When The Writing Wants a Day Off

I can tell people I’m a writer without wincing these days. I’m nearly done with the first draft of my novel (actually, it’s in that awkward place just before nearly done, but never mind that). I have written guideline documents for people wanting to help the refugees in Calais, and across Europe.

And today was a perfect day for writing. The wind cold outside, but the house warm. No jobs looming over my head (well, apart from the normal ones). Only a teensy bit tired. (That would be on account of the weekend). Perfect day for writing, I tell you. Perfect. Except for, you know, the writing part.

Maybe because I spent 3 hours yesterday putting together the best Google Form That Ever Existed. Maybe because I’m tired. Or maybe I’m coming down with a cold, maybe I have too many projects. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Maybe there is no maybe. All that matters is that the latest guide is not getting written. Nor is the novel. And all I can think is, today I can’t do anything.

Oh, and maybe I really do have a cold coming on. My nose is all blocked up, and I can’t smell my nice herbal tea. And you know, winter.

I could sit here and moan about how I am never going to get the novel written, how terrible my writing is, and convince myself that one perfect writing day wasted is the absolute end of the world. Except it’s not. It’s one day when I’ve had a hard few weeks and I’m still thinking about my novel and I tried and even if I only wrote two sentences it still counts.

So today, two sentences make me a writer. That’s good enough. Anything else is a bonus.

My Initiation Into Special Needs Parenting

I’m new at this special needs thing, and at the same time it’s old hat. It’s new, because the label is shiny and new, and all the bits of help the label is supposed to bring are only slowly creaking into place.

And in the meantime, I am drowning.

It’s also old hat, because for two and a bit years, we’ve been dancing around the edges of the playground, having conversations with teachers about her not quite fitting the normal. She is, as I read so eloquently recently, an oh-so magical unicorn in a school made for horses. I guess I had hoped that we could paint her to look like all the other horses, or something, but she won’t stay still long enough. (Also, I don’t think I really tried that hard.)

And in the meantime, I’m drowning. And learning. And unlearning – which is a tricky business.

I’m not a fully paid up member of the special needs club yet, but I’m not doing too badly in earning my dues. When I tried to initiate some conversation with one of Little Person’s teachers (yes, she has two), I was told “But she doesn’t look like she has autism.”

Because, you know, unless you look like Rain Man, you don’t have autism.

Same conversation, she added, “Of course, we’re all on the spectrum in some way.” No. Just no. That’s like saying we’re all a bit clinically depressed because we get upset when we hear bad news. I wanted to tell her what I saw in the ADOS assessment. I wanted to tell her what the paediatrician had told us about the report that led to diagnosis. But I also didn’t want to.

And in the meantime, I’m drowning.

(The other teacher is lovely, by the way. The other teacher doesn’t dismiss Little Person’s fears as inconsequential, or get vaguely annoyed when I ask her to re-explain things when Little Person has taken her a little too literally.) But it’s Mrs P (that stands for Patronising) that I had to ask for help from last year, when Little Person was stressed to the max and acting out at home. And it was Mrs P who organised for me to sit with a parent support worker or something.

They wanted me to do an internet parenting course. Because, you know, if Little Person is anxious, and I get a little anxious and I want extra resources to help, then an internet parenting course is so what I need. I looked at it. All about house rules, and giving praise and being specific and being disciplined. Which works wonderfully with typically developing children. I know, because I have used these techniques to turn monstrously-behaved little people into quite well behaved and generally much happier little people on more than one occasion. Granted, they aren’t my children, but still. Thing is, what works on a horse ain’t necessarily going to work on a unicorn. And it doesn’t help to tell the unicorn-wrangler that she’s bad at training horses because the unicorn keeps jumping the fence.

And in the meantime, I’m drowning.

But there’s still hope. Because Mrs P and her parent support worker aren’t the end of the story. The unicorn who re-interprets the maths homework shows me beautiful places. She shows me joy, and love, and how words aren’t all that matter. She’s taught me to stop and realise that there’s way more to this world than I could ever imagine. She’s shown me what a fantastic parent The Dude is. And somehow, in facing up to the arrogance of people who assume to know better than us what it means to be us, she’s shown me that I’m a pretty good parent too.

