Tuesday 27 February 2018

The Day That Almost Was

It was a day that had been planned with military precision, to encompass several birthday gift experiences, a family lunch and an exhibition.... not to mention ticking off several sixty x sixty experiences. Then as the day loomed near it seemed like it might not happen at all. A family crisis  knocked us all out of kilter and looked like it might put paid to any days out. I'm not going to be cloak and dagger about it, youngest son's mental health has hit a crisis point and he requires pretty much round the clock care at the moment, but that is all I need to say. There's not going to be a quick fix. But contingency plans were put into place and we were looking forward to our day out. Then less than 24 hours beforehand we received a call to say our RIB (rigid inflatable boat) experience on the Thames had been cancelled as there were only the two of us booked on. We were outraged and complained but to no avail so instead did a little bit of re-jigging of the schedule and arrived outside Blackfriar's underground station at 11 am for a "Shakespeare in the City" tour. Except no one else was there. After we eventually tracked down contact details for the company we were told the guide waited until 11.05 and then left without us, but we're not convinced, especially as we were immediately offered a replacement tour another day.

So that left two hours to kill until lunchtime. We headed into the city and thought it would be fun to spend the time in St.Paul's cathedral. That was until we discovered it was £18 each to get in, unless of course we were going in to worship. I tell you, by now I was quite ready to go in and pray if it meant being somewhere warm, but instead we went down into the cafe, drank coffee and read our books for an hour.

It was then time to brace the cold again (by now feeling slightly grateful that there was no speed boat trip) and walk up the road to the church of St. Mary Le Bow, home of the famous Bow Bells where we were meeting my eldest son Ben and his fiancee in the Cafe Below. It was lovely to see them both and the lunch was fabulous so the day was starting to look up!

After lunch we popped into the church which has been rebuilt twice, originally after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then again after being destroyed by a German bomb in the Blitz... and what's more, it was totally free!

The stained glass was stunning.

After looking around the church we made our way to the Royal Academy where we had tickets booked for the Charles I King and Collector exhibition. Charles I had amassed an extraordinary art collection in his lifetime yet after his execution it was sold off and scattered around Europe. This exhibition brings back together over 100 works of Art from his original collection - paintings, drawings, sculpture and tapestries from artists such as Rubens, Titian, Holbein and Van Dyke. I was tired, it was crowded and I was not as impressed as I thought I might be. However I loved some of the large portraits of the Royal family and those of the King on horseback as well as some beautiful drawings.

But best of all I loved this Rembrandt of the Artist's Mother. It's difficult to convey in a reproduction just how exquisite this painting is in the flesh. The handling of the elderly woman's skin is so beautiful and luminous. I stood in front of it for a long time and kept coming back for another look.

Because we had brought our visit to the RA forward due to the cancelled boat trip we were able to fit in a second exhibition "From Life" which looked at a variety of work from the past and present where artists work from life models. It was a small yet fascinating exhibition and included a couple of fun and rather surreal virtual reality exhibits in which we could partake.

Then after a quick sandwich it was off to Covent garden for our last experience - a gin tasting at Mr. Foggs Gin Parlour, where we got a potted history of gin and a chance to taste some different varieties. So although the day got off to a bad start it finished well!

And so back home where life continues to be a bit of a challenge, so I'm grateful for the odd day out even if it doesn't always go according to plan.

Thursday 22 February 2018

A Good Read

Thank you for the kind comments on my last post which has definitely boosted my confidence with regards to writing. I think that it would be difficult to become a good writer without also loving to read. Thinking about the possibility of writing more seriously also got me to thinking about exactly what books I really enjoy reading the most and why that might be. I don't like books with lots of wiffly waffly language (and I am aware neither of those are words but I'm sure you get my drift), over peppered with adjectives, or ones that labour a point treating the reader as though they might be a little bit dense. I like to be credited with some intelligence when I read. And I like to have to work things out for myself which brings to mind a quote from one of my favourite ever books The Lacuna - "The most interesting part of any story is the part we do not know" (I am probably paraphrasing here). I don't like books where the author tries to show how clever they are, jamming in every last little bit of information, showing off their superior knowledge. In my mind what is really clever is knowing what to leave out.

Which leads on quite nicely to one or two books that I have read recently that have ticked some of the boxes for a good read. Our book club choice for February was The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a reasonably popular choice. There is some well written prose that creates the atmosphere of the time perfectly. The story of schoolgirls Grace and Tilly who in the blistering heat of the summer of 1976 set out to unravel a series of mysteries and secrets that are held by the various residents of their neighbourhood, starts well. The central mystery is the disappearance of a neighbour Mrs Creasy but as the story builds there is almost too much going on; too many secrets, bullying husbands, overbearing mothers, kidnapped children, grieving spouses and the slightly odd man who lives on his own in the big house. There were things that didn't quite add up, other bits of the story that seemed irrelevant and superfluous (if you have read it, what was the point of the drainpipe?) and despite the promising start it never came to any resolution and we are left still not actually knowing why Mrs Creasy disappeared. That said it opened up a lot of questions about differences, herd mentality and the way we judge people - who are the goats and who are the sheep? Overall it was an easy and entertaining read but it didn't quite manage to pull together for me.

One of the best books I have read in ages, one that I literally couldn't put down was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This is also a story that looks at differences. The central character Eleanor is slightly odd; she gets on with her work, has a tendency to speak her mind quite bluntly and likes to stick to her routine. She prefers to keep herself to herself and doesn't mix but at the same time she is profoundly lonely. As the story gently unfolds we are given glimpses into her background and her difficult relationship with her mother. I found this to be heartbreakingly sad in places but also triumphant and uplifting as well as hilariously funny at times. Because it is not only a story of difference but it is about acceptance and healing too. A book to make you laugh and cry but ultimately feel good.

As well as favourite books I have favourite writers, those whose precise prose gives away just the right amount of information and lures you into the story. Writers who make you care about the characters and their lives. One of those writers is Maggie O'Farrell who has a gift for weaving a story and I have yet to read one of her novels that I didn't enjoy. This Must be the Place is about love and relationships, central themes to all O'Farrell's stories. it skips between continents and time zones gradually piecing together a picture of lives that I can't help feeling are about to fall apart. I picked it up at the library a couple of days ago and I am already half way through. I might have finished it if it wasn't such a hefty hardback - there is only so long I can hold it upright when I'm reading in bed!

Have you read anything really enjoyable recently?

Monday 19 February 2018

Off Piste

This is not my usual type of blog post but I hope you'll bear with me, even though it might be a bit wordy... depending on how fast I type! A few weeks ago I signed up for a free on-line Winter Writing Workshop with Do What You Love for Life. Despite having kept this blog for over ten years, written a pantomime, edited our village newsletter for the past year and  having always written diaries I don't think it has ever crossed my mind to consider myself a writer. But I quite liked the idea of the challenge of a week of writing prompts. On day five we were looking at the value of critisism and rejection which included watching Oprah Winfrey interview J. K. Rowling. Our writing challenge for that day was then to write a 30 minute* blog post on "What Oprah Winfrey has taught me"

To be fair we could choose another public figure we admired but I liked the challenge of writing about Oprah Winfrey, especially as until last Saturday I don't think I had ever thought an awful lot about her. I knew she had been a tabloid style chat show host with a hugely successful show, but beyond that I knew very little. The only time I've ever seen her before was in the film "The Colour Purple" in which she gave an excellent performance gaining an Oscar nomination but I could hardly claim that had taught me anything. 

But I thought her interview with J. K. Rowling was totally captivating and it had me fascinated for the entire conversation. She showed such a connection, empathy and genuine interest in her guest that I was determined to find out more and so I did what all good writers should do and that was some research. I was  surprised by some of the things I discovered. Oprah was born into poverty in rural Mississippi in 1954, to an unmarried teenage mother. She was raised in turn by her maternal grandmother, her mother and then her father. She suffered abuse in her childhood and became pregnant aged just fouteen but her only son died in infancy.

Whilst still at school she got a job in local radio and despite all her disadvantages she excelled at school and won a scholarship to Tennessee State University. Her career in local media took off and her meteoric rise to host the most popular TV talk show ever, was rapid. She has gone on to write books, produce, act and has become a media proprietor. Not only is she cited as the richest African-American she is also ranked as the greatest black philanthropist in American history, supporting numerous educational causes and relief efforts. There is no doubt her life has courted much controversy but I was struck by her openess and generosity of spirit. She has risen from her own disadvantaged background to show strength, overcoming adversity and going on to help others do the same. So to answer "What Oprah Winfey has taught me" I think it is that despite where we come from, despite our mistakes and our flaws, we can constantly learn and grow aspiring to be the best version of ourselves possible. In her own words "Step out of the history that is holding you back. Step into the new story you are willing to create". It has also been a lesson not to make judgements without being informed. I  could have quite easily dismissed Oprah Winfey as just another over-hyped celebrity... I would have been wrong.

So that was my blog post for this particular writing exercise and I would be interested in your feedback, because it feels a bit scary going off piste like this and away from the safety my usual subjects like cake and knitting! Are there any public figures you admire? Who would you have written about?

* This actually took longer than thirty minutes but I was too absorbed in the process to stop writing.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Sunshine and Snowdrops

A quick post today... lots of photos but few words (I say that now but of course that could all change by the time I get to the end of this post)

I know I have written posts about visiting the winter garden at Anglesey Abbey before but on Monday I met up with Gill specifically to see the snowdrops (which of course means it counts as a sixty x sixty). Apparently there are over 250 different varieties scattered around the estate. I can't tell you whether we saw them all but we certainly saw a  lot.

We were so lucky with the weather - it was bitterly cold but a beautiful bright sunny day, the sort of day when the winter garden looks its best. Of course, also being the first day of half term the place was heaving with families and hoards of small (and mostly well behaved) children but I'll gloss over that.

As well as snowdrops there were stunning Tibetan Cherry trees with the shiniest trunks imaginable. I'm sure someone had been out with their duster and Mr. Sheen!

Fabulous fluffy Witch Hazel

Dogwood in colours ranging from the brightest yellow to deepest red... you can see why this variety below is called Midwinter Fire.

There was blossom...

and even a few lone daffodils.

And the specatcular grove of Himilayan Birch, which apparently they wash to keep them bright white.

This one kept its eye on us!

Lots of pretty Hellebores too

We walked and talked, browsed the second hand book shop where we each bought gardening books and then we camped briefly in the coffee shop for a cheese scone and a hot chocolate (just to prove I don't rigidly stick to rules). There had been plans to sit and knit but as I said it was half term and it was loud, crowded and messy (yarn and crumbs of chocolate cake don't make a good mix) so we didn't linger too long but lovely to catch up all the same.

Back home I looked through my photos and dreamed how I might transform my garden or possibly even wash my single Silver Birch tree (no, you're right, I didn't even consider this), but I know it won't happen. Plus we are starting to seriously think about downsizing before too long so not much point investing money and effort if we won't reap the benefits. Although we've been saying this for the past five years which adds up to a lot of benefits that could have been reaped had we been so inclined!

Friday 9 February 2018

The Four Pillars

Blogging really feels like it is taking a back seat the moment, which is frustrating because there is much I would like to write about but as always is the way when there is lots happening there is no time to write. Of course when there is plenty of time to write I've nothing much to say!

Despite being busy I'm still trying to follow the advice in Dr Chatterjee's book The 4 Pillar Plan, trying to improve how I relax, eat, move and sleep. For each of the four 'pillars' there is a five point check list and until I started writing this I thought I was doing really well... oh how we can fool ourselves!

For relaxation he suggests carving out some 'me time' each day. It can be almost anything that is solely for me that doesn't involve a screen plus I mustn't feel guilty about it. If nothing else I read a real book for at least 15 guilt free minutes a day so I think I can consider that ticked. I also eat at least one meal around a table... in fact we generally eat all our meals at the table. so that is two points ticked... however keeping a screen free Sabbath (or any day I guess) is not something I've done, nor a daily period of stillness... although when I'm laying awake unable to sleep I try to meditate on my breathing. Does that count? The fifth suggestion is to keep a gratitude journal which I sort of do mentally but just forget to write it down. He suggests doing it last thing at night but it's just about the last thing I think about... too busy thinking about that elusive sleep!

I'm not scoring so well on the moving either. I mostly manage 10,000 steps a day but strength training, high intensity intervals training, exercise snacking, daily glute exercises? I don't think so... I really must reread that chapter! Sleep is not scoring so well either. I can appreciate an environment of darkness for going off to sleep but I actually like the arrival of daylight to wake me up. Plus I'm not about to get new curtains. I did a few days with no screen time in the evenings (until I discovered the ancestry research) and even a few days with no caffine in the evening but even though I have tried really hard  I find most herbal teas revolting and as there was no discernable difference in my sleeping pattern I've reverted back to old habits. At least I get twenty minutes of daylight outside every morning.

But for the eating I'm scoring four out of five (if you have the book you will know that he suggests it is far better to score two in each pillar than a high score in one and nothing in others... but we'll gloss over that for now!) Retrain taste buds to de-normailise sugar... tick, Eat five different veg a day... tick, eat all my food within a twelve hour window... tick, unprocess my diet... tick! The only thing I struggle with at this time of year is drinking eight glasses of water a day. I do try but mostly forget. And when I do remember, I spend half the night up and down needing a wee, so it doesn't do much for me getting a better night's sleep

But I'm really enjoying the food... breakfast is always a favourite meal especially every conceivable porridge variation - the current favourite is made with blueberries and topped with yoghurt and slices of kiwi. Or maybe fruit and yoghurt topped with homemade granola... so much nicer than any supermarket brands. 

Homemade Granola
I warm up 25g butter with 60g nut butter (usually almond) and 60 g honey. Stir that into 300g oats along with 75g chopped nuts (almonds, hazelnuts and pecans all work well). Spread this onto a baking tray and bake at 180 deg C (160 fan) for 15 mins, turning half way through the cooking time. Do set a timer as there is a fine line between toasted nuts and burnt! Allow to cool and stir in a handful of dried cranberries (or raisins) before storing in an airtight container.

Soup is always an easy way to eat several portions of vegetables for lunch and I've been making soda bread each week to go along with it.

Seeded Soda Bread
Mix together 450g wholemeal bread flour, 75g mixed seeds, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda. In a jug combine 1 tablespoon black treacle with a carton of buttermilk and top it up to 450 ml with some cold water. Mix well into the flour mixture and allow to stand for five minutes while the oven heats up to 200 deg C. (180 fan) Shape into a loaf, place on a baking tray and bake for 30 minutes.

And just in case you think I'm being too virtuous to be true... there were some date and walnut muffins this week (and some chocolate, but that's a secret!) 

So that's where I am with the four pillars... not doing as well as I thought but I generally keep good health and have plenty of energy, plus I have shed a few pounds since the new year so it can't all be bad. I shall definitely stick with it.

I hope you have a good weekend!

Thursday 1 February 2018

Updating my Intentions

I don't know about you but I'm not really sorry that January is behind us. I always find it so long and cold and dreary with the promise of  twinkly fairy lights and never ending mince pies behind us. And let's not talk about the mud... I don't think I've ever known such a muddy January. I seem to spend my days cleaning the dog and washing towels.

But here I am on 1st February... such a lovely short month... looking out the window at a beautiful blue sky. It might still be cold but there were snowdrops and daffodils to be seen on my walk this morning, birds could be heard singing and even the dog came back clean. So reasons to be cheerful as Spring is in sight. Yes I know there are probably still weeks and weeks of rain and mud ahead but don't burst my bubble just yet.

So in a buoyant mood I've turned to one of my 'intentions' for 2018 which was to restock my Etsy shop with tangible items as well as PDF tutorials and as yesterday I managed to finish off another appliqued zipped pouch (finishing things is another 'intention') I spent an hour or so uploading things to the shop. It took a while... it terrifies me how quickly I forget how to do things related to technology when I haven't done them for a while... is it only me?

But once I managed to do one, the others were fairly straightforward.

And so I now have four little zipped pouched listed in my Etsy shop... and the problem of getting people to see and hopefully buy them. So I'm telling you first... and if they sell I might make some more.

You can find them here should you want to take a look and there is free shipping in the UK!