The idea of mindfulness is something that I consider most days. As a concept it seems to have gained a certain mystical celebrity over the last few years. It takes only a limited exposure to social media to understand that there is a group of people who seem to have achieved a higher state of awareness that we should all be searching for when we are not working or binging on Netflix. But yet, in a life when we all seem to be striving for more, pushing ourselves at work and in the gym, and making sure our Insta feed is as perfect as we wish our lives were, that same enlightened bunch of people are telling us that living with less is the new more. Some of us, myself included, go out of our way to consume this message, voluntarily filling our feed with images of clear surfaces and capsulated wardrobes. The truth is, I am a fully signed up member of the less is more club. Even now as I sit at my desk, I’m looking at the shelves to my left and wondering which books I can get rid of without too much trouble. But if having less stuff is supposed to make us happy, how are we supposed to know what to replace it with once it’s gone?
It’s been a long time since I took what I would call a proper holiday. And by that, I mean a good seven nights in a nice hotel, where somebody cooks a selection of breakfasts and pops in before you sleep to turn down your sheets. Last year, with a small daughter who had a penchant for eating sand, we didn’t take a relaxing holiday. So this year, joined by friends, we checked into a nice place with a decent buffet, sun-loungers a plenty, and a programme for aqua gym with some very enthusiastic entertainers. Beforehand I had that true holiday feeling, that excitement the night before of an impending trip that I had been anticipating for months. Now, sitting at my desk on my first day back at work, I really do feel ready to go. Because on that holiday, without any of life’s daily interruptions, I did find something in that space created once material possessions and daily routine were left behind. When I took this photo, waiting for Leli to wake up in the car, I was parked on a beach with no phone or 4G signal. Not even any WiFi. It was an alien feeling, used as I am to being connected. What was it that I was missing out on for that half an hour? Nothing, not really. It felt good to be there, alone, and totally quiet from the rest of the world. So instead of what I was missing out on, the question should really be, what was it that I found?
My love affair with minimalism has long been a feature in my life. Even before I moved into my first home I was certain that a space without things or door handles was the way I wanted to live. And yet throughout my twenties and soon-to-depart thirties, I lost my way a number of times. Six months, maybe even a year could go by without buying any new clothes, and then I would find myself at the mall in a fug of reaction spending. I’d be lured by sales, gadgets, and essential equipment for activities I was unlikely to stick with. It is almost as if I was uncomfortable in the place I had chosen for myself, uncertain whether a minimalist lifestyle was actually right for me. And these boomerang behaviours occurred in various other parts of my life too, like organising my clothes and cleaning my house as if I was practicing a religion, only for a single object left on the side to begin a decline into a mess that could have got me onto TLC. Reading ten books in a month and then nothing for three. Last year I built a capsule wardrobe, only to spend most of this year spending to replace things I’d thrown out. It seems that although I know what I want, I have never yet quite found the balance. So is that perhaps what I’m supposed to be searching for in the place of things?
Returning from my holiday I would say that balance is the closest way of describing what I feel. I feel realigned with the things I want, my hopes, and plan for the future. With all the things I need to do for work. And so I suppose by definition what I am also saying is that before my holiday I must have felt, if not unbalanced, the absence of it. In fact, a couple of months ago I secured a new book deal, and two foreign rights’ deals, and yet somehow didn’t find the time to celebrate that. I didn’t even write about it on my blog, even though it was what I had been working towards professionally for the best part of twelve months. If there isn’t the time, or space in life to celebrate those sorts of achievements, what is it that I’m doing with my time?
And so, perhaps in all my efforts to be mindful and clutter free, that is what I’m really searching for; not balance as such, but the time to find it. When I look around my house and see piles of stuff, what I see are demands on my time to clear them away and organise them. When I look in my wardrobe and feel overwhelmed by a choice of what to wear, it’s time that I’m losing while I try on ten different things. Time that I could have spent doing something that is important to me. When I don’t manage to celebrate a new book deal, it’s not the will or excitement I’m lacking, but time that has been lost elsewhere, eaten up by a task that I care about less. After my daughter arrived in my life, I used to think she was the reason that I no longer had time for the other things that mattered to me. Although that might have been true in the first instance, because let’s face it, first time parenthood is a task no human is ever truly prepared for, I don’t think it counts as an excuse anymore. I’m the adult, and I make the rules, at least fifty percent of the time. So surely it’s up to me to organise us in a way that makes us both happy and that leaves space for the things we truly enjoy.