So no, I am not going to do your internet parenting course. I’m going to do the one about helping unicorns shine. I’m going to learn to make fields big enough to keep my unicorn safe, until she’s strong enough to fly on her own. Together, the three of us will find a way.

And in the meantime, I think that may be firm ground under my feet.

Soapbox Alert: Terrorism is not a Mental Health Issue

What happened last night in Paris was wrong. Very, very wrong. And when people take active steps to distance the actions of those who initiated the attacks from Islam as a religion, they are very right to do so. But when they do so by saying that the attackers are/were mentally ill, they are doing more harm than good.

Because living with mental health issues is hard enough, without people comparing me (you) to a terrorist.

Because talking about mental health problems is hard enough, without people thinking I (you) might explode into violence at any moment. Or me (you) thinking that people might think I (you) might explode into violence at any moment.

Because hatred is a condition of the heart.

Because if you say that it is a mental health issue, what then? People with mental health problems should be locked away in case they might be misled and start killing people? Let’s put terrorism in the DSM-VI (that’s the next version of the book for diagnosing psychiatric conditions), complete with checklist and everything.

Terrorism is not a mental health issue. It’s not a religious issue. It’s much more complex than that. It’s about power, and control, and fear, and hatred. It’s about prejudice, perception, and a million other things I don’t understand because I’m not a terrorist and never will be.

So let’s not add to the stigma of already vulnerable groups (on religious, mental health, gender, racial, life history, or preference for pineapple jelly grounds) by lumping them in with the terrorists.

Rant over.

Can I just add that my thoughts and prayers are with those affected by these acts of violence – in Beirut, in Paris and elsewhere. To those that had to witness these atrocities and survived, to first responders, to the family and friends of those who have died, to those who now face greater abuse because of the actions of a few, to all those left heart-broken and forever carrying an unanswerable “why?” – I am truly sorry. If there were any way to make your road easier to walk, I would.

Doing The Next Right Thing: Taking A Nap

I had a nap this morning. A very long nap. I set my alarm for 12:30, closed my curtains, because I knew I really needed a sleep. (I also woke up at 11:20 completely confused and convinced I had forgotten to take Little Person to school, why couldn’t I hear anything, where was the cat, why hadn’t anybody woken me up and what was I doing sleeping in my clothes? Told you I needed the sleep.)

But if I had written this blog before my nap, I would have been ranting about Christmas and Facebook memories and schoolteachers and when people tell you that your child “doesn’t look like she has special needs”.

But I took a nap. (I like that turn a phrase. You take it. You have control, you can decide to lie yourself down on the bed and rest.) So now, Facebook memories are poignant reminders that life goes on, Christmas is not to be feared (at least there’s a church service I can go to this year), and schoolteachers… well, a nap doesn’t solve everything.

But in the last year my life has speeded up dramatically. It’s now crammed full of learning to make good parenting decisions for Little Person, community volunteer work (who knew it that would be such a positive change?), writing and keeping the house tidy. Oh, and data management for co-ordinating aid to refugees in Europe. (Does anybody know how to set up an automatic email response when somebody fills in a Google form?) So, a little nap now and then makes a big difference.

As long as I don’t nap all the time.

Here’s the thing. So much in life is simply about doing the next right thing. Keep an eye on the long-term goal, and do the next right thing that will get you from here, in this not ideal place where you are, one step closer to there, the place you want to be. And sometimes, that next right thing isn’t sitting down and making a list of all the people you have to give Christmas presents to. Or trying to work out why your Facebook memories make you feel sad (the answer to that is: just because people treat you like crap, doesn’t mean you won’t miss them when they’re gone – pardon my French). Sometimes it’s just taking a nap.

Because now that my nap is done, I’m not worried about the Facebook memories making me sad. And I know the Christmas thing can be sorted – slowly.

So my next right thing is pretty easy, actually.

Go fetch The Little Person from school (and then see about that automated response thing).

(And then… oh heck, I’m doing this wrong.)

Stop Apologising And Be Awesome

I’ll admit to being a slow learner on this one, but maybe, just maybe I’m getting there.

The last few years have seen my self esteem plummet, and a raging battle within against bitterness and despair. Not that you could tell from looking at me, because it’s just not cool to admit to absolute crises of identity. Or more to the point, when your attempts to deal with said crises result in helpful comments like “You weren’t made to be like this”, maybe the attempted solution is more part of the problem than the original problem was.

