Book Review: Beside Myself

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Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan, is a powerful exploration of family, identity and mental health. It examines a fractured family whose matriarch believes individuals should take responsibility for their problems; that they should be contained, hidden from the outside world; that to make a fuss is worse than whatever the cause may have been.

Ellie and Helen are twins, as alike as two peas in a pod. Helen is the leader, the good girl who has to look out for her stupider sister. Sometimes this means giving her a lesson, inflicting cruelties which Helen enjoys. One day she decides that they will play a game. Helen will pretend to be Ellie and Ellie is to pretend to be Helen. They swap the clothes and hairstyles that their mother gives them that people may tell them apart. Except the day they choose to play the game is the day that Mother moves her new man into their home. Everyone is fooled by the girls’ deceit, and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

This is Helen’s story, the twin who is now known as Ellie. Alternate chapters deal with her childhood and adulthood, the timelines converging as her tale is told. When we first meet her as an adult it is clear that her life is a mess. She is hungover, living in poverty, estranged from her family. When she hears that her sister is in a coma following a car accident she doesn’t wish to become involved. Her sister’s husband will not accept this.

From the first page I was hooked. The premise is intriguing but it is the development that really impressed. There is no filler. Every chapter offers up yet another reveal, another punch in the gut. Ellie is constantly reaching out to those around her and finding emptiness. It is an aloneness that hurts in its realism.

As adults it is too easy to look at a troubled child and believe that, with the right support, they could be mended. This story demonstrates that much of that support is misplaced. A child struggles to speak the language of adults who will always consider that they know best. Like many youngsters, Ellie tells stories as she grasps for attention. Her attempts to explain the truth then flounder, the words she struggles to find treated with contempt.

Ellie is labelled as backward and troublesome. Her hopes of fresh starts are blown away by the reports that go ahead of her, passed between the adults charged with her care. As realisation dawns that she has no power to change her situation she finds a way to cope by ceasing to care. With nothing now to lose, rules and conventions may be ignored.

I felt anger and sadness as Ellie’s story unfolded. I was awed at the author’s accomplishment in the telling. Difficult issues of nature, nurture, how adults treat children and society judges; are woven into a compelling story of relationships, and the blame apportioned when outcomes clash with ideals.

The denouement provides explanations for many of the problems Ellie faced. There are no easy answers but it is a satisfying end to the tale.

This is a remarkable work of literature that I have no hesitation in recommending. It will be amongst my best reads of the year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury Circus.

Book Review: Forget Me Not

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Forget Me Not, by Luana Lewis, is a psychological drama about grief, guilt and family secrets. It explores the emotional impact of upbringing, the guilt of a working mother, and the tightrope family members walk between confronting difficult issues and maintaining a comfortable home life.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Rose, a senior neonatal nurse whose grown up daughter, Vivien, has been found dead in her bathroom. It is unclear if Vivien took her own life or if she was murdered. An injury to her head could have been the result of an attack or caused by a fall.

Rose is an emotional mess. She raised her daughter alone whilst forging her career, and now feels guilt that much of the child’s care was the responsibility of others. Money was tight and Rose felt more at home at work than in her damp, council flat with her wilful child.

Vivien married Ben, whose business acumen brought them wealth and comfort. Rose believed that they were happy together although she saw little of the family. She visited for her granddaughter’s birthdays and at Christmas, to keep up appearances, but knew little of the detail of her daughter’s life.

Now that Vivien is dead, Rose wishes to ingratiate herself with her little girl, Lexi. I found this creepy. The child still had a loving father who was perfectly capable of caring for her without his mother in law, who had shown little interest in Lexi’s well being before Vivien’s death. Rose pushes her way into the grieving family, openly criticises her son in law, and tries to mother a child she barely knows.

Another key character in the book is Chloe, a childhood friend of Vivien’s, who had a relationship with Ben before he and Vivien got together. Rose does not trust Chloe, especially when she appears to be helping Ben out, a role that Rose wants for herself.

As the police investigation uncovers details of Vivien’s life in the months leading up to her death it becomes clear just how little Rose knew about her daughter, yet still she insists that she should be the one to watch over Lexi. Rose’s instability manifests itself at work. Ben’s willingness to let her near his child can only be down to pity, although why he feels this after the way she has neglected his family over so many years is unclear.

