Sometimes It’s The Little Things…

After an extraordinarily stressful couple of days, I just went for a run. I passed a bench, erected by someone in remembrance of a loved one. The wording on the bench said the person’s name, and the years of their life (just 54 years) and then, “Stop. Feel the sun”.

I stopped, I felt what it is to be alive. I stared at the inscription. I breathed. I ran.

About a mile further on in the woods, I took a break from running to wait for my dog who had paused to sniff around in the bushes. After a while, she looked up and noticed how far ahead I was, and set off at a fair old pace to catch me up. The air was cold, my breath hung in it briefly when I exhaled. I bent over, putting my hands on my knees and waiting for my dog to catch me up, her tail wagging, tongue hanging out of her mouth.

And it was the most alive I’ve felt in a long time.

Sometimes it’s the little things…

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My Dog Betty

I’ve had my dog Betty for seven years this week. She is a cross between a Jack Russell and a Staffordshire bull terrier with all the tenacity of the former breed and much of the aggression towards other dogs of the latter. She has been a royal pain in the backside, a beloved and loyal friend, a neurotic and nervous nutter and a quiet, sleepy presence curled up on her favourite blanket that hangs over the back of an armchair.

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When I first chose Betty from amongst the selection of random mongrels and aggressive fighting breeds that filled the council dog pound in Sheffield, she was a cowering creature who shook like jelly in the corner of her kennel. The lady who worked there told me she was ‘a little sweetie’ and that she was mine as of the next day should no one come forward in the interim hours to claim her. Needless to say, she remained abandoned and I returned the next day to bundle her into the boot of my car for the princely sum of £50.

My new dog’s reputation as ‘a little sweetie’ did not last long. On her first walk, a washout in the floods of 2007, she chased a bird across a river – only the bird flew and Betty discovered she could not, landing with a splash in the raging torrents beneath her over-optimistic jump. My mum dragged her out by the scruff of her neck, saving her from drowning, and her dew claw was ripped from her leg in the process. Blood poured dramatically from the wound as she was pulled to safety.

She quickly revealed a penchant for running at other dogs at top speed, yapping and snarling as she continued past, leaving them looking startled and their owners jumping out of their skins. Betty is now kept on a lead unless we are in an environment free from people, animals, or any other living creatures.

We bonded nevertheless. I intuitively understood her motives for the snappy, aggressive behaviour and attacks of neuroses. She had been dumped on the roughest housing estate of Sheffield as a puppy and had been left to fend for herself for an unknown period of time prior to the council scooping her up. She has a morbid fear of fireworks which I suspect is due to being subjected to them in close proximity prior to her living with me. The vet prescribes her diazepam every year in November in the run up to Bonfire Night.

On the last night I drank alcohol I took Betty up the road so that I could have a cigarette and she could have a wee. I was so drunk that I fell over unconscious, letting go of her lead and leaving her to loiter around by my side for a while, confused, before my friend discovered the two of us and returned her safely to my flat. I felt so terrible about that for months afterwards. When I returned from the hospital the following day as the sun was rising, all she could do was jump up and lick my hand, trotting around after me wherever I went. She was delighted to have me back, the owner who had so irresponsibly left her roaming next to a main road on which double decker buses hurtle past twice every hour.

I’ve been a much better owner to Betty since I quit drinking. She drives me mad at least once a day, and come November I know I’ll have to endure the week from hell as she paces about, tongue hanging out, weeing on the carpet and shaking like a leaf as bangers and rockets are fired upwards into the night sky outside our house. But I really love her and I’m so glad that she came into my life seven years ago; she was right for me, and I for her.

I’m so lucky that she survived my drinking; I just wish she understood the concept of ‘sorry’.

Something to do at Easter

Yesterday I went out for dinner not far from where I live, in an area filled with bars, eateries and cafes. Trees line the main road from top to bottom and there is a sense of the cosmopolitan about the place. After we left the restaurant where we had eaten in the early evening, I sat in the car for a few minutes with my daughters as we waited for my other half to purchase a few last minute essentials that I’d forgotten to include in the week’s shopping.