As I move forward with the new book deal, and the process of writing another as yet uncontracted manuscript, I’m going to try to remember this idea when I think of what it means to me to be mindful. When all the clutter is gone, what I’m left with is time. And instead of trying to fill this reclaimed time with new things and expansive to-do lists, or load my daughter’s programme up with new activities to keep her entertained, perhaps what I should be doing instead is simply enjoying the time we have together. Surely, minimalist or not, there can be no better way to live my life than that.
I have heard it said that some writers do not really like the act of writing, that the first draft is just a hurdle to get over before the real fun begins. Although this is not how I feel about writing my first drafts, I can understand it. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. Of course it’s all fun in the beginning when your characters are fresh and doing exactly what you intended them to, but soon enough you reach the wastelands of Act Two, and even something as simple as getting from A to B seems like a giant challenge. That for me is part of the allure, but only because I am prepared to accept one vitally important covenant; the first draft of anything is going to be utterly shite.
And this is why I think some writers hate draft one, because they simply can’t stand to see the ugliness of all those raw words, strung together in their most unapologetic form. They prefer them crafted and honed. But I don’t think draft one is about prose or poetic sentences that people are going to highlight on their Kindle or start Goodreads discussions over. The first draft is about getting the skeleton of the story in order, or at least on the page so that it can be edited at a later date. It doesn’t matter if it sounds ugly or if some of the sentences are clunky. It’s OK that it’s a mess; the time for self-criticism comes later.
As a creative, self-criticism is my arch enemy, and the quickest route to stalling. I discovered it a long time ago, when I was still at school. Back then I was quite a good potter, and used to enjoy sculpting metaphorical structures based on dreams and Greek mythology. But when the time came to transition from GCSE to A-level the option to study pottery alone was no longer available: I had to also choose graphics or fine art. I hadn’t used a paintbrush for years, at least not for anything other than gluing together slabs of semi-dry clay. How was I supposed to compete with the other artists who were already painters?
So I went into those first lessons with a degree of self-doubt. Everybody seemed infinitely better than me, even before I had seen anybody’s work. But it was only because I was critical of myself, talked myself into doubting my abilities, and that set me at a distinct disadvantage.
The beginning was not the time to worry about what my paintings looked like. I should have been slapping as much paint onto canvases as I could until I had something to show for it. Instead I hung back, always a bit hesitant with my strokes. It culminated in me sitting through my exams painting the same clouds over and over, and barely finishing the composition. In short, I screwed it up. There is a place for self-criticism, only that wasn’t it.
It wasn’t until I began writing that I realised self-criticism could also be my friend. Back in the early days following the completion of my first manuscript, and right around the time I received my first set of agent rejections, I decided to self-publish. I created a cover, got the book ‘edited’, and before long my work was lose in the world. I was pretty proud of it, despite the fact in hindsight I can see it was lacking in just about every way. And it was all fun and games to begin with when friends and family and other well-meaning writers with whom I’d connected online were posting their 4 and 5 star reviews. But of course it didn’t take long for somebody to rip it apart. And while that hurt to start with, I realized that maybe I could use the negative reviews to my advantage. Here, self-criticism helped me get a better handle on where I was going wrong, and helped me work through some of my bad-habits when it came to writing. It also pushed me into hiring a book jacket designer, and gave me the impetus to take myself seriously.
I am just setting out to write my fourth psychological thriller. I know the score here; knock the first draft out as soon as possible, because it’s only then that the real work begins. But I am also beginning another project, something that is totally out of my comfort zone, and something that is deeply personal to me. I started a few weeks ago, and at first I could feel that same hesitancy in my writing that I could feel at school as a painter. Perhaps it was because the genre is different and I don’t know the tropes as well. Perhaps because in many ways this is my father’s story, and therefore it feels too precious to mess up, too important to leave those raw words and emotions on the page. But I’m beginning to find my groove and it feels good. I just have to remember to accept that the first draft of this new project most certainly will not be.