The plot progresses, family secrets are uncovered, and it is shown just how damaged Vivien was. The denouement is satisfactory, although I remained unconvinced that Ben would be so tolerant of his mother in law given her penultimate actions in the tale.

Some of the details of the way Rose was written grated. No matter how much she ate or drank she was always described as having a dry mouth. When talking she complained repeatedly of a lump in her throat.

Perhaps it was my dislike of Rose which coloured my views of this book. I felt compassion for Ben and even more for Lexi. Amidst the twists and turns of suicide or murder, and if so who was to blame, several of the characters appeared sinister. I found it hard to focus on others when Rose was so consistently Machiavellian.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Transworld.

Book Review: Asking For It

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Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill, takes the difficult subject of the alleged rape of a beautiful but drunk teenage girl at a party, and explores society’s reaction when the details are graphically shared in the public domain. It is a challenging read because it tackles so many issues that are rarely discussed between victims and the people they know. The subject may be debated by strangers, but close to home it causes embarrassment and discomfort. Large numbers of women have lived through such experiences but choose not to share, because this is the reaction they expect.

Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful and confident, loved by her family. For as long as she can remember she has been Daddy’s princess. Her mother tells her that with looks like hers she will have the world at her feet and she anticipates this shining future. At school she is surrounded by girls who admire her, whose jealousy she feeds off. Boys cannot help but look her way and she knows she could have any of them. She tests this regularly.

Emma once overheard a boy describe her as boring, a comment which still smarts. When others are lauded for any achievement, attribute or possession, she will quietly disparage. She works hard to appear kinder and more interesting than she feels; what matters is that she is noticed and admired. She is attracted to boys others want.

Emma despises her mother for the way she puts on a front for the neighbours and tries to maintain her aging looks, subduing the fear that they are alike. Mother’s passive criticism of her daughter irritates. Emma requires approbation so hides all traits that she knows would garner disapproval. Her parents believe she is a good girl, raised in a good family, and that she will behave in the way they have programmed her.

The pivotal night is a typical party until Emma loses control. Her friends blame the alcohol and leave her to it, distracted by their own dramas. The next morning Emma cannot remember what happened. Her friends are furious with her for how she behaved but she believes, if she remains strong, all will blow over and she will be forgiven. Then pictures appear on social media.

The fallout is depressingly accurate in its portrayal of how society reacts to allegations of rape. Emma was drunk and dressed in revealing clothes. She led a boy into a bedroom. In many people’s eyes she was asking for it and should not complain, the case should not be brought to court. Boys will be boys, what else did she expect?

Emma’s parents try to be supportive but cannot move beyond their own shattered illusions. They struggle with the concept of having a daughter who does not behave as they were convinced their daughter would. From basking in their child’s reflected glory they must now face a community that is blaming her for ruining the glorious futures of young men from good families such as theirs. Several of their parents were long time friends.

Emma herself has no idea how to cope and cannot talk about how she feels. She is adept at burying her true thoughts deep. All she can see in her head are the photographs. All she can hear are the comments that were posted underneath by those she considered her minions, her friends. This is a child on the cusp of adulthood, a teenager with all the difficulties and peer pressure that entails.

The judgements of others can be devastating, how much more so for a young person whose life revolved around garnering adulation. In the wider public eye she is That Girl about whom everyone now has an opinion. She is surrounded by pity and contempt.

The author wishes this book to trigger wider discussions about consent. Society continues to blame rape victims for not acting in a manner that they can approve rather than blaming the perpetrator for assuming that they have rights over someone else’s body for spurious reasons. Victims are shamed; bringing shame on one’s family is treated harshly. Sexual conquests continue to be admired.

Although written for young adults this is also an important book for parents. Emma’s experiences were harder to deal with because of her parent’s reaction, their palpable disappointment when she did not turn out to be the daughter they wanted.

