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Adventures in Sketching

I recently spent a lovely week visiting relatives in England. I set myself the challenge of sketching every day. Mostly because it’s a fun, relaxing thing to do on holiday. But also because I’d love to illustrate my own books and I want to get better. My illustration mentor, John Fardell has been telling me to sketch every day for a long while. So finally I made the time to do it. Here’s how I got on:

DAY ZERO: SUNFLOWER

The day before I left a stylus arrived – I had a quick go with the notes app:

Then I downloaded the paper app to try that next…

DAY ONE: WOBBLY OTTER (all the pens, paintprush and pencil)

wobblyotterI sketched this on the train so it’s not precise. It was my first go with the paper app so it was all about getting used to the different pens and colours and seeing which ones blend and which override the one below – that kind of thing. I love otters!

DAY TWO: SCOTTIE DOG (Dip pen and a little bit of pencil)

scottiedogI’m writing a book about a worm and a scottie dog just now so that’s why I chose to draw him! I google image searched for ‘scottie dog’ and chose one I liked. He was on my phone while I sketched on the ipad. I was really pleased with the result.

DAY THREE: OSCAR (Dip pen, ball point pen, pencil, paintbrush)

oscarI was missing my lovely cat so I thought I’d draw him. He’s all black so that was a challenge but I realised the great thing about digital drawing is, you can add lighter colours over the top of darker ones. In real life that doesn’t really work so I made the most of that, building up the dark colours first and adding the light after. It even looks like him (:

DAY FOUR: QUICK MINI (Dip pen) AND A NEPHEW (Dip pen, paintbrush)mini

My sister picked up an amazing new mini! I love minis and really enjoyed sketching the light on something shiny!

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I also tried to sketch my nephew from a photo but it went a bit wrong and aged him by about ten years – he looks like someone else:nephewI tried to get the mouth right so many times and eventually gave up and just did a little line! So I learnt mouths are hard and maybe I should stick to animals.

DAY FIVE: BROUGHTON FOX (Dip pen, ball point pen, pencil, paintbrush)

fox

The Broughton Spurtle were having a competition to find foxes in Broughton and I noticed a fab photo of a fox by Camera Stellata:

I thought I’d go for some colour this time, I really loved building up the colours in layers and adding texture and inking over lines. I was really pleased with this – it looks 3D and I like his face!

DAY SIX: PTARMIGAN (Dip pen, ball point pen, pencil, paintbrush)

ptarmigan

I love rare Scottish birds – I’ve written books about a black grouse and a capercaillie. Earlier this year I had a wonderful experience sitting next to a pair of Ptarmigan up Cairngorm. Here’s a picture I took with my phone of one of them:

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They have white feathers in winter and black feathers in summer and they change to half and half in spring and autumn. They’re pretty cool as birds go! Here’s the lovely photo by Ben Dolphin that I sketched from:

I also added some lettering – my writing is quite messy, I’m a bit dyslexic but I’ve been encouraged by illustrators like Oliver Jeffers who use messy letters as part of their illustrations and thought I’d have a go – I like it!

DAY SEVEN: QUICK WILLOW (Dip pen, ball point pen, paintbrush)

willow

I had a lovely day on my Dad’s canal boat. I just had ten minutes after lunch to sketch one of the willows before we moved on along the canal (and I was needed for locks!). It’s an impression but I think it could work as a style for a background in a picture book? If you screw your eyes up it suddenly looks real so I like that about it! Here’s the canal in real life:

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DAY EIGHT: NIECE (Dip pen, ball point pen, paintbrush)IMG_20160720_003611My final day of the trip and I’d forgotten to sketch until the plane ride home. A friend had said they thought I should try people again so I decided to give it one more go and sketched a picture of my niece in the time it took to complete the journey. The only problem is my style went a bit realistic rather than children’s illustration. It’s a bit too intense. Then I tried to make the eyes less realistic. But it’s just a bit of a weird mishmash of styles.

One of the best bits is the clothes and I just did them really quick! But one good thing is, her mouth! It looks like a real mouth so at least I improved at something. I ran out of time to finish this but it’s something I can come back to. People are hard!

