced around with my mop and vacuum and thought of how simple life was back then… As it stands at the moment, I have edits to do on one of my novels, plotting and writing to do on the other, a part-time job, and a Masters degree to contend with. Oh, younger Beth, you really did have it easy, kid.

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After blitzing my house (a regular past-time whenever I get a day off work), I escaped to my nearest coffee shop – which is now, amazingly, about three minutes walk from home. God bless Costa for opening a store on every street corner. My laptop is fully charged, which is a miracle in itself, and I’m armed with notebooks and iced tea – all the necessities for a good writing day. My background music for today is the soundtrack of The End of the F**king World, which, by the way, was a pleasure to watch. I’ve already stolen several songs from the soundtrack to add to my own manuscript playlist…

Speaking of, manuscript playlists are something that I find hugely helpful when writing. My current work of progress has very dark vibes and a confusing and fragmented narrative, and I find it so much easier to get into the head of my protagonist when I’m listening to music with the same kind of twisted undertones. I’m forever trawling through Spotify and YouTube for more songs to add to my playlists: I always feel better when they’re 2+ hours long, so that I’m not distracted by hearing the same songs over and over and can focus on my writing.

Yesterday was deadline day (hooray), which means the first five chapters of my latest novel have now been submitted to my manuscript editor for review. I don’t have to think about edits for that one until the end of February now, so in the meantime… I’m writing. Beginning a novel is always my favourite part of the process: probably because I’m not really a planner so when I’m writing, I tend to have little to no idea of where my characters will be taking me. A little uncertainty is always fun.

Anyway, I’m 14,000 words in at the minute and really enjoying the motifs that keep cropping up and the characters that kind of seem trustworthy to start with and are slowly becoming less so as the plot thickens. I’m hoping to reach around 70,000 for this particular manuscript, as it’s for a YA audience. My first draft of my first novel ended at around 55,000, but now I’m discovering that I have far more words to play around with and probably should have written way more to begin with – while I was in the flow of that particular story.

I’m thankful I headed to Costa when I did, because it’s just started pouring down outside and I didn’t bring a coat. It was sunny earlier! Unpredictable British weather. You’d think I’d have adapted by now to living in the South of England by carrying an umbrella or bringing a spare jacket or something, but that rarely happens… I think when you’ve come from the North, there’s a certain element of pride when it comes to cold weather. Duh, I’m from the North. I can hack it. Brolly?? ‘Course I don’t need a brolly.

I should probably get back to working on the manuscript. I hope everyone has a great day! It definitely feels like a day to be creative, if you’re that way inclined. Enjoy.

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“New year, new me!” and other lies we tell ourselves

Lifestyle, Mental Health

Before you sign up for your gym membership and book yourself onto the next skydiving course because you’ve always wanted to do it, let me offer you some advice on why changing yourself probably ain’t going to change your year.

Look, we hear the same thing every time it gets to this time of year. It’s routine by now. New year, new me! we all chant, arms laden with all the useless crap we’ve picked up in the Boxing Day sales; crap that will surely aid us in our self-development come January. We convince ourselves that it’s absolutely necessary to kit out our wardrobes – start the new year in style, right? The healthy eating kick starts then, too, so lets stock up on salad and those plastic water bottles with fruit filters.

We go through this whole charade every. Single. Year. And I swear – by February the gym membership is gathering dust and we’ve already lost the filter-thing for our water bottles. With this in mind, here’s how I plan to set realistic ‘resolutions’ that I might actually be able to keep… and ones that don’t require changing much about myself. If I did the New year, new me! every year, Christ knows who I’d be by now.

  1. Focus on realistic things that I want to do.

Not things that I think will make me a ‘better’, ‘prettier’, or ‘more accomplished’ person – just things that I want to do. Simple. If the things I choose to do help me grow as a person as a result, then wonderful. But I want to pick things that I feel genuinely excited about, rather than stuff like ‘Run a 10k.’ For some people, this is a huge source of happiness: for me, running a 10k is the equivalent of torture, so it’s staying far away from my list.

Beth’s List examples: Learn to drive, visit another country, find one dish that I like that involves avocado (I hate avocado).

2. Set several short term goals, rather than one end goal.

Okay, so, if your aim for 2018 is something like loosing weight, then you don’t want to stick ‘Lose 2 stone!’ on your resolution list. Because, let’s face it, your weight is going to fluctuate throughout the year and make you feel like a failure come NYE 2018. Set little goals that will change your behaviour and help you to lose weight – like ‘Drink at least three bottles of water a day!’.

Beth’s List examples: read a book every fortnight, write something small everyday, stop drinking coffee late at night.

3. Realise that NYE is just…. another day.

It’s great that many of us can channel our energy into this fresh start – a great change for us to start anew and really focus on our goals. But not everyone succeeds in seeing the new year as a blank slate. Let’s all sit back and realise that, despite the fact we now change one number when writing the date down, it’s just another day. Focus on the positives and don’t crumble under the pressure of what 2018 might become, or how you’re supposed to change yourself this year in order to make your life better. You’re great as you are; and regardless of how much you change, the year is likely to be wild and unpredictable either way.

My advice to you, then? Reflect on the year, party the night away, and carry on with your life the next day. Write your New Year’s Resolutions with your own happiness in mind, focusing on who you already are, rather than this elusive person you think you should be.

Party hard. See you in twenty-eighteen!

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