I've always been a person who loved the mountains, having spent many happy times visiting the Lake District and the Grampian range in Scotland while I lived in the UK. After I moved to Cyprus I found a new love, the Troodos mountains, and enjoyed getting to know my new home while out trekking the beautiful trails. While the mountains of Cyprus are less exposed and remote than the mountains of the UK, they measure up at twice the height, and are in a different way just as stunning.
When I used to talk about my hobby of mountain walking and rock climbing with my late father who happened to be terrified of heights, the conversation was peppered by sharp intakes of breath and significant eye rolling designed of course not only to moderate my climbing activities, but perhaps also the conversation. He could barely stand to hear tales of dangling from a rope, or how it felt to wedge gear into a rock fissure and then climb past it while the wind battered you on a ridge in the Peak District. So when I asked him to travel to my new home of Cyprus and visit the mountains in order to meet my in-laws it was not a decision I expected to be taken in any way lightly.
Still, my father was a great man and never one to let me down. That combined with a fierce stubborn streak he'd soon booked a flight. He also cancelled that flight due to a fit of nerves, before quickly booking it again and losing about £200 in the process, but let's just gloss over that part. He was coming. And once he was here in Cyprus he even made it into the mountains, although it must be said not on to the somewhat exposed veranda overlooking the distant valley. But after that first trip to visit me in Cyprus he couldn't wait to come back, and he did so on one more occasion in 2016. And on that visit, against the odds, he too fell a little bit in love with the mountains. We drove through them on our way to visit family on the other side of the island, and besides a few colly-wobbles through the steepest of roads, by the time we were returning home that day he was describing it as one of the best of his life.
It was nothing less than a shock when by the end of last year we were faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to my father following a short and difficult battle with cancer. Cancer is a diagnosis that left me feeling bereft, often not knowing what to do for the best. I've written before about that time, about his care and how we got through it, but even now six months later if the phone rings at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night, I still wonder if it's him wanting to update me on the Formula 1. We were unfortunate that at the same time as receiving the diagnosis we were also told that my father's disease would be terminal, and there was no chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgical option that could help us. It meant there wasn't much time to say the things we wanted to say, or arrange the things we wanted to arrange. So we relied on the wonderful doctors and nurses who were caring for him, and the support staff like physiotherapists and managers of palliative care homes who came out to see us. We were lucky that my father received a place in a great facility, and I couldn't imagine a better place for us to spend his last weeks together. The support we had was exceptional, and we would have been lost without it.
But one thing my father conveyed to us before he passed away was that he wanted his ashes to return to Cyprus, to be with me, to be left on a mountain overlooking Limassol at an altitude he would never have reached in life. So after managing to get a green tube filled with ashes through three different European countries on my way back home to Cyprus I did just that. And just a few days later we headed into the mountains to fulfill his last wish. It was a strange day, carrying him on my back in a similar way he would have done for me as a child, and in all honesty I found it pretty hard. So my husband and I decided to make a day of it, go for a hike, take some lunch, walk out into an area we had already explored well that we knew would be suitable to grant his wishes. And high up on a ridge we found a beautiful juniper tree overlooking the whole of the Limassol district, and we left him there, just as he had wished, overlooking Limassol, higher than he'd ever managed to go before. I made a cup of tea, sat with him and drank it, and we said our final goodbyes.
My father never thought he would climb a mountain, and the course of his illness felt like a mountain I never wanted to climb. But experiences like cancer and ultimately death leads us to unexpected places. And now, in my father's memory my brother Martin will tackle his own mountain, another unexpected journey in the name of a good cause. He is taking on the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, raising money for The Myton Hospices, a place which offers families like ours the vital support they need when faced with the unthinkable and don't know where to turn. Without places like The Myton Hospices difficult moments like the loss of a loved one would be so much harder to take, and the importance of palliative care should never be underestimated. That said, such places often rely on charitable donations in order to keep going. My brother's initial intention was to raise one pound for every metre of the mountain, £5895,00. He has already exceeded that and has several weeks of training left to go. He is now working to raise as much as he can. He is paying all his expenses himself.