AND NOW…

I’ll keep going. The best thing was I totally loved doing it. I improved. I got excited every time I finished a sketch and I wanted to show someone – kind of like being a kid again. It’s nice to feel that. Thanks to the people who encouraged me when I sent photos and posted them on my facebook page, twitter and instagram.

Sketching made me get up earlier to sketch before the day started. I felt happy and excited. Even if I never illustrate my own books – I think I’ll make sketching part of life!

Thanks to John Fardell for all the illustration encouragement. And to Elspeth Murray for being an awesome Ipad sketcher and making Ipad sketching a thing.  And to Stuart for convincing me a stylus would work on my Ipad, even though I’d tried five and even called the apple help line (who said a stylus was ‘unsupported’ on the ipad mini). Turns out you can even use sausages

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in illustration, nature, Writing

 

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Before the Light Came

Sometime in 2014 I was invited to respond to a short section of archive film with creative writing. The request came from Filmpoem artist Alastair Cook. I’d responded once before to a 20 second Filmpoem (20 poets – 20s of film each) back in 2012 and really enjoyed the challenge. I also worked with Alastair and children at North Lights Arts Festival to help the children create their own film poem, Shaking Shells.

This time I was one of several poets who responded, we each got given a section of silent film and none of us saw each other’s footage. The short film has now been published with Rachel McCrum‘s beautiful voice narrating the piece.

At the time when the request came, I’d been listening to a series of podcasts about the illusive nature of happiness, if you try to chase after it or hold onto it – it slips through your fingers. I work with children lots and they laugh loads more than we do. I was thinking about how they seem to be better at happiness. They create things, like a lovely piece of art, and then they give it away. It goes something like this:

I love this star. I made this star. YAY it’s finished! I want you to have it! See you later…

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And then they’re off, doing something else. I studied physics so I often think about science when I’m writing too. In my piece of film there were people fishing – it looked like they were trying to catch light. I thought about the nature of light and it being like happiness and I thought about the things we try to do to prepare for happiness – when I get this job or this house or this relationship… I’ll be happy. But actually that doesn’t work.

So my poem is about chasing after happiness – trying to contain it and keep it. And how children just give it away and we need to be more like them if we want to be happy. With light as the metaphor – because it’s a wave (travelling through) and a particle. And we’re all made from stars:

Before the light came, we travelled in straight lines, with sunglasses in our bags.
Later, when it arrived we tried to catch it in our hands. Our jam jars labeled ‘photons’.

She was only three, but she knew how to share. Almost as soon as she held it, she gave it away. Without fear. Without loss.

She stayed bright, while the rest of us returned to shadows.

You can see my section as part of the beautiful Filmpoem Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared):

Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared) from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.

It was amazing to see how well the individually written pieces worked together as a whole. Here’s how Alastair describes the complete piece on his website:

Watch Alastair Cook’s brand new film, three years in the making, with new writing by twenty of the world’s best poets, sountracked by composer Luca Nasciutia and read by poet Rachel McCrum – screens worldwide from Autumn 2016. New ekphrasis work by poets John Glenday, Vicki Feaver, Stevie Ronnie, Janie McKie, Brian Johnstone, Jo Bell, Andrew Philip, Linda France, Dave Bonta, Angela Readman, Michael Vandebril, Gerard Rudolf, George Szirtes, Emily Dodd, Ian Duhig, Rachel McCrum, Robert Peake, Polly Rowena Atkin, Pippa Little and Vona Groarke.

All images and films are copyright Alastair Cook 2016 unless expressly indicated otherwise.

My next book is a science book for children and by coincidence, it’s about Light!
 
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Posted by on June 2, 2016 in Film, poetry, Science, Writing

 

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Cover Reveal: Light

I’m excited to share the beautiful front cover of my new book ‘Light’ published by HarperCollins for Collins Primary:

lightCover

It’s a science school book for children age 10. I’ve been working on colour proofs the last couple of weeks – that’s when the manuscript you’ve written comes back with all the photos and diagrams on it. All the text is laid out beautifully around the pictures and you make any last changes to text or diagrams.