So. In fact, there are two sets of lessons I could have learnt from these experiences.

Group 1 goes a bit like this:

  • You’re a South African in the North East of England. You’re never going to fit in, so just act like you do.
  • That feeling of upset you get from trying to act like you fit in when you don’t is a sign you’re not trying hard enough. Work harder.
  • Of course nobody understands what you’re trying to say. You aren’t supposed to have a voice. People don’t want your message. People just want you to be like them. Just be good and fit in.
  • You decided to come up here. You deserve every trouble that you get. The only way for you to get any kind of happiness is to change who you are and be who the people want you to be.
  • You don’t want to change? You so don’t deserve to be happy.
  • Ergo, bitterness. Sadness. Depression. An overwhelming feeling of not fitting in, and never ever being good enough.

Group 2 goes a bit like this:

  • You’re a South African in the North East of England. Of course there are going to be cultural misunderstandings. But that doesn’t define you, or the people that surround you.
  • You’re more than just a South African – you’re creative, and passionate, and perceptive and observant. It’s a combination that was occasionally frustrating in South Africa, and of course it will be a little frustrating in the North East of England too.
  • That feeling of upset you get when you try to act like you fit in when you don’t is a different sort of frustration.
  • Frustration isn’t bad. Frustration is just frustration. It reflects the need for something to change. It means you need to stop and think and work out a different way of doing – or being.
  • You can’t change other people. You can only give them the relevant information. You can change yourself.
  • Just because everybody is telling you you’re wrong, doesn’t mean you’re wrong. People speak out of any number of reasons – fear, pride, prejudice, power, as well as love, tradition and good intentions.
  • If trying to be who everybody else thinks I ought to be is detrimental to my mental health, I should stop doing that.
  • I should also find out who I truly am, remember all the things about myself that I was before I was depressed and trying to be who everybody else thinks I ought to be.
  • My responsibility is to make sure I can stand up underneath all the people trying to tell me who I ought to be, when they are wrong.
  • My responsibility is to use my talents – my passion, creativity, perception and observational skills to help other people who are walking this road too.
  • I am not responsible for keeping other people comfortable and happy. I am not even responsible for keeping myself comfortable.
  • I am responsible for being honest, and trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.
  • When I am focussed on being the best version of myself, I care less about what other people think, care more about doing what God wants, and find fulfilling ways o spend my time.
  • Happy family, happy husband, happy Rox.

Obviously, Group 2 is the way to go.

It’s also way, way harder.

You have to resist the pity party. You have to resist the negative messages, you have to decide to do positively who you are.

You have to stop apologising, and start being awesome.

But we live in a society that demands apologies the moment we step out of a preconstructed box of behaviours that has been built for us. We live constrained by what other people think, or might think.

And when we don’t have the courage to step out of our own boxes, we put an awful lot of effort into keeping other people in theirs. (Why people do this remains a mystery to me. I just know it’s true. I have the footprints on my head to prove it.)

Don’t put other people in boxes. Don’t let yourself be put in a box.

Stop apologising, and be awesome.

Love Lives Here (A Poem)

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done –

Love lives here.

Whoever you may be, whatever you may see –

Love lives here.

We may not always get it right,

We may not always be the best –

Love lives here.

So come on in and rest a while –

Love lives here.

Come rest, and breathe and live a while –

Love lives here.

Holding Lightly In My Hands

This I have learned this last year: Whatever I have, I must hold lightly in my hands.

Like a butterfly that balances on my fingertips, I can treasure the beauty of it until it flies away, and then I can treasure the moment that it stayed.

I could spend my time trying to keep these beautiful things in my life close, hold onto them tightly, protect them from all and everything, but sometimes doing that only diverts energy from the experience. Sometimes instead of protecting, the heavy hand is stifling.

I know I am waffling, but some times the most beautiful things in our lives – our talents, our creativity, our relationships, work best when they have space to be expressed. When we hold them lightly, gently, so that they are safe to stay and safe to go.

And if we hold our hurts lightly, so that we can look at them and say “This is the thing that hurt me, and I will try to let it go”, then they don’t have the chance to dig into our hearts and wound us more.

So find joy in the things you can hold lightly in your hands. Know that they might fly away like butterflies, but they could also blossom like a seedling. You never know until you give them light and space to grow.