I'm incredibly proud of his achievements so far, and if anybody wishes to donate to his charity mountain climb you can read more about him and do so here.
So, Mother’s Day happened this Sunday. Although there’s not much of a fuss about it here in Cyprus, I keep a track on UK based radio and more often than not I manage to organize for flowers to be delivered to my Mum on time. At the very latest they might arrive the following day. This year I managed to apologise for missing Mother’s Day in a panic a week ahead of the event, so I was well organised by the time it actually came around. But the celebration of mothers in this way, especially when I am so far from mine, got me thinking. Specifically it got me thinking about being a Mum, something I cannot yet call myself, and the reason why I started writing My Sister in the first place.
You see, when I set out to write My Sister it was with one main aim; to tell the story of a woman who decided to give her child away. And ultimately that’s what My Sister became. Although we are submerged in Irini’s world years after the event, and dealing with her interaction with her destructive sister, Elle, the story is at its most basic, about their mother. By sharing Irini’s journey of discovery we learn the painful truth of her mother's past.
My Sister opens when Irini receives a telephone call from her sister to tell her that their mother has died. For me it was the only way to open, because so often a mother who has been faced with giving her child for adoption carries with her an untold story, their voice lost somewhere along the way. Often information isn’t passed on, or perhaps withheld because of a misguided belief that the truth could be painful. These mothers often have no opportunity to tell their side of the story, either because of social or personal pressures. That’s why it was so important that the story of Irini and Elle’s mother in My Sister reflected this, while at the same time uncovered the truth of Irini’s departure from the family home.
My desire to tell this story comes from a very personal place; I myself am on a similar journey, as my husband and I have been following a path to adoption for the last few years. While we have had some unfortunate and upsetting bumps in our journey, we are hopeful that we are nearing the time when we are able to increase the size of our family. Although there is still a long way to go, and potentially many miles to travel, including to a country we have never even visited, it feels as if we are one step closer to bringing our child home. But that too means that there is already a mother out there who is trying to decide whether she can or cannot raise her child on her own. Whether she has the means to clothe him, feed him, or provide him with shelter. Whether or not she can keep him safe. She is trying to decide whether I am a better option, a woman whom she has never met, and whose name she might never have the opportunity to know. It also means that I am one step closer to the day when my child might ask me about the woman who had to make that choice, and what significance that has on him and his life.
This woman, the first mother of my child, will remain intrinsically linked to my life, my husband’s life, and that of our child for many years to come. I hope that through our own adoption journey I will find a way to give a voice to the woman who chose to entrust her child to me. I do not want to wipe her out of my child’s past, or pretend that my child’s life starts the day we turn up. I hope that we are able to find a way to raise our child with respect for the woman who gave him life, and who had the courage to hope for something better.
Once a month or so I like to write an update post on here. It’s a great way of keeping on track, looking at what I’ve achieved and what I haven’t. A way of being able to focus in the moment, sit back, and take stock of where I am. It’s also a break from manuscript writing or editing. Plus, I always considered a month isn’t a long time, not really, especially when you do the same thing every day.
But this month has been a long month. There has been a lot going on. My deadline for book two was fast approaching, and my publisher requested to have it sooner than I expected. It wasn’t quite finished, but I learnt the first time round that finished books before editors get them really only exist only in the minds of writers, or perhaps the same dimension as fairies and the Loch Ness Monster. Therefore I hit send, cursed a bit, and have since been crossing my fingers in the hope that it’s OK. Sitting and waiting is hard, but there is nothing else to do. I also heard from the organisers of the London Marathon, and I didn’t get a place this time, but it might be for the best because my training schedule has gone totally kaput. In positive news I’ve moved house, and managed to write over 20,000 words of a new manuscript. Ordinarily I’d be super excited, blasting it all over twitter, GIFs galore. But besides work related tasks and meeting deadlines I’ve also been in the UK for three out of these last four weeks. Normally that would be great, getting to see friends and family and kick around in fallen leaves during the best season that the UK has to offer. Only this time it’s not. I was there because my Dad got cancer.