Ultimately though it is society that needs to change. Sex is not shameful. Those mature enough to indulge should be mature enough to ask for consent. Giving consent is a personal choice, not one that should be frowned upon due to gender. This story raises the issues. Let’s be brave enough to discuss openly and respectfully with all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Annette, whose blog may be found here: Sincerely BookAngels  I am grateful for her generosity is sending it to me.

 

Book Review: Light From Other Windows

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Light From Other Windows, by Chris Chalmers, is a story about a family coping with bereavement, and the secrets that we keep from those we love. It is a reminder of how fragile the lives we construct for ourselves are, how easily the house of cards can be blown away when difficult truths are faced. It raises questions about perception, the roles we play, and how much we really know about those we feel close to.

Nineteen year old Josh Maitland is nearing the end of an around the world adventure which he has embarked upon in his gap year between school and university.  He is visiting the Canary Islands when a devastating tsunami hits, claiming eight hundred and fifty-eight lives. Back home, his family watch the dreadful news unfold on TV, unsure of exactly where Josh is. When his body is found they each struggle to cope and find their lives unraveling in different ways.

Diana, Josh’s mother, believed that she was close to her youngest son. She puts her business acumen to work organising his funeral, but then finds herself unable to move on. She worries about how Josh was feeling just before he died, wanting to know if he was happy. In an attempt to help, her husband contacts Josh’s friend Stella, who reveals that Josh had been writing a blog while he was away. As the family read the words that Josh wrote for his friends they realise how little they knew about the boy they had lived alongside for so long.

Rachel and Jem, Josh’s older sister and brother, had pictured themselves as Josh’s mentors, siblings he looked up to. They perceived him as the child they helped to care for after their father walked out on them all just before Josh was born. Growing up, Josh had seemed carefree and popular, someone they would indulge and advise. They had never regarded him as their equal.

As each family member reads Josh’s words they pick out in particular those brief segments which refer to them, and worry about how the others will react to the secrets that are revealed. It is difficult enough that the illusions they had created around Josh are shattered, now they must also face having the image they have crafted of themselves peeled back. Each is absorbed in how they will henceforth be seen, paying scant regard to the words written about others. How true to life this seemed, the world revolving around our own inner selves.

It is not just the siblings who have been keeping secrets, but also the parents. When the family get together to discuss the blog, further revelations shatter perceptions which they have lived with all their lives. A recalibration is required.

As a parent of teenagers this book raised so many emotions. The first half of the book, which covered Josh’s death and the immediate aftermath, were difficult enough to consider. The second half, where grief took its toll and each family member faced up to a changed past, proved equally challenging. It is known that young adults turn to friends, but what is rarely discussed is why they hide from family. How much does the advice given by well meaning elders deter the young person from being honest about their actions and feelings?

This story is beautifully structured with a pace and flow that draws the reader effortlessly in. At its heart is the raw emotion of trust and love. It is a powerful, thought provoking read about modern family life that will challenge comfortable assumptions. Despite the difficult subject matter its message is life affirming. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Random Musings: Going up and Coming down

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It is the end of the summer, the August Bank Holiday weekend. I am nearing the end of my fourth, big summer read and I am hibernating from the world. It has been a summer of highs and lows.

We managed only a few days away; once again there was no big family holiday this year. The children could not agree on where they wanted to go or commit to dates when they would be free. Even the weekend we booked was boycotted by elder son who preferred to stay home alone than come away with us. At least this precluded the need to organise a chicken sitter as he can be trusted to look after our feathered friends.

Yet these difficult to please children provided me with the major highlight of the season when they managed to achieve straight A’s in their exams. Elder son can now apply to the universities to which he aspires. After two years of focused effort daughter will be going up to medical school in October. I am so incredibly proud of their achievements.

I announced to the world that daughter had achieved her dream and was accused of crowing. Other friends quickly stepped in to reassure me that I had every right to feel proud. My view? It would be sad if, after dealing with all the crud that teenagers throw at their parents, we were not permitted to take enjoyment from their successes.

Life goes on. After the highs of family celebrations came the inevitable low. I have been through this often enough to know that it will pass but have still to deal with the noises in my head. I unfold each of my strategies: good food, regular exercise, fresh air, early nights. The lethargy of body and relentless questioning that anxiety brings drain my reserves.

Thank goodness for my books. I have read some wonderful works this summer. I discovered Urbane Publishers who sent me ‘Leaves’ and ‘Eden Burning’, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Another small, independent publisher, Influx Press, sent me two non fiction works which turned out to be fascinating reads; look out for ‘Imaginary Cities’ and ‘Total Shambles’. I had the big books set aside for summer to enjoy: ‘Purity’, ‘The Bone Clocks’, ‘Wolf Hall’ and the incredible ‘A Little Life’. And then there were a slew of less demanding but still thoroughly enjoyable works. I have written reviews for them all, do check them out.

We now have this long weekend at home before school resumes for my boys. Both are entering academic years which will culminate in yet more important exams. Daughter will be with us for another month before going up to Imperial College in London. There will be shopping to do, packing for her move and then the challenge of a drive into the city to settle her into her new home. Husband is already saying that he does not wish to deal with the inevitable difficulties of traffic and parking so I, the reluctant driver, will be taking on this challenge.

Life goes on. I received no new books in the post this week. My husband is pleased as he tuts at the size of my overflowing TBR mountain. He is not a reader. He does not understand. Although I feel no entitlement to ARCs the buzz of receiving them never diminishes. When a publicist offers me a book and it does not then arrive a little part of me shrivels. Do I not write good enough reviews? Is my readership not big or diverse enough? I comfort myself with the thought of the books which I already own that I can now read instead.

I had planned to attend an event last week to hear an author, whose book I enjoyed over the summer, talk about her work. Then my little car died. Husband diagnosed the problem, ordered the necessary part and left elder son to fit it. I was dubious but he did a careful, effective job and my car is once again on the road. I should have more faith.

I should have more faith in myself. That is my biggest challenge.

 

 

Random Musings: Safe spaces

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I first visited Center Parcs over twenty years ago when my sister’s sons were toddlers. My husband and I drove to the Nottingham site to visit her family as they holidayed there and enjoyed an active couple of days, despite having to sleep in bunk beds. By the time our own children came along a more local facility had been built which provided twin beds and even better swimming areas. It soon became a favourite destination.

As well as the child friendly site with its multiple play areas and largely traffic free roads it felt a safe space for me as an adult. The clientele were of all shapes and sizes, the dress code relaxed. Hanging out by the pool in my swimsuit was never an issue; rolls of flesh and cellulite were on show and nobody seemed to care.

Last weekend we returned to Longleat for what is likely to be this year’s only family holiday. For the first time in the many years we have been visiting I did not feel safe.

During the course of the first day I left the pool area to fetch a forgotten item from our car. Phone reception is poor and I wished to send a text to a friend who was due to visit the next day. As I studied my phone searching for signal I became aware of two young men sitting at a picnic table nearby. They were calling out: ‘Bingo wings. Bingo wings!’ There was nobody else around. For whatever reason they had decided to insult me.

I ignored them which led to a louder, more insistent cry: ‘Fat ass. Oy, fat ass!’ I finally got my text message to send and left the area, briefly making eye contact with the young men as I passed. Later in the day I chanced upon them again. As they walked by they glanced at me and muttered in a derisory tone: ‘Oh god it’s her again’. It would seem that my existence in a public space is an affront to the bright young things who decorate such places so pleasingly.

I do not deny the truth of their observations but wonder why they felt moved to act as they did.

Had this been the extent of my discomfort over the weekend then I would have put it down to an unfortunate but isolated encounter with rudeness. Unfortunately it was only just the start.

The other holiday makers included the usual Boden mums with their beautifully dressed offspring, proud grandmothers accompanying their precious little grandchildren, and a pleasingly diverse array of skin tone and language. There were not, however, the variety of body shapes that I had come to expect. Perhaps the media has succeeded in fat shaming and diets have been adhered to, or perhaps the overweight now holiday elsewhere.

I was subjected to numerous hard stares as I moved around the site, pointed tuts from the grandparents as I took up space they desired for their families. I longed for the ability to levitate as others sought to have me out of their way. Is this because I am now older? fatter? sans children? Gone were the smiles I have previously encountered, the camaraderie of shared experience. Instead I was subjected to irritation and muttered comments for inhabiting public space.

Even at our villa the ambience had changed. Next door there appeared to be a hen party in residence. Our enjoyment of the adorable family of fluffy ducklings that waddled by our window with their proud mama each day was spoiled when a father caught two of the tiny birds for his daughters to stroke. I so hope that his scent on them did not lead to rejection, that the fluffy babies recovered from their trauma. Across the lake I heard angry shouting and banging as a family row erupted that went on and on. It was not the peaceful environment I have come to expect.

Our holiday was still enjoyed. We spent hours by the pool although I stayed clothed and read my book rather than taking to the water with my family. We played many games of badminton, squash and table tennis; went boating on the lake; cycled round and around the site. We ate delicious meals together at a variety of restaurants. I did not, however, feel that I could relax as I could before.

It is hard to quantify why an environment feels safe. Have the other guests changed or have I? If my family wish then it is likely that we will return, perhaps next year. For me though it will be with some trepidation.

 

 

Book Review: Black Lake

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Black Lake, by Johanna Lane, is a story of a place and the effect it has on a family. Set in the fictional Dulough estate in remote Donegal, which the author has loosely based on Glenveagh, its beauty and isolation have been ingrained in the psyches of each member of the resident family. At the time of the tale they are being forced to move from the big house to a small cottage in the grounds for financial reasons. The estate is to be opened up for tourists. The effect that this change has on each of them is profound.

The Campbells have lived in the rambling and now crumbling big house for generations. John brings his new wife, Marianne, to live there after they graduate from Trinity College, Dublin. She had lived in this city all her life. She struggles to cope with the changes brought about by marriage and the move, with the history, remoteness and grandness of her new home; it takes some time for her to settle. John does not tell her that money is tight.

With the arrival of their two children Marianne determines to fit in to the place which is starting to work its magic on her. She finds solace in the gardens. Where once she was a prospective teacher she now uses her skills to home school the children. They are unaware that their unusual but settled lives are about to be sundered.

The isolation of the place is mirrored in the isolation of the family members. The tale is told from each of their perspectives bringing home how little even those close to us know of each other’s thoughts. Assumptions are made about why individuals act as they do. The children are young but still think and feel in ways their parents do not comprehend. An apparently innocuous incident leads to tragedy and this mutual lack of understanding is laid bare.

Loss, grief, guilt and the effect of imposed decisions are powerfully explored. Marianne resents that John has not shared his knowledge of Dulough and his concerns for its future with her. His motives may have been sound but were never explained. Neither parent appreciates the impact the changes in their lives have wrought on their children.

These universal themes are an undercurrent to a fascinating story that weaves one family’s history into a contemporary tale of the complexity of relationships. It is gently told but offers much food for thought. At just over two hundred pages the book did not take long to read. The feelings evoked will linger for much longer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Adult Onset

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Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald, is a powerful and hard hitting story about parenting, depression, memory and the scars that are carried within families.

The protagonist, Mary Rose, is a successful author who has put her writing career on hold in order to raise her two young children. She lives in fear of something hurting them, especially herself.

During the week in which the story is set her wife is working out of town leaving Mary Rose to cope on her own. As she struggles with the insatiable demands of her intransigent two year old daughter she considers her own upbringing and her sometimes fraught relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

When Mary Rose was her daughter’s age her mother gave birth to a son who died. In the months that followed she struggled to cope, relying on her older daughter, Maureen, for help. However, when Maureen was at school she would be alone with Mary Rose, often ignoring her and leaving her to cry. She was depressed and incapable of dealing with her younger child’s needs. Mary Rose has hazy memories of this time but struggles to order them or to fill in certain blanks that she believes hold the key to an injury which coloured her childhood.

Even aside from this traumatic time theirs was not always a happy home. Due to the Rh factor in her mother’s blood she suffered multiple miscarriages and a still birth as well as this early loss of a living child. Her three surviving children grew up aware of their dead siblings and Mary Rose carries guilt for the negative thoughts that she had about them at the time.

As the week progresses Mary Rose struggles to deal with her internalised anger, her memories and her feelings of isolation. To those around she appears to be coping but beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. She questions if her fear of abusing her child is because she herself suffered abuse that she cannot now recall. It becomes important to her to find out from her family what went on. Even when raised the detail of their memories often differs from her own, each having lived from their own perspective.

This story is a slow burner. It portrays the frustrations of full time motherhood by allowing the thought processes and narrative to be constantly interrupted by the minutae of life with a toddler and a school aged child. The flashbacks to Mary Rose’s mother’s life seem more compelling in these early pages. I was not truly drawn in until around half way through after which I could not put the book down.

It is easy to blame parents for their behaviour despite being aware that they raised their children by the mores of the time. It is easy to recall things said in anger and grant these words precedence over kinder thoughts. It can be hard to deal with conflicting memories from siblings when what is desired is an ally.

All of this is explored alongside Mary Rose’s current relationships with her family and friends. We see a life that is accelerating towards a precipice.

The denouement is beautifully done. I particularly liked the way in which the plot lines of Mary Roses’s books were woven in. This may not be a tale of happy ever after but neither is life. The important questions were answered, even if these were not always the ones being asked.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre. 

 

 

Ghost

I feel as though I am floating, uncertain and alone. The tethers that once anchored me have come loose. The lines between the life others see, the books that I read and the stories that I write are becoming blurred. These are all my experiences, a part of what I am. How much of my life is real, how much imagined? An individual’s perception is his reality.

I wrote a piece last week about life on line. I wrote it as fiction and yet, when it was finished, I realised that I had created something personal. When I look at the life I am living it has lost its solidity.

I read books to escape from the rejection. I write to cope with the hurt. I no longer fit into the worlds of those around me. Now that my family has grown they have their own interests. They are kind to me, humour me but do not seem to understand what I am.

I am a ghost, not quite here. I drift through my days. I read and I write. I exist on the margins.

 

Random Musings: Ho ho ho

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With Halloween done and dusted, including the all night American Horror Story: Murder House DVD marathon that my elder two children enjoyed with a dozen or so of their friends (whilst emptying our freezer of pizza and fries), I can now see Christmas on the horizon. Unlike last year I intend to try to make an occasion of this.

It is not that I plan to party. The preparation for and clearing up after my children’s social events is as much as I can handle these days. Even though I did not actually take part in their Halloween gathering it still left me exhausted. Disturbed nights do that to me now.

This need not preclude me from making more of an effort with the festive season. Last year I did my best to stick my head in the sand until it was all over which resulted in a very subdued time for us all. I learned that it is up to me to build momentum. Not being allowed to celebrate in the way that I would choose does not make it okay for me to refuse to set the scene for my family’s enjoyment.

I know how lucky I am. I have three healthy, intelligent children; a husband who loves me and who I adore as much as I did when I married him two decades ago. We have worked hard to create a fabulous home for our family. Yes, the kids take it all for granted, but why would they not when it is all they have ever known?

Too often I feel tired, so very tired. I dream of a little terraced house, two up two down, small and easy to look after. I imagine a rural location, no car, long walks and peaceful nights sitting with a book in front of an open fire; no expectations or demands for food to be prepared that someone will complain about. It will never happen. My husband does not see the point of open fires.

What I hanker after is for those around to stop expecting me to do everything they ask, to listen when I demure even if this causes inconvenience. My husband works; my children have school, exams, jobs, plans, pressures. I say I am tired and they reel off how much harder their lives are than mine. They are right but I am still tired.

I am however getting better at standing my ground, at being heard. Perhaps this is why I think that I can manage once again to cope with Christmas.

I am making lists: presents to buy, meals to plan, friends to reach out to. I will ask my family what they want and comply when I feel able. I will sometimes say no.

“There are exactly as many special occasions in life as we choose to celebrate.”

My daughter was talking about her work schedule over the festive season and expressed a hope that she would have Christmas Eve off. Each year we enjoy a family party then, just the five of us. I liked that she wanted to keep this free, to continue the tradition.

I used to look forward Christmas, perhaps I will again. For this year I will aim to let go of enough of my anxieties to reclaim just a little of that elusive goodwill.