Because when you hold things lightly, your hand is always open to receive more.

A Recipe For Chocolate Cake (Or, The Easiest Blog I Ever Wrote)

Recently, I wrote about an incidentally gluten free chocolate cake and had one or two enquiries about the recipe.

Let it never be said I don’t respond to my readers.

The recipe comes from this book (page 265, to be precise):

recipe book cover

Although the title of the recipe is Death By Chocolate, similar recipes can be found online by searching for American Fudge Cake. It’s best made the day before you plan to eat it, and served warm or cold with a bit of cream or ice-cream. Or even hot custard. This is one rich cake.


300g good quality dark chocolate (I use the 70% stuff in the baking aisle)

150g unsalted butter, diced (the diced is fairly important) – it can also be made with hard margarine but the taste isn’t quite as good.

5 medium free range eggs, at room temperature

½ teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1 teaspoon vanilla essence) – don’t leave it out.

100g caster sugar (if you don’t have caster sugar, whizz normal sugar in the food processor for a few seconds)


  1. Preheat your oven to 180°C/gas 4. (I have no idea for fan ovens). Grease a 22cm springclip tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.
  2. Break up chocolate (use a plastic bag and a rolling pin if you want to express your violent tendencies), place in heatproof bowl over steaming but not boiling water (the bowl and water shall not touch or icky mess and wasted chocolate results). Add the butter. Melt, stirring frequently. Remove from steamy situation and leave to cool.
  3. Break eggs into large mixing bowl (the one for your electric mixer). Add vanilla and whisk for a few seconds.
  4. Add sugar and whisk on full power for about 5 minutes – until pale, very thick and mousse like and about 5 times its original volume. (When you lift the whisk out, the trail left behind should still be visible 5 seconds later, or else keep whisking)
  5. Pour the chocolate mixture into the eggy mixture and use a metal spoon to fold the two together, taking care to scrape up all the chocolate that sinks to the bottom. Be gentle, but thorough until it is all combined (if you don’t know how to fold in baking, it really is worth looking it up on YouTube.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 35-45 minutes, until only just firm to the touch, but still sort of moist underneath (it carries on cooking out the oven, you see).Put the tin on a wire cooling rack and ease a round bladed knife around the inside of the tin. Leave to cool in the tin – as the cake cools it shrinks. Don’t be alarmed.
  7. Turn the cake out onto a plate (I generally invert it so I end up icing the bottom. So. Much. Easier. – also what the recipe suggests). Make icing as described below. Or if you’d rather not, apparently you can just use slightly sweetened whipped cream with a bit of vanilla and some fresh cherries. (Not that I have tried it that way. But me and chocolate …)



200g good quality dark chocolate (I use the 705 stuff, as above. Although I once used mint flavoured dark chocolate. A little bit of heaven.)

100ml double cream (apparently, using the soya substitute for a dairy free option doesn’t taste too bad)


  1. Finely chop the chocolate (I have done it in the food processor in the past, but it is possible to overdo it.) Put it in a large heatproof bowl (bigger than the one you used for the cake, if possible). Add the cream.
  2. Put the bowl over steamy hot but not boiling water (refer to the cake method for appropriate warnings). Leave for a minute or so until the chocolate is only half melted.
  3. Remove from pan and beat until the chocolate is all glossy and pretty (it feels it will take forever and then suddenly it is all shiny).
  4. Pour evenly over the cake so that it can trickle down the sides. The more you muck about with it, the less shiny the end result.

chocolate cake

And eat. You can thank me later.

A Letter About Bullies

I know I told you that you are better than them (the bullies, I mean), but I feel I should expand.

I know that right now, when the words cut deep and you stare in the mirror and wonder what to do next, now is not the time for nice sayings and pretty words. But then, Eleanor Roosevelt said something pretty cool. She said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And she would know. She was the laughing stock of her social circle, but went on to become the First Lady of the USA.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

So I thought maybe I would tell you my story – how I managed to find a way past the bullies, in the hope not that you would do as I did, but that you would find a way that is true to who you are. Because I know it is possible. I know it can be done. And I know you can do it. If nothing else, young friend, know this: I believe in you. I know how much you have already overcome, and I know you can do this too.

But, my story about the bullies.