The book includes shadows, reflection, prisms and discoveries by famous scientists like Einstien, Newton and Galileo. It covers the speed of light, lightning, light years, eclipses, bioluminescence and light in the future (inventions to bend light and make us invisible and laser stitches!).

I was expecting the cover to be the Northern Lights – but I was super excited to see the trees. I love that it captures the beauty of science, that’s what the book is about – light is amazing! Everything we see we can only see because of light. Everything in the world depends on the speed of light. I’ve also got a thing for woods and light, this is my bedroom wall:

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The book will be published in September. You can pre-order it online now.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2016 in Education, nature, Science, Writing

 

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Blame or Vulnerability?

If someone says or does something that hurts us it’s easy to react with blame. It usually starts with the word ‘you’ and is often delivered in an angry voice:

You’re causing me to..
You’re making me…

It’s unfair to blame anyone else for our feelings because only we are responsible for our reactions to situations. Blame is damaging to others too. So what alternatives do we have? Should we just pretend we’re fine?

Vulnerability is sharing how you feel without making the other person responsible:

When you say XXX, I feel XXX because…
It hurt my feelings when…

I feel angry

It might seem a subtle difference but blame is an attack that pushes others away whereas vulnerability is being real enough to trust a person with how something effects you without holding them responsible. It gives them a chance to explain, it gives them a chance to understand, it gives space for misunderstanding to be uncovered on both sides, it gives them an opportunity to say how they feel and it ultimately brings people closer together.

I came across a brilliant video that illustrates the difference between blame and vulnerability, it’s a short talk by shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown. She says we’re all blamers but blame sabotages relationships. I love this video because it’s insightful but also really entertaining:

I’ve been thinking about the other options we have. Blaming others is easy, vulnerability is hard and scary. But what else do people do?

Overlook an Offense
Research shows that anything that causes a strong reaction is 70% your past and 30% the current situation. So you’ve been reminded subconsciously of something that happened before, it hurts because it’s an old wound. This new situation and new person didn’t inflict the level of pain you’re feeling. If you start to notice patterns, perhaps you could talk to a friend you trust or get professional help from a counselor?

On the other hand, research also shows successful couples have a lower threshold for talking about issues. By talking about small things that bother them when they’re small, they don’t become big issues further down the line. So perhaps it’s about being aware of your past if a reaction seems disproportionate to a situation and being willing to be honest and real with the people you’re close to.

I expect my closest friends to tell me if I’m doing something that bothers them.

Talk about Them

This is an easy option and classic workplace scenario. Someone disagrees with a decision or is offended by a comment but instead of talking to the person about it, they moan to everyone else. It’s unfair because the person may have no clue you’re upset with them and they may not have meant to offend at all. The whole thing could be a misunderstanding and they’re not there to defend themselves. Based on the principle that most people are trying to do their best, it probably wasn’t intended to hurt you.

Go to Them: Vulnerability

I find this scary but I agree with Brene, it’s the right thing to do if you care. If it’s a small thing I’ll ask a question on the spot “did you mean..?” to resolve the issue there and then. But if it’s upset me I’ll wait a bit in case I’m reacting to something disproportionately and I don’t want to say something I regret in anger or blame someone and hurt them.

I try to write down what I want to say and get it into three bullet points so I won’t bore someone or confuse them with irrelevant details. I also try to write some positives about the person too. That process helps me feel better and I’m in a much better place to speak to them if I still feel it’s an issue that will come up again if it’s not resolved.

Writing it down also helps me not to blame when I speak because I can phrase things the way I want to.

A wee tip I learned on a course recently is if you want someone to do something for you in response, ask them to meet a need rather than tell them how they’ve not met it. It’s much easier for people to respond to a request.

Try and do it in person. I’ve not always got this right, I’ve maybe texted because I don’t think it’s a big deal but it’s easy to misread tone in texts and the other person can’t ask questions and I’ve offended or been offended.

Think about timing, they might be busy, wait until they’re ready.

Assume the best.” I’m sure you wouldn’t mean this..” might be a good start.

