Updated: Apr 23
As the end of January is long faded, and February has dirged its way out of our lives, I wanted to pause for a moment. One of the things I promised myself this year was that I would focus on progress, not perfection. That I would make sure my writing, workshops, coaching and projects moved forward, but that I wouldn’t beat myself up if I didn’t do all the things I wanted to achieve. Seems reasonable, right?
It’s fair to say that, recently, my definition of progress has changed somewhat. I started the year having just had surgery for cancer, but was recovering well and only had immunotherapy to worry about (once every four weeks, no enormous side effects so far).
With this is in mind, I shifted my goals accordingly. I managed to host an event for the launch of my debut novel The Shadows We Cast, but lowered my expectations for how much promotion I could do. I made sure that I kept up my evening workshops, but decided to let the daytime ones go for now. I started the Artist’s Way, shifting my expectations slightly for those days when I was tired or kept busy by my daughter and needed to stretch the week out.
One thing I managed to achieve with all this craziness! Do please support Rape Crisis by donating here
I was delighted to get funding for Write By You, the writing project I run for young female writers in North London, so I knew I’d have to get organising. As keeping moving was an important part of my recovery, I also signed up to the Step Out in Solidarity for Rape Crisis England and Wales. With sexual assault the main topic of my book, I wanted to do something in the ‘real world’ to help people that are affected by it.
Then, I was told I needed radiotherapy. And before I knew it, the possibility of any kind of progress became oh-so-small. It’s funny how you always think you’re busy. I remember back when I was teaching part-time, wondering how I ever managed to do it full-time, or run a department. Then I had a kid, and wondered how on earth I’d thought I was busy or tired in a life when I could get up when I wanted at the weekend. But I was about to experience a whole new level of busy.
Even tiny moments of noticing and pausing have helped me
In my case, the treatment has meant going to a hospital that’s about 40mins away, every day, for a month (Mon-Fri). The logistics of that have been kindly covered by the French state, who pay for a taxi to take you there and back. But even with this brilliant state of affairs, I was still spending between 1h45 and 2h30 (depending on traffic, how behind they were), going to and from the hospital, waiting, lying very very still on a bed (don’t want radio waves going anywhere they shouldn’t!) and coming back again. Not exactly conducive to progress of any kind.
In the middle of all this, my daughter went off school for two whole weeks for the holidays. Now I had a four-year-old to entertain on top of it all. In stepped my wonderful sister, who came to stay and helped to amuse her, along with her extended family who arrived in the second week to add to the amusement and to cheer me up.
From having at least a few hours, four days a week, I suddenly found myself with tiny little windows in the day. Ten minutes before the taxi came, five minutes in the waiting room, maybe a half hour in the evenings before I got so exhausted I had to go to sleep. So how on earth do you live like that? What, if anything, do you do to keep yourself positive, sane and creative?
Of course, some things had to go. I ditched The Artist’s Way and occasionally scribbled down a page or two in my Morning Pages when I wanted to vent about how I was feeling. The project had to happen, so any teaspoons of time and energy were dripped into making contacts, finding venues and participants. But I didn’t want to ditch my creative side entirely. I didn’t want to let the treatment win!
The paintings weren't always special things. But it helped to keep me focused and creative.
So, I sliced things up as small as I could. I told myself that ten minutes of the car ride would be spent looking out of the window and imagining what shapes the clouds might be, or remembering holidays I’d been on. The rest could be used for listening to podcasts. I’d already limited the number of steps I was doing for charity, but the daily paintings meant that I had to find at least one thing during that day, even if it was only the bin I saw when I walked in the rain. As I’d already promised writers I would feature them on my site, I had purposeful reading to do, a wonderful thing when all I wanted to do was read endless Discworld novels and watch Buffy (I did some of that, too).
Now, I’m on the other side. Looking back, dazed, over this cramped month and wondering how I did it. My body still sways with the rhythm of the taxi I sat in for over an hour every day, the turns of the roundabouts, the changing of the scenery on the way to the hospital.
If there’s one positive, it’s at least that my sense of time has shifted now. Today was the first day in almost five weeks with no appointments, no blood tests, and my daughter in school for the entire day. It feels enormous. I can almost remember what it was like when I was back at school, the impossibility of six weeks of summer stretching away, just like the four whole weeks I have now until the next hospital visit.
We will always be busy. We will always find our dreams squashed into a corner behind the things we must do. But whatever you want to make progress with – writing, painting, gardening, singing, meditating – all it takes is the tiniest slice of your day to leave your soul just a little fuller when you go to sleep at night.
I’ll carry on spooning out my attention and time whenever I can, making sure that I keep some of that sweetness just for me. I hope you do too.
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