There was the girl in primary school who pinned me in the corner (she was twice my size and her breath smelt funny) and threatened me. Unbeknownst to her, I have an older brother, so threats of physical violence from people twice my size didn’t really affect me that much. I looked at her and said “Is that all?”, which kind of deflated the situation, especially when people laughed at that remark.

Humour. It’s a weapon.

But use it wisely. Don’t mock the bullies, but deflect the words. Take the power back.

Like when they combined all the nasty names together to come up with “Fountainhead Olive Oyl Psycho” as a name for me and I said “it’s a bit long-winded, don’t you think?”

Or the time they were criticising my unusual fashion sense and I said, “Oh, but can you not come up with something more original than that?”

Or you could ignore them, and the stories they make up. (Although this strategy runs the risk of them saying worse things before they eventually give up.) Because the people that matter are the people that know you. And they know the stories are not true.

And even if what they say is technically true, that’s not all of who you are. Just as what people said about me was not all of who I am. Build a shell around your heart for the moments you face these people. But don’t make mistake. Don’t build a shell so thick that you don’t let anybody in.


Remember who you are – list your talents, your favourite things about yourself, remember them as a litany you tell yourself any time you start believing the bullies are right. I’ll get you started – you are intelligent, funny, talented, modest, polite, kind, generous, appreciative…

Remember who the bullies are. These are people that are fundamentally cowards. My mum used to say “take it from whence it comes”. Roughly meaning, these people are so scared of who you are – because you are not the same as them – that the only way they can feel better about themselves is to try to make you smaller than them. Do we really care what cowards think of us? Or more to the point – what they say is not a true reflection of what they actually think of you.

Remember your story. You have already overcome so many things. You have learned so many things. You have taught yourself some really handy life skills. You have done all of this before, and this may just be another opportunity to develop good coping strategies for later in life.

Because this is an unfortunate truth. The bullies don’t go away. They just change form. So if you can learn to endure this season with grace, find a way to stand up under it (by whichever means required) and still be yourself, you will find it easier to cope with things later. [Although later in life, you tend to have the advantage of being able to just walk away from the situation. So. Much. Easier.]

Remember that you are not a bully. Do not, under any circumstances, become a bully.

Talk to somebody.

When I was learning to survive these things, my initial tactic was to just shut down. Let it all slide over me and pretend none of it was happening. I would not recommend that. I suffered longer because of it. The voices I thought I had ignored somehow seeped into my heart and despite everything, I found myself believing what they said about me. Don’t do that.

You need to talk to people who will help you through this. Who believe you. Who are wise enough to give you strategies to cope. Hopefully, to people that can address the behaviour of the people concerned. There is no shame in admitting that something is wrong, that you don’t know how to deal with it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Don’t wait until you are old and grey like me before you learn that.

I know this is a long and rambly post, and I know the one I was thinking of when I wrote it will probably not read it, but that is not the point. The point is this: you are not who they say you are.

You are not who they say you are.

chocolate cake

Lessons From a Chocolate Cake (Or Labels Revisited)

This is a chocolate cake:

chocolate cake

This is a gluten free chocolate cake: (hint, it’s the same cake)

chocolate cake

This is a gluten free chocolate cake after I took it to the thing I baked it for and nobody wanted to eat it because it was gluten free:

chocolate cake after

(Obviously, the people at my table all ate the chocolate cake.)

Here’s the thing. I didn’t set out to bake a gluten free chocolate cake. It so happens that my most chocolatey chocolate cake recipe is gluten free. It also so happens that I am happier and healthier when on a gluten- and dairy-free diet. So I am always mindful that other people might also prefer the gluten free option. Or put another way, people who can’t eat gluten might be relieved to know that there was a chocolate cake on the table they could eat.

But sometimes, we miss the point of the label.

So an entire room full of people missed out on a delicious chocolate cake because they thought gluten free meant dry and unfulfilling (which is how I feel about many of the Victoria sponge cakes I have eaten in my life, but that’s another story). A label that was meant to be inclusive (i.e. allowing those on a gluten-free diet to partake) ended up effectively eliminating the cake as an edible option. (Not that I’m complaining – it meant Little Person could have a piece).

Let’s not do the same thing in our lives. Let’s not limit our opportunities because they come with labels we don’t expect.