Get help from someone you trust if you’re unsure or just need help in working out what you’re thinking and what the issue is. They will be able to offer an alternative perspective and might help with your blind spots. But still go to the person because otherwise you’re just doing the ‘talk about them’ thing above.

Having one of these conversations doesn’t usually take more than 5 minutes. It’s scary but loving so I do it even though I’m uncomfortable. I’ll even say “I find these conversations a bit difficult so bear with me.” I don’t have them very often and  I usually treat myself to something afterwards too – a mini celebration. The good thing is, most of the time I’ve been amazed at how well people respond to you trusting them enough to be vulnerable like this. And the issue and other issues get resolved in the process. Some examples of feedback:

I really appreciate the directness of this conversation – this is brilliant! (Male colleague)

Thanks for loving me enough to have this conversation, most people wouldn’t! (Female friend)

In one situation I spoke to a manager because everyone was feeling that their work wasn’t good enough because he only said what was wrong. After the chat he got cake for the team to let them know how much he appreciated their hard work. I didn’t speak on behalf of others, just myself but his reaction resulted in everyone being happy. We also became much better friends afterwards too. Plus I got to eat cake! I didn’t request cake- he just did that!

Lastly, not everyone will be able to receive a conversation like this due to a number of factors but a major one of those is their insecurity. They may start shouting, attacking or blaming you. They may agree to speak but make it clear how unwilling they are to hear you and how much you’re bothering them before you even get to the conversation. They’re hurt or scared but haven’t learnt how to be vulnerable. You’re better off leaving it – some people defend any perceived threat through attack. If you’re being blamed, attacked or rejected emotionally when you’re trying to be vulnerable, it’s like being kicked when you’re already down – it’s hurtful and damaging to who you are. Retreat and learn who safe people are and keep yourself safe too. Good luck!

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Education, Media

 

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Mining Memories with Primary Two

whatwould

What would it be like to be a canary called CoCo working down the Kinneil Pit? Or a pit cat? Or a pit pony? Or an 11-year-old boy on his first day down the mine? Five and six-year olds from Bo’ness Primary School imagined they were the animals and children down the mine. They wrote these amazing stories:

I’ve been working with the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative to create digital stories about mining with primary school children. I’m writing a series of blogs to share their mining memories. This first post is stories by Primary Two at Bo’ness Public Primary School. I’ll tell you a bit more about the project:

Digital Stories

Digital stories are short audio sound tracks (less than 3 minuets) with still images over the top. They’re personal stories in the story makers own voice. I previously worked on three digital story projects with Britain from Above, The Govan Reminiscence Group and with Historic Scotland’s Trinity House. You can read about that project here.

This was unusual because it was creating digital stories but imagining the perspective instead of it being a storymaker telling their true story. It was also working with primary two children (age five and six) instead of adults. And we imagined we were animals!

Primary Two

The project started with storytelling workshops in class – we chatted about what makes a good story and using our imagination and memories to come up with lots of ideas. I told them an animal story and set them a brief to create their own short stories from the perspective of a pit animal. At first the pit ponies were wearing sparkley tutus and loved dancing but we talked about how great their use of imagination was and what a good idea it was to think about things like clothes and feelings – what would a pit pony wear to go down the pit? How might they feel going down the mine? They got back to work and learned one of the most important lessons about writing – it’s all about rewriting!

The class went on a visit to the National Mining Museum Scotland and had a talk about the roles of animals and children in the Mine from the Maria Ford, Chairperson of the Friends of Kinneil Trust.

They had budgies in the classroom so we talked about how the budgies might feel and what it would be like to be a canary. Then the children worked with their class teacher Mrs McNab to create beautiful books:

sparklepitponycrop

And amazing canaries in cages:

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And 3D pit ponies with coal carts: Photo 11-03-2016, 12 55 52

And fields for the pit ponies to play in:

field

I’d popped back in to see how they were getting on half way through the project and was amazed by their new and improved stories and all the beautiful artwork.I came back again at the end of the project to photograph their artwork and to record the children reading their stories.

After that I edited the audio soundtrack and images together to create the YouTube stories shared above. We screened them along with stories from other classes at the Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness. It was so good to see the children’s amazing stories being celebrated in style on the big screen in a cinema!

This post is part of a series sharing the work from the Mining Memories Project. The next post in this series will be sharing primary five and primary six digital stories about the miners strike from the perspective of pick axes, bits of coal and even Margaret Thatcher!

 
 

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I am a Dinosaur

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I’m a dinosaur in a spoken word show in the Science Festival. It’s an adult show.  I’ve written a monologue from the perspective of Dracorex Hogwartsia. If you’ve not heard of her, well I am.. or I was a really awesome dinosaur with spikes and horns. The name translates to dragon king of Hogwarts – yeah.. the Harry Potter dinosaur.

But they discovered I was actually a juvinile Pachycephalosaurus. The dinosaur more commonly known as a bone head. Which really sucks. The cool spikes and horns disappear when I get older.

The show starts with my relegation from dinosaur status. I’ve been demoted like Pluto when he lost his ‘planet’. And I’ve arrived in some sort of limbo where the demoted dinosaurs rant and drink tea. It’s a support group. Or something like that. And that’s our show. Based on real science. Questioning what it means to exist and what happens when science gets it wrong.

So who are the demoted dinosaurs? 

  • LIBYCOSAURUS (the ever optimistic) played be Beth Godfrey, written by Sarah Thewlis
  • AGROSAURUS (hater of humans) played by Sian Hickson, written by Sian Hickson
  • ARCHAEORAPTOR (the missing link) played by Lewis Hou, Written by Lewis Hou
  • AACHENOSAURUS (the sarcastic philosopher) played by Andrew Blair, written by Andrew Blair
  • UNICEROSAURUS (the preacher) played by Ricky Brown, written by Ricky Brown and Nerd Bait Band
  • DRACOREX (the confused) that’s me

The show idea and direction come from Sarah Thewlis. Co director and tech support comes via Chris Scott. Hope to see you there!

The Illicit Ink show ‘Linnaean Limbo: The Dinosaurs That Never Were’ is at the enatomy lecture theatre at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival on Monday 4th April. Tickets are £8.50. Get tickets here.

 
 

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Why Plants are Like People

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I’ve planted a tiny garden on the balcony. I love helping plants to grow. I can’t wait to plant sweet peas and sit out on summer evenings with friends and a beer. On clear nights you can see the stars from the balcony and in the day it’s a beautiful sun trap. I drink tea out there and the cat loves it.

I neglected the balcony garden over winter, but a few weeks ago I got all the indoor and outdoor plants together and started work:

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While I was working I kept thinking about people and how we’re like plants. We should be growing but sometimes we need to change something to help us grow better.

Repotting

The lavender and the heather were too big for their pots so they’d stopped growing. Sometimes we need repotting. We need a new challenge, something that seems too big for us. It might be scary to say yes but we can’t grow until we do. It might be a new project at work, a new job or a new creative challenge. Maybe it’s having a child, starting a new relationship or learning a new skill. Sometimes we just need that bigger pot to get us started.

Relocating

The peace lily was almost dead. It didn’t have enough light in the hall. I’d tried it in a windowsill and that was too much light. I couldn’t seem to get it right and it seemed to be doomed. I was round at a friend’s and spotted a thriving peace lily in the bathroom by a frosted glass window. Maybe frosted glass was the perfect lighting for peace? I moved my peace lily into the bathroom as soon as I got home. Each time I washed my hands I sprinkled a little water onto the dying plant and within a day the leaves had started to stand up straight and now it’s thriving.

Sometimes we need to be in a different environment. Maybe it’s time to change job or move house? I was chatting to a friend about a job that had gradually changed to become nothing like the job she first applied for. She dreads Mondays. I told her a story: When a frog jumps into boiling water it jumps straight out because it’s too hot. But if a frog jumps into cold water and you gradually turn up the heat then it doesn’t jump out. It dies. We both laughed at the slightly awkward ending and its implications. You don’t always notice how bad something is becoming or how it’s affecting you until it’s too late. Perhaps it’s time to jump!

Pruning

Some of the plants need the dead bits removing before they will grow. Take off dead lavender heads or the old primrose flowers and many more flowers sprout up. My chives were half dead and half green so I cut all of it back so the plant could grow new healthy shoots without all the dead bits getting in the way.

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Sometimes there are old habits or old relationships which were life giving once, but now they’re sucking the life away from us and we need to let them go. Maybe we’re doing too much and need to cut something out to really thrive. It’s hard to do but we won’t grow properly until we do.

Separating

I was given a plant arrangement in a basket but I decided it was time to separate the three plants so they could stand in their own pots. It’s great to be doing things with support but we still need to stand in our own pot with our own clear boundaries. If it’s unclear where you end and someone else begins you might start to loose yourself or rely on someone else in an unhealthy way. We all need each other, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay to ask for help but when we expect others to meet our needs when they don’t want to or can’t, well that’s when problems arise. We can simply ask and we can say no to others if we need to. Another important boundary is to be able to say if something someone is saying or doing bothers us. That’s healthy and safe and it’s what makes relationships grow stronger if it’s done without blame and with love.

Weeds

Weeds are like controlling people. They gradually take over and suffocate who you are. Everyone is controlling at times, we react out of insecurity or we want to help others so we step in when we don’t need to. If you’re aware of it and concerned you might be doing it you’re most likely unintentionally controlling – that’s okay – you’ll apologise if it happens, you’re aware of your weaknesses and if someone lets you know you’re being controlling, you’ll take responsibility and change your behavior as a result. Good friends or partners let each other know if something they’re doing bothers them.

Unfortunately though – there’s a pattern of controlling behavior that continues over time like a weed choking a plant. This is an emotionally abusive relationship, if you’re in this by the very nature of it, you won’t be aware you’re in it. You’ll be feeling more and more anxious and less like you as your sense of self is being chipped away.

Here are a few things to look out for:

Abusive people continually tell you what to do. It’s fine to make suggestions from time to time but they start with “I think” or “I suggest”. If you’re continually hearing “You really should” or “You need to” then they’re trying to undermine you and make their voice the dominant voice in your life.

You probably apologise often and them.. never!

They try to change your memories of events to paint you in a bad light with statements like “All your friends thought XXX”. The best thing to do is to go to the people concerned and ask them what they thought. They’ll reassure you it’s not true – don’t let someone redefine history.

Abusive people do not legitimise others feelings – it’s part of something physiologists call ‘crazy making behaviour‘. Continually dismissing someones legitimate feelings causes the person to feel frustrated and rejected to a point where they’re feeling so insecure, hurt and misunderstood they start to act and feel crazy. The abuser then points this out as an overreaction and explains how they always have to put up with this crazy friend / partner. At this point the partner / friend usually folds or apologises and the abuse continues.

Abusive people blame you for their feelings instead of expressing them in a healthy way. So for example instead of saying “I feel X” or “When you say or do this I feel like X” they will say “You are making me… ” or “You have ruined my evening / lunch / weekend.” This is emotional blackmail – it causes you feel bad and stops you daring to raise an issue or express a point of view different to theirs. You have every right to express how you feel, just don’t blame another person for your feelings.

There’s a common misconception that if someone was being abusive towards you, you’d just leave or cut off from the relationship. The problem is the abuser will be incredibly kind and charming at times, inconsistent praise is also a ‘crazy making behaviour‘ and something like this takes place over weeks, months and even years to a point where your sense of self is so eroded that you’re less able to see things objectively or defend yourself. You’ll think there’s something wrong with you, not them. You’ll also be looking to the abusive person for validation so you’ll think you need them.

If any of this seems familiar, I’ve posted a couple of checklists below to help. If you answer yes to most or all of the things on the lists please speak to someone you trust or get help from an organisation like Living Without Abuse.

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I was thinking about how plants need light and water even after they’ve been pruned or re-potted so what does that look like for people?

For me it’s doing things I’m good at, being outside and being encouraged by others – that’s like water. And spending time with people who love me, challenge me and let me be myself, that’s like light.

What brings you life?

 

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2016 in Environment, nature, storytelling

 

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