From our clear vantage point, we saw a lot of drunkenness; groups of lads out drinking, pairs of girls dolled up in too much make up and high heels they couldn’t walk in, staggering about with bottles of booze and cigarettes dangling from their fingers; older couples – ‘normal’, middle-aged, non-threatening people, just out getting drunk. Because it’s Easter weekend and that’s what people do in the UK.

This morning on Breakfast I watched some footage of the Easter Bonnet Festival which took place yesterday on the streets of Manhattan. It would appear that for New Yorkers, one of the highlights of the holiday is to put huge amounts of effort into making wildly over-the-top Easter headwear (and something for your little dog to wear too, naturellement), and then to showcase the products of your hard labour whilst walking about down 5th Avenue with thousands of others doing the same.

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I believe that if we invested some creativity and thought into activities in this country that did not involve alcohol, it may go some way to address the binge-drinking problem we have here. Maybe people are just a bit bored, perhaps they cannot think of anything better to do with their Easter weekend days off work than to go out and get drunk.

I’m all for a grown-up’s Easter bonnet parade here in Sheffield – in fact I may just see about organising such a thing for next year (look out Betty!).

NB. For those of you who don’t know, Betty is my Jack Russell/Staffy cross breed.

Focus On The Important Stuff Instead

Never underestimate the human ability to adjust to new situations – what you may imagine is impossible will one day become easy, if you open your mind.

 Find time every day to get your rock n roll kicks from listening to loud music; lose yourself in it.

My beloved Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Do exercise a few times a week – it makes your weight easier to manage, kills stress and releases an endorphin rush so you’ll feel happier too.

Refuse to be influenced by your past failures or your imagined future limitations – the person you are today is the only one who can affect change in your life.

Learn from mistakes and then leave them where they belong – in your history. Getting it wrong enough should always lead to getting it right, so don’t beat yourself up for the things you did when you were younger and not so wise; use your experiences to foster growth instead.

 The people you love should be the recipients of your kindest, most generous self. When they’re gone, you will find it hard to shed deep regrets; try not to have any.

Drink plenty of water; it helps your body and mind work effectively. Avoid fizzy drinks – they are of no value.

Only you know when a habit has become destructive – that little voice in your head is there for a reason; listen to it before you have reason to regret not doing so. It’s there to protect you from yourself.

Eat when you are hungry; forget about food when you’re not. Over-thinking anything will only lead to negating good intentions.

Trivialities aren’t the makers or breakers of your happiness – whether you buy those new shoes or not won’t fundamentally alter your life. Focus on the important stuff instead.

Having a change of scene and breaking your routine does you a world of good.

Never hold your looks in too high regard – one day they will fade and you need to make sure you’ve got back up. You’ll be much better off if you put the effort into developing your character.

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Ironing, cooking, gardening and knitting are so much more than practical chores. Losing yourself in one of these tasks acts a little like meditation; it demands enough concentration to stop you sweating over the small stuff, but not so much that it feels like effort. Try immersing yourself in baking a cake next time your anxieties are getting the better of you.

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Be nice to someone you’ve never met before – you’ll feel better and their faith in humankind will get a major boost.

Make an effort to look nice, but avoid obsessing over your outward appearance. Vanity makes even the most beautiful person appear ugly.

Adopt a cat or dog from your local shelter – having a pet reduces stress, and you’ll be giving an animal who has felt the cold hand of hurt and abandonment the chance to feel at peace. Don’t buy one from a breeder when you could help so much more by taking a stray.

Find an art form that helps you escape from reality for a while; whether it’s a film, book, seeing a live band or visiting an art gallery, get your hits from someone else’s creativity; avoid searching for highs in mind-altering substances. The former will help you grow; the latter will stop you dead in your tracks.

Make the effort to empathise. You never know what life will fling at you next – good or bad, you will always want to share things with people who understand.

Remember how fleeting your time on Earth is; use your sense of mortality to put life’s minutiae into perspective, as well as to focus your mind on doing your best where it counts.

Always keep your ego in check – when things are on the up, remind yourself that you are just human; when you’re down, tell yourself you are unique and amazing.

Let go of hatred; it prevents you from being a free spirit.

Plant, pet, then person

Years ago I had a friend who was in therapy. She told me that her therapist had given her the following advice; first, get a plant. When you can keep it alive and thriving for more than six months, get yourself a pet. If you can maintain its health and happiness and nobody reports you to the RSPCA for abandonment or worse, then think about having a relationship with a human being.

I wish I had taken notice of this when my marriage broke up. My husband and I had kept a few pot plants in the house, and one by one they withered and died as I nursed my shattered soul over too much wine, immersing myself in a pool of misery which was akin to swimming through mud for the first few months. There wasn’t much room for being green fingered. At the same time, I was attempting to look after our dog, Mowgli, and here is a story in itself.

Me, my eldest daughter, then aged three, and our beloved Mowgli

My ex husband walked out on me and my little girl when she was just four, on Valentine’s Day and the day after I had fallen down the stairs (not drunk for once in my life!) and broken my foot, causing an impressive metatarsal shatter that was similar to one David Beckham had around the time, or so I was excitedly told by the football fanatic doctor who x-rayed me.

We had acquired a puppy just six months previously, a wonderful ball of energy who was so extraordinarily full of love and joy, whilst simultaneously being utterly devoid of sense, the ability to be trained and even the merest hint of a brain. Given the timing of the marriage split (February), the roads were covered in sheet ice, snow lay around in piles of exhaust-fume blackened sludge, and temperatures were not particularly kind.

The dog had boundless energy and could have easily handled a couple of ten mile walks in the morning, followed by a quick swim across the English Channel and back again in time for his kibble. My daughter was small and had short four-year-old’s legs and not the slightest inclination to walk further than to the corner shop and back for sweets. I had a pot on my leg and was on crutches. You might say we were in something of a pickle.

We muddled by though, gratefully accepting the help of wonderful friends and family, taking the dog out wherever possible and throwing balls for him in the field at the bottom of the road in order to tire him out, trying to remain sanguine when he ate our coats and shoes, biting my lip and fighting back the tears when I would hobble home on my crutches to find yet another piece of expensive furniture that he had ripped apart in a fit of pique at being left on his own for longer than half an hour. One time, he managed to open the kitchen cupboard under the sink and pull out its entire contents; scores of plastic bags were shredded and strewn around the floor, intermingled with two supersize sack’s worth of dog kibble which he had opened with his teeth, bottles of detergents and washing up liquid had been chewed and spilt all over the wooden floor, mixing with the other debris to create a sloppy, slippy, horrendous mess that took me hours to clean up.

After six months, I gave the dog to a re-homing place nearby. He was only one year old, and I knew that if a dog lover with more time and energy on their hands than I had at the time, took him on, they would be able to build him up to become a fine adult dog. He just needed patience and time and lots of long walks – three things that I was not able to provide him with at the time. After parting with my beloved puppy, I should have taken the hint; relationships with humans were never going to work for me whilst I was in that place. I had such a longing, however, to rebuild my family, to find a replacement Dad for the one who had buggered off with somebody else that I wasn’t as discerning as I might have been in my choice of boyfriends.

I remember at the time simply craving a family unit, and it coloured my vision. With hindsight I should have just waited until Mr. Right (who is currently asleep upstairs) came along and swept me off in a cloud of happiness. Could have, would have, should have. And I hope, Mowgli, that wherever you found yourself, you had a happy life and understood that we loved you so much. I really, truly, wish that I had kept you and rebuffed humans (in the boyfriend sense) for a while. I wish I could have made you in to the dog that you should have been. I